Saturday, 5 October 2019

Reflection on ‘Aphorism 3’ (Do not ask for lessons)

Do not ask for lessons; all I can give are opportunities.”
Aphorism 3
This is an interesting one, to be sure. To understand what it might be taken to mean, we must consider the possible meanings of different parts it. For instance, what is meant by ‘lesson’, and what by ‘opportunities’? More profoundly, in whose voice should it be taken as being? At the same time, it is a very simple statement that seems to have a fairly straightforward meaning, at least from the point of view of certain approaches to education. So straightforward that it might be considered a pat answer itself, in fact (though that adjective, pat, has some divergence in meaning that means it might be appropriate whether the explanation is trivial and misguiding or simple and correct).
Let us first consider that straightforward answer. A popular view of education, of the process of learning, is that the only true agent in the process is the learner. Constructivist theories of education hold that knowledge cannot be transmitted, only constructed by the individual. In that context, even modified in such variants as social constructivism (where knowledge construction takes place in the context of interaction between individuals), a more traditional ‘lesson’, in which knowledge is transmitted from teacher to student, is impossible – or at least ineffective. The educator instead provides opportunities for the construction of knowledge, facilitates the process. It might be said, then, that this aphorism is simply a truism in the context of constructivist educational theory. However, in receiving it as ministry it behoves us to look beyond that simple explanation. That is where we must consider the possible meanings, beyond that of constructivism, and the voice of the statement.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Reflection on ‘Maxim 3’ (No system of formal ethics)

No system of formal ethics can properly account for the range of human experience.”
Maxim 3
Portraits of Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham.
This is an interesting one to approach, because one has to understand the phrase “system of formal ethics”. I assume, as the ministry came through me, that it should be understood through the lens of my own understanding at the time. After all, I do not get the sense that ministry is literally words being put in our mouths (or at our hands); it is, rather, a sense of knowledge or the shape of an idea that makes use of our own faculties to be recorded. It is in this way that ministry also comes in the form of verse or visual artwork. This does not mean that the person through whom the ministry is delivered understands it fully, of course – rather that they have better context than others, perhaps, for discerning the meaning of specific terms. It’s important to know that sometimes that context gives little overall insight, but when it comes to what a phrase means, there are certainly times that it is helpful.
(There are also times when ministry comes in a way that adamantly insists on certain words being used without conscious understanding of why on the part of the person through which it comes. That is not the usual situation, in my experience, but it is not uncommon.)

Friday, 27 September 2019

Quakers and ‘Paksworld’

Three books resting on a dark wooden surface. The books are all by Elizabeth Moon, in the Paksenarrion series. They are "The Deed of Paksenarrion", "Oath of Fealty", and "The Legacy of Gird".
Continuing the theme of my previous post, about the fictional setting of Valdemar in the context of Quakerism, I’m going to look at another fictional setting and see what parallels there might be. Today, you get to read my thoughts on Quakers and the setting of the ‘Paksenarrion’ books. This was introduced to the world through the three-volume fantasy novel The Deed of Paksenarrion (the volumes being Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold), a Tolkienesque fantasy epic with a female protagonist, Paksenarrion (shortened to ‘Paks’), an asexual soldier (and yes, the asexuality is plot relevant, which is pretty good going for the late eighties), who goes on to bigger and better things (while still being a fighter) and saves, well, not the world exactly (at least not directly – that comes with other people in the sequels) but at least the way of life of people of her own culture. That’s a familiar line for those who would take people to war in the modern world, but she is not fighting against people of another culture, but for good against evil.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Reflection on ‘Aphorism 2’ (Reason and Light Combined)

When you dwell in thought on important or profound matters, dwell also in the Spirit. Reason and Light combined give the truest fount of insight.”
Aphorism 2
This is very simple advice, easy to understand in a literal sense, and making very little use of symbolism of imagery. Technically, ‘Light’ is imagery, but it is such standard imagery for Quakers that it barely counts; it is one of the terms we use, largely regardless of specific theological views, for the Divine, or an aspect of the Divine, or a way of looking at the Divine. Early Friends spoke of the “Light of Christ”, seeing it as an expression of the work of the Holy Spirit upon those who are open to it. Indeed, it is a clear reflection of the Pentecostal essence of the Quaker way, however different we might be now from those churches referred to as ‘Pentecostal’ today.
The idea of Pentecostal Christianity is a focus on the Holy Spirit’s work among Christians today, in reference to the events commemorated by the festival of Pentecost – the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles (and other followers of Jesus). This happened during the Jewish Feast of Weeks, Shavuot, commemorating Moses’ receipt of the law – the Torah – on Mount Sinai, as well as marking the wheat harvest in Israel. Shavuot occurs on the 50th day after Passover (according to some traditions), and was thus also known in the language of the New Testament, Koine Greek (including by some Hellenistic Jews of the first century CE), as Pentēkostē, or ‘fiftieth’. That word is also used in the Septuagint, the key Koine translation of the Hebrew scriptures, to refer to the “year of Jubilee” that occurred every fifty years, but its use to refer to Shavuot is key to its importance as a term in Christianity. It was adopted to commemorate the events of Shavuot so long ago – counting the 50 days from Easter, which marks events that occurred at Passover, though Easter and Passover now no longer necessarily coincide.

