Gerry Guiton, NSW Regional Meeting
A recent article in the Australian Friend (March, 2015) strongly advised Quakers to “drag themselves into the 21st century”. The author seemed to suggest we have some outdated beliefs and recommended nontheism if not as a complete remedy then as a major step forward.
Nontheism understands religious faith solely as a human creation, God being a symbol, metaphor or projection with no objective existence. The article quotes David Boulton, the leading British Quaker nontheist, to this effect. David helped found the Nontheist Friends Network and, along with Cambridge-based Anglican priest and fellow-atheist, Don Cupitt, the Sea of Faith Network.
While nontheism can be conflated with atheism, the situation among Friends in respect to both is complicated. For instance, a recent survey in Britain YM (2013) of people identifying as Quaker recorded 18% as nontheist. Of these, 50% did not believe in God, 9% did believe and 60% indicated that Jesus was not particularly important to them.
Generally, Friends remain confused about nontheism’s beliefs and purpose as evident from the correspondence pages of various Quaker journals like The Friend (UK). Certainly, if its letters are anything to go by, nontheism and atheism raise a great deal of heat among Friends with many wondering why avowedly atheist folk join a religious organisation and then seek to change it from within in accordance with their unbelief. I’ve noticed, too, that Tony Stoller, editor of Quaker Voices (UK), pointedly dubbed nontheism a “dead-end”.
The word “unbelief” suggests nothing is set in concrete and this is certainly true vis-à-vis atheism. It is just another belief-system like my own which involves believing in God. Now, to say “I believe in God” raises a number of problems, not least the assumption that there is a God and of course we don’t know empirically whether that’s true or not. Equally, to state categorically that God does or does not “exist” is also problematic. A God who “existed” would be describable in relation to the finite and thus subject to the third law of thermodynamics. Maimonides, the medieval Sephardic Jewish mystic, reminds us that our notion of “existence” is so limited it could never apply to God.
I’ve heard it said, though not always from nontheists and atheists, that we live in a post-Christian world. That’s a good thing if the expression implies abandoning not only the muscular, creedal Christianity with which many have grown up but also the toxic god in the sky, something Quakers have always done: see Benjamin Nicholson’s great 1653 quote in my The Early Quakers and the “Kingdom of God” (p. 34).
But what is “post” about the Sermons on the Mount and Plain, and the Beatitudes? After all, they have always driven our Testimonies and confirm continual revelation since they have never failed to rise above time, place and culture (while making a contemporary dynamic connection with them). The genius of those teachings shows Friends did not establish continual revelation as some suppose: again, see my The Early Quakers, pp. 43, 408.
David Boulton once told me that “there’s no going back” for Friends, nontheism being the way of the future. There is, of course, no harm in “going back” so long as we don’t get stuck in the past; continual revelation, after all, doesn’t mean turning our backs on tradition. However, for our Religious Society the task has never been about “going back”, or “going forward” for that matter, but going deeper, sinking down to the Seed to discover the Inward Light there so that this Light (God, the eternal Christ etc.) may “rise” and be spread among people in order to answer that of God in them. The goal is unity, wholeness and peace among people, and thus with God, which is what “salvation” has always meant.
Going Back to the 20th Century
All of which brings me back through my own personal tradition to the 20th century, to 1984. Despite its Orwellian ring, it was the year I entered a Quaker Meeting room for the first time. The contemplative silence I immediately encountered was massively powerful. It shocked me a little but I soon felt bathed in the awesomeness of God and knew very quickly I had come home, home to a people who took prayer seriously. When the Meeting subsided I found myself shaking hands with people next to, behind and in front of me. Someone even came across the “aisle” to do the same. It was a bit strange at first but absolutely brilliant nevertheless. When I look back at this simple sacramental act, so familiar to us all, I think of Luke 17: 20-21 which talks of the “Kingdom” being within and among us. And we can add “around us”, too.
“Really F/friendly”, then, describes the moment well. After tea and bickies I was approached by someone who spoke to me for quite a while, for about an hour in fact. I hadn’t experienced this before in any other church. I felt humbled and privileged for I could see Albert Walker was a person of great dignity and commitment. I can still hear the tender cadences of his voice. It was a sort of melifluous spirituality I was hearing. It covered me with its graces and came through his experiences of being a coalminer in Nottingham, a peace activist in Australia and his profound Christian theology—a Quaker Christian theology; there’s a BIG difference between it and the mainline Church variety.
