Tag Archives: A Man that Looks on Glass

Dinah Livingstone – On Dover Beach

Dinah delivered our third and final talk of the NFN 2021 Conference on 21st July and ’rounded off’ the series very fittingly.

(The many links below generally open in a new window or tab).

Our three speakers spoke quite independently, guided only to deliver their talks based on their idea of spirituality – ‘That’s the spirit! – dimensions of spirituality.’

Nonetheless, the notion (one of George Fox’s ‘windy notions’?) of Spirituality resulted in three talks which, very different as expected, hung together to satisfy and inspire different members of our ‘Quaker Kaleidoscope’.

Dinah is the editor of the Sea of Faith’s magazine ‘Sofia‘ in which role she succeeded the previous editor, NFN’s ‘own’ David Boulton (one of the key founders of the Nontheist Friends Network) in 2004 and changed its name to ‘Sofia‘.  Gill Pennington mentioned David’s ‘The Faith of a Quaker Humanist‘ (1997) which I understand is still the most often downloaded booklet from the Quaker Universalist Group’s website. We can see and perhaps ‘feel’ the threads linking Humanism, the Sea of Faith Network and the Nontheist Friends Network.

The Sea of Faith Network takes its name from Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’, one stanza of which reads:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

You can find the full poem (4 stanzas, 37 lines I think) here:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach

Was it surprising to many of us that Dinah’s talk from a ‘sea of faith perspective’ was so biblical? Both Andrew Copson and Gill Pennington had mentioned biblical stories but Dinah wove an account of what I might call the ‘sea of faith version of religion, humanism and nontheism’ drawn substantially from the bible as if it might be considered the source of these ideas. This is consistent with Dinah’s re-naming of the SoF Journal to ‘Sofia’ – a serendipitous extension of the acronym SoF. (An alternative spelling for ‘Holy Wisdom‘ being Sophia). The wisdom literature of the bible provides this potential biblical basis for Don Cupitt‘s ideas and Dinah’s talk. (SEA OF FAITH NETWORK started in 1984 as a response to Don Cupitt’s book and TV series of the same name.)

At the very top of the Sea of Faith website homepage it states:

“The Network…
Explores the implications of accepting religion as a human creation;
Promotes the validity of creative, human-centred religion;
Affirms the continuing importance of religious thought
and practice as expressions of awe and wonder and
celebrations of spiritual and social values.”

Only slightly less prominently on our NFN website (You have to look under ‘About’ and then ‘Aims of the network’ here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/about/aims-of-the-network/), we state:

“The Network’s aim is to provide a forum and supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation. We want to ensure that our Religious Society of Friends is an inclusive rather than an exclusive Society. We seek to explore theological and spiritual diversity and their practical implications, in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.” (clause 2. of our constitution added the words ‘and attenders’ at our last AGM).

It’s almost as if the Sea of Faith is the Christian branch of the nontheist humanists and the nontheist Friends network is the Quaker branch of the Sea of Faith. (and I’d always thought of us as the nontheist branch of the Quaker Universalist Group). Perhaps we should convene next on Dover Beach?

Joking apart, we can surely feel those threads referred to above linking Humanism, Christian origins, Quaker Universalism, Sea of Faith and the NFN.

Dinah drew from the bible, and Christ’s teaching, its essential humanism or human facing concerns. This is perhaps not so surprising given that ‘Humanism’ has arisen, in the last two centuries, from within the Western Christian tradition. As one wit reported in a recent Quaker meeting ‘God created man in his own image – and man returned the compliment’ (or was it the other way round?). I had better at least mention at this point the Goddess to contrast with God the Father.

This ‘pre-conference reading’ bibliography prepared for the 2020 conference provides links to David Boulton’s and other NFN books: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2020/03/01/a-2020-nfn-conference-bibliography/

(Some of the links above are repeated):
https://sofn.org.uk/pages/dinah_livingstone.html
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/don-cupitt.html
https://sofn.org.uk/sofia/index.html – Sofia magazine
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/index.html – useful links
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/spirituality.html – SoF links for Spirituality

“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.

Meeting your maker

Just a small contribution from my mobile phone in sunny Spain at 700 metres and 35 degrees.

