Forms of theological diversity

This month, while most people are buying presents, eating chocolate, and generally celebrating Christmas (more on that in my next post), I’m reading Chapter 27 of Quaker faith & practice, which is called ‘Unity and diversity’. There’s a good vague name if ever I heard one! Unity of what and diversity of what?

A quick browse through the chapter will reveal that the issue in question is theology – specifically, the relationship between Quakerism, Christianity, and other faiths. It doesn’t mention nontheism, which wasn’t a big issue for discussion in 1994, but if we re-wrote this chapter today I think we’d include nontheist perspectives here. I also think it would be helpful if we were able to map the territory of theological diversity in more detail.

In many settings, Quakers pose questions of theological diversity as a spectrum, or a series of spectrums. Are you more religious or more humanist? Are you more universalist or more Christian? Are you more nontheist or more God-believing? In order to form these kinds of questions, it’s sometimes necessary to invent a term. For example, many people have assumed that if someone isn’t a nontheist, they must be a theist – but the term theist isn’t one people use for themselves without that prompt, and it has connotations from its use in philosophy which Quakers don’t always accept. (The ‘three omnis’ – omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent – don’t appear in my list of aspects of God Quakers are likely to believe in.)

This also disguises all sorts of other differences. Suppose Person A thinks that God is an human construct but a useful metaphor for our experience of community and love, and Person B thinks that God is a term for a natural part of the human subconscious. Both might be called nontheists – they both reject the sorts of things nontheists typically reject, such as supernatural interventions and God as external to humanity – but they also have very different understandings of what actually is going on.  Similar differences are hidden by almost any label.

That isn’t to say that labels aren’t useful. When people claim labels for themselves, especially where it helps them to identify others with whom they have a lot in common and to articulate their understandings and experiences more accurately, labels are very helpful. What we need to do is avoid becoming stuck at the level of whatever label we’ve got – there’s more going on underneath and diversity within the group created by the label – and to make sure that labels aren’t used to polarise the community – ‘if you’re not an X, you must be a Y’, as if there were no other choices.

So, what forms of theological diversity do we have among Quakers in Britain at the moment? We have some people who clearly identify their Quaker practice as shaped by or united with insights and/or practices from another faith tradition: Buddhist Quakers, Druid Quakers, Quanglicans, etc. We have some people for whom silence says it all, and who do not feel the need to have any label beyond ‘Quaker’ (if that). We have some people who are deeply engaged with the treasures of the Christian tradition as expressed in Quakerism, and others who feel hurt by Christianity and want to avoid it, and others who think a little bit of Christianity is a good idea but wouldn’t want to spend too long on Bible study. We have some people who cannot accept certain aspects of traditional belief in God, and reject anything which sounds like the supernatural, creation ex nihilo, miracles, life after death, or similar. We have some people who cannot accept that Jesus was more important than anyone else, and people who find that the Christ event is the story at the heart of their faith (and people who would identify with both of those positions). We have some people who don’t know, and some people who think that any week in which they don’t change their mind is a boring week. None of these things are pairs of absolutes, this or that, and nor do they map neatly onto a spectrum from most to least.

We also have some people who are very worried about theological diversity, and some who are not the slightest bit bothered, and every possible attitude in between. Personally, I am fascinated by theology and hence by theological diversity, but – perhaps because I am so used to thinking about it – I’m also very relaxed about it. The ideas matter when they affect how we act, but a quick look around an average meeting will show that people with hugely divergent theological opinions can come together to participate in waiting and listening in Meeting for Worship. “Christianity is not a notion but a way” says Advices & Queries, and I agree. Quakerism isn’t something you agree with, but something you do.

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4 responses to “Forms of theological diversity

  1. Pingback: Reading Quaker faith & practice Ch. 27 | Silent Assemblies

  2. Interesting. I wasn’t aware, from my admittedly shallow reading, that theism was seen to connote the “three omnis” – what I read suggested that it connoted one or more god-figures (that may or may not be called gods) that have personal identity are willing and able to interfere in the world, and some debate as to whether it’s necessary to believe that one or more of them created the world/universe/humanity/whatever. It is that theism that I consider nontheism the complement of, with some “not really in either camp” positions out there, like pan(en)theism.

    Nontheism has been used in published Quaker writings since at least the 50s (admittedly with a hyphen, non-theism, which kind of makes it easier to understand), and organised stuff has gone on at least in North America since the 70s. I’m sure it was a “thing”, just not a matter of discussion, during the last revision.

    Of course, there are theological positions that are non-theistic that some Quakers hold, but people wouldn’t often include them in the nontheist heading – it seems to largely be used as a “no specific theological position associated with any named tradition” shorthand. Buddhism is largely non-theistic, for instance, and I’m sure many of us know, or at least know of, Buddhist Quakers. And I’ve conversed with Quakers whose position fits the definition (or my definition) of nontheism, but they still prefer the Christian identity. I could get into a whole thing about plain speaking over that, but I’ll save that for another day.

    One thing I think you are definitely on to is the idea that talking about it (in the right way) makes us more relaxed about it.

  3. I remember some years ago going to a Meeting in the North of England (no names!). I sat between two atheists. Opposite were two Buddhist families. next to them sat a Pagan same couple. I can’t remember the others’ beliefs except that an older Friend sat slightly outside the circle. Now, I want to make clear that I am not against atheists, non-theists (of whatever hue), Pagans, mainline Church folk, Buddhists, Hindus, same-sex folk (I’m very proud of the fact that I was an advocate of same-sex marriage in the 60s during my teens, and have long stood in solidarity with feminists in their struggles). So this Meeting was very interesting to me. It was certainly, as you can see, very diverse. They were all very welcoming; they were all delightful, kind, indeed fun to be with. They invited me to an upcoming party. I went and had a great time.

    Questions, though, emerged later. Who or what were we worshipping during Meeting? Were we in fact worshipping? Were we really united or acting as individual people though physically together? Were we united only in our commitment to certain liberal attitudes, to social justice? If so, what was the difference between that commitment and my own as a peace and environmental activist?

    On my final day in the Meeting (I was due to return to Australia in a few days time), I plucked up enough courage to ask the elderly Friend why she sat outside the circle. She replied in a very tone that she was a Christian Friend and felt she wasn’t really a part of the Meeting anymore. I then asked her why she still attended. She replied that she had ‘aways lived just down the road’ and that she had attended the Meeting since childhood. It was ‘her’ Meeting but now in a way it wasn’t. I couldn’t help thinking that her situation raises lots of questions not only about individual worship in Friends but also the direction of the Society as a whole.

    And the two atheists? Their response also raised questions about the direction of Friends in the current era; one said it was ‘honourable’ to lay down his membership saying it did ‘justice to myself and the Meeting’ and added, ‘I enjoy coming to Meeting with my wife and am still welcomed.’ The other saw no reason to relinquish his membership asking rhetorically, ‘Why can’t atheists be members?’ I guess the ultimate question re: your very good post is, ‘Is their “really” unity in diversity among Friends, or just a lot of unhelpful and possibly damaging diversity?

  4. Whoops, pls forgive the grammar; ‘their’ for ‘there’–ouch! Also, the elderly Friend replied in a quiet tone.

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