What does it mean to believe?
I believe the Earth goes round the Sun. I believe in Milanković cycles, regular changes in the Earth’s orbit which affect its climate. Such rational, scientific belief involves trust in my community, in scientists who calculate such things in ways I do not know. It can be wrong, as Newton was wrong about gravity. Trying to distort religious belief to be like scientific belief leads people astray: the Flood did not cause the Grand Canyon.
I do not believe in Astrology, but observe that a magazine astrology column can give a little pleasure or something to think about. An empathetic practitioner, with a vast range of ideas related to planets, signs and sesquiquadrates, could see what spoke to their client and possibly give insight into character.
I believe in Hamlet, though the play is not historical: it portrays lifelike humans.
I have moral beliefs, which I have learned through instruction, example, experience, study and discussion. This year I intend to keep my promises better, having disliked breaking an undertaking. I also intend to promise, or not, more thoughtfully.
What does it mean to learn, and what do I need to know? As a member of a social species I need to know how to interact with other people, and how to be a member of the society that meets my needs. Much of that knowledge may be innate: babies recognise the patterns of a face. I understand others because we have things in common: I feel joy in service, and observe others do so too.
I learn through art. I contemplate images, my feelings resonating with them, so come to understand situations I have not experienced.
I learn the tradition of Christianity by reading and listening, then hone my understanding by talking about it. There is a rigid creed with nothing between Jesus’ birth and his passion, and gospels giving differing accounts of his life and afterlife. Jesus tells fictional parables, some disturbingly amoral, such as the Unjust Steward. I contemplate the mad Gadarene (or Gerasene), clothed and in his right mind after an encounter with Jesus, which may also be fictional. I find value in the Bible, Christian tradition and Christian writings, for learning how to live.
Then I learn spirituality by sitting in Quaker stillness for an hour most weeks over twenty years. I encounter unconscious processes and unravel the inner conflicts created by old trauma. I experience being given spoken ministry, and also speaking when I might have been wiser to stay seated. I know love for these people, sitting with me. I believe that meeting for worship and the business method have value. Quakers report doing different things during meeting: behind the still faces, a person might be praying, or counting breaths, or hearing God within them speak.
It is not true to say that you can believe anything and be a Quaker, even a Quaker in Britain Yearly Meeting. I believe meeting for worship has value, and that there is a wide range of appropriate things to do in the hour. Others have narrower understandings- “Thee should not have been thinking”.
Then Quakers have different metaphysical understandings of what underpins our experiences, In the Letter to the Governor of Barbados George Fox describes fairly conventional Protestant beliefs, including that Christ’s death was the propitiation for the sins of the world. We are rooted in Christianity, and many British Quakers have a radical Christian understanding of “that of God” in us. It is the Holy Spirit, which other Christians believe comes into us in Baptism and Confirmation, and we believe needs no ritual, because it is in everyone.
I might try to put into words my spiritual experience, for example, all my senses come alive, I see “Heaven in a wild flower”, usually there is a feeling of Joy with this experience, I am in the present moment not ruminating of past or future. That comes from my own experience. It feels distinct, now, from how I am at different times. My experience is evidence for my account of it, but not evidence for the metaphysical belief in God or Spirit. To say that Spirit causes such experiences goes beyond the experience itself. The experience feels like a blessing, but I could not say that Something blessed me.
I don’t believe in an Eternal Creator. I believe I am an evolved animal in a material universe, and there is no separate spiritual reality beyond baryonic matter. But the word “God” signifying particular experiences which I see in others or I share has value and meaning to me.
I would hope Quaker metaphysical beliefs would enhance our community and our practice of worship. We have a shared practice and way of life, not a shared belief system. Possibly the only belief required of someone joining us for the first time is that our practice may benefit them. Rather than asking what they believe, I would ask whether they are oriented towards growing in love in the community.
Might we have to expel someone for their belief? Only if we discerned that the belief was harming the community unbearably, perhaps because it was dogmatically held, and the person thought others should agree. We do not expel a Friend lightly.
My commitment to the community and the worship ranks, for me, above my atheist materialist beliefs. Therefore I hope that even if the Christian revelation of the Eternal Creator is true, I will not harm the worshipping community with my beliefs.
If Quakers honestly attempt to conform their beliefs to their experience, and are open to changing them, I hope those attracted to our spiritual practices will not believe anything that the community would discern to be harmful. Spiritual experience is beyond words, so I cannot produce a description in words precisely fitting my own experiences, though it is worthwhile trying to. When I do, I find similarities to others’ experiences.
We have some shared moral beliefs. We are pacifist. But we have a variety of understandings of that, and some Quakers joined the armed forces in the second world war. We have not yet reached agreement on assisted dying, and perhaps do not need to. Our moral beliefs change: when some Quakers owned and traded slaves, others began to say this was wrong.
In Meeting, I was contemplating Thomas Cranmer’s “Prayer of Humble Access”, which I said routinely as a child. It gained new meaning for me. “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table” alludes to Matthew 15:21-28. Then we ask to eat Christ’s flesh so that it will make us clean, “and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us”. That mix of unworthiness and access, humility and gratitude for the blessing I find in Meeting spoke to me. I grow in understanding, whatever I believe, or however I put it in words.