Monday, 30 October 2017

Quaker Exotericism

There's a word in the title of this post that most readers probably won't be familiar with. So, let's clear that up first. Exoteric is simply the converse of esoteric – where the latter refers to things that are secret, or meaningful only to a select audience, possibly highly theoretical, the former refers to things that are for a general or universal audience. I suppose that, in wider use of the English language, there is a cultural assumption of exotericism, so only the esoteric needs to be referred to as such. However, it becomes clear as one spends time among Quakers that, in practice, our discourse and our activities are not really exoteric.
A recent piece of written ministry on this blog suggests that this is not essential to Quaker practice or theory; that our spiritual life should be accessible to all, not without effort but, perhaps, without bewilderment. And yet we have our own peculiar language, our own idioms, largely made up of relatively normal words being used in our own unique ways. This leading to bewilderment of newcomers or visitors is hardly surprising.
It's perfectly understandable that we have such a language, of course. Not only does every community, from cultural to occupational, develop such an argot, but Quakers have, over our history, been trying to deal with complex, novel ideas about spirituality, faith, religious practice and how to live; for whatever reason, rather than develop entirely new terminology, existing terminology was repurposed. Quaker neologisms (or, more specifically, protologisms) are few, but the words and phrases that have undergone semantic shift to take on new, specifically Quaker meanings, are manifold. To “hold in the Light”, our practice of “discernment”, even coded phrases such as “that name would not occur to me”. The roles in our Meetings – clerk, elder, overseer – are all words that sound like people should know what they mean, but they won't. Even the practice of signing off letters and emails “in friendship”, declining to use titles, or addressing one another as “Friend”.
You might say, at least we have not made up new words, though that might be preferable in some cases. After all, if a person hears a word they do not know at all, they know that they do not know what it means; if they hear a familiar word used in an unfamiliar way, they may not realise that they do not understand it in the sense intended by the speaker. On the other hand, it is my experience that an existing word repurposed is easier to get into the habit of using – and generally won't cause confusion in pronunciation.
As with any argot, or to use the term most Quakers seem to hate, jargon, there are a number of roles being served, and I'm sure much debate could be had over which of them are most important within our community. The two principle roles usually considered for such languages are the practical, and the social. The practical role is in expressing ideas or concepts that are unique or especially important to the group, allowing rapid conversation without having to use complex phrases to express complex ideas, where those ideas are generally understood by members of the group. The social role is simply to mark membership, to differentiate the in-group from the out-group; members of the group are identified by their fluency with the terminology.
I am sure that most Quakers would react defensively at the suggestion that this social role plays any part in our use of unique language. However, one shouldn't dismiss this role as purely a matter of exclusion. The use of language as a marker is a subtle, relatively accessible way of people being able to mark themselves as being part of a community, and being accepted as such. In a sense, while it excludes those who are not part of the group, it gives a way those who wish to be part of the group to indicate their self-inclusion implicitly. This is not a trivial benefit.
However, our free and frequent use of our Quaker argot does render even our everyday conversations among ourselves esoteric. If we believe that we have a message, a spiritual path, that should be open to all, if our Meetings for Worship are public in any meaningful sense, that esotericism is counter to that goal. If we wish our Meetings to grow, if we wish more people to be convinced, we must become more exoteric. Even if, like me, you don't want to get people in at any cost, if you want us to be found by those who would benefit by finding us, it makes practical sense that people can come in and understand things as easily as possible – preferably, even to those who are not beneficiaries of advanced education (yes, I know, the language I use on this blog, pot, kettle, black – I never said I was perfect).
This time, I don't have any clear ideas how to do this. It's something we need to think about, discuss, and work out together. Get enquirers and the recently convinced involved, and find out what they struggled with. Look at how we can make our language more inclusive without losing its expressiveness. We have a wonderful message to the world, and a path that is rewarding. Our experience and our methods are our pearl of great price. Let's make it so those who seek after it aren't scared off by obscure language and strange phrases – but see if we can't find ways to do that without losing our unique and characterful use of language.
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