“Nature is always value-less, but has been given value at some time, as a present — and it was we who gave and bestowed it.”
(Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science 1882)
The story that the world is inherently meaningless; that we are free to invent our own values, and project them onto the blank screen of an indifferent universe, was once a deliberate attack on western civilisation. In less than a century, the claim that ethical values are purely subjective preferences has become so embedded in the modern world that anything which contradicts it appears implausible. As Don Cupitt describes it:
“Modern people increasingly demand autonomy, the power of legislating for oneself… they want to live their own lives, which means making one’s own rules, steering a course through life of one’s own choice, thinking for oneself, freely expressing oneself and choosing one’s own destiny.”
(Taking Leave of God)Perhaps this is the principal reason for the continuing decline of religious interpretations of life in western societies. Religions differ in many ways, but one of the characteristic features that leads us to consider a tradition as ‘religious’ is that it is rooted in a collection of stories that make definite claims about the meaning and purpose of human life. Religious traditions do not typically encourage people to ‘make their own rules’ and ‘choose their own destiny’, because their religious stories and practices aim to enable people to realise the possibilities of human life in a world that is already alive with meaning and that includes real spiritual consequences.
For the Quaker way too, as practised for its first three centuries, life has a definite purpose; to become completely responsive to the leadings of the Inward Guide. This means allowing ourselves to be led, loosening our grip on the reins of our life and consenting to the life that wants to be lived in us. The goal of the Quaker way is not autonomy and independence, but the ‘guided life’, an experience of life that is surrendered to the healing and transforming power of the Spirit within.
Of course, this does not mean submitting to external rules or arbitrary authority, but it is far from claiming the right to choose one’s own values. Quaker practices are ways of becoming responsive to a spiritual reality which is not in our power to choose or control. We can no more ‘make our own rules’ than we can choose our own laws of physics.
Some British Friends may be surprised by this description of the Quaker way, because they have been told that the distinctive character of Quakerism is that it offers the freedom to choose one’s own beliefs and identity. In fact this reinterpretation of the Quaker way as a neutral space for private individual searching is a very recent development. Quakers since the late 1960s have tended to re-cast their tradition in the mould of the wider culture. As we have gradually abandoned a shared alternative story about the meaning of human life, we have inevitably absorbed the background assumptions of our society, which exclude any possibility of a public and objective standard of truth. We have increasingly come to take for granted that all claims about moral and spiritual values are equally arbitrary and subjective. There can be no spiritual truth that makes claims on us apart from our own choices, only our own ‘personal truths’. Inevitably, this leads to a compulsive focus on individual beliefs and identity, as it is assumed that the only place where spiritual values can exist is in the privacy of our own minds.
By contrast, the sacred stories of religious traditions point to the reality of meaning ‘out there’ in the world. As the Quaker philosopher John Macmurray has described:
“When religion is real, it throws the centre of our interest and our action right outside ourselves. It is not about myself at all, or only incidentally and for a purpose that is not my own. It is about the world I live in and the part that I must play in it. It is not to serve my need but the need of the world through me. Real religion is not something that you possess but rather a power that lays hold of you and uses you in service of a will that is greater than your own.”
(Search for a Faith)The sacred stories and practices of religious traditions are part of our common life, not private mental objects like ‘beliefs’. In fact, for most of those who follow a religious path, religion is not primarily a set of beliefs, but a way of living in the world.
For most religious traditions, including the Quaker way, sacred stories and practices are more central than any list of beliefs. The regular practice of the disciplines of Quaker Meetings for Worship and for Business help to form our dispositions; our habitual attitudes and tendencies to act. The sacred stories that inform our tradition, and the practices of collective Quaker worship, discernment and testimony, gradually tend to orient us in a particular stance towards the world; hopeful, trusting, confident, grateful and compassionate.
Sacred stories do not describe the world, so much as shape us in relation to it. The function of religious stories and practices is to transform human consciousness and intention; our habitual ways of seeing and acting. Religious stories typically use symbolic, mythological language and imagery to dramatise the existential realities of human life in the world. They are not principally claims about historical facts (although this is one among many ways of interpreting them), but stories that point towards a way of seeing and being in the world.
The dispositions that are formed by particular stories can fit us for the world or unfit us for it, because the meaning of our lives is not arbitrary or infinitely malleable. The world has a shape; it pushes back. There are inherent consequences to our transgressions of moral and spiritual reality.
Dostoevsky’s novel ‘Crime and Punishment’ was written just as the modern myth of a meaningless world was making its appearance. The central character Raskolnikov, an impoverished student, murders and robs an old woman. He explains that he decided to kill by asking himself whether Napolean would have scrupled to commit the murder. Raskolnikov decides that:
“it would not have given him the least pang… he would not have seen that there was anything in it to pause over, and that, if he had had no other way, he would have strangled her in a minute without thinking about it! Well, I too … left off thinking about it … murdered her, following his example.”Raskolnikov imagined himself in the place of a ‘great man’ to whom everything is permitted, who is free to make his own values and decide for himself the meaning of good and evil. But after the murder he finds himself crushed by the spiritual reality of his crime. He discovers the fantasy of believing he could choose his own values. Instead he finds that through the action he had tried to justify as his free choice, “I murdered myself, not her! I crushed myself once for all, for ever.…”
The spiritual reality of the world can be narrated by many different stories, but it is not arbitrary. The consequences of our failure to respect the real limits of human life are severe and inescapable. We don’t get to choose our own ethical values, we have to learn the shape of the world.