Presenting the work of Quaker atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who practice Quakerism without supernatural beliefs

Accepting the Challenge of Non-theism

John Cowan Second Month 2014

This has been a journey.

The journey began with my increasing discomfort at the presence of non-theists in my monthly meeting, Twin City Friends, located in St.Paul, Minnesota. These non-theists were not only Quakers, but some of our most beloved members, constant attenders, holding responsible positions. I have only been attending a decade, a member for half that time, and as I during my first two years peppered the meeting’s website with penetrating questions and cries of distress at the odd and annoying behavior of my fellow participants. I was met consistently with wisdom, patience and sometimes humor by the person who had been assigned the daunting task of novice master. I discovered in time that this was not a pastoral position but my guru was the webmaster responding not as an expected function of the job but because he was there. And although a bona fide Quaker, he was the leader of an interest group called: Quakers without God. Thus I was introduced to Quaker non-theists.

My reason for concern was that this group of people were not being incorporated into the meeting because their belief system fit the nature of Quakerism, but because they were likeable, active, and good people, and because they wanted to belong. I never did anything about this, learning by casual inquiry of other theistic Friends that I was a minority of perhaps one in any willingness to discuss who belongs and who does not. It did not take long for the good sense of avoiding that discussion to come clear to me also.

My sticking point was neither an absence of friendship or a disrespect for the desires of others but: How do people who are worshiping a personal God, people who believe in the supernatural, worship with people who do not believe in a personal God. How can non-theists even worship? Ignoring this question as unimportant seems to me disrespectful, first of all to the non-theists who I assume are taking a principled stand, and deserved to be heard for that stand, and second of all to theists who after all came to this meeting to join a group of God worshippers, or at least I did. The quote inside our front door from Philadelphia Faith and Practice says we are seeking awareness of the presence of God. But we have some members who seem to think that not possible.

Despite the reluctance to in any way alienate anyone, there was support for simply bringing the issue of our belief to the surface, talking about it some, both among theists and non-theists. We have begun that.

During a round of email exchanges among some of the important people in my life, one person reported that he was a theist because he experienced being guided through life whenever he was willing to listen for guidance. And I thought, “That’s me too!”

The voice inside has directed me since childhood, often by a quiet baseless conviction arising from nowhere, often through the voices of others, sometimes in dreams, a couple of times by what seems a real voice in my ear, and three times by a fleeting vision. When following that guidance I am often pleasantly startled by the synchronicity of support and opportunity arising from odd places, as if my canoe has been directed from the eddies into the current.

Beyond that I have since the 1950’s been convinced of the general accuracy of Teilhard d’ Chardin’s , (the Jesuit paleontologist) vision of the cosmos under God’s direction hurrying (over eons) towards consciousness. Since then, despite the horrors we humans have created, I have seen evidence that we move persistently toward the good. I attribute that consistent movement to guidance, and assume a source for that guidance, which most of the time I call God.

In summary, I have been guided personally, and I have seen in history the guidance of the human race.

One of our non-theists, explaining non-theism to a visitor, said that non-theists were people who unlike theists did not believe in an angry God, judging people, and sending them to hell. Since she is a justly revered and ancient person among us and these after all were visitors not looking to participate in a local quarrel, I waited until later to send her an email pointing out that I was a theist and knew hundreds of theists and while I am sure some theists fit her definition of a theist, it did not fit me nor did it fit anyone I knew personally. But that got me thinking.

First, that if you define yourself as “not this group” you are tied to the other group’s definition of what they are for your definition of who you are. The definition of theism I learned seventy years ago has moved considerably and diversified. The “angry God” which is a fair enough description of the God of 1940’s Catholicism and the “Ground of Being” or the accidental God of process philosophy, or the God of Liberation Theology, or the God of Creation Theology are dissimilar to say the least. Yet, they are all persons, and therefore all theistic Gods. When I hear the word non-theist, I assume the speaker is opposed to my latest version of God. That may not be so. And she may think that the God she is denying is the God I am affirming. In this case at least, not so.

