This has been a journey

By John Cowan


The journey began with my increasing discomfort at the presence of non-theists in my monthly meeting, Twin City Friends, located in St.Paul, Minnesota. These non-theists were not only Quakers, but some of our most beloved members, constant attenders, holding responsible positions. I have only been attending a decade, a member for half that time, and as I during my first two years peppered the meeting’s website with penetrating questions and cries of distress at the odd and annoying behavior of my fellow participants. I was met consistently with wisdom, patience and sometimes humor by the person who had been assigned the daunting task of novice master. I discovered in time that this was not a pastoral position but my guru was the webmaster responding not as an expected function of the job but because he was there. And although a bona fide Quaker, he was the leader of an interest group called: Quakers without God. Thus I was introduced to Quaker non-theists.

My reason for concern was that this group of people were not being incorporated into the meeting because their belief system fit the nature of Quakerism, but because they were likeable, active, and good people, and because they wanted to belong. I never did anything about this, learning by casual inquiry of other theistic Friends that I was a minority of perhaps one in any willingness to discuss who belongs and who does not. It did not take long for the good sense of avoiding that discussion to come clear to me also.

My sticking point was neither an absence of friendship or a disrespect for the desires of others but: How do people who are worshiping a personal God, people who believe in the supernatural, worship with people who do not believe in a personal God. How can non-theists even worship? Ignoring this question as unimportant seems to me disrespectful, first of all to the non-theists who I assume are taking a principled stand, and deserved to be heard for that stand, and second of all to theists who after all came to this meeting to join a group of God worshippers, or at least I did. The quote inside our front door from Philadelphia Faith and Practice says we are seeking awareness of the presence of God. But we have some members who seem to think that not possible.

Despite the reluctance to in any way alienate anyone, there was support for simply bringing the issue of our belief to the surface, talking about it some, both among theists and non-theists. We have begun that.

During a round of email exchanges among some of the important people in my life, one person reported that he was a theist because he experienced being guided through life whenever he was willing to listen for guidance. And I thought, “That’s me too!”

The voice inside has directed me since childhood, often by a quiet baseless conviction arising from nowhere, often through the voices of others, sometimes in dreams, a couple of times by what seems a real voice in my ear, and three times by a fleeting vision. When following that guidance I am often pleasantly startled by the synchronicity of support and opportunity arising from odd places, as if my canoe has been directed from the eddies into the current.

Beyond that I have since the 1950’s been convinced of the general accuracy of Teilhard d’ Chardin’s , (the Jesuit paleontologist) vision of the cosmos under God’s direction hurrying (over eons) towards consciousness. Since then, despite the horrors we humans have created, I have seen evidence that we move persistently toward the good. I attribute that consistent movement to guidance, and assume a source for that guidance, which most of the time I call God.

In summary, I have been guided personally, and I have seen in history the guidance of the human race.

One of our non-theists, explaining non-theism to a visitor, said that non-theists were people who unlike theists did not believe in an angry God, judging people, and sending them to hell. Since she is a justly revered and ancient person among us and these after all were visitors not looking to participate in a local quarrel, I waited until later to send her an email pointing out that I was a theist and knew hundreds of theists and while I am sure some theists fit her definition of a theist, it did not fit me nor did it fit anyone I knew personally. But that got me thinking.

First, that if you define yourself as “not this group” you are tied to the other group’s definition of what they are for your definition of who you are. The definition of theism I learned seventy years ago has moved considerably and diversified. The “angry God” which is a fair enough description of the God of 1940’s Catholicism and the “Ground of Being” or the accidental God of process philosophy, or the God of Liberation Theology, or the God of Creation Theology are dissimilar to say the least. Yet, they are all persons, and therefore all theistic Gods. When I hear the word non-theist, I assume the speaker is opposed to my latest version of God. That may not be so. And she may think that the God she is denying is the God I am affirming. In this case at least, not so.

The second thought was what are the odds that a person such as I who has spent decades accepting huge hunks of Buddhism, the Vedas, Navajo spirituality, and a small shot of Wicca still is a theist? I realized that I may have stretched the definition of theism beyond that already extended by theologians simply to keep myself in the boundaries. If I am fair to the expressed if ill defined stretching, should I not be outside it? Am I a non-theist? Is Brahman, one of my model Gods, a theist’s God?

During this process I was in regular correspondence with Howard Vogel on this topic. He is a respected friend from the meeting and our dialogue is intense enough that he almost deserves co-authorship of this essay. (If I could write calmly from an objective viewpoint he would have that title.) He pushed upon me two books.

One was Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism. It was helpful in that it made me aware there might not be a coherent position to be found among non-theists. (Please remember that I have already admitted to the absence of a coherent position among theists.) Also I was alerted by this book to the fact that non-theists have been Quakers from the beginning. And at least in surveys taken in Britain, Friends tend towards non-theist positions much more than followers of other religions. So despite the signs on the wall at my Meeting, these Friends are not newcomers.

The other book, Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Kerry Walters I also found helpful. Non-theism and atheism are not the same, but at least here I find a systematic presentation of the difference between theism and a long term defined movement that has been defended by eminent philosophers over the ages and by an author determined to treat all arguments with respect never displaying which position he might hold. (I had him figured as a well-mannered atheist, until I googled him and found him an Episcopal priest. Now that I think of it maybe he was both an Episcopal Priest and a well mannered atheist, as was the famous Alan Watts.)

