Worship, Nontheism, & Convergence

“And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.” (Acts 2:1)

In seventeen years of online discussions with other Quakers, I have found that Friends who hold belief in the personal God of Western tradition may have a difficult time understanding even the possibility of worship for a nontheist. Their assumption seems to be that Quaker worship is, like other forms of worship, an act of reverence toward an object of worship, and that therefore a person who does not believe in God has no divine object and cannot worship. If the assumption were correct, then the conclusion — that nontheist Quakers do not actually engage in Quaker worship — might follow. But the assumption is erroneous. It does not reflect the unique Quaker understanding of worship as taught, for example, by George Fox.

We can read about George Fox’s understanding of worship in various places in his collected Works. But grasping it is difficult, because we tend to approach Fox’s words with unrecognized preconceptions about his meaning. It’s easy to forget the fact that Fox and other Friends, convinced that everything that had come between the apostles and them had been cunning distortions of the Antichrist, completely re-defined Christianity. Those distortions, which continue to shape almost all of Christian thought, color our interpretation of both Fox and scripture in ways that we fail to see. And so we are quite confident that we read Fox and the scriptures aright (as he might say), and we don’t realize that our confidence is blind.

But even to justify that assertion, much less to explicate Quaker worship from the writings of Fox and other primitive Friends, would require quite a bit of space (and time). So I’ll just wade in now and define Quaker worship as succinctly as I can, assisted by a couple of passages from an epistle by George Fox. If anyone feels that I am in error, we can examine the primitive texts together. I can say, however, that I have studied those texts sufficiently to be confident of the fidelity of my definition. I do my best to apply the “testimony” of integrity to my explications of historic Quakerism. And I am a realist who avoids anachronism; I don’t pretend, for example, that primitive Quakerism was somehow not theistic.

I said above that it is erroneous to assume that Quaker worship is, like other forms of worship, an act of reverence toward an object of worship. But if it is not that, then what is it? Simply put, Quaker worship, modeled on, among other passages, the biblical story of Pentecost, is “silent waiting upon God.” That’s a very different thing.

Before letting George Fox speak to us about silent waiting, I want to help nontheists as well as theists to hear him — and to hear each other. Because, as 1 John 4 asserts, God is love and love is God, and because, as Paul asserts, Christ is “the image [in whom we are made; see Gen. 1:27] of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), we can define worship in a way that speaks to theists and nontheists by simply substituting the word “love” for “God” and “Christ” in the source texts. That substitution has been made (except when the meaning would not be clear, or when mythological agency is attributed) in the following passages from Fox.*

And this is to all that would learn silent waiting upon [love] and silent meeting; for none shall ever come to [love] … but as they do come to that of [love] in them, the light which [love] hath enlightened them withal; and that is it which must guide everyone’s mind up to [love], and to wait upon [love] to receive the spirit from [love], and the spirit leads to wait upon [love] in silence, and to receive from [love].

Other than waiting patiently and trustingly for the working of love in our hearts, then, we perform no action in Quaker worship. Our worship is essentially passive. Therefore there is no object toward which our worship is directed, toward which we proffer reverence. We’re simply waiting to feel the motions of love directing our lives. Thus do we avoid the error of attempting to objectify, to reify, God. And thus do we, if we are theists, avoid the error of secretly thinking that we are pleasing God by the work of worship.

Such worship is proper for Friends because Quakerism is about leaving behind all “types and figures” — i.e., words and mental images (which “are spoken to the carnal part of man”**) — and entering the “substance,” which Fox said is Christ — i.e., love. So there is no need for one to be a theist in order to join in Quaker worship, because silent waiting upon love’s working in the heart is the whole of it.

Keep to that of [love] in you, when you are still from your own thoughts and imaginations, and desires and counsels of your own hearts, and motions, and will; when you stand single from all these, waiting upon [love], your strength is renewed; he that waits upon [love], feels his shepherd, and he shall not want: and that which is of [love] in every one, is that which brings them together to wait upon [love], which brings them to unity, which joins their hearts together up to [love]. … [F]or the light is the door, the light is the power, that doth enlighten every man that cometh into the world, that all through the light might believe, and he that believeth is entered into his rest [i.e., sabbath], hath ceased from his own works as God did from his [after creating the world], and he hath the witness in himself. And he that is born of [love] overcometh the world, he does not make haste: he knows a silent meeting and waiting upon [love]; and knows that … Christ ([love’s] covenant of peace, of light with [love] and man) they must come into; then all flesh must be silent before [love]; so the life of [love] comes to guide.

We talk about being “convergent Friends,” yet even in our converging we continue to push each other away, breaking the body of love with words, dividing the “substance” by “types and figures.” George Fox has something to say about that, too, in the same epistle:

And you that think yourselves above the world … giving names one to another, throwing dirt one to another, where the enmity is … and they that do so, mock one another; and here is the generation of mockers, out of the life, and out of the light, and every one striving for mastery and lordship and authority one over another: but it shall not be so with you who are children of light, disciples of [love], not of this world, whose kingdom is not of this world, and who come out of strife, come into peace.

The shared, traditional understanding of Quaker worship as silent waiting upon and submission to the working of love in the heart can and should be the point of real convergence for all Friends.

This time, dear reader, I leave the word substitutions to you:

[A]nd all people, know the mind of Christ (which none can but who come to the light he hath enlightened them withal), that you may come to be of one mind, heart and soul; and all people wait to receive the spirit of Christ Jesus, which if you have not, you are none of his; and all people come to live in the power of godliness … and you will come to live in the gospel [which, as Fox often reminded us, is the power of God-who-is-love].

* Except as indicated below, all passages from George Fox are adapted, as described in the text, from “An Epistle to All People on the Earth,” which begins on page 119 of Vol. 4 of the 1831 edition of Works. For a classic primitive Quaker statement on love as the nature of God, see Isaac Penington’s Concerning Love.
** Fox, Works Vol. 4, p. 34

65 thoughts on “Worship, Nontheism, & Convergence

  1. You speak my mind, Friend.

    Though the metaphors of theism work for me in my private faith and practice, Hystery paints the paradox well here:

    “The butterfly is pinned and people think I mean wings and legs and antennae when what I meant was flutter and delight and tenderness.”

    Thank you,

  2. George – thank thee for this posting. It contains several important insights to help Friends, particularly encouraging us to maintain our traditional nonconformity toward religious attitudes and understandings imported from non-Quaker sources.

    I am hesitant to fully accept thy substitution of “love” for “God” or “Christ.” While thy scriptural reasoning is acceptable, making such a substitution in a historic text carries some danger. It also appears to undermine the importance of activity taking place on the spiritual plane that not everyone on the physical plane sees.

    George Fox believed that a person who came into contact with the divine was changed. He believed that the Light shows us right and wrong; this is a spiritual exercise and not an exercise of the ego. Fox believed in a Greater Reality that is accessible to everyone and who gives thee guidance for how to live aright today in this life. It is not fair to Fox to dilute his understand of this Greater Reality by calling it love and not stating that Fox’s understanding was connected to activity in the spiritual realm.

    Regarding thy statement “there is no object toward which our worship is directed,” I would remind thee of these words of William Penn in _Primitive Christianity Revived_: “it seems to have been his [God’s] main Design to prevent Idolatry and Vice, by directing their Minds to the True Object of Worship, and pressing Virtue and Holiness.”

    The following is the substance of two extremely long sentences from Barclay’s Apology, Prop. 11. These sentences provide some context by explaining how this Greater Power works during worship among those gathered in His name.

    [Partially abridged] “When assembled, the great work of one and all ought to be to wait upon God, and returning out of their own thoughts and imaginations, to feel the Lord’s presence and know a gathering into His Name indeed … As everyone is thus gathered and met together inwardly in their spirits as well as outwardly in their persons, the secret power and virtue of life is known to refresh the soul, and the pure motions and breathings of God’s Spirit are felt to arise, from which as words of declaration, prayers, or praises arise, the acceptable worship is known which edifies the Church and is well-pleasing to God… everyone putting forth that which the Lord puts into their hearts…”

    In this passage, Barclay writes of bypassing theories and speculations of who God is so that we can experience directly from Him who He is. The love of God that is shed abroad in our hearts can be experienced by theists and by non-theists, to be sure. It can be stated using non-Christian terminology, but if we as Friends limit ourselves to that path, aren’t we abandoning our ancient tradition of standing up for the Truth and for the ancient definitions of spiritual words?

    • Thanks for your comments, Friend.

      Regarding Penn, I do not place him among the primitive Quakers theologically; indeed, he was sufficiently embarrassed by Fox’s theology to change it in various ways and to take refuge in the claim that the plain statement by Fox that “Christ is not distinct from his saints,” which is found in more than one place in Fox’s works, was a “misprint.” And so his views on worship, while of historical interest, aren’t relevant to the specific focus of the post.