As this is not a personal blog, I am/have been wary of posting anything too personal or idiosyncratic.
The NFN does not have a nominations group but every AGM invites members to join the steering group if they wish and we currently have an SG of about 12 – see the relevant page for details.
Clerk, treasurer, conference organisers etc. fall by mutual agreement (or discernment?) to those who volunteer. So I find myself our second web person although I have hoped that other members of the SG and interested members of the Network (who may not want to volunteer for the SG) might also become contributing posters or editors (please do come forward!). In the meantime anyone can contribute by posting comments.
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.
I don’t suppose many non-theists have any difficulty with the expression (or concept of?) ‘meeting your maker’.
An older member of my meeting (90 next birthday) recently said he tells enquirers after what he is doing now that he is ‘waiting for God’. I remember many years ago my father sitting in his armchair telling me he was only ‘waiting to die’.
One thing all of us have in common, theists and non-theists, is that none of us is exactly sure what ‘meeting our maker’ will be like.
I suspect (perhaps hope) a sleep from which I never wake up, RIP, mere oblivion. On the other hand, if not re-incarnated as the nth Dalai Lama, perhaps as a ‘bull in Wisconsin’ (try the Internet).
I doubt if many theists think that heaven (or hell) is a jolly place to meet up with old friends, Friends or long lost relatives.
Some members of NFN, even the Steering Group, describe themselves as ‘theist non-theists’ (or vv.) or ‘differently godded’ so may have different concepts of what God (a God) is and that is surely true for theists. So when does God become not God? When does a theist become a non-theist? (Darwin went at least halfway after publishing ‘Origin of the species’).
At 71 and for various health reasons I may be thinking about death more than is good for me. In some ways life is less precious because there’s not enough time left and I have so many regrets for things not done. On the other hand I can be grateful for each extra day granted not knowing whether I might fall under a bus tomorrow or struggle on for another 25 years.
If God is just a name we give to love, fate, eternity, the universe or the power that creates, sustains and destroys the universe or life itself, it would be nice to know before I depart this mortal coil to substitute another phrase for meeting my maker.
I look forward to your theistic, non-theistic, enthusiastic or morbidly Melancholic responses.
Trevor as web-person, agent provocateur.

Are we still necessary?

by David Boulton
It’s the first week in a new year. In ten weeks’ time we hold our annual conference at Woodbrooke – forty rooms booked, but barely a dozen takers so far, and that after several weeks of advertising in The Friend. Panic. What have we done wrong? Chosen the wrong theme, the wrong speakers, the wrong time of year? Have Friends just lost interest in nontheist perspectives? Once the future, are we now yesterday’s men and women?
Well, we’ve been here before – like this time last year, and this time the year before. On each occasion the bookings started coming in once Christmas and the New Year were out of the way, and we had a good conference of forty or so. Not the eighty or a hundred that we got when we started six or seven years ago, but a respectable number. Our panic then proved premature.
But there is something interesting going on that we have to face up to.
The membership of our Nontheist Friends Network is dipping year by year, but the number of Friends who self-identify as nontheists is steadily rising. Don’t take my word for that: look at the series of decennial British Quaker Surveys by Ben Pink Dandelion and his team. They show that the 3.4% of British Friends designated as ‘atheists’ in 1990 had more than doubled to 7% in 2003, then more than doubled again to 14.5% in 2013. Moreover, many more who would not choose the word ‘atheist’ to describe themselves could hardly be described as conventional theists. 43% of Friends and attenders in the 2013 survey felt ‘unable to profess belief in God’, and a wopping 80% chose to describe the Quaker business method as ‘seeking the sense of the meeting’ rather than ‘seeking the will of God’.
It is possible, of course, that this ‘direction of travel’ which has caused so much concern in some quarters of the Society and was denounced by Derek Guiton in his book A Man that Looks on Glass, may have slowed up in the last two or three years. But the fact remains that there are clearly many, many more nontheist Friends in our Society than the fewer-than-a-hundred who have joined the Nontheist Friends Network. Does this matter? I don’t think it does – but maybe it should give us pause to consider whether our Network is really necessary any longer. My sense is that, despite the conservative backlash here and there, most meetings have come to terms with and been open to a nontheist presence. We have become more inclusive, less belief-oriented, more concerned with human relations in the world we know than with the metaphysics of transcendent religion. Does that mean we’ve done our job? Or should we be doing it differently? Answers please – at Woodbrooke on March 24 to 26.

David Boulton’s latest book is Through a Glass Darkly: a Defence of Quaker Nontheism, available from the Quaker Bookshop, Euston Road, London at £7 plus £2.50 postage and packing. ‘A nuanced, thoughtful book,’ according to the editor of The Friend, (December 16 2016) , ‘a book about language, identity, ownership and belonging’.