Thought for the Week: Words and silence

Patricia Gosling’s Thought for the Week

For a group of people who value silence, and whose mode of worship is based on deep silence, we Friends do get hung up about words: ‘theist or nontheist’, God-language or none’ and so on.

A word currently being thrown about with an aura of disapproval is ‘secular.’ I wonder what is wrong with ‘secular’? Does using it, perhaps, imply a rift between secular and spiritual? I always thought this was anathema to Quakers; that central to a Quaker perspective was recognition of the Immanence of God in everyone and everything.

It is easy to lose sight of that when overwhelmed by the daily business of living, which is one good reason for keeping life simple. Surely the reason that Quakers did not celebrate the church’s festivals was because each day can be a celebration, the birth of every baby the Christmas hope for the future, the Easter drama of disappointed expectations, of betrayal, of crucifixion, mourning and hoped-for resurrection one that we all experience and struggle with at some point in our lives. Perhaps the accusation of ‘secularisation’ is a protest about losing that deeper perspective.

I find it interesting to ask Friends what it was that brought them into the Religious Society of Friends. Behind the chance meeting with significant people there is often an acknowledgment of a seminal experience – of the numinous, of the over-arching unity of all created things, of the unique value of each human being – which marks the beginning of a journey that has a different orientation from what went before.

It may be the sin of spiritual pride, but I believe Quakerism has enormous potential in our conflict ridden world – not just out of what we do, though that is important and valuable – but because our very lack of words, our emphasis on silence and what is revealed to us in the silence, offers hope for a world that desperately needs a formulation which allows space for the many different experiences of that creative force behind our universe: God, Allah, chance, call it what you will.

The desperate, destructive, foolish conflicts between the different branches of Islam, and between Muslims and the Christian West, cannot lead to anything worth having. Of course, we all interpret our experience of the eternal verities in the light of our own times, our own culture, our inherited traditions and language. How can it be otherwise! As someone pointed out recently, there is a lot in the Bible about sheep and shepherds; in the Koran there is more about camels. It tells us a lot about the environment and lifestyle of those who wrote the scriptures. Neither are relevant to us today except as metaphors.

What is relevant to us – of whatever religious tradition and culture – is the experience behind the words, the insights into that awesome, creative, compassionate force which powers our universe, whatever name we give it. We can respect those remarkable people who perceived the world as it is, and tried to convey their illuminating revelation to those around them. We can respect and honour them, whatever culture they came from and whatever language they used, because we recognise and can resonate with what it was they comprehended. We can use their understanding to deepen our own while accepting that ultimate, total knowledge is forever beyond us.

The Quaker approach has the capacity for reconciliation and enlightenment because of its very simplicity, its lack of words, its absence of dogma and creeds, and – significantly – its tradition of ongoing revelation. We should value it. We should allow it to empower us.

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