Nontheism + Quaker meeting for business

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)

He liked my response, so I am reprinting it below, lightly edited.

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.”)


Zach Alexander

*Previously the Friend had explained his attitude towards nontheist Friends by quoting Acts 5:38-39.

32 Responses to “Nontheism + Quaker meeting for business”

  1. 1 Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) Jan 5th, 2007

    It seems to me, friend Zach, that I touched on this matter five days ago, on my Quaker Magpie Journal, in my essay, Meeting for Worship; Meeting for Business.

    In that essay I wrote:

    “Six months of hour-long waiting worship twice a week is the sort of intensive training in setting aside one’s self and learning to serve, that can change a person visibly. Six months of hour-long sitting in silence twice a week, seeking for truth and reality, may never once take a person beyond thinking that he knows the truth better than anyone else around him.”

    It is precisely at this point that I find a focus on truth and reality insufficient.

  2. 2 Will Jennings Jan 7th, 2007

    Zach, I’m not sure I agree with the premise that nontheist Friends must necessarily not see m4w-watb as trying to find the will of God.

    By analogy, I might say that I’m looking for my glasses, though I believe that their being “mine” has no basis in reality: there is no physical or chemical test for ownership, since property rights are entirely in our heads. Even that there’s an “I” that does the looking is a pretty flimsy notion that tends to evaporate when you look too closely at it. Still, I do see what’s going on as “me, looking for my glasses”, because ontology doesn’t do any good in getting me out the door in the morning, and looking for my glasses does.

    Similarly, being intellectually convinced of the existence or non-existence of God in one theological sense or another has no bearing on my capacity to seek and follow God’s will. I know from lots of experience that theology doesn’t do any good in getting me to live into truth more fully*, and seeking the will of God (whether or not I prefer to use those words to describe what I’m doing) does.

    The question of what we’re doing in m4w-watb, though, is a fruitful thing to talk about, and I’m thankful for your answer. It shouldn’t be assumed that knowing where a Friend stands theologically answers that question — even where there is agreement on language, there is tremendous diversity of experience, and even where our language is so different that it’s painful to talk about it, there is unity of purpose.

    I’m so glad you could make it this weekend.

    * Though theological conversations can be a big help in understanding how to listen to one another, and in finding words we can use to better minister to one another.

  3. 3 Pam Jan 8th, 2007

    Marshall -

    I really don’t understand the distinction made in your mind, and wonder if you didn’t read Zach’s post very carefully, because to me it does such a good job of explaining - or maybe I’m just having trouble understanding you.

    I think I know what you’re getting at, a difference between “waiting” and “seeking” and perhaps a sense that we can know the truth, but how is that any more audacious than thinking we can know God’s will? I certainly have heard of or encountered plenty of “religious” folks who simply tack on “god wants” to whatever they want, or feel compelled to, with no more discernment than you seem to credit truthseekers with.

    God wants me to be rich
    God wants me to kill everyone on the staten island ferry (actually, it was Jesus who wanted that, according to that man)
    God wants you to shut up

    I mean, it’s asinine, but it happens. And I think it’s just as easy to see when a supposed “truthseeker” is only coming up with what they want to believe.

    I think all quakers see mfw as being about somehow transcending our own egos, of letting go of our ownership of ‘reality’ or whatever it is - of deep listening to folks we think we disagree with, some believe that they are listening for the voice of god, some for the voice of the community, some for the voice of truth or nature. I personally believe that whatever it is (God, universal truth, or something else) it is there for us to find together, and what we call it is not the most important part of the seeking/waiting/opening process.

    I think that we differ in our acceptance of metaphors of “waiting on” and “serving” - I do not believe that it’s essential to put myself in a “down” position.

    A friend of mine told me once of reading a book about a feminist 12-stepper who claimed that the 12 steps work well for men but not as well for women partially because of this sort of difference. Men generally DO need to learn to give up control and power in their lives to move forward with something, to “submit” to a “higher power” - women need to learn to claim their own power, to see themselves as actors, rather than objects. Not because of how truth is, but because of how we raise our children in this society.

    I don’t believe that any generaliztions about gender (or anything else, typically) are universally true, but I think this one is often true, and worth considering, not so much even about gender, but simply the fact that you need to submit to something greater than yourself to actively seek the will of God, and I don’t, doesn’t mean that I can’t seek it too. We all have different things that we have to let go on the path.

  4. 4 dave carl Jan 9th, 2007

    I believe that god is all there is. Therefore, it does not distress me if someone is a nontheist. I believe that a nontheist is simply god seeking god in another way. It would be presumptious of me to object!

    I realize my language here my seem patronizing to nontheists, as if I’m telling them that they don’t really know what they are doing. I don’t mean it that way, however. I am trying to share my experience and “way of looking at things.” I myself have been a nontheist for much of my life, and don’t particularly like “I Am” labels — but I do use the word “god” a lot in my thinking, at least. I used to have some criteria in my religious search that went something like this:

    Any religion that I would adopt must be “realistic” and “experiencable.” That is, it must not require me, as Marcus Borg might put it, to force my heart to accept things that my brain rejects. Thus, I keenly appreciate Zach’s distinction of “reality as believed” vs. “reality as it is.” This reminds me of Indian sages who tell us that Brahma can be known to us as sat-chit-ananda: reality, conciousness, and bliss. The reality aspect here may connote that “god is real” but it also points to the value of our being “real” as well. This brings to mind the Quaker emphasis on integrity, of sticking to “what is.” The conciousness aspect reminds me of waiting worship, — we know god’s will for us not by imposing our own thoughts (see Pam’s comments) but by opening ourselves to what’s “there” beyond what our egos present to us. I see close parallels between Fox’s injunction that we go beyond our “notions” and Eastern religions that urge us to find god or light in a place that lies beneath our beliefs and concepts.

    Particularly if anyone is sitting silently for an hour or two a week, I have faith that god is at work. This I know experimentally! And I doubt that I am wired very differently from anyone else.

  5. 5 Marshall Massey Jan 10th, 2007

    Dear friend dave carl, I’d just like to point out that there is such a thing as dead and profitless sitting in silence. Not only have Quaker elders remarked on it, but Zen masters and Hindu gurus have, too. God may be at work in the midst of us, but we take no benefit at all from that fact if we fail to enter into it with the proper attitude.

    When Moses approached the burning bush, not expecting God at all, he suddenly and quite unexpectedly heard God speak to him. “Take off your sandals,” said God, “for the place where you now stand is holy.” “Uh, er, oh, okay,” said Moses, taken by surprise and totally flustered, as he obliged.

    It was a condition of taken-by-surprise, totally-out-of-his-depth, defenseless receptivity to a divine Master who could and would actually speak to him, that God took Moses to more or less instantaneously, with this simple out-of-the-blue command. (It was the same condition that God took Saul to, on the road to Damascus.) And that condition is where we need to be as Friends, whether we’re sitting in silence, standing in uproar, or running to catch a bus.

    That’s what waiting worship actually is — not just sitting in silence and “opening ourselves”, but being in that state of defenseless receptivity to a divine Master who can and will actually speak to us. The point of the story in Exodus is not really that we’re supposed to take off our shoes in a holy place — the point is about coming into that condition.

  6. 6 Marshall Massey Jan 10th, 2007

    Pam, sometimes I wonder if there will ever be a time when anti-theist folks will cease to trot out the same tired old slurs against God-based discernment. “But people use God talk to justify all sorts of things — ‘God wants me to be rich’, ‘God wants me to kill everyone on the Staten Island ferry’, etc.” Yes, of course some people do such things! But doing such things is not at all our Quaker discernment process, and it is kind of silly for someone who has actually experienced our Quaker discernment process to bring up the one as a criticism of the other.

    There are a myriad of voices we can listen to, or listen for, within ourselves, or within the meeting we attend. We can listen to the voice of desire for somebody else’s spouse. We can listen to the voice of anger against someone who has offended us. We can listen to the voice of the community. (Demagogues listen to the voice of the community, and use what they learn of its nature to manipulate the community.) We can listen to the voice of paranoia. These are all genuine voices, but the bare fact that they are genuine does not make them identical to the voice of God.

