Presenting the work of Quaker atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who practice Quakerism without supernatural beliefs

Intellect and Spirituality

Rather than add my profoundly off-topic response to Cat’s comment on a post called “scriptures and universalism” on a web site labeled “Primitive Christianity Revived, Again: A Convergent Friends Community,” I decided to post my response here.

Cat and all,

I very much appreciate your plain speech. It is good to get a sense of where our true disagreements might lie, though it takes time and effort and hard listening to get there. I am beginning to get a sense.

One thing that occurs to me is, what you have written reflects vigorous intellectual engagement, which I personally find delightful. I don’t think it can or should be everything we do, or something everyone will want to do, but I think the common fear of vigorous intellectual engagement among many Friends is deeply troubling, and much more apparent than any tendency to over-intellectualize. I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve heard a Friend bring unruly discussion to a halt because we’re “getting too much in our heads here.”

Intellectual vigor of the sort I care about is not dry in the least, but fully engaged with the juicy realities of being human in the world. It is up to its elbows in blood, sweat, flesh, bone, gristle, fire, ice. It is ideas, yes, but not ideas detached from reality and floating in the ether.

I don’t mean that everyone should engage in or care about this kind of intellectual wrestling, and I certainly don’t mean that our worship should become intellectual debate or performance–yuck. But the widespread fear of and distaste for intellect, as if the search for understanding could possibly be a bad thing, does not serve us well.

Regarding our disagreement, which I think is real: I see a meaningful distinction between biological life and non-living matter, and I don’t see the value of assuming some shared essence that is “in” these things. All these things exist and are in relationship–that is all I can be certain of. There is much movement within and throughout the 99.999999999999% of the universe that that is not alive, and life somehow emerged, at least once and probably many times, out of non-life. The mystery of this is breathtaking.

But our spirituality emerges from our sentience, from the mystery of our inner world, in relation with the mystery of the outer world. I recognize not only that there is something larger than my mind/our minds, but that almost everything is. If there’s one thing that my atheism is clear on, it is our smallness. Our lives are deeply, profoundly, intrinsically important to us, but I see no reason to believe they are more than a piddling exception to the rule in the vastness of reality. And the only place I see joy, compassion, love, peace beyond measure–is in the yearnings and mostly insufficient efforts of the living. Well, maybe peace is an exception. The dead have found peace beyond measure.

Of course, what I’ve just said is very much out of the mainstream of Quakerism. Some might think my words and beliefs augur the death of Quakerism. Somehow I doubt it. I’m just a person who sees things from a different angle. Like you. Like all of us. May we continue to learn by listening. I know I do.


5 responses to “Intellect and Spirituality”

  1. James, thank you for providing this space for continued discussion. I have several comments.

    First, I too am distressed by the subtitle at the Quaker Quaker website which I find exclusive. Some of my comments in the previous discussion thread were likely born out of my sense of alienation from that forum which had, in my experience, always included me.

    I am frequently frustrated, not only among Friends, but among people discussing issues of spirituality in general, that there is a hesitancy to engage in deeper intellectual discourse. Spirituality is deeply personal and there are great fears tied up in the discussion (belonging, salvation, reality, mortality, immortality). It is little wonder it is prickly. But I have found a few Friends who are not squeamish about such dialog and I am sincerely thankful for their willingness to challenge me and to be challenged. Growth occurs in states of tension. There seems little point in bland agreement.

    Indeed, I am suspicious of that kind of “peace” in which those with the most power in a group maintain the standards of discourse for those on the margins. To paraphrase an expression I read once in an interfaith paper, “The Christians are willing to admit us to the table but they never let us forget whose table it is.” That is not to say that I am intentionally excluded but I do not think the question is being asked often enough. Who are we excluding, by what right and to what end?

    A last statement I’ll make is that among Friends, I have begun to think of myself as the equivalent of a spiritual bisexual. I always knew I was a bit queer but recent conversations highlight it for me and illustrate how easily I can go both ways as spiritual or humanist just as easily as I am comfortable with both Christian language and Pagan language. I suppose it comes from a core belief that whatever Reality is, (and whether or not it is a shifting thing or a constant), the human brain is left with metaphors and approximations. Different brains work in different ways. Hildegard of Bingen’s mystical experiences may have resulted from severe migraines. This does not negate the effects of her visions on her community and those who respected her whether they were peasants, kings, bishops or the pope. Do I scoff at her work because I have cause to doubt the source of her inspiration? The Great Agnostic, Robert Green Ingersoll, needed no religious language to motivate people by the thousands toward compassion and justice. Do I reject his message because I have cause to believe he was unconsciously motivated by the religious sentiments of his time? I just don’t think I’m clever enough to make those judgments. Our brains give us tools to do our heart’s work. In the end, it is the work that matters.

  2. I’m right with you, Hystery.

    There are so many theists and Christians (and sort-of theists and Christians) in my meeting who are so clear about their openness toward odd birds like me, as I am toward them, that it throws me for a loop when I come across Quakers who aren’t so clear about it. And even some who are clear that they’re not open. It’s hard sometimes.

  3. I am an atheist, humanist, and critical thinker. I enjoy the Society of Friends, because I was raised Christian, and I think that it reconciles many of the differences I had with Christianity; however, I think it is time for a new movement, a Synthetic Humanism, which we would unashamedly create for ourselves and our progeny based upon the determinations that a rational council would propose and an individual determinism would affirm. I think that such a humanism is precisely what our modern society needs and any other endeavor is a wasteful pandering to failed ideas and past events.

  4. Joshua,

    I wouldn’t mind hearing more of what you mean about a “Synthetic Humanism.” While I would love to see a new model of deep and genuine religious community without a foundation in supernatural ideas, I’m not sure I would jump the Quaker ship even if such a religion existed. Quakerism has so much richness, so much right about it. The stripped down form of worship, the open-minded, open-hearted way of making decisions. And the people — I have come to value being around lovely people who see things very differently from me. As long as Quakerism will have me, not in spite of, but often in appreciation of, my peculiar sort of godlessnessness, I would like to return that kindness.

    But what you propose interests me. I would like to hear more.

  5. I know this may seem like taking statements to beyond hyperbole, but some of Synthetic Humanism sounds similar to what was “preached” as national socialism. The definition of Human can be manipulated to mean that those who are NOT like me are “sub-human.” I think this is actually been done in the US with groups such as “Taliban,” “Qaeda,” and, to at least some, “abortionists.” Thus “we” can justify ridding the “world” of these sub-humans.

    As I said, I a confident and am not implying that any of these statements wold apply to what was meant by Synthetic Humanism. However, the term synthetic implies artificial and depends on a synthesizing that is controlled by one or more synthesizers.

    If I were to redefine a concept that is prevalent among Friends, I might suggest something like “There is something that unites us as humans.”
    Humanistic Unity?

    I have no insight into this issue but thought I would add my 2 cents worth, which we all know is worth essentially nothing. However if a million people put in their two cents worth we might have enough to buy a small car.

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