Category Archives: Non-theism

July Newsletter and Questionnaire

The NFN July Newsletter (4 August 2018), which NFN members and others on our mailing list should have received by email a few days ago, has been uploaded to the website today. (See Newsletters under Articles).

The Newsletter has numerous interesting articles and reviews and includes a questionnaire which aims to compare “the viewpoints of different people who attend Quaker meetings and their attitudes towards religion and spirituality“.

Anyone attending any Quaker meeting is invited to complete the questionnaire (ignoring question 5 if appropriate) and send it to Patrick Cremona at the email address given. The article and questionnaire from the Newsletter are reproduced in full here:

Research questions for nontheist Friends
Patrick Cremona, currently finishing a masters in Magazine Journalism at Cardiff University, has written to seek our help in answering questions about aspects of our Quakerism. He writes:

“The piece that I am currently working on is part of a series of articles exploring spirituality in the twenty-first century, which will form my major project for my masters, and will also hopefully be pitched to other outlets once it is finished. This idea for this particular feature was inspired by both the Simon Jenkins article you linked [on the NFN website]and a conversation with a (non-religious) friend of mine who has recently started attending Quaker meetings. Its aim is to explore ideas of religion, theism and spirituality, and the differences between them, with specific reference to Quaker meetings. While I found the aforementioned Jenkins article interesting, it didn’t include quotes from Quakers and this is where my article would differ. Rather than being an opinion piece, I would be looking at comparing the viewpoints of different people who attend Quaker meetings and their attitudes towards religion and spirituality… I aim to conduct thorough research on the topic, and I am planning on attending a Quaker meeting in Cardiff in the near future.”

Patrick has sent us a questionnaire and readers are invited to respond to him via <patrick.cremona@hotmail.co.uk>.

  1. How long have you been attending Quaker meetings?
  2. What were your original reasons for attending, and what were your views about theism at the time?
  3. To you personally, what are the differences between religion, theism and spirituality?
  4. Have your views regarding religion, spirituality and theism changed over time?
  5. Why did you join the Non-theist Friend network? Has doing so enhanced your experience as a Quaker?
  6. Have you noticed a general trend towards a more non-theist approach amongst Friends in general?
  7. In a world where traditional religion is continuing to steadily decline, in what ways do Quaker meetings offer an alternative form of worship?
  8. Although religion has been declining, spiritual activities and mindfulness practices are in vogue. Do you think a less rigid form of spirituality can replace more structured, organised religion in the twenty-first century, and what are the advantages of this?
  9. What would you say to someone with no religious beliefs who was interested in attending Quaker meetings?

“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.

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