Tuesday, 23 July 2019

What is Community?

A buffet table with a range of food upon it. People are serving themselves from the table.
Our Meetings are each a community. Each is situated in wider communities – the Area Meeting, the Yearly Meeting, and let us never forget the wider community, beyond Friends, in which our Quaker communities sit.
Community, as a word, is obviously related to commune. As a noun, a commune is a group of people that share something, usually property. As a verb, with a slightly different (but closely related) etymology, it is often used in a spiritual sense for a sort of silent communication, often with something bigger than a person – as in communing with nature, a divinity, and so on. It can also refer to other sorts of intimate communication, or taking of communion in the Christian Eucharist.
Another related word is common. A commune hold their property in common. A community is a group bound together by something in common.

Sunday, 21 July 2019

Reflection on ‘Maxim 2’ (The Lone Voice)

The most important voice to speak and be heard is the lone voice.”
Maxim 2
A black background with a high-quality recording microphone in the foreground, occupying only the rightward half of the picture.
This is a deceptively simple statement, I feel. At its most obvious interpretation, it is straightforward – we should listen to people who hold unusual views, or at least uncommonly expressed views. The “lone voice of dissent” should not be dismissed. But does that mean it should be accorded the same weight as the views that are held by most people? There we fall into the same sort of ‘false balance’ that the media have often been accused of in cases like climate science, treating fringe ideas (like “the climate is changing but it’s not because of what humans are doing, and nothing we do can change it”) as worthy of equal time and prominence as mainstream ideas (like “the recent rapid climate change is a result of human activity, and if we have any hope of halting it we must change our behaviour”). Certainly, the lone voice of dissent should not automatically be able to halt a considered and discerned position that has been reached, or is forming, among the rest of a community. Why then would be be encouraged to ensure that the lone voice speaks and is heard?

Tuesday, 16 July 2019

Quakers and Valdemar

A white horse runs towards the camera at an angle, running through snow.
There are, obviously, no photographs of companions, so here's
a white horse.
We can draw inspiration from many places. The natural world, scripture and other sacred texts, spiritual writing by great thinkers (or humble bloggers), philosophy, political and economic writings, art, all sorts of things. Many of these things, we can, as Quakers, consider potentially inspired by the Divine, perhaps in just a small way, perhaps in a great way. I’m very fond of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, personally, and though I don’t know for sure how spiritual he intended it to be, I find it a very spiritual book and think it likely to be inspired.
But it’s not just these very conventionally spiritually inspired and/or inspiring works that can give us that sort of spiritual fillip. Sometimes it’s fiction. For me, especially, I find some works of fantasy and science fiction particularly likely to stimulate my thought on spiritual matters – seeing parallels, intended by the author or not, with matters in our own world. This is one of the great strengths of some of the best science fiction and fantasy, showing us things about our own world in a fresh form to help us see them. Whether any of this is divinely inspired, I can’t see, but reflecting on it, or even just reading it, I feel the Light working in me.

Sunday, 14 July 2019

Reflection on ‘Aphorism 1’ (Looking Out for the Divine)

The divine may be found everywhere; one does not look for the divine so much as look out for it
Aphorism 1
A wooden viewing tower on a grassy landscape, under a mostly cloudy sky.
This one is interesting. The essential statement of the first half is straightforward, on the face of it, and the second half is easily read in two (subtly) different ways. The difference hinges on the different senses people intend when they talk about “looking out” for something.
The straightforward reading of the first half is quite clear. If you believe in a theistic God, it could be seen as an expression of the idea of omnipresence. Whether or not you believe in such a thing, it can be taken as suggesting that, whatever the Divine is, it is in some sense everywhere, or at least reflected everywhere. Actually, that could do with some unpacking and elaborating, but let’s look more closely at the second half of the aphorism first.

