In a Quaker committee meeting recently, a group of us were asked to place ourselves in a line, with one end marked ‘theist’ and the other ‘non-theist’. Along with one other Friend, I felt unable to participate in this exercise, because of my discomfort with both of those terms.
My sense is that the way in which our discussion about Quaker religious language has been framed in recent years is extremely unhelpful. If we genuinely want to understand each other’s experience, and to discern and worship together, we will not be served by thinking of our differences in terms of a debate between theists and non-theists.
I am convinced that this is, in fact, a completely false distinction. It seems to be based on the assumption that anyone who uses the word ‘God’ is something called a ‘theist’, who holds a specific set of theological beliefs. Once this is assumed, it seems to follow that anyone who doesn’t hold those beliefs must be a ‘non-theist’. This leads directly into attempts to classify ourselves and others, and even to a competitive spirit, in which we line up on opposing sides. At the moment any use of the word ‘God’ in Quaker minutes and publications has become controversial, because it seems to privilege ‘theists’ and exclude ‘non-theists’. In the very worst tradition of religious factionalism, we have fallen into mutual suspicion over a word.
Theism is an academic concept used in the comparative study of religion. According to the Oxford dictionary, it means ‘belief in the existence of a god or gods, specifically of a creator who intervenes in the universe.’ Crucially, theism is a label used to classify certain beliefs and teachings; it is not a word that people usually apply to themselves. In other words, the idea of 'theist Quakers' is a myth. It is a label applied to others, which almost always misrepresents their own experience and self-understanding.
Most Quakers who use the word God are not speaking of an ‘old man in the clouds’, or the omnipotent and omniscient supernatural God of the philosophers. Liberal Quakerism has inherited from the wider mystical religious tradition an understanding of spiritual reality as ultimately mysterious and unnameable. This tradition typically uses the word ‘God’, not as the name of an external ‘being’, but as a signpost that points towards our experience of spiritual reality.
Religious language in this tradition is not used to make dogmatic intellectual propositions; it is much more like poetry. The poetic, allusive language of faith has plenty of room for flexible and diverse interpretations. Some Friends use the word ‘God’ to describe their personal experience of spiritual encounter, or being guided or accompanied. For others it points to their sense of awe at the mysteriousness of existence, of the interconnection of all of life, or the depth and holiness of personal relationships. Other Friends might have similar kinds of experience while using very different language to describe it.
For many people the word God has so many unpleasant associations with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths. There is no right answer here; it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences.
My own thinking about spiritual reality has been influenced by people from many different traditions who have lived with compassion, selflessness and courage. Many of them have called the source of life within them ‘God’, and I am happy to use the same word for the inward dimension of reality that I recognise in my own experience. Does this make me something called a ‘theist’, as if I subscribed to a list of abstract intellectual propositions that are in reality completely meaningless to me?
The (extremely unorthodox) Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote that God has both 'personal and impersonal aspects', and 'an atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.' (Letter to a Priest, 1951). This suggests that there may be different ‘faces’ of spiritual reality, which are more apparent to different people, at different times, and emphasised by different traditions. This understanding does not require us to divide ourselves into camps, according to whether we believe in the existence of a personal God or not. Just as physicists have learned to accept that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but exhibits wave-like or particle-like behaviour depending on how it is observed; there is no reason to expect that spiritual reality should be more straightforward than matter and energy.
Surely we can use a range of religious language to communicate with each other and the wider world, without trying to eliminate or insist on the use of any particular word. Instead of labelling others, or ourselves, as ‘theists’ or ’nontheists’, couldn’t we listen to each other’s actual experience? Instead of assuming that any use of the word 'God' in Quaker literature presupposes a particular set of theological beliefs, could we accept it as simply one word, among others, that is used by Friends in a range of ways and with diverse interpretations?