The Liberal Quaker Problem with God
After many years of sharing tea and biscuits with fellow Quakers after meeting for Worship, I have had the misfortune of participating in roughly the same conversation at regular intervals. People ask me what I do to put bread on the table and I say ‘I’m a theologian’. They look at me quizzically and then ask, “A Christian theologian?”. I nod, and then (as if I have unlocked some post-Christian Pandora’s box) the Friend tells me how they cannot ‘believe in an old man in the sky’ and have ‘left all that behind’. I respond feebly that this is the God I have rejected as well, and more to the point, it is the God rejected by most of the Christian tradition throughout its history. But such Friends are far from convinced. Such conversations always unnerve me, despite their frequency. Is it possible that people have been alienated from the Christian tradition because they think we worship a celestial Father Christmas? More perplexing for me as a theologian is where they have got this idea from. Could bad Christian teaching be to blame? Or is it the mark of how successful the Enlightenment’s intellectual assassination of Christianity continues to be? Wherever it’s come from, the image of an elderly and angry Jehovah is a powerful barrier between a growing number of post-Christian Quakers and the riches of the Quaker-Christian tradition. At its most intellectually acute, such a barrier is expressed in a philosophical rejection of the language of supernatural transcendence (of a God somehow apart from the laws of time and space). Friends like the non-theist David Boulton are happy to conceive of ‘God-talk as a rich, poetic, metaphorical language’ but to suggest the existence of some kind of metaphysical supreme ruler is nothing less than a violation of our reason, if not our dignity. I can well understand why such a God might irritate contemporary people. ‘Whatever God is’ say some more agnostic Friends, ‘it cannot be some celestial magician, throwing out gifts and punishments’. But the question must be asked, is this the God of Christian tradition? More to the point is this the God in our Book of Discipline which continues to be generated through the contours of this tradition? In this post, I want to do two things. Firstly, I want to show how the Christian tradition has hidden depths in its God-language which modern Quakers can embrace, and even learn to love. To this end, I look at how some ancient Christian authors (notably Augustine and Origen) have thought about the divine nature. Instead of the celestial patriarch of secular imagination, I suggest a deeper, more challenging picture of God which emerges through their writings. Secondly, I attempt to show the ways in which the Christianity of early Friends was not about a larger-than-life human, capriciously throwing thunderbolts, or about ‘transcendence’, but rather about a deep reality working ‘behind’ and ‘within’ the world to accomplish it’s loving purpose. Once we take this God as our starting-point, the depths of the Christian tradition become more intelligible to folk who have become unacquainted with them.
Augustine: The God Behind the World
Let’s begin with a story. In 387 CE, Augustine and his mother Monica stopped at the Roman port town of Ostia, on their journey home to North Africa. Monica’s mind had been recently put to rest. After years of spiritual searching, her son had been baptized. Augustine still had many unanswered questions about what this act would mean for his immediate future, but at least for his mother, it meant that the life of her turbulent son was now in good hands. One night after dinner, mother and son sat talking. Perhaps after a long journey both felt decidedly mellow because talk soon turned to death. What was it like to die? What lay beyond it? Would their bond endure? Suddenly something strange began to happen. The room seemed to melt away and mother and son began to sense the depths of eternity, those secrets of which they spoke. Years later, Augustine recalled the events of that night in terms that still feel vivid:
In the presence of that Truth, which you yourself are, we were asking each other what the eternal life of your saints would be like, that life which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man. And we entered into our minds and passed beyond them so as to reach that land of never‐failing plenty where you feed Israel forever with the food of Truth, where life is that Wisdom through whom All these things were made (Confessions, 9.10.23-4l).