    One of the primary purposes of the written scriptures, and of oral and practical Christian tradition, is to help each new generation of seekers work out the difference between the voice of God and all other voices. Someone says, “I hear God telling me (or telling us) to do such and such.” If that person has some faith in Christianity, one can then respond, “Well, Christ in the gospels says” (or “Hosea says”, or whatever) and cite whatever teachings seem to have a relevance, and ask, “Is this voice you are hearing the same personality that taught those other things, and the values those things imply, in the gospels and the sayings of the prophets? Do you really think it is really the same person speaking?” And this is one of the ways one learns Quaker discernment.

    Since there are so many voices one might listen to, it follows logically that people who describe what they are listening to, or for, differently — one saying, “I am listening to/for God,” the next “I am listening to/for truth”, the next “I am listening to/for the community,” may actually be listening to or for different things. Vox populi is not necessarily vox Dei, and neither are vox communitatis, vox naturae and vox realitatis.

    So when a liberal member of the Society of Friends says, “I can’t relate to the Christian God; I listen in meeting for worship to the voice of the community” (or “nature” or “reality” or whatever), I am made wary. Very wary.

  7. 7 dave carl Jan 10th, 2007


    Thanks, that’s a lovely description of how we can approach worship. I’ve personally experienced meetings for worship in which I self-adjudged my participation as useless, if not dead. If I am seeing that correctly, then I would attribute that seeing to the Light or Christ within, and sometimes great blessing flow from that point. So “awareness of profitlessness” would certainly have some value.

    When you write “God may be at work in the midst of us, but we take no benefit at all from that fact if we fail to enter into it with the proper attitude,” this raises something that has sort of intrigued me lately: what ability do we have in the first place to determine our own “proper attitude?” You are speaking of receptivity which is almost a “non-attitude” — sort of the “let go and let god” approach.

    Can a nontheist do this? Is holding a mental conception that “god exists” a precondition? For those of us who believe in god’s omnipotence, it might seem odd to hold that a nontheist’s nontheism is strong enough to prevent god from working in that person’s heart. Since my own journey from nontheism to a trust and reliance on god took place largely while sitting in meetings for worship over the years, I’d rather just lovingly encourage anyone who sits in silence to keep doing it and let god take care of the rest. More may be revealed to me at some point, of course, but I’m leery of being too quick to judge the value of another’s spiritual endeavor. Nontheism for me served a valuable “cleaning out” function of removing unhealthy and inaccurate images of god, but all the while I kept up the search.

    Take care,


  8. 8 Zach A Jan 10th, 2007

    Hi Marshall, Will, Pam, and Carl, and thank you for your thoughtful comments. Apologies for not responding yet.

    I hope to respond tonight or tomorrow to the core issues that have been brought up, but right now I’ll just make a few side-comments.

    Marshall - I think I have on some days qualified as “anti-theist,” but I’m not so sure our gentle Pam does…

    Dave - I don’t think it’s patronizing at all to see nontheists as (sometimes) listening to God without knowing it, at least not coming from an individual, and in a good-natured way. I made the equivalent nontheist statement myself in the post (4th paragraph).

    And much more than that — I think it’s actually the key to this whole issue.

    Pam - I remember reading about a feminist theologian who had made the same basic argument as your friend (re the 12 step program): The most basic and characteristic sin according to the Christian tradition is pride, but this is in fact only the characteristic male sin, while the characteristic female sin is rather not having enough pride. I’m not sure I agree with the concept of “enough pride” (to be fair, not her words), but I think there’s at least a grain of truth here. I don’t remember who this was — she was discussed near the beginning of An Interpretation of Religion by British philosopher of religion John Hick.

    Be back soon,

  9. 9 Marshall Massey Jan 10th, 2007

    It has belatedly occurred to me that the first paragraph of my last posting might be misunderstood.

    I am not accusing Pam, or anyone else here, of being an anti-theist.

    I have indeed encountered many anti-theists who have trotted out the old slurs time and again — not only this one, but the one about the Crusades, the one about the Inquisition, the one about witch-hunting — none of which misbehaviors Friends were ever guilty of! And hearing the old slurs trotted out time and again does get tiresome.

    But I think the people in this present conversation all have more sense than to mistake those old slurs for valid criticisms of traditional Quaker discernment.

  10. 10 Pam Jan 10th, 2007


    Thanks for the clarification about the term “anti-theist” - I was quite taken aback to be thought of as such!

    I worry that what I meant and what you heard in my mentioning the man who shot a bunch of people on the Staten Island Ferry because Jesus told him to (or any number of such type things) were very very different.

    I never mean to dismiss all of christianity because horrible things have been done in the name of christianity.

    More importantly I would like you to understand that when and if I hear YOU say that you are doing something because you have discerned it to be God’s will (assuming that it’s something that doesn’t completely contradict my sense of “god’s will” - like killing people) I will listen with TOTALLY different ears than I did to the man who shot people for Jesus.

    I DO NOT think that it’s the same voice, your Jesus and his.

    And that, really, was pretty much my point. When you talk about listening for God, and learning to distinguish that voice from the voice of envy, lust, or greed, I know what you’re getting at. - not “saber” know - like looking something up in a book, but “conoscer” know, like I recognize it, it makes sense to me.

    And I truly believe that I do it too - at the very least I work to distinguish the “voice” that I’m seeking from that of lust or envy, so that analagy tends to shut me down rather than engaging me.

    However, as a person who doesn’t hear the voice of Jesus, to say that what makes what you do valid as opposed to what I do is the name of Jesus, brings to mind the man on the ferry. What you have in common with him is the name Jesus as an inspiration for what you do. What you have in common with me is a quaker practice of deep seeking and openness, which many of us know how to do better than we know how to describe. What floors me, in that context, is that you find the name of Jesus so essential, and what you share with me to be suspect.


  11. 11 Pam Jan 10th, 2007

    Oops- It occurs to me that it seems only I think that we share it.

    To me the name of Jesus is not that important, and so I see what we do as similar. It’s not that important because, as I said, it’s obviously not a guarantor of actually being able to discern what’s right / god’s will.

    Also, I wanted to echo what you said about listening for the voice of the community. Certainly communities have been violent mobs plenty throughout history, and anyone who would dismiss christianity based on the crusades has no logical reason to put their faith in “community”

    However, I do believe that if the whole community is engaged in a similar practice - of going deep, and letting go of worldly /selfish desires and perspectivees, that there is less danger of that. And I do not believe that invoking the name Christ or God prevents us straying from the path.

  12. 12 dave carl Jan 11th, 2007

    Hi Pam,

    “And I do not believe that invoking the name Christ or God prevents us straying from the path.”

    I find such invocations helpful, although not talismanically preventative. For me its a matter of invoking something of the “highest and best” that has its source outside my own self-interest.

    Best regards,


  13. 13 Marshall Massey Jan 12th, 2007

    Dave Carl, in response to your comment of January 10th at 12:25 pm, I do speak of receptivity, but not just of any old receptivity. I describe it as a particular type of receptivity, and one of the characteristics that distinguish it from other types of receptivity is that it is a receptivity toward God.

    Another characteristic that distinguishes it is that it is alert — as scripture repeatedly puts it, it is watchful. This is significantly different from the “let go and let God” approach to which you refer.

    I think it is fair to describe a deliberately Godward orientation, combined with an alert watchfulness, as being a “proper attitude”. However, if you can suggest better words, I will gladly listen.

    You ask, “what ability do we have in the first place to determine our own ‘proper attitude?’” My own answer is, we can know it is the proper attitude if it enables us to hear God clearly and obey Him (Her) unhesitatingly.

    You then ask, “Can a nontheist do this?” My answer is, if a nontheist does this, the result will be that he (she) ceases to be a nontheist. For how can one remain a nontheist after having clearly heard God speak? Holding a mental concept that “God exists” is not a precondition but a result.

  14. 14 Marshall Massey Jan 12th, 2007

    Zach, I don’t think I’d agree with the feminist theologian you refer to, at least as you represent her. If there are distinct male and female sins, I’d say the besetting male sin involves the exploitation of power; the besetting female sin involves the exploitation of relationships. Both are ways of misusing the creatures, and that is of course what makes them sins; but since men and women start from different positions in human society, and with different innate tendencies, they tend to misuse the creatures in somewhat different ways.

  15. 15 Will Jennings Jan 12th, 2007

    Marshall asked:
    > For how can one remain a nontheist after having clearly heard God speak?

    Marshall, forgive me for answering if that was a rhetorical question.