The second thought was what are the odds that a person such as I who has spent decades accepting huge hunks of Buddhism, the Vedas, Navajo spirituality, and a small shot of Wicca still is a theist? I realized that I may have stretched the definition of theism beyond that already extended by theologians simply to keep myself in the boundaries. If I am fair to the expressed if ill defined stretching, should I not be outside it? Am I a non-theist? Is Brahman, one of my model Gods, a theist’s God?

During this process I was in regular correspondence with Howard Vogel on this topic. He is a respected friend from the meeting and our dialogue is intense enough that he almost deserves co-authorship of this essay. (If I could write calmly from an objective viewpoint he would have that title.) He pushed upon me two books.

One was Godless for God’s Sake: Nontheism in Contemporary Quakerism. It was helpful in that it made me aware there might not be a coherent position to be found among non-theists. (Please remember that I have already admitted to the absence of a coherent position among theists.) Also I was alerted by this book to the fact that non-theists have been Quakers from the beginning. And at least in surveys taken in Britain, Friends tend towards non-theist positions much more than followers of other religions. So despite the signs on the wall at my Meeting, these Friends are not newcomers.

The other book, Atheism: A Guide for the Perplexed, by Kerry Walters I also found helpful. Non-theism and atheism are not the same, but at least here I find a systematic presentation of the difference between theism and a long term defined movement that has been defended by eminent philosophers over the ages and by an author determined to treat all arguments with respect never displaying which position he might hold. (I had him figured as a well-mannered atheist, until I googled him and found him an Episcopal priest.)

I realized that I felt neither supported nor attacked in my belief by anything that was said in hundreds of pages. The God the author both attacked and supported in descriptions, explanations and arguments was a complex of attributes and the God I now realized I pledged fealty to was simply the source of my experience of guidance both in my life and in the whirling of the planet. Behind the experience must be something providing direction and since the act of guiding presumes intelligence the guide deserves the distinction of being called a “person” although in all probability the guide is not a bit like any person I have ever met. I will never know the guide as person. I only experience the effect, guidance.

The God we have been disagreeing about may not be my God at all.

At this point in our dialogue, Howard dropped me an email challenging the usefulness of clinging to the idea of the supernatural. I had just finished reading a short web essay entitled “Awakening Sight” by David Ulrich. As a young man he lost his right eye. He thought that would be the end of his career as a photographer. You lose an eye, you should see less. Is that not correct?

Nevertheless, he struggled to see as well with one eye as he had seen with two. He found that with attention he now saw more. He could “see” where in his body colors affected him. He could feel colors. He could “see” what other people were feeling. He could “see” that something was on his right side in a place that his left eye could not see. He could see things that the rest of us could see also if we were but to pay attention. Well, pay very close attention.

I experimented with blinding one eye by dropping the category called the “supernatural.” As I look at reality without the supernatural, creation is a whole and guidance is a fact of creation built into the system. The guide may have a separate existence outside of creation, that I do not know, but the guide exists in creation in its effect, guidance, and that I can access simply through paying attention, very deep attention to baseless convictions, the voices of others, dreams, voices in my ear, visions. In other words, Quaker Worship, in the Meeting and out.

I now present the theism, non-theist conversation differently. The first issue is can you hear the guidance. I say it is a matter of attention. I say, along with centuries of others, that I can hear it. Can you? Second, do you think there is a guide, and if so, how do you name the guide. This is a theoretical question. I would do nothing differently, if I answered it differently. I think there is a guide. It seems reasonable.

If you cannot hear the guidance, I cannot bend to your reality for I have heard it. But I cannot ask you who have not heard guidance to trust me that the voice is there. If you hear the guidance but attribute it to another source than a guide, I cannot argue. A personal guide seems reasonable to me. But maybe you are correct. I have no idea how I or you can run an experiment on this. (Note here that I am not talking about belief. Since I belong to an experimental religion I am not embarrassed to not rely on belief.)

