Quaker Non-Theism and the God of Pascal

Our Modern Contradictions

In recent discussions of non-theism within Britain Yearly Meeting, one theme keeps on resurfacing. Many Friends tell me that they find themselves to be “non-theist” simply because they can no-longer accept what they think traditional God-language entails- a pre-scientific language which no-longer tallies with physical facts. The crushing incongruity between our seemingly purposeless world of mathematical laws and the sacred teleological language of traditional Quaker theology is simply too much for some to bear. I must admit I have at times felt this same tension. When viewed through the recesses of cosmic time, the personal claims of religion appear preposterous. Aren’t we just chatty little apes clinging to a piece of rock, hurtling through a void?  Someone like the non-theist David Boulton would simply plead that we need to live authentically, without the dishonesty implied by such incongruity. As David writes:

I have never, since I ceased to be a child in the mid 1950s, been persuaded of the reality of supernatural forces or dimensions, even when they are smuggled in under such euphemisms as “transcendence”, “the numinous”, “the divine”, or “the mystical”. I can no more entertain the notion of gods and devils, angels and demons, disembodied ghoulies and ghosties, or holy and unholy spirits, than I can believe in the magic of Harry Potter or the mystic powers of Gandalf the Grey…I fully understand that belief in a transcendent realm and a transcendent god as the guarantors of meaning and purpose have inspired millions. They do not inspire me. Instead, they seem to me illusions we can well do without, and I find myself raging at the toxic effects of literal, uncritical belief in divine guidance, divine purpose, divine reward and punishment. (David Boulton – ‘Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith‘)

It is an almost irresistible depiction, making sense of so much of our modern condition (and the condition of many individual Friends). How can we possibly believe in a ‘hell below’ and a ‘heaven above peppered with angels’ wings?” Don’t we need a new attitude to our religious symbols? But is it really that simple? Does living authentically mean we must acknowledge (as David does) that our religious vocabularies are stories disconnected from something called fact? Or are there any alternatives to our sense of contemporary tension?  One figure comes to mind, who might point us towards a solution; the mathematician and Catholic philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662).  Through the contours of his philosophy, I suggest that Friends can overcome their inner tensions, without reducing our Quaker symbols to ghetto narratives- things which must be separated from the world of day to day reality.

The Age of Skepticism: The Little God of Descartes

Pascal was born in age of rising religious skepticism. A generation before his birth, Rene Descartes had attempted reconcile Christian faith with the new science, by erecting a firm demarcation between a mechanical account of the physical world and the domain of  Christian faith. In this philosophical mode, God was merely a necessary theological hypothesis which explained the order of the physical world. Once this hypothesis was determined through abstract principles, the measurable laws of nature could take over. The God of the gaps was born. Yet this approach to theology has major drawbacks, as later generations painfully discovered.  For one thing, while apparently resolving the incongruity between Christian faith and religion, the God of the Cartesians is a rather small and provincial deity. True, he set the world in motion, but never interacts with the realms of scientific knowledge. As Pascal later reflected on this philosophy, ‘I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God’ (Pensées 77-8). This is the sickly God discovered by the twentieth century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and it offered him cold comfort. As he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge in 1944:

Man has learnt to deal with himself in all questions of importance without recourse to the “working hypothesis” called “God.” In questions of science, art, and ethics this has become an understood thing at which one now hardly dares to tilt. But for the last hundred years or so it has also become increasingly true of religious questions; it is becoming evident that everything gets along without “God”–and, in fact, just as well as before. As in the scientific field, so in human affairs generally, “God” is being pushed more and more out of life, losing more and more ground (Bonhoeffer, 1944).

Yet it was Descartes who made this miniscule God possible, and it is this same God that Boulton seeks to dismiss. Indeed, as the latter suggests, it is no-longer credible to believe in such a God of the gaps, nor its more or less incredible antecedents. The God of Christianity (and adjoining faiths) is dead and buried, precisely because it lacks coherence. It cannot make sense of our lives. If religion is to have a future, says Boulton, it must do so, without the traditional God-concept upon which it once depended.

Pascal: The Logic of the Heart 

How did we get into this position? For his part Pascal, would suggest to us that non-theism has become intelligible because we have lost sight of important sensibilities belonging to our religious forebears. Firstly, we have reduced God from the majestic unknowing presence of prayer and love, to a mere instrumental hypothesis, which must serve our theories. This means that once God no-longer serves our purposes (a God who we never knew and a God we never loved) we can simply discard theological belief. Many Friends today have embarked on this very procedure, feeling compelled by consistency to play Descartes’ game. If God is merely a hypothesis, it is easy to throw aside such an abstract being. Why do we need him when we have much more coherent or comprehensive explanations? But Pascal would say that Friends who treat God like that are actually talking about a different Deity altogether. While Descartes affirms the divine as a dry philosophical construct, Pascal (and our Quaker ancestors) affirmed a God which is more than ‘a fact’. This is the ‘other’ God that appears in Meeting for Worship, and Pascal’s Catholic Mass. As Pascal articulated the experience of being held by such a God:

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and savants.
Certitude, certitude; feeling, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ. Deum meum et Deum vestrum.
“Thy God shall be my God.”
Forgetting the world and everything, except God.
He is only found by the paths taught in the Gospel.
Grandeur of the human soul.
“Just Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you.”
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.

