Posts Tagged ‘Quakers’

Michael Birkel: Silence and Witness

February 10, 2023

      This little book, by a Quaker and intended to enlighten non-Quakers about the Society of Friends through a little of its history and some explanation of how it works, was also informative to this particular Quaker. The disagreements and arguments of the past seemed quite remote: 19th century evangelical and non-evangelical Quakers, and arguments about the primacy or not of the scriptures made me think how much the Society has moved on… and then I remembered the differences between theist and non-theist Quakers today, which have interested me at various points. How mystical is Quakerism? Where is the balance between inner experience and doctrine?

Michael Birkel is particularly sensitive when he writes about discernment, when reflecting on whether one has a call to minister or not. Generally I found his explanations very lucid, well set-out in a way that would enable non-Friends to understand more about the Society and its members and attenders. And he is honest that we are perhaps not always easy to like or to understand.

I found many of the notions from the past seemed very distant or arcane, and yet could see links to the present day, and how those ideas from the past were still able to find ways to speak to us nowadays. Most comforting was the impression of the multiplicity of spiritual journeys always in progress, journeys that we can share; even though the language and ideas may be very different, we are seekers together and the spirit is there.

Being comfortable with silence…

ed Stevan Davies: The Gospel of Thomas

November 14, 2022

    Having realised long ago that Christianity, despite its spiritual origins and intentions, is also a construct of those fallible human beings who shaped and directed it particularly in its earliest years, I’ve been exploring some of the writings which, for all sorts of reasons, are nowadays regarded as apocryphal, unorthodox or deuterocanonical; the Gospel of Thomas is one of those.

There is, of course, ongoing debate about its status, authenticity, and whether it’s gnostic or not; it appears to be synchronous with other of the earliest accepted writings, though offering a different perspective. It’s a list of sayings of Jesus, with almost no narrative content at all; there is considerable overlap with what Jesus says in the synoptic gospels. So, is it actually another source for those?

I don’t particularly care, although the scholarly debate is mildly interesting; what interests me is the content. And the sayings of Jesus as reported in this text offer a rather different perspective: the kingdom of heaven is here and now, within us – reminds me of Philip Pullman’s Republic of Heaven at the end of the Dark Materials trilogy! – and there is no place for the sin and salvation narratives of the canonical gospels. Self-knowledge is the road to salvation. There are no miracles, and no prophecies about the future.

Davies’ commentary I found not particularly helpful, ranging from the obvious to the purely speculative, and I was thrown by a basic error in his Latin at one point, too. I’m not sure he offers very much enlightenment, but he does provide a clearly accessible text for the general reader, which I suppose I am, in the end. What I did notice were clear links between the simplicity of Jesus’ message in the Gospel of Thomas and the Quaker approach to the scriptures, and I was reminded of what I’ve read about the beliefs and practices of the Cathars, too.

Thomas Kelly: A Testament of Devotion

June 8, 2021

     I ventured into this book written by a Quaker mystic some eighty years ago. By and large, I didn’t like it, it didn’t move me, and it felt very dated and at times somewhat arrogant. On the other hand, it triggered a good deal of useful thinking for me…

The language is very God and Christ-centred and I found this off-putting; I realised that my thinking about the wonders of the universe, my sense of awe when contemplating it, my whole spiritual experience, has moved on from such a way of looking at things. Personification of a male God jars severely nowadays. And whilst the idea of the Spirit speaks to my condition, by and large I cannot and do not think about capital ‘G’ God, or Christ.

When Kelly focuses on the inner, the deeper, what is within us as opposed to what he thinks is ‘out there’, then I can connect with what he has to say; when he writes about our urge to discover how to learn, recognise and practise right living, I am very attentive, although again his ideas are expressed in outdated words. And there’s not much of that sort of thinking, anyway.

I realised that I cannot really ‘do’ mysticism, at least in Christian terms. I found his approach annoyingly elitist at times, and this surprised me very much in a Quaker; there was the idea that he had found and experienced something wonderful, special, much better than what ‘ordinary’ folk enjoyed, and that everyone ought to be striving for the same. It’s this ‘better than your religious experience’ that stuck in my craw most of all: it reminded me a little of how hippies used to rave about how their experiences and insights whilst on drugs were so ‘amazing’ and how everyone needed to try them, and how it was impossible to explain to you ordinary people what it was all like… I quickly realised that not everyone was capable of being, or wanted to be like that, thank you very much.

So in the end I learnt little from this mercifully short book; it has not diverted me from my spiritual journey, merely confirmed once again that it’s my own and I need to get on with it myself, with help occasionally from some and not from others.

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

David Boulton: Through A Glass Darkly

March 5, 2018

I explained that I wasn’t about to censor what I wrote about, when I posted this review of Derek Guiton‘s A Man That Looks on Glass a couple of years ago; despite its rather obscure intention – or perhaps because of it – it has been one of my most viewed posts, presumably by Quakers reading up on the debate. And so, out of a sense of fairness, I read this short riposte, by the man at whom Guiton’s book was mainly directed.

Boulton is a non-theist Quaker, one who does not believe in the real existence of a being that is God. On the other side are those for whom such a being has an actual existence. Boulton is concerned to refute some of Guiton’s charges and accusations and make clear his desire for inclusivity of belief within the Society of Friends. And for me, the most salient point he made in the entire book was that Quakers have avoided theological conversations for the last 30 years…

I found myself wondering, what about those of us in the middle, who are not able to nail our colours to either mast, those of us seeking after truth (or Truth) which we will perhaps never attain? ‘Agnostic’ is a nice easy label but doesn’t really do justice to the searching, and avoiding theological conversations is unhelpful, just as avoiding tricky issues generally gets one nowhere…

Increasingly I find myself accepting Feuerbach‘s notion that we make god in our own image – if we make one at all, because that is all we can do as humans. And if I make the god I (sometimes) believe in in my own image then I have a god that encompasses my sense of wonder and awe at the vastness and beauty of the cosmos, and a god that symbolises knowledge and understanding of it, which I regard as the highest of our human goals and achievements.

