For the Love of Stories: Imagining Quakerism Beyond Belief

That Infamous Guardian Article

A few days before Britain Yearly Meeting 2018, a comment piece appeared in Britain’s Guardian newspaper with the mischievous title, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God” (May 4, 2018). The piece’s author Simon Jenkins praised British Friends for their refreshing take on spiritual matters:

The Quakers are clearly on to something. At their annual get-together this weekend they are reportedly thinking of dropping God from their “guidance to meetings”. The reason, said one of them, is because the term “makes some Quakers feel uncomfortable”. Atheists, according to a Birmingham University academic, comprise a rising 14% of professed Quakers, while a full 43% felt “unable to profess a belief in God”. They come to meetings for fellowship, rather than for higher guidance.[1]

Instead of taking refuge in the metaphysical consolations, Jenkins sees Quakers as a group of honest therapeutics, committed to ‘expressing doubts, fears and joys amid a company of “friends”, who respond only with their private silence.’[2] Suffice to say, Jenkins interpretation of contemporary British Quakerism generated a forceful response from the Guardian’s letter pages, with one Friend remarking, ‘discomfort with “God language” is not the same thing as the abandonment of a spiritual life. Even non-theist Quakers have a spiritual life, and certainly don’t come to meetings just for fellowship.’[3] Another Friend remarked, ‘While there is certainly a spectrum of beliefs among Quakers, including those who call themselves “non-theists”, the question is more to do with how Friends think of God than of his absence.’[4] While these responses are clearly meant to reassure the reader that British Quakerism has not become a form of secular therapy, the acknowledgement of discomfort with theological language and the existence of a ‘spectrum of beliefs’ is indicative of an unruly complexity in the identity of British Quakers which defies simple definition. Yet, such spiritual intricacy is not simply perplexing to outsiders like journalists but is becoming increasingly perplexing to Friends themselves. As Keith Redfern expresses the existential challenge of our present condition:

The current climate is one of questioning and self-examination in an effort to find the right way forward. Before we can do this however, we have to be sure that we know who we are. Although British Quakers maybe clear individually as to their stage on a spiritual journey, as a religious community it seems that we are still seeking unity regarding our overall spiritual position.[5]

Such diversity becomes vividly apparent when Friends are asked to explain what they are doing in Meetings for Business. Is the Meeting’s practice of discernment dependent upon some conception of Divine Guidance, a form of consensus decision-making or the unconscious wisdom of the group? If the first option than the decision arrived may possess a significance far beyond those gathered in Worship. If the latter options, the decision a Meeting might reach is merely the product of circumstance.  As Redfern notes pessimistically of this divergence of understanding:

We are a Religious Society, in direct descent from those of the 17th century who realised that it is possible to have a direct communication with God; that we are not alone in our decision making, but that the Spirit is constantly on hand to guide and advise. If we insist on going it alone in our Quaker business, we may never find unity in anything and risk pulling our Yearly Meeting asunder.[6]

One does not have to wholly agree with Redfern’s conclusion to see the fundamental issue he is driving at. If radical diversity is the new reality of 21st century British Quakerism, the question rightly persists, what, if anything, unites its miscellaneous strands? Does the Spirit evoked in the process of Quaker discernment even have an identifiable character to which diverse Quakers can assent? On initial inspection, it appears that Universalist, Christian and Non-theist Friends live in separate religious silos, each generating their own expression of Quaker spirituality. While Meeting for Worship may bring such Friends together in physical terms, their visions of Quaker life and Worship are radically different. Yet this rather polarised view of the present situation is overly hasty, since it ignores the striking similarities between diverse perspectives. Such similarities rest on the common philosophical terrain of ‘belief’. In the theistic version of this account, something called ‘Quaker theism’ is the key ingredient for binding Friends together into a unified whole. As Derek Guiton starkly puts the problem:

The Society today is criss-crossed with divisions and it appears that we now have no alternative but to ‘celebrate’ the diversity that, far from being a strength it is ritually affirmed to be, is in danger of destroying the unity which Friends have always regarded to be there, despite differences in their outward lives. Theists, non-Theists, atheists, Christians, pagans, Universalists, humanists, Friends who welcome this diversity, Friends who regret it, we sit in the same room and share the same silence.[7]

