Quaker Universalist Conversations

“The Imaginary Theist,” by Craig Barnett

An excerpt from Transition Quaker

We have shared before from Craig Barnett’s blog, Transition Quaker. Here are excerpts from his 31 December 2014 post. We recommend that visitors read the entire blog post here.

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.
False Distinction, from "How to Make Our Ideas Clear," by Charles S. Peirce 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….

By Anonymous (see Simone Weil, Œuvres, Gallimard, 1999, ISBN 9782070754342: uncopyrighted cover image). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 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?

Image Sources

“False Distinction,” from “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” by Charles S. Pierce, in Popular Science Monthly 12 (January 1878), 286-302.

Simone Weil 1921, by Anonymous (see Simone Weil, Œuvres, Gallimard, 1999, ISBN 9782070754342: uncopyrighted cover image). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.


People interested the theist and non-theist dialogue can look up the following web-site: Quaker Committee for Christian and Interfaith Relations Day Conference 2014: "Faith, what’s God got to do with it?" There are difficulties in trying to explain to others a very personal relationship in words. But it is not the case with those who have similar personal relationship.
Friend Barnett speaks my mind. I belief that theism/nontheism is one of what Buddhism calls an “illusory pair of opposites.” Human communications about transcendent reality (in word, art, liturgy, ritual, etc.) are all attempts to describe our experience of interaction with that reality, not descriptions of that reality itself.
I recently enjoyed this quote: "Before creation, God did just pure mathematics. Then He thought it would be a pleasant change to do some applied." – John E. Littlewood, A Mathematician’s Miscellany (1953)
Theism and non-theism are binary oppositions, and there are many examples from the Bible. It would be an advantage with some knowledge of binary mathematics to understand them. Buddhists believe in reincarnation and that is doing away the concept of God altogether. The non-theists attempt to substitute the term God with other concepts such as compassion, empathy, kindness, etc. The Buddhists and humanists can accept these characteristics without accepting God. I think it is the same as some Christians talk about mindfulness, one with the universe, nonviolence, etc., without accepting or knowing reincarnation altogether.
Add a Comment