Saturday, 24 February 2018

God, Words and Us: A Reaction

An image of the cover of the book, "God, Words and Us"
The most procedurally important output of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group (BoDRPG) is probably their report to Meeting for Sufferings; the most important in terms of the wider conversation, and of direct lasting impact, may well be God, Words and Us. This book is a record of some of the output of the “Theology Think Tank” that the BoDRPG set up to help prepare for the inevitable “theism/non-theism” question that would arise in any future revision. I have previously written some of my own reaction, on specific points – most notably my recent post “Theism vs Non-Theism”? – but this post is to record my own reaction to the book as a whole, having now finished reading it.
As I understand it, the purpose of the think tank was to support the BoDRPG, and thus the whole Yearly Meeting, in looking at different ways of approaching the “question” of theology and theological diversity. This is in part because of a perception that became apparent, that many Friends responding to consultation and conversation, or indeed in ministry at Yearly Meeting Gathering, were concerned that the degree and nature of that diversity would lead to strife within the Yearly Meeting were we to engage in a revision process. Of particular concern were that some might seek to remove any reference to God from the Quaker faith & practice, or that others might seek to introduce an acid test of theistic belief in the process of revision. Of course, others see a revision as an opportunity to diversify our language – not to remove Christian and otherwise theistic language, but to supplement it with other expressions of understanding of the Divine so that our “handbook” text reflects the diversity that is already there. There are also a few I've come across who would like to use the opportunity to solidify theistic – usually specifically Christian – underpinnings of the book; likewise, I cannot claim there are no Friends who would like to remove all traces of “God language” from the Book of Discipline, but this is not a significant current of thought that I am aware of, even in non-theist circles (an impression that finds support in some of David Boulton's contributions to the book, as noted below).
The think tank worked largely through online conversations, as well as an in-person meeting at Woodbrooke, attempting to work through a range of issues around language about – and understanding of – the Divine. The membership consisted of respected and learned Friends with a range of theological positions, and they shared their views, experiences and reactions frankly, by all accounts (at least, all accounts I've come across). A selection of their exchanges, and collective writing from workshops, is presented in God, Words and Us. I understand that BYM is recommending that Friends read it in preparation for Yearly Meeting this year, when the question of a possible revision will once again be raised. I'm not sure how well this will work, given that people will have to acquire the book; complimentary copies have been sent to each Meeting, but that involves spreading it around quite a few people in some Meetings.
Issues around using it as preparation for Yearly Meeting notwithstanding, I do recommend Friends read it; it's probably relevant to the experiences of many liberal Quaker Yearly Meetings, and likely somewhat informative – if slightly obscure – for Friends of other traditions. It is an exploration from respected and educated Friends about their experience and understanding of the Divine (or God, or the Ultimate, or whatever). I'm not going to try and give a potted summary so that people can get an idea of it without reading – that would not do it justice. If you want to understand the book, read it.
I will, however, give some of my thoughts in reaction, which will naturally give some impression of what the book contains. Please do not take it to be a fair summary of the whole book; it's not, and it's not meant to be.
Once the introductory matter is past, the book begins with several members of the think tank's introductions to their own “Quaker story”, how they came to Quakers and how they experience belief and Spirit. Naturally this ends up covering language as well, in a very personal way, and attitudes to the theological diversity in our Yearly Meeting. David Boulton, apparently seen by many as the arch-nontheist of liberal Quakerism, makes his own lack of supernaturalist belief quickly clear – and I can tell you, he is far less inclined to the mystical than I am – while simultaneously celebrating and urging the continuation of the diversity of belief in our community. Many other contributors share similar sentiments, and I do not recall seeing any disagreeing with it. Perhaps this is a result of how the think tank members were selected.
The book moves on through several sections, generally comprising largely of these excerpts from the writing of individuals during the work of the think tank, covering experience of Quaker practices – particularly Meeting for Worship and prayer – and how they relate to belief, looking at the language of theism and non-theism, looking at other vocabulary, illustrating some other models and ways to think about our diversity (these thoughts take up a significant portion of the book, and possibly some of its most useful food for thought), and some ideas and materials for how Friends might work on these ideas themselves, alone or in groups. As well as the contributions from individual members of the think tank, these sections also contain syntheses, and collective writings from “Open Space” collaborative working groups.
I'm afraid I can't quite get on board with the eventual thesis of discarding the language of theism and non-theism; it is based on an accurate assessment of a problem (which I will get on to in a moment), but it throws the baby out with the bathwater. It is not necessarily effective to say that terms have been misused and gained connotations beyond what is appropriate or useful, and thus must be abandoned. Indeed, it is entirely fruitless if there is no alternative terminology to take its place. I do agree that talking “theism/non-theism” as an issue is something we must move beyond, however, because it is a reductive simplification of the situation in our Yearly Meeting that increases the confrontational presentation of the matter and obscures significant nuance that demonstrates that these differences are much further from being irreconcilable than some would have us believe.
The problem is that we speak of theism and non-theism as if they are two distinct, coherent positions. If we have a little more nuance than that, we might speak of them as opposite ends on a spectrum. This is not the case, neither practically nor theoretically. Theism is a term denoting belief in a deity (or possibly several) with certain characteristics, yes – except it is hard to find agreement, even academically, on exactly what those characteristics are. Different authors and different contexts lead to different understandings; I have my own, which is essentially based on that given by my Religious Studies teacher at school – there are other sources that agree with this, fortunately, which I'm sure has saved me embarrassment in serious conversations about religion. There are other, equally valid sources that disagree in various ways, small or large. Thus, while we might use these terms to categorise people's conceptions of the Divine, or of religion in general, we can only do so if we make clear how we are using the terms, and that we have sufficiently elucidated a person's beliefs to be sure that they do fit into the categorisation we have given them.
