Sunday, 28 September 2008

Reasoning out our peculiarities

posted by Rhiannon

Martin Kelley has just made an excellent blog post called Sorting Quaker peculiarities in the modern world. It prompted me to think about my peculiarities, and specifically those I attribute to being Quaker-there are many which are unrelated! I'm especially aware of this as I'll be attending a new-to-me Meeting for Worship this morning (I'm in Leeds), so other Quakers will be trying to guess how new I am (the usual questions are: does she need a leaflet? should I speak to her over tea at the end? will she know what's going on? It's easy to get this wrong, leafleting cradle Quakers and ignoring totally new enquirers, especially in a large Meeting. But I disgress.)

Martin discusses two specific 'Quaker peculiarities': the use of 'thee' (in place of singular 'you'), and calling days of the week by numbers rather than names.

I don't, as a rule, do either. Having been brought up in Quaker circles, I can; I know something is wrong without knowing why when people use thee and thou the wrong way around (it's 'what canst thou say?' not 'what canst thee say?'). However, because English speakers agreed with the early Quakers and discarded the status-ranked pronouns, I feel there's no need to keep using 'thee': 'you', used equally for all, has the same effect.

(To quote from Martin's post, on those who choose to do so: "I'm glad they do and don't want to double-guess their leadings." As normal for liberal Quakers, our different leadings are not to invalidate other leadings, especially in matters pertaining only to personal conduct.)

The principle that we should seek to reflect our testimony to equality in our language stands, though. To that end, I am considering taking up another pronoun pecularity: genderless pronouns. At the moment, we have no natural-language way to refer to single individuals of unknown (or non-binary) gender, and the 'correct' thing to do is to assume that they are masculine until further information arrives. This isn't a practice which values women equally, and may (depending which feminists you read) be considerably worse than that.

In speaking, I currently use 'they' as singular when the need arises. I haven't yet settled on an option for writing, but am experiementing with some of the many possibilities.

As for days of the week, this is where I part ways with many Christian Quakers. I think it's right that those who consider themselves Christian should avoid invoking other gods; I, however, consider mayself a pagan, and as a consequence I have no problem using the days of the week as they stand. I do so mindfully, knowing that the name Wednesday should remind me to thank Woden for His blessings.

I even have a Quaker principle which backs up this useage (a useage which is fully aware, not one which does not suit my religious beliefs): every day is sacred. Historically, this was used to reject over-emphasing celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, and seeking awareness that communion with the Divine was possible any where and at any time, not just in churches on Sunday mornings. (There I go again, acknowledging the Divine in the world, in this case, in the power of the sun.) As a Quaker pagan, I have to reconcile this principle with paganism's emphasis on awareness of the cycles of the natural world, of equinoxes and soltices and the mid-points between. I like to think of this as a creative tension, more like the volcanic regions where Gaia creates new land as two tectonic plates pull away from each other, rather than a simple tug-of-war.

I believe there's a balance to be struck here, between awareness and over-emphasis, between rejecting all special days and forgetting that special days are useful reminders. For me, part of that is to call every day by a Divine name. I'm only human. I often forget. But it's there, and just as a Christian Quaker might use the terms 'second day', 'third day', and so forth to remind themselves of One God in Everything, I can use the terms 'Tuesday', 'Wednesday', and so forth to remind myself of God(s) In Everything.

Would this pass Martin's 'Elevator rule'? I don't know, and I think I'm unlikely to have the chance to find out. People usually want to know about my hat, which isn't Quaker at all.


Kathz said...

We missed you at Meeting this morning, especially as we were all ready to welcome you as a Member. (I expect you've already heard from Area Meeting, which I still think of as Monthly Meeting).

Good to read this post.

Martin Kelley said...

Thanks for the link, but... Well, it's sort of a moot point, isn't it? I'm interested in trying to figure out how those of us living in the classic Quaker tradition should live in a world where context has changed. I think that Friends like Fox, Fell, Barclay, Penn, Woolman were essentially spot on in their spirituality and critique of secular culture and that most of their testimonies (guides of living) were sensible outgrowths of that faith applied to 17th Century British circumstances. My question is what they'd be doing with that faith today.

Once you've given up the essentials of their faith, or patted them on the head as poor confused fools caught in their time, or plotted some fantasy that Fox would be a neo-pagan post-Christian if only he were alive today, well then any need to wrestle with early Friends' testimonies is pretty much gone. Any spiritual philosophy will point to outward lifestyle forms. Your foundation is modern liberal paganism, mine is classic Quakerism, or as Penn would insist: primitive Christianity revived. Of course the answers will be different.

Yvonne said...

Interesting post. I don't think being a QuakerPagan does involve patting the early Quakers on the head or fantasising that nowadays they'd be Pagans, whether you're a Quaker who has embraced Paganism or a Pagan who has embraced Quakerism. (Please note capital P and absence of 'neo' prefix.)

Anyway, I find your musings on days interesting. I agree that the Divine can be communed with every day, and I tend to see the Pagan festivals as periods of time much like seasons or tides rather than the specific day on which they are celebrated.

bookgeek:rhiannon said...

Kathy, I still think of it as Monthly Meeting, though I'm trying to improve.

Martin, I apologise if I took your post inappropriately lightly.

Perhaps I have given up, or more accurately never had, the 'essentials of their faith'--forced routine attendance at services which seemed hollow, an in-depth knowledge of the Bible as the key source of spiritual wisdom, persecution, and so forth. That's a mixed bag of good and bad. I also think that their spirituality was strong (I just struggle with the words sometimes), and that their critique of secular culture is powerful and can be learnt from (but then, I think Marx's critique of religion deserves close attention, too).

I don't recall 'patting them on the head as poor confused fools'. I wouldn't do that to George Fox any more than I'd do that a living Christian Quaker (on which topic, see my posts from a Woodbrooke course earlier this year, here and here; I talk there about the perception that universalist Quakers are "anti-Christian"). If I'm honest, I do think that Fox must have spoken to secular culture as he saw it in his time, and that it has changed since then; this is also a fundamental of the historical critical method applied to the Bible, Shakespeare, and everyone else, including me. I can only speak from what I know.

However, I don't think I've ever "plotted some fantasy that Fox would be a neo-pagan post-Christian if only he were alive today". Fox was raised a Christian. He stayed a Christian, and he kept using Christian language. If he was still alive, he'd probably keep using Christian language, and he'd have that in common with a very large number of Quakers. However, I was raised a Quaker in a multi-cultural society, and I don't generally find Christian language useful. Does that mean Fox would reject me? Perhaps, though I hear tell he thought Muslims and Native Americans were ok. Does that mean I've rejected the core of Fox's teaching? That depends whether you think that the core is the Christian elements, or the waiting on the Inward Light.

Any spiritual philosophy worth adopting will indeed point to outward forms; I think it's a bit pointless to adopt one if it doesn't affect your life at all. The hard question is what should those forms be, and I think we are both struggling with that. In this post, I chose to address some very minor forms, not least because a small change can make a big difference. I'm sure we both have bigger forms in our lives: in mine, I might point to the practice of attending Meeting for Worship, involvement with social justice issues, and so on. These will of course be different for each person, just as the smaller ones are (we are each products of specific, and different, social forces). Does that mean that we are not working from some principles or testimonies which we hold in common? Not necessarily.

Yvonne, I too have been thinking about Pagan festivals as seasons, and seeing the simple undeinable facts: winter is drawing in, the days are shorter. For me, there's a sense in which that's all it means that Samhain is coming, that it's time to notice and appreciate autumn. And that becomes a year-round practice of mindfulness backed by a rich set of metaphors and myths which can deepen my thinking.