When the young Augustine was a restless spiritual seeker, he believed the claims of the Platonic philosophers; that the mind could ascend to God through refined forms meditation. The key religious metaphor of the Platonist was the ladder, the rungs of which the thirsty soul needed to climb if it wanted to achieve mystic union. Per this language, God functioned like an external object, with which the mind could commune. The implication behind this image was that there some intractable chasm between the creator and the created. God was that supernatural thing ‘out there’ that it would take an inhuman act of will to reach. Yet, in a spectacular moment, Augustine realizes that something is deeply wrong with this picture. He finally understands (alongside the apostle Paul) that Christ does not merely ‘break in’ to one’s life, but is met within each believer: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and delivered Himself up for me (Galatians 2:19-20). In this mold, following Jesus is not about climbing some Platonic ladder to meet God (somewhere else) but about encountering God within. And once we have this encounter, what should we expect? Augustine likens the human encounter with God as being filled to the brim, a sense of being infused and encircled. Yet, no matter how much one feels infused by the Source of Being, God is never exhausted.
As Augustine hears God tell him in the Confessions: ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me’ (7.10.6). We might be able to partake in the power of God, but nothing of which we partake ever diminishes the divine nature. The notion of God being inexhaustible is the central point of Augustine’s use of the language of ‘truth’ in the Ostia passage. We are not talking about a ‘being’ in any usual sense of the word. Rather, we are talking about the conditional is-ness of every situation and event. God is Truth for Augustine in precisely this sense. Whatever happens, God is still God. The divine cannot be negated by time or change. Every change is contained in that which we call God. As Augustine suggests in another work, even if all truth perished from the world, this world of lies would itself becomes ‘the truth’. Thus, he concludes, truth (which for Augustine is also God) is eternal and imperishable. Yet, this Is-ness is not merely an unconscious generator of facts but answers back; in the contours of the created order, in the chorus of creatures, and in the history of humanity (particularly in the joys and travails of Israel). This is the mysterious Thou of Martin Buber, that centre of meaning which is always reaching out to us, in thought, in love, and in suffering. Through such a reality says Buber, ‘The world is not divine sport, it is divine destiny. There is divine meaning in the life of the world, of man, of human persons, of you and of me’ (I and Thou, p. 66).
Making Sense of the God of Scripture
At this point, while some Friends might concede that Augustine’s God sounds like the kind of Deity they can live with, this is evidently not the God of the Bible who sends plagues on the disobedient or kills false prophets. Moreover, this is seemingly not the fleshly ‘Christian’ God of the dogmatists, who comes garbed in the life of a man and born of a virgin. But this is a hasty reaction, plainly indicative of our modern way of thinking . The God that Augustine experiences (the exhaustible fountain of truth) can be glimpsed throughout Scripture. In the Psalms (those poetic compositions of Temple worship) God is adored as that which subsists everywhere (Ps. 139), requiring no food (Psalm 50) or a fixed dwelling place on earth (Ps. 115:16). This the same God who generates the physical universe and who is eternally present (‘in him we live and move and have our being’). As God answers Moses from the fire of the burning bush: ‘I Am that I Am’ (Exodus 3:14). God, the Thou, is eternal and perpetual Is-ness. God is none other than the very possibility of identity itself. But, this potentiality is not some remote, Other-Being. It always exists in vibrant communion with every creature it sustains. It is this same reality which led the Jewish people out of slavery and became manifest in the life of Jesus (see Peter’s speech in Acts 2). As Augustine saw it, the mystic God he experienced at Ostia was none other than the God who delivers Israel and the man who was condemned to death by Pilate.It was simply impossible for Augustine to separate feelings of divine unity from real and concrete historical events. What we are dealing with here is not a ‘supernatural being’ but the mystic centre of nature itself, that which works within and behind nature, to give it meaning and a story. All well and good perhaps, but what about the Biblical God that punishes and wreaks havoc? What can we do with this image? Surely this despotic creature is far from any ‘mystic heart of nature’ beloved of Augustine and Buber? The creedal speech of Peter early on in the book of Acts may help us bridge the apparent gap. In a stirring fusion of the present and the past, Peter proclaims:
Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. (Acts 2:30-22).
