Monthly Archives: November 2013

Give over…

Writing on the blog Sheffield Quakers, Gordon Ferguson says,

We meet in silence in an unadorned room. On the surface it looks like you can bring bring your own spiritual tradition into the Meeting, since there is nothing nor no-one to indicate any different.

However, the lack of words and symbols is deceptive – for the purpose of Meeting for Worship is to take us to the place beyond words and symbols, the place where Quakers believe the truth will be found. And since it is truth beyond expression in words and symbols, no one can tell you what to look for or where to look for it.

But if you stay within your spiritual tradition, expressed in all manner of words and symbols, the truth that Quakers testify to will elude you. You will become an Anglican Quaker, or a Catholic Quaker, or a Pagan Quaker or a Buddhist Quaker or a non-theist Quaker or a Unitarian Quaker – whatever – unless you first let go of your spiritual tradition and wait expectantly in that place that Quakers say the truth will be found in. A place that we cannot talk about or describe, for to do that is to immediately constrain the truth in yet another tradition.

Reading this touched me deeply, since I have often struggled to make sense of my experience in Meeting for Worship (and indeed in my own practice day by day) without resorting to terminology I have inherited from my time in the Anglican, and Vineyard, churches, or from my study, beginning long before I became a Christian, of Buddhism.

Some Friends might say that these terms, these ways of explaining to myself the ineffable, are quite harmless. Why not use them if they help me assimilate what I have encountered? But words, especially the words we use to describe the things of the spirit, are not neutral, they come with strings attached – strings of associations, strings of emotion, strings perhaps above all of intellectual baggage, the whole tradition out of which they arose.

Gordon Ferguson goes on to say that

It is an accident of history that the Quaker testimony to truth emerged in a Puritan Western Christian tradition. George Fox could not say anything else but “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who spoke to my condition”. Until just a generation or two ago that historic witness was neither here nor there, since almost all people came to Quakers through Western Christianity. Now we embrace the diversity found in our society, and we can express ‘that which speaks to our condition’ in a myriad different ways, but the testimony remains – the truth is found beyond expression.

The truth we encounter in the silence comes to us directly – that is why we are Quakers, surely – and it is only when we try to find ways to think about our experience, to talk about it to each other, that words arrive, trailing clouds of… all sorts of things quite other than glory, often.

I wonder if this isn’t at the root of some of the angst of non-theist Quakers, who sometimes complain loudly when any Friend uses the word God, or Christ. Hurt themselves perhaps by the unhelpful application of dogma, or by teachings in their early life which have marred their own ability to get past such words, they lash out at those for whom these words are the nearest things they can find for the truth which has found them in silence. The danger is, of course, that non-theists can get so stuck in their own reactions to the words they dislike that they would risk simply replacing them with a new set, many of which will have just as much negative baggage for these other Friends as God language has for them.

Gordon Ferguson says,

All this means that the pursuit of truth that we testify to requires a unique discipline that we must learn, over and above any discipline that we may have from our own spiritual tradition. Our tradition may take us a long way, and maybe even all the way, but we don’t know – and cannot know – unless we first of all let go of all that we bring from our past life. And we learn this by experience, as George Fox did, and countless Quakers since, for there is no way to teach that which cannot be expressed in words – it can only be lived, in the Meeting for Worship, and even every waking – and dreaming – moment of our lives. For one of the first things that we discover is that all of life is sacred and has to be lived sacramentally if the the truth is to be constantly and fully open to us.

It is as hard and demanding, this Quakerly discipline Gordon speaks of, as any of the more traditional Christian disciplines inherited from monastic or reformed traditions. Letting go – that can be one of the hardest things. In the current issue of The Friend (29 November) Michael Nisbet has the Thought for the Week. He writes,

Whatever anyone may say, it is, of course, impossible for a human being to be without an ego, at least if they are to remain psychologically, or even linguistically, coherent. The subject-predicate structures of human language demand a sense of self, and we relate to one another as self-conscious individuals. What I get from Isaac Penington’s words [ ‘Give over thine own willing…’] is a sense of relief, of disburdening oneself of whatever rigidly purposeful behaviour one may happen to be locked into at any given time, and of ‘sinking down’ (rather as one might sink into a comfortable chair) ‘to the seed’: that is, towards a more relaxed, inchoate, child-like sense of being… a less rigid sense of self. The words ‘give over!’ as we use them today have the sense of ‘desist!’, which I take to be applicable here, at least in my interpretation.