    It’s common among both theists and nontheists to have religious experiences that we later understand to be false, or that we later interpret to mean something other than what we first thought, no matter how much clarity we feel in the moment. Can’t you think of a time where you thought you clearly heard God speak, and later worked out that you’d been mistaken? We have good reason to distrust our senses. Doubting the existence of God doesn’t mean doubting the experience of God — just what it implies.

    When I hold two fingers in front of my face, I see a floating sausage, but there’s nothing there.

  16. 16 Marshall Massey Jan 13th, 2007

    Pam, you write that I “say that what makes what [I] do valid as opposed to what [you] do is the name of Jesus….”

    This is false, and I deny it. I never said such a thing.

    In the first place, I do not say that what you do is not valid. I say, it is not what Christianity was originally about. I say, it is not what Quakerism was originally, or is still (in traditional circles) about. I say, it is not what I do. And I say, I am wary of it. But I don’t say it is invalid.


    And second, my practice does not revolve around “the name of Jesus”. I recognize that “the name of Jesus” was historically important to early Christians, and was used by Christ himself in such teachings as “where two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also”. But the meaning of “in my name” in that context was profoundly different from what we moderns tend to hear when we hear the phrase; it was tied to ancient ideas about membership and participation in a leader’s clan.

    People who were members of a leader’s clan took his last name — his clan name — as their own. In Scotland, for example, where my father’s ancestors came from, those who rallied around the leader of the Massey clan — the Massey — became “Masseys” themselves, even if they were not Masseys by patrilineal descent. Thus, people who rallied around “the Massey” were literally “gathering in his name”.

    And this was also how Jesus himself evidently used the phrase. Those “gathering in his name” were those who gathered as loyal and trusted members of his clan, in his service, desiring to do his will — in other words, those who came together in Christian assemblies, knowing Christ and seeking to do Christ’s will. Gathering in this way made them “Christians”, just as gathering in “the Massey”’s name made Scots “Masseys”.

    In this regard, the name “Jesus” or “Christ” (or “Massey”, for that matter) was no more than a linguistic convenience. What actually mattered was the knowledge of, and loyalty to, and readiness and desire to serve, the person himself. If two or more people gathered who knew Christ, and were loyal to Christ, and ready and desirous to serve Christ, then the dynamic of their interaction would heighten their sensitivity to Christ — and not only would they then be better servants of Christ, but they would feel the presence of Christ in their midst. And that appears to be what Christ was getting at.

    The early Friends understood that someone not formally of the Christian faith, might yet be saved through faithfulness to the guidance of the Word, Seed and Light operating within him, even if (as Penington put it) “he distinctly know not how to sue out and plead it.” And I agree with the early Friends on this point. Knowledge of technicalities, such as the literal name of Jesus and the actual technique of waiting worship, are not needed for a person to be responsive to the pleadings of the Spirit as they come to his awareness, and thus for that person to be saved.

    However, the calling of the Friend (to whom, as Christ put it at the Last Supper, he has revealed everything) is both higher and more taxing than the path of the Jew or Turk who is saved without really knowing the method.

    I will remind you that this discussion began with Zach’s attempt to answer a Friend’s question, “what are nontheist Friends doing in meeting for business?” — as you may see by scrolling to the top of this page. And in regard to that question, the fact that nontheists do not, cannot, truly practice waiting worship without ceasing to be nontheists, even though they may honestly seek for truth, becomes quite pertinent.

    Even in the context of meeting for business, the literal name of “Jesus” is still not what matters. But deep seeking alone, without directly knowing Christ, and being loyal to Christ, and being ready and desirous to serve Christ, is at a real disadvantage. Such seeking is neither as efficient nor as reliable as “distinctly knowing how to sue out and plead it” via waiting worship. And meeting for business is handicapped when its participants do not approach the task of discernment in a truly reliable way.

  17. 17 Marshall Massey Jan 13th, 2007

    I had asked, “…How can one remain a nontheist after having clearly heard God speak?”

    Will Jennings responds, “It’s common among both theists and nontheists to have religious experiences that we later understand to be false, or that we later interpret to mean something other than what we first thought, no matter how much clarity we feel in the moment.” (Etc.)

    Will, it’s quite true that every experience can be rationalized in multiple ways. A skeptic can rationalize everything out of the ordinary as illusory. A solipsist can rationalize everything but himself as illusory. A Buddhist can rationalize even himself as illusory.

    The mere fact that such alternate explanations are possible proves nothing — except that the mind is really quite good at coming up with comfortable (but not necessarily true) ways of explaining uncomfortable things.

    That is why people in the know are so fond of Ockham’s Razor — the principle that the explanation to be preferred is not necessarily the comfortable one, but the one requiring the smallest number of hypotheses.

    And sometimes one has an experience for which the explanation with the smallest number of hypotheses is that (uncomfortable though this idea may be) it was an experience of God.

    And that is what I was talking about.

    People who do not themselves have such an experience may continue to explain such experiences away in skeptical (but comfortable) ways. The person who has had a true experience of God, though, will recognize straightforwardly that this is what it was. And even a skeptic may be able to hear the experiencer’s certainty.

    Bernard Shaw dramatized this matter in his play Saint Joan:

    Joan of Arc: I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.

    Robert de Baudricourt: They come from your imagination.

    Joan: Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us. (Scene I)

    What matters, I think, in Joan’s answer, is that she sees straight through the roots of de Baudricourt’s comfort-seeking skepticism — and forgives him.

    And (in Shaw’s play) she says something equally perceptive to a whole roomful of skeptics, later on — skeptics who want her to swear on the Gospels to tell them the whole truth:

    Joan: But I cannot tell you the whole truth: God does not allow the whole truth to be told. You do not understand it when I tell it. (Scene VI)

  18. 18 Zach A Jan 20th, 2007

    Thank you all again for the thoughtful comments, especially Dave for his gently moderate position of both agreement and disagreement with the original post. I apologize for not having responded (though I did follow them); the past week and a half has seen a number of significant events that have taken up most of my attention.

    I’d like to belatedly respond to Will and Marshall, the two people who addressed comments directly to me…

  19. 19 Zach A Jan 20th, 2007

    I don’t know whether it’s because my reading is poor, or because I’m an effete comfort seeker, or simply because your writing and thinking are unclear, but I can’t make much sense of most of your criticism here.

    Let me ask you a clarifying question: when you say a nontheist cannot practice “waiting worship” without “ceasing to be a nontheist,” what ever do you mean?

    Are you saying (1) that the moment a nontheist in fact “figures out” how to properly practice Quaker worship, the scales will fall from her eyes, and she will outwardly profess belief in God?

    If so, then it seems you must think the same is true for non-Christian Friends — as soon as they learn to properly practice Quaker worship, they will outwardly renounce their disbelief and become Christians. You’re of course entitled to this belief, but you must realize this implies that all non-Christian (not simply nontheist!) members of the Society are imposters who don’t know how to practice Quaker worship. This, in my view, is both chauvinistic and unsupported by experience.

    Or are you saying a variant of what our Friend Dave Carl said earlier, that (2) a nontheist (at her best) is simply inwardly waiting on God, but not outwardly realizing this is the case – and that nontheism therefore is not a fatal difficulty, but just a practical “inefficiency” or “handicapp”?

    If so, I think that’s acceptable at this point, and I welcome your broadmindedness. Though I wish you had said this earlier, instead of tersely quoting that section of your blog post that suggests nontheists will simply be know-it-alls (and which post implied non-Christian Quakers do not “qualify” as Friends).

    In fact, I take the same attitude towards theistic Quakers such as yourself. At his best, a theistic Quaker is simply waiting on truth and reality in all its fulness, but not outwardly realizing this is the case or describing it in those terms – and this is a practical inefficiency, a handicapp, but not an insurmountable problem.

    Whichever of us is right, to paraphrase one traditional Friend said, the pure principle is excluded from no forms of religion where the heart stands in sincerity, regardless of the names we call it by. I am distressed that you and some other Friends feel this applies only to people whose religious language involves God, but I hope we will eventually be reconciled.

  20. 20 Zach A Jan 20th, 2007

    It’s an interesting perspective you put forward in your first comment. I think there are in fact some Friends who desribe themselves as nontheist who do still use God language as a convenient set of metaphors. In academic philosophy of religion I think this is called a “non-cognitive” view of religious language.

