Tag Archives: theological Diversity

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).

Report on 2019 NFN Conference

A little late in arriving but here a slightly more formal report on our 2019 Conference at Woodbrooke than the more personal reflections published so far.

The Conference was attended by just over 30 people, a few of whom only attended on the Saturday.

In addition to our NFN feedback form, there were at least two other feedback forms from Woodbrooke itself and that may have accounted for the relatively small number of our own feedback forms returned – just 10.

These were for the most part very positive and the Saturday afternoon trip to the Bourneville Carillon was greatly enjoyed by those who decided to go. (Details from the feedback forms can be found here.)

The conference began on the Friday evening with a ‘getting to know you session’, first of the Steering Group members explaining who they were and then small groups of about 4 ’neighbours’ asking various prompted questions of each other. These groups were ‘fluid’ in that first one and then another member of each group was asked to move to the neighbouring group, first to the left and then to the right.(Thus about half the meeting moved from one group to another at some point). This seemed to work quite well and was followed by an introduction to the history of the NFN and its present situation by David Boulton. Questions about the future of NFN were then left to be followed up ahead of the AGM on Saturday evening.

On Saturday morning our first speaker was Hugh Rock of NFN (and who did all the work of managing the Conference bookings) who spoke on what he thought was a defining characteristic of Quaker practice: ‘The authority of no authority: the paradox of Quaker unity through diversity’ as the ‘actual, unifying, but rather difficult to summarise, practice of Quaker Faith.’ which referred to the absence of a priesthood or hierarchy (‘The refusal of priesthood tells of the reliance and validation of individual experience.’); the discernment of ‘God’s will’ or ‘the sense of the meeting’ as part of the ‘Quaker business method’ in Meeting for worship for business. (For non-Quakers, ‘business’ here means the business of running Quaker Meetings and making the many decisions about activities which have to be made to keep things moving forward). (‘The refusal of vote taking within the Society is a powerfully equalising principle. It recognises, unusually, that democracy may be a form of dictatorship.’). He went on to illustrate this with a practical example drawn from John MacMurray’s statement that ‘the central conviction which distinguishes the Society of Friends is that Christianity cannot be defined in terms of doctrinal beliefs’ (Swarthmore Lecture 1965, p50). Hugh saw this ‘authority’ deriving from an absence of ‘authority’ as a key aspect of Quaker unity enabling the acceptance of great variety in belief (perhaps from nontheism to evangelical christianity) under one roof and great fluidity in our boundaries. Unity, diversity and boundaries being the theme of the conference. (Hugh’s post-conference text of his talk can be found here.)

After the morning tea and coffee break, we were addressed by Tony Philpott, Clerk to the Quaker Universalist Group, who gave a carefully thought out presentation of the history of ‘universalism’, in various senses, throughout Christian history, referring to inclusivity and exclusivity, and then the history of Quaker universalism from George Fox, Margaret Fell, William Penn and others through to the 1990’s and the forming of the Quaker Universalist Group (QUG). He gave, by way of example, a personal account of his own journey ‘From Christian to Quaker’, the subject of his book of that name, which also deals with a broad range of religious viewpoints (varieties of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist and Quaker). Tony examined unity, diversity and boundaries within Quakerism in Britain Yearly Meeting, based on Ninian Smart’s ‘Dimensions of the Sacred’. He then looked at issues to do with definitions, membership, etc., and suggested that Quaker universalism may have much to offer as a solution to the problems raised by diversity.

On Sunday morning our third keynote speaker Marisa Johnson from Friends’ World Committee for Consultation – Europe and Middle East Section (FWCC-EMES) spoke on “The gift of difference in the World Family of Friends”, addressing the vast diversity of culture, theology and practice within the Quaker World Community. Her account was illustrated with slides and a moving video from the meeting of FWCC representatives in Peru in 2016. The video illustrated that ‘vast diversity of culture, theology and practice’ in a way which no text would have done. Marisa’s talk was also deeply personal, relating her own spiritual journey from her native Italian Catholicism to a London Church of England (‘because it was there’), then Methodists, and then to the ‘Sea of Faith’ and Quakers in Cambridge, as well as the personal journey from being a child and young person in Italy to a married woman in England (with an English husband Mick, also present for the Conference). Marisa spoke about how, through her international work, she has come to value the “uncommon ground” and how she moved from celebrating the freedom from dogma to trusting her leadings to keep her safe during very dark times in family life. Many present were I think moved near to tears by Marisa’s account and the illustration of the great diversity across the world family of Friends. Marisa finished with a word game she has devised to illustrate how certain (for example, biblical) words can be re-phrased in ways which are associated with quite different emotions. (The example given to me was ‘Evil’ versus ‘Cause of Harm’). The text of Marisa’s talk (minus a few personal anecdotes) can be found here.: The gift of difference in the World Family of Friends – holding on to the Uncommon Ground.