      I have no issues with the Barclay passage (although Barclay, too, is already at a theological remove from Fox), but I will point out that Fox is careful to say that all praying, praising, etc. is done not by us but by the divine spirit in us, as Paul teaches. Even in such activity, we are ultimately passive in worship.

      And finally, I want to clarify that I had no intention of diluting Fox’s theistic experience; although I thought that I had stated my intentions sufficiently, evidently I should have been more explicit about that. Nor did I intend to deny the searching and convicting activity of the light of love: it simply was outside the scope of my concern in the post. And I am by no means arguing that we as Friends should limit ourselves to non-Christian terminology or thought; to the contrary, I would argue that, our primary concern being with the substance, we can understand a variety of languages, including some that seem on the surface to be incompatible.

  3. Jim, the New Foundation Fellowship had reproduced the 8-volume 1831 edition of Fox’s Works; unfortunately, that reprint is sold out. However, the same edition (which is not a critical edition; I don’t think we have one yet for Fox) is available on line: Google Books has digitized copies of all 8 volumes in searchable form. But, unless I’ve missed the trick, finding the 8 volumes there is no easy task. When I get time, I plan to use phrases from the “hard copy” books to locate the correct URL for each volume. When I do that, I can send you a copy of the URL list if you like.

    • Dear George:

      I think you can access the relevant volumes at Google Books by searching for :

      The Works of George Fox Volume III

      That’s an example. I found that if you use the roman numerals the volumes seem to come up relatively early in the display. I haven’t searched for all eight volumes, but I was able to find Volumes V, VI, and VII. In one instance I added “1831” to the search parameters.



  4. George, I think there’s always a danger in quoting a seventeenth-century Englishman selectively, in order to uphold one’s own twenty-first-century point of view. One may forget that one’s twenty-first-century point of view relies on assumed truths that did not exist in European thinking before the eighteenth-century Enlightenment began, while excluding other assumed truths that fell out of fashion after Newton and Agassiz, but were strongly dominant before.

    Reading through Fox’s collected Works, I am struck again and again by his emphasis on a moral God, Who judges and rewards the righteous, but judges and punishes the unrighteous. God was not simply love in such a way of thinking.

    The doctrine of the Atonement (which requires a personal God as well as a personal Christ), the Wrath of God, and the Day of Judgment, were no mere figures of speech to Fox: “The end of all things is at hand,” he wrote (“An Epistle to All People on the Earth”, Works, Vol. 4, p. 121; cf. “The Lamb’s Officer” in the same volume). “Therefore dread the Lord … the living God, the Lord of hosts, who gives you all breath, life, strength, and all things needful; that you might worship him who is a spirit, whose dominion is set up … for now is the day of his Son, the Lamb’s power, who is come to reign, and to rule all nations with a rod of iron, whose sceptre is gone forth … Christ Jesus … the great sacrifice, that one offering that ended all sacrifices….” (“To the Turk”, Works, Vol. 4, pp. 216-17.)

    I also think of Fox’s “Answer to the Declaration of the the Great Turk” (Works, Vol. 6), which declares that God “loosed the pangs of death [for Jesus, after his crucifixion] …. raised Him up the third day, and … hath exalted him, at his right hand….”

    Substituting the language of impersonal Love for that of a very personal God in places such as this just doesn’t seem to me to work. I’m sorry, friend, but that’s my honest conclusion.

  5. There’s no need to apologize, Marshall. It appears that you misunderstand my project, though, which has nothing to do with making a nontheist of George Fox or anyone else, selectively quoting in support of an ideology, upholding a 21st-century point of view (which needs no propping-up), or asserting that impersonal language is somehow the same as personal. I have no interest in any of that. Nor do I care whether you or anyone else is a theist or a nontheist. My Quaker project is to uncover the psychological experience of Quakerism in a way that can speak across the ideological divides. I am aware, of course, that those who are accustomed to ideological warfare will experience even that as an attack, but that doesn’t concern me: I’ve grown inured over these many years. I speak to those who have ears to hear.

    I do wonder why you assume that love is not “moral,” so that describing God as “simply love” in that context seems to you to be inadequate. Does not the same letter of John say that “every one that doeth righteousness is born of him,” teaching thereby that the nature (in which we saints participate) of the God-who-is-love is righteousness, and that therefore love and righteousness are one? Did not Jesus teach that one’s eternal fate is determined by how one treats those who suffer? Did he not, in fact, teach that love is the entire law — the only criterion of righteousness, and even righteousness itself? (For the law is no longer a matter of words, but of spirit; i.e., life in the love that is God.) How then, in the Quaker and Christian context in which I wrote, is love not about righteousness, justice, and mercy? Or does “moral” mean something else to you?

    You wrote that “Substituting the language of impersonal Love for that of a very personal God … just doesn’t seem to me to work.” In my experience, Marshall, there is no such thing as “impersonal love” — can you describe what that would look like? Still, I understand your reaction: you are, after all, a believer in a personal God, and my approach may feel like an insult to the belief system in which you are deeply and very personally invested. I do not intend to offend, only to offer the results of a lifetime of reflection, study, and religious practice, so I can only ask believers to meet me halfway — to try not to take offense, for their own sake and for the sake of the love to which we are all committed — if they wish to meet me at all.

    That’s one of the benefits of a blog: I invade no one’s ideological space, because coming here is voluntary for readers. They can sample what’s offered and take it or leave it, while I experience the joy of thinking, writing, and sometimes being of help to someone who stops by.

    So thanks for visiting, Friend Marshall, and for helping me think. My door is open.

    • Hi, George.

      To clarify, I was not saying that you were making a “nontheist of George Fox…, selectively quoting in support of an ideology, [or] upholding a 21st-century point of view….” I was saying that such dangers exist.

      As to the question with which you begin your second paragraph, it depends what you mean by “love”. Definitely there are many who define love as a feeling of affection, attraction, and/or sympathy, but do not bring things like honesty or accountability or self-sacrifice into the picture: e.g., a lot of selfish parents, selfish children, and immature lovers and would-be lovers. Perhaps you have seen cases of such people yourself. For these people, I think the matter may need to be clarified, and not merely by saying, “That is not love.”

      In my own experience, I have met people who come to Quaker meetings to feel the love that is in the midst, but who do not feel any consequent leading to act. They do not stay for meeting for business; they do not get involved in Friends’ projects; they just come, enjoy, and then go home. Again, perhaps you have met such people, too. The love they feel in the meeting is not perceived as coming from anyone in particular, nor as directed toward anyone in particular, but as simply present for all to feel. And there are those among them who deny that it is love from a personal God, and say it just is. This is what I meant by an “impersonal love”.

      I hope this clarifies my earlier remarks.

      All the best,

      • Thanks for the clarification, Marshall. As postmoderns often note, context is everything, and my use of the word “love” was in a very specific context. As for where love comes from, as you might expect I don’t feel that attributing it to a deity is necessary (and there, I assume, we differ). What I do think is necessary is that the word be understood and used in the Quaker-Christian metanarrative context so that we are clear about which kind of love we are talking about. However we account for the existence of such love, I do not characterize it as impersonal, given that, as Jesus demonstrated, it is a giving to others. I think I understand and share your concern; in my vocal and written ministry, I try to address it by stressing that Quaker-Christian context and by encouraging exercises such as Experiment with Light, which helps Friends recover the original Quaker context of words like “love” and “light.”

  6. George, I have been busy these many years, in trying to articulate my concept of Love as a clue for us to find and ponder, an embedded “memory” (all words at this point frustrate me) of the interconnectedness of existence. Love therefore holds an ecological meaning for me as well as a transcendent nearly theistic meaning. It also speaks to me of our ethical responsibilities from an uniquely human perspective (although we also see love manifest itself in the rest of the natural world in forms particular to other species). As our historical/cultural understanding of self and community change, the concept of Love also changes in relationship to our constructed realities. Even so, Love remains a reminder, a tease, a mission, and a germinal truth that has the power to turn us quietly inward even as we reach instinctively toward the “Other” whether the other is human, animal, or our conceptualization of the Divine.

    As you can see, what I offer here is half-formed and sloppy but I do thank you for your insightful words which help me as I gather ideas together.

    • Hystery, your words that feel “half-formed and sloppy” to you impress me as eloquent and accurate. I’m reminded of something from John D. Caputo’s The Weakness of God (p. 115):

      The name of God is a name of an event, of I know not what, of a bottomless provocation, like the name of love or justice, and I am in no position to stop the endless chain of substitutions in which it is caught up…. The question is never whether there is a God, or whether we should love God, but, as Derrida says in quoting Augustine, what do I love when I love my God?

