Quaker Quicks - Telling the Truth About God
Telling the truth about God without excluding anyone is a challenge to the Quaker community.
Telling the truth about God without excluding anyone is a challenge to the Quaker community.
Drawing on the author’s academic research into Quaker uses of religious language and her teaching to Quaker and academic groups, Rhiannon Grant aims to make accessible some key theological and philosophical insights. She explains that Quakers might sound vague but are actually making clear and creative theological claims. Theology isn't just for wordy people or intellectuals, it's for everyone. And that's important because our religious language is related to, not separate from, our religious experience. It also becomes clear that denying other people's claims often leads to making your own and that even apparently negative positions can also be making positive statements.
How do Quakers tell the truth about God? This book explores this key theological process through fourteen short chapters. As Quakers, we say that we know some things, but not very much, about God, and that we are in a constant process of trying to improve our ways of saying what we do know.
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Telling the Truth about God by Rhiannon Grant is written to help meetings deal with the animosity and individualism that can result when there is no common language or theological understanding. Grant resists “any proposal that Quakers should put a theological boundary around our community,” even the gentlest suggestion that “one ought to … be open to or accept the possibility of this or that.” When each Friend rejects different words and their associated theologies, the community is prevented from degenerating into individualism only if it is “united in the practice of unprogrammed worship.” She does not describe what is going on in this practice of mostly silent sitting; she does not address: What is worship? What is the object of the worship? How does it unite us? Grant explains that, since we need words for “discussion groups, leaflet writing, and outreach,” there are ways to use them constructively. Words can help a meeting community appreciate rather than despise or fear the theological differences that so often exist. What seems to be missing from this list is that words are the way we communicate our own deep spiritual experiences with one another thereby creating a spiritual community—although this becomes a little clearer later. Grant offers “three responses which seem to lead to positive outcomes.” The first suggestion is for each person to actively listen, especially when words for the Divine are used that you do not like. Acknowledge you are upset so that you can share your experience that led to this reaction. Consider carefully the context: are the words used in meeting for worship or a discussion? Is it the usual pattern for the speaker or a quotation? Then she suggests, “Active listening, and where appropriate speaking out using [y]our own preferred language, is a way to bring a balance to the community’s wider patterns of language use.” Grant’s second suggestion has to do with telling—and hearing—stories. These include the larger Christian and Quaker stories as well as our personal stories. When we know the historical and cultural context of words and of the Friends who used and use them, it becomes possible to hear what they mean to the speaker, even when they do not carry those meanings for the listener. The third suggestion is for the community to either invent new terms or repurpose old ones to fit meanings that need to be expressed. The result for British (and Friends General Conference) Friends has been to favor ambiguity so a word can hold a wide variety of meanings and thereby be acceptable to most Quakers. An example is taking the early Quaker use of “the Spirit,” “Holy Spirit,” “Spirit of Christ,” and so on to become lowercase “spirit,” which can be interpreted to mean almost anything the listener feels is acceptable. For the many Liberal meetings struggling with covert or overt conflicts around language and the theologies those words are associated with, Grant’s book will be quite helpful. For those looking for simplified ways of describing what Liberal, unprogrammed Quakers are about, Durham’s book will be very useful. Together they offer good tools for accomplishing the “gateway” Quaker task. ~ Marty Grundy, https://www.friendsjournal.org/what-do-quakers-believe-and-telling-the-truth-about-god/
‘How nontheists view discernment is giving me a headache.’ I have just finished reading Rhiannon Grant’s Telling the Truth About God (see review, 8 March). This humane, kind, thoughtful book makes use of ‘ordinary theology’ and the bottom-up (rather than top-down) ideas of the later Ludwig Wittgenstein to think about truth in religion. It takes further some thinking in recent publications around theology, prior to the revision of Quaker faith & practice. With the suggestion ‘Don’t think, but look!’, Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) developed the notion of ‘forms of life’, and of ‘language games’ to describe ways of conceiving the world. These ideas were elaborated, and made use of by others (such as DZ Phillips in Swansea) to develop a deeply engaged, passionate but philosophically reformed frame for religious experience. How we talk together defines and describes what we are talking about – and at the same time defines us in the way we speak. Much of this way of talking would make sense to many Quakers. So far so good – and interesting, and well described in the book. What really surprised me, however, was to learn that even nontheists in our Society use the process of discernment: ‘As I learnt when I sat in on the AGM of the Nontheist Friends Network’, says Rhiannon, in her chapter ‘Not God’. Now, discernment is a key Quaker spiritual act (it is short for spiritual discernment, an act of spiritual listening, of becoming attuned spiritually). At least that is my sense of it, my understanding of it. It is the way I speak, having listened. I remember