Noël Staples, Peterborough Meeting, Cambridgeshire Area Meeting, UK
I don’t suppose any of us would claim to be without doubt. The 18th century French philosopher René Descartes said there was only one thing he could be certain of and that was “I think therefore I am” (Cogito ergo sum). Put your hand up now if you have ever felt totally certain about something ─absolutely and completely without a doubt about it? Are you sure? You see, just me pushing and pushing the question makes you wonder, “Am I really sure?”
Doubting has driven our thinking and reasoning. It helped produce the world as we see and experience it now. If we were completely certain about a thing, why would we think, reason, or ask questions about it anymore?
Doubt drives change. Obviously we can’t live at relative ease if we doubt everything, so we don’t. For now, we accept that what we perceive around us is real, or true ─ at least unlikely to change any time soon. We can observe over time that there has been no obvious change in something, anticipating that the situation will probably continue that way for the foreseeable future.
What about our mystical Quakerism? At its centre is the acknowledgement that we experience, uniquely for each of us, some kind of energy or force which flows through everyone and everything. Our Friend Gerald Hewitson described in his 2013 Swarthmore lecture how he experienced “love cascading through the universe”.
We apply words like spirit, the light, the divine, God, Allah, and so on because without a word for something we can’t think it or talk about it. When we say we know it is there, in us, all around and through everything, it is an epistemological challenge ─ how do we know it? It can certainly affect us. We Quakers believe it is an experience anyone can have. We don’t know what it is, but we do know what it does to us. Our Quaker testimonies bear witness to how it has affected many of us in our daily lives. It gives us responsibilities which we try to live up to.
Quakerism is a religion of doubt, of uncertainty, of seeking. It is also a way of life. Most established religions have some written down certainties or ideas to which you can (or even must) subscribe if you wish to be a member. We don’t. Our Quaker Faith and Practice includes examples of how Friends’ attempts to describe their experience of the strange power or energy that seems to be in everything and how it has affected their lives. QF&P is not “written on tablets of stone” and is now being revised again. We are told our Advices and Queries are not rules but guides, as St Paul says in the Bible: “The letter killeth but the spirit giveth life: (2 Corinthians 3:6)
While we must live our daily lives with some certainties, in our spiritual life there is no such certainty. I often wonder just what is this “thing” I experience. It seems quite overwhelming at times, astonishing, amazing and even frightening. Am I just imagining it? But it does seem so real!
There is comfort in the knowledge that I am not that unusual and that the mystical experience I have has been familiar to people and expressed in their unique ways down the æons of time. Doubt is not easy to live with when, in everyday life, we must have enough certainties to be able to live with reasonable equanimity. Reading the Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly’s A Testament of Devotion is always reassuring. He so obviously writes from a lived, deep mystical experience. Even so, an element of uncertainty remains, and perhaps it is the uncertainty of mystical experience with which many people would find it hard to live.