Tag Archives: ‘God words and us’

Dinah Livingstone – On Dover Beach

Dinah delivered our third and final talk of the NFN 2021 Conference on 21st July and ’rounded off’ the series very fittingly.

(The many links below generally open in a new window or tab).

Our three speakers spoke quite independently, guided only to deliver their talks based on their idea of spirituality – ‘That’s the spirit! – dimensions of spirituality.’

Nonetheless, the notion (one of George Fox’s ‘windy notions’?) of Spirituality resulted in three talks which, very different as expected, hung together to satisfy and inspire different members of our ‘Quaker Kaleidoscope’.

Dinah is the editor of the Sea of Faith’s magazine ‘Sofia‘ in which role she succeeded the previous editor, NFN’s ‘own’ David Boulton (one of the key founders of the Nontheist Friends Network) in 2004 and changed its name to ‘Sofia‘.  Gill Pennington mentioned David’s ‘The Faith of a Quaker Humanist‘ (1997) which I understand is still the most often downloaded booklet from the Quaker Universalist Group’s website. We can see and perhaps ‘feel’ the threads linking Humanism, the Sea of Faith Network and the Nontheist Friends Network.

The Sea of Faith Network takes its name from Matthew Arnold’s poem ‘Dover Beach’, one stanza of which reads:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

You can find the full poem (4 stanzas, 37 lines I think) here:
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach

Was it surprising to many of us that Dinah’s talk from a ‘sea of faith perspective’ was so biblical? Both Andrew Copson and Gill Pennington had mentioned biblical stories but Dinah wove an account of what I might call the ‘sea of faith version of religion, humanism and nontheism’ drawn substantially from the bible as if it might be considered the source of these ideas. This is consistent with Dinah’s re-naming of the SoF Journal to ‘Sofia’ – a serendipitous extension of the acronym SoF. (An alternative spelling for ‘Holy Wisdom‘ being Sophia). The wisdom literature of the bible provides this potential biblical basis for Don Cupitt‘s ideas and Dinah’s talk. (SEA OF FAITH NETWORK started in 1984 as a response to Don Cupitt’s book and TV series of the same name.)

At the very top of the Sea of Faith website homepage it states:

“The Network…
Explores the implications of accepting religion as a human creation;
Promotes the validity of creative, human-centred religion;
Affirms the continuing importance of religious thought
and practice as expressions of awe and wonder and
celebrations of spiritual and social values.”

Only slightly less prominently on our NFN website (You have to look under ‘About’ and then ‘Aims of the network’ here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/about/aims-of-the-network/), we state:

“The Network’s aim is to provide a forum and supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation. We want to ensure that our Religious Society of Friends is an inclusive rather than an exclusive Society. We seek to explore theological and spiritual diversity and their practical implications, in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.” (clause 2. of our constitution added the words ‘and attenders’ at our last AGM).

It’s almost as if the Sea of Faith is the Christian branch of the nontheist humanists and the nontheist Friends network is the Quaker branch of the Sea of Faith. (and I’d always thought of us as the nontheist branch of the Quaker Universalist Group). Perhaps we should convene next on Dover Beach?

Joking apart, we can surely feel those threads referred to above linking Humanism, Christian origins, Quaker Universalism, Sea of Faith and the NFN.

Dinah drew from the bible, and Christ’s teaching, its essential humanism or human facing concerns. This is perhaps not so surprising given that ‘Humanism’ has arisen, in the last two centuries, from within the Western Christian tradition. As one wit reported in a recent Quaker meeting ‘God created man in his own image – and man returned the compliment’ (or was it the other way round?). I had better at least mention at this point the Goddess to contrast with God the Father.

