Thursday, 21 February 2019

True Religion

Two people sat on the ground with guitars, silhouetted against a setting sun.
True religion raises up,
      It does not cast down.
True faith frees the mind,
      It does not constrain.
True divinity heals,
      It does not rend apart.
True friendship fosters growth,
      It does not hem you in.
True love enables life,
      It does not enjoin unlooked-for change.
True forgiveness looks forward,
      It does not look to settle scores.
True knowledge illuminates ignorance,
      It does not give certainty.
True insight shows your inner self,
      It is not limited to the outer world.
Hold fast to the true, and be wise to the false.
Love your friends, and uphold life.
Forgive as you can, but not falsely.
Be free in your mind, and rejoice in the freedom of others.
Illuminate as you would be illuminated,
And share all, giving and receiving.
Written February 2019

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Coining a New Name

I am indebted in writing this piece to several friends (not all of whom are Friends) helping me puzzle out the nuances of a dead language. Special mention must go, however, to my sister-in-law, and to the helpful folks of the Latin Stack Exchange. I am no scholar of ancient languages myself, though I dabble (as I do in many things). Any errors in how I have made use of Latin are my own, and as I've had to be a little creative I expect there are some.
Image shows a small portion of a page of an old printed Latin-German dictionary. Latin words are in Roman script, while the German text is in Gothic script. Part of the entry for "Avis" is in focus.
Much conversation goes on among liberal Friends, at least recently in Britain, concerning our range of names for the Divine. This is why there's a tag for it on this blog, and has become a startling focus of conversation around our theological diversity. Some of the worry – and some of the excitement – about the upcoming revision of Britain Yearly Meeting's Book of Discipline even relates to this. Some of the differences in name reflect the different ways we have of thinking about the Divine, and sometimes using the same name conceals that difference.
We have the old names – God, the Father, Christ, and more esoteric terms early Friends were fond of, such as Seed. Then we have names that are old, but new to Quakers, as other faith traditions feed into our own, and they are too many and varied for it to be easy to pick out a few. We have names that reflect theological liberalism and universalism, delightfully non-committal like my own go-to name, the Divine. We have terms that were used by early Friends and are used today with different nuance, like Light (for early Friends it was often the Light of Christ, or Inward Light; today it is often Inner Light, and for both it would just be shortened to “Light”). Maybe it's time for something new. Something that reflects what we are united on, or at least as united as we ever are, without claiming anything else.
That's not an easy ask, mind you. What is that we are united on? Well, I think there's one thing, at least among unprogrammed Quakers. Whatever we think it is, we have our silent waiting. We gather together in Meeting for Worship, even if some struggle with the word worship, and wait on... something. Something we struggle to name. “That on which we wait” would be a reasonable name, but it's kind of unwieldy. How can we approach this to make it easier? Abbreviations are popular, I suppose, but I don't see TOWWW catching on, even if we could agree how to pronounce it.
Still, there's a pretty old tradition in European-derived societies, especially those related to western Europe, for what to do when you need a new word. When a series of small, star-like objects were discovered in the night sky, dimmer than the planets but moving in the same way they did, they needed a name. If you didn't notice that they were moving, you could mistake them for stars, so there were “star-like objects”, rendered into ancient Greek as ἀστεροειδής, which one might transliterate to asteroeidēs. Today, we call them asteroids. When a French chemist wanted to come up with a scientific term for heat, that could be properly (though as it turned out, incorrectly) defined and studied, he took the Latin term calor and applied the rules of his own language to it, and came up with calorique. This ended up in English as caloric, a long-since-debunked theory of how heat works, but survives today in calorimetry, and indeed calorie.
We can apply that tradition here. Yes, we will end up with an obscure word that no-one recognises, but then any word that anyone does recognise will have too much baggage of meaning attached to it. We arguably need a new term, and we may as well approach it in some logical manner rather than just putting random syllables together. So we might look for some word or words in some ancient and respected language that might express what we want to say. It might be better, in some ways, to pick something less eurocentric, but I actually know something about Latin, and a little less about Greek, so sticking with classical European languages is going to be more workable.
