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© Kevin Carden

God, Jesus, Christianity, and Quakers

© Kevin Carden

As a nontheist Friend, I sometimes confront questions about my belief in God, my understanding of Jesus, and my relationship with Christianity. I welcome these questions and generally enjoy discussing these subjects.

I don’t have any difficulty answering the God question or affirming my belief in God, although I don’t believe in a God who is a being, who is involved in my life, who answers my prayers, who judges me upon death, or who offers me everlasting life.

Also, I don’t have any difficulty answering questions about Jesus as I understand Jesus to be a teacher, healer, and social activist in the great tradition of Hebrew prophets. Although I don’t see Jesus as divine, I do see him as an amazing inspiration for the basic tenets of his teaching, specifically his two commandments: to love God with all your heart, and to treat others as you would wish to be treated.

The second commandment is easy to understand though often hard to practice. It isn’t as easy to understand what commandment one involves, especially if you don’t conceive of God as a being. Still, it does have meaning for me as I conceive of God as the primal life force of the universe—the thing, process, or force that brings universes into being and that has led to life on Earth. Life on Earth includes many ugly events and human tragedies, but it also includes many lovely developments. I can imagine life developing without these positives, so I experience them as a gift. This is how I understand commandment one: I am to live in a way that promotes lovely developments for Earth and its inhabitants, both human and animal. Admittedly, this is rather nebulous, but it provides some guidance and is consistent with the testimonies of Friends.

 

I find questions about the Quaker embrace, or my embrace, of Christianity more challenging. Many non‐Quaker Christians, especially Evangelical ones, would of course answer the Quaker Christian question using a defined set of criteria: Do Quakers believe in a God who created the universe, who responds to prayer, and who judges us at death? Do Quakers believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead, and that belief in him leads to heaven and saves us from hell?

I don’t think these questions are at all helpful when we as Quakers address the question of Christianity for ourselves. In most Christian denominations, there is some kind of declaration of faith, some kind of baptism or ritual, and official membership is usually important and recognized. For members of these denominations, the question of Christianity is easy and straightforward.

Obviously, it is not such an easy question for unprogrammed Friends. There is no given creed to attest to and persons often attend meeting and serve on committees for years without formal membership. There is indeed the ritual of the clearness committee for membership and a hearty welcome to formal membership, but overall the initiation into formal membership is low‐key and the distinction between members and attenders is minimal.

Yet, modern Quakers are the heirs of a long and rich Christian tradition. I will leave it to the Quaker historians to provide the details of this. I think the question of whether Quakers are Christian or individual Quakers are Christian are problematic, best replaced by questions about how we conceive of God, how we understand Jesus, or how we experience the sacred.

 

The question of my Christianity is certainly problematic for me, and I might give different answers on different occasions depending on a number of factors. When I might answer, yes, I am a Christian, I am considering that I am a member of a traditional Christian denomination, and I have a great love of Jesus and strive to uphold testimonies consistent with his commandments. I also take into account that the early followers of Jesus had different understandings of exactly who Jesus was and what his message was, so I understand that Christianity has always had a broad definition, even if individuals and denominations often sought to restrict the term to those who share their own beliefs. The definition of Christian I like best is simply “a follower of Jesus of Nazareth”—not Jesus Christ; I would be a Christian under that definition.

When I am tempted to answer, no, I’m not a Christian, I am considering that I don’t believe in an afterlife; I don’t believe in God as a being active in the world; I don’t accept the Nicene Creed, and I don’t believe Jesus physically rose from the dead. I also think that if I were magically able to share my beliefs with all of the world’s professed Christians, the majority would not consider me a Christian. This makes me think that describing myself as a Christian would go against the most widely accepted meaning of the word.

In any case, I am not so invested in being known as a Christian, and I am not enthusiastic about defending any right I might have to be known as such. I am more protective of my right to be known as a believer in God and as a lover of Jesus, even though my conception of both may differ from the mainstream.

