Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Understandings of God

The current Quaker Book of Discipline was compiled in the early 90s, when the loudest theological disputes were between so-called 'Universalists' and 'Christocentric' Friends. Section 27.04 of Quaker faith & practice addresses this apparent opposition, by recognising that these theological positions are not mutually exclusive, and may even be complementary:
"It has become quite customary to distinguish between ‘Christians’ and ‘universalists’ as if one category excluded the other. 
This situation has led many Friends to suppose that universalist Friends are in some way set over against Christocentric Friends. This is certainly not the case. Universalism is by definition inclusivist, and its adherents accept the right to free expression of all points of view, Christocentric or any other. Indeed, in London Yearly Meeting there are many universalists whose spiritual imagery and belief are thoroughly Christocentric. 
From the beginning the Quaker Christian faith has had a universal dimension. George Fox saw the Light ‘shine through all’ and he identified it with the divine Light of Christ that ‘enlightens every man that comes into the world’ (John 1:9). He pointed out, as did William Penn in greater detail, that individuals who had lived before the Christian era or outside Christendom and had no knowledge of the Bible story, had responded to a divine principle within them. In these terms, all Quaker Christians are universalists." 
(Alastair Heron, Ralph Hetherington and Joseph Pickvance, 1994)
Since then, the theological conversation, such as it is, has largely moved to the apparent contradiction between Friends who describe themselves as nontheists, and those who are sometimes described as 'theists', although it is rare for them to adopt this label themselves (unless it is to distance themselves from nontheists).

It would appear that Quakers in Britain have an enduring attraction to dividing ourselves into two, and only two, opposing camps.

In fact there are many ways that Quakers currently understand God. Rhiannon Grant has helpfully highlighted seven of them in her recent post 'Seven Gods Quakers Might Believe In'. In the interests of decimalisation, I'd like to explore a further three possibilities that may be relevant to the current Quaker conversation: 

1, Fictional

God, and all other religious concepts, are understood as human creations. They can be projections of our fears and needs, and also of our highest aspirations and deepest values. Religious concepts are understood as culturally specific and historically evolving, rather than objective, timeless truths. 

2, Personal

God/Spirit is understood as a spiritual reality with personal qualities, such as love and wisdom. This reality may be experienced as a loving and guiding presence, and may be described using images such as mother, father, friend, lover, guide or teacher. 

3, Impersonal

God/Spirit is understood as an impersonal source of energy, illumination or connection. It may be experienced as a sense of unity or mystery, and may be expressed through images such as Light, the divine, the ground of being etc.

Each of these ways of understanding God may speak to some Friends more than others, but they are not mutually exclusive. It is possible, for example, to have a personal understanding of God, while at the same time recognising that all of our religious ideas are culturally-relative human creations; what I have described above as a 'fictional' understanding.

It is also possible for someone to understand God as having both personal and impersonal aspects, and to express these using a range of images; just as early Friends used both personal and impersonal imagery, including Light, Seed, Guide, Inward Christ, Teacher, Principle of Life, etc. Some Friends who currently describe themselves as nontheists might have an impersonal understanding of God, or a fictional one, or both.

Each of these perspectives has something to contribute to enlarging our perception of spiritual reality. A 'fictional' understanding offers the important insight that all of our concepts of God are shaped by our cultural perspectives and personal agendas. It helps us to avoid mistaking our own religious ideas for objective ultimate reality. Both 'personal' and 'impersonal' concepts of God offer contrasting perspectives on a spiritual reality that is greater than any of our theories about it, pointing towards important and widespread experiences that are deeply rooted in Quaker spirituality, as well as many other religious traditions.

Perhaps the problems arise in those situations where we are tempted to insist that only one way of understanding God is correct; that God can only be fictional, or personal, or impersonal, and that any other way of understanding and experiencing God must be false or dangerous. Liberal Quakers are theoretically committed to inclusivity and diversity, yet when it comes to ideas about God, we sometimes succumb to the appeal of partisan thinking. We too often line up on opposing sides, based on theological labels that offer a reassuring sense of being 'right', while blinding us to the insights of others with different experiences and perspectives.

