Monday, 30 June 2008

Why Quaker schools?

posted by kathy

This is a question that has been troubling me for years. Why do Quakers, who have a testimony to equality, run fee-paying schools?

I can see why it started. Education hasn't always been free in England and schools often promoted activities and interests that were directly opposed to Quakerism. There is much that I oppose in school education today. But I would not send my children to a private school because that goes against my Quaker beliefs in equality.

I know that Quaker schools have a good reputation. I can see why people would be reluctant to close something that is good - and I can see a case for schools that stand out against dominant beliefs. But I don't believe Quaker schools, however good their education, are sufficiently free from external pressures to justify their existence as Quaker bodies. The sites talk about Meeting for Worship and internationalism but also about exam success - and there's an implicit message that, by buying a Quaker education for a child, the parents will also be buying the kind of facilities and attention that are not available in the state system.

Private education teaches children that they are special - it implies that they are better than children educated in the state system. I've heard children heading for private education at 11 imply that their schooling confer privilege because they are cleverer and/or better-loved than other, state-educated children. This is dangerous - and may be particularly dangerous when combined with the Quaker approach which values personal insight and individual access to truth. Quaker pupils may be told about equality but what they experience is different. They learn that their insights are valued more than the insights of most children. The stories that Osama bin Laden was educated at the Brummana Quaker school in Lebanon may derive from a confusion of bin Laden brothers, but it seems feasible that children educated at expensive Quaker schools may grow up with an enhanced sense of privilege and a strong belief in the importance of their views.

I have known good people who valued their Quaker education and I know many Quakers are convinced of the value of Quaker schools. But when I consider Quaker schools in the light of Quaker testimonies, it's as though there's a great wall between the testimony to equality and the practice of Quaker schools. I could never teach in a Quaker school and my children attended the local imperfect - but much more inclusive - state schools, although I believe there are scholarships to help the children of Quakers attend Quaker schools.

Quakers have often had difficulty with the testimony to equality. Historically Quakers helped educate the poor and slaves but they usually maintained a line between pauper children, slaves and their own, more privileged Quaker children. Real equality would go further.

The testimony to equality is most severely tested when it comes to our own children. We wonder at their beauty from the moment they are born and yearn for their safety and success. Surely all parents do this. But however much I love my children - and that's a great deal - I cannot live the testimony to equality by saying that my children matter more than yours.

I want to know what other Quakers think - and how non-Quakers view the question. What can you say?

Thursday, 26 June 2008

How Pantheism Changed My Prayer Life

posted by Rhiannon

I was going to start this post with a quick summary of the life, times, and views of Spinoza, but then I found this YouTube video which does a much better job that I could:

(If for some reason you can't watch it right now, don't worry; I'm going to summarize the key bits of philosophy anyway. If you want his biography, you can try the Wikipedia entry, or the Stanford entry.)

Rabbi Jonathan Ginsberg's YouTube video does a good job of explaining Spinoza's context and reactions from the Jewish community, but he doesn't go into much detail about Spinoza's actual views on God. How is it that he has been considered an atheist and a mystic?

Well, he was a pantheist. That's a piece of academic jargon which probably doesn't help you much: even the analysis, 'pan', covering everything, and 'theist', believer in God, doesn't give you the word's usual meaning. Spinozan pantheism (there are other kinds but we won't worry about that now) is based on a belief that 'God' and 'Nature' are the same thing. Thus, God exists, but isn't quite God as the Bible sees him (it's life, Jim, but not as we know it).

For Spinoza, 'God or nature' is one substance—one thing which can be understood through itself. He borrowed the term 'substance' from Descartes, who had written only a few years before, but who had always stopped short of really analysing religious beliefs. In Descartes, the potential exists for many substances, but Spinoza said that it didn't make sense: if no two substances can share attributes, and God—being perfect, and all-powerful—has all possible attributes, then there can be nothing but God.

At this point, sensible people tend to say, “But there is! Look, here's a tree, that's not God. Here's me, I'm not God.”

This is a good point, but what the Spinozan says in response is: “You may not know it, but everything in the universe is God. It exists, but the only thing which can exist is God, therefore everything is God. Not God as you think of Him—not a being with plans for His Creation, indeed not a Creator at all, because Creation and Creator would be separate while God and Nature are one.”

This sort of thing could upset a Jewish community, especially if propounded by someone who was supposed to be one of their own. Although Spinoza had some Christian education, he also dealt with very deeply Jewish topics, such as the nation of Israel as God's chosen people. (He sees that, incidentally, as simply a historical matter: what people call 'God's will' is simply the result of material, historical forces. I'll stop here before I reach the Marxism.)

