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Buddhism, Meditation and God

Buddhism, Meditation and God
One of the problems of an individual maintaining a small group website (and we are a small group in terms of both our membership and followers of the website) is that, if no-one else contributes, then it is difficult to steer the line between ‘personalising’ the website (which generally makes it more interesting and readable) and stopping it from becoming that individual’s personal or pet project.

Whilst we have many interesting articles on the website written by speakers at our conferences, and many other members of the network, which should in many cases still be of great interest to anyone interested in nontheism or aspects of religious belief and theology, there are very few ‘live’ contributions in terms of pages or ‘posts’ to the website itself which have not been written by ‘yours truly’.

We do get a fair number of comments on existing pages or posts which very occasionally develop into a ‘conversation’, but it is quite hard to provoke these.

I think ‘provoke’ is definitely the right word, so from time to time, I try to write something provocative in the hope that this will result in numerous comments which might become such a conversation.

Our ‘Aims’ include: being a forum; being ‘a supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation’; ensuring that the RSoF is inclusive rather than exclusive; exploring theological and spiritual diversity whilst being ‘in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.’

So far, my post seems to have little or nothing to do with its title.

Other members of the RoSF criticise both nontheist and universalist Friends as being ‘inclusive of all’ and therefore ’standing for nothing’. How can you accept ‘anyone’ into membership (of the ‘Religious Society’) of ‘any religion or none’, regardless of belief and so on.

The Society has always kept its ‘Meetings for Worship’ open to all (as ‘attenders’) presumably in the hope that something of the practice of silent ‘worship’, its possible benefits and/or the Society’s ‘testimonies’ of ‘good behaviour’ will somehow ‘rub-off’ on those who attend. Some of those who attend (possibly for decades) might eventually become members and perhaps contribute both financially and in ‘service’ more consistently than they might have done as ‘attenders’ and this helps to pay the bills, maintain old buildings and ’keep the show on the road’.

The ‘necessary minimum’ qualification for membership has always been a matter of some argument – what does it mean exactly to be ‘convinced’ (or ‘convicted’ in older language).

Once it (membership) meant to be ‘Christian’, a follower of Christ or a follower of Jesus. But Friends were never followers of the Nicene Creed, often, perhaps justifiably, regarded as heretical by other Christian churches, although they did emphasise the importance of the personal experience (of Christ). However, this ‘personal experience’ (once, after George Fox, to ‘know it experimentally’) was never dependent on declared belief and even held to be available to all, Christian or not.

This ‘open’ position was assisted by the open and varied language used to describe the experience or ‘experiment’. Experience of what? The inner/inward light; ‘Jesus come to teach his people himself’; just ‘the light’; ‘that of God’; ‘the kingdom of heaven’; and a number of other expressions or variants biblical and non-biblical. Coupled with a belief in ‘that of God in everyone’, it is not difficult to see how this was not exclusively christian, though at first it was perhaps assumed (maybe until the middle of the twentieth century) that those who were ‘convinced’ were in effect ‘Christian’.

Whilst, after a number of ’schisms’ especially in America (perhaps after British ‘interference!), some Friends became christian and evangelical (so today we have some (Yearly) Meetings styling themselves as ‘Evangelical Friends Churches’) others including Britain Yearly Meeting set off in another direction, emphasising the ‘unprogrammed’ silent meeting and in some cases tending to become ‘universalist’ and accepting into membership Jews (not surprising); Muslims; Hindus; Sikhs; Buddhists; ‘Others’ and eventually ’nontheists’.

In addition to this, from about the middle of the twentieth century again and perhaps not co-incidentally, some Christians and some ’non-believers’ and latterly, some Friends, found Buddhism and then aspects (including ‘meditation’) from other Eastern religions (including ‘Hinduism’ and Islam/Sufism) of benefit to them in their spiritual seeking.

From being substantially Christian (or at least ‘Jesus following’) unprogrammed ‘liberal’ Friends only needed to be ‘Godly’ (believing in God?) to come into membership. Even this developed further as understandings of ‘God’, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Eastern Christianity and Biblical criticism, changed, so that the question ‘Do you believe in God’ could be answered by ‘It depends what you mean by God (or ‘belief’)’ as well as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. (And even ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ could be interpreted according to different understandings of ‘God’.)

