Tag Archives: nontheism

Talk: God or whatever you call it

This talk was given at the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, 24-26th March 2017. 

This is a talk with two halves. In the first half I want to talk about talking about God, and in the second half I want to talk about God. In the first half I’m going to ask: can we say anything about God, and if we can, what are we doing when we say things about God? In the second half I’m going to ask: what kinds of things do Quakers typically say about God, and what should we, as a community, do about talking about God.

Before I start, I want to say two things about the way I’m going to talk. Firstly, I’m going to use the word God a lot. I’m going to use the word God because it’s in the title of my talk, but also because it’s a handy, short word. I’m also going to use the word God even more because I’m not going to give God any pronouns – no he, no she – and that means I’ll have to repeat ‘God’ a lot! The grammatically eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that my title refers to God as ‘it’, and I run with Quaker convention on that. Following English convention, I also use God as a noun, but that doesn’t automatically mean that I think God is a thing or even a person.

At this point, a lot of Quakers would also invite you to swap the word God for something you like better – you can do that if you like, but I’m going to come back and discuss this habit of ‘translating’ the word God in the second half of my talk.

Secondly, I’m going to try and say what I want to say very plainly and boldly. That means that if there’s a qualification or a hedging, that’s a genuine thing and not just politeness. It also means, hopefully, that if something is controversial or you disagree with me, you’ll know that quickly and easily. I hope you’ll make a note of whatever it is and let me know in the discussion after the talk what you disagree about and why. These are my honest views as I hold them at the moment, but I’ve held other views in the past, I’ll probably hold other views in the future, and I won’t be offended if you don’t share my opinions.

Okay, so onto the first main part of the talk: can we say anything about God? Well, some of you might be thinking that we can’t say anything – or can’t say anything true, or can’t say anything meaningful – about God, because God doesn’t exist. God may or may not exist – I’ll come back to that in the second part of this paper – but I don’t think that stops us talking about God. We can say things – even true and meaningful things – about fictional people, and since we have a word for God we can grant God at least that minimal level of existence. So if I can say something true about Sherlock Holmes – “Sherlock Holmes is very good at solving crimes” – and something false about Sherlock Holmes – “Sherlock Holmes usually wears a bobble-hat” – I should be able to do at least the same when I’m talking about God.

One thing to note here is that people only know that what I’m saying about Sherlock Holmes is true because they have already heard about Sherlock Holmes from other sources. In the culture I live in, Sherlock Holmes has a very high level of what we might call ‘brand recognition’ – which is why I’m confident enough that you’ll all have heard of him, to use him for my example. In another culture, separated from this one by language, distance, or time, those remarks might be nothing but meaningless babble. Again, we’ll come back to this idea of the context and the community being very important later in this talk.

Among people who’ve thought that God had enough reality to be worth talking about, two approaches to talking about God have been popular: a negative view and a positive view. (If you’ve read a theology textbook, you might have come across these under the names apophatic and kataphatic, but let’s not get caught up with technical terms here.) The negative view says that the only things we can say about God and have them be true are negative things: God isn’t this, isn’t that, isn’t the other. The positive view, on the other hand, thinks we might be able to say some things which God is.

The negative view stresses how different God is from us and everything else. God isn’t human. God isn’t a tree. God isn’t even like us. God’s love isn’t like human love. Even God’s existence isn’t like other kinds of existence. Ordinary people-words, which are fine for talking about ordinary people-things, are just so far removed from whatever God might be that they’re never going to cut it. It might not even be possible to put anything about God into words at all. One way to take the negative view to extremes is just not to speak. I like this view: for obvious reasons, the idea of being silent about God has appeals to me as a Quaker!

The other, positive view might go the whole way and say that words we use about people and things can be used about God in exactly the same way: if we say, ‘God loves us’, God’s love is to be understood as just like our love for other people. A gentler version of the positive view might say that the words we use for ordinary things can be applied to God by analogy: if we say, ‘God loves us’, God’s love is to be thought of as a bit like human love – enough that we can start to imagine it – but not exactly like human love, so that we will never be able to really understand it. I like this view too: being able to say some things about God appeals to me as a theologian – and as a Quaker who thinks that there is something worth talking about in this whole religion thing.

So, what are we doing when we say things about God? We’re aware that whatever we say is probably a bit short of what’s really going on – but that’s the case for lots of ordinary situations, like when someone asks you what colour such and such a beautiful stained glass window is, and you can only say ‘it’s blue’. Not being able to say everything doesn’t stop us saying anything. We’re aware of the value of sometimes saying nothing – but we also know that we sometimes need to say things. Sitting in silence together is great, but leaving all the pages of a book blank wouldn’t have the same effect!

