Tag Archives: David Boulton

Book review of Michael Wright’s ‘Jesus today – a Quaker perspective’

Book review: Michael Wright’s  ‘Jesus today – a Quaker perspective’
by David Parlett (extracted from our forthcoming NFN Newsletter)

Isn’t it remarkable how some of the best books on Jesus are written by former clerks of the Nontheist Friends Network? (David Boulton’s Who on Earth was Jesus?, published in 2008, became – and maybe still is – a standard text book in some RC seminaries following the enthusiastic recommendation of Henry Wansbrough, general editor of the New Jerusalem Bible.)

Now Michael Wright has published Jesus Today – a Quaker Perspective, to add to the collection. Michael was an Anglican priest for 40 years before leaving ordained ministry and becoming a Quaker, so he knows whereof he speaks. Furthermore, his knowledge is up to date: while most of his quotations are from the bible and Quaker Faith and Practice, he also draws on valuable material from such writers as John Spong, Karen Armstrong and Marcus Borg. ‘What I am seeking to share with those who read this’, he explains, ‘is a fresh appreciation of Jesus, his life and teaching, which is not trapped in the mindset of the past’. He regrets that ‘Few [Quakers] refer to Jesus or the gospels in meeting for worship. Mention of him can even be unwelcome to some. I hope now to stimulate an interest in the significance of his teaching from which we can draw inspiration for our values and practice today… There is a significant contrast between Jesus’ original teaching and behaviour and the authoritative doctrines and orthodoxies later developed and then imposed by the institutional churches. Quakers have largely either challenged or sidelined these since the foundations of our movement in the 17th century.’

If Chapter 3, devoted to ‘some elements of the Quaker way’, will serve well for newcomers and enquirers who find some of our language and attitudes unusual and perhaps baffling, chapter 4, ‘A Quaker approach to the bible’ is essential reading for many of us who think we know it well enough already. ‘Quakers share the biblical narrative with other Christians, and we value the scriptures without taking everything at face value. We pay attention to the spirit who gave the scriptures, rather than abiding by the letter of them.’ (This is almost word-for-word Robert Barclay). ‘Our approach to the scriptures is distinctive and not widely understood, even among Quakers’. Rather than adopt creeds, he adds: ‘The early Quakers […] delved into the scriptures and drew from them inspiration to shape their lives in the circumstances of their own time. This we can do in our day. Our Quaker testimony to truth and to integrity, to equality and justice, to peace, to simplicity and sustainability, all spring from gospel principles which Jesus taught’.

Michael then looks at the four gospels, using an image that particularly appeals to me. As a former journalist, he likens the style of Mark to The Daily Mirror, Matthew to The Daily Telegraph, Luke to The Guardian, and John to The Sunday Times as it used to be.

Chapter 6, ‘Revising our understanding of the Jesus story’, precedes ‘Some Quaker Responses to Jesus’, in which we are reminded of George Fox’s central experience of discovering Jesus within himself and of the impact of the Quaker message in English life when first shared publicly. But the scene in Britain today is very different from the 1640s: ‘Then Christian religious practice and teaching was the shared experience of just about everybody, although there were lots of disagreements between different groups about what should be taught and practised. Today Christian congregations are clearly a minority, in which the distinctive Quaker voice is a minority within a minority’.  David Parlett

Michael Wright’s Jesus Today – a Quaker Perspective is published by Sixth Element Publishing, 2019 (ISBN 978191221857-8). Michael has very kindly allowed us to add it our website at: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2019/07/23/jesus-today-book/ (182 pages pdf), but if you would like a nice printed copy try Friends House Bookshop.

The Republic of Heaven

More on Soul and Spirit?

I’ve been reading ‘Becoming fully human – Writings on Quakers and Christian thought’ by Michael Langford, published by Friends of the Light, 2019.

This is a compilation of Michael’s writings over several years and includes his ‘A Friendly way of being Christian’ and ‘Our Christian Roots: a Quaker perspective’, both available separately but almost a quarter of this anthology (108 pages) is taken up with ‘The book of Revelation for Quakers’ – and it is a revelation.