Language moves, as it were, in two opposite directions. In one direction, it attempts to disambiguate: to be as clear and unambiguous as possible. This can, in certain circumstances, be a matter of life and death. In the other direction – the literary or poetic one – it tries to return language, as it were, to the ambiguity or complexity of the reality that underlies or surrounds it. Most speech and writing hovers uneasily between the two, unable to make up its mind in which direction it wishes to move…

Ministry is suspended in the void of silence that surrounds it. It is not meant to assert personal opinions or to initiate a discussion. It is offered, ultimately, to a notional or non-manifest presence, who is both spoken word and omniscient listener… that in which we ‘live and move and have our being’. It is the sense of self that, as human beings, we share in common. In fact, I might go as far as to say that, in ministry, one seeks to speak on behalf of our shared condition of selfhood, but without presumption. If ‘sinking down to the seed’ is sinking down to a less rigid sense of self, it is also opening oneself to a less individualised, more universal selfhood: the love of one’s neighbour as oneself, if you like, however precarious this may be.

It’s only as we can let go of our preconceptions, our bundles of long-learned linguistic structures, and ‘sink down’ as Michael Nisbet says, that we can encounter the Light which the early Quakers encountered, for ourselves. Precarious indeed; but then so was the entirely ‘experimental’ worship of the Quakers of the 17th and 18th centuries like Isaac Penington: “But some may desire to know what I have at last met with. I answer, ‘I have met with the Seed’. Understand that word, and thou wilt be satisfied and inquire no further.”

The name of God

[Reblogged in its entirety from Transition Quaker by Craig Barnett]

The name of God can be used to freeze our wonder, to make a comforting and useful idol, or it can be the opposite: a name that opens into continuing mystery.  (Thomas Moore, The Soul of Religion)

We all know God the idol; all-seeing, omnipotent, angry and male. For some, wounded by authoritarian religious upbringings or in flight from evangelical burnout, perhaps this is the only meaning the word ‘God’ can have for them, and in that case they may do well to leave it behind.

Some of us, fortunate enough to have avoided the crushing of our religious imagination by fundamentalism, have come to understand God as a ‘name that opens into continuing mystery’.

The Quaker Way is part of a current of religious mysticism that has always acknowledged the limits of language to describe reality. Throughout history, people of all religions and cultures have experienced God not as a supernatural being ‘out there’, but as an indwelling presence, an inward guide, or a source of inner healing and transformation. This mystical understanding is not marginal to traditional religion. It is shared by influential figures such as Rumi in Islam, Gandhi in Hinduism, and Christians such as Julian of Norwich, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton and countless others.

For many Quakers today, this mystical understanding of God has been forgotten, and ‘God language’ is identified with the most conservative and simplistic Christian teaching. Even the idea of ‘believing in’ the existence of God makes the concept of God into an intellectual proposition rather than an experiential reality. Once we start discussing whether we believe in some ‘thing’ out there called God, we have lost sight of the point of the word, which is not to name some hypothetical being, but to point towards an experience of reality that cannot be fully captured in words.

It is difficult to speak about God these days, because people immediately ask you if a God exists. This means that the symbol of God is no longer working. Instead of pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality, the humanly conceived construct that we call ‘God’ has become the end of the story.

(Karen Armstrong, The Case for God)

The concepts of spiritual reality that people find helpful or intellectually convincing will vary from person to person, depending on our differing experiences and tendencies of thought. These differences reflect alternative perspectives on the same ultimately nameless reality. Framing these differences in terms of ‘theism’ versus ‘nontheism’ is irrelevant and unhelpful. It is unimportant whether someone describes themselves as a ‘theist’ or ‘nontheist’, because these are matters of intellectual belief, or ‘notions’. The Quaker Way is not grounded in beliefs, which have no power to help or to change us. It is a matter of practice; looking deeply and attentively at the reality of our experience and allowing ourselves to be guided and transformed by what we discover there. The only genuinely important question from the point of view of this practice is whether we can experience a spiritual reality that is independent of our own desires and decisions.

