Sunday, 14 January 2018

Business Method & Theological Diversity - Mystical Nontheism

This is the fourth and, at least for now, final post in the series Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity. If you haven't already, you will get the most out of this post if you read the opening post in the series. That post will also include links to all other posts in the series as they are posted. Reading the second and third posts as well would be an advantage, but it's the opening post that's important, as it sets the context.
An image of silhouette of a person in the lotus position, but with images of stars and nebulae filling the silhouette.
I am not a strict materialist. While my experiences of the Divine lead to me conclude that it does not have those characteristics I describe as theistic – personality, however far removed from our own, identity, being willing and able to act directly in the world as we know it – there's certainly something, though I regard it as entirely impersonal. A force of nature, albeit a force for good, rather than a godly figure.
The best description I have ever come up with for this conception of the Divine came as written ministry, and I have never been able to put it better through deliberate action. As such, while it is available as its own post on this blog, I reproduce it here:
There is a light in each of us.
We call it by many names – Inner Light, Holy Spirit, Divine Principle, the Light of Christ, and many more besides. Still, it is the same light in each of us, and if we can heed its promptings, it will show us the way to right actions – how we arrange our own affairs, how we are to govern our community, and how to act with love towards all.
When we gather in the silence, each of us willing to heed that light, it grows in us. Each light grows, reaching to one another, joining and binding us, allowing us to know it, and one another, with greater joy and clarity than we ever could without it.
That describes the nature of the presence of Spirit in each of us, and how it interacts during worship. In a sense, you might say that my view of the divine is pantheist, but not panentheist; there is a divine essence in each of us, possibly in all things but richer in people, and what might be called “god” is the union of all of these parts – no more, and no less.
What, then, does this mean for Quaker discernment, for my understanding of the business method? It is quite simple, really. That divine spark in each of us is capable of insights and leaps of understanding that our conscious minds are not – and more especially moral and ethical insights. Increasing our awareness of it, such as by Quaker spiritual disciplines, gives us the advantage of that. When we gather together in worship, the divine spark in each joins with the others, and we are capable of much more – and the same is true in Meeting for Worship for Business.
Thus, to my conception, we are not seeking to know the “will of God”, because the nearest thing I conceive of to “a god” doesn't have will. We are seeking to leverage our awareness of and connection to the divine, and the gestalt interconnection of the divine essence in all concerned, to make the best decisions, to seek the right way forward. That “rightness” should be both moral/ethical, and in terms of satisfying whatever objectives we might have.
Thus it is that the sense of the meeting should, we hope, point towards a right action, not because of any divine figure with will and personality trying to tell us what it wants us to do, but because of the insights of our own collective divinity helping us to see the right way forward. There is no will but ours, but we allow it to be steered by the guidance of an ultimately incomprehensible, but still ultimately part of us, force of goodwill and wisdom.
A great strength of this conception is the reminder that, provided we can maintain discipline, we can expect stronger decisions from larger groups discerning together. It cautions against taking individual discernment with too much weight, not only because the fallibility of human beings is mitigated by working together, but also by the understanding that there is more of the Divine involved when more people work faithfully together to find the right way forward. However, it shares with the materialist conception the tendency to accord too much weight to expertise, albeit to a lesser extent.
I'm probably a bit partial here, though. I'm not likely to see the weaknesses of my own conception as clearly as others would. I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on the weaknesses of this conception.

And so we see some of the different ways we can conceive of Quaker Business Method. Very different, but all pointing in a similar direction. All fitting with the observable features and behaviour of Spirit-led discernment, but all disagreeing as to exactly what that means.
It is my belief, and experience, that we need not see it in the same way to engage in it together. Indeed, it is my firm conviction that there are many different ways of conceiving of this decision-making method, so different that they cannot be said to be different ways of describing the same thing – but compatible in application so that we might engage in it together even though we have different understandings of what we are doing.
How about you? Are you a materialist, or a traditionalist, or do you prefer to remain conceptionless? I'm sure there's lots of variations on these themes, and lots of ways of thinking about it that aren't covered by the broad types I've described. I'd love to hear about how you think of such things, or any other sorts of conception that you'd like to read my take on
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