Godless for God's Sake & The Trouble with God (book reviews)

'Godless for God's Sake – Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism' edited by David Boulton. Published by Dales Historical Monographs(Dent) 2006. £9.50. 146 pages. ISBN 0951157868

'The Trouble with God' by David Boulton; 2nd edition. Published by O Books (Winchester) 2005. £11.99. 256 pages. ISBN 1905047061

Both books are reviewed here by David Perman, member of SoF and author of Scott of Amwell, Dr. Johnson's Quaker Critic (Rockingham Press, 2001)

The main title of this interesting collection of Quaker essays is derived from words by the 13th century Dominican, Meister Eckhart: 'Man's last and highest parting occurs when, for God's sake, he takes leave of God.' Eckhart was not advocating nontheism, of course, so much as a contemplative emptying of the soul; he famously also said that the Christian should empty himself of things human and 'let God be God in you.' Anyway, it can be argued that taking leave of God is not the same as Godlessness, any more than taking leave of one's family is familylessness or taking leave of one's senses senselessness. It's all a matter of language. The subtitle bristles with similar problems. Some of the essayists emphatically reject the nontheist label in favour of 'atheist' or 'agnostic' and one, James Riemermann, of Minnesota, expresses a wider agnosticism surely representative of a majority of Quakers (and not just Quakers):

'Rarely do I feel led to use the word 'God' to describe anything I experience, though I often relate deeply to what many fellow Quakers describe as God. Part of my reluctance stems from the fact that the word feels so terribly imprecise, and I can almost always find better ways to express myself. It's not a matter of simply replacing the word God with another phrase (the Divine, the Inward Light, the Christ Within, Love, the Ground of Being) but of taking all the language at my command and struggling to express how the world seems to me. Even then I come up short; the words rarely if ever capture the experience, but they come far closer than any timeworn, hand-me-down phrase that is likely to mean a thousand different things to a thousand different people. When the most thoughtful believers speak to me of God, it almost always comes through to me as a heightened awareness of relationship.'

That last point goes to the heart of Quakerism. Never a church but a human society, they have no creed so much as a predisposition to see 'God' in other people ('the light within' or 'that of God in everyone') and in place of liturgies, there is the silence only to be broken by men or women with something relevant to say. Consequently, Quakers have always been closer to nontheism than other Christians. When I was writing a biography of John Scott of Amwell, the eighteenth-century Quaker poet, social reformer and grotto-builder, I came across an entry for 1783 in the visitors' book to his shell grotto: 'R. Morris. atheist.' Not the sort of calling card that could be left with anyone but a Quaker. Scott himself was a theist but one who like his mentor, Alexander Pope, believed the proper study of mankind is man. Scott's brother, Samuel, on the other hand, was steeped in Wesleyan 'enthusiasm' and in the next century most Quakers followed him into an evangelicalism that was barely distinguishable from that of Wilberforce and Shaftesbury, with the result that after their civil disabilities were removed many English Quakers became Anglicans. In many ways, that was the end of traditional Quakerism, both in Britain and America. Some notable families remained members and there were many who were active in social concerns without counting themselves as 'believers' but, in the twentieth century and even more in this, the Society of Friends has become a destination for spiritual asylum-seekers. As the New England contributor David Rush put it: 'We do know that Quakerism is often a refuge from other religions, and that growth of the Society comes from convincement.'

The value of Godless for God's Sake is that it shines a candid light on Quaker spirituality, making articulate what is unsaid and probably cannot be said in the silence of their meetings. It is primarily a book about the dilemma that a significant minority of Quakers face when they perceive that 'convincement' is not the same as 'belief', and may mean indeed a conviction of unbelief or even a conviction of not being convinced of anything. The majority of contributors to this book are Americans and this dilemma is clearly more worrying to those who live in that de facto theocracy than those in secular Europe. In America Quakers are expected to be more overtly Christian, or at least religious, than their European counterparts. Many Quaker meetings are structured as meetings for worship and not surprisingly most contributors to this book prefer to attend or be members of non-structured meetings. But that does not make them all 'nontheists'. As David Rush again puts it, when discussing various British and American surveys of belief:

One very important gap in knowledge concerns what Quakers mean when they speak of God, quite apart from the question of belief. This writer senses that the theist/non-theist divide is far more fluid than we have supposed, and that we will find this divide often to be a false one.

Godless for God's Sake does not come to any clear conclusions – nor would one have expected it to. There is an informative, though rather discursive, chapter on the history of nontheism in the Quaker tradition, in which David Boulton examines the pioneering beliefs of Gerrard Winstanley, the 'Digger' and early Quaker, while Os Cresson from Philadelphia celebrates David Duncan and the 19th-century Free Friends of Manchester and also the American radical Henry Joel Cadbury. But most of the contributions are personal statements, 'testimonies' one might call them in another context, stories of the journeys and spiritual or emotional struggles that have brought them to the position they now hold whether that is nontheist, atheist or agnostic, or just plain confused with no honest or immediate form of language in which to express that confusion. This is the strength of the book, indeed the strength of Quakerism today. Were the same contributors to describe their spiritual state in five or ten years time, I suspect the results would be different. These are travel narratives, not descriptions of houses built on a hill.

David Boulton is a contributor to Godless for God's Sake, as well as its editor and publisher. It comes hard on the heels of the enlarged second edition of his own contribution to nontheist literature, The Trouble with God – Building the Republic of Heaven. It is now published to the plaudits of Tony Benn, former Bishop Richard Holloway and Don Cupitt, who points out how funny Boulton can be. I particularly savoured the argument he and his brother had about Jesus's beard ('Jesus Shaves'). Humour apart, he is a thoughtful, learned and lucid writer who makes his case in three substantial helpings – his own story (from Gospel Hall to Granada TV), a biography of 'God' (from El and Yahweh to the Götterdämmerung of modern theology) and finally Boulton's reconstruction of religion as the 'Republic of Heaven' – a phrase he borrows from the novelist Philip Pullman's rejection of anything suggesting transcendental monarchy. As with the book of Quaker essays, the best part of this work is Boulton's own story. Once he is on the final lap, speeding towards the proclamation of a 'hallowed secularism', his humour gets the better of him. The trouble with God, he concludes, is 'she can't be written out of the script – so since she won't go quietly, let us retain her in the capacity of honorary consultant-adviser.'

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