​“Preacher, tell them that Satan is real, too”: Connecting Rothbard’s Conceptual Realism and Quaker Notions

Recently in reading through Murray Rothbard’s Man, Economy, and State, I came across an interesting concept with possible relevance for religious practice. In critiquing the economic thought of some others, he explains that a common fallacy is to engage in “conceptual realism.” This he defines as any situation “in which theoretical constructs are mistaken for actually existing entities” (359).  He later uses the example of government to illustrate his point. “Those who object that private individuals are mortal, while ‘governments are immortal,’ indulge in the fallacy of conceptual realism at its starkest,” he says. “’Government’ is not a real acting entity, but rather a type of interpersonal action adopted by actual individuals” (957). An excellent example of methodological individualism from an economic and political thinker, perhaps, but what relevance does it have for those seeking to practice religious faith?

In the classic Louvin Brothers song, an old man stands up after the congregation sings about God being real and says, “Preacher, tell them that Satan is real, too.” And the song goes on to declare that “Hell is a real place, A place of everlasting punishment.” Hell and Satan are certainly theological concepts, but can devotion to concepts such as these (or others) lead us to behave toward others in ways that would otherwise violate core ethical and theological commitments to our fellow human beings? Unfortunately, history is littered with tragic examples of humans treating others in horrific ways in the pursuit of what they deemed higher purposes.

From early in their history, Quakers cautioned against the dangers of theological abstraction getting in the way of our humanity. “Friends would rather know God than know about God,” according to the West Hills Friends Meeting website. “Consequently, we have been skeptical of creeds and theological abstractions. Human ideas are sometimes called ‘notions,’ (or even ‘airy notions’) as a reminder that their value is limited.” William Penn offers a good example of thiswhen he says, “For it is not opinion, or speculation, or notions of what is true, or assent to propositions, though ever so soundly worded that makes a man a true believer: it is a conformity of mind and practice to the dictates of this Divine principle of Light and Life in the soul which denotes a person a child of God.” Lucretia Mott echoed this later in her observation that “The likeness we bear to Jesus is more essential than our notions of him.”

Is all of this to say that theology does not matter? I actually tend to think it matters a great deal. But just as Jesus and later Paul cautioned against an overemphasis on the letter of the law rather than its spirit, we can lose sight of the dignity and value of the person in front of us or across the globe if we place too great an emphasis on either our own moral rectitude or any ideal (theological, philosophical, political, etc.) or object upon which we place great value. In so doing, we can create a hell for ourselves and others. 

Originally posted at the Quaker Libertarians blog: http://quakerlibertarians.weebly.com/blog

Views: 385

Comment by Jim Wilson on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 1:01pm

Hi Forest:

True, God is not a collective abstraction.  On the other hand models can assist our understanding in two ways.  First, a good model, like a good map, can give us directions to where we want to go.  A manual like 'A Guide to True Peace' serves that function well.  And second, a good model is a means for communication with others so that we can talk to each other about our experiences.  In this way I think of theology as an assist rather than a hindrance.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 1:51pm

"The eye is the chief obstacle to sight."

Models of God can assist our understanding, and necessarily limit it -- unless we hold such models lightly, as rules of thumb rather than objects of reverence in their own right (the chief danger of them)

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 5:35pm

Hello Matt,

Thank you for your response. I agree (and most people would concur) that most people work out of an outwardly given theological, ideological, political, and economic, etc., frameworks. I have an issue with your use of the word "all." There are those in this world who are moving, relatively speaking, away from working in outwardly given physical, ideological, institutional, and emotional constructs. That is, meaning, purpose, and identity, are not anchored in and informed by outward frameworks. We step outside of the paradigm of outward constructs as our conscious is anchored in and our conscience is informed by the thing itself which theologies struggle to point toward. In this context, we no longer find theology relevant or helpful because we experience that which theology represents directly and without the mediation of or through outward frameworks. 

How does this work in everyday life? It is the relative movement of dimming or increase or stasis of inherent self-existence (Presence) itself in itself in the conscious and conscience that anchors and guides  action, inaction, or stasis. If inherent self-existence (Presence) dims in a certain circumstance or action, the action is refrained from or becomes less fluid until the movement of the inherent self-existence (Presence) better illuminates the way.  This way of existence is essentially different than the way of outward given frameworks.  

Thanks again. I appreciate your response. 