    I think there’s a lot to this, since “God” does have a history of generally positive use among Quakers, and as Dave says, it’s in some ways helpful to have a term that “invok[es] something of the ‘highest and best’ that has its source outside my own self-interest.” But personally, not believing that the entity most people have in mind when they say “God” exists, it seems truer and plainer speech to simply invoke the “highest and best” directly – by speaking of “the highest and best,” or “the good,” or “the truth.”

    I’m so glad I came — wonderful clerking on your part.

  21. 21 Marshall Massey Jan 21st, 2007

    Friend Zach you write, “when you say a nontheist cannot practice ‘waiting worship’ without ‘ceasing to be a nontheist,’ what ever do you mean?

    “Are you saying (1) that the moment a nontheist in fact ‘figures out’ how to properly practice Quaker worship, the scales will fall from her eyes, and she will outwardly profess belief in God?”

    I don’t know that it’s a matter of figuring out. Saul didn’t “figure out” how to do it on the road to Damascus; it just happened to him. Fox didn’t “figure out” how to do it when he heard the voice saying to him, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” it just happened to him.

    Neither Saul nor George Fox was stupid, and “figuring out” just wasn’t the process.

    Whether a person outwardly professes belief in God afterwards, rather depends on the degree to which she/he is ready to be forthright about what has happened to her/him. Does it not? I can definitely imagine circumstances, some creditable and some not, in which she might choose not to be forthright.

    You write, “You’re of course entitled to this belief, but you must realize this implies that all non-Christian (not simply nontheist!) members of the Society are imposters who don’t know how to practice Quaker worship.

    I don’t think it implies they are imposters. The definition of membership has changed in many of the liberal corners of our Society, to the point where all a person needs to do is ask for membership and it hardly matters what sort of understanding or practice she has — she’s given membership. In such places, membership clearly does not mean that one has anything at all to do with traditional Quakerism or primitive Christianity. And thus, people in those places who become members while refusing to have anything to do with traditional Quakerism and primitive Christianity are not being imposters, they’re merely conforming to the definition of what “Quaker” has already come to mean in those places.

    I do find this situation objectionable, but I am realistic enough to recognize that my personal opinion has absolutely no weight in the Quaker communities that operate this way.

    I disagree with those who say “that (2) a nontheist (at her best) is simply inwardly waiting on God, but not outwardly realizing this is the case….” A nontheist may be inwardly waiting, but being a nontheist, it is a different sort of waiting — waiting in the sense of “waiting to see what emerges”, rather than “waiting on God” in the way that a waiter waits on a customer, or a courtier on a King. The two kinds of waiting should not, IMHO, be confused — any more than the kind of watching that a person just wandering around a baseball field does should be confused with the kind of watching that a member of a baseball team does in the same place at the height of a baseball game he is a part of.

    You write of how I “tersely quot[ed] that section of your blog post that suggests nontheists will simply be know-it-alls.” I will simply point out that the verb I used was “may”, not “will”, and that this difference is critical. I did not make any sweeping judgment of the condition of all nontheists there.

    You note that I “implied non-Christian Quakers do not “qualify” as Friends“. That is correct, but the implication is not original with me; it is contained in the text from which the name “Friends” was purposefully derived. If you are going to take offense at the implication, then your anger should properly be directed at George Fox and the whole first two generations of Friends, who had the temerity to choose this name, and to describe their religion as “Primitive Christianity Revived”, quite regardless of the hurt feelings of those who would come to call themselves “nontheist Friends” three and a half centuries later.

  22. 22 Zach A Jan 21st, 2007

    Marshall, by the same argument, even fewer “qualify” as Quakers because most of us don’t quake!

    How many in your meeting quake? Have you eldered those that don’t?

    No, because that would be silly and literalistic, and your resorting to the same reasoning here seems a little evasive, and perhaps belies a momentary lack of the integrity required to own up to your exclusivistic attitude, which you alone are responsible for.

    Definitions change over time, as you’ve said yourself, and whatever the original meaning of “Quaker” or “Friend” (which also was short for Friends of Truth, I remind you), it has evolved to mean “a member of the Religious Society of Friends,” which long ago began to admit non-Christians. You yourself have endorsed this usage. In your comment just now you suggested the same (paragraphs 7, 8), and even addressed me as “Friend Zach.”

    To me that indicates that you are committed to this minimal degree of inclusivity, and that in your blog post you simply had decided against plainer speech in favor of a imprecise rhetorical flourish (perhaps more satisfyingly dramatic than “We qualify as traditional Friends…”). But now you’re defending it, so perhaps that was what you meant, and you’ve recently changed your mind about who qualifies as a “Friend.” Which is it? I realize it’s a big issue, and you perhaps haven’t fully figured out how you feel about it.

    As for the more on-topic issue of nontheism and worship, I’m glad you recognize that a Friend who is a nontheist or non-Christian can be “inwardly waiting,” but I don’t see why for you this must be so different from what another Friend is doing who describes his behavior as “waiting on God” or “Christ.” All the concrete indicators you have cited – setting aside one’s ego, learning to serve others, hearing ethical imperatives and acting on them – can and do happen among non-Christian and nontheistic Friends just as much as traditional ones. This all seems rather more like two players disagreeing on the name of the game (”soccer” or “football”) than like one wandering around the field aimlessly, as you so uncharitably (and based on little experience I imagine) claim nontheistic Friends must do.

  23. 23 Marshall Massey Jan 21st, 2007

    Hi, Zach!

    Lots of misunderstandings in your latest posted comment. Let’s see if we can’t straighten some of them out together.

    You begin by writing, “Marshall, by the same argument, even fewer ‘qualify’ as Quakers because most of us don’t quake!

    I go by the dictionary definitions, Zach. If you will grab whatever dictionary you have handy — any one will do — or just go to Google and enter: define: Quaker — you will find that, as applied to humans, they agree: a “Quaker” is a “member of the Religious Society of Friends”. There is no proviso about also having to quake.

    You go on to say, “Definitions change over time….” Yes, they do. Using Google in the way I’ve suggested will give you the up-to-the-minute definitions. They support what I’ve said above.

    You then write, “…whatever the original meaning of ‘Quaker’ or ‘Friend’….” Ah, but there you are pulling a switcheroo. The definition of “Quaker” is tied only to our Society. But the definition of “Friend”, with a capital-F, references something older, namely John 15:13-15. And for those of us who are genuine Christians, and regard Jesus as the incarnation of God, His word as God automatically trumps dictionary definitions. It is for that reason that I will use “Quaker” to describe any member of the RSoF, but try to limit my use of capital-F “Friend” to those who meet the standard of John 15. To the degree that I myself do not do what Christ has commanded, I decline to call myself a Friend! Being a Friend is a very high calling, and I will honestly say that I only sometimes measure up.

    You then observe that “Friend” “also was short for Friends of Truth“. That is quite true, but the first generation, who chose that term, did not choose it obliviously, or without regard to what the Bible had to say on the subject. Everything they said and did was with alertness to what the Bible, and particularly the New Testament, had to say! And of course, the particularly relevant text here is John 8:31-32: Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (The parallel of “…shall make you free” to John 15:15’s “no longer shall I call you slaves” is not just accidental; “disciples” in John 8:31-32 is the precursor of “friends” in John 15:15, and Christ sets both in parallel opposition to the condition of the slave.)

    – But this teaching, John 8:31-32, makes even just knowing the truth — let alone actually being a friend of that truth — dependent, not just on “believing” (as the Jews whom Jesus was addressing already did), but on continuing in Christ’s word. So here again, just as in John 15:13-15, it is necessary to have a relationship of obedience to Jesus the personal Christ (”continuing in his word”, i.e. living within the commands he has given) in order to qualify for the title.

    The other appearances of the concept of “truth” in the Bible are equally significant here. I might point out that the very first appearance of the word in the Gospels (AV/KJV) is Matthew 14:33 — Then they that were in the ship came and worshipped him, saying, Of a truth thou art the Son of God. Matthew 22:16 and the sublime John 1:14,17 make much the same point. In John 18:37 Christ tells Pilate, “Every one who is of the truth hears my voice.” A theist (and the early members of the Quaker movement were, so far as anyone knows, all theists) would recognize immediately that this ties the truth to the experience of a God with personality.

    In short, one can divorce the early Quaker term “Friends of Truth” from theism only by divorcing it from Christ’s teachings in the Bible. But the early Friends did not have a religion divorced from Christ’s teachings in the Bible.