The answer to such discordance according to Guiton is the adoption of a broad-based theological position that ‘unites Friends in the essentials’[8]–an ‘area of acceptable belief’[9] which is ‘theistic without being Trinitarian’[10] and rooted in a ‘rich vein of mystical Christianity.’[11] Here we see the common assumption that belief always comes first in the religious life. Actions are said to spring from such belief.  The concern behind Guiton’s formulation is that the intense debates over Quakerism’s future are the result of substantial deviation at the level of core belief, which inevitably causes a rupture in the fabric of the community. What about folk we might call modelist Friends? While it is true that the notion of core belief is less important to Quakers of this disposition, the centrality of belief remains the same. What such Friends claim is that there should be maximum freedom of belief in the context of a supportive community. As the Universalist Quaker Tony Philpott summarises this attitude: ‘The freedom to believe what I wish…enables me to use whatever model of the self is appropriate; I am not constrained by the Christian model of ‘the sinful man’ or an atheist model of monism and materialism. As with many of my beliefs I can have a universalist and syncretic view of the self.’[12] The non-theist David Boulton broadly concurs, arguing:

The theological diversity that has increasingly marked liberal Friends throughout the world over the last 120 years is the result of our growing discernment that unity is not dependent on someone’s notion of doctrinal orthodoxy. That’s a liberating experience – and a humbling one! It has freed us up to think and rethink everything, to challenge ourselves and each other. There’s nothing incoherent about accepting that we don’t know it all, about living the questions rather than insisting that we have all the answers. It means recognising that Quakers are still seekers on a continuing journey, not finders at the end of the road. There’s no going back.[13]

In the latter account, Quakerism is a protective umbrella under which a variety of beliefs can be grown and fostered. Such Friends want diversity, but like their theist counterparts, never stop talking about belief. Thus, despite all appearances, we can see that the common ground between modelist and theistic camps is the centrality of belief in understanding the nature of religious community. Yet such tacit agreement is, I suggest, the root of the tensions and unease we have observed in Meetings.  The crucial mistake made by the positions surveyed above is that all camps assume that the most significant elements of religious identity revolve around maintenance of ‘belief’. This gives the misleading impression that if only we could find the right hypothesis, the right settlement, the right form of words, all discord would vanish. Yet, attempts so far in this direction have been fruitless. The attempt to listen and include every shade of opinion has only magnified the sense of fracture in our Meetings. Why is this? Because Quakerism, like any other religious community, does not remain cohesive because of belief.  Something much deeper draws religious communities together; the notion of a shared story.

Deconstructing the Terrain of Belief: Durkheim and Douglas

In 1912, the French Sociologist Emile Durkheim published his seminal work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The study’s compelling attempts to categorise the essential structure and function of ‘religion’ across human culture still provides a compelling framework for contemporary social theorists and anthropologists. What is perhaps less appreciated is the extent to which this text provides a snapshot of the ways in which the Western secular intelligentsia viewed religious phenomena at the beginning of the last century. A central element of Durkheim’s picture was the view that religious communities sprung primarily from beliefs about the status of holy and ordinary things. If we want to understand religious institutions and practices, it follows that we must first understand the claims which animate them. As Durkheim summarises this position: ‘[a] religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.’[14] According to this account, religious communities are ‘bound together by their common beliefs’[15] externally expressed through shared rites. While Durkheim understood that in most cases religious life consists of a diversity of ceremonies, taboos, and symbols, such structures are always derivative from an initial faith.[16]

Image result for Emile durkheim It is this Durkheimian model of religious life which explicitly structures contemporary debates over Quaker identity. Yet, ever since Durkheim articulated this theory of religious origins, there has always been a sense that something was missing from this overly belief-driven account of religion. In the rising tide of modern secularism, the only things Durkheim could see that were distinctive about the religious was their tendency to say religious things and performed sacred rites. Yet such a description of religiosity ignores other things which keep people in religious communities. The great disciple of Durkheim, the anthropologist Mary Douglas drew out some of the limitations of her mentor’s approach in her 1971 study Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. At the centre of the book is the claim that religious belief should not be reduced to primary beliefs and their derivative manifestations. While Douglas thought it true that rituals were often sustained by beliefs, it was equally true that the content of beliefs were often sustained by the symbols contained and encoded in ritual practices.  As Douglas notes of the dynamics of the Catholic Eucharist:

The condensation of symbols in the Eucharist is staggering in its range and depth. The white circle of bread encompasses symbolically the cosmos, the whole history of the Church and more, since it goes from the bread offering of Melchisidech, to Calvary and the Mass. It unites the body of each worshipper to the body of the faithful. In this compass it expresses themes of atonement, nourishment, and renewal.[17]

