Quaker Universalist Conversations

What do liberal Friends believe? Have they abandoned the Divine Source?

In response to Steve Davison’s statement: “I know that Universalists have abandoned the divine source for Quaker faith and practice and relocated that source in the individual, so your post faithfully represents the Universalist leading on this matter,“ Charley Earp writes:

“I find this a highly offensive gross generalization about an entire group of people. Have you conducted a poll of every Quaker Universalist asking them if they have abandoned the Divine Source? What were your statistical results? Probably not!

“Universalism among Quakers is a diverse movement encompassing believing Christians and Atheists, not mention Buddhist and Pagan Friends. That is its goal, embracing all who will in a communion of peace. Diversity isn’t abandoning anything, it is embracing all beyond words and labels.”


Another Friend writes:  “I resonated with [Steve’s]  question about what we mean when we talk about that of God in everyone. I am a member of a liberal unprogrammed meeting, and we had a hard, good conversation a few months ago about belief and practice as we were trying to create informational materials for people who might visit our brand-new meetinghouse.  One thing I came away from that conversation wondering about is why we have such a strong consensus that the defining feature of Quakerism—the thing we almost all say, first off, if someone asks us about Quakerism—is that “we believe there is that of God in everyone,” when we don’t have any kind of consensus about what God is or whether God exists or whether, if something exists, “God” is the word for it. It made me wonder whether the mouthing of that sentence is something of an empty ritual for us. As Quakers, should we really be repeating rote phrases without thinking about what they mean?”




Steve writes:

“I woke up this morning thinking about my comment about whether blogging was Quakerly and had another thought. In his original entry, Anthony cites several correspondences between Quaker culture and the culture that’s building on Web 2.0 technologies, including blogs: As ‘diaries,’ blogs are based in experience, rather than dogma or creeds. They are open, public and interactive, like Quaker meeting for worship. And they build egalitarian community.

 “These correspondences are mostly about process. They connect, on the one hand, to the ways that blogs and online participatory culture work, how they’re structured. On the other hand, they connect to Quaker culture also defined as process, to a Quakerism defined in terms of how we work and behave, and what our values are. This is perhaps the defining characteristic of liberal Quakerism, that we root our identity in our process and our values—essentially, the ‘practice’ side of faith and practice—rather than our content.

“Meanwhile, blogs are ultimately about content. The technology enables a new and exciting process for speech, and that gets all the press, but ultimately the technology still serves speech—it’s about having something to say. In this regard, blogs often are like popcorn meetings: short and fast back and forth without much discernment. Woolman, and also Rachel in her comment, are focused on the deep spiritual potential of content, on how what we do and say affects others and ourselves.

“Meanwhile, on the other side of the comparison, liberal Quakerism is pointedly not about content. Practically the only content we have left is that “there is that of God in everyone.” As Pink Dandelion has so brilliantly described in his work, we explicitly define ourselves over and against creed as a screen for abandoning our content, while adopting and enforcing a creed about process, behavior and values.

“This leaves us flummoxed when someone asks us: “What do Quakers believe?” We usually start with a bunch of disclaimers about the diversity of Quaker belief, the importance of individual experience, and the fact that we have no declared creed. Then we move on to “that of God in everyone” and maybe the testimonies—and then we run aground. We tend to start off negative and then go almost nowhere positive. The dilemma is especially ironic because we have so much great content. We have so much good stuff to say!

“I think we need our content. We need to be able to articulate our faith and our experience with clarity, confidence and integrity. We need to be able to answer Fox’s challenge: ‘What canst we say?’”


