Theism & Non-Theism

I’ve had two strong conversations about theology and its place in our midst in the last two days. We have touched on topics of “Gospel Ministry” and “Gospel Order” but what has been stirred in me are thoughts about naming “my christ.”
I Name my cars and my computers. It works for me. Not sure why. If pressed, I’d say it’s easier for me to see them in their systemic wholeness, easier for me to attune to their patterns of quirks. If I name them, as Adam and Eve are said to have attached names to the different parts of their ecosystem, it allows me to relate to them better, I more easily recognize a certain slowness under some circumstances, and a bit of odd noise under other circumstances. With a name it is easier for me to re-cognize the information I am getting from them.

I have friends who think it’s odd to name non-living things. For myself they are animate objects.
I am an animist. I experience a sense of presence — a sense of entity, of place– as I enter the valley of the Glacial River Warren. I know many feel that way about the Grand Canyon.
So it is with “my christ.” I am a speck in the vat of life. To me, everything looks connected. I see patterns everywhere, “meaningful” patterns,
whatever that means.
I experience the world to be filled with divine energy. To me, it’s not just a clock that got wound up by God (or the Big Bang) and is slowly, mechanically, running down.
I sense a kind of divine aliveness, a “specialness” in the entity of the Grand Canyon… And in a similar, if smaller, degree, in my computer.

So it is in my nature to personify.
I consider that to be an individual trait rather than a personal virtue. I have not named Betsy’s computer and I have not suggested that she should name it. (Personally, I think when she gets frustrated with it, that it would help her if it had a name, but I call this my personal prejudice, rather than a great truth.)
Likewise with my inner life. I see patterns, a certain slowness under some circumstances, etc. I find meaning in my life at almost every turn. It seems to me that I have “been somewhere” and that I am “going somewhere.”
And that where I am “going” unfolds out of where I have “been” in ways astonishing, ways that at times fill me with awe.
My adventure of the fall of 2007 is:

What if I personalize this?
What if I allow myself to see the trend-lines of my life’s unfolding as a response to a ‘call’?
A call coming from an entity beyond my full comprehension?


And if I do?
And if I did?

If I came to have a sense of an entity and a name,
drawing me toward my “meant to be”
And if I called this guiding entity “my christ,” would that make me better than someone who didn’t name her computers?
Does saying “my christ” or “gospel order” give me a higher status among Friends, compared with Friends who don’t personalize? Friends who make choices, just as I do, but don’t experience it as “responding to a call from god?”

I think I have found the root of a great danger here, and I am going to do my best to expose it, in hopes that Friends will see it for what it is, and we will work together to root it out.
I’m talking theism and non-theism here.
In Western Civilization, rising out of a Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology, the divine is often personalized (despite a strong current of doubt, over the centuries.) In many Eastern philosophies the sense of the transcendent is not personalized. I do not believe there is a “right” and a “wrong” here. And I think there is a great danger lurking in the natural human tendency to believe “the way I do it is better.”

Likewise, in our Friends Meeting, dear friends, if I open myself to experiencing the movement of the divine within me as “my christ,” does that make me better, “closer to God,” than my non-theist family members who make choices –prayerful choices– without calling it “guidance?”
I think not.
This is where Ralph is such a treasure, to my mind. He talks about “what Jesus said” as a clear guideline for his own actions without “lording it over” the rest of us, who do not use that language, who do not have the same relationship to the Christian scriptures he does.
We are talking POWER here, social power, not divine power.
If I start using “christ” in my vocabulary, or “gospel order” is this a power grab?
Do I think that, if I can talk like that, I am better than a non-theist?
A better Quaker?

Dear Friends, some of the non-theists among us are worried, and rightly so.

The track record of those who go around proclaiming “the gospel” is filled with tales of arrogance, intolerance and legitimized murder. If I start letting the power of an animating “my christ” into my life, some of my friends will naturally be worried.
I must be very cautious here.

We all must be cautious.

About Richard O Fuller

Quaker, living in the Twin Cities, Minnesota.
This entry was posted in 'Divine Action', Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Theism & Non-Theism

  1. Rhoda Gilman says:

    Betsy’s father also named his cars. Like computers today, automobiles were the great source of outreach and power to his generation. He put together his first one from junk parts when he was still a teenager, and I’m sure he had a very personal relationship to it. It gave him not only freedom of movement and a sense of his own competence, but prestige among his peers.

