Category Archives: Doubt

A trackless place…

I have been in a trackless place, recently. Things I thought I knew had become clouded over, old wounds long healed reopened. A mist had rolled in, and instead of hiding the known ways it had wiped them out, long-trodden paths scoured back to loose sand and the entropy of marram…

As I sat in meeting on Sunday morning, wondering how I could have so lost my way, a Friend rose and gave these words as ministry – just these words, without commentary:

All our steps are ordered by the Lord;
how then can we understand our own ways?

(Proverbs 20.24)

The verse struck me like a lightning bolt, as no Scripture had for a long time. It was as though the Friend, or really, through him, God, had spoken directly to me, directly to the confusion and self-doubt, the mirrored memories of pain, the emptiness where not even longing was.

Since then this little isolated verse has grown friends, words in the hollowness where my heart still beat:

These are indeed but the outskirts of his ways;
and how small a whisper do we hear of him!
But the thunder of his power who can understand?’

(Job 26.14)

How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

(Psalm 139.17-18)

I wrote a few years ago that,

For myself, I have found I cannot find God by looking, or thinking, much as my whole life may seem to have been spent in a search for – or being distracted from a search for – what is true and is the source of all that is. What God is is unknowable. Anything I might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, not constrained by time, space or any other dimension. The only way I can know God is by not knowing.

Faith is not so much a way of knowing as it is a way of being known. God is so far beyond the reach of our frail and temporary minds that all we can do is keep silence, and wait. Only in that relinquishment of knowing can we hear God, for much as we cannot seek him out, he will find us, and in that finding will come our own real and lived experience, the presence and Light which is within and beyond us, as it is within and beyond all things. In himself God is No Thing, for what he is is without limit or beginning, and is not dependent; yet within him all things live, and move, and have their being – are loved even, and held in love beyond time and distance.

I think my hope lies in my own littleness. I am so small, so transient and partial, against the scattered glory of the night sky…

O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! …

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8 1,3-4)

[Forgive the pronouns in this post, by the way – without fooling around inventing made-up words, I can only use pronouns that are gendered, or else wilfully ungendered, and it is hard to speak of an it who loves. God is not a person like you or me: not that he is less than a person, but that he is infinitely more.]

The well of love…

Liberal Quakers, which term by and large encompasses Britain Yearly Meeting, don’t these days tend to use the name of Jesus Christ at all freely, which can be disorienting for those – like myself – who have joined Friends after having been members of other churches.

Needless to say, there is no official Quaker Christology, just as there are no Quaker creeds or statements of faith. But early Quakers were entirely comfortable with the name of Christ, and with the prevailing understanding of him as saviour. As Lewis Benson writes, in A Revolutionary Gospel:

The early Quakers were not a reforming movement within the framework of a commonly shared belief in Christ as savior. They were in revolt against what the churches were teaching about salvation by Christ. They claimed that the churches’ teaching had separated belief in Christ as savior from the call of God for righteousness. Belief in Christ had become divorced from obedience in righteousness. Fox said that the belief of his Calvinist contemporaries was an “unsanctifying belief,” by which he meant that it left the believer still captive to sin and a dweller in the life of unrighteousness. The Calvinist doctrine of “imputed righteousness” was rejected by the Quakers. They that have received Christ within, said Fox, “they witness the righteousness itself without imputation.” The chief point of the controversy between Puritans and Quakers was whether Christ had the power to make men truly righteous as well as the power to forgive. This is a disagreement about that which is most fundamental in Christianity. It is a disagreement about how we experience Christ as savior. But the Quaker revolt was not directed solely against Calvinistic Puritanism. Before Calvin the Church of Rome had assumed the role of mediator of moral truth to its members, it set a standard of morality defined by the church and kept in force by the power of the church. The scandals that developed in the administration of this church-oriented morality were the occasion of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Looking back across the centuries of Christian history Fox was able to say, “The righteousness within and sanctification within hath been lost since the apostles’ days,” and “the sanctifying belief hath been lost since the apostles’ days.”

Quaker faith is based in the experience of the Spirit in silent worship, and it is that Spirit which the early Quakers understood as the indwelling Christ. The apostle Paul prayed that

according to the riches of his glory, [God] may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

(Ephesians 3.16-19)

It is this indwelling which the early Quakers understood by their experience of the Light. As William Penn wrote:

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.