I realized that I felt neither supported nor attacked in my belief by anything that was said in hundreds of pages. The God the author both attacked and supported in descriptions, explanations and arguments was a complex of attributes and the God I now realized I pledged fealty to was simply the source of my experience of guidance both in my life and in the whirling of the planet. Behind the experience must be something providing direction and since the act of guiding presumes intelligence the guide deserves the distinction of being called a “person” although in all probability the guide is not a bit like any person I have ever met. I will never know the guide as person. I only experience the effect, guidance.

The God we have been disagreeing about may not be my God at all.

At this point in our dialogue, Howard dropped me an email challenging the usefulness of clinging to the idea of the supernatural. I had just finished reading a short web essay entitled “Awakening Sight” by David Ulrich. As a young man he lost his right eye. He thought that would be the end of his career as a photographer. You lose an eye, you should see less. Is that not correct?

Nevertheless, he struggled to see as well with one eye as he had seen with two. He found that with attention he now saw more. He could “see” where in his body colors affected him. He could feel colors. He could “see” what other people were feeling. He could “see” that something was on his right side in a place that his left eye could not see. He could see things that the rest of us could see also if we were but to pay attention. Well, pay very close attention.

I experimented with blinding one eye by dropping the category called the “supernatural.” As I look at reality without the supernatural, creation is a whole and guidance is a fact of creation built into the system. The guide may have a separate existence outside of creation, that I do not know, but the guide exists in creation in its effect, guidance, and that I can access simply through paying attention, very deep attention to baseless convictions, the voices of others, dreams, voices in my ear, visions. In other words, Quaker Worship, in the Meeting and out.

I now present the theism, non-theist conversation differently. The first issue is can you hear the guidance. I say it is a matter of attention. I say, along with centuries of others, that I can hear it. Can you? Second, do you think there is a guide, and if so, how do you name the guide. This is a theoretical question. I would do nothing differently, if I answered it differently. I think there is a guide. It seems reasonable.

If you cannot hear the guidance, I cannot bend to your reality for I have heard it. But I cannot ask you who have not heard guidance to trust me that the voice is there. If you hear the guidance but attribute it to another source than a guide, I cannot argue. A personal guide seems reasonable to me. But maybe you are correct. I have no idea how I or you can run an experiment on this. (Note here that I am not talking about belief. Since I belong to an experimental religion I am not embarrassed to not rely on belief.)

So am I a theist or a non-theist? Although my reasonable supposition of a personal guide probably makes me a theist the designation makes little pragmatic difference. And am I concerned any longer about non-theists in the Monthly Meeting? About the same as I am about some theists. All I now need when we gather for Worship is that I am surrounded by people willing to exercise the Quaker discipline of silence and surrender as they wait for guidance.

I am indebted to the challenge of non-theism for moving me from a comfortable home base to a clearer and more secure position. My thinking at this point of the journey is:

1. As far as worshiping together theist and non-theist Quakers have a common ground. We can seek guidance by sitting together in silence and surrender. We may differ on the existence of a guide, or the shape and characteristics of the guide, but that is less of a difference to bridge than the existence and characteristics of a supernatural abstraction, the result of eons of theological tinkering. To worship together does not require resolving this difference. This difference may yet prove to be advantageous in the following of the truth. My conversation with myself on this topic instigated by the presence of non-theists is one example of the advantage.

2. I have not had to surrender my Quaker history. The ideas expressed are consonant with the language of 17th century Quakers. “The Christ within,” “give up your own willing,” “the inward light,” “the seed.” To refer to “guidance” actually seems to me closer to the rigorous scrubbing of the “inward light” of the 17th century than the gentle presence of “the inner light” of the 21st. I have given “guide” and “guidance” preeminence in my lexicon, but continue to comfortably use the older terms. They are a link to the vision of 1652 that promised the enlightenment of the world, and I am still hoping.

3. I have removed the supernatural from my lexicon. As Occam’s razor rules: “distinctions are not to be multiplied unnecessarily.” There is one reality.

4. I now have an elegant theory that describes not what I believe, but what I know from experience.

I have four concerns:

1. Is this at all helpful to non-theists? Or do my words come off as blathering, arrogant blathering at that? Do non-theists see this approach as a bridge worth crossing? Or have they already crossed it and nobody told me?

2. It would seem to me that even if we are comfortable seeking guidance together there is a surrender that is central to theists’ seeking that may be incompatible with the philosophy of non-theists. Is that problematic?

3. How far am I moving away from my theist friends? Will they accept this as useful? Or treason?

4. Am I by this stance distancing myself from evangelicals beyond hope of a continuing connection? After wondering for years that we unprogrammed Quakers struggled to maintain this connection, I came to realize that the evangelicals have something that we do not. I cannot define it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they sing. Or more broadly put, that they accept and participate enthusiastically in the myths we have denied. Maybe we should have done that less successfully. Perhaps the cloud of unknowing requires mythology as the closest approximation to understanding for our health and sanity.

So it is a journey. I am still on it. My thinking is as unfinished as the conclusion of this article. Not a period, but a comma.