To me. all gods and religions have been and are a necessary and an understandable response by many (not all) humans to our knowledge of our own mortality and ultimate annihilation, which many of us find hard to understand and accept, an obliteration after what has been the marvellous experience of existence for our brief allotted span of time. And no, I can’t imagine an afterlife that I can recognise or understand, in which I might have an existence, which from my current perspective is what I’d desire…

As I grow older, I find myself wrestling rather more with such questions. Both Guiton’s and Boulton’s writings have stretched my thinking, for which I am grateful; neither has brought me nearer to an answer, which was perhaps to be expected, and so the search goes on. And I’m enjoying it, which is just as well, really…

Robert Barclay: An Apology

October 9, 2016

This is a post about religion, linked to a book I’ve been reading, which is why this post appears here: having no wish to force religion on anyone, if it’s not your thing, you could stop reading now…

I was raised a Catholic, and gave this up while at university. I tried atheism and agnosticism for a good twenty years, but these failed me too – I think once you have been a Catholic, it’s almost impossible to eradicate some spiritual yearning. So, having tried a few other possibilities I eventually became a Quaker, which I have been at home with for well over twenty years. It suits because it’s a religion of seekers and I’ve been seeking something all my life, and it’s a religion that, although hard work, treats me as an intelligent person, and does not force creeds, disciplines and believing twenty impossible things before breakfast on me.

This leads me to the book I’ve just finished re-reading (again): its full title is An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. It’s an extremely challenging read (makes swimming through molasses easy), but one I find very comforting. Quakers are known for having produced almost no theological works, and Robert Barclay’s book is the original and the best. He wrote it towards the end of the seventeenth century – so when the Society of Friends had only been in existence a few decades – as a way of explaining and justifying his faith, and dedicated it to the king, Charles the Second. He hoped, I think, to reduce the oppression of the Society by the public authorities.

It’s a stunning work of logic, which works its way through a series of propositions about Christianity, with the aim of getting back to the original beliefs and practices of the primitive church before it was perverted and corrupted in the service of power and secular authority. Everything is fully and painstakingly argued and referenced, as he refutes Roman Catholics, the various Protestant churches, Calvinists and more: clearly and logically he shows why he believes Quakers have got it right…

And yet, he doesn’t come across as dogmatic: he argues, reasons and convinces, and to someone who has never been able to escape the power of argument and logic – I’ve lost count of the number of times people have referred to me as Aquarian (which I am) in my approach – he comforts me by making it all make some sort of sense insofar as that’s possible, a reason behind my faith, if you like, which I seem to need.

It’s very hard work as a book because it’s written in rather convoluted seventeenth-century English, as well as relying on syllogism and refutation. An attempt was made to put it into modern English by an American some forty years ago or so, but apparently his is rather a flawed version which trims, edits and unwittingly or wittingly twists the sense of the original in many places… so we are left with the original to wrestle with. And I’ve found it worth it, once again; I can put it to one side for a few years until it begins to call to me again through the power of Barclay’s logic and astonishing breadth of learning, of which I am in awe.

Derek Guiton: A Man That Looks on Glass

February 14, 2016

41dUvgaRKOL._AA160_I hesitated before writing about this book, because it’s a very personal choice, and a rather arcane one, too, but I don’t like to censor what I write about what I read.

It’s a theological work, aimed at a very small minority – Quakers who are interested in the possible future of the Religious Society of Friends; it’s a very demanding and also a very thought-provoking book, that clearly links in to my own life and spiritual journey. The author explores theist and non-theist approaches to religion – if you can see how that might be possible – and looks at the difference between the immanent and the transcendent, as he considers what God is, the nature of God, and just how much it’s possible for us to understand about God, if there is one. (My italics).

To me increasingly it seems that in order to have some comprehension of, and some way to approach the idea of God, we necessarily make God in our image, and yet obviously, if there is a God, then that anthropomorphic deity is not God, for God must be much more. In other words, we are very much hemmed in by the limitations of the human mind, and what we can see. And although science is doing its best to dispel God and the spiritual, there are evidently things science will never be able to tell us: what was there before the Big Bang? What will there be after the death of the universe? What is there outside our universe?

And, from his evidently very wide and scholarly reading, Guiton shows us that scientists are actually rather less dogmatic about many of these questions than popular beliefs would suggest… His book is well-written (although headache-inducing in some places); he explains and illustrates his arguments well, and he is clearly arguing from a very specific viewpoint within a small religious society, and one with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

Quakers haven’t really done theology very much, apart from an astonishing treatise by Robert Barclay at the end of the seventeenth century, the masterly An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, in which he argues and would prove that Quakers have gone back right to the basics of early Christianity. That is a book to which I frequently return, as I shall to Guiton’s.

Elizabeth Howard: Across Barriers

October 3, 2010

A curious little book, and one of those which gives an interesting because no longer possible perspective on the years leading up to the Second World War; it tells of the travels, encounters and troubles of Quakers in Nazi Germany and their efforts to help gain the release of prisoners of conscience or religion. The Nazis’ increasing confidence and arrogance comes over chillingly, precisely because we now have the hindsight that she didn’t when she wrote. The book ends with the start of the war.

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