Monthly Archives: May 2015

Perhaps we have all come this way…

If you would know God and worship and serve God as you should do, you must come to the means he has ordained and given for that purpose. Some seek it in books, some in learned men, but what they look for is in themselves, yet they overlook it. The voice is too still, the Seed too small and the Light shineth in darkness. They are abroad and so cannot divide the spoil; but the woman that lost her silver found it at home after she had lighted her candle and swept her house. Do you so too and you shall find what Pilate wanted to know, viz., Truth. The Light of Christ within, who is the Light of the world and so a light to you that tells you the truth of your condition, leads all that take heed unto it out of darkness into God’s marvellous light; for light grows upon the obedient. It is sown for the righteous and their way is a shining light that shines forth more and more to the perfect day.

William Penn, 1694

Perhaps we have all come this way. The Seed is too small for our thinking and our imagination. It is far easier to attempt great things.

it’s not quite dark, and the steadily deepening blue is finding its way through the trees outside the window. There is stillness enough in the darkening garden, and even the very leafiest topmost twigs are quite still – no wind at all. Only a last blackbird is trying over the day’s songs, I think. Here, in the small things and the quiet intervals God is so deeply present that words slip from the heart’s opening, and only listening remains…

Holy Trinity?

If liberal Quakers sometimes stumble over the God word, what will we do with the Holy Trinity?

In God without God: Western Spirituality without the wrathful king, Michael Hampson writes (I make no apology for quoting from this excellent book again…):

To invest too much in the theology of the Trinity is to confuse the reality with the metaphor. The question is not whether God exists as defined by some version of the doctrine of the Trinity, but whether the Trinity is a useful model by which to increase our understanding of the ultimate mystery which is God, our Yahweh Elohim.

We Quakers are used to the Holy Spirit, that of God in everyone, for whose guidance we listen in our meetings for worship and for business (cf. Quaker Faith & Practice 3.04 and following), and we are familiar with the fruits of the Spirit as they grow in Friends’ lives, year after year bearing witness to the truth of our historic testimonies to equality, justice, peace, simplicity and truth.

God the Father is of course the problem for so many people, especially those whose experience of human fathers has been lacking, or worse, abusive, those for whom the idea of father incorporates arbitrary authority, irresponsible power, unpredictable, unjust wrath and cruel punishment. But Father, Abba, Pater – these were Jesus’ favourite metaphors for God as simple goodness and mercy. The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11ff) shows “not the wrathful, vengeful, and demanding God of presumptive monotheism: this is the God who nourishes us, holds us close, lets us go, and welcomes us home without condition.” (Hampson, op cit.) Even the words “our father in heaven” properly understood don’t imply some renaissance picture of the robed and bearded ruler sitting on a cumulus cloud. The Greek ouranois, sky, air according to Hampson “shares its origin with words meaning covering and encompassing… [God] all around us… in the air we breathe, inhabiting, encompassing, covering and embracing all creation.” And the Hebrew words Yahweh Elohim are more nuanced than we tend to think: Yahweh, I AM, is neither masculine nor feminine; and while Elohim is a masculine plural, its singular, Eloah, has the form of a feminine singular.

And Jesus? The Christ? Hampson again:

This imagined being – both fully human and fully divine – is our definition of the Christ of faith… draw[ing] into our concept of Yahweh not only the essence of all being but the essence specifically of what it is to be human; and it draws into our concept of Elohim all the richness of the full diversity of humankind. It completes a Trinity of images or metaphors for God in which Yahweh Elohim is ruach and pneuma (the breath and the wind), Abba pater en ouranois (the universal nourisher, protector and upholder), and finally the Christ of faith, the perfect union of the human and the divine…

With a specific human [Jesus] identified as the Christ of faith, our entire ordinary humanity – including our mammalian fleshiness – is drawn into the realm of the divine… It is the concept of the incarnation, the enfleshment, of God: God truly present in ordinary matter, in the practical physical material of daily life.

I really would encourage anyone who finds these ideas as exciting and involving as I do to get hold of a copy of Michael Hampson’s book. I can’t do justice to his arguments, or to the passion and clarity with which he writes, in snippets on a blog.