Latin, in particular, has a very attractive feature for our purposes. As a highly inflected language, a lot of things that we do with extra words in English are done just by changing a word in Latin. That even include a grammatical feature known as the gerundive. This is, unsurprisingly, related to the gerund, a form of inflection that we still (barely) have in English. The gerund is a way of turning a verb into a noun, representing the idea or the act of doing whatever that verb indicates. In English, this is with the -ing form, which also acts as the progressive participle. As a gerund, we can say “I like running”; running is a form of the verb to run, but it can be used like a noun. The gerundive is similar in that it allows a verb to be used as another part of speech, but instead of being a noun it acts as an adjective. Specifically, it creates a meaning that takes a lot of words in English, and a set of words in which we are particularly interested, given our current purpose. If we take the verb to eat, the gerundive would be rendered in English as something like “which is to be eaten”, implying that there is an expectation, requirement, or duty to eat them. It might even be “which must be eaten”. All that in one word. Very attractive. Of course, you still need a noun to attach it to… if you're actually using Latin. If we want to coin a term to use in English, using a bare Latin gerundive as a noun is hardly taking great liberties.
So, we have a path, a pattern we can fill. Now we just need the right verb, the Latin for to wait, or at least to wait for – perhaps better put as to await. After all, to form the gerundive it logically must be a transitive verb. Here we run into a perennial problem of translation, however – vocabulary doesn't map one-to-one. The native English speaker may look to translate something into French, and come to the adjective free. They will then discover that there are two common French words that could be translated into English as “free” - libre, and gratuit. These might be explained, indeed frequently are in some parts of the internet, as “free as in speech” and “free as in beer”; libre is free as in “without restraint”, while gratuit is free as in “without charge”. Going the other way, translating French into English, can be just as confusing. Translating prix the native French speaker will find two main English words that would be translated into French as prix: price and prize. The two are cognate, of course, but the meanings are quite distinct in English. There's an even greater difference translating the French verb gagner; it could be, in English, either to win, or to earn! In fact, it can even mean to obtain in general. I can't help wondering if the native French speaker sees less difference between the concepts of winning and earning than does the native English speaker. Perhaps I should ask my brother-in-law, him being a little of both.
French and English are actually pretty closely related languages. The connection between English and Latin is much more distant, even with the occasional new borrowing from the old language to the new one. If you look for a Latin verb to match and English one, you're likely to get several results. And most likely, all of them will actually also translate back to English as a couple of other verbs as well, possibly ones that you might not think are at all related to the one you started with. The real kicker is that these different translations aren't always different senses of the word. That word might only be one concept to the classical, native Latin speaker. It takes some work to try to figure out the nuance, and I sure as heck couldn't do it on my own, but with some help I found four (yes, four) words that might be something of what we're looking for. All of them connote some sense of waiting, with different nuance and different additional/concurrent meanings.
The one that I am told would be the most likely candidate for the general idea of the English verb to await is the Latin verb exspecto (also rendered in some sources expecto). This could be translate as to await, or as to expect. It seems to convey a sense that one is expecting something to happen, and is waiting for it to do so. Its own etymology is believed to be something along the lines of “look out for”, but without the connotation that phrase has in English. Our own verb to expect is a direct descendent of this word. There are downsides to this as a choice on which to base a new term to refer to the Divine. The most obvious is that it will be readily conflated with the English, and I think we wish to convey a somewhat different shade of meaning. There is also the slightly awkward matter that it may put one in mind of the pseudo-Latin of Harry Potter, though I think J K Rowling was actually thinking of a different verb when she came up with the incantation for the patronus charm; expectoro means to expel from the breast, and figuratively from the mind, being the root of the English expectorate, and makes much more sense as the basis of expecto patronum.
