Monday, 11 August 2008

Sneering at god?

I know sometimes I make sneery comments about religion (especially Christianity and anything to do with the Bible) – some lighthearted, some less so. Sometimes I hear or read myself do it and think...hmmm, so easy to sneer (and I hate sneering as a rule). So why do I make the exception in this case...how lazy and hypocritical...as bad as some of the religious people who say one thing and then do quite the other! See, there I go again...

I thought maybe it was time to have a post with some religious content that wasn't completely flippant and/or offensive. All that self-eliminating from the last post...look how it's working! So anyway I'm going to post a poem I wrote a while back about Quakers. My Dad was from a Quaker family (Fox is about as Quaker a name as you can get although in fact we are not descended from George Fox, the founder of the Quaker way). My Dad wasn't particularly religious (and he worked a lot) so we didn't go to meeting when I was a child (meeting is the Sunday worship for the Quakers/Society of Friends if you're unfamiliar with the term). I did go to a Quaker secondary school though – a small weird boarding school in North Yorkshire and we had meeting regularly there and we did learn about the Quaker beliefs (bascially Christian but with a big emphasis on peace, silence and thinking). Some people who don't know about Quakerism think it's a kind of cult or something like the Amish (keeping the past alive...) but it's nothing like that at all. It's just people meeting together to think and talk and, maybe, worship (no singing, no dancing, no praying as such). Quakers don't have vicars or ministers of any kind and in meeting anyone can get up and speak (about anything, in theory). In school it was only ever teachers who spoke of course but pupils did sometimes ambush the record player (usually when a rock star died...I seem to remember one rebellious sixth former playing the Sex Pistols' 'My way' at some point). Quakers are fairly laid-back as a rule so the school was like a C4 experiment (little discipline, much bad behaviour). I got in a fair amount of trouble (and it was quite hard to get in trouble, believe me) and I certainly didn't spend a lot of time thinking about religion...well, not unless you think Robert Plant really is a god.

These days my Mum still goes to Quaker meeting so I still hear about the Friends quite regularly. My Mum isn't hugely religious either but she likes Quakers (in fact both her husbands were Quakers). By and large the people you meet at a meeting are really good, kind, generous, open-minded, thinking people and that's certainly one reason she keeps going. Plus Quakers are not at all evangelical which is always a plus...once religion gets into marketing the only way is downhill and fast (to the gates of hell!). I suppose one day I might even go myself but it's unlikely. I find talk of God and Jesus a real stumbling block...for example I always find it really hard to continue conversations with people once they start saying things like 'yes, but God understands that' or 'but that's what Jesus was talking about'. It's just all too vague (but full of certitude). They always know...and if there's one thing I know it's that we know very little. That doesn't help with living particularly but personally I prefer it to the alternatives. I am working on the self eliminating though...a person can have too much of themselves!

Anyway, here's my poem. I hope the lines fit. I don't intentionally write visual poetry or anything like that (the visual is my weakest area) but I liked the way this one came out in steps. That's just how it came. An act of god (or even God?)? Absolutely not – it was the poetry fairies what done it!

What you can learn from Quakers

You won't learn a lot about fashion
But you might learn to shut up now and then
You won't pick up any useful military tactics
But you might learn some patience and understanding
You won't be doing much dancing, singing or clapping
But you might have the odd quiet moment of revelation
You might not know what it is that makes people just sit there
But you might learn to do it, to just sit there, to be at peace


RF 2006 or thereabouts

29 comments:

BarbaraS said...

I like the steps in the poem too, Rachel. It reads very well. I liked this line best from your post: "if there's one thing I know it's that we know very little."

I'm in agreement with pretty much all that you say and Quakers sound like a modest, unassuming people :)

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for stopping by, Barbara. I have read your blog a few times and seen you over at Colin's quite a bit. It's nice over there - always something interesting afoot!

