“Leadings” For Nontheistic Friends?

When I speak of being led or feeling called to act in some way, do my words commit me to a traditional theistic worldview? In using these phrases, have I implied the existence of a supernatural, all-powerful being, creator of the universe, who watches over my life and guides my steps? Conversely, if I doubt this traditional theistic worldview, must I give up the language of leadings and callings and substitute explicitly humanistic or scientific terms?

To each of these questions, I answer no. While these terms are rooted in the rich history of traditional Western monotheism, their linguistic evolution has attenuated their links to any specific theological framework, allowing a variety of spiritual but nontheistic interpretations. What remains essential is that when one responds to a leading or calling, one yields to deeper guidance and wisdom than can be found in the deliberations and calculations of one’s small self.

I do not personally endorse nontheism or theism, but rather suggest that the language of leadings and callings can be used with integrity by both theistic and nontheistic Friends to name genuine features of their experience. By theism, I mean belief in the existence of God or gods—and especially, belief in one God who created and intervenes in the universe. Nontheists deny just what theism asserts. Some nontheists are scientific materialists, holding that nothing exists except physical energy and matter, subject to scientific knowledge. The word atheism is often used to name this position, which is opposed not only to belief in God, but also typically to any form of religious belief.

Nontheism, however, also includes views that are not hostile to religion or spirituality. For example, prominent strains of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism are nontheistic. Certain traditional orthodox systems of Hinduism (the Carvakas and Sankhya schools) are expressly materialistic and atheistic. While Buddhist and Taoist folk religions tend to be polytheistic, most scholars of comparative religion agree that the historical core of both these great world religions is nontheistic—ultimate spiritual reality does not have the character of a personal god.

Western cultures also recognize nontheistic spirituality. One example is pantheism. Those who find spiritual sustenance and renewal in nature may reject belief in a supernatural, divine creator. And in contemporary popular culture, when protagonists in the Star Wars film series proclaim that "the Force is with you," they are not naming a personal, creator deity, but rather an impersonal, benign power in the universe. As these examples illustrate, one can be genuinely religious and/or spiritual without being theistic. To recognize this fact is to open oneself to a variety of nontheistic interpretations of "leadings" and "callings."

Several years ago, after publishing a manuscript that had occupied my energies for several years, I was ready to take a break from writing and turn my attention to other matters. Despite my intentions, I found myself overcome by persistent preoccupation with a new writing project. Even as I turned to the activities I had planned, something originating outside of my conscious agenda insinuated itself into the interstices of my life. At odd moments of the day and night, a persistent feeling overcame me that something needed to be said—and that I was the one to say it. As I lay awake at night, or sat during my morning meditation period, or drove my car alone, insights spontaneously sprang up—a distinction I wanted to make, a deft turn of phrase, an unexpected link with another resource. I kept a pen and pad of paper handy to record these visitations. I sensed that what I was putting into words might eventually be helpful to others. Eventually I yielded and committed myself to the new project.

Was I under the sway of a compulsive obsession? I have known genuine obsessions, with their undercurrent of fear. This was different. Unlike obsessive compulsive behavior, which is driven by anxiety and yields only momentary relief, I felt excited, liberated, and joyful when I responded to these impulses. Though my efforts were mentally strenuous, they had a quality of spontaneous play as uplifting energy broke into my life.

Had I been born into another time and place, had I been raised within another set of cultural and religious beliefs, I might have given another name to the source of my inspiration. I might have said that I had been visited by an angel, or by a deceased elder from another realm, or by occult signals from the stars. I might have attributed my "obsession" to a personal muse or daimon. I might have regarded it as simply an eruption from the depths of my own unconscious. But I was raised among Friends—and thus I turned to the language and explanation that came most naturally to me: I told myself that I was experiencing a leading.