    Regarding waiting worship, you write, “all the concrete indicators you have cited – setting aside one’s ego, learning to serve others, hearing ethical imperatives and acting on them – can and do happen among non-Christian and nontheistic Friends just as much as traditional ones.” This statement flabbergasts me.

    The only concrete indicator I offered, regarded whether something is waiting worship or not, is not any of the concrete indicators you have ascribed to me. The only such indicator I have offered is that waiting worship involves waiting in the same sense that a waiter waits on a customer, or a courtier on a king. In other words, I say that “waiting”, in the Quaker term “waiting worship”, refers to an interpersonal relationship in which the one whom you wait on can surprise you by making detailed, personal, seemingly inexplicable demands — “this wine’s no good; take it back;” or “go fetch my sceptre for me” — and you intend to leap to fulfill those demands.

    In the context of divinity, the demand might be “take off your shoes, right here on the road;” or “go, preach the Gospel in the middle of that utterly deserted lumber camp;” or “tell these people, whom you have never met before this instant, that they must quit holding a grudge against that third person you see way back there;” or “leave your plow — just leave it, this very instant — and don’t bother to say good-bye to anyone; but go out into the world and start preaching whatever I give you to preach.” All these demands have been experienced by real historical Quaker ministers at one time or another! And these are not the sorts of demands that are made (or can be made) by abstract truth; they are the sort of thing that only a complex living Person can or would ask.

    I am not concerned about exclusivity or inclusivity. Those are the concerns of liberal Quakerism, which for some reason has decided that the Society of Friends is a public utility like the schools or the bus station or the city library, obliged to throw its doors open to everyone who wants to tramp in all muddy-footed. My own concern is rather with faithfulness — at least insofar as I can manage to practice it. I willingly admit that I find practicing faithfulness very, very, very hard, and so am not inclined to set myself above others.

    As to your accusations of silliness, evasiveness, lack of integrity, and uncharitability, I am not interested in having that kind of conversation.

    Finally, when I addressed you as “Friend Zach”, the “F” was capitalized simply because it began a sentence. I address you as “friend” not because I am looking for a courteous title analogous to “Mister” and applicable to Quakers, but because I feel personal friendship for you. You may note that, earlier in this conversation, I addressed dave carl the same way.

  24. 24 Zach A Jan 22nd, 2007

    Friend Marshall (and that’s a proper capital F),
    I’m sorry if I offended you with the words you cite, but it’s untrue that I simply “accused” you of those things, with one exception.

    I make no apology for calling it “uncharitable” to compare the worship of a Friend who doesn’t believe in God to someone wandering aimlessly around a baseball field, because such a sweeping generalization based on little or no experience is, in fact, a little rude and uncharitable. If you’re not interested in conversing somewhere where you will be challenged when you are uncharitable or rude, as you have been again by disdainfully comparing non-traditional Quakers to members of the public “tramp[ing] in muddy-footed,” this isn’t the blog for you, because I don’t find that acceptable. I won’t censor you, but I will continue to speak plainly with you about how I see this.

    But as for the other words, I only thought you were being silly and evasive (and said this might be due to a lack of integrity) before I understood that you make a distinction between “Quaker” and “Friend,” without which you would’ve been in fact talking out of both sides of your mouth. Now that I do, I see you weren’t, and I apologize for any offense.

    Getting to the substance of your comment:

    If you’d like to make a distinction between “Quaker” and “Friend,” you’re welcome to. My concern was not with your special usage of “Friend,” which is clearer to me now, but with clarifying what seemed at first to be (under normal standards of usage) inconsistencies in your writing.

    As for the origins of “Friends of Truth”:

    I’m aware that this was generally said with Biblical passages about “truth” in mind, but my point (not at all spelled out in the last comment, I admit) is that this usage, together with other passages extolling “truth” and the love of it, make some of early Friends’ theology more compatible with the nontheistic position I describe in this post – however much they might be surprised by this.

    If following “Christ’s word” is linked to “knowing the truth” and being liberated by it, then, working backwards, it becomes easy to do as Dave and other Friends have, and see anyone who is coming to know the truth and being set free by it must in fact be following Christ’s word. Even if we’re talking about Jew, a Turk, or a nontheist. It also becomes easier to think as I do, which is the same line of reasoning plus the extra step of seeing “Christ’s word” as an aspect of natural rather than supernatural reality.

    In a specifically early Quaker context, if faithful minding of the light brings one to the “day which declares all things as they are,” including one’s actions and their rightness or wrongness, and “will thoroughly declare thee what thou art” (Nayler), then it is not unreasonable to assume the reverse is true – that if you are coming to see things as they are, seeing your actions and their effects more clearly, seeing yourself more as you really are, then you must be successfully “minding the light.”

    And this is not simply reasoning, but is also confirmed in my experience. The more I sit in Quaker worship and private retirement, where I try to quiet my mind, still my ego, let go of my own ways of seeing things, and let the light show (factually) or tell (imperatively) what it will, the closer I come to what Nayler describes, and to Paul’s fruits of the spirit. This has been true ever since I began attending Quaker meeting, and it did not cease to be the case when I decided I didn’t believe in a supernatural God several months ago. You judge a tree by its fruits, and I therefore conclude that I, Nayler, and Paul are doing approximately the same thing (myself less well than they, I suspect), and just calling it by different names.

    Moving on, this dovetails into your objection around the word “concrete.”

    I can appreciate that we’re understanding that word in different ways, so let’s use another word instead – “observable.” I’m going on the traditional assumption that if God exists and speaks to people, no human has the ability to directly perceive when this has happened, but rather, we must always perceive this indirectly, through a process (and eventually a skill) of discernment.

    And to discern this invisible happening we must depend on observable clues. Prominent among these are the Pauline “fruits of the spirit” again – no one has “Spirit Vision” whereby we can simply observe whether a person is minding the spirit or not, so we must instead observe whether the effects characteristic of minding the spirit are present in their lives. Are they loving? joyful? peaceful? gentle? self-controlled? etc. And Friends have created our own lists of observable clues to being spirit-led and properly participating in worship. You did just that in your blog post, though you didn’t describe it in precisely this way, when you wrote of a number of observable things you associate with proper worship: “setting aside one’s own ideas and opinions and learning to serve”, being “chang[ed] visibly”, hearing imperatives like “this is what I/we must do to restore goodness and kindness in this situation“.

    As I said, all those things can and do happen among a great diversity of people who earnestly and sensitively participate in Quaker meetings, not only traditional Friends like yourself. Therefore I presume such people (which isn’t everyone, to be sure) are in fact worshipping properly, whatever the answer to “the whole God question” is. As they say, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.

    Now if you can think of an observable (even better, actually observed) difference between the behavior of earnest nontheistic Quakers and earnest theistic ones in meeting, or between the fruits of a long practice of Quaker worship by the same, I will listen with open ears. But until you do, saying “you’re merely waiting and we’re waiting on God” is a distinction without a difference.

    Perhaps you meant your examples of extraordinary experiences of Quaker ministers to be such a counterexample. But even granting that they were authentic leadings (which is not beyond question), I see no reason why those kinds of imperatives could only arise from a supernatural person, and not from reality in its near-infinite complexity and mystery. People with serious spiritual practices come into greater contact with reality than the rest of us, and become sensitive to things that escape ordinary people – like one person having a grudge against another. The mind is a mysterious thing, and just because one part of it (our intellect) doesn’t easily comprehend how it works doesn’t mean it must be supernatural.

    Which I hope we can all bring our focus on – deepening our spiritual practice – rather than arguing about a/theology (though I don’t want you to not respond again here in those terms if you feel so led). I’m actually a little sorry I brought this up, and probably won’t bring up these issues again for awhile.

  25. 25 Marshall Massey Jan 22nd, 2007

    Zach, I wasn’t asking for an apology. But I fear we are very close now to a complete breakdown in communication between us.

    You misrepresent my baseball analogy. I used a comparison between two kinds of watching — the one done by a person who just wanders onto a baseball field, and the one done by a professional ball player engaged in a game — to clarify the difference between two kinds of waiting. That comparison is truthful and apt.

    A person who just wanders onto a baseball field has no especial motive for watching the motions of other people who may also be on the field, whereas the professional ballplayer has precisely such a motive, and so he (she) watches every motion of the players whose actions he has some responsibility to respond to, as if his (her) life depends on them.

