21 Aug 2014 | by Jan Arriens
Jan Arriens reflects on words, belief and testimony at Yearly Meeting Gathering (YMG)
Over the past three years we have been looking at ‘What it means to be a Quaker today’. From 2015 to 2017 Yearly Meeting will explore ‘Living out our faith in the world’. I have been asked to approach this session as a bridge between these two.
In looking at how we are living out our faith, we need first to ask: what is it that we believe? While there appears to be a wide and sometimes controversial diversity of belief among Quakers, I think there is in fact a notable unity of belief – although this is something we don’t often acknowledge.
Much of our difficulty, I believe, centres around the use of words. I am reminded of the story of the retired Anglican vicar who ministered a few years ago at my neighbouring Meeting in Ludlow. He had decided to visit a dying parishioner, even though this man never came to church. When he caught sight of the vicar, the parishioner cried out, ‘Go away! I don’t want to see you! I don’t believe in God.’ After a pause, the vicar said, ‘Might the God you don’t believe in be the same as the God that I don’t believe in?’
They ended up in deep discussion. As Friends we, too, can struggle with the ‘God’ word and traditional religious language. I feel we need to listen deeply to one another and, as chief Papunehang told John Woolman in 1763, after Woolman had walked 200 miles into Western Pennsylvania to meet him at a time of tension, to be in the place ‘where words come from’.
I see Quakerism as religion stripped down to its essentials. There is not much more that we could jettison while still remaining a religious society. Our essential starting point is personal experience. Sometimes it seems that what we have in common is little more than an intangible sense of presence, an inner knowing. That may be honest – but is it enough on which to base our faith and an entire religious movement?
I think it is. Our tradition of liberal Quakerism owes much to the American Quaker Rufus Jones. Without his contribution a century or so ago we might well not be here today. Jones always stressed that we are a mystical Society. He defined mysticism as covering everything from a simple, everyday sense of awe, wonder and connection to a state of bliss. Rufus Jones had had some extraordinary and powerful experiences himself, especially at the time of his son’s death, as recorded in one of the (for me) most moving passages in Quaker faith & practice. But even so, Jones mistrusted the quest for ecstasy. Mysticism was affirmative. It involved transformation and action – like John Woolman, turning our lives ‘into the channel of universal love’. Jones often spoke of the ‘Great Beyond’; perhaps we may also refer to the ‘Small Within’.
We are, however, also children of the scientific age: an age of rationalism, scepticism and doubt. For many of us, this involves a struggle between head and heart. Head tells us that the material world is all there is, while heart speaks from an experience which, ultimately, cannot be denied. That experience – the quiet mystical element – is, I believe, at the heart of our Quakerism. It is certainly what I consistently encounter among Friends. Although I am not a member of the nontheist movement I think that, far from dividing us, it has done us a great service in revealing how close we are in thought and belief when we get beyond the words.
I see that essential unity as being based around awareness of our intimate connection to a greater whole. It may be subtle and intangible, but it is the most precious thing in our lives and provides the lodestar for how we try to live. For it also has a moral quality. I remember when I first began writing to prisoners on death row in the US twenty-five years ago, Sam Johnson in Mississippi wrote to me, ‘We have been touched by some force or something greater than we are and it’s good. I don’t know exactly what it is but I know that it’s good!’
The sense of presence is not just individual but also shared. There is a seamlessness between a gathered Meeting and the world outside. Faith and action each feed the other.
The connectedness of all things is also reflected in our testimonies. Our testimony is the living out of our faith. The testimonies are not a matter of theology or even values or principles but of leading our lives from a certain place.
In Quaker faith & practice 20:12, Harvey Gillman writes that the word ‘testimony’ means: ‘a witness to the living truth within the human heart as it is acted out in everyday life. It is not a form of words, but a mode of life based on the realisation that there is that of God in everybody, that all human beings are equal, that all life is interconnected. …These testimonies reflect the corporate beliefs of the Society, however much individual Quakers may interpret them differently according to their own light. They are not optional extras, but fruits that grow from the very tree of faith.’
When we live out these testimonies – to peace, equality, simplicity, truth and, increasingly, community and care of our planet and, indeed, a whole range of other things – they bring us to the same place from which we started: a place of deep connection and engagement, love and compassion. We test our leadings among ourselves; this leads to action – the living out of our faith; we face new insights and opportunities; and we are brought back to our source of spirit-led inspiration.
The modern world faces crises of unprecedented magnitude, including climate change, population growth, inequality and injustice, the need for a fundamental reform of the economic system and the terrible, seemingly entrenched violence in our world. Friends are deeply concerned about these issues, but we often approach them in isolation rather than as an integrated whole. Different Meetings focus on different aspects. In many cases individual Friends work mainly through non-religious bodies.
This need not necessarily be a concern, as long as we bear in mind that at heart these problems and their solution all have a common spiritual foundation. They are all branches springing from the same root, the same tree of faith. Our testimony to the world today should, I believe, be about making that sense of spiritual connectedness central to the way we approach life.
Ours is a world – especially in the West – in which our spiritual foundation is often lost: to be supplanted, instead, by individualism and materialism. What is needed is a deep spiritual connectedness, not just with our fellow human beings but also with the world around us. Once, traditional communities had an intimate sense of connection with their physical surroundings. Now, we all too often approach the world around us instrumentally, as something to gratify our needs and wants. We may in the process destroy the world as we know it.
The dislocation that is already with us may well force a change in attitude, as humankind sees that it cannot go on as before. Down the centuries, Quakers have often led the way; perhaps now the special contribution we can make is to bring the spiritual centre-stage again. But, in doing so, we may need to use language that gets away from traditional religious connotations, and is consonant with our age, if we are to be heard by others.
Evolving a language for the modern age while remaining true to our traditions will be a major challenge. We are trying to put into words our sense of intimate connectedness with the world around us and our deep engagement with the all-pervading mystery combined with the action that springs from this: our testimony.
The testimonies are not all about protest and hairshirts but can be a source of deep satisfaction, joy and, indeed, wisdom. Community-based energy projects, for example, can generate not just electricity but also local regeneration and empowerment, employment, re-connection with nature, and biodiversity. Small collective beginnings can lead to real change. There is real scope for us as Friends in such areas.
As we move into the next triennium based around ‘Living out our faith in the world’, we may free up more space at our Yearly Meetings for the great issues of the day. I know that some Friends have been concerned that there has not been enough room for these. But a wonderful energy has also been evident among Friends at the Gathering. It is not defeatist, but determined and positive, as we seek to do what we can with others. What has also been greatly encouraging has been the absence of any sense of ‘them and us’ between the centre and Local Meetings; we are all in this together.
What, we may ask ourselves, would the world be like if we were truly living out our testimonies? Indeed, what would it be like if people in general were living them out? Ours is a message that the world can and needs to hear. It can, moreover, be conveyed in a way that is in harmony with the way modern society and science are evolving. Such a spiritually based approach may even provide a vital model for humanity as a whole if we are to engage with the unparalleled problems that lie ahead. I hope and pray, dear Friends, that for all our infirmities we will be ready to embrace this challenge and to be patterns and examples, and to walk as cheerfully as we can over this dear world of ours, answering that of God in everyone and in the world.