Comment by Matt on 2nd mo. 24, 2016 at 8:11pm

Thanks for the clarifying comments, Keith. This is an interesting question, particularly from a Quaker perspective. I think one could take the view that what you are describing is essentially the Inward Light to which all have access. Are there Friends who have said that we become wholly subsumed in this Light to the point that we essentially cease to act as individuals? My impression is that most have suggested that it instead serves as a guide to our selves, convicting, teaching, leading, etc. Either way, though, these are theological declarations. One might suggest your comments are, as well. It remains difficult for me to see how we can step entirely outside of our existence and our context or outside of any framework of understanding. How can one come to the conclusion that rejecting outward frameworks is a worthwhile approach, for instance, in the absence of any theological reflection?  

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 25, 2016 at 6:21pm

Hello Matt,

Your observations and questions are fair and valid. Of late,  I like to use an event documented by the early Quaker William Rogers in the year 1680 to illustrate the nature of a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by inherent self-existence itself (Presence, Inward Light) and how those whose conscious is anchored in and whose conscience is informed by outward forms reacts to those whose awareness or consciousness is not anchored in and informed by outward theology, creeds,articles of faith, institutions etc. Rogers writes:

It is well known that a day dawned and the Lord reached into many of our consciences and we came to believe in the everlasting Light of the Lord. In this dawning, the Light of Christ was preached up as a Lantern to our paths and as the ground of our Faith. Others, however, held to visible orders, and to written faiths of a visible church, as a lantern to their paths and as a ground of their Faith.

As our understanding came to be more and more opened, we saw with clarity that other churches used outward marks and tokens to determine or manifest whether a person is a member of their Church or whether they should be received into society with the Church.

We, however, believed in the Light of our Lord Jesus Christ, and had the evidence in ourselves, that we were of the true Brotherhood and members of Christ’s body. Because of this, we were at a loss to infallibly manifest or determine by any outward marks or tokens that we were, in reality, members of the true Church.

This Light revealed to us those who were in the Gentile Nature [Outward Nature] and had come no further than the Outward Court. Those in the outward court might have all the outward marks and signs of a member of their Churches and yet know very little of the washing by the water of Regeneration and Sanctification through the Spirit which every member of the true Church, built on the Rock Christ, come to be the witness of.

And therefore, our opposers say that we are a confused People because we do not gather into church fellowships and have no certain Way to know one another as members of the Church in the Way that we have. They asked us why we do not put forth our own creeds so that others may know what and how many Articles of Faith we adhere to and what we stand for and what we stand against.

In truth, the best answer that we were capable of giving is that the true Church is in God; the author and finisher of our Faith. We believe in the sufficiency of his Grace to which we are obedient according to our respective measures given of God and received by us. We have a witness in our Consciences that is evidence that we are of the true Brotherhood and of the Church of the First Born whose names are written in Heaven. We do not allege or confirm any outward marks and signs by and through which our bodies, the temples of the Holy Ghost, ought to be accounted and determined within the pale of the true Church.

This is a paraphrased version. You may read the original here:


From: The Christian Quaker, William Rogers. 1680

Rogers' historical documentation is significant in a couple ways. First, There were people in the Church who were so concerned with these Quakers and their lack of adherence to outward forms that they actually approached them and accused them of being confused because they did not adhere to and establish themselves in outward forms. Second, the people they accused of being confused actually doubled down by affirming that they, in fact, do not adhere to and are not established in outward forms.

Here we do not have a mere disagreement over theology, creeds, or articles of faith. We have a group of people who do not participate in the process of establishing outward frameworks to "mark" themselves as Christian or members of the church. Matt, these people did not even establish regular times around which they were to gather together. They gathered together as the inshining Light itself in their conscience moved them to gather together. Here was a group of people who did not overlay inherent self-existence (Presence, Inward Light) with any outward theologies, creeds, traditions, practices representations (models) of the thing itself which they experience directly. They were not institutionalized. These Quakers lived in and experienced inherent self-existence directly and that experience itself was their mark.They were of a completely different mindset than those who anchored their conscious and informed their conscience through the mirrors of outward theology, traditions, practices, etc. They were of such a different way of being that those who did not share their way of existence called them confused because they were confused by them and their way of existence.