We may confuse the raw quality of immediate experience with the explanation that we are taught to give of that experience. The words that I used to describe my experience were secondary; the primary fact was the experience itself. I felt as though I were literally being drawn to my work. I felt a positive valence, a pull, accompanied by an unnamed fascination. Something gently required my attention. I might still refuse to respond; I might turn away and ignore the "message." Sometimes I did just that—and felt a certain sad pointlessness creep into my life. But when I opened to the leading—when I was faithful—I felt a path opening before me. Stepping onto that path, striding forward, I felt lighter, happier, more myself—despite objections from my "rational" mind.

There is no sharp line or absolute distinction between the immediate quality of lived experience and the explanation or interpretation one may give of that experience. What we sense is structured by what we believe; the sensual is already formed by concepts that we have learned and take for granted. Still, when we Friends speak of leadings and callings, I imagine that the underlying experiential realities to which we point are far more universal than the names that we give them. To insist upon our own terminology to explain these experiential realities and reject alternative belief systems as false or even "heretical," is to assume a dogmatic orthodoxy. It is to place blinders on ourselves and promote intolerance and exclusion, inviting division and conflict. In his superb book, Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (1997), Gregg Levoy puts the point forthrightly:

Calls, of course, beg the question "Who, or what, is calling?" But in attempting to answer this question even an exhaustive list of every name for Soul or Destiny or God would be beside the point. It simply doesn’t matter whether we call it God, the Patterning Intelligence, the Design Mind, the Unconscious, the Soul, the Force of Completion, the Center Court, or simply "life’s longing for itself," as Kahlil Gibran envisioned. It is clear, however that "living means being addressed," as the theologian Martin Buber once said, and whatever or whoever is addressing us is a power like wind or fusion or faith: We can’t see the force, but we can see what it does.

In affirming such an open and inclusive stance, have we drifted so far from the origins of Quakerism that we can no longer claim to be Friends?

Certainly early Friends assumed a theistic, biblically based understanding of leadings and callings. The language of George Fox in his Journal is unabashedly literal and explicit: "The Lord did gently lead me along . . ." "It was upon me from the Lord to go and speak . . . " "The Lord commanded me to go abroad into the world . . ." Similar descriptions are readily found in the writings of other Friends, from the beginning of Quakerism to the present day.

It is also true, however, that what counted most for early Friends were not the words one used to describe one’s spiritual experiences, but those experiences themselves. Fox’s vocal ministry was often directed against the "professors," those who—perhaps emboldened by theological training at Oxford or Cambridge— talked learnedly about religious matters but did not manifest in their own lives the transforming presence of Spirit. Frequently citing 2 Corinthians 3:6, "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life," Fox, in his Journal, railed against those who "fed upon words, and fed one another with words, but trampled upon the life, and . . . the blood of the Son of God . . . and they lived in their airy notions talking of him."

In contrast, Fox insisted that faith entails feeling and living from the real Presence. He asked Friends to "Live in the Life of God, and feel it" (Epistle #95, in The Power of the Lord Is Over All, ed. T. Canby Jones). Early Quaker leader Isaac Penington urged a similar spiritual practice: "Sink into the feeling and dwell in the feeling, and wait for the savour of the principle of life" (excerpt in Knowing the Mystery of Life Within, R. Melvin Keiser & Rosemary Moore). Caroline Stephens used the language of feeling to describe her "never- to-be-forgotten" first encounter with Quaker worship; she found herself in "a small company of silent worshipers who were content to sit down together without words, that each one might feel after and draw near to the Divine Presence" (Quaker Strongholds—Quaker Faith and Practice, Britain Yearly Meeting).

If what is essential about religious faith is located in the words one uses to express that faith, then the words must be very carefully parsed. Deviation from "true doctrine" must be rejected— it is an enticement to spiritual death. In contrast, when what is essential to religious faith is located not in the language used to describe one’s "condition" (a term much favored by early Friends), but in that condition itself, then one is freed to use a rich variety of words and metaphors to point out and evoke that condition. The language used by early Friends to describe the workings of the Spirit was extraordinarily varied and metaphorical: Light, Seed, Truth, Christ, Life, Fountain, the pure babe in the virgin mind, the Topstone, the Flame, the Lamb—and many other marvelous images. Whereas orthodoxy favors carefully defined terms with sharply delineated boundaries of meaning, charismatic and mystical faiths foster fountains of poetic images that do not define, but rather evoke, spiritual experience.