Throughout the speech, Peter attempts to explain the history of his people through the life, death and rising of Jesus.Through an act of routine human violence, the reconciliation of human beings to God becomes possible. The created might-be meets the absolute fruition of God, making a new chapter in the world’s history possible. What did this story mean for how the first Christians understood those dark moments in Scripture where God behaves like a tyrant, inflicting violence, and punishment? Much like their learned cousins the Rabbinic Jews (who governed their God-language through a careful reading of the Prophets) early Christians governed their interpretation of problematic images through the earth-shaking reality of Jesus of Nazareth recorded in the Gospels. Through him, Christians were impelled to worship a ‘God of peace’ (Hebrews 13:20), shun violence and keep themselves pure from the punitive logic of the wider world.The God that allowed himself to die for the world would put an end to all genocides, all wars, and all massacres. In this mold, Scripture did not represent a manual but a sacred reservoir of insight, which must be read through Christ-shaped eyes. In place of a mere recitation of the doings of the sky-father, Scripture becomes a living resource, in constant dialogue with the reader, constantly illuminating the God of Israel and the Church.The capricious bolt-thrower was transformed into a humble shepherd who lays down his life for the flock. All prior violence attributed to the God of Abraham and Jacob must be understood through this supreme act of divine transformation.
This point is worth labouring. There is no neutral stance from which to read and understand Scripture. How one understand the text depends on which communities one belongs to. The community is the terrain in which one learns to read the text, cherish and use it. Over the years, readers may give one another tips which deepen the understanding. Shared experience may unlock things which are arcane or complex. Sometimes we may be able to ‘pray our way through’ an obscure passage if our hearts are open to one another. Reading alone is liable to make the interpreter adopt the dominant mood of a culture, which may or may not be illuminated the God of Israel and the Church. Once we see Scripture through the lens of community, what does this mean for the God so many Liberal Friends presently reject? Chiefly, it deprives such Quakers of a straw-man God, offering us something richer. Once we read together in a sensitive and contemplative way, we will soon find that the heaviness of the literal falls away, as we ask: ‘how does this speak to us now?’ What would it mean to bring the words of potentially hurtful texts (say Leviticus 18:22) under the Spirit of Christ? ‘What canst thou say’ then? The Christ-shaped rule of peace means that Scripture no longer needs to be read entirely literally. Indeed, if a literal reading of a given passage gets in the way of the rule of peace through which we read, then we must find other ways of understanding what we see on the page. What matters is glancing the living reality of Christ, often figuratively expressed, in the words of Scripture, rather than maintaining a belief in an angry ‘old man in the sky’. To illustrate this rule of peace in action, the great Christian exegete Origen (who influenced the reading technique of Augustine) wrote in his apologetic work Against Celsus, that disturbing references to God destroying his enemies should be understood allegorically as signifying to the purification of the soul of evil. Thus, taking Psalm 10 as his starting-point, Origen proceeds to blunt the edge of this potentially genocidal text:
“Every morning will I destroy the wicked of the land, that I may cut off all workers of iniquity from the city of Jehovah,” by “the land” he means the flesh whose lusts are at enmity with God; and by “the city of Jehovah” he designates his own soul, in which was the temple of God, containing the true idea and conception of God, which makes it to be admired by all who look upon it. As soon, then, as the rays of the Sun of righteousness shine into his soul, feeling strengthened and invigorated by their influence, he sets himself to destroy all the lusts of the flesh, which are called “the wicked of the land,” and drives out of that city of the Lord which is in his soul all thoughts which work iniquity, and all suggestions which are opposed to the truth. And in this way, also the just give up to destruction all their enemies, which are their vices, so that they do not spare even the children, that is, the early beginnings and promptings of evil. (7:22).
