Radical Immanence

I’m intrigued to discover the work of French philosopher François Laruelle. He suggests that all forms of philosophy rest on a prior decision, but remain blind to that decision. The ‘decision’ that Laruelle is concerned with is a supposed splitting of the world in order to grasp the world philosophically, e.g. subject/object. Laruelle suggests that the decision itself will not be grasped without introducing a further division.

So, instead Laruelle introduces ‘non philosophy’ as a resisting of any initial decisions and consequent splitting. That can then lead into an awareness of ‘radical immanence’, i.e. with no need to make up separations between the world and any other principles or force.

At least, I think that’s the initial gist of what Laruelle is saying – but I’ve only just started this exciting new exploration!




Thursday 5th October 2017. A well presented and stimulating study morning for the clergy of Guildford Diocese with Bishop Jo Bailey Wells of Dorking.

Her theme was that innovation best evolves from within tradition and not in discontinuity.

A questioner asked how we can identify the bedrock of tradition, so that ‘this much cannot ever change’? Jo said that she took that to be “the deposit of Scripture”. But why take the Judeo-Christian narrative as complete and sufficient when other religions have completely different narratives? Are not all of them, including our own, thoroughly culture-specific, each one as beautiful and truthful (and limited) as the others? Why not refer simply to our wondering capacity for deepening awareness of ‘all that is’ as the bedrock to spiritual living?

As a Quaker I now value silent waiting above all forms of prayer and worship – opening to all fullness – though only having first learnt to value the systematic reading of Scripture. I’ve found how the Anglican Daily Office can form a virtual spiritual reality to allow access and find a way where the Inward Light shines. At first I wondered if the Quaker distrust of all outward forms of worship meant I should simply abandon saying the Office. Then I discovered how the regular outward praying of psalms and prayers can create the space for inward receptivity – just as the Scripture & patristic readings form a visionary map allowing one to recognise a place to ‘be’. So I now find it good to keep five full minutes of silence at the heart of each Office morning and evening – deeply enriching and nourishing, just like my daily enjoyment of music and reading of poetry .

We do surely need some form of thought-map, a world we can envisage and which makes sense, in the landscape of which we can orientate ourselves in the otherwise utterly open plain of silence, and if we are to see how to get from A to B in the bewildering rush of constant process. 


9th Sunday after Trinity : 13th August 2017 : Matthew 14:22-33 : Address at Guildford United Reformed Church

We’ve expected a lot of our Children & Families Worker – not perhaps to the extent of wanting her to walk on water, but not far off! For in both churches we ought to recognise that our human resources are very modest. And while there are certainly plenty of children and families in our local community the pressures in society, the way we live now, don’t exactly make it easy to engage and nurture a new generation of active committed church members. Yet we’ve hoped that our Children & Families Worker could make possible some exciting children’s ministry – please – and she has! So, maybe the first thing we would want to say this morning is a huge thankyou to Emma for all that she has achieved. Establishing MESSY CHURCH – incredible. Sustaining Sunday Club and Children’s Church activities on Sunday mornings – just so encouraging. Café Play and GURCKINS during the week – dependably, utterly reliably opening up, getting things ready, setting the scene, welcoming parents, carers and children, making the coffee and providing the cakes – not dominating, but meeting the needs. Being a key player in our monthly Family Services and Family Church – gently steering in the right directions, helping to take the load. These are quietly fantastic achievements, and if we stand back and reflect on our context, we can begin to realise just what ‘miracles’ Emma has worked – almost walking on water! So, thankyou for all this Emma, and plenty more which I could spend the rest of the morning listing.