As for the knowing and not knowing...I know I'm not the first to say it or anything but I think it is something that it is easy to forget (now that sounds more complicated than it should...). I do it myself - get caught up in an argument, get so sure I'm right...but really...a lot of time can be spent on 'I know this' 'No, I know that' and before you know where you are a whole load of time has gone by!

Most Quakers are very good folk. A lot of them can be found protesting about fair trade, banning bombs and so on. There is usually at least one in each meeting who talks too much and insists on saying something every week (whether they have something to say or not...) but that's as bad as it gets. If I was more the believing type I might well go along. The silence at meetings is lovely...odd at first but lovely when you get used to it. They have silence for saying grace at mealtimes too which I always liked at school...you think your own thanks, no one tells you what you should be thinking and why. Above all it's the peacefulness I like. I'm all for peace...whenever possible!
x

Sorlil said...

I like 'you won't pick up any useful military tactics' - what an odd thing to say in a poem about Quakers! I've never been to a Quaker meeting, I'm more of a happy clappy person myself...

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, I think saying odd things is one of my roles in life!

And glad to hear you're both happy and clappy. It is true that the lack of music and singing is one of the things about Quakerism that is...well, a bit odd and quiet. All the silence is great but at the same time...oh, come on...let's have a big old sing song! I think if I ever do see any light I may go for the full gospel version - hallelujah! That scene in 'The Color Purple' where they sing all the way down the road (to the pub/ginhouse/speakeasy)...I think I'm remembering it right...or do they go from the pub to the church...anyway...that always looks like a worship and a half.
x

Jim Murdoch said...

Had I been written this poem I probably would have incorporated a line like:

You might not learn the truth but there is more to life than the truth

But that's just me. I had a bellyful of religion growing up. You've read my novel and I assure you I pull my punches. There are two subjects I don't ever get into, no deeper than this anyway, and that's politics (because I know so little) and religion (because I know so much). Like Beckett I use religious imagery as a reference because it's familiar but that's it.

It's an effective poem, well structured. If you change the 'just' to 'simply' in the last line it might help the shape slightly; it's a more evocative word too given the subject matter.

hope said...

"But you might learn to shut up now and then" is my favorite line.

I believe in God but am not fond of organized religion. Think that goes back to childhood when the battle cry was, "give us money to send Missionaries to the jungle to tell pygmies they're calling God by the wrong name." Sigh. I always felt like the kid in "The Emperor's New Clothes" when I'd point out that we were overlooking the folks in our own backyard to correct pygmies?! What happened to charity begins at home?

Thanks for the clearer definition of Quakers. I think former president Richard Nixon was raised Quaker...but I don't blame them for his bad choices. ;)

Rachel Fox said...

Jim...I'm not really very interested in religion (never have been) but I am interested in people - why they do what they do, why they believe or don't believe, when they follow up words with actions and so on. I think I was quite lucky in some ways having a Quaker background of sorts...I have a lot of friends raised in the company of other doctrines and some of them have a lot more bitterness and antipathy towards religion...

Your word addition is a good suggestion but I'm not sure I would put it there...doesn't read right for me. Maybe 'But you might learn to just do it, to simply sit there, to be at peace'. That has the added bonus of using the Nike slogan and I like a bit of using popular culture nonsense in other places with totally different meanings. I don't usually do it on purpose but I like it when it happens.

Hope - your comment reminded me of 'Pollyanna'! I think maybe you are a bit of a Pollyanna...what do you think?

Didn't know the Nixon connection...will check that. They certainly keep quiet about him...sometimes silence has added benefits!
x

Colin Will said...

Margaret Elphinstone's novel Voyageurs is about the exploration of Canada, and has a Quaker back story. Worth reading.

hope said...

Hmmm..."Pollyanna". May be. Then again what would you call grown up optimists? [Besides Rachel and hope] :)

I went back and looked it up. Richard Nixon's Mom was a Quaker and his Dad a Methodist who converted after marriage and baby Richard was brought up Quaker.