In this vein, when we observe the Mass, we are neither seeing a straightforward manifestation of ritual through belief or belief through ritual, but a set of symbols which operate prior to either ritual or belief. This is a hidden structure, made up of words, images and assumptions, which allows a group to structure their experience into a coherent vision of the world, which Douglas called a ‘cosmology’. Summarising the concept, Douglas suggests:

We should try to think of cosmology as a set of categories that are in use. It is like lenses which bring into focus and make bearable the manifold challenge of experience. It is not a hard carapace which the tortoise has to carry for ever, but something very flexible and easily disjointed. Spare parts can be fitted and adjustments made without much trouble. Occasionally a major overhaul is necessary to bring the obsolete set of views into focus with new times and new company. This is conversion.[18]

So, the question for contemporary British Quakers is not, ‘what do we believe’? But, rather, ‘what are the foundational words, images and stories that bind us together’? In Douglas’ terms, we should ask, what is our cosmology? While such a carapace cannot be easily described (just as it would be hard for a fish to describe water), we can begin the process of articulation by being attentive to the words and symbols in our Quaker tradition. This process (as Douglas’ own comments imply) is not about pickling Quaker identity into any permanent configuration but is about starting with the rich bed of resources which are implicit in the Quaker way of seeing, speaking, and relating. Think of these distinctive markers of Quaker identity (our words for God and social action, for instance) as miniature maps, which induct us into a particular interpretation of the world. Living out this interpretation is more important than a series of abstract questions about God. A satisfactory vision of God is never going to come about by adopting some over-arching theory or belief. But a deep coherence may arise if we become attentive to the language and stories Quakerism uses to illustrate (perhaps we should say picture) what God is for us. This process has many dimensions, but the most crucial one it seems to me, is about recovering a sense that our words and stories come from somewhere and have the capacity to lead us somewhere else. It is about saying, ‘I am a Quaker because this shared story calls to the very depth of my life—it fits the pieces of experience together, it shapes, it heals, it clarifies’.

The Challenge of This ApproachImage result for Margaret fell

Viewing our present Quaker condition from this cosmological point of view can be challenging for a great many Friends occupying different places on the so-called spectrum, not least because it challenges the language of both belief and or belief-diversity as central to Quakerism. For non-theist and Universalist Friends, this perspective may seem troubling because it implies a robust recovery of some shared Quaker story. Might that exclude some people and alienate others? Not necessarily, although it might generate some hard questions which in turn force us to say what we are. Let’s be clear what it is we are talking about here. Make no bones about it, a shared story requires a shared language and that language, is, for the most part, Christian. So many of our fundamental words and images are emergent properties from the New Testament story. The Quaker story cannot be fully appreciated without this context. This is not in itself excluding of Universalist or non-theist Quakers, but it should raise thorny questions for those Friends who may be actively hostile to the centrality of Christian stories or language within Quakerism. What then binds such Friends to the lives of other Friends and to the Quaker tale? What is the centre of their shared Quaker life? Does the following Advice still speak to such Friends?

Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way. (1.02)

If such words leave some Friends cold or troubled, what might be getting in the way of working with such language? Baggage, intellectual scruples, past pain, our Meetings? But again, let’s be clear what is being talked about. The importance of Christianity argued for here, should not imply adopting a rigid set of beliefs (the historicity of the Resurrection, the Ascension, or the virgin birth) for surely then we are into the barren world of notions. What good would a creed or theology do us unless we were able to live in its words, and swim in its possibilities? This has always been central to the Quaker call. Think of Margret Fell and her earth-shattering experience in Ulverston Church in 1652:

  You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’ This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly, we were all wrong. So, I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves’… I saw it was the truth, and I could not deny it; and I did as the apostle saith, I ‘received the truth in the love of it’. And it was opened to me so clear that I had never a tittle in my heart against it; but I desired the Lord that I might be kept in it, and then I desired no greater portion. (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.07)