  7. Dear George,

    I appreciate your thoughtful efforts and your extensive knowledge of Quakerism.

    Where we differ is the very baseline of philosophy, understanding the nature of Existence. I learned from a number of profs at two universities (and since in too many philosophical and biological tomes)that speaking of true, real ethics including “love” in a meaningless, purposeless cosmos is speaking meaninglessness.

    If there is no Essence, then “love” as a real ethical joy and duty is a nonsensical concept.

    I don’t mean to imply that one can’t have instinctual reactions to his kin and group or that there aren’t “spandrel” (from Gould) types of concepts or acts. But “love” in the sense of Essence–God is love–is a meaningless phrase. If one says “nontheism” one is saying “non-lovism.”

    If nontheism is true, it appears based on most of philosophy and anthropology and biology that religions such as the Society of Friends is truly delusion.

    However, having said that, let’s assume for discussion’s sake, that this is a non-god cosmos, that existence IS, that there is no Essence, no Ethics, no Love.

    As an existentialist, I would still “love” because while as an Essentialist, a theist, I think
    “love” is a real joy and a real duty,
    I also at my age “like” the acts of “love” even if the latter is a delusion.

    I would NOT be a Friend however, because in my understanding of Quakerism–including from my yearly meeting’s Faith and Practice–is that worship is true love and adoration of the Center. A gathered meeting is when finite humans experience the Divine Essence in Communion.

    Worship in Friends isn’t a focus on human existential constructions nor is it group fellowship in a nongodly sense.

    So we do live in totally different philosophical universes.

    But at least we can try to share across the incredible divide.

    In the Light
    (which IS even if all us humans ceased to be or never were and the universe or multiverse crunched and disappeared)


    • Daniel,

      First of all, it may be that I have misinterpreted your comments, so I ask your patience as I respond, sometimes quite frankly, to what I think you said. Please forgive and correct me where I have misread.

      I interpret your comments as saying that, despite having read my post, you continue to believe that nontheistic Quaker worship is not possible. You appear to base that belief not on the information I presented but on your philosophical position. While the current discussion is about the possibility of nontheist Quaker worship, not the possibility of nontheism itself, I do have some questions about that philosophical aspect of your response. I also have a few statements that apply more directly to the topic under discussion.

      I’ll begin with questions/queries.

      Do you accept as truth what you are told by professors and books? I don’t think you could do that indiscriminately, so what are your criteria?

      What do you mean by “true, real” ethics? What would be false, unreal ethics? Similarly, what do you mean by “true” love?

      What do you mean by “love in the sense of Essence”? More crucially, what do you mean by “Essence”? Are you arguing for a Platonic or scholastic philosophy? Do you understand that a postmodern mind like mine will not find those categories convincing or particularly meaningful? Might you find terms that could speak to both of us, or are you too committed to your terminology for that? If the latter, how do you propose that we communicate about these topics?

      Also, do you mean to identify theism exclusively with such essentialist philosophy? If so, are you at least aware of other approaches such as process theology (to which Catherine Keller’s On the Mystery is a good introduction)? Have you arrived at a reasonable justification for your choice? Have you written about these things in a place where I could read how your system is built up?

      Are you arguing that only theists can love outside their kinship group? Do you deny the countless acts of more universal, self-sacrificing love by nontheists? Are you able to feel the spirit of that “universal love” (John Woolman’s phrase) in the exhortation I recently published from the Buddhist Ryokan?

      Getting closer to the post’s topic now, I’ll move to statements.

      You acknowledge my knowledge of Quakerism, Daniel, as demonstrated in my description of the heart of original Quaker worship, yet you continue to insist on a definition of worship that would meet the criteria of an Antichristian church while not meeting the simple criterion of George Fox. I am talking here about the original Quaker worship that a Fox or Penington would own, not an activity defined and endorsed by an apostacy- or modernism-infected form of Quakerism. Original Quaker worship is waiting upon the light of love in the heart. A gathered meeting is, therefore, the gathering of those present into the unity and power of that spirit of love. Anything else is something else. Do what you like and call it what you like, but you may not use your choice to exclude others who live in love, heirs of the Quaker spirit, because they do not share your philosophical and metaphysical doctrines.

      As a theistic believer, you either accept the biblical testimony of 1 John or you don’t. If you do, then, consistent with Quaker teaching, you should see John’s God whenever you see love — anywhere you see love. But if you attempt to turn a blind eye by denying that love exists outside of your theistic language-game, you end up implying that the God who is love exists and has power only if someone believes in him. That seems to be something that a Quaker theist would want to avoid.

      You also write that “worship in Friends is not a focus on human existential constructions,” and you appear to be consistent with that by making it a focus on essentialist constructions. But my experience and the primitive sources tell me that Quaker worship is not a focus on constructions at all. I think that if you can understand that, then you can transcend (not necessarily discard, mind you) God-language and enter into the living substance — “substance” in the biblical, not Platonic, sense. But if you can’t transcend constructions like “Divine Essence” (which, again, is not to say that they must necessarily be discarded), then you may not be able to understand historic Quaker worship or what some of your deeply spiritual fellow Friends are experiencing now, nor are you likely to appreciate the very real spiritual power that lives in those Friends as it lives in you.

      So I ask you, Friend Daniel, whether you are willing and able to step outside of your philosophical box. Are you willing to engage in dialogue, speaking in ways that others can hear, respecting their integrity, their vocabulary, their life experience, their very alterity, and the reality and authenticity of their loving — regardless of their metaphysics (or lack thereof)? I ask because some of your comments seem to say that you are not — although I hope that I am misreading them. I am encouraged by your statement that “… at least we can try to share across the incredible divide.” (And I like the pun, intentional or not, of “incredible.”) Although I have been direct and frank, that is what I have tried to do here. I hope that we can continue.

      • Do I understand correctly that you don’t feel that Friends need to be grounded in a Christian understanding of the truth but do need to be grounded in a Foxian understanding of it? If so, why?

        I am grateful for your opening into dialogue. But I wonder if there is a point at which we don’t share a basis which allows us to communicate well on an abstract level…whether the difference is between Scholastic and Postmodern or Theist and Nontheist.

        In my experience divides that prevent effective abstract dialogue can still be crossed in worship, and in shared work, and sometimes in narrating our own experience of God (that’s my language; if you call it Love, well and good), our leadings and our struggle to be faithful.

        • Joanna,

          Your question contains a number of crucial and possibly volatile terms, so I need to proceed cautiously, but I think I can say that Friends should be grounded in a Foxian understanding of the Christian understanding of religious truth, which is quite different — to the marrow — from the “normal” varieties of Christian understanding. (And perhaps “grounded” should be underscored.) I think that’s what makes us Quakers rather than, say, Methodists or Unitarians.

          I agree that we can communicate to different extents on different levels and through different forms of interaction. (I hope that love-language can be a bridge for at least some theists and nontheists; in my limited personal experience, I have found it to be so.) And I agree that working together and worshiping together, if we will do that, can often take us into a deeper relationship — possibly even into accepting each other in love — than talking.

          Of course, all of that also underscores the importance of talking, of sharing our self-understanding, of working out together what it means to be Friends today, of discovering how we can understand our community in such a way as to facilitate our worshiping and working together. So (if I understand your note) I share your gratitude for the various sorts of opportunities we have.

    • Dear Daniel and George:

      I’d like to throw into this discussion a perspective which might, at first, seem to make it more complex. But bear with me. I want to point out that there are several venerable spiritual traditions that are non-theist, yet have at their center the understanding of love and compassion. The two that I think are most relevant are Buddhism and Jainism. Buddhism is relevant because in some of its traditions it has developed a non-essence view of existence, yet regards love (karuna) and compassion (metta) as central to awakening and as a potential that all living beings are capable of. There are specific practices within the Buddhist tradition to awaken this aspect of human existence (the most important is the contemplation on the Four Immeasurables).

      In Jainism non-harming is the central ethic, but it is not a theistically based ethic. Sympathy and friendliness towards all living beings are considered causally necessary for liberation, and that is why they are cultivated; but this is stated in terms of causation rather than in terms of revelation.

      It seems to me that these traditions offer examples of how it is possible to be a non-theist and yet also live in a way that is based on love.

      I hope this is of some assistance.

      Best wishes,


      • Hi Jim (and George),

        My understanding of Buddhism–relatively meager–is that there are actually a number of contrary forms, some are very nontheistic (one scholarly book I read emphasized that Buddhism is stronlgy “atheistic”). And it seemed mostly a self-focused philosophy.

        On the other hand some other Buddhists are theistic. The latter focus on relating to Ultimate Reality and emphasize compassion, not as a “means to an end” one’s own liberation from suffering, but that we shouldn’t seek our own liberation until all other beings are first rescued. Very different than nontheistic Buddhism!

