Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism, by 27 Quaker nontheists
Edited by David Boulton. Dales Historical Monographs, 2006. 146 pages. $18.50/softcover.
This series of essays purports to prove that there are significantly large numbers of people who identify as Quakers who do not believe in any supernatural deity. They hope that the response of the Religious Society of Friends will range from openly welcoming such interesting diversity to dropping its unnecessary attachment to the superstitious, outmoded concept of "God."
As evidenced by their more nuanced self-definitions, 19 of the 27 contributors to this book would not be happy with the label "nontheist" applied in the book’s title. But the title sets the editor’s tone. It is taken from Meister Eckhart: "Man’s last and highest parting occurs when, for God’s sake, he takes leave of God"; and editor David Boulton cites a modern interpreter, Raymond Bernard Blakney, to suggest that Eckhart was keen to distinguish between what we might wish to be true and what we find to be true experimentally. What Eckhart demands is equivalent to what pure science demands of the laboratory investigator. He means to say that the price of truth is self-denial in things spiritual, as well as in things material and intellectual.
To think this means that the methods of science should be applied to God is a misinterpretation. Eckhart, and the Rhineland mystics in general, were engaged in the via negativa. They knew that God, transcendent and imminent, was too great, too mysterious to capture in human words and concepts. Eckhart was warning against making idols of our perceptions of the nature of God. He was not saying the best thing is to discard God, but rather to lay aside our fondest ideas, definitions, and expectations about God, to step into the void and in the unknowing find the Presence. Stir into this misunderstanding of Eckhart the misuse of science-as-Truth when investigating spirituality, and there is a heady stew that makes logical sense only if you accept without question its basic assumptions.
So perhaps the most useful review of a book that wants to change the fundamental basis and understanding of the Religious Society of Friends is to examine the assumptions underlying the book and compare them with Friends’ faith. They are vastly different.
First, let’s look at Friends’ tradition, that more than any other, rests for its knowledge and ongoing guidance on faith/trust in the experiential availability of the Living God, within a Biblical framework of interpretation. The message of early Friends was not the cliché "that of God in everyone"—a quotation often torn out of context. Their message was more accurately stated as "Christ is come to teach his people himself." It was realized eschatology; it experienced "the power of the Lord is over all" and "the Lord did gather us up as in a net." Individual Friends for generations experienced the pain and glory of taking up the Cross daily, of submission, surrender: "not my will but thine be done." They lived into the experience of knowing Jesus, who said "you are my friends if you follow my commands." It was the experience of the inward availability of Christ, enhanced and felt in community, that drew Friends together. The hallmarks of the group became its structures of worship in expectant waiting, church governance based on corporate discernment, and the expectation that the outward life of every Friend would witness to what the group had learned from Christ about living daily as if in God’s kingdom.
Several assumptions underlie the book, all of which presuppose that theism is a fallacy. First is the assumption that only that which can be apprehended through the senses or deduced with logic and reason is real. But different phenomena have separate ways of perceiving and "knowing" them. To subject everything to scientism begs the question of whether there are realities knowable in other ways. Second is the assumption that only what is inside one’s own head or experience is real. Allowing that solipsism is correct closes the discussion before it begins. Third, they assume that only that which can be comprehended by human intellect is real, and that the best value humans can imagine is the ultimate measure of truth. This dismisses by fiat the early Quaker understanding of ultimate Truth.
Many contributors claim "experience" as the major tenet of Quakerism and offer it as proof that there is no God. George Fox’s statement, "this I knew experimentally" does not make experiment an indispensable factor of Quakerism; it is the means to the end. The end Fox proclaimed was "there is one even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition." It is curious and sad that when contributors have had a "unitive" or mystical experience, apparently they have chosen to explain it away as something caused by nature, or a welling up of the collective unconscious. "God" for them is a figment of human imagination, and a sorry one at that, causing most of the evil they recount throughout history. Repeatedly they insist that experience is their only measure of truth. But they have deliberately chosen to emasculate their own experience and to misinterpret that of others. The experience of the Presence of God is real.
Once you have tasted it, you know it. It cannot be measured by science, but that does not make it unreal.
Does this book prove the difficult negative that God does not exist? No. Does it prove that the contributors’ varying interpretations of nontheistic humanism belong in the Religious Society of Friends? No. Ignorance of, or misuse or misappropriation of language, image, and metaphor does not change the reality of the matrix within which these symbols are embedded, and toward which they point. It is peculiar that a group of nontheist individuals should insist on grafting their theology onto another (Quaker) tradition.
None of these writers speak of inner struggles, of transformation, or even of joy. Sin, and therefore forgiveness and grace, are banished. They are defiantly or wistfully lonely but proud that they are superior to those of us deluded by superstition and the "lies" perpetrated by religion.
Ironically, they consider themselves religious. Several of them deconstruct the word’s etymology to prove religion has nothing to do with a supernatural omnipotent deity. Even the Oxford English Dictionary dismisses this intellectual game based on "its supposed etymological meaning." Religion is an institutionalization of what binds us together with God. Over and over the contributors offer their stories as seekers making the conscious choice to remain in rationalism or scientism. They come among Friends and enjoy the silence, peace activities, and community. Nobody challenges their lack of belief, no one offers a deep understanding or explanation of Friends’ tradition. So they begin to assume they are Quakers. They reiterate that to be a Quaker it only matters what you do, not what you think or believe. They appear ignorant of the place from which "what Quakers do" arises.
And their stories raise questions: have we unprogrammed Friends been so sloppy in our membership procedures that, for many years, we have taken no care to assure that we are, in fact, a community of like minds and searches? Have we been so overeager for numbers and so needy to feel ourselves tolerant that we gather in anyone who can find no home elsewhere, and then invite them to redefine us in their own image?
Meetings too often have become socially and politically homogenous assemblages, forgetting or never knowing that what created the foundations of the structure and outward traditions that they currently enjoy (i.e. silence, community, and social action) were forged in the experiences of "primitive Christianity revived." Early Friends knew Christ and that is how our Religious Society got what is most precious about it. Let’s reclaim its power and experiential Truth.