We also know that anything we say will be heard differently by different people and in different situations. Consider for a moment the word ‘mouse’. If I say that there’s a mouse in my kitchen, you’ll probably think of a small brown furry thing. If I say that the wire on my mouse is damaged, you’ll probably think of a computer accessory. The way you interpret the word ‘mouse’ is changed by the context in which you hear it. The same happens with lots of other words, including religious ones. When I hear the word God in a sentence like ‘God the Father gave His only son’, I think of quite a different God to the God in a sentence like ‘Thor, God of Thunder, we invoke you’. It’s a more complex case, though: there are only a few things we refer to using the word ‘mouse’, but people use the word ‘God’ in all sorts of ways.

Some people respond to this by demanding that those using the word ‘God’ give a definition – my God is this and not that, and so on. There are two troubles with such definitions. The minor, practical one is that people often don’t know all that off hand, and their ‘definitions’ rule out things they do actually think about God and rule in things they don’t think. The bigger one is that this isn’t how language works. We don’t usually learn a new word by memorising a dictionary definition and then practising using it. Instead, we hear someone using it, usually several people using it, and pick up from the situation how to use it ourselves. Dictionary writers then listen to this and write down how we use it, often with some examples, as a reminder and a shortcut to this process.

Because the same thing happens with religious words, where and how we learn a word can deeply influence how we feel about it. I grew up in a Quaker family, so I learned to use the word ‘Light’ for God, even though people at school wouldn’t have understood. I learned the word ‘baptism’ for something we didn’t do, and was very uncomfortable with it when I encountered it at the church parade my Brownie pack went to. Today, I know some people for whom it has very positive connotations, and I can use my imagination to enter that world a bit and understand why – but it’s still not a word I’d use in relation to my own spiritual life. I see some people having similar reactions to words I’m fine with – I’ve seen people who are now Quakers break down in tears over terms like ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ because those words brought with them intensely negative emotions.

Where does all that leave us? We can say things about God, even if God is a story, and we might want to use positive or negative statements. We can remain silent about God – but there are advantages to speaking sometimes. We learn words about God from the community around us, and every word carries an emotional weight. When we move from one religious community to another – as the majority of people who are now Quakers in Britain have done – we bring those words, and the feelings which go with them, along with us.

Okay – deep breath – second part. What do Quakers typically say about God? If we learned to speak about God only by listening to Quakers, what kind of things would we learn to say?

I’ve got two sources for what I’m about to say. For a picture of the core things twentieth-century Quakers has been able to agree about, I’m going to use the 1994 version of Advices & Queries as my example. It’s a good example for three reasons: it was approved by Britain Yearly Meeting, it contains more talk about God per paragraph than many other Quaker publications, and it’s still widely used and familiar. For a picture of how things have developed since 1994 and what individual Quakers say, I’m going to pick out a few examples from a pattern I identified in the course of my PhD research. I’ll come on to that after I’ve discussed Advices & Queries.

Here are some things Advices & Queries says God has or gives us: leadings, a spirit, healing power, love, guidance, ways, promptings, a presence, a word, forgiveness, gifts, light, purposes, will, children, help. And here are some things Advices & Queries says God does: shows, cherishes, works, guides.

By way of contrast, here are some things philosophy textbooks typically say the God of monotheism is: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving. Doesn’t that sound different? There’s some overlap of content – both include the words ‘love’ and ‘power’, although a mention of ‘healing power’ and ‘that life and power which takes away the occasion of all wars’ are pretty different to the claim that God is all-powerful. Wouldn’t an all-powerful God stop wars, rather than take away their occasion when people live in God’s way? Beyond that, though, I think the main difference is positioning. The God of Advices & Queries is nearby, even alongside us, to be felt and experienced: it asks us to be open to the healing power of God’s love, to ask for guidance and respond to promptings, in short to be in relationship with God. There’s an emphasis on doing: it doesn’t quite treat God as a verb, but some parts would be amenable to viewing God as a process, for example. The philosophy textbook, by contrast, positions God firmly outside us, even outside the universe. If you read Advices & Queries assuming that Quakers believe in the God of the philosophy textbook, there’s nothing there which directly says it isn’t so – but there’s also nothing which says it is so.

