The Road To Friendship

A few years ago, when I was “between churches,” I spent a season worshipping in many different denominations as a visitor, and felt that it was a very fulfilling experience. One group that I read about, but didn’t visit, was the Quakers – The Religious Society of Friends. I can’t remember my exact thought process at the time, but I think the main barriers were (a) the word “religious” in their formal title – it has negative connotations to me; (b) I was intimidated by the idea of silent worship – odd because I generally enjoy silence, but I suppose it made me worry that I would be stepping into a strange new world as an obvious “outsider”, compared with a “traditional” kind of service where I could just slip into the crowd, sing (or pretend to) and listen to a sermon with semblance of anonymity; and (c) there was no particularly convenient meeting house – which gave me enough of an excuse to allow the first two reasons to hold me back.

But I do recall being impressed with much of what I’d read about Quakerism, and it stuck with me.

Ironically, by the end of 2018 I found myself feeling like an outsider during traditional services. Neither the music or the message seemed to be connecting me with God, and hence I would feel uncomfortable socialising with my brothers and sisters because it felt like I was “faking it.” The circumstances leading up to this realisation were complicated, but conversations with leaders in the church didn’t bring comfort or new purpose, and so I drifted out of that community.

A lot of serious stuff went on during 2019. I had a mental health crisis which led, amongst other consequences, to taking over six months off work. As I recovered and found myself able to re-engage with the outside world, I must have felt something (or Someone) tugging my sleeve, and urging me to reconsider where I was going in my faith. I took another look at the article I’d read previously about Quakerism, and was impressed once again. This is what I read.

I was surprised by how much Friends’ beliefs correlated with my own.

  • “Quakers believe that there is something of God in everybody and that each human being is of unique worth.” You’d think that this would be standard, not just for all Christians, but for just about every person of faith. However, it doesn’t always seem so. You don’t need to look far to see people’s value going unrecognised for any number of reasons.
  • “Quakers seek religious truth in inner experience, and place great reliance on conscience as the basis of morality.” This may sound worrying, with a danger of slipping into the realm of moral relativism. But I do believe that when you have experienced a connection with God your conscience does become a very reliable guide. We’ve all seen disagreements and denominational splits based on interpretation of scriptural passages. I can argue with anyone that my actions are justifiable and bring up a bible verse to back me up – but I will know the truth inside as my conscience, my spirit, convicts me.
  • “They emphasise direct experience of God rather than ritual and ceremony. They believe that priests and rituals are an unnecessary obstruction between the believer and God.” From the first time Jesus described God as our Father it became clear that our relationship with Him is not to be filtered through human proxies. Yes, we can learn from others, just as we learn about other aspects of life from others, but our physical parents don’t require us to communicate with them via a third party unless something has gone seriously wrong, so why wouldn’t the same apply to our spiritual Father?
  • “Quakers integrate religion and everyday life. They believe God can be found in the middle of everyday life and human relationships, as much as during a meeting for worship.” This is something I’ve heard often from many church leaders, your faith is not just a two hour Sunday morning exercise. And I’ve always felt that my whole life should be a reflection of the image of God in which I’m made, although I have so often fallen so short of that standard.
  • “Quakers … are particularly concerned with human rights, social justice, peace.” I feel strongly about these matters, although I’ve sometimes struggled to articulate my concerns, or been afraid of the potential reaction if I do.
  • “Most Quakers regard the Bible as a very great inspirational book but they don’t see it as the only one, and so they read other books that can guide their lives.” You may well have noticed many times over the years that I’ve had trouble with the way some Christians (mis)use the Bible. I do believe that it is “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” But that isn’t the same as being a literal account of the history of the world, or a complete guide to every aspect of human life, and it has certainly been twisted and used in many ways that God would not want. I also recognise that the light of God in each person means that the wisdom of other faiths has value, and can sometimes represent God’s truth in a clearer and more relatable way than misinterpreted Biblical text.
  • “Tolerance is part of the Quaker approach to life, so Quakers are willing to learn from all other faiths and churches.” I think I just said that.
  • “Quakers accept that all human beings contain goodness and truth, they do not accept value judgements based on race or gender, they welcome diversity.” This is all a consequence of every person being made in the image of God, and I would – respectfully – not have much time for anyone who disagreed with any of these beliefs.
  • “They are actively involved in social and political issues and believe in pacifism and non-violence.” I’ve become more politically engaged in recent years, as I’ve felt unable to just sit back and comply with – implicitly accepting – decisions that I believe are wrong and unjust. I like to regard myself as a pacifist, but not without qualms. I have overreacted in anger in the past, and I think there’s a limit to how much violence I could see being inflicted on myself, my family or my community without feeling the need to fight fire with fire. This is maybe the most challenging faith issue I’m working on currently.
  • “Doubt and questioning are valuable tools for spiritual growth.” My acceptance of this belief is evident throughout my blog, and conversations I have in the “real” world.
  • “Christ’s life demonstrates the full truth of God.” I believe this, and that is why I identify as a Christian.
  • “Quakers are non-judgemental about sex, which they see as a gift of God. Their attention is focused on the way in which it is used in human relationships.” Sadly I feel that sex, and sexuality, has been misused for purposes of subjugation and differentiation in many faiths, and somewhere in the noise, Christ’s central message of love gets lost.
  • “Quakers believe that human beings are stewards of the earth, and should care for it to ensure that each generation passes on to the next generation a world as good as or better than it received.” This is an area where I might say my spirit is willing but my body is weak. I feel a great concern for sustainability and climate justice, but I haven’t been as proactive as I need to be.
  • “Quakers believe that no one but God can join a couple in matrimony. They see marriage as more than a legal contract – it is a religious commitment. The couple promise to be loving companions and take each other as lifelong partners in a spirit of freedom and equality.” I would probably go even further and say that true marriage is only a religious (or spiritual) commitment. I accept the convention of legally recognising the commitment, as long as that doesn’t put freedom and equality at risk, but this is a societal add-on, not the original intent.

