Friday, September 11, 2009

In which I ramble on about books I've never read

There's been some interesting discussion in the Quaker blogosphere around David Boulton's book The Trouble With God. Simon Haywood wrote a post arguing the book was anti-Quaker, and Charley Earp wrote a response. Full disclosure: I haven't read The Trouble With God, so in that regard I'm talking through my hat on this particular thread.

Frankly the arguments in Simon and especially Earp's posts made my head spin. It is late at night, but still...

What canst I say?

I am not a theist but continue to be mistrustful of the term "non-theist" because it focuses on what I don't believe rather than what I do believe (I would also point out that I am a non-Odinist and a non-Quetzalcoatlist, in which I expect I have a lot of company here).

I believe in stories. I believe in fiction. I trust love.

To me, God or no God is a red herring when it comes to truth. What it comes down to, is can you let the truth of a story into your heart without its being factually true? If no, then you are subject to a warped realism: you trust only what you can touch, or else you make true what is not empirically demonstrable.

We all do this. Quakers, Mormons, Catholics. Shi'ites, Zen Buddhists (OK, maybe not Zen Buddhists). Even not-theists like me.

Our world includes processes and structures that cannot be empirically seen. Some of them can be empirically demonstrated, most notably in the sciences. Others are social structures we all take for granted, and can see acting around us so clearly there is no need for demonstration. Some are frankly baffling. Death, for instance.

Earlier this week I had a bedtime where I became obsessed with 9/11. Imagining being on the planes, in the towers, on the street. It's like my son's interest in the Titanic: we humans believe if you turn a thing over and over long enough, there will be a solution. So we read the book over and over, and we form ideas in our heads and hearts about how the world works. That's one of the things stories are really good for.

I watched a bunch of YouTube bits from New York, 9/11/01. It helped, oddly, to see the actual events, horrifying though it was. I remembered what actually happened; it went from a movie script in my head to a horrible thing that actually happened. Probably reading Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close would have helped, or In the Shadow of Two Towers, both still on my to-read list.

We are so... so... what's the word? neurotic? uptight? obsessed? whatever it is, we are so "that way" about fact and fiction, making sure we are clear which is on which side. "Sacred" is on the non-fiction shelves. "Funny" is on the fiction shelves. Me, I love stories that, even if only for a little while, confuse me as to which is which: conspiracy theories, metafiction, stories within stories...

To me, that's where I get a glimpse of really experiencing truth.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Hi, Nat!

I was delighted to discover that you posted your feelings on this issue. As usual, you draw some good points out of the thinking you’ve done about map-making, and I appreciate what you say.

One thing I think I think we need to be clear about, though, is that neither Simon’s original post, nor Charley’s responding post, was ultimately about theism versus nontheism, even though both posts took that debate as one of their starting points.

Nor was either post ultimately about how we as individuals define and relate to “truth” and to stories — although Charley, in particular, had a good deal to say about our relationships to “truth”.

These posts, rather, were about how liberal Quakers — Simon and Charley say simply, “Quakers”, but that’s because neither of them really believes any other kind of Quaker needs to be considered — how liberal Quakers have agreed amongst themselves to relate to cope with the differences in belief systems amongst themselves, and about how David Boulton’s stance may perhaps be subversive of that agreement.

Simon thinks David’s arguments are deeply subversive, by cutting off the person who subscribes to them from what Simon calls “truth beyond language which we can experience” and “the reality we have no choice about”.

Charley does not agree; he thinks Quakerism can incorporate David’s sophisticated/cynical attitude toward claims about “reality” and “truth”, and still survive.

The actual argument can be translated into mapmaking terms, if you like.

We can say, all three of these guys — David, Simon, and Charley — agree that the map does not fully reflect the reality.

Simon affirms that we are at least capable of experiencing the reality and pointing to it, even drawing maps that reflect our limited experiences with a fair degree of faithfulness, but he asserts that Quakerism calls on us to set the maps aside and look at the reality itself. Simon fears that David claims that the reality cannot be seen — a claim that, if true, would invalidate liberal Quakerism, and especially the liberal Quaker decision-making process, at least as Simon understands it.

Charley counters that David is not saying the reality is inaccessible, but rather that the act of trying to map it doesn’t work. Whether that still invalidates liberal Quaker decision-making (which is, after all, a sort of joint exercise in mapping the path of righteousness), Charley doesn’t say.

There is definitely an issue here that a philosopher of map-making like yourself might make useful observations about. And you make a start, when you say “I believe in stories. I believe in fiction. I trust love.” But I’d like to hear you say more!

