Quaker Universalist Conversations

Hanging on by the Fingertips

 By Archie Watson

 In February,1997 the Universalist, the journal of the Quaker Universalist Group in England, carried a short, jaunty article entitled “Hanging on by the Fingertips.”  The author was Archie Watson, and little is known about him, except that he was registered as a member of the QUG then and no longer is.

 Thirteen years later, in February, 2010, the editor decided to re-run the piece, and one can see why.  If it spoke to our condition in 1997, it speaks even more poignantly now.  With permission of the QUG, we bring some excerpts from it to the readers of this blog.

                                                                                                — Rhoda Gilman

 We tend to assume that the human spirit is restless.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say that some human spirits are restless, whilst others prefer the security and comfort of certainty.  The exciting thing about being, human or otherwise, is that certainty is one luxury we do not possess. . . .

There is a kind of arrogance in believing that one has made a good enough job of one’s present being to be entitled to another go, or even an eternal go.  The only certainty in this is that having ‘been’, each of us can never not have been, and in that sense our current being is eternal.  This should really be enough to make us keen to make a good job of being but it seems we are not all convinced of that.  Some of us even prefer to think that the current shot at being is second rate but that the next shot will be the real Mackay. 

                                                . . . . . . . . . . . . .

 Humanity works out its beliefs and understandings but they are only valid for their time, not for eternity.  What is understood and accepted today becomes ill-conceived foolishness tomorrow.  Humanity does not stand still, even when it wants to.  Knowledge and understanding are part of the whole process of evolution and any thought that we have reached the ultimate is foolish. . . .

 Up the cliff face

 It is here that imagination, humanity’s ability to make as many quantum leaps as it wishes, comes in.  Knowledge and understanding reach a certain point and then the dreamers of the human race say “What next?”  Potentially, this is the most exciting area of our existence, where we are clambering up the cliff side, hanging on by our finger tips, just able to see over the edge and no more.

 Using our imagination is part of our wholeness.  In our reductionist way, we tend to think of body, mind and spirit as if they were entities on their own.  That is rather like thinking about eye, leg and tongue as if they were separate and independent.  The being is a whole, or should be, for that is how it functions best.      .

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

 Humans are clever little specks in the universe, and we have an urge to discover more and more; but in doing so we must value all the effort that has gone into bringing us thus far, otherwise we are in danger of losing our humility.  Also, we tend to treat our ability to discover as a natural right when it is really a privilege.  When we treat it as a right, we become arrogant and careless of the need to respect all that has its being around us.  Humility is a part of that way of living which should come naturally to us. . . .

 Peeping over the cliff edge

 We tackle the final ascent of the cliff face and reach the point where we heave ourselves up and peep over the edge to glimpse the vision of the future which we know we cannot attain just yet.  Some day, those who follow will manage to hoist themselves up and over that cliff edge and realise that there is another beckoning cliff to climb in the distance.

 What do we see when we catch that fleeting sight of what lies beyond?  Perhaps this.

 In our journey of discovery so far, we have begun to realise that matter, even a diamond, the hardest substance known to man, is not as solid as we once thought.  In fact the greater proportion of matter seems to be empty space.  Further, we have begun to realise that matter is remarkably insubstantial and delicate, so delicate, in fact, that it is affected by its relationship with the observer.  We have discovered that everything is a relationship, particle with particle, atom with atom, element with element right through a long chain until we look at ourselves.  There we see the relationship continuing, cell with cell, organ with organ and eventually the entity of a being in relationship with its environment and its kindred beings.  And in all this it seems the substance is not the vital or deciding factor, but it is the relationship which is essential.  We are now aware that, as human entities, each of us is never a static being, but constantly shedding and producing cells, dying and being reborn.  We have reached the realisation that without constantly changing relationships, our individual being does not exist.

 We may reach out freely and take in the significance to us of the Fount of All Being, as we have understood God to be.  Here, we may be dimly aware that God the Fount is at the point of tension between being and not being, the point beyond which no being, no existence is possible and the point at which existence begins.  God seems also to be a relationship, just as insubstantial and ephemeral as the relationship which is an atom, but without which there is nothing.  So the power and knowledge lie in the relationship.  This tends to be very unsatisfactory to those who seek, and even feel aware of, a personal God.  However, since everything that has its being emanates from God as understood in this way, person and personality are a natural part of human being originating in and returning to God.

 Closing the circuit

 Light emanates from it source and travels through space but does not become manifest until it reaches and reflects from matter of some kind.  Electro-magnetic energy in its different forms requires the same kind of act of completion before it is manifest to us.  It is quite possible that spiritual energy has the same kind of quality, that it is much more part of the spiritual universe than we had realised and that it, too, is dependent on relationship for existence.  It also seems natural that to establish the relationship, the personality of God requires the act of completion that is our own individual personality, reflecting ‘that of God’ within us, closing the circuit.

 Thoughts of this nature are not in any way different from that which we tend to consider a mystical experience of the absolute oneness of the universe, of existence.  But yes, such insights are insubstantial imaginings, without much in the way of proof — just as unlikely as the whole theory of quantum physics was at one time.  It is also necessary to say that this particular set of imaginings is just an individual experience.  There can be nothing dogmatic about the ideas because this individual has no more right to dream than any other individual. 

 The great joy is that we have the freedom to run away from home, to venture to climb these attractive mountains, knowing that in reality our dreams are just as substantial as our very existence and no less wonderful.


The 2008 Swarthmore Lecture by Christine A.M. Davis refers to an "Archie Watson" who was part of the author's Dunblane meeting in Scotland. It also references nearby Falkirk, where Watson may have lived. Perhaps this is the author of this piece? Davis's lecture is published online here: http://www.woodbrooke.org.uk/data/files/publications/25/MindingtheFuture.pdf
Thanks, Charley. I think there's a high likelihood that it's the same Archie Watson. Dunblane sounded familiar to me, so I looked at a map of Scotland and found that it's even closer to Stirling than to Falkirk. My daughter did her senior year as an exchange student at Stirling University, and I joined her for a visit and a tour of Scotland at the end of the term. As I recall, we walked to Dunblane from Stirling. That was in 1975. I didn't know any British Quakers then, although I was somewhat acquainted with U.S. Quakers.
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