It seemed about time to make another Quaker Alphabet Post, but I was stuck for a while on which E to use. There seem to be quite a few. Then I decided to get back to basics and chose “Experience”.
Experience is a concept at the heart of Quakerism. It is summarised in the expression of “What canst thou say?” meaning never mind your fancy book learning or clever arguments, tell us what you know from your own experience.
You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this: but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?—George Fox
The Quaker emphasis on direct experience of God (whatever they mean by God, and trust me, there is no single answer) is powerful for me. It holds me to account. I can’t quote the defence of following orders. I can’t sit back and let a priest do the heavy lifting. Quakers are seekers of truth, and everyone has to come to their own understanding.
Now, that can sound like hard work, and sometimes it is. Sometimes it means admitting confusion and uncertainty, when no one will tell you an answer. They will, however, share their own experience.
For myself I find this liberating. I have never been very good at following the party line for the sake of it. I was never the kid who had to prove Pythagoras’ theorem from first principles, but I was the kid who wanted to understand how faith reconciled with science, for example. It got me kicked out of Sunday School.
There I was, a precocious ten year old who had just heard at school about how the earth would one day be swallowed up by the sun. I was unconcerned because by then we would all have built brilliant spaceships and flown off to other planets to live. When the teacher at Sunday School started talking about the Second Coming I had questions.
“You know the earth is going to crash into the sun? What happens if Jesus doesn’t come back before then?”
“Well, he will.”
“But what if he doesn’t?”
“But he will.”
“But how do you know? He might be late?”
Maybe I thought he would get stuck in a traffic jam or miss his train. I’m not sure.
“You have to have faith he will come.”
“But how do you know?”
And so on. She lost her temper and threw me out. When I got back early my mother asked what had happened. I told her I wasn’t going to church any more.
When I discovered Quakers at university I discovered people who loved to ask questions and spend the night debating them. They talked about their experience of God, and what they didn’t know and why they wanted to find out more. They also played music and danced and played mad games and made up stories and cooked huge pans of soup and laughed a lot. Frequently all in one evening.
Basing a personal faith on your own experience is a potentially dangerous route to travel. To put it bluntly, it can lead to all kinds of whackiness and theological absurdity. The reason I am a Quaker is that my individual craziness is tested against the experience of the rest of my community. We seek together, and surprisingly often we find a nugget, something we all recognise as true.
Other times we make soup and laugh. Either way is good.
If you are interested in spiritual or religious questions, do you prefer a tested orthodoxy or the uncertain way of a seeker?