A recent article on the art and science of taste and smell in the New Yorker had a paragraph that stood out for me. The author John Lanchester had just shared a moment where he suddenly understood the meaning behind “grainy,” a term that had previously been an esoteric wine descriptor. He then writes:
The idea that your palate and your vocabulary expand simultaneously
might sound felicitous, but there is a catch. The words and the
references are really useful only to people who have had the same
experiences and use the same vocabulary: those references are to a
shared basis of sensory experience and a shared language. To people who
haven’t had those shared experiences, this way of talking can seem like
horse manure, and not in a good way.
How might this apply to Quakerism? A post-modernist philosopher might argue that our words are our experience and their argument would be even stronger for communal experiences. I once spent a long afternoon worrying whether the colors I saw were really the same colors others saw: what if what I interpreted as yellow was the color others saw as blue? After turning around the riddle I ended up realizing it didn’t matter as long as we all could point to the same color and give it the same name.
But what happens when we’re not just talking about yellow. Turning to the Crayola box, what if we’re trying to describe the yellowish colors apricot, dandelion, peach and the touch-feely 2008 “super happy”. Being a Crayola connoisseur requires an investment not only in a box of colored wax but also in time: the time needed to experience, understand and take ownership in the various colors.
Religion can be a like wine snobbery. If you take the time to read the old Quaker journals and reflect on your spiritual experiences you can start to understand what the language means. The terms stop being fussy and obscure, outdated and parochial. They become your own religious vocabulary. When I pick up an engaging nineteenth journal (not all are!) and read stories about the author’s spiritual up and downs and struggles with ego and community, I smile with shared recognition. When I read an engaging historian’s account of some long-forgotten debate I nod knowing that many of the same issues are at the root of some blogospheric bruhaha.
Of course I love outreach and want to share the Friends “sensory experience.” One way to do that is to strip the language and make it all generic. The danger of course is that we’re actually changing the religion when we’re change the language. It’s not the experience that makes us Friends – all people of all spiritual persuasions have access to legitimate religious experiences no matter how fleeting, misunderstood or mislabeled. We are unique in how we frame that experience, how we make sense of it and how we use the shared understanding to direct our lives.
We can go the other direction and stay as close to our traditional language as possible, demanding that anyone coming into our religious society’s influence take the time to understand us on our terms. That of course opens us to charges of spreading horse manure, in Lanchester’s words (which we do sometimes) and it also means we threaten to stay a small insider community. We also forget to speak “normal,” start thinking the language really is the experience and start caring more about showing off our vocabulary than about loving God or tending to our neighbors.
I don’t see any good way out of this conundrum, no easy advice to wrap a post up. A lot of Friends in my neck of the woods are doing what I’d call wink-wink nudge-nudge Quakerism, speaking differently in public than in private (see this post) but I worry this institutionalizes the snobbery and excuses the manure, and it sure doesn’t give me much hope. What if we saw our role as taste educators? For want of a better analogy I wonder if there might be a Quaker version of Starbucks (yes yes, Starbucks is Quaker, I’m talking coffee), a kind of movement that would educate seekers at the same time as it sold them the Quaker experience. Could we get people excited enough that they’d commit to the higher costs involved in understanding us?