This ‘pre-conference reading’ bibliography prepared for the 2020 conference provides links to David Boulton’s and other NFN books: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2020/03/01/a-2020-nfn-conference-bibliography/

(Some of the links above are repeated):
https://sofn.org.uk/pages/dinah_livingstone.html
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/don-cupitt.html
https://sofn.org.uk/sofia/index.html – Sofia magazine
https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43588/dover-beach
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/index.html – useful links
https://www.sofn.org.uk/links/spirituality.html – SoF links for Spirituality

Feedback and reflections on NFN MfW&CC 6 May 2021

This was our third such meeting (6 May: Philip Gross, The language of poetry, and creative uses of the word ‘God’) and I understand we may now have further speakers lined up for summer and autumn but if you would like to offer a ‘creative conversation’, please contact clerk@nontheist-quakers.org.uk

Again, I believe, about 90 Friends attended the meeting and there was a lot of sharing in the smaller groups of about 7 or 8 and many novel ideas prompted by Philip’s 3 poems and his thoughts on metaphor and his own creative uses of the word ‘God’ and ‘God language’ in those three poems: ‘Mattins’, ‘Psalm: You’, and ‘And whatever’.

This draws to mind our Quaker book ‘God, words and us’,
published in 2017 which deals with different concepts and beliefs relating to God and the use of the word and other ‘God language’.
Friends present asked if they could read the poems again and Philip has now sent us these together with a (‘slightly tweaked’) written version of his presentation. Please have a look and share any further thoughts you may have in the Comments or ‘Leave a reply’ box below. (Your email address will not be shared but will be seen by me as part of the ‘moderation’ process for comments on this website.)

The End of words …

… is to bring men to the knowledge of things beyond what words can utter. Isaac Pennington QF&P 27.27 so, perhaps that should be the end of the post?

Whilst I am sorry that we have not prompted yet more words here in response to our last ‘MfW + creative conversation’ and post, a very interesting discussion has broken out in the last week  or two on the Nontheist Quaker Facebook page especially prompted by some posts by a newcomer to Quakers (and would be attender) in Belgium, Jean-Christophe Ducin – see his posts for 10 and 16 April. I do hope he responds to the invitation from ‘Quakers of all sorts from non-theist, to universalist to various degrees of Christian outlook.’ in Brussels.

Our next ‘MfW + creative conversation’ is on 6th May with Philip Gross and details of how to register for the NFN conference in July will be on the website soon.  In the meantime, Friends may also be interested in the Quaker Universalist (UK) conference on ‘Life, Time and Eternity‘ online from 7th-15th May if they are quick to register!

I might have had more to add but unfortunately the new wordpress block editor makes writing these posts take about five times as long as before, so it’s over to you.

Feedback and reflections on NFN MfW&CC 4 March 2021

As mentioned elsewhere in Comments, and as one of over 85 participants, I thought for a first attempt on zoom it went rather well tonight.  This seems like an excellent place for some ‘fizz’ (or is it ‘phys’, snap, crackle and pop?) on the website.

I would like to invite all present at the meeting tonight to offer their feedback, reflections, queries, suggestions and comments here on the website. (Please comment or ‘Leave a reply’ below – comments will appear within 24 hours or so after moderation).

I would like to set the ball rolling by congratulating John Senior on what I thought was an excellent presentation drawn from mainly familiar sources, for provoking much thought, comment and reflection and for being delightfully short, leaving more time for those contributions from many.

Your comments here might include further reflection, references OR comments and suggestions on technical matters and organisation.

We have already had 3 comments (ahead of the meeting) on timing (answered in the comments). One attendee tonight would have liked to start a little earlier whereas I thought a little later (after the children have gone to bed? – see those comments).

There will never be a perfect timing – always inconvenient for somebody and I’m sure the working group will want to leave that as it is at least for the next 3 months tho’ perhaps that can be looked at in the future.

Some people struggled a bit with zoom but that gets easier with practice and I’d suggest people who want to speak, unmute themselves first, whilst keeping quiet and then be ready to speak when invited.  Not quite in the spirit of ‘worship sharing’ but some people obviously felt confident to say or answer something very briefly by interjecting. (Please don’t do that to hold the floor!).  Otherwise as Mackenzie (University Friends Meeting, USA) advised: For anyone looking for the “Raise Hand” button, you might find it under “Reactions” (new zoom) or under Participants (old zoom). (And once raised an option changes to remove raised hand).