There are many Friends who find the concept of an omnipotent personal God intellectually impossible or unhelpful, but who know themselves to be profoundly held by a deeper reality, or part of a greater interconnected Universe, which they might call by a range of names or have no words for at all. There are other Friends who argue that there is no such thing as any spiritual dimension of reality; only human values and concepts. For them, religious language can have at most only a metaphorical meaning as a way of talking about our own personal values. The principal spokesperson for this view is David Boulton, who writes of his own experience:

I have never, since I ceased to be a child in the mid 1950s, been persuaded of the reality of supernatural forces or dimensions, even when they are smuggled in under such euphemisms as “transcendence”, “the numinous”, “the divine”, or “the mystical”. I can no more entertain the notion of gods and devils, angels and demons, disembodied ghoulies and ghosties, or holy and unholy spirits, than I can believe in the magic of Harry Potter or the mystic powers of Gandalf the Grey…  I fully understand that belief in a transcendent realm and a transcendent god as the guarantors of meaning and purpose have inspired millions. They do not inspire me. Instead, they seem to me illusions we can well do without, and I find myself raging at the toxic effects of literal, uncritical belief in divine guidance, divine purpose, divine reward and punishment.

(David Boulton – ‘Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith’)

Friends who describe themselves as ‘nontheist’ in this thorough-going materialist sense, reject the possibility of experiencing a spiritual reality that is independent of human choices and values. Instead, according to David Boulton, ‘God becomes for us the imagined symbol of the human values that we recognise as making an ultimate claim upon us.’ For them, the Religious Society of Friends is a diverse community based on shared values which is (or should be) equally accepting of every form of belief or theological opinion. This is the point of view expressed by a reader of this blog in a comment on last month’s post:

Nontheist Friends have difficulties talking about discernment as “finding the will of God”. Can we phrase it in a way which is acceptable to Christians, Nontheists, and all the other theological positions to be found within our Yearly Meeting?

This request, and the similar ones being heard on all sides within Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, has a straightforward appeal as a claim to fairness. Given that there are now many Friends who don’t believe in God, surely it is time to drop the use of ‘God language’ that is only meaningful to ‘theists’, and substitute some other word that is more universally acceptable?

Those nontheist Friends who argue in this way are like people who have joined a mountaineering club from a love of the history of mountaineering, the social gatherings and interesting equipment, but who are not willing to go climbing themselves. While accepting that some ‘mountainists’ still claim to enjoy climbing, these ‘non-mountainist’ members politely request that the club cease to describe its principal activity as mountaineering, and instead adopt more universally acceptable language.

The purpose of a mountaineering club is to climb mountains. The purpose of the Religious Society of Friends is to follow the guidance of the Spirit. All of us have inherited Quakerism as a living tradition of religious practice. Whatever good it has achieved in the past is a result of Friends’ willingness to be led and shaped by the Inward Light. In becoming members we have accepted a responsibility to be faithful to the guidance of the Spirit, and so to preserve Quakerism as a living Way for others. This is not a matter of words. It doesn’t matter whether we call that source of inward guidance God, the Light or anything else. What does matter is that we are willing to be guided by a spiritual reality that is not dependent on our own choices and values.

The existence of this spiritual reality is not primarily a matter of belief, but of experience; either we know it by our own experience or we don’t. Clearly many contemporary Quakers do not know it by experience and therefore have no adequate reason to believe in it. In response to this, rather than changing the purpose of the Religious Society of Friends, we might do better to encourage each other to make use of the spiritual disciplines that Quakers have practised to experience spiritual reality for ourselves. Once we encounter it we will know for ourselves that it doesn’t matter what words we use, because any concepts can only point towards the experience of this reality, without defining or describing it:

Reality is finally mysterious. Our little word ‘God’ tries to name that mystery… It points but it does not describe. It offers no concepts or images that enable us to grasp the reality in our minds. It can only invite us to look and to see for ourselves.

(Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way – a rediscovery)

I am keen to hear readers’ views on the points made in this post. Is it a fair reflection of the views of those who describe themselves as ‘nontheists’ (in any sense)? Is it possible to reclaim the word ‘God’ from fundamentalism, or do we need to substitute a less misunderstood word, such as ‘Light’, ‘Spirit’ or something else?

