Concerned about 'non-theistic Quakerism'. (An oxymoron!)

British Friends please consider supporting me in raising awareness of the danger posed by fervent non-theism. 

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What can happen instead [Thomas Merton's account]:

“One Sunday I went to the Quaker meeting house in Flushing, where Mother had once sat and meditated with the Friends.  I sat down there too, in a deep pew in the back near a window.  The place was about half full.  The people were mostly middle-aged or old, and there was nothing that distinguished them in any evident way from the congregation in a Methodist or a Baptist or an Episcopalian or any other Protestant church, except that they sat silent, waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.  I liked that.  I liked the silence.  It was peaceful.  In it, my shyness began to die down, and I ceased to look about and criticize the people, and entered, somewhat superficially, into my own soul and some nebulous good resolutions began to take shape there.

"But it did not get very far, for presently one of the middle-aged ladies thought the Holy Ghost was after her to get up and talk.  I secretly suspected that she had come to Meeting all prepared to make a speech anyway, for she reached into her handbag, as she stood up, and cried out in a loud earnest voice:

 

"When I was in Switzerland I took this snapshot of the famous Lion of Lucerne…’ With that she pulled out a picture.  Sure enough, it was the famous Lion of Lucerne.  She held it up and tried to show it around to the Friends, at the same time explaining that she thought it was a splendid exemplification of Swiss courage and manliness and patience and all the other virtues of the watchmaking Swiss which she mentioned and which I have now forgotten.

 

"The Friends accepted it in patience, without enthusiasm or resentment.  But I went out of the meeting house saying to myself: ‘They are like all the rest.  In other churches it is the minister who hands out the commonplaces, and here it is liable to be just anybody.’” (Seven Story Mountain, Part I, Chapter 3.)"

[Quoted in a fine piece by Rich Accetta-Evans re the nature and source of Messages.]

Our responsibility to want to go deeper than this-- but only possible through letting God lead. Asking for that in confidence-- not that anything will come spoon-fed-- but that God is at work behind and within our efforts.

THank you everyone for a very interesting and helpful discussion. (It seems to have ended now.) I am sorry my blog (www.sp37.info) went down for a few days. A shorter version of the essay has been published by 'The Friend' (Britian YM's excellent weekly) and I'm now waiting with some trepidation for the response. The point i try to emphasise is that we need to consider the desired stance (philosophical and theological position) of our YM as an organisation it its own right. This is a different matter from consideration of our own individual stances, though obviously they are connected.

Recently i have realised there are at least two kinds of non-theist. Many Friends who call themselves non-theistic accept that there is a Divinity but object to calling it God since this implies an authoritarian, jealous and angry, masculine God. (An idea of God which is no longer held by most main-stream intelligent Christians.)  The second are convinced there is no 'Divinity'. It seems to me that these are little different from atheists, since the majority of atheist are merely non-theists. A true a-theist works actively against God and religion. We need different terms for these two.

The strength of Quakerism is the conviction that, if one allows it, and is prepared to trust it,  one can be directly led and supported by the Divinity, which commonly goes by the name, "God". 

Hello David,


Thank you for your thoughtful and powerful post.  However, please do note the following in Stephen Petter's comment just prior to yours:

Many Friends who call themselves non-theistic accept that there is a Divinity but object to calling it God since this implies an authoritarian, jealous and angry, masculine God. (An idea of God which is no longer held by most main-stream intelligent Christians.) 

What he says is true and is contrary to your statement that " Nontheism seems to have missed that the essence of being is "that of light"  "

peace

When I was much younger I was a member of a very large meeting and had an occasion to attend a meeting-wide overnight retreat. During one of the workshops I was randomly paired up with an elderly woman to take a long walk on a path in the woods. We were instructed to share with one another our spirituality. I expected to learn much from this weighty Quaker because I had always admired the quiet spirituality she possessed. During our sharing she shared with me that she was an atheist. I was really surprised because her actions in life were so Christ-like. So I asked her what she believed about the nature of "ultimate reality", since she did not believe in God. When she finished telling me her thoughts, she asked me, "Do you believe in God?" I said, "I do, and my description of God is the same as your description of ultimate reality from your atheistic point of view". I took away a valuable lesson that the Spirit that Christ possessed is not a respecter of labels. It is the experience that matters. One Friend may call it Buddha, one may call it Jesus, one may call it God, and one may call it nothing. And the silence of worship is the meeting place of a common spiritual experience no matter what prism of theology or no theology we adopt. I find theological belief; i.e., doctrine - gets in the way of a true unity in spirit. I recall that some early Quakers called doctrine "notions" because they were simply notions in the head of the person proclaiming them. The true reality is felt, experienced in silence where hearts are melted together in the All. Why do we need to insist on the same label for it?

Thanks, Forrest, for quoting the incident from Thomas Merton's memoirs.  It shows how superficial Quaker worship can be when we draw only upon our own meager resources. rather than those offered to hungry souls by the Son of God.  Stephen Grellet, the powerful 19th Century preacher and Quaker evangelist, often alluded to "the unsearchable riches of Christ".  Ephesians 3:8.  These are what we need to access in our meetings!

Forrest Curo said:

What can happen instead [Thomas Merton's account]:

“One Sunday I went to the Quaker meeting house in Flushing, where Mother had once sat and meditated with the Friends.  I sat down there too, in a deep pew in the back near a window.  The place was about half full.  The people were mostly middle-aged or old, and there was nothing that distinguished them in any evident way from the congregation in a Methodist or a Baptist or an Episcopalian or any other Protestant church, except that they sat silent, waiting for the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.  I liked that.  I liked the silence.  It was peaceful.  In it, my shyness began to die down, and I ceased to look about and criticize the people, and entered, somewhat superficially, into my own soul and some nebulous good resolutions began to take shape there.