On the other hand, pantheism was very attractive to later writers, especially the 'Romantics', who liked the idea of God-as-everything, and called Spinoza "God-intoxicated".

The question I want to address, though, is a bit more personal: what does all this philosophy have to do with my prayer life?

When I first read Spinoza, I went, 'I like this guy. I can agree with this stuff.' I was writing an essay on whether or not he was really an atheist, so I was thinking about this material quite deeply. (If you're wondering, I concluded that you had to call him an atheist if your concept of theism was a standard Abrahamic one, but he was more than that really.) That was fine, until it was time for Meeting for Worship.

Having decided that I was a pantheist, I sat down in the silence of Meeting, and tried to centre down, to be in closer contact with 'God' (scare-quotes to indicate the vast range of understandings possible). But my old ways of thinking about Deity—whether taken from Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism etc.—seemed inadequate to this new pantheistic version. Paganism teaches that Deity can be found in the natural world, and some pagans even find it in towns and cities. Quakerism teaches that there is something of God in all people. Pantheism demands more. This is not just a God who is closer to you than your jugular vein, nor an impersonal basis for all consciousness which will be rejoined when you become truly aware.

This is a Deity which is not just here, now, but is the here and now.

I'm still working on that one. It makes sense to me. The trouble is, I slip too easily back into my old ways. I say 'He' or 'She' as if Deity/Nature had gender, and I use names as if Deity/Nature had many personalities. I don't think that's a wrong thing to do: the metaphors and analogies thus created, and many more besides, can be a great help. The mistake is to forget that they are nothing but metaphors and analogies, something which tends to happen when we always use the same ones.

Whether or not you agree with Spinoza, I think there's a real value in understanding such a radical religious position. I'm a philosophy student, and so I tend to change my position every time I read something good—during term time, that can be up to five times a week. However, I like to think that each change is an improvement, and that some ideas stick with me where others slip away. Spinoza's ideas have now been with me for a year since I first read him, and I still agree with much of it.

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

One Man's Journey

posted by Rhiannon

I wanted to follow up Kathy's excellent post with a personal and specific account of one of the local events. I'm not going to make it to any of the evening things, but popping in the Central Library for an hour was easy and really informative.

The exhibition (Nottingham Central Library, Angel Row, June 1st-30th 2008) is called "One Man's Journey Through the Asylum Process", and has been created by the Sankofa Foundation. It displays, though photographs, objects, a video, and background documents, what happened to one man who left Kurdistan Iraq in 1998. Although the Immigration Tribunal didn't doubt that he had indeed been in danger, but believed that he could relocate to somewhere else in Iraq.

For all that there are important differences between refugees and asylum seekers (see the comments to Kathy's post), they also tend to have similar needs when they arrive here: food, shelter, support, English lessons, and so forth. A couple of years ago, I was trained as an In4mer (peer educator) through GirlguidingUK, and one of the topics I teach in that capacity is 'Refugees and Asylum Seekers'. In those sessions, I often find that the participants (typically 7-14 year old girls, who repeat the things their parents say) believe many mistaken things. For example, they often think that asylum seekers can be illegal (not true: everyone has a right to seek asylum, though many will not be granted it).

Very few of them have taken the time to think about what it must be like to be in that situation: so as well as explaining, we do exercises with them to prompt thought. We start playing a game but only give the rules in Spanish--to parallel the way that asylum seekers, including the One Man of the exhibition, need help to understand what is going on. We ask them to rate food, water, family, shelter, education, and other things in order of importance--to bring to their attention how much they may have lost.

Even fewer if any of them, though, are mature enough to begin to think about other themes of this exhibition: the loneliness of being cut off from your family and unable to participate normally in British society, the mixed longing to go home and fear of what will happen if you do, and the struggles with the legal system here.

When his application was rejected, this man ended up living in the corner of the factory where he worked--not for pay, but for the right to sleep in the corner. Later he lived in his allotment shed. He is now back in Kurdistan, but (despite all that has happened in Iraq), the Kurds are still, to quote the exhibition signs, "a nation without a state" and his family are "trying to live a very low-profile existence in the shadows".

I found it especially moving that he had left behind so many photographs (having treasured images of his family during their decade apart) which let us have an insight into his experience.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Refugee Week in the East Midlands

posted by Kathy

Refugees - or "asylum seekers" as they're now called - face a lot of prejudice. But refugees also give a lot to our society. Beeston Quakers know this well as we gained a great deal from the presence at Meeting of Konrad Elsdon, who came to Britain as a refugee in 1939. As the obituary published by the University of Leicester testifies, Konrad's contribution to this country was widely appreciated.

