“Theism vs Non-Theism” or Quaker Spirit?

I recently came across this post on Sam Barnett-Cormack’s  (Quaker) Openings blogspot website: https://quakeropenings.blogspot.com/2018/01/theism-vs-non-theism.html and felt it worth drawing attention to it here.

(In the original version of THIS post, I credited the said post to Rhiannon Grant, perhaps because her name appeared below in a comment. I have now corrected the error here.)

The piece is quite wordy (and Sam says “Verbosity is not a virtue, but a tendency towards excessive brevity can do a surprising amount of damage.”) but tries to get to grips with, as one might say, ‘the heart of the matter’.

His final two paragraphs include “We are not contending with one another, whatever the ongoing disagreement-in-public between Boulton and Guiton might suggest.”; “Let us be Friends, in truth and not just as the traditional code term for our faith in-group.”; and concludes with the one line “For the sake of all that is good and true, let us be Friends.”

But he also says “We can explain our experiences and understanding of the Divine without it being an attempt to convince or exclude others.” and whilst this may be true, I certainly know ‘non-theist’ Friends who will have no truck with the ‘Divine’.

But then again, that is surely just a matter of ‘words’ – isn’t it?

How do Friends, Quakers, theists, non-theists or whatever, feel about ‘Spirit’? Is this ‘Holy’? Is spirit or inspiration just a matter of breath? Is the Inner Light Winstanley’s ‘light of pure reason’ or something else altogether? The spirit of Christ? Human spirit?
Quaker Spirit? (as in the newly arrived website http://www.quakerspirit.com/view/ministryofthemoment/wedoneedgod.aspx )

The last mentioned spirit (page) ends with “And, whilst we are talking of it; in the light of the BBC question “So what is the difference between Quakerism and Mindfulness today?” Should not a simple answer suffice, e.g. Quakerism has at its root a belief in the Divine i.e. God-centric, whereas Mindfulness has at its root “Knowing directly what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment.” i.e self-centric.

You may want to know the provenance of that last website. It seems to be an initiative, possibly individual and personal, of Stephen Feltham from the Friends Fellowship of Healing and says “Quaker Spirit is an initiative to gather Friends with the sole purpose of experiencing the spiritual and mystical ethos of Quakerism.”

Elsewhere on the site (under Modern Quakers) we find “Your teacher is inside you, don’t look outside. It will teach you wherever you are.” (quoting Rex Ambler paraphrasing George Fox) and “The light is what enables you to see. This light enlightens you, it shows you when you do something wrong. (For me, this is the light of awareness, mindfulness)” and “We believe that we all have an inward teacher. This inward teacher can be found in the still silence. This inward teacher is “that of God” (or whatever name you wish to call that which is beyond all names, I like the term True Self). ” (Self-centric?).

So God (the word, or the Word?) is problematic for some Friends; ‘Divine’ perhaps more so for some of those same Friends. What about ‘Spirit’? The Quaker Spirit website lists ‘Other Quaker groups’ as Friends Fellowship of Healing, Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies, The Kindlers, Quaker Universalist Group, Experiment with Light Network, Quaker Quest, and Quaker Arts Network, and it is implicitly clear that these groups are seen as fellow travellers as it were. I’m not sure that all of those groups would accept the association but can see the point about “the sole purpose of experiencing the spiritual and mystical ethos of Quakerism.”

That’s seven groups implicitly associated and a page about a proposed Quaker Spirit Gathering (for summer 2021?) says: “When first distributed to our ‘Other Groups’ a very encouraging set of replies was received. Read them here.”  There are eight replies but none of them is explicitly associated with any of those seven groups.

I can’t help wondering if this is an ‘inclusive Spirit’ or an exclusive one?

Then: Mark 3:28-29 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”

and Luke 12:10 10 “And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”

or in the non-canonical (and clearly heretical) Gospel of Thomas:
44. Jesus said, “Whoever blasphemes against the Father will be forgiven, and whoever blasphemes against the son will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the holy spirit will not be forgiven, either on earth or in heaven.”

In the end then, what Friends think, believe or experience of the ‘spirit’ might be a matter of some significance.

17 thoughts on ““Theism vs Non-Theism” or Quaker Spirit?”

  1. Who says that “Quakerism has at its root a belief in the Divine”? I rather prefer the idea that each of us has our own beliefs.


