In the philosophy of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein introduced the idea of a language-game: a small, rule-guided interaction that forms the basis of our communication. A language-game can be a lot of things. His examples include telling a joke; drawing a diagram; and, interestingly for those of us who want to think about religion, praying. In some of my philosophical work (including a 2017 article for Open Theology), I’ve talked about extending this idea to help us think better about religion. Rather than thinking about one religion or world religions—a big tradition like Christianity or Buddhism, or even more specific traditions like Zen or Quakerism—what happens when we think about religion-games? These might be things like saying grace, holding meeting for worship, or reading from a book of Faith and Practice.
One of the ways I think religion-games can help us understand religion better is by showing someone’s relationship to a tradition. I started working on religion-games because I was thinking about cases of multiple religious belonging: suppose someone was raised by one Jewish parent and one Christian parent, and participates in practices from both faiths. If you try and explain this in terms of world religions, it might look confusing, especially if you focus on contradictory beliefs. When you look at the religion-games they play, it’s obvious that they are doing both, even if it isn’t exactly in equal amounts or if the two faiths make very different demands. Similarly, if we look at someone who grew up in a Christian family and now also participates in Buddhist practices, we can look at the Christian and Buddhist religion-games the person is joining in with and see full engagement with two different religious traditions.
In relation to Quaker membership, we might be able to use this idea to help us let go of a yes-no binary. There are lots of religion-games that belong to the Quaker tradition or can be played in Quaker ways. Meeting for worship, discussion groups, and Bible study are some. Others are peace demonstrations; knitting ministries; a vocation for education or social work; or art, music, or anything else that involves following a leading from God rather than making a “sensible” decision. In thinking about membership, we often seem to prioritize some of these ways of participating in the Quaker tradition above others. If you can’t attend meeting for worship, for example, it’s very hard to be recognized as a Quaker, whether your reason is you’re too far away, you’re playing football on Sunday mornings, you’re a nurse working night shifts, or you have a health problem that makes it difficult to participate in worship.
In thinking about membership, we often seem to prioritize some of these ways of participating in the Quaker tradition above others. If you can’t attend meeting for worship, for example, it’s very hard to be recognized as a Quaker.
One answer to this is to make meeting for worship more accessible: to loosen up the by-laws that have crept up around the essential rules, and worship together in more places, at more times, and in different groups. There are already online meetings for worship, evening meetings, midweek meetings, shorter meetings, longer meetings, and meetings with more or fewer programmed elements. This is a good answer, and I think we should continue to expand our range of religion-games in this way.
Another answer, which we could explore at the same time, would be to discuss what other religion-games can contribute to living a Quaker life. Some of these might be obvious: belonging to a Quaker discussion group, for example; using Quaker texts in your prayer life; or saying that you are a Quaker. Considering one’s attitude while engaged in some religious-games might be helpful: Watching a QuakerSpeak video because it’s been assigned for a class isn’t the same as watching the video because it helps you feel closer to the Quaker community, although those reasons might overlap. Some activities that are part of a wider culture can be played according to Quaker rules: You can be a conscientious objector for a lot of reasons and go about it in different ways, but there are some reasons people give and some approaches to the claim that might be identified as distinctly Quaker.
Religion-games can take lots of forms, and this increases what we can measure. Perhaps it’s easiest to think of participation in specific practices as religion-games. Attending a Friendly Bible Study session, for example, is very clearly in that game format: it has a clear set of rules that are linked to other Quaker rules about how to behave in groups and how to approach spiritual matters. It’s also easy to tell whether someone is joining in or not.
Religion-games can also include acts of speech: in the formal sense where you make something the case by declaring it to be so (think of naming a ship), as well as speaking of what you believe. Talking about what we do or don’t believe is a common religion-game. I notice that Quakers often play the negative version: “I don’t believe in a supernatural God”; “I don’t believe in a literal resurrection”; “I don’t believe in a God who has a gender.” These negative statements are often made with more confidence than positive versions: “I believe in a loving God”; “I know there is a God who listens”; “I experience God’s presence.” Both negative and positive assertions, and more doubtful forms as well, are religion-games. Making declarations of self-identification or belonging to a faith (saying, “I am a Quaker.”) is also a related religion-game.