Interestingly, Fell or Fox don’t say ditch the story (they use the language of the Scriptures), but neither do they say merely copy the story. Quakerism is not some hollow re-enactment fundamentalism. They say live the story, love it, embrace it. Let your manner of life follow from this. In this highly practical mode, the religious life isn’t primarily about believing things (if by belief we mean assenting intellectually to this or that proposition or statement). It isn’t even about protecting belief, so we don’t step on people’s toes. It is about letting the symbols of the shared story into one’s life, trusting that they will deliver their ‘fruit’, in meaning, in purpose, in depth. Belief of all kinds might follow later from this kind of narrative assent, but that isn’t the most important thing about the concept of a shared Quaker story. What matters the most is the ability of Friends to see and hear one another in ways which are rooted and shared. We must get beyond personal models and get into the habit of sitting under a more expansive canopy. This is a far richer starting-point than the one offered by some belief-focused Quaker Theists, or indeed some self-identified Non-Theists. It is not ‘theism’ or belief pluralism we need but a fresh and lively appreciation of the narratives that help us ‘be Quaker’. This is about Quaker literacy and not Quaker literalism. To non-theists and universalists, I would say, don’t simply dismiss, translate, or minimize the Christian stories and words that sit behind our Book of Discipline. Sit with them, test them, speak them, pull them apart, but don’t ignore them. Let them impinge your imagination, your heart, your thoughts. Let them work their alchemy in you, generating new ways of seeing and knowing.  To self-identified Quaker Theists, I would say, don’t reduce Quakerism to ‘transcendence’ or the defense of God- language. Realize that we are invited into a whole cosmology, a living way of knowing and experiencing. We cannot argue away difference, but we can find unity if we sit on the same symbolic ground. If British Quakerism is to be more than a storehouse of competing beliefs, or a therapeutic group on a Sunday morning, we must get beyond belief and start telling the Quaker story together.

[1] Simon Jenkins, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God”, May 4th 2018, The Guardian

[2] Jenkins, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God”, May 4th 2018, The Guardian

[3] Letters: ‘Debate on ‘God language’ doesn’t mean all Quakers are losing faith’, 7 May 2018, The Guardian,

[4] ‘Debate on ‘God language’ doesn’t mean all Quakers are losing faith’, 7 May 2018, The Guardian,

[5] Kevin Redfern, ‘Doing Our Quaker Business’, in Searching the Depths: Essays in Search of Quaker Identity, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), p. 77.

[6] Redfern, ‘Doing Our Quaker Business’, in Searching the Depths: Essays in Search of Quaker Identity, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), p. 83.

[7] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, p. 2.

[8] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, p. 15.

[9] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[10] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[11] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[12] Tony Philpott, From Christian to Quaker: A Spiritual Journey from Evangelical Christian to Universalist Quaker, (Winchester: Quaker Universalist Group Publishing, 2013), p. 240

[13] David Boulton. ‘Diversity’, in The Friend, 9 April 2010, [Accessed 18 May 2018]

[14] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carlos Cossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 46

[15] Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carlos Cossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 42

[16] ‘Sue Stedman Jones, ‘The Concept of Belief in Elementary Forms’, in On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, ed. N.J. Allen, W.S.F. Pickering, W. Watts Miller, (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 53

[17] Mary Douglas, Natural Symbol Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, (London: Routledge, 1971), p. 49-50

[18] Douglas, Natural Symbols, p.158

13 thoughts on “For the Love of Stories: Imagining Quakerism Beyond Belief

  1. There is a lot here I agree with: “a shared story requires a shared language and that language, is, for the most part, Christian. So many of our fundamental words and images are emergent properties from the New Testament story.” In fact, this closely corresponds to my suggestion in The Beyond Within, my reply to David Boulton, that a process of spiritual renewal in the Society “would mean starting from our Christian roots and looking at how our present day Quaker language is rooted in the language of Scripture, especially the Christian Testament”, and how the next step would be to “look at how scriptural language was understood, adapted and enlarged by the first generation of Quakers.”

    And a lot I disagree with. First, I would like to put right one or two misconceptions. Where Ben quotes from my book, A Man that Looks on Glass, he manages in one case to put into my mouth sentiments the very opposite of those I was trying to convey, and in another to leave out the broader context in which I had hoped my suggestions would be understood. His quote beginning “The Society today is criss-crossed with divisions” is full of inaccuracies, mostly trivial or stylistic, but with at least one substantive error where Ben has me saying that in worship we “sit in the same room and share the same silence”. “Same silence” is incorrect and I go on to say, “But they are different silences and our minds are in different places.”

    I hope next time I will be quoted correctly, as also the title of my book. It’s taken from a poem by George Herbert and Ben’s substitution of ‘through’ for ‘on’ is to distort Herbert’s meaning.

