Am I a nontheist…? (Part I)

Part I: Languages of belief
Part II: Survival faith and practice
Part III: “Someone should start laughing”

Languages of belief 

As my spiritual life has matured and deepened over the decades, I have come to understand that no religious language, whether in scripture, in doctrine, in written or spoken ministry, or in personal testimony, describes the ultimate Reality in any objective way. Rather, at its best such language can only describe the human experience of interaction with that Reality.

This is not because the Real is unknowable, but because human language is limited. Even at its most articulate, the human brain is not able to abstract its intimate experience into concepts and symbols which are at once fully nuanced and also wholly unambiguous to others.

How can we share with each other our common experience of this one Reality, and yet allow that our individual relationships with it are idiosyncratic and, in their inmost core, inexpressible?

I point at the moon saying, “Don’t look at my finger.” Yet is the moon a round outer-space object reflecting sunlight, or a goddess, or the mirror of my emotions, or the clock of the tides, or…?

Part of my goal with The Empty Path is to become more articulately multilingual in describing to others my real faith and practice as it happens. Hence, I am very grateful to Zach A of The Seed Lifting Up  for his gentle bravery in describing his process of moving away from belief in God and that movement’s interaction with his longing for real spiritual community. Though the belief crisis of my 20s was very different than Zach’s, I recognize kindred longings and seekings in what he describes —ones which persist for me to this day.

In this post and others which follow, I am borrowing Zach’s language to shine light on my own concerns and openings, not to debate with or try to persuade him or other readers. I apologize in advance if I misunderstand or misrepresent what Zach intends to communicate.

Zach has published a sequence of posts upon which I am drawing:

He describes two concerns which are interwoven throughout these posts.

The first has to do with a quest for belief “based on evidence” rather than on doctrine or superstition.

The second has to do with a desire to be part of a spiritual community which, to use the classic Quaker distinction, is centered in authentic practice rather than in outward profession of “right belief.”

I intend to address that first concern in a later post.

For now I am focused more on the tension Zach describes between two compelling internal forces related to that second concern.

One is a deep desire to be part of an intentional community of believers who are committed to serious, mutually supportive practice of their faith in the day-to-day world.

The other is a strong discomfort with the sort of unreflective “profession” of Christian orthodoxy which seems to assume agreement on the part of all listeners.

Both of these forces have been active in my own life, ever since I left Lutheran seminary during my first year there, back in 1973. I went to seminary fully invested in not just the profession but the practice of Christian life. However, I also went there while I was still deep in the closet as a gay man.

When I realized that personal and spiritual authenticity demanded I come out, I was confronted with what seemed an irresolvable conflict. The real presence of God, of Christ, in my inner life did not condemn but affirmed my orientation toward loving another man. Yet the orthodoxy of my church—and of most other religions—did condemn that core part of my personhood.

For a long time I was a refugee from the “christian” world, even though I had no doubt that Christ went along with me in my exile. I will write more of my own questing later, but here I want to generalize about exile and the seeking of refuge.

In his post “Behind the Hedge” back in April, Richard M of A Place to Stand expressed very well the dilemma now facing Quaker meetings—and, in fact, almost any religious group which opens its doors to spiritual refugees:

Being among people who share and affirm our values is uplifting. Time spent among Friends can be time to repair the damage done to our psyches by the world.

This is why some Christian Friends long for a purely Christian meeting. They would feel safer and more protected there. Hearing ministry spoken in their own Christian language sounds dearer to them. They feel especially wounded when someone within the meeting criticizes them for being Christian. They feel as exposed and attacked as they do in the world, here in the one place where they long to feel safe.

But there are many Friends who are refugees from abusive “Christian” churches for whom Christian language is threatening and not comforting. These Friends would feel safer and more protected if the word “Christ” were never spoken in their presence.

This is a problem in many meetings. Love and unity are hard to maintain among us when some Friends are hurt by neutral “Light” language and other Friends are hurt by ministry that explicitly speaks of Christ.

All the advice I can offer is for Friends to be brave. If someone’s language feels like a slap, turn the other cheek and try to respond lovingly to this Friend. Listen to them carefully for signs that Love speaks back through them.

Remember that others quite different from you are also looking for a place of love and shelter behind a hedge guarding them from a hostile world.

I came to Quakerism for refuge. I was drawn by the willingness of Friends to worship deeply together and to make authentic spiritual commitment to each other, without first requiring confession of “right doctrine.”

I began attending my first meeting in 1987, and I became a recorded member and then clerk in the early 1990s. My spouse Jim and I were married under the care of this meeting in 1994. Though we moved to another state seven years ago and attend another meeting, we still have our membership there.

What I remember of this meeting is its weightiness and diversity. In retrospect I know that the members range from Christocentric to Nontheist. They all seemed to be deeply involved in real witness in the social and political challenges of our community and nation, as well as in genuine caring for and ministry to each other.