We can imagine Jesus looking across the water to the boat, saying to Peter ‘Come’ – ‘come on, you can do it’ – and he does, he begins to believe it’s possible with Jesus and he walks. Together with Emma our two churches have had sufficient encouragement to take a few steps and have begun to sense that with Jesus it might be possible. But we can also imagine the expression on the face of Jesus when Peter begins to sink. The smile as he reaches out and catches hold of him. This story has a dreamlike quality – like when I was a child I used to have a delicious dream of flying through the air like Peter Pan. It’s certainly a story which conveys a deep truth – that however stormy the conditions we find ourselves in we can trust to that total love we see personified in Jesus. But Jesus is a man with his feet firmly on the ground. He’s flesh and blood. He eats and drinks. He lives in the real world, and therefore, surely, did not have unrealistic expectations of his disciples? And while Emma has achieved an enormous amount we never expected her to be Superwoman (well, at times, we probably did, but we know we shouldn’t have done!). And part of the excellent foundation work she has done in the life of both churches is to establish the attitude of having realistic expectations of what we might achieve in our children’s ministry. We shall long remember – hopefully – how she’s always said that Rome wasn’t built in a day, how, deciding on a course of action, we just have to believe in it, and keep at it, results perhaps not coming for a long while – and that’s OK. Thankyou for that Emma, we know you’re right, we just have to be reminded.


And also there’s always been a quiet spirituality underpinning all that Emma’s led with us. So a few Sundays ago she was publicising the Children’s Holiday Club at the end of the Sunday Mass at St Nicolas’, asking for active helpers, but carefully adding that those who couldn’t please could they pray day by day for the Holiday Club. She’s consistently reminded us that this is a work we are doing ‘with Jesus’.


So, now looking ahead, we must not lose that, nor the importance of having realistic expectations, patience – and discerning where the energy is in our churches life together, just like Emma herself has been such a dynamo of energy. Oh, yes, though, what we might just note this morning – also, is that Emma has, I think, been quite good at setting aside a bit of time for herself. To recover, rebalance, retain some sanity! Quietly off home when no longer needed. A glass of wine or two after MESSY CHURCH I’ve always hoped! Sensible holidays and even a Sabbatical. That’s really good – good role modelling from Emma as to how we need to be as churches. We’re too good at making each other – that’s the diminishing core members of our churches – just work ever harder and faster, faster and harder, pedalling furiously. I don’t know about the URC but at St Nicolas’ we do try to honour the ‘seven marks of a healthy church’ – yes? The seventh of which is: ‘Does a few things and does them well’. Oh that we may honour that one! And remember what Jesus was actually doing that night – making for somewhere he could find some peace and quiet. Simply that.


So thankyou Emma for doing and being all this for us. Keep on likewise in your new job. And let’s try to keep to mark number seven in our church life, folks. It’s easy to say it, but not necessarily so easy to do it. Which is why it’s been so good to have in Emma a colleague who has walked the walk. You know that good saying: to walk the walk – and how it goes on: and talk the talk.


But there’s a bit more:

Walk the walk

Talk the talk

Talk the walk

And walk the talk

Emma has talked the walk – but she has also walked the talk, that is, she has persistently said the right things and consistently done them!


Next week in the Children’s Holiday Club we shall be enjoying the theme of pirates, so walking the talk and walking on water comes together in that. Because you know what pirates do when they attack and take over a ship? They make the captain walk the plank! While on holiday I’ve been enjoying re-reading my Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson in preparation for next week.  ‘Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest – /Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!’ and the terrible stories of Billy Bones. But in our church life we don’t tyrannise, and it’s not for us to commit any form of violence, however subtle. Our God is a god of love and tenderness, who wants us to practise the art of the possible, and to be gentle with each other, and towards those we are here to serve. So, Emma, we wish you well – as now we hope to live up to the good ways you have set us on as we walk with the Lord who does ever lead us all onwards.

6th Sunday after Trinity : 23rd July 2017 : Matthew 13:31-33 &36-43

The more observant will have noticed an unusual flag flying over the church for the last few days. It was the flag of the People’s Republic of China. Not, on reflection, perhaps the best way to have done this, but it was there to help us focus our attention on the Chinese writer and political activist, Liu Xiaobo, who has just died. His life is a story of good and bad. The gospel today is a parable of good and bad existing together in this world. Liu Xiaobo was born in the northern Chinese province of Jilin in 1955. Coming after the Cultural Revolution he was one of the first generation of Chinese students to go to university after they’d reopened. So that was good. There he studied Chinese literature, and then went on to become a successful writer and public intellectual. In 1989 Liu was lecturing in New York, but the spring of that year was when the pro-democracy protests broke out in China. Up to that point Liu had shown little interest in politics, but what was happening back home deeply concerned him. He decided to return and to go immediately to Tiananmen Square. There he played a central role, leading a hunger strike as the military crackdown came on 4th June when hundreds, probably thousands, of lives were lost. For Liu this was the moment of his awakening to be a lifelong activist and champion of democracy. In 2008 he wrote what he called ‘Charter 08’ in which he called for an end to one-party rule in China. Bu this was completely unacceptable to the authorities. Liu was arrested and given an eleven year jail sentence. Hidden away in prison he was not forgotten, and in 2010 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: for ‘his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China’. Liu had developed what he called a “no enemies” philosophy, and he believed in looking to overcome “forceful tyranny”, as he named it, by the means of non-violent resistance. Which is why it’s important to be remembering him in a Christian church. At the award ceremony his absence was represented by an empty chair. And seven years into his sentence, just back this past May, Liu was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. So, given the circumstances the authorities were petitioned to allow him to choose his own medical treatment overseas, but this was denied up to the end which came all too quickly.


