We are going to reflect today on something we Quakers have found it difficult to talk about: the basis of our life as Quakers, the faith that grounds our life and guides us through it, holding us together with all our difference, and giving us hope when times get rough. We may be confident in ourselves about this faith, but not so much about how we describe it. The problem is that we have different ways of talking and some of us sometimes get upset by these differences. Can we speak about 'God', for example, or 'Christ' or 'Spirit'? Some Friends who are not happy with these words have got together to find ways of describing their faith in different words. They call themselves 'non-theistic Friends,' meaning they do not accept the traditional belief in God as a being beyond the world. (I'll come back to the meaning of 'theism' later. That is another word liable to misunderstanding.)
The difficulty we are in
Meetings which are aware of this difficulty find themselves reluctant to say what they really want to say. They are stymied on how to give ministry, for example, or how to write a minute. The fear of upsetting someone in the meeting and the discomfort of not being able to speak freely in the meeting have a stifling effect.
Matters have come to a head at the national level since Yearly Meeting decided to proceed, despite this difficulty, with the revision of the Book of Discipline. That decision was made last year. Before that, though, anticipating the revision, Yearly Meeting set up a body to look at these issues with religious language and advise on how we could approach them. You can see that at the national level we have a problem that may not have to be faced locally. When we speak as a Yearly Meeting we speak with one voice. In the Book of Discipline especially we speak on behalf of all Friends, or rather, we speak as one Society of Friends. Even if we have different voices in the text, deliberately to express our variety, we have a presiding voice which speaks on behalf of Yearly Meeting as a whole. And, of course, the point and purpose of our Book of Discipline is to give expression to our common faith and how it works out in practice. So we have a real problem here and we have to resolve it.
The group set up to look at this issue was called the Theology Thinktank, somewhat tongue in cheek, I think, because we Quakers don't focus on theology and don't try to solve our basic problems by 'thinking' about them. But some thinking was required here, or at least some thoughtful attention which could be undertaken in a Quaker way.
It was a very good exercise – I was part of it, as was Craig Barnett, who is speaking later. We made some progress in our understanding, though the 23 of us involved represented the wide spectrum of ideas and attitudes in the Society as a whole. And what we found most helpful was the process we underwent to come to that understanding. This was reported in the small book, published in 2017, God, Words and Us, and Craig and I are drawing on this report to present this workshop today. In fact, the report recommends that to bring the whole of the Yearly Meeting to a better understanding we should all go through this process in our various meetings.
So we shall do some participatory work here, later, but now I want to offer my own insights on how we got into this difficulty and how we might get out of it. And I shall be drawing not only on the recent book, but also on my life-long preoccupation with these issues, and in particular my discovery of the remarkable Quaker way through them, which led me to join the Society some 35 years ago.
How we got into this difficulty
The difficulty we have in speaking about God is not just our problem, and it is not just a problem with words. It is a problem we have in thinking about life in general, about the world in general, and it has been with us since at least the Renaissance and the Reformation some 500 years ago. Everyone back then thought of the world as revolving around God, who created everything and designed it for a purpose. The task of every human being was to discover that purpose for themselves and carry it out, otherwise they would lose all meaning in their lives and all hope. This was a tall order because God was so elusive, beyond human reach. But the church, which dominated society at the time, and had done for some one thousand years, was claiming that this God had revealed himself in Christ, and that Christ had passed on his authority to the church. The church therefore constructed an elaborate system of thought and practice, which explained how everything was made and how we were all to fit in, at our different levels of society.
However, this system was proving to be burdensome in the 16th century. The society was changing as people got wealthier, built cities, gained knowledge and invented new technologies. The church however was fixed, established by God apparently and so not open to negotiation. Indeed, it was not in principle open to change. What the church said and did, it had always said and done, and would do to the end of the world. So with new demands for change, it was coming to be felt as inflexible, insensitive, even dishonest. Also, people found the church's claim to authority now open to question. They began to realize that if they were to know how things really were in the world, or in their own personal lives, they would have to find out for themselves. Indeed, in many areas of life they would have to take matters into their own hands, even if this meant a clash with the church. Perhaps this was the only way to get the church to reform. So people began to assert themselves in every sphere of life, in religion, politics, trade and learning. Hence the Reformation which relied on personal faith in God, the new experimental philosophy which we came to know as modern science, the new experiment in politics which we came to recognize as democracy – and surprisingly, a new experiment in religion which we came to know as the Society of Friends.