Now I want to talk about lists. Who doesn’t like a good list? Shopping list, to-do list… and, it turns out, a creative Quaker response to some of the problems involved in naming God. When Quakers start talking about God – whether they’re talking to a non-Quaker, or they’re in a Quaker discussion group, or they’re writing a book about something Quakery – a lot of them say something like this: in meeting for worship, we try and listen to God, or the Spirit, or the Light, or Love, or whatever you call it. If they don’t give a list, they often say something like “please translate the word ‘God’ into another word” – which wouldn’t be possible if there wasn’t, at least hypothetically, a list of possible reasonable alternatives. Not only can you hear Quakers doing this regularly once you start noticing it, but it’s commonly done in print as well – look at Peter Parr’s Kindlers book or Ben Pink Dandelion’s Celebrating the Quaker Way for some really clear examples. This pattern isn’t completely new, but I reckon it’s become much more common in the last twenty to thirty years and has been put to new uses.

So what are the uses of the list of terms for God?

Lists can help clarify what we mean by the first term we use. Almost all Quaker lists of terms for God make it clear that there is one thing, one Divine, one God, which we can name and describe in a multitude of ways. They do this by putting one word first and then ‘translating’ it or offering synonyms, like this: “We have many names for the Divine – Spirit, God, Heavenly Father, Universe, Papa, Mother, Light…” (quote from the editors’ introduction to Spirit Rising)

In a world where a word like ‘God’ can be understood in lots of different ways – and there’s a good chance that the person you’re talking too doesn’t think of Quaker uses first, but perhaps a philosophy textbook use or a church use or someone swearing “Oh God, not again!” at them – it’s really helpful to be able to expand on our understanding of a word. Using a word like God or Divine at the header of the list puts us in the right area – opens the gate to the religious semantic field, so to speak – but once we’re there, it’s important to show how our understanding of God differs from other understandings. A clear example of this is lists which include terms like ‘Ground of Being’, an image which gets us a long way away from any man-on-a-cloud pictures people might be harbouring.

Lists of lots of words can overwhelm our need to talk and move us back towards silence. There’s a sense in which the more you say, the less you are saying.    …

Lists can signal our inclusivity. There are a very small number of people who are both Quaker and Muslim, and also a small number of Quakers who grew up as Arabic-speaking Christians – I don’t know exactly how many, but don’t think either of these groups is visible enough among Quakers in Britain to explain how often the list of words for God includes ‘Allah’. My alternative hypothesis is that the list is very handy for signalling a desire to be inclusive of all faith perspectives. Advices & Queries 6 asks us to “enter imaginatively into the life and witness of other communities of faith” and I think this is visible in the choice some Quaker writers have made to add ‘Allah’ to the list of terms for God. Seeing a lot of discussion of Islam in the media, especially Islamophobic views, and wanting to counter that, they add a term which will be understood as of Islamic origin to their lists of acceptable terms for God, thereby making it clear that they think that at least some Islamic theology is acceptable and can be compatible with Quaker views. Something similar applies to the desire to include a range of other groups through the use of their terms in the list: add Christ to include Christocentrics, add Goddess to include the Pagans, add Buddha and Universal Energy and Light and… and eventually you might make everyone happy.

Or not. Lists can disguise our disagreements. Some people hold views about, for example, a completely this-worldly and non-supernatural Earth Goddess which are genuinely at odds with some other people’s views about a miracle-working outside-space-and-time Christ, and all those real differences are hidden by shoving everything together in a list.

It’s worth dwelling for a moment on the issues of disagreeing with people, offending people, and stepping on emotional landmines. When I was offering workshops to meetings around the country on this topic, quite often someone would say to me something like: “I’m so glad you’re coming, Rhiannon – I’m a nontheist in a really Christocentric meeting and it’s ever so hard to talk about God language openly!” Just as often, someone would say to me something like: “I’m so glad you’re coming, Rhiannon – I’m a Christian in a mostly nontheist meeting and it’s ever so hard to talk about the issues openly!” From time to time, I’d hear both of those things about the same meeting. When I actually ran the workshop, which includes asking people to share which words they do and don’t use for God, I got very similar answers everywhere I went: Quakers reject most obviously hierarchical language, many rejected obviously gendered language, they want the good bits of Jesus Christ and not the weird bits, and their individual choices are heavily shaped by childhood experience and the audience they think they’re speaking to.

