The original text of this post was composed seversal years ago. My views on possible dialogue between Quakers on the matter of Non-Theism have shifted slightly, but I hope the views expressed are still of use.
The growing visibility of Quaker Non-Theism within Britain Yearly Meeting is conceivably one of the most significant internal matter facing Friends in over a generation. While many Friends are understandably reluctant to discuss the sources and character of their faith (from fear of sowing discord or intolerance) the presence of Friends who deny or minimise the role of Quaker ‘theological grammar’ should prompt us to consider the thorny matters of identity and belonging. Can the elasticity of Liberal Quakerism include those who deny the literalness of the living Spirit within its life and work? What does the divorce of Quakerism from its theological frame mean for our corporate understanding of Quaker worship and discipline? Are their limits to diversity within our Quaker community? And if so, what are they? Yet, the difficult internal issues raised by Quaker Non-Theism are not confined to Britain Yearly Meeting.
The increasing activity of Non-Theist Friends within the Society has the potential to make inter-church and inter-faith dialogue extremely difficult. How can we explain to our ecumenical partners that the wellsprings of our Quaker faith are in serious dispute? How can we develop honest articulations of Friends’ ecclesiology when the language of ‘Church’ is meaningless to an increasing number of Friends? The auxiliary theme behind these queries is a serious one and it concerns the unity and intelligibility of Quaker life and experience. Are we one Yearly Meeting or several- each camp interpreting Quaker words and processes in a different way? If the latter, how do we maintain a coherent account about ourselves? Politely glossing over these ruptures is no-longer an option. Refusing to examine areas of confusion and difference is merely a recipe for future resentment and dislocation.
In an effort to avert such disintegration, this two-part post seeks to outline a pluralist ecclesiology which is intended to challenge as well as include Non-Theist Friends. Central to this double-sided project, is a conscientious excavation of the Pentecostal roots of our tradition. By keenly reflecting on the character of the Spirit in Quaker witness (as understood through the prism of Scripture) I suggest a number of ways in which Christ-centred and other theo-centric Friends can respond positively to the witness of Non-Theist Quakers. In the opening part of this discussion, I sketch out what the Pentecost-event reveals to Quakers about the nature of diversity and ecclesial identity. Treating ‘the ‘pouring out of the Spirit’ as the paradigmatic ground-zero of the historic Quaker understanding of the Church, I locate a demanding principle of inclusivity which makes difference the medium through which God’s loving grace is expressed.
The Meaning of Pentecost in Quakerism
For the author of Luke-Acts the events of Pentecost represent a climactic moment in the crowded symphony of God’s encounter with Israel. At the foreground of this event is Luke’s Messianic vision of an ever-extending community of God. Not only does this polity contain the righteous Jew, Simeon , but also Gentiles like the Persian Magi and the Roman centurion of great faith . At the core of such a diverse cast of characters is a bountiful scheme of salvation in which ethnic, cultural and geographic boundaries are no-longer bars to participating in God’s covenant. Acts is the second half of this narrative and explores the spiritual outworking of this reconciling ministry in the lives of the early Christians. In this context, the purposes of the events of Pentecost are intended to reinforce the church’s self-understanding as a universal community as first sketched in Luke. As Acts 2 depicts the scene:
When the day of Pentecost came, they [the disciples] were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
But the Spirit did not stop there. Descending upon a vast crowd, ‘Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, [and] Egypt…’ began speaking about God in their own language. While the original Jewish feast of Pentecost commemorated the giving of the Law at Sinai , Luke-Acts re-interprets this event through the lens of the Risen Christ. In place of the ethnically-specific authority of the Torah, the post-Pentecost Church is governed by the Law of the Spirit (where authority is invested in a mixed community of believers). Given such radical currents within the narrative, what is the role of Pentecost for the Quaker tradition? And how can it assist theo-centric Friends today in responding to Quaker Non-Theism?
In answer to the first question, the Pentecost-event is central in understanding the shape and texture of Quaker life and witness because it conditions the Quaker vocabulary of the Church. The proliferation of spiritual gifts and charismatic healing which accompanied the descent of the Spirit helped the first-generation Quakers identify the marks of a community rekindling the life of the Apostles. As David Yount observes:
More than Luther, Calvin, and John Knox, George Fox restored primitive Christianity. The early Reformers aimed to purify the Church and to bring theology more in line with Scripture. They meant to repair Christianity. By contrast Fox chose to return the simple faith and practice of Jesus’ first companions when there were no priests and sanctuaries but only believers.