Our Saturday afternoon programme had continued with 3 short presentations volunteered by course participants:

Roger Warren Evans, South Wales, on his own version of ‘Advices and Queries without using the word God’: “‘Take Heed, Dear Friends’, a nontheist re-statement of the values and perceptions of Advices and Queries”;

Kitty Rush from Massachusetts on “‘New Bottle Quakerism’. Finding words to describe the Quakerism of today which would be useful to theists and non-theists alike”;

John Senior, Mid-Wales, on “Quaker spiritual practice – Advices and Queries 1 and 3 shorn of supernaturalism, a toolkit”. (John has a further session on this topic on 30th May – see here.)

These were followed by the option of further discussion of these presentations or a walk through the park to Bournville for a Carillon performance.
After Tea and before Supper, the Saturday programme continued with open discussion around reflections prompted by ‘To be or not to be’ (paper, David Boulton 2019, as included in participant packs, on the future of NFN) preparatory to the Nontheist Friends Network AGM itself.
Saturday evening had our usual ‘Quaking with Laughter’ followed by Woodbrooke’s Epilogue.

The Conference closed on Sunday after Marisa’s talk, a plenary session and finally lunch.

It is also worth noting that participants included those from the following (Area) Meetings: Bath, Cambridgeshire (3), Chilterns, Cumberland, Gloucestershire (3), Ipswich, Kendal & Sedbergh, Leeds, London West (2), Massachusetts (2), Mid-Thames (2), Mid-Wales, North-East Thames, South London (2), South Wales (2), Southern Marches, Sussex, Taunton, Torquay, Warwickshire, West of Scotland (4), Wirral (E&OE!).

Buddhism, Meditation and God

Buddhism, Meditation and God
One of the problems of an individual maintaining a small group website (and we are a small group in terms of both our membership and followers of the website) is that, if no-one else contributes, then it is difficult to steer the line between ‘personalising’ the website (which generally makes it more interesting and readable) and stopping it from becoming that individual’s personal or pet project.

Whilst we have many interesting articles on the website written by speakers at our conferences, and many other members of the network, which should in many cases still be of great interest to anyone interested in nontheism or aspects of religious belief and theology, there are very few ‘live’ contributions in terms of pages or ‘posts’ to the website itself which have not been written by ‘yours truly’.

We do get a fair number of comments on existing pages or posts which very occasionally develop into a ‘conversation’, but it is quite hard to provoke these.

I think ‘provoke’ is definitely the right word, so from time to time, I try to write something provocative in the hope that this will result in numerous comments which might become such a conversation.

Our ‘Aims’ include: being a forum; being ‘a supportive framework for Friends who regard religion as a human creation’; ensuring that the RSoF is inclusive rather than exclusive; exploring theological and spiritual diversity whilst being ‘in respectful acceptance of different views, experiences and journeys.’

So far, my post seems to have little or nothing to do with its title.

Other members of the RoSF criticise both nontheist and universalist Friends as being ‘inclusive of all’ and therefore ’standing for nothing’. How can you accept ‘anyone’ into membership (of the ‘Religious Society’) of ‘any religion or none’, regardless of belief and so on.

The Society has always kept its ‘Meetings for Worship’ open to all (as ‘attenders’) presumably in the hope that something of the practice of silent ‘worship’, its possible benefits and/or the Society’s ‘testimonies’ of ‘good behaviour’ will somehow ‘rub-off’ on those who attend. Some of those who attend (possibly for decades) might eventually become members and perhaps contribute both financially and in ‘service’ more consistently than they might have done as ‘attenders’ and this helps to pay the bills, maintain old buildings and ’keep the show on the road’.

The ‘necessary minimum’ qualification for membership has always been a matter of some argument – what does it mean exactly to be ‘convinced’ (or ‘convicted’ in older language).

Once it (membership) meant to be ‘Christian’, a follower of Christ or a follower of Jesus. But Friends were never followers of the Nicene Creed, often, perhaps justifiably, regarded as heretical by other Christian churches, although they did emphasise the importance of the personal experience (of Christ). However, this ‘personal experience’ (once, after George Fox, to ‘know it experimentally’) was never dependent on declared belief and even held to be available to all, Christian or not.