The elasticity of religious boundaries among early Friends is at times startling. Howard Brinton, in Friends for 300 Years, writes that when Quaker Josiah Coale was traveling in the New World with George Fox, he wrote, "We found these Indians more sober and Christian-like toward us than the Christians so-called." Another Friend, Elizabeth Newport, found the Seneca Indians on the Cataraugus reservation (in present-day New York State) to be divided into two groups that she named "Pagans" and "Christians." Strikingly, she wrote, "The Pagans believed in Quaker worship and the guidance of the Spirit while the Christians seek information from the missionaries."

While one may legitimately speak of "leadings" and "callings" in some nontheistic systems of belief, other nontheistic uses of these terms lack an essential connection to spiritual reality. A genuinely spiritual leading cannot be merely a "good idea" that I have cooked up, nor can it be an imperative derived from a political ideology or philosophical scheme. Most importantly, if I am following a genuine leading, I am not leading myself, nor am I being led by another human authority figure. Even when I am helped to become aware of a true leading by another person with a deeply discerning spirit, I am called to be faithful not to that person, but to something larger.

The English philosopher of religion John Hick declared that "The function of religion . . . is to transform human existence from self-centeredness to reality-centeredness" (Introduction to Chatterjee, Gandhi’s Religious Thought). True leadings and callings come from reality, not self. While great cultural and religious traditions construe reality in widely varying ways, none limits spiritual guidance to purely human sources. To be faithful is to respond to that which is larger, higher, and deeper than the purely human; it is to awaken and respond to the mystery that not only encompasses what we are, but much, much more.

Following a true leading entails surrender, a willingness to yield self-centered control of one’s life so that one may be guided by a deeper wisdom. The classic Taoist sage Chuang Tzu advises those who seek a deeper spiritual life to "blend your spirit with the vastness" (Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, trans. by Burton Watson). While Zen Buddhism is generally regarded by scholars as nontheistic, D.T. Suzuki—a pioneer in the interpretation of Zen to a Western audience and a nontheist as that term is usually defined—borrows from theistic language to describe this yielding: "This is resignation or self-surrender . . . ready to have ‘thy will’ prevail upon a world of finite beings. This is the characteristic attitude of a religious mind towards life and the world" (Essays in Zen Buddhism, Sec. Series, Luzak and Co.).

The theme of yielding is eloquently expressed in the writings of the beloved 20th-century Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly. He wrote in A Testament of Devotion, "Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-worn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself." When we give ourselves fully to this call—in body, mind, and heart—we have entered into what Kelly calls "holy obedience." While Kelly’s language is theistic and Christian, his vision is inclusive. When encountering other religious traditions, Kelly displays utmost respect for them. He describes the source of spiritual wisdom as "the living Center of Reference for all Christian souls and Christian groups—yes, and of non-Christian groups as well—who seriously mean to dwell in the secret place of the Most High." As a mystic, Kelly realized quite well that the phenomenon of genuine spiritual guidance need not be rendered in language favored by Western theists.

To summarize: While the terms leading and calling derive from the Judeo-Christian-Islamic theistic tradition, they name experiences that are also found in nontheistic spiritual and religious traditions. Although early Friends were theistic in their religious outlook, they understood leadings in experiential terms, allowing them to recognize genuine leadings in faith traditions that lay outside the boundaries of Western monotheism. In order to understand oneself as under the weight of a genuine leading, it is not necessary that one be a theist. Responsiveness to the leading must, however, be felt as a yielding or surrender of the center of gravity of one’s being—a shift from a self-centered or purely human-centered point of view to what is experienced as a reality-centered point of view, a realignment with a deeper, vaster wisdom.

Steven Smith

Steve Smith, a member of Claremont (Calif.) Meeting, is a retired professor of Philosophy. He has written several pamphlets and articles on Quaker topics, leads workshops at Pendle Hill and elsewhere, and is scheduled to be the 2011 speaker at the Friends Conference on Religion and Psychology.