Quakers and God

Do British Quakers believe in God? What might that mean?

Ours is an experiential faith. We have spiritual experiences which we share. They start as peak experiences, a moment of wonder, and become integrated into our daily lives. We develop language to communicate them to each other, and it appears they are similar for each person. They include a sense of presence in the moment when all the senses are heightened; a sense of the unity of all that is, and of being my own part of it; and a sense of being suffused by love, which some might call the love of God.

Then there are the spiritual experiences we have together. We know of the gathered meeting, where we are together in our spiritual experience, and of unity, where we come together to know what is right, what some call God’s loving purposes. Our worship is not meditation, but a common endeavour. It’s not like sitting in a waiting room. We know we may sometimes feel “angry, depressed, tired or spiritually cold”, but the effort of- whatever it is that we do, in worship- is worthwhile.

If you attend Quaker Quest meetings, you will have heard the phrase “for me”, for Quakers have all sorts of opinions, and a wide range of disagreement, and I have the temerity here to speak “for us”. We share practices with quite complex rules, and experiences. Then we ask what is behind them, and disagree wildly.

Some of us believe in God almost as in the creed, or in the Christian concept of the trinity, or different ideas of God. Some of us, like me, are materialists. I believe I am an evolved creature in a random universe. I don’t know how life could come to be through non-living chemical processes but I believe that is in principle knowable. I don’t think consciousness is in itself spiritual, but a manifestation of the mammalian brain.

Our understandings of God are not hypotheses in the scientific sense, capable of making predictions or being proved wrong by evidence, but stories. They are stories created by some of the finest human minds, addressing common spiritual experiences, progressing from a God who demanded Abraham’s son as a sacrifice to a God who offered God’s own son to die for us.

It is my perception that British Quakers squabble less than we did over these beliefs. Some of us argued it was ridiculous for someone who did not believe in God to belong to a Religious Society. My Friend answered that: “The question is not why we join a religious society, but why we stay”. Now we find language to share the spiritual experiences, and I feel the explanations behind them- God, psychology, or Don’t Know, seem less important.

I was baptised Anglican, grew up reciting the creed without a qualm, and around 2009 slowly realised I no longer believed in that way. It felt like a great loss, and I was in slowly reducing denial for months. Just after I admitted to myself I do not believe in God I was broken open by a residential personal growth course. I went into a church as a tourist, to see the art, and a sense of its holiness brought me to my knees.

This was a difficult experience to fit into my understanding. I say: “I am inconsistent. I could only be consistent if I were inerrant”. I say, “I am rationally atheist and emotionally theist. I have a strong emotional relationship with the God I do not believe in.” I read philosophical ideas of how well humans might see the world as it really is- not well, it seems.

I know that unconscious processes in me can form poetry, so that it seems to come to me by inspiration. My being, this process taking in food, water, oxygen and ideas, is capable of more than I consciously understand, and it is tempting to call all that is greater than my own consciousness God. Quakers have talked of “that of God” in each person since the 1650s. Or I should abandon the word, because it means such different things to different people. Or I could use the word “God” honestly to talk with someone who believes in the Trinity, because we both mean things we cannot know.

In Quaker worship you may see the Living God. Insofar as those words can have meaning, I know they are true.

13 thoughts on “Quakers and God

  1. In the discussion following meeting for worship last week, the topic turned to what it is that Quakers can agree on. As one gentleman quipped, “The only thing Quakers need to be in agreement on is the place and time for Meeting for Worship”. Yet despite our wide spectrum of religious understanding, there is a surprising amount of unity in how our various beliefs are expressed.

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  2. I really appreciated reading your experiential theology. As Quakers – at least in Ottawa Monthly Meeting here in Canada – we seldom talk about this. And this hesitancy gets us into trouble. Most recently I was the cause of it in a careless story I told to a very Christocentric Friend over coffee time after Meeting in pre-pandemic days. I will never do that again. The one time I remember talking about my theology was when I met with my Committee for Clearness for Membership back in the States – in Downers Grove Friends Meeting in Illinois in late 1966. I was asked – as I remember it – what my own beliefs were. When the members of my committee heard these and (probably) saw me as a universalistic Quaker, they asked me one question: “If someone got up in Meeting for Worship and gave a really strong Christocentric message, how would you react?” I responded that I would try to understand the feelings of the person who gave that message and would try to translate that into terms that I could receive with love. I guess that was good enough for them, because I was accepted into membership. We in Ottawa Meeting recently held a Worship Sharing/Claremont Dialogue after Meeting for Worship on one of the Queries. I wonder what would happen if we had on Advices and Queries 102.4 of Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting: “4. The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the lie and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action. Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?”