    And in the same way, the nontheist has no especial motive for watching the motions of the Person on the divine Throne (a Person whose very existence he/she does not recognize or believe in), whereas the true waiting worshiper has precisely such a motive, and she (he) is engaged in that watching as if her (his) very existence as a living soul depends on it.

    It would seem that, in this analogy, the word that so offends you is “aimlessly”. But, Zach, I never used that word. You were the one who used it. In fact, I never said whether the person who merely wanders onto the baseball field has aims or not. I was talking about his kind of watching, not about his aims. No doubt he does have aims, but his watching is still different from that of the professional ball player’s watching in the midst of a game.

    If you need a similar clarification of my remarks about exclusivity and inclusivity, let me know. But in hope of saving us both some time, I will simply note that, in the context of those remarks, I did not make the comparison you accuse me of making.

    Turning to the next issue — it appears to me that you are using the word “truth” to mean something quite different from what it means in the Gospels, or in the language of early and traditional Friends. Your usage equates “truth” with factual accuracy about things and situations in the world. Biblical usage and early/traditional Quaker usage equates “truth” with faithfulness to the divine plan.

    Think of how people will say that an arrow “flies true” when it is faithful to the aim of the archer, or that a plumb line “hangs true” because it is faithful to the exact up-down line, or that a lover “is true” when she/he is faithful to her/his beloved.

    To “know the truth”, in the John 8:31-32 sense, is to know what is revealed by the experience of a life lived in faithfulness. (That is why the promise “you will know the truth” is preceded by the condition “if you continue in my words”.) To substitute the modern idea that knowing what is factually accurate is all that is involved in “knowing the truth”, is to miss the whole point of interactive discipleship with a divine/human Teacher.

    The “day which declares all things as they are” — Nayler’s language, which you quote in support of your nontheist approach) is, in Nayler’s own use of it, the Day of Visitation: the hour, or time, when the personal God speaks so loudly in your heart and conscience of the various ways you have done what is wrong, that you cannot mistake His presence or miss what He is telling you. In the writing you’re quoting from (Nayler’s The Power and the Glory of the LORD Shining out of the North), Nayler frames his discussion of this Day in ways that make it clear that waiting worship on a personal God is necessary:

    You pretend as to the kingdom of God, but you are not seeking where it is…. Christ is the way…. Now all people, cease from your strange guides … return to the light of Christ in you, that which shows you sin and evil and the deeds of darkness…. And this light being minded will lead to the perfect day which declares all things as they are. … And if you take heed to this light, to obey and love it [note the language of relationship-to-a-Person being used here; “love and obey” is what a bride in those days promised her husband], then it … will bring you to repentance and to tenderness of heart towards all people … and so will lead up to justification and peace. …

    O you people of England! how long will it be ere you be obedient to the kingdom of Jesus Christ! ….Are you in your duty as servants to Christ, when you are prescribing him ways to walk by … when you would limit the Spirit of the Lord not to speak in his own time…?

    …Holy men of God spoke forth the Scriptures as they were moved by the Holy Ghost….

    …Take counsel at the Spirit of the Lord…. …I declare unto you … that he will overturn you and raise up his kingdom another way … for the Almighty God hath been shaking the nations that his glory may appear….

    All the language I have set in bold face above is language appropriate not to a relationship with abstract truth but to a relationship with a personal God.

    You say, regarding Nayler’s language, “it is not unreasonable to assume the reverse is true – that if you are coming to see things as they are, seeing your actions and their effects more clearly, seeing yourself more as you really are, then you must be successfully ‘minding the light.’” And I grant you that point, that this is successfully “minding the light”. But I do not grant you, that it is therefore also engaging in waiting worship. For what this is, is seeing light without seeing Him from whom it emanates.

    You quote some observable differences that I said, in my own journal, emerge from waiting worship: “setting aside one’s own ideas and opinions and learning to serve”, being “chang[ed] visibly”, hearing imperatives like “this is what I/we must do to restore goodness and kindness in this situation.” You assert that “all those things can and do happen among [nontheists participating in Quaker worship].” I am not convinced that this is fully so.

    For instance, I would be more impressed by your claim that “nontheist Friends” set aside their own ideas and opinions as readily as true waiting worshipers do, if you had managed to set your own aside long enough to hear what I actually said in my baseball analogy, or what Nayler actually said in his essay. Your real-life failure to hear me is precisely the sort of thing that Jay, of FCNL, was complaining about in the essay I was responding to on my site.

    Again, I see nontheist know-it-alls — though not all nontheists are such — and I also see theist know-it-alls. But I have never seen a true waiting worshiper who has not been reduced to humble admission of his own chronic purblindness by his encounter with the personal God speaking to him in his conscience. I found that it was always easy to spot the true waiting worshipers in the course of my walk across the Midwest last summer, because they were the ones who were palpably humbled and listening. The fact that they were also true practitioners of waiting worship would come out later on in my conversations with them.

    – And do nontheists come down from the mountain shining with light, as Moses did, and as I have seen true waiting worshipers do? Maybe so, maybe so — but I haven’t yet witnessed it myself.

    You ask for for other observable differences between the consequences of merely waiting for understanding, and the consequences of waiting worship. I would point to such specific directives as I mentioned in my previous comment — “tell this stranger, whom you have never exchanged three words with, that his adulterous affair is not hidden from Me”, or “say to your companion in worship, that your service is now fulfilled, and in token of that, the ship you are both aboard will now turn around and go home”, or “go now to Nineveh, put on sackcloth and ashes, and walk through the streets preaching repentance.”

    You argue that there is “no reason why those kinds of imperatives could only arise from a supernatural person, and not from reality in its near-infinite complexity and mystery.” That may be so, friend Zach, but before I will grant that it is, I would like you, or someone, to show me those imperatives actually arising among, and being honored by, genuine nontheists, as they are among waiting worshipers.

    I stress the word “genuine” in this regard, because seeing such detailed and personal imperatives arising mysteriously out of “reality in its near-infinite complexity and mystery” is already a departure from the mere worship of discernable truth, toward something nearer mystical pantheism. It is not a far step from there to discovering, in the “near-infinite complexity and mystery”, the face of the Speaker of the imperatives. And then suddenly you are a “nontheist” no longer.

  26. 26 Zach A Jan 22nd, 2007

    The conversation is obviously getting a little energetic, but I don’t think we’re approaching a kind of communication breakdown here. In fact I think we’re making good progress.

    I do think the amount of energy we’re expending talking about what I see as your uncharitable images of other Friends is beginning to exceed the actual original offense, which, though real, is small. But in the interest of coming to clarity I will press on.

    I think you’re misunderstanding my objection to your various analogies. I believe I do in fact understand what you mean: these images are structurally similar to the visions of reality you are trying to illustrate, and in that sense they are quite “apt” and “truthful.” I of course personally disagree with the vision of yours that they (aptly) illustrate, but that’s not my point here.

    The thing is, analogies and metaphors are more than their structural correspondance with their object. Given your requirements–an image of undesirable inclusivity; an image where something important is happening and one person is simply watching while the other is watching with an eye to participating–you have the freedom to choose an infinite number of images that will be equally “apt” and in that sense “truthful.” But some will carry additional connotations that are needlessly (I assume this is not your intent) insulting. You could have, for example, compared nontraditional Friends to a German peasant wandering around carefree in the area near a concentration camp while the Allied forces liberate it, and compared traditional Friends one of the soldiers on lookout, who are “watching” the action in a much more focused and participatory way. And this would be just as technically “apt” as your baseball analogy, since the relevant structure is the same.

    But you wouldn’t have dreamed of saying this, because it is also obviously insulting, as it associates nontraditional Quakers with something so reprehensible as Holocaust bystanders. In a similar way, only to a lesser degree, comparing us to someone “wandering around a baseball field” is technically apt relative to your point, but also patronizing–especially when many of us see our participation in meeting as not “wandering” at all, but quite purposeful, in fact one of the more important aspects of our lives! If you don’t see how this is patronizing, perhaps you should get more practice in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. In the context of a baseball game, someone simply wandering around the field is a quite ridiculous figure. Is it a crazy person who scaled over the barrier? A person with developmental disabilities who wandered onto the field while their caretaker wasn’t watching? The fans are laughing at this absurd scene. Yes, let us laugh at the poor nontraditional Quaker who is oblivious to what’s going on around her! Like the word “aimless,” such mockery is implicit in your image, regardless of your intent, and the perceptive reader or writer notices this–not just the structural aptness.

