Saturday, 5 August 2017

Don't Brush Your Beliefs Under The Carpet

One of the things that first attracted me about the Quaker approach to faith, at least as practised in Britain, was the lack of dogmatism around belief. That people could have radically different conceptions of what it is that we seek contact with in Meeting for Worship, or what the nature of that contact is. That there were Buddhist Quakers, Jewish Quakers, Muslim Quakers, Hindu Quakers, Pagan Quakers, all as well as the “default”, original, traditional Christian Quakers. To me that spoke of a tremendous humility on the part of the community as a whole, as well as a wonderful openness. It also told me there was an incredibly rich range of experience and insight to draw on, that we could share our different experiences of the divine and all learn, be challenged and stimulated into a broader outlook and improve our consciousness of the divine.
As I became more involved, started identifying as a Quaker, and throwing myself into things with the enthusiasm of a convert, my impression of humility and openness was largely borne out – not perfectly or universally, but it was certainly the trend. Of course, I learned that not all Quakers in the world were like Quakers here in Britain; not even most of them, in fact. Britain Yearly Meeting is a major liberal YM, but liberal Quakerism isn't the only Quaker tradition. Detail about the different traditions is a subject for another post, but suffice to say that the degree of openness about theology is a particular characteristic of liberal Quakers, and while it may be found in other traditions, here and there, it is not a basic characteristic of any of them.
I have, however, been disappointed in my hopes about the range of experience and insight to draw on. Not that it doesn't exist, as it most certainly does, though not necessarily as rich in one Meeting as another, nor even in proportion to the size of that Meeting. Rather, it doesn't seem to be available. We all have our own experiences, beliefs, impressions, views, and insights, but we mostly keep them to ourselves. I don't mean to say that Friends are backwards about coming forwards when there are issues to discuss. It's hard to stop Friends from sharing their views on practical matters, or matters of principle when it comes to the actions of their Meeting, even when you're in Meeting for Worship for Business, where good discipline and right ordering generally mean that you don't have everyone who has an opinion sharing it – often at length. When it comes to whether the Meeting should extend reduced rates for room lettings for a community group, or get involved in some local interfaith effort, or provide support for refugees, you won't have any shortage of experience and insight being shared. That isn't what I was hoping for, and what I have found surprisingly rarely.
In Meeting for Worship, or in afterword, or in plain old conversation, most Friends seem to hesitate to say anything that reveals a specific theological background, whether it be Christian or otherwise. My own impression is that the hesitation is less when that background is Christian, but I don't think I can take my own impression as convincing in this case. Certainly, Christian Friends have expressed the fact they don't feel able to freely express their Christianity in meeting, or among Friends generally, though I'm not sure how that compares to similar feelings among non-Christian Friends, especially for those with specific faith backgrounds to relate it to. Christians may be less able to express that Christianity than they were 50 years ago, but it is possible that they are still more able to do so than a Jewish Quaker is to express Judaism, or Pagan Quakers are to speak from their particular Pagan perspective. However, this post isn't about Christian privilege, so let's draw a line under that question, and leave it for another time.
Why do we hesitate? I have my own theories, though no real evidence to base them on, beyond reason and my own experience. In the absence of a thorough study, that experience will have to do me for now, and I think it might be useful to others.
The fact that we welcome people of many different beliefs has become a prominent aspect of the profile of British Quakers, and something we are generally acutely aware of. If anyone outside of the Society knows much at all about us, that's one of the things they will almost always know. People either value it, or are aware that other people value it, and for the most part they therefore don't want to do anything to damage it; those who think that this openness is a mistake being the main exception, of course, but let us put those to one side for a moment. Thus people might choose not to talk about their own beliefs because they think it might bother people who don't share them, or that other people will think it will bother people who don't share them, and that the people who think so will disapprove of people talking about their beliefs. Eventually this becomes a matter of common practice and inertia; people don't see people talking about their beliefs, so it becomes something that “isn't done”, and it becomes self-reinforcing.
The problem with this result of our awareness of our openness, and our reputation for openness, is that, in trying to preserve that openness, it destroys the greatest virtue of our diversity of belief – the opportunity to learn from one another.
Yet we are not completely closed off from sharing. I have experienced several times, in different Quaker contexts, people being given permission, even encouragement, to share their own beliefs. An environment is carefully constructed to make this feel safe, that people are protected from criticism for what they may say, or even from direct reaction. The situations is crafted to give people permission to share, and to make it safe to do so, and they do. They may be trepidatious at first, but they get into it quite quickly. In my experience, the reaction to such activities is near universally positive, and people feel joy in sharing their experience and belief – and joy and learning in sharing that of others.
Let's stop brushing our beliefs under the carpet, whether they be Christian, Pagan, non-theist, Buddhist, or even Satanist. Let's find a way to give that permission and that safety more often. Maybe we can even build up to people being able to feel safe, and to feel they have permission to share, as a default state among Quakers. We owe that to ourselves as a community, and we owe it to those who come to us seeking spiritual growth.
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