Ivan Himmelhoch, Victoria Regional Meeting
It is always profoundly humbling to visit a person in a hospice at the end stage of their life’s journey. Such encounters have also made me reflect very deeply as to why that shrivelled, yellow-skinned human being before me, who has led a life of deep quiet service to so many without show or fuss, who has the gift of being able to listen to the other at all levels, never sought honours or revenge, have at what ‘should’ be their middle stage of life, notwithstanding medical progress, be suffering so much uncontrolled pain, discomfort, – and yet remain more concerned about others than themselves? How could a loving God allow this, I have asked myself.
There is no definitive answer of course. Over time though, it has become ever clearer to me, that if we ‘blame’ their situation on God, – a God who also ‘lets’ humanitarian workers die in plane crashes, ‘allows’ poverty and wars, ‘permits’ children to be run over – surely what we are really doing is trying to create God in our own image, rather than the other way round?
As a Quaker who last year completed a university Masters of Divinity with Honours, it was suddenly during a unit on ‘Christology’ that I felt that here too, there was this very same human ‘God-branding’ problem present.
Why did I experience this connection? Simply since a ‘traditional’ (sic) theological academic rigorous study of the way Christianity developed, with the many casuistic debates about creedal statements from the early Church Councils and continuing today, supplemented by diverse precisely delineated meanings of sacraments formed, and also argued about, – was surely essentially just a sad narrative illustrating how humans have been sculpting God in an image that they have created, that they have rules for, and that they feel everyone else must, as we say, experientially accept? Not to mention the way I experienced during the degree, what can only be described as a 2000 year and beyond drive to develop with words for Jesus just who he is, what relationship he should have with God, how divine he should be, and what his career path really was!
Nothing of the above is meant flippantly. I maintain a great fondness, love and appreciation for the many deeply caring professors who were at all times acting true to their own Light.
So back to basics. Why would a Quaker ever be studying theology at this level? I have drawn a connection between the hospice and what is taught, but is there any nexus with Quakerism?
Certainly in our Advices and Queries we read: –
… Study the Bible intelligently, using the help available from modern sources. Make every effort to understand the Christian faith … while remaining faithful to our Quaker insights, seek to understand the contributions to Christian thought and action made by other branches of the church.
Yet I would like to share additional quite recent developments within the paradigm of theological academic study that I cannot but help seeing as a new and challenging creative link with Quakerism, as well as a way that would allow increasing Quaker involvement in. These lie in the developing schools of Applied Theology (or Angewandte Theologie as it is better known in Germany) – and Political Theology, not to be confused with ‘Liberation Theology’.
I stand corrected if wrong, but surely our fundamental testimony that ‘Christianity is not a notion, but a way’, together with the way that we are advised in so many different ways and sources to help alleviate poverty, injustice, take social responsibility at home and abroad – not forgetting our most fundamental witness against war, really just another way of describing both ‘Applied’ as well as ‘Political’ theology? And if so, should we not seek more actively in the S/spirit of the excerpt from our Advices and Queries above, to inform ourselves through peer reviewed journals in these two branches of theology whether, and in what way they may speak our to condition?
And taking this a step further, is it not time that we should as Quakers, from a Quaker tradition, also perhaps feel comfortable contributing to the development of these areas of study?
Just maybe then in the future, I would in a benign and friendly way not be told in front of a full class: “Ivan, Quakers do not really like theology do they” as I was!
This is an interesting thought.
Thanks for this interesting article, Ivan.
I am one of those Quakers who ‘do not really like theology’. Though it is a long time since I formally studied either, in my experience, I find epistemology more useful and satisfying. Rather than ask: ‘What is the nature of God?’ or ‘what are the characteristics of God’, I prefer questions like: ‘What do we know about God?’ and ‘how do we know about God?’. If I ask how I might ‘study the Bible intelligently, using the help available from modern sources’ and how to ‘make every ‘every effort to understand the Christian faith’ my mind turns to developments in history, literary criticism, evolution, neurobiology and other disciplines.