The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has paid tribute to Liu as “a courageous fighter for civil rights and freedom of opinion”. He’d spent almost ¼ of his life behind bars. And the US secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said he mourned the loss of a man who had dedicated “his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty”. So that’s the incredible good which had been able to grow through him as in the field of the parable – and so might we give thanks for Liu here today as one of ‘the righteous shining like the sun in the kingdom of the Father’. While the weeds, well, that might make us think of the repressiveness to which Liu was so opposed. Those terrible days in Tiananmen Square. And now the way the Chinese authorities seem to be handling it. Boris Johnson spoke out and said he thought that Liu should have been allowed to go for medical treatment. “This was wrong”, he stated, “and I now urge them to lift all restrictions on his widow, Liu Xia.” Because, ever since her husband won the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xia has lived under heavy surveillance and almost total isolation. A government spokesman has said that, No she was free, and that she was just being protected while she grieved. But the American human rights lawyer, Jared Genser, who represented her and her late husband, he said: “We have lost touch with her … I’m incredibly concerned about her health and welfare.” [The Guardian 15th July] and he reckons understandably that the authorities might be reluctant to release her in case she becomes a figurehead of resistance. “She is an extraordinarily able and determined person”, he said, “too potent a symbol”.


So we have the good and the bad all mixed up together in this untidy field which is our world. We may well ask: why does God allow it? Maybe part of the answer is that actually it’s often very difficult to separate the weeds from the good plants. Which are the weeds and what’s the good in our world – is the bad really so bad? Having displayed the Chinese flag might prompt us now to pray for the state authorities – and perhaps to see all this from their perspective – in terms of the bigger picture, perhaps, quite nuanced and complex? Though their US lawyer, he’s urging world leaders now to speak up for Liu, and for his wife, and says that a failure to do so would be to send Beijing the message that it’s now open season: “Just do whatever you like. The world will look the other way”. Will the world’s leaders let the good push through? Let’s hope so.


Good and bad in this messy world. God knows what will become of us. But let me end, as we fly the red flag of China, by remembering a rather good development recently. So Donald Trump announced that America would be withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement. While the Chinese government was saying: we “will stay committed to upholding and promoting the global governance on climate change, and take an active part in the multilateral process on climate change.”[Hua Chunying, foreign ministry spokesperson] Bad and good. The Chinese president is promoting a $900bn global investment initiative, known as the ‘Belt and Road’ project, to open up markets across Asia and Europe for Chinese-made solar panels and wind turbines, and they’re also now working on establishing a national carbon trading platform.


Looking for what’s good in our world, as we should do as Christians, then we have to recognise which are the weeds – but, believing in the good husbandry of God, we needn’t  feel so easily overwhelmed by them – even though good and bad will always be mixed up together. As the parable ends: ‘Let anyone with ears listen!’




Andrew Norman

For the interview as published in the Guildford Dragon, June 2017:


Dragon Interview: Rector Of St Nicolas’ Church Questions His Own Beliefs

We expect clergymen to be honest and in this interview Andrew Norman, rector of Guildford’s St Nicolas’ Church, which has been considered to be of the Anglo Catholic tradition, is painfully so as he discusses his own faith and how his beliefs have developed over time, culminating in the big question, “Do I believe in God?”…

The interview was provoked by an article he wrote in the St Nicolas parish magazine Signpost, which is republished here to give the interview proper context:

By Andrew Norman

May is Mary’s month at St Nicolas’ Church. These days I think of Mary as an ordinary Jewish girl, growing up to be a woman vulnerable both to the strictures of traditional society which was itself also suffering Roman occupation, and in the confusion of her own personal circumstances. Certainly she experienced the pain and bloodiness both of childbirth and then 30 years later, in the execution of her son.

