Can we find a Quaker understanding of God in Advices and Queries?
Advices and Queries are guidance for life, rather than a creed. They are practical guidance on how to relate to God and each other. And in their repeated references to God we find an understanding of how God is thought to act on us, and who God is.
As well as 43 references to God throughout, there are references to “the divine” (3), the “spirit of Christ” (2), the Holy Spirit (3), the Light (5) and the spirit of God (7). I am not clear that these phrases mean anything different, here, from the word “God”, but Advices and Queries are closer to poetry than to statute, and different phrases may evoke different understandings as we grow in our relationship with God.
God is in us (2), and in everyone (17). Does God have an existence beyond humanity? Several references seem to indicate that: the phrase “the splendour of God’s continuing creation” could be a claim that God is in all that is, or in some way eternal and beyond it (42). When we worship, it appears that we have one communal experience of God: we can be aware of “God’s presence among us” (12). We can be aware of God at any time (7), but when we come together in worship we find “God’s love drawing us together” (8). And a visitor to our homes, who might not have direct experience of God in them, might “find the peace and refreshment of God’s presence” there (26).
God is vulnerable, and needs to be cherished (2). We can be distracted and disturbed (12), or turn to God; we can open ourselves to God, but God is at work in us even when we are not aware of God (7). Our proper attitude is reverence for God (9) and for life (42). Jesus’ relationship with God (4) is our example, to challenge and inspire us.
God is intimately involved with us: there are references to God’s love, guidance, presence, gifts, word (in vocal ministry, 12), forgiveness, help, purposes, and God’s will (36) for individuals or divine guidance (14) for the community.
God is in everyone, and may be working in them though we cannot see it (17). I cannot judge what God wants for any other person, 19 says: I might think that I know more than a child, but must learn from them, “leaving them free”- God leads them as God wills. We have a responsibility to nurture children, not to constrain them. Our “wishes and prejudices” (36) should not get in the way, and we can still help them discern God’s will for them.
We have responsibilities to God, including our standard of integrity (38), which should be “strict” (37).
Some of this fits my experience of God, and some challenges my ideas. I am a materialist. I do not believe in a divine creator: I can see “that of God in each person” has a useful meaning, and relates to human psychology in a useful way, but find “God’s continuing creation” more difficult. This cuts to the heart of disputes around nontheism in the Society: will we be religious, if atheists can expunge all references to God that they do not like?
When I contemplate all that is, I know that I do not understand it all, and that wonder, awe and reverence are valuable attitudes to it. So seeing God in everything may have value as a metaphor, reminding me of that. And calling the part of me which seems to best fit this conception of Light or Spirit “God” helps me balance my value with the value of other Quakers, other people, and wider reality. Spiritual language can only approach reality, not convey it like a scientific text hopes to.
When I first started attending, contemplating Advices and Queries helped me commit to the Society. I use them in outreach. I recommended them to American Friends, and one wrote that he “was so profoundly touched and inspired by the freshness and the vitality of these advices and queries that I wanted to share them more widely”, including to non-Quaker friends. Expunging any suggestion in them that there is a God beyond the brains of humans should not be done lightly; what do love and integrity require of us?
As an atheist, I would not want a lowest common denominator, when the word “God” was used only when everyone could agree on it. 17:
When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you.
Instead, I notice the word, and see what meaning I find in it.