Category Archives: Non-theism

The Quakers are right. We don’t need God.

An article in The Guardian (online) by Simon Jenkins under this title, dated 4 May 2018, has brought many more visitors to our NFN site – in fact linking to an article by David Boulton which references a 2013 survey cited by Ben Pink Dandelion. Perhaps we should return the compliment and put a link to the Guardian article here!

Some Friends, including ‘non-theists’, might think this title is a travesty of the Quaker position and Yearly Meeting decision to revise Quaker Faith and Practice. (Link edited at 22.00 Central European Time to be more useful on a mobile device!)

Simon Jenkins writes ‘I am not a Quaker or religious, but I have been to Quaker meetings, usually marriages or funerals, and found them deeply moving’.  As this member and attender for 8 years (Trevor Bending) has so far been to only one Quaker marriage (my  own) and no Quaker funerals (yet), we must assume that Simon has a considerable number of Quaker friends or contacts.  In any event, his article is much more interesting than the provocative title and well worth reading.

I think some further consideration or re-consideration of what we might mean by ‘non-theism’ is now due in the light of the YM decision and the publication of ‘God, Words and Us‘.

It would be wonderfully appreciated if some of our NFN members, Followers, and Friends were to append their comments here!

Big Questions TV programme BBC 1 this Sunday 10am.

(Note from David Boulton)

Just a quick note to say the BBC are going ahead with The Big Questions TV programme this coming Sunday (10am on BBC 1), asking whether religion needs God, with particular reference to the theist/nontheist dialogue among Quakers, and the decision to revise the Red Book made at YM last weekend.

David and Rhiannon Grant have been asked to participate.

I look forward to it if we can get it in Spain just before we do our local (2 of us) meeting for worship.

You might also be interested in this post from the ‘jolly quaker’ (Mark Russ) brought to my attention by twitter.

God, words and us – open to new light?

                         ARE WE OPEN TO NEW LIGHT? – from Laurie Andrews

On his visit to Myanmar in November (2017) Pope Francis said, ‘Religious differences need not be a source of conflict – they can be a force for unity, forgiveness and reconciliation.’ You would think that a creed-free religion like Quakerism would be immune from doctrinal conflict but the Religious Society of Friends (RSoF) has suffered painful schisms in the past. However there have also been times when Friends worked together to absorb differences as the RSoF evolved and adapted in the light of continuing revelation. For example, in the 19th century Quietism gave way to Evangelicalism. Then in 1895 at a conference in Manchester, British Friends recognised that the society had become insular, fixed in its beliefs, sticking to scriptural and not spiritual revelation. Frances Thompson told the conference, ‘God’s truth is given in every age. It is our duty to welcome the light which may just be reaching us’. As a panel in the Quaker Tapestry records, this ‘challenged the old thinking and distressed some’. Quaker sociologist Ben Pink Dandelion records that in the 1960s Liberal Quakerism took hold in Britain which has in turn evolved into what Ben calls ‘liberal-Liberal Quakerism’ – or even ‘post-Liberal Quakerism’. When I joined Friends in 1984 there was tension between so-called Christo-centric Friends and Universalist Friends. Now non-theism has ‘challenged old thinking and distressed some’ as I found when I heard one Friend minister in meeting that the RSoF should not admit non-theists, like me, as members.

In 2014 Meeting for Sufferings set up a Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group to pave the way for a new edition of Quaker Faith and Practice. The group invited Friends with backgrounds in academic theology, Quaker studies and related subjects and some ‘Friends on the bench’ to join a think tank to consider whether it is possible ‘to reframe the differing perspectives of British Quakers which have often been characterised by the shorthand “theism/nontheism”, so as to be less polarised.’ The group communicated by email and then in February 2016 24 of them met for a weekend at Woodbrooke Quaker study centre. Their endeavours resulted in a book edited by Helen Rowlands, God, words and us: Quakers in conversation about religious differences, a copy of which has been sent to every meeting in Britain Yearly Meeting.

The introduction asks, ‘What does the word God imply for each of us?’; ‘When we gather in a Quaker meeting … is faithfulness to a shared practice or method enough to unite us?’; ‘How helpful is it to identify and label different positions?’. The foreword noted that ‘our starting point as Quakers is direct experience; our biggest challenge is to find living ways of communicating the depths and significance of that experience’. The group concluded that: ‘The Quaker community needs to engage in open dialogue on a continual basis …when this is done well we can be enriched by our diversity; the kind of language is also important … we should try to avoid destructive aspects of difference; it is unhelpful to refer to these issues using polarising shorthand descriptions such as “theism/non-theism”. If labels are needed to describe people’s beliefs, they should be self chosen and not imposed on others; the real pattern of conviction of belief in Britain Yearly Meeting is much more nuanced and kaleidoscopic, and we need a variety of models to describe it.’