This ‘open’ position was assisted by the open and varied language used to describe the experience or ‘experiment’. Experience of what? The inner/inward light; ‘Jesus come to teach his people himself’; just ‘the light’; ‘that of God’; ‘the kingdom of heaven’; and a number of other expressions or variants biblical and non-biblical. Coupled with a belief in ‘that of God in everyone’, it is not difficult to see how this was not exclusively christian, though at first it was perhaps assumed (maybe until the middle of the twentieth century) that those who were ‘convinced’ were in effect ‘Christian’.

Whilst, after a number of ’schisms’ especially in America (perhaps after British ‘interference!), some Friends became christian and evangelical (so today we have some (Yearly) Meetings styling themselves as ‘Evangelical Friends Churches’) others including Britain Yearly Meeting set off in another direction, emphasising the ‘unprogrammed’ silent meeting and in some cases tending to become ‘universalist’ and accepting into membership Jews (not surprising); Muslims; Hindus; Sikhs; Buddhists; ‘Others’ and eventually ’nontheists’.

In addition to this, from about the middle of the twentieth century again and perhaps not co-incidentally, some Christians and some ’non-believers’ and latterly, some Friends, found Buddhism and then aspects (including ‘meditation’) from other Eastern religions (including ‘Hinduism’ and Islam/Sufism) of benefit to them in their spiritual seeking.

From being substantially Christian (or at least ‘Jesus following’) unprogrammed ‘liberal’ Friends only needed to be ‘Godly’ (believing in God?) to come into membership. Even this developed further as understandings of ‘God’, influenced by Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Eastern Christianity and Biblical criticism, changed, so that the question ‘Do you believe in God’ could be answered by ‘It depends what you mean by God (or ‘belief’)’ as well as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. (And even ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ could be interpreted according to different understandings of ‘God’.)

Amongst nontheists, we have in membership of NFN or attending our conferences, sometimes as our keynote speakers, theists, non-theists, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, ‘lapsed Anglicans’, Christian Atheists, ‘converts’ to some of these religions or ‘positions’, agnostics, ‘naturalists’ and ‘materialists’ (believing in only the ‘natural’ or ‘material’ world, not some other spiritual or ‘transcendent’ world), ’non-theist theists’ and so on. (See the wikipedia article on ’nontheism’ for further ideas).

I’ve not even mentioned Unitarians (‘Quakers with hymns’) who have perhaps gone further in welcoming ‘Pagans’, ‘Traditional religions’ and so on. Some individual Friends may also attend Unitarian services (to sing?), Anglican or Methodist services, or retain some of their practice of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc. (a number of Anglicans being in joint membership for example), whilst others come to Friends and drop their former religious belief or practice. In this way, and at this time, the RoSF welcomes all to attend its meetings and often to become members according to an individual’s inclinations and the ‘discernment’ of their local and Area Meeting.

NFN, I believe, welcomes this ‘unity in diversity’ with fluid boundaries and a feeling that this is in accordance with and not at variance with Friends’ practice through the ages.

At this point (not quite finished my labouring) I will turn to the bible:
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”
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.”

I last used these quotations in the post “Theism vs Non-Theism” or Quaker Spirit? in June 2018 where I commented: In the end then, what Friends think, believe or experience of the ‘spirit’ might be a matter of some significance.

aSo, what do we then, as Friends, whether identifying as ‘non theists’ or not, have to say about the ‘Spirit’. (See the above post for some discussion of this).

It is, quite often, asked ‘what do nontheists do in Meeting for Worship?’ Some Friends who have been quakers all their lives from long established quaker families like to refer just to ‘Meeting’ so that the possible question ‘what are you worshipping’ is not asked.

Surveys have shown that Friends, including non theist Friends, do many different things in Meeting for Worship. Perhaps we worship, venerate, adore, pray, reflect, think, meditate, contemplate, sleep, snore, rest, sit quietly, dream, minister or all of these, none of these and some I haven’t thought of. Is there some ‘core’ to the practice (of ‘silent worship’) that we all agree on or partake of in some measure. Is it ‘communion’ or communing. How does it sometimes come to be ‘diagnosed’ as a ‘gathered’ meeting?

Friends have different experiences and understandings (not to mention misunderstandings or misconceptions) about what ‘meditation’ might be. (There are of course quite a number of different meditation or ‘meditative’ practices). Is Buddhist (or other) ‘silent worship’ (meditation) of some use or benefit to non-Buddhist Friends? Is (not) meeting for worship in part a special kind of ‘Christian’ meditation? (Please don’t just say ‘No’. Research the topic!). Is ‘Experiment with Light’ a genuine reflection of some early Friends’ practices and whether ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is it useful to (all of?) us as a conjunct to or preparation for Meeting?

