Western Friend logo

God (or Not) among Quakers

Bill Donovan
On Conflict (January 2023)
Inward Light

[This article was excerpted from a more detailed original, which is published online at: https://westernfriend.org/media/concepts-god-or-not]

My intention was to understand what Friends and attenders in Monterey Peninsula Meeting believe. What are their concepts of God? What are they worshiping? Although I have wondered about these questions for many years, I experienced some negative feedback after quoting a short piece of Christian scripture while speaking about the origin of the term “Friend.” I referenced the Gospel of John (the “Quaker Gospel”), which quotes Jesus as saying, “You are my friends who do as I command.” (John 15:15) That commandment is, of course, “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12) I felt as if I had been eldered.

After attending my monthly meeting for a year or so, I had become wary of speaking during meeting for worship. I had actually begun to feel uncertain about whether I should request a transfer of my membership from San Antonio Monthly Meeting, which is part of Southcentral Yearly Meeting, into a monthly meeting within Pacific Yearly Meeting. In fact, I questioned whether I should continue calling myself a Quaker.

Looking back at my letter of request for membership in San Antonio Monthly Meeting in 1981, I see that I used such terms as spirituality, worship, expectant waiting, reverential, godlike inner potential, and divinity. Although I had not mentioned “God” per se, or my concept of it, when I joined San Antonio Meeting, my expectations were fulfilled. I never feared mentioning “God” or “Christ.”

Over the years, I have worshiped with Friends and attenders from various backgrounds and persuasions: atheist, agnostic, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Humanist, and Buddhist – to name a few. I have generally felt comfortable with all of them, despite often not knowing their avowed beliefs. But I do want to know what people believe, and when worshippers are willing to share, I try to listen carefully.

Several times, I have had the opportunity to lead or co-lead groups within the monthly or quarterly meeting in which we have explored our various concepts of “God.” When invited to attend these “God Groups” in our meeting, some participants have been eager to share their ideas openly, while others express concerns about confidentiality. Many want to preserve the privacy of their beliefs, and some do not even want to know the beliefs of others.

Recently, while paying careful attention to these concerns for privacy, over the course of about a year, I kept a record of professions of faith I heard among those attending the God Groups I led. These include statements made individually and in group settings. My current record of sixty-one professions of faith is included as an appendix to the original version of this article, which is published online. (See above.) I have tried to record people’s statements faithfully, capturing as much as possible the “flavor of the original,” while shortening the salient responses in the service of brevity and coherence.

I completed this collection by simply adding new statements to the list until it seemed that novel ideas had stopped appearing. Participants were not selected; they volunteered. They were people who wanted to share their beliefs, and they came from relatively homogenous groups of unprogrammed Friends.

There are infinite ways of organizing the responses that I collected, but in my view, they seemed to fall into nine categories. Participants described God as: 1. Infinite (21 responses), 2. Love (21), 3. Virtue (21), 4. Power (15), 5. Reified (15), 6. Unknowable (14), 7. Immanent (11), 8. Spiritual (11), and 9. Non-theistic (11).

Once organized, these responses lead to an unsurprising observation that many Friends view God in terms of infinitude, love, virtue, and power. I also noted the importance and difficulty that many experience in the effort to name, know, or adequately describe God. Some view God as being within themselves. Others view God as separate, reified, or only spiritual. A few engage in Quaker worship and espouse Quaker values while avoiding the term “God” altogether. The diversity, depth, and richness of terms people used to describe their understanding, meaning, and experience of God is impressive.

Generally, I enjoyed exploring people’s concepts of God with them and their understandings of what it is that they worship. Quite a few found it easier to talk about what they were not worshiping. Often, they felt unfulfilled by the religion (or none) of their childhood. They often disliked being told what they should believe or hold sacred. They wanted to find whatever they were searching for on their own, but in the context of a safe, accepting, and caring fellowship. They were generally comfortable with not being controlled, and not controlling others.

Clearly, the statements that I collected express beliefs of those people who are able to share openly with fellow worshippers; they do not convey what is in the minds and hearts of those who are reluctant to express their beliefs and sentiments. My major concern is with these, the people who join us in waiting worship but are reluctant to speak or are afraid to speak. My concern arises from not knowing and not understanding their reluctance.

Reluctance to speak one’s mind in meeting might come from a fear of offending others – not wanting to offend a non-theist by referring to God, for example – but it also might be a plea for help, a silent confession of confusion over how to participate in worship.

As in the Tower of Babel, those who speak during meeting for worship often use words that have different meanings for different people. It might be helpful for us to explain during such a message the underlying sense of any “religious” words in the message. For instance, someone appealing for help from the “Almighty Father” might note that this phrase is a way for them to express a feeling of helplessness. In another instance, a person who says they feel moved to “pray” for someone might note that this is equivalent to “holding them in the Light.”

A Christian may mention a verse in the New Testament that may be appropriate to a particular situation, just as a Jew may quote the Torah. Still others may be in the Spirit quoting the Buddha, Rumi, Lao-tse, or Kahlil Gibran. As Quakers, it seems that we should be able to find “that of God” in the prophets of many religions, including Jesus Christ, who inspired the founding of our own.

If we want to continue to exist and expand diversity in the Religious Society of Friends, we will need to study the reluctance that many feel to speak during worship and the apprehension that many feel over the possibility of disapproval. I believe we need to interpret what others say, rather than hearing their words as foreign to our beliefs. The meaning underlying the words of vocal ministry needs to transcend the content. ~~~

Bill Donovan is retired from a career in clinical psychiatry, currently volunteering with the Western Neuropathy Association. He organized a chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility in San Antonio, Texas, and now serves as “facilitator of communication” in Monterey Peninsula Friends Meeting (PacYM).


God concepts of God Quaker theology

Return to "On Conflict" issue