        This latter kind of Buddhism isn’t of the same philsophical/theological nature as the early Friends. It doesn’t seem to posit ideas about the creation of the cosmos, but it does strongly emphasize that ethical truth is universal and eternal, not only a practical strategy. Some of these Buddhists also speak often of God and even the Holy Spirit.

        So I would partially disagree with your view of Buddhism–that it is nontheistic.

        Also, keep in mind, that in my understanding, the Buddha and many of his early followers weren’t so much “nontheistic” as against spending speculative time with abstract theories, similar a little bit with early Friends. They were concerned with practical ethical living and not justifying war like many Hindus did.

        In that sense, I greatly admire the Buddha as I do Albert Camus, the French Existentialist. He was a ruthlessly committed atheist of no ethics early on, but later in his life he contradictorily advocated ethical standards for everyone.

        I don’t know about Jainism.
        However, I will say that some nontheists put theists to shame. Jesus made that very point repeatedly in the NT. It is not what you say, but how you live. talk is cheap.

        I am opposed to nontheist Quakerism, not because I think nontheist Friends don’t “love,” but because it seems to me, their philosohical assertion that there is “no-god” isn’t true to their own efforts to live ethical lives, is contrary to their values, and is totally, did I say totally, contrary to the very Center of Quakerism.

        On the other hand, God moves within all humans. To semi-quote that famous Quaker theologian, Stephen King;-)
        A person may not believe in God, but God believes in him/her;-)

        In my experience, nontheists’ lives are often better than their beliefs in no-god. And strangely, theists’ lives are often worse than their beliefs.

        Hey, maybe everybody should exchange places;-)

        In the Light,

        Daniel Wilcox

          • Hi George (and Jim),

            I’ll see if I can find which books explicitly did so. One of them is in my garage with hundreds of other books. One Buddhist that does is Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist who rejected the older style Buddhism and founded a form of engaged Buddhism which emphasizes universal ethics and helped start agencies of social concern. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize and has been called the Martin Luther King of Vietnam; and like King strongly emphasizes essentialistic ethics. And he speaks of God.

            One of his books is Living Buddha, Living Christ, but I don’t know if that is the one I am referencing.

            Of course such wordings, I am sure,are in the minority.

            Usually, essentialistic Buddhists speak of Ultimate Reality as the Buddha (seems similar to Christians speaking of Christ as U.R. though I am sure there are many philosophical differences). According to another source I read somewhere some Buddhists equate Nirvana with Ultimate Reality. But as I say, I am not a Buddhist scholar.

            I have read, too, an essay by a Buddhist scholar who strongly opposes the materialism of western secular thought. Some writers I have read emphasize that Buddhism is a third way–neither nontheistic nor theistic in the orthodox Christian sense.

            Maybe we have a Buddhist scholar somewhere out there in cyberspace who can speak more scholarly to this.

            In the Light,


            • Dear Daniel:

              Buddhism is a huge subject and trying to generalize about it resembles trying to generalize about Christianity; you’ll always find significant exceptions. I agree with your basic outline, though. East Asian Buddhists speak freely about the soul and about “Buddha Nature”, a concept that maps closely, in my opinion, onto the idea of “that of God in everyone”. And some do speak openly about God without any sense that this is a problem.

              Nevertheless, I do think there are differences. One is that in monotheism God is understood as the creator of existence. Buddhism’s emphasis on causation lead to a view that existence has no creator; as the Buddha says in a discourse, “There is no discernible beginning to this world.” I think there are other differences as well. (Jains have the same causally based analysis of existence and do not believe in a creator God.)

              Still, it is good to note the similarities, such as the emphases on love and compassion, the actual existence of ultimate reality (however it is conceived), and that the purpose of human existence is to actuate these kinds of understandings. In general I would say that East Asian Buddhism is the most fertile ground for finding commonalities between the two great traditions; see, for example, “The Ground We Share” by Robert Aitken and David Steindl-Rast.

              The Thich Nhat Hanh book that comes closest to what you mention is his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer.

              Best wishes,


              • Thanks, Jim, for your thoughtful comment.

                Friends, we have gone quite far afield. But the subject of Thich Nhat Hanh can take us back toward the topic of my post and to the important matter of how we speak to each other.

                Thich Nhat Hanh, neither a theist nor a partisan of a metaphysical system, uses god-language in an attempt to help build bridges across religio-philosophical divides. That is what my post offers to do as well, and that is the vision I have for this site. However, some comments in this thread (which has, kudzu-like, spread to a number of places here) appear to be out of the spirit of that vision. There is evidence of a spirit that tolerates bridges only as one-way entrances into the owner’s walled fortress, of a spirit of intolerance and lack of respect for the integrity of other Friends. I’m not willing to host that kind of thing.

                Dialogue and respectful paralogy, but not agonistics, are welcome here: this will remain a welcoming place for those peculiar people who are trying to live light and love in a dark and uncaring world. In order to help ensure that, I have deleted one comment and activated comment moderation.

                • Dear George:

                  This is an aside about Thich Nhat Hanh. I think he does have a metaphysics. See, for example, his “Understanding Our Mind”. This is TNH’s commentary on the 20 & 30 Verses (Vimsaka and Trimsaka) of the Indian Buddhist Sage, Vasubandhu as understood by the Chinese translator Hsuan Tsang. It is a subtle work, in the best tradition of Mind Only understanding.

                  I bring this up because in the Sanskrit of Vasubandhu’s 20 and 30 Verses, Vasubandhu uses terms like ‘atman’ and ‘brahman’ to illuminate Buddhist awakening and realization. I think this is why East Asian Buddhism is more congenial to teachings regarding God, Inner Light, and an actually existing transcendental reality, than other Buddhist traditions. I don’t want to dwell on this too long, but I do think it is at least tangentially related.



                  • Thanks, Jim. It may be hard to pin down what a teacher like TNH actually holds as his own philosophical position and what he uses as skillful means. And the Buddhist philosophical teachings, Tathagatagarbha being a prime example, are notoriously subtle and multi-dimensioned (like Philip Wheelwright’s “tensive symbols”), so much so that adherents of a philosophy may disagree on its meaning. But I didn’t mean to say that TNH has no metaphysics, only that he is not partisan (in the sense of partisan politics) about whatever his personal metaphysic, if any, may be. I apologize for the lack of clarity.

                    • Jim, it occurs to me to add this note: in the glossary of TNH’s Living Buddha, Living Christ, Buddha-nature is defined as “the seed of mindfulness and enlightenment in every person, representing our potential to become fully awake.” Talk about a tensive (open to a variety of interpretations) symbol…!

  8. Friend George,

    You’ve named the heart of the matter:

    “My Quaker project is to uncover the psychological experience of Quakerism in a way that can speak across the ideological divides.”

    Why do so many on all points of the spectrum get distracted by ideological hair-splitting, instead of simply sharing what they experience first hand?

    Don’t show me your finger. Point to the moon.

    Blessed Be,

  9. what would happen if we stopped insisting on either or?

    i believe it might just be love.

    thank you friend. you have given me a wonder filled day of worship and thought.

    the comment above and a post recently by another person have spoken of what we experience. i would be interested in knowing what you experience during worship.

    i’m wondering if their might be more words in common between us when we describe what we experience rather than what we worship.

    go with god, who is love, as are we all.


    • “There might be more words in common between us when we describe what we experience rather than what we worship.”

      Yes, Friend. Or we might find, as Friends find when they sit together in waiting worship, that there are no words, yet we understand our common numinous experience anyway.

      It would make for boring blog posts, but…oh, well….


  10. Thanks so much for this, George. I appreciate your careful reasoning, your generous understanding, an not least your respectful but tough-minded response to your critics in the comments.

    I’ve personally pretty much stayed away from any attempt to legitimize being a nontheist Quaker from a historical perspective. Partly this is because I don’t know my Quaker history well enough to make a really good case, and partly because I fundamentally don’t accept the idea that Quakerism is or should be bound by its origins. Imagine if cooking were practiced that way! or the making of shoes, or of literature, or of scientific theories!

    But I do think–perhaps you’d agree–that Friends who turn to early Quakerism to justify making it another Protestant church, focused on theological belief rather than practice and experience, have missed just how incredibly radical early Quakerism was, just how much of the religious status quo it was rejecting.

    I must admit I stumble a bit on what seems like an extremely literal interpretation of John’s “God is love.” Surely he didn’t mean that God is nothing more than love, but rather that love is *one* essential quality of God. That love cannot be present without God, and God cannot be present without love. John’s God is also surely the powerful and self-aware entity who created the universe–just one place where John and I see things differently. Don’t you think?

    • James, it’s good to “see” you. I’m sorry that our tenures on the QUF Steering Committee didn’t overlap. I’d have liked to meet you in person.