With so much in common, I felt compelled to visit a meeting, and found one that was much more conveniently located than I’d previously realised. On 18 August 2019 I dipped my toe in the water.

I was welcomed warmly, made to feel very comfortable and had the basics of the meeting for worship explained to me. It went exactly as the article I’d read had described: an hour of silent waiting punctuated by a couple of brief words from Friends, and ending with handshakes and a few notices. I was invited for tea and biscuits, and despite this always being my least favourite part of any Sunday (due to my strongly introverted leanings) I found myself actually feeling quite relaxed and part of the group.

I’ve attended every week since then, except when exceptional circumstances have prevented me, and I continue to attend during lockdown via Zoom. I soon felt quite strongly that this was where I belonged, but when I expressed this I was urged to take my time – as long as it takes – and learn more about Quakerism before committing myself to membership. Visitors (attenders) and seekers are always welcome, but this is not a society that actively seeks out new recruits, but rather it allows – and desires – prospective members first to be convinced.

What is it that gives me this sense of belonging? Several things. There are the people. They are similar enough to me that I recognise common interests and concerns, but different enough that I have something to learn from each one. They are the kind of friends I appreciate – caring and encouraging without being overbearing; recognising and respecting what I have to offer without demanding anything of me. It’s a community I enjoy being a part of.

There is the practical spirituality that seems to me to be the lifeblood of the society. What do I mean by that? First, whenever church affairs are being discussed, and decisions made, there is a real sense that all members are reaching into their experience and wisdom to discern as a group where the Holy Spirit is leading them. All voices are heard and respected, and the result is real confidence that the decisions are good ones. I’ve heard leaders of other churches refer to decision making in a similar way, but here I see it in action and I see it actually working. Second, Quakers are generally very active in society, campaigning and acting – peacefully – for the causes of peace, justice and equality that are so important to them. They walk the walk. And I’m not talking about those enthusiastic few souls you can find at any church who keep the mission work going – I’m talking about everyone. I don’t think it’s possible to be a passive Quaker. This is something that challenges but also energises me. I’m recognising how complacent I’ve been in the past, even when social injustices have made me very angry.

And there is the simple confidence that this is a group of people who epitomise what it means to be a Christian – to follow the way of Christ. That might sound odd when some denominations doubt that Quakers are Christians, notwithstanding their origin; and it might sound even odder when you consider that not all Quakers identify as Christian. But what I see is an outworking of the Spirit, a focus on the issues that Christ also focused on during His earthly ministry, very much a gospel-centred worldview. This is who I want to be.

I’m not a member yet, but it’s only a matter of time before that beautiful day. I find that I’m already identifying myself as a Quaker when I describe my faith to people. I talk about “our” values and beliefs. I feel that my journey of the last ten years or so has been some kind of education or apprenticeship in which I’ve been learning continually about Christ and myself, and how we connect. This is where we connect. Anticipation of the journey to come fills me with an excited fire.

I, Robot?

