Words, Diversity and Quaker Identity

Recently, Tony Philpott (Universalist Friend (and author of From Christian to Quaker) sent an e-mail reply to my earlier post on this blog, Why Can’t Quakers Be More Like Hindus? Or, Why Can’t Quakers Be More Like Quakers? In his message, Tony raised some interesting and challenging issues. He has kindly agreed for these remarks and my responses, to be reproduced here. The topics covered in this discussion include universalism & exclusivism, theological diversity and the meaning of Quakerism today.

I am not sure where you stand on the issue of exclusivism vs. pluralism. This seems to be at the heart of the problem of why people believe different things. If, as you argue, Quakers should return to their roots and live the Quaker Way in the ways you set out, is this because it is the ‘only true’ way or ‘the best’ way – or are there other equally valid ways as, for example, practiced by the Muslim, Buddhist or (dare I say it) humanist?  

I guess you would call me an inclusivist in the typology of folk like John Hick. I agree that what we call God is accessible to all. What might that mean? An image I frequently gravitate towards in these discussions is that of an ancient Athenian school boy sitting on the steps of the Parthenon reading Homer’s Iliad. This is his Scripture. It is his culture’s window onto the sacred. And although he doesn’t know the Hebrew prophets, Moses, Jesus or George Fox, he can encounter what we Quakers call ‘the Inward Light’ in the lives of Achilles and Patroclus, and beguiling images of the ‘deathless gods’. Does that mean I think that ‘no one person and no one faith has the final revelation or monopoly of the truth’? Not quite. While I’m an inclusivist, I don’t believe that access to ultimate truth is denied because it is expressed through a particular language (I’d call this denial radical pluralism).

Despite Hick’s cries to the contrary, the notion that there is no definitive language which can reveal something of the deep structure of what we call ‘God’, sounds like a very exclusivist claim to me.  It says that Jews, Muslims and Christians (who hold to the binding or definite nature of their religious claims) better wise up and become pluralists like Hick. In other words, far from valuing diversity,  I think Hick ends up rejecting the distinctive cores of many religious traditions. His pluralism does not extend to an acceptance of those who want to say they have found definitive truth in a single religious story (or set or stories). Many contemporary Quakers have followed Hick in dogmatically declaring that we can’t know the truth. But that sounds awfully like the kind of absolute claims these same Friends have run away from. Such pluralism seems to exclude lots of people from the world’s religions and quite a few Quakers. I was thinking in particular of our mutual F/friend Christopher Bagley. How might he respond to Hick’s disavowal of definitive or binding religious truths?

So where do these worries about pluralism lead me? They actually cause me to adopt some of the same trajectories you highlight in your original message. You note:

My approach in answering what I call the big questions has always been to state that we will never be able to grasp with language the ‘absolute’ answers but that the truth lies somewhere ‘beyond’ the different world views. This is my way of coping with the reality that different people in different places and historical times come up with different and contradictory answers (which I explore in Chapter 16 of my book).

I agree very much with your starting-point. I don’t think our understanding of ‘what we call God’ will ever be complete. Moreover, whatever is of God is bound to be beyond any clever myth we humans can devise. Yet, I do think that the divine gives us windows (decisive views) onto itself. One such radical disclosure is found in our Quaker foundation story, when in the midst of theological diversity, George Fox hears a life-changing voice say:  ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’. This voice tells Fox something definite (although not comprehensive) about God. Such a definitive moment encourages me to think that the various historical manifestations of the spiritual search are part of a single human story, with this same voice at its centre. I am perhaps odd among British Friends today, because I don’t think our hypothetical  Athenian boy encounters some generic every-god, but the ‘universal spirit of Christ, witnessed to in the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth’ (QF&P, 1.01).  For me this is the same God who struggled with the world through silent eons. It is the same God who lived in and alongside emerging life. This same Spirit accompanied us down from the trees, and out of the caves. This is the same God who inspired everything eternal and good in the teachings of past sages of diverse faiths. It is the God who was poured out on a Roman cross. It is the ‘God of peace’ (Hebrews 13:20), one who prompted early Friends to lay down their weapons. But doesn’t a story-bound deity just invite exclusion? Not necessarily.