Albert was a “Kingdom” person—loving, thoughtful, kind and open to the Spirit. I needed someone like him that day. He was the miracle I got, a wonderful prayerful miracle. Our time together was indeed worship and prayer, God-in-Action, God-as-Presence. There was something palpably honest and eternal about our Meeting for Two. But, then, Albert was that kind of Friend.
Not long after he went home, I was in the library scanning the shelves when a much older Friend stopped by me also on her way home. “Who have we here?”, Dorothy Gibbon asked in a quiet, reassuring voice. I could see she was another very loving person. I introduced myself and after a few brief moments of silence she said, “You’ll be back!” She, too, was a Christian in the Quaker mould. I can still see her rising slowly in Meeting and asking us all to say the Lord’s Prayer together: “And let’s say it slowly, Friends.” The gathered outcome was equally One-derful and tremendously uniting.
A Better State
I suppose the overall point I want to make is that, compared to the spiritual experience and practice of Albert and Dorothy, and the many like them who are also people of deep and active prayer, atheism (including the writings of Boulton and Cupitt) misses the point. To use Isaac Penington’s words, there is “a better state”, a more colourful, adventurous and fruitful path to take for avoiding spiritual angst. Robert Frost in his The Road Not Taken, famously advised (and, by implication, warned):
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Poetry helps my prayer-life as do the great sages and the experiences of the early Friends, even their negative ones. Consider, for instance, the way they divorced themselves from the wisdom of potential allies travelling with the same universal Light, contemporaries such as François de Sales and Jeanne–Françoise de Chantal who were saying essentially the same things and doing more in the world like mediating wars and ministering to the sick and dying. Such people were dismissed out of hand because they were “papists”.
God as Personal (though not a person)
For those of us who try our faltering best to understand and practice prayer, God can only be personal, transcendent and immanent—thorny issues within nontheism since, as we’ve seen, it discounts the idea of a transcendent Being. For me, Jesus hit the nail on the head by experiencing Yahweh as “Abbā”. In Aramaic it means “father” and can apparently be interchanged with Imma. This Abbā-Imma, the quintessence of wholeness, was especially personal by being ever-loving, when suffering with people, and working with and through them to spread the peaceable “Kingdom” which I usually call “the Way”.
For Jesus, Abbā-Imma was within, among and around all people, nearer to them than their breadth and thus very different from the then Judaic understanding of a holy but distant Other. Abbā-Imma represented and presaged a revolutionary view of God whose love still burns and turns the world upside down. We can “see” Abbā-Imma—that is to say, unconditional and unlimited Divine Love—in Jesus’ story of the prodigal son. Here Abbā-Imma is the Presence-in-abundance and is personified by the ever-loving parent who wraps a gown of compassion around us all. The scene is beautifully depicted in Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son in which the hands of Abbā-Imma are male and female—two natures of God: Albert and Dorothy.
Atheism and nontheism? Thanks but no thanks. I guess I’m just the religious sort and I’m very glad the majority of Friends are, too. May the majority grow! And, speaking personally, I don’t need dragging into the 21st century because my Inward Light, the same Light as in everybody else, traverses all time.
 See Murgatroyd, L., “Beliefs and Religious Language”, The Friend 173, 13 (27 March, 2015), p. 12
Friends have asked me a few times about the Sermon on the Mount and the question of divorce. Jesus’ so-called “injunction” against divorce (if indeed he uttered it) is absolute in Luke 16: 18 and relative to some degree in Matthew 5: 32. However, like Jesus and the Gospels themselves, this question needs contextualising. Divorce in those days meant women could be openly humiliated, denied their children and excommunicated from their families, and physically attacked in very nasty ways. Thrown onto the social heap, therefore, they were forced to earn a living perhaps through prostitution. They could end up as abused slaves or huddled in caves forever hungry and riddled with diseases like leprosy. The Gospel Jesus was a man of compassion and common sense, and, utterly incredible for the times, in solidarity with women.