Friends may feel this choice is highly appropriate, given our traditional term “expectant waiting”, though I am not comfortable with that much-loved phrase. To me, to expect something is to have a clear belief that it will happen, or to imply that I have some right to compel it. This is not how I approach worship; I would rather say that we wait hopefully. That said, it is an obvious candidate, and taking the gerundive (and taking whatever-it-is as neuter gender, rather than masculine or feminine) we get exspectandum.
Another word that one comes across when looking for a Latin translation of to expect is opperior. References suggest that this does have less of a sense of expectation. However, this may be because we have far fewer attestations of this word as compared to exspecto – and it is still considered to have some sense of expectation. One person I consulted suggested it might be the best if I was seeking to have the sense of loitering. Some sense of expectation may be unavoidable, as we shall see, for it seems that the concepts of awaiting and expecting are far more entangled in Latin than they are in modern English.
Some may see no downside in choosing a word that is obscure even in its own language, but I consider that a negative. Still, if we decide that is what we should use, the gerundive is opperiendum.
One correspondent suggested that, if my aim were to capture a sense of hope instead of (or as well as) a sense of expectation, I might use spero. This carries the primary meaning, according to references, of to hope for, or to trust, and yet also to promise. It carries a secondary sense of waiting for that in which one trusts, or that which one hopes for, and yet while we might consider hope and expectation to be rather distinct concepts, it also indicates a yet weaker sense of expectation. It can also mean to fear, or to await with apprehension. It has a relatively obscure English descendent in the form of sperate, which as an adjective carries a sense similar to the Latin gerundive, meaning “hoped for”; we might refer, if we didn't mind confusing our audience, to “sperate exam results”. It also has a verb sense, in certain dialects and also now obscure, meaning to hope. It is not related to the modern English aspire, which rather derives from the Latin aspiro – to which it is very close in meaning.
Waiting is a very minor element of this word's meaning, compared to the others, yet still that sense of hope – and perhaps even the sense of fear – might be attractive for our purposes. Were we to choose to use it, the gerundive is sperandum.
The final candidate that arises from my investigations is maneo. The sense of this word most often referred to is that we might render as to stay, to remain, or even to remain still. Used transitively, however, it means to wait for, but maintaining that sense of stillness, of remaining in one place. It can also be used to indicate that sort of waiting, but waiting for something that is expected. It seems to be the case that Latin considers expectation an almost inextricable part of awaiting. It can even mean to last or outlast, or or to endure. Perhaps that is a descriptive range of meanings if we consider the range of subjective experience found in Meeting for Worship.
For me, this is one of the strongest contenders, though it does not compare with spero or exspecto for being well-attested in a range of classical sources. The gerundive is manendum.
So, then, there are four candidates here for a new term with which we might refer to that-on-which-we-wait: exspectandum, opperiendum, sperandum, and manendum. All have an element of waiting to their meaning, and all an element of expectation. One conveys both hope and dread, and another conveys stillness. One has the greatest sense of expectation, and the remaining one is frankly obscure, even for Latin. For me, I prefer manendum, but there isn't much to base it on.
I raise this idea only as a possibility, not to particularly advocate for it. Perhaps we can find better unity in language, even while still using all that we already use, by being creative. English has limitations here, particularly for native speakers, as we all have significant loaded meanings in our mind for every word we might choose. I choose Latin on the basis of some small knowledge of it myself, and of access to those with greater expertise, but I do not say it is the only language we might plunder in our search. Perhaps there are better things to be found in Sanksrit, or Chinese, or the Quechua languages. Perhaps we should reach for something even more obscure to the western mind, like Austronesian languages or the languages of Sub-Saharan Africa. I'd love to hear your ideas.
Ultimately, we could agree on any name that is free of baggage, if we wanted to do so. However, I don't think we're likely to all agree to call it Geoff.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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Tuesday, 29 January 2019