For the same Mackenzie, the website I was referring to for Michael Wright’s article on prayer was of course THIS Website! See under ‘Articles’ and scroll down for several articles by Michael which include ‘Prayer beyond belief‘ where Michael deals with ‘The Bible; God; Jesus; Doctrine; and Prayer’ and the section on prayer is a substantial part of the article although he mentions other points relevant to our conversations tonight.

Another suggestion made in the meeting was to have breakout meetings next time for smaller groups (and giving more people time to say something – 8 supporters) whereas others preferred to keep it as one whole group. In some ways, though it might be a bit of a technical burden on the hosts, it might be possible to combine both, with those who want smaller groups to be allocated to say upto half a dozen breakout rooms at random leaving those who prefer ‘a big session’ together in the main room for the others to rejoin at will.  That would certainly be an experiment but it might work.

I will finish with a few quotes from the chat transcription, including references and John’s texts and then it’s over to YOU to continue the conversation if you will.

John Senior Llanidloes to Everyone : Texts quoted:
A&Q 1 & 3
F&P 19.04, George Fox, 1648
F&P 19.07, George Fox, 1652
*George Fox’s letter to Lady Elizabeth Claypole, 1658
F&P 21.65, James Nayler
*William Penn in ‘No Cross, no Crown’, 1682
F&P 26.12, Geoffrey Hubbard, 1974
F&P 20.06 Philip Rack, 1979
*These items should be available online
*Here is the extract from Fox’s letter to Lady Elizabeth Catchpole (Oliver Cromwell’s second daughter) in 1658 quoted in part by John: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/fox_g/autobio.xvii.html#fnf_xvii-p17.1
Elizabeth died later the same year aged 29 and her father died later the same year.
*Here is William Penn’s ‘No Cross, no Crown’:
https://www.gospeltruth.net/Penn/nocrossnocrownIndex.htm
I don’t know if John might provide the quote he used?
John has now provided the text of his presentation and it is available here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/news/john-senior/

From Mackenzie (she/her) University Friends Meeting, USA to Everyone : From North Pacific Yearly Meeting’s F&P (3rd Ed, p.19 – p32 of pdf a 303 page 6Mb document) on nontheist Friends: A number of Friends in NPYM do not believe in the existence of a deity. This perspective cannot be described fully in a few words. Many nontheist Friends live in awe and wonder of the world, feel deep and mysterious connection to people and nature, and are convinced of the infinite sanctity of life. Nontheist Friends share strong callings to service, to the mystery and power of the gathered meeting, and to the importance of community in spiritual growth. Nontheists are warmly welcomed and valued as members of our Friends meetings. (see also http://www.nontheistfriends.org/ our Friends in the USA)

From Michael Boulton in BC Canada to Everyone : For me Quaker Worship is an act of Listening, being open to promptings wherever it comes. It is not noise of profession, but is of active listening, silencing all noise from inside and the external world.

From Enna to Everyone : Can I ask, do you feel comfortable using the phrase: “holding you in the light” instead of “praying for you”
And if so, how does what was said earlier about the light being a luminosity experienced during our stillness, relate to this phrase? or is it a different meaning.

From Gisela Creed to Everyone : I just say: thinking of you with all my heart.

From Pat Blackheath SELAM to Everyone : A good question. Are we humanists? or ?  (David Boulton a principal founder of NFN who was with us tonight wrote for the Quaker Universalist Group in 1997 ‘The Faith of a Quaker Humanist‘)

From Helen to Everyone : I hope we have not let go of the possibility of mystical experiences in the silence from whatever the source or attribution it is given either internal or external, for me listening in the silence is the experience that matters, but even though I identify as non-theist I have felt great feeling so love and joy in the silence that felt mystical. I do not know how to pray or hold others in the light except to feel love for them or send love to them in my thoughts so I hope that suffices!