I find Steve Davison's assumption to be presumptuous and problematic. It is not up to him, or to me, or to anyone else to say what everyone in any group does or does not believe. Likewise, I find his assertion that liberal Quakerism "is not about content" similarly dismissive of and irrelevant to the Quakerism I experience. Words are not always content. What can I say? I can only speak from my own experience of God in my life -- and whether the word 'God' is used or 'The Divine' or 'The Light' or 'The Spirit' does not change the experience itself. This is the content of Quakerism for me, the experience of the Divine working daily within and among people, under whatever name and within whatever experiences this occurs -- and I do understand that some people will shy away from the words I use while being part of the same experience, because each of us interprets our experiences through our own understandings and backgrounds. One of the joys of liberal Quakerism for me is the breadth of experience and wisdom that Friends bring to share with one another from a variety of backgrounds. The words are not the content, but an attempt to interpret the content or describe the content, inadequate though that may be -- and that includes the words of someone rising to speak in Meeting or the words of George Fox or words found in the Bible or any other book or speech or source. The content of liberal Quakerism for me is the experience of this presence, this Spirit, this Light, within the community and within my life, whether in Meeting on First Day or the rest of the week. That experience may be informed by reading, or friendships, or by taking action against injustice, or by art and music and nature or illness or death or by anything else that occurs in life. When the Spirit makes you free, you are free indeed. As someone who came to Quakerism from Roman Catholicism and Episcopalianism, I have found that I'm not concerned with beliefs but with trust. The difference is essential. Belief resides in the mind, an intellectual assent to an idea or a verbal formula that may have no real bearing on everyday life -- this chair is made well and will hold my weight because it meets these specifications. Trust is grounded in experience -- sit down in that chair and test its abilities. I can say that I trust that God is with me always, because that is my experience -- and has been my experience since 1973, though I have only become Quaker within the last decade. I can say that the God whose presence I have at times experienced tenderly and at times from a distance is available to everyone, universally, but that I think we all get in our own way when we try to reach the Divine, and I'm no exception. We all have preconceived ideas of how things "should" be, and when things don't turn out exactly as we expect we tend to say nothing happened, whether that's true or not. And with the amazing creativity of God, nothing ever happens exactly the same way twice, just as there are no two identical leaves or snowflakes or people. My experience of blogging, over the last dozen years or so, is that it can be a tool to create close and tender community, or a tool to organize a response to injustice, or a tool to speak truth to power, or a tool to create entertainment and many other things. It is up to the user to determine how it would be appropriate to the current need.
to me, it is so simple: there is one God/spirit/Allah/Jahveh/whatever, which or whom we all worship or acknowledge. if there is that of God in all, then all religions are Godly.
When using a word such as "table" to another who isn't looking at it, a defining adjective is used. Unfortunately many Friends do not do so when speaking of God. I usually try to substitue the word the Divine in describing my understandings to introduce my thoughts. For me, the definition that the divine is in all and when we connect with that divine in others we increased that empowerment and divine effect in our world . Thus it becomes universal. Therefore, for me, there is no inconsisency in being Quaker and universal too!
"That of God in everyone" truly is a nearly universally cited belief of most of us, and it is true that we are not in union on what God is. Some of us are, loosely speaking, Deists; we accept the notion of a super intelligence (God) who created the universe and life, but we don't see that Being as one who communicates with individuals nor intervenes in the development of the Universe. I suspect that for us the phrase "that of God in everyone" means a belief that each normal human contains the capacity to believe in something beyond himself/herself, a sense of equal worth, and some urge to improve oneself. We can appreciate silent worship as an occasion to, with fellow believers, meditate on good and evil, the purpose of life, and other "big" questions. And we can see value in a "gathered" meeting even if we don't literally accept a directed signal from God touching some or all of us. And "that of God in everyone" is a neat way of structuring a moral way of associating with others, extending to them acceptance that their thoughts and actions deserve respectful listening and understanding even when we cannot agree. In other words, "that of God" is a wonderfully broad tool for fostering true communication, reaching just relationships, and finding mutually agreeable solutions when two or more views seem irreconcilable. But if one cannot accept God as one who communicates with humans and intervenes in our affairs, what, then, is "that of God"? To me it is simply acknowledgement that each human's life force is somehow mysteriously a part of a universal energy force that binds the universe together and insures that it expands and evolves. True, I don't really understand it, but then there are many things I regard as non understandable by humans: what was in space before the Big Bang? What happens to the life force after death? What will exist if or when the universe ceases to exist? And last, but not least, What is God? We were given powerful minds, the full potential of which is still in development, but our brains simply don't have the power to understand everything! We can improve life for ourselves and other life, but it will be due to whatever our brains collectively produce; it will be man-made.
To whoever posted this item, there is a mistaken attribution in the first paragraph. T quote attributed to Rhoda Gilman is actually from Charley Earp, whose moniker on the comment is "Radical Progress." If you correct that attribution, feel free to remove this comment.
I have found that liberal Friends are mostly comfortable with embracing the concept that there is that of God/light/goodness in all as their core truth. What I have also found is that too often is there is a hesitation to go deeper into why one believes this, how this is expressed as a daily practice in how we live our lives, and the dilemmas - ethical and moral - of seeking this in the world. I also have seen Friends at times holding this out with a smugness - i.e. that we see what others don't see. I believe ours is to seek, not profess to see.
Add a Comment