Do I believe in the virgin birth (the belief that Jesus was born before Mary and Joseph had sex because she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit)? I believe in it as a beautiful poetic expression of the deep truth that God was at work in Jesus all the way through. But I view that belief as related to a past cultural context.

These days we wouldn’t imagine virginity to be a better state for God to work with than the fulfilment of any of the various kinds of personal relationships we allow for now. Seeing Mary like that encourages me to see Jesus in the same way as a fellow human being also related to a past cultural context.

But I wouldn’t want to say that is all he was. He was a great spiritual teacher – and with a more radical message then we care to admit – but whenever I read the gospels I am always left wondering how exactly he did relate to God. So I carry on saying the creed with great reverence, because I certainly can’t put it any better myself. Credo? And do I believe in ‘God’?

More and more I feel the need simply to sit in silence and to let be the mystery of all that is – and then to go on trusting wholly to unconditional love.

Following is the interview conducted by Martin Giles

Your article is a very honest expression of your beliefs. What has been the reaction from your parishioners?

I don’t know what people thought about it. What worries me is that some feel they are not allowed to be honest about their questions. Paul Tillich (German American theologian 1886-1965) said, ‘Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith’. Surely the essential spirit of all religion is to be true to our human wondering?

So no one from your congregation has commented on the article?

Some have commented, but I am not expecting to see in their hearts exactly what they think about the issues. We may react to each other, but I try to respect the otherness of the other.

You imply that a belief in a literal virgin birth is not critical for you. Is that the case?

Respectfully wondering about the virgin birth is what’s critical for me. Why have Christians wanted to believe this? Is there sometimes more truth in what we call fiction than in supposed facts? Jesus himself taught through telling stories or parables. I do not want to reject the tradition of the virgin birth, but to suggest that it is more than a plain literal statement.

You write, “These days we wouldn’t imagine virginity to be a better state for God to work with than the fulfilment of any of the various kinds of personal relationships we allow for now.” This implies acceptance of the fact that many loving relationships are of different kinds. Is this what you mean?

Well, we don’t think that virginity is what makes a person good or ‘pure’ do we? Personally I relate to the image of Mary as a thoroughly female, menstruating, strong, passionate, woman trusting in the goodness of God in a situation of total vulnerability, rather than as a remote, ethereal maiden. I believe in a God who is unconditional love and who therefore affirms us all throughout the whole LGBT range of good, loving relationships.

Does it show that you have personally changed your views on the subject and do you agree that such a statement would have been impossible for the rector of St Nicolas’ to write until quite recently?

Throughout the time I have been privileged to serve as the minister at St Nicolas’ – 24 years now – my views have changed about many of the ways to express our faith – notoriously in coming to accept and welcome the full inclusion of women in ministry! Surely faith which shows no movement is dead? Our 21st-century world needs a radical approach to faith, through constantly referring to its deep roots.

Doesn’t it also show that even fundamental beliefs can be subject to fashion and the social climate? If so, does that devalue them?

I feel that what does devalue fundamental beliefs is when we retreat into nostalgia, ‘wasn’t it nice when everyone believe… so and so’? Surely, religion which is not allowed to engage with the contemporary social environment turns into an unreal mode of escapism?

Generally, is our moral judgement on an inexorable upward trend over time, assisted by our greater material comfort and scientific knowledge or can you foresee a time when some values currently held, for instance on LGBT equality, might again be questioned by the majority?

Clearly some aspects of life as we experience it are improving – like the acceptance of LGBT relationships and many features remain fixed such as war and terrorism and some seem to get worse. So I do not see any generalised answer to this question about our moral judgement as possible. But I do not believe humankind can be saved on its own.

What are the fundamental beliefs necessary to be a Christian? Is it still that Christ was the Son of God, and a man and God, and his literal resurrection?

I do not know. It depends what others mean by ‘a Christian’. What does it mean to others to call Jesus ‘Son of God’? I do not understand faith to do with matters of plain description, for example ‘resurrection’. It’s all evocative and makes me, to use that key term, wonder.

