Friday, 4 September 2009

The Trouble with 'The Trouble With God'

Some while ago a Friend lent me a copy of David Boulton's book 'The Trouble With God.' I read it and reacted with anger. I wasn't angry that someone should put forward an argument like the argument in the book. I read this sort of thing all the time with an even temper. It's more that an argument such as this should be presented from within the Quaker movement as a Quaker viewpoint, when it seems to be to be a parody and undermining of everything that drew me to Quakers and keeps me among them.

Now people who are that personally angry about something are generally in above-average danger of making errors of judgement about it, so when I ended up writing a fairly long piece stating the grounds of my objection to 'The Trouble with God,' I assumed it might be flawed for this reason, so I filed it and forgot about it, thinking it possible I might be mistaken. Looking at this piece again after a while, I find it's not as bad as I feared, so I've decided to take the calculated risk of putting it out, warts and all. I'd appreciate Friends' comments. I'd like to stress that I've no beef with any individual Friend, least of all David Boulton (I've never met him and know very little about him). If I'm going after anything, it's the book. But the book, in my judgment, is an absolute turkey.


'The Trouble with "The Trouble with God"'

There is an inner integrity in us all which rejects all programmes of As If. ... This inner integrity demands the real.

Thomas Kelly, Reality of the Spiritual World, 1944

There's no cosy way of saying this. David Boulton, the "humanist and Quaker" author of The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven, has written an anti-Quaker book. The Trouble with God is not a work of Quaker universalism; it's not Quaker humanism; it's not Quaker atheism or Quaker non-theism or Quaker agnosticism. It's not Quaker anything. It's anti-Quaker. It's against any and all sorts of Quaker testimony or subdivisional -ism.

At first glance, this assertion itself seems unQuakerly in its intolerance. But it isn't, for two reasons. Firstly, it isn't intolerant. David's entitled to put his view forward, and maybe he's right. It's just that if he's right, Quakers of every stripe are all equally wrong. Secondly, and more fundamentally, it's Quakerly to propose clarity. An anti-Quaker understanding of truth is, by definition, not in unity with a Quaker understanding of it. For the moment, then, I'm postponing any full assessment of the truth of David's thinking, simply as such. All I'm now seeking is clarity about what he says, and how this stands in relation to the essentials of Quaker faith and practice, no matter who's right or wrong.

Quakers don't, and shouldn't, think in terms of creeds. David doesn't suggest a specific creed, but his thought is deeply credal, in the sense that it acknowledges no reality beyond what the conscious, rational human mind can grasp, and what human words can achieve. It comes from the same spiritual place that creeds come from. This is not the point of origin for any genuinely Quaker witness.

David terms his thinking radical religious humanism. Unlike conventionally religious credal thinking, it's based on the secular theory that the human consciousness is quite unable to experience absolute truth or reality in any significant sense. All we can experience is, in a sense, our own talking or thinking. So goes the theory. Applying this theory to God or the Spirit, David concludes that we can't, and don't ever, have any direct experience of it. He infers that human words such as God and Spirit can't refer to anything real; they're fictions, and this is the basis on which hardcore atheists demand that we stop using the terms altogether. But David takes a different line. He believes that, if we accept that God is simply an idea, we are free to have what he calls a "make-believe" relationship with an idea as if it were a reality, and that this is worth doing because such make-believe is life-enriching and ethically fortifying, even if it's ultimately only a form of imaginative play.

In my judgment all this is demonstrably untrue, from the basic theory onwards, but that's not currently my point. My point is, firstly, that spiritual life in David's understanding depends entirely on human thought and language, in a way which would make it a credal process. Creeds about a make-believe God are still creeds. So here, tentatively and under correction, I shall compare religious humanism with the current state of my own discernment of what Quakers are.