Friday, 12 July 2019

The Divine and Number

An abacus with beads of several colours, with an out-of-focus face in the background.
Number is an interesting thing. In mathematics it is the structure that we apply to the idea of quantity, making it sit in nice neat rows. In linguistics, it’s a grammatical feature in which words mutate depending on how many (of whatever) they or another word relate to. We have our system of ‘arabic’ numerals, more properly known as hindu-arabic numerals (represented using different symbols in different scripts, but sharing the essential system of placed number and associated marks to denote decimal fractions and so on). We count things almost obsessively, at times, with national censuses (for good reason), stock takes (also good reason), or “notches on the belt” (or bedpost, both for less good reason, in my opinion).

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Sex Positivity Isn't Always Positive

A flag of four equal-height horizontal stripes, from top to bottom: black, grey, white, purple. This is the "asexual pride" flag.
Asexual Pride Flag
A lot of Quaker writing on sex reads like it’s trying to be sex-positive. That’s good, in the sense that religious approaches to sex in the Christian world aren’t generally expected to be, and it’s fair to say that we have this capacity to great pleasure and it can be godly to make use of it. I think sex-positive approaches to spirituality and – more importantly – to sex education are great. We don’t need to be telling people they shouldn’t have sex, just that they should do it responsibly and in a way that is fair and kind to them and to their partner(s).
There’s one problem with such sex-positivity, though. We can end up making it sound like sex is an essential part of the human experience – in fact, sometimes we come right out and say that, in more or less similar words. The problem is that it isn’t. It is for some of us, perhaps, even most of us. But there are those for whom it is not part of their experience. People who experience little or no sexual desire, or for whom it is never directed at another person (though solo enjoyment is still a sexual experience). There are those who experience it seldom, or only in certain circumstances, such as those who are demisexual (definitions of which vary). These people are not broken (though changes in experience as a result of trauma require careful consideration), any more than those who experience sexual desire for people of the same gender are broken. To be asexual, or anywhere on the ‘ace spectrum’, is as valid a sexuality as any other.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Quaker Pharisees

A cat sat in an antique suitcase outdoors, on a lawn, with trees in the background. The cat looks somewhat imperious.
Do not doubt that there are, among Quakers today, our own Pharisees.
I do not refer to the actual historical figures, of course. The Pharisees were one of several schools of thought, or sects, among Temple Judaism, and not necessarily even the dominant one; they became dominant with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, as the various other sects had been particularly targeted by Rome, were small and unpopular in the first place, or were too closely tied to the Temple itself. Much of the thought or approach depicted from Jesus in the Gospels was in fact most likely common among Pharisaic thought, or were the view of a particular sub-sect.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Reflection on ‘Maxim 1’ (Always Question Everything)

“Always question everything; certainty is the enemy of spiritual growth.”
Maxim 1
A black surface scattered with black, three-dimensional question marks in random orientations, and three red question marks scattered among them.
This is the very short piece of ministry that started it all, so to speak, in terms of such short ministry. It occurred to me repeatedly, and once I gave in and wrote it down, it was soon followed by a series of other such short pieces. It wasn’t a rush, nor a constant flow over time, but came in fits and starts.
It’s also rather a foundational thought for my own spiritual approach. The first part is actually a common saying among skeptics (they always seem to use that Americanised spelling online, even many of the Brits, and I’ll use that spelling specifically for this usage), by which I do not mean people who are generally slow to believe things. I mean the movement of actively non-religious, often science-focussed (and positivist), and sometimes downright anti-religious people that has grown largely online. The patron saints of the movement seem to be Dawkins and Popper, though there is also a current among skeptics that suggests that Dawkins might be a bit of a jerk and that Popperian science is both not as restrictive as some think, and not the only way to think about science. It is the approach and attitude that gave rise to Pastafarianism (also known as The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster) and various other satirical approaches to (or uses of) religion, and might be seen as a new generation’s version of the secular humanist movement. Indeed, some people involved in the skeptical community also get involved in secular humanism. “Always question everything” might reflect a sceptical view generally, though I’ve also heard it from conspiracy theorists – by which they mean to question the official narrative of events – and various sorts of counter-cultural and off-mainstream viewpoints.

Thursday, 4 July 2019

On Sex, and Love, and Being ‘Casual’

A blurry photograph of a nightclub or a party in nightclub style, with people dancing in an environment lit by coloured lights that do not illuminate the space as a whole.
In the liberal wing of the Religious Society of Friends, we’re pretty liberal about sex (liberal meaning slightly different things in those two cases, so not automatically following one from the other). We aren’t down on premarital sex, we’re fine with same-sex relationships and sex, and I even perceive a growing acceptance of, if not always support for, various forms of ethical non-monogamy (polyamory and suchlike). While we might not be overly judgemental of casual sex, though, I generally sense a certain disapproval, a lack of acceptance of it. I think that is driven by the right motives, there are good reasons that flow from Love for that attitude, but still I think the conclusion is slightly wrong.
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