When I ask questions such as ‘what do I (we) mean when I (we) use the word “God”‘ or ‘what can’st I say’ about the big questions, I think I am asking epistemological, not theological questions.
In friendship, Ian Hughes
I always find epistemological questions/isses limiting because language itself is limiting. I find such topics as ‘the nature of God’, for instance, liberating it guides me away from restrictions that language naturally imposes, into a greater understanding of mysticism and prayer. ‘Theological’ questions, therefore, are important for us all and particularly so for groups like the Quakers which present a radically different weltanschauung. It would be interesting to know how Quakers came to the idea that theology was somehow tainted – mere ‘notions’ after all. I suspect a wrong reading of the early Friends. This stance is de-limiting in itself and the early Quakers, quintessentially theologians, never decried theology but ideas that were ‘out of the Life’ – it was these which were mere notions (and rightly so in my opinion). Penington was good on this.
Thanks Gerard, with apologies for delay in my response.
Words like ‘epistemology’ and ‘theology’ have a range of meanings, and I suspect we are using them with somewhat different assumptions or interpretations. For many years I wondered (occasionally) whether God exists (a theological question in my understanding), then came to the conclusion that ‘He’ (as defined in mainstream Christian thought) does not exist. Having come to that conclusion, I realised that at the very least, God exists in literature, art, imagination, ritual and so on. So I then started to ask ‘what can we know about God’. This is not (in my understanding) a theological question about the nature of God but an epistemological question about human knowledge. In mu understanding, a problem with theology is that theologians assume the independent existence of God. Maybe your understanding of the word is different.
I don’t think that such a topic as “the nature of God” escape any epistemological scutiny, and in fact is laden with the very linguistic restrictions that you hope to escape from. But thats ok, such restrictions necessarily show our measure, and provides the tools with which to work with, so long as we always see them as tools, and as inadequate means, rather than as the ends.
I think this is the mistake many make when dismissing theology: that an inspired theologian deeply listening to that of God within the frameworks that we all use to build paths and ways will always employ theological tools as means, not ends. Not to create monoltihs but clearings. Not to self-aggrandise but always respond in humility with the limited tools the human condition provides.
The too widespread crippling alternatives are to allow a rampant narcissism to masquerade as spirituality, or a smug celebration of theological ignorance to then crush any attempt to reasonably grapple with that of God.
Quaker epistemology is perfectly suited to building ways of open and resonant theologies, ones which could contribute greatly to the larger arena of theological thought and relationship.
thanks for your thoughts. Your focus upon ‘applied theology’ does indeed show some Quakers emphases within theological thought which can speak to concerns of justice and how to act faithfully.
I wonder though if too many Quakers are not aware that the questioning of theology is itself a theological stance? That the focus upon the ‘experimental’ is deeply theological.We should not be too proud to find ways to explain this peculiar stance to those that seek; and if it helps we could use words too.
Our reticence to speak of God should be grounded in understanding, not stubborn resistance or a celebration of ignorance.
Thanks greatly for all above helpful and very thought provoking comments.
Mark, what you write about the questioning of theology being itself a ‘theological stance’ I agree with very much.
The next part of this equation though is I feel a very difficult one: viz: What is the ontology of ‘theology’?
“What is the ontology of theology”is an important question because it exposes what is the enframing by which we conceive of God. Theology is the discourse (s) by and within which we come to know God, and it is also a veil which often pretends substance but is often chalk.
The question is important too because oftentimes people base their belief or non belief not upon/within an encounter with God but rather an encounter with the discourses about God. This is why the ontology of theology is crucial because it unmasks the interests behind particular discourses, particular idols (even those of our own whimsical spiritualites).
You might find Jean-Luc Marion’s “God Without Being” worthwhile in your questioning of ontology of theology.