So am I a theist or a non-theist? Although my reasonable supposition of a personal guide probably makes me a theist the designation makes little pragmatic difference. And am I concerned any longer about non-theists in the Monthly Meeting? About the same as I am about some theists. All I now need when we gather for Worship is that I am surrounded by people willing to exercise the Quaker discipline of silence and surrender as they wait for guidance.

I am indebted to the challenge of non-theism for moving me from a comfortable home base to a clearer and more secure position. My thinking at this point of the journey is:

  1. As far as worshiping together theist and non-theist Quakers have a common ground. We can seek guidance by sitting together in silence and surrender. We may differ on the existence of a guide, or the shape and characteristics of the guide, but that is less of a difference to bridge than the existence and characteristics of a supernatural abstraction, the result of eons of theological tinkering. To worship together does not require resolving this difference. This difference may yet prove to be advantageous in the following of the truth. My conversation with myself on this topic instigated by the presence of non-theists is one example of the advantage.
  2. I have not had to surrender my Quaker history. The ideas expressed are consonant with the language of 17th century Quakers. “The Christ within,” “give up your own willing,” “the inward light,” “the seed.” To refer to “guidance” actually seems to me closer to the rigorous scrubbing of the “inward light” of the 17th century than the gentle presence of “the inner light” of the 21st. I have given “guide” and “guidance” preeminence in my lexicon, but continue to comfortably use the older terms. They are a link to the vision of 1652 that promised the enlightenment of the world, and I am still hoping.
  3. I have removed the supernatural from my lexicon. As Occam’s razor rules: “distinctions are not to be multiplied unnecessarily.” There is one reality.
  4. I now have an elegant theory that describes not what I believe, but what I know from experience.

I have four concerns:

  1. Is this at all helpful to non-theists? Or do my words come off as blathering, arrogant blathering at that? Do non-theists see this approach as a bridge worth crossing? Or have they already crossed it and nobody told me?
  2. It would seem to me that even if we are comfortable seeking guidance together there is a surrender that is central to theists’ seeking that may be incompatible with the philosophy of non-theists. Is that problematic?
  3. How far am I moving away from my theist friends? Will they accept this as useful? Or treason?
  4. Am I by this stance distancing myself from evangelicals beyond hope of a continuing connection? After wondering for years that we unprogrammed Quakers struggled to maintain this connection, I came to realize that the evangelicals have something that we do not. I cannot define it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that they sing. Or more broadly put, that they accept and participate enthusiastically in the myths we have denied. Maybe we should have done that less successfully. Perhaps the cloud of unknowing requires mythology as the closest approximation to understanding for our health and sanity.

So it is a journey. I am still on it. My thinking is as unfinished as the conclusion of this article. Not a period, but a comma.

John Cowan, St. Paul Minnesota, Twin City Friends,


12 responses to “Accepting the Challenge of Non-theism”

  1. James Riemermann Avatar
    James Riemermann


    I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this subject, and particularly the way your thoughts have evolved. Some of my comments will be about the earlier frame of mind you describe in this piece, despite the fact that your frame of mind has changed in some ways.

    To be honest, I was surprised when I began reading and learned of your early “increasing discomfort at the presence of non-theists”. There are a small handful of people at Twin Cities Friends Meeting ( who have expressed such discomfort publicly; I never thought of you as one of them. I knew our perspectives on God questions were different in some significant ways, but I had no idea that had ever been a problem for you. It has never been a problem for me; in fact there are Friends in our meeting whose religious ideas are much further from my own than yours are, with whom I feel completely easy as a coreligionist–as I do with you.

    Basically, I’ve come to disagree, quite vehemently, with the common notion that religions are best described in terms of commonly held religious beliefs. Non-Quaker churches describe themselves that way, but I think that in the real world, that is not primarily what brings people in the door and keeps them coming week after week, year after year. Many stay involved for decades despite very serious disagreements, mostly unvoiced, with the expressed doctrine or dogma or creeds of their churches. They come because of what happens in the church, and the people among whom it happens. They belong to their religion because they show up and take part.

