Kevin Camp

Christianity Versus Non-Theism: The Great Divide

This will be a controversial post, which is why I've introduced it as such. My reason for writing is not to be right, only to express my own views. I have respect for the varied beliefs of Friends, especially those who will no doubt take liberty with what is to follow. I have no patience with another protracted, contentious debate, as I have observed more than my fair share over time. My hope is that we might open a dialogue, not give birth to a flame war.

I try to be a tolerant person, within reason. When it comes to religious expression, I see value in many faiths. Unlike some, I do not believe in exclusivity. Though I am a Christian, I ignore a routinely-cited passage in the Gospel of John. It reads, to certain Christians, that the only path to the Father is through Jesus Christ. This segment has been interpreted over time by certain groups to mean that Christ is the only way to salvation.

Though it was an extremely influential book to the Early Friends, I sometimes question John's total veracity. I am mostly inclined to believe that it was written under the guise of shoring up substantial details omitted in other books. John includes an elaborate back story that was earlier left out about the life and ministry of Jesus. The first three Gospels are more or less in agreement with each other, but John is something of anomaly.  

My Meeting's Ministry and Worship committee has proposed a new initiative. I'm told this approach has been successful at other Meetings with similar dynamics. Where I worship, both Christian Friends like myself and Non-Theist Friends are minority views. Most members and attenders, at minimum, believe in God. These sentiments are particularly true with many FGC Meetings, especially those located in large cities. Though my Meeting has a dual affiliation with FUM, most are more comfortable with FGC's take on Quakerism.

The workshop is a worthwhile proposal, one we've needed for a while. Christians and Non-Theists have long felt excluded from the greater dialogue. Sometimes we've argued, but I'd say most of the time we've held our tongues. Though Non-Theism doesn't necessarily imply Atheism, any deviation from Theism does trouble me. I believe in a God who takes an active, essential role in our lives. I have derived great comfort from the presence of a higher power. Though I do not see it my role to proselytize, I do believe that turning towards God gives life greater meaning.

I spent eight years as a Unitarian Universalist. While a member, I saw problem after problem arise when a human-centered approach was favored over a God-centered one. Most UUs, from my observation, are secular humanists. It was my experience that outright Atheists counted in the minority there as well. With a faith like theirs that does not make any pretenses about God or Christ, Atheism exists without fear of censure.

We, however, are different. Unlike the Unitarians, we did not purge away all mention of Christianity and most notions of organized religion. They took a much more radical step than we did. Some Quakers may have been taught more about William Penn and environmentalism than the Bible, but I've almost always seen a healthy respect for the faith of our fathers and mothers. UUs are beholden to a concept known as cross-cringe, whereby any religious sentiment that is Christian in nature makes its audience instantly uncomfortable.

Non-Theism, in my opinion, sends Friends down a similar path towards secular humanism. At times, I feel that my own leadings speak to the wounded. Non-Theists have, over time, rejected a faith tradition they found injurious or intolerant. With some, I believe that Non-Theism is a developmental step somewhere between belief and doubt. Our personal spiritual journey is capable of changing dramatically over time. It certainly has for me.

Frankly, my experience with the Divine has always been strong and undeniable. Even when I felt estranged from God, I never doubted his existence. It is my hope that, with God's help, I can lead others to the same satisfaction and contentment that I feel. Atheism appears hollow and lonely to me. God provides a richness to my life that my own brain and my own comprehension never could. I don't favor excluding Non-Theists, but I do always hope that they'll eventually reach their own understanding of the great mystery we call the Divine.

I am finite. I am fragile. I am imperfect. With the odds stacked against me, how can I ever place full faith in my own understanding, my own feeble abilities? It is impossible to look inside anyone's heart and anyone's head, but I think I've learned a few things here and there. It is difficult for me to be fully tolerant of those who reject our tradition, a tradition and history that sent men and women to jail and sometimes even to their death.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln talks about similar sacrifice.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn, the Valiant Sixty. These are our elders. If in life they had any inkling of where the religion they founded would have drifted, I doubt they would be pleased. I concede that we live in changing times, but I do not wish to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I know that some will disagree vociferously with this post, and that is entirely within their rights. They may have a well-reasoned argument of their own to contradict my own personal convictions.

The Non-Theists I encounter at Meeting are not faceless opponents. I know them as fellow beings. This understanding is what makes it difficult for me to let loose with hurtful invective and hyperbole. They have a right to their own opinion, but I suppose I do not understand why anyone would want to question the existence of God within a religious movement and a Religious Society. I've always wanted to belong. The older I get, the less I want to be an outlier.

Our culture has grown increasingly secular. This is especially the case with East Coast urban liberals. I enjoy Worship because it's a respite from the outside world, a place where my religious beliefs are validated and not challenged. When asked by others, many Friends, even those who do not identify as Christian, routinely answer that the Religious Society of Friends is a Christian faith. In different surroundings, I have had to convince the skeptical that my Christianity is not like the Christianity they fear.

In the meantime, it can't hurt for Christians and Non-Theists to meet. I'm sure there is common ground between us. Though I believe that Non-Theists have a right to Worship with us, I will never hold their view. To my dying day, I'll question why those who do not believe in God want to be surrounded by religious language and a religious practice they themselves may reject. My desire to hold Quakers accountable is at least backed up by hundreds of years of Spirit-led guidance. The Non-Theists have to make way open themselves.

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