Quaker Universalist Fellowship

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By David Boulton

Reviewed by Rhoda Gilman

While in Britain recently, I picked up a copy of this small book published last year by the Quaker Universalist Group in association with Dales Historical Monographs. The title captured me. It refers “to a question said to have been asked by a child of her Quaker parents: is God ‘real’, as things like daisies and elephants and mountains are real, or real like love, justice, beauty, and truth?” The subtitle is: Essays in Radical Quakerism, and the book is a collection of fifteen short papers and articles.

Although unfamiliar to me, David Boulton edited for a decade the magazine of the Sea of Faith movement and is well known in Britain. Another recent book by him, The Trouble with God: religious humanism and the Republic of Heaven, is reviewed in the current issue (No. 68) of Quaker Universalist. He has also written on early Quaker history, and two of the essays in this collection deal with the diversity in beliefs and testimonies that were at the very heart of Quakerism in the 1650s — a diversity that was later glossed over and repudiated when the Society of Friends circled its wagons in the face of persecution. The longest piece tells of Gerrard Winstanley, leader of the equalitarian “Digger” movement, who, like John Lilburne, the Leveller, influenced and eventually joined the Quakers. Winstanley, Boulton shows, was essentially a humanist.

The core of Boulton’s present argument, however, can be found in his essay “What on Earth is Religious Humanism?” In it he surveys the decent, orderly, but uninspired landscape of 19th- and early 20th-century humanism with its rigorously intellectual unitarian and ethical culture movements. That scene, he concludes, “has a faded look about it, like an old trade union banner that has seen one too many demos.” Indeed so. Yet even 19th-century hearts mourned the receding tide of faith and resonated to the cry of the poet: “Would but the desert of the fountain yield one glimpse — if dimly, yet indeed, revealed.”

Boulton struggles to define and defend a new “radical religious humanism,” which “feels free to draw on, to feast on, the best of our long, complex, diverse heritage of religious expression.” There is an undeniable power in his appeal to the artistry, the creativity, and the majesty of the long line of human cultures that have been built on the scaffold of religious yearning. But it won’t wash. Like the earlier humanism, which bloomed in a generation that was enchanted by science and confident of continued peace and progress, his new religious humanism fails to fill the void yawning before us as we contemplate the world destruction that may be wrought by humanity itself in the century ahead.

The crux of the matter, I think, is hubris. So long as humanists deny that there are questions the human mind can never answer — so long as they refuse to engage the ultimate mystery at the core of existence itself — so long will they remain irrelevant. In another essay Boulton says: “There is no such thing as wholly extra-linguistic experience, knowledge, or truth. The very act of experiencing is language-built. Language goes all the way down.” — What, no wordless awe at the vast night sky, the sea, the intricate patterning of daisy petals? No silent wonder before an infinity of galaxies? No mute recognition of kinship in the gaze of an animal?

Isn’t there some arrogance in this? Isn’t the attitude that sees humanity at the center of all things the same one that leads to a civilization built on technology and genetic tinkering? Isn’t it associated with our blindness to dying oceans, an altered atmosphere, and a wave of extinctions unknown for 65 million years? There is an even greater arrogance, of course. To find it we need only look at traditional religious creeds that shape an all-powerful, all-seeing God in the image of man himself.

By whatever name we call it — radical Quakerism, religious humanism, or nontheism — to worship human culture is to deny our rootedness in the universe. If we reject our ultimate identity with all of life, if we turn away from the mystery that gives rise to each breath and thought as well as to the intricate web of language that embraces thought, we will be courting oblivion.

Rhoda Gilman serves the Quaker Universalist Fellowship as a member of the Steering Committee and as pamphlet editor.

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