The bar on membership of a Quaker meeting can be very high, with the potential member needing to actively ask to be admitted, and sometimes pass a number of tests or jump through administrative hoops to get there. Sometimes I think about the hypothetical question: If someone accused you of being a Quaker in court, would a jury of your peers convict? If you were a member of a Quaker group, I think the prosecution would have an easy time: You are obviously not only a Quaker but accepted as such by others in a defined way. But I think a keen prosecution might be able to build the case for someone who is not in membership and perhaps not even recognized as Quaker by other Quakers. This might be a case built on evidence of interest and intent: You’ve been seen reading Quaker publications, visiting Quaker Facebook groups, retweeting Quaker material, and posting about wanting to attend meeting for worship. Or the case might be built on evidence of behavior: You don’t go to Quaker meeting, but others testify that you quote George Fox, listen unusually carefully, wear a white peace poppy, and talk about feeling led into your career. If we adopted a view of membership in which those sorts of tests were passed, what would happen?
There would be bad as well as good reasons for adopting such measures, and we would need to be ready for the effects. One thing that might happen is our numbers might jump suddenly. If we were proactive—inviting people into membership rather than letting them languish in attender lists or continue thinking that they would like to be Quaker but can’t because of their health or their jobs or whatever—we might find ourselves with much larger and more complex membership lists.
That isn’t a reason to adopt this policy, or any other change to membership that might result in increased numbers. Numbers on their own are not an indication of the health of a community. A big community can be nice in some ways, but rapid growth can be a risk, and sheer numbers don’t protect against the development of structural problems or toxic relationships. People might leave as quickly as they came, bully each other, or not actually feel involved. More problems may arise if a sudden change of policy creates a two-tier effect, with some members who attend meeting for worship every week valued above those who don’t make it often or at all but whose tie to the Quaker community is through another route. Before implementing a change in membership policy, we would need to be ready with solid structures to stay in touch with people and involve them in community discernment. Actually, that’s not a bad idea even if we don’t change our membership policies!
Similarly, the religion-games model can be used to argue that we shouldn’t have membership at all. No faith tradition is pure; boundaries between traditions are permeable and flexible, and trying to identify Quakers from others in a spiritually aware mix of faiths is almost impossible. So why label ourselves and our members at all? I think there are two reasons: There is a historical tradition that we can identify as Quaker and to which we try and align ourselves. It is a complex tradition but one that has been recorded in Faith and Practice and passed down through generations. Quaker faith can have things in common with other traditions without being interchangeable with them. The other reason for naming and identifying Quakers is that there is validation in being recognized by others within your community, in feeling known and acknowledged. It can be uncomfortable if, for example, you are anxious about what the commitment involves or aren’t sure about being under the same banner as people you don’t entirely agree with. But despite those problems, there is strength in being named as part of a community. When it works well, there is somewhere to turn when things are difficult; evidence to show others that you are not just a weirdo when you are doing something countercultural; and, for Quakers especially, a testing ground for leadings and other new revelations.
I hope that paying attention to more religion-games and asking ourselves what really matters to a Quaker life will help us to see through God’s eyes those things that are hidden by our prejudices, habits, and preconceptions.
For me, the central question is whether we are able to tune in to the movements of the Spirit. I suspect that we are missing important messages because we are too stuck to listening only on Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m. I suspect that we are not naming, celebrating, and supporting some people who are living important Quaker lives but whose lives don’t fit into our geography, class, and other cultural patterns. I hope that paying attention to more religion-games and asking ourselves what really matters to a Quaker life will help us to see through God’s eyes those things that are hidden by our prejudices, habits, and preconceptions. I hope that by relaxing about membership—making it about community and not a test or a spiritual urge that can only be articulated in certain ways—we can welcome more could-be Quakers to become Quakers confidently and with our full support.