Craig is a Quaker living in Sheffield (UK), and currently serving as an elder of Sheffield and Balby Area Quaker Meeting.
My sense is that the way in which our discussion about Quaker religious language has been framed in recent years is extremely unhelpful. If we genuinely want to understand each others experience, and to discern and worship together, we will not be served by thinking of our differences in terms of a debate between theists and non-theists.
I am convinced that this is, in fact, a completely false distinction. It seems to be based on the assumption that anyone who uses the word ‘God’ is something called a ‘theist’, who holds a specific set of theological beliefs. Once this is assumed, it seems to follow that anyone who doesn’t hold those beliefs must be a ‘non-theist’….
In the very worst tradition of religious factionalism, we have fallen into mutual suspicion over a word.
Theism is an academic concept used in the comparative study of religion…. Crucially, theism is a label used to classify certain beliefs and teachings; it is not a word that people usually apply to themselves…
Religious language in [the Quaker] tradition is not used to make dogmatic intellectual propositions; it is much more like poetry. The poetic, allusive language of faith has plenty of room for flexible and diverse interpretations….
For many people the word God has so many unpleasant associations with authoritarian or dogmatic religion that it is definitely unhelpful for them. For others, it is the most natural word to express their own experience and its continuity with traditional Quaker spirituality or with other religious paths.
There is no right answer here; it is simply a matter of our personal histories and sensibilities, which may also change over time in response to different experiences….
The (extremely unorthodox) Christian mystic Simone Weil wrote that God has both ‘personal and impersonal aspects’, and ‘an atheist may be simply one whose faith and love are concentrated on the impersonal aspects of God.’ (Letter to a Priest, 1951). This suggests that there may be different ‘faces’ of spiritual reality, which are more apparent to different people, at different times, and emphasised by different traditions.
This understanding does not require us to divide ourselves into camps…. Just as physicists have learned to accept that light is neither a wave nor a particle, but exhibits wave-like or particle-like behaviour depending on how it is observed; there is no reason to expect that spiritual reality should be more straightforward than matter and energy….
[Couldn’t] we listen to each others actual experience? Instead of assuming that any use of the word ‘God’ in Quaker literature presupposes a particular set of theological beliefs, could we accept it as simply one word, among others, that is used by Friends in a range of ways and with diverse interpretations?
Simone Weil 1921, by Anonymous (see Simone Weil, Œuvres, Gallimard, 1999, ISBN 9782070754342: uncopyrighted cover image). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.