I hope that our commitment to diversity of religious belief and language might lead us to recognise that all of our views about God are limited, and need complementing by the differing insights and experiences of others. Instead of disputing whether God is personal or impersonal, Friends can learn from the variety of human religious experience about both the personal and impersonal faces of God. And while recognising the 'fictional' nature of all of our religious concepts, perhaps we might remain open to learning from the diverse experiences of Friends and others about the more than human, mysterious reality of God.


  1. Thanks for this Craig! Can I add another one - a particular God - as in a God revealed within a particular tradition or story. I suspect I'm in the minority among British Friends, as the God I've committed myself to is the triune one of the Christian story. The first Quakers were universalists in the sense QF&P 27.04, but they also insisted on the particularity of Jesus. I suspect this 'scandal of particularity' is one that many British Friends find hard to stomach, but it's still a position some Quakers hold and so should be on the table.

  2. Hi Mark, yes indeed and thanks for raising this. I am conscious that the way I talk about understandings of God in this post is framed in the rather abstract language of universalism, rather than the narratives of a specific religious tradition. I don't think this universalist perspective can claim any superiority over other traditions. It is just another way of understanding reality alongside others.
    There may be interesting ways in which what I have called fictional, personal and impersonal representations of God reflect themes in Quaker Christian tradition as well though, which would need some more thought to unpack fully.
    In Friendship,

  3. To call God "fictional" is incompatible with that actuality people know and describe, more-or-less adequately, by the word/name: "God;" it is merely a denial of God's reality.

    People do sometimes reduce their idea of God to such a description -- but their lifelong interaction with the reality isn't going to stop whenever they aren't acknowledging it.

    We can't deny that someone suffering from (or enjoying) such a notion may be following and learning-from God under some other label they're less reluctant to accept.

    But he is not adding a useful perspective on God, any more than closing your eyes and calling me 'fictional' would improve your knowledge of me.

  4. Hi Forrest, Perhaps I have chosen a misleading term by using the word 'fictional' here, because I don't intend it to refer to merely a denial of God's reality. Instead, I am thinking of the argument that our ideas of God involve projections of our own psychological needs and cultural values. In that sense, our concepts of God are 'fictions' with a historical and often ideological component.
    I think that this is a valid and useful insight into the limitations of our ideas about God, but it is not the full story. It is possible to acknowledge this critique without claiming that God is 'only' a fiction. In the terms that I am using here, someone can complement an understanding of the fictional nature of our religious concepts with an understanding that God is also more than just our ideas about Him.

    In the same way, our ideas about each other are often fictions, largely based on our projections and personas. I might therefore recognise that my idea of you is a fiction, in the sense that it is a largely imaginary construct based on our very limited communication so far. At the same time I have complete faith that you do also have a reality of your own which I might still come to know better.
    In Friendship, Craig

    1. A clearer way of putting this would have been: "Our concept and idea of God is strongly influenced by our culture, our personal quirks, our life experiences." No question; the Bible is full of examples.

      Putting it that way would have ruined your neat schema; but then grand notions had best be more accurate than neat, yes?

      Getting to know anyone personally (God is quite capable of personning; that's how 'He' put 'the breath of life' in humankind, 'made us in 'His' image) --

      comes down to forming a mental construct (from experience, including experiences of other people which might not apply at all) and then going beyond our construct, giving them room to establish who they are 'in their own right.' The great value of the Quaker Thing is that our worship leaves that space... but as Keith is (I think) saying, putting external constraints on how What Is ought to be -- can be an unwarranted obstacle. (If He says to sacrifice our children, however, it's strongly suggests that some mistaken cultural concept has slightly distorted the perception...)

      Anyway, we do need to accept those people drawn to us, reasonably housebroken & well-intentioned, as they be, as God and their culture has made them, and leave them room to see things as they do, while not letting the group be paralyzed by the blind spots of the larger culture... I dunno; I really don't know how to resolve the matter -- except by ongoing prayer for guidance in what's appropriate for each person in particular.