From Paul to Everyone : Jesus lived 2000 years ago and the Buddha lived 2,500 years ago or so and we find their ideas helpful so George Fox is fairly recent in comparison.

I have included above a selection of chat comments with names and hope that is acceptable. I could put the whole transcript (as I got it) on the website for those who didn’t save it but that would involve having everyone (who contributed)’s names there so it might be better to email the clerk if you didn’t and would like a copy.

Now it’s my bedtime too and it really is over to you to continue with any appropriate comments below. (If there are a lot, I won’t respond to all, but you too can help by responding too – Creative Conversations!)

NFN Monthly Meeting reminder

Don’t forget the first of these monthly meetings with Creative conversations is tomorrow night Thursday 4th March 2021 at 7.30pm UK time (UTC). You can see all the details in the previous post and on the relevant (new) page, which is currently set as our home (landing) page under ‘Events’.

We have now added two further confirmed dates/speakers, so John Senior and William Purser will be followed by Philip Gross on Thursday 6th May and Kiera Faber on Thur. 3rd June.

We look forward to seeing you there and if you haven’t registered yet, please email as shown to do so.

History of the NFN – 2

Here’s a second instalment of early NFN history.

This also serves as a bit of a tour around the site: visit our articles page and hit the link to newsletters ‘at bottom of page’ https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/articles/  where you will see newsletters from 2013-14 and onwards (direct link: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/articles/#newsletters ). If you then scroll up a little, you will find our many articles starting from 2013 – 6 articles or talks from 2013 by Sarah Richards, Michael Wright, Jean Wardrop and Paul Bates on Discernment, Gretta Vosper, Continuing Revelation, Prayer, God and Quaker Diversity – well worth reading from those ‘early days’ even 7 years later – do have a look and continue exploring!

On our American Friends site, there is an article by Miriam Yagud – one of the founders of NFN in the UK – on a gathering in Canterbury in 2011: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/getting-beyond-the-words-nontheist-friends-network-at-britain-yearly-meeting-gathering-canterbury-2011
You can also explore that site further and have a look at their list of Contributors articles: http://www.nontheistfriends.org/contributors

Now, we need a similar list of contributors here and you can sign up to be a contributor (with a free wordpress.com account) OR submit an article by writing to me and pasting it into the Comment box on our Contacts page here: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/contact/
I think that should keep you all busy for a bit, and I look forward to hearing further from you (or just leave a comment below).
Trevor Bending

A 2020 NFN Conference Bibliography

Conference bibliography: (Still valid for the conference now in 2021)
Items which may be worth referring to before, during or after the conference. (Links in each case lead to a source for the books).

‘Becoming fully human – Writings on Quakers and Christian thought’ by Michael Langford, published by Friends of the Light, 2019. https://friendsofthelight.org.uk/our-books

Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being’ by Paul Mason, 2019

The Trouble With God: Religious Humanism And The Republic Of Heaven‘ by David Boulton,

(see this post on the above books: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2019/07/11/the-republic-of-heaven/ )

Twelve Quakers and …‘ – Quaker Quest series

Kindlers‘ – Series of booklets

Godless for God’s sake‘ edited by David Boulton (also available in Kindle).

Titles in the Quaker bookshop online section ‘Spirituality and religion’ under ‘Atheism‘. (including ‘Book of Atheist Spirituality’, ‘Religion for Atheists’ and ‘The Young Atheist’s Handbook’ – all out of stock on 5/2/2020).

Telling the Truth about God‘ (in ‘Quaker Quicks’) by Rhiannon Grant

The Guided Life‘ (in ‘Quaker Quicks’) by Craig Barnett

ALL of the above are available in the Quaker Bookshop in Friends’ House except when out of stock – we will try to see if copies can be made available over the Conference weekend.

See also these items on the NFN website: https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/faq/#a4
https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2017/11/30/god-words-and-us/
https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2019/08/26/quaker-advices-and-queries-for-nontheists/
AND search the website for ‘spirituality’.