My head is generally filled with useless trivia, meaning I'm the one the family calls when they can't remember an actor's name but can describe his character. Sigh. I only remembered about Nixon because it was once an answer on "Jeopardy". It struck me as somewhat odd, then it stuck in my head.

Dave King said...

Seeing that there is patently not nearly enough good in the world, it's difficult to understand the frame of mind that sneers at it in whatever guise it comes.

Rachel Fox said...

Thanks for the book tip Colin. I will look into that one. Sounds like a good present for my Mum!

And Hope - the Pollyanna thing was more to do with her take on religion in the book and how she compares her father to some of the other Church people she meets. I read the book with SG not long ago and there was much more to it than just her optimism (and much more in the book than in the films). It's worth a reread.

And Dave...yes sneering at good in religion is silly (that's kind of what I'm trying to tackle re my own laziness) but but there is plenty of not-so-good connected with religion too and that we are duty-bound to observe I think. People assuming they know better because of a religious belief, people mistreating others, enforcing cruelty, hypocrisy...religion often seems to give people a free hand in some of these areas.

Personally I've never felt the slightest urge to pick any of the religions I've come across so far and ally myself to it (though I have admired some of their teachings and some of their, if you like, representatives). I find the whole business of using a word like 'god' or 'God' just alien to the way I think (so far anyway). I suppose I might be something like a humanist...but I've never felt drawn towards that team either. For all its problems and vagueness I think I just really like floating about unattached...I sometimes wish I had something like an organised belief system...but then other times I am really glad I don't!

I have a believing section on my website, in the book and a couple of belief poems on my myspace blog this week too. I guess it's a belief week!

Art Durkee said...

Something I always liked about the Friends (I've been to a few meetings, but I'm not affiliated with any organized religion) is their sense of social justice. Peace activism, in other words. Very good stuff. I've known many who were very engaged with their communities in very positive, supportive ways.

The silence is the best part of meetings. That's something I appreciate a great deal. It's similar when I sit zazen; the silent meditation is the best part of it all.

My spiritual practice is probably . . . unique. It's certainly asymptotic.

My suggestion on the poem, if you're open to it, is that your line "if there's one thing I know it's that we know very little." Probably actually belongs IN the poem. Just a thought.

Rachel Fox said...

Art - that line about knowing...it may go into a poem about believing (I write them on a regular basis...see my myspace blog this week) but I don't think it will go into this one. I wrote this quite a while ago...it feels pretty much camera ready to me.

I had to look up your asymptotic but I don't quite know what you mean in terms of believing. Can you explain?

Art Durkee said...

It pretty means that I don't believe in anything given or received as wisdom, but my knowledge goes to infinity based on experience and observation. I am in one sense a classical mystic, a shaman, whose witness of other worlds is the only basis for belief. I have a personal cosmology based on experience, which has been verified by one or two spiritual teachers whose work I trust and admire, but it's nothing you ever heard about in meeting, or in church. I can get very specific, but that's the overview in a nutshell.

Dominic Rivron said...

I have often found myself attracted to the Society of Friends, and your post makes me think something I frequently find myself thinking: that religious doubters and deniers often produce more spiritual insight into the way things are than conventional believers often do.
(By the way, did you know that the book, Quaker Faith and Practice, is online? quakersfp.live.poptech.coop/qfp/contents.html

I didn't).

For what it's worth, I think that whatever one's religious beliefs the big challenge is to try to come to terms with what Bertrand Russell said, albeit bluntly:
"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."

:)

Fiendish said...

It's a lovely poem. Questioning your faith, whatever it is, is important I think; and you have to be able to joke about things as well. Of course, it's easy for me to say - I'm not religious at all. Born and raised a Catholic, so totally familiar with the ceremonial side of things, but spiritually? Not so much.

"I'm not really very interested in religion but I am interested in people" just about sums me up too, Rachel. Nice post. :)

Rachel Fox said...

