Monday, 29 January 2018

"Theism vs Non-Theism"?

Within liberal Quakerism, and particularly concerning theological diversity, an area of particular tension has been what some have described as “theism/non-theism”, or even (as in the rather provocative title of this piece) “theism vs non-theism”.
For those of you not involved in British Quakerism (or, if you are, have been living under some sort of rock), I should say that, a couple of years ago, Quakers in Britain started a process of considering revising our book of discipline, Quaker faith & practice. This involved appointing a group to prepare us for making a decision about revision, and to lay some groundwork and preparation for any such revision – knowing that there will have to be a revision at some point in the future. The “Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group” (BoDRPG) recently reported on their work with a recommendation to Meeting for Sufferings that Sufferings, in turn, recommend to Yearly Meeting that a revision process begin. Their recommendations had a lot of specifics about how this might be done, the order to do things in, and reflections on perceived risks (the meeting papers in question are available online, if you'd like to look at them yourself).
One of these perceived risks was related to theological diversity – particularly the question of non-theism. In order to help address this, they set up a “theology think tank”, with suitable Friends asked to be involved in discussions around theological diversity in Britain Yearly Meeting. They produced a reasonable volume of material published in the recent volume God, Words and Us (which is one of the various books I am currently working my way through – but I'm finding it very good so far), and also gave their own concluding notes that are included in the BoDRPG report to Sufferings.
Now, my regular readers will know that I am a non-theist, and hopefully also that I am not of the view that any one conception of the Divine is superior to others. I mention this purely to make sure it is clear up-front. I also use terms based on their usage and understanding now; I note the theology think tank's observation that non-theism is generally a self-identification among Quakers, while theism is not. However, I know it cannot be said that it is never a self-identification, having met a number of Quakers who so identify – identifying their belief in a theistic God without being in any way specific in identifying that God with any of those of traditional religions, for instance, or embracing a Quakerly uncertainty even if their tendency is Christian, Jewish or Islamic. It also cannot be said that all Friends whose beliefs are non-theistic use that as an identity – some prefer atheist, or even named specific traditions; many forms of Buddhism are non-theistic, as are some neopagan traditions. There are even Christian non-theists, and some of them are Quakers. We must be clear, then, when we use terms, whether we are talking about identities or classifications – both have their uses, but if you speak in a classifying, descriptive sense when people think you are speaking of identities, tension arises very easily. This has certainly complicated this discussion. The suggestion that we should abandon the term “theist” as the complement of “non-theist” does not seem to be accompanied by a suitable replacement term when speaking in generalities; while generalities are perilous, they are still necessary. So I will continue to use those terms in a descriptive, classifying sense, without making any assumptions about the self-identification of those described (or identifying individuals without reference to their self-identification), and hope that people will understand my reasons for so doing.
It is clear that the BoDRPG felt that this was an area of enough concern that it needed to be clearly addressed in their work. Whether this came from a view within their committee that it was a genuine risk that would be precipitated by a revision process, or was simply a reaction to a reasonably common perception among British Quakers that it was such a risk, I cannot speculate. I do know that it is a reasonably common perception, from my own conversations. Those with beliefs that might be categorised as theist worry that a rising non-theist position might mean the removal of cherished language and ideas from a future book of discipline; non-theists, on the other hand, and occasionally those of unconventional yet theistic beliefs (such as those of specific non-Christian belief), feared that such a fear might lead to changes that would make them feel no longer welcome in our Yearly Meeting. Neither fear is entirely irrational, though I tend to think that any damage would come from the fears themselves, rather than from the situation that gave rise to them. Indeed, the BoDRPG say, in their report to Sufferings:
The group was highly aware throughout our work of the difficulties presented by the possibility of the potential loss of Christian language, the risks of damaging division over theological issues, and a desire in some parts to avoid this discussion. However, through a ‘think tank’ process in which we faced head-on the questions raised by nontheism and other forms of theological diversity in our yearly meeting, we have become confident that these risks can be managed, and clear that there are also benefits to the process of dialogue
The desire to avoid the discussion comes, I am reasonably certain, largely from fear of what results it might bring – and fear of the intermediate state of disruption and discord that some consider inevitable.
Like the BoDRPG, I do not consider this as a purely negative possibility. It need not be discord, but discovery. It will certainly be disruption, but not all disruption is bad. We are already in a situation of tension, and relieving that tension must, inherently, be disruptive.
The main problem, in my opinion, with how this tension has been framed so far is that is has been framed in terms of division, conflict, confrontation. The title of this piece frames it in the most confrontational way I have seen, for the purpose of illustration; “versus” is a word absolutely associated with competition and confrontation, of two sides striving against one another (except possibly its use in the music industry, which I've never understood). Even “theism/non-theism” is a divisive way of describing the situation, showing the two separated – not just differentiated. While it's plausible that this choice of notation is a reflection of how people, albeit not necessarily very many, were already seeing the situation, it causes the divisive, confrontation-based mode of thought to propagate. This has caused the nature of the tension to become more fraught. If we can move the tension back towards a more neutral, conceptual tension – like the tension of flavours in a complex dish that combines flavours rarely found together – then the situation may seem less perilous, and the disruption much more comfortable.
Can we not, then, just call it “theological diversity”? In a word, no. There's much more to theological diversity in liberal Quakerism than just whether the divine is of a theistic nature, and there are times and places where other differences are the points of greatest tension. Here in Britain we may think that liberal Friends are much the same the world over, but there are and have been those whose greatest tensions are on the proper response to same-sex relationships – and where that difference is very much theological. Similarly for different approaches to abortion. And, of course, Yearly Meetings have struggled with the acceptance of non-Christian theistic approaches to the Divine.
If the terms are going nowhere, for the time being, can we not take the extra time and space to say “theism and non-theism”? Or, to avoid the clash with identity language, go a little longer and say “theistic and non-theistic understandings of the Divine”? Verbosity is not a virtue, but a tendency towards excessive brevity can do a surprising amount of damage.
Barring a relatively extreme minority of each, those with theistic and non-theistic approaches are not in opposition. We are not contending with one another, whatever the ongoing disagreement-in-public between Boulton and Guiton might suggest. We are Friends. We worship together, we engage in discernment together. Non-theistic thought is not so much a growing element of British Quakerism as it is an element of growing visibility. We can share our experiences and both grow. We can explain our experiences and understanding of the Divine without it being an attempt to convince or exclude others.
Let us be Friends, in truth and not just as the traditional code term for our faith in-group. Friends share, they support. They tell each other difficult truths when necessary, but they do so in love. Friends talk about the trivial like it is of vital importance, and the profound as if it doesn't matter, and it's all the same. Friends disagree without it harming their friendship, at least most of the time. Friends rejoice in one another's joys, and support one another in sorrow. They hear each other's stories, and share their own. Their differences are always second to whatever it is that draws them together.
For the sake of all that is good and true, let us be Friends.
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