Dialogue Across the Divides: A Report from the Quaker Theological Discussion Group 2011 Annual Meeting

I was delighted to have an opportunity to read a paper penned by David Boulton entitled “Nontheism Among Friends” at the 2011 Quaker Theological Discussion Group sessions, held in San Francisco on November 18, the day prior to the opening of the American Academy of Religion / Society of Biblical Literature 2011 annual joint conference. QTDG was founded by Quakers from the Evangelical and Pastoral branches of Friends, with participation of Conservative and Liberal Quakers almost from the beginning. QTDG publishes the journal “Quaker Religious Thought” and the papers from this year’s sessions should be published later this year in QRT. As David was unable to travel due to Doctor’s orders, I volunteered to read his paper.

First, the bad news, I had an attack of nervousness as the panel began, so while I did competently read through David’s paper with a “stiff upper lip,” I felt that my participation in the discussion period was unsatisfactory. Most of those who read papers didn’t actually comment during the discussion, but I felt that some response was necessary to some key points, though I delivered it haltingly.

David’s paper consisted of three parts; a historical tracing of the emergence of nontheism among Quakers in the US and UK, a review of some of the controversies about nontheist Quakers, and final section of atheological reflections. A paper of similar length (20-30 minutes reading time) was presented by Jeffrey Dudiak, a self-described Christian Quaker from King’s University College, Edmonton AB. Jeffrey’s paper focused on the shift from pre-modern faith defined as “suffendered immersion in a world of ineluctable meanings” to modern belief as a subjective volitional stance on the abstract question of God’s existence. He argues for theists to go beyond defending an image of God that has its center in “conceptuality” that may become a “graven image.” Similarly, he challenged nontheists to entertain the possibility that “God talk becomes meaningful in transcending the very subject-object structure itself.”

In a written response, Shannon Craigo-Snell, assistant professor of religous studies at Yale University, first affirmed David’s general argument that questioning orthodoxy is a core feature of Quakerism and that the questioning of nontheist Friends is “quite traditional!” She offered that such rethinking is part of contemporary theology as a whole citing such developments as “process theology” and “polydoxy” among religious liberals. In response to Dudiak’s paper she cataloged two kinds of responses of Quakers to modernity, both affirmative and critical. For example, Quakers affirm the modern principle of the equality of all, but are less inclined to separate religion from social ethics.

Another written response from Patrick Nugent, founding former director of the Institute for Quaker Studies at Earlham College, offered a more critical challenge to nontheist Friends. Nugent argued against some of the historical precedents David cited, claiming that Lucretia Mott’s self-described “heresy” wasn’t of the same genre as nontheism, nor was Paul Tillich’s liberal theology. Nugent did offer a constructive program for Quaker nontheists to develop more robust, and scholarly rigorous, historical and (a)theological accounts of nontheism both within and beyond Quakers.

I felt the most important challenge came from Patrick’s characterization of nontheist Quakerism as a white liberal middle-class development that is largely out of touch with the wider world of Quakerism, especially in Africa, where Patrick once served as Principal of Friends Theological College in Kaimosi, Kenya. Kenya has the most Quakers in the entire world, almost wholly evangelical and pastoral. My halting response was to observe that the white liberal middle-class has advanced democracy, human rights, and science around the world, certainly projects we would hesitate to reject, though they can certainly be improved upon. Further, most of the world is actually neither Christian nor Quaker, and that liberal Quakers have an important contribution to interreligious dialogue. A nontheist contribution to interreligous work is largely unrealized, though my personal involvement with FGC’s Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee does bring at least one nontheist Quaker into that arena.

The conference room was packed, largely by Quakers from local meetings and churches. The San Francisco area has a large contingent of Friends across liberal, pastoral, and evangelical branches. Many Quaker scholars were also there from across the country and all branches. The discussion period respectfully ranged across these spectrums.

It is my hope that Quakers from our branches – FGC and Western Independent YM’s – would see the invitation from QTDG of David Boulton as a welcome opening from QTDG to dialogue with more diverse perspectives. Patrick Nugent’s paper alone offers quite an extensive set of challenges to nontheists Quakers that deserve careful consideration.

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