REAL LIKE THE DAISIES OR REAL LIKE I LOVE YOU?
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
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.