Natural Capitalism? Quaker Radicalism?

Having been challenged by a Natural Capitalist in a Twitter conversation in response to a Tweet from the World Development Movement, I was convicted of a knee-jerk, unthinking sort of a mindset. It is too easy to get drawn into “which side are you” politics, rather than real thinking, and praying, for justice.

Natural capital is the extension of the economic notion of capital (manufactured means of production) to goods and services relating to the natural environment. Natural capital is thus the stock of natural ecosystems that yields a flow of valuable ecosystem goods or services into the future. For example, a stock of trees or fish provides a flow of new trees or fish, a flow which can be indefinitely sustainable. Natural capital may also provide services like recycling wastes or water catchment and erosion control. Since the flow of services from ecosystems requires that they function as whole systems, the structure and diversity of the system are important components of natural capital.”, as quoted from The Encyclopedia of Earth. (

Source: Wikipedia

Quakers have been thinking about this, too. The Quaker Institute for the Future have produced an excellent pamphlet entitled How on Earth Do We Live Now? Natural Capital, Deep Ecology, and the Commons (download PDF) and another, more recent one, Beyond the Growth Dilemma: Toward an Ecologically Integrated Economy (download PDF). They say (BGD p.93):

Our hopes for the future begin with a clear understanding of the potential for an ecologically integrated economy. We must chart a way toward that future, working together for changes at all levels of society to help build a new creation that is inclusive of all and fits within the physical capacities of Earth.

Of course, not all Quakers agree. (Would you expect them to?!) Quaker Earth Care have an interesting, if much shorter, set of pieces in Quaker Eco-Bulletin Vol. 10 No.3, criticising the basis of the Natural Capitalism movement as inherently flawed just because they are based in the same economic assumptions that drove the Industrial Revolution. “The problem with the natural capital solution is that there really is no Earth restored, just more economy.” (download PDF)

Quaker thinking is, and should be, always divided on subjects like this. It is in the creative tension between them, held in silence rather than in debate, as in Meeting for Worship for Business, that we will begin to discern where we are being led. It is all too easy to adopt a party line; because we agree with a party on one point of policy we shouldn’t assume that all their policies are equally good. Many of us in the peace movement made that mistake with the Communist Party in the 60s and 70s – and before! We Quakers too easily forget that Joseph Rowntree and John Cadbury were Friends, as were the founders of Barclays and Lloyds banks. Some in business today have not forgotten – I was moved to read an article by Sir Dominic Cadbury, former Chairman of Cadburys, and fascinated to read the article in Forbes linked to earlier, on Doing Business The Quaker Way.

Paradox, except in formal logic, is not something to be solved or resolved: inherent in the whole nature of the universe, as physics is beginning to realise, is something we experience as paradoxical, yet is itself consistent, as Dragoljub A. Cucić explains (download PDF). Mystics have understood this for many centuries – Quakers (of whom I am the worst!) should not forget so easily…

Free to stand…

Those of us known as ‘activists’ have sometimes been hurt by the written or spoken implication that we must be spending too little time on our spiritual contemplative lives. I do know many atheists who are active to improve the lot of humankind; but, for those of us who are Friends, our attendance at meeting for worship and our silent prayerful times are what make our outer activity viable and effective – if it is effective.

I have similarly seen quieter Friends hurt by the implication that they do not care enough, because they are not seen to be ‘politically active’. Some worry unnecessarily that they may be doing things of a ‘less important’ nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God… I suggest that we refrain from judging each other, or belittling what each is doing; and that we should not feel belittled. We cannot know the prayers that others make or do not make in their own times of silent aloneness. We cannot know the letters others may be writing to governments, similarly… We were all made differently, in order to perform different tasks. Let us rejoice in our differences.

Margaret Glover, 1989, QFP 20.15

I find this a great comfort. I’m all too prone to judging myself for “doing things of a ‘less important’ nature, as if to be seen doing things by the eyes of the world is the same thing as to be seen doing things by the eyes of God…” and so imagining other people doing the same thing, even when they’re not.

Back in the very early years of the church, the apostle Paul wrote, “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (1 Corinthians 12.29-30) Evidently it was a problem even back then.