We have in short allowed ourselves to believe (whether we label ourselves theist or non-theist) that God is not power, life, splendor or mystery, but rather a creature (a claim among other claims) which must be accepted or rejected. But this for Pascal is a supreme form of distraction, because it fundamentally misunderstands the character of God. As Pascal puts it in the Pensées, ‘[the] Christian God does not consist merely of a God who is the author of mathematical truths and the order of the elements. That is the portion of the heathen and Epicureans’. How then shall we relate to this God beyond the bounds of theory? In this Quakerism and Pascal’s Catholicism are in complete agreement. God is known by ‘the promptings of love and truth in your hearts’ (QF&P 1.02). Or as Pascal succinctly expressed it: ‘It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason’ (424). Here we are invited to let go of our constructions (theisms or non-theisms) and instead swim in a deep ocean of inexhaustible eternity. This is surely the heart of our Quaker faith, the radical assertion that ‘Christianity is not a notion but a way’ (QF&P 1.02:2).

The Foolishness of the World and the Mystery of God 

Yet does this appeal to the heart really resolve the tension between faith and fact? If Descartes insists on a God the gaps, could Pascal’s God be conceived of as the God of intuition? Isn’t Pascal’s God pushed out of the world still further into the domain of subjective inward reflection? This is certainly the view of Don Cupitt (a decisive influence on David Boulton) who argues that Pascal’s theology shows all the hallmarks of an embryonic ‘non-realist’ God-talk. Whatever symbols Pascal evokes should be understand, says Cupitt, entirely as expressions of his feelings and can never be said to reflect or impinge upon the external world. Yet, such a description seems to suggest that for Pascal at least, religion is ultimately about one’s denial of the facts (a kind of Christianity for the bunker) yet this simply doesn’t fit with the Pascal of history; the mathematician and the scientist. Pascal, the investigator of nature, did not believe that the claims of Christianity were divorced from the world around him. Indeed, the first half of the Pensées is dedicated to a painstaking exploration of the conditions of existence. Instead of running away from our flawed and finite condition, Pascal forces his reader to face it head on.  Where Pascal differs from the atheist-realist however is his assertion that the God of Christianity encompasses these hard facts.  How so? To make sense of his all-encompassing experience of God, Pascal returned to Paul. What is so scandalous and unnerving about Pauline theology is its attempt to view the world through a new set of lenses. While the Empire that killed Jesus saw nothing in the Cross but the ignominy of a failed revolutionary, Paul saw the supreme moment of theophany (the ultimate disclosure of God). As Paul reflects in his letter to the Corinthians:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:20-25).

What does this cruciform wisdom mean for our vision of God? To be a follower of the Christian deity means to inhabit a disturbing paradox. While the Christian ses a world where explicit divine power is absent (a world where even God’s son can be crucified) it is within this seeming absence that God is revealed. As Bonhoeffer puts it, ‘The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us’ (Bonhoeffer, July 16, 1944). Following Paul and anticipating Bonhoeffer, Pascal posits a hidden God, located where neither the ‘wise’ theist nor philosophical non-theist would look; in the Cross of Jesus. As Pascal suggests:

What do the prophets say of Jesus Christ? That He will be clearly God? No; but that He is a God truly hidden; that He will be slighted; that none will think that it is He; that He will be a stone of stumbling, upon which many will stumble, &c. Let people then reproach us no longer for want of clearness, since we make profession of it (Pensées 751). 

While the Cartesians imagined God as a simple spark to set the engine of the world in motion (a God that can easily be pushed back by a new theory) Pascal’s God is found in the body of a broken and dejected man. His God is not simply a cog in a larger machine, but an abiding presence under the surface of life- willing love in the midst of despair.  Here God (in Christ) sits in the midst of the mud and blood of human experience. In this way Pascal reveals what some Friends have lost- the Christocentric God of Fox, Pennington and Fell. And with this loss, an increasing number of Friends no longer have a way of speaking convincing of ‘God with us’, and thus feel the persuasive pull of non-theism. Yet, if this crucified God is so sturdy (compared to the little God of the Cartesians) why are some Friends presently engaged in throwing out the latter while conspicuously ignoring the former?