As many early Friends discovered, to be invited into the story of Jesus, means questioning who is and who is not included. Think of George Fox’s strangely tender remarks towards ‘heathens, Jews and Turks’. This Spirit possessing a story doesn’t entitle us to any kind of religious monopoly. Quite the opposite. My sense of theological inclusiveness comes from a positive rather than negative approach to truth. I affirm the value of different religious traditions, not because I can’t say for certain whether they are true, but because of what I know experimentally. I sense a power and life in the words of Scripture, which I cannot let go of, or rather will not let go of  me. Because of this, when I encounter other faiths, I see at work John’s universal light of Truth ‘that gives light to everyone coming into the world’ (John 1:9). I know that despite the many differences between faiths, the Spirit of Christ can and does work through them. And although the details of this inner convergence frequently go beyond my understanding, I trust that unity and truth will be found: ‘I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd’ (John 10:16). Far from shutting down diversity, I think the older Christian dimensions of our Quakerism, can actively  deepen our sense of what universalism means; a sort of universalism through particularity. In this mode, we value the insights of others because of the shape of our own Quaker narrative. And since our story is not just about ‘spreading the word’ but deepening the conversation, we are in a good place to embrace difference.                  

You do argue that we have ‘resources at the heart of our own Quaker path’ and ‘a perfectly adequate theological vocabulary for reflecting on radical diversity’ so ‘we don’t need to look for models from elsewhere.’ But, of course, many people will look for models elsewhere – a Buddhist Quaker whom I knew well in Winchester died recently, aged 100. He was very much a follower of the Quaker Way – should we have told him that he did not need his Buddhist model because we had adequate models within Quakerism?

This is an excellent question perhaps you can give me some of the answer since you knew the Friend. Did it give him a way of honing his Quaker speech and action? Did it aid him in living honestly in the gaze of the Light? Did it bring him closer to a shared Quaker story? If yes to these, how could anyone ask for more? The problem arises when folk come to Quaker communities, not because they want to learn and live Quaker, but because they want a DIY religion (Ben PD’s phrase). Such folk want Meetings for Worship primarily as a space to build their own ‘private’ spirituality. They don’t want to learn Quaker speech, nor do they want to learn our stories, how we got here, and why we do what we do. This kind of Quaker-lite is problematic for my money, because it flattens the richness of the Quaker Way, either into the Green Party at prayer, or just another kind of ‘hip’ mindfulness training for the curious middle-classes.

This implicit denial that we have a Quaker language and rationale for the shape we are, is sadly sometimes perpetuated by individual Friends (who are trying to be inclusive). Some years ago I was at a Quaker Quest and I heard a Friend tell inquirers, ‘in Quakers you can believe whatever you want’. Now, I don’t think that’s quite right. We don’t have a creed, but we have a shared language about God (‘Light, Spirit, Seed) and about the religious life (Peace, Truth, Simplicity). Languages from outside this Quaker speech can be illuminating.  I spend more time with Catholic sceptics like Montaigne and Pascal than is healthy for a young man. I also have much time for Hindu and Sikh sages. Plenty of Friends I know read Buddhist texts and practice meditation. But such elements are clearly unhelpful if they block or obscure what is distinctly Quaker. I don’t think notions of the Tathāgata are equivalent say, for what we Quakers mean when we say ‘inward light’ although such cross-fertilisation might deepen our sensitivity when speaking Quaker in various contexts.  While various forms of syncretism can undoubtedly refresh Quaker truths, there is also the worry that unthinking blending can actively obscure the shape of the Quaker Way.  This is particularly true if Friends aren’t entirely clear what is distinctly Quaker in their spirituality and speech in the first place. As a community, we should always try to test whether our attempts at enriching our speech keep us grounded in our discipline, or whether such additions actually disorient us. That really was the core of my concern about a ‘syncretic self’.

I think in my syncretic self I may be giving over my priorities to the same things as you – or trying to. I am also looking for transformation and something abiding, loving and eternal. I do not believe that the thinking and experience of universalists like, for example, John Hick, whose writing I find very helpful, is superficial.  

Thanks for these words Tony. I now feel that my remarks were deeply ungracious. I am certain we are both seeking an abiding sense of love and transformation. I wouldn’t wish to imply otherwise. My remarks sprung from a place of concern, that some Friends viewed pluralism as an exercise in saying very little, when I think the reason Friends are peculiarly accepting of difference, is that we have so much to say.  When one delves into our rich tradition of symbolism, our reflections on God and Jesus, we find resources, not for shrinking back from difference, but embracing one another.  I hope Friends always frame this acceptance as something ‘from our Quaker tradition’ and not just something learned from the wider culture.

