For three days I have been at the beautiful Powell House Quaker retreat center, up in Old Chatham, New York. I have been attending a workshop on “nontheist Quakers” led by Robin Alpern and Zach Alexander with about 16 other Quakers from around the northeast area.
I arrived with a good dose of skepticism about the subject, not sure I even agreed with the notion that one could be a nontheist Quaker. How could you be a Friend if you didn’t even believe in the exstence of God?
I had a lot to learn.
Over the course of the weekend, I heard some very moving, powerful and funny stories from the Quakers here about how they came to Quakerism and how they came to their own stances of atheism or agnosticism. I have come to understand that the term “Nontheist Quaker” was coined a decade or two ago to encompass the large range of Quakers who did not believe in an anthropomorphized God figure -- i.e. atheist Friends who firmly reject the existence of God, or agnostic Friends who maintain that it is impossible to know if God exists or not, or who think of "God" as the greatest good that humanity can achieve, or who may have an overall sense of holiness from humanity and the earth without subscribing to a particular diety.
Hearing the stories of the nontheist Friends here, and reading about the perspectives of many other Quakers from around the United States and Europe, I have realized that their story is really not so far from my own. And that the way that they view the world, their daily practices, and their commitment to their Meetings tell me that they are indeed Quakers in every sense of the word.
I have been reflecting on my own faith journey -- from my Roman Catholic upbringing, to my born again experiences in high school, to my evangelical Christian college years, my belief-less wanderings in the desert of Texas, to my Quaker faith now. Today I have largely stopped thinking about God as a supernatural “Old bearded man in the sky.” If I do believe in a diety, it is as a loving and nurturing force in my life that pushes me to live rightly and treat others with respect and love.
My “prayers” if you can call them that, are no longer intercessory, asking God for particular favors or wishes. The are closer to meditations and reflections that might direct positive energy toward a particular person or situation, but not asking God for some specific outcome. I don’t believe in a supernatural being that acts in the world in that way.
So I am not so far from nontheism myself, I realized.
This weekend has exposed me to a flavor of Quakerism that prior to this weekend I didn’t even know existed. Despite my initial misgivings, I think now that Quakerism is a broad enough faith community to include even the atheist and the agnostic. This gives me a lot of hope for the future.
In a world of people seeking true community, desiring spiritual connection, and eager to do good in this life, I believe that the Quaker message and movement is needed more than ever. It’s encouraging to know that we can accommodate into our fold even those who question the very existence of God.
I'm very thankful for Robin and Zach for gently and considerately facilitating this retreat, to all the participants who shared their very personal and heartfelt stories, and Danielle from Brooklyn Meeting who suggested going to the retreat in the first place. What an awesome way to start 2009.