Quaker Universalist Conversations

“Friends and Truth”

Excerpts from “Transition Quaker”

Craig Barnett, Transition Quaker http://transitionquaker.blogspot.com/ Craig Barnett is a Quaker living in Sheffield (UK), and currently serving as an elder of Sheffield and Balby Area Quaker Meeting. The following are excerpts from the 6/2/16 post on his blog, Transition Quaker. We encourage you to read the complete blog post.

As Quakers, we often seem to struggle with the idea of truth. It has become common for Friends to substitute the expression ‘my truth’ or ‘our truths’ instead of ‘the truth’. This reflects the huge influence of relativist ideas on the wider culture, which have led many Friends to reject the validity of any claims to religious truth….

In his consistently fascinating blog, the Quaker theologian Ben Wood has recently attempted to build a bridge between traditional Quaker spirituality and the postmodernist ideas of some non-theist writers, by arguing that the Quaker way does not depend on claiming the truth of its stories about God. According to this view, it is not the truth of our words and actions that are important, but simply their consistency with our shared narratives….

I find Ben’s approach appealing and convincing in many ways; particularly his argument that Quakers should not try to justify our faith on the basis of philosophical theories of knowledge that are alien to our tradition. Instead, it is our shared language and stories, which are open to interpretation in a wide range of ways, that sustain a common tradition of Quaker practice. I also agree that it is the fruits of our practice in the lives we lead that are the final criteria of the authenticity of our faith….

Inscription under the statue of Mary Dyer at the Massachusetts Statehouse, Boston, Mass.

But does this mean that truth is irrelevant to the Quaker way…? It is difficult to imagine that Friends such as James Nayler and Mary Dyer, who were killed for proclaiming the Quaker message, would have been prepared to die purely for the sake of ‘narrative consistency’. They believed that their lives and actions testified to the truth of the nature and purposes of God, and this belief was central to the Quaker story that they inhabited….

According to the Quaker tradition itself, truth is not a matter of abstract philosophical argument. It is the conformity of our words, actions and lives to the reality of God. This does not rely on any particular theory about the precise nature of the relationship between statements and reality, about which there are many flavours of philosophical opinion. But it does require a belief in a real world, apart from the stories we tell ourselves, for our words and actions to conform to.

We encourage you to read Craig Barnett’s complete blog post.


Image Source

Inscription under the statue of Mary Dyer at the Massachusetts Statehouse, Boston, MA, By Sarnold17 (Own work) CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

Friends, It helps to read Craig’s whole blog post. He is concerned that modern Quakers (and modern people in general) tend to back away from any acknowledgement that there is one Truth which contains all their individual and group truths.

As Quakers, we often seem to struggle with the idea of truth. It has become common for Friends to substitute the expression ‘my truth’ or ‘our truths’ instead of ‘the truth’. This reflects the huge influence of relativist ideas on the wider culture, which have led many Friends to reject the validity of any claims to religious truth….

I know that I walked away from institutional Christianity when I came out, and for a couple decades I was extremely on guard against acknowledging the authority of any truth above my own. In one version or another this seems to be the path of many “liberal” Friends.

It’s as if we want to argue that “that of God” refers to a separate and unique spark in each of us, rather than the same spark, present in each of us but experienced, perceived, understood—and obeyed—differently. Note that word “obey.” We don’t want any authority higher than ourselves.

What Craig comes to in his message, though, is this:

According to the Quaker tradition itself, truth is not a matter of abstract philosophical argument. It is the conformity of our words, actions and lives to the reality of God. This does not rely on any particular theory about the precise nature of the relationship between statements and reality, about which there are many flavours of philosophical opinion. But it does require a belief in a real world, apart from the stories we tell ourselves, for our words and actions to conform to [emphasis added].

“Conformity” is a more comfortable word than “obedience.” It feels more like something I choose to do, not something I am forced to do.

Nonetheless, the truth is that there is only one Truth—inexpressible except inwardly, yet the same for everyone. The more closely I come to conforming with it, the better I am able to act truly in the world.

Blessings,
Mike

Rex Ambler touches on this same theme, I think, in The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery (2013):

If…we remain still and silent, the ego quietens down, and we can see the truth of the matter, irrespective of how it might affect us personally. And as we open ourselves to the truth, whatever it may be, we find that we are being enabled to see…. As we do, we become aware simultaneously of a source of insight and understanding within us that is quite different from our normal, conscious self.

This is what we call ‘Spirit.’ It is not tangible or observable, and it can’t be thought about directly, it’s so deep and mysterious. But we know it’s there because of what it does to us, and with us and through us….

Spirit is not a supernatural force that goes against the grain of our nature. It is not irrational feeling or magical manipulation. It is our own deep nature, so that when we get in touch with it we experience it as something entirely natural.” (67-68)

Blessings,
Mike