Dominic - that Russell quote is brilliant. I read 'A History of Western Philosophy' a LONG time ago. Maybe I should go back to that some time soon...

Fiendish...yes, I don't know many people raised Catholic (these days) who choose to stick with it in later life...

And Art...well, I think I know what you mean...but you know in Britain we are only good at taking the mickey out of stuff like mysticism...and I'm not going to do that...I don't know anything about it for a start!

Rachel Fox said...

Funnily enough (after just reading that Toby Youndg book that mentions her quite a lot) I've just read a Julie Burchill piece on the Guardian website about her Christianity. Amongst other typically Burchillesque provocative statements she says 'there is something profoundly immature about atheists'. Go have a read...she's never dull
http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/14/religion.anglicanism

Rachel Fox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rachel Fox said...

I was trying to make that link more visible but it didn't work. Act of god? Act of Burchill?

Sorlil said...

What a bizarre lady! I did read The God Delusion though and thought it was the most entertaining rant I've ever read and enough of a pile of mince to ensure that Dawkins will never be taken seriously again.

Sorlil said...

No it wasn't The God Delusion I read, it was Hitchens' God is not Great, and it really was just a rant.

Rachel Fox said...

Sorlil...yes bizarre JB certainly is. Like Madonna she's one of those women who never goes away but just keeps turning up with more odd outfits and theories (each one usually placing themselves firmly at the centre of everybody else's universe). The T Young book is quite good on Burchill - he rates her but points out her regular huge life changes. I imagine in a few years time she'll open a parrot sanctuary or something and then we'll all be idiots for not caring enough about parrots.

I've never read any Christopher Hitchens - his nasty sneery face on TV (could a person look any more smug?) has never made me want to go any further with him! On wikipedia they call him an intellectual...they can keep him.

I haven't read 'the God Delusion' but I did read el gran Dawkins in 'The Selfish Gene'. I don't disagree with much that he says but I find his emPHAtic prose style quite unbearable. Plus he repeats himself a lot to fill out all those pages. I said he repeats himself a lot to fill out all those pages. On the other hand he believes very strongly that the stupid side of religion is out to ruin education and learning and I don't disagree wholly with that.

Here's a bizarre link...Small Girl is listening to ABBA (I drew the line at the Mamma Mia movie soundtrack but the old ABBA songs I can bear) and in the song 'I have a dream' they sing 'I believe in angels/Something good in everything I see' which is funny because whilst Quakers aren't big on angels they do talk about 'seeing that of God in every man' (and they mean every person!). That's one reason they're such pacifists - they believe if you kill someone you are killing God (or something like that). As (most likely) one of JB's immature atheists I don't agree with the choice of words but I do agree with most of the sentiment. See ABBA are just so deep, man...

Sorlil said...

lol, deep theological truths in ABBA, who'd have thought it!

"the stupid side of religion is out to ruin education and learning"
Although this is certainly true of religious extremists, in the 18th and 19th centuries before the birth of mass education, Sunday school was the main source of education for the middle and lower classes and contributed to the set-up we have today.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes we should never underestimate the power of ABBA. I know there's that blogger pal of Ken's who is setting up 'ABBA the religion' as we type.

Your point about Sunday schools is good and the kind of thing the unChristians amongst us should remember. The point about education though is that it moves forwards with the times to a large extent and the extremists/stupid end can't bear that. We should study history not live in it.

Gosh, here we are having a proper debate and everything...and with ABBA interludes...the total package!
x

Sorlil said...

Of course, I agree! I've been to an ABBA tribute concert, does that make me eligible to join the ABBA religion? lol

Rachel Fox said...

You have the long blonde locks do you not? You can be the gorgeous Agnetha in our annual costume drama. I'll be the miserable dark haired one.
Now guys... volunteers for Bjorn and Benny?
Is this getting too lightweight again now?
x

Sorlil said...

Ok you even know their names!

Rachel Fox said...

Yes maybe I should take a bit of Quaker silence on that one...