Telling the Truth about God
by Rhiannon Grant
reviewed by Jim Anderson
Rhiannon Grant’s small book Telling the Truth about God (2019) is immediately engaging in its conversational style. She draws from her experience leading workshops at Woodbrooke in England and offers brief introductory chapters for both Friends and non-Friends. To the Quaker reader, she expresses the hope that, after the reading, “you feel that you are better able to tell the truth about God as you understand it.”
Her series of short chapters – some only one or two pages long – offers a few introductory starting points, then a number of strategies and exercises for getting closer to “telling the truth about God.” So, what are the “starting points?” First, she says she’s inviting Friends to “do theology” in an informal way, for Friends to “reflect on their experiences, improvise ways to articulate their ideas and experiment with different approaches to understanding the world.” Second, she says this approach to theology is not about sharpening up formal knowledge claims, but about exploring experience, a dimension of faith that is central to Friends. She observes this in the ways we “bring together a weight of evidence” as a community, and we share a sense of “presence” in worship, and thus we “know some small things about the Mystery often known as God.” The third “starting point” for this book is the observation that Friends reject outward authority and mediating channels of truth, but instead, rely on their own experience as authoritative in itself. And here Grant faces the challenge of the book, which she addresses in the following chapters: How can we “tell the truth about God” in the midst of a diversity of individual experiences and languages, and with no external authority as guide?
In the remainder of this book, Grant offers practices that a community might use to help it move toward this truth-telling. These include practices of discernment, listening, story-telling, and the creation of new language. The final three chapters of the book involve more complex issues, and Grant tries in the final few pages of the book to help Friends respond to questions about the existence, nature, and mystery of God.
Many Friends will find the title “Telling the Truth about God” to be intriguing and inviting. Yet the title might better be “Telling the Truth about Your Experience of God.” An early assumption of the book seems to be that any experience we choose to call “God” is an experience of God. For me, two questions need to be included in the discernment of the truth of an experience of God: First, might this be an experience not of God, but of something else? And second, is the shape of this experience too deeply grounded in another faith tradition for it to work within Quaker language and practice?
Grant’s book is sprinkled with stories, exercises, and perspectives that will prompt reflection. She portrays a broadly inclusive conception of the beliefs that Quakers share, and she is clear in her conviction that the boundaries of Quaker community are marked by behavior, not belief. Because the book is short – and provocative in some ways – it should be considered for Quaker discussion groups as well as individual reading. Some Friends will find this book disconcertingly inclusive of a seemingly limitless range of beliefs that might be called Quaker. Others will find it refreshingly affirming of the diversity found among modern liberal Quakers. Ideally, Friends will accept both the book’s invitation to explore their most fundamental experiences and its challenge to follow truth in that exploration, wherever it may lead.
Jim Anderson is a member of Chico Friends Meeting (PacYM).