In the first chapter headed ‘Telling Our Stories’ a number of Friends describe how they came to Quakerism and their experiences as members. In the second they share their understanding and experience of prayer, worship and discernment: they were asked – How do you understand prayer? What is your experience of worship? What happens for you in meeting for worship? The group then went on to explore the language of theism and non-theism; notes at the end record, ‘Diversity of belief among Friends is real and should be acknowledged’, and ‘Diversity is a gift in/to the Quaker community. Differences need not prevent us from working together for the common good.’

In conclusion the group agreed that, ‘the RSoF is a community centred on the practice of waiting, listening meeting for worship. We agree that differences of understanding about what it is we listen to or worship do not prevent us from practising meeting for worship together. We agree that the community can benefit from the presence of a diversity of spiritual paths … Within our society there is a kaleidoscope of experiences of presence, of absence, connections, separation, within, outwith, beyond, past, present, future. To reduce this marvellous collection of shifting shapes and colours to a simplistic “black and white” model of two possible positions is to lose or disguise much that is potentially enriching. Instead, we can consider the range of spiritualities within our Religious Society using other, richer models.’

Although only 100 pages long, this little book is profoundly important. As I wrote in a letter to the Friend (8 December): ‘I believe it has the potential to make the same impact as Towards a Quaker View of Sex. That essay, written in 1963 by a group of Friends, helped to shape the liberal, tolerant zeitgeist of the 1960s and eventually led to British Friends pioneering same sex marriage. The essay called for “a release of love, warmth and generosity … that will weaken our fear of one another … this search is a move forward into the unknown; it implies a high standard of responsibility, thinking and awareness – something much harder than simple obedience to a moral code.” … God, words and us explores “orthodoxy” and “heresy”, showing us possible ways to reconcile the irreconcilable.’

‘The spirit blows where it will.’ (John 3:8)

LAURIE ANDREWS  

 

New Quakerism?

In a post on 27th July (https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2017/07/27/meeting-your-maker/) I wrote:
And so, bearing in mind all the excellent (and personal and idiosyncratic) Quaker blogs out there, I thought I’d put a spanner in the works or a cat among the pigeons here by posting something personal in the hope of stimulating (provoking) further non- theist discussion.

As we approach the season of the birth of Jesus and later (in March) our conference considering the future of Quakerism, I felt it was time for another spanner or cat.

In an interesting article in The Young Quaker (magazine of Young Friends General Meeting) for October 2017 (page 7), Laurence Hall writes about the Seeds of a new Quakerism. He says ‘In essence the emerging New Quakerism is deeply aligned with movements that are now reshaping the world around us.’

Being myself blissfully unaware of the ‘New Quakerism’, I turned, as one does, to Google and whilst there were many results related to ‘Quakerism’ and ‘New’, there was only one (the first) which seemed to relate to a ‘New Quakerism’ as such.

That link was to ‘We need a new Quakerism‘ on the blog of Hye Sung Francis  who styles himself ‘an anti-capitalist pentecostal quaker’.  He writes:’It seems to me that many Friends, even those who consider themselves “convinced,” are hungry for more than what the Society has to offer. We keep coming back to the same point: we desperately need to re-imagine Quakerism.’ and later: ‘Without that conviction that God reigns and that God will reign, only the empty forms of Quakerism persist. That is the way of death.’ Is that what our conference will consider?

On his blog, Hye Sung Francis has a number of other rather interesting posts: ‘Jesus, a Failed Revolutionary‘ reminds me of David Boulton’s ‘Who on Earth was Jesus‘ and the fact that I haven’t yet got round to reading ‘Jesus the Terrorist‘. In that post, Francis writes:
There’s another lesson here: the destruction of the systems and authorities on this earth and the realization of God’s kingdom cannot be accomplished by one person. Christ’s ministry wasn’t a one-man show. It can only be realized through his people, through his body. Through us.’

Francis’s most recent post, ‘On Being Friends with Jesus‘, makes many interesting points to ponder including the wonderful “Any theology that values God above people is false.”

I hope non-theist Friends (and others) will follow the hypertext links above, both to the many excellent articles in The Young Quaker and to Hye Sung Francis, and consider how these viewpoints relate to non-theism among Friends, our forthcoming Conference and to ‘God, Words and Us’.

I look forward to your feedback and comments and, I hope, those of younger Friends, whether non-theist, Godly, ‘anti-capitalist pentecostal’ or whatever. We do indeed need to move outside our ‘elderly, white, middle-class’ comfort zone, where that applies to us, and perhaps all other comfort zones too!

 

God, Words and Us – another view

God, Words and Us
Quaker Books – November 2017   £8
A review by Hugh Rock

The slight extent of this book, 98 pages, belies its heavyweight testimony. It is a conclusive demonstration of Quaker Faith. But it does not recognise this. It masquerades as an attempt to discover what the unifying principle of Quaker Faith might be, and assumes a starting point of doubt and conflict.