      It occurs to me to wonder if we privilege texts like 1 John more than texts by Fox, and if so, why. In any case, is it not possible that the author of John meant exactly what he said? That he did not intend to describe characteristics, but nature? (It might help to recall the Aristotelian substance/accidents dichotomy.) I’m reasonably confident that Fox et al. thought so: that while God may be described as a being who loves, in fact God is love in his nature — the same nature of which we partake (2 Peter 1:4) when born in him. Thus, as Fox would say (quoting scripture), “My Father and I are one, and as he is, so are we in this present world.” And yet, even with computers, we can’t accurately predict the weather — although we might soon flood at least part of the earth.

      Theologically speaking, I think it’s accurate to say that characteristics may change, but nature does not. God may be wrathful at times, but even his wrath is an expression of love, because love is who he is. I think that’s pretty much the classic view.

      So I feel that the one I offered is a legitimate reading of the text, a reading that can be seen as literalistic or, as R. H. Blyth might put it, poetical. (“The sayings of Christ,” Blyth wrote, “are to be taken neither literally nor figuratively, but in the Zen — that is, the poetical — way.”) And I think it’s a reading that helps us understand, in accessible and immediately useful terms, the powerful heritage we have from primitive Quakerism.

  11. Pingback: NTF George Amoss on Worship, Nontheism and Convergence « Prodigal Valentine

  12. Usually, essentialistic Buddhists speak of Ultimate Reality as the Buddha (seems similar to Christians speaking of Christ as U.R. though I am sure there are many philosophical differences).

    What does “U.R.” stand for?

      • Ah, colour me embarrassed, I thought it was an abbreviation of the Christian term “Universal Redeemer/Redemption” I have seen elsewhere. That’s a whole ‘nother can of worms, though! 🙂

        I personally like the Gnostic approach to the Johannine texts, that they are not necessarily poetry, but powerful allegory. This very suggestion is what had the Gnostics tortured and slaughtered down through history, by the orthodox Christians.

        Traditional Christians (Is there such a thing?) preach a good spiel about universal light and redemption, but do a poor and pitiful job of living it, in my experience, which is the only benchmark I can use, as an atheist, to determine whether or not the effects are a result of the cause, or to word it in Christian terms, whether their fruits show them as living up to the spirit of love and light and tolerance the christological figure represented, or whether they, as is more often the case, do not.

        “But I do think–perhaps you’d agree–that Friends who turn to early Quakerism to justify making it another Protestant church, focused on theological belief rather than practice and experience, have missed just how incredibly radical early Quakerism was, just how much of the religious status quo it was rejecting.”

        I agree with James 100% here. I was drawn to Quakerism to get away from the toxicity of Christianity, and because I have no background in, nor understanding and/or concept of traditional Christianity, in the way those raised “from the cradle” do. I don’t, however, see myself as deficient or somehow “missing” something because of this, and those who suggest that — well let’s just say I’m working on my anger issues, and leave it at that. 🙂

        It was my impression that the RSoF quite openly welcomed non-Christians. Reality, as it often is, reflects a slightly different angle than what you see in the mirror. The RSoF seems to tolerate non-Christians, at least the organization does. Individuals within the group, however, are another matter entirely.

        I’m still sitting with the idea, personally, but I still feel I’m one of ‘the right people, in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing, for all the wrong reasons’, to paraphrase Babylon 5. 🙂

    • Thanks, Timothy, for the link and for the post.

      I have a thought about 2 Cor. 6:14-18, which you mentioned in your post.

      Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. And will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.

      I note the references to the present reality of the prophesied New Covenant, in which primitive Quakers lived. So I would interpret the passage in context of George Fox’s “the Lord opened to me that if all were believers, then they were all born of God, and passed from death to life,” which is in part a restatement of John’s “everyone who does righteousness is born of him.” So I think we (as Friends) can read it as something like this: “Don’t join with ‘professors,’ proponents of the religion of doctrines and forms, those who live in rules and words about God but not in the spirit of love, because to do so is to deny the New Covenant, which is Christ the law of love in the heart, and that is to crucify him again in you.” (For more on Fox’s views on the antichristian nature of normal Christianity, you may want to read my series of posts on “George Fox, Metanarrator.”)

  13. Yes, I am afraid that the business of substituting ‘love’ for God or Christ just doesn’t seem to work – at least not for making sense of early Friends (what sense one wants to make of Quaker worship today is an entirely different matter – obviously anything goes). Whilst it is true that ‘1 John 4 asserts, God is love and love is God’ this is clearly not, as can be seen from reading the rest of Johannine epistles, a statement that makes ‘love’ and ‘God’ synonyms.

    I am also not quite sure why someone who is a non-theist accepts the authority (or perhaps better, the testimony) of Scripture on this – or, indeed Fox. I am not really sure that there is much case for some kind of psychological continuity between what people said they experienced in the past and today – that seems to reduce experience of both to something else only evident to the interpreter.

    Anyway, not meant to be a criticism – just an observation.

    • Justin, respectful criticism is always welcome.

      I have a few comments on your comments.

      First, I hope that you will support your assertions: unsupported, they don’t help me and they don’t further dialogue. Why do you think that recalling that the nature of God is love doesn’t help make sense of early Friends? Please point to some specific instances in the primitive texts where you see it contradicted — in that way, we can learn together.

      Second, John makes his assertion multiple times, yet you say that “clearly” he does not make “God” and “love” synonyms — “clearly” to whom, and why?

      Actually, yours is the first use of the word “synonyms” here: am I correct in reading it to mean that in your opinion the tiny remainder of the Johannine epistolic corpus contradicts the first letter’s doctrine that the nature of God is love? If so, please direct me to the passages in the second and third letters of John where you find a contradiction of that teaching. Again, that would permit dialogue and learning.

      I don’t know, either, why a nontheist would accept the authority of scripture or George Fox. Scriptures, including Fox’s works, are texts, texts which, to borrow John D. Caputo’s terminology, harbor an ongoing, supremely evocative event which is of ultimate significance to me. So I don’t follow them; I allow them to speak to me and illuminate my life as they can. They did not choose me; I chose them. Or perhaps we chose each other.

      How much psychological continuity we can have with historical figures is an open question, but religious traditions, especially those experience-transforming religions like Quakerism and Zen, rely on the possibility. But again, the texts illumine and evoke, calling forth something old and something new. I don’t want to duplicate the experience of someone else, but I do want to allow that experience to spark something similar in me. And because certain historical records of experience do that for me, I identify with the movements from which they came.

      • Well, to put it briefly, God is referred to a number of times in the Johannine corpus as having other qualities than solely love – God also holds humans responsible for their sin (1 Jn 2:1), God also expects commandments to be obeyed (1 Jn 2:3), empowers people to overcome the evil one (1 Jn 2:14) etc, requires people not to love the world (1 Jn 2:15), God gives the Spirit 1 Jn 3:24, God will judge (1 Jn 4:17) etc etc.

        Maybe the word synonym isn’t the right word but it is clear (to me at least) that you don’t have to go far in Johannine writings – or any other early Christian writings – to see that whilst God is love – God also has other qualities too – so it just doesn’t seem to work to replace the word God with love and think that you are necessarily talking about the same thing – which, and forgive me if I have got the wrong end of the stick, I thought was the point of your initial rewriting of Fox’s description of worship.

        Of course, I don’t really hold to much of what the author of the Johannine corpus writes – the ‘love’ there is far too constrained and limited to the Christian community – no love of enemy in those letters, just a rather inward looking love of other members of the community (1 John 3:23) – but I suppose that is beside the point.

        Thanks for clarifying your understanding of authority. I suppose what bothers me, as someone who is not at all postmodern, is that when I hear someone talk about the ‘unique Quaker understanding of worship as taught, for example, by George Fox’ that they are in the business of revealing something to the reader about what they believe actually is the case about Fox even if it wasn’t actually what Fox said. I prefer to just disagree with things rather than change them into something else.

        Anyway, as I said, sorry if the tone or my posting sounded critical. It isn’t. As I said, for Friends, as far as I can determine, anything goes.

        • Justin, the fact that God can be said, mythologically speaking (and this is all in categories of Greek thought, which are difficult for the contemporary mind), to have qualities and perform actions does not negate the Johannine teaching about his nature. You are human by nature. Do you not also do many things and have many qualities? Does calling you human negate any of those things? As the primitive Quakers knew (as evidenced by their hermeneutic), John’s work is consistent. It appears, then, that your reading of him is not. Given that you “don’t hold to” his teachings, that’s not surprising. But I suggest to you that, like “God is love,” John’s focus on the community need not be read as a denial of other elements: it just happens to be the focus of his concern in writing. I recommend approaching a text with a broader attitude, with more attention to the greater context, and with openness to what someone called “meta-clues” — between-the-lines and gestalt messages that the text gives you about itself and its contextual situation.