A Quaker Rumspringa?

A rear left quarter view of an Amish covered buggy, drawn by a single horse.
In an earlier post, I suggested the idea that a spiritual convincement experience, involving a direct experience of the Divine, might be something we could consider a prerequisite for membership. This was not to advocate it as an actual change we should undertake right now. There are lots of problems with the idea, though it is attractive in principle. One of the problems is the experience of those raised among Friends.
The thing is, when you taste something you have never tasted before, particularly if it is a strong flavour, it is strange, it's unmistakable. It grabs your attention and you really know you've tasted it. If, however, the flavour has been familiar to you since your childhood, you might barely be aware of it. This is a major factor in culinary culture shock, noticeable even in something as simple as an American and a Brit trying tomato ketchup made for the other market. To me, American ketchup tastes unpleasantly sweet, but to an American, British ketchup tastes like it's been spiked with vinegar. When you get into things that are even more different, like spices or seasonings that are characteristic of particular cuisines, it is even more pronounced. Consider for instance kimchi, or the Japanese umeboshi. For the European palate, east Asian food is particularly apt for examples.

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Don't Replace "God" With "Good"

An image of the statue of "God the Father" at Saint Saviour's Cathedral, Bruges, fading from the top right to the bottom left into an off-white background with an image of yellow "smiley" with a "thumbs up" gesture.
This might seem a strange title for me. After all, I rarely use the word “God” in reference to my own beliefs – surely I should be happy to see it used less? Well, yes and no.
Let's start by setting some context. I don't want to see Quakers stop using the word God, let's get that clear. I do think sometimes we should think about whether it's the right word to use in any given situation, especially in corporate statements, but I'm all about using the full range of language in our collective writing. I think there's lots of other words and phrases we can use, and they should more or less all get a look in.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

On Sexuality

An image of rumbled bedclothes.
People get hung up a lot on sexuality. What does it mean? Is it an abstract element of our being, or does it describe what we are attracted to, what interests us sexually? The word is used for both. When someone says that people should celebrate or nurture their sexuality, they don't always mean their sexual orientation – and some people object to the word orientation there, for a range of reasons.
For now, I am using the word sexuality to mean all of that, and perhaps more. It is that part of us that desires that sort of physical intimacy. It is about the sort of intimacy we desire. It is what we like to do, and the sort of person we like to do it with. It is even involved in things we do entirely on our own. It is what we do, it is what we want, it is what we dream of.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Our Unjust Pride

A crow stands upright on a statue of a bird.
Quakers are proud of our historical support for important issues of social justice – prison welfare, slavery, women's rights. I wonder if we would be so proud if we understood properly the history of these things.
For some issues, we have truly been leaders, at least among religious communities. We have been at the forefront of acceptance and welcome for non-heterosexuality, though it still took us longer than, we may think in hindsight, it might. I don't know enough to say either way about the work of Elizabeth Fry, among others, on prison welfare. But to take the example of slavery and women's rights, two that Quakers are particularly proud of (especially on the western side of the Atlantic), we shouldn't be so proud of.
It's not that we were on the wrong side of history. And it's not that we weren't ahead of a lot of other people. It's that we had the call, delivered as usual by individual Friends, and we resisted it.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Sanctity of Discernment?

Photograph of a wooden bench in a Quaker meeting room. Other benches are visible in the background, and the sun shines through windows further in the background.
A bench in the Meeting House at Scattergood Friends School,
Iowa. Photo by David Morris, used under CC-BY 2.0 license.
Discernment, the process of making decisions or otherwise being guided by the Spirit (usually through the Quaker Business Method), is extremely important to Quakers. It is probably the most significant practical application of faith among liberal Friends – our faith that we will be guided, our faith that we have faithfully discerned that guidance. In both a practical and emotional sense, it is one of the most fundamental cornerstones of our faith tradition.
It is also, though we may hate to admit it, a source of difficulty. For if a decision or statement, a determination or a course of action, is based on divine guidance, who can gainsay it?
Yet is something, once discerned, settled for all time? Plainly not, or the history of our Religious Society could not be as it is. And indeed, two Meetings might be approaching the same question at the same time, be in very similar traditions, even be part of the same Yearly Meeting – or even some closer association, such as Local Meetings in the same Area Meeting, in the organisational structure of Britain Yearly Meeting, or Monthly Meetings in the same Quarter as some other Yearly Meetings arrange things. They might be close neighbours in close accord on many things, both faithfully follow our business method regarding the same question, and reach different conclusions. How can this not call into question our faith – our trust in this process, in the guidance of the Spirit – indeed, call it into question at its very foundations?

Monday, 14 January 2019

Why Are We Here?

A magnifying glass over the text "Frequently asked Questions"
It's a question we often ask. Sometimes it's because we managed to go into Boots or Marks & Spencer during the lunchtime rush when there's no good reason we had to be there then. Sometimes it's when we're at a family gathering and realise that we're doing no good to ourselves or anyone else. That's not what I'm writing about now, though. I'm talking about it as an existential question.
Some people have put forth answers they believe to be spiritually inspired. The difficulty there is that these people have produced so many different answers. How to know which is right? In a sense, it is part of the overall question of religious “truth”, and I approach it in a similar way to that in which I approach general universalism. The inspiration is not there to give us the correct answer, but to give us the answer that will help us, at the time it is inspired.
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