George Amoss Jr. said...

Thanks, Nat, for your clear thinking and writing. I found it helpful. And thanks, Marshall, for the mapping analogy. I think it tells us that we need to go back a step: before arguing about seeing vs. mapping the territory, we might do well to agree on which territory we're talking about, and whether territories have anything to do with living in the spirit. Maybe being territorial is, well, leading us down the path: given that a territory is a kind of thing whereas spirit is not, we may discover that we've been wasting our time with maps and sightseeing. Maybe the only map we need is the one that points us to love's inner teacher and leaves us there.

natcase said...

Marshall & George: I'm a bit abashed, as I really was feeling incoherent when I posted last night. And here I am, late at night 24 hours later, feeling the hour upon me again.

I think what makes me spin in this discussion—in a way that Quaker worship does not—is a sense of our worrying ourselves into a frenzy. Not that there aren't things to worry about, or people who will cloak terrible things within "don't worry, be happy!"

When I said, “I believe in stories. I believe in fiction. I trust love," I was trying to get at the simple quality of real ministry. Stories, even complex ones, are based on the idea that something happened. You can do all sorts of fun tricks and point-of-view switches and mixing up chronology to confuse the reader, and I often really like that sort of thing, but unlike this sort of debate, there is a foundational assumption of people doing, saying, and feeling things.

This is the heart of spoken ministry in meeting to me. Took me a while to figure that out, but it makes such a difference when spoken ministry comes straight out of the speaker's direct experience, instead of her/his ideas about what happened.


And that's why I say these discussions about theism and non-theism, christocentrism and universalism, and so on, are red herrings. They are about the shapes we build around ourselves to get at the important stuff. We each need them, like you need warm clothes to climb a mountain but they aren't the point. When they become the point, the expedition turns into a fashion show: very interesting, but not as...well...important. And don't try to get me to say what the point is, because as soon as I insert language between it and me, it just becomes another piece of equipment—useful perhaps, but again, not the point.

I hope I agree with what I just wrote in the morning. I need to go to sleep.

James Riemermann said...

Hey, Nat. I have to say, seeing this conversation distributed across at least three blogs and one email list reminds me why I'm not a blogger. I prefer internet forums, where the whole model is conversation, rather than the atomized "call and response" model that is the norm on blogs. But yours is an interesting take.

You wrote:

"What it comes down to, is can you let the truth of a story into your heart without its being factually true? If no, then you are subject to a warped realism: you trust only what you can touch, or else you make true what is not empirically demonstrable."

Can one not be moved by the beauty, wisdom, power, terror, compassion, of a story without giving a second thought to its truth (truth meaning, that which is the case). Don't readers of genres other than scripture do this all the time? It is only in the field of religion where many/most readers raise up the question of it being true or not as central. And it seems to me that truth assumption often clouds people's vision as to the stories' essence. The stories of Job and of Abraham and Isaac, and the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, strike me as perfect examples. If you begin these books believing they refer to a real God who is loving, who is love, the stories are incomprehensible. The interpretations of theologians who take this approach make no sense at all.

Read them as literature that explores the nature of human community, human faithfulness, humans trying to make sense of an often horrifying and incomprehensible world, and they take their place among the most powerful existential stories ever written. The insoluble problems of interpretation become the insoluble problems of the human condition--and the art becomes coherent.

Which is to say, I think there is some deep and genuine religious wisdom and value in challenging the "realist" approach to God, and offering up a "non-realist" approach where God does not exist but is an imaginative creation of humans trying to understand themselves and their world. This is what David Boulton's book is about.

James Riemermann said...

I should also offer a link to my favorite chapter from David's book, republished with David's permission here:

Marshall Massey said...

I like the discussion unfolding here very much!

George, I think your questions about “which territory we're talking about, and whether territories have anything to do with living in the spirit”, are excellent ones. I personally would affirm that we are definitely talking about a territory, but that it is a territory of a very different nature from the political territories that humans set up for themselves. In fact, I am reminded very much of Jesus’s parable of the woman with the jar of meal — saying 97 in the Gospel of Thomas — if you are familiar with that one!

James, you write that “If you begin [the stories of Job and of Abraham and Isaac, and the wisdom of Ecclesiastes] believing they refer to a real God who is loving, who is love, the stories are incomprehensible. The interpretations of theologians who take this approach make no sense at all.” I could wish you had appended the words “to me” to each of these sentences, because they are very clearly a truthful description of your personal reaction, but are not necessarily true for everyone else.