    Again, where Ben quotes me as advocating a theology which is “theistic without [the word ‘necessarily’ omitted] being Trinitarian” he may be giving the reader the impression that I am rejecting the Trinity rather than being open to those who don’t believe in or can’t accept it. The omitted word is important. Similarly, when he refers to my phrase ‘an area of acceptable belief’, he fails to mention the fact that I’m contrasting this with orthodox Christian dogma which is more restrictive. Indeed, the passage as a whole is thrown so off course by this kind of inaccuracy that it might be helpful to quote the original in full:

    “A theology of this kind [I was referring to the early Quakers] is not what today we call ‘fundamentalism’. It is theistic without necessarily being Trinitarian, and therefore has the potential to unite Friends in the essentials. It provides an area of acceptable belief, being neither Christian orthodoxy with its more problematic dogmas like the virgin birth, miracles and the physical resurrection, nor flatline atheistic humanism, but a coherent and open theology filling the broad space between these extremes and expressing the rich vein of mystical Christianity which lay at the heart of early Quakerism. Finally, and not least, a theology of this type, tested over more than 350 years in the crucible of corporate and personal experience, might enable us to benefit numerically as people search again for hope and meaning in a world dominated by greed, corruption, militarism and violence.”

    I leave it to readers to decide if Ben’s allusions to this passage do justice to the position I take here. A fuller exposition of my views in this regard may be found at p. 57 of A Man that Looks on Glass.

    Ben continues: “Here we see the common assumption that belief always comes first in the religious life. Actions are said to spring from such belief.” In other words, from abstract formulations. But is it fair to represent my use of ‘belief’ as merely conceptual? A closer reading of my book would have enabled Ben to see that throughout I refer to belief in relation to faith and experience, and in fact devote a whole chapter to this question. Here is just one of several such passages:

    “As in the Quaker tradition generally, the encounter with God is primary and leads to action in caring for others and the world. For Quakers, this balance expresses the right relationship between religious faith, personal conduct and social witness, between ‘belief’ and action. It is for this reason that Rufus Jones described the Society of Friends as ‘a religious body which has made a serious attempt to unite inward, mystical religion with active, social endeavours’.”
    I go on to say that without this balance between belief, faith and social action we lose any sense of acting to fulfil God’s purpose in the world and are instead focused on our own purposes, content to go forward in our own strength.

    So rather than pin everything on an abstract concept of ‘belief’, as Ben suggests I do, I talk instead about the different kinds of belief in relation to faith and experience, and how we understand what we experience and what we do – for example in our Business Meetings.

    Ben cannot escape the pivotal importance of belief and faith – the belief and faith that seekers aspire to, and which they hope and trust, in expectant waiting, will eventually be grounded in an experience of transcendent grace. And before anyone baulks at the word ‘transcendent’, all I mean by it is what Robert Foxcroft, in one of the most beautiful examples of Quaker spiritual writing I have come across, describes as “the sense that we receive the Light, that it is not ours, that it is not at all the sum of our deepest feelings and thoughts, but comes to us unbeckoned, showing us our darkness and bringing us to new life . . .”

    There is nothing ‘reductive’ about this as Ben alleges. Indeed, without this, what is the Society (which Evelyn Underhill called “this unique experiment in corporate mysticism”) for? What will draw people to it? Surely not Ben’s cosmological appreciation of narratives that help us ‘be Quaker’, for taken on their own they beg too many questions. As alternatives to our traditional beliefs they will be far too idiosyncratic, too esoteric and possibly too narcissistic to provide the basis for the continuance of the Society in any form we are familiar with – and in any case are not themselves wholly devoid of ‘belief’. They may provide a theological rationale for the author of “Will we welcome Jesus back?” (The Friend, 1st June, p. 7) who wrote of discipleship and the man Jesus while denying the Christ (and with that any suggestion of transcendent grace). But it won’t do anything to check what some non-theists now enthusiastically refer to as ‘the direction of travel’.

    So let’s get down to brass tacks. By ‘direction of travel’ I take it they mean the steady decline in the number of Friends professing belief or trust in God, and the corresponding increase in the number of fully declared atheists in the Society. It is my view that unless something is done, this so-called ‘direction of travel’ can only be expected to continue and accelerate. This will be for a variety of reasons:
    1. lack of leadership (a complex subject in itself);
    2. theological incoherence (God, Words and Us);
    3. demographic factors;
    4. the more people we admit to membership whose first loyalty is to humanist values, the more people holding such views will be admitted. As American Friend Patricia Loring has said “the consequence of having no standard for membership is that the Meeting conforms to the vision of those it has admitted”. The present trend towards total inclusivity, or to use the new phrase, ‘radical hospitality’, almost guarantees this result.