    In the same way, your “muddy-footed” people coming into a public library image may be technically apt, since both libraries and liberal meetings are open to all comers. But beyond that, the whole image, particularly the association of undesirable people with mud, suggests all sorts of elitist snobbery about the need to keep the unwashed, lower-class masses out the oaken reading rooms of your athanaeum, and in the public library where they belong. Do you know who uses public libraries? Often people who don’t have anywhere else to go. My sister spent a lot of time in libraries when she was homeless. It sounds like she wouldn’t have been welcome to “tramp” into your ideal RSoF, be it because she was a muddy-footed homeless person or a spiritually muddy non-Christian. Again, such attitudes seem only a little below the surface of your image, and the perceptive reader or writer should notices them–not just the structural aptness.

    I believe in both cases this wasn’t your conscious intent to suggest these things, and I forgive you for accidentally doing so. And I hope that next time you are describing what in your view a whole class of people are like, you will be more circumspect about what you write. And if you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, I fully agree! The only thing I’m not convinced of is that I’m misrepresenting you (if I claimed the above was your intent, sure, but I’m not), or that this represents a failure to “hear” you.

    I’ll respond to the rest of your comment (start with “Turning to the next issue”) later today.

    Trying to remain in friendship,

  27. 27 Marshall Massey Jan 23rd, 2007

    Well, Zach, you continue to read things into what I say, that I didn’t put there, and then condemn me for them. It leaves me feeling like a sock puppet, and it’s getting distinctly tiresome.

    I don’t have a “requirement” of “an image of undesirable inclusivity”. I told you before that I don’t care about exclusivity and inclusivity; if I don’t care about it, then why would I find either one desirable or undesirable?

    I didn’t invite anyone to laugh at the “poor nontraditional Friend who is oblivious to what is going on around her”. And in fact, I would point out that those like myself who value waiting worship have been equally critical of traditional Friends who don’t practice it:

    A Friend of Philadelphia, who was by profession a tanner, once dreamed that he was sitting in a religious meeting, wherein he was surprised to observe the congregation with tables before them, at which they were pursuing their usual avocations. The merchant had his books there, the retailer his goods, the mechanic his tools. Indignant at such employment, among those professedly assembled for the awful and soul-important purpose of divine worship, he was about to reprove them sharply when, incidentally placing his hands behind him, he found a bundle of calfskin suspended from his own shoulders!

       – attributed to Rebecca Jones, 1792)

    Whether one genuinely practices waiting worship or not is in fact a quite separate question from whether one is a traditional Friend or not.

    My public-utility comment was a comment on the mindset of liberal Friends, who are given to seeing an awful lot of things in terms of “inclusivity versus exclusivity” even when that’s not the real issue. It is they who look for people who come inappropriately (making noises and tracking in the dirt of the world) and argue over whether such people should be included.

    In point of fact, a lot of this drama is purely in the liberals’ own heads; I think, for example, of the many debates I’ve overheard in liberal Quaker circles about “why and how are we excluding blacks”, when the actual situation is not that blacks are being excluded but that 99.998% of them are just not interested in coming to Quaker meetings to begin with.

    And the ideas of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” are also mostly in the liberals’ heads — it’s they themselves who set up noise, mud, offensive politics, etc., as criteria. Christ himself never used such criteria, and neither did George Fox or the Valiant Sixty.

    I myself am not such a liberal. I am someone who has himself lived as a homeless person, and who currently works side by side with first-generation immigrants (Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Hispanics) in a job with no benefits that pays just $10 an hour. I am noisy, abrasive, dirt-poor, and contaminated with the mind-set of society’s underclass. I am not a registered Democrat. I do not listen to NPR. I have spent many hours in public libraries for the same reason as your sister. I am exactly the sort of person that the exclusionists and the inclusionists alike in the liberal Quaker world would feel more comfortable leaving out of their meetinghouses.

    But as it happens, I myself don’t care about such inclusivity / exclusivity issues. I said this to you flat-out two comments back — did you notice? I don’t care who the RSoF includes or excludes. So your assertion that a person like your sister “wouldn’t have been welcome to ‘tramp’ into [my] ideal RSoF, be it because she was a muddy-footed homeless person or a spiritually muddy non-Christian” is just totally off the mark.

  28. 28 Zach A Jan 23rd, 2007

    Friend Marshall,
    Thank you for your sharing more of your background towards the end, which put your “public utility” comment in a better context. If I had known that originally, it wouldn’t have seemed offensive, and I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve given you over it.

    Though that perhaps is a testament to my point here, which you don’t seem to have appreciated — that words don’t mean “just what I choose [them] to mean, neither more nor less” (Humpty Dumpty). The meaning you or I intend our words to convey or suggest is only half the story. There’s also the meaning they in fact convey or suggest in different contexts to different readers. And if one is not attentive, lots of unintended but plausible meanings can happen at the latter stage. Call it “reading things into what I say that I didn’t put there,” but it’s a fact of life — or at least of language.

    As I indicated last time, I’m not really worried anymore about the two passages we’re talking about, but the general principle involved here. So I’m not going to otherwise respond to most of your remarks just now, because most of them (for example, your last sentence) seem to be based on the assumption that I’m accusing you of intending to suggest the things I described, which, I repeat one more time, is not the case. (See, for example, the last major paragraph of my last comment.)

    That’s my main point here. A few other things seem to still indicate a response.

    * When I said “requirement” I just meant “rhetorically at that point in your writing your were looking for an image that conveyed X”.

    * I think I do understand that you don’t care about inclusivity or exclusivity, in the sense that for you they aren’t the categories you think should be important for Quaker faith or practice. (On a side note, I have some sympathies with you here. I don’t support greater inclusivity simply its own sake, but mostly for independent reasons.) But that itself is a position on the subject, is it not? I believe that you don’t oppose greater inclusivity per se, but opposing it being regarded as an important Quaker concern (if that’s a fair description of how you feel) is “opposing” it in a different sense, is it not?

    * The unfriendliness of many liberal Quakers towards anyone who isn’t a liberal Democrat is indeed a problem, and so is the wariness of anyone or anything that isn’t respectably middle-class. So is IMHO the fact that our meetings almost exclusively attract white people, but that’s another discussion. (Though I suspect liberal Quakers are not unique in the latter two regards.)

    I don’t want the threads of the conversation to get too tangled, so I’m making comments go to the moderation queue from now until I have a chance in a few hours to respond to the main points of your previous comment (as I promised I’d do yesterday before some things came up).


  29. 29 Zach A Jan 23rd, 2007

    I’ve been excited to respond to your previous comment, and am glad my girlfriend and friends here at my apartment are humoring me as I take a little time to do so, because it seems we’re really getting somewhere, and that this isn’t just a battle of egos between two opinionated individuals, but that we are in fact trying to discover the truth about these things together (and I hope you feel the same way).

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems at the end of your comment yesterday you expressed a version of what I’d call the “moderate” view of nontheism – according to which it’s possible for someone to be doing the same thing that Quakers usually have been doing in meeting for worship, and simply be wrong in their belief that That with which they are participating is something other than God.

    You seemed to oppose this view earlier, and it seems that what made the difference for you was my describing “truth and reality” (the “something other than God” for me) in a fuller way than I had before, as including “near infinite complexity and mystery.” I am a little embarassed that I might have saved us some trouble by making it more apparent earlier that this is part of the picture for me. This is in fact a lot of what I mean by the distinction I made in the original post (waaay up the page), between reality-as-believed and reality-as-it-is. Reality is more complicated and numinous than we ordinarily experience it to be (though also simpler sometimes), for a host of reasons, and I see most mysticism in general, and Quaker worship in particular, as an attempt to get from the one towards the other.

    In any case though, I think it’s wonderful that we may be at least that much on the same page. The only place we might not be on the same page is in what I see as three qualifications you’ve made. First, you’ve said that this view of “reality” seems more appropriately described as something like “mystical pantheism.” I don’t have any strong objection to this – as I said once to a self-described pantheist friend, the difference between pantheism and nontheism seems rather like the difference between highlighting all the words in a book or none: technically different, but functionally the same.