    What distinguishes Quakers (one of many things that distinguish Quakers) from these other churches is not our diversity of belief, but the fact that we sometimes speak about that diversity of belief out loud. Some consider that a weakness; I consider it one of our greatest strengths, as a community and as a religion, that we are able to disagree openly about questions we find important, and still be F/friends together.

    You ask “How can non-theists even worship?” In my early years I would have said, I don’t, and I was a bit perplexed by how much I nonetheless loved meeting for worship. Over time I have gotten comfortable with describing what I do in that meeting as worship, but my ideas of what that word can mean have evolved considerably. I no longer think of worship as an exclusively transitive verb. A Friend can worship God, or simply worship, in the same way a person can listen to the wind in the trees, or simply listen, with no particular object of that worship or listening. I see it primarly as a way of being especially attentive, not to one thing but to whatever is there, inside and out.

    I am delighted that you are for “simply bringing the issue of our belief to the surface, talking about it some, both among theists and non-theists.” I have been doing that, in fact thinking of it as central to my role in our meeting, for a very long time. I began Quakers without God not to separate that group, but to make us visible and allow a more honest and conscious integration than had previously been the case. I don’t mean to take more responsibility for that work than I deserve, but it is no accident that these conversations are taking place more often and more deeply than they used to.

    For that and other reasons, my response to your first concern is, yes, your words and your perspective is quite helpful. I find our common humanity a sufficient bridge between us, along my experiential knowledge, not belief, that you and I can be in religious community and care for one another genuinely and with great depth. I doubt many things, but I do not doubt our friendship.

    I probably agree that there is guidance to be heard; I probably disagree as to where that guidance comes from. I believe in a deep, powerful and active unconscious in every person, completely naturalistic and in no way supernatural, which has guided humans for a very long time. I believe that unconscious draws on everything we have ever experienced individually, and a good deal of what our species has experienced for millions of years. I prefer spiritual metaphors of depth over metaphors of height, metaphors of inwardness over metaphors of outwardness. But I think they are all metaphors.

    I believe there are a great many mysterious voices within, and we need to use our intelligence and compassion and community discernment to figure out which voices to honor and which to challenge and possibly reject. Our worship, our attentiveness, helps us to do that. But I don’t think I can envision it as a surrender, as you apparently do. I think we also have to think critically, to try to poke holes in our “guidance” to get a sense of how solid and wise it is. It is easy to make mistakes.

    Your friend,


  2. Thank you, John Cowan, for this wonderful exposition of your experience and process with Quaker theism and nontheism.

    Most all religious people seem to have a story of their unfolding belief and how they have grown in their religious and spiritual lives. This has taught me that in a person’s life beliefs change. Some of what we may have believed decades ago has been discarded and new views of reality or truth have come into focus. I long ago concluded that this was a natural process for open minded people and it made sense to embrace the notion that this process is unending and will influence us as we grow yet older. So I have become quite confident (like James and others) that “belief” is most certainly not the foundation of religion even as many would assert the contrary.

    Like you, I have had a number of experiences in my life that I could not readily explain. I am aware that for many others unexplainable positive experiences are attributed to God, but for me this is too great a leap. I am aware enough of human history to know that many events and experiences that once were thought to most certainly be the handiwork of God have been conclusively shown to be natural and predictable processes both in the world at large and in our brains and personal experience.

    I do not begrudge others who are inclined to attribute the unexplained to God. I full-well understand that (especially) some internal perceptions are powerfully experienced as “being led” by a benign and loving presence, and if the result of that experience supports a loving, compassionate, and generous person, then I can only rejoice at the good fortune for us all. In our secular and religious communities we need to accept that each of us is an experiencing being and that it is no insult to any of us that others will have a different sense of attribution to an experience surrounding a mystery. In particular, theists and nontheists can respect one another even as we might disagree on some currently unknowable causality.

    I have been a Friend for 50 years and count myself as very lucky to have stumbled upon Quakers from my traditional mainline Christian upbringing. Liberal Quakerism suits me to a tee. I so enjoy being in community with Friends who are committed to an openness to guidance as perceived within and tested by a time honed process. I love being associated with people who are open to “continuing revelation” as an underlying tenet of truth. (Beliefs change!) It is marvelous to be held accountable to our consciences and best lights by a wonderful history of our traditional testimonies. And I love the notion that a nonthiest can sit in worship and and hone a powerful connecting spirituality by listen carefully to his deepest stirrings while sitting next to his theist friend who is also attending carefully with the same focus even if we may attribute the origins differently. That human difference really does not matter in the end.

