Some Reflections on ‘A Man that Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends’

The Problem of Mystical Theism

At a friend’s behest, I have started to read Derek Guiton’s A Man that Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends. In many respects I suppose I should feel at home with the book’s central premises: 1) that the God of Christianity is central to Quaker identity and 2) that we should root ourselves more firmly in our distinctively Quaker theological grammar. Yet, I am beginning to find myself feeling distinctly uncomfortable as I read on. My discomfort does not arise chiefly from the book’s central concerns (many of which I share) but rather in the way Guiton’s argument is constructed. At its heart is a defense of what the author calls variously ‘mystical experience’ (p.30), ‘mystical theism’ (p.259), ‘Quaker Theism’ (p. 185) or simply ‘the case for God in a Quaker framework’ (p. 58). Behind these various descriptions is the contention that at the root of Quaker religiosity is a commitment to divine transcendence; ‘God’s reality considered apart from the physical universe’ (p. 221). It is this quality (above and beyond its possible philosophical subsidiaries like omnipotence or omniscience) which grounds how Friends have historically thought about God (at least according to Guiton). And it is for this reason that our author rejects the religious non-realism of the likes of David Boulton (a repudiation which takes by the vast majority of the book).

Yet, I am simply not convinced that this is the best place to start talking about Quaker theology, or that early Friends thought about their religious experience quite in this way. I think in order to talk about ‘transcendence’ in the way Guiton does (and Boulton denies) requires an enormous philosophical infrastructure, one actively alien to Quaker theology. To talk about something ‘beyond’ the universe requires the possession of a number of key concepts like natural/supernatural or Kant’s famous Phenomena/Noumena distinction, as well as some kind of theory of matter and a subsequent theory of whatever this something ‘beyond’ matter’ is. Moreover, once one uses the language of the ‘beyond’ one must then have a model for how this ‘beyond’ comes into contact with the temporal. Such are the traps that philosophy of religion mire one in- leaving ‘the theist’ open to the kind of logical deconstruction Boulton favors.

Where is the True Starting Point? 

I am convinced that Quakerism in its marrow starts from a different place. Early Friends did not believe in ‘Christian Theism’ (some cluster of theories or vocabularies about Christ or God) rather they knew the guidance of Christ. They didn’t believe in ‘transcendence’; rather they lived their lives shaped by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. In other words they didn’t have a conception and then lived it out later. Rather, they lived- with their concepts emerging from that lived experience. They didn’t begin with some kind of metaphysics which consistently included some propositional statements and excluded others; they began with a story about how God had worked with Israel, ‘worked in’ Jesus and was working through them. Friends didn’t spend time defining what this working was ‘in essence’ but they spent a lot of time following it, praying about it and trusting it. Nor were they concerned about making the case  for some Quaker-shaped version of the God-hypothesis, but were concerned with witnessing to what they loved, worshipped and adored. In this sense I don’t think Friends should be distressed if Guiton and Boulton wish to slog the matter out until the cows come home, as long as we realize that such conversation is of secondary importance to the task of being Quaker.

Such an attitude of amused detachment allows us to call into question some of Guiton’s sharper claims straight off the bat. For instance, he suggests that ‘non-theism in its organized form is a kind of Trojan horse, a means of establishing an alien belief system within the host organization, with the aim of eventually achieving dominance’ (p. 164). One might want to make a similar criticism of Guiton’s Christian Theism. Is this really Quaker or has it sneaked it’s way into the Meeting House from the University seminar room? Evidence of the latter connection emerges from the conspicuous lack of explicit Quaker Christology in the book. At the heart of Guiton’s polemic, Jesus emerges as a somewhat wissened figure- that all important element that binds Quakerism to its past, yet Christ Jesus (the one who answers to our conditionsis strangely absent from Guiton’s presentation. Why might this lack be important? It is important because it tells us something intriguing about Guiton’s theological methodology. Theism as a concept emerged out of the Medieval Scholastic desire to persuade cultural and religious others to accept a belief in the Christian God without prior assent to the authority of the Christian story or community. It was an attempt to make the specific claims of Christians self-evident and universal facts.