    We still named our cars during the first years of our marriage. To me it was a playful thing — a sort of make-believe animation — that lost its charm as I grew older. What it meant to Logan I’ll never know. He also stopped doing it.

    The names of his/our cars were always female. That brings me around to a problem with personalizing anything, including the unnameable, indescribable Reality in which we all dwell. The personal always has gender. As we all know, a personal God/Christ has traditionally been male, time out of mind, but turning “Him” into a goddess does not solve the problem. Mother Gaia implies the existence of a Father God. That in turn implies duality and thus tension, if not conflict as well as interdependence. I have a gut feeling that the way out of today’s spiritual dilemma does NOT lead back along the same old anthropomorphic path.

  2. Ah, Richard. Such important questions and reflections and cautions you lift up here!

    Language can be tricky. I doubt I am the only one who wants to be as specific and as accurate as possible with the words I use, right?

    I also doubt that I am the only one who cares about how OTHERS might receive the language I use, and here’s what’s tricky for me:

    When it comes to matters of the Spirit, of the Mystery, of our own spiritual journey, how do we preserve our own sense of integrity–and use words and language that most accurately reflect our own experience–while also showing care for the person with whom we are conversing?

    In my own experience, I have found that the more clear I am in my own faith, AND the more capable I am of “listening beyond the words,” the less threatened or “lorded over” I feel when I encounter others who use different language and have different beliefs from me. Also, the more emotional and/or spiritual intimacy I have with the person, the more risks I am likely to take in exchanging ideas, concerns, questions.

    What gets confusing for me is how much responsibility does one have for speaking in such a way that a fellow conversationalist is at ease; and how much responsibility does the fellow conversationalist have for listening in such a way that the speaker is at ease?

    I don’t know the answer, but I know to be watching and listening for non-verbal cues that might indicate a need to slow down, check with the person to find out if we need to change tacks, clarify terms, or what-have-you.

    Liz Opp(enheimer), The Good Raised Up

  3. Richard,

    I am glad you have raised this tension, and I am utterly unsurprised that you come down squarely on the side of tolerance, understanding and communion within diversity.

    Indeed, there are folks–millions and millions of them!–for whom Christian or theistic language is actually *intended* to separate themselves from others. They seek a fellowship of those with similar theological beliefs, or at least in which all agree not to talk about their underlying disagreements with the orthodoxy.

    If that’s what they want, it is their right. I think it undersells the greatest value and power of deep religious community, and in the case of Christians, misapprehends the teachings of Jesus–but that is a question for them to explore or ignore, not me.

    But I want a deeper and broader religious community than that, and recognize that theological beliefs and symbolic language are just that–theology, symbolism. I think most of the Friends I know want this, too, though not all.

    I think it is of great importance that you use the language and symbols that resonate most deeply for you, and I will do my best to translate your language into my own. Sometimes it is a tough job but that’s OK.

    One problem with symbolic and mythical language, though, is it tends to be much easier than wrestling with all the language and feelings and intelligence you can muster to say what you really mean. That is really hard work. If you use mostly language and symbols that has been handed down, there is a great chance you will overlook where that language does not really express what you feel and think, and I will never know you as well as I could if you spoke only out of your own experience. And, perhaps, you will never know yourself as well as you could.

    Richard, you have a tendency to develop your own mythology, perhaps sprinkling in bits of what’s been handed down but never settling for the formulas. This is a great strength. Yet, while it makes your expression personal and truthful, it can be pretty opaque sometimes–not always, but sometimes. I think it might be worthwhile for you to find more direct ways to express yourself. What are the psychological and social and historical threads that run through your mythology? Genuine psychology and sociology, remember, are not the same as psychological or sociological theory. The real things are far deeper and mysterious than any textbook has ever gone.

    Anyway, I really don’t want people to avoid their genuine, natural religious language to keep from hurting my feelings as a self-identifying nontheist. What troubles me is when people want to restrict OUR religious community along those lines. A communion of people who agree is a weak communion indeed. Even worse is a communion of people who pretend to agree, which, in my opinion, is the state of any substantially sized church that insists on an orthodoxy.

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