          Fox states that Christ is the power of God. Would you tell Fox, then, that he reduces Christ to only “power” by so describing him? I think that your use of the word “synonym” may be a clue to what you’re missing here: these are not reductionist descriptions, nor are they offered within a literalist paradigm. We need to understand that religious language is poetical, as Blyth said — unless we want to insist that God actually has feet (he walked in the garden, says Genesis) and buttocks (which he showed to Moses). From the primitive Quaker experiential perspective, God is to be “felt” in the heart as the power of love. That perspective is amply testified to in the very early sources — Fox, Nayler, Burrough, Penington, etc. It may be that one needs to find one’s inner poetic sensibility in order to understand that use of language and allow it to carry one into the experience.

          From your lack of response to my request for references to those primitive texts in support of your criticism, I assume that you may not be very familiar with them. I recommend serious study of them to you. An in-depth examination should help you see that, contrary to your implication, I have indeed presented an honest and accurate reading of Fox’s reported experience. But the point here is what the texts can say to you. For that, you need study, and you need a mind freed from inherited hermeneutics. I encourage you to embark on that; it’s a fascinating and liberating exploration.

          • Thanks for your reply George. I don’t agree with you that actions are separate from nature nor that Johannine epistles are predominately in a Greek key (though obviously they are written in Greek) – that is a traditional reading of the Johannine corpus which is usually, post Dead Sea Scrolls, considered rather different and at home in a very different cultural milieu (albeit one in which Hellenistic elements were part of a mix). In the Bible, and for early Friends, God is what God does (e.g.Deut 5:6, 1 Jn 4:9 etc).

            I don’t think that the statement in Johannine writings about God being ‘love’ is about the nature of God – saying something ‘is’ is not the same as speaking of God’s nature. And these actions also reveal ‘nature’ (if you like) of God – justice etc – that aren’t necessarily related to love – and the ‘love’ of the Johannine writings is, independently of the rest of the canon (the love of enemy for example) – rather too constrained to be of much value by itself.

            Thanks for the advice on reading texts. I always appreciate friendly advice. However I’m afraid I remain unconvinced by your rewriting of Fox because I am probably too constrained, from your perspective, by historical context and the breadth of early Quaker vision is, I think, irreducible to fragments of it – however appealing they may be to me (I’m all for love). To replace ‘God’ with ‘love’ actually involves a kind of non-violent Procrustean bed – at least as far as the NT and the Early Friends are concerned.

            • Just realised that I didn’t say anything about your complaint about my lack of knowledge of early Friends.

              Well, I am reasonably familiar with early Friends – though I wish I knew more, of course. I am sorry you took my failure to respond as an admission of ignorance (that is a bit of an assumption George but I realise blogs etc are not a very good way of communicating, whatever your hermeneutic). But as I understand it your request was a bit different:

              ‘Why do you think that recalling that the nature of God is love doesn’t help make sense of early Friends? Please point to some specific instances in the primitive texts where you see it contradicted — in that way, we can learn together.’

              To re-iterate, I don’t think ‘love’ isn’t useful for understanding some aspects of Quaker experience of worship (though it is hardly central) – though others, such as judgment, spirit, fear, obedience, death, rest, etc are also vital – but I think it is pretty odd to replace God with that particular abstract noun as it is a Procrustean move and far from demythologising something you are just mythologising ‘love’.

              If you look at early descriptions of worship in Friends you don’t have to go far to find descriptions that hardly if at all mention love or its synonyms – see, for example:

              William Britten, Silent meeting, a wonder to the world, yet practised by the apostles and owned by the people of God, scornfully called Quakers, 1671

              or indeed:

              George Fox, An epistle to all people on the earth [long remainder of title deleted by G.A.]

              Plus, as you surely aware, for Friends the notion of what constituted ‘love’ and indeed ‘God’ is hardly something that what make much sense to most 21st century Friends – for example, what about the Book of Examples? The providential acts of God in the death of opponents of the early Quakers was as much the activity of God (the God of love) as anything else to early Friends. If you are unfamiliar with it – though I am sure you know it well – take a look at Cadbury, Narrative Papers of George Fox, p.217.

              Anyway, apologies George for clogging up your blog.

              And as I said, although we are a million miles apart on this, I do wish you all the best. I am sure your version of early Friends is more appealing than mine.


              • Thanks for patiently elaborating your views, Justin. I apologize for the misunderstanding: it’s been difficult to keep up with the flood of comments here. (And I seem to see two of you, but these five days of intensive reading and writing may have crossed my eyes.)

                Please forgive me for not being more conversational, but as tonight’s blog post will explain (if the DSL stays up long enough for me to post it), I’m under some constraints. I can offer a few concluding remarks, given our million-miles distance and my situation. Briefly, then:

                I’m sorry if my advice about reading seemed presumptuous, but your pointing out places where love isn’t mentioned tells me that the advice was appropriate. Quaker scriptures are like the original Christian scriptures: they must be read in the spirit which those who gave them forth were in. Unfortunately, I’m not wise enough to do more than point to the need, which may be of no help to you.

                To respond to what I can: I can’t agree with you that justice could be incompatible with love’s being God’s nature — or however you would prefer that I say, in whatever model you prefer to use, that love is essential to who God is. Perhaps you would agree that primitive Friends would say that God is one, not divided, without contradiction, comprising life and not death, good and not evil, light and “no darkness at all.” As I mentioned earlier, God’s justice must be seen as an expression of his love — otherwise, we live in a world ruled by an uncaring monster. God acts always according to his nature (pardon my model), else he would not be trustworthy.

                George Fox’s list of presumed violent divine vindications (which, by the way, is on line somewhere) is amusing, if pathetic, but there is no indication that he sees God’s wrath against evil as anything other than the working of divine love, the divine beneficent will for humanity and all creation. Theoretically, the evildoers, who had been visited by God (in both senses but at different times), made a free choice and reaped the harvest of that choice — free will itself being a gift of love. If God did not so love the world, there would be no justice and no justification. Is Fox’s idea of justice adequate for the contemporary sensibility? Well, not for mine. But the important point is that he trusted in God to be just, because he trusted that God’s will is ordered by love. God is one, and therefore light, life, judgment, love, power, etc. is, as Fox would say, one. So phrase it as you wish, love is essential to who God is, and all of God’s acts are acts of love. (Thus what Alan Watts called, if I remember correctly across the decades, “the fabulously insoluble Problem of Evil.”) That’s classic theology even in the apostate church.

                Can Quaker theists who are open to the “substance” transcend, at least temporarily, their devotion to words and images and acknowledge that to abide in love is to abide in “that which can be known of God in them” — in the Christ whose name, as Nayler insisted, “consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c.”? If they can, they will recognize that where love is there is their God, and all of us Quakers will have a better chance of healing our ugly wound. If they can’t, we who are fulfilled in abiding in love can only commend them to the light in their consciences.

        • One thing your [Justin’s earlier] response does not take into account is that the things you specifically mention about “other qualities than solely love” is that those specific characteristics may be elements of love at work. I did not see anyone with the temerity to try to define the kind of love that we are talking about, and I think that has a lot to do with misunderstanding and/or miscommunication, therefore I would like to propose a beginning definition that should answer at least some of the ambiguity: Love is the (emotion charged?) commitment to the well-being of the object of love. Under that kind of concept, such a thing as holding “humans responsible for their sin” would come under what is known as “tough love” or getting people to see that their “sin” is harming themselves.

          • Nate,

            Have you read Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island? Merton wrote, “Love seeks only one thing: the good of the beloved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”

            • Here’s another powerful (and almost Quaker-like) passage from Merton’s No Man Is an Island (which was published in 1955):

              The truth I love in loving my brother cannot be something merely philosophical and abstract. It must be at the same time supernatural and concrete, practical and alive. And I mean these words in no metaphorical sense. The truth I must love in my brother is God Himself, living in him. And I can only discern and follow that mysterious life by the action of the same Holy Spirit living and acting in the depths of my own heart.

  14. I located one volume by Thich Nhat Hanh in my stacks in the garage. It was inspiring to browse through the pages again. If I weren’t a follower and Friend of Jesus, I would most likely be Thich’s kind of Buddhist.

    Thich speaks repeatedly of living in God through out the pages, the Kingdom of God, and even talks of the Holy Spirit.

    Of course, he does this in Jesus’ way–experientially and ultimately, not literalistically. No traditional Christian would identify with Thich’s faith in God.

    Another great book of Thich’s is Love in Action, which has a powerful presentation of the Sermon on the Mount from a Buddhist perspective.

