What Do We Believe?

Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

Some Notes Toward an Idea

In the novel Monday the Rabbi Took Off by Harry Kemelman, Rabbi David Small is asked by the Israeli police chief, “Do you believe in God?” Rabbi Small’s response is that it depends on three variables. The first variable is “I,” as one might expect, but it is worth looking more closely at the other two variables:

Do you mean in the same way that I believe that two and two make four? Or the way that I believe that light travels a certain number of miles per second, which I myself have never seen demonstrated but which has been demonstrated by people whose competence and integrity I have been taught to trust? Or do you mean in the sense that I believe that there was a man named Washington who won independence for the American colonies from Britain, or in the sense that I believe there was a man named Moses who did the same thing for the Jews from Egypt? . . . And finally, the third variable—God. Do you mean a humanlike figure? Or an ineffable essence? One who is aware of us individually and responsive to our pleas for help? Or one who is so far above us that He can have no interest in us?

This quote has been one I have thought about for years, as it seems to encapsulate the crux of discussions on what we believe: Whose authority do we take as reliable, and what is it we are describing? Quakers have had, over time, various answers to these problems, but fundamentally we rely on personal experience for our religious beliefs. We have tended to believe that each of us, at any time, can have a revelation of a new direction. One fundamental idea of Quakers is that “There is one . . . who can speak to thy condition,” as George Fox said in his Journal. The omitted phrase in the above quote is “even Christ Jesus,” which could be interpreted as meaning “that is, Jesus” or “which includes Jesus.” While Fox, being a Christian, probably meant the first option, I, being a non-Christian, tend toward the second. This leads us to the third variable in Rabbi Small’s question above: What is the “one” that Fox refers to?

Some among Quakers are quite sure that when we talk about God we mean Jesus, in one of the many formulations that Christians have had over time about him. For others, God is more nondescript, more like the “ineffable essence” that Rabbi Small mentions. Some Friends are agnostic (from the Greek for “not knowing”), saying that God is inherently unknowable or that they are undecided on the question of God’s existence. For some it includes other formulations entirely. There was much controversy in New York Yearly Meeting some years ago about whether Wiccan practices could be included in a Quaker context. Some Friends style themselves as “nontheists,” meaning that whatever they believe has no relationship to historical constructs of God. I say that I do believe in God but am a bit fuzzy about what that means precisely or whether it conforms to anyone else’s conception of Spirit. Perhaps it is more of an aggregated spiritus mundi than usual conceptions of God. I think this falls within the variability of Friends.

We do ask new members to state what their beliefs are, and how they think they align with Quakers. We ask new members to be harmonious with our beliefs. I use the word “harmonious” with particular intent, because as someone once pointed out, if everyone is singing the same note, it’s not harmony; it’s monotony. 

Most religions require one to adhere to a specific set of beliefs, but we Friends don’t. We do ask new members to state what their beliefs are, and how they think they align with Quakers. We ask new members to be harmonious with our beliefs. I use the word “harmonious” with particular intent, because as someone once pointed out, if everyone is singing the same note, it’s not harmony; it’s monotony. We are seeking harmony in our approach to religion. When I applied to join Friends many years ago, I made it quite clear in my letter of application that I was not a Christian. Over time I’ve come to define this as not believing in the special divinity of Jesus. Not that Jesus wasn’t divine, but that he was no more divine than you or me. He may have been wiser, but that isn’t the same as divinity. I was sent a clearness committee that included a very devout Christian Friend and another lifelong Friend. After discussion, it was clear that my views were harmonious with Friends views. It’s a big tent. Somehow we manage to talk to each other even with many disparate ideas about God.

For mystics such as Friends are, we use our personal experience as the basis for our beliefs. Given the variety of religious experience, that seems appropriate. Of course, translating that inchoate experience in order to share it with others is inevitably incomplete and modified by the metaphors we choose to use. It becomes quite possible that when one person says “Jesus,” and another person says “Goddess,” and another person says “God,” or “Allah,” or “Krishna,” or “Gaia,” that we are actually all talking about the same thing, or at least about different aspects of the same thing, much like the blind men and the elephant. In that context, I think it is fair to say that no one human can comprehend the totality of God. The Bible more or less supports that view. It is even possible that someone who says, “I don’t believe in God,” means, more precisely, “I don’t believe in this particular way of thinking about God.” Thus when we talk about religious ideas, we need to strive for inclusiveness and generosity in our thinking. I have had fruitful discussions with people from many different backgrounds and different beliefs. I have also attended worship services in other religious institutions without feeling out of place, as, while the metaphors and language differ, the essential experience is similar.

Fortunately for Quakers, while we tend to be believers, we don’t actually require belief in God. What we do require—if we require anything—is to ardently seek to do the right thing. Our goal is right action, even when we disagree about what the right action in a given circumstance is. 