Quakers have always maintained that there is a truth beyond language which we can experience. Their point has usually been that we don't experience it very often, or very easily, or very fully. We can't understand it, or talk directly about it, because our conscious capacities for thought and language won't allow us to. When we do really begin to experience this reality, we experience it ecstatically, both in the general sense that it is a heady experience, and in the literal sense that it makes us 'stand outside' our normal selves. It strikes us with such overwhelming power and presence that we are compelled to call it a spiritual reality. It can change us utterly. It can disrupt our conscious mind and will, and our habits of behaviour and communication, often traumatically. For some, like me, it can only be understood as actual godhead, or God, a presence rooted in a reality which is more real than the one we move through every day. For other Friends, the same spiritual truth is the reality we always experience, viewed through cleansed and enlarged human perceptions, more or less as William Blake taught. Without papering over the cracks between these formal understandings, they aren't really germane to the point currently at issue, because all such views share a basic sense that the truth we call spiritual, whatever else it may be, is, at any rate, real. It is not solely the creation of human thought and language. Quaker understandings are less about cultivating linguistic fiction than they are about clearing it out of the way in order to get at the reality beyond.

Our business method, with its disregard of personal preference, its striving after unity, and its abhorrence of the vote, is the practical expression of this essential Quaker recognition of the reality of the real. It is, apparently, the one feature of Quaker practice which is more or less globally invariant. I believe (subject to correction) that all Quaker meetings, whatever their faith tradition, whether programmed or unprogrammed, maintain the observance of the business method. The method's historical origins lie in a literal belief in the direct inspiration of God, discerned specifically in distinction from individual or collective human opinion or rational calculation. In Britain, the method is not always now practised in this conscious understanding. Its workings may or may not be seen (as I see them) as potentially transcendent in the supernatural sense, but they are always, in fact or aspiration, ecstatic in the literal sense, inasmuch as, through the method, we continue to seek, and act on, an understanding of truth, as distinct from preference. In practice, Quakers may fail to follow the method into its fullness. But, to date, we have not redefined the basic aspiration. Nor should we.

This aspiration is not compatible with religious humanism. Its whole point is to seek after the reality we have no choice about. The practical difference therefore arises over the issue of choice, and its relation to truth. In the final analysis, as David argues through his favoured symbol of the 'republic of heaven,' the religious humanist goal will always be to realise and express human choice. This is what compels David's humanism to reconfigure the sacred as a form of make-believe. The risk is that, if we once admit that the sacred is real, in a way our own thoughts and words aren't, then something beyond us suddenly seems to threaten to impede, or at least authoritatively guide, our choices. The thing about Quakers is that this guidance - including, if necessary, a disregard for our own preferences - is exactly what we look for. We define ourselves as Quakers by our intention to live in the truth - that is, face up to reality. We don't look for freedom. We seek to take responsibility.

Modern British Quakers are purposefully and extraordinarily vague in their verbal descriptions of Spirit to which they feel responsible. It is possible to be seduced by this into the assumption that we are, or should be, equally vague in our experienced understanding of it. This is not my view. Quaker words and ideas about the Spirit are vague. But Quaker experience and understanding of the Spirit is precise and specific. And to me at least, we appear far from vague about what the Spirit is not. It is not us. Whatever it is that we do or don't worship in meetings for worship, it is clear that we are not worshipping our own selves. The Spirit is not us, though it may be discerned within us. It's something greater than us, something in some sense apart from what we currently or habitually are. And, above all, as the mere existence of the truth testimony ought to remind us, it is not construed as a game of make-believe. Right or wrong, the Quaker method of life is the opposite of religious humanism. Quakers teach that, because reality is accessible, we had best stop playing around with creeds. Religious humanism teaches that, because reality is inaccessible, we may as well play around with creeds to our hearts' content. This view, if acted on, would turn Quaker unity into its opposite: an anthology of make-believe creeds whose only unifying feature would be that none of them would really be Quaker, arguably because they'd all be lies, but chiefly because they'd all be creeds. Saying this sets no constraints on our paradoxical unity-in-diversity. It re-affirms the essential ground of its being. Religious humanism and the Quaker way are like chalk and cheese. There are infinite varieties of cheese. But chalk isn't one of them.

The ingrained Quaker refusal to impose outward uniformity of creed or doctrine has fostered the vast, liberal, and spiritually healthy unity-in-diversity of which British Quakers are rightly protective. This unity now consists (partly) in incorporating, within our common witness, expressions of belief and understanding which are logically and rationally opposite to one another. As a result, the aggregate of liberal British Quaker witness now centres on a vast, formally inexpressible paradox, which radiates an apparently boundless plurality of belief and expression of thought and life. At its shallowest, this plurality bogs us down and renders us impotent. At its highest and deepest, it arises from a harmonious unity of witness to authentically revitalised human lives. Radical religious humanism (besides appearing far too comfy to be really radical - but that's another discussion) is not a new tactic or style of play in this great liberal Quaker game of contact with reality. It is an attempt to stop the game by dispensing with the reality. If only for clarity's sake, we should stop calling it Quaker.


