The Bulwark by Theodore Dreiser is the story of a good man’s lifelong struggles against insincerity and materialism. Dreiser himself wasn’t such a man, for he was bitter, manipulative, physically threatening, and a user of women around whom it was said that no female was safe. Yet, his writings portray a deep and sympathetic understanding of people, women no less than men, and the realism with which he wrote represented a new direction in American literature. As with many writers of depth, I was curious about Dreiser’s religious beliefs, and I found that they were similar to my own:
“Dreiser said he was nearly destroyed by reading Spencer, who, as he emphasized, ‘took every shred of belief away from me; showed me that I was a chemical atom in a swirl of unknown forces…’ Although Dreiser used Spencer’s idea to justify his late and often cruel and selfish actions, Spencer, as well as Huxley, embittered him. It was as if he resented forevermore having to give up comforting beliefs, to face the reality of a world that offered no excuse for viciousness.”*
I believe that science offers a better explanation for viciousness than religion, and that the fundamentalist religion in which I grew up was itself vicious in its eagerness to see everyone but its own members rot in hell, but then the fanatical Catholicism of Dreiser’s childhood was no better. Even so, there lay in it the assurance that there existed a deity who gave to life an ordained meaning and the promise of a better life after death. Along with our shared disillusionment with religion, I also share with Dreiser a high regard for the Quaker faith, a Quaker being the main character of The Bulwark. I haven’t found any indication that Dreiser ever attended a Quaker meeting (as their churches are called), but I did, and his book made me nostalgic.
I first went in 1990 with my friend Walt who was the kind of atheist who likes to tell of realizing that religion was bullshit by the time he was seven, and of losing respect for his parents and other elders for being so stupid as to fall for it. He never wavered in his unbelief or in his contempt for religion, and he ridiculed me when I did. He first attended the Eugene meeting with a girlfriend and, unlike her, became a Quaker. Joining most churches is easy. You can sometimes do it on the spot as in my first church, the Church of Christ, which makes haste to baptize people because it believes they will go to hell if they die unbaptized. It’s even easier and faster to become a Unitarian because all you have to do is to sign your name. At the other end are Catholics and Episcopalians with their requirement that an applicant attend classes for months. Quakers are even more restrictive in that they require a candidate to attend meeting for an indeterminate period, and then ask to be considered for membership.
Walt, to my knowledge, was only the second atheist to join the Quaker meeting. Helen Park, one of the members, wrote the following about the lack of importance that she placed upon whether one believed in God: “There is indeed One that speaks to my condition, but that One may not announce a name or even speak a word; it may reveal itself as Light, or inner peace, or compassion for humanity.” So it was that the Quakers—the local ones anyway—admitted people according to their values rather than their vocabulary. Many atheists would refuse to join a values-centered organization in which anyone used the word God, and only the Unitarian Church universally welcomes atheists, so I thought well of Walt for joining the Quakers and well of them for letting him.
I attended for about a year, although I never considered joining, there being too much that I didn’t like. Sitting in silence in pews that were arranged in an inward facing square bored me; I found decision-making by consensus excruciating because trivial decisions sometimes went unresolved for months; and too many Quakers struck me as stubborn and distant. Some of them seemed to weigh every word they spoke, and it made them appear stilted if not secretive. I also found that not every Quaker was as tolerant as Helen Park. One said to me six months into our friendship, “You’re too sensitive and intelligent to be a real atheist.” She meant it as a compliment, as when a racist tells a black person, “You’re too smart not to have some white blood in you,” and I never forgave her.
What I did like about the meeting was being there with Walt and attending an occasional class. I ended up on the “religious education committee” that sponsored these classes, and we decided to hold a nine-month Bible study. The decision wasn’t easy because few people had an interest in the Bible, and the feminists on the committee strongly opposed studying a book that had inspired so much oppression. By way of compromise, we decided that, rather than study the Bible itself, we would study a book about it. We chose A Guide to Understanding the Bible by religious liberal Harry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969), the first minister at Manhattan’s infamous—to most Christians—Riverside Church. The book being out of print, we had to await the publisher’s permission to Xerox copies. There being few people involved and no money exchanged, I would guess that most churches would have Xeroxed the book without asking, but Quakers are unerring—some might say rigid—in doing what they think is right.
