Category Archives: Christianity

Welcoming Jesus?

In the current issue of The Friend, Michael Wright writes:

Cap Kaylor (23 and 30 March) has challenged us to enquire where our Religious Society of Friends is to look for its ‘identity and its engine’. He writes of the importance of narrative in the human search for meaning, as he points to the picture of Jesus ‘lost along the way’ but now being rediscovered.

Advices & queries 4 reminds us that: ‘The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus.’ We share a narrative with other Christians, but we value the scriptures without taking them at face value, paying attention to the Spirit that ‘gave the scriptures’ rather than abiding by the letter of them. We can learn much from the Jewish practice of finding the scriptures a source for creative thinking, rather than a theological straitjacket.

I have quoted Cap Kaylor here before:

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative.

The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels.

We are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilisation. The historic channels through which Christian faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event…

We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. However, without the force of at least an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?

Michael Wright proposes that:

…a narrative – sourced from the gospels, focused on truth and integrity, community fellowship, trust and service, health and wellbeing, valuing every individual, with concerns for justice, peace and for our environment – has real power to inspire and motivate. It draws creatively on the Christian tradition, but finds little or no sustenance in the words of too many hymns, liturgies and doctrines.

Michael concludes his thoughtful and engaging piece with an appeal for direct contact with Friends “interested in sharing experiences and insights and in developing such a narrative.” In The Friend magazine Michael publishes his email address, which is thus freely accessible to subscribers; here, on the open web, I feel I should not do so; but if anyone has no subscription to the magazine, they’re welcome to send me their own email address, and I’ll be glad to provide Michael Wright’s.

From the Map into the Geography

It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive.’ And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back–-I would have done so myself if I could–-and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’–-well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads–-better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power source that we can tap–-best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband–-that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back. Suppose we really found Him? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing he has found us?

CS Lewis, Miracles

The odd thing is that some of us, Friends and others, who are caught at one or another of these stages (often at the “inside our heads” stage) feel that they are actually at a more advanced level, as it were, spiritually or intellectually, than those who take what they may call a more “literalistic” approach to faith. But this passage reminds me forcibly of my own first steps on that path.

From childhood I had had the sense of living on the edge of something – there had been moments, and more than moments, when the curtain across that edge grew thin and tattered, and the unimaginable peeped, almost, through into sunlit orchard behind our house, or called in the hollow song of the foghorn, at night across the sea beyond my bedroom window. As I grew up, I alternated between trying to escape all such considerations into the clean certainties of GCE science, and looking – increasingly – for explanations. As I dabbled in phenomenology, and began to read not only Eastern mystical texts, but a few of the Christian mystics as well, I vividly remember thinking, “This is all very well, but I need a system that lets me remain in charge… I don’t like this continual call to surrender. I’m just beginning to find me – I’m not letting go of that!”

It was not for another nearly ten years that events broke through that self-commitment, and I found I had fallen into the hands of the living God. (cf. Hebrews 10.31!) But I was under no illusion then that I had somehow slipped from an enlightened sophistication into some more primitive state – rather I had the feeling that I had blundered from the map into the geography, and the little painted rivers now thundered over their falls and rapids, and on to a sea that was more than capable of absorbing my cherished me without a trace. The mere spray soaked me to the skin…

The reality of faith indeed a matter of life and death: what then? There is an end to ideas and opinions, and to all our words. One day there will be nothing else than that: for all we have treasured will be rotted through with Light. (Matthew 6:19-21; 1 Corinthians 3.15)

“Life is not a matter of creating a special name for ourselves, but of uncovering the name we have always had,” as Richard Rohr writes in his book Immortal Diamond: The search for our true self. And death itself, perhaps, is for that true self the gate to life…

Sisters and Brothers in Peace

Be aware of the spirit of God at work in the ordinary activities and experience of your daily life. Spiritual learning continues throughout life, and often in unexpected ways. There is inspiration to be found all around us, in the natural world, in the sciences and arts, in our work and friendships, in our sorrows as well as in our joys. Are you open to new light, from whatever source it may come? Do you approach new ideas with discernment?

Advices & Queries 7

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been feeling a little disconnected from my Quaker meeting recently. Partly I think it has been because of my own rootedness within the hesychast tradition of prayer, and partly because of my (quite unsought) rediscovery of the Bible as one of the motors of my own spirituality. I am a Christian, open as I may be to new light from whatever source, and despite the strength of my tenderness for Buddhist teaching and practice, especially within the Pure Land tradition, and there have been times when I have grown to feel somewhat uncomfortable among Friends due to the strength of some currents in what Craig Barnett called “the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’.”

