The Constructive Function of Non-Theism in Religious Life
[T]he principle shared by all radical humanists is that of negating and combating idolatry in every form and shape–idolatry, in the prophetic sense of worshiping the work of one’s own hands and hence making man subservient to things, in this process becoming a thing himself. The idols against which the Old Testament prophets fought were idols in wood and stone, or trees and hills… Whether or not one believes in God is a question secondary to whether or not one denies idols. Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope
In the course of human history, conscientious objection to theistic systems has played a crucial role in the refinement of our ideas about the world and our place in it. It has not only given space for the flourishing of human reason in the formation of civilized life, but rightly esteemed the humane values of inquiry and progress in the face of inflexible dogmas of all kinds. In the West, we had the Cynics and Epicureans who jointly objected to the incoherence and superstition at the heart of traditional religious belief and practice. Finding the anthropomorphic nature of the Greek pantheon a matter of amusement, Cynics mocked the cults, shrines and petty rituals, intended to placate invented deities. Alongside the Cynic suspicion of fakery, the Epicureans were concerned that an uncritical worship of these creations would inevitably lead to self-serving fundamentalism- by which human dignity and autonomy are exchanged for fear, brutality and superstition. As the Latin Epicurean Lucretius wrote:
Superstition…is the mother of sinful and impious deeds. Remember at Aulis the altar of the Virgin Goddess was foully stained with the blood of Iphigenia by the leaders of the Greeks….It was her fate in the very hour of marriage to fall a sinless victim to a sinful rite, slaughtered to a greater grief by a father’s hand, so that a fleet might sail under happy auspices. Such are the heights of wickedness to which men are driven by superstition. You yourself, if you surrender your judgement at any time to the blood-curdling declarations of the prophets, will want to desert our ranks. Only think what phantoms they can conjure up to overturn the tenor of your life and wreck your happiness with fear.
When faced with the prospect of comprising the needs of the individual for some imagined sacred good, the voice of Epicurean Humanism is decisive. We must stay rooted in the concrete, the personal and relational. Anything less, represents a deadening of our capacity for care and sympathy. In this attention to human relationships Lucretius echoes the best of the Prophetic tradition in its insistence that any god worth the name demands ‘mercy and not sacrifice’ [Hosea 6:6]. If Western Non-Theism has been chiefly concerned with superstition, the Non-Theisms of Asia have arguably been more concerned with retrieving personal autonomy from the dead-weight of ritualism and hierarchy. The most visible of these Non-Theisms in our world today is Buddhism. In the first instance, this distinctly Vedic mode of humanism centred on the rejection of a fatalistic doctrine of reincarnation and an intolerance of the priestly Brahmins. While never denying the existence of the gods outright, the Buddha argued that the old Hindu pantheon and its accompanying rites were a distraction. As Winston L. King observes:
Metaphysical questions, those having to do with the origins of the universe, for example are closed questions, whose discussion has no ethical or religious value, as well as ultimately being unanswerable. The Buddha remained metaphysically agnostic throughout his career, turning to a humanistic and ethical way of life whose main interest was psychological analysis and ethical culture rather than metaphysical theory.
As these remarks suggest, what really exercised the embryonic Buddhist community was the removal of human suffering, and not theology. Placing these two historic Humanisms side-by-side, one can see the core philosophical insight which is being gestured at. Non-Theism is not primarily about the negation of the sacred, but an existential protest against religion turned cold, deluded and anti-human. In place of exploration and appreciation, Non-Theism bears witness to faith-systems which have become crystallised by dogma and buttressed by comforting illusions. What gifts does such existential protest offer the Religious Society of Friends? Firstly it provides Liberal Quakerism with an internal impetus to undertake a process of self-reflection regarding the meaning and use of its theological language. There is always a danger in religious life that things become ‘a little too cosy’ and that a complacency of thought and habit can creep in. Non-Theists in Friends are already changing this by calling to question the philosophical and moral status of well-worn concepts. Just as the Hebrew Prophets berated the community of Israel for their tendency to worship gods of their own fashioning, Quaker Non-Theism has the capacity to challenge other Friends to look more critically at their understanding of God.
Do God-centred Friends have any golden calves they refuse to challenge? When Theistic Quakers speak of that Spirit which moves and guides them, do they seek the earth-shattering experience of early Friends, or are they content with pleasant fantasies, which, like a child’s invisible friends, are immune from criticism or accountability? Do we ever place theological conviction beyond the flourishing of individuals? In tackling these questions, Non-Theist Friends have much sober advice to offer Theists on how not to become captured by inadequate, dubious, or even juvenile constructions of the Divine. Through their explicit rejection of the literality of many traditional theological ideas, Non-Theist Friends encourage us to hold a more experiential idea of faith; embracing the insights of science, philosophy, art and the natural world, in our quest for meaning. Instead of attempting to place our Quaker experience in a tidy system of ideas, the Non-Theist critique of traditional religion helpfully propels us back to that Apophatic language of God as the Ground of Being; that which cannot be contained by the language of Traditional Theism.
