Sunday, July 11, 2010

Interfaith/Universalist Happenings at the Friends General Conference Gathering

I've had a long, but rewarding road trip in the ministry this summer, sharing with Friends from San Jose to Bowling Green, OH, the good news about the interfaith movement and the Parliament of the World's Religions.

I am pleased to report that the national Quaker gathering sponsored by Friends General Conference in Bowling Green, OH, had a strong interfaith/universalist component, even apart from what I was led to contribute. Before I describe what happened in my sessions, let me mention other significant interfaith activities at the Gathering.

Phil Gulley, the popular Quaker pastor and author from Indiana, gave a wise, folksy talk about Christian Universalism to several hundred Friends at the Elizabeth Watson lecture sponsored by the Quaker Universalist Fellowship (QUF). This talk was well received by liberal Friends, even those who have issues with Christianity. Gulley's warmth and inclusivity won hearts as well as minds and helped Friends to realize that Christians can indeed be enthusiastic Univeralists. As Phil made clear, "everyone is invited to God's party," including gays, atheists, humanists, and those of other faiths. This was of course music to liberal ears....all the more so since it came from an Friends United Meeting (FUM) pastor (see

Around 50-60 Friends went on a field trip to a famous mosque near Toledo. This mosque (which dates back to the 1950s) was the 3rd to be built in the USA and has been described as the "largest and grandest" (according to its website: It certainly presents an impressive sight when you see it rising out of the grasslands of Ohio. I didn't have a chance to go on this field trip, but I heard positive reports from those who went. I cannot resist adding that several years ago, when the Gathering took place in Amherst, MA, I was the first to take a Quaker group from FGC on a field trip to a mosque, namely, the Islamic Center in Western MA. I am very pleased that someone else is being led to take FGC Friends to a mosque, and that there is keen interest in Islam among Friends.

Friends of Jewish background met and made their presence known and felt at the Gathering in many positive ways. I felt especially enriched by my conversations with two Friends of Jewish background, Stanley Zarowin and David Bush. Stanley grew up as a Jew in Palestine (before it became Israel), and a few years ago published an interesting article in Friends Journal about a trip he took to Israel/Palestine with Fellowship of Reconciliation (see David recently went to Israel/Palestine with the Compassionate Listening Project and has written a report well worth reading. (He also wrote a pamphlet on non-theist Friends which was published by QUF.) I am pleased that Jews in our Quaker community are helping us to have a more balanced view of what is happening in Israel/Palestine.

During the week I gave five presentations sponsored by QUF and the Christian and Interfaith Relations Committee of FGC. The series was entitled "Expanding Our Spiritual Horizons through Interfaith and Intra-faith Encounters." Each session attracted from 15-30 Friends.

In addition to these sessions, QUF had a display with its many interesting publications (you can find downloadable copies at A couple of hundred QUF pamphlets were picked up by Friends, including all the ones by Sallie King and Harvey Gilman.

I also had numerous opportunities to engage in informal discussions about universalism and the interfaith movement in the dining hall and other places, including the "Contemplative Cluster" meetings that took place in my dorm. I received many positive comments as well as invitations to speak to Friends in Cambridge, Baltimore and other places... Perhaps I need to continue my travels in the ministry!

Here are some highlights of what happened during the formal sessions.

"God and Allah Need to Talk." This session focused on how the Abrahamic faiths—Islam, Christianity, and Judaism--responded to the post-9/11 world in creative, positive ways. I showed an upbeat video by Ruth Broyde-Sharone about interfaith seders that took place after 9/11 in Los Angeles, and we had a lively discussion about how to bring people of different faiths together. I stressed the importance of trust building and taking part in interfaith meals, celebrations, etc.

"Compassionate Listening and Mutual Irradiation: Quaker Ways to Deepen our Spiritual Awareness of Other Faiths." This session dealt with the challenges of interfaith work--how to deal with conflict, misunderstanding, etc. especially relating to Israel/Palestine. I showed a 12-minute video about the "Compassionate Listening Project" and we talked about how this technique works. We also talked about how prayer, ritual, celebration and worship sharing (interfaith cafes) can help to create safe spaces for what Douglas Steere called "mutual irradiation."