(QFP 26.44)

Of course, the experience of the Light is far deeper than words. As Paul wrote elsewhere:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

(Romans 8.26-27)

It seems to me that Friends today, realising the inadequacy of language, and indeed of concepts (“notions” as the first Quakers would have said), quite rightly espouse an understanding of prayer and worship that is intentionally, rootedly apophatic, despite occasional intersection with the spoken word in ministry. But even in this we are consistent with our spiritual ancestors. Isaac Penington wrote:

The sum and substance of true religion doth not stand in getting a notion of Christ’s righteousness, but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ is, there is his righteousness.

Perhaps we need to be prepared to extend to each other that openness which we so readily extend to those of other backgrounds in faith, and to allow each other freely to use whatever language springs from our hearts in worship, in full awareness of the inadequacy of any language or system, any knowing even, to express the actuality. What is there is unknowable. Anything any of us might say or think about God is partial, incomplete and misleading. God is not to be contained in our understanding, nor constrained by dimensionality. The love of God is all, and in all, and the well of love does not run dry. Paul again:

Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

(1 Corinthians 13.12-13)

Dreams of Summer

Now we are on the far side of the Winter Solstice; now the days lengthen, the sun reclaims its territory from the cold and the night. The earth has turned over in its sleep, and dreams of summer.

I am reminded of what has been said of the Kingdom of God, that it is here, and yet is to come. One of the things, I think, that the Nativity story is trying to tell us is that, small and vulnerable as it may appear – as in fact it is – our salvation has come. Anyone, anyone at all, can come and see.

So what is this to the Winter Solstice, and why does it matter that somehow we have come to celebrate both things at this time of year, when the sense of huge things moving, far beyond the control of humanity, is so strong upon our hearts?

We cannot yet see the change in day length, but by Christmas day a minute will have been added to the few brief hours of daylight; the earth’s course is laid in. Summer is as inevitable as the movement of the planets around our star. Perhaps that is what the Christmas story is getting at. We can scarcely see it, among the darkness of these times we live in, and yet the Light is coming, to each of us, on the far side of the dark. We have only to wait for the time; we cannot change it, put it off, any more than we can delay the seasons – there it stands, looking just like our death.

Truly, a sign will be given to us. It may be no more than the drift of a flock of coal tits through the bare trees, or the wind that sighs some time after midnight, but it will be there. The heart knows. Can we not trust our hearts?

Mapless places

There are times when the way is dark, and seems steep and slippery underfoot. Worse than that are the voices that hint that one has taken a wrong turning altogether, strayed, and wandered from path into mapless places.

Sitting in Meeting this Sunday, it came to me that this was nothing strange, and not even to be feared. To sit down, before these shadows, and wait, was all that was needful. Sitting still under that leaden sky I realised I was sitting – where else? – under the presence of God. I remembered William Leddra’s words, “Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation, whose testimonies are sure, and righteous altogether.”

And the way opened, though softly…

Hysteria or Prayer

As a race, human beings seem to be particularly prone to hysteria. The brave and compassionate Jeff Sparrow, writing recently in The Guardian, reminds us that 1890s anarchists, 1960s “skyjackers”, the followers of Bin Laden, and those recently claiming the title of jihadists, have successively inherited the mantle of “terrorism”, and the hysterical public glamour that surrounds it.

Without in any way seeking to minimise the horror and bloodshed caused by bombings and other indiscriminate violence, it is worth, Sparrow contends, considering that it is the hysteria engendered by the media coverage of terrorist events that remains in the collective psyche, rather than the events themselves or their perpetrators. That hysteria is reborn in each generation, and is easily manipulated by those in power to justify harsh treatment of those who hold unpopular views, as was seen so clearly in the McCarthyism of the 1950s.

Faith stands in stark contrast to hysteria. As Richard Rohr says, an important part of faith is “[h]aving a solid and clear ‘epistemology’ – how we know the things we know … or we are subject to the whims and fancies of any teacher.” Rohr goes on:

I hope I can add to the positive momentum of spiritual evolution. Because of my limitations and biases (as a white man, born in Kansas in the 1940s, raised in the Roman Catholic faith, educated in Franciscan seminaries), my approach to union will always be through a particular set of lenses. It cannot not be. My lenses aren’t necessarily better than others, but they are the ones I began with, and thus far they have born much fruit for others. All each of us can do is own and expose our biases, because we all have them. You do too. There is no such thing as a value free, or unbiased position on anything. My prayer, paraphrasing St. Joan of Arc, is: “If I am in your truth, God, keep me there. If I am not, God, put me there.”