Recovering the Jesus-Shaped God

In part the answer is tied up to a wider culture which has become alienated from the particularities of the Christian story. Instead of believing or denying a Jesus-shaped God, our secular society is increasingly busy affirming or renouncing the God of Descartes. The New Atheists (Ditchkins and co) have built a giant apologetics industry to put the final nail in the coffin of this ailing deity, while a new breed of anti-humanist Christians strive to defend ‘God the watchmaker’ and ‘God the grand designer’. If either party believe they are arguing for or against Christianity, they are both sorely mistaken. Yet, Friends have become sucked into these same debates, feeling they must take a stance on a God others tell them they must have an opinion about. Yet, I would argue that such a God has never really been the God of Friends. Descartes God-hypothesis is not Fox’s Christ who ‘has come to teach His people Himself’ nor James Naylor’s spirit ‘that delights to do no evil’ (QF&P 19:12). Yet Friends are repeatedly told by atheists and theists that the Cartesian God is all that is on offer. It is not surprising therefore that Friends should start reflecting these dominant patterns of thought.

Such trends have been further reinforced by our recent history. Take the well-known Quaker phrase ‘that of God in everyone’. Before the emergence of Liberal Quakerism, the dominant view among Friends was that the God evoked  here was the Spirit known in Christ. This God had a story and a definable character. Yet with the advent of the progressive 19th century, an increasing number of Friends began to describe this inward God in terms of the generic deity of Descartes. Under the weight of theological liberalism the God of Christ was transfigured into a universal principle, the Platonic ‘divine reason in man’. Given this obscuration of original Quaker grammar, it is easy to see how we reached our present situation. While the key formula of our British Liberal Quakerism is “rooted in Christianity, open to new light” (QF&P 1.02) a universalistic reinterpretation of key Quaker insights, has left many Friends estranged from these Christian roots. This in turn leaves the God of Christianity increasingly out on a limb in the Society. In the accompanying vacuum two interlocking phenomena are allowed to grow: a vague storyless deity, as well as an open rejection of theological language.  Always prescient, there is something in the following words of Pascal’s that offer a window into our present condition:

 All who seek God without Jesus Christ, and who rest in nature, either find no light to satisfy them, or come to form for themselves a means of knowing God and serving Him without a mediator. Thereby they fall either into atheism, or into deism, two things which the Christian religion abhors almost equally (Pensées 556:12).

To translate this insight into our own situation, without healthy Christian roots, latter-day British Quakerism has been thrown back on the dominant God-hypothesis of our culture; a theory of God which leads either to the God of the gaps (which Pascal calls ‘deism’) or non-theism. Yet, there is an alternative to these two visions; a God-talk that embraces the hard truths of existence (our sense of insignificance and abandonment) while at the same time giving depth and substance to our religious language. This third way between theism and non-theism is found in a man laid out upon a cross. His life encompasses all the horror and beauty of the empirical facts. In his cry “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) is expressed the brutal reality of we chatty and insignificant apes, darting through an uncertain cosmic night. In this respect, God’s suffering on the cross is not a pleasant sticking-plaster in the face of the wounds life itself might inflict upon our fantasies. Rather, this dying man is a a radical disclosure of those wounds. In this sense the revelation of the non-theist (Nietzsche’s much mourned ‘death of God’) is itself foreshadowed in the crucifixion. Such is the power of the Christian story that it can imagine the very desolation of God.  For one daring and paradoxical moment, Christ himself becomes a non-theist and the world is emptied of God.

What might these startling images tell us about the present debate in Friends between so-called theists and non-theists? Doubtless for David and others, all of this theologising is simply an appeal to believe six impossible things before breakfast. The person of Jesus has immense poetic value for many non-theists Friends, yet for these same Friends, the life of Jesus can never be a means of knowing the structure of the world as science ‘knows’ its structure. But there are still many of us who refuse to disentangle the poetry of Jesus from the truth of the Gospel.  Indeed, it is my contention that a return to a Christ-shaped Quakerism is the most appropriate glue for piecing our religious life and our theology back together.  Does this approach exclude non-realists like David? One would have to ask individual non-theist Friends, yet I sense a deep well of fellowship at the foot of the cross. In the iconoclasm of a self-emptying and suffering God, we will  constantly find the destruction of our cherished images of a transcendental mystical sky-father. Through this cruciform logic, we are forced to look closer to home for a God-language.  Mud and blood must become the building-blocks of our theology, not some ethereal notion of the numinous. We must look to the wounded, the despaired of and the lonely for a theological meaning.  We must in other words become religious humanists, enmeshed in the here and now, our eyes always looking earthward. Could this provide a bridge between theists and non-theists? Only time will tell.

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3 thoughts on “Quaker Non-Theism and the God of Pascal

  1. Reblogged this on Jolly Quaker and commented:
    Some valuable words from Friend Ben: ‘…without healthy Christian roots, latter-day British Quakerism has been thrown back on the dominant God-hypothesis of our culture; a theory of God which leads either to the God of the gaps (which Pascal calls ‘deism’) or non-theism. Yet, there is an alternative to these two visions; a God-talk that embraces the hard truths of existence (our sense of insignificance and abandonment) while at the same time giving depth and substance to our religious language. This third way between theism and non-theism is found in a man laid out upon a cross…’

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