Some nontheist Friends (materialists or naturalists perhaps) are distinctly unhappy with the idea, notion, concept or word ‘divine’. Other self-identified nontheists are quite happy with the idea of the ‘divine presence’. Is that the same as the Spirit (Holy Ghost or otherwise)?

Can I, at this point, say, in short? Perhaps not. Enough. Have I provoked sufficiently?

If not, why don’t we have a conference (or other event) on ‘The Spirit without God’. (or would ‘The Spirit, with or without God’ be better?).

(Answers, replies, comments, expressions of disgust etc. here please – below –  rather than on a postcard).

Last weekend’s gathering at Woodbrooke

It was very agreeable meeting everyone last weekend, even if, in the end, we only had just over 30 participants. Being smaller loses something but I think we also gained from the smaller numbers.

One enthusiastic first-time participant suggested we should have conferences on themes of general Quaker interest rather than just related to non-theism, theological positions and so on – but last year’s conference was on the future of Quakerism – will it survive?

What do other Ffriends think about this?

Feedback from the conference was generally very positive and further details will follow in due course.

Trevor Bending

PS. If NFN is to continue, we really do need some of you to come forward to join the Steering Group. (We can co-opt new members between AGM’s). So, if you feel you could give even just a little time, please email us or use the Contact Form to send me a message.

Nontheism on Wikipedia

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

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

NFN 2019 Gathering, conference and AGM

All members of NFN are invited to attend the AGM which will take place on the Saturday of our annual gathering at Woodbrooke. (30th March 2019).

Application forms for the conference have now been posted on the 2019 Conference page.

We hope as many of you as are able will attend the conference which is our best opportunity each year to gather together with like-minded Friends but if you are not able to do so please consider coming for the day on Saturday or just for the AGM.

July Newsletter and Questionnaire

The NFN July Newsletter (4 August 2018), which NFN members and others on our mailing list should have received by email a few days ago, has been uploaded to the website today. (See Newsletters under Articles).

The Newsletter has numerous interesting articles and reviews and includes a questionnaire which aims to compare “the viewpoints of different people who attend Quaker meetings and their attitudes towards religion and spirituality“.

Anyone attending any Quaker meeting is invited to complete the questionnaire (ignoring question 5 if appropriate) and send it to Patrick Cremona at the email address given. The article and questionnaire from the Newsletter are reproduced in full here:

Research questions for nontheist Friends
Patrick Cremona, currently finishing a masters in Magazine Journalism at Cardiff University, has written to seek our help in answering questions about aspects of our Quakerism. He writes:

“The piece that I am currently working on is part of a series of articles exploring spirituality in the twenty-first century, which will form my major project for my masters, and will also hopefully be pitched to other outlets once it is finished. This idea for this particular feature was inspired by both the Simon Jenkins article you linked [on the NFN website]and a conversation with a (non-religious) friend of mine who has recently started attending Quaker meetings. Its aim is to explore ideas of religion, theism and spirituality, and the differences between them, with specific reference to Quaker meetings. While I found the aforementioned Jenkins article interesting, it didn’t include quotes from Quakers and this is where my article would differ. Rather than being an opinion piece, I would be looking at comparing the viewpoints of different people who attend Quaker meetings and their attitudes towards religion and spirituality… I aim to conduct thorough research on the topic, and I am planning on attending a Quaker meeting in Cardiff in the near future.”

Patrick has sent us a questionnaire and readers are invited to respond to him via <patrick.cremona@hotmail.co.uk>.

  1. How long have you been attending Quaker meetings?
  2. What were your original reasons for attending, and what were your views about theism at the time?
  3. To you personally, what are the differences between religion, theism and spirituality?
  4. Have your views regarding religion, spirituality and theism changed over time?
  5. Why did you join the Non-theist Friend network? Has doing so enhanced your experience as a Quaker?
  6. Have you noticed a general trend towards a more non-theist approach amongst Friends in general?
  7. In a world where traditional religion is continuing to steadily decline, in what ways do Quaker meetings offer an alternative form of worship?
  8. Although religion has been declining, spiritual activities and mindfulness practices are in vogue. Do you think a less rigid form of spirituality can replace more structured, organised religion in the twenty-first century, and what are the advantages of this?
  9. What would you say to someone with no religious beliefs who was interested in attending Quaker meetings?

“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.