Quaker Universalist Group booklets: https://qug.org.uk/pamphlets-2/ (some to buy, some for free download)
39: The Language of Spirituality by Alan York: https://qug.org.uk/pamphlets-2/pamphlet-39/
32: ‘Choosing Life: Embracing Spirituality in the 21st Century’ by Joycelin Dawes:
https://qug.org.uk/pamphlets-2/pamphlet-32/
31: Human Beings Yearning for a Faith by Clive Sutton: https://qug.org.uk/pamphlets-2/pamphlet-31/
30: ‘A Platform of Consciousness: Spirituality without Religion’, by Adrian Cairns: https://qug.org.uk/pamphlets-2/pamphlet-30/
26: ‘The Faith of a Quaker Humanist’, by David Boulton:
https://qug.org.uk/pamphlets-2/pamphlet-26/

Quaker ‘Advices and Queries’ for Nontheists.

Quaker ‘Advices and Queries’ for Nontheists.
A ‘thought for the day’ from Trevor Bending, member of NFN Steering Group and NFN website editor.
(Most of the hypertext links in this piece do NOT open in a new tab or window. Therefore use the browser back button to return to this page).

I thought very carefully about the title of this post and decided it would be ‘Advices and Queries’ (from Quakers) for all (including nontheists) expressed as above. ‘All’ approaching nearly 8 billion of us and counting.

After 370 years there are about 377,557 Quakers in the world (less than 0.016% of all Christians), most of them in (more or less) Evangelical Friends’ Churches or ‘programmed’ meetings in Africa and the Americas. Of the world total about 21,500 are members of or attending ‘unprogrammed’ (often largely silent 1 hour) meetings for worship in Britain (excluding Ireland where there may be another 2000). There are 129 followers of this NFN website whilst our number of paid-up members of the Network for this year to date are too embarrassingly few to mention. So, what can we say?

The NFN Steering Group (SG) have previously discussed a ‘nontheist’ version of Advices and Queries prepared by an ‘old Friend’ and member of NFN which manages to remove the word ‘God’ altogether. But it was decided that we would not want to be seen (mistakenly) as ‘proselytising’ for ‘nontheism’ (which we are not) and that for this and other reasons (including ‘something missing’ – traditional language or God perhaps?) we would not wish to publish that document, interesting though it is.

A Friend, Stephen Feltham, has asked ‘Why have Quakers stopped referring to God’ and more generally laments the loss of spirituality amongst Friends or its submergence by political and social activism, losing God. (But see QF&P 20.14).

Seeking to hear where Stephen’s words come from, his heartfelt plea certainly strikes a chord with this ‘nontheist’ (whatever ‘nontheist’ might mean). But it is not the intent of NFN to remove God (either in person or the ‘Word’) or religion or spirituality from the Religious Society of Friends. In fact our conference next year is to be titled ‘That’s the Spirit! – Dimensions of spirituality’ and is now planned to take place at Friends’ House, Euston, from 28-29 March 2020.

Stephen’s last paragraph in the piece above reads:
‘Is it fair to question if we are really justified in calling ourselves a religious society anymore? Have we become so politically ‘on message’ with justice, equality, inclusivity, diversity, the planet and gender issues that we have no more time for the love of God and so we may just as well call ourselves a social activist association?

On the home page of the Quaker Spirit website, under the heading ‘A clarification – Quaker Spirit is for all’, Stephen writes ‘ALL are welcome. We want to develop our spirituality and avoid great busyness.

I think it would be fair to comment that many, especially younger, Friends may feel that ‘activism’ for justice, equality, inclusivity etc. by Quakers is dependent on spirituality and not separate from it. Whereas our A&Q 28 advises ‘Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness’ it is clear that this is in the context of advancing age and the need to ‘relinquish responsibilities’ (and make way for others?) and not a recommendation to ‘avoid great busyness’ altogether. Indeed, early Friends (at least in the 17th century) were hugely concerned with ‘with justice, equality, inclusivity, diversity, the planet and gender issues’ (the latter in consideration of the role of women in ministry and in (the) society). It was only later in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that Friends in Britain became ‘quietist’ and somewhat inward looking (not in the best sense of that term).

