I’ve always felt a certain discomfort about Nontheist Friends and other dually-affiliated Friends. (But, you protest, aren’t you a dually-affiliated Friend?? Yes, but I don’t identify as a Buddhist Quaker or a Quaker Buddhist: I am both a Buddhist and a Quaker.) Some of this discomfort about Nontheist Friends stemmed from preconceptions I, as a theist* (more on that later), had. A few weeks ago, I joined a Nontheist Friends Google group. At the time, I was questioning my belief in God. I’d recently come across several passages in Buddhist books that described theism as, basically, the adult version of a blankie: the belief in a supernatural being that could, at a moment’s notice, if one prayed hard enough, fix all of your problems. This was not my kind of theism, so I began to wonder if I might actually be one of those “nontheist Friends” I actually mocked with another Friend a few years ago:
“Here’s what I don’t get about nontheist Friends. What, exactly, are they DOING in Meeting for Worship? Who do they think is leading them?”
We had a good laugh and moved on.
And, thankfully, I’ve moved on, too. I now feel that ANY one, regardless of faith or belief, should be welcomed into Meeting for Worship. As I’ve said previously on here, if the person sitting next to me calls that which moves him or her to speak “God”, “Jesus”, “Holy Spirit”, “Spirit”, “Gaia”, “Allah”, “innate humanity”, “connection to the universe”, “bodhichitta”, etc., that doesn’t change that we are being moved by the same One.
The conversations I’ve had via email with nontheist Friends over the past few weeks have been helpful to me. They, overall, appear to be a thoughtful, kind, open group. Nontheism is not just made up of the “Angry Atheist” (i.e., the person who lost his or her faith in God because of a traumatic event and is angry about it) or the “Overly Rationalist”, as I have thought in the past, but a wide variety of beliefs about the world, people, the universe, etc. There’s currently an engaging discussion going on about “supernatural events”, e.g., ghosts. My time spent interacting with this group has been helpful not only in dispelling preconceptions I’ve had (and I likely still have some that need to be dispelled, so I am planning on remaining on this email list for a while), but also in helping me narrow down what, exactly, it is that I believe.
And what became apparent to me in reading these emails is that I am not a nontheist. It’s just not what I believe. Panentheism–the belief in God as universe and more (similar to the idea that the whole is more than the sum of its parts)–is closest to where I am right now.
So, while I’m comfortable with worshiping with those who would describe their worship experience differently than I would, I’ve come to realize what I am not comfortable with in our Religious Society. This realization was brought about by a comment a Friend made on facebook about his experience at this year’s FGC:
“I heard no references to Jesus from ordinary participants, and remarkably few to God. I heard, multiple times, that Quakers can believe anything and have no rituals. There was evangelizing by “nontheist Friends” who had a table offering tracts (albeit tucked away out of the flow of the crowd) and one of whom buttonholed me, unsought, in a hallway. There was no sign I could find of evangelizing either by mystics of the Jonesite sort or by Quaker traditionalists within FGC.”
Here’s the thing: while I am a Buddhist, I don’t expect my Quaker Meeting to be Buddhist. I don’t expect messages delivered in Meeting for Worship to be given in Buddhist terms. I don’t–and wouldn’t, unless I had a very, very clear sense of being Led–give ministry in Meeting for Worship using Buddhist terms.
Quakerism, while it is a faith where anyone can join us in worship, no matter what they do or not believe, is a religion rooted in Christian mysticism. Historically, those are our roots. And what concerns me about this Friend’s comment is I worry that some dually-affiliated Friends may be trying to deny those roots. Again, I do not believe that one needs to be Christian to be a Quaker. (I do not identify as a Christian.) But I do feel that one needs to understand and respect Quakerism’s Christian roots. Quaker language and tradition have evolved from these roots, to be sure, but the roots are there.
I want to make clear that I do not believe all dually-affiliated Friends are trying to deny Quakerism’s roots and change Quakerism into some kind of “melting pot” religion. I know I’m not the only dually-affiliated Friend who wholly respects Quakerism for what it is.
But for those dually-affiliated Friends who may be trying to disentangle Quakerism from its Christian roots and reform it into a religion that matches their particular faith, I would ask these Friends to reconsider their actions. Is Quakerism made better by the existence of nontheist Friends? I would say yes. Is Quakerism made better by the existence of dually-affiliated Friends (pagans, Buddhists, Jews, etc.)? I would say yes.
But should Quakerism as a religion become Nontheist, Buddhist, pagan, or Jewish, etc.? I answer no.