Many people who have arrived here recently as refugees have a great deal to offer - but they aren't always allowed to give anything. Instead, many are forced into destitution: homelessness and near-starvation.

Refugee Week organises events which do a number of things. Some show why people seek asylum. There are showcases for music and the arts, for sports and food.

There's more information about Refugee Week HERE.

You can find events all over the United Kingdom by clicking HERE.

There are links to events in the Notts, Derby and Leics area HERE.

Nottingham events are listed HERE.

Beeston Quakers has some informal contact with the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum, which does good work in helping refugees and campaiging on their behalf.

Not all those who need it get asylum. This video shows a performance of a piece simply called "Study for String Orchestra." It's by the Czech composer Pavel Haas. He composed it in Terezin concentration camp (also called Theresienstadt) in 1943. In the following year he was one of 18,000 prisoners, including children, transferred to Auschwitz. On arrival he was taken to the gas chambers and murdered. He was 45 years old.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Further reflections on The Whole Banana

posted by Rhiannon

Now that I've had some more time to think and process the material, I wanted to come back and write in more depth about The Whole Banana. For the background, please read my previous post on the topic if you haven't yet done so.

(image by Alex Wildwood)

As you can see in the picture, the 'banana' is the 'Quaker Way', stretching from Christianity on the left to 'participatory spiritualities' on the right. One of the most important things I think I've taken away from this weekend is the need not to underestimate the real differences between Quakers at different points on the 'banana'. To simply say “we're all...”, whether that is “we're all pacifists”, “we're all universalists” or so forth, is to generalise and hence to ignore some people. We may all tend towards pacifism, but there are different understandings of that; we may all tend towards universalism, but there are different understandings of that, too. Importantly for our purposes here, some see universalists who tend towards the right-hand side of the banana as—in the terms of a New Foundation booklet—“anti-Christian”.

I don't think I know any universalists who intend to be anti-Christian. But in discovering the riches in other faiths, we can sometimes be disparaging towards Christianity: we talk about 'moving beyond' Christianity, about 'leaving behind' Christianity. For those who have been wounded by Christian churches, this can be a very attractive conception of Quakerism. However, there is a need to respect our roots and our current members who find riches in Christianity—to accept the whole banana, and not to focus on one end to the exclusion of the other.

Trying to understand this, I sought both reasons why I might be failing to accept riches from Christianity, and analogies to the experience Tim described of feeling that some people in what he is attempting to make his community were not fully respecting his beliefs. Warning: this next section is deeply self-centred, as I seek to speak from my own experience.

I find two blocks to accepting spiritual insight phrased in explicitly Christian language. The first is the associations I have with those terms: talk of the need to accept Jesus, of believing Gospel truth, of the love of the Lord, always recalls to me encounters with Christians which have been bitter, unwelcome, or painful. In the group, I spoke about an occasion when—while trying to appreciate a celebration of the books of the three Abrahamic religions at the British Library—I was accosted by Christians determined to have me accept their view of reality. I was fresh from a New Testament module at the time, and stood my ground: they finally left me alone when, once one of them had told me that if I did not accept Jesus's word that he was the Son of God, I doubted everything, I looked her in the eye and say firmly that yes, I doubted everything.

I came away with a guilty sense of triumph and a bitterness towards them for spoiling what was meant to be an celebration of their religion alongside others. There have been other incidents of this sort; sometimes I ask for it, by attending Christian Union meetings and the like, but I always go with the intention of listening openly, and find myself being told what to believe. It is notable that other strong religious groups on campus say 'this is what we believe' (the Islamic Society has a very strong line in this), while the Christians say 'this is what you should believe'. Those interactions leave a sense of discomfort around Christianity. Before anyone jumps in, I know that not all Christians are like this—while I was working with the Iona Community, I met many very open-minded, welcoming, non-pushy Christians, who respected my individuality and took me as a friend with (often literally) open arms.

Even on Iona, though (where I felt so much part of the community that I took Communion!), there were things which gave me the clear idea that I could not be a Christian. There are things some Christians hold to which I disagree with intellectually—the historicity of Biblical stories, for example; the idea that one only comes to God through Jesus (odd, because Jesus clearly came to God through Judaism; there is also a debate here within Christianity about whether one needs faith IN Jesus or the faith OF Jesus, but to me the problem is the idea that there's something uniquely special about Jesus: either you only know whether you have the right faith by knowing about Jesus, or you weaken the terms so much that the faith OF a given other person is identical with that of Jesus, and then you might as well just follow that other person and you've lost the Christianity bit); and so on—not to mention the sometimes horrible (occasionally, to an outsider with a twisted sense of humour, hilarious) infighting over homosexuality and the history of fighting bloody wars in God's name. I've been reading up a little on Jews in Spain during the Inquisition recently, and that's enough to put you off your lunch, let alone the Church.

