Discernment, Quakers and Contextual Analysis

There is a really interesting Quaker tradition of listening to the voices we have and working with those voices.  They call it “discernment”.


For Quakers, in such a process one must first hear all the voices from sources which we cannot see and then discern which are from God and which are from your own “ego”. Discernment leads to better decision making and Quakers have procedures for doing this in groups, because they dislike or mistrust procedures of basic consensus.

“We believe that God speaks with us all the time, whispering in our ears, nudging our emotions, stirring our senses, and drawing us to the preferred path.  Even now, as you read these words, God may be stirring within you, calling, opening, and speaking to you.  God desires to be your partner, to journey through life with you.”

“Both God and humans seek the reality of this dialogue and companionship.  Spiritual discernment is the process of learning the language and the process of this relationship.”

Fendall, Lon, Jan Wood and Bruce Bishop. Practicing Discernment Together: Finding God’s Way Forward in Decision Making. Newberg, OR: Barclay Press, 2007.

Contextual Version

For those of us who do not believe in a God this is still very important for our lives, perhaps something like this:

We over-learn language use and so whatever we are doing, we always have multiple responding in language to any situation because of our huge language training.  These are not all responses out loud, of course, and so they appear as ‘hearing voices’, but no one is there.  The voices are learned from our friends, family, strangers with public voices, conversations, etc.  They are not in our head but appear to be only through a common metaphor.

So the voice we usually talk in, out loud or not, is not the only voice we have—that is, it is not the only language responding we are doing in any situation.  To paraphrase from above: “Contextual discernment is the process of listening to the languages of these learned unsaid voices and the process of building relationships with these voices.”

The point is that some of these not-out-loud comments from (learned) voices are valuable to us, and are very useful responses.  But they are often (for social life reasons) overshadowed by our “usual” voice or “ego” conversation voice.  This is why, for example, hypnosis tries to distract or dull this dominant and often critical voice so that these other voices (other language responses not actually said) can be made more useful and therapeutic.

As I see it, this is important if you want to get a balanced and good life.  Whatever we do, there are many voices or language responses we have learned that are potentially useful, but to stick rigidly to only one of these can in some contexts be problematic for us.  We need to hear more of the voices that we have learned to generate through our lives, even if these include our parents’ voices nagging us.  We do not have to do what they are nagging us about, but it is important to hear all these voices, especially when doing important things.

Back to Quakers

So to link back to Spiritual Discernment, the only real difference I can see is that Quakers call the useful other voices the “voice of God”, but they rightly point out that you need to be careful in discerning whether this is true because other dominant (ego) voices can be more powerful.  The Quakers’ amazing uses of silences are in fact perfect for highlighting the difference between our usual voice and other voices we are trying to hear or discern.

I hope you can see that from a contextual view we are talking about the same phenomena, and I do not really care if you call this Spiritual Discernment, (1) if it helps improve life outcomes, and (2) if you do not force your version onto other people (which Quakers usually do not).




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s