Saturday, August 15, 2009

For Daniel. Theism and Non-theism

I dedicate this post to our conversation which has inspired and challenged me these many months now. I do want to keep talking to you about my use of the term "non-theist" if you are willing to also keep talking to me. We do have one little difficulty in that a good portion of the way I think is intuitive. It results in perceptions that fall outside of language but which I then translate to an audience in words. If I were an artist, I might be in a better position to communicate.

It goes something like this:

Here is the "Something" I have experienced. (*!*) The words I attach to it are merely a sign of the thing, not the thing itself. I'm aware that when I attach a symbol to the (*!*), I alter the original meaning of (*!*) since each word carries with it connotations I do not intend. There is no way to filter unintentional meaning out your head when I suggest a potential definition of my experience. I say "God" or "Light" or "Reason" or "Power" and the purity of my experience is already sullied in the translation because your experience of these words is not the same as mine and both of us possess historical and cultural translations of these words that create drag and prohibit swiftness of shared revelation.

Poetic and metaphorical language give me a better chance of communicating to you since I can intentionally apply seemingly paradoxical symbols to my experience in the hopes that the ultimate and transcendent meaning I intend but cannot adequately describe will flash briefly in the moment of confusion. Since my understanding of the Numinous tends to be acquired at the margins, my metaphors also tend to play a lot with paradox and to rest outside of orthodox definitions. For me, what some might call "God" is that which is both intimately real and even commonplace and wholly Other and Ineffable. If I use the word "God", people think I mean what I do not mean. The butterfly is pinned and people think I mean wings and legs and antennae when what I meant was flutter and delight and tenderness. The essence of the butterfly cannot be pinned. The Essence of the Divine also cannot be described. To me, this is the real meaning of idolatry, to settle one's faith in any given word or concept. That is why I resist theism.

I can explain this differently and I would if speaking to a non-theist, like one of my uncles or my father, who cringe at my emotional language. In fact, I will try to explain this differently later. I can speak in that dialect too although it is not native to me. Using metaphorical language, I probably make a lot more sense to you than when I use my "rational" language. That's the whole Jekyll and Hyde thing again. Although I'm resistant to a more literal or personified interpretation of "God", I have a profound sense of the numinous. I couldn't get away from that if I tried so I'm probably a lousy example of non-theism.

I suspect that many non-Christian and non-theist Friends are difficult to place into any tidy categories. Why would an atheist become a Quaker? I think the answer lies in the liminal areas that western dualism abhors. When you look at the kinds of misfits who call themselves "non-theist" or "non-Christian" Friends, you'll probably find people whose philosophical and experiential backgrounds bend gender, cultural, and even Cartesian boundaries of "this-ness" and "that-ness." What are the words to describe "not-this-ness" and "not-that-ness"? That's tough to do. From an historical perspective, we are a civilization in transition. Our old definitions do not serve us so well any longer and the new words are still being invented, still feel awkward on our tongues. We are still in the act of breaking the tension of the water but have not yet made the dive into the deeper layers beneath.

On top of that, you and I are working from different genders, generations, regions, and religious backgrounds. Much of the complications of our communication come from the metaphorical and philosophical tools we use to describe our experience. We are speaking in different philosophical and gendered dialects. Our bodies will experience the input of "Spirit" differently and our brains will translate those experiences differently again. Does that mean that "Spirit" is different? Laying aside verbal tools and intellectual approaches, I just feel, strongly, that you and I are just not that different where it counts. If there were a tender spot on the soul, a kind of spiritual tympanum where the "Voice of the Divine" resonates, I would say that you and I have heard the same Voice. Even when your words are foreign to me, I still believe I can hear "where your words come from."


Gospel said...

Did you get banned yet? Was it just me, or has Martin finally instigated a pogrom against non-Christians?

Daniel Wilcox said...

Thanks for sharing, Hystery.

I feel utterly befuddled, because your expressive words--and the spirit I experience in them--seem to (in my understanding)so resonate with my inner being.

I, too, within, deeper than my rationalism am intuitive and have had several deep mystical experiences which were beyond words.
My reasoning, indeed, comes from "faith/experience seeking understanding."

To me your words and my own different expression seems worlds away from the Not-theist Friends in my meeting and on the Web who claim there is no Ultimate Presence at all. It grieves so deeply that some of them even agree with total materialism, that we conscious images of Light actually are only "flukes of chance":-(

Yet after speaking with glowing worship and experience of the Divine, you say
>>That is why I resist theism.
To quote you:-) now I feel as "clear as mud."

Everything you said in the previous paragraph fills my being with joy and hope--as your words semed God-enthused.

Yet then you say you "resist theism."

I don't see "theism," as being idolatrous or of pinning down the "Essence." Isn't "theism" a word which denotes trust that there is Personal Presence; Truth;Love; Goodness; Mercy: Beauty? Isn't "theism" a word which denotes our trust and hope that the the nature of Reality is "Essence of the Divine"?
Isn't "theism" a denial of all the other views of human thought-- ruthless indifference, eternal hatred, or blind chance? That this Cosmos isn't a "blind meaningless purposeless" (to quote the Darwinians)expansion of matter, energy, and chance.

If you said you resist creedal Christianity, I would agree for I think much of it does destroy the "flutter and delight and tenderness" of the Divine.

