David Swain, New South Wales Regional Meeting.
I’ve been thinking over a few articles that have appeared in the Australian Friend over the past few months. Geoffrey Ballard in the March 2015 issue suggested that “Quakers must drag themselves into the 21st century, and truly represent the makeup of all members”. On the other hand, Gerry Guiton in June 2015 writes “I guess I’m just the religious sort and I’m very glad the majority of Friends are, too. May the majority grow!” And Liz Field in the same issue quotes the Yearly Meeting Epistle “Australian Quakers try to resist labels, divisions around belief and cultural practices”.
When I first came to Quakers I asked, as all newcomers must, “What do Quakers believe?” I soon found that this question has no answer. Every Friend has his or her own beliefs or non-beliefs. This is probably true in all religious bodies, but the spectrum is far wider in Quakers. Perhaps some Quakers can subscribe to the Apostles Creed; some are certainly on the conservative end of the belief spectrum. And on the other end are the non-theists.
I’m just a little afraid that some of us are getting a bit paranoid about those toward the other end of the spectrum. Non-theists feel they are not accepted unless Quaker language is completely inclusive – reminiscent perhaps of other groups’ battles for social equality in the past half-century. And the conservative side may wonder with Gerry Guiton why avowedly atheist folk join a religious organisation.
This may stem from a misunderstanding of non-theism. David Boulton, non-theist Quaker, for example, describes himself as a religious humanist. Non-theists may reject the supernatural, but can still remain religious. A Sea of Faith writer has written:
I don’t care a hoot if an historical holy man named Jesus “really” taught that the poor were privileged over the rich, the despised and wretched over the powerful and pompous. I’m sure that a number of impassioned and inspired agitators have proclaimed as much. I honestly couldn’t care less whether or not a bare-footed magician or wonder-worker “really” stood on the Mount of Olives and said those amazing, revolutionary (and baffling) words. But someone said them: or at least someone or several someones collected them, strung them together, edited them, and fashioned them into a text. And they ring true, convicting and convincing us, regardless of whether they were or were not spoken in peasant-Aramaic by a single historical person named Jesus on one of his better days.
So, in answer to Gerry Guiton’s question “but what is ‘post [Christian]’ about the Sermons on the Mount and Plain, and the Beatitudes?“ the answer is that they are not post-anything. For non-theist Quakers they are essential bases of the way life is to be lived – once they are translated from the Jewish mythological and theistic forms of expression.
The truth is that many Quakers have great difficulty in defining the God they believe in – or disbelieve in. The few that I’ve heard try to describe their God come up with something rather vague, and I have no trouble with that. My favourite Quaker Elder, the one I am married to, says “I reckon that if you think you can come up with a clear definition of God, you have definitely strayed into error, if not lunacy.”
In that she is following in the tradition of the apophatic theologians, from the Middle Ages onward. These Fathers of the Church argued that it is impossible to describe God, as God is not an object like a table, or even a person. You cannot say that God is big, or even immense or infinite. You can’t say that God is loving, as the love of God is different from any other type of love. You cannot even say that God exists, because God’s type of existence is unique, and not the same as any object. The only response is a Quaker-like silence.
This theme still runs through modern theology. In the middle of last century the German-American theologian Paul Tillich wrote: “God does not exist. He is being itself beyond essence and existence. Therefore to argue that God exists is to deny him.”
More recently, Don Cupitt has written: ”But we should not suppose God to be a substance, an independently-existing being who can be spoken of in a descriptive and non-religious way.”
Karen Armstrong, probably the most readable theologian, argues that religion is an art by which regular practice will bring us to a different reality, a religious life view. This may involve deep involvement in traditional liturgy (whilst keeping in mind its mythological nature) or in various forms of meditation. Sam Harris (see review of his Waking up in the June, 2015 issue of The Australian Friend) claims that the same change of mental state can be achieved by mind-altering drugs. Is spirituality really, as I heard one non-theist Friend say, “all biochemistry”?
Along the spectrum of Quaker belief it is very difficult to draw the line between those “inside” and those “outside”. Where each of us lies along that spectrum depends on our personality, and our life history. We may move along that spectrum one way or the other as our experience changes, or we may find a colour of Quakerism that we find comfortable, and remain there for the rest of our lives.
But, as those who like big words say, the heart of Quakerism is not orthodoxy but orthopraxy – not by a uniform set of beliefs, but by a common commitment to principles guiding our actions in the world. And these principles are set out in the Quaker Testimonies. So let’s concentrate on the things that pull us together, rather than those that may potentially pull us apart.