I came to the conclusion that although meetings do vary, there aren’t really some Christian ones and some nontheist ones but a widespread fear of upsetting people. Advices & Queries 5 tells us not to be afraid to say what we have found on our spiritual journeys – and it needs to, because a lot of us are afraid to talk about these things. I only have guesses here, but my best guess is that there are two things that happen sometimes and reinforce this. One thing that happens sometimes is that one of us says something, which accidentally upsets someone, and we both go away determined never to discuss it again. It’s not always easy to distinguish one person in a meeting being upset by something from the whole meeting not wanting to hear that thing. For example, if I read from the Bible in ministry, someone who’s been hurt by a church with a big emphasis on the Bible and has consequently – sensibly! – rejected that perspective, might come up to me afterwards and say, “What were you doing, reading from that irrelevant old book?” If they say it strongly enough – and especially if I suspect they’ve sort of got a point, and I’m struggling with my own relationship with Biblical texts and loving some parts and hating others, and also if we don’t have time and space for a real conversation about why I did read from the Bible and why they felt strongly about it – I might take this as evidence that so-and-so was dreadfully offended and I shouldn’t read from the Bible in that meeting. But if my leading to read was a true one and I followed it faithfully, maybe others needed to hear it – maybe even the Friend who was upset by it. There’s no rule that says we have to like what God has to say to us!

The other thing that sometimes happens is that we just never discuss our understandings of God at all. In some meetings God only comes up in spoken ministry – and in some meetings not even there. Maybe it’s seen as too personal or private – Quakers often only discuss their spiritual experiences in carefully facilitated confidential workshops. Maybe it’s not socially appropriate over tea and biscuits – although we could change that social rule if we wanted to. Maybe there’s not time, and we don’t know one another well enough in our meetings to be prepared to share at this deep level. Or maybe we’re afraid of upsetting someone, as just discussed.

If we never discuss things, we are unlikely to know what the disagreements involved actually are. We read some Quaker literature, and perhaps hear dropped hints without open discussion, and make our best guesses about what people feel and believe – and we can gather all those guesses together in a handy list, “God or the Light or the Spirit or the Universe or the inner Buddha-nature or whatever you call it.”

So here’s the last thing which lists enable us to do. They let us hold together opposing desires in a single grammatical structure. The list embodies our desire to be inclusive – it literally includes a range of terms, and hints that many more possible ones are acceptable. It embodies our desire to say something about God but not to go too deeply into theology or get caught up in ‘notions’ – I found the lists most often in the introductions to Quaker publications, where people deal with the God thing before moving on to whatever they really wanted to say. It embodies our desire to be together and unified – we can all be in the one list, using different terms for the one whatever-it-is. Lists have their flaws, but they are also a powerful and dynamic tool for holding tensions together creatively. Inclusion and diversity and speaking and silence are all held together in the list like a struggling kitten wrapped in a blanket.

So where does all this leave us? I’ve got three main conclusions here, which for short I call: gotta try, gotta cry, gotta clarify.

1: Gotta try. We’ve got to try and communicate our experiences and understandings. While accepting the limitations of language and of human understanding, we’re going to have to say something – so we might as well say what we’ve got to say as well as we can. It’s tempting to back out. Theology is too difficult (but it’s not – we all do theology every time we come to meeting for worship, every time we are bereaved, every time we try and work out whether to buy Fairtrade or organic bananas). It’s all notions and theories and we should ignore it – but we can’t, because how we understand ourselves, our world, and our spirituality affects every decision we make, even if we decide not to talk about it. My experience is that our communities are stronger when we try to communicate – so we’ve got to try.

2. Gotta cry. Human communication isn’t easy. Ever had a bitter row with a dear friend or loved one about the washing up? Yeah, me too. The washing up is right there to see, but the question of whether it’s my turn to do it brings up all sorts of questions about what kind of person I am: am I a good housemate? Am I helpful? Am I tidy? Am I too stubborn or do I give in too easily? The same will be true of our religious questions, and we are going to upset other people and be upset ourselves sometimes if we engage deeply and genuinely. There will be times when we’re not up for that, for all sorts of reasons – but we can also be ready to support ourselves and others through the process by acknowledging that emotions are part of the discussion, not a problem to be avoided.

3. Gotta clarify. This is actually a suggestion about the process. Clarification can take many forms. You might add the ‘because’ – ‘When I heard the Bible read in ministry, I was upset because…’ You might tell the story behind something – ‘When I was at Sunday School, I was taught to use that word differently…’ You might make your motives explicit – ‘I’m going to use a list of terms for God now in order to…’ You might add some ordinary words to explain a technical term – ‘My understanding is that God is transcendent, so exists outside the physical universe…’ You might ask for clarification – ‘That’s interested, can you expand?’ Clarification is an ongoing process. We won’t reach complete clarity – but as we try, we can come to know one another better in the things which are eternal, and through that, come to a greater awareness of that of God in everyone. Whatever that is!

In discussion afterwards, a number of people were interested in my thesis, which can be downloaded from the White Rose eTheses collection. Others were interested in my work with meetings: these day workshops can now be booked through Woodbrooke on the Road, or more information about the project as a whole can be found on its own website, Or Whatever You Call It.

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.