 

How important is it for the Religious Society of Friends or Friends General Conference to decide if the Quaker body is Christian? Is it important for marketing purposes? Self‐selection purposes? Other purposes? One thing is clear: present‐day Quakers will never agree whether Quakerism remains a Christian religion.

What is unclear is whether Quakers can have a productive discussion on the topic. I think there are limited opportunities to discuss our own beliefs, so I fear thoughts and emotions on the topic often occur without clear understanding. I think and hope it is possible to discuss the range of beliefs, conceptions, and experiences existing within Quakerism in a way that creates understanding, acceptance, identity, and cohesion.

I know some Friends have accepted that Quakerism is held together by common testimonies and practices, and this is enough for them. I think there is a real value, however, in a discussion of our beliefs as well. My most moving and inspiring experiences as a Quaker have been participating in clearness committees for membership and hearing the beliefs and experiences that led someone to seek membership. Often our meeting would share letters for membership, and this was inspiring as well.

I have also been inspired by the lengthy exchanges that have occurred this past September on the Facebook Quakers group. Dozens of participants weighed in on questions about God, Christianity, and Quakerism in a very thoughtful and respectful way that made me proud and reinforced my belief that such discussions are both possible and powerful.

Jim Cain is a member and former clerk of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting, currently attending Collective Church, a "misfit faith community" in DeLand, Fla. He's recently retired from a long career in public mental health. He has co-led Friends General Conference Gathering workshops on "Nontheism Among Friends" and "Reclaiming the Sacred" and made a presentation on the evolution of God to nontheist Friends at this summer's Gathering.


Posted in: Features, Quakers and Christianity

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11 Responses to God, Jesus, Christianity, and Quakers

  1. Daniel Wilcox December 7, 2018 at 1:51 pm #

    City & State
    Santa Maria, CA
    Hmm…Speaking of the spiritual and the ethical, the reality of transcendence and ought, instead of matter and fact and is seems to lead all of us into semantic confusion.

    I’ve come to the conclusion after a life time (58 years of my 71) of studying, reflecting, and musing that the word God is an empty bucket. For years Christians have claimed that I was never a Christian, though in my past I’ve been a very liberal Baptist youth minister, Quaker study teacher, Bible teacher, counselor, etc.
    And, contrarily some nontheists claim that I am really a nontheist!

    Alice, where are you when we don’t need you in wanderland;-)?

    I reflected on your thoughtful article until I got confused by your saying that you are a nontheist but do believe in “God” in the sense that there is meaning and purpose in reality, but not in a personal god. This sounds a bit like what a few famous scientists have articulated.

    This very seeming contradiction is what led me to leave my last Friends meeting because I had discussions with various Friends who came to worship but who said they thought that the only reality in existence is matter and energy.

    It seems that what you mean however by nontheism isn’t that reality is meaningless and purposeless (as they explicitly claimed) but that reality isn’t controlled by a personal deity.

    Is my understanding correct?

    If so, I wonder if we need some new terms to express new understandings such as yours to differentiate from what nontheism and Christian usually mean?

    About 8 years ago, after much confusion for years of when I was a very liberal Christian and I had to continually explain that I wasn’t a fundamentalist nor a creedalist, I finally came to the conclusion like you that I wasn’t a Christian by any stretch of the usual description, but rather a follower of Jesus in a similar moral and spiritual sense that I was a follower of the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr.

    Also, what troubles me about the nontheism identification (besides the semantic ambiguity) is that it is a negative term.
    This I have never understood about nontheistic Friends, despite much dialogue with them.

    Why identify with a negative category?

    Wouldn’t a positive term such as mystical Friend or Life‐force Friend or Light Friend better describe your views than nontheist which denotatively means no god?

    Thanks for writing this thoughtful article.

