A number of recent posts on this blog (here, for instance, or here) have touched on what we mean when we use the word ‘God’, and it seems to me that I should say (or borrow!) a word or two about how I use the word, and a little of what I mean by it.
In his fascinating book God without God: Western Spirituality without the wrathful king, Michael Hampson writes:
A simplistic theism tends to maintain not only that God exists, but that God intervenes regularly in word affairs, from the global to the trivial, and has the right to demand obedience on threat of punishment. The greater presumption ahead of this detail is that there is only one such being, and that it has recognisable human attributes such as personhood and will. This whole package might be called not just theism but presumptive monotheism.
It is against this presumptive monotheism that the atheist case is made… The atheist case is sound, but it is not the last word…
The church still claims two proofs for the existence of God, and they are entirely compatible with the atheist case against the God of presumptive monotheism. The first is the argument from creation: not that anything in the universe needs God in order to operate, but that anything exists at all, that there is even the space and the potential for anything to exist at all. It points to… the ultimate source of all that exists and the essence of existence itself.
The second begins with the experience of being self-consciously alive: the sense of being a conscious observer of, and decision-making participant in, the one particular life we call our own… As fragile and insignificant as it may seem against the vastness of the universe, the mystery of self-consciousness is the most significant experience in each of our lives, indeed the carrier of all experience and the very essence of life. It points once again towards the mystery of existence itself…
It is to this ultimate mystery that the church assigns first the name Existence or Being… and then the name God.
Hampson here has just about summed up what I mean myself when I use the name God. And Hampson, a former Church of England priest, comes very close to a Quaker understanding of God – or perhaps I should say that many Quakers, at least in the liberal tradition, come very close to this mystical understanding of God which has been at the heart of the “one catholic and apostolic church” since its very beginnings.
Emilia Fogelklou, the Swedish Quaker theologian and writer, puts it as clearly as anyone (she is writing of herself in the third person):
But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.
The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.