  5. The presumption of an outward ideological and theological "commitment to diversity" that should inform everyone is what some first Quakers called a politic of contrivance viz. William Rogers "The Christian Quaker ..." Advocating that everyone should follow such an outward contrivance is itself to participate in judgement against those who are not of the same conscience and who do not share a "commitment to diversity." The very act of advocacy for diversity in itself nurtures a lack of commitment for diversity (the very advocacy for diversity manifests a lack of diversity in that it judges those who seek uniformity) in the same way that the politic of contrivance for being that is informed by the outward construct of uniformity nurtures diversity. The appearance of inshining Immanence itself in itself in my conscious and conscience does not establish the outward conceptual construct "diversity" as an normative or meditative form. In the same way, inshining Immanence does not establish the outward construct of uniformity as a normative or meditative form. Immanent Presence itself in itself is experienced directly as my only anchor and informs without regard for any outward conceptual constructs in general or any particular construct like "diversity" or uniformity. In this immanent Appearance itself in itself inshining into my conscious and conscience, concepts like diversity and uniformity are mere shadows that cloud over immanent being and are of no value and serve no purpose. This is the new way, the different way, is no longer informed by outward contrivances like a "commitment to diversity or a commitment to uniformity. In immanent Presence itself in itself inshining into my conscious and conscience, there is no commitment to outward forms like diversity or uniformity. In the Life itself in itself the commitment is the Life itself.

    In immanent Presence inshining itself in itself, we no longer reflect outward forms; recommending immanent Life itself as complete and sufficient in itself to establish identity, meaning, and purpose. In this Life outward constructs or contrivances as guides that inform human being and relationships and result in imposition upon the conscience of others is usurped and overcome. These outward powers and principalities no longer rule and govern. This Life can and is known today even by those who walk in the midst of the shadows of outward contrivances like diversity and uniformity; these shadows no longer inform for they no longer cast their pale by the power of the inshining Light upon and within the conscious and conscience.

    There will be no true diversity as long as the outward contrivance of commitment to diversity is advocated, projected, or reflected upon the conscience of others. In the same way, there will be no uniformity as longer as the outward contrivance of commitment to uniformity is advocated, projected, or reflected. These reflection are outside immanent Life itself in itself. They only serve to embroil human being in the politic of contrivance that nurtures the opposite of what is hoped for.

    The natural law of the process of identification with and advocacy for outward formal constructs creates and manifests a cycle of oscillation wherein each outwardly established form nurtures its opposite ... for example, adherence to the outward spirit of diversity nurtures a spirit of uniformity. There is a way out of this cycle through the appearance of immanent Presence itself in itself inshining into the conscious and conscience which results in the power and strength to lay down all outward forms because the process of identification with them to gain meaning, purpose, and identity, through adherence to outward forms, structures, traditions, institutions, is replaced by being that sufficient and complete in direct and unmediated immanent Presence itself in itself and the old natural law and its process is broken and its flawed nature exposed.

  6. "Mythological" may offer the same understanding as your "fictional". It implies relationship with a specific wisdom tradition without the samr perceived pejorative/dismissive connotations (for me at least). Good show. X

  7. Hi Paul, Yes I think 'mythological' is probably better. Many thanks,

  8. To be strictly accurate: "distorted by human projection." 'Mythological' sounds too much like 'merely a human projection' -- as many unbelievers would prefer to take it. They have a right to remain smug; but we really shouldn't encourage it.

  9. Several decades ago when the Orwellian penchant for defining Quaker faith as "unity in diversity" was in its heyday, the story of the six blind men and the elephant could be heard regularly in meetings for worship. A friend named John McCandless, a New Foundation Fellowship worker, having heard this message once too often, rose in meeting and gave something like the following: "We've heard many times the story of the six blind men and the elephant, but we seldom hear about the seventh blind man. The seventh blind man was the one that the elephant stepped on."