In another place, Origen defines the attitude which allows him to make such a reading of the text possible: ‘“Unless those carnal wars (i.e. of the Hebrew Scriptures) were a symbol of spiritual wars, I do not think that the Jewish historical books would ever have been passed down by the apostles to be read by Christ’s followers in their churches” (Homilies on Joshua 15.1).Leaving aside the applied anti-Judaism of this passage, here Origen offers us a fruitful approach when we are faced with the ‘old man in the sky’.What the Apostles hand down to us in the form of the Scriptures is a tool for living out Jesus’ pattern of peace. For Origen, we need to read the Scriptures because they will keep this Christlike pattern alive for us, through chronicle, song, and prophecy. When Christians read Scripture, they are to apply the prophecy of Isaiah to every word of the text (in a kind of exegetical pacification): ‘They will beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war any more’ (Isaiah 2:4). The apostles have passed down these texts to us so that we might continue to worship the God of peace. When we set this reading technique beside the clear ambivalence of many Liberal Quakers towards Scripture, we come to realize something important about ourselves as a religious community. Many Quakers in Britain no longer treat Scripture as if they were in a Christ-shaped community. Many, if they pick up the Bible at all, all too often revert to the default empiricism or historicism of our culture, reading the Bible as history, myth or fable. They cannot conceive of the text as a window which speaks, challenges and clarifies. Jesus is another semi-fictional character in a confused and messy story, rather than the key to a deeper reading of a coherent whole. Many Quakers look at Biblical texts like Enlightenment opponents of Christianity, rather than spiritual seekers after truth. This peculiar attitude deprives us, not only of deeper communion with fellow Christians but actively alienates us from our own tradition.
Reading Scripture Anew: Towards a Richer Quakerism
It serves our modern sensibilities as British Quakers (who worry about ‘the old man in the sky’) to argue that in some sense early Quakers were only Christian by accident, that the language they used was incidental to the mystical message they were trying to communicate. I have heard some Friends say, ‘if George Fox had been from a Buddhist culture, he would have used Buddhist terms’. Maybe so, but in my view, this modernist wedge between language and content is deeply unhelpful. If Fox had been a Buddhist, he wouldn’t have been a Quaker (in the sense that he would have belonged to a different story). Quakerism is the form it is because it is illuminated by a Christ-shaped way of seeing and reading things. The uncomfortable fact that we contemporary British Quakers need to face is that to be a Quaker is to belong to the Christian story. But as I suggested above, that doesn’t mean that we must believe in an angry, genocidal God, if we want to take Christian claims seriously. Of course, this is precisely the God Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens say we must believe in order to take this stuff seriously, but then they would say that wouldn’t they. They are not part of the community that cares about the Christ-shaped story. Their insistence about what we (those living through the story) should take seriously should have very little impact on our reading practice. That being so, it is exceedingly surprising how much time some Friends spend worrying about, or half-agreeing with, their criticisms. Why are we wasting our energy in this way? Instead of putting up spiritual barriers between ourselves and our tradition, we need to find ways of unlocking doors and opening minds. In short, we need to start reading Scripture more like Quakers (and more like Christians) and less like Enlightenment moderns.
How can we do that? We could do worse than take our first steps from Origen. Like that great allegorist of Alexandria, early Friends interpreted Scripture in ways consistent with their own rule of peace. The Christ who ‘comes to teach the people Himself’ was the same Lord who conferred the repudiation of violence on his followers, even down to their reception of Scripture. In a 1658 epistle against the adoption of ‘outward weapons’; George Fox offers an allegorical interpretation of the battles of the Hebrews against other nations. He asserts, ‘The Jews’ sword outwardly, by which they cut down the heathen, was a type [that is, a figure or foreshadow] of the spirit of God within, which [spirit] cuts down the heathenish nature within’. Here, Fox reinterprets Biblical strife as a symbol of the inward work of the Inward Light But Fox did not stop there. Like Origen, he applied the allegorical method to individual Biblical characters. While Fox did not doubt the historical status of many passages of Scripture, he saw Cain, Esau, David and Mary, as symbolic expressions (we might now say archetypes) of spiritual states. As Fox describes this approach in his Journal:
I went back into Nottinghamshire, where the Lord showed me, that the natures of those things which were hurtful without, were within in the hearts and minds of wicked men. The natures of dogs, swine, vipers, of Sodom, and Egypt, Pharaoh, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, &c. The natures of these I saw within, though people had been looking without. I cried to the Lord, saying, ‘Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?’ And the Lord answered, ‘It was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions?