By punching holes in our habitual notions of God, Quaker Non-Theism can be said to preserve something of that Teutonic mysticism which says that ‘God is nothing’ , not because the sacred is absent from the world , but because one wishes preserve the experience of the Absolute from the absurdities imposed upon it by the human mind. In this context we can see the religious imperative behind Nietzsche’s chilling announcement that “God is dead”. For some Friends, the paradox of standing beside this God’s grave is a necessary step in repairing their relationship with the Spirit. By throwing aside the old confines of traditional Theism, it might be possible for some Friends to live out their discipleship with a renewed diligence. In this vein, we might say that by dispensing with the old theological narratives of saints, angels and heavenly deliverance, some might be able to hear Christ’s summons more acutely. As the philosopher Gianni Vattimo suggests, Christianity should not be defined by the metaphysics of an impossible and wondrous God (‘notions’) but by the inter-subjective experience of being led into faith by the Living Christ:
Those who followed Christ when he appeared in Palestine did not do so because they had seen him perform miracles, and even less had those who followed subsequently done so. They believed, as we say in Italian “sulla parola”, that is “they took him at his word”; they had “Fides ex auditu”; faith from hearing. The commitment to Christ’s teaching derives from the cogency of the message itself; he who believes has already understood, felt intuited that his word is a “word of eternal life”.
Vattimo’s point is highly pertinent to the issue before us. As Theo-centric Friends we should not mistake a lack of God-language for a lack of genuine discipleship. Indeed, the call of Christ (insofar as it consists of the message of redemption through love) is not dependent on a prior philosophical commitment to supernaturalism as such. All that is required is that we attempt to follow the example of Jesus in own lives, just as the early disciples did. When Peter and Andrew first encountered Jesus on the Galilean shore, they were not asked, “Do you believe in God the Father, Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth?’ Instead Jesus simply says, “Come, follow me” [Matthew 4:19]. This open invitation (as Jesus makes clear in the same verse) is not a call to adopt a particular theological stance; it is a call to loving-practice. This pragmatic emphasis on ‘what we do’ and ‘not what we think’ should structure our response to questions of God. We need to stop fixating on our preferred crystallised images of the divine (giving them idolatrous power over us in debate and argument) and instead, we need to allow the Spirit to speak through action. As Kierkegaard beautifully expresses it:
Christianity is not a doctrine. …Christianity is a message about existence. …If Christianity (precisely because it is not a doctrine) is not reduplicated in the life of the person expounding it, then he does not expound Christianity, for Christianity is a message about living and can only be expounded by being realized in men’s lives.
Mirroring such a practical imperative, we must do our utmost to tenderly support Friends who are no-longer able to find a use for the old language of God. We should do so by first recognising the potentially mystical depth within the Non-Theistic stance, and secondly by assisting such individuals in deepening their relationship with the ethical core of the Quaker tradition. In helping Non-Theist Friends to journey into Quakerism via the primacy of the ethical, God-centred Friends may also begin to recover the practical nature of their faith, and the urgency of Christ’s daring question: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”’ [Luke 6:46]. If Non-Theism can make us alert to the subtle dangers of becoming too attached to our preferred ideas of God, I believe it can also help us to preserve our distinctive Quaker approach to faith and theology. With his characteristic dryness, the American theologian Stanley Hauerwas once remarked that ‘the church should learn to value her heretics, since the Church also learns what it believes by learning what it does not believe.’
While most Friends are probably uncomfortable with Hauerwas’ language of heterodoxy (and thus implied orthodoxy) his remark possesses a great deal of insight. In the ostensibly negative move of de-mythologizing the Quaker tradition, Non-Theist Friends may be inadvertently teaching the rest of us ‘what it means to be a Quaker’, since one cannot accurately de-mythologize a tradition unless one knows exactly what one is re-interpreting. By seeking to build a new Quaker humanism, Non-Theists are not necessarily engaged a destructive exercise. To the contrary, many Non-Theist Friends are conscientious readers and excavators of Quaker practices and texts. The fruits of their discoveries are therefore of benefit to all Friends, as an expression of genuine and thoughtful seeking. Their findings should be treated with respect and generosity by other Friends, not because all can assent to all their conclusions, but because they are part of that ongoing religious conversation which began in the 1640s and continues to this day. Only through such discussion, searching and challenging, can the Quaker conversation continue. By coming into dialogue with Non-Theist Friends, Theo-centric Quakerism might discover new theological resources and a latent spiritual vigour for its role in the conversation. By being compelled to speak of what we believe and what we cherish, we just might rediscover our Quaker path afresh as a living, breathing spirituality. As early Friends understood, it is only through a process of testing and learning that we can hold on to ‘what is good’ [Thessalonians 5:21]. Without challenge our faith becomes lifeless and dogmatic.