I may attempt a review of the book later but I highly recommend it for ‘theist’ and ‘nontheist’ Quakers alike. Michael was a language teacher and writes about the importance of language and the possibilities of differing interpretation of words including the literal, non-literal, metaphorical, poetic and prophetic.

In a way, this extends the vision of ‘God, words and us’ and in many ways resolves any differences between theist and nontheist or humanist approaches to God and religion.

At the same time I also started reading ‘Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being’ by Paul Mason and found remarkable the congruence of ideas between this self-identifying Marxist and Michael Langford, Quaker.

Michael writes, in his closing pages:
‘Although the Bible teaches that to know God is to love one another and do justice (Micah 6.8 etc.) the atheist can still argue that belief in God usually makes things worse. Many prominent atheists today, and our Quaker ‘non-theists’, are not what the Bible calls “fools who say in their hearts there is no God”, because the Bible defines such people as being corrupt and doing foul deeds (Psalms 14 and 53:1-2; Romans 3:10-18). The hearts of most professing atheists seem to be in the right place and this is in striking contrast to the attitude and behaviour of very many Bible-loving Christians.’ (p. 446)(My bold and what a judgement!).

He continues:
‘If your faith allows you to inflict pain and misery on others and to damage the creation, you are worshipping the wrong god. Dressing up your false god as Christ, Allah, Buddha or whatever, makes no difference. God is revealed in what you are and what you do. If some ways of imagining God are no longer helpful, they must be scrapped – but we must be careful because images that we do not like may still be helping others.’ (p. 448).
(Paul Mason would have the ‘false god’ as the neo-liberal consensus and Mammon.)

Michael comments in his closing chapter on ‘Contract or Covenant’:
‘Karl Marx had made a very sound, but godless, analysis of how humanity got itself into its present mess, and ended with a vision of Communist society that sounds just like the Christian New Jerusalem; but his pseudo-scientific dictatorship of the proletariat was a catastrophe.’ (p. 445).

‘The Christian gospel is not a book or an old, discredited system of beliefs; it is a liberating power that has only been acted on fitfully – and here and there – by dedicated minorities. It asks for revolution not reform, but this is to be an inward or spiritual revolution.’ (p. 448). (Paul Mason says something quite similar in personal and secular terms at the end of his book).

On the last page, Michael quotes George Fox, Romans 8:14 and Irenaeus (twice) before concluding:
‘A faith is a way of being as lived by people in that community. Its truth depends on how they live and affect the lives of others. Individuals can tinker with this or that set of beliefs and mythologies and come to provisional, personal conclusions; but a real faith asks for lifelong commitment to a chosen path in the company of a chosen community – a practical demonstration of what it is to be human. The more human it is the more God will be known as present and active.’ (p. 449). Minus the last sentence, Paul Mason would probably be in sympathy with that conclusion. But, here’s a thought, doesn’t that final sentence define God in away that is quite acceptable to humanists and atheists? The metaphorical, allegorical, imagined God who has ‘only these hands’?

Meanwhile, my wife Georgina was listening to Philip Pullman talking about literature for children (and God, the King, is dead) on her Audible books which led to an internet search for ‘The Republic of Heaven’. Amongst other gems, the search yielded David Boulton’s review of Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ in The Guardian, 2003: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/apr/05/religion.uk

David manages to squeeze in:
In my new book, The Trouble With God: Religious Humanism And The Republic Of Heaven, I try to grapple with the question of what such a republic might look like. To my surprise, I find it is not very different from the kingdom of heaven described by Jesus a couple of thousand years ago. (Another edition? is entitled The Trouble with God: Building the Republic of Heaven).

 

Nontheism on Wikipedia

Looking for David Boulton on wikipedia the other day hypertexted me to wikipedia on Nontheist Quakers (worth a read) including a short list of ‘Notable Nontheist Friends’ (only two of whom I’ve heard of) and then to wikipedia on Nontheism which is a fascinating read (follow the links there to ignosticism and ietsism) and which explains very well why ‘nontheist’ is likely to remain the best label we can find for our Nontheist Friends Network.

Look forward to comments on this (‘Leave a reply’) and see you at the Conference on 29-31 March?

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.

“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.