Fox’s central point here is an astonishing one for modern skeptical Quakers to hear. One could be a humble weaver in 17th century Lancashire, but one’s inner life was always linked to the drama of Scripture. For Fox, the Bible could speak directly to our inward states in the present moment. Here our personal histories are part of a meta-history which make sense of all our failures and dispositions. In the most profound sense, for the first Friends, the logic of God’s story is always invisibly at work in us, whether we read Scripture or not. If we continue to dwell in sin, we repeat the narrative structure of a Cain or an Esau. Yet, when we accept God’s truth we repeat the structure of a newly formed Adam or a humble Mary. But such an allegorical approach to Scripture not only informed early Quaker attitudes to violence and spiritual growth but shaped Friendly explorations of gender. Margret Fell, in her defense of women’s ministry, draws support from the scriptural image of the Church as female to strengthen her argument. Fell notes,
[The] Church of Christ is represented as a Woman; and those that speak against this Woman’s speaking, speak against the Church of Christ, and the Seed of the Woman, which Seed is Christ; that is to say, those that speak against the Power of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord speaking in a Woman, simply by reason of her Sex, or because she is a Woman, not regarding the Seed, and Spirit, and Power that speaks in her; such speak against Christ and his Church.
Ingeniously, Fell translates the abstract metaphor of the church community as ‘woman’ into a potent weapon against the pre-eminence of male ministry. At the heart of this move is a compelling vision of God. Fell’s guiding Spirit is not an authoritarian sky-wizard handing down stale and fixed commands, but a dynamic energy which unlocks the hidden power of the Scriptural record. For Fell, scripture was not a ‘dead letter’, but a living canon, which could be used as part of an ongoing dialogue with the Spirit. Whether the subject was the role of women or non-violence, Friends were keenly aware that reading the Bible could give rise to new and surprising positions. Moreover, the God that was communicated in Scripture was never in competition with the God loved and known in the depth or Worship. Indeed, the words of Scripture allowed the first Quakers to talk about God in the same sublime manner as Augustine at his most mystic. God is Truth, God is the Seed, God is light, God is love. In this sense, the images and particularities of Scripture have always allowed Quakers to say that God is more than the words on the page. Neither Origen nor early Friends could talk about God as a mere ‘larger than life’ Person, and it was Scripture, that deterred them from such literalism. Both Fox and Origen were sensitive enough Scriptural readers to remember that when God spoke to Israel he was wrapped in darkness and cloud. Even with the Light shining in the heart, we cannot know fully the object of prayer. We little chatty apes should follow the will of God, but we must be suspicious of those who want to shrink God down to size or make divine motive as clear as glass. As God warns Isaiah: ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’ (Is. 55:9). Yet, while we cannot know the essence of the thing we adore, through the life of Jesus, we can at least know its essential character. The Prince of Peace teaches us through Scripture that his every word means reconciliation and truth, and that we fulfill Scripture when healing is accomplished in us, and in the world. Just as the theologians of the early Church could take the God the Psalms (a sometimes bloody and tempestuous dictator) and see the loving Truth in them, Quakers could take the often-harrowing images contained in the Bible (the battles and the abuses) and understand them in the context of the God who breaks into their lives, in joy and fellowship.
