Friday, 12 January 2018

Business Method & Theological Diversity - The Conceptionless Conception

This is the third post in the series Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity. If you haven't already, you will get the most out of this post if you read the opening post in the series. That post will also include links to all other posts in the series as they are posted. Reading the second post as well would be an advantage, but it's the opening post that's important, as it sets the context.
A sun setting over a body of water, with lots of lens flare.
For some Friends, questions about the nature or identity of the Divine are unimportant. At best, they are somewhat interesting diversions, something to jaw over, maybe stimulating some interesting thought; at worst, they are a source of needless division and disagreement – or even, possibly, a deliberate effort to sow discord among Friends.
This does not mean any disregard for the Divine, of course. It would be hard to be any sort of faithful Quaker without a keen regard for the leadings of the Spirit. However, these Friends often consider such questions unresolvable, sometimes even seeing contention over them as simply projections of the egos of those involved.
In a sense, this is a highly practical conception. It doesn't so much matter why our methods work, it matters rather that they work. We know from experience that our methods work, and perhaps this tells us something about the nature of the Spirit – but the only reason to make those inferences are in terms of working out what other things might work, if we feel the need to do things differently. However, if it turns out that something works, it doesn't so much matter – in such a conception – that its working might seem to contradict something we thought we knew.
I have known many Friends with such a view of the Divine, and of Quaker practice, and almost all of them have been those raised among Friends. That is not to say that I haven't known those raised among Friends who have more specific or precise views, but in my experience a tendency towards this practical, mystery-tolerant view is fairly prevalent among lifelong Quakers.
Some even take this to the extreme of disapproving of any attempt to understand the Divine. The movement of the Spirit is a mystery, and its power and beauty is linked to that mystery, so it is uncouth or offensive to attempt to take that mystery apart.
What does this mean for how such Friends conceive of business? Well, it's hard to go into much detail, because the essential mystery and lack of detail in this conception rather renders that fruitless. We come together in silence to make a decision, and the Spirit, whatever it might be, moves some to speak to the matter at hand. From this, and maybe with aid from that Spirit, the clerk(s) discern a sense of the meeting. No more detail is forthcoming, because the mystery of the Divine admits no further detail.
A weakness of this approach is that it is not amenable to analysis. If we have some understanding of what is going on in a business meeting, we can apply that understanding to possible variations or supplements to the business method. We can work out ideas of what we might get out of some variation, try it, and compare it to expectations. Those results, combined with our understanding, can provide a sort of map, or the beginnings of one, in how to refine those new ideas. If we do not analyse what is happening, then any variation or new experiment is tried completely blind. The only guide to what might work is what has worked in the past.
There is a social advantage to this conception, however. It denies conflict by removing consideration of that which conflict might arise over. This is a mixed blessing, of course. If we were to somehow enforce the outward confession of this conception, we would not be eliminating other conceptions. Differences would still exist, but they would be hidden, underground. Conflict that is hidden is not conflict that is resolved. If we were to eliminate conflict by mass adoption of this conception, it might work better than doing the same with any other conception – but it would still be highly unsatisfactory.
My own views are sympathetic to this view as well, but I find myself unable to have such lack of regard for details; my own experiences have led me to have some sense of the nature of the Divine, and while I accept that such matters are beyond comprehension, I cannot deny my own experiences. However, this inscrutable nature of the Divine means that I do not deny the experiences or conceptions of others, even when they seem to be contradictory; if we are all reaching for the same incomprehensible something, we are likely to see different things, and contradictions between them say nothing for the possibility of them pointing to the same thing.
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