May 18, 2019 § 12 Comments
I saw David Brooks speak the other day. David Brooks is a conservative columnist in The New York Times and on PBS and NPR. I have not always agreed with his views, but I have always appreciated his moral sense and reasonableness. He was terrific—very funny, very insightful, with a deeply encouraging spiritual message: that we’ve been snookered into investing value and identity in outward things, but what really matters is relationships.
In his talk, he raised up a definition of soul that expresses something I’ve been reaching for in my Quaker writing for a long time, a way to talk about Spirit that is not theistic but still deeper and truer than the pure humanism that often characterizes Quaker nontheism. A way to anchor a theology—a way to talk about and share—liberal Quakerism that takes us forward, that honors the impulse against simplistic theism that animates our nontheists, an impulse that I share, without jettisoning our tradition completely.
Let me quote from the book he was promoting with the lecture (The Two Mountains):
I do not ask you to believe in God or not believe in God. I’m a writer not a missionary. That is not my department. But I do ask you to believe that you have a soul. There is some piece of your consciousness that has no shape, size, weight, or color. This is the piece of you that is of infinite value and dignity. . . .
The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility. A river is not morally responsible for how it flows, and a tiger is not morally responsible for what it eats. But because you have a soul, you are morally responsible for what you do or don’t do. . . . Because you have this moral piece in you, you are judged for being the kind of person you are, for the thoughts you think and the actions you take.
Because each person has a soul, each person is owed a degree of respect and goodwill from others. [sound familiar?] Because each person has a soul, we are rightly indignant when that dignity is insulted, ignored, or obliterated. . . .
The soul is the seedbed of your moral consciousness and your ethical sense. . . .
Mostly, what the soul does is yearn. If the heart yearns for fusion with another person or a cause, the soul yearns for righteousness, for fusion with the good.
This last sentence is exactly how George Fox defined “that of God” within us, not as a piece of God within us, but as something in the conscience (which in 17th century English had a meaning closer to what we mean by consciousness) that yearned for God. It was this yearning that we could “answer” with our ministry, as he expresses it in the famous epistle that liberal Friends like to quote so often.
Of course, Fox was a theist and he believed it was God for whom we yearned, not just “fusion with the good”. But this distinction is one of faith, not really of practice, of doctrine rather than of living and acting. For Fox, the soul was more explicitly your identity before this God, something eternal. At the same time, however, Fox and early Friends did not fuss much about the afterlife or some deferred judgment; this life was what mattered and judgment was here and now. The soul might be immortal but what mattered was what it was doing in one’s lived life. In practice, Fox’s treatment of the soul was very similar to what David Brooks is proposing. And in practice, I see very little distinction between what Brooks means by the soul and what liberal Friends mean by “that of God in everyone”.
I will say, however, that both liberal Quakers and David Brooks focus on the wrong end of the ethical dynamic regarding the soul/that of God: Yes, murder or rape are abominations against another person’s soul, and against one’s own soul, as he says in his book. But the ethical impulse that turns us away from such abomination comes, not from regard for another person’s soul, but from the guidance of our own soul. Our testimonies are not grounded in the belief in that of God in everyone, but in the experience of that of God within ourselves, which seeks to guide us through this yearning for fusion with the good.
With this understanding of the human soul, we are talking about consciousness in an explicitly spiritual and moral sense without having to invoke the sin-judgment-salvation framework that we’ve inherited from our Christian roots, but also without abandoning its essential import for human action, personal transformation, and community life. We can speculate about where the soul comes from and where it goes when we die, but that’s just speculation. Real life happens right here and right now, and now, and now, until who knows what. This reality of the soul we know and can affirm experientially.
Next, I want to explore what I will call the collective soul, that piece of the consciousness of a community that years for fusion with the good. This collective soul is the medium of the gathered meeting. And I think it could bring us even closer to a new understanding of “God” or Spirit that is practicable, reasonable, experiential, and transcendental, mystical—deeper than a purely humanistic understanding of Quaker community and worship. And for me at least, it pushes right up against the membrane that separates us from simplistic theism. I call it para-theism.
For (in my opinion) nontheism leaves important aspects of our individual spiritual experience and our collective worship experience unexplained, unarticulated, incapable of being shared with others in a meaningful way. But simplistic theism fails to answer essential questions and assaults the intelligence of the inquiring seeker. I am reaching for something that satisfactorily explains what we experience in worship when our worship is gathered, a way to answer the question, what is Quaker worship?