how, a few years ago, as a naive new attender at our Local Meeting, I was very glad to be taught about discernment and what it meant. I learned how important and different it was to ‘deciding’ or ‘agreeing’. This personal introduction to discernment came from a direct descendent of WC Braithwaite, the Quaker historian, who could therefore trace his Quakerism back to the seventeenth century. This ‘showing’ to me – what the Greeks called an aletheia – was a literal revelation to me (perhaps, in retrospect, a Revelation with a capital R!). Discernment, as a central Quaker event, is not something that can be reduced to something else. It calls forth to us, and cannot be reduced. I have in mind, in terms of this ‘something else’, something entirely positivistic, naturalistic, merely psychological, and secular (such as, say, could be described by ‘empathic listening’, or ‘considering from all angles’.) Otherwise, it simply loses its unique meaning as a distinctly Quaker word, as part of the central and meaningful language game we all share, as Ludwig Wittgenstein would have said – what we commit to in our speech, in our actions, in our lives. So what is happening here? Why, frankly, don’t members of the Nontheist Friends Network (NFN) just ‘listen empathically’ to each other? In addition why, after it has done that, doesn’t the AGM vote on decisions, which would seem the logical and rationally consistent thing to do (in the absence of any sense at all of God, that is)? It just does not seem consistent to me. What is going on here? It seems bizarre to me, I have to confess. I came away from Rhiannon Grant’s excellent book with the intrusive, disturbing, and rather queasy image of a group of atheists – painting it starkly – deciding to take Holy Communion because they felt a bit peckish! (It’s not the author’s fault this happened to me, I know. I’m sure I may have gotten things wrong here, and I have never in my life taken Communion. But you can hopefully see where I am going with this. I am just trying to firm up our notion of discernment, and its central role in Quakerism.) Derek Guiton, in his The Beyond Within (2017), writes passionately about the erosion of Quaker values in the last few years. He quotes, at the beginning of his book, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: ‘You can only see things clearly with your heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.’ This is part of discernment, through the heart, seeing through to the transcendent – to seeing, to sensing, to feeling, and connecting with God. Isn’t that the nature of discernment that is so central to Quaker identity? How nontheists view discernment is giving me a headache. More accurately, it is giving me a real and profound heartache. The pain has not been taken away by my doubts about the process of revision, in the present climate, of Quaker faith & practice. Something is deeply wrong here in the Society of Friends. It is not discussed, and needs to be debated. I hope that the disturbing image I have is wrong. Perhaps it is unfair of me to the nontheists in our Society. But I simply do not understand it. Could Rhiannon or someone from the NFN please explain to me what they are doing when they are discerning – or at least what they think they are doing? I honestly look forward to hearing. Neil is from St Albans Meeting. ~ Neil Morgan writing in The Friend, https://thefriend.org/article/print/losing-our-religion
A very accessible look at Quakers and theology - how we think and talk about God-or-whatever in day-to-day practice rather than in textbooks. Lots more content than I had expected from 75 pages! ~ Fred Langridge on Amazon, https://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R122UKV407YENM/?_encoding=UTF8&ASIN=B07PFL7BVH
5.0 out of 5 stars Not just for Quakers, or the Quaker-curious Written with exemplary clarity and wide imaginative sympathy, this is a highly accessible discussion of the different ways in which Quakers talk about “God”. It will be of interest to all branches of the Quaker community, and to anyone wanting to find out more about Quakerism. But it deserves a much wider readership than this: it’s a study in how to deal skilfully and attentively with differences of understanding within a religious body. ~ T. Pitt-Payne, https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/customer-reviews/R3C2CYI8WOVHAQ/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1789040817
This book is an excellent resource for Quakers looking for advice on how to work within the tension that exists in our broad faith community, as well as a tool for clarifying to newer Quakers what all our odd expressions and vague-sounding statements mean. Grant shows a way that we can value silence and be open to many experiences of God, but that we can hold our community together and grow stronger by living out our value of honesty in the ways we speak to each other about those experiences. For the full review visit: https://www.snlemons.com/2019/04/02/review-quaker-quicks-telling-the-truth-about-god/ ~ Sofia Lemons, A Listening Heart Blog
5.0 out of 5 stars A wonderful short summary of Quaker theology A clear, accessible, well-researched, concise and honest look at Quaker views on and experiences of God in all their diversity and complicated beauty. I would recommend this to interested newcomers to the Quaker way, as long as they are willing to cope with a degree of uncertainty and open questions in their theology – this is not quite a book that hands you answers on a plate – and it is certainly also an interesting read for experienced Quakers. ~ Tas Cooper, https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/customer-reviews/R2BH6MGKQQI7H1/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_rvw_ttl?ie=UTF8&ASIN=1789040817