As Craig went on say, though:

Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control. Such an encounter may expand our understanding of reality, so that new words and images become meaningful to us. We don’t need to confine ourselves to narrow identity categories that exclude the possibility of change and growth. We simply need to be willing to meet whatever face of God is presented to us, to welcome and respond to it, and to listen and learn from the very different experiences of others.

Quaker worship, distinctive though it may be, does not stand alone as a discovery out of nothing sometime in the 17th century, but is part of a long tradition of direct encounter with God common to mystical Christianity as well as to other religions with currents of mystical experience and practice within their own paths. In our own time this tradition continues in many places other than Quakers meetings. It was Mother Teresa who said,

In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.

And yet, as it was borne in upon me in meeting this morning, there is something unique about Quakerism. What we have embarked on together is a radical, at times desperate, endeavour based simply in trust in God, and in the processes we as Quakers have over the years developed together. There is nothing else: no liturgy, no readings from Scripture, no sacraments other than this sitting together in silence, and the life that flows from that. The fellowship, the Friendship, that follows is so precious a thing that, if we let it, it can transcend all our differences in background, in language, in expression. This being sisters and brothers in peace and in silence together is what we are as Quakers – all we say and do must flow from this. Coming up to Yearly Meeting we are asked think of what spiritual preparation we might undertake. For me, perhaps this is a start…


“When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die”

There is a depth and generosity in the imagery of the Bible, and of Christian writers over the centuries, that is often not dreamt of by those whose theology is proudly proclaimed to be ‘Biblically based’. One of the writers who best demonstrates what I am getting at is the Roman Catholic Franciscan friar and theologian Richard Rohr.

In a recent series of his Daily Meditations, Rohr writes:

The core belief of all the great world religions is that the underlying reality is love. Teilhard de Chardin says that “love is the very physical structure of the universe.” Everything is desiring union with everything in one sense or another. I actually believe that what it means to know and trust God is to trust that Love is the source, heart, engine, and goal of life. Our primal and deepest act of faith is the willingness to somehow say, “It’s okay” because at its core all of reality is good and of God. (Ironically and sadly, many religious people say they love God but they do not trust the goodness at the heart of all reality.)

The Christian belief in the Trinity makes it clear that God is an event of communion. God is not a noun nearly as much as a verb. We’ve always thought of God as an autonomous Supreme Being, rather than as Being itself, as an energy that moves within itself (“Father”), beyond itself (“Christ”), and drawing us into itself (“Holy Spirit”). When Christianity begins to take this pivotal and central doctrine of the Trinity with practical seriousness, it will be renewed on every level…

Love is where we came from. And love is where we are going. When we live in love, we will not be afraid to die. We have built a bridge between worlds. As Paul says “Love does not come to an end” and “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8, 13).

“We will not be afraid to die.” Somehow it comes down to this. Any faith that holds us, yes, that can save us, has to be strong as death, just as love is.

We are so frail, each of us, so easily broken. A few years and we are gone anyway, scraps of memory on the ebbing tide, that choking ache in an old friend’s chest long after midnight–then only the odd printed reference, maybe, letter in a tin box under the bed, ghost link on the web.

And yet.

To be close to one who is dying is to be close to something so right, so clearly, in Kathleen Dowling Singh’s words, grace out of tragedy. Or to know that, in Pippin’s words, “That isn’t so bad.” To have been faced with the great likelihood of one’s own death, as I have been blessed to be once or twice, is to know that that frailty is only one side of the coin. Reality is not what it seems. Our loneliness is in our separation, our differentiation. But once “the grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass,” then we know that really, in the end, truly, it’s OK. That in each of us which is love itself is beyond all the dimensions of time and matter, beyond the reach of thought, but there, at the centre of every heart.

We never were alone, and love is a very good name for God – for that Source and centre of all in which all things from galaxies to wood mice grow, and are held: that Ground of Being out of which, finally, we can never fall, but which will call us home to endless light, and the healing of all wounds.

