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Towards a Nontheist View of Discernment

Towards a Nontheist View of Discernment

What is discernment for you? A recent piece in The Friend (by Neil Morgan, 9 August issue) titled ‘How nontheists view discernment is giving me a headache’, argues that without the sense of revelation from God, and sense of connection with God, discernment loses its distinctive Quaker quality. So what are nontheists doing? Are they just ‘listening empathically’ to each other? The piece ends with the plea, ‘Could Rhiannon [Grant] or someone from the NFN please explain to me what they are doing when they are discerning – or at least what they think they are doing?’ (This was in a review of Rhiannon’s book Telling the Truth about God. Rhiannon reminds us that she does not self-identify as a nontheist but is a friend of nontheists.) In response, we asked our members to share their views on how nontheists view discernment for publication in this newsletter, identifying writers only by initials. Here are some responses (so far…)

The Nontheist Friends Network is my spiritual home. Born in 1935 I have always been a sceptic about God. My mother was a Grammar-school science teacher, my father a pillar of the Welsh Calvinist Methodist Church.

When, as a young child, I asked my mother where God was, she said ‘Oh – up there somewhere’, to which I responded – ‘He cannot be thick, or else he would fall down’. I have never been a ‘believer’ in God or been able to ascribe any significant meaning to the word. My ambitious father sent me to a Quaker boarding-school, simply because he could not find a private Methodist school that he liked.

I went to university, and became Secretary of the Cambridge Humanist Society, under the chairmanship of E M Forster. I regard the world’s religions as among the greatest artistic creations of mankind. I realize that millions have found inspiration in their images of Deity, but I cannot share them. For me, religions resemble great symphonies, inspiring works of sculpture or painting, wise sayings – and they are part of my world, but not supernatural.

And yet I loved my Quaker school and its diverse, cosmopolitan, community. I loved Reading Meeting, which we attended every fortnight. I came to love Quaker ways, and Quaker values. Later, in my sixties and an Attender at Swansea Meeting, I was accepted as a Member, and became a Friend. I came home. [RWE]

I am surprised that Rhiannon Grant’s book gives Neil Morgan a headache. Nontheists have a heart and an awareness of all the rich sensitivities of the human spirit, communicated for instance by poetry, art and music. They also share the characteristic human sense of empathy and compassion towards the feelings of others. They bring all these senses to bear on matters that require discernment – senses that some would call spiritual. [GGS]

I find a quiet place and I think. Not exactly rocket science. I may do this during MfW too. Occasionally I may do some research and read things that may relate to a concern, or I speak to people. This process may take some time, depending on the concern, or it may just be listening to points of view at a meeting for worship for business to compose a minute. Either way it just requires some head space and a time of thought without the intervention of a God figure. I often come to a revelation all on my own. [AK]

I’m listening to what Friends have to say with an open mind and an awareness of my own possible prejudices, being prepared to make up my mind or change my mind according to what I hear. I weigh it all up, using my experience and intelligence, think about ‘what love requires of me’ and I speak my views if I feel it would be helpful. If a decision goes a way I’m not happy with, I accept that this is what Friends wanted and try to accept it with good grace,

I’m certainly not waiting for any kind of divine guidance. [LE]

My late husband called Quaker processes ‘the jewel in the Crown.’ As Assistant then Clerk of my Meeting, I found discernment to be a bright facet of the jewel.

It is hard work, to put oneself aside and listen – really listen to what each Friend says. Then to keep that so important space between each contribution is vital as we begin to ‘take on board’ the many aspects of the item under consideration. This will lead to a moment when the Clerk feels it is right to attempt a minute. The Clerk then needs to be upheld by the quiet, loving support of those present as he or she tries to put into words the sense of the Meeting.

The minute first proposed can then be worked on, if need be, until Friends feel it to be a true reflection of the discernment process that has just taken place. This has been achieved by a group of Friends having mutual respect, care and love for each other and for the furtherance of Quakerism. [AR]

I see discernment as a way of improving the quality of discussion and of eventual decision- making as compared with more common ways of handling group discussions such as committees and voting.

The very fact of meetings (of any kind) implies universal recognition of ‘collective intelligence’ alongside individual points of view. My own experience has left me in no doubt that (a) the outcome of meetings can be influenced by the mood of the meeting and (b) that the mood can be managed. Such management can take the form of, for example, the style of the chair, the meeting conventions and practical aspects such as timing, papers circulated, accommodation and so on.

Quakers have developed a particular style of discussing business matters that is harmonious with Quaker values and therefore, on the whole, observed. The discipline of waiting to be called by the clerk to speak, of avoiding engagement with others who have spoken, of speaking respectfully, of a readiness to be persuaded and of careful recording of the discernments of the meeting by the clerk all lead to a productive interaction between individual views and the collective intelligence which, to me, is the essence of discernment.