By embracing such Christian primitivism, early Quakers took seriously the inclusive actions of the Spirit as seen in the early Church. Core to this commitment was the acknowledgement that the work of the Spirit went far beyond bounds of the Church and Israel. When Penn spoke of the ‘humble, meek, merciful, just and devout souls’ being ‘everywhere of one religion’ he was not expressing some tinselly religious relativism but rather articulating the character of the Spirit as he understood it through the Apostolic witness. The same can be said of the fondly quoted statement by Fox that ‘Christ hath enlightened every man that comes into the world; he hath enlightened the Turks, Jews and Moors’. In this respect, Friends stayed faithful, not merely to the message of Pentecost but to a vivid streak in the Hebrew Scriptures which saw the Spirit of God at working through unexpected avenues. We have the story of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who despite his desire to curse Israel, finds himself becoming Yahweh’s spokesman . Similarly, we have the Persian King Cyrus, who, despite the wrongs done to the Jews at the hand of the Persian Empire, becomes God’s instrument for restoring Jewish nationhood. The importance of these strange moments is their paradigmatic nature- since they reveal something fundamental about the nature and action of the Spirit. Despite the division of the human race along tribal, ideological and political lines, God sees these distinctions for the phantoms they really are. The only Reality worth the name is the divine Commonwealth in which each being finds its true home and subsistence.
The Nature of Quaker Inclusivity
I tell you in truth: all men are Prophets or else God does not exist. Jean-Paul Sartre
How then does this account of the Spirit’s work help contemporary theo-centric Friends engage with their Non-Theist partners? In the first place, the radical inclusivity of Quaker-Pentecost ecclesiology encourages us to view the work of God in all-encompassing terms. If the Spirit can use diverse and unlikely vessels to accomplish its earthly tasks, then it would be uncharitable at best, and blasphemous at worst to deny the possibility that Non-Theist Friends can and do offer significant channels for the Light. Indeed, as the examples of Balaam and Cyrus suggest, one’s intentions or opinions are unimportant to the ultimate effectiveness of God’s call. To hone this point a little further, we might to say (in the language of Pentecost) that while Non-Theists speak their own particular humanist-materialist language, the Spirit of God in its capacity as great translator, can render such speech intelligible within a gathered meeting. In framing their role in this way, I am not suggesting that Non-Theist Friends are involuntarily helpful cuckoos in the Quaker nest. Rather, I suggest that we each are a window into God’s Kingdom- a fact which is not dependent upon the prior acceptance of particular theological or scriptural propositions. Indeed as Douglas Gwyn reminds us:
It is Fox’s belief that the Word of God, unmediated by scripture, enlightens everyone, and that the Holy Spirit, according to the prophecy of Joel, is poured out on all flesh, even where the scriptures are not known or the gospel not preached. On his trip to America, Fox was able to explore this belief through conversations with the Indians. His question to them was simple- did they know something within them which reproved them when they did wrong? He concluded that all know this experience and that it was Christ’s light.
Here one can observe the deep radicalism at the heart of the Quaker-Christian vision. The Spirit is no discriminator of persons. The Greek slave reading Homer on the steps of the Parthenon is just as much a vessel for the work of the Spirit as the Calvinist, the Hindu, or the romantic poet, whose only gods are the lakes and rolling hills. Fox’s only religious measure is the individual’s willingness to delve within and seek that voice which bids them to do ‘what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow’ [Jeremiah 22:3]. While early Friends drew close to the Bible, God’s teaching could not be obstructed by its absence. If we place this Christian universalism in conversation with our present situation, we are inclined to reject a view which says that belief guarantees the validity of one’s religious life. Becoming captured by what early Friends called ‘notions’ will merely detract us from what is really important. Whether we commit ourselves to theism, non-theism or atheism, matters little in a non-creedal tradition which concerns itself with direct spiritual experience, and not abstract philosophical labels.
This is not to say that one’s receptivity to the God encountered in Scripture is wholly irrelevant to the spiritual experiment called Quakerism. Indeed, Theo-centric (and in particular Christ-centred) Friends insist that openness to the Living Spirit is essential if our tradition is to be comprehensibly understood and faithfully lived. So while Theo-centric Quakers should lovingly accept Non-Theists, this should mean an undue reticence concerning the theological sources of their Quaker Faith. In doing so however, such Friends should not be overly prickly, abrasive or condescending. Rather, we (that is to say Theo-centric Friends) should relish the opportunity to express what we cherish. As the author of 1 Peter advises us: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ [3:15]. But genuine respect requires an acknowledgement that Non-Theists have something definite to teach Theo-centrics. What might that be? In the post I examine what Non-Theist projects can teach Quaker theology about the nature of God and religious practice.