God’s will for a nontheist

A number of people (including one theistic Friend) told me they liked what I wrote below on the Nontheist Friends email list the other day, so I’m posting it here in case it’s helpful to anyone else. I was responding to a Friend who spoke about having a hard time with “God’s will” language:

I had trouble in Meeting yesterday when two people got up and said that God wants us to submit to his will. I had to do a lot of processing in order to hear any truth underlying those words.

Funny, this is one of the concepts I find easier to translate. Let me tell you how I take it, and you can see whether it works for you.

Some of what I think people mean by “submitting to God’s will” is rather bad – a coded endorsement of human structures of authority, for example – but I find this is minimized in liberal Quaker circles, if still sometimes present. So let’s focus on the positive.

The positive meaning I can translate from this is the idea that the universe is greater than us, and constrains us whether we like it or not. I can’t simultaneously make my hobbies or my job my overwhelming priority in life and expect to have good relationships. I can’t never clean my apartment and still expect people to enjoy coming over. I can’t eat whatever I like and still expect to be healthy. And as much as a theist might see all these leadings as expressions of God’s will, the still, small voice I hear telling me “spend time with your loved ones,” “clean your room,” “stop eating so much ice cream” (or even, “stand up in meeting and say this”) I see as simple attentive human responses to living in the world. In this vein, when people say “God’s will,” I translate “the universe’s will,” – or less metaphorically, the felt, existential demands caused by living in my particular place and time in this finite, imperfect world.

(lightly edited)

1 Response to “God's will for a nontheist”


  1. 1 Mike Shell Jun 19th, 2007

    Zach,

    This is very helpful.

    It reminds me of how people of the East speak about Dharma or Tao.

    [Note: I’m not saying the two terms or concepts are the same, and I’m grossly oversimplifying in what I write of them here.]

    They do not anthropomorphize the Way, but they acknowledge that there is “a way.”

    In other words:

    “This is how Reality works. We can’t know or describe or define all of it, because we are in the midst of it. Yet we can notice what works and what doesn’t in order to live lives which ‘flow’ better…or worse…than they could.”

    Because Dharma or Tao is not anthropomorphized, these folk do not imagine the Way as having “emotional responses” to how people behave.

    Instead, there is what appears to be a more mechanistic sense of “truth or consequences”: “If you do this, this happens; if you do that, that happens.”

    However, there is, at the same time, a paradoxical sense of something which I would here—very inadequately—describe as “intention” or “direction” to the Way.

    It’s not that the Way “wants” things to go in a certain “way.” It’s that there is more of a “completeness” when we act in attunement to the Way.

    A sort of “rightness.” Not rightness in the moral sense; rightness in the carpenter’s sense that an angle is right or true when the bubble in his level floats between the centerlines.

    Paradoxically, in the human realm this rightness does take on a moral or ethical character—if only because, as we become more sensitive to the Way, we more readily notice when a not-right action causes harm to us or to others.

    Your insight recalls to me something I came to in meditation and worship years back: that “God’s will” could be understood as a “description,” rather than as a “prescription.”

    That is, a description of how things go, how we behave, how we experience life, when we are—for the most part just momentarily—in “the kingdom of God.” In those moments we think and act in tune with the Way.

    To use the Old Testament metaphor, in tune with “the Law.” Not the law in the usual sense of human society, but in the sense of Natural Law.

    Granted, because YHWH is so thoroughly anthropomorphized in the O.T., we have all the imagery of the “angry, wrathful, jealous God.”

    Yet, even without anthropomorphizing, have you ever noticed how swiftly and violently (at least in terms of your inner emotions) the consequences of a “wrong action” can be?

    Playing with this insight, I discovered that familiar Judeo-Christian “lists” could open out into new meaning when I applied it to them.

    For example, try re-imagining the Ten Commandments, each one beginning not with “Thou shalt….” but with “When you are in tune with the Way, you will quite naturally….”

    Or the Lord’s Prayer. Instead of petitions, affirmations. Not “please give us our daily bread,” but “we know that you do.”

    Yet remember what I wrote earlier about the paradoxical sense of intention or direction to the Way.

    In the O.T., God’s Law is not God. God’s Law is the Plan for how things work. God is the Planner.

    Even in nontheist Buddhism or Tao, there is a sense of—again the words are inadequate—benevolence, hope, possibility, promise. These are all traits which humans ascribe to humans, or at least to sentient beings, rather than to plans.

    In the Eastern paths there is a sense of divinity to this plan, even without anthropomorphizing it, in the sense that there is this sense of benevolent promise—and of the “power” which the plan has to “bring about” right life, right livelihood, etc.

    My taoist tai chi instructor reminded us the other night, as we discussed getting the flow of a movement right: “Whenever you think you’ve got it, you don’t got it.”

    Yet in infinitesimal moments of ceasing to try, one can find oneself “in the Tao.”

    And so it is.

    Bléssed Be,
    Michael

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