More than all that, though, there's the part I react to on an almost entirely emotional level, and that is the view of women within the Church. Can they be ordained? Yes or no, depending who you ask. Can they be bishops? The yes group are getting smaller. Can their experience be represented in the liturgy? Yes, but only very recently, and never, it seems, in the songs or passages people treasure.

That might be changing. Give the generation who are now singing John Bell's 'She Sits Like a Bird' time to grow up, leave the church, and become Quakers, and perhaps some of the “quote a meaningful passage from the religion of my childhood” ministry will become easier for me to accept with an open heart. For now, though, it's all too often 'Dear Lord and Father of Mankind', or something equally exclusive (a shame, because it's good after the first line). I understand the hesitation to try and change the language of one's spiritual experience, but, I keep wanting to say to people, perhaps I can meet you halfway. I'm not, at the moment, quite sure where that is, though.

So: I can comfortably talk about Quakers moving beyond Christianity, because I do not want us to be limited to a tradition which has these flaws, but that doesn't mean I want us to lose it entirely. I can see that there is much good and useful and inspiring in Christianity—one of the things identified over the weekend was the cost of doing what God wants, the need for sacrifice, as a strong theme in Christianity and a weak or non-existent idea in 'new spiritualities'. I'd add to that the undeniable beauty of the physical arts and music created in Christianity—my personal favourites include some of the Taize chants (Ubi Caritas, for example) and church carvings (even if I favour faintly-pagan images like the Green Man).

I can also see that to have people casually say that your community has moved beyond your deeply held beliefs is uncomfortable. To understand this better, I looked for an analogy—accepting that it's far from the same, but hoping to gain some insight. The best I've come up with so far is that it is probably close to the experience I have when, having made some feminist point, major or minor, someone (and it's usually a man, though not always) says to me, “you shouldn't let gender matter”, or, worse, “there's no gender inequality these days”. When someone says that to me, I know that I can't, at that time, trust them to support me in issues which are important, or to be accepting of my position. There are ways in which people can disagree and still accept my position: to respond to “x seems to be caused by gender inequality” with “I'm not so sure; x could be caused by factors y or z as well” is respectful. To merely deny the existence of gender inequality without debate is not.

Thus, I'm imagining that to say 'Christianity is not useful' or 'Christianity is not part of the Quaker Way any more' is hurtful in much the same way. I'd love it if someone from the Christian end of the banana who has felt this would give me feedback on my analogy, as it's based purely on my own imagining at the moment.

This post is already far too long, but I want to discuss one last thing (I can see that there may be more posts in future): the skin of the banana. We need something to hold us together, or we are nothing more than a set of unrelated people using a single name. Suggestions include 'having a sense of something beyond' (but what about the humanists and atheists, who have much to offer but no sense of something beyond humanity?), 'finding worth in Meeting for Worship' (but what about those who, despite regular attendance, claim to feel nothing?), 'living a Quaker life' (but where then is the 'religious' part of 'Religious Society of Friends'?), and 'commitment to openness' (anyone who says that they're right and you're wrong, is wrong: perhaps akin to the militant agnostic position).

I am left with a deepened sense of something studying philosophy often alerts me to: all my answers are inadequate. Perhaps that's the skin of the banana: being okay with questions.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

The Whole Banana

posted by Rhiannon

I'm back at Woodbrooke, this time doing a course called 'Encouraging Faithful Diversity: the whole banana', with Alex Wildwood and Tim Peat Ashworth.

Obviously, I can't go into much detail--we're discussing a lot of very personal things, and issues from our home Meetings. That in itself is powerful, as the issues can be very deeply felt and the small group (there are only 11 of us, including the two tutors) makes a safe space in which to do so.

To give you an idea, though, the core issue is the relationships within the Religious Society of Friends between our Christian roots (background? past? core?) and the other influences, from other world religions, 'new age' movements, and semi- or wholly-secular sources such as psychology: they are perhaps best characterised as 'participatory spiritualities', but don't trust me on that, try and hear Alex and Tim talk about it for yourself.