Connecting with our ‘cloud of witnesses’
But if this healing application of Scripture is a key part of being Quaker, it is a form of ministry rapidly falling into disuse among many Liberal Friends. The days of the elderly Quaker parent reading the Bible at the dinner table for her children is a distant memory for many. Most British Friends are not born in Quaker families and may have little engagement with Scripture prior to coming to Meeting. Now, its pages and the God they describe are as unfamiliar as some tract of Vedic wisdom, or some textbook of Medieval medicine. People come from a post-Christian culture which has little patience for something so strange and arcane. People want freedom, authenticity, and experience, not dusty phrases or tired devotion. Given this mindset, it is always tempting to unpick a ‘God of love’ from the Scriptural soil that talk of such a God is rooted. Why do we need this book after all, surely we can just follow our hearts instead? Yet, as unfashionable as this view is, I suggest we need to resist such decoupling at all costs. A Quakerism which ignores the story at which Scripture points, is at once a shriveled and arrogant Quakerism. Shriveled because by reducing the Biblical witness to an ‘old man in the sky’ we actively make strange the Biblical landscape which is the soil of Quakerism. In turn, we make strange our own tradition and create an unnecessary rupture between ourselves and our past.Instead of seeing our Quaker experience as part of a vast ‘cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1) many prefer to embark on our spiritual excursions alone, without a compass and without a history. But the question is, why be mean to ourselves? Why do we want to deny that the presence and identity we know and love in Meeting has a story? Honouring what has gone before (living inside a story) does not automatically render our spirituality inauthentic or mechanical.Rather than seeing such a story as a constraint, we should see it as a launch pad for deeper exploration. Yet, in our unflinching modernism, we often throw away many treasures which may be of aid to us in conceptualizing our spiritual progress. When Augustine attempted to articulate his spiritual voyage, he had the sense that his steps had been walked before. As he struggled in prayer to understand what God had commanded him, he felt he walked in the way of both Moses and Abraham:
You called from far away,“Indeed, I am who am.”And I heard, as one hears in the heart, and there was no longer any room for me to doubt; I could more easily have doubted that I was alive than I could doubt the existence of that Truth which is perceived to be understood through the things that have been made. (Augustine, Confessions, 7.10.16)
Yet Liberal Friends today are less sure than ever about the ways in which their personal journeys intersect with historical ones, in part because there is little effort on the part of Liberal Quakerism to envision a common quest that all must walk.The emphasis is on maintaining a common practice rather than a shared symbolism. There is simply no common story those attending such a Quaker meeting share. In good modernist style, Liberal Friends represent Quakerism as a bundle of charming options, which can be modified or thrown aside, if the self so desires it. While many find this process freeing, there is something deeply arrogant about this enforced spiritual de-cluttering engaged in by many Friends. This is nowhere more obvious than Liberal approaches to Scripture and the God it communicates. By representing the God of the Bible as ‘old hat, ‘backward’ or a ‘relic’ we assume rather arrogantly that we Quakers are more advanced than those who continue to use this book as guide and solace. In this mold, ‘the old man in the sky’ trope is a form of self-congratulation. “Thank goodness”, says such a Friend, “we have left all that Biblical religion behind.” But it would benefit such a Friend to know that Quakers have not been the first to think of God as more than an anthropomorphic tyrant (talk to the Rabbis). Moreover, Liberal Quakers are not the only ones to think of God as ‘spirit’, ‘energy’ or ‘truth’. And horror of horrors so-called ‘Christian orthodoxy’ got their first. It would also advantage such a Friend to know that other great souls have found the scenes of divine blood unsettling and have endeavored to understand them in the light of their spiritual experience. Instead of resting on our claims to superior ‘mysticism’, perhaps Quakers could spend a bit more time with Augustine, Origen, and Tertullian. You never know, we might learn something. As our Friend Mark Russ, has characterized the problem with some Liberal Friends: ‘When Quakers say ‘we don’t need theology’, we think we’re throwing off oppressive chains, whereas actually, we’re leaving a vibrant dinner party in favour of eating our sandwiches in the car and talking to ourselves’.The same can be said of the distaste that some contemporary Quakers show towards Scripture. Being sectarian about our Quaker identity might be comforting, even reassuring, but it denies us the legacy which is ours, not just the Bible, but the centuries of reflection on the words and images we can use for God left by others. Let’s not leave the dinner party till we’ve had our fill of finger food and conversation.