As these definitions rely on a series of characteristics of the divinity that a person might believe in, they are only said to be a theist if they ascribe the Divine all of those characteristics. If not, then they are a non-theist. This is a matter of analysis, not of identity; some confusion arises because these terms are used as terms of self-identification (both of them, despite the assertions found in God, Words and Us – though one rather more often than the other), and that usage does not always match the formal definitions. That's okay, so long as we know in what sense a term is being used in any given context. After all, there are many Quakers in Britain who identify as Christians yet deny several things that most Christians around the world consider essential elements of Christian faith; I have even met those who so identify while denying the historicity of the Gospels. For them, it is the literary character of Christ who is their teacher, and they acknowledge him as such, without feeling any requirement to actually believe he existed, never mind being the Son of God, being resurrected, or his initial death atoning for the sins of humankind. A person might believe in a personal God, and still be a non-theist, if they do not believe that God to be willing and able to directly interfere with our world. They are not likely to identify as such, because of the picture of non-theism they have built in their mind. That is also okay. It simply illustrates why we must not fall in to the trap of using terms like this as catch-alls, as things that tell us anything more than what they really indicate. We might present the definition of theism, without using that term, to every Quaker in the country, and ask if they agree with it. We could give them time and support to unpack it so, as much as possible, everyone understand it the same way. We could then say that all of those who say yes are theists, and all those who say no are non-theists, and we would be right – within the limits of our usage of those terms. The peril is not in using the terms at all, but in using them too much or too simplistically.
Yet even with theists agreeing with all of a series of propositions, and non-theists being those who disagree with one or more of them, creating a perfect logical dichotomy, we have not properly described the variations in belief or conception of the Divine among Quakers. Even if those terms were identically understood and properly applied by all Friends, a goal that I do not believe even faintly attainable, they still would not describe everything. Not only do those categorised as non-theists by such a system vary as to which of the propositions they have denied, there is a fantastic range of variation of belief that is entirely orthogonal to – that is to say, capable of varying entirely independently of – the propositions of theism. One might be a theist or a non-theist, and believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Likewise the idea of karma in the South Asian religions need not be precluded by a belief in a theistic God (or gods) – and does not require it. Questions of immanence or transcendence, supernaturalism, the validity of intercessory prayer, the value of spoken prayer, the meaningfulness of prayer as a concept – all of these things can vary quite independently of agreement with the theistic propositions. There are likely to be correlations in practice, but they are not terribly tight (especially among Quakers) and not theoretically essential.
This is where I agree with the overall thesis of God, Words and Us. Theism/non-theism should not – as I have explained – be thrown out, for misunderstanding or any other reason; it should, however, be thrown out as a description of the nature of theological diversity in British Quakerism (or wider liberal Quakerism). As we move forward as a community to consider the questions of theological diversity, we must be ready to deal with the full range, and not restrict ourselves to the single dichotomy that we see as most visible, and most apt to be reduced to a simplistic oppositional situation when it is neither simple nor necessarily oppositional. Particularly if we do move forward to revise the Book of Discipline, we have the opportunity to better reflect the range of experience and understanding in our Yearly Meeting, and beyond, and we have to be prepared to understand this in the full breadth of variation that exists.
I am sure the suggestions for further study and reflection, and group work, made towards the end of the book will prove to be valuable; I have sufficient trust in those presenting them that I would be astonished were they not. The really thought-provoking part, however, are the alternative models and comparisons presented. Boulton compares his understanding of non-theism within the Religious Society of Friends with non-pacifism; thought-provoking for sure, though I don't agree with the tightness of the comparison. We might hope that a non-pacifist is a clear case of “wear it as long as you can”, and while I know that some non-non-theists have expressed the view to me that this is how they see my non-theism, I do not think that all non-theism is something that should be seen that way. Perhaps the most non-supernaturalist, strict materialist sorts – which we might consider Boulton to epitomise – might be regarded as such, but I would hesitate even there. However, those worried about non-theism and “creeping secularisation” might be reassured that it is David Boulton, accused of so much (if in dry academic language) by Derek Guiton, who states clearly that it is not his experience that non-theist Friends wish to see the Society remade in their image.
An illustration of the major bodies of the solar system. Not to scale or arranged based on real positions.
Rachel Muers presents both “positions” in terms of denying lies, in almost identical terms, which shows a neat equivalence of some concepts between the two, but maintains the dichotomy that we should, even in the thesis of the book be moving away from; it is a step in understanding, at least. A short collaborative piece presents the idea of a “Quaker solar system”, each of us moving in our own orbits, individually or in groups, but part of a whole moving together; a similar, but more narrative and human construction is that of the caravan, moving through the wilderness, all with different roles – scouting, guarding, cooking, checking for stragglers – all doing different things, yet moving on a journey together. Our experience of the journey may be very different, but it is, in a very real sense, the same journey.
There is much food for thought in this book, and I must say again how much I recommend it. It is available from the Quaker Bookshop at Friends House London, and can be bought from them online in hard copy, as well as mobi and epub ebook formats (the ebook formats may show up as “out of stock”, which obviously makes no sense; when I bought mine, I was told to just order it anyway, and it worked out). It will be invaluable in preparing Quakers in Britain for the question of whether to revise, and in the actual revision itself. Provided we do not take it as the last word on the subject – which would be a strange thing for liberal Quakers to do – it will do well in helping manage some of the difficulties we are sure to face, and help to produce a positive outcome for all Friends in our Yearly Meeting.
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