by Michael Wright
from Signs of the Times No. 54 - Jul 2014

Jonathan Clatworthy in Two directions for liberal theology (Signs of the Times No. 53 - April 2014) sees an important role in the future for permissive liberalism as an alternative vision of progress. He finds it difficult to see where else such a vision might come from except some coherent philosophy about the divine.

'As I see it, the key theological difference' (between apologetic and permissive liberalism) 'is about the existence of God. Apologetic liberalism defends religious belief against atheism as well as fundamentalism. Permissive liberalism permits disbelief, without necessarily drawing the line at God.'

He describes ‘permissive liberalism’ as defined by what it doesn’t believe. It often does, but need not do.

My own journey has been from orthodoxy within the Anglican tradition, via apologetic liberalism, to commitment to a religious Way within the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). This Quaker tradition in Britain has never been much focused on theological speculation about abstruse theological concepts of the incarnation or atonement, or defining the divine: it does require commitment to a religious community with a long established way of doing things in what is called 'right ordering' – an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy.

Quakers, like many other people of many different faith traditions, tend to get on with living the life, and leaving theological speculation to others. As G M Trevelyan in his English Social History wrote: for Quakers:

'Christian qualities matter much more than Christian dogmas. No Church or sect had ever made that its living rule before.'

The Quaker way is a very positive approach to a spiritual life, for an individual in community, with values articulated and inspired by Jesus of Nazareth, and others. This tradition places great importance on being true to personal experience, tested corporately in community with fellow members who are equals, and being able to be independent-minded rather than being obliged to reflect authoritative statements by others.

Quaker discernment

Quaker discernment is a process best shared with others. It expects understanding to be a progressive experience, rather than a static one. Our book of Quaker Faith and Practice is regularly revised by consultation throughout the membership, and contains within it Advices and Queries which are also revised to meet the changing awareness of our tradition in each generation. While the Quaker Way “is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teaching of Jesus” we are challenged by the questions “How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today?

“Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?” Advices and Queries 4 & 7

When we have a business meeting, it is held in the context of worship, with shared silent reflection beforehand, sometimes during the meeting, and at its end. With other Quakers I share in such meetings, and have experienced times when during consideration of a matter, various views have been put forward, and gradually a new discernment begins to develop, which can surprise many who began the meeting expecting a different outcome. Friends describe this process variously as being “open to the Light”, or “being guided by the Spirit” as the intention is to listen in order to understand God’s way.

A natural or supernatural explanation

There are two positive, and different views of this process. One attributes it to a divine influence, the other to a natural human process. Those who take either view, value the process deeply. We are each positive in our explanation of our experience. I attribute the experience to a natural phenomenon rather than a supernatural one, and the concept of “worship” as “worth-ship” – giving worth or value to the process.

I am puzzled by the wide variety of explanations of divine being, and so, with relief, I no longer try to. Years ago my life was changed by what I then thought was a God experience: now I regard that experience, profound as it was, as a natural phenomenon.

As Karen Armstrong writes in The Case for God, ‘Religion is a practical discipline, and its insights are not derived from abstract speculation but from spiritual exercises and a dedicated lifestyle.’

Gretta Vosper writes in With or Without God: “Out of the multitude of understandings of religion, spirituality, and faith, out of the varying views of the origins, nature and purpose of life, out of the countless individual experiences of what might be called divine, out of it all may be distilled a core that, very simply put, is love. This core message carries its own authority. It needs no doctrine to validate it, no external expert or supernatural authority to tell us it is right.

“Love is quite demanding enough as a foundation, sufficiently complex and challenging without the requirement of additional beliefs, unbelievable to many. The church the future needs is one of people gathering to share and recommit themselves to loving relationships with themselves, their families, the wider community, and the planet.”

Revelation or explanation

The history of ideas of gods and God shows a changing and developing kaleidoscope of ideas. Those who trust that these are revelations from the beyond, have great confidence in a divine Creator, Guide and Sustainer. Those who see the process as one in which human beings have sought to describe or explain their experiences of the ineffable, the mysterious, and the numinous, and to find patterns in events that seem to reveal a divine hand at work, can happily accept all the wonder, joy, love and challenge of the spiritual life in community, as a very positive experience with a natural explanation.

These are two equal choices, not a grander versus a lesser explanation. It is not a case of a complete picture for the theists, and something missing for the rest of us.

Michael Wright is a former Anglican priest who laid aside his ministry after 38 years, and joined the Religious Society of Friends in 2000. He is Clerk of the Nontheist Friends Network.