You mention my aversion to the use of the word ‘God’. I am with Paul Tillich’s  moratorium on its use not because I am making any statements about God’s existence or importance, but because of confusion and misunderstanding. As I analyse in p.243 Quakers mean so many different things by the word that communication suffers. If one person is talking about a person they pray to and another some vague energy permeating the universe, these are not the same.

I think you make a really important point here (and apologies for not reading you correctly the first time!). If as you say, people mean ‘different things’ by the term God, that raises questions about how we are to understand what it means to be Quaker. How for instance, are we to understand each other in Worship? It also raises abiding issues related to the nature and existence of a shared Quaker story and language. Are we all just spiritual hermits who come together to share a vaguely similar spiritual activity? Or are we a community (like Orthodox Jews or Sunni Muslims) with a distinctive culture which is shared and intelligible? I hope the latter is true rather than the former. Although your language of ‘models’ suggests (at least to me) that you are not a fan of the idea of any kind of shared story (at least if that shared story involves a common symbolism or language). Is that right? I wonder, if we are speaking a diversity of languages, would a moratorium on God-talk really solve anything? Wouldn’t that merely push disagreement under the Meeting room carpet? I wonder whether a better glue might be found if we explore our shared Quaker words and images. Might that give us a strong place from which to share, disagree and listen?

I am trying very hard to accept that many Friends delight and find meaning in using traditional Christian language and so I do not want to stop them. To use my favourite word, if this is the ‘model’ of reality which they are happy with, which they find useful and significant and meaningful, fine with me – just don’t insist that I use the same model.   

As I’ve been writing, I’ve been reflecting on what the role of Christianity might be in contemporary Quakerism. Should it be understood as a ‘model’ among others (as you suggest) or something else? The model approach leaves something out, which is really crucial for me. In my view, one cannot fully talk Quaker without some reference to the Christian story.  The shape of what Quakers do and say doesn’t make a lot of sense otherwise. It would be like trying to understand Sufism without reference to Islam or the Qur’an. Likewise, the narrative of Jesus generates the lion’s share of our Quaker language, everything from ‘the inward Light’ to our concept of Testimony. So if we can’t fully understand the present shape of Quakerism apart from this story, isn’t Christianity less of a model and more of a base-language?

Friends translate this language in different ways of course. For instance, Friends are in the habit of offering multiple names for the divine (see Rhiannon’s work on this topic). But isn’t there something under those layers of translation and equivocation, which is undeniable shared?  Isn’t this shared thing Christian language? Instead of thinking of Christianity as a model among others, isn’t Christian language actually closer to a Quaker lingua franca– a bridge language which allows us to communicate with each other, despite our different starting places? It seems to me that this issue of language is just as important as the theist/non-theist discussion, if not more so. This is because it touches on the core of lived identity in a way debates about transcendence or the supernatural simply don’t. I suspect a Quaker community can get on just fine without a particular God-hypothesis. What Quakers can’t get on without is a sense of shared story and speech, which frames how and why we are here.

4 thoughts on “Words, Diversity and Quaker Identity

  1. An interesting discussion. I was struck by the end of it how both of you seem to be only talking about Northern Hemisphere, Unprogrammed Quakerism. Programmed Friends, Evangelical Friends,and Southern Hemisphere Friends, in my experience, have a much stronger sense of Friends’ Christian roots. Personally, I make an effort to be accepting of different beliefs among my fellow worshippers, but I resist the “do-it-yourself” approach and the efforts of some Friends to censor the Christian language of other Friends. All paths are equally valid, but IMHO, one needs to choose one path and be faithful to it.

  2. The significant issue seems to me, not “Are we ‘a community’?” but “Is there a one ‘Thing’ (or ‘Being’) to be known and known-about — that gives our individual experiences and our experiences together significance’?”

    If it were shared words or a shared fantasy — or just a shared “Tradition”, no matter how neat it might be — What would be the point?

    If “It” is the underlying Reality which transcends and supports all things and all beings… then this isn’t just ‘about us’; it’s about how we and That fit together.

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