Atheist Quakers

The ladder of divine ascent, detailBenjamin Wood, with copious Biblical quotation, argues Theists should accept atheists into the Religious Society of Friends.

From an atheist perspective, I might argue that Quakers being religious at all is a historical accident. The Quaker practice and process works. It is a matter of individual experience: “This I knew experimentally”, (sometimes modernised to “experientially”); “What canst thou say?” It was found by religious people, who used religious language to explain it; and religious beliefs sustain it, because it requires reverence to work- but that reverence can be for The All, or for humanity and human flourishing, rather than “God”. Other language can explain it, though uncertainty has value as we grow in understanding by leaving behind old words- in fact this is the Christian idea of kerygma, teaching, leading to dogma, understanding, showing that religious language can describe generalisable human ideas. Faith and reverence, or trust and respect: the former words feel stronger to me, still being religious, but the latter may serve.

From a strongly theist perspective, I distrusted non-theists until a Friend said “It is not a question of why people like that would want to join Quakers, but why they would stay”. Yes. I wanted her to stay. I got irritated when they pretended to Spiritual Maturity- when you are as wise as I am, you will be non-theist too- but rubbed along.

Wood considers Pentecost. The author of Luke-Acts- “Luke” is as good a name as any- writes of the increasing community of faith, with Jews but also the Magi and the faithful centurion, and at Pentecost “Parthians, Medes and Elamites” hear God in their own language. Quakers extended this: George Fox said “Christ has enlightened every man…he hath enlightened the Turks, Jews and Moors”. Therefore for Wood, the Holy Spirit of God speaks through non-theist Friends. This idea is in the Old Testament too. God’s teaching cannot be obstructed by the absence of the Bible. We theists have to be receptive to it, and our Reverence helps our receptivity. We seek to be “Open to new light” from wherever it may come.

Wood says non-theism can save us from idolatry and fundamentalism. The uncritical worship of ideas or created things rather than reality leads to the sacrifice of Iphegenia and of gay people who are subjected to worthless traditional rules. So the non-theist leads us to God, the Ground of Being Who cannot be contained in our words. Our Christianity is not a doctrine but a way of life. At absolute worst, the non-theist is wrong in an interesting way, helping us see more clearly because s/he challenges us.

We grow together in conversation, in encountering other human beings as themselves not in the labels “theist”/”non-theist”. When I see a person not a label I can see the Spirit and Light in her. And my words and concepts must inform my way of life, authentically, or they are worthless.

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