by Graham Hellier
from Signs of the Times No. 56 - Jan 2015
Michael Wright gives us an attractive account of Quaker liberalism (Directions for Liberal Theology, Signs of the Times July 2014) but he separates things that are better kept together.
The first of these is belief and practice. Belief does not always mean orthodoxy; it need not be dogmatic in the modern pejorative sense, and it need not be imposed by any authority. Setting belief over against practice simply will not do. Examine any practice and you will find certain beliefs underlying it.
Consider the references that Michael makes to the Quaker approach in general and Quaker Faith and Practice in particular. The emphasis may well be towards orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy but the underlying beliefs are evident - in equality, in openness, in the value of the meeting as a place of discernment, in Jesus' life and teaching as a source of inspiration, in the revelatory nature of the world around us, in the spirit of God at work in ordinary life and in the value of a Way to be followed.
This same weakness marks Karen Armstrong's The Case for God. Michael gives us a quotation from the book:
Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.
Yet religion is more than practice - it wrestles with the meaning of life, even as it strives to live it out. Speculations are perfectly in order and can lead to insights derived from (abstracted from) our whole experience. These are then tested by practical discipline. Far from abstract speculation being idle fantasising, it can be a way of subjecting our experience to careful thought in the manner widely practised in science and philosophy.
Michael is ‘puzzled by the wide variety of explanations of divine being’ - thank God! It is not the variety that is the problem. Who would dare propose that one explanation was sufficient? Nor are they explanations at all but rather intimations. What they do not give us is a reason for sounding a retreat.
Do not hastily concede this territory, do not retreat immediately,
Pass over the slender bridges, pick your road quickly through the marshes,
Observe the frail planks left by your predecessors, the stones gained only by leaping;
Pass on to the higher ground, to the great hills and the mountains.*
We come to another separation - that of the natural and the supernatural. Michael re-interprets what he thought was a God experience in order to classify it as a natural phenomenon. Are these exclusive? Need we being tempted to follow Richard Dawkins and others in defining the 'natural' as the real and the 'supernatural' as the unreal - opposing the verifiable and reliable to the realm of demons and goblins?
If we must use the terms, it would be wise to listen to John Oman's words in his book The Natural and the Supernatural:
We cannot distinguish the natural as the mechanical and the supernatural as the free, for we do not know how much freedom there is in the natural or how much law in the supernatural; nor can it be divided as between the ordinary and the miraculous, for the natural is sometimes the more miraculous and the supernatural the common stuff of our daily experience. … Nor can we so easily separate the reality of the natural world from the reality of the supernatural as we imagine. The reality of the former is not proved merely by the violence of its assault upon our senses. The difference between us who take it to be the most solid reality and the Indian to whom it is' maya' (illusion) is no mere matter of the senses, for the witness of the senses is the same for him as for us. The difference concerns a different evaluation of the world.
Do we therefore know the natural? Is not the very nature of things the arena in which God reveals himself? It is the most fundamental of mistakes to recognise the divine only in the extraordinary and the miraculous, for the ordinary is extraordinary and miracles lie around us in abundance.
Gretta Vosper, as quoted by Michael, finds another way of separation that does not hold up to scrutiny:
Out of the multitude of understandings of religion, spirituality and faith... may be distilled a core that, very simply put, is love.
Well, yes and no. It is very appealing to crawl out from underneath all the din of words and to hold to love alone. But love can be elusive, misinterpreted, corrupted and even unattainable. Is it mere sentiment or a phantom of the imagination? What is its nature and why should we respond to its claim? Do we manage to practise it?
The Christian case is that love lies at the heart of all things. It calls us and claims us. Yet love is not an entity. It cannot exist in a vacuum. It is the very nature of God him/herself. It summoned us into being and invites us to fulfilment. It endures through suffering, renews us when we fail and is triumphant over death. Gretta says that it
needs no doctrine to validate it, no external expert or supernatural authority to tell us it is right.
Yes - we can see what she means, but its authority lies in the One who loves us and gives Him/Herself for us. This is where to abandon theism can be an abdication. Of course God is not as we are - fumbling, fragile, scarce lifted out of our primeval origins and decking ourselves with such pretension. Yet we have personality, intelligence, a measure of freedom and boundless aspiration. No greater intimations of the divine are available to us than those to be found within our own being. God is not a person as we are but he is not less than personal. God is not intelligent in the same way but he is not less than intelligent. He is not an impression, an idea or a vague presence. He is the mind that illuminates all minds and the love that defines all love.
Do not compare him with yourself, nor suppose your human love to be an example to shame him.
He is not greater than Plato or Lincoln, nor superior to Shakespeare and Beethoven
He is their God, their powers and gifts proceeded from him,
In infinite darkness they pored with their fingers over the first word of the Book of his Knowledge.*