    Speculative reasoning cannot approach knowledge of Christ, no matter the number of collated perspectives. Nor is mystical experience an equivalent. Recall Fox was still feeling his deprivation although he had had mystical openings prior to his receiving Christ Jesus. Only then did his heart leap for joy; he knew he finally had what he needed to live!

    As Jesus told Nicodemus, who stands for the learned person who lacks spiritual knowledge (but isn't hostile as a result): And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven (Jn. 3:13). The seventeenth-century Friends were at pains to communicate that there is a great gulf fixed between man-made religion (will-worship) and the testimony of Jesus, which is the spirit of prophecy. Similarly, they found that they were in unity with one another, and with the apostles and the prophets though greatly separated from them by time, culture, and geography. Here's an example from Fox of their testimony of uniformity:

    Jesus Christ who reconciles all things in heaven and earth in one, which brings all things into uniformity by his spirit and by his light. This uniformity we are witnesses of and witness to by the spirit of God and see it by the light of Jesus...several uniformities and conformities there are in the world, but the uniformity that is brought in by Jesus Christ, who reconciles all things in heaven and in earth in one, and of twain makes one new image, and all such as are conformable to his image, to his spirit, to his truth, to his power,and to his light and to his death, this conformity and uniformity is beyond...the national conformities...this is universal uniformity and conformity and is beyond...the pope's conformity and his...mass book, and it is beyond the Presbyterians' conformity to their directory, and it is beyond the Independents' conformity to their church faith...and so every nation and religion...would have conformity to it...but these are all sects and one against another.

    1. Thank God we exclusively-explicitly Christian Quakers have Got It All Right, unlike those Universalists over there!

      Didn't himself have a story like that, somewhere in there?

    2. In my study of the scriptures I am finding more and more confirmation that God reveals Himself to His people (i.e. the seventh blind man that was stepped on) in such a way that they can claim "all shall know Him from greatest to least." Also this revelation is without "turning and shifting of shadow". What God reveals to me of His character is not contrary to what he reveals of His character to you. I have found this to be so whenever I have met with folks who, like the seventh blind man, have encountered that revelation that demands we be remade into the image of God, that we bear the unmistakable footprint of our continuing encounter. This is through the work of Christ in and among us fulfilling his offices.

    3. In my study of the scriptures I am finding more and more confirmation that God reveals Himself to His people (i.e. the seventh blind man that was stepped on) in such a way that they can claim "all shall know Him from greatest to least." Also this revelation is without "turning and shifting of shadow". What God reveals to me of His character is not contrary to what he reveals of His character to you. I have found this to be so whenever I have met with folks who, like the seventh blind man, have encountered that revelation that demands we be remade into the image of God, that we bear the unmistakable footprint of our continuing encounter. This is through the work of Christ in and among us fulfilling his offices.

    4. I love this, Craig - somehow I missed seeing it when it was first published. Thank you!

      I think the difficulty with either 'fictional' or 'mythical' is that we have developed such a limited understanding of words like this over the last century or so. 'Not historically true' is not anything like the same as 'untrue'. Human language is culturally conditioned: that's just the nature of the thing, and we cannot speak any other way. I've tried to put this in my own way in Walking through Wonders.

      By the way, whose is the beautiful painting at the head of this post? I haven't seen it before, as far as I remember.

    5. Hi Mike, Thanks for this. Yes, I am struggling for the right words to express the idea that all of our stories about the world are culturally-conditioned human creations, which doesn't make them untrue, just inherently partial. The painting is one of mine - glad you like it!

    6. It doesn't make human stories necessarily true that they are Divinely-inspired joint efforts. They are, of course, tuned to the mentality of human culturally-embedded ways of understanding -- or we'd never be able to make sense of them in the first place. But they are also something we do together with God, in response to God's love responding to our desire for valid understanding (to the best digestible approximation.)

      The idea that mad humans concoct such material entirely on our own... is probably among our less-inspired efforts, a sort of perverse self-reassurance that we can know that everything asserted about God is wrong -- because any human being who thinks he knows anything [except this] must be wrong. Hmm, is that so?


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)