I quit attending the Quaker meeting partly because Walt and I had a falling-out (one of several over our 27-year friendship), but mostly because I was bored by the main service. For those who don’t know, in a traditional Quaker meeting, everyone sits silently until someone feels “led” to speak. There are no songs, no prayers, no sermons, nothing but a silence that is rarely interrupted, and in which one’s own meditations are interrupted when someone does speak. Sometimes, those who talked made interesting points, but I don’t remember them. What I do remember are the queries by which the meeting and its members were to periodically examine themselves in regard to particular values. I give but a small example:
Do I keep my life uncluttered with things and activities, avoiding commitments beyond my strength and light?
Do I recognize when I have enough?
On social responsibility
Am I mindful of how my lifestyle and my investments can contribute to the improvement of the human condition, or to the exploitation of others?
How do I respond and support one who acts out of one clear leading when I am under the weight of another?
Do I treat conflict as an opportunity for growth, and address it with careful attention?
Do I look for ways to reaffirm in action and attitude my love for the one with whom I am in conflict?
On stewardship of the environment
Do I act as a faithful steward of the environment in the use and disposal of hazardous substances?
Do I choose with care the use of technology and devices that truly simplify and add quality to my life without adding an undue burden to essential resources?
On integrity and simplicity
Do I manage my commitments so that over commitment, worry, and stress do not diminish my integrity?
Am I careful to speak truth as I know it and am I open to truth spoken to me?
Such queries absolutely wrecked me, because I interpreted the absence of anything remotely similar in other churches to say volumes about how little those churches cared about being good people as opposed to being people who could parrot what they believed to be good dogma. I understood that all they really cared about was my salvation, my relationship with Christ, seeing my loved ones in heaven, having my God help me find a job or even a parking place. Here, for the first time, I had discovered a group of people who took ethical behavior seriously enough to examine its implications; people who had the courage to stand against the dominant social mores as well as against a government that could take their property and throw them into prison; people who believed that religion should mean something more than a cheap ticket to heaven and a place to socialize.
I attended during the U.S. backed war in Nicaragua, and found that the Quakers were supportive of the illegal harboring of refugees, which I think some of the local ones probably did. Others were tax resisters who were unwilling to finance militarism by paying their federal income tax. While most churches are busy upholding the status quo (whatever that means in a given area, e.g. slavery in some, emancipation in others), Quakers have served on the front lines of every movement that opposes war or supports human rights and welfare, yet there are only 87,000 of them in America compared to 40-million Catholics and 16-million Baptists. Even the tiny Episcopal Church is enormous by comparison with its two-million members, and just one mega church in Houston holds half as many people as there are Quakers in America. I would be astounded if the members of any of these other churches are ever encouraged to ponder the morality of paying taxes, using insecticides, or buying a new car versus a used one.
As I wrote three posts ago, I don’t care if people believe in God. For one thing, the term is so imprecise as to be meaningless of itself, but my main reason is that it’s not what people say but what they do that matters. Unfortunately, I’ve rarely seen organized churches do good. The American Friends Service Committee is the only church-related organization to have won the Nobel Peace Prize. Many secular groups have won, and many religious individuals have won, so one would assume that a mega church with a budget of $80-million could easily win, but if not, then surely a denomination with 40-million members in America alone, so why haven’t they?
The Bulwark is exceptional among Dreiser’s books, the moreso because he was a cynic, a determinist, a practical atheist (sometimes he sounded atheistic, other times deistic), and a Communist. Why, then, in his last months, did he end the life of his last great character, Solon Barnes, with the words, “If thee does not turn to the Inner Light, then where will thee go?” I’m sure I don’t know, but I suspect. Having read nothing in three biographies that made me think he was softening toward traditional theism or even liberal theism, I can only guess that he had reference to some other Inner Light, love, perhaps, because what is love but light, and of what does light consist but of a love that brightens a person’s face during the hours that he or she is possessed by it? If I had ever known anyone who was able to hold to love consistently, I would have remembered that person, but its rarity notwithstanding, love remains chief among virtues, and where it is found, many of the rest follow.
At least this is how I see things, but as to whether love was what Dreiser meant, I can only speculate based upon what I know of him and upon what I know of how the Quakers of my acquaintance defined Inner Light, e.g. “...that One may...reveal itself as Light, or inner peace, or compassion for humanity.” As for what I know about Dreiser, I’ll limit myself to my best evidence. The Bulwark took twenty years to finish, and the changes it underwent during those years seemed to reflect the growth of its often autobiographical author, a man famous for the compassion he expressed in his writing. Just as Solon Barnes was rigid, so was Dreiser in real life, but age can soften a person, so it is my guess that as the old and dying author wrote about his old and dying character, he was writing about himself. At least, I like to think so.
* from Theodore Dreiser by James Lundquist.