Friday, 10 November 2017

Belief, Experience, Conception, Communication, Understanding

In an excellent blog post, Craig Barnett (no relation) recently wrote about the limitations of thinking of faith in terms of belief; rather than a conventional, simplistic view of belief leading to action, a better description – especially for Quakers – is of a cycle, practice leading to experience leading to community leading back to practice. Personally, I think that cycle should be bi-directional, but generally I think this is a good model, as far as it goes.
People, however, have a habit of thinking about things, not to mention talking about things (even if sometimes they don't do it in that order). It is when we talk about our experiences that our language, our choice of words and what we mean by them, our choice of phrases and references, brings something else to the fore, which we tend to refer to as “belief” – how we refer to God/the Divine/the numinous/the Spirit/whatever, the characteristics implicit in the terms we use, create the picture of what the speaker believes in.
For many liberal Quakers, however, theology – questions of the nature of the Divine – is a nebulous thing. I have heard many take a partially agnostic view, that whatever the Divine is in incomprehensible to us, fundamentally unknowable, which is a position with which I agree. The words we use don't reflect the kind of certainty that “belief” implies, when used in a religious context; rather, they are our groping after meaning that reflects our experience and attempts at understanding, indefinitely provisional. They are the shadows on the wall of the cave. So, if they don't reflect belief, what do they reflect?
This is where I progress on from Craig's model. Or, perhaps it might be better to say I extend and refine it. Experience flows into community, yes, but how? Is it just shared experience, the communal bonding of holding our Meetings for Worship, our shared lunches, our meetings for learning? That's part of it, but the true bonding and enriching of our community, the true development of those within it, depends on communication of and about our experiences. Often, that is the subject of ministry in worship – be it about a spiritual experience or some more mundane life experience, we share our experiences; then, as described above, our “beliefs” become apparent in our language. If we think in these terms, even without realising it, we cannot banish belief from our model of religion.
Are they really beliefs, though? Belief has, to my mind, two subtly distinct meanings, one more generally applicable to religion, and the other perhaps better fitting many (but not all) liberal Quakers – though even that one might not be the best way to think of them, and not only for its confusion for the other sense. The less religious sense refers to uncertainty, or to credulity – you believe that you turned off the iron, but can't quite state it with certainty, or you believe someone when they tell you that the dog ate their homework. The first subset of this sense is often seen as hedging language. “Did the person who attacked you have glasses one?” “Yes, I believe so.” The respondent is indicating that the glasses were there, to the best of their knowledge and belief, but acknowledging that they might be mistaken. Quite tempting to think of liberal Quaker belief in that sense.
The other sense, more commonly related to religion, is harder to put a concrete summary on the definition. It's used in the context of religion, but also in politics, and seems to indicate something both more and less than knowledge; a deeply held opinion, in a sense, that is a matter of personal conviction, but clearly differentiated from objectively demonstrable facts. Some religious individuals hold that differentiation to be very important – for if it were objective knowledge, where would be the place for faith? I believe in redistribution of wealth in that almost religious sense, though I don't find faith part of this – just a deep conviction that I cannot entirely objectively justify, same as any political-economic position. I don't believe in much religious in that almost religious sense, though, because uncertainty is part of my faith; you could almost say I have hypotheses, rather than beliefs.
Now, there are many Quakers, even liberal Quakers, who have religious beliefs of this sort – but, especially among liberal, and to some extent conservative Friends, there are also a great number of people who don't, exactly. At least, they don't have many, and not of the shape that people are used to thinking of. Our convictions of that sort are most consistently around our practices – we believe in the efficacies of various Quaker practices for various purposes, some believing in some practices more than others. Logically, we must then believe in something underlying these that makes them work, but this is where we hit the point of not only variation, but uncertainty. We think different things about whatever-it-is, we have different ideas about it, and for a great many liberal Quakers, those ideas are tentative – hypotheses, rather than beliefs.
It would be awkward and confusing, however, to go around talking about our various hypotheses of the Divine. It's not a word many are used to using, and some would feel it conveys too much uncertainty; for some friends, it certainly does convey too much uncertainty. I think, what we are really talking about here, is how we think about whatever-it-is. A mental model, the structure and patterns we set up in our minds that fits and guides our interaction with the Divine. Or, to put in in one word, the word I prefer to use about it, we are talking about our conceptions of the divine.
