Thursday, 25 February 2016

Derek Guiton: A Man that Looks on Glass

I have been dipping into Derek Guiton A Man that Looks on Glass: Standing up for God in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) (FeedARead Publishing 2015).  According to the blurb,
the Quaker movement in Britain is beset with problems — growing secularisation, incompatible belief systems, ideology as a substitute for faith. Add to these the emergence of theologically-based ‘special interest’ groups with their own sectarian agendas and campaigning methods and we have a genuine existential crisis on our hands.

When Guiton talks about standing up for God, one is tempted to ask whether God is not powerful enough to do this for Himself.  Predictions of the collapse into irreligiosity of the Quakers, like those about society at large, tend to be premature.  My experience is that in all churches there are some members who are more interested in doctrine, theology and the nature of worship than others; indeed, I would rate the quality of spiritual and religious understanding amongst Quakers as higher than in other churches I have encountered.  It’s just that because of the lack of a creed, differences (and indifference) amongst Quakers are more obvious.  All Quakers are on a journey, are seekers but at any one time, some are bound to be in a different place, and moving at a different pace, than others.  Snapshot surveys about belief or disbelief, on which Guiton places much reliance, cannot capture the richness of even the most superficial of spiritual lives, just as bald statistics about numbers of members cannot capture the true health of the Society.  (Another indication of the health of an organisation is its financial wealth.  It would be interesting, and perhaps a bit embarrassing, to know if BYM has a balance sheet and what is the value of its assets are per head of membership.)

Guiton dislikes non-realism, the notion that religion is no more than a human construct, but says of mystical non-theism, which allows that there may be something more than ordinary reality, that it is in keeping with Quakers’ traditional perception of themselves as seekers.   This offers a common ground between theists and non-theists: the notion that faith and practice is a path, not a fruition.  I believe this to be true, which leads me to be relaxed in the face of self-styled Cassandras such as Guiton. I believe he exaggerates the threat posed by David Boulton and non-theist network, which far from seeking to split the Society has opened up a refreshing debate on the nature of what it is that Quakers do.  I have found that the debate and my own spiritual journey has tended to move me from a firm atheism, to a universalist humanism and on towards a soft theism but I could not have done this without non-religious and Buddhist Friends just as I could not have done it without the mainstream Christians I have encountered in other churches.  Even so, the state of my interior life at any one moment may have more to do with what I had for breakfast than with a committed relationship with the Almighty.

Guiton has some interesting but passing remarks about the role of discernment in social activism.  I would like to have seen more from him about the threat posed to the Society not by over-extended diversity, to use his phrase, but by political ideologues who ignore the Quaker tradition of ethical capitalism and moral progressivism and who twist the testimony of equality into angry and ignorant words about so-called domination systems.  This trend has less to do with weak theology as weak thinking generally and a lack of disciplined discernment.

God has a tendency to break through in unexpected ways, as Janet Scott pointed out in her Swarthmore Lecture, to which Guiton pays much attention.  If we carry on doing what we do – whatever that is – there may be surprisingly positive consequences.  Is this blind optimism or true faith? There is mention of Keith Ward (p.233), who has made a vigorous case for a theism springing from philosophical idealism.  I cannot find mention of the early Quakers’ panentheist contemporary, Spinoza but unfortunately there is no index or bibliography so it is hard to be sure.

Guiton is ambiguous about diversity, seeming to welcome open-minded thinking while worrying overmuch about its diluting a theological purity and primitive goodness which, by my reading of Quaker history, never existed.  His chapter on the need for a theology is contentious.  He quotes Rowan Williams saying of Don Cupitt that Cupitt ‘gives his readers very little sense of the range of intellectual options involved’ in the debate on non-realism but the same might be said of Guiton.  Guiton praises Robert Barclay, but there is much to dislike about our greatest theologian’s authoritarian sectarianism, which is a neglected (because unattractive) theme in Quaker history vide the shameful and prolonged domination system of disownment for exogamy.  See my earlier blog about this key feature of the history of Quaker exclusivism.

Guiton begins to lose my sympathy from chapter 5 onwards, in which he seems to uphold the experiential basis of Quakerism while insisting on the need for a Quaker theology which would necessarily deny a shared identity to non-theists or even to those committed Friends whose tastes and interests take them away from theology and more towards activism or administration.  He recognises that Quakers have a long history of controversy about their identity while not recognising that such controversies, in Britain at least, have not led to schism.  The non-theist controversy, like the universalism v. Christocentric controversy, will run its course (indeed, it may already have done so)  and its lessons absorbed.  Guiton adopts an exclusivist tone, correctly linking emotional with spiritual experience while seeming to assert that spiritual discernment and fellowship are truly available only to the theist.