I read these stories of Abraham and Isaac, and of Job, and the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, as descriptions of a real God who is not only a real God of love but also, and equally, a real God of righteousness. Reading the stories in this way, they seem perfectly comprehensible to me.

James Riemermann said...

Marshall, you and I have had some interesting online discussions about these matters which I hope we don't need to repeat in much detail here. But, with respect, I don't add "to me" to those sentences because I think conventional religious interpretations of those stories are not just different from my own, but profoundly wrong, distorted because the conventionally religious come to the story determined that, no matter what, God must be good. There is more than one valid lesson to be learned from the events of Job, but "God is righteous as well as loving" is not among them. Likewise the God who sent Abraham up the mountain with instructions to kill his son, or the God who destroyed Sodom.

natcase said...

James, this diverges from the original issue in question, but I think there's something profound in the question you raise, which is another of the Big Divides among peoples' beliefs.

I'm remembering reading the first part of bell hooks' All About Love, and getting angrier and angrier with the fundamental premise, which if I remember it right was that love and violence cannot live in the same house (metaphorically speaking). If there is violence in a relationshhip, that relationship is not love. To me this seemed so ludicrous as to make it impossible for me to read further. Of course you can love someone and do them terrible violence. You can love someone and want to control them. The two are not dependent or even healthy to share, but to say that a relationship is not love as soon as it contains abuse is to deny the terrible ripping that happens when one separates oneself from a violent relationship. To me love is like an intertwined care, and how that care is expressed is often deeply twisted.

What Job and Abraham's stories do say in this context is that if God is loving, He is other things too. It's the idea that God = a love comprehensible to humans, and that makes these stories incomprehensible in your interpretation.

Did I do your point of view justice there? Correct me if I got it wrong.

natcase said...

Thanks James for the link at In general, I think Boulton is right in line with my thinking. I have troubles with a linguistic approach to reality, as I've talked about in this blog in regards to cartography. But aside from that, I think in this chapter he's on target. Makes me want to read more. Can I borrow a copy of the book from you sometime?

George Amoss Jr. said...

Marshall, I, too, like the Thomas logion in which the Kingdom of God is likened to a woman who finds her jar empty when she gets home, not having noticed the hole in it where the handle had broken off. Would that we could all be so lucky!

It reminds me of the story of Zen master Nan-in, who kept pouring tea into a professor's overflowing cup. "You are overflowing with opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

And of master Kyogen Chikan: "Last year's poverty was not yet perfect ... there was room for the head of a gimlet...."

And of Ferlinghetti, too: "I sit down with my paper/ which has an explanation of everything/ except there's a hole in it...."

Then there's John Caputo: "The 'real' is precisely what eludes or withdraws from us whenever we think we have gotten it in our grips...."

But didn't Bob Dylan say it well: "the pump don't work cause the vandals took the handles"?

Love those multivalent stories....

Marshall Massey said...

James, I appreciate your posting of the chapter from Boulton’s book. Reading it, alas, I find that it is not to my taste. But I’m grateful to have a clearer idea of what Boulton is saying. Thank you.

I see no reason to reply to your ex cathedra pronouncement that the Bible stories in question are “profoundly wrong”. I am merely glad that you and I do not share a yearly meeting.

I am going to back out of this conversation now. Best wishes to all!

James Riemermann said...


You misunderstand me--I am dismissing certain interpretations of the stories, not the stories themselves. The stories I love beyond measure. They are profoundly right.


Most of what you say resonates for me. Certainly love can and usually does live in tension with other feelings we see as less healthy or friendly. And certainly our efforts to sound the mind of the creator of the universe will be hampered if we insist that God's values are our values. In naturalistic terms, the universe was not created to satisfy us. The most theologically resonant part of Job, his conversation with God, demonstrates this with breathtaking poetic power. In short, Job challenges God with "are you not just?" and God ignores and blasts past the question with "I am powerful!" He is the creator of the universe, of all life, and has no interest in your petty "justice."

In other places in the stort, God of Job has a weird insecurity that Satan plays masterfully. Many of us know this sort of insecurity in our own love relationships, though few of us act it out as shamelessly as God does in this story.

In the end Job bows his head in utter humility, and God, having empowered Satan to torture Job and kill his family, blesses Job even more than before. This is presented as a happy ending. I'm not convinced. Many horror movies end with such a peace, and just the slightest hint that something is still lurking in the woods.

These two images pictures of God--as well as many other such pictures throughout the Bible--are somewhat distinct and hard to reconcile, and that is the point. The God of the Bible is as multifarious as the humans who created him. As a literary character he is a reflection of humanity, and of the world humanity moves in.

