Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Non-theists Under the Bed?

A while back, in Local Business Meeting, my Meeting heard about concerns voiced by members of a reading group. They had recently read and discussed Derek Guiton's A Man that Looks on Glass, which led them to question the impact of the increasing (or increasingly visible) open presence of non-theists within our Meetings. There was concern that non-theists did not believe in an external divinity, and thus how they could believe in divinely inspired ministry or the seeking of divine guidance in worship for business. That non-theists wanted to change the Religious Society of Friends to fit their views, rather than the traditions and experiences of the Society so far.

It is not the first time I have come across concern about this among the Religious Society of Friends, nor the first time I've come across it seemingly prompted to Guiton's book. I shan't try to respond directly to the book itself, not having read it, and I like to hope that the excerpts I have seen quoted represent the most anti-non-theist parts of it. However, as a non-theist Friend, I think I can respond somewhat to the concerns people often appear to express in response to the book.

Non-theism doesn't have any one, universally accepted, definition. It's fairly consistently considered to be the complement of theism, but that in itself lacks universal definition. I tend to work with the definition I was taught in school – that theism describes any religious belief in which there are one or more deities, that they posses what we might call individual, personal identity, and that they are willing and able to directly affect the world as we experience it every day. Some would say that the god(s) must have created the world, or be omnipotent etc. Still others would make the definition broader, rather than narrower.

Personally, I use the first definition given above, and it is on the basis of that that I say I am not a theist, and thus a non-theist. Actually, I'm something of a relatively hard agnostic when it comes to the nature of the divine – I consider it ultimately unknowable, try though we might. However, what things I feel comfortable saying about my own conception of the divine would be that I do not consider it to have personal identity, and I don't think that it directly affects the mundane world. It affects us, to be sure, especially when we invite it to do so in worship and discernment. It is part of each of us, internal rather than external, but that Light in each of us can connect with the Light in others in ways we cannot, or at least do not, understand. Worship, be it plain worship or worship for business, represents the attempt to unite the Light in each of us to perceive it more clearly, as we do through ministry.

Now, I hope that Friends would recognise that I don't fit the mould of non-theist that raises concern. I believe in something that may be called divine, even if it is part of us rather than something “beyond” us. I find that the divine is able to guide us, individually and corporately, and to transform us. Yet it does not fit the characteristics that most people would assume if you said “god”, let alone “God”, so I will not describe it as such, in the interests of avoiding misapprehension.

While the details vary, almost every non-theist Quaker I have communicated with is in many ways similar. The precise details of how we conceive, or even refer to, the divine varies. Some even attempt a relatively materialistic explanation, that it is simply some part of our mind that, like the unconscious, we do not understand much at all. Some draw on concepts from other faiths to fit their description of it, such as Buddha-nature. Some maintain a non-theist conception of the divine yet identify as Christian. With very, very few exceptions, the non-theist Quakers I have known would still say that there is something, even if they reject trans-mundane identification of it, that we can seek contact with, gain guidance from, and be transformed by.

Were there a large influx of such non-theists into the Religious Society of Friends, non-theists who merely went through the motions in Meeting for Worship, and who viewed our business method as merely a modified form of consensus decision making, I would be concerned. I have run into one or two, from time to time. Where it has been appropriate, I have expressed my own confusion about them, wondering “what are you doing here?” Sometimes there has been no satisfactory resolution, and sometimes we have each come to realise that our wildly different conceptions are not as incompatible as we might think. Even among those who openly say that they reject the idea of a supernatural, trans-mundane divinity, those who staunchly stick to rationalist, materialist interpretations, you may find that you simply have very divergent ways of expressing and seeking to understand the same thing.

Were anyone to be plotting to subvert the Religious Society of Friends into becoming a secular, irreligious social justice movement, I think they would find themselves frustrated. Not by being found out and shown the door, not by having their conspiracy revealed and being shamed, but by the simple fact that it would not work. The ways of our faith, however diverse our conception of the underlying reasons for them, are so ingrained in our practices, our structures and our language, that no slow change of decades could remove them. Perhaps in some smaller Meetings, such a plot could gain headway, which would be awful for the Friends already in such Meetings. Just as each Meeting is a community of Friends, however, our Meetings form a community, too – nationally and internationally. Such an attempt would not be like a cancer or virulent disease, spreading from Meeting to Meeting as they made contact. If one insists on such medical metaphors, it would be like some harmless microbe, becoming isolated and frustrated in its attempt to penetrate the organism. In practice, it is my opinion that such people are more likely to be changed themselves, than to change the Religious Society of Friends.

The real risk this situation poses, in my opinion, is intolerance. No, I am not saying that more traditional, conventionally religious Friends, whom I shall refer to here as theists purely for brevity, must make sure to tolerate non-theist Friends – though they have been doing so for decades at this point, whether they knew it or not. No, while there is a problem with unreasonable fear or distrust of the non-theist, there is also a problem of the non-theist who is disdainful of theists. I am sure we have all seen the contemptuous attitude to religion expressed by some atheists, feeling themselves armed with the works of Dawkins and Hitchens. People of faith are, to them, delusional, or inferior, to those able to see the world “as it really is”, who don't need an “invisible friend”. Unfortunately, such an attitude is sometimes seen among non-theist Quakers. They accept the validity of different approaches to the divine, but think theirs is the best. That may be reasonable – I imagine many theist Friends, whatever their theology, think their approach is best. However, some insist on telling people that their approach is better, that other Friends would be so much better off if they cast off silly ideas like God or Jesus. They do not seem to see that this is no different from more conservative Christian Friends telling them that they would have a much better experience of the divine if they accepted Christ.

Our theological pluralism is a great strength. In it we have the opportunity to explore the divine through many lenses, to understand it in many ways, to be transformed more thoroughly. That means accepting thought that is Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, pagan, and non-theist – and that acceptance needs to come from us all. Our corporate expressions can reflect each of these things, without needing every expression to be compatible with all of them at once.

Adapted from a piece written for Leadings, the Local Meeting Newsletter Supplement of Lancaster Local Meeting. Original published December 2016, this adapted version composed at time of posting.
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