Tag Archives: ‘God words and us’

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).

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).

 

The Soul

We have talked about ‘Spirit’ before (use the search box to see) but I thought this post on Through the flaming sword on the soul was interesting about this and quaker nontheism.

Craig Barnett’s blog (Transition Quaker) also has a couple of interesting posts on Rex Ambler’s talk (to Lancashire AM) on ‘God, words and us‘.

Both of these follow on quite nicely from our previous post by John Senior.

Non-theist Friends USA (NTF), silence and meditation

We have had discussions in the past about forums, facebook, email groups and so on but I hope that Friends and visitors to this site will choose to comment here (on any post or page inviting comments or replies) and establish a conversation in this way.

However, we don’t often draw attention to what is happening with non-theist Friends in the USA and internationally.

There are numerous links to the US NTF site at various points on this website (see, for example, the bottom of the right hand column or scroll right down on the mobile version).  The US email discussion group is still active and can be accessed at the top of any of the US pages or directly here: https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en#!forum/nontheist-friends

A recent discussion there on meditation, god and non-theism includes an interesting youtube video. This can be accessed via the email discussion group here: https://groups.google.com/forum/?hl=en#!topic/nontheist-friends/myIj6VLE8hs or directly from youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBGIqp8EKfg&feature=youtu.be  (conversation starts 17 minutes into the video and is certainly worth watching for 20 minutes, even if the full 1 hour plus is too long. After that 20 minutes there is a lot of discussion about Barclay, Quaker belief, Richard Dawkins and so on).

“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