Matt, I have a deep resonance with these Quakers. In my life, and over approximately 25 years, inherent self-existence has filled the space that identity with outward forms once filled. I mean to say, I, in large matter, longer adhere to an outward theology, philosophy, political agenda, economic form, religion, institution, government, etc. Inherent self-existence (the inward Light) has come a long way toward completely transforming my way of existence on this earth. The very foundation of my conscious or awareness is anchored in and my conscience is informed by the inward, direct, and unmediated experience of inherent being itself in itself. I AM is not predicated. I AM is not of Paul, Peter, Cephas, or Christ (1 Cor. 1:12). I AM is not of Taoism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or any religion. I know what those Quakers were experiencing when those who opposed them came to them and called them confused because they professed no outward marks (theology, practice, institutional framework, ideology etc.) that put them within the "pale of the true Church," as they said. What an incredible moment in the history of human being! There came a people, in England, gathered into the inward Light itself in itself without regard outward teachers, theologies, ideologies, institutional frameworks, models, or instrumentalities, etc., in such a truthful and powerful way that those around them took notice of their lack of adhering to outward forms and confronted them over it specifically to the point of calling the Children of Light "confused." In essence, the Children of Light were a source of confusion to those who called them confused! Those whose conscious was anchored in and whose conscience was informed by outward forms were utterly confused by the Children of Light who experienced directly and without the mediation of outward forms a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by inherent self-existence (Presence, Inward Light) itself in itself. The same is true today.

Finally, I acknowledge that many will say, something along the lines of what you suggested, that no matter I or anyone says to the contrary all people are guided by outward forms. They will suggest there is no other way to exist or be aware or be conscious. I also concede that many of us who are stepping out of an existence anchored in outward forms are still at least somewhat established in those very forms. However, many of us have become so far established in inherent self-existence itself in itself in our conscious or awareness that our conscience confirms the reality of a way of existence wherein identity, meaning, and purpose, are no longer established in outward forms. This is my conscience laid down before you. I AM is of a different way than the outward way speaking to you in the living name of inherent self-existence (the Name of God).

I hope these words forward our conversation. Discussions like these are cordial to my mind and are important to me. 

Comment by Matt on 2nd mo. 25, 2016 at 8:32pm

Hello Keith,

This is helpful, thanks. I appreciate the conversation, as well! I think part of what may be going on here is a difference in understanding about terms. Before we would get to the point of judging any theological claim against an outward form or creed (as the objectors to these early Friends were doing, and which I am not intending to do in my conversation with you), the earlier question is simply what the nature of a theological claim is. My sense is that even when someone says, "I have moved past theology and so should you," that this is itself a theological claim, and a conversation in which one attempts to either persuade the other to adopt a particular way of faith and practice or even simply explain their own understanding of faith is a theological dialogue. If that is what we are doing here, then I am all for it!  I think  this also raises a further question about the kind of experiences you describe and point to in the Rogers excerpt. It would seem that in the absence of any theological reflection or dialogue, one is left with spontaneous revelation alone. If that is the case, what is the value in trying to convince someone that they should abandon theology (or anything else, for that matter)?

Comment by Forrest Curo on 2nd mo. 26, 2016 at 12:43am

I wonder if Matt's difficulty has to do with his statement that what Keith is talking about implies "stepping out of his existence" --

where I would describe the condition Keith means as rather: "stepping out of external measures of existence and taking one's bearings from one's real existence -- as a being of spirit who may 'dip his feet' so to speak in the physical, mental, emotional modes of existence but navigates through them by a spiritual sense." (Keith, are we on the same page here?)

So far as Keith holds a mental map of the spiritual realm (and probably does) he would not be relying on that map to evaluate spiritual matters; but rather drawing that map in response to spiritual nudges.

I don't think he's necessarily claiming anything for his mental map; but saying that the spiritual realm itself is all the map of itself one needs... whether or not one is apprehending that entirely at any one time, "drinking the whole Ocean in a gulp" as some Zen teachers say is possible. (_That_ would be a theological claim, to be decided by seeing it happen -- if it did. ie it's a verbal assertion that a certain spiritual condition is possible and enjoyed by some people. Keith is just saying that he steers by the spiritual light he receives, and so can anyone. The question of whether or not one should do so is theological;

what I've experienced of direct intuition is that it's a different sort of thing, ultimately self-confirming;

that your mind might fumble the interpretation of it, but it itself is entirely certain... as with an experience Anthony Bloom relates, when he knew Jesus was across the desk from him, & thereafter felt he could doubt any fact whatsoever of secular history, but not the reality of the person he'd encountered then...)

Comment by James C Schultz on 2nd mo. 26, 2016 at 9:51am

I also had that thought about the "stepping out of his existence".  My reflection is that one doesn't "step out of his existence" so much as morphs into his actual existence from his perceived existence.  Just don't ask me what that means.:)

Comment by Matt on 2nd mo. 26, 2016 at 10:26am

Ha! Ok, I won't ask ;)

Comment by Keith Saylor on 2nd mo. 28, 2016 at 7:36am

Hello Matt,

Please forgive my delayed response.