The use of personal experience as a guide leads to the question of what is appropriate authority. Quakers have vested that authority, historically, only in God, denying secular authority. But in our daily lives, we are constantly faced with questions of what to believe. We are bombarded with “facts” and questions of which ones are true. Some facts are in Rabbi Small’s first category: things we can demonstrate ourselves. But there are a lot of “facts” presented to us that fall into Rabbi Small’s second category: things that have been demonstrated by others but which we cannot demonstrate for ourselves, like the speed of light. Here personal experience may play us false. For all practical purposes the sun does appear to rise in the east and set in the west, but we know that this is not true. Personal experience can be a useful starting point, but it does not always suffice. Arthur Eddington, the Quaker astronomer, had a leading to not dismiss Albert Einstein’s theories out of hand simply because Einstein was German, even though many of his English colleagues did just that. Instead he followed through, eventually obtaining the first real demonstration that Einstein’s theories were correct. The point is not that personal experience proves that thus-and-such is so, but that one can use personal experience to build to a proof that thus-and-such is so—at least for now. Scientific ideas are always in flux, always potentially to be changed as new data arises. It is not so different with religious leadings, which require repeated testing.

Keeping in mind the varieties of belief and the response appropriate to each is difficult, and often one makes mistakes. When one is on particularly shaky ground, such as “belief in God,” our position must be much more tenuous. Fortunately for Quakers, while we tend to be believers, we don’t actually require belief in God. What we do require—if we require anything—is to ardently seek to do the right thing. Our goal is right action, even when we disagree about what the right action in a given circumstance is. So perhaps our fundamental belief isn’t even “there is one who can speak to thy condition” but “[h]e hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Humbly is key, as we must be aware of what we do not know or understand but must still try to do good. This gets to the fundamental principle of right action. As Fox himself said, “Be patterns, be examples, in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one” (Letter, 1656). To follow Fox’s words, however one perceives God, is, I think, the essence of practicing right action and doing good in the world. Belief, while important, may be less crucial.

Adam Segal-Isaacson

Adam Segal-Isaacson is a member of Brooklyn (N.Y.) Meeting and has been involved in aiding communication among Friends.

13 thoughts on “What Do We Believe?

  1. I think the point that what unites Friends is the desire to “do the Right thing,” to do good, is significant. I know I’m not the first to suggest that in ways the Society of Friends is more an ethical society than a religious one, and as someone with non-theist leanings, I’m quite OK with that.

    1. The apostle John wrote in his second epistle that God is Love. For me, that is our theology. Some may wish to expand that theology.

      I recall my orthodox elders in 1955 telling me that unfortunately there is evil in this world that we must deal with (e.g., abusing women, murder), but we must rise above that by trying to liberate the power of love in others.

      It also means we must accept others who have different sexual orientations (asexual, homosexual), rather than trying to change them through counseling. To do so is to deny their existence and abusive. (I am heterosexual, faithful and married 56 years.)

      We also must recognize that some people cannot manage freedom, and must be incarcerated.

  2. Thank you so much Adam for this article, it speaks absolutely and completely to my condition. I has been difficult for me to put my believes into words and you have just helped me to do it.

  3. Oh how I love what Adam is presenting…he leaves nothing to run to or hide from.
    If someone does not believe in god, then he is left with the option of becoming a god.
    That god can express love, friendship, compassion and caring to others as well as one’s self.
    Most would think that is quite enough!

  4. Thanks! It is very good to see such a sensitive and inclusive portrayal of the Light (Holy Spirit, Power whose guidance we are listening for…) still openly discussed here. As a person who devoutly follows the Light stirrings in a Quaker manner but finds the monotheistic implications of God/Christ discordant, I have been dismayed by the lack of discussion recently. I have noticed a marked increase in the use of exclusive terms (Christ, God…) replacing the more inclusive terms many Quakers were using in 1990s (Light, Inner Voice, Holy Spirit…) and was concerned Quaker meetings may be narrowing their inclusion expectations in recent years. I very much appreciate hearing from at least one other practicing Quaker who feels uneasy about use of exclusive terms without clarification. One of my old meetings explicitly clarified that use of exclusive terms (God, Christ, Goddess…) is appropriate when sharing a personal experience or quoting a role model/source text, but inclusive terms (Light, Holy Spirit, Inner Voice, Higher Power, Life Force…) is more appropriate when discussing a shared experience or group directive. This meeting was a mixed liberal/conservative congregation, and this clarification smoothed a lot of potential friction. I have held to this convention ever since, and felt much more comfortable identifying as Quaker because of it!!

