The Centrality of Story: can Quakers go back to Christianity via nontheism?

My friend Ben Wood, among others, likes to talk about the centrality of narrative to theology, and especially the importance of the Christian story. I was thinking about this recently, partly reflecting on some ideas from Mark Russ‘s MA dissertation which I’m sure he’ll share in due course, and partly reflecting on recent discussions in The Friend about nontheism and meeting for worship for business (in Neil Morgan’s article and my own). One way to think about meeting for worship for business is to consider where it places us within the Christian story – Where are we in the plot? What characters are on the stage and who is speaking? The main players are basically two. One is the Quaker community, a group not always speaking together but trying to come into sync with each other (perhaps like a Greek chorus who, because the play is improvised, are constantly trying to catch up with each other). The other is God, a character who can appear in multiple guises (Jesus, the Spirit, that of God within, the Still Small Voice, the Light, Love, conscience, impersonal energy…) but who is understood to be a single speaking voice to which the community is trying to listen.

In terms of the plot, I think meeting for worship for business is a middle of the story event. It’s not the beginning – not a creation, not a birth, not a first awareness – and not an ending – after the meeting, we need to act on the minutes, come back to items later, and so on. The past and the future are both needed for it to be meaningful (previous minutes, preparation and arrangements, later meetings, things which will be affected by the decisions) but the process itself, through which the community seeks the path of Love, is also itself a step along that path. It allows us to access something of Eternity – the biggest picture possible – in the Now, without committing us to a single already shown picture (getting stuck in the past) or withholding information we need now until later (trapped by the future) or asking us to forget everything but this moment (with only the present). If this is mapped onto the Christian story, the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, that seems to me like part of an Incarnation phase – a part where God is manifest on earth in a new way. The community (not the individual, before someone reminds me about James Naylor) takes the role of Jesus and seeks to listen to and follow God’s instructions.

If you’re anything like me, and I think a significant number of British Quakers today probably are, this is a point at which you might stop. You might say something like: But I don’t believe in the Christian story, surely it didn’t really happen that way. Or: That’s all very nice, but I can’t take Jesus with all those miracles. This is where nontheism comes in. Specifically, not just Quaker but Christian nontheism. I’ve sometimes thought that it might be easier to be a Christian nontheist in another denomination, with a really clear story to be fictionalist about, than to be a specifically Quaker nontheist. The firmly Christian nontheist can say – and writers like Don Cupitt do say things like this – the Jesus story is just a story, but wow, what a story. (Of course, ‘Wow, what a story’ is also a reaction people might reasonably have when they do believe it happened like that, too.)

If that’s right, then we as Quakers might be able to use the Jesus story, or perhaps the wider Biblical story, in a new way, a way which reinvigorates our language for describing our processes and the spiritual experiences we have when using those processes, while reducing some of the difficulties we currently experience around using religious language and metaphors. Some people will still feel uncomfortable with making Jesus central to their spirituality, and I suggest we keep open possibilities for using other stories to explore the experience of meeting for worship for business (if it’s like Jesus hearing and following instructions from his father, then is it also like the community gathered at Sinai, like Arjuna in dialogue with Krishna, like a coven hearing a priestess reciting the Charge of the Goddess?). The story method, though, has two demands: firstly that we get to know these stories, and secondly that we discuss them openly and honestly with each other. Even if we end up not taking this approach, the side-effects – a better knowledge of the Bible and perhaps the stories of other faiths, and a better understanding of our other and how we think about our processes – seem unlikely to be damaging.

7 responses to “The Centrality of Story: can Quakers go back to Christianity via nontheism?

  1. There’s quite a lot to unpack here. I enjoyed reading it and wonder if you or another could put your thoughts in a question–and-answer list for greater clarity?

  2. I drew a parallel with a scene from the Christian story to introduce the Quaker business method at my local meeting’s business meeting on Sunday. Your post helps me put that in context – thanks! I wasn’t assuming or asking for belief, more coming from the ‘wow, what a story!’ angle you describe. It felt risky. I don’t know whether Friends found it helpful or alienating or irrelevant.
    (Story scene: the moment from the road to Emmaus when the stranger blesses the bread and the disciples recognise the presence of the risen Christ. Parallel: we start with the ordinary, everyday ‘bread’ of the matters on our agenda; we bless them by practising the Quaker business method; we may recognise a possibly surprising divine presence/find a good way forward.)

    • Thanks, Katie, it’s useful to know other people are trying this sort of thing too! And your version is interestingly different to mine and a good complement to it.

  3. Or nontheists return to Christianity via Quakers or? Thanks for this thought provoking piece Rhiannon. More on the Jesus story in David Boulton’s ‘Who on Earth was Jesus?’ and Michael Wright’s ‘Jesus Today’, the latter also available on the NFN website : https://nontheist-quakers.org.uk/2019/07/23/jesus-today-book/

  4. I think your comment about Christian nontheist in another denomination, with a really clear story to be fictionalist about is the key to this. Regardless of their own personal theology -or none – other denominations don’t deny the existence of the central story. Friends are the poorer if we do reject the story as we close off a door on potential inspiration, as well as cutting ourself off from our roots.

  5. Great perspective…yet one’s perspective should always coloured by a personal investigation of truths.(facts)
    From a theosophical point, we must all agree, that there is no religion higher than truth.
    Scientific evidence has mounted a great unmasking of falacies that have been handed down to us through the ages, by preachers and their persanal take on the scriptures.
    Perhaps a better stance for us might be to look within for answers, replacing the word logic in place of the word faith.

    all the best, Jules
    Peace Profound

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