In his interesting post ‘Quaker non-theism and the God of Pascal‘, Ben Wood points out the very real difficulty some Quakers, especially non-theists like David Boulton, have with the Cartesian concept of God as “merely a necessary theological hypothesis.” Wood quotes Boulton himself in ‘Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith’ (the content appears to be missing from the Quakers in Britain website), “I can no more entertain the notion of gods and devils, angels and demons, disembodied ghoulies and ghosties, or holy and unholy spirits, than I can believe in the magic of Harry Potter or the mystic powers of Gandalf the Grey.”
I am not qualified as a theologian, but Quaker theology appears to me to be, if anything, a theology derived from experience, and the God of my experience is not a being within a known universe, not a notion in fact at all. I may, like everyone else, David Boulton included, derive notions from my experience, but it is the experience that is primary. This primacy of experience is of course what Quakers mean when they describe theirs as an experimental faith. As Charles F Carter wrote:
True faith is not assurance, but the readiness to go forward experimentally, without assurance. It is a sensitivity to things not yet known. Quakerism should not claim to be a religion of certainty, but a religion of uncertainty; it is this which gives us our special affinity to the world of science. For what we apprehend of truth is limited and partial, and experience may set it all in a new light; if we too easily satisfy our urge for security by claiming that we have found certainty, we shall no longer be sensitive to new experiences of truth. For who seeks that which he believes that he has found? Who explores a territory which he claims already to know?
Oddly enough perhaps, at first glance, one of the best accounts of mystical experience I’ve come across recently is found in André Comte-Sponville’s Book of Atheist Spirituality. He writes (p.190):
Mystics are defined by a certain type of experience, comprising self-evidence, plenitude, simplicity, eternity… All this leaves very little room for belief.
They see. Why would they need dogma?
Everything is present. Why would they need hope?
They live in eternity. Why would they need to wait for it?
They are already saved. Why would they need a religion?
Whether they are believers or not, mystics are those who no longer lack God. But is a God who is no longer lacking still God?
I don’t know the answer to Comte-Sponville’s question, except to say that for me, that plenitude – pleroma, in Jung’s Septem Sermones ad Mortuos – is exactly what I mean by God. He goes on to say,
When God is no longer lacking, what remains? The plenitude of what is, which is neither God nor a subject.
When the past and the future no longer separate us from the present, what remains? Eternity – that is, the perpetual now of reality and truth.
When ego and intellect no longer separate us from reality, what remains? The silent unity of all.
For me, that “silent unity” is God. I mean nothing less by the word. But I find I need a shorthand for what André Comte-Sponville describes a few pages later (p.197): “How could I contain the absolute? The absolute contains me – I can reach it only by leaving myself behind.” The little word “God” may give rise to all manner of misunderstandings among Friends and others, but I for one need it for its elegance and concision – and for me, its resonance. To the questioning mind, you see, the infinite light of plenitude is dark, and all our descriptions fail in the end. As TS Eliot wrote, the only answer is (and try writing this without that little word we were discussing):
I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you
Which shall be the darkness of God.