    I would agree with Jim’s comments that there are a lot of similarities between Friends (such as Woolman, Hicks) and engaged Buddhists.

    This is why I have identified as a Friend, because my faith in God is experiential and relational, not abstractly doctrinal dealing with Greek theological concepts.

    In the Light,


  15. George,

    It seems like we did meet once–were you at a nontheist Friends workshop at some point in the past five years? Maybe one at Pendle Hill? Or perhaps I imagined it–I do that sometimes.

    I think there might be more and subtler levels of distinction between an entitity’s “characteristics” and its “nature” then we’re acknowledging here. The most fundamental sort of equivalence in language–saying “God” is the same as saying “love”–is not poetical, but literal. “Is” as an equal sign, nothing added or subtracted. Only in this case can one arbitrarily swap the words in and out of a text without doing any violence to the meaning.

    My point above was not that John didn’t mean that love is God’s essential nature. In my relative ignorance, I don’t have a hard time accepting that he meant that. Moreover, I think he may also have meant that there is no love that is not the love of God. That is pretty radical, but it is not the same as saying there is no difference between the meaning of the word love, and the meaning of the word God. This is an important distinction to me, because it helps me tease out where I think John was right, and where I think John was wrong. He thought love should be at the center of our lives and worship, and I agree. He thought that everything about creation is suffused with love because God created it, and I disagree very much–both regarding the nature and the origins of the world.

    I hope this doesn’t come off too harshly, because I find your essential point–being a nontheist presents no particular barriers to the distinctive practice of Quaker worship–true and important.

    You write: Other than waiting patiently and trustingly for the working of love in our hearts, then, we perform no action in Quaker worship. Our worship is essentially passive. Therefore there is no object toward which our worship is directed, toward which we proffer reverence. We’re simply waiting to feel the motions of love directing our lives.

    This is very close to my understanding. I would personally alter it a bit, and say that my job is to listen to *everything*–not just love but everything in the room and the world and in my heart–but attempt to do so fully in the spirit of love. I wish to see the world clearly as it is, with all its brokenness as well as its beauty–and hold it in love. I don’t usually do it very well but I try.

  16. James,

    I haven’t attended any NTF conferences, haven’t been to Pendle Hill since attending a Zen Buddhist meditation retreat there maybe ten years ago, and am pretty sure that we haven’t yet met in person. But then, my memory is poor.

    By the way, I don’t perceive even a hint of harshness in your message.

    I agree that the standard reading of “God is love” as an identity is literal: exactly what the words say. (And I’m grateful that my post did not elicit the Bill Clinton “depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is” defense, which I’ve seen in other online Quaker discussions about the 1 John passages.) I also agree that there are more subtle levels of distinction, but I would add recognition of context, too, so I may not be able to agree that “‘is’ as an equals sign” means “nothing added, nothing subtracted.” I think that’s where the distinction between nature and characteristics may be important. (It may not be the best concept; it’s the one I’m accustomed to by education.) The gestalt of the biblical God, including the more obviously mythological elements, is broader than “God is love,” which, as a description of God’s “nature,” is not exclusive of other types of descriptions. (And the meaning of the word “love” is defined by the scriptural context – a crucial fact that I’ve stressed in the correspondence about the post.)

    But the whole thing is poetical: it’s about God and love, after all, two words that ideally (no pun intended) point not to physical or conceptual objects but to the kind of spiritually powerful and evocative “events” that John Caputo would talk about in relation to “theopoetics.” So I suppose I can think of it as literal-within-poetical; that helps me, at least, to preserve awareness of the God-gestalt as well as of the literary genre – which I find easy to forget when philosophical concepts are flying about. That could be hair splitting, I suppose, but I want to avoid seeming to approve biblical literalism, a concern that is related to issues, among others, like those discussed here.

    Regardless of these rather abstract considerations, though, from the practical human perspective participation in the divine love is, according to Quaker and other traditions, how we know and are united with God, how we share in the divine nature and live as the body of Christ. And that, Quakerism has always asserted, is available to anyone. (There, by the way, is my definition of Quaker universalism.) Something of what is revealed from that perspective, the practical and universally-available experience and way of being that is harbored in that theopoetic imagery, is what I’m attempting to convey.

    Overall, you and I seem to be in substantial agreement on a number of important things, and I appreciate your broadening of the idea of listening in worship – I think that will be of help to me in my practice.

  17. That makes things a little clearer to me, George. And when I suggested you were being literal, I didn’t mean anything like Biblical literalism–it’s clear that’s not where you are coming from. Phrases like God is love, for me, poetically blend the associations of both words, and in that blending neither word means what it does outside of that context. I can’t read them as a simple equivalence. The phrase seems to say, God is closer to the ground than you thought he was, and the feelings in your heart are closer to heaven than you thought they were. Something like that. Of course that’s me talking, not John.

  18. My first attempt at a reply disappeared before it was finished, so I’ll try again.

    What’s missing for me in the “God=Love” equation is Truth. I don’t mean love doesn’t or can’t include truth, just that the Love aspect isn’t higher or more important than the Truth aspect. Without truth, love easily descends into sterility or shallow sentiment.

    By Truth, I definitely don’t mean either a collection of facts or an authoritative Book to be swallowed whole. Quite the contrary — Truth is far more fundamental and can no more be fully comprehended in words or facts than Love can. If I’m not mistaken, early Friends associated the Light with Truth as much as or more than with Love. Like love, it’s a certainty, a given, something we know is there but can never fully sound out. It can’t be found out by pure logic any more than love can. It can only be known and recognized, like love.

    I stress this because the absolute existence of such a thing or quality as Truth is as essential as that of Love. It’s at the core of my experience of God. In Quaker worship, and at other times, I’m waiting to peel away the layers that obscure Truth and go deeper into the experience of it.

    I didn’t always recognize such a thing or equate it with God. I was raised to be hyper-rational and to argue everything based on either/or logic. I resisted such irrational notions as God, which I thought I could “prove” made no sense. But what I now call God snuck up behind me and surprised me by being quite different from what I expected: not a rational, definable Thing that could out-argue everyone else but a knowing that incorporated truth, love, beauty, etc., and went beyond them all in a way I’ll never have words for.

    Eventually I found that once I recognized and named this love-truth-knowing-beauty-rightness-intangible-greatness as God, I could tap into the experiences and insights of others who had come before me and knew much more about it.

    All this is by necessity very hard to explain or articulate. I haven’t given a complete picture by any means. But to make a long story short, what’s essential to me in Quakerism of whatever stripe is the recognition that Truth is not relative: it’s real, though we can never fully understand it. It can never be fully comprehended but it can be sensed with certainty. I call that sensing and knowing the experience of God, the Holy Spirit, the Light of Christ. If you call it something else, fine — I have no problem with the naming in itself. But I do have a problem with people (not imputing this point of view to anyone present) who do not believe that Truth is real, who think it’s relative and that “you have your truth and I have mine” and they are equally valid just on our own say-so.

    No, “my truth” isn’t better than “your truth,” and our degrees of comprehension of the truth may indeed be “equally valid,” but the Truth itself is something beyond any of us — something I know as God’s Light.

    • Elizabeth, thanks for your comments, which highlight a dimension that my post did not address.

      If I may reiterate a little of what I have written in responses to other comments: while I agree with K. H. Ting that “God is love” is “the height of biblical revelation about the nature of God [and] the pinnacle of human understanding of God,”* my stress on “God is love and love is God” is not reductionist or exclusive. In a response to other writers, for example, I have stated my opinion, which my study tells me that the primitive Quaker writers shared, that 1 John is internally consistent. The epistle defines God with a number of words, of which “love” is but one. I have a reason for stressing the primacy of the word “love” as our access to God; I’ll return to that.

      The defining terms applied to God in 1 John, a crucial book for the development of the primitive Quaker metanarrative, include: “God is [pure and perfect] light” (1:5); God is love (4:7-8,16); God is truth (5:6); God is life (5:12). (And, implicitly stated, God is righteousness.) And the first Friends would have read that epistle in context of the book called “According to John,” where, as we know, Christ identifies himself as the way, the truth, and the life. And Christ, John tells us, is identical with God — in something of the same way in which love is identical with God.

      My guess is that primitive Quakers stressed divine truth so much because of their historical circumstances and their realization that post-apostolic Christianity was a body of lies — the body of “the man of sin”? But, given their holistic view of scripture, it’s not surprising to me to find Fox and other primitive writers using the various terms interchangeably and even stating explicitly that they are all one — for there is no division in God. I think you state that eloquently in your comment. And it is characteristic of Friends to organize all of that around “that which can be known of God in [us],” namely, the power of God in our hearts that makes us righteous — merciful, peaceful, just, wise (even infallible, according to Fox!). It is typical of Fox, for example, to roll everything up into “the power of God” — because it’s only there, in the experience of being animated by that power within us, that we encounter, know, and partake of the nature of God.