    • Maida Follini December 11, 2018 at 5:39 pm #

      City & State
      Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
      Thank goodness the Quaker belief in continuing revelation has allowed the Quaker faith to adjust to new revelations over the centuries, and not remain in medieval mode. George Fox first broke through the divisions of class, gender, and the priesthood by affirming that everyone could be in direct contact with God, and we did not need to follow creeds developed by specialized trained priests. Back to simplicity and listening to the Spirit.
      Then, others brought reason back into religion: Penn, and Barclay. Predestination was denied by Barclay; The Trinity was denied by Penn.
      Then Woolman — Slavery was wrong even though some Christians tried to justify it by saying it was in the Bible. Fox had already put the Bible as a secondary, not a primary source.
      Then Hicks: No loving God would ordain the torture and murder of a son, or any person. The Crucifixion was an act of evil men. Jesus was a“son of God” just as all who follow his teachings are “children of God”. He was physically begotten by God, God was Spirit, all Spirit, and could not like the Greek Gods produce a half man half God.
      :Next, Whittier maintains God does not cause wrongs, anything that is wrong for a person is wrong for God. God for Whittier is Loving kindness. God cannot support wars, massacres, human sacrifices, and has nothing to do with rituals, or with casting people out.
      Rufus Jones; The world was not made in 6 days, Jonah was not swallowed by the whale, stories and metaphors in the Bible are not literal, but made to teach.
      Modern Quakers who respect science: We do not need a supernatural “other world”, our own world is miraculous enough and all living things contain a natural spirit for good, (as well as, unfortunately lots of tendencies for bad!) Christianity involves reinforcing the good and trying to reduce the bad.
      My Quaker Grandmother, (1874 -1955): “I believe now the same things about religion that I did at fifteen. That is, that our own conscience, not what other people order is our guide and if we live up to what our own conscience tells us, we will be all right now and hereafter. Also, if the religious leaders had been as concerned about Life as they all were about Death and the Hereafter, we would have a finer world to live in.” Of course, my line is of the Hicksite Quakers, so we were able to move with the continuing knowledge and revelations brought to us by science, common sense, and listening to the spirit of good. We do not believe the term Christian is the exclusive property of narrow creedal faiths.

  2. Chip Arnold December 10, 2018 at 3:10 pm #

    City & State
    Va.
    Thank you for this. My understanding of “god” is similar. No god as entity. But (in my understanding) no god is necessary for there to be eternal, conscious life.

  3. Noel Staples December 10, 2018 at 4:41 pm #

    City & State
    Britain, Cambridgeshire PE9 4UE
    Wonderful words Jim! I couldn’t agree more. We in Britain only have unprogrammed meetings and I would say that, while many of us would say we are Christians, many more, like you, would say that they, like me, are simply inspired by what we know of Jesus of Nazareth —perhaps more particularly by the faith of Jesus in his relationship with God. The strength of that faith was so great that it faltered just the once in those awful words out of the terrible agony of crucifixion: ‘Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani’.

    The beating heart of Quakerism is in that mystical relationship with the divine, the light, spirit, whatever it is in the silence and stillness of meetings for worship. The energy of that mystical experience has the power to infiltrate us, if we let it —an astonishing, often utterly overwhelming experience at times. It changes us. It is the power of grace in our lives, inspiring us to work for the betterment of creation and all there is in it. I would say, like Carl Jung in the 1956 “Face to Face” interview with the BBC’s John Freeman, “I don’t believe in God, I know God”. (That programme can be seen on YouTube In faded monochrome just by searching for Carl Jung Face to Face.) However it poses that wretched epistemological problem —just what exactly is it that I know?