I would be glad to lend you The Trouble With God--I just have to find it. I also have an amazing modern translation of Job with introduction, by Stephen Mitchell, if you'd be interested.


Marshall Massey said...

James, I don’t believe I misunderstand you. What I say is that to change the interpretation of a story is, in a very real sense, to change the story itself. For instance, a Freudian restatement of Little Red Riding Hood, or an Eric-Berne-style games-analysis restatement, is a quite different story from the story in its original nursery-tale form.

And to throw out the conventional interpretations of a story is, in very reality, to throw out the original story. Never mind that you are replacing it with your own re-visioning.

Of course, I can’t be entirely sure what you meant by “conventional religious interpretations of those stories”, since I don’t fully know your mind. But I feel quite sure that what you meant by those words would include what the Hebrews meant by the stories when they were telling them to their kids in the tenth century B.C. For they were quite certainly speaking of an utterly real God who possessed human-like attributes, interacted with His followers, and had given meaning and purpose to their association of twelve tribes, and they were quite clear that He was righteous and an ultimate redresser of wrongs.

I see no reason to discuss matters further with you, regarding which you feel so utterly convinced that the view I myself subscribe to is “profoundly wrong”. What would be the point?

But even though this conversation deserves to come to an end, I do, indeed, wish you well —

Simon Heywood said...

Hello Friends

it's been interesting to follow the discussions arising from this post. I can't take up all the points made at the moment but I'd just like to comment on this:

'Simon and Charley say simply, “Quakers”, but that’s because neither of them really believes any other kind of Quaker [ie. other than liberal] needs to be considered'

I can't speak for Charley but I was probably writing imprecisely and assuming a British perspective, where all the various strains of Quaker understanding rub shoulders within one small Yearly Meeting. But, also, I don't think it even needs saying that David's book is outwith Christian and theist Quaker faith; but I think it is true, but less obvious, that it is equally outwith Quaker non-theism. It's another strain of non-theism entirely, one which is predominantly intellectual and scholarly rather than grounded in what Nat calls witness. In my reading, the book doesn't say, "I, the writer, experience God as a powerful figment of my imagination"; I think that (by some means which I personally don't seek to understand) authentic Quaker witness might well take that form of words. But the book goes further and says, "All experience of God, including yours - no matter what you may think about it - is only ever a figment of the imagination." At that point, I think, it becomes so dogmatic that it parts company with *any* strain of Quaker understanding. I wanted to make that point without getting drawn into the issue of which specific words speak to my personal condition. But I certainly think that non-liberal strains of Quaker faith merit consideration, and I apologise if I said they didn't.

Ellen said...

I like the picture of God given in the (not really very good) film "Dogma," -- as someone who was sometimes just out to lunch. There are times when God is a bitch, or gone fishing, or the definition of generosity. All these statements are inadequate little personifications of the moment. Clearly God is not to be held responsible for every vicissitude, every outcome. God does not direct hurricanes, elections, or football games. For indeed s/he has much more to do with imagination than with demonstration, more the poet-prophet than the grounds of rational narrative.

Much of the interesting discussion going on here points to a need to find a way to include ambivalence in the idea and the love of God. By ambivalence one can see why one simultaneously loves charitably and with aggression, and loves someone who does the same back. (This part of the question always sends me to D. W. Winnicott, the most original of the British School of psychoanalysis.)

Perhaps Abraham was more cavalier than God? Presuming to obey such an order? Is the patriarch a teacher's pet? The story invites us to quarrel with it, this is for sure. My sister (who is Jewish) has concluded that a pious scribe has left out some verses in which Abraham argues with God. (Much as New Testament scholars discerned that the verse in John about "for God so loved the world that he gave his only son" is a later addition -- though disagreeing on how to read the interpolation, as pietistic, devout, or a misreading of a marginal comment as part of the main text).

At any rate, turning to the holey vessels -- remember the old circle song that begins (and ends)
"There's a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza..."

George Amoss Jr. said...

Marshall, I think that the original Friends would have given you quite an argument about story and interpretation. From their perspective, story and interpretation are different things, and if the standard interpretation of scripture had been correct there would have been no need for the Quaker movement. To throw out the conventional interpretation was, for them, the first step toward finding meaningful truth in the story.

Stories aren't written with interpretations appended, and the better the story, the richer its inherent interpretive possibilities. If there is a "true" interpretation of "Little Red Riding Hood," there's no agreement on what it is: the story is a very good one, even if quite incredible. There are very good stories in the Bible, too, even if they tell us that God has buttocks (Ex. 33:23) or that the sky is an inverted bowl with water on the other side (Gen. 1). Fortunately, we have the Quaker tradition to remind us that story and interpretation are different things, and that conventional interpretations are not to be trusted.

