Divinity: A Nontheist Take

Being a nontheist Quaker is still somewhat controversial, even though we’ve been among liberal Quakers for most of the last 100 years. My evolution to this view was more sudden than I thought possible, since my shift from Trinitarian Charismatic Mennonite to Agnostic Quaker occurred within the space of a few weeks when I was around 34 years old. However, I still have a real affection – even love – for the powerful grand narratives of the world’s religions.

The Trinity was very important to me as a mystical vision. Contemplating the incomprehensible mystery of the divine perichoresis was a truly ecstatic doorway. The Creative Oneness of the Infinite Being differentiated as the hypostases of Abba, Child, and Pneuma inter-connected in an endless joyous communion with each other, how splendid!

In a way, being nontheistic is something of a comedown. Don’t get me wrong, the universe as revealed by modern science is immensely gorgeous and awe-inspiring, even its deadlier aspects. Human history viewed from a truly global perspective without the constrictions of religious tradition is full of endless discoveries.

Even as I no longer take the existence of god as a personal being literally, I confess that I don’t know if my commitment to high ethical standards such as love and compassion would be possible without a religious justification. After all, many animals get along and thrive without doing much in the way of what we recognize as building relationships. Even maternal imperatives can reduced by science to evolutionary survival adaptations.

One of the key convictions I’ve held since deconversion is that neither religion nor atheism do anything to guarantee either intelligence, character, or sound judgment. There are ignorant atheists and wise Christians, just as there are amoral believers and virtuous nonbelievers. I’ve tried, not always successfully, to cultivate an attitude of openness to virtue and wisdom from whatever source.

My deconversion was motivated by a few critical perceptions. Very important was the realization of just how much suffering existed in a universe supposedly created by a benevolent God. I began to doubt that a five-year old dying from cancer when God could save her (this was an actual childhood friend) miraculously could be reconciled with loving omnipotence. Other considerations included a growing appreciation for the science of evolution, the majesty of our ancient starry universe, and a realization that supernatural claims of authority were dangerously immune to criticism.

A key challenge to my supernaturalism was a careful study of feminism. Women are the repressed other to male supremacy throughout history. The classical claim that the infinite God was best named as a male, not just once, but three times came to seem entirely aggrandizing for male clergy.

However, envisioning divinity as a mystical doorway beyond ordinary awareness still attracts me. From theologian Henry Nelson Wieman I’ve learned to define divinity in a new way. He wrote, “Whatever else the word God may mean, it is a term used to designate that Something upon which human life is most dependent for its security, welfare and increasing abundance. That there is such a Something cannot be doubted. The mere fact that life happens, and continues to happen, proves that this Something, however unknown, does certainly exist.”

If I were to take this minimal definition of the divine and create a new evolutionary mythology, it would doubtless be quite different from traditional conceptions. Not only would it have to transcend gender and personality, but it must enable those who adore the awesomeness of existence to transcend their own understanding.

Divinity imagined and symbolized in naturalistic terms can surpass in grandeur any Trinity or Pantheon. Evolutionary Divinity – the Goddess which births all things – is plural, not a simple unity, as all things are interconnected and changing in both nature and relations, not isolated objects. Evolutionary divinity is not omnipotent, omniscient, or infinite in the classical sense, but it can truly be said that within our universe the potential for love, for beauty, for wisdom, and all the things we value is built into the very fabric of the cosmos, infinite in all directions. That is divinity by any definition.

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2 thoughts on “Divinity: A Nontheist Take

  1. Thank you for this, the Dalai Lama was once asked what the universe was made of, and he answered, compassion.

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