I am coming to a difficult place in my own faith journey. What Richard Rohr somewhere describes as “the force field of the Holy Spirit” is tugging at me again. For all the cool scepticism of some contemporary humanist Quakers, for all the complex linguistic knots some of us tie ourselves into affirming each others’ right to speak of God or not “or whatever we call it”, my own journey is “experimental”. It can’t be otherwise. My experience, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere here, is based in prayer and leads back to prayer. It is only as a pray-er that I can be honest with myself about my own faith; seemingly, I only make sense to myself as one who prays.

Of all the aspects and qualities of the life of faith, it is the practice of prayer that seems most clearly to be the antithesis of hysterical fear. Prayer depends upon, and works within, faith; without prayer, faith (mine at least) withers.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me…

Even in darkness…

…I am not the light, but I am called to testify to the light. To testify is to tell my truth, the whole truth, to be held accountable for what I know and see. I am a witness to the light. I have watched it shine in my very own darkness.

Light, of course, always shows up best in darkness. As it turns out in God’s wise economy, I serve the light best not by trying to be light, not by trying to create an illusion of light, but by being simply myself. A wondering, a waiting, a longing, a doubting, a sometimes lost and tired traveller. My unique darkness becomes my unique gift. It is how I testify to the light. The very parts of me that I think about trying to hide reveal the light most clearly. Because even in darkness—especially in darkness—the true light, oh how it loves to shine.

Kayla McClurg, on Inward/Outward

It is harder and harder, especially as the physical darkness of the shortening days draws the year in to its ending, to see the way ahead. We are not given to see the view from the hill, and the pattern makes no sense from here. Shadows lengthen, the sun appears only briefly between low bands of cloud, across a thin and watery sky. There is nothing to see outside the rooms of winter, no promise of a better tomorrow.

Darkness is all that is left as a testimony to the light. My own darkness, the light that fades in so many eyes each day as its life passes – where? There are no conclusions, and all the signposts are fading now.

Advent. Waiting. Below the horizon there is a rising, yet the darkness extends its borders across these bare fields. What is it? No answer. How could there be? There are no words for this, and we have not the senses for these wavelengths. “When I say ‘darkness’, I mean a privation of knowing, just as whatever you do not know or have forgotten is dark to you, because you do not see it with your spiritual eyes. For this reason, that which is between you and your God is termed, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing.” (The Cloud of Unknowing, Ch. 4)

But the light shines in the darkness. It does. The dark has not overcome it, despite the closing down of day to that faint fading glimmer along the horizon. It is only love, and love has no need of daytime, or even summer. Love holds all that is, could be. Contains the worlds, and the aching interstellar voids; it is the ground of being itself, and is always. There is nothing to fear…

Doubt & Questioning

Take time to learn about other people’s experiences of the Light. Remember the importance of the Bible, the writings of Friends and all writings which reveal the ways of God. As you learn from others, can you in turn give freely from what you have gained? While respecting the experiences and opinions of others, do not be afraid to say what you have found and what you value. Appreciate that doubt and questioning can also lead to spiritual growth and to a greater awareness of the Light that is in us all.

Advices & Queries – 5

Too often doubt is taken as being the antithesis to faith, and questioning as the act of an immature and ungrateful Christian. And yet both are in fact expressions of maturity, trust and grace. It is only the greatest trust and love that can ask, that can turn to God and say, as Mary is recorded as doing, “What is going on? This just doesn’t make sense?” (Luke 1.34) And it is only trust and love that would even think of saying, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9.24)

It seems really important to me that we grasp this both for ourselves and for those around us. Unless we grasp it for ourselves we shall always be held back from real spiritual growth, and particularly – paradoxically, maybe – from growing in trust and inner security; unless we grasp it for others, we shall always be in danger of judging them, of setting ourselves somehow above them, missing what they might have to teach of, and missing the opportunity to support them in love.

It isn’t immediately easy, though, to see how we can come to trust enough to doubt and question. Most of us instinctively fear rejection, judgement, especially when this is what we have received from our fellow-Christians in the past. It seems to me that it is only from God that we can learn how trustworthy God is. We learn it by trusting enough to allow ourselves to encounter God, unmediated by our own preconceptions, our own learned response to Scripture. This is why, perhaps, such a passage is found in Advices & Queries: in silence we have nothing between ourselves and God, no words, no ritual, nothing except the empty rattle of our own thoughts, that die away quickly enough as we become aware of the real nature of the silence. As Pierre Lacout wrote, “God is there. But there is still silence. And the more God is there, the more there is Silence. Only those who try out this way of silence know how many shades of meaning this word can include, how much variety, how much mystery.”