Your last two sentences are: “And do I believe in ‘God’? More and more I feel the need simply to sit in silence and to let be the mystery of all that is – and then go on trusting wholly to unconditional love.” It sounds like even you doubt your belief in God sometimes. What do you mean by these two sentences?

Members of St Nicolas’ know that somehow I have grown within our catholic ethos into the simplicity of now becoming a Quaker. Actually, I would claim to believe, or hope to trust in, God more and not less, as the core of my personal creed has become: ‘in all the flow of life to trust to unconditional love as ‘God’. I now find the richness of our catholic spirituality affirmed in the simplicity of Quaker silence – yes, a paradox, but a stream of daily refreshment. And what that means I guess I will find out as life goes on.

When you are meditating, how do you envisage God? Is it enough for you that he is a mysterious force for good, for love that requires no further definition?

I do not meditate. In the Quaker way, I would say, ‘I wait on the silence’ – and then I trust to any illuminating of the heart and mind which may come and hope to follow its leadings. Whatever I can envisage is not ‘God’. For me, I think, if it is that ‘God is love’, well, I simply trust in the personal choice to take unconditional love as my God – if you see what I mean?



20170417_152255 (1)

On my Easter break and I’m enjoying a beautiful Spring afternoon walking through Staffordshire countryside and trying to say more simply to my sister what I’ve been struggling with thoughout Lent: that the truth of e.g.the resurrection is in how, by telling stories and living the narrative, that’s the way we experience and ‘know’ anything as human beings. So isn’t it the religious storyline which most deeply explores the mystery of life? Of course, if read in a closed way (as many now do) we may well assume that it’s all merely fantasy.   But an open reading allows the narrative to be profoundly evocative, inviting a personal relational response. Then it may encourage us to enjoy the goodness of life, trusting in unconditional love, and never to stop wondering.

Later in the week I’m reflecting further on the priority of inward prayer and worship over the outward. Then on Sunday I was able to attend my home Meeting for Worship – and feeling entirely at home with Friends at Guildford Quakers. But later that same day found me in London at Solemn Evensong and Benediction in All Saints’, Margaret Street. To be honest I was looking to fill an hour before a convert at the Wigmore Hall, and All Saints’ was just around the corner – offering some extra free music! Yes, I did enjoy it – it being very much ‘where I’ve come from’. And it made me think that while inward prayer and worship is now dominant for me I still need to be able to relate that positively to the outwardness of ‘programmed worship’ to use the Quaker term.

C - london (cw) - all saints, margaret street 3Watching the clergy at All Saints’ in all its theatricality also got me thinking about the importance of my wanting now to witness to a non-hierarchical exercise of ministry.  Holding simply to the Quaker testimony of equality because it connects with the wider need for non-coercive and co-operative attitudes: politically & socially, personally & spiritually. There are various practical ways to do that, most easily by choosing not to wear clerical dress when that feels OK.

With the daily barrage of party political developments I began to feel that the time had come to renew my membership of the Green Party, realising that I do identify with its philosophical outlook. But this Sunday I’m planning to preach a sermon exploring the thought that what we need most is spiritual renewal rather than any kind of political programme. Watch this space! (?)



C of EQuaker_logopic-for-blog

During Lent 2017 I tried to think through what was entailed in my becoming a Quaker. Basically I needed to work out how to be true to that of God in myself. This, I trust, is what led me on. Integrity is one of the key Quaker values, so as this unfolds I want to be careful also to continue fully honouring my Anglican identity.

James Fowler’s Stages of Faith, published in 1981, suggested that we can often see our whole lives in terms of five or six stages of spiritual development. In the first stage we learn mainly through experiences, stories, images, and the people we come into contact with. By the fifth stage we are able to see that faith is not so black and white. Much is symbolic and truth might be sensed to be multidimensional. Fowler calls the last stage Universalizing. Then it is we may come to have access to more compassion, feeling we are all part of a universal community, and that there are universal principles of love and justice. So I wonder if it is that kind of personal development which explains how the young anglo-catholic priest of almost forty years ago has metamorphosed into the open-minded Quakerism I identify with now? I have no intention of  any formal abandonment of the Church of England nor of stepping away from its ordained ministry. But it is my hope to re-inform, integrate and balance that with my Quaker commitment.