Talking about our different conceptions is vital, if we wish to truly share one another's understanding and experience. This is because two people might talk about things in identical terms, yet have radically different conceptions, while two people with very similar conceptions might use very different terms to talk about. You have to drill down beyond choice of words, even beyond identities and labels, to actually understand what's going on in each other's minds when they think about the ineffable.
When I was presenting at the Woodbrooke course on the impact of diversity of belief on Quaker practice, about theological diversity and the Quaker Business Method, I explored some of these thoughts, I talked about different terms used to categorise these conceptions (or indeed beliefs), like theism and deism, pantheism and panentheism. I talked about how one could be a pantheist and be a theist or a non-theist at the same time. And then I talked in some detail about how I make sense of it all, how it fits together in my head – the mental model that allows me to approach the huge and impossible question of the Divine. Afterwards, a Friend approached me. They told me that they had been wary of the session, me being very open about my non-theism – and using a provocative session title – and they being very much at the Christian end of British Quakers. And yet, they told me, once I had looked at some of the range of different aspects of different conceptions, and shared my own, they realised that our conceptions weren't so different. Yes, we had some fundamentally different basic premises, yet we also had some in common. And in the practical details, the way we thought about how the Spirit can help us in life, through guidance and discernment, our conceptions were highly compatible.
So, I said earlier that I was, in a sense, extending and refining the model presented by Craig Barnett in his blog. A diagram summarising his model – though of course, it is more complex and subtle than that – would look like this:
A three-stage cycle, with "practice" at the top, leading to "experience", leading to "community", and finally leading back to "practice".
My own thought on this suggests that it's valuable, possibly even important for the future unity and functioning of our Meetings – especially in the face of theological diversity – to also understand and communicate about our various conceptions of what it is we are doing, how and why. Thus I might extend this model, in diagram form (and it looks a lot less elegant this way) like so:
The same cycle as before, with all lines as before, but with "conception" and "communication" added inside the circle. "Conception" is connected by two-headed arrows to "practice" and "experience", and "communication" connected by two-headed arrows to "community" and "experience", with an additional two-headed arrow between "communication" and "conception".
The reason I feel it is important to extend in this way is quite simple. In order for us to function and grow, and be able to properly serve enquirers and newcomers and bring them into the community (always assuming they want to come), we have to increase the amount of understanding. It is lack of understanding that I believe (in the legalistic sense, more than the religious sense) feeds much of the distrust and misunderstanding around our diversity. Well, that and the continuing actions of certain Quaker authors. And thus, the completion, the justification of my model might appear like so:
The same cycle as before, but with a large arrow leading from the whole thing to "UNDERSTANDING".
Understanding has to be a key goal for the near future of the Religious Society of Friends – particularly its liberal wing, and particularly in Britain. If we move forward next year, or in a small number of years, with the idea of revising our Book of Discipline, we are going to be doing it in a situation of unresolved tension over diversity of belief. I don't think we are going to be able to resolve our diversity of belief, so we need to resolve that tension, and a revision process might help us to do so; it can only do this, however, from a place, if not understanding, a willingness to try to understand. For that, we need to properly comprehend what it is we are talking about, and we have to communicate.
We don't need to wait for a revision process for that. Start it now, tomorrow, this week. Start in your Meeting or other Quaker groups your are involved in. Take courage, set your mind on the Spirit (or whatever you prefer to call it), and start to speak – say, this is what I think I'm doing when I join in Quaker processes, this is what I understand by prayer, this is how I conceptualise the Divine. Just as important, when others find the heart and courage to respond in kind, listen. Don't just listen, but apply your mind and your soul to that listening, and try to understand. You can do it in person, you can do it in correspondence, you can do it online. You can do it in the comments of this blog post, if you like. Just please, do it – or if you can't, try to work out what you can do to bring yourself close to the point of being able to do so.
I honestly believe – in the religious sense, this time – that the future of the Religious Society of Friends may depend on it.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Did you enjoy this post, or find it interesting, informative or stimulating? Do you want to keep seeing more of these posts? Please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information is available in the post announcing my use of Patreon.
If you enjoy this blog, or otherwise find it worthwhile, please consider contributing to my Patreon. More information about this, and the chance to comment, can be found in the post announcing the launch of my Patreon.