To use theistic language to describe one’s Quaker community suggests that Guiton thinks that the particularities of the Quaker story don’t really matter or that those particularities can only be intellectually credible if they are placed on a universalistic basis. Behind this bias towards the universal is the Scholastic claim (which has latterly borne fruit as Liberal Quakerism) that what is most universal is necessarily closest to the truth. The problem with this bias is that it encourages a strange belief in a God of no-one and nothing in particular. The God of Theism is not the God that can be heard in the crash and swell of the Red Sea, nor it is not the God which raised Jesus from the dead. It is rather the God of Transcendence; the God beyond, who must be distinguished from something called the material world. S/he is also the God who needs a lot of philosophical cotton wool to prevent fracture. There are lots of versions of this intellectual TLC; credible theodicies, accounts of revelation, as well as a sprinkling of ontology, just to keep the God of theism in good working order. And even then, one might not be any the wiser what kind of God this actually is. Guiton, perhaps sensing this problem, does offer his reader a bundle of reassurances to clarify what he is talking about. The God of Quaker Theism is among other things:

 1) Analogous to a person of whom it is possible to say things (see p. 219). 

2). It is intelligible to talk about God in terms of ‘ulultimate love’, (p. 215). 

3) God is also beyond the category of ‘person’- ‘(p. 230). 

And while Guiton is quick to tell us that these categories are authorized by Christianity, he does not really tell us what the person of Christ authorizes us to say about God. He does not in other words go to the story and draw spiritual water from there. He does not talk about the Christ-haunted nature of Quaker testimonies. He does not ground the Quaker commitment to peace in the declaration to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). He does not connect the language of the Spirit to what the first apostles experienced. Instead, he prefers to emmesh himself with a whole series of interlocutors who keep the conversation, mystical, universal and general. Julian of Norwich, Dionysus the Arpegiate and Meister Eckhart are trotted out in quick succession in order to reassure us that God’s transcendent personhood is the real acid-test of Quaker continuity and theological coherence. But is it?

Such a God has pluses for sure, particularly if we want our faith to remain inclusive and polite. The God of Theism doesn’t make as many demands on us as a God tied to a particular story. It’s much easier to talk to people when we start with the God of Theism. We are less likely to ‘weird folk out’ if our opening gambit is a generic God that doesn’t offend a shared rational- philosophical sensibility. A God who isn’t committed to any community or project is also a bonus. Such a God isn’t seen as a partisan or taking sides. And if we keep stum about some of the oddest aspects of our particularity (that maybe God does have a specific project for the world) we might win more folk over. In this sense, when all is said and done, a radical Quaker universalism and non-theism are based on the same principle of apologetic elasticity so we never have to exclude or choose between propositions. We can opt to some extent out of the particularity of the Quaker story if the conversation gets too weird or too damn awkward. This is precisely what Guiton does in his own representation of early Friends. In attempt to illustrate why these strange radical dissenters still matter, he says cautiously:

A theology of this kind (referring to Fox) is not what we call today ‘fundamentalism’. It is theistic without being necessarily being Trinitarian, and therefore has the potential to unite Friends in the essentials. It provides an area of acceptable belief, being neither Christian orthodoxy with its more problematic like the virgin birth, miracles and the physical resurrection, nor flatline atheistic humanism (p. 15.).

So here we see the polite God of Theism riding to our rescue, wooing us with the pleasant suggestion that we don’t need to worry about any awkward conversation-stoppers, let’s just unite on some basic conception of God. Universalism gives us the chance of deemphasizing what’s scandalous, difficult or weird, and allows to get on with ‘just being nice’. In other words for the Quaker Theist, we shouldn’t let the Quaker story get in the way of being Quaker. Such a God may have worked for Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas and Rufus Jones, but when faced with Non-Theism (another sweeping form of universalism) I think we need a different response. Instead of hiding in a fortress made of universals, we need to be daring in digging down into our theological and historical particulars because that is where our strength and core as Quakers really lie. Part of that will necessarily involve the realization that someone like Fox did believe in the physical resurrection, and that many early Friends believed in miracles (see Fox’s Book of Miracles) and the virgin birth. What contemporary Quakers need is not more speculation (more digging down into the categories that philosophers of religion have given us) and more confidence in rooting themselves in the bigger Quaker story.