2018 Conference Reports

I have prepared summary reports of the presentations by Linda Murgatroyd, David Boulton and Harvey Gillman here.  (Each runs to 3 or 4 pages). The opening paragraphs below link to those reports (in Word).  Trevor

Linda Murgatroyd’s presentation. (Friday evening 9th March 2018)

Responding to Change.
Under this title, Linda, of Kingston & Wandsworth AM and co-clerk of the Quaker Arts Network, developed an extended metaphor of gardening to explore the growth, development, decline and rejuvenation of different aspects of Quakers in Britain today and in particular used David Holmgren’s 12 design principles for Permaculture to structure a consideration of possible futures for Quakers in Britain.

Notes for her talk have been sent to conference participants but Linda didn’t feel they were in a form that was suitable for publication on the website.

David Parlett has summarised the talk for his article in The Friend as follows:
“Linda adopted a metaphorical approach by considering ways in which we could work towards a desirable position in 2032 by following the 12 principles of permaculture, defined as “thinking tools, that when used together, allow us to creatively re-design our environment and our behaviour in a world of less energy and resources”. She backed this by drawing attention to statistics on trends in religion in Britain and Jennifer Hampton’s British Quaker Survey: examining religious beliefs and practices in the 21st Century.”

Read more here: Summary report of Linda Murgatroyd’s NFN presentation (This is now a pdf edited by Linda replacing earlier Word version).

David Boulton’s presentation. (Saturday morning 10th March 2018)

‘Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: – What our past tells us about our future
Preview of a talk to an Open Quaker conference, March 10 2032’
David addressed the 2018 NFN conference at Woodbroke with a ‘preview’ of the talk that might be given (by him?) at a Quaker conference on March 10th 2032.
In part this flash forward was looking back at 2005 and the years upto 2018 and beyond to 2032.
He begins ’28 years ago, in 2005’ with a study published then by George Fox University, Oregon, USA predicting that the last British Quaker (probably female) would turn out the lights of the last BYM meeting house in 2032.

Read more here: Summary report of David Boulton’s presentation
(Well, not so much a précis as a butchering of David’s fine writing and talk so, especially if you weren’t there, do read the original attached here in Word format.)

Harvey Gillman’s presentation. (Saturday morning 10th March 2018)

Why should the Religious Society of Friends have a Future?
Taking his turn after Linda and David, Harvey offered us his vision, not at variance with those foreseen by Linda and David but presented in a very different style.

David Parlett has summarised Harvey’s talk for his article in The Friend as follows:
“Later, delegates were stimulated – one might say enraptured – by Harvey Gillman, whose (literally) enthusiastic writings will be well known to readers of The Friend. Harvey declared himself to be an ‘unstructured’ thinker and speaker, and proved the value of this style in suggesting that our future will be the eventual outcome of living always in the here and now. The most important element in our spiritual life should be the ‘WOW factor’; the truly sacred is always ‘This moment, this place, these people’.” (emphasis added here).

Looking at what Harvey has written elsewhere and in the piece that follows that he read to us on Sunday morning, we might imagine him abbreviating this further to WE (or You, Us), HERE, NOW!

Read more here: Summary report of Harvey Gillman’s presentation

On Sunday morning, Michael Wright led a workshop on using ‘God, words and Us’ in local meetings and his notes are now reproduced here:
Michael Wright’s notes  for using God, Words and Us. (Word.docx)

Conference and AGM 9-11 March 2018 at Woodbrooke

The conference is now just 4 weeks away!
I have received a note about the AGM from Gisela Creed our NFN Clerk:

Notice of Annual General Meeting

 To be held on Saturday 10th of March 2018 at 4.30 pm at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre during the NFN annual residential conference.

Draft Agenda
1. Minutes of last Meeting (26/03/2017)
2. Clerk’s report
3. Financial report and accounts
4. Website update
5. Newsletter report
6. Appointment of Steering group and office holders
7. Any other business

Please notify Gisela Creed, clerk, if you would like to raise any further business:
jgcreed (at) btinternet.com (Replace the (at) with the usual @ symbol – no spaces!)

All NFN members are invited to attend the AGM, and Conference attendees who are not NFN members (please join at the Conference!) are welcome to attend the AGM as observers.

We all look forward to the conference and enjoying our stay at Woodbrooke

Trevor (for the Steering Group).

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!