I have found that the hardest part of being a Quaker is knowing that I must work out my own understanding of the Divine. A friend of mine once teased that we should sell T-shirts that say: “Become a Quaker. It’s a pain in the butt.”
The journey from a sense of God who is “out there” and who is both loving and judgmental, to an understanding of the Divine as a still, small voice guiding us to deeper faith and understanding is certainly not a straight line.
Most of the Quakers I know are convinced Friends, those who came to meeting after growing up in another faith tradition and after spending a fair amount of time wandering in the wilderness trying to find an image of God that can be reconciled in the heart. Many, like me, struggled with a paradoxical image of Spirit as both a welcoming mother and an exacting father. On one hand, the Divine beckons us into a warm and loving embrace; with the other, it offers a stiffened arm and warns us to not mess up lest we incur God’s wrath and be cast into eternal damnation.
Growing up, this confusing sense of divine love coupled with divine retribution permeated my life. I was raised in a robust Italian community in a small town in western Pennsylvania. Like all of my friends, I attended Saint Rita’s Catholic School and served as an altar boy in the church. From early on, the nuns taught that God was omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient. The thought that a divine being who is everywhere, all knowing, and all powerful was more frightening than comforting to a young lad who wanted to pray and “be good” but who often failed at the effort.
It is difficult to justify a God that is all knowing, ever present, and all powerful with the reality of sin and the earthly destruction in the world. One of the age-old questions is: How can a loving and all-powerful God allow disease, genocide, slavery, and any of the untold ways that humanity inflicts harm on one other? Both skeptics and faithful alike have grappled with this dilemma. In his heartfelt book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis asked, “Meanwhile, where is God?” as he struggled with the pain and suffering of his wife’s battle with cancer. Lewis observed that when life is going well, our relationship with the Divine is fine, and we are “welcomed with open arms.” But when tragedy strikes, according to Lewis, God slams and double-bolts the door. The silence is oppressive, and, “There are no lights in the windows.” I suspect we have all wrestled with cosmic silence in the face of anguished prayer at some point in our lives.
In most Christian traditions, we are taught that Jesus is the answer to our salvation. At Milwaukee (Wisc.) Meeting, we host sessions on Quakerism for newcomers, one of which discusses the roots of Christianity in Quaker history, faith, and practice. During this session, we ask participants where they stand on the “Jesus continuum,” which provides a range of five perspectives of Jesus. On one end, Jesus is seen as a personal savior and son of God; in the middle of the continuum, Jesus is seen as a teacher and healer; on the opposite end of the spectrum, Jesus is not part of any spiritual path. It is remarkable to watch this process unfold and see that Friends span the entirety of the range. My own journey has taken me through all five of the steps on the continuum.
I was often puzzled by my Quaker Friends who professed that they did not believe in a God. Most times, when I delved deeper into the understanding of these “godless Quakers,” I came to learn that many are pantheists, who believe that a spiritual energy is infused in everything in the universe—from cosmic dust in the furthest reaches of space to the tiniest microbes in the soil under our feet. But they don’t believe that a divine presence is guiding the world.
The pantheist point of view is attractive. It takes away the paradoxical dilemma of a God that is loving yet prone to retribution. But it doesn’t adequately deal with the question of evil.
The panentheist theodicy of God is one that sees the Divine in all of creation—similar to the pantheists—but which also believes that there is a Divine Spirit directing it all. God is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, but the Divine is also the weaver of the fabric. I have come to adopt this panentheist point of view from a very unique perspective.
I am an avid sailor and spend as much time as possible sailing the inland sea known as Lake Michigan. After 20 years of sailing, sailboat racing, and cruising, I have learned to love and respect the lake.
On one particular night in late July, we were coming in from a Wednesday evening race. The wind was light, and as we got closer to land, it became warmer. The sun was setting in the west behind the city skyline when at the same moment, the full moon began to rise up from the lake on the eastern horizon. I was standing on the back of the boat and just allowing the sensation of the evening to wash over me, when I heard a quiet thought from within saying: “This and thee are the glory of God.”
It is easy to find the wonder of the Divine within the beauty of the world. It is quite another thing to feel at one with it all, to be welcomed into the grace of creation in a way designed to make sense uniquely to oneself. And by doing so, the message was clear: the infinite aspect of God is the wonder of the cosmos. The intimate part of God is that quiet-yet-recognizable voice that speaks in ways designed to help us understand. Unfortunately, like C. S. Lewis, we sometimes don’t hear the call; the voice of the Divine is muted. If we are not grounded in community and in a faith that believes we will eventually hear our internal guide, then we become susceptible to the more troubling aspects of our own ego and crassness of the world.
Each of us is as much a part of the glory of God as is the warm sea breeze and the juxtaposition of a setting sun and rising moon. Each of us has the ability to hear the voice of the Divine speak to us from deep within our own soul. And the joy of it all is that we are partners in both. All we need do is breathe in the world, be still, and listen.