“Beyond belief: the future of fundamentalism and Quakerism.” I opened with the question: How can we share our faith and work with Friends and others who ascribe to a fundamentalist perspective? This led many Friends to talk about difficult encounters with fundamentalists, namely, how to respond in questions such as "Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?" or are made to feel that one is going to hell for not believing a certain way. I shared with the group what I have learned from James Fowler's book Stages of Faith and suggested that we need to be sensitive to another person's spiritual state or condition and try to see things from another person's stage of spiritual development. We also talked about how to respond to a fear-based religion by being grounded in love (not always easy!). I reminded Friends of the wisdom of Phil Gulley's words: it sometimes takes a "peak experience" (or therapy) to overcome the hurt caused by spiritual abuse in childhood. Being part of a loving, supportive faith community (e.g. Friends) can also help to overcome the trauma of spiritual abuse.

Rosemary Coffey suggested a helpful way to deal with questions such as "Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior?" Respond with an open-ended question: "What does that mean to you?" (And be prepared to listen compassionately!)

Wendy Michener suggested using a technique known as LARA (Listen-Affirm-Respond-Add). Using LARA, one might say: "I see how believing in Jesus has saved many people from selfish and bad behavior (AFFIRMATION), and I try to live by Jesus' teachings (RESPOND), especially when he says to 'love your enemies.' That is the basis of our Peace Testimony (ADD)."

We didn't have time to go into much theological discussion, but participants in this workshop told me later that they found Sallie's theological responses to fundamentalism very helpful. To do justice to this pamphlet would require much more time than the one hour we had to discuss it.

Recommended readings: Sallie King, A Quaker's Response to Christian Fundamentalism (QUF, 2009) and Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (Harper, NY: 2009).

“What is spirituality and why does it matter?” Friends in this workshop included non-theists as well as Friends who believe in God, Spirit, etc. I made it clear (and non-theists agreed) that non-theists can be "spiritual," though their definition of spirituality doesn't include the transcendent. I read Harvey Gilman's definition of "spirituality" as a kind of energy that binds people together in love. We talked about the importance of spirituality both as a personal and social experience: how spirituality helps us individually to get in touch with our inward life, and how it also helps us to connect with others at a deeper level, thereby building community. We tried to clarify the difference between spirituality and religion, and concluded that although both are very different, they are not necessarily diametrically opposed. Religion can help as well as hinder our spiritual practice. We also got into an interesting discussion about a psychological concept known as a "flow state" in which a person engaged in a task such as, say, playing basketball loses a sense of ego and becomes one with the game and how this relates to spiritual practices such as prayer or Zen meditation (see the work of Csíkszentmihályi). All in all, we had a rich and deep discussion about the importance of spirituality. I concluded this session by reading Walt Whtman's marvelous poem "Miracle," which was quoted in Harvey Gilman's 2009 QUF pamphlet, What is spirituality?

Why! who makes much of a miracle?
As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,Or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of thewater,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with any one I love--or sleep in the bed at night withany one I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with my mother,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds--or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sun-down--or of stars shining so quietand bright,
Or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring;
Or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best--mechanics, boatmen, farmers,
Or among the savans--or to the soiree--or to the opera,
Or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery,Or behold children at their sports,
Or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect oldwoman,
Or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial,
Or my own eyes and figure in the glass;
These, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring--yet each distinct, and in its place.To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with thesame,Every foot of the interior swarms with the same;
Every spear of grass--the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women,and all that concerns them,
All these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles.
To me the sea is a continual miracle;
The fishes that swim--the rocks--the motion of the waves--the ships,with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

On Friday evening I gave a presentation on the Parliament of the World's Religion. Only ten or so Friends showed up (there were many other interest groups on Friday), but the presentation went well and inspired a thoughtful discussion. I was especially pleased that Steve Angell, a professor of religion at Earlham College, attended. He has been very involved in interfaith work and recently went with a delegation to Iran.

All in all, I am very pleased with how Friends are opening up to the interfaith movement and look forward to the next stage of my trip--sharing this concern with Friends in Pittsburgh, Princeton, Roanoke, Nashville, Little Rock, Amarillo, Albequerque, and finally (inshallah) Pacific Yearly Meeting. Three more weeks to go on this marvelous journey!


  1. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for another inspiring and insightful post.