"But it did not get very far, for presently one of the middle-aged ladies thought the Holy Ghost was after her to get up and talk.  I secretly suspected that she had come to Meeting all prepared to make a speech anyway, for she reached into her handbag, as she stood up, and cried out in a loud earnest voice:

 

"When I was in Switzerland I took this snapshot of the famous Lion of Lucerne…’ With that she pulled out a picture.  Sure enough, it was the famous Lion of Lucerne.  She held it up and tried to show it around to the Friends, at the same time explaining that she thought it was a splendid exemplification of Swiss courage and manliness and patience and all the other virtues of the watchmaking Swiss which she mentioned and which I have now forgotten.

 

"The Friends accepted it in patience, without enthusiasm or resentment.  But I went out of the meeting house saying to myself: ‘They are like all the rest.  In other churches it is the minister who hands out the commonplaces, and here it is liable to be just anybody.’” (Seven Story Mountain, Part I, Chapter 3.)"

[Quoted in a fine piece by Rich Accetta-Evans re the nature and source of Messages.]

Our responsibility to want to go deeper than this-- but only possible through letting God lead. Asking for that in confidence-- not that anything will come spoon-fed-- but that God is at work behind and within our efforts.

Yes, it's difficult as I find that I agree with both Howard's perspective and Thomas Merton's.   We have no way to talk about ultimate Truth other than with words!   

Many times, people show by their words that they are not allowing the Ultimate to be at the Center.   Clearly this must not have been the case with Howard's elderly mentor.  I have also spoken with people who similarly model "that of God" for me and specifically "that of Christ" while their beliefs are outside of that.  But God/Christ is an Ultimate truth (in one of its incarnations). 

We don't all need to agree on the name of this Truth, but....  to the degree that we are not all seeking and submitting to ultimate Truth (a common bad habit for ALL of us), we really should be eldered by the community, brought into awareness of this.    I like that we can struggle together to define what we are talking about when we use words like "Christ" and "Buddha" and "non-theist," etc...   because we must ultimately be challenged as needed to seek and follow the Source of love, by whatever name it has given us.

Please hold me in the Light as I attend a critical meeting of my Local Meeting tomorrow (6th 1st Month) in which we are due to consider my concern about the threat of non-theism. I seek support in asking to be invited to other Meetings simply to speak to remind them that Quakerism is a God-centred, Spirit-led religion, a denomination of Christianity. Several Attenders and even one Friend have been shocked, challenged and dismayed by this assertion. We in Britain have been very wrong to avoid making this plain, presumably in order not to deter newcomers.

I find myself drifting from classic/catholic Christianity towards  theistic universalism with a tint of Bahai.  Yet, I am strongly attracted to the practices of conservative Friends.  I do not dress "Plain," but I try to dress plainly.  I admire those who choose to live simply.  I believe in strict adherence to Quaker process.  I am put off by jovial, non-worshipful meetings for business.  In philosophic terms I lean to the orthopraxic,  but I am not orthodox.  I know there are others like me, but I am a sense of not quite fitting in traditional categories.  The search continues...



Nikolas Southwell said:

I couldnt agree more. Some people seem to want to turn the Quakers into a branch of the humanist society. Non theistic (atheistic) Quakerism is an oxymoron....and i think more of us need to take a stand on this!

 

A problem I see is what I call functional atheism.  We may express belief in God, theistic or non-theistic really doesn't matter here, but live our lives as if God is does not exist, relying only on our own efforts. On a corporate level I find this in our institutions which look to secular models for guidance, with "long range planning" committees and the like. How do we do long range planning when we don't know to what God will call us? Do we trust God to lead us?

Forrest:

 

This post is excellent!

 

Bill Rushby
 
Forrest Curo said:

Oh, "secular world view" is right up there with those other powers and principalities. ""Sex, fashion, and sports are all among the angelic powers," sayeth Springfellow. "So, particularly, is "money." Many of these (___?)'s are on the vague side, not so easy to pin with a word.

In George Fox's Journal we find this already getting problematical:

"One morning, as I was sitting by the fire, a great cloud came over me, and a temptation beset me; and I sat still. It was said, "All things come by nature"; and the elements and stars came over me, so that I was in a manner quite clouded with it. But as I sat still and said nothing, the people of the house perceived nothing. And as I sat still under it and let it alone, a living hope and a true voice arose in me, which said, "There is a living God who made all things."[40] Immediately the cloud and temptation vanished away, and life rose over it all; my heart was glad, and I praised the living God.

"After some time I met with some people who had a notion that there was no God, but that all things come by nature. I had a great dispute with them, and overturned them, and made some of them confess that there is a living God. Then I saw that it was good that I had gone through that exercise.[41] We had great meetings in those parts; for the power of the Lord broke through in that side of the country."

---

At this point I think we've all been so thoroughly imbued with the tendency to rely on that lens first and foremost-- that it's hard to recognize for that very reason.

"What shall we do about this?" -- and immediately we are aflame with "practical" steps and measures to take, as if it really were all up to our unaided selves.

Not so much "to struggle against"-- but to recognize. To see where a misleading perspective has weakened us, name it openly as illusory, pray that all may find our ways to the true foundation of the world.

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