[Some of this appeared in an earlier form in my post The Harbour Bar]

The faithfulness of Friends

Writing on his blog Transition Quaker, Craig Barnett remarks,

Looking around at the condition of the Quaker movement in Britain, it is tempting to grow nostalgic about the profounder spirituality of a previous age. I want to encourage us to resist this temptation. We should not aim at a return to the Quaker forms of the past. Instead, we need a more disciplined attention to the practices that can help us to be faithful to the Spirit in our contemporary world.

I should want to add that it is sometimes tempting also to grow depressed about our perceptions of present-day Quakerism. We can look at the encroachment of secularism, as discussed by Ben Pink Dandelion in this year’s Swarthmore Lecture, and worry that, between the external pressures of consumerism and the internal pressures of nontheist humanism, Quakers are turning from the Light to mere kind thoughts and good works, or we can look at the demographics of Quaker meetings around Britain and conclude that we are soon to die out through old age and mortality.

Craig Barnett goes on,

By concentrating on the lives of ‘great Quakers’ of the past, we can easily overlook the fact that Friends such as John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry or Rufus Jones were not at all typical of the wider Quaker movement of their time. For most of our history, Friends have been largely what we are today – spiritually tepid and deeply compromised by our accommodation to the surrounding culture.

I recall having this discussion many times before I became a Quaker, when, playing as I was in church worship bands, members of the congregation would lament to me that contemporary worship songwriters couldn’t hold a candle to the great hymn writers of the past. I often used to point out that 18th-century hymns were based on the popular music of their day, and were frequently trite, obscure or both, and the majority of the hymns the Victorians wrote wobbled uneasily between the sentimental and the grandiose. The ones we have in our hymnbooks today are the ones that made it through the sifting process of history, just as a hundred years or so from today, only the best worship songs will be remembered, and the others will have been left on the shelf.

There is much to celebrate in contemporary Quakerism. Writers like Ben Pink Dandelion, whom I’ve mentioned already, Harvey Gillman, Jenny Routledge and Alex Wildwood are doing much to disturb and excite us ordinary Friends in local meetings, where renewal, if it is to come, will take root and grow. Craig Barnett quotes Ursula Jane O’Shea’s 1993 Backhouse Lecture to Australia Yearly Meeting:

Healing spiritual malaise within a group and initiating revival cannot be accomplished by office-holders or weighty Friends. It must be the committed task of a large section of the community, if not all of it. Transformation of a group can begin nowhere else but within each person. Willingness in many members to begin the hard work of inward transformation, without waiting for others to go first, may be the test of a community’s desire and capacity to be revitalised…

Renewal of the Society waits for the choice of each Friend: Am I willing to risk the disturbing, transfiguring presence of the Spirit in my life? To obey it? To expect ‘the Cross’ and dark days as I discover and nurture who I am before God? When we choose to live the spiritual life the Quaker Way, these are the experiences we are committing ourselves to, whatever words we put upon them. If significant numbers of us are not interested in, or willing to live by these experiences, the hoped-for renewal of our meetings cannot occur. But if our collective spiritual power gathers strength it will infect other Friends and newcomers. Ministry will become more grounded in the Spirit and individuals will be inspired by the Spirit to serve our meetings as nurturers, prophets and conservers.

Writing this twenty-one years ago, Ursula Jane O’Shea was herself, I believe, both prophet and nurturer for the present generation of Friends. Her words are courageously borne out in the work of Friends like Jenny Routledge in particular, who writes, demonstrating just this choice to hear and obey the Spirit, to take the risk of the Cross,

When I was asked at the beginning of this journey [of exploring the spiritual basis of eldership] what I wanted to achieve, I said that I just wanted to sow seeds. I didn’t have any sense of what the end point might be. I just wanted to be heard. It was one of the numerous occasions on this journey when I knew the answer straight away. I experience these as leadings of the Spirit, promptings from my inner teacher, and they have been a feature of my journey, not a very convenient feature, but undeniable…

This is the authentic voice of experimental faith, the voice that has led Friends through the thickets of stagnation and renewal over and over again through the 350 or so years of our history. I sometimes think we need to remind ourselves repeatedly that what matters is not the survival of Quakerism as a religious movement, but the faithfulness of Friends “to the promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts, which are the leadings of God.” (Advices and Queries, 1)

The First and Final Template…

The Blessed Trinity is the central and foundational doctrine of the Christian faith. But as the Jesuit Karl Rahner (1904-1984) observed, what is supposed to be the heart of the nature of God has, until recently, had few practical or pastoral implications in most people’s lives. We did not have the right software installed!