Worship & prayer A lifetime of performing outward religious forms leaves me now, to be honest, weary of the repetition. But the classic early Quaker writings of Robert Barclay really get to this for me when he distinguishes between the outward and the inward in prayer and worship:

  … prayer is twofold: inward and outward. Inward prayer is that secret turning of the mind towards God … whereby being awakened by the Light of Christ… and joining issue with the secret shining of the Seed of God, it breathes towards him. Outward prayer is when as the spirit … received strength and liberty … to bring forth audible words.

The outward exercise of prayer … cannot be practised … until his mind be acquainted with the Inward.

… this outward prayer depends on the Inward …

his spirit … may teach us not to rely upon outward performances, or satisfy ourselves, as too many do, with the saying of our prayers …

Robert Barclay An Apology for the true Christian Divinity 12.xxi

Barclay articulates the Quaker emphasis on letting direct spiritual awareness and experience be primary. My weariness is refreshed when outward forms, e.g. the Daily Office, can now rest in that inward receptiveness and the complete openness of silence.  When possible I start the day very early with a form of ‘Friendly’ bible study. Click on  FRIENDLY BIBLE STUDY.  This too rests in the ‘waiting in the silence’, not thinking about, but open to – all that is – the mystery of unconditional love who is God. The quiet may allow for some true disclosure about myself, or the situation I am in, and hopefully space for holding others and particular concerns ‘in the light’.  So this is the primary form of prayer for me now. Though on holidays and days-off the openness to that of God comes much more simply, from just being out – in the countryside, an early walk along a Greek beach one year, picking some blackberries from a Devon hedgerow the next.  

Likewise a way of life which has been for so long consciously centred in the daily celebration of the Eucharist is now re-focussed in a completely implicit sacramental appreciation. So, in practice, the Quaker Meeting for Worship for me can simply replace attendance at the Eucharist, and with no sense of loss but rather the opposite. 

We would assert that the validity of worship lies not in its form but in its power, and a form of worship sincerely dependent on God, but not necessarily including the words and actions usually recognised as eucharistic, may equally serve as a channel for this power and grace. We interpret the words and actions of Jesus near the end of his life as an invitation to recall and re-enact the self-giving nature of God’s love at every meal and every meeting with others, and to allow our own lives to be broken open and poured out for the life of the world.

To Fox and the early Friends the whole of life seemed sacramental, and they refused to mark off any one particular practice or observance as more sacred than others … We do not say that to observe the sacraments is wrong, but that such observance is not essential to wholehearted Christian discipleship and the full Christian experience. We do not judge our fellow Christians to whom the outward sacraments mean so much. Rather do we wish, by prayerful fellowship with them, to be led unitedly with them to a deeper understanding of what underlies those sacraments, and so to share a richer experience of the mind of Christ.

[Both from London Yearly Meeting, 1986;  Quaker Faith & Practice]

The early Quakers were looking for an authentic spiritual experience which would truly make a difference, both to themselves and for the world in which they lived. This is what I discover in letting all outward worship and prayer – the liturgical – be rooted in a radical silence, and for me now totally retracting back into that open, receptive quietness. Importantly this quietness is most fully accessible in a communal gathering rather than personal meditation. So ‘Quaker Faith & Practice’ 19.48 – 1694 A Testimony of William Penn concerning early Friends:

They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them… And as they freely received what they had to say from the Lord, so they freely administered it to others. The bent and stress of their ministry was conversion to God, regeneration and holiness, not schemes of doctrines and verbal creeds or new forms of worship, but a leaving off in religion the superfluous and reducing the ceremonious and formal part, and pressing earnestly the substantial, the necessary and profitable part, as all upon a serious reflection must and do acknowledge.

Basic understandings Barclay’s distinction between inward and outward helps me see how catholic fundamentally relates to Quaker; as implicit spiritual awareness to explicit belief; spiritual experience to liturgical words; apophatic encounter (recognising that ‘God’ is by definition beyond our comprehension) to religious language as being metaphorical. Quakers are liberal Christians, which is why I feel at home there. For Quakers in the UK, the Manchester Conference of 1894 decisively set that tone. During its proceedings one of the early pioneers, Isaac Penington, was quoted:

“That, through which men are saved, is the dispensation of truth in their age. The measure of light which God gives forth in every age, that is the means and proper way of salvation in that age; and whatever men get or profess of the knowledge of truth declared in former ages, yet making use of that to withstand the present dispensation of truth in their age, they cannot thereby be saved, but may thereby be hardened against that which should save them.”