    And second, you’ve expressed doubts that a Friend could truly be experiencing what you see as divine imperatives in waiting worship, and still genuinely not believe in God. I’m guessing you mean you think such a Friend deep down, perhaps even only subconsciously, believes in God, but isn’t admitting this to themselves. (I find this idea a little curious, though another Conservative Friend has suggested a similar thing.)

    I’m not sure exactly how to respond to this, since by definition one can’t easily tell whether one has a particular subconscious belief or not. I can only assure you that I personally, as far as I can tell, along with I suspect many of the nontheists I know, am quite sure I don’t believe in what most people mean by God. That doesn’t mean I’m not open to being convinced otherwise, be it by argument or by a mystical “Day of Visitation” that seems impossible to interpret naturally. But neither has happened yet. (Not that I haven’t had powerful experiences in private retirement and in meeting – I have, but I don’t see them as supernatural anymore.)

    And third, you have your doubts about all the above, but seem to be open to allowing experience with nontheist Friends (being more or less changed by their worship, being more or less likely to hold their own ideas and opinions loosely) influence your judgment, as much as your experience thus far has not given you an overwhelmingly positive opinion of us.

    I’m curious to know whether you feel I’ve accurately represented you here.

    Before I end, let me make a brief comment on the middle part of your comment, where you discuss the Biblical and “Naylerian” concepts of truth.

    I don’t dispute most of what you say, because you seem to be responding almost as though I had claimed that the Bible or Nayler directly supported nontheism. But what I’m in fact claiming is that some aspects of early Quaker theology, however prominently and frequently they link truth and whatever else with God, also speak of truth as “what is,” or describe truth-as-conformity-to-the-divine-plan involving a lot of adherence to “what is.” (I think this is the origin of a lot of the early Quaker mania for integrity.) On this basis, I think they therefore can be reinterpreted (or put another way, a philosophy contstructed similar in some respects to them and different in others) in a way that preserves what they say about “the truth” as “what is” while reinterpreting what they say about the supernatural as literally false but perhaps metaphorically true. I don’t have any pretensions that this is “the same” as the original text (though I do think that the integrity would also lead many of them in todays world to question the existence of God), but I think this kind of reinterpretation is something all modern Quakers do, just in varying degrees, and so I don’t think it’s especially unworthy to be described as “Quaker.”

    But in any case, this is something that relies heavily on textual interpretation (of The power and the glory and many other texts), so I’m going to shelve this until a rainy day when I feel capable of making that case. I hope this is not too unsatisfactory to you.

    My friends are beginning to get annoyed at me, so I will go.

    Be well,

  30. 30 Marshall Massey Jan 26th, 2007

    Zach, when I presented my public-utility metaphor, I expressly stated at the very beginning that I was talking about “the concerns of liberal Quakerism”, which “I am not concerned with”. I did not use any of those words in a manner that departed from standard usage, Humpty-Dumpty style!

    You zeroed in on a detail of what I said liberal Quakerism is concerned with, associated me with the very line of thinking that I was expressly distancing myself from, and then criticized me for supposedly thinking in that way.

    You claim that I am responsible for your misreading.

    I don’t buy it.

    More substantively, you go on to write, “I think I do understand that you don’t care about inclusivity or exclusivity, in the sense that for you they aren’t the categories you think should be important for Quaker faith or practice.”

    – Yes, friend, you understand me now!

    “But,” you continue, “that itself is a position on the subject, is it not? I believe that you don’t oppose greater inclusivity per se, but opposing it being regarded as an important Quaker concern (if that’s a fair description of how you feel) is ‘opposing’ it in a different sense, is it not?”

    Zach, in the paragraph where I used my public-utility metaphor, I wrote, “I am not concerned about exclusivity or inclusivity. Those are the concerns of liberal Quakerism…. My own concern is rather with faithfulness….” Read those words. What I expressed there was not an opposition to inclusivity, and an embrace of exclusivity, on any level whatsoever. Neither was it an opposition to exclusivity, and an embrace of inclusivity, on any level whatsoever. It was a refusal to participate in that whole way of thinking.

    What I am interested in is faithfulness. Faithfulness is not inclusivity; faithfulness is not exclusivity. Asking “are we being faithful?” is an entirely different way of interrogating the issues from asking “are we being inclusive?” or asking “are we being exclusive?“. Asking “are we being faithful?” produces answers of a different sort, which lead in turn to behavior of a different sort from either inclusive or exclusive behavior.

    For example: Jesus said outright that his mission was to the Jews, but then did he include the Samaritan woman at the well (a non-Jew) in his mission, or did he exclude her? Well, the text (John 4) doesn’t really say, does it? He taught her, which would seem to be inclusion, but then went on his way, which would seem to leave her out. Indeed, when she tried to get him to say whether he was including her (verse 9), he gave her a non-answer (verse 10).

    Again, did Jesus include the Roman centurion whose servant needed healing (Matthew 8 / Luke 7), or did he exclude him? And for that matter, did he include his Pharisee opponents, or did he exclude them? Think about it! In each case, he neither included nor excluded. He simply proceeded in accordance with faithfulness, letting the chips fall where they may.

    And again: The early church’s message was that in Christ there is neither Greek nor Jew, male nor female, slave nor free. Was that a philosophy of inclusion? If so, why did the church make a sharp distinction between believers and unbelievers, and make no effort at all to include unbelievers in its decision-making processes? Was the early church then exclusive? If so, why was everyone without distinction invited to join, and why were all converts treated as equals regardless of ethnic identity, gender or status?

    To think as Christ thinks, as the early church thought, and for that matter as early Friends thought, we would have to quit thinking as the world thinks (for example in terms of inclusion and exclusion) and learn to think in new ways instead. And if we do that, the way we handle situations changes.

    We no longer ask whether the people coming into the library are stamping muddy boots. We ask, “how do I respond to this person’s condition in faithfulness to my Lord’s wishes?” And the response the Lord gives us may be neither inclusion nor exclusion. It may be neither, “Everyone is welcome to the library, and that includes you,” nor “No one may come in the library stamping so loudly, or with such boots, and that means you,” but (perhaps) “Let me buy you a hot meal,” or “You must reconsider the relationship you just walked out on.”

  31. 31 Marshall Massey Jan 27th, 2007

    Zach, you write, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems at the end of your comment yesterday you expressed a version of what I’d call the “moderate” view of nontheism – according to which it’s possible for someone to be doing the same thing that Quakers usually have been doing in meeting for worship, and simply be wrong in their belief that That with which they are participating is something other than God.

    “You seemed to oppose this view earlier….”

    You’re partly understanding me, Zach, and partly not. I would say:

    Most “nontheist Friends” are probably doing the same thing that many, perhaps even most “theist Friends” in liberal (Hicksite/Beanite) meetings have been doing in meeting for worship for the last generation. It’s just that what both these groups have been doing is not waiting worship. And you may recall that I started this conversation by bringing up the matter of waiting worship.
    When “nontheist Friends” engage in this activity, they are not wrong in their belief that what they are participating in is something other than God. If what they were doing was experiencing God, they would know it.
    This does not represent any change in my views. It’s just that you’re forgetting the distinction between waiting worship and what many, perhaps even most liberal Friends normally do in meeting for worship.

    You also write, “…Your experience thus far has not given you an overwhelmingly positive opinion of us [nontheist Friends].

    Actually, as individuals, I like most “nontheist Friends” a great deal. But as participants in, and members of, the Society of Friends, I find most “nontheist Friends” to be full of themselves (the opposite of kenosis), pleased to appropriate the good reputation of Friends to themselves, but unwilling to submit to the yoke of Christian discipleship that earned Friends that good name.

    I’m very glad to have “nontheist Friends” as attenders at our meetings for worship, but I don’t think their involvement in the business of the Society (”business” meaning the things that we address in meeting for business) is healthy either for the Society or for themselves.

    Finally, I’m afraid I have a very low opinion of the “reinterpretation” of what earlier Friends were saying which you propose. You take what they said about “truth” and tear it out of context, changing the meaning of “truth” very greatly in the process. You do the same thing with what they said about “integrity”. To be blunt, there is no real integrity in twisting the meaning of “integrity” in that way, and no real truth in twisting the meaning of “truth”.

  1. 1 Rationalizing Quaker meeting for business at The Seed Lifting Up Pingback on Jun 29th, 2007
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