    Ben also attributes to me the view that belief in something called ‘God’ should serve as a test of membership. But anyone who has read my books should know that my views on this are rather more nuanced. As Friends we are reluctant to impose credal barriers to membership, and indeed to do so would be very difficult today when we have re-defined the meaning of ‘credal’ and hold so few credal positions in common. So for this reason I have suggested that a minimalist criterion for membership might point not to a creed or an already established belief but to no more than an attitude of openness to no more than the possibility of transcendence (as well as immanence) – transcendence in the Robert Foxcroft sense quoted above – without which, it appears to me, the whole religious enterprise is meaningless.

    Such a criterion would not exclude anyone who wished to worship with us as Attenders, but would prevent Sea of Faith ideologues, who see themselves as belonging to a movement, from having an undue influence or control over our affairs.

    So here, as I see them, are the options:
    1. leave things as they are, but with the outcome Patricia Loring has predicted;
    2. make matters worse by abolishing the distinction between Member and Attender (almost certainly
    the next development);
    3. launch a programme of spiritual renewal (unlikely at the moment since most of our theologians have
    capitulated in one way or another to the pressures of liberal secularism – contra Romans 12:2: “Do
    not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”);
    4. impose a minimal criterion which implicitly makes a distinction between the seeker-nontheist who is
    open to the possibility of the Christian understanding of God as both immanent and transcendent and the
    humanist-nontheist who is ideologically closed to any such possibility.

    With regard to the article by Simon Jenkins, it doesn’t surprise me that some have called it “a pretty positive write-up for Friends” – that’s just a symptom of where we are. Others have claimed that Simon Jenkins doesn’t have a very deep understanding of Quakerism and have tried to plug the gaps or provide a few nuances by stressing that it’s all about ‘language’. That’s the position Paul Parker took in his interview with Radio 4 – you could almost call it the official line – but personally I don’t wear it. Simon Jenkins, one of the few journalists I admire, would not have come to this view of things if the stage had not been set for him already.

    1. Thanks Derek for this very detailed response. I hope we have the opportunity sometime soon of discussing these issues in detail. I will endevour in future posts to be more careful in summarizing your position. I think the difference between us might still be the following: I think story, narrative, and symbol are more primary than the propositional beliefs we might generate from them. I suggest that Friends need to recover a sense of this rich soil before we start talking about people ‘believing’ the right or wrong thing. I’ve come to a powerful appreciation of this insight by talking to Catholic students and colleagues. “Garden variety Catholics” spend very little time worrying about some of the metaphysical/theological stuff you and I worry about, because they just themselves be ‘in the story’. There seem to be something in that. It is not enough (at least in my view) to posit an experience of grace, unless we have a story (a map) that helps us to locate and describe this experience. Where I think we do agree (and I think we profoundly) is that our common map as Quakers is Jesus-shaped. Thanks again for your comments.

  2. Is the recommendation to adopt the narrative of our tradition worthwhile, when the Sprit is absent that enables interpretion of that narrative? I look to the 17th c. Friends who recommended other cultures be told the Christian story. Yet, those cultures–unlike our Society–were comprised of people who were already accustomed to seeing themselves as subject to a particular spiritual narrative, and perhaps already knew Christ Within. Thus, they may have been primed to recognize a more comprehensive narrative of universal Christian faith preached by early Friends. Contemporary Friends, who pride themselves on their “freedom” of thought, find both their pride and freedom substantiated through diversity of belief; they cannot see unity in terms other than a restriction of their individuality. Early Friends knew better:

    A watch is to be kept (throughout the whole body, and in every heart) for the preserving of it [unity], so far as it is brought forth, that the enemy, by no device or subtlety, cause disunion or difference in any respect, wherein there was once a true unity and oneness. For the enemy will watch to divide; and if he be not watched against, in that which is able to discover and keep him out, by some device or other he will take his advantage to make a rent (in those that are not watchful), from the pure truth and unity of life in the body. For he that in the least thing rents from the body (in any respect or particular which was brought forth by the life), he in that respect hearkens to another spirit, even the dividing spirit, and by its instigation rents from the life itself, and so doth not keep his habitation, nor his unity, with that which abides in its habituation (Penington, II, 371).

