Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Following Light, Purely?

A crowd of geese follow a woman in a dress and a hat, with a dog behind them.
I have heard it suggested that the most true and pure form of Quakerism would be to follow the Light “purely”, directly, with neither story, nor symbolism, nor any form of tradition. It certainly follows logically from the idea of our direct experience of the Divine (or God, Light, whatever you want to call it). In a sense, it might be the Platonic ideal of Quakerism.
The problem is, it isn’t really possible.
We do not live in a world of Platonic ideals. The ideal triangle, the ideal sphere, the ideal rock – all are beyond our grasp. The ideals of purely conceptual things are similarly beyond us (indeed, some would argue that all Platonic ideals are conceptual). We shall never attain ideal democracy, ideal equality, nor even ideal faith or ideal love.
So far, so general and dismissive, you might think. It is only fair to ask that I give more specific, concrete, practical reasons to object to such a theoretically laudable objective – for we would surely follow the Divine most faithfully if we were not impeded by preconceived ideas of its nature or how it might direct us. Of course, as the matters involved include cognition, my points will still be somewhat abstract, or at least not tangible, but they ought to be more concrete than “ideals are unattainable, therefore it can’t be done, quod erat demonstrandum” – which is, after all, not just snobbily dismissive, but also somewhat begging the question.
I will try to write now not just from principle, but from experience – that bedrock of Quaker tradition. It happens that the two coincide, occasionally.
Every moment of our lives in informed by the sum of what has come before. Even in cases of total retrograde amnesia – a remarkably rare condition, in that I’m not sure how one would define “total” and find any cases at all – learned behaviours can be unaffected, as can skills and knowledge. Declarative memory, including episodic memory, tends to be most affected, while procedural, implicit memory is least affected. A person who truly lost all of their memory, all forms of memory, would be returned to the mental state of an infant. The fact that I write in the way I do, which I have had described as an odd mix of formal phrasing and vocabulary with an informal tone, is informed by many experiences; my education, what writing has had positive feedback and what negative (both in formal and informal writing), what I have enjoyed reading and what sorts of writing I have struggled with. I might feel that I write the way I do by natural inclination, and in a sense I do, but that natural inclination is not entirely inherent in me – it is a result of my experience.
Not only is “what we do” informed by our experience, but our ongoing experience is continuously coloured by what has come before. There might be some idea of a pure experience of “seeing a red car”, but your previous experiences of cars of that sort, perhaps of that colour, will deeply affect the affective and associative character of the experience. Most obviously this occurs when we have a “flash bulb” recall moment in relation to a current experience, remembering some previous associated experience, but one need not have sudden recall of being hit by a red car to have experiences that alter how one perceives a red car now. It isn’t really a question of seeing a red car and just seeing a red car; you are always seeing it through the lens of prior experience. Even when you see something you have never seen before, your brain is drawing connections between it and things you have seen. I doubt very much whether there’s anything anyone could see that they would not automatically relate to prior experience.
The same is of course true of other senses, words, patterns of thought and so forth. It is, I am quite sure, part of the reason behind the dramatically different reactions to the word “God” found among Quakers, including the relatively strong aversive reaction found occasionally. It’s also not something people can change by effort of will. We have to accept it, though people’s associations can and do change over time. It is important to be sensitive of these things, but also not to change in a misguided attempt to entirely avoid aversive stimuli. Not only would we get ourselves into a terrible muddle by attempting to avoid confronting anyone with things they find uncomfortable, but we would also be avoiding providing the stimuli that allow people to change their reactions. I consider, based on experience, that it is extremely important that we are all able to share our experiences in the terms that most suit us, and that experience; it is therefore desirable that everyone becomes as able as possible to receive such sharing.
This leads to the first reason that we can’t follow the Light “purely”; whatever the nature of our experience of the Divine, it is logical to suppose that this experience is also affected by prior experience – and quite possibly that includes seemingly unrelated experiences. This may, indeed, be one reason for the range of different experiences of the Divine – or if the Divine is a theistic God, perhaps it adjusts what it presents to us to allow for our differences, including different prior experience. Either way, that difference of experience means difference experiences of the Divine, so whatever the Light is showing us “purely”, our perception is modified by our prior experiences, and thus is not “pure”.
Okay, so that’s impossible, but maybe that inherent impurity can be ignored – given that it is a factor present in all of human experience. What about things like symbolism, story and tradition? After all, the early Friends railed against the myriad symbols of most churches (though some had, and have, more than others), against their traditions and structures. They weren’t against stories, being quite keen on the Bible – which is rather full of stories – but they didn’t hold that they were central to experience, experience being what was most important. Stories were not seen as necessary, that much we can certainly say.
Stories and symbols are, however, useful. I have found them so, and many others do so as well. It is important not to mistake the story or the symbol for the reality, and that should be part of our Quaker discipline, but we can explore and make use of stories and symbols without inevitably falling into that trap.
Since the time of the early Friends, we have accrued our own traditions. Some are central to Quaker practice (at least in the liberal sections of the Society), such as silent worship, while others are simply things that we have learned over generations that have been helpful – though whether they are helpful now might be debatable. It’s likely that we are developing new traditions even now. It’s natural, but is it desirable?
There are certainly ways in which traditions are a problem. They limit us and blind us, creating a well-worn groove of thought and behaviour that limits our ability to respond to new light. At the same time, they can represent valuable lessons learned by our forebears. Oue practices and processes are a treasure gained through long experience, and should not be lightly cast aside. On the other hand, where we feel that there is one right way to do worship, one right way to run a Quaker business meeting, one right way to do clearness or test concerns, we turn our faces from new wisdom. Can we be so self-assured that we feel that no new wisdom can possibly inform our practices, even while we embrace new spiritual insights? Can new spiritual insights not provide new clues and cues to better ways to do things? Surely not.
The sensible approach to tradition is one of balance, of not becoming hidebound while not seeking to constantly reinvent the wheel. There are many different ways to make a wheel (not just metaphorically, but literally; I was recently reading about different sort of bearing, and there’s a fascinating range), but we should not seek new ones just because we can.
The most key point as to why we cannot follow the Light so purely, however, is this: how do we find the Light to follow it? As Quakers, much of our traditional practice is concerned with this question, and while there are almost certainly other ways to do it, you must follow some way. If you follow the Light by discerning it with Quaker methods, based on silent waiting, you are making use of that tradition.
It is easy to be excessively critical of tradition, of symbolism and stories. It is also easy to take them for more than they are, important in themselves, holy writ. We are a disciplined and thoughtful faith community, however – or at least we should be – and we can make use of them without being trapped by them, if we choose and if we try.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
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.