Take heed, dear Friends …

Take heed, dear Friends

“Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.”

Am I alone in at one and the same time revering this the first paragraph of our Quaker Advices, yet also having to translate it into a personal language that stays true to my own theological beliefs?

Love and truth are the twin foundation stones of my faith, on which my entire spiritual practice rests. I believe fervently that the pursuit of love and truth is the irreducible core of the more mystical territory of every major religion, and therefore possesses a universality that transcends theological dogma. I know that for some Friends, truth and love are one and the same thing, for others, truth and love represent two facets of the same thing, whereas for me the two are potentially in tension with the risk of one dominating the other. Yet, for me, truth without love can be hard and cold; love without truth can be gullible and ineffective; and it is only the intentional and insistent interweaving of the two that delivers spiritual insight.

I have some, although not too much, difficulty with the word ‘hearts’. I am happy that the word pulls away from mere intellectual cognition. Yet, apart from the fact that the heart is a blood-pumping muscle, it is traditionally identified as the seat of the emotions. As a former counsellor, I am well aware that the gut has the better claim than the heart to being the physical wellspring of the emotions. However, I am sceptical that love and truth should be any more dominated by emotion than by intellect. John Greenleaf Whittier, the famous Quaker American poet made clear his distrust of passion as a way of listening to and hearing God, instead favouring listening for ‘the still, small voice’. I believe it would be better to listen with my whole being, with all of who I am.

I guess that I go along with the idea that love and truth can prompt, but not in the sense of having agency of their own. How can principles have agency? No, more as a kind of cognitive dissonance. Indeed, I like this latter idea a lot, and choose to make considerable use of searching quests for cognitive dissonance.

The mountain I am unable to ascend, but I am required to circumnavigate, is the word ‘God’. I do not do supernatural; disembodied intelligence; agency in the absence of physical form. God may be a term that you use, and I will do what I can to understand how you are using the term in any one context. However, it is not a word that I use, for which reason I am willing to be labelled a non-theist. On the other hand, there are circumstances in which I wish to assert that ‘man is not the measure of all things’, that human hubris is problematic, that preserving life and the natural environment at all costs are imperatives that supersede expedience. At these times, it would have been handy to be able to reach for a term such as ‘God’.

In a specifically Quaker context ‘Light’ is an interesting term. Whilst I am happy to substitute the idea of enlightenment, in a more spiritual than an eighteenth century sense, Quakers typically seem to use the word ‘light’ to mean two further things. One is quite simply the opposite of ‘the dark side’, to use Star Wars terminology: Light being ‘the force’ for good. This, for me, smacks of the supernatural. However, removing any supernatural overtones, one is left with sin (darkness) and virtue (light). I find the sin versus virtue opposition lacking in understanding that humans are apes whose distinction is highly developed cognitive skills, but apes all the same, and therefore genetically programmed to behave as apes. The other use of the term ‘light’ relates, I think, to George Fox’s predisposition towards depression, darkness being associated with the cardinal sin of acedia, and light being associated with hopefulness, cheerfulness and action. I am happy to consider cardinal virtues as a framework for spiritual discipline, but I am not eager to encumber myself with guilt regarding the ‘cardinal sins’ of my essential ape.

‘New life’ sounds suspiciously like being ‘born again’. Although my efforts at translation are somewhat lacking at this point, and I usually prefer to skip the the new life business, when I don’t brush it away, I think of it as being in a more enlightened state: to be walking ‘in the light’.

Do you also translate? If so, what sense do you make of these first two sentences of the Quaker Advices?

Peter Hughes, 27 October 2018