For too many Christians, the doctrine of the Trinity was unfathomable, abstract, and boring theology because they tried to process it with their left brain, their dualistic mind. Remaining there, it was not much more than a speculative curiosity or a mathematical conundrum (yet surely never to be questioned by any orthodox Christian). However, the Trinity perfectly illustrates the dynamic principle of three and was made to order to demolish our dualistic thinking and to open us to the mystical level.

The Trinity can only be understood with the contemplative mind. It is only God in you that understands; your small mind cannot. I call this participative knowledge. The Trinity can’t be proved rationally. You must experience its flow in your life. You must have moments where you know that a Big Life is happening in you, yet beyond you, and also AS you!

Unfortunately, Christians mostly gave up even trying to understand the Trinity. But if we’re resolved that we want to go into the mystery, not to hold God in our pocket, but to allow God to hold us, then I think we must seek to understand the Trinity experientially and contemplatively, which is not to understand at all, but to “stand under” a waterfall of infinite and loving Flow…

Most of us began by thinking of God as One Being and then tried to make God into three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). But what I want you to try to do, and only God can do this in you, is change directions. As the early Fathers of the Greek Church did in the fourth century, start with the three and focus on the relationships between them.

Philippians 2:6-7 beautifully describes the Trinitarian relationship: “Jesus’ state was divine, yet he did not cling to equality with God, but he emptied himself.” This is how the three persons of the Trinity relate. They all live in an eternal self-emptying (kenosis), which allows each of them to totally let go and give themselves to the other.

When we start with the three, we know that this God is perfect giving and perfect receiving, that the very name of Being is communion, extravagant generosity, humble receptivity, and unhindered dialogue between three. Then we know God as the deepest flow of Life Itself, Relationship Itself. It is not that a Being decides to love; love is the very nature and shape of Being.

This is then the pattern of the whole universe. And any idea of God’s “wrath” or of God withholding an outflowing love is theologically impossible. Love is the very pattern that we start with, move with, and the goal we move toward. It is the very energy of the entire universe, from orbiting protons and neutrons to the social and sexual life of species, to the orbiting of planets and stars. We were indeed created in communion, by communion, and for communion. Or as Genesis says “created in the image and likeness of God.”…

Francis and Clare and many later Franciscans (Bonaventure, Anthony, Duns Scotus, Angela of Foligno, and many Poor Clares) appear to be literally living inside of a set of relationships that they quite traditionally name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” But these experiences of communion are real, active, and involved in their lives, as if they are living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them. They are drawn into an endless creativity of love in wonderful ways that reflect the infinite nature of God.

They seem to shout out gratitude and praise in several directions: from a deep inner satisfaction (the indwelling Holy Spirit), across to the other (the ubiquitous Christ), and beyond what I can name or ever fully know (the formless Father).

In the Trinity, love finally has a solid definition and description, and cannot be sentimentalized. If Trinity is the template for all creation, from atoms to galaxies, which now appears to be the case, then a water wheel that is always outpouring in one direction is a very fine metaphor for God. Giving and surrendered receiving are the very shape of reality. Now love is much bigger than mere emotions, feelings, infatuation, or passing romance.

With Trinity as the first and final template for reality, love is the ontological “Ground of Being” itself (Paul Tillich). It is the air that you breathe, as any true mystic discovers, consciously or unconsciously. You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.

Richard Rohr, adapted from Eager to Love – The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi and recorded talks

This is interesting. The Trinity is one of those doctrines most Quakers – at least within BYM! – would be tempted to set aside as mere creedal residue, long grown-out-of. But there is, quite literally, more going on here than meets the eye.

Rohr points out that over the years the Church has tended to approach the idea of the Trinity with an analytical, intellectual, left-brain understanding – with words, and games with words. But, as he says, “You do not have to be able to describe this in words to experience it. In fact, you can’t. You can only live it.”

To me this gets to the heart of what mysticism is. In silence and contemplation, whether of the gathered meeting, or of solitary prayer, words are suspended. Given nothing to hang on to, the analytical mind frets, criticises, and finally gives up. In this space, in this simple silence, that of God (Spirit, the Ground of Being) within each of us, is directly experienced. This is what the earliest Quakers encountered:

Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God, whereby thou wilt receive his strength and power from whence life comes, to allay all tempests, against blusterings and storms. That is it which moulds up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into stayedness, into quietness, up to God, with his power.