I’m a fan of Isaac Asimov, particularly his short stories, many of which were based around robots and robotics. He famously created his “three laws of robotics” which were “the three rules that are built most deeply into a robot’s positronic brain.” These laws are:

  1. a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov wrote plots that played on the unintended consequences of applying these rules, or of the potential conflicts between them. And both he and others played around with these ‘laws’, adding, taking away and modifying them for various creative purposes. But beyond the world of science fiction, scientists have looked at Asimov’s laws as a potential starting point for instilling ‘moral’ values into real-world robots, and their uses in human society.

While it’s clearly a bit simplistic and misguided to directly compare God’s creation of man with man’s creation of robots, I think there’s value in looking at faith for a few minutes through Asimov’s eyes.

Before looking at similarities, I need to repeat what I’ve said previously, and frequently, whether in this blog or in conversations. God did not create us to be robots. God gave us free will, autonomy, and this is perhaps the most fundamental concept in my whole understanding of existence. Because if we don’t have free will then, in my opinion, our lives as conscious beings are essentially meaningless. I might as well be a hammer, built solely for the task of hitting a nail.

So we have free will. We can do what we want. Why then don’t we live in a world of utter chaos, of anarchy? Why is there a general semblance of order in the world around us? Why do we notice and dislike the times when people act in a way that is contrary to our social norms?

Well, on the surface, there are laws and conventions that have been constructed by human beings over the centuries. They have been designed, amongst other purposes, to control our excesses, to limit individual freedoms for the benefit of society as a whole. We are born into this set of rules, we grow up with them, and with a few exceptions we come to think of them as normal, rational and good, so we accept and live by them.

On a deeper level we have instincts which are designed to keep us alive and thriving as individuals and as a species. Depending on your worldview, these instincts come from God’s purpose, from evolution, or from some combination of the two.

But as Christians there is another level to be considered, and that is the level of scripture. This is where I find the comparison with Asimov’s laws fascinating.

Your mind may immediately jump to the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). These are possibly the most obvious direct comparison the the three laws, and are sometimes described as “the moral law.” There are more details, naturally enough considering the difference between human and robot motivations. But although they are listed, and when described they may be numbered, there isn’t an obvious hierarchy like Asimov explicitly stated. You could argue that the first is the most important, because if we have other gods than God, we have less reason to obey any of God’s commandments. But scanning down the list, should we prioritise the honour of our parents (abiding by the fifth) even if that leads us to murder someone (contravening the sixth)?

The Bible has been described by some Christians as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” And almost all teaching I’ve heard in many different churches refers back to scripture as the base point from which all good decisions should be made. I understand why. This is the physical evidence of what God has said to us. It’s the absolute truth to counter the danger of moral relativism. It’s real. You can hold it in your hands and you can show it to someone.

I can imagine the Bible as the equivalent of the software that is programmed into the positronic brains of Asimov’s robots. In fact, David points us in that direction when he says “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (Psalm 119:11)

I can imagine that when faced with any decision or dilemma a “good Christian” will refer back to the source code, comparing options against the relevant words of God in scripture to come to the right conclusion.

But do the rules to be followed comprise the 10 commandments? Or the 613 commandments? Or does a Christian ignore the Old Testament and base their rules on the instructions they read in the Gospels and Epistles?

How do we handle situations when there is a conflict between laws, or between written laws and our innate sense of moral good? And there will be conflicts. There are classic philosophical scenarios that can demonstrate this. For example, Kant’s dilemma of the murderer at the door or the trolley problem.

Even if we can find ways to satisfy ourselves that we can resolve any such dilemma, I see a bigger problem, which is that if we live our lives completely according to what we read in the Bible, we are running the computer program, and we effectively become robots after all. What then has happened to our free will?

Maybe you could say that if you have made a free choice to follow the rules, you are not a robot. Maybe.

I am coming to the conclusion though, that God does not intend the Bible to be a rigid rule book, or an operating system designed to direct our every action. I believe it should be taken seriously and that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) It provides guidance, and describes principles. It shows the consequences when certain rules are followed or ignored. But it does not give an answer to every question raised in a person’s life. It never has, or we wouldn’t need to pray, because the answers to our prayers too would be in the good book.

I think that knowing the Bible as thoroughly as possible gives a wonderful foundation of knowledge and wisdom. But when we get to the real basics there are not 3 laws of humanity. There are not 613. There are not 10. There are 2.

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:34-40)

If we can just do our best to live our lives according to those two rules, I don’t think we need to tie ourselves in knots or rack ourselves with guilt about the ways we have inevitably fallen short. Let us breathe the spirit of the law. We are imperfect and God made us that way, and He loves us. He is love. Let us try to emulate that to whatever extent we’re capable.