David Swain, NSW Regional Meeting.

The most popular “share and tell” session at Yearly Meeting this year was on non-theism. Friends enthusiastically shared aspects of their beliefs and disbeliefs that they may have been uncomfortable expressing in their local meetings. The only concern I heard was that such a grouping could be divisive. This is true; any labelling of a group could be divisive. Obviously, it all demanded more thought.

The terms “atheist” and “non-theist” are in themselves meaningless. They are negative terms indicating disbelief, but in what? Non-theists, as much as theists, have to try to define the God of their belief or disbelief.

At that point in my thinking, my ever-wise partner observed: “Anyone who attempts to define their God is inevitably wrong.” And she added “The Dao that can be spoken is not the true Dao.”

In their concepts of God, Quakers probably range from those who can quite sincerely repeat the Apostles Creed to those who agree with humanist Quaker David Boulton[1]:

“If God is no more (but, gloriously, no less) than a projection of our highest and deepest values, and if these must be human values (because no other form of life has created and articulated them), God-centredness just becomes one way, a religious way, of talking about being human.”

Along this spectrum are views such as those expressed by Jocelyn Bell Burnell in her Backhouse Lecture – a God of love, but not a God who controls physical aspects of the universe. Rudolph Bultmann[2], starting from the premise “The whole conception of the world which is presupposed in the preaching of Jesus as in the New Testament generally is mythological”, then had to answer “How does God act in the world?” His conclusion: “The action of God is hidden from every eye except the eye of faith.” In other words, we could say: things happen, and it’s up to us to decide whether we want to see them as God’s action.

And, as I see it, this spectrum is continuous. If there is a boundary between the theists and the non-theists, it’s a very porous barrier, and each of us, if we wish, can place the boundary anywhere along the spectrum we like. The German-American theologian Paul Tillich defined God as “Ultimate Reality”. If we accept this, we can’t argue about the existence of Ultimate Reality, only about its properties.

In another place, Tillich uses the metaphor of the depth of life. He says[3]:

“The name of this infinite and inexhaustible depth and ground of all being is God. That depth is what the word God means. And if that word has not much meaning for you, translate it, and speak of the depths of your life, of the source of your being, of your ultimate concern, of what you take seriously without reservation. Perhaps, in order to do so, you must forget everything traditional that you have learned about God, perhaps even the word itself. For if you know that God means depth, you know much about Him. You cannot then call yourself an atheist or unbeliever. For you cannot think or say: Life has no depth! Life is shallow. Being itself is surface only. If you could say this in complete seriousness, you would be an atheist; but otherwise you are not. He who knows about depth knows about God.”

Tillich raises the question of “God-talk”. Should we use the word “God” knowing that what we are trying to convey may be far different from what our hearers understand by “God”? Can Tillich’s “depth” be translated for Quakers as “the Spirit” or “that of God in all people”. Even if it can, the Quaker words will not mean the same thing for all Friends.

One of the main strengths of Quakerism is its breadth of beliefs and the tolerance of difference. It would be unfortunate is those who consider themselves non-theists were uncomfortable in expressing their points of view to other Friends.

In a recent issue of the [British] Friend, Richard Seebohm[4] quotes from a Muslim Peace Federation website:

“Human diversity is a divinely ordained blessing. One of the reasons that cultures differ is so that, by mutual examination, we can learn more about the vastness of what it is to be human. Another reason is that outside perspectives help keep all of us honest. We are grateful to Allah for our differences, which save us all from complacency.”

[1] Cited from Cupitt D 2009?. Friends, faith and humanism. Sea of Faith UK magazine, summer. Available at http://www.sofn.org.uk/reviews/quakhum.html Accessed 12 March 2013.

[2] Bultman R 1958. Jesus Christ and Mythology. SCM Press

[3] Tillich P 1949. The depth of existence. In The Shaking of the Foundations. Pelican Books.

[4] Seebohm R 2013. Islam and peace. the Friend 22-02-2013. http://thefriend.org/article/islam-and-peace/ Accessed 10 March 2013.

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