    As to your four concerns… Nontheists (like theists) come in all stripes and are at many different places in their journeys. But I would say that a good proportion of Quaker nontheists have already crossed the bridge you describe. We are committed to strengthening the Religious Society of Friends by dealing openly with our differences even as we generally do not find it important to emphasize them.

    As to “surrendering” in worship, I do not think that that language is problematic at all. Every experienced Friend has his or her own language and metaphors for describing the process of “going deep.” Regardless of theist or nontheist orientation, each individual’s worship experience will be different both day to day and over time. Such different worship experiences, while they may be intellectually interesting, are absolutely meaningless if the result is recognized as loving, connecting, or otherwise valuable to the individual and supports him or her within the religious community.

    I would certainly hope that your honest examination of your personal relationship with theism and nontheism would not cause you to be seen as a “traitor” to some unmentioned code. I think that, ultimately, we respect each other for who we are within our communities and not for what we happen to believe at the time.

    Perhaps most vexing is your concern that in open mindedly exploring your personal relationship with your theism and nontheism you will have cut yourself off from continuing a meaningful relationship with evangelicals. Certainly, from your own perspective, this exploration has probably brought you closer such goals, but it may be out of your hands as to whether a closer relationship is welcomed. On the other hand, as in approaching any person or group, it is you that can choose to emphasize or de-emphasize what it is that is important or unimportant. In this light your personal exploration might not make any difference as to whether a more firm relationship can be cemented.

    Kindest regards,

    John Hunter
    Durham Meeting (NC)

  3. Thank-you John.
    I think this article is very helpful to non-theist (and theist) Friends.
    Your question with “a surrender that is central to theists’ seeking that may be incompatible with the philosophy of non-theists. Is that problematic?” I think it may be problematic for some non-theists but certainly not for others.

    the ideas of seeking, surrender and guidance are all of central importance to understanding what we might mean by ‘God’ or ‘not God’.

    Another term is ‘transcendence’ and that is very problematic for non-theists who are ‘super naturalists’ (like Os Cresson, NOT ‘supernaturalists’) ie. it is problematic if you totally deny any possibility of something ‘beyond’ the natural world. If we don’t know what god is then perhaps he/she/it is a power, process or force within the natural world – the very basis of the universe (a creative force perhaps if not a creator).

    I’m a non-theist leaning former atheist who thinks it may be possible that I am mistaken and it may be possible that that the spirit, or the divine presence, or transcendence is a fact and not just a possibility.

    I feel sure that some, theists or not, do (think they) know ‘God’ or transcendence or the light or the spirit or, now you have given me the term guidance and a guide (known only by its effects as guidance). If guidance comes from a ‘place’ then perhaps the guide is a place and not a person?

    I do not know or experience that guide but I attend meeting for worship hopefully and am glad you have been able to resolve your own earlier problems with non-theist Friends. I am sure there are biblical references for the guidance you describe – perhaps the ‘Paraclete’ and Jesus’s injunction not to blaspheme against (or deny) the spirit. I hope my non-theist friends will not deny (at least the possibility of ) the spirit.

    As for Evangelical (Friends) maybe yes you part company at least with ‘non-Friend’ evangelicals but you might find the new publication by the UK Quaker Universalist Group ‘From Christian to Quaker – a spiritual journey from evangelical christian to universalist quaker’ of interest. don’t know if it’s otherwise available in the US.
    In Friendship
    Trevor Bending

  4. My thanks to James, John and Trevor for their kindly, cogent and helpful replies.

    You said or implied what your practice is! I may have missed it in the times I have read about or heard about non-theism, but this is the first time to my knowledge a non-theist has told me what they are doing during meeting for worship.

