The Religious Society of Friends contains a number of very active members who attend worship every week, yet do not believe in God. Some consider themselves agnostics, and some say they don’t believe in God as God is commonly understood, but say they believe God is simply the good that is present in all people.
This brings to mind Mark Twain’s statement that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug; God is the creator who is a potent and active force in the world even today, whereas good is human virtue. They are not the same thing.
Furthermore, if God is only the good found in humans, then God is less than a human being, not more, and certainly not God.
Some Friends have wondered why people who do not believe in God would devote a great deal of time and energy to a Religious Society that holds as fundamental that God is present in all people, and that if we sit together quietly, we may hear God whisper within us. On reflection, I, for one, have stopped wondering; it is because there is that of God in all people, and we do hear God whisper within us, calling. Even when our rationalism keeps us from seeing, we can still hear, at least well enough to know we are sought. And so, we continue to seek the God whose existence we doubt, for God stirs our souls to seek.
And so, Friends who are much older than I, and have been part of the Religious Society of Friends for a much larger portion of their lives, and are not at all shy about sharing their doubts, have told me that they envy my clarity on this question. Their envy is not really envy, but the universal yearning for God.
I have tried to share this clarity and light, but have seen no success to date. It is as if my soul is aflame, but can kindle no new fires. I have tried to let my life speak. I have spoken of what has been given to me, and what I have seen, not expecting others to see what I see in the telling, but hoping to teach others to see as I see. This, I know, is the key. As Thomas Kelly wrote in Reality of the Spiritual World, "Arguments are devised subsequent to our deep conviction, not preceding our conviction. They bolster faith; they do not create it."
In the modern and postmodern world, we trust in science and the scientific method, rejecting everything that seems to depart from their rigor, without allowing ourselves to marvel that science has no answers for the most basic questions of our existence: What is consciousness and how did it come to be? What is time? What is matter and how did it come into existence? What is beyond our universe, which science tells us is finite? What is the context of our existence? Why does anything exist, rather than just nothing? Why do we see our world as beautiful?
It has been said that when the only tool in your toolbox is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Scientific method is a useful and important hammer, but the framework of our lives contains a lot of material that is not nails. We all need tools to handle the blocks and planks that make up the greater part of our lives. We need other ways of seeing and thinking, in addition to, but not instead of, scientific method. We need more, not fewer, tools.
Yesterday, I talked with a young woman who I know well, who has always described herself as an agnostic. Recently, I have sensed that she has become more open to belief, and during our conversation yesterday, she seemed to have crossed the tipping point where "Who knows?" becomes "I think so. . . . " I asked her why her perspective had changed and she replied, "Molecular biology."
She has been thinking about the mechanisms by which DNA molecules separate into individual strands, and use themselves as templates for synthesizing proteins that govern every aspect of development and function, at the cellular level and for the entire organism. She can describe and understand the processes and their effects, but she cannot begin to understand how molecules began behaving in this manner or why they keep doing it. Even if someone eventually describes such a mechanism, it is certain to deepen the mystery, not solve it.
The first tool we have to add to our toolbox is a sense of awe and wonder.
Although I cannot remember a time when I did not believe that God is, I can well remember the time before I knew that God is, the time before I was a Quaker. I remember that awe and wonder were in the foundation of that belief. So much of our existence remains inexplicable, and only becomes more so as our curiosity nibbles around the edges of our ignorance.
I also remember my sense of awe being stimulated by exhibitions of love and experiences of beauty. The sight of a parent caring for a child or a stand of white birch among green grasses have always brought a feeling of oneness, a feeling that I was also seeing with my heart. And while a skeptic can explain our capacity for loving as a naturally selected trait, enhancing our ability to survive as a species, I can see no such explanation for our ability to see beauty and our tendency to pause in its presence. The fact that we see each other and the world as beautiful is a gift and a constant reminder that there is a giver of gifts.
Awe brings humility, and humility brings gratitude. Our toolbox is filling rapidly.
For a large part of my adult life, I was working on a college degree in literature. I was reading a lot, including a lot of poetry, and I was beginning to write. This discipline brought a spiritual gift that I recognized at the time, and another one that I have only recently recognized for what it is.