The 'whole banana' of the title is the Quaker Way: a hard-to-define blob which stretches from near the centre of a Christian circle on once side, through a mixed area of Christian-other interaction, and into the 'other' circle. Within Britain Yearly Meeting, we have F/friends from all parts of this spectrum. That can be wonderful--we do sometimes enjoy our diversity--but it can be a superficial tolerance which glosses over real difference, or it can be a cause of strife, as wounded refugees from Christian churches are glad to escape and hate to be reminded of it, while other Quakers who find much meaning in Christianity are made to feel that their beliefs are being dismissed.

So, blog readers, I'd like to invite you to consider these questions: which end of the banana are you closest to? how do you feel about that lot at the other end, and those outside the Quaker Way who may be closer to you in beliefs than some other Quakers are? is this an issue which is discussed in your Meeting, or something which is unknown or hidden?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Are Quakers a cult?

posted by Kathy

I've been moved to post on this subject by a couple of recent events. I noticed a story in the news which about a 15-year-old who was arrested and may be prosecuted for holding up a placard which labelled Scientology a cult. I thought it was probably rather unpleasant for the Scientologists to face a demonstration, but I didn't think a peaceful demonstration should be against the law. I wondered how we as Quakers would feel if there were a demonstration outside our Meeting. Surprised, perhaps - even pleased that anyone thought us worth the trouble.

Then there was a comment in response to one of Rhiannon's posts about Quaker Universalism on this blog. The comment didn't quite call her Satan's spawn, but it implied as much. As a theology student, Rhiannon entered into debate with gusto.

That's a problem with Quakers. Except in Meeting, we tend to talk a lot.

I'm not quite sure how to define a cult. Looking on the web, I find that some people define any religious group as a cult if it doesn't conform with certain beliefs of religious fundamentalism. I'm quite touched by the website of a guest-house in Minehead which describes Quakers as "A non-Christian cult, but nice people." Other websites are very suspicious of silent worship and waiting on the Spirit. They reckon that all truth can be found in the Bible.

Quakers certainly inspired fear and mistrust - as well as derision - in the 17th century when they emerged among the many dissenting groups in the atmosphere of religious seeking and debate that flourished briefly and refused to die away. From the outside, Quakers must seem strange. "What do you do in Meeting?" people ask. Mostly we sit in silence. Occasionally someone speaks, usually briefly. After their words, the silence returns. After Meeting, we sometimes discuss the words and sometimes the quality of the silence.

That doesn't get very far. The next question is often, "What do Quakers believe?" All sorts of things. We share a method. We're mostly pacifists and we care about Truth. I try to explain further but I can see the doubts. A creed would be so much easier. In desperation, I sometimes say We don't believe in Creeds, and immediately begin to wonder if there are Quakers who do - Quakers in dual membership, for instance.

So I start talking about Quaker testimonies
... and find that, although they are, for me, rooted in something which is distinctively Quaker, I can't explain the distinctly Quaker approach to simplicity, equality, truth, peace and social justice without sounding ... well ... weird.

To me, a cult is the sort of body which uses underhand techniques to persuade people to join, controls their minds, limits their freedom, takes their money and hardly ever lets them go. That understanding of what cults are comes mostly from scary programmes on television and articles in newspapers.

Quakers aren't like that - or, at least, not the ones I've come across in more than thirty years of attending Meeting. When I decided I might like to join, I had to ask someone at my Meeting how I should go about it and whether it was difficult. It was a pretty slow process. I wrote a letter saying why I'd like to join, met a couple of Quakers who talked to me about it and then a business Meeting (which all local Quakers can attend) discussed my application and agreed. I was welcomed into membership. No-one asked me for money or suggested I should attend Meeting more often. There weren't special T-shirts or secret handshakes. It wasn't a big change - more like an acknowledgement of something I knew already: that I belonged among Quakers. And if one day I changed my mind, I could resign by writing another letter.

Of course, I do feel I have responsibilities to my Meeting and wider Quaker organisations. These change with what I can do. Sometimes all I can do is attend Meeting occasionally. Sometimes I've had particular roles in the local Meeting. I've organised a children's Meeting. Once - but only once - I accompanied seven teenagers to the big, week-long Yearly Meeting. Sometimes, when I can afford it and Meeting needs it, I give money. At the moment I am in charge of providing drinks and biscuits after Meeting, and I try to attend most Sundays. I blog.

And I try to listen to others, trying to bear in mind the words from the current edition of Advices and Queries: "Are you open to new light, from whatever source it might come?" (A&Q 7) That doesn't sound cultish to me.

What do you think?