    You say that you are going deep. You may doubt that that deepness is a way of touching the guiding hand of a personal God. You may have varying degrees of difficulty with the concept of “surrender” to the call from the depths and you may insist on applying a critical judgment to the validity of that which rises, but, so do I. I just do it at a different level. While I hold that that is the guiding hand of God, I recognize that I could be wrong. And while I accept much that arises from my depth, I certainly check to insure that it is not the product of an over-heated imagination.

    My concern about non-theists is not who they are or even what they believe, but in what they practice. To what extent are we doing the same thing? Your descriptions of your practice make me comfortable. Would you ask more non-theist Quakers to describe their practice?

    Now to some other thoughts, none of which alter my new cheerfulness about non-theists. These thoughts while they rise from our conversation could have arisen from other than this Theism/Non-theism discussion.

    James, you are much more comfortable than I with the fact, which I acknowledge as fact, that people join religions for reasons other than belief. Since I consider belief to be conjecture that does not bother me. But to translate a wee, they join religions for other than the practice. I think that in that process they diminish the religion.

    In the second and third centuries many Christians entered the early movement of Jesus to find a safe home in a perilous world without safety nets. The church made a great safety net. Take care of others when you had your act together and if your world fell apart the church would take care of you. But when faced with the spare teachings of Jesus these people lobbied and voted for more ritual and more belief, taking their old practices and beliefs, shifting a few words, and creating a Christianity that the Christ would not recognize. They were not there to follow Jesus, they were there for financial protection. They did not want their Jesus to remain crucified; they wanted him resurrected. (There was a long period in early Christianity when the cross disappeared from sculptures and friezes.)

    Because of our kindly approach to all who want to come through the door, and our broad acceptance of alternate beliefs and practices we risk being pulled apart by incompatible motivations. We have hints at Twin City Friends Meeting of where the breaks may come: Christians are frightened to speak of their Christianity for fear of offending the minority. A member attends Quakerism 101 and says he will walk out if Theism is taught. The First Day School stews over how to present or if to present topics like the bible for fear that the child atheist will be upset. I have my own personal non-theist heckler who, immediately after I have spoken, enjoys rising to contradict me usually on issues where what I have said echoes the founders of Quakerism.

    In the long run the kindly strategy of openness to all may very well make TCFM a place where I and those like me who need to hear other voices speaking from the depths cannot worship. That is my fear. Those who think the gate to Quaker status, whether those who wish to join, or those who allow them to join, should swing casually open do not know what they do. They take us down a path they do not intend.

    John, you mistake my concern about Evangelicals and as I read what I wrote there is good reason for that. I misled you. My concern, not exactly what I said, is that by distancing myself from Evangelicals, I am leaving behind a vital, living, breathing, bleeding reality that our silent service and our unemotional approach cannot replace.

    I am disconnecting myself from the God of my grandmother whose Jesus was displayed just to the right of her bible-reading chair in a huge portrait standing on the back of a boat, calming the stormy waters for his frightened disciples. Since my life of calm in frightening circumstances is rooted in that picture, despite my denying the metaphysical reality it portrays, further disconnection is a risky business.

    As a pleasant result of our conversation I now have two discs in my car’s CD player which contain fifty gospel songs as sung by George Beverley Shea, Billy Graham’s soloist. When I get in the car I punch one up. I do not believe with Shea and Graham that it is Jesus who walks with me and talks with me but someone does walk with me and talk with me. I know because I hear him. It makes me feel very good to be reminded of that.

    Not very rational is it?

    But then George Fox once quite rationally discussed the heck out of his religious plight and only came to peace when an interior voice informed him that “there is one, even Jesus Christ, who can speak to thy condition.” He went on to follow that voice. Not rational either. Even less rational than I. History is replete with examples of people who gave up on the mind as a solution to life and emerged into the Kingdom of God.

    The heart has its own intelligence.

    Thank you for allowing me to join your dialogue.

  5. John,

    I have just been directed to your posting by a fellow Quaker in our discussion group on non-theism, and hasten to let you know that I am a passionate activist for the Divine Guidance cause (see my Web).