So I understand Neil Morgan’s use of the words revelation and connection but I see them applying to the relationship between individual views and collective intelligence rather than to God. [GH]

I have never ever thought that discernment was only possible with a belief in God!
This would mean that only ‘religious’ people could do any good – which is obviously not true.

For me, Quakers are a constant reminder that the fundamental tenets of Quakerism – peace, equality, sustainability, justice and truth – are what we need to keep in mind on a daily basis and that is what the community of Quakers gives me. [MW]

Discernment does not lose its distinctive Quaker quality because one is a non-theist. In meeting I try to think good thoughts and how I can do better with my life – it tempers the bad stuff in the world. I do not sit there worrying about whether it is God, or simply my conscience bringing these thoughts out. But it does. For me Quakers is about what you do, not whether you believe in God or not. [EW]

Neil Morgan (9 August) asks how nontheists regard Quaker discernment, assuming that they necessarily cut ‘God’ out of the equation. I am a member of the Network who does actually believe in God. But what I believe in is not the existence of God but the presence of God, and for me that difference is vital.

For as long as I can remember I have been constantly aware of a presence that is ‘closer than breathing’, very personal, yet not entirely part of myself. It has always been with me, more or less out of eyeshot, and its presence means that I never feel lonely or alone. Not only that, but I also feel that it both guards and guides me. Whatever it may be is reliable and comforting. I call it ‘God’ because I grew up with the word and still find meaningful and useful. But it’s a name, not a definition. I ‘believe in’ it in the etymological sense of credo = cor do (Latin: ‘I give my heart’). I also share in the presence of God corporately, mostly in meeting for worship.

I feel that to speak of God as ‘existing’ is to categorise God as part of the universe, bound by space and time, whereas the presence of God is not an objective reality but a subjective human experience. People may claim they don’t see God as a bearded old man in the sky, yet many still speak as if they do. If God ‘exists’ anywhere, it is in the human heart, not ‘out there’. A literal belief in the externally ‘real’ existence of God seems dangerous and demeaning. The NFN provides me with a respectful and non judgmental forum enabling me to explore my theology more thoroughly than in most other areas of Quaker life. I may not like the word ‘nontheist’, but I treat it as a name, not a definition. After all, I don’t define myself by reference to my own name.

Thus I can understand Quaker discernment as joining with others in listening to and acting on the leadings of God, and as an occasional clerk and elder for many years can attest to its efficacy. [DP]

IF.. You would like to respond to this discussion, or comment further, please email David Parlett, or Comment (‘Leave a reply’) here below. (Initials or name required. Your email address will not be published).

Jesus Today Book

Michael Wright (Teesdale and Cleveland AM) who stepped down from our Steering Group after 3 years as clerk in 2018 has now published his short book on his understanding of Jesus today.

He has very kindly allowed us to add it the website here (540 Kb): Jesus Today Book, (182 pages pdf) but if you would like a nice printed copy
JESUS Today cover (1 page pdf 840Kb)
it is available as Michael says here:
I am hoping that Friends House bookshop will stock it, but with being away have not been able to speak to the manager, which I shall aim to do tomorrow if he is available. I will let you know. I have also asked if Simon Best will have it on sale or return at Woodbrooke, but am awaiting a response on that.

It is available from any bookshop or online by ordering it, as the publishers (Sixth Edition) supply it to major book wholesale distributers Bartrams, and Gardners. The RRP is £9.99 but print copies can also be obtained from me for £7.00 plus £1.20 postage – £8.20. It is available free as an ebook from various sources:
www.smashwords.com/books/view/941749
https://books.apple.com/us/book/jesus-today/id1468252120
www.kobo.com/ww/en/ebook/jesus-today-2
www.barnesandnoble.com/w/jesus-today-michael-wright/1131793879
www.amazon.co.uk/Jesus-Today-Perspective-Michael-Wright-ebook/dp/B07T16SDG6

I understand it will be reviewed in the near future in the PCN magazine Progressive Voices, The Friend, and Quaker Universalist.

I hope this is helpful, but do come back to me with any further queries. Best wishes, and many thanks. Michael

Thank-you Michael. Other short articles by Michael are also available here on the website under ‘Articles’.

The book is a very interesting read on one of the many ways in which, for example, nontheist quakers might view Jesus today so a very apt title for us. For a fuller review of the book by David Parlett see here.

Good without God?

Good without God is the ambiguous part-title to this interesting editorial article on atheism and religion in the Guardian 15/7/19 (The Guardian view on atheism):

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jul/15/the-guardian-view-on-atheism-good-without-god

Not sure if they mean it’s good to be without God or you can be good without God or?  There appears to be an implicit sense of concern in the article and I wonder if Quakers, nontheist or otherwise, have the answers?

I note that, for Britain, citing the British Social Attitudes Survey: “Even among the over-75s, only a third identify as Anglican. More than half of British people now say that they have no religion; about two-fifths are Christians of one sort of another; 9% are Muslims.”

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!