    The difficult part for me is understanding how "nontheists" can be considered "interfaith" or participants in the "spiritual."

    Maybe it's because I am a former English teacher and am a stickler for denotative definitions, but doesn't "nontheist" mean "no God"? If there is no Meaning or Purpose to Existence, how then can there be "faith" or "love"?

    It would seem that in "nontheism" all "faith" and "love" are by definition delusionary, or instinctive adaptions of natural selection, or connotative feeling words which have been transposed from transcendentalism to materialism.

    I am doing my best, though I know it isn't as good as I need to be to really "hear" nontheists.

    I just don't see how someone who thinks there is no Love can have faith in love.

    If there is no Spirit, how can there possibly be any spiritual?

    Confused;-) but trying to understand.


  2. Dear Daniel, Thanks for your thoughtful response. I am on the road and a little hurried, but I will do my best to respond.

    First, there are many kinds of non-theists. Buddhists, for example, don't believe in God or the soul, but they "believe in" compassion and love because they experience it through meditation and the practice of prajna paramita (Great Wisdom).

    Non-theists don't believe in God, but most believe in something called "the human spirit" or the "power of goodness."

    In any case, "spirit" isn't a "thing" but an energy we experience that can't quite be put into words, although we use terms like "God" and "Love" and "Wisdom" and "Truth" to try to point to it. But as soon as we try to define "it", this presence or energy eludes us.

    So I don't worry about non-theists as long as they are practicing compassion and are not dogmatic about their "non-faith." In this respect I concur with what Jesus says in Matthew 25: we are to be judged not on our beliefs, but on what we do. "When I was hungry, did you feed me?" Etc

    BTW, I feel that dogmatic atheists probably have no place in the RSOF. We are a religion of experience, not dogma.

    Finally, I must say from my experience that some people who say they don't believe in God are more "spiritual"--more open to the Great Mystery--than some people who are regular church goers and seem to be motivated by habit rather than by any inward experience.

  3. Thanks for responding, Anthony:-)
    Wow, you've done a lot of presentations over many miles.
    I must admit I am confused. Where is there any "Great Mystery" if there is No One out there, but only matter and energy?
    Also, if nontheism is true, then "love" and "goodness" are by definition illusionary.

    However, I do agree that some nontheists are better than their non-faith and that so many Christians are much worse than their claimed faith.
    As Stephen King, that famous theologian;-) wrote in The Stand: When Nick says he doesn't believe in God, Mother Abigail laughs and counters, But God believes in you, referring to the fact that Nick is living a life of caring for others.

    Thanks, too, for the blog post about your time at the DMV where you and the clerk shared of faith in God and you shared of the passing of your dear wife.

  4. Anthony,

    I'm sorry I missed your talk in the Twin Cities when you were here. Rhoda Gilman, a good friend who I believe is also a friend of yours, was talking you up a lot. This is a lovely, thoughtful post.

    As a nontheist Friend, I appreciate your nod to folks like me in your post. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say dogmatic atheists (or dogmatic Christians, or any other class of human beings dogmatic or not) have no place in the RSOF, but I do think dogmatism is a flaw and a barrier to loving community. But flawed people is what we've got to work with, myself very much included.

    I hope you don't mind my responding to Daniel on your blog.

    Daniel, you make some equivalences I don't quite understand. What makes you think that disbelieving in a transcendent being who created and guides the world, equates to disbelieving in meaning, or purpose, or love, or great mystery? I not only believe in all these things, but experience and revel in them.

    I don't know where these qualities come from, but only that I experience them, and perceive them in my fellow creatures. I'm inclined to believe these qualities emerged with sentience somewhere in the long history of biological evolution, but I could be wrong. Either way, they're real, and essential to life as we all live it.

    Perhaps a difference between you and me, Daniel, is that I believe they will disappear when/if biological life disappears. I'm a bit sad about that, but I'm not going to let it get in the way of living in community and relationship as best I can, until I die.

  5. Hello James and Anthony,

    I've reflected--waited in the Light--on your comments for several days. I still must admit I don't understand religious nontheism.
    How can there be any "meaning" or "purpose" or "love" in the human race if there is none in the cosmos? If there is no transcendence, then how can we experience transcendent quality and value since they don't exist?
    But thanks for trying to help me see your perspective.

    In God's love,