Really, it is not for us to choose or determine whether we are activists or contemplatives. Any choice we make ourselves is going to be partial and imperfect, and in any case I think we all of us are called at some time in our lives to be both of these things. All we can do is to bring what is truly on our hearts into the Light, and, in the waiting silence, to be true to our leading. But of one thing we can be sure:

Our strength or help is only in God; but then it is near us, it is in us – a force superior to all possible opposition – a force that never was, nor can be foiled. We are free to stand in this unconquerable ability, and defeat the powers of darkness; or to turn from it, and be foiled and overcome. When we stand, we know it is God alone upholds us; and when we fall, we feel that our fall or destruction is of ourselves.

Journal of Job Scott, 1751-1793, QFP 20.03

On becoming mangled in our minds

We are now coming into that which Christ cried woe against, minding altogether outward things, neglecting the inward work of Almighty God in our hearts, if we can but frame according to outward prescriptions and orders, and deny eating and drinking with our neighbours, in so much that poor Friends is mangled in their minds, that they know not what to do, for one Friend says one way, and another another, but Christ Jesus saith, that we must take no thought what we shall eat, or what we shall drink, or what we shall put on, but bids us consider the lilies how they grow, in more royalty than Solomon. But contrary to this, we must look at no colours, nor make anything that is changeable colours as the hills are, nor sell them, nor wear them: but we must be all in one dress and one colour: this is a silly poor Gospel. It is more fit for us, to be covered with God’s Eternal Spirit, and clothed with his Eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness. Now I have set before you life and death, and desire you to choose life, and God and his truth.

Margaret Fox, 1700 (QFP 20.31)

It is terribly easy to become distracted, when one looks at the enormous suffering, injustice and inequality in the world (I don’t think there is more, or less, than in Margaret Fox’s day; it is differently distributed, and we now have the means instantly to find out about it) by what I can only describe, having experienced it in myself, as a political mentality. These are political problems, it says, and we need to work politically towards political solutions.

I am not decrying politics as such, nor even politicians, poor souls. But Jesus was right when he pointed out (Mark 14.7) that we shall always have with us the victims of injustice and inequality. It’s only out of a deep change of being, a spiritual and inward revolution such as early Friends experienced, and as Friends still do today, that we shall be able to bring about the profound changes in society they brought about merely by seeking to be true to what the Light showed them. If we seek political solutions, we shall fail like every other politician; if we seek the Light, we may ourselves become the seeds from which solutions grow.

James Nayler summed it up, perhaps, when he wrote:

Art thou in the Darkness? Mind it not, for if thou dost it will fill thee more, but stand still and act not, and wait in patience till Light arises out of Darkness to lead thee. Art thou wounded in conscience? Feed not there, but abide in the Light which leads to Grace and Truth, which teaches to deny, and puts off the weight, and removes the cause, and brings saving health to Light.

QFP 21.65




Do not look for such great matters to begin with; but be content to be a child, and let the Father proportion out daily to thee what light, what power, what exercises, what straits, what fears, what troubles he sees fit for thee; and do thou bow before him continually in humility of heart… Thou must join in with the beginnings of life, and be exercised with the day of small things, before thou meet with the great things, wherein is the clearness and satisfaction of the soul. The rest is at noonday; but the travels begin at the breakings of day, wherein are but glimmerings or little light, wherein the discovery of good and evil are not so manifest and certain; yet there must the traveller begin and travel; and in his faithful travels … the light will break in upon him more and more.

Isaac Penington, 1665, from a letter (QFP 19.43)

I am struggling at the moment to understand about humility. It is all too easy, within a church or a religious community, to submit to its doctrine or rule of life and honestly believe that that is humility. A sense of self-mistrust leads to allowing trust in an institution to replace trust in God.

In any case, I find it far too easy to “despise the day of small things” (Zechariah 4.10 NIV) and not be content with such “glimmerings or little light” as are shown me. But is is precisely in waiting, content, in the smallness of my own heart, that the Light may rise over the horizon of my own misgivings. John Bellows wrote (QFP 2.15)

I know of no other way, in these deeper depths, of trusting in the name of the Lord, and staying upon God, than sinking into silence and nothingness before Him… So long as the enemy can keep us reasoning he can buffet us to and fro; but into the true solemn silence of the soul before God he cannot follow us.

(Photo: Mike Farley)