      Obviously, we are dealing here, as we are in the scriptures, with theopoetics (Caputo). But from the practical and psychological perspective, the important thing is how we can enter into the reality that is being talked about. In my experience, that takes place most assuredly when we enter into the love that the scriptures describe. (As I noted in a couple of responses, context defines the word: in this Quaker-biblical context, “love” is defined by what we encounter in the teaching and life of Jesus — with a healthy nod to Paul’s lyrical description in 1 Cor. 13.) And therefore I give primacy to “God is love” as the hermeneutical key which unlocks the heart of Quakerism, and as the most accessible bridge between theists and nontheists. As different as we may be, your words express well my own experience, except that I would want to indicate by quotation marks that I was recognizing that, in the Quaker religious metanarrative, the name “God” fits that known-by-being-lived mystery:

      Eventually I found that once I recognized and named this love-truth-knowing-beauty-rightness-intangible-greatness as God, I could tap into the experiences and insights of others who had come before me and knew much more about it.

      I might even, in my own way, be able to follow you in your statement that “what’s essential to me in Quakerism of whatever stripe is the recognition that Truth is not relative: it’s real….” I don’t find that the relative, which after all includes all things (such as human beings), is not real, nor do I need any absolute guarantees: I find that the reality of love, when believed in and lived, is its own justification. But what is essential to me in Quakerism is that truth which our tradition calls the living Christ; i.e., the power of love in the fundamental orientation of the heart, directing our thoughts and deeds to mercy, justice, peace, and discernment. Whatever our metaphysical concepts, if we can agree on that, we find a living unity as Friends.

      That, of course, is not at all to argue that as Quakers we can say to each other, as you describe, “that ‘you have your truth and I have mine’ and they are equally valid just on our own say-so.” If you read some of my posts here on liberal Quakerism, you will see that we are in agreement on that. Where we appear to differ is that I don’t need absolute justification for my commitment to love; I am quite comfortable with the idea that we make a choice of the orientation to life that we prize, a choice from among perhaps countless possibilities — the validity of none of which is guaranteed. It’s a decision and journey of faith. But, as I have written elsewhere here, a religious community is a community that is committed to a “narrative,” a specific way of perceiving and living one’s life. So I feel strongly that to be a Quaker, if it has any meaning at all, is to join with others who have chosen — or been chosen by — the same type of fundamental orientation to life (“orientation” being quite different from metaphysical beliefs), the orientation to the love that is the heart of the stories, scriptures, practices, testimonies, and diverse metaphysical ideas of the Quaker-Christian tradition.

      You may well feel a need to go beyond that and to conceive of truth as an absolute. I understand that need even though I no longer feel it in myself. Nonetheless, I think that we could recognize the same spirit and power in each other and worship and work together in that. I don’t ask for more.

      * K. H. Ting, God Is Love, p. 158.

  19. I’d like to offer another possibility for the meaning of “God is love”. And that is that one can only know God through love. That is why Jesus says that the first, and most important, commandment is to love God with all your heart and mind. Inferential understanding of God doesn’t lead to knowing God, only the love of God leads to a realizaton of his presence.

    A comparison migh help here. If someone tells me that I should love person X, and then lists good reasons for doing so (X is attractive, wealthy, healthy, etc.), no matter how well reasoned this will not in itself lead to a fruitful relationship. If I fall in love with X, then the list of reasons may or may not be interesting, but they are ultimately irrelevant for love is its own justification.

    Best wishes,


    • Thanks, Jim. This comments page is quite long, and things appear in various places, so in case you haven’t seen it I’ll repost something from my reply to nate. It’s from Thomas Merton’s No Man Is an Island, and it seems to complement your “love is its own justification”:

      “Love seeks only one thing: the good of the beloved. It leaves all the other secondary effects to take care of themselves. Love, therefore, is its own reward.”

      You might also want to see my reply to Elizabeth, above, which I wrote early today but couldn’t post until tonight (DSL trouble); it also says that love is its own justification. The “little gray cells” seem to be firing in unison.

  20. George,
    I confess to being one of those Friends who doesn’t see how a non-theist (or at least a non-believer-in-God, which might be a slightly different matter) can be said to “worship” in the Quaker sense of the word “worship”. I don’t think you correctly state why some of us feel that way.

    You say “Their assumption seems to be that Quaker worship is, like other forms of worship, an act of reverence toward an object of worship, and that therefore a person who does not believe in God has no divine object and cannot worship”.

    Now it’s true that I myself have often insisted that “worship” is a transitive verb and therefore takes an object. As I use the word I can only “worship” if I worship someone or something. I’m not necessarily “worshipping” if I simply sit silently or if I meditate or if I wait for something to happen to me. The idea that this worship is “an act of reverence”, however, doesn’t come very close to what Quaker worship is as I understand it. In worshipping God I am opening myself to serve God and I place myself in an attitude of waiting for God to move in me and reveal something to me. In the process I may or may not be moved to do an “act of reverence” such as giving thanks or praise. This “waiting” for God to make the first move makes sense only if God is in some sense apart from me and greater than me. It does not make sense if the word “God” is simply a synonym for the word “love” – – unless, of course, we’re ready to radically redefine the word “love” too.

  21. Hi, Rich. As with “God is love” — and for that, including the idea of “synonym,” I’ll refer you to the previous discussions, as I will for who it is, biblically and theologically speaking, who prays during Quaker worship — I didn’t intend to be reductionist about worship: there’s always a trade-off between economy of words and risk of giving the wrong impression. I was pointing to the fact that worship is conventionally conceived as, as you put it, a transitive verb. Quaker worship, however, is of the New Covenant, and is therefore “in spirit and in truth” — “in” being one of those two-letter words that are crucial in primitive Quaker theology. To be in spirit and truth is to already have gone beyond the mediation of mental objects.

    Still, there’s little in your message that I couldn’t say, if I were “speaking Christian,” about my own worship. So it seems to me that we’re pretty much in the same spirit, except that I can’t follow you to saying that God must be apart from us. “Christ is not distinct from his saints.” Here’s George Fox (“A”), in The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded (p. 291), rebutting the ideas of a professor (“P”) on that issue. (I’m thinking of expanding that little piece I sent you on your blog into a full post on this aspect of Fox’s teaching; maybe that will generate a good discussion.)

    P. He saith, that this God who is the creator, is eternally distinct from all creatures,’ page 53. ‘That Christ being God only in one man’s person, remains a distinct person from all creatures and angels,’ page 55.

    A. This is contrary to scripture. The saints’ bodies are the temples of God,’ and he will dwell in them, and walk in them, and he will be their God, and they shall be his people; and this is to them that witness the new covenant, and ‘Christ in you the hope of glory;’ and he is within you except ye be reprobates. And they that eat not his flesh, and drink not his blood, have no life in them: and they that eat his flesh, have his flesh in them. And the saints are not distinct from him, for they sit with him in heavenly places, and he is in them, and they in him. And ‘Christ in you the mystery,’ ‘the hope of glory,’ and, ‘he is the head of the church,’ and so not distinct.

    P. He saith, ‘God is distinct in his being and blessedness from all creatures;’ and ‘ that God who is the creator is eternally distinct from all creatures,’ page 62.

    A. God is a spirit, and he dwells in his saints, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain him; in him we live, and move, and have our being, who is ‘in all, and through all, and over all, God blessed for ever.’ And the spirit of the Father speaks in the saints, and he makes his abode with them. And the saints have fellowship with the Father, and the son, so not distinct [separate;] (sic) so these [professors’ doctrines] keep people from unity with God, and out of his knowledge, which knowledge of God shall come to cover the earth, as the waters cover the sea. And while any are separated from the Lord it is their misery; and if distinct from him, they are from [i.e., out of] the spirit of God in their own particulars, and are not saints; but such as come to walk in the spirit, have fellowship with him, and live in his presence, and see his face, and behold his glory, and stand in his counsel, and hear instruction, and they are one; ‘He that sanctifieth, and they that are sanctified, are all of one.’ And so God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, though sin and iniquity had separated; who breaks down iniquity’s bonds, and brings light, life, and immortality to the light, through the power which is the gospel, whereby fellowship and unity with God come, and his blessing and blessedness are felt; and so not distinct, for they that have unity with God, have unity with his blessing, and they that have fellowship with God, know his blessedness.

  22. George,
    Thee speaks my mind.
    Thanks so much for your generous and daring effort. I have been struggling with where I fit in the convergent movement, and your post and the many responses and comments helped me to clarify what I felt was missing.
    I shall have to spend some time studying the this entire piece a bit before I can make more comment, but I wanted to express my gratitude for your thoughtfulness.
    Linda Wilk

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