This ‘God’ word…

A number of recent posts on this blog (here, for instance, or here) have touched on what we mean when we use the word ‘God’, and it seems to me that I should say (or borrow!) a word or two about how I use the word, and a little of what I mean by it.

In his fascinating book God without God: Western Spirituality without the wrathful king, Michael Hampson writes:

A simplistic theism tends to maintain not only that God exists, but that God intervenes regularly in word affairs, from the global to the trivial, and has the right to demand obedience on threat of punishment. The greater presumption ahead of this detail is that there is only one such being, and that it has recognisable human attributes such as personhood and will. This whole package might be called not just theism but presumptive monotheism.

It is against this presumptive monotheism that the atheist case is made… The atheist case is sound, but it is not the last word…

The church still claims two proofs for the existence of God, and they are entirely compatible with the atheist case against the God of presumptive monotheism. The first is the argument from creation: not that anything in the universe needs God in order to operate, but that anything exists at all, that there is even the space and the potential for anything to exist at all. It points to… the ultimate source of all that exists and the essence of existence itself.

The second begins with the experience of being self-consciously alive: the sense of being a conscious observer of, and decision-making participant in, the one particular life we call our own… As fragile and insignificant as it may seem against the vastness of the universe, the mystery of self-consciousness is the most significant experience in each of our lives, indeed the carrier of all experience and the very essence of life. It points once again towards the mystery of existence itself…

It is to this ultimate mystery that the church assigns first the name Existence or Being… and then the name God.

Hampson here has just about summed up what I mean myself when I use the name God. And Hampson, a former Church of England priest, comes very close to a Quaker understanding of God – or perhaps I should say that many Quakers, at least in the liberal tradition, come very close to this mystical understanding of God which has been at the heart of the “one catholic and apostolic church” since its very beginnings.

Emilia Fogelklou, the Swedish Quaker theologian and writer, puts it as clearly as anyone (she is writing of herself in the third person):

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

(Quaker Faith & Practice 26.05)

Longing love

It was only when I heard the definition of prayer as ‘attention’ that it began to have some meaning for me. As the French mystic Simone Weil wrote: ‘Prayer… is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable towards God.’ I began to see prayer as an act of faith and will. Preparing myself, opening myself to God’s will, and making myself a channel for God’s love. It is a passive state and sometimes less like praying and more like being prayed through… An act of intention, it includes adoration, wonder and contemplation.

Twelve Quakers and Prayer (No.2)

It is hard, sometimes, to find a Quaker paradigm for prayer. Advanced patterns of language to allow us to think about prayer can be found in many religious traditions, where prayer as generally practiced by Quakers is often referred to as mystical or contemplative prayer. (This is discussed at length in the opening sections of David Johnson’s excellent book A Quaker Prayer Life). Part of the difficulty, it seems to me, is that, as I wrote earlier, prayer is so often understood as petitioning a reluctant God to grant the pray-er some favour. The anonymous second Friend quoted above writes,

Praying for things, for ourselves or for others, praying that our wishes be fulfilled, no longer made sense to me. How would I know what to wish for? Who am I to think that I know it? Asking for an outcome makes an assumption about my own knowledge and expresses my need to be in control. Hard as it may be, a difficult situation may be just what is needed for spiritual growth, and indeed, recognition of that helps me consider difficulties to be learning opportunities…

The idea of praying for someone or something, when we might consider that all is known to God in any case, seems unhelpful… We do not pray to affect God, but that we ourselves may be changed in the process. It is an act of sharing with God, not an attempt to prompt God into action. It is a holding in the Light, both inward and outward. We pray not to God for others, but for God for them.

For me, prayer is not a matter of reason or invention, but merely of longing love. All our means and methods of prayer amount to no more than getting the selfish mind out of the way of that longing love, so that that love can flow both ways, to and from all that we mean by “God”, and so too through our own compassionate longing to the least of our fellow creatures, human or otherwise. The heart’s prayer can’t be any less than this.