Yet when Jim and I moved away in 2000, Friends were only just beginning to acknowledge in meeting that we needed to become able to talk with each other about what “Jesus” and “Christian faith and practice” might mean to each of us—whether or not “Christian” was our chosen language.

The meeting I attend now is smaller, more political, perhaps less ready to lift the cover of “Christian” language in order to talk about what inner, secret languages we each use. Again, the people are active and caring. Yet the awkwardness and uninformative silence are there.

So, at least until I stumbled into the Quaker blogosphere, I have been puzzling over my approach/avoidance reaction to “Christian” on my own.

Which leads me back to the question with which I titled this post….

(To be continued)

6 comments On Am I a nontheist…? (Part I)

  • Thank you for this post–I’m anxiously awaiting the second half.

    I think I almost appreciate as much your thoughtful synthesis of different Quaker blog threads as I do your exploration of your own evolving understandings.

    I’m struck by your phrase about your membership in a meeting in which you found both “weightiness and diversity. In retrospect I know that the members range from Christocentric to Nontheist.” I think that one of the more persistent and (I think) pernicious ideas about Christ-centered and other Friends is that non-Christian Quakers are heedless lightweights, running amok in local meetings which provide no meaningful eldering or oversight.

    That’s not been my experience, as a non-Christian Friend from another very diverse and (I think) spiritually weighty meeting.

    Sometimes I have to work very hard not to respond on every blog in which I hear such things said–especially since the quote from me that ran in the religious wire service. Just the fact that I claim to be a Quaker and a Pagan, and said so to a reporter, clearly convinced some Friends that they knew all they needed to know to sit in judgment on me. Harumph!

    But knee-jerk responses don’t promote growth when they come from me, either, and I realize that Christ-centered Quakers are wrestling with their own feelings of discomfort–that they won’t even recognize the Religious Society of Friends in a few years… or that simply saying the word “Jesus” will get them judged, too, as narrow minded and intolerant.

    We’ve got some nice stereotypes developing, that’s for sure. Non-Christian = fluffy and self-absorbed Quaker with no regard for Quaker process or corporate discernment… Christian = rigid and narrow-minded Quaker who wants to toss out those who don’t agree with their interpretations of Scripture and/or Quaker history.

    There’s some basis to both stereotypes, but plenty of distortion. And Richard M’s advice is probably the best I’ve heard on the subject:

    “All the advice I can offer is for Friends to be brave. If someone’s language feels like a slap, turn the other cheek and try to respond lovingly to this Friend. Listen to them carefully for signs that Love speaks back through them.”

    It’s hard to stay open and loving as we listen, here in the blogosphere, to one another. But with brave models (like Zach, often, and you, especially here) I think it’s possible. And lately, I know that Friends I love and trust in the 3-D world have been commenting on how productive the discussions in the Quaker blogosphere have been of late–that differences that can be so hard to see beyond do seem to melt away around a common experience, even when it’s so hard to find words we can all hear together for that experience. So the word is getting out: the open-hearted writing going on in blogs like this really is helping us open to one another.

    Gotta believe that’s what Spirit–by whatever name–is looking for among us…

    Sorry to get wordy like this! With the school year back in swing, there’s so little time to write. I guess, the one night I get a chance, I get carried away.


  • Michael Austin Shell


    I appreciate your comments.

    I’ve been following the “convergent Friends” conversations for most of this year, printing out pieces, making notes, drafting comments…and waiting for the leading to write. This piece arises from that waiting.

    The matter of stereotyping is a crucial one. It occurred to me recently that stereotyping had to have evolved as a pre-human survival technique.

    The quickest way for an animal to recognize safe (“my clan”) versus possibly unsafe (“not my clan”) individuals, in time for the fight-or-flight response, would be to have an almost instantaneous response to a few cues of similarity/dissimilarity (sort of like the face recognition response described in Walhydra’s “The Virgin of Hollywood, Florida“).

    But here we are, human beings, trying our best to care for each other through the means of Quaker faith and practice. A “tooth and claw” survival response, operating unrelectively at the visceral level, is not the best to which the Light can lead us.

    So…how do we do this?

    Somewhere in one of your own comments on Zach’s blog, you wrote about the difference between the sometimes ruthless (my word) interactions on the blogosphere, contrasted with the loving acceptance you experience face to face in Quaker Meeting—even from folks who don’t necessarily agree with you.

    That is obviously a key cue for all of us. We need always to behave online as if we were face-to-face.

    Walhydra has a line inspired by years of observing hubby Jim argue with fundies on the AOL message boards: “In cyberspace, no one can hear you reason.”

    I don’t think it has to be that way…and I’m glad that the Quakosphere is aspiring to something higher.

    You help that process.

    Thank you,

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