Glorious Complexity: Theological Diversity Beyond a Spectrum

Recently, I ran some Woodbrooke sessions on the old but still interesting question: are Quakers Christian? I didn’t expect to reach a yes or no answer, but it was useful to explore the possibilities. One of the things which emerged in the discussion was the idea that it is an advantage, a richness or benefit, to live in the tension of such questions. Yes and No and Maybe all at once could – if we name it and own it – be a strong place, a place of possibility and growth rather than confusion and anxiety.

In this blog post, I want to explore some of the ways in which we might be inspired to do that by advances in other fields, and how we might apply a similar strategy to questions like “do Quakers believe in God?” 

Let me start by introducing two other areas of life which have sometimes been conceptualised as a single line sliding scale, from yes to no, from more to less. The first is sexuality, where we have the Kinsey scale – a line from 0 to 6, where 0 is exclusively heterosexual, 6 is exclusively homosexual, and bisexuals like me hover somewhere around 3. But sexuality isn’t that simple, and other tools like the Klein Sexual Orientation Grid take into account different aspects of sexuality: attraction, fantasies, behaviour, social and emotional preferences, and more. Beyond that, we might create a 3D model in which the two-dimensional grid extends to show the strength of sexual feeling – where someone is on the spectrum from asexual to allosexual – as well as the direction of their attraction and the complexities of gender. The grid and 3D model help us to understand that sexuality goes well beyond a gay/straight divide.

The second is neurotype. One form of neurodiversity, the autistic spectrum, is sometimes pictured as a line, from most to least autistic, or with more or less autistic traits showing. However, it can be more useful to imagine it as a circle, like a colour wheel, with different aspects of autism around the edge (things like sensory filtering, motor skills, or language). An autistic individual’s particular pattern can be plotted onto the circle so that it shows how they have more or less difficulty with the different areas: perhaps prone to sensory overload, or perhaps not; perhaps struggling with motor skills or language, or perhaps not. As Rebecca Burgess explains in this comic, that means that different people can experience autism very differently, and the wheel-shaped spectrum helps us to picture these variations.

With those two alternatives in mind, we can go back to the question about Quaker belief in God. Sometimes this is pictured on a single line – we’d put those who confidently say Yes at one end, and those who confidently say No at the other end, and everyone else would spread out in the middle depending on how much doubt they have. The problem is that belief in God isn’t a simple on/off question. What kind of God do you believe in or reject? I think in Quaker circles there’s often an unspoken assumption that the God we’re talking about is related to the traditional Christian God – and not necessarily the immanent, guiding God Within of the Quaker tradition but often the external, order-giving, loving but distant God of many children’s versions of Bible stories. So we already have some diversity. Add some Pagan Quakers who believe in multiple Gods and Goddesses, and some Buddhist Quakers who neither belief nor reject God but simply refuse to speculate, and a lot of other approaches as well, and we need to go beyond the single line to explain this situation.

We could, for example, follow Klein and turn the line into a grid or even a 3D cube. This would give us a chance to explore the contextual and behavioural aspects of belief. It might prompt us to ask questions like: Do you believe in God? Do you want to believe in God? Have you believed in God in the past? Do you pray? Do you pray in some circumstances? Do you meditate? Do you engage in other religious practices? Do you spend time with people who believe in God, or practice prayer, or attend meeting for worship, even if you don’t do those things yourself? Is your doubt, belief, or disbelief stronger at some times than others?

We could take the colour wheel approach. Around the outside we might put aspects of a religious life – practices, experiences, beliefs, and so on. This would give us scope to explore how those things relate – or don’t. One person might have strong spiritual experiences, but understand them as illusions and have no belief in a supernatural divinity. Another might have a strong belief in an external deity, expressed through lots of engagement in religious practice, but not have many internal spiritual experiences. Yet another may change their mind regularly, or go through times of faith and times of doubt, or find that a particular practice or life experience changes their perspective. To map all of that, we might need to combine these approaches.

However we go about thinking about it, it’s clear that Yes and No aren’t going to be nuanced enough for a question like “do Quakers believe in God?” or even in many cases for an individual Quaker answering, “do you believe in God?” We need both, and a wide range of multi-dimensional Maybes. That will be a challenge at times. I think it can also be beautiful.

Readers of this blog may also be interested in my new article in Friends Journal, Not Quite Ministry, which explores the practice of ‘afterwords’ and how it might relate to spoken ministry in unprogrammed Quaker meetings.

2 responses to “Glorious Complexity: Theological Diversity Beyond a Spectrum

  1. Am I Christian? Well, I have certain Christian attributes which may or may not be sufficient, like, an understanding of morality based in Christianity, respect for and knowledge of the Bible, and valuing the person of Jesus.

    I don’t believe in a benevolent policeman God, God the Father Almighty, God the old man on the cloud, a Deist Creator/primum mobile, or a panentheist God In Everything, though each understanding of the world helps me see different truths in it. I believe in God Within. That is a manifestation of neurons and dendrites, as I am materialist, but it is not an illusion: it is a real experience of something other than an external God.

  2. I agree whatever name you may use, it is Within. Meditation is an attempt to free the brain in hope to realize true value of all life.

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