    Interpreting the Scriptures without the Spirit that gave them forth brings forth the idiosyncracies, esoterism, and narcissism of which the previous commenter warned. Essential to beginning to familiarize oneself with and then interpret Scriptures would be keeping Margaret Fell’s realization at Ulverston firmly in mind: We must know the Scriptures in ourselves. Knowledge of Scripture narratives cannot accomplish what is Christ’s work alone, for there is none upon earth other than he that can speak to our condition, “namely, that [we] might give him all the glory.”

  3. Thank you, Ben. Just curious: when you say that your Catholic friends don’t worry about the theological/metaphysical stuff that we’re interested in, isn’t that because the ordinary (garden variety) Catholic takes Church doctrine for granted? They believe because to believe is part of being an ‘ordinary Catholic’. It can’t be that they’ve somehow ventured ‘beyond belief’. I’m not sure that that’s even possible and at the same time not to lose one’s faith.

    Unlike the Religious Society of Friends, the Catholic Church is a vast organisation, like one of Milton’s huge angels with numerous wings and limbs. The liturgy is rich in symbolism, the buildings ornate and crammed with artefacts that each tell a story. It’s true that the average Catholic can respond to all of this without delving too deeply into the underlying theology; so how will it work for Friends with their simple rituals and spartan meeting houses once we have ventured ‘beyond belief’? Exactly what story, narrative or symbolism are you suggesting will remain once our core beliefs have been stripped away? What in our case are the symbols that ‘operated prior to belief’?

    Your garden variety Catholic can leave theology to the theologians, safe and even smug in the knowledge that the Catholic Church has some of the best theologians thinking and writing today, theologians who are certainly not afraid of expressing ‘propositional beliefs’. I’m currently reading Edward Feser on Aristotle’s proof for the existence of God. As Crocodile Dundee might have said, “Now there’s a propositional belief!” But although interesting, that kind of theology is not (I hope) what I’m concerned about in A Man that Looks on Glass. My primary aim there was not to justify a propositional belief or belief system but to dismantle certain barriers to faith in the real presence of the Spirit which were being presented (wrongly) as insurmountable.

    When you say “it is not enough . . . to posit an experience of grace, unless we have a story (a map) that helps us to locate and describe this experience” what exactly do you mean? Don’t we have this already in the whole Christian/Quaker experience – narrative, map or whatever? Or am I missing something? And when we look at this experience, this map, don’t we see any outline, any landmark, of belief at all? In talking about life ‘beyond belief’ are you sure you’re not simply making it easier for those who actively campaign against our core Quaker beliefs to make further inroads into our Society, thus ignoring Patricia Loring’s wise advice as quoted in my previous response? Why do I believe? I believe because I am led to believe by the Holy Spirit, the Inward Light, the Christ which Jesus promised would be with us always.

  4. Thank you warmly Derek for these follow up remarks. There’s some probing questions here. “What in our case are the symbols that ‘operated prior to belief’”? I would say the symbols that come prior to belief are embedded in our Quaker stories- the stories of how got here, and the words and images that sustain us as we go forward. The language of ‘Spirit’, ‘Light’, ‘Peace’ leads us into a space where belief might come but I think they are prior to belief (at least in a theoretical or systematic sense). Our practice of silent waiting equally encodes a primary set of symbols or cosmology (it forms us into a waiting, desiring people). It gives us the right posture, so truth can spring. That’s certainly what Fox seems to have found.

    Maybe I can best illustrate my point through a bit of biography. When I first came to Friends, I don’t think I started believing in Quakerism. I grew into Quaker language, Quaker ways of doing. This process of development led to beliefs (in particular a return to Christian language) but it didn’t start like that for me. Things came together when I began to see how our Quaker words and stories fit together into a beautiful whole. When I talk about maps that’s part of what I mean. Lots of Friends and attenders are inducted into our particular way of speaking (theology through images and stories) but find it very difficult to put the pieces together.

    This difficulty causes some folk to borrow glue from other Christian traditions or faiths, to help make sense of their experience and the words they use for their experience. So I’ve heard Friends talk about how Quaker peace language reminds them of Hinduism or Buddhism, or how Quaker worship is ‘meditation’. What I think British Quakerism desperately needs is the rediscovery of ‘Quaker reasons’ why we do Quaker things. We need to recollect our story. We need to remember why we say what we say and do what we do. If we don’t develop this skill recollection,I suspect we can talk about core beliefs till the cows come home, but not sure deep unity will take root. In connection with this line of thought I came across this lovely video from Doug Gwyn about Quaker ‘narrative theology’:

    “In talking about life ‘beyond belief’ are you sure you’re not simply making it easier for those who actively campaign against our core Quaker beliefs to make further inroads into our Society, thus ignoring Patricia Loring’s wise advice as quoted in my previous response?”