Amongst nontheists, we have in membership of NFN or attending our conferences, sometimes as our keynote speakers, theists, non-theists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, ‘lapsed Anglicans’, Christian Atheists, ‘converts’ to some of these religions or ‘positions’, agnostics, ‘naturalists’ and ‘materialists’ (believing in only the ‘natural’ or ‘material’ world, not some other spiritual or ‘transcendent’ world), ’non-theist theists’ and so on. (See the wikipedia article on ’nontheism’ for further ideas).

I’ve not even mentioned Unitarians (‘Quakers with hymns’) who have perhaps gone further in welcoming ‘Pagans’, ‘Traditional religions’ and so on. Some individual Friends may also attend Unitarian services (to sing?), Anglican or Methodist services, or retain some of their practice of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. (a number of Anglicans being in joint membership for example), whilst others come to Friends and drop their former religious belief or practice. In this way, and at this time, the RoSF welcomes all to attend its meetings and often to become members according to an individual’s inclinations and the ‘discernment’ of their local and Area Meeting.

NFN, I believe, welcomes this ‘unity in diversity’ with fluid boundaries and a feeling that this is in accordance with and not at variance with Friends’ practice through the ages.

At this point (not quite finished my labouring) I will turn to the bible:
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”
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.”

I last used these quotations in the post “Theism vs Non-Theism” or Quaker Spirit? in June 2018 where I commented: In the end then, what Friends think, believe or experience of the ‘spirit’ might be a matter of some significance.

aSo, what do we then, as Friends, whether identifying as ‘non theists’ or not, have to say about the ‘Spirit’. (See the above post for some discussion of this).

It is, quite often, asked ‘what do nontheists do in Meeting for Worship?’ Some Friends who have been quakers all their lives from long established quaker families like to refer just to ‘Meeting’ so that the possible question ‘what are you worshipping’ is not asked.

Surveys have shown that Friends, including non theist Friends, do many different things in Meeting for Worship. Perhaps we worship, venerate, adore, pray, reflect, think, meditate, contemplate, sleep, snore, rest, sit quietly, dream, minister or all of these, none of these and some I haven’t thought of. Is there some ‘core’ to the practice (of ‘silent worship’) that we all agree on or partake of in some measure. Is it ‘communion’ or communing. How does it sometimes come to be ‘diagnosed’ as a ‘gathered’ meeting?

Friends have different experiences and understandings (not to mention misunderstandings or misconceptions) about what ‘meditation’ might be. (There are of course quite a number of different meditation or ‘meditative’ practices). Is Buddhist (or other) ‘silent worship’ (meditation) of some use or benefit to non-Buddhist Friends? Is (not) meeting for worship in part a special kind of ‘Christian’ meditation? (Please don’t just say ‘No’. Research the topic!). Is ‘Experiment with Light’ a genuine reflection of some early Friends’ practices and whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is it useful to (all of?) us as a conjunct to or preparation for Meeting?

Some nontheist Friends (materialists or naturalists perhaps) are distinctly unhappy with the idea, notion, concept or word ‘divine’. Other self-identified nontheists are quite happy with the idea of the ‘divine presence’. Is that the same as the Spirit (Holy Ghost or otherwise)?

Can I, at this point, say, in short? Perhaps not. Enough. Have I provoked sufficiently?

If not, why don’t we have a conference (or other event) on ‘The Spirit without God’. (or would ‘The Spirit, with or without God’ be better?).

(Answers, replies, comments, expressions of disgust etc. here please – below –  rather than on a postcard).

Diversity

Our conference this year (29th-31st March 2019 – have you booked yet?) is on the subject(s) of Unity, Diversity and Boundaries.

Perhaps our speakers will be thinking mainly of diversity of belief (and practice) but there are other kinds of diversity (of concern) and here is an interesting article from Friends Journal about racial diversity by an American Friend:

https://www.friendsjournal.org/white-stamina/

NFN November 2018 Newsletter

The November newsletter with our latest news, book reviews, details of the 2019 conference, short articles as well as news from nontheist Friends in America has now been added to the website.

NFN members and others who have signed up to receive this will have had it in their email a week or so ago.

As with all the other newsletters, please see under ‘Articles –  Newsletters’ above.

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!