Tag Archives: God

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.)

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

Living with absurdity

Not all, perhaps not many nontheist Quakers would describe themselves as existentialists (and surely not nihilists) but I thought this delightful post on ‘Canadian Atheist’ by 87 years old James Haught, editor of West Virginia’s largest newspaper,  deserved sharing amongst Friends.

Most of us probably wouldn’t share all the sentiments expressed (anyone for Trump?) and some of which might be very unwelcome to many Quakers in the world, but it moved me to smile (tickled my fancy?) so I hope Friends find it interesting too!

Living With Absurdity

Quakers and nontheism

Reflecting on Loulou Williams’ comment on our Nontheism page today, I thought it might be worth repeating the following extract from Paul Bates talk of 2013:

Nontheists tend to agree with the liberal understanding of Jesus of Nazareth as a teacher from antiquity who taught a very human sort of religion based on love, tolerance, forgiveness and peace. The doctrines of incarnation, resurrection and ascension are seen as attempts by the early church to raise the human Jesus to the level of a mythical God.

The nontheist sees the work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart more in terms of the spontaneous, natural inner working of the human psyche in which we meditate upon and respond to life as we presently experience it. The nontheist sees God in terms of ‘an inner light’ that is found in every human being. It is ‘that of God in everyone’.

The nontheist sees this life as the only life we will ever experience and is focussed on the living ofthis life to the full, now, and in accordance with those human principles that make for happiness and dignity for all.

Coronavirus and Conference Cancellation/Postponement 2020

The Steering Group of the Nontheist Friends Network (NFN) has been closely monitoring the situation with the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic and reviewing the advice issued by Government and Public Health. It now seems likely that the situation will worsen in the next few weeks.

So, after careful consideration, and with deep regret, we have decided it is in the best interest of our participants , the keynote speakers and all who are near to us to cancel our conference, which was to be held 28-29 March 2020 at Friends House, London : “That’s the Spirit”, and postpone it to more certain times later or the following year, to be agreed.

This is not an easy decision for us to take but we feel it is the responsible thing to do now. We are disappointed not to meet you and engage with our subject of the different dimensions of spirituality. The decision will have some financial consequences for us, but we hope that by postponing , we are able to lessen the impact.  We are upholding all those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak and are hopeful we can forge virtual connections with many of you over the coming weeks, especially at a time when it will be important to come together while being encouraged to stay apart.

We hope that this announcement gives you time to cancel any accommodation and travel bookings . Your fees will be refunded at the earliest opportunity and we will stay in touch regarding a new conference date.

Gisela Creed
Clerk, NFN, 16/03/2020
Latest update here.

PS. Roger Warren-Evans will be contacting all participants with refund information shortly but it may take him a little time to work through the over 40 bookings received.

As Gisela indicates, it is hoped to hold the conference eventually, either much later this year or possibly next.  Information about the AGM (which is also POSTPONED!) will follow in due course.

Being ‘hopeful we can forge virtual connections with many of you over the coming weeks’ is in part an idea that in the absence of the conference, and perhaps being at home, we might all make use of the website to communicate our thoughts about the conference theme, the coronavirus and the new circumstances we all now find ourselves in. If you would like to send us your thoughts or start a conversation, please use the Comment/Leave a reply box below or at the foot of any relevant page or post.

Humanism and our Conference

The three speakers at our Conference at Friends’ House 28-29 March are Gill Pennington (former spirituality tutor at Woodbrooke), Dinah Livingstone (editor of ‘Sofia’ magazine for the Sea of Faith) and Andrew Copson (chief executive of Humanists UK).

For further details of these speakers see the 2020 Conference page

I am considering putting up a **bibliography of useful readings on spirituality for the Conference but in the meantime, think these two posts about Humanism on ‘Canadian Atheist’ interviewing Andrew Copson (see above) and the President of Humanists UK, Alice Roberts, would be of considerable interest to those attending or thinking about attending the conference. (We haven’t sold out yet but places are limited!): (click on the headings to go to the full interviews)

Interview with Professor Alice Roberts – President, Humanists UK & President, British Science Association

Extensive Interview with Andrew James William Copson – President, Humanists International & Chief Executive, Humanists UK


Don’t forget that the NFN AGM will also take place on the Sunday morning 9.30am!  For those unable to attend the whole weekend, ‘day tickets’ for Saturday (including evening meal) and Sunday (including lunch) are available from Roger on request (again, see the Conference page for booking details).
** If you have any suggestions for books or reading (including blog posts) of relevance to our theme of ‘Spirituality’, please let me know on our Contact page.

Time to book and Newsletter

The (more or less final) programme for the 2020 NFN Conference at Friends’ House is now available on the website (Please see the Home/Conference page).

We also have a December Newsletter (this version is very slightly different from the two emailed to members a week or so ago) which has a few additional details about the conference.  Please note in particular the point about emailing David Boulton if you would like to express an interest in sharing your own understanding or experience of “spirit” and “spirituality”, or giving a brief account of your own spiritual journey, at the Conference.

There is an article about nontheism and correspondence in The Friend, an article by Piers Maddox about being ‘A humanistic Quaker’, and an article about our good Friend (and NFN member) John Lynes preparing to defend himself at his trial after his arrest during the Extinction Rebellion blockade at Dover Docks in the summer.

Please note too that we really would like some new members on the Steering Group if NFN is to continue in something like its present form or organise further conferences.

Now (at just £50!) is the time to book for the conference (28-29 March 2020) – or maybe it would make a nice Christmas present! (Quakers don’t do that do they?).

The Conference fee includes Saturday evening dinner and Sunday lunch but not accommodation in London if that is required:
The Penn Club are offering a special discount to Friends attending the conference. Book before January 31st to avail of the discount. To book call The Penn Club on 020 7636 4718 or email: office@pennclub.co.uk and quote non-theist conference. Space is limited and subject to availability. (I think booking before Christmas would be highly advisable TB)
(Our clerk, Gisela, negotiated this to Penn Club members’ rates and believes a single starts around £85, including a very good breakfast.)

Gisela also recommends the Bedford (single £102, double £138) and the Tavistock (single £91, double £117) Hotels, both within 10 minutes walking distance from Friends House and often used by Friends’ committees. (See https://www.imperialhotels.co.uk) They do give discounts for group bookings of more than 10 people. So if anyone feels able to take that in hand, you are welcome!
(There are cheaper, or more expensive, options but it would be as well to book soon).

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.