God, Words and Us
Quaker Books – November 2017 £8
A review by Hugh Rock
The slight extent of this book, 98 pages, belies its heavyweight testimony. It is a conclusive demonstration of Quaker Faith. But it does not recognise this. It masquerades as an attempt to discover what the unifying principle of Quaker Faith might be, and assumes a starting point of doubt and conflict.
The subtitle ‘Quakers in Conversation about Religious Difference’ is a euphemism for the nagging subject of nontheism, that was identified by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group as top of the list of topics that worried Friends and required more discernment before any revision might proceed. The twenty-four prominent voices gathered in these pages were engaged to discern, and concluded, (Hooray! Hooray!) that the polarising labels are a ‘misrepresentation’ (p79), ‘misleading and unhelpful’ (p80). Nobody identifies themselves as a theist, and the nontheists are themselves a mighty mixed bunch.
The chapter contents need some explanation beyond their headings:
‘Telling our stories’ reads like eighteen miniature Swarthmore Lectures. They are diverse confessions of faith.
‘Bringing our full selves to the conversation’, is a preparatory catechism for dialogue respectful of everyone’s feelings.
‘Sharing experiences of core Quaker practice’, assembles various views on prayer and Meeting for Worship.
‘Exploring the language of “theism and nontheism” ’, turns out to be a decisive rejection of any such simpleton polarity.
‘Reframing the issues: developing some alternative models, seeking new vocabulary, rediscovering Quaker insights’, is an ode to Isaac Penington’s ‘The end of words’ 1, 2. It sings the vain hope that at some deeper level the irreconcilable clash between believing in God and believing that there is no God, can be resolved.
So, what is the paradox of doubt, and conflict with no apparent answer, that this book contradicts? It is, in itself, an exercise of the unifying principle of Quaker Faith. It exercises the simple faith that, out of mutual respect for varied spiritual experiences, we can, and must, distill collective action of love for the world. Twenty-four people of varied persuasions listen hard, respect and validate the significance, for others, of worldviews that they do not hold themselves. That, in these times especially, is a pearl without price.
The Revision Committee have no need to fiddle with the ancient language of Quaker Faith and Practice. ‘God, words and us’ can stand as a supplement: it is definitive testimony to what Friends can say in their twenty first century cultural environment.