The final chapter is on theism and the sovereignty of love but contains very little love directed towards non-theists.  Generally in the book there is little sense of how non-theism, in all its guises, adds to the life of the Society. I look in vain for a discussion of the beneficial influence of Buddhism on Quakers and of how eastern non-monotheist spirituality has enriched Quakerism and, indeed, Christianity generally.  I look in vain for a recognition of how modern psychology has deepened our understanding of human minds and emotions and helped us re-engage with the classic texts of  Christian spirituality such as St Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises.  I look in vain for the point that Ben Pink Dandelion has made about the ministry of gifts and for a recognition that it is not given to some Friends to want or need to engage in theology.  I look in vain for recognition that each of us is on a journey and that at any one point in that journey we may be more or less engaged with the deep things of life and more or less inclined to use God language.

 This is a lively but disputatious book which, in seeming to call for a revival of exclusivism, is overly uncritical of the past of the Society, overly critical of its present and overly pessimistic about its future.

1 comment:

  1. I find Mark Frankel's comments on my book, A Man that Looks on Glass, exactly what one would expect from a reviewer who 'dips into' rather than reads the whole of the book s/he is reviewing. Why cannot God stand up for Himself, he asks? A not very clever jibe. I will try to answer some of his more serious points one by one. I am defending the concept of God against the postmodernist and non-realist claim that belief in the immanent AND transcendent reality of God is naive and out of date. Snapshot surveys: I agree they can never capture the richness and gradations of belief in the Society but they are nevertheless important indicators, they reveal trends, else why would the Society commission them every few years? "Guiton dislikes non-realism, the notion that religion is no more than a human construct". In fact I emphasise that institutional religion IS a human construct. I dislike non-realism because it denies, in fact rubbishes, the experience of countless Friends who have known the real Presence of God in their personal and corporate lives. As Thomas Kelly said: "What is the ground and foundation of the gathered meeting? In the last analysis, it is, I am convinced, the Real Presence of God." "Self-styled Cassandras like Guiton": I describe as Cassandras, actually a compliment, the many Swarthmore Lecturers who have warned that the Society is getting over-extended in terms of belief and as a result is heading in an increasingly secular direction. Our Swarthmore Lecturers are Cassandras in the sense that their true prophecy is ignored by those it is intended to help. "David Boulton and the Nontheist Friends Network have opened up a refreshing debate". Well then, my book is certainly part of that. "The state of my interior life at any given moment may be more to do what I had for breakfast than with a committed relationship with the Almighty". I doubt, Mark, if it could be that superficial! Keith Ward: frequently quoted (not just on page 233). Read the book! Spinoza is not mentioned: no, nor are lots of other thinkers. I discuss pantheism and panentheism, but o have brought in Spinoza would have involved an elaborate digression. Lack of index, bibliography: I apologise for this (I was in some hurry); however the book is well footnoted. "He quotes Rowan Williams saying of Don Cupitt that Cupitt gives his readers very little sense of the range of intellectual options involved in the debate on non-realism but the same might be said of Guiton." Read the book instead of just dipping into it: I give plenty of options to non-realism. "He denies a shared identity to non-theists and Quaker activists" - nonsense! I don't treat non-theists as a homogeneous group but make a distinction between non-theists who are mystics or seekers and others who have opted for a fixed position as humanists and atheists and are actively campaigning to change the Society to bring it round to this way of thinking. I argue that Quaker activism, if it is not to be the same as any other activism, must arise from the experience of spiritual encounter and transformation. Again I say, read the book! "Spiritual discernment and fellowship only available to the theist": I quote Richenda Scott and Janet Scott to say that it is through God that we find our deepest fellowship and unity. Yes, I believe this. "I look in vain for recognition that each of us is on a journey etc". Please, read the whole book before you make such statements. "This is a lively but disputatious book which [calls] for a revival of exclusivism". It's hardly exclusivist to suggest that a minimum criterion for membership might be - not even a belief - but an attitude of openness to no more than the possibility of transcendence. What is the alternative and where would it lead?

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