George Fox, 1658

I think it matters little how we call “the first and final template for reality”. We have each of us different traditions, different understandings, different hurts and joys in the ways we have trodden to where we find ourselves today. If the names of the Trinity hurt and frighten us so that we cannot speak them, we must not seek to prevent others using them, just as those to whom they speak of truth and grace must not seek to impose their use on their fellow-pilgrims.

Those of us who discover themselves “living inside of a Love-Beyond-Them-Which-Yet-Includes-Them” are surely sisters and brothers at the very deepest level, far deeper than ties of blood. It is difficult – though perhaps Friends have had as good a go at it as anyone – to experience and express this closeness without getting enmeshed in the minutiae of religious communities and formal doctrines,

Writing in The Friend this week, Jan Arriens says,

Our tradition of liberal Quakerism owes much to the American Quaker Rufus Jones. Without his contribution a century or so ago we might well not be here today. Jones always stressed that we are a mystical Society. He defined mysticism as covering everything from a simple, everyday sense of awe, wonder and connection to a state of bliss…

For many of us, this involves a struggle between head and heart. Head tells us that the material world is all there is, while heart speaks from an experience which, ultimately, cannot be denied. That experience – the quiet mystical element – is, I believe, at the heart of our Quakerism. It is certainly what I consistently encounter among Friends. Although I am not a member of the nontheist movement I think that, far from dividing us, it has done us a great service in revealing how close we are in thought and belief when we get beyond the words. I see that essential unity as being based around awareness of our intimate connection to a greater whole. It may be subtle and intangible, but it is the most precious thing in our lives and provides the lodestar for how we try to live. For it also has a moral quality. I remember when I first began writing to prisoners on death row in the US twenty-five years ago, Sam Johnson in Mississippi wrote to me, ‘We have been touched by some force or something greater than we are and it’s good. I don’t know exactly what it is but I know that it’s good!’

The sense of presence is not just individual but also shared. There is a seamlessness between a gathered Meeting and the world outside. Faith and action each feed the other…

The name of God

[Reblogged in its entirety from Transition Quaker by Craig Barnett]

The name of God can be used to freeze our wonder, to make a comforting and useful idol, or it can be the opposite: a name that opens into continuing mystery.  (Thomas Moore, The Soul of Religion)

We all know God the idol; all-seeing, omnipotent, angry and male. For some, wounded by authoritarian religious upbringings or in flight from evangelical burnout, perhaps this is the only meaning the word ‘God’ can have for them, and in that case they may do well to leave it behind.

Some of us, fortunate enough to have avoided the crushing of our religious imagination by fundamentalism, have come to understand God as a ‘name that opens into continuing mystery’.

The Quaker Way is part of a current of religious mysticism that has always acknowledged the limits of language to describe reality. Throughout history, people of all religions and cultures have experienced God not as a supernatural being ‘out there’, but as an indwelling presence, an inward guide, or a source of inner healing and transformation. This mystical understanding is not marginal to traditional religion. It is shared by influential figures such as Rumi in Islam, Gandhi in Hinduism, and Christians such as Julian of Norwich, Simone Weil, Thomas Merton and countless others.

For many Quakers today, this mystical understanding of God has been forgotten, and ‘God language’ is identified with the most conservative and simplistic Christian teaching. Even the idea of ‘believing in’ the existence of God makes the concept of God into an intellectual proposition rather than an experiential reality. Once we start discussing whether we believe in some ‘thing’ out there called God, we have lost sight of the point of the word, which is not to name some hypothetical being, but to point towards an experience of reality that cannot be fully captured in words.

It is difficult to speak about God these days, because people immediately ask you if a God exists. This means that the symbol of God is no longer working. Instead of pointing beyond itself to an ineffable reality, the humanly conceived construct that we call ‘God’ has become the end of the story.

(Karen Armstrong, The Case for God)

The concepts of spiritual reality that people find helpful or intellectually convincing will vary from person to person, depending on our differing experiences and tendencies of thought. These differences reflect alternative perspectives on the same ultimately nameless reality. Framing these differences in terms of ‘theism’ versus ‘nontheism’ is irrelevant and unhelpful. It is unimportant whether someone describes themselves as a ‘theist’ or ‘nontheist’, because these are matters of intellectual belief, or ‘notions’. The Quaker Way is not grounded in beliefs, which have no power to help or to change us. It is a matter of practice; looking deeply and attentively at the reality of our experience and allowing ourselves to be guided and transformed by what we discover there. The only genuinely important question from the point of view of this practice is whether we can experience a spiritual reality that is independent of our own desires and decisions.