    One perhaps difference in our perceptions of reality: you see one reality and I see two (but my two are joined into one). My realities fit perfectly the Yin-Yang symbol. The white portion is our perceptual reality, that which enters our consciousness from our five senses. Our reactions to this reality govern most of our behavior. The black portion of the yin-yang symbol I call the Unseen Reality. It is the very real universe of energy fields in which we are immersed, fields that include a love energy and divine guidance energy yet to be identified by science, but unquestionably real as could be proven by anecdotal evidence such as you and I have experienced in our lives.

    I am in the process of planning a mega-activism project that would use scientific methods of conducting studies to collect credible anecdotal evidence from huge populations of people like you and me. I believe that digital technology makes such studies possible for the first time in human history. I also believe that such studies would provide overwhelming evidence that Divine Guidance is a reality. And my hope is that such evidence may help others to embrace this reality and prompt them into the practice regimens that can bring the reality into their lives. In short, I believe that enhancing public awareness of the reality in which we live can lead us away from the myths, misconceptions, and partial conceptions of theism that have kept us locked in negative behaviors toward each other and toward ourselves — and away from the joy of an enlightened life.

    Doron Antrim

  6. The following was written for a Friend who is puzzling over the same problem. (Excuse my use of the word “problem,” I spent many years working with engineers and have an engineer’s personality. We like problems and see life as problems to solve, and a life devoid of problems we would find empty.) I thought it might be helpful, so if James concurs that it is helpful here it is:

    I would say that all I can know experientially is that on occasion I am driven by something much deeper than my rational self. This seems to me something that transcends, penetrates from outside, my boundaries. While I can worship with someone who hears the deeper guidance but attributes it to say the unconscious since both of us are listening to the voice, I cannot readily account for the novelty of the direction if it comes from a source bounded by the boundaries of my “self.” This does not mean I am correct in my take on the situation and they are incorrect, that I cannot know experientially. And as to listening to their reports of their voice, while I think they are mistaken in the source, the voice is the voice, and worthy of being heard. I hope they do me the courtesy of allowing, although they consider me a wee deranged, my words to penetrate their boundaries.

    As to worshiping with someone who is working from the rational only, I think that weakens the groups worship, and such rationality comes both from theists and non-theists. I quote a query i read recently, “Did your words come from the Spirit, or from NPR?”

  7. John, I just want to take a moment to appreciate your post. I think that this is a struggle that many Friends face in the 21st century, especially because of the non-creedal nature of Quakers. There are so many different ways to be Quaker today, many more than could have been conceived by George Fox several hundred years ago. However, while I entirely validate your questions of whether or not non-theists really “belong” in you meeting, I wonder if the theist friends you worship with are all worshiping the same God you are? You did talk about this a little throughout your blog, but I think it’s an important idea to explore. A professor of mine always says “the water always tastes of the pipes,” and I think that translates well to the manifestation of God being a little different in all of us, even those among us who give God no name at all.

    1. Glynnis,

      Well that gives me something to think about!

  8. Judging from the dates of the many postings on this website, I seriously doubt that my response will be read, but I will leave one anyway. As I read this very interesting post and the subsequent comments, I could not help wondering where your personal journeys have taken you over the past three years. If anyone is currently monitoring this website, I would like to simply offer the following.

    Karl Jung viewed the “Guide: as our collective unconscious. De Chardin presented us with the concept of the noosphere, a field of consciousness enveloping our planet. I tend to believe that these ideas probably reflect a subtle truth that we have not yet discovered and, therefore, do not currently understand. Thankfully, courageous researchers are developing innovative techniques to scientifically examine aspects of reality that are primarily subjective.

    I suspect that eventually we will discover that natural fields of energy connect us and influence us in ways that were traditionally perceived as God. Therefore, I have absolutely no problem with our Quaker expressions about ‘Spirit’, the ‘Light’, or ‘worship’. These are merely transcendence-inferring labels for what I believe are genuine natural aspects of our common human experiences.
    I would encourage visiting the following websites.