Simon Heywood said...

Looking through it, as well, one major and very simple point which I didn't really spell out is that religious humanism as a systematic form of 'make-believe' is a systematic violation of the testimony to truth.

So, in a nutshell, my objections to religious humanism specifically as a Quaker faith are as follows:

1) It's 'make-believe'
2) It's credal
3) It's non-ecstatic

Quakers don't do 'make-believe' because they have a truth testimony; their understanding is experiential (rather than credal); and their method of discernment is ecstatic (rather than consciously rational). So religious humanism is the opposite of being a Quaker, and it beats me why anyone would think it good to try touting the one as a form of the other.


Sharon Langridge said...

Thanks for this, Simon.

I read an interesting article the other day that's mostly about the Narnia books, but touches on some of the themes you address here (what's real; what's not; pretending that what is isn't and vice versa).

Simon Heywood said...

I agree with Andrew Rilstone - I think CS Lewis' attitude to women was probably not great, but the point in The Case of Susan's Lipstick is basically that Susan's approach to life had become superficial and inauthentic and she had abandoned her integrity and thus lost her creative imagination, which, I think, to a Romantic like Lewis, was the basis of insight. In a nutshell, Susan was too concerned about looking grown-up and clever to really unbutton, let go, and be herself. In plot terms, Susan losing Narnia seems to be in parallel to Lyra's letting go of the alethiometer and the subtle knife at the end of His Dark Materials, but without Pullman's rather strained attempt to make the loss look like a good thing.

Peter Lawless said...

Interesting Simon and thank you but I found that the style of 'The Trouble With God' prevented me reading it all. He would make statements but not give dates or supporting evidence, for instance 'The God we call God was born in the Biblical land of Canaan in the late Bronze or early Iron Age' - this is the opening of chapter 8 'The Making of a God'.
Something within me called out for more detail especially in the light of the fact that in/near this area grew up Egyptian, Zoroastrian, and other religions, with their gods and creation myths e.g. Gilgamesh with its story of the flood, angry gods and the snake and the loss of the eternal soul etc.. Some more information rather than Bronze Age etc. is needed to build a necessary historical picture but I could not do this especially when he seemed to move between periods in places.
I found that some references were given but when the author makes a statement like that on page 87 says of Moses 'It's a good story - with not a shred of hard evidence to back it.' I can't help but feel this also applies to the nearly 100 pages of the book which I read before I gave up in frustration and despair.
Did anyone else have similar problems? I felt that I had to read the book given the publicity about it but unfortunately could not.

Craig Barnett said...

"Religious humanism and the Quaker way are like chalk and cheese. There are infinite varieties of cheese. But chalk isn't one of them."

Well put Simon, I'm entirely with you on this (I think you knew that already.)
I think your post highlights something very important that is usually obscured by discussing it in terms of 'theism' and 'non-theism'. The issue for me is not whether someone describes their beliefs as 'non-theist' but whether there is a recognition of some spiritual reality or not. I do not see how the denial of any reality to spiritual experience can ever be a 'Quaker' approach to anything.

leftistquaker said...

Hi Simon,

My comment kept growing, so I have published it as a blog post on QuakerQuaker.

Peace! Charley

Tmothy Travis said...

This is good, Simon, and I am going to pass the link along to others.

I am especially taken with the last couple of paragraphs in which you express a nuanced perception of the Society as radically inclusive--inclusive from the root of the experience you name.

Though our expressions are diverse there are boundaries, outside of which lie, as you say, the chalks.

We all know that and yet sometimes we draw boundaries of our inclusion based on expressions, not on essence.

You define the true boundary well--it is all that lies within the ambit of the experience of the greater reality than ourselves, the Truth that compels obedience--the Truth that, ignored, gives the chalky freedom of the desolation attendant to this world.

Ourselves having been the chalk, however, we have come to know the power that makes for cheese. The opposite of "included," is not "excluded." It's "abided with"--nourished, encouraged and supported (loved, even when not particularly liked).

