Quaker Universalist Conversations


I had an opening early this morning, the sort of opening which I experience as remembering something I already knew.

Intellect brings human beings to the doorway of awareness and leaves them there.
I suppose my brain was riffing on another saying I don’t remember clearly, something about bringing people to the feet of Jesus and leaving them there.

What this opening showed me was this:

Human beings tend to miss out on most of their own experience, because they try to put it into words.
Our Meeting is working on a “How We Worship” handout to ease visitors into the weirdness of Quaker worship. To give visitors a context, I proposed adding a brief historical note.  I opened with this:
Quakerism began in England in the 17th century as a radical form of Christianity which placed the direct experience of Jesus, the Christ, above formal doctrines or biblical authority.
After contrasting the 19th century revivalist movement, which led some Quakers toward a more traditionally Protestant, bible-based Christianity, with the effort of others to retain the radical Christianity of their ancestors, I wrote this sentence:
Still others have become more “universalist,” perhaps seeing Jesus either as the Christ or as a human guide and teacher, yet also sharing worship and community with people of other religious and non-religious moral paths.
I had intended religious to refer to folks whose faiths are theist or non-theist and non-religious, to folks whose faiths are secular—that is, morally centered yet humanist rather than spiritual.

Yet one Friend stumbled over the term non-religious, and other Friends seemed not to grasp the reason for her distress. 

For her, non-religious meant “without any (communally held) beliefs.”  If some of us do not believe in a spirit, she wrote, how can we worship and discern mutual leadings together?

“I have never suggested….” she wrote, “that we create a set of beliefs to adhere to, but there has to be some basic belief that there is a spirit we are waiting in silence for….  How can we worship as a GROUP if some do not worship?  How we worship is the details, and the details [are] what I thought we discerned through the Spirit/God speaking through us. What we worship is our core.”

"The Presence in the Midst" - J. Doyle Penrose, 1916

“The Presence in the Midst” – J. Doyle Penrose, 1916
from You Know this Painting? on Walking the Sea

I’m wondering how other Friends, other Meetings, deal with this dilemma.

How do theist, non-theist and humanist Quakers worship and discern together? What do we experience, individually and collectively, that we can recognize as gatheredness or as communal leadings?


Doesn't it depend on what you mean by 'spirit' and how you conceive of such a thing? For me there is something that I might call God that humanity is a part of but not separate from, so I do not conceive of worship as something given to an entity separate from humanity but as an attempt to connect with that which is most intrinsic in creation, the ground of all our beings.
Spirit, religious, and non-religious are charged words. They are, for the most part, the language of a religious or philosophical system. If we strip the religious connotation from Spirit, we have a wisdom that is not swayed by the petty dictates of a selfish ego. When freed from limitations posed by endless attachments or aversions to things, experiences, thoughts, emotions, the past or the future, we have access to wisdom and a state of well being that the religious call Spirit. It may not be easy to attain, either for the religious or secular, but once realized, is seen to be our truest and most real self. This is what we seek to realize when we sit in silence for worship. This is what joins Quakers together, whether Christian, other religious, secular or atheist. Words, unfortuneately, are limiting and often create tunnel vision for something broader than concepts allow.
I am still struggling with a concept of "Don't Ask. Don't Tell" as the "mantra" for many Friends Meetings. In many cases we don't ask questions of others because we don't want to be seen as "requiring" any statements or beliefs that might be implied by our question. We also don't want to tell others what we do believe for fear that might be seen as imposing our beliefs on others. We need to be able to get past this concept. Can we trust each other enough to ask and tell each other what we believe and "listen to where the words come from" much more than the words themselves.
"Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself" - Morpheus Unfortunately, it's a simple truth that seems to have eluded many if not most denominations of the Christian Religion. Their "either for us or against us" approach to conversion and indoctrination does them a deservice. Conversion by coercive means (doctrinal, political, economic) results in blind obedience at best that's unlikely to be sustained in the long run. Life is too complex and the human spirit, too vibrant, to keep the questions suppressed forever and no static or fundamentalist religion can ever hope to address them adequately if at all. The human mind has itself always been too inquisitive to keep the rational compartmentalized from the religious or spritual and this natural tendency/drift will only be accelerated in the millennial generation whose ties to social/religious/economic establishment is the weakest in comparison to any other generation that preceded it. This is not to say that they live their lives any less spiritually but that they tend not to accept everything on faith as did prior generations. When the facts don't add up, they do ask questions and when the answers aren't forthcoming, objective or complete, they form their own ideas and share them with like-minded individuals or at least with others who are sufficiently open-minded to receive them without prejudice. This is the path that led me to the door way of the Orange County Friends. I too have found that words do get in the way. I've seen first hand how questions that were intended to be honest queries can upset people. The experience is akin to how Alan Turing who lived his life openly as a gay man in the 1930's without fear or trepidation (at least initially) because it seemed to him to be the most natural thing to do. Needless to say, the societal reaction to his lifestyle was much more negative and dramatic than he could have ever expected or understood. Just before his death, Turing famously observed that although he had proven that machines can think, society will still dismiss a mathematically valid conclusion just because of the fact that he lies with men. Turing evidently saw the truth of himself for what it was and simply chose not to conceal it. When the truth, however true, shakes preconceived notions of reality and more to the point, propriety, people tend to react and not often in a good way. Unfortunately, there's no way to experience Turing's truth without being him or at least being gay and by the same token, would there be any way to know the minds of the folks who authored the Bible or Koran without having walked a day in their shoes. The words in religious text represents to me, a contextualized truth, based on the life and times of the people who lived it. As I type these thoughts on my iPad and quote a character from the Matrix, I find it it difficult to accept how any religious literature millennia old can be useful in developing spiritual awareness except as a historical reference to confirm certain basic and foundational facts like 'Jesus did exists'. I have spoken to people who claim at least to understand the Bible and have even studied it in the original Greek. Oddly though, they haven't been able to explain what they know in any form that approaches the plain English that I can relate to. I guess at the end of the day, I do have to see it for myself :-)
Thanks, Friends, for your thoughtful replies. Portlandfriendsmeeting: You write, “I do not conceive of worship as something given to an entity separate from humanity but as an attempt to connect with that which is most intrinsic in creation, the ground of all our beings” (emphasis added). This expresses well how both theist and non-theist Friends describe the That which we worship. John Bryce: Your observation about “charged words” is also helpful. “If we strip the religious connotation from Spirit, we have a wisdom that is not swayed by the petty dictates of a selfish ego…[a] wisdom and a state of well being that the religious call Spirit.” Here is a core paradox: that “connotations” get in the way of the experience of Spirit itself. Seekerquaker: I share your concern about the modern Quaker aversion to asking about and offering public expressions of private faith and practice. In my Meeting’s struggle over the “How We Worship” handout, one Friend emailed the following: “Modern, unprogrammed Quakers tend to believe that it is inappropriate to question others as to their fundamental religious beliefs; each person is felt to be at a different point in her or his journey, and, because there are no creedal requirements, there is no "right" place applicable to all” (emphasis added). This view mistakes “questioning” for “judging,” which is not the primary intent of open discussion about our differing beliefs. How can Friends rise to unity if they do not share their independent leadings?
Friends, I have just come to realize why i define myself as a quaker: it is a spiritual discipline and practice, rather than a set of beliefs. To me, “Rising to Unity” is the listening for, and awareness of “That Which Is” … a place to grow the Light Inside .. and to do this, I need to be drawn aside into the Silence. Words, Thoughts and Beliefs are inadequate to this Knowingness / No-Thing-ness ..
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