There are many Friends who find the concept of an omnipotent personal God intellectually impossible or unhelpful, but who know themselves to be profoundly held by a deeper reality, or part of a greater interconnected Universe, which they might call by a range of names or have no words for at all. There are other Friends who argue that there is no such thing as any spiritual dimension of reality; only human values and concepts. For them, religious language can have at most only a metaphorical meaning as a way of talking about our own personal values. The principal spokesperson for this view is David Boulton, who writes of his own experience:

I have never, since I ceased to be a child in the mid 1950s, been persuaded of the reality of supernatural forces or dimensions, even when they are smuggled in under such euphemisms as “transcendence”, “the numinous”, “the divine”, or “the mystical”. I can no more entertain the notion of gods and devils, angels and demons, disembodied ghoulies and ghosties, or holy and unholy spirits, than I can believe in the magic of Harry Potter or the mystic powers of Gandalf the Grey…  I fully understand that belief in a transcendent realm and a transcendent god as the guarantors of meaning and purpose have inspired millions. They do not inspire me. Instead, they seem to me illusions we can well do without, and I find myself raging at the toxic effects of literal, uncritical belief in divine guidance, divine purpose, divine reward and punishment.

(David Boulton – ‘Quaker Identity and the Heart of our Faith’)

Friends who describe themselves as ‘nontheist’ in this thorough-going materialist sense, reject the possibility of experiencing a spiritual reality that is independent of human choices and values. Instead, according to David Boulton, ‘God becomes for us the imagined symbol of the human values that we recognise as making an ultimate claim upon us.’ For them, the Religious Society of Friends is a diverse community based on shared values which is (or should be) equally accepting of every form of belief or theological opinion. This is the point of view expressed by a reader of this blog in a comment on last month’s post:

Nontheist Friends have difficulties talking about discernment as “finding the will of God”. Can we phrase it in a way which is acceptable to Christians, Nontheists, and all the other theological positions to be found within our Yearly Meeting?

This request, and the similar ones being heard on all sides within Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, has a straightforward appeal as a claim to fairness. Given that there are now many Friends who don’t believe in God, surely it is time to drop the use of ‘God language’ that is only meaningful to ‘theists’, and substitute some other word that is more universally acceptable?

Those nontheist Friends who argue in this way are like people who have joined a mountaineering club from a love of the history of mountaineering, the social gatherings and interesting equipment, but who are not willing to go climbing themselves. While accepting that some ‘mountainists’ still claim to enjoy climbing, these ‘non-mountainist’ members politely request that the club cease to describe its principal activity as mountaineering, and instead adopt more universally acceptable language.

The purpose of a mountaineering club is to climb mountains. The purpose of the Religious Society of Friends is to follow the guidance of the Spirit. All of us have inherited Quakerism as a living tradition of religious practice. Whatever good it has achieved in the past is a result of Friends’ willingness to be led and shaped by the Inward Light. In becoming members we have accepted a responsibility to be faithful to the guidance of the Spirit, and so to preserve Quakerism as a living Way for others. This is not a matter of words. It doesn’t matter whether we call that source of inward guidance God, the Light or anything else. What does matter is that we are willing to be guided by a spiritual reality that is not dependent on our own choices and values.

The existence of this spiritual reality is not primarily a matter of belief, but of experience; either we know it by our own experience or we don’t. Clearly many contemporary Quakers do not know it by experience and therefore have no adequate reason to believe in it. In response to this, rather than changing the purpose of the Religious Society of Friends, we might do better to encourage each other to make use of the spiritual disciplines that Quakers have practised to experience spiritual reality for ourselves. Once we encounter it we will know for ourselves that it doesn’t matter what words we use, because any concepts can only point towards the experience of this reality, without defining or describing it:

Reality is finally mysterious. Our little word ‘God’ tries to name that mystery… It points but it does not describe. It offers no concepts or images that enable us to grasp the reality in our minds. It can only invite us to look and to see for ourselves.

(Rex Ambler, The Quaker Way – a rediscovery)

I am keen to hear readers’ views on the points made in this post. Is it a fair reflection of the views of those who describe themselves as ‘nontheists’ (in any sense)? Is it possible to reclaim the word ‘God’ from fundamentalism, or do we need to substitute a less misunderstood word, such as ‘Light’, ‘Spirit’ or something else?