As Joel Bean said, who would seek justification on the basis of the immaturity through which they passed to their current condition?

Thanks, again.

James Riemermann said...

Simon writes:

"Quakers don't, and shouldn't, think in terms of creeds. David doesn't suggest a specific creed, but his thought is deeply credal, in the sense that it acknowledges no reality beyond what the conscious, rational human mind can grasp, and what human words can achieve. It comes from the same spiritual place that creeds come from."

Simon, I can't help wondering what you think a creed is. You seem to be using it as a synonym for belief. A creed is not a statement of one's beliefs; it is a formalized statement of belief that is supposed to determine whether one is in or out of a religious assocation. Far from acknowledging no reality beyond that which the conscious, rational human mind can grasp, creeds are almost exclusively statements that are contrary to what the conscious, rational human mind can justify or accept. The whole point of a creed is to get people to accept as true things which, from a purely rational perspective, are often absurd.

The "spiritual place that creeds come from" is the desire to exclude from religious community those who do not believe what one thinks they should believe.

Simon Heywood said...

Hi James

Fair point: I am conflating creed and belief to a certain extent. I think it's right to do so, generally and especially from (liberal) Quaker standpoints. We've abandoned uniformity of belief precisely as an extension of a historic opposition to creeds, on the basis that neither can capture the reality.

James Riemermann said...

I agree, uniformity of belief is related to creed, lacking only the formal statement to be recited. Both are distinct from merely expressing individual beliefs, which, of course, we all have. It's not really to the point of your post, but I would say that uniformity of belief has never really existed in any church. Churches which require spoken creeds merely the diversity of belief that has always been among us. Creeds make liars of us.

David Boulton is calling for neither uniformity of beliefs nor creeds, but criticizing certain beliefs he feels have not served humanity well. Most explicitly, he criticizes the belief that God exists as a distinct being, and proposes that God is the imagined embodiment of experience and reality as perceived by human beings. It's fair to disagree, but I don't see how making such a criticism makes him anti-Quaker. An atypical Quaker, perhaps, but not nearly as rare as you might think.

I will point out that, while David is a Quaker, the book is not essentially a Quaker book, nor does it pretend to be. It is a much broader work of liberal theology.

James Riemermann said...

Sorry, I left out a word in my last comment. I meant to write "Churches which require spoken creeds merely *suppress* the diversity of belief that has always been among us. "

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

James Riemermann is, unfortunately, partially mistaken about the nature of creeds.

The first creed of Christendom was the textus Romanus, an ancestor of the familiar Symbolum Apostolicum or “Apostle’s Creed”. It seems to have been composed in southwest Gaul, in the late second century, and had two functions: first, as a short outline of orthodoxy for catechumens (people who were learning Christianity from scratch and preparing for baptism; and second, as a reference point for Christians to recite later on, to ensure they weren’t forgetting anything important. Charlemagne made it standard for catechetical (that is, pre-baptismal) instruction throughout the West; Augustine taught his flock to “Say your creed daily: when you rise, when you compose yourself to sleep..., render it to the Lord, remind yourself of it, be not irked to say it over.”

So the textus Romanus was a training text, designed to be user-friendly, rather than a loyalty test as James suggests. Furthermore, it did not state anything that “contrary to what the conscious, rational human mind can justify or accept,” for it was composed at any time when human understanding had no problem believing its contents. And the Apostolicum, which evolved out of it, was likewise no problem for “the conscious, rational human mind” prior to the rise of the scientific world-view in the late eighteenth century.

James is on somewhat firmer ground regarding the Nicene (or, more properly, the Ecumenical) Creed, which was indeed composed, in 381 AD, as a test of orthodoxy, to separate the orthodox from the followers of Arianism.

The Athanasian Creed, the third great creed of Christianity, which was composed around 500 AD, found acceptance only in the West, and served as a guide to orthodoxy for the clergy; it was never used in baptism or in tests of ordinary believers.

The Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and most Reformed Churches do still give the Nicene Creed a privileged status as a summary of orthodoxy, but neither it nor any other creed is widely used as a test of orthodoxy today the way the Nicene Creed was in ancient times. The feeling is just too widespread that modern scientific ideas and other shifts in outlook have rendered the traditional statements hard to relate to.