In the 21st century, Friends in Britain have become more outward looking again (as they have perhaps been for the last 150 years) and social (including political) concerns and activism have again come to the fore.  At the same time there has been an increasing concern for ‘re-kindling’ and ‘vibrancy’ in meetings which certainly depends on developing greater spiritual ‘inwardness’.

In a previous post and in response to a piece by Neil Morgan in The Friend of 9 August, a member of the NFN Steering Group writes:

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. …. cont.: .. 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.

(for the full response and many others from members of NFN on Discernment see here).

Elsewhere on Quaker Spirit, in Squeezing out the Spirit, Stephen writes: ‘I am inexorably being driven to resigning altogether from Quakers one of whose fasting growing special interest groups does not, it seems to me, believe in God!’

I wrote in response on the site’s Forum: I would like to re-assure you that NFN is not fast growing! (I think we have about 100 members at most and a conference attendance – not all members – of 40-50.) As to not believing in God, some do, some don’t. One of our Steering Group believes in the ‘presence of God’ but not in the ‘existence of God’. (see above). Others have varied beliefs’.

I’m a little doubtful though, whether Stephen would want to add NFN to his list of other Quaker groups, but then consider some of the points made above and that in a sense NFN ‘budded off’ from the Quaker Universalist Group, itself regarded somewhat askance by many Friends when it first formed some 40 years ago.

Perhaps then we can agree on inclusivity and in the future join together in celebrating, and practising, Quaker spirituality.

Meanwhile, we can turn to Young Friends for a new take on Advices and Queries.

In ‘Living our beliefs’ a book which deserves to be much better known, produced by Young Quakers in 2015, edited by Graham Ralph, young Friends have made a book that ‘tackles similar topics to Quaker Faith and Practice but .. (is) .. shorter, more accessible and more concise.’

An online version of this book (pdf) and a range of videos and music tracks and talks associated with it can be found at http://www.yqspace.org.uk/living-our-beliefs One of the 17 or so chapters is ‘Advices and queries as compiled by young Quakers’ (p79-81) created at junior yearly meeting in 2015.

This version reduces 42 Advices and Queries (some 12 pages) to 42 simple statements (2 pages). One breathtaking example is A&Q4 which is reduced to just 4 words ‘Remember our Christian heritage’, compared with the original – 73 words with 5 references to Jesus and two to God.

These 42 contain one reference to (the word) God compared to some 37 in the original. The one reference to God is in A&Q 17 (original 117 words, 2 references to God) which becomes:

‘Everyone thinks of God differently; don’t be judgemental’.

(The original ends with ‘Think it possible that you may be mistaken’.)

Another view, by Laurence Hall, can be found in the Young Quaker, Sketches of a Godless Quakerism (to read online pages 8-9).

What all this boils down to is that it is not whether you believe in the existence of God, or the presence of God, or not but what kind of God, what do you mean by ‘God’, what do you mean by belief. In the end it is all words (theology? Or ‘windy notions’ as early Friends might have called them) and it is our practice, both spiritually and actively, that counts.

If Christianity (and perhaps Judaism?) can be reduced to Jesus’ (fictional??) story of the ‘Good Samaritan – now go and do likewise’ then these ‘simplifications’ (of complex issues) by young Quakers might serve us well.

One of the video passages in ‘living our beliefs’ online is this from Quaker Faith and Practice on ‘Believing in God’. (The text of which is here.)

I became convinced this morning that whilst ‘Quakerism’ (Quaker meeting for worship, Quaker Faith and Practice) might not be for everyone, it is right for me and is ‘the Truth, the whole Truth and nothing but the Truth’ – but this Truth includes uncertainty and mystery and not knowing what we don’t know and I can’t impose it on anyone else and I must ‘think it possible that I may be mistaken’ although I must accept that others may try to impose their Truth on me.

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]

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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).