God, words and us – book review

Katie Evans writes:

Recently a colleague asked me if I believe in God.  My answer was both no and yes.  That looks contradictory written down, but it doesn’t feel contradictory in my lived experience.  Here we come up against the limitations of everyday speech for conveying religious and spiritual experience.

Nevertheless, sharing our experience and beliefs and hearing other people’s can be profoundly moving.  Even if our words, experiences and beliefs are different, respectful conversation connects us to one another, affirming our insights, challenging us to grow and weaving a strong fabric of community.

Conversely, failure to foster this conversation (either by sterile silent avoidance or by noisy, polarised unhearing argument) can leave us isolated, feeling threatened or misunderstood.  In this sort of environment our differences become acrimonious divisions.  Their potential to nourish a rich, textured, inquiring fellowship is wasted.

God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference models respectful, engaged conversation about religious experience and belief.  It’s only a slim book, but there’s loads of good stuff in here: both practical advice on fostering good conversations and inspiring examples of Friends with different perspectives disagreeing well.  Here are a few gems:

 

  • “ ‘Challenging words + real people one has come to know’ is a more fruitful and transformative resource than mere ‘challenging words’ on their own’.”

 

  • An invitation to share personal experience of practices of prayer, worship and discernment can be a good way into conversation: “British Quakers share a unity of practice in worship (centring down, stilling, expectant waiting) even when we hold different views about the nature of God.”
  • Rather than arguing over the validity of different expressions of Quakerism, ask “What can I learn from you about my Quaker identity?  How is God’s spirit/Life in all its fullness breathing through you, in your life and your context?”   

For me, the real masterstroke of ‘God, words and us’ is in moving the conversation beyond a theism/nontheism dichotomy.  Both ‘theism’ and ‘nontheism’ are shorthands, they don’t do justice to the diversity of Friends experience: a diversity which doesn’t fit neatly onto a linear spectrum.  Furthermore, this dichotomy gives the impression of division and conflict whereas in practice we usually get on fine with being Quakers together.  

In particular, the group behind ‘God, words and us’ recognised that while labels we choose for ourselves to express our identity can be helpful, labels imposed on us by others are not helpful.  ‘Nontheist’ tends to be a label chosen for self-expression.  In contrast Friends who are not nontheist don’t tend to self-identify as ‘theist’, making ‘theist’ an unhelpful term.  Whatever labels people chose or reject, we need to ask what the term means to them rather than jumping to conclusions or pigeonholing.  

The lack of clarity as to what we mean by words such as ‘theist’ and ‘nontheist’ can be frustrating!  One of the ways out of this deadlock offered by ‘God, words and us’ is to understand both as ways of “saying no to things that aren’t true”.  Nontheist Quakers are saying no to an idea of God that they can’t hold with integrity, that they may have experienced as stifling.  Similarly Quakers with faith in God as saying ‘no’ to a reductionist materialism than denies their experience of transcendence.  Reframed in this way, we can see that both positions are ways rejecting problematic, imposed limitations in order to go forward with integrity on our shared journey of seeking after truth and life and love.

It’s recommended reading as preparation for Yearly Meeting 2018.

God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious difference is available to borrow from Bath Quakers Library and to buy (cost £8) from the Quaker Centre Bookshop: http://bookshop.quaker.org.uk/God-words-and-us_9781999726928

 

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