‘To define is to put a limit, a finality, around something. Why would I want that?’

Thought for the week: Harvey Gillman finds labels too sticky

'...the Quaker path gives me an opportunity to explore what it is to be human.' | Photo: Helena Hertz / Unsplash.

How do you describe yourself, and for what reason? These questions arose when I decided to revise my Facebook profile. Although I have used Facebook for some time, I have never completed the religion slot. This may seem odd for someone who was outreach secretary for Britain Yearly Meeting for eighteen years, whose job was to explain to enquirers and others just who and what were the Quakers.

In my late teens, as I was beginning to explore Friends, I was very influenced by Jiddu Krishnamurti. He wrote that labels were a form of violence. He was very wary of the analytical mind, which he saw as a barrier to the raw experience of things. He also saw it as an expression of the ego, which had to be transcended: ‘There is no path to truth, historically or religiously. It is not to be experienced or found through dialectics; it is not to be seen in shifting opinions and beliefs. You will come upon it when the mind is free of all things it has put together’. This was radical stuff for someone about to go to university and who was also fascinated by words, which Krishnamurti saw as a danger. Words, he thought, were a barrier, not allowing us to see others as beings belonging to the same reality as us.

In my late twenties I became interested in Zen Buddhism, especially in its privileging intuition over analysis. I was at that time trying to write poetry, and I saw Zen’s intuitive approach – especially in its use of unsolvable koan riddles – as poetry in opposition to the prose of much that passed for religion. After many years, I am now returning to my appreciation of Zen as I weary of disputation and the need to define everything. This is why I find the debate about theism/nontheism of little concern. Why would I need to adopt yet another label, one which many people would not understand, and which would not describe me in any real sense? To define is to put a limit, a finality, around something. Why would I want that? I also appreciate the insight of Taoism, which emphasises the walking of the way over having a theory. ‘The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao,’ wrote Lao Tzu.

I know that many people would say that we create the world around us through the language we inherit and recreate – that we cannot experience reality raw. Perhaps. But the Quaker path gives me an opportunity to explore what it is to be human. This it does through its communion of silence, its poetical use of religious language, and its way of eliminating the barrier between the sacred and the secular. Among Friends I have experienced moments of depth when I come to ‘that which is’: ‘the Presence’, ‘the divine’, ‘God’ (these are names only, sounds, breath). This is as unconditioned a relationship as it is possible for me to have – and in a community where we uphold each other. Should I then come out as Quaker on Facebook – even though a lot of what I write there already has Quaker references? Actually, what I did write was: ‘Explorer, Finder, Seeker – increasingly label-less.’

You need to login to read subscriber-only content and/or comment on articles.