Tag Archives: ‘God words and us’

“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