  5. I joined the Society of Friends because I experienced a Presence that my Unitarian elders couldn’t explain. The Meeting that received my request for membership was mixed, both Christian and non-Christian. I was told (and accepted) that if there was a dispute in the Meeting, Christians would prevail.
    I was at Friends General Conference, listening to eminent Friends describe their Spiritual Journeys when I had to sit back and “pray”, O Presence which I know to be real, are you simply God or are you Christ? And I heard a voice which said, ‘I am Jesus Christ.’ It wasn’t the answer I wanted, expected, or knew how to deal with and there was no one willing to answer my questions. I’ve had multiple experiences of Christ’s presence since then. For me, Christ is real, but wasn’t when I joined the Society; so I’m not about to make it a requirement.
    Experience has also taught me that all of life depends on a Creator. If you want to call that ‘God’, go ahead. I will still be thankful for every breath and beat of my heart because I know that at some point both will cease.
    What was it like to meet Jesus? Not just my experience, but what has been recorded in the Gospels. We talk about our experience as Friends, can we give the same credit to the Disciples, Saul/Paul, and the saints who have followed? As revelation didn’t end with the closing of the Canon, it didn’t begin in 1652.
    I believe that what makes Quakers unique are the Queries. Other faith communities have creeds and statements of faith (and Friends can come awfully close – “SPICE”?), but Friends have Queries that open us to faithfulness (is there any other way?). Or at least good queries do: Dost thou come to meeting prepared for worship? Dost thou live in the Life and Power which take away the occasion for war? Do children receive the love and support of the Meeting? … and there are many more.
    Thanks for initiating an important discussion.

  6. I kept flashing on Robin Williams’ 1991 appearance on Johnny Carson: “Like the Venice California Shakespeare Festival: ‘Instead of Hamlet, we’re just calling it Bob, and later we’re doing Two Dudes from Verona. It’s not like we have to do rhyming, we just kinda speak and feel good.”

    1. This is the kind of wishy washy, muddled thinking that, I believe, is hurting Quakerism, offering the relativity of God, Reinterpreting Fox’s statement to finesse Jesus Christ out of his thinking. “Jesus” and even “God” become words of exclusivity, and therefore to be avoided. “Some Quakers *style* themselves as “non-theists.”[emphasis added]…but even though they say they don’t believe, they really do. No particular beliefs are required in Quakerism, he writes. We are all blind people describing an elephant, according to the author. He ignores the continuing in “continuing revelation,” so he has no anchor, no history. Though he quotes Micah 6:8, he ignores the part about “walking humbly WITH THY GOD” in his article. His conclusion The Religious Society of Friends is all about “doing the right thing,” and nothing more. But the Great Commandment is to love God with all your heart, with all your soul and all your mind.

  7. I liked it. A Flexible view of our various inner lives. As Quakers, we are free to study the Bible, follow Jesus, and put all of our faith and love toward God or one can be a non-theist, believing that God is in all of us, as “inner light” or perhaps, our spirituality is feeling love in seeing the basic goodness in people that keep us coming back. Other members may be called into action, helping or severing others. Most Quakers make room for all of these beliefs in one Meetinghouse.
    Then, after “Meeting for Worship” we mix together at a “pot luck” meal and talk about our children at school, car trouble, or a kitchen that needs fixing up. Adam Segal-Isaacson’s article set the table with different choices and maybe someday we’ll talk about which food is our favorite and why to open-heartedly understand, and respect each other.

  8. I enjoyed this reflection and the comments that followed. I’m relatively new in the Quakers and one of its many attractions is its invitation to enter into unconditional relationships, to bracket our judgements and at least try to stand in the shoes of the other for a while. As a Gestalt therapist, pne of our foundational principles is to dialogue with difference without losing the ground of our inner compass.
    For me, I encountered a false dicotomy between the individual and community, in the West we are required to give privelege to one or the other, we are prone to get polarised into radical individualism or radical consensus. Any form of polarisation leads to profound disconnection and loneliness, it’s a profound rupture in the relational field and is repugnant to our human condition.
    For me it’s always both/and rather either/or. Our uniqueness can only be validated within the relational field (community) and this journey is always a dynamic process grounded in the here and now.
    It’s a dialogical journey Friends so lets keep pur hesrts open

  9. I am just now learning a little about Friends. After reading this article, I am still a little confused. It does not seem logically feasible to have a meeting where both Christians, who by definition accept and follow the teaching of Christ, and those who reject his deity and authority could possibly consider themselves to be members of the same religious organization. A follower of Christ must define the recurring chorus of this article, “seeking to do right,” on the basis of Christ’s words and the example of his life (as well as that of his apostles). Christ demands obedience and supreme loyalty to himself, stating that he alone is “the way, the truth, and the life.” How is it possible for there to be true spiritual fellowship between agnostics and those who are told clearly in Hebrews 11:6 that “without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him?” I see this article as an impossible contradiction and it sounds more like Friends are a group of people who agree to disagree and then maybe do some altruistic work together? Am I misunderstanding this organization?

    Thank you for any insight!


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