You are correct in questioning the value of striving to convince people the abandon theology based on a spontaneous revelation they do not share. It is surely true that a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by outward forms like a rational and systematic study of religion and its influence and of the nature of religious truth (theology) cannot conceive otherwise. However, your question assumes that those of us who speak to a life anchored in and informed by the experience of unmediated and spontaneous Revelation itself in itself are striving to convince people of an experience we think they should embrace.

For many of us, the direct experience of a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by inherent self-existence itself in itself or Presence (what you call spontaneous revelation) is a Quiet that happens upon us. There is less and less thinking about the inward Light (inherent self-existence or spontaneous revelation) and more living in it directly and without mediation through outward forms like theology, preaching, tradition, etc. We gather together in silent waiting, not so much for the spontaneous revelation of some outward idea or creed or practice or testimony, but for the activity of spontaneous revelation itself or revealing of inherent self-existence (the inward Light) itself filling and illuminating our conscious and informing our conscience. Ever-Presence or spontaneous revelation moves upon the stilled waters of our conscious and conscience. This movement of spontaneous revelation itself is sufficient foundation and guide in itself. In this shared movement, outward ideological or theological frameworks or models carry less and less value. This manifests itself in daily life as sustained (never-ending) experiencing or living in inherent self-existence itself in itself (Ever-Presence/spontaneous revelation) in all moments and circumstances. In this life, outward thoughts about inherent self-existence (inward Light or spontaneous revelation) or outward thoughts, feelings, etc., in general, become more and more objects on the horizon of our being and, thereby, become less and less the stuff of that which is the make-up of who we are. Our conscious is filled and our conscience is informed in the direct experience and movement of inherent inward Light (spontaneous revelation) itself which replaces outward forms like theology as the establishment of our meaning, purpose, and identity on this earth.

When you write asking; " It would seem that in the absence of any theological reflection or dialogue, one is left with spontaneous revelation alone. If that is the case, what is the value in trying to convince someone that they should abandon theology ..."

This is exactly to the point. It sums up the essence of the event the Rogers' shared. Church leaders and others of their time came to the early Quakers and said, in essence, you do not have outward constructs or frameworks to live and to be known by ... you are a confused people because you say spontaneous revelation (the inward Light, Presence, inherent self-existence) is sufficient in itself to sustain identity, purpose, and meaning in life on this earth. As it was then, so it is now. There are those who cannot abide the sharing of a way of existence that is sustained by and established in spontaneous revelation alone and in itself. They admonish for the establishment of outward "marks" or forms or Articles of Faith or a theology so that others may know what we stand for and against. In essence, they are asking us to move out of our way of existence and participate in their way of existence. They are asking us to establish our conscious in and inform our conscience by outward forms. To this, we answer that we are not of that nature or way of existence. We establish no outward form to represent or overlay the Life itself in itself because we know the Life itself in itself. We live the Life directly and spontaneously. We are led out of a life that operates in reference to outward representations, that is, a mirrored conscious anchored in and a conscience informed through reflections. We know longer establish consciousness, being, meaning, purpose, and identity in the reflections of outward mirrors. We see the Life itself in itself directly, spontaneously, and without mediation through the mirrored reflections or representations of outward forms.

I also agree with you that if the intent of the sharing of this life, being, and consciousness, in spontaneous revelation alone were to "convince someone they should abandon outward forms" including Theology, then there probably would not much value to it. However, if the intent is to affirm a way of existence that is not of outward frameworks to those who have experienced ever increasing movement and illumination of the inward Light in their conscious and informing their conscience so that outward forms are of no less and less value in sustaining identity, being, purpose, and meaning, then in my personal experience it has tremendous value. It has value because in the affirming their experience they more easily settle down into the natural struggle that ensues as the inward Light itself (spontaneous revelation) replaces outward forms and the instrumentalities of those outward forms as the foundation of individual and group conscious and conscience. I am not interested in convincing anyone of the value of the experience of the sufficiency of direct, unmediated, spontaneous, Presence itself in itself or even of suggesting they should give up outward forms. I am interested in affirming an experience with those who are struggling with it and fellowshipping with those who share the experience.

So when you wrote:

" The basic idea is that we all operate out of some theological framework (absorbed from family, culture, church, etc.), and that continues to impact our actions throughout our life."

There are many people today and were many people in the past (some early Quakers) who are moving out of or have moved out of a way of an existence or conscious and conscience that "operate(s) out of some theological framework." We speak and write this way of existence for the sake of our own conscience and the conscience of those who are coming into this way of existence. Gathering in the silence of the inward Light itself in itself, without regard to outward forms, is experiencing individual or group conscious or being in the silence itself. It is our way and is our life in all events and circumstances. This direct and unmediated Life itself in itself is our identity, meaning, and purpose.


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