    1. That’s an interesting comment Martin. “Quaker Spirit’ (Stephen Feltham, Friends Fellowship of Healing?) says so. But, very interestingly, the (self-identified) ‘non-theist’ Sam Barnett-Cormack uses the term ‘divine’ 5 times in the post I cite and frequently elsewhere – so it must stand for something beyond chocolate.
      Perhaps that’s why I moved on to referencing ‘Spirit’ – another word that might be multiply ambiguous but may have some ‘religious’ significance?
      The quotes from Mark, Luke and Thomas (and I thought there was another in Matthew and/or Paul?) are a favourite of mine – what was meant by them whether the ‘real’ Jesus said them or not.
      If he did say them (or something like in Aramaic), are they the greatest wisdom of the New Testament? (and still, what do they mean?).


      1. “Divine” is indeed my preferred term, and I don’t think it necessarily implies anything supernatural. It can mean just “ultimate good”, if you like. An explanation of what it means to me would be verbose.

        The subtleties of meaning of different terms are such that I doubt we could ever find one that all Friends are perfectly happy with. That’s why it’s so important that we all use the terms that work for us, and try to understand what other Friends mean by the terms they use – preferably based on what they say (though it’s not polite to press them for explanations).


    1. Thanks Sam.
      That must be it. I think I must have come to the post via a link somewhere and that link might have been to Rhiannon’s comment.
      My apologies to Rhiannon (what have I accused her of?) and to you.
      I will edit the post above to correct the error soon!


  2. I should just like to confirm that Quaker Spirit is a personal initiative of mine. The idea of a spiritual gathering involving other groups is minuted by the Friends Fellowship of Healng and I was tasked with getting it off the ground. I felt that a good vehicle for the gathering was Quaker Spirit but it and it’s website is independent of FFH.
    I can also confirm the positive responses I have received, so much so that a mini-gathering is proposed for next year, possibly at Swarthmore Hall (What an auspicious venue?), but more groundwork needs doing.
    I must clarify that the responses I have received were all personal from officers within the ‘other groups who were unable to speak on behalf of their groups because committees had not at that time met.
    I have since had one reply that is cautiously supportive but non committal and I am comfy with that. Quaker reserve is not a bad thing and I would expect folk to ‘see how things are’ before committing an organisation to a new venture. Ultimately it is people that attend gatherings and it is people for whom the Spirit is meaningful rather than organisations or groups and so I am encouraged by the momentum that is building.
    Stephen Feltham


  3. Are there non theist Quaker meetings in the U.S.? I have lots of meeting houses in my area (the closest is Easton NY) and there are programmed Quaker meetings which I don’t care for in Albany, NY. I am not officially a Quaker but my family came over with George Fox and were Quakers for decades before my particular ancestor married out of the Quaker faith and was apparently banned. Since then I have had pretty much every Christian Faith forcibly shoved down my throat whether I like it or not. I am most comfortable with the idea of the Quaker beliefs even though I have no sense or belief in “God” and never have. Hence my search for non theist Quaker meetings.


    1. Force feeding anything will only give rise to indigestion and it is little wonder that having religion forced down one’s throat gives rise to reflux and aversion. I do suggest however, that the manner of feeding should not be associated with the nutritional value of food although I can readily accept that overdoing the work in the kitchen can ruin what is presented on the table.
      I do hope Pamela, that you will come to acknowledge the truism within the Quaker words “Recognising that of God within everyone”, for it is my belief that without God all that one may be left with may be some very nice thoughts, but not a faith, nor a religion.


      1. Thank you for your kind and understanding words. I am confused by them coming from a non theist website. Are you a theist or non theist?


    2. And the website is open to all!
      Thanks for this enquiry Pamela. As far as I know there are no ‘non-theist’ Quaker meetings in the USA, or the UK or anywhere else – just Quaker meetings – all welcome.
      What we can say is that in the UK (one Yearly meeting), meetings and Area Meetings differ in how ‘Christocentric’, theistic, or whatever their leanings are and I expect it is the same in the USA except that there are different Yearly Meetings with different leanings as you may know.
      I would draw your attention to the US Nontheist Friends website (links on our website – bottom of right column on the non-mobile site) and suggest that you might also like to address some enquiries there where you will also find an email discussion forum.


      Trevor Bending


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