    Institute of Noetic Sciences(IONS)

    Greater Good Science Center U.C. Berkeley

    Rick Brice
    Clearwater Friends Meeting, Florida

  9. Thank-you Rick. You were wrong about no-one (other than James the moderator) reading your comment but right that visits here are somewhat infrequent!
    I got here today by following a link in the RSS feed on (the non-theists website for Quakers in Britain which I maintain) when I was browsing, musing (on updates) and thought the link to John Cowan’s original post here looked interesting – 4 years after the event!
    I was surprised to discover that I had read it before and even commented myself (almost 4 years ago – see above).
    I have some sympathy for and some reservations about your view – you may very well be right. But Teilhard de Chardin was a bit what Prof Brian Cox (English – Manchester – physicist and TV presenter) might call ‘woo-woo’. (Cox is well known for his atheist views but very ‘enthusiastic’ – filled with God?).
    I think I should draw attention to this original post on the UK NFN website.
    It is interesting to re-visit words of wisdom again and again.
    The Greater Good Science Center website looks rather ‘dalai-lama-ish’ – Buddhism often characterised as ‘atheist’, but is he? (sic).

    ‘Clearwater’ to me concatenates with ‘Credence revival’. An American group (very good) purporting to be such (were they pretenders?) performed at the Great British Folk Festival, Butlin’s Skegness in December 2017 – I was there!
    I wonder what ‘credence’ was being revived and whether in Clearwater? I will have a look at your blog Rick.
    In friendship

  10. So here am I also fearing I’ve entered a ghost town of a website, there being quite a few of those around. I come as someone who was introduced to just enough Christianity at an early age to have generated a very idiosyncratic version of it, which I later (but still in childhood) discarded as gilding the lily.

    But life has a way of challenging our assumptions and also raising to view other assumptions we may not have been aware of making. In the course of such difficult passages I became aware that happiness and insight are gifts not of our own manufacture. Also that there is wisdom on board but not at the ready disposal of my conscious mind. In silence there can come understanding. With our conscious minds we seek to apprehend and possess, and the methods of science have been hugely successful where empirical matters are concerned. But to make headway in existential matters, sometimes surrender is the more productive path.

    1. Seems the ebb and flow of thought on this “theism” discussion appears to attenuate over the expanse of time.

      Should it?

      I’m unsure that existentialism, surrender, or consciousness has anything to do with reality?

      Perhaps, its more about what “we” fear what might the be consequence rather than the reality.

      Too much is weighed on the influence of “human experience”. Or, the spiritual experience.

      De Chardin once asked if we could distinguish between the spirituality of the human being ‘experience’ of reality or a spirit being experiencing the human condition. (E. G. are ‘humans’ having a spiritual or a spiritual being having a human experience?)

      Its seems, to me, as a generally reception by and large of people that there is a ‘3rd-rail’ reaction.

      Regardless… either experience remains an inappropriate/disproportionate response to the actual reality? Or is reality wholly malleable to human will (or exceptions of an outcome)?

      Aristotelian logic bounds legacy public reason to (Roman/Medieval) awareness that the mischief of reality is… not bound to anything else being “else being equal”. (Cæteris paribus)

      Indeterminism (Uncertainty Principle) requires much more faith and hope than the binary polemic left to ‘us’ by Aristotle to reconcile with?

      ‘Final answer’ should be an absurd expectation. (Regardless of its TV entertainment influence.)

      After all- how can the ‘omniscient’ being be so circumstrained by the finiteness of a homo sapiens’ experience… or of any (or all) Cro-Magnon experience?

      Proto beings are but one possible route of mankind’s awareness.

      Evolution isn’t the exclusive domain for Terrestrial life, human experience, or even the “chosen”.

      Communication by a collective experience(s) is anathema to Anglo-Saxonism.

      But is that a problem for Anglo-Saxonism? Or the lone Individualism cherished by paternal/familial/ancestratl artifacts?

      Something “larger” than … our selves, our culture(s), our singularity, – requiring more than the collective recline upon ‘faith, hope, & love’ or other ecstatic experience(s).

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