Quakers characteristically accept the relative truth of ideas and language. However, we are not liberal Christians as mere sceptics, but because we look to direct, unmediated encounter with the whole truth – which thoughts and words can only ever express relatively. So I continue to validate and value catholic forms of belief and worship – but now as dependent upon, and derivative from, the primacy of the experience we can have of all that they signify. (That’s why I prefer to sit in the pregnant silence of a Meeting for Worship when circumstances permit, but remain very happy to lead, sustain – and hope to grow! – the eucharistically centred life of St Nicolas’). 

But what does spiritual experience consist of? I suspect that Fowler’s model of personal development explains why I now feel the need to re-examine that question. I find I am no longer simply convinced by conventional religious beliefs unreflectively taken at face value. I certainly continue to find them powerfully evocative. But I am now looking to that which I can know for myself. Working this through brought me back to the writings of Don Cupitt. I find him both wonderfully astringent and somehow nourishing – also, though, that I part company with him at a critical point in his thinking. Beginning as an Anglican priest his theology led him on a long philosophical journey. He shows how all that we know is according to the ways we interpret our experience. What is ‘real’ and ‘true’ is what is real and true for me and it is not meaningful to claim to know of a Reality and Truth beyond our experience. Cupitt calls this non-realism (though I don’t myself feel at all comfortable with that negative term). But I warm to what he says, e.g. as on his website:

To start with, a non-realist pointedly refrains from saying what realists most want to hear, namely that our views in religion,in logic and mathematics, in ethics, and also about the empirical world, can be, and need to be, objectively true. … Realism is often associated with a ‘picture’ theory of meaning, and a correspondence theory of truth. A witness gives his testimony, and when his words represent the facts as being such-and-such, then if that is indeed how things are, then he’s telling the truth.

… Further, in ethics, mathematics and logic the chief principles of the subject are often described as being ‘timeless truths’. … From the point of view of philosophy, it is important to remember that ‘science is a humanity’; that every scrap of our scientific world-picture is an intra-linguistic and intra-historical construct; and that we cannot separate the way that the world is absolutely from the way our current theory represents it. …

Philosophy needs to learn to do without a number of its long-cherished assumptions. It needs to forget the idea that the Universe has a ready-made intelligible structure with its own final vocabulary out there waiting to be tapped into and copied down by us. … Life is the whole human world, everything as it looks to and is experienced by the only beings who actually have a world, namely human beings with a life to live. …Our age is now post-metaphysical. … Life has no outside.

Everything is immanent, interconnected, secondary. Everything remains within life. When we are born, we don’t come into this world, and when we die we don’t leave it. There is no absolute point of view from which someone can see ‘the Truth’, the final Truth, about life. … Life is that in which ‘we live and move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28), within which we are formed, and of whose past we will remain part. Both our ultimate Origin and our Last End are within life. Life is now as God to us … To love life is to love God. … Every bit of our life is final for us, and we should treat all life as a sacred gift and responsibility. We should see our relation to life as being like an immediate relation to God. We are moved and touched by the way all living things, and not just we ourselves, spontaneously love life, affirm it and cling to it. … 

Life is a continuous streaming process of symbolic expression and exchange. … The motion of language logically precedes the appearing of a formed and ‘definite’ world. It is in this sense that it was once said that ‘In the beginning was the Word’.

Do I believe in God? I was asked that at our 2017 Annual Church Meeting (and thought it a well-aimed question)! Well, OK, I am moved by Cupitt’s creed: ‘This is all there is’. He says that in an act of closure, resigned to accepting that religious belief is just one of the ways we developed to interpret our experience. ‘God’ is just a subjective fiction. But I read that same statement as a positively open declaration, more like, ‘All this is all there is’, with the emphasis on the first clause: ‘All this is all there is‘. In Quaker silence we can be open to a direct encounter with the totality of all that is. Rather than closing down all belief in God, realising that all we know is according to the ways we interpret our experience provokes me to wonder. The human horizon which determines that it is not meaningful to claim to know of a Real and True God beyond our experience is not an obstacle but an invitation.

