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.

More from Friends Journal on Spirituality

• Thou Shalt Wear Comfy Shoes,” by Suzanne W. Cole Sullivan
Do our attitudes toward formal dress push people out the door?

• “With Just the Door Ajar,” by Caroline Morris
Whenever I choose to identify as a Quaker, I feel a need to hedge.

• “Spiritual Simplicity,” by Andrew Huff
There’s more to simplicity than tidying up our physical spaces.

Jim Cain

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.  

16 thoughts on “God, Jesus, Christianity, and Quakers

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. One of the fundamental aspects of the ministry of Jesus was to give his followers the hope and certainty of eternal life. Was Jesus wrong? I have to ask the question!
    And when I read the line:
    “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.”
    I am totally puzzled, especially by the last six words. Having professed a belief in God, it is then all destroyed in the phrases that follow. Well, that is not the God of Scripture and therefore not my God.
    Even worse, the writer then professes “I don’t see Jesus as divine”. I figure I would not get any value reading further seeing that the first sentences set the scene for a salvation (if any) by other means.

  10. Though I am a small-e evangelical among unprogrammed Friends, I really enjoyed this thoughtful and candid piece. Thanks for taking the Christian stream of Quakerism seriously rather than just trashing it, as many do. I do find it helpful to remind liberal, white Quakers that the vast majority of the Quaker world is non-white and evangelical or Pentecostal, just so that we white European and American Quakers are reminded to admit this fact when generalizing about Quakers.

    Having spent time “on loan” in the UCC and the Church of the Brethren, I’d say that in a lot of liberal Christian denominations you’d happily be considered a Christian and find plenty of others who believe as you do and happily consider themselves a Christian. (As an evangelical myself, I don’t get into the business of judging the quality or authenticity of other people’s Christianity. If you say or think you’re a follower or admirer of Jesus in some fashion, I’m pretty happy with that!)

    Anyway, a wonderful piece. Thank you for it.

  11. Thank you for your article. A propos some replies on this thread, I’d like to add a section from an essay I have written for the Pendle Hill pamphlet series:

    What the “Brhadaranyaka Upanishad” identifies as the Real “behind” temporality is an all-pervasive Wisdom or Love inherent in every unfolding moment and “almighty” only in its omnipresence. This Love, in other words, “is” and it only loves. Unable to do anything but love (and being omnipresent), Love is unconstrained by time, place, culture or anything else including the planet and indeed the universe. And so Love (God, Spirit etc.) is not “out there”, above and beyond the universe, but here and now, everywhere; it has always been thus and will always be.

    In other words, “out there” cannot exist in a Love who is all-encompassing both existentially and materially. Everything is held in this cosmic “in here” or “with me”, in this Divine Consciousness or Dimension of Love.

    The danger with “out there” in this sense is that it gives rise to a perception of Love as a separate entity independent of All-That-Is including Nature from which we have evolved and are a constituent part. Therefore, when understanding any separation from Love as impossible (as I’ve maintained), we can see all Nature, including ourselves, as possessing Divine essence, and hence entitlement to moral consideration and protection from unsustainable exploitation.

    This non-dualist or holistic outlook finds a home in the thought of many a mystic. Ramanuja, for instance, a seer from Tamil Nadu, wrote that “Brahman ensouls [existence] by constituting the soul of [existence] . . . and [that] all entities constitute Brahman’s body.” It follows, I believe, that all entities, sentient or otherwise, are of God. The reality, though, of our limited human understanding, experience and language forces us to perceive a “distinction” between Spirit and materiality. And, yes, it “does” look like that. However, I want to suggest that the “distinction” between spirit and matter is illusory, just as a table looks solid but is in fact composed of moving particles.

    In this light, I have come to see the terms “Divine transcendence” (in the sense that God is separate, beyond the universe) and/or “Divine immanence” (in the sense that God is found only within the Earth and ourselves) as creating a distinction of the sort I’ve mentioned. And I see “pantheism” and “panentheism” in the same light. These four expressions are inadequate for explaining our existence and relationship with the Divine. Poetry, allegory, symbol and metaphor come more easily to our aid. I’m thinking here of metaphors such as this by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner:

    “invisible lines of depending are everywhere, as if millions of glistening threads tie us to the universe and the universe to us.” And, I may add, everything to Spirit/Brahman.”

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