[*]Monster said...

This is such a broad-ranging and stimulating discussion, it's hard to know where to start. In such cases, I have a default starting position: experience.

It seems to me that the real difference between humanists of any stripe and 'religionists' (?) is their experience. Humanists are folks trying to live purposeful, principled lives who have had no religious experience. Those of us who have had religious experiences find them pretty hard to ignore.

Most of us try to understand other people's experience in terms of our own. For humanists, that usually means science, often psychology, if perhaps depth psychology. I get a lot out of trying to understand my own spiritual and religious experience this way, but it seems deeply disrespectful of my own experiences not to accept them on their own terms. So I am an odd kind of theist, when it comes down to it, because my experience is that of a distinct being capable of relationship.

In this context, beliefs are almost irrelevant. The question is not, what do you believe, but what have you experienced? The way you articulate your experience to yourself and to others constitute, not your beliefs, but your knowledge. I know I draw certain inferences from my knowledge, certain principles which seem to naturally follow from my experience, so these might be called beliefs. But I try to remind myself that they are, in the end, just speculation--notions.

Beliefs and creeds serve communities, rather than individuals, primarily. So then the question is, what is the community's experience. The problem with liberal Quaker meetings oftentimes, I believe, is that the meeting has gone way too long without experiencing a gathered meeting. So it defaults to the ways of the world, holding on to Quaker 'process' instead of gospel order, 'speaking in meeting' instead of vocal ministry, defined testimonies rather than collective calling in the Spirit--in short, collective humanism. Or, if the meeting has lost touch with the living Christ it professes, holding on to bibliolatry, a creed, the Richmond Declaration, whatever legacy it 'believes' has come from Christ in the absence of a personal and collective answer to, what canst thou say?

George Amoss Jr. said...


In reading your comments on David Boulton's book, which I have not read and don't want to comment on except to note that I find the "make-believe" you describe rather odd, my eye was caught by a passage that struck me as not quite in accord with what I've read in some of the principal primitive Quaker sources:

"Quakers have always maintained that there is a truth beyond language which we can experience. Their point has usually been that we don't experience it very often, or very easily, or very fully. We can't understand it, or talk directly about it, because our conscious capacities for thought and language won't allow us to. When we do really begin to experience this reality, we experience it ecstatically, both in the general sense that it is a heady experience, and in the literal sense that it makes us 'stand outside' our normal selves."

If we mean "truth" as the power to think, feel, and act the self-sacrificing love we see in Jesus, then I can agree with your first sentence. But if we mean "truth" as a cognitive datum or as a momentary nonverbal experience of the ineffable absolute, then no: I don't see that sort of thing in the texts. For primitive Quakerism, "capital-T" truth is Christ ("the way, the truth, and the life"), and Christ is the power of God. If we are "in Christ," we experience truth, the power of God, directly in every moment of our lives, because we are living it in every moment -- which is why we are, in the measure to which Christ is active as the life in us, perfect. We can talk directly about that experience, and primitive Quakers did so in writing and in preaching as well as in the speaking of their lives. And finally, the first Friends often report that when they began to experience the reality of the power of light and love working in them, it was a deeply troubling experience, shaking them to the core such that their bodies trembled from the inner struggle. In the birth process, pain and labor precede joy.

Isaac Penington speaks from his own inner experience when he says, "... if you will live, come to that hammer, that sword, that fire which flesh dreads, and let the flesh be delivered up to it ... by sinking low out of the wisdom, out of the reason, out of all high imaginations, and trusting myself to it; though dreadful strokes and oppositions were felt from the powers of darkness, yet at length there was some appearance of the deliverer, in such a poor, low, weak, despicable way, as could never have been welcomed, had the soul not been first brough to distress, and the loftiness of the imaginary part brought down."

I agree that it made them stand outside their normal selves -- never to return. From the moment of conviction, they stood, or lived, inside Christ as Christ lived inside them. Theirs was not a temporary ecstatic and/or mystical experience, but a thorough transformation of all of their experience, a transformation of previously self-centered persons into saints who thought, felt, and acted love.

Might that reading of primitive Quaker religious experience, if possibly accurate, make a difference in your assessment of Boulton's book? Not having read the book, I don't know that it would, but I'm curious as to what you think about that.