I am not an orthodox Christian because I do think they take God and try and pin him down into propositions. They know far more about God than I know about keyboard in front of me.

But, I do thank you for seeking to explain again.

I suppose our major difference is that, while I agree that Ultimate Reality is beyond rational comprehension (can't be known in an "oject" sense), I would say Jesus, as stated in the NT, is the revealed image of the incomprehensible Divine. Jesus, to me, is the window to God.

And that is what I usually thought nearly all Friends trusted in--Christ as the indivuation of the God.

Thanks, Hystery.


George Amoss Jr. said...

Hystery, that was helpful to me, a nontheist Quaker who probably falls into one of those more or less different categories. I look forward to the "different" explanation, too.

Daniel, if I may jump in with from my not-wholly-different perspective, I suggest that traditional Quaker and biblical language can give us some insight into what worship might mean for a nontheist Quaker -- at least for one of them.

In terms to which George Fox et al. would surely nod in agreement: if God is love, if (as Fox repeatedly said) Christ is the power of God, and if Quaker worship "in spirit and in truth" is experience of, and openness and submission to, that power of Love in the heart, then one need not be a theist in order to worship as a Quaker. Theist or not, to worship as a Friend is to feel and respond to "the promptings of love and truth in the heart" -- "truth" being Christ, the power of Love, in primitive Quaker theology.

As Nayler put it, "set up his light in your hearts, and his day will arise in you." And as early Quakerism consistently held, we need not even have heard of the bible-mediated Christ to do that, for "for the name of Christ consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c." (Nayler again).

That's how I do Quaker worship, and I am convinced that it is consistent "in spirit and in truth" with the core Quaker experience.

Hystery said...

Clear as mud indeed, Daniel. I'm so sorry.

You and I are hung up on the word "theism" and here is where I take a very disciplined and careful approach born out of my own research as a spiritual feminist and which will require that my head be clearer than it is right now. To get to the heart of why I reject the word "theism" as an accurate description of my beliefs requires that I be very careful with words and very precise as I make my situated understanding of the word clear. So all that for later.

I can say with some confidence that when you sense my theism, you are taking a fairly accurate measurement of my experience of the numinous but not my interpretation of that experience. I'll return to this from a different angle soon.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Hystery,

I do appreciate your seeking to share your view repeatedly with mud-clogged;-) me.

When I reflect back on our many dialogs I honestly still can't tell if our difference of perspective and terms is mostly a semantic one or that we are really worlds apart; though we use similar Friends words but mean very different things.

I won't try to guess now but just be thankful you are willing to keep sharing:-)

George, I have to leave to help relation but will try and respond to your comments later.

In the Light,


Owlthena Gypsy Rose said...

I think I get it, I am a country girl with some college but not brilliant,so your words seem a bit paradoxal to me. I have always knocked myself over the head because what most folks think of God, this personal being that they seem to hear speaking to them, I have never had the pleasure, I believe in what ever 'it' is but have never been formally or personally introduced, but I have tried all the formulas that 'they' have said to do, but nothing. I believe in a creator Spirit maybe consciousness or the Mind of the Divine, but to me at least I tend to see 'it' in all of creation. If we can get on a personal level it would be fine and dandy for me, but in all my 53 years of trying apparently I have always been behind the door when 'it' entered the room. I wrote some and borrowed some thoughts on theism and deism to try to define my thoughts but in the end we only experience what ever the Divine is individually and we can't all be the same.And as a woman/feminist after all these years it seems we are on our own to try to figure it out ourselves.
blessings to ya

Prodigal Valentine said...

"It grieves so deeply that some of them even agree with total materialism, that we conscious images of Light actually are only "flukes of chance":-("

Why should what someone else believes or doesn't believe "grieve [you] so deeply"? Worry about your own salvation, if you are wont to, and stop "grieving" over people whose lives are happy and fulfilled and ethical --- they are just living life from a different perspective to your own.

"Everything you said in the previous paragraph fills my being with joy and hope--as your words semed God-enthused."

So you do see "that of God" in Hystery's words (and by extension, in Hystery herself). Why don't you focus on that, instead of focusing on the fact that she just doesn't believe in your god?

If we all become cookie-cutter co-religionists, I promise you, things will get real old, real fast.

If there is a First Cause out there (not that I believe that, I'm just positing), then its "creation" is everything and everyone we see around us --- up to and including people who disagree on religion and theology.

We need to stop disagreeing on religion and theology, and start accepting that everyone's theology is different, even for those who belong to the same religion.

Where it breaks down for me is when the Christians tell me I'm not good enough, or I don't get to the same mental space in MfW as other Quakers do, just because I am a non-theist.

That attitude stems from the wholly (holy?) Christian misconception that atheists are amoral degenerates, or even (Gods forbid!) "materialists" as you point out in your original comment.

Or do you mean materialist in the sense of scientific and focused on the physical world? Nothing wrong with that, in my opinion. That is after all, what we CAN see.

And if it has indeed been created, then that's what we were meant to see. Diversity of thought included.

Bright Crow said...

Sweet One,

Just saw this and haven't even read it all yet...but I know you are speaking my mind:

"The butterfly is pinned and people think I mean wings and legs and antennae when what I meant was flutter and delight and tenderness."

That says it all for me.

Thank you, and

Blessed Be,
Michael Bright Crow