Tuesday, 4 November 2014

"Theists" and "Non-Theists"- Can we get on together?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I tend to be quite old fashioned. Just as some English people dress up in Civil War army uniforms to re-enact battles, there seems to me no shame in trying to re-create a perspective from the past. We might even learn something new, become clearer in our identity and sense of belonging, even stronger. (These days things are not as accurate as they might be. Re-enactors operate in much smaller numbers than the original armies, fire blanks, enjoy certain modern comforts on the quiet, even book in to guest houses, bring along their own food, and, when in the company of civilian spectators, resist the temptation to pillage!)

Quakerisim has always seemed to me as being about a search for truth. To me this characteristic defines a process rather than to specify a product. Since our journey of discovery, should last a life-time, it tends to worry me when Friends give themselves labels such as theist or non-theist as if they are now fixed in their position, or have adopted some kind of a creed. On whatever side of that very big "Pond" we just happen to be, our shared journey and the willingness to work together as Friends should in my view be what defines us as being Quakers.

The process of being a Seeker after Truth reminds me of boat holidays I had as a child. Most years we would travel up the river Thames to its highest navigable point just beyond St John's Lock at Lechlade, then, in the absence of other options, turn round and go back. That final lock was always slightly worrying as the river was already narrow, our family not very good at steering, and the available gap between two banks, steadily getting smaller. In passing through that final lock however, I might well have noticed a statue of Old Father Thames. Not surprisingly, it still looks a bit out of place, having been originally commissioned in 1851 for display in Crystal Palace as part of the Great Exhibition. This fine sculpture may have been much admired by Victorians who seemed to do this kind of thing a lot. It was however nothing at all like how I imagined the river.

Just as it would be misleading to say that I do not believe in the River Thames, having never met that bearded, half-naked man with a spade, the term "God" is also subject to a wide range of interpretation. There was no doubt I had some understanding and experience of the River Thames, having been travelling along it all week. Michaelangelo's portrayal of God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling also conveys meaning to a particular type of audience. This depiction of God works for some people. In our search for the truth, it would seem we should be honest about our limitations, including the ability to imagine or reason.

As Quakers stumble over the "G Word" not wishing to alienate the non-theists among us, it would seem of relevance to note that this is a very Old Testament Problem. Since it was impossible to see God, Jews developed ingenious ways to avoid saying his name, emphasised the role of angels as intermediaries and made no attempt at description. Instead of speculating about the nature of God, the emphasis was on being alert to creation, so that you could appreciate, for example, the significance of a bush bursting into flames, maintaining a sense of wonder. The main requirement of God's Law was self-discipline, not substituting a more tangible form of worship in the form of idols. In the same way we might also become distracted by easier options or struggle to prioritise. In whichever way we experience these "Golden Calves", there is still a choice to be made.

It would seem to me, our relationship to God can still be compared to living by a river. We may not be able to create sculptures on what this water is all about, or wish to paddle upstream in search of its source. At times water provides a lesson in humility since the river allows so many different types of boat to travel.

We may identify with having water as a life force flowing through our bodies. In recognising our dependency, we might also choose to have a contract, choosing to respect the seasons, act responsibly and not pollute the waters. Without referring to any scripture, carrying stone tablets about in an Ark, or being dogmatic about belief, there is a relationship and interaction. Our lives too may be built around an instinctive moral law that defines our relationship with the river.