I saw that, in reading and writing, I was participating in a vast conversation across the millennia. All of us, from the ancients to the postmoderns, share common concerns and common responses. I could read a bawdy joke written by Aristophanes more than 2,000 years ago and laugh the same as at a joke written yesterday. In fact, the gag was frequently the same. I found Shakespeare’s characters and their problems as familiar as the people I have known, and found a kindred spirit in Anne Bradstreet, a 17th-century Puritan woman who wrote poetry. I came to see literature as a conversation, a call and response through the ages as we read, then write in reply. I was living the oneness of being human. Comprehension of the unity of existence is a tool we can use.
I also was beginning to see my life as a poem. At the time, I found it a little funny, even alarming, that I would catch myself thinking of real-life phenomena as metaphors or symbols, and I would caution myself that this was reality, not poetry; things are what they are, and there are no metaphors. It is only recently that I have realized that I was wrong, that the ability to see life as a poem is an important spiritual gift.
The most important difference between poetry and prose is in the use of language. In prose, language is used denotatively; we strive to be precise and to impart a very specific meaning—this sentence is prose. In poetry, language is used evocatively, to tease meaning out of the reader, meaning that may be very different from the literal, denotative meaning of the words used. This is done through what the French poet Charles Baudelaire called "the universal analogy": the recognition that all experience is, in some way, similar to other experience. In poetry, meaning emerges from our feelings and thoughts like a tabby cat emerging from the fog in this passage from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Elliot:
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
When we are able to perceive meaning between words, find meaning diffused through words, hear meaning in the breath that carries the words, then we are ready to perceive God in the poems of our lives.
There is a place for poetry in our toolbox.
Awe, wonder, humility, gratitude, awareness of unity, and poetry are probably the essential tools for building belief, and living with belief for a time is probably sufficient for finding faith. However, like many people, I required one more thing to turn belief into faith: crisis. There’s nothing like a good crisis to make us humble, and nothing like good help in a crisis to make us grateful.
My personal crisis was precipitated by another’s crisis, someone whose privacy must be respected. However, I can say this much: there came a time when it was clear that I had a responsibility to act, was compelled by love to act, and my own judgment was in agreement with all the advice I was receiving from friends and professionals. But, there was a part of me that disagreed violently about what should be done, was holding me back and asking me to trust someone who I knew to be completely untrustworthy. I didn’t know which way to turn.
Then the thought came to me that the nonrational alternative that was pressing itself on me might be what I knew Quakers call the Inner Light, that the God I believed to exist, but not interfere very much, might be offering me help. Hoping that I wasn’t just making an excuse to do what was emotionally easier, I went with what I felt, not what I thought.
The person I couldn’t trust made a promise and kept it. A series of coincidences provided a course of action that started the mending and healing I was seeking. This healing began when an avowed atheist experienced a change of heart and reported feeling God catch him and hold him when he lost his footing atop a cliff. Way was opening.
While this was happening, I stumbled across an excellent book on Quakerism while shopping for someone else. I also had a series of small experiences that seemed highly relevant.
One evening, after dark, I was walking in a strange city when I encountered a homeless man; a very strange looking, obviously mentally ill, scary homeless man. As we passed on the sidewalk, I felt a strong urge to speak to him, so I turned around, went after him, and asked if he was eating regularly. The madness went out of his eyes, and he said, "When I can." So I bought him dinner.
A short time later, I was speaking with an acquaintance who was going through a family crisis of her own, as her troubled teenage daughter was pregnant. She mentioned that she had decided to skip Christmas that year because she just couldn’t get interested. The conversation continued, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what she had said and the strange reply that wouldn’t leave me except by being spoken. Finally, I said to her, "I know this is going to sound really strange coming from me, a Jew, but I was really bothered by what you said about skipping Christmas, and I wish you would reconsider; now, of all times, would be a good time for you to celebrate the birth of a child who brought hope into the world." She was quiet for a moment, then said to her husband, "I think we should go see Father Tom."
It was shortly after this that I found a Friends meeting within a reasonable distance, and became a regular attender, then a member; for it had become clear to me that God is with us always, and may speak at any moment, either for our benefit or to benefit those around us. I have found that in the synergy of a gathered silent meeting, the presence of God is almost palpable.
If we go about our day-to-day business with our eyes open and our tools at hand—awe, wonder, humility, gratitude, oneness, and poetry—the world starts to look like it did to Walt Whitman when he wrote these lines, excerpted from "Song of Myself":
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,
I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign’d by God’s name,
And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe’er I go,
Others will punctually come for ever and ever.