Abigail Maxwell reviews 'Telling the Truth About God' by Rhiannon Grant Everyone does theology. Each of us has an understanding of what God is or is not, and for Quakers that begins with our experience. We value our meetings and the experiences we have there, which we might call ‘spiritual’. This is a direct experience, without a priest, and traditions may guide but not bind us. It is shared in community, and we make decisions as a community. Balancing the individual and community is complex. Considering that we may be mistaken, sometimes revising our words, we find it easier to say what we do not believe – neither one extreme where the Bible is the literal word of God, nor the other where it is worthless and outdated. First there is silence, and direct experience, but when we talk afterwards we might use words others find difficult. Words can get in the way, reminding a Friend of past hurt, perhaps. But after this, discussion becomes deeper, with the sharing of what a particular word can mean to a particular person. Knowing the different reasons why someone might value or reject the word ‘Christ’, say, can bring us closer together. We give lists of alternatives, where we hope one word will be acceptable to all, showing our unity and our diversity. The Quaker Women’s Group changed our view of masculine terms for God, but I might use the word ‘Father’ praying with other groups; I can recognise its meaning for them, even as I see the harm it does others. We are rooted in Christianity and open to new light. Can this unite those hurt by abusive churches with those hurt by the rejection of tradition? Can we unite those who see Jesus as a human teacher with those who see Creator God? ‘Unity’ in our meetings has meaning; we are led by more than ego. Our process follows a Guide, whatever that guide is. This is difficult. Words approach experience but cannot encompass it. We all say ‘That of God’ is in each person; some say God is external too. This is a summary of Rhiannon Grant’s book, moulded by my experience and understanding. I find it winsome, showing a beauty and possibility in Quakerism that I want to share. It is passionately inclusive. It recognises the hurt of those who feel excluded, and the richness we gain if we open ourselves to each other. It shows a Quakerly caution, approaching mystery in careful words, recognising the difficulties and gaps. There is an enthusiasm for the process. The book continues the work of God, words and us. It shows how the spaces between us leave room for growth. Agree to disagree, its author tells us, living with uncertainty and struggle – living in love, seeing others as separate, complex human beings. We need to have those difficult conversations, and face the pain of them. They offer a chance to heal that pain, in mutual love. We go in a spiral, ever deeper, naming the mystery of spiritual experience, seeing new aspects of ourselves and each other, connecting, gaining answers and more questions. This short book shows how it is worthwhile for us to do theology. It ends with a question: ‘How are you telling the truth about God?’ ~ Abigail Maxwell, https://thefriend.org/article/telling-the-truth-about-god-by-rhiannon-grant
my unsolicited review is that this is a book well worth the time to read... it really got me thinking and I've already led worship using some the ideas in it, which were really appreciated (and at which I showed the book, acknowledged the source and told people about the launch event!). So many thanks! :-) ~ Ruth Yorke, https://www.facebook.com/rhiannon.grant1/posts/2610246608989890
If you think theology is now irrelevant to Quakers, think again. Rhiannon Grant shows us that to ‘theologize’ remains an exciting and, indeed, daring venture, once we acknowledge how it might be misused. Her own efforts to be honest about God fall within a radical tradition. She writes: ‘Any form of religiosity in a generally secular society can be seen as counter-cultural.’ That sounds pretty Quakerly. Where religious terminology has expired, become redundant, obsolete, or misleading, that is where the Quaker theologian must be. ~ Jonathan Wooding, The Friend, https://thefriend.org/article/telling-the-truth-about-god-by-rhiannon-grant1
Rhiannon Grant's book is wide-ranging, warm, wise, and witty. It's a wonderful introduction to the varieties and vagaries of Quaker theology - such as they are (or aren't). ~ J. Brent Bill, author of Holy Silence: The Gift of Quaker Spirituality
This is an admirably informed, clear-sighted and open-minded exploration of that knottiest of subjects: the Quaker view of God, the Divine, or “whatever you call it”. ~ Jennifer Kavanagh, author of The World is our Cloister
This is a book for non-Quakers as well as those familiar with the Quaker tradition. Dr Grant explores the different approaches Quakers have with God, the scriptures, worship and the significance of experience in seeking words about God. Some, including the reviewer, as an Anglican priest, might baulk at the suggestion that clergy act as ‘intermediaries’ between God and the people, but the cap may fit in many instances and deserve the critique. The issues for the non-Quaker that Dr Grant details and addresses are wide ranging and insightful. They enable a fuller understanding and appreciation of the Quaker experience and the struggle we all face when it come to language and images of God. In keeping with that tradition, it is a book for ‘everyone’. ~ Canon David Jennings, Canon Theologian, Leicester Cathedral
Suggesting a range of differing understandings has, over the last hundred years, become an accepted means for describing Quaker theology. One example of this is the varying words we use for God (or whatever you call it.) Rhiannon uses her academic research and her wide experience of getting Friends talking, to produce a thoughtful commentary on the impact, difficulties and joys of this approach to doing theology as a community. It may seem that we end up saying very little, but that little has a unique kind of truthfulness. ~ Lesley Richards, clerk of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group
I enjoyed this very much, and even found it unexpectedly moving. I love the accessible, conversational style, the commitment to seeing the issues from multiple perspectives, and the embrace of the messy reality of our feelings, conflicts and struggles in community. ~ Craig Barnett, author of Quaker Renewal