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    • Welcome, Friend. Thank you for commenting.

      In Britain, we have had a great deal of work reconciling what have sometimes been seen as two “sides”- Christocentric or Universalist, or Non-theist and- I am not sure people agreed any particular name. We took that particular paragraph as inspiration: both “open to new light” and “rooted in Christianity”.

      I had not heard worship sharing called “Claremont Dialogue”, and that led me to this account of its use in contemplative pedagogy, and a record of its development.

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  3. This post had me tearing up at several points.
    “I went into a church as a tourist, to see the art, and a sense of its holiness brought me to my knees.”
    I’ve rarely heard testimony so beautiful among Friends.

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    • I rarely discuss God with Friends because the argumentative, wordy, “head” approach so many take is exhausting for me. I think the worship sharing approach is so much more helpful as a way of expressing our personal truth and being heard. And this you have done.

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      • There has been a huge amount of work on modelling a better way. Rhiannon Grant has been at the heart of it. I have been on both sides, and often argumentatively- “why are they in our religious society?” And a better way has emerged. Rhiannon also said somewhere that any definition of Quakers, any boundary drawn around us, makes her think how she might be on the outside.

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        • I am definitely on the edge. It used to upset me but now I see myself as Quaker in my core but part of the wider world. Enriched by both and with potential for enriching each.
          I once heard a permaculturist say that the most productive areas of a bed are the edges. It struck me as having a profound spiritual significance.

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  4. I enjoyed this post very much. I am Friend who does believe in Christ Jesus. When I say believe, or have faith in Christ, what I am really talking about is having trust in His voice. Trust is that if he speaks to me, I will do what he asks. To do so, however, I must let go. Let go of my ego, let go of the things that are really poisoning me, that are making it hard to hear his voice. In the end I know I must give over everything and yet the reward is so much more exciting. Christ teaches us what this might look like for each of us, experimentally. The scriptures are a help, as they were written by others who listened to Christ. But we cannot use them as a rule, but instead as a record of what it was for other faithful people in another time. Very helpful. But what will we do now, if we listen to Christ? Of course Christ could be a different name for someone else, or there could be no name, and that person could still be following that same voice. It is real to me. I also have Mi’kmaq heritage, so I try to be embracing, not negative. So when I read early Friends’ writings, which are all about Christ, I can say, I embrace this, this is truth. They are describing reality. By negative, I mean, I have a had many liberal Friends try to attack my faith, and to coerce me into giving up my faith. They didn’t really understand what they were doing, but it was incredibly distressing for me and hurtful. I have a hard time feeling safe around liberal Friends now. In my experience they do talk about beliefs all the time, but always in a negative way. In a way that seems to say they are superior to Christians, Jews, Muslims and others. In a way that says they are so much more “evolved.” Anything I say can and will be used against me. I remember I once said “Christ is speaking to us” and an old timer liberal Friend responded “one must never define what the divine is for others.” This is the kind of superior attitude which I speak of. But today I have found a wonderful Quaker community where I am with others who I feel safe around and who love me, and all I can do is praise the Lord for that! They are a community of Conservative Friends. Conservative does not mean socially or politically, but is instead about preserving Friends traditional beliefs and ways. And those beliefs are so full of freedom and life. Not stuck in the past at all. I am grateful that there are many different Friends voices out there, and I hope that one day we will be able to come together in positivity and not the negativity that occurs now. I wonder sometimes if the schisms that occurred within the Quaker movement are a cause of all the horrible actions Quakers later took, like the genocidal Indian Boarding Schools that Quakers were such strong advocates for. If we only had held together, I think someone would have said, this is not right, there is something much better that we could do.

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    • Thankyou, David for your openness and honesty. I too experience something/someone of this kind. I wouldn’t say I “believe” in anything but I understand from my reading and talking to others that this is the same presence and inspiration that they call Christ, even if I don’t describe it to myself in those terms as yet.
      I’m glad you’re being held by a Meeting that understands.

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      • Someone on facebook asked, Why might a materialist want to go to worship? What might I want to worship, or to open myself to? Possibly

        The Truth. The full beauty of it, the mystic whole of it. It includes my whole beauty and value, and that of every thing that is.

        The Spirit- the power of humanity to get ever closer to the Truth. Love, which brings us together and empowers us.

        The All, which is sometimes used as a name for God.

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