The dominant response to authority, however, was not the Quaker turn to the light within, 'that of God in everyone.' It was the assertion of the known human powers of reason, creativity and physical force. It came to expression in the so-called Enlightenment, which sought to understand everything and control everything by the human 'light of reason.' This huge cultural change did not dispense with the idea of God or the authority that might come with God's self-revelation. But it did insist that the whole of faith and religion should be based on reason. So even the reality of God couldn't be taken for granted. It had to be investigated, and if found to be true, set out in arguments that any rational person could appreciate and accept. So arguments were put forward to show that God had to exist because the world wouldn't make sense rationally without God existing. This idea became known as theism. The idea that God's existence could not be shown by argument and therefore had to be rejected became known as atheism. We need to understand these rival ideas because they have shaped the way we think today. And we need to understand the underlying conflict which produced them, after the Reformation and the wars of religion: the conflict between faith in God as a being above and beyond the world and faith in ourselves as humans. This brought with it a change in the understanding of what God is. If the idea of God was to explain rationally how the world is or how we ourselves are, we have to understand clearly what God is, what is meant by this idea. God must be an 'intelligible being,' like a human being, perhaps, but on an infinite scale. It wouldn't do to say God was essentially a mystery, because that could not be demonstrated and it wouldn't explain anything. The idea that God could be known through experience, or 'sensed,' and only known this way was generally dismissed by the intellectuals as 'enthusiasm' or 'mysticism.' So the Quakers, along with other mystical or romantic groups, got sidelined in this new modern world as irrelevant.
In this struggle of our western society it is clear that human self-confidence has been steadily gaining ground, especially through its success in science and technology. We seem to have reached a turning point in our own life time. Only last year a survey found that for the first time more people in the UK described themselves as secular rather than religious – and 'religious' meant believing in God in a traditional way.
This week a BBC poll learned that its viewers had chosen, as 'the greatest person of the 20th century,' one Alan Turing, the scientist who cracked the Enigma Code and invented the computer. He came ahead of figures like Mandela, Luther King, Picasso, even Einstein. This tells us something of what people in Britain now value most.
Science in particular has gripped people's imagination, especially at a time when political and religious leaders are losing credibility. Science is thought of as our attempt to master the world with our own conscious resources. And it tends to set the agenda when it comes to questions of truth. Questions of value we non-scientists can decide, because the world disclosed by science appears to have no meaning or value or purpose in itself. It is up to us to provide meaning and establish what is worthwhile. In such a world there is no room for God or spirit or anything eternal. We are basically on our own.
Or is there something missing here? Is there another dimension to life? Is there perhaps some overall meaning or purpose which we cannot discern with our scientific glasses on?
That is the tussle in our modern society and within individuals themselves. And Friends have been caught up in it – as indeed we should be, since we're part of society. But this tussle is particularly real for those who have come to Friends from other faith traditions, including, if I may call it that, the humanist faith or the rationalist faith – the 'faith' of these non-religious people derives from the fact that they have to believe in humans or reason to make sense of their world and know how to live in it. Those who come to Quakers from this kind of background tend to see the Quaker way either as another and better way of being secular or humanist or as another and better way of being Christian, – or possibly Buddhist or Muslim. The Quaker way is very hospitable, and since it has no dogma or final, objective authority like the Bible it welcomes people from all directions, including those who once accepted an authority and have now renounced it, or only partially so, or are still fighting against it!
This hospitality is remarkable, and one of the most wonderful things about the Society of Friends today. What richness, what dynamism we have in this extraordinary mix of people, who nevertheless seem to get on well together, and unite on so many things.
And yet we do not unite, as yet, on the most fundamental thing. What do we believe in or trust as Quakers? Do we trust ourselves or the great Other than ourselves? What is our truth? And how can we speak our Quaker truth to the world? There's the rub. Has our hospitality come at a price? Have we gained it too easily, too cheaply? This question was raised in our Yearly Meeting in 2018, minute 25, part 4: 'Our religious diversity is a richness, but it comes at a cost: a social cost as we risk our sense of community, a time cost and an emotional cost.' It could have added 'a spiritual cost,' as we struggle to say what our Quaker faith is. And what in any case do we do now?
The concluding part of Rex's talk is here.