Ben Pink Dandelion has called it “the absolute perhaps.” It’s that phenomenon in a Liberal Quaker meeting where it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you don’t believe it too hard. It’s related to the old Quaker reasons for rejecting creeds but goes further. It starts with the idea that no single set of words will be able to express everything about the huge, complex nature of God. It then goes on to say even if something useful or satisfactory is said, we should be open to fresh revelation, changing language, and so be ready to change our expression. From there, anything that is said is tentative or temporary. It is an assertion of uncertainty—even an imposition of uncertainty—on people who have relevant experience and know what they think.
On these grounds, Liberal Quakers sometimes object to clear nontheism, explicit Christianity, and, on occasion, other faith traditions. The objection to nontheists isn’t an objection to a skepticism in God, but to those who think the evidence is in and definitively declare that God doesn’t exist (nontheist concepts vary but this remains true for different understandings of the word “God”). The objection to Christians isn’t to people who believe in God and accept Christ as their personal savior (or other formulations of Christian faith), but to those who are too sure about all this—too confident and unmoving in their faith. Objections to people who are too confident in their faith (whether it’s Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish, Neo-Pagan, or something else) follow a similar pattern: the objection is not to beliefs but to certainty.
This is considerably at odds with another core Quaker idea treasured by Liberal Friends: the idea that within ourselves—and especially in stillness and in worship—we can encounter that of God directly. Experience is most important here, and when you have had an experience (such as being guided to take on a piece of work) the Quaker tradition says that you should trust it. When I have had direct experience of something, and have enough evidence about it to trust and act on my information, I usually say that I know and am certain about it. It’s sometimes been said (and Laura Rediehs explores this in her recent book, Quaker Epistemology) that Quakerism is an empirical religion, a tradition that applies some of the methods of science—direct observation and testing with a community—to spirituality. If that’s so, it seems odd to say that being confident is a bad thing. The scientific method asks us to remain open to new evidence, but also says we should trust the evidence we have and build on it to create new ideas and technologies.
We’re not really uncertain. Instead, we know that we disagree (or suspect that we might) and are pretending to be uncertain in order to cover our differences.
If that’s so, why are some Quakers so committed to uncertainty? I can think of a few plausible reasons. Some individuals might be committed to uncertainty for personal reasons: possibly, they’re unsure themselves. There can be good reasons for this. For example, I might take this position if my personal spiritual experience is vague, seems strange or unpleasant, or involves a sense of absence rather than presence. Or I might have been much more certain in the past and found that I was wrong about something: for example, having been in a church that turned out to be abusive or taught something I can no longer agree with. The sense of confidence disappeared with the claims I was previously confident about. I think these are solid reasons for individuals to embrace uncertainty for themselves, either on a temporary or a long-term basis, but I don’t think they can be generally applied to the whole community. This kind of uncertainty should be acceptable but not required.
Some Quaker meetings might embrace uncertainty to avoid the hard and potentially painful work of discussing their members’ theologies. It might be easier to agree we don’t know anything if we want to avoid conflict or are afraid of hurt feelings or worry that one person’s certainty can sound like an attempt to persuade someone who isn’t so sure. This approach can be helped along by the privatization of faith, which makes it seem rude to discuss one’s own beliefs in public.
I think this approach is a terrible reason for embracing uncertainty: it smacks of potential dishonesty. We’re not really uncertain. Instead, we know that we disagree (or suspect that we might) and are pretending to be uncertain in order to cover our differences.
If a Quaker community does the work of discussing differences, our potential disagreements, and varied collections of spiritual experiences, we might discover better reasons to maintain a little bit of uncertainty.
If a Quaker community does the work of discussing differences, our potential disagreements, and varied collections of spiritual experiences, we might discover better reasons to maintain a little bit of uncertainty. Alongside what we individually know and trust to be true, we will have to hold the contradictory experiences and knowledge of our fellow travelers. Alongside the places where we can agree, we will have to hold the possibility that there is new evidence or that our experience may change in the future. Alongside everything we can share in words, images, or the stillness of worship, we will have to hold the things we cannot communicate and the things we cannot begin to understand. This will not be an “absolute perhaps” but a confidence in our current knowledge held together with an acceptance of the existence of the provisional nature of that knowledge.
I think this should be a familiar position for Quakers. Although it’s less often seen in Quaker discussions of theology, it’s similar to the authority we give to the discerned decisions of a meeting for worship for business. Meetings look for and record in minutes what they find to be the will of God for that community at that time. If new things happen—new evidence, new perspectives, new leadings—the meeting is allowed to reopen the issue and again discern their response. It is always considered a possibility that with the change in evidence, etc., something different should happen according to God’s will. Continuing revelation puts us into an ongoing learning process. It doesn’t put us into an absolute perhaps: every week meetings for worship for business can and do make decisions and act on them. We can see and describe patterns in these discerned positions, and we can acknowledge changes to them. But changes do not undermine the idea that a decision can be discerned and acted upon.
Could we get rid of the unwritten creed of the absolute perhaps, share our understandings honestly, discern the Truth together, and have the confidence of our best attempt at the Truth-for-now?