Marshall Massey said...

George, I said I wanted to back out of this conversation. I am sorry to be dragged back in.

I agree that early Friends did not approve of imposing human interpretations on Scripture, “wresting scripture” as Penington put it in his essay The Axe Laid to the Root of the Old Corrupt Tree (1659). They wanted people to hear the words of the Bible just as they were written, without interposing an interpretation that X means Y or anything like that — to hear the words naïvely, as Charley put it on QuakerQuaker, although Charley condemned the naïve approach.

Friends had great assurance that the authors of scripture were not just pretending the existence of a God who did not, in fact, exist, or presenting Him misleadingly, or attributing to Him characteristics that were not true. As Barbara Blaugdone wrote in her Account of the Travels, Sufferings & Persecutions (1691), “the Spirit of God was true, and did speak as it meant, and meant as it spoke...: [and] holy men of God spake the Scriptures, and gave them forth as they were Inspired by the Holy Ghost....” Such a conviction left no room for the idea that the holy men of God were mistaken in affirming God’s literal existence, His righteousness, and His possession of emotions and intentions that were higher, better equivalents of humankind’s own. Barclay wrote in his Apology (1676-78), Prop. III, §1, that he meant to “help to sweep away th[e] ... calumn[y] ... [that] we [a]re vilifiers and deniers of the scriptures; for ... we ... account ... them, without ... deceit or equivocation, the most excellent writings of the world.... ...Neither [do] we subject them to the fallen, corrupt, and defiled reason of man....

Listening naïvely to scripture was a way of clearing one's head to hear what these utterly reliable “holy men of God” were aiming to convey, instead of only hearing one’s own “fallen” paraphrases and interpretations.

What Friends condemned was not the understanding that arises from naïve literalism; what they condemned was an understanding that arises from naïve literalism in the absence of a living connection with the Spirit. For “plain it is that the scriptures are not plain but to the spiritual man,” wrote William Penn, in his essay A Discourse of the General Rule of Faith and Practice (1674). The spiritual man, having the same reference points in his own experience as the “holy men of God” had when they gave the scripture forth, could rightly understand which passages were meant to be understood as literal, and which were meant as metaphorical by the original writer — simply by listening with sufficient naïveté and sufficient attentiveness.

Friends argued against water baptism, and against the physical ritual of the Lord's Supper, not because they felt they could improve on the understanding of the original writers of scripture, but because after listening to the words of scripture naïvely, not just once but many, many times, they concluded that this was what Jesus Christ and his apostles actually intended. They made this very plain in their writings.

But if we think they were against “conventional” interpretations as such, then it is past time for us to re-read the letter written by George Fox et al. to the governor and assembly at Barbados in 1671, which is crammed to the gills with conventional interpretations that, in Friends’ shared opinion, faithfully mirrored the original intent of scripture.

The aim of the early Friends was not to escape “conventional” interpretations, but to escape post-Biblical interpretations.

natcase said...

Marshall: feel free to not respond to this message; I just wanted to say I'm sorry you felt dragged back in, and to say thank you for all your postings here. As ever, whether or not I agree with you, I find your contributions and arguments deeply useful fodder, which stick with me persistently as only really good messages do, and which I usually find I need to adjust my point of view to accommodate. I hope others here agree, but for my part I hope you will post on this blog again soon.

George Amoss Jr. said...

I see what you mean, Marshall. Thanks for clarifying your view.

I am able to encounter the scriptures in what Paul Ricoeur calls "second naivete." Naive literalism, though, is simply not possible for me. That's how my brain works. So I thank you for providing counterpoint, which is a blessing.

Thanks for hosting an illuminating discussion, Nat.

Marshall Massey said...

Nat, I appreciate your kind words.

I’m backing out of this conversation due to a sense that no minds are about to be changed on any side, and that rancor has grown. Under such circumstances, I think it healthiest to simply let things cool.

But that doesn’t mean I’m giving up on your blog! I remain subscribed; I’ll continue to read it, and I’ll join in the conversation again if I sense that the results could be fruitful.

All good wishes to you and everyone —

James Riemermann said...

Marshall wrote:
I see no reason to discuss matters further with you, regarding which you feel so utterly convinced that the view I myself subscribe to is “profoundly wrong”. What would be the point?

With all respect, Marshall, it is clear that you think I am profoundly wrong as well, as you have told me on numerous occasions, sometimes with great force. Which is fine. We disagree.