Tuesday, 4 November 2014

"Theists" and "Non-Theists"- Can we get on together?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I tend to be quite old fashioned. Just as some English people dress up in Civil War army uniforms to re-enact battles, there seems to me no shame in trying to re-create a perspective from the past. We might even learn something new, become clearer in our identity and sense of belonging, even stronger. (These days things are not as accurate as they might be. Re-enactors operate in much smaller numbers than the original armies, fire blanks, enjoy certain modern comforts on the quiet, even book in to guest houses, bring along their own food, and, when in the company of civilian spectators, resist the temptation to pillage!)

Quakerisim has always seemed to me as being about a search for truth. To me this characteristic defines a process rather than to specify a product. Since our journey of discovery, should last a life-time, it tends to worry me when Friends give themselves labels such as theist or non-theist as if they are now fixed in their position, or have adopted some kind of a creed. On whatever side of that very big "Pond" we just happen to be, our shared journey and the willingness to work together as Friends should in my view be what defines us as being Quakers.

The process of being a Seeker after Truth reminds me of boat holidays I had as a child. Most years we would travel up the river Thames to its highest navigable point just beyond St John's Lock at Lechlade, then, in the absence of other options, turn round and go back. That final lock was always slightly worrying as the river was already narrow, our family not very good at steering, and the available gap between two banks, steadily getting smaller. In passing through that final lock however, I might well have noticed a statue of Old Father Thames. Not surprisingly, it still looks a bit out of place, having been originally commissioned in 1851 for display in Crystal Palace as part of the Great Exhibition. This fine sculpture may have been much admired by Victorians who seemed to do this kind of thing a lot. It was however nothing at all like how I imagined the river.

Just as it would be misleading to say that I do not believe in the River Thames, having never met that bearded, half-naked man with a spade, the term "God" is also subject to a wide range of interpretation. There was no doubt I had some understanding and experience of the River Thames, having been travelling along it all week. Michaelangelo's portrayal of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling also conveys meaning to a particular type of audience. This depiction of God works for some people. In our search for the truth, it would seem we should be honest about our limitations, including the ability to imagine or reason.

As Quakers stumble over the "G Word" not wishing to alienate the non-theists among us, it would seem of relevance to note that this is a very Old Testament Problem. Since it was impossible to see God, Jews developed ingenious ways to avoid saying his name, emphasised the role of angels as intermediaries and made no attempt at description. Instead of speculating about the nature of God, the emphasis was on being alert to creation, so that you could appreciate, for example, the significance of a bush bursting into flames, maintaining a sense of wonder. The main requirement of God's Law was self-discipline, not substituting a more tangible form of worship in the form of idols. In the same way we might also become distracted by easier options or struggle to prioritise. In whichever way we experience these "Golden Calves", there is still a choice to be made.

It would seem to me, our relationship to God can still be compared to living by a river. We may not be able to create sculptures on what this water is all about, or wish to paddle upstream in search of its source. At times water provides a lesson in humility since the river allows so many different types of boat to travel.

We may identify with having water as a life force flowing through our bodies. In recognising our dependency, we might also choose to have a contract, choosing to respect the seasons, act responsibly and not pollute the waters. Without referring to any scripture, carrying stone tablets about in an Ark, or being dogmatic about belief, there is a relationship and interaction. Our lives too may be built around an instinctive moral law that defines our relationship with the river.


  1. Thanks for this travelogue as parable.

    As for theist versus non-theist Quaker, I don't understand the latter.

    You mention the phrase being a "Seeker after Truth."

    God is Truth, and I suppose then, Truth is God, as well.

    So I don't understand why nontheists are Quakers. The nontheist Friends I've dialogued with have emphasized that they think there is no meaning, no purpose to life and the cosmos.

    Yet the central focus of Quakerism is worship meeting. Worship means "worth."

    Why be involved in a community when one doesn't think there is any "Truth" to worship?

    I don't get it.

  2. Daniel, that is a good question. Stay with the question gently and be with the nontheists. This is much better than the condemnation that nontheist Quakers are often given both in Quaker and nonQuaker settings.

    There are many answers, I suspect, to what it means to be nontheist, just as there are many ways to think of theism. Playing in methphor, the terms easily melt into each other. I find problems with most of what either position taker says about their understandings of that which is termed "god." So for my dogmatic atheistic, often Marxian friends, I call myself a post-atheist, and for my dogmatic theistic friends, I call myself post-theist. Both statements about me are true. I have left behind constructions of divinity that no longer serve me a heuristic purpose of opening me to more lovingness, of seeing social structure as important, etc.

  3. Brad, Thanks for sharing your perspective. Though I admit I don't understand your view, not even the term, "post-theist."

    How can one be "post" Truth? Or "post" Good?

    At 67, I'm not nearly as confident there is any Ultimate Reality, God, as I used to be in my adult life. Maybe existence is absurd as Albert Camus thought.

    But if Life is indeed meaningless and purposeless as the nontheist Friends I've dialogued with claim, it seems pointless to belong to a community that says the opposite.

    On the other hand, maybe some of the nontheist Friends, deep in their deepest self still have a lingering hope, and so while intellectually claiming there is 'no god,'
    they aren't willing to give up the ultimate hope.

    But other Quakers are as hard atheistic as Richard Dawkins. As a former literature teacher for many years, I know I'm very language driven, but I honestly can't perceive how "nontheism" and Friends isn't a contradiction.

    I don't know. I've stayed with this question of non-theism and Quakers for a long time.

  4. I'm not a great fan of language as interpretation is endless and can always be divisive (but as the means to express myself via the medium of dance is denied me here...just kidding). It's actions that count for me. It's what we do and how we act (for me at least). If we are validated and seek justification by what we believe over and above our actions then I truly am in the wrong place. Just my opinion though.