James Riemermann said...

I personally know many humanists who have had profound mystical/religious experiences, and I also know many believers who claim to never have such experiences.

In a sense this may come down to what one means by a mystical experience. Pretty much everyone who pays attention to the world around them has moments when a deeper aspect of reality comes into focus, when they become intensely aware of the connectedness of everyone and everything. This realization does not require a belief in anything supernatural; on the contrary, such connectedness is a literal fact as well as a spiritual understanding.

On the other hand, relatively few people, religious or not, have had full-blown mystical visions such as those described in mystical literature. I feel confident that a large majority of religious people have not have such visions. So I can't agree that the presence or absence of spiritual/religious experience is the essential difference between humanists and what you call "religionists". (I will remind you that some humanists are religionists, though of a sort that doesn't believe in God. Myself, for instance.)

One can have such an experience and interpret it as evidence of the existence of God, or one can have such an experience and interpret it as evidence of the deep mysteries of the human mind. That *interpretation* of experience--not the presence or absence of the experience--is what distinguishes humanists from believers. And I think that disagreeing over such interpretation is really not such a big deal. We can disagree and be together in genuine religious community. This I know experimentally.

Marshall Massey said...

Readers here might want to be aware that the conversation about this post has now spread beyond Charley’s post on QuakerQuaker to Nat Case’s blog “Maphead”!

James Riemermann said...

Simon, I hope you don't mind, but for those who would like a taste of David's book, either instead or as a prelimary to buying it, my favorite chapter has been reprinted here with David's permission:

Simon Heywood said...

Dear Friends

It was a great privilege to read all your posts on this topic - I'll have to keep my responses fairly short, but will happily develop them wherever they seem incomplete.


"God is the imagined embodiment of experience and reality as perceived by human beings. It's fair to disagree, but I don't see how making such a criticism makes him anti-Quaker. An atypical Quaker, perhaps, but not nearly as rare as you might think."

Oh, I agree. I don't know that he is all that rare. I wouldn't have taken issue with him so strongly if I thought he was. What troubles me is that word 'imagined' - and the pervasive emphasis which David places on the non-existent nature of the God he's dealing with. He claims he's writing 'for those who believe in God as they believe in Hamlet or Mr Pickwick' (xiv). Well, that's not Quakers, then, is it? Are we saying that George Fox sweated it out in Launceston jail for Mr Pickwick? If there is truly nothing anti-Quaker in what David is saying here, there is a world of anti-Quakerism in the way he's saying it. Maybe, as you suggest, the TWG isn't even meant to be read as an example of Quaker thinking, but this kind of illustrates my point.

Your second post speaks my mind. If DB's book was written like that, I wouldn't be taking issue with it. I'm in unity with humanist Quakers who are coming at the matter in this way. I am not in unity with people who think Quakers make-believe at worshipping Mr Pickwick - or that it's OK to do so.

[*]Monster: you also speak my mind.

George: Thanks. I'm hesitant to assent to your distinction, partly because I'm still a bit unclear about exactly what it is (regarding cognitive data particularly), but I think I do follow your view if I'm grasping it, and it inclines me more strongly against the TWG because the TWG doesn't leave space for the lasting personal transformation you're describing.

Simon Heywood said...

PS. I may not respond immediately to further posts owing to pressure of other commitments, but silence does not attest lack of interest or attention to what people are saying.

In friendship


Chuck Fager said...

My goodness, what a lot of heat and umbrage about a thoroughly good-natured and interesting book.

I also published a review of "The Trouble With God", and it can be found here:

I wrote it as a theist Friend, but my take on the tome was just about the reverse of thine.

In sum, I suggest that neither Quakerism nor theist Friends have anything to fear from Boulton's form of "unbelief." . . . We do have something to learn, tho.

This written discussion was able to continue and expand in person a few months later, when David and I engaged in a "Theist-Nontheist Conversational Smackdown"at the FGC Gathering in Pennsylvania.

That was great fun, before a packed house, and it was recorded. The complete audio can be heard for free here:

Give it a listen, Friend. I don't know if thee'll feel any better about Boulton and his work afterward, but I can promise an interesting hour or so of diversion.

Meantime, Mind the Light -- as in lighten up!