Beginning the Conversation
Over two blog posts, I have attempted to briefly sketch out a theological model for understanding Quaker Non-Theism through an appeal to the universalistic and Pentecostal dynamics of early Friends’ experience. I have suggested that dialogue, mutual respect and openness to the Spirit are key components in building bridges between Theo-centric and Non-Theist Quakers. Not only have I suggested that Non-Theists can be significant vessels for the work of the Spirit, I have uncovered several distinctive virtues in Non-Theist projects which can strengthen our theological reasoning. Yet, I fully acknowledge that these posts only address the theological dynamics of the conversation, and that much more of a concerted effort is needed on an inter-personal level to avoid tension, misunderstanding and dislocation. In particular, we need to foster the capacity to look beyond the artificial and sometimes de-humanising labels of Theist/Non-Theist, and towards the nurture and repair of actual human relationships. As Isaac Penington observed in 1660:
This is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that; and this is far more pleasing to me than if he walked just in that track wherein I walk.
In the light of Penington’s remark, Theo-centric Friends are faced with a number of pressing questions. Have we been sufficiently attentive to the spiritual walk of Non-Theistic Friends? Do we truly uphold each other in our spiritual journey regardless of outward language? Is there sufficient space at the level of local Meetings for Friends to share their religious and philosophical insights? Is the richness of the Quaker theological conversation equally open and accessible to all Friends? By engaging with these urgent questions, we can begin to move away from the fruitless philosophical circularity of debates on the existence or non-existence of God and towards the particulars and practicalities of living a Spirit-led life. This isn’t the same as saying that theological (or even anti-theological) reflection is of no consequence. It means that being a Quaker involves a respect for, and engagement with, modes of disciplined discernment. In this context one’s attitude to God should not be neatly picked out from a set of attractive philosophical options (whether from Daniel Dennett or Rowan Williams) but formed through an economy of worship and witness. Quaker theology is lived, not merely thought about or speculated about.
In these pragmatic terms, the Quaker account of validity does not rest some quality of intellectual or technical elegance alone, but must involves something akin to what the existentialists call authenticity. The language of the authentic asks us: You have theories, but can be hang your life upon them? You have beliefs, but do they transform and mould you? You have pretentions to truth, but are you prepared to be changed by the truths you find?
In this same sense, the structure of Quaker spirituality compels us not merely to passively reflect upon what we believe, but whether we really ‘own’ our convictions. When the twenty-something George Fox was brought to the depths of despair by the state of his soul, he sought for the words which could give him both consolation and peace. He went from priest to priest and sect to sect seeking a language of comfort but found nothing except vain ‘hot-air’. Like the equally troubled character of Holden in J.D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye, this young puritan felt surrounded by ‘phonies’- people who pretended to know what life was all about, but had barely scratched the surface . Those who pronounced ‘easy answers’, George found duplicitous and hypocritical, unable to ‘speak to his ‘condition’. Finally, he found words to salve him, not in human institutions or systems, but through a tranquil secret voice which offered him a redemptive language to live by. This was ‘the inward light’, which, while showing Fox the seemingly bottomless pit of human darkness and depravity, also opened to him the inexhaustible wellsprings of divine love and grace. Fox’s challenge to us today is this: When we speak of ‘God’ are these words sustained by our experience, or are we merely parroting the concepts used by others? The question is, as ever, ‘what canst thou say?’
The seriousness with which the Religious Society of Friends take up these challenges will in the end decide the success or failure of conversations between God-centred and Non-Theistic Friends. If we merely inhabit an echo-chamber of borrowed words and phrases we will get ourselves nowhere. What is required is a genuine encounter with one another, where we each might be open about what we have found and what we treasure. Only by ‘walking in the shoes of others’, by listening and learning, can we hope to find common ground upon which to stand. Of course, it is unrealistic to expect that dialogue alone can solve all of the tensions which presently exist, but dialogue can at least make a beginning of having those difficult and necessary conversations. Strengthening our spiritual connections and increasing understanding however, cannot be an overnight process, or a half-hearted exercise. It will require all our virtues, all our sensitivity and care in the years ahead. Above all, it requires a robust commitment to the integrity and fruitfulness of our practices of discernment, in the trust, that through waiting and listening, a way forward will be found.