The subtitle ‘Quakers in Conversation about Religious Difference’ is a euphemism for the nagging subject of nontheism, that was identified by the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group as top of the list of topics that worried Friends and required more discernment before any revision might proceed. The twenty-four prominent voices gathered in these pages were engaged to discern, and concluded, (Hooray! Hooray!) that the polarising labels are a ‘misrepresentation’ (p79), ‘misleading and unhelpful’ (p80). Nobody identifies themselves as a theist, and the nontheists are themselves a mighty mixed bunch.

The chapter contents need some explanation beyond their headings:

Telling our stories’ reads like eighteen miniature Swarthmore Lectures. They are diverse confessions of faith.

Bringing our full selves to the conversation’, is a preparatory catechism for dialogue respectful of everyone’s feelings.

Sharing experiences of core Quaker practice’, assembles various views on prayer and Meeting for Worship.

Exploring the language of “theism and nontheism” ’, turns out to be a decisive rejection of any such simpleton polarity.

Reframing the issues: developing some alternative models, seeking new vocabulary, rediscovering Quaker insights’, is an ode to Isaac Penington’s ‘The end of words’ 1, 2. It sings the vain hope that at some deeper level the irreconcilable clash between believing in God and believing that there is no God, can be resolved.

So, what is the paradox of doubt, and conflict with no apparent answer, that this book contradicts? It is, in itself, an exercise of the unifying principle of Quaker Faith. It exercises the simple faith that, out of mutual respect for varied spiritual experiences, we can, and must, distill collective action of love for the world. Twenty-four people of varied persuasions listen hard, respect and validate the significance, for others, of worldviews that they do not hold themselves. That, in these times especially, is a pearl without price.

The Revision Committee have no need to fiddle with the ancient language of Quaker Faith and Practice. ‘God, words and us’ can stand as a supplement: it is definitive testimony to what Friends can say in their twenty first century cultural environment.

 

‘God, words and us’

God, words and us‘ is the title of a new 100 page book from Quaker books, edited by Helen Rowlands which summarises the findings of the ‘think-tank’ set up by the Revision Preparation Group (RPG) of Meeting for Sufferings to consider some of the issues prior to any possible revision of Quaker Faith and Practice.

NFN’s David Boulton and Michael Wright were part of the think-tank in a personal capacity (ie. Not representing NFN).

Here they offer a synopsis of the new book (Michael Wright) (pdf) and a succinct review (David Boulton) (Word.doc).

David will be one of our three speakers at our 2018 conference and Michael Wright will lead a discussion of the book at the conference on the Sunday morning.

You may also like to read what Rhiannon Grant, another member of the think-tank, and I believe the ‘RPG’?, has to say about ‘God, words and us‘. (I have used a link which also gives some bonus items from her blog!)

Regional Conference in Bristol

  • Our Regional Conference in Bristol.
    The first of what we hope will be a new series of regional one-day conferences organised by NFN and hosted by local or area meetings took place at Bristol Redlands meeting house on Saturday October 28th. More than 50 Friends (with a variety of views) attended from Bristol and South-West England and were given a warm welcome by Celia Beeson on behalf of Redlands meeting. Hugh Rock from the NFN steering group chaired the two sessions which included small-group discussion and lively contributions from the floor.
    I introduced the theme, Nontheism among Friends: Its Place in our Religious Society, looking first at the many ways in which Quakerism has changed over the centuries, then opening a discussion on what the current dialogue on nontheism means for Quaker language and practice. After a tea break we looked at the work of the Quaker Faith and Practice Revision Preparation Group and its efforts to ensure that we all escape the trap of seeing theism and nontheism in simplistic, binary and polarised terms. United in our belief in an open, inclusive Society, we concluded with reflection in meeting for worship.
    The steering group is grateful to Redlands meeting for taking the initiative in inviting us, and publicising the event in the region. We hope other meetings in major Quaker centres such as York, Newcastle, Manchester and London will consider inviting us to join them in similar events.
    David Boulton
    Steering Group member

Three more articles reviewed!

Continuing very slowly my promise to review earlier articles on the website, I would like to tackle three in one go: Michael Wright’s articles on Greta Vosper, Disagreeing about God and Prayer beyond belief.

  1. Michael opens his discussion of Greta Vosper with:

Gretta Vosper, a Minister in the United Church of Canada, and Chair of the Canadian Centre for Progressive Christianity, is a fresh voice in modern theology. She is blowing a blast of fresh air through hallowed portals. This is the essence of her view expressed in her first book: “With or Without God – why the way we live is more important than what we believe.”

