Saturday, 14 April 2018

Theology and "Notions"

Photograph showing an infant being baptised with water.
Water baptism: a ritual Quakers have traditionally considered
an empty form, based on notions, rather than any true leading
of the Spirit.
A fair amount of my writing could be described as theology. Not high, formal, academic theology, perhaps, but it's theology – questions (and, to be fair, rarely answers) about the nature of God, or at least of what-you-will. I've known some to quibble with the idea of calling it “theology” if there's no theos involved, but there's no better term, so I'll use this one. Indeed, I'm hardly the first person to talk about theology in the context of a non-theistic worldview. So, if you are a purist in the meaning of that term, insisting that it only applies to theistic (some would say only Christian) contexts, I ask your forbearance. Also, to not argue with me about it on this post – as will become clear, a large part of what I will be discussing here is in the Christian context, indeed in the context of early Friends, and in any case it would be rather missing the point of the post overall. If you prefer to think of the wider idea as hierology, you may do so, but this isn't the place for a debate on what counts as theology and what as hierology.
The context of early Friends is important here, because one of the great criticisms of those early Quakers was against notions. All the haggling among the Church and its divisions, in the first millennium, over the nature of Christ, the question of the Chalcedonian formulation versus Miaphysitism – that is, whether Christ incarnate was of two natures, human and divine, united in a single hypostasis, or whether he was of one nature, wholly human and divine – is one example. Another, far more contemporary with the early Friends, would be detailed questions over the nature of the Trinity and the relationship between its members. The early Friends were, of course, strongly bible-believing Christians; though this was tempered by reliance on “the Spirit that gave them forth”, the bible was still important and a key tool of the early Friends. Because of this, they did not consider the basic idea of the Trinity to be a notion – it is clearly pointed to in scripture. Indeed, one of the members of the Trinity is of particular importance to Quakers, for it was said from quite early days that what moved them in worship was the Holy Spirit (among other terms). Precisely what the relationship is between the members of the Trinity, however, would be a notion.
The essence of this point among these early Friends must be, for me, that it is that Spirit, inward teacher, seed, light of Christ, or whatever you want to call it, that is the fundamental source of spiritual experience and guidance. Though I am not Christian, and do not place any special value on the bible, still I do not neglect or dismiss it – it is one source of wisdom among many. However, we can only gain true appreciation of this wisdom, as the early Friends realised, by going back to their source – that inner light, or whichever of the many terms you prefer to use for it. Haggling over the words as if you were in a court trying to determine the meaning of a contract? Notions, notions! Reflecting on the words in openness to the Spirit? That is where understanding lies. As William Penn noted:
It is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to or the subscription of articles or propositions, though never so soundly worded, that … makes a man a true believer or a true Christian. But it is a conformity of mind and practice to the will of God, in all holiness of conversation, according to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person truly a child of God.” (Quaker faith and practice 26.78)
I would, however, note that early Friends were much quicker to label some ideas as “notions”, thus to be dismissed or not dwelt upon, than they were others. Some Friends in later years – and I shouldn't be surprised if some of their contemporaries – have suggested that the cry of “notions!” was often used as a way of shutting down heterodox thought. This is also worth bearing in mind today.
Now, theology is often concerned with such things. Since the Renaissance, theologians have been concerned with applying exegesis, rational analysis and argument to matters of the Christian faith, and that is how the term entered the English language. Similar matters exist in other faiths, some in the relatively academic context that European Christian theology has generally been found in, and others in more community- or mystically-oriented contexts. The essential idea is the application of reason and rationality to the spiritual, and the attempt to describe the nature of the Divine.
There are those whose approach to the question of non-theism within the Religious Society of Friends is to extend the idea of “notions” to even such ideas as whether the Divine has theistic properties, never mind whether it is essentially the God of Christianity rather than that of any other faith. As such, some say, we should dismiss any concern about these matters and focus instead on our experience of the Divine, being attentive to the leadings of our hearts and the promptings of truth and love, allowing our lives to come under the direction of that Spirit.
This is an attractive universalist approach, and I am largely in sympathy with it. However, I approach it with some caution. Not because I do not consider answers to questions about the nature of the Divine to be “notions”; I certainly think they are. However, to say we should not bother with them at all is taking the dismissal of notions too far.
Early Friends were not rejecting any attempt to express our experience, nor to describe any element of the nature of the Divine. They rejected the habit, found in existing churches, of suggesting that the form was what matters. That acceptance of the propositions of doctrine and catechism was necessary to the following of true religion. It was a rejection that went hand in hand with that of “empty forms” (religious rituals) and of “profession” (proclaiming one's allegiance to a church or faith).