Cupitt sometimes refers to a radical immanence rather than non-realism, and I am much happier with that term. (Transcendence is a sense of God as completely ‘beyond’, while immanence is the divine presence in the here and now.)

I’ve been greatly helped at this point by the work of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor. Reading his book ‘The Secular Age’ I recognised that I live in what Taylor calls ‘the immanent frame’. This is the perspective of assuming that we have to create the good life, and work at meaningfulness on the basis that reality is the empirical here-and-now, and we are  inherently part of all that is natural. I’d say that I live in the immanent frame simply because that is what feels credible to me. But Taylor argues that although the immanent frame can be read in a closed way (as Cupitt does and which forecloses any valid thinking about the reality of God) it can also be read in a way that is open to the mystery of God. Another book, ‘God, Value & Nature’ by Fiona Ellis takes seriously the same sense that the natural is all we can know, but she too shows faith still to be an option. Taylor and Ellis reassure me that despite the persuasive credibility of Cupitt’s emphasis that all our human knowing is wholly subjective, the way of faith is still very much open to us – and that the more completely holistic valuing of that which we may experience in quiet Quaker receptiveness can be trusted to.

In conclusion, I identify with the approach of ‘radical immanence’ (please, not non-realist!) but, for me, crucially with an open reading of it, for I am certainly not ‘non–theistic’. In fact Cupitt’s thinking seems actually to prompt a sense of intimacy with the mystery of God – in, ‘All this, is all there is‘ – rather than, as for him, I think, closing down any expectation of encounter.

Am I a Christian? That was another question I was asked. I ought to be able to answer. So I would need to explain that I have come to find a distinction between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith  very helpful.The trouble is, we can know little about the Jesus of history, and the Christ of faith grew out of a culture very remote to ours. However, the work of New Testament scholars in the USA, the so-called ‘Jesus Seminar’, is very helpful. One of them, Marcus Borg, helpfully clarifies a distinction between the Jesus of history and the later Christ of faith – but in a way which still encourages trust in the validity of the latter. Another member of the Jesus Seminar, John Crossan, provides some very perceptive contextualizing socio-political insights. But most importantly, I would say, is how all that scholarship then helps me with Quakers to find the Living Christ in our ‘inward’ experience. Not as any free-floating, self-justifying fiction, but as open to be authenticated when it demonstrably connects with the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith. This Living Christ is now truly in operation as a contemporary influence and the source of love-making-real.

But I would want to stress the universality of the Living Christ – as the breaking wave of spiritual awareness, continuing  intimations of what I sometimes imagine as the ‘divine mystery’, or otherwise just simply as the fullness of all that is. So Christian imagery embodies the experience in a person – Jesus – as he was for the disciples, as the church in tradition received him, so now how he is for me. I love (and need?)  the image, the person whom I feel we can relate to. But it is the experience that carries me on.

So I do not feel myself to have become  any kind of hybrid Quanglican animal.  I look not  to displace Anglican ways, but simply to enter now more inwardly into that which has been so outward. Rufus Jones used to say that Quakerism is more a movement than another church, and I warm to that.  My Quaker way of life is what actively and daily prompts me to open up to the mystery of God, and thereby to ongoing  spiritual renewal in hopefulness. And isn’t it spiritual rather than merely social or political renewal that our world most urgently needs? It therefore spoke powerfully to me when, thinking this, I read about Nathan Soderblom, Archbishop of Uppsala, who at the ecumenical Life & Work Conference in Stockholm of 1925 , spelled out as a fundamental principle that, ‘Institutions, and organizations, laws and decrees, however good and necessary they are, will remain impotent like empty shells and dead bodies if they are not given soul and life. They must be animated by prayer and faith, love and hope. Only a change of heart will bring peace and renewal to humanity.’ Faith-related diplomacy: An introduction to Nathan Soderblom by Jonas Jonson in Theology Jan-Feb 2017

This continues to be my own personal journey. But surely the mission of the church today is:

  • to talk about faith in language that rings true;
  • finding models of church life that connect with how people live now;
  • and for that faith to be transformative.