I am endebted to Dr Derrick Whitehouse, possibly the most youthful octogenarian in the county, for my growing understanding of my new identity. I am Protean. I like the word and the concept.
Do Quakers believe in God? Some of us think this is extremely important. We are, they say, the Religious Society of Friends, if we are not Christian we have lost our way. We go to Meeting for Worship, and we purport to make decisions in a state of Worship, seeking God’s will, and if there is no God then that has no meaning.
I took that line in an exchange of emails with David Boulton earlier this century. He is the most uncompromising “Non-theist”, a leading light in the “Sea of Faith” movement, and had just been persuaded to become a member of the Society. He had been an attender for a long time- he thought full membership not appropriate for someone who is quite sure there is no God, but his Monthly Meeting overrode his objections. He is good with words, he coined the phrase “Republic of Heaven”: Heaven still has a meaning, though it has no King.
Quakers generally see the Kingdom of Heaven as an Earthly reality, not just a state after death, and there is a great deal of Biblical support for that view. We are part of the Kingdom if we do God’s will. We have little dogma: “Christianity is not a notion, but a Way”. We do not believe in the Damnation of outsiders- “We know where God is. We know not where God is not,” as I just read here; in fact we reject any walls keeping out the Outsiders, believing all are human with valuable human perspectives.
I found myself getting more and more atheist through 2009, and resisted this. H who is Christocentric objected, and that mattered to me. In February 2010 I admitted to myself that I was functionally atheist, went into an Anglican church, and was brought to my knees by the holiness of the place. Theist and non-theist have reached a dialectical synthesis in the Society in the UK, in what Derrick calls Protean, summed up in the paradox:
There is no God. God exists.
Like a non-theist, I believe there are real experiences which it is useful to call Spiritual, and that the word “God” names a useful concept, part of human reality, even if there is no external Being Who is God. I can have a relationship with a non-existent God, working through that does me good. And- my experiences fit with the reality of God.
I call myself Christian because I seek to follow the Way of Jesus- “Take up your cross and follow me”- known through the words of Jesus and my own experience. Constantine decided that Christianity would be a useful ruling ideology for his empire, and that is not my fault. I do not care if Catholics might call me a very immature and ignorant Christian, if one at all.
I read that “All Quakers are agnostic” and that is not quite it. Agnostic is not-knowing, and my experiences feel like Knowing, though the words do not encapsulate them: I try to make the words as accurate as I can, and then use them as a jumping-off point for greater understanding from immediate experience- perceiving rather than judging. The agnostic is neither atheist or theist, not knowing. The protean is both, whichever fits at the time.
Derrick thinks a majority of Quakers in Britain are this way. On the checklist he has drafted, “I enjoy having these personal protean characteristics” chimes with me. I want to be as flexible as possible in my understanding, to get as much value as I can from seemingly incompatible views- for remorseless, this therefore that deductive reasoning has always made a monster out of religion. There is one, consistent truth- and it is so complex as to be only knowable in the Mind of God.