The rejection of “profession” was not a statement that one should not state one's beliefs or religious affiliation; Quakers would openly state their identity as Quakers even when to do so led to persecution. The rejection of ritual was stronger, certainly, but still not as absolute as we might like to think, as we live today as Friends (especially liberal and conservative Friends) with an often smug sense of non-ritualism (despite our sitting together on a regular basis in the same manner, and despite our habit of following various forms of physical performance and choice of words). And likewise, they rejected the idea of notions as either necessary nor sufficient. While the churches said “believe so, and proclaim so, and perform these rituals, and you are saved by true religion”, the Quakers said “sit quietly and experience true religion, and be changed by it, and you are saved”. The difference is stark, but in my experience under-appreciated.
Perform these rituals” is not part of the Quaker formulation, because of the rejection of empty form. Silent worship is not an empty form, we might argue, because it is something that we practice for its demonstrable and immediate utility (at least in the subjective sense of what we “known experimentally”). It is what allows us to grow closer to, and have personal knowledge of the Divine. If we are true to the rejection of forms, however, we must admit that it is possible there are other things that have such an effect. This is one of the root arguments for Quaker universalism, to my mind. It is not necessary, nor is it a component of some formulation of what is sufficient. Not only that, it is not the sitting in silence that opens us to the Light, but the humble opening of our hearts. Sitting in silence without doing so might be pleasant, even therapeutic, but it is not religiously profitable.
Proclaim so” is not part of the Quaker formulation, because of the rejection of profession. We do proclaim our faith, when appropriate to do so, but proclaiming oneself a Quaker does precisely nothing to show that you follow any “true religion”. Nor, for that matter, does formal membership in a Quaker Meeting. We might say “Quaker is as Quaker does”. It is that opening to the Light and acting on the basis of what is revealed to us that makes us Quaker, followers of what early Friends might have called “true religion”, whether we do so through silent or programmed worship, whether we do so as Christians or pagans, whether we have heard of the Religious Society of Friends or not. This is, to my mind, another of the root arguments for Quaker universalism.
Believe so” is not part of the Quaker formulation, as we have no creed or catechism; though some have described some historic documents as filling these roles, I am not aware of any being used truly as such among liberal Friends today or among early Friends. Importantly, we hold that no belief is necessary, nor part of any sufficient formulation, to be a follower of “true religion”. This is perhaps one of the most obvious roots of Quaker universalism, though I personally think it is a less fundamental logical underpinning than the previous points.
None of these things are necessary, and none of them – indeed, not even any combination of them taken together – are sufficient to the Quaker idea of “true religion”. But as any logician will tell you, something being neither necessary nor sufficient says nothing about whether it might be true or not. Logically, it leaves them orthogonal to the question of true religion. They were all railed against by early Friends because they had become harmful in the churches of the day, because they distracted from experience of the Divine. Tell people that they must believe so, and proclaim so, and perform certain rituals (including, of course, giving material support to the church), and they are saved, is to hide from them what Friends considered true religious experience. If something is unnecessary, but is serving as an obstacle to experience of true religion, then the only effective remedy is to throw it out, eliminate it as utterly as possible.
Yet among those who are not so hemmed in by religious practice and creeds that might give such obstruction, it is no longer fruitful to utterly eliminate these things. We have the freedom to explore these things without letting them become shibboleths. Yet that freedom is not without risk; it is not as easy to prevent them from becoming shibboleths as one might think.
I experience the Divine in a thousand ways. I experience it in nature, in contemplation, in meditation, and in worship. I cannot express what I experience properly; no-one can. It goes beyond any words, or poetry, or art, or music. Yet while our faith is one based on direct experience of the Divine, it is not a wholly individualistic faith. It is something we do together, something we build together, something we share. As such, we do not merely have our own experiences, but we share them. We share them to test our leadings, and we share them that others might benefit from them – just as we benefit from the experiences of others.
That means that we will, inevitably, traffic in notions. It is not only okay to do so, it is vital. What we have to remember, while we do so, is that no notion is more important than the experience of the Light; that no notion is essential to faithful living; that no notion is superior to others.
If we shy away from notions entirely, we lose the ability to communicate our experiences and be a community of faith. If we focus on them to the point that they become competitive and exclusive, we lose sight of the Light and we fracture our community. Just as professing ourselves Quakers is not harmful in itself, but believing that profession to be the truth in itself, notions are not harmful in themselves – but the holding of any notion pre-eminent or as a test of true faith, that is harmful.
Let us celebrate notions, and not fear them, so long as we celebrate them in their full abundance. Let us not be fearful of setting down ideas, so long as we do not set them down in stone and say “this is the Truth”. Let us each share our experiences of the Divine as best we can, and try to understand what others offer in the spirit in which it is given, and let us hope that spirit is always one of love.
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