Tag Archives: theological Diversity

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]

IF.. You would like to respond to this discussion, or comment further, please email David Parlett, or Comment (‘Leave a reply’) here below. (Initials or name required. Your email address will not be published).

Nontheist News?

The NFN Steering Group will meet in Lancaster on Wednesday 24/7/19 (usually just one annual meeting in addition to the Conference/AGM).

Topics under discussion will include NFN structure and organisation; Future conferences/events/participation at BYM gathering; Website and online presence; Membership and Newsletter; Finance; Publishing pamphlets/ booklets?; Name question: “Nontheist Friends Network” or?

Expect to hear further here soon.

You may or may not have noticed two new posts by Os Cresson on our American Friends website. (It’s taken me more than 2 weeks to notice and only then because I needed to visit their website for reference). These posts appear automatically in the ‘Feed’ we get from them which you can find towards the bottom of the right-hand column here. (These don’t appear on the mobile version – but you can there scroll to the very bottom and choose ‘View Full site’, then scroll to the bottom again and you will find them there. Such fun.)

But I do suggest Os’s posts are worth a read:
http://www.nontheistfriends.org/article/theists-and-nontheists-friends-together

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).

 

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?