Thus Michael characterises Gretta Vosper as ‘a blast of fresh air’ – a perfect storm perhaps, implying that the ‘hallowed portals’ (established churches) are theologically dusty places? (Can’t resist mentioning that Michael was an Anglican Vicar for 30 years). ‘Hallowed portals’ might remind us too of George Fox’s derisive remarks (not always in kindly tones) about ‘steeple houses’.

Michael continues quoting Vosper that ‘out of it all may be distilled a core that, very simply put, is love.’ and ‘The church the future needs is one of people gathering to share and recommit themselves to loving relationships with themselves, their families, the wider community, and the planet.’ Still not so very far then from those Quaker heretics of the 17th century.

‘why the way we live is more important than what we believe’ is a far cry from Christian orthodoxy, might be referred to (by some contemptuously) as ‘works righteousness’ whilst ‘With or without God’ leaves room for humanists, agnostics and non-theists too?

Finally Michael says ‘The core of what she is saying about prayer is to adapt the classic concepts of the acronym ACTS – Adoration, Confession, Supplication, and Thanksgiving, and use those concepts as secular spiritual activities. ACTS   – becomes Awe, Concerns, Thankfulness and Self-examination.’ This is a favourite theme of Michael’s as we shall see but as I haven’t read Greta Vosper’s work I’m not sure if Michael has derived this re-working of the acronym from her or interpreted Vosper to match his acronym – it would be interesting I think to know!

  1. Disagreeing about God. This is a longer article by Michael published originally in The Friend and I will refer you to it rather than trying to précis it here. A couple of points echo the article about Greta Vosper summarised above:

Michael quotes John Macmurray’s Swarthmore Lecture of 1965: “Faith no longer means the acceptance of an established creed or the assent to an authoritative system of doctrine. It recovers the original meaning of trust and fearless confidence; and this spirit of faith is expressed in a way of living which cares for one another and for the needs of all.” Search for Reality in Religion (Swarthmore Lecture 1965).

Michael then continues by discussing the *‘Whoosh Epistle’ of 2012 and comments:
‘Such is the context in which the theist/nontheist disagreement is aired in the pages of The Friend and elsewhere. I want to make a plea for a warmer spirit of mutual respect and understanding between Friends committed to either view, and for those who are not sure where they are in this debate.’
*This appears to have been quietly laid down? and is no longer available on quaker.org.uk (a cardinal web sin according to Tim Berners-Lee(1998)!)

He then describes his personal spiritual journey, 40 years an Anglican, many of them as priest, and then as a Quaker from 1998 with a developing move to a non-theist perspective.

He refers again to the ‘Whoosh Epistle’ and closes with:

‘Each of us is free to account for our experiences as we understand them. Each of us is free to explain them to others and to listen respectfully to their different perspectives. Can we recognise that there are many benefits in being part of a “rainbow coalition”? George Fox’s question – “What canst thou say?”- remains a challenge to us all.’

  1. Prayer beyond belief. Chelmsford NFN address: October 19. 2013. Whilst the two pieces considered above are 2 and three pages long, here we have, including notes, references and bibliography, a 19 page account of Michael’s NFN presentation to Chelmsford Friends. He visits all the subjects considered above in much greater detail and quotes A.N. Whitehead:‘Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.’ (as far as I know, Whitehead wasn’t a Quaker! Trevor) and explains how this applies to Greta Vosper’s work.

Michael talks of a new paradigm for Christianity and considers ‘Five key elements’: The Bible; God; Jesus; Doctrine; Prayer

Under ‘God’, Michael says:

There is no agreement in history about who God is, and what is God’s nature. There are widely different perspectives among Jews, Christians, Moslems, among the Hindus of India, the Buddhists of Tibet, the Shinto of Japan, the Druids or Wicca of Britain, and the American First Nations. The ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, and the Incasof South America had many gods – and I do not know of anyone nowadays who trusts or worships them.’ He then talks about Karen Armstrong’s work, Greta Vosper again and discusses the ‘Apophatic Tradition’.

Under ‘Prayer’ Michael returns to ACTS (AWE, CONCERNS, THANKFULNESS, SELF-RELFECTION) and considers these and related Quaker concepts in greater detail, matching them to our Advices and Queries.

That takes us to page 15 where Michael introduces ‘The spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Roman Catholic religious order the Society of Jesus’ (or the Jesuits). Pages 16-19 were handouts for the workshop but include a reading list and the thoughts ‘Godless prayer – impossible?’ and ‘Meeting for Worship – implausible for a nontheist?’

It has taken me 3 pages to review 30 pages of Michael’s but I hope they will encourage you to read and perhaps be inspired by the originals!

A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

‘Neither and therefore no’ appeals to me. The rest of this post by Rhiannon, one of our two keynote speakers at last conference I found very moving, hence experimentally re- blogging it here.

Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When…

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