    That makes my stance sound a little like Blair/Clinton triangulation politics! I hope my reflex is a bit more principled. I certainly don’t take up this vantage point because I want to make things easier or harder for people to make ‘inroads into our Society’. Rather, I’d like more Friends discover the richness of the Quaker Way and think our stories are the best way into that richness. I notice that while the Anglican Communion have their Articles (their core beliefs) they are deeply divided on diverse issues. I would suggest that the deep reason for their division is not because they don’t have criteria for belief but because they have no shared story. I sense that this is the deep barrier for many Friends, but there is a hunger in our Society to learn and discover new depths. This gives me a great deal of hope. I warmly appreciate your declaration of faith, Friend. I hope more Friends can hear the depth of the words you have spoken.

  5. Neither Christian, Universalist, nor Non-theist Friends can live the stories of our beginnings without undergoing radical change. I see three obstacles to the assignment of living these stories:
    1. These stories arose as the direct result of God-initiated encounters with Jesus Christ.
    2. These stories are under girded by a profound faith in and belief in the light of Christ.
    3. These stories portray the consequences of living under the guidance of Christ’s light.
    From Margaret Fell’s “we have stolen the stories and know nothing of them in ourselves,” to George Fox’s encounter with the voice of Christ that could speak to his condition, to Edward Burrough’s “wo unto us if we preached not the gospel,” my thoughts on this subject has grown from a short comment to a three part series of blog posts. Anyone wishing to read those posts can begin at

  6. Ben, thank you for that explanation – I think I now have a much clearer idea where you’re coming from. If it were possible to gain enough support within the membership to move the focus substantially from theology with its propositional beliefs to “Quaker story, narrative and symbolism” I’m sure that in itself would do a lot of good. If vigorously pursued it would give an implicit and possibly useful vague direction to the experience of ‘being Quaker’ . But as the other responders have said, how do we do this without having some foundational beliefs in the first place? How do we move to ‘beyond belief’ with a ‘story’ that is so bound up with such beliefs as the Inward Light, the Christ, the Cross, convincement etc. Do we start desperately imposing ‘metaphorical’ status on all of these elements – only then to start stripping away the metaphor to reveal the underlying reality – because, as I think most literary theorists would agree, a metaphor has to be a metaphor for something, it has to be in some sense ‘reality depicting’ – otherwise it is not a metaphor but a story in the wrong sense – a fiction which may still guide practice for a time but will eventually be cast off as an irrelevance.

    My worry is that your ‘beyond belief’ approach, to be successful, requires at the very least a degree of openness to the transcendent > immanent Light that is ‘not us’, and unfortunately this is not forthcoming from the humanist, secular and, in some cases, militantly atheist wing of the Society – which is why I proposed it as a minimal criterion for membership. Without this minimum, the soil cannot be prepared in which shared beliefs can take root. Your account of the process by which you personally came to be ‘convinced’ might be described as a kind of ‘osmosis’ but can you really generalise from that to the Society as a whole? And were you not yourself open to the possibility of transcendent grace to start with? My fear is that in the present climate an approach which relies on osmosis alone is tantamount to leaving things as they are, with the consequence Patricia Loring has predicted.

    With a Religious Society which has become so sensitive to the least quiver of change in society at large, perhaps we will have to wait for the fashion to turn in our direction again. And that may be starting to happen. In higher education, conversion to theism (I am told) is now more common at postgraduate level and conversion to non-theism more common at bachelor level and below. This could be significant for the future – if we don’t first shoot ourselves in the foot!

  7. We now have a society made up almost entirely of those who have come to Quakers in adulthood. They have missed out on the ‘Sunday school’, Junior Meeting or first day school experience of listening to Quaker stories. Significantly these are also the people who are now taking the children’s classes in Meetings so that our children are often missing out on the understanding of the essence of Quakerism which Friends previously gathered from listening to those stories and traditions. I was not taught ‘Quakerism’ but the whole feeling generated from listening and thinking one’s self to be in that tradition rubbed off.

  8. Thanks Mary. I think what you say is really crucial. It explains in part why we are where we are. Perhaps what we need is a greater focus on teaching ministry within Friends (a process of in-reach and out-reach) which enables us to articulate our shared stories.

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