Sitting with the ‘Weird’

Does this mean that we need to swallow the weird bits of the Quaker story hook line and sinker without digestion? No, at least I wouldn’t say so. But I would say we need to sit reverently with the weird bits and be open to a God which doesn’t explain reality so much as opens it up to further questions. In this spirit when we read the Bible, we shouldn’t be looking for points where God is answering our questions (or confirming our perceptions) but when S/he is provoking questions. The energy of our Quaker faith shouldn’t come from moments of clearness (some theistic or anti-theistic system) but from those moments of ambiguity, uncertainty and hidden depth which seek to train us in the deep life of God. Tending, investigating and loving these moments, keeps faith with our Liberal Quakerism (always probing, always questioning) yet keeps us grounded in the Christ-event which nurtured first-generation Friends.

This means wrestling with what other Christians call ‘dogmas’, without succumbing to their lure of system-building. Quakers shouldn’t hide from the virgin birth or the empty tomb, but rather recognize their power to unsettle our sense of the possible (the sense that we can tie everything up as Theism). These events were not loci of certainty; they were disclosures of awful uncertainty. In the course of the angelic visitation Mary of Nazareth asks: “How will this be…since I am a virgin?” (1:34). When another Mary (Magdalene) stands before the empty tomb she asks: ‘”Where have you laid him?” (John 11:34). Sitting in the midst of mystery does not mean having a spiritual lobotomy. It’s about asking our questions, but in the context of a story. It isn’t Theism we need, but openness to the sheer strangeness of life as mediated through our narratives.

To do this, we need let go of the categories others have imposed and begin again to respect the potential and wonder of our own Quaker story. It was Arthur C. Clarke who said: ‘The only way to discover the limits of the possible is to go beyond them into the impossible.’ Might Friends dare to strike out anew in the hope of seeing the extent of the possible? Do we  believe our story can carry us there? I sense that Bolton and Guiton are both equally philosophically hardened to this kind of attitude because they both treat God as a transcendental hypothesis to be dismissed or defended. In this scenario, if something called Theism dies, God dies. But I think the God of Abraham and Christ so much deeper and richer than the God of Theism and if the God of Theism dies so be it. Let’s defend this richer understanding rather than engaging in a language not our own.


5 thoughts on “Some Reflections on ‘A Man that Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends’

  1. This is the most wonderful post! Thank you so much. ‘Sitting in the midst of mystery does not mean having a spiritual lobotomy. It’s about asking our questions, but in the context of a story. It isn’t Theism we need, but openness to the sheer strangeness of life as mediated through our narratives.’ Yes yes yes!

  2. Richard Bailey [Bailey, Richard. 1992. The Making and Unmaking of a God: New Light on George Fox and Early Quakerism. New York, Ontario & Lampeter, Edwin Mellen Press.] posited that Fox believed he was Christ. Christ risen in us all, indeed. Fox obviously drew back from that later (it was a rather dangerous position to hold!). Many academics have tried to pin down early Friends’ theology, but I think the simple truth is that they were not systematic. It was their experience of the living Christ within, not what they believed about God, and their deep love for each other in community which bound them to each other and set them aside from the world.

    I love your call to uncertainty and mystery, Ben. So Quaker…

  3. Thank you for the article. It is certainly true that we Friends need to know our own story more–not just the bear facts, an empriical narrative, but also a theological one, the underlying narrative that gave rise to the movement in the first place. As I argue in my book, “The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God'”, such a narrative and orthopraxis was the ‘Kingdom of God’ itself. I believe the ‘Kingdom’—I usually call it ‘The Way’ these days—is the inclusive common language we Friends need today to bring us into unity, a language that itself reflects our Testimonies.

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