Recently, a Friend asked on the nontheist Friends mailing list a very good question:
“What are nontheist Friends doing in meeting for business — since you obviously don’t see it as trying to find the will of God?” (paraphrase mine)
It’s a good question about what nontheists are doing in business meeting, and I’d like to take a shot at it.
To me, we are not in full contact with the natural world, but only limited and abridged contact. We filter and distort what our senses tell us — as many people have said before, and as neuroscientists today are showing scientifically. We therefore can make a distinction between reality-as-we-believe-it-to-be, and reality-as-it-is.
For me, this replaces the traditional distinction between the natural and supernatural. So usually when I find God-language (or the denigration of the “human” or “worldly”) meaningful, as I do in the case of the traditional explanations of Quaker meetings, it is because I can substitute “God”/”divine” for “real”/”true”, and “human” for “illusory”.
For me, a business meeting — even a theist one — achieves unity when the members hold their own, partial visions of reality loosely enough, and listen to each other deeply enough, that everyone comes to recognize the real and the true, and recognize their own illusions for what they are.
This differs from consensus in that it is not merely an attempt to average everyone’s reality-as-they-believe-it-to-be, but an attempt to help each other perceive reality-as-it-is.
(In this way, incidentally, I can fully agree with you and Gamaliel* — if our purposes are of our own devising, they will founder on the rock of reality, but if they instead spring from the way things are, “you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against reality.”)
*Previously the Friend had explained his attitude towards nontheist Friends by quoting Acts 5:38-39.