  4. Maida Follini December 10, 2018 at 5:56 pm #

    City & State
    Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
    I consider being a Christian to mean:following the teachings and example of Jesus. Give to the poor, care for the children, visit the sick and imprisoned, love thy neighbor and thine enemy, — try to live in the spirit of love and kindness towards others — people and animate life.
    I consider myself a Christian and a Quaker, not because I succeed at all the above, but because I try.
    I have similar beliefs to the author of the article. Like him, I do not personify the Divine, rather I see the Divine as a spirit which is a true part of the natural world, and which exists among living things. This Spirit is what prompts people to dive into the water to rescue a drowning person; to go to a burning car and pull out a victim at the risk of the rescuer’s life; the Spirit that prompted a mother cat to return to a burning building 5 times to rescue her five kittens in spite of being injured herself. In more every‐day actions, it is the spirit that encourages every blade of grass to grow, even to shove up through concrete pavement to reach the sunlight. My Quaker mother’s definition of God was a simple one: “God just means Good.” But I recognize that for some people’s condition, they feel better with a belief that God is personified as an all‐powerful father that will help them personally. Some of us need ritual, but Quakers can be Quakers without an imposed creed.I do not want to allow the marvelous title of Christianity to be wholly owned by persons with supernatural beliefs. We need to respect others’ beliefs as what speaks to their condition, and we need to expect respect for our own, non‐supernatural Christian faith. We can agree in trying to follow the teachings of Jesus. All Quakers do not have to be Christians, some come from different traditions, but as I come from the Christian tradition, I identify as a Christian Quaker. I think Jesus’s influence was important, first for his immediate followers, and later for those who followed his teachings after Jesus’s death. He has influenced millions for the good, even though some who called themselves Christians acted exactly opposite his teachings. [Spanish Inquisition, Crusades, Religious Wars between “Christian” sects, Persecutions}. These hopefully are balanced by rescuing the ill and starving, setting up hospitals, and all kinds of charities and community good works which we depend upon.

  5. Cynthia Miller December 10, 2018 at 9:30 pm #

    City & State
    Benbrook, TX
    How refreshing to hear from someone who believes in a similar manner to my own. I am a fan of Parker Palmer and clearness committees but am not a Quaker officially, although my grandmother and her family were Quakers. I resonate very closely with Quakers. My journey includes a Methodist baptism in childhood, and subsequently learning from exploration— Variations on the theme across the Abrahamic religions. Currently attending an ELCA Lutheran Church. Thank you for your excellent accounting of your experience. I would be interested in further communications. Best, Cynthia

  6. Susan Hughes December 10, 2018 at 11:39 pm #

    City & State
    Hallsville, TX
    This article is the closest to what I believe than any I have heard. Thank you.

  7. Kim Townsend Spangrude December 11, 2018 at 1:49 am #

    City & State
    Montrose, Colorado
    This was really helpful for me to read. It’s more important to know what questions to ask than to know all the answers, and this helped to give some form to questions I have had.
    Thank you.

  8. Noel Staples December 11, 2018 at 10:14 am #

    City & State
    Britain, Cambridge Area Meeting
    Slight correction to my earlier remarks: Carl Jung was interviewed by John Freeman in 1959 not 1956 on the BBC “Face to Face” programme. About 8 minutes in Freeman asks Jung ‘Do you still believe in God?’ and Jung pauses then tells Freeman ‘I don’t believe in God, I know … I know.’” The programme is still available on YouTube.

  9. Alec Owen December 11, 2018 at 11:29 pm #

    City & State
    Toronto ont
    If you believe in the brotherhood of mankind it is easy to believe in the words of Jesus the prophet I was told about as a boy even though you may have learned, as I did later that the same idea were expressed earlier by Rabbi Hillel and others. It is the words and ideas that are important and not the magic of his story although that was beautiful to me as a child. Jesus spoke of God as our father. That too is my understanding of God as father of our family who is the force for goodness in this world which if we lived our lives as Jesus taught us will ultimately prevail. He taught us that the peacemakers were blessed and should be called the children of God. I may not live to see peace on earth and good will to all men that we pray for, but I am sure that it will come one day when all people, no matter what building they pray in, see that it is the only way that works for everybody.

  10. Mark Ebden December 12, 2018 at 7:39 am #

    City & State
    Toronto, Canada
    Thank you — love the artwork as well.

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