Friends General Conference

Nurturing faith and Quaker practice

Caught Off God: A Theist-Nontheist Dialogue

Workshop Number: 
Merry Stanford, Peter Wood
Who may register?: 
Adult Only (high school with permission)
Experiential Activities: 
full-time attenders only

We'll speak authentically and listen tenderly to each other's experiences of the inner life, using the dialogue process of Couple Enrichment. Sharing will be personal and skills will be taught. Our focus will be on experience, not beliefs. Be prepared to be surprised by each other! Individuals and couples welcome.

Workshop Description

Many meetings are home to Friends of diverse theologies and spiritual experience. While we may silently tolerate each other's differences (or not), we may make unfounded or pejorative assumptions about the other's experience or about the effects of difference in our meetings. Even when they remain unspoken, such assumptions can feel unwelcoming or unloving on the receiving end. And we rarely talk with each other in honest and loving ways about these differences.

Merry, who identifies mostly as  theist, and Peter, who identifies mostly as nontheist, are a committed couple seasoned in the FGC Couple Enrichment dialogue process. They have found the dialogue process to be very useful in opening to, understanding, and affirming the value of each other’s spiritual experience.

We hope to help participants:

  • Let love be the first motion, by learning and practicing skills for tender listening and authentic speaking.
  • Better understand their own inward experience of God or Not-God.
  • Learn about and appreciate differences in others’ inward experiences.
  • Engage in dialogue as spiritual practice.
  • Consider possibilities for further dialogue in their home meetings.

Most of this workshop is experiential. We will not focus on discussing beliefs or concepts. We will focus instead on sharing what we each know “experimentally,” and will frame all of our sharing in worship. Mini-lectures will address such topics as:

  • What is meant by Theist and Nontheist?
  • Assumptions about Spiritual Experience
  • Skills for Tender Listening.
  • A Model for Authentic Speaking.
  • The Spiritual Practice of Dialogue.
  • The Worshipful Role of Witnesses in Dialogue.
  • Queries for Use in Dialogue.

Sessions will begin with about 15 minutes of worship, and end with 10 minutes of worship-sharing, with additional opportunities for worship as needed. They will also include 10-15 minute mini-lectures, individual journaling, group exercises, skill practice in small groups, worshipful dialogue in response to queries, and discussion about the impact of the processes used. Participants will be asked to respect the confidentiality of other participants. Each will determine the extent of their own participation.

Reading ahead of time on topics related to theism and nontheism is not encouraged, in keeping with the experiential focus of this workshop. You could, if you wish, begin a journaling practice before arriving at Gathering in which you explore your experiences, feelings, thoughts, concerns, and desires about God or Not-God.

Bring a journal and something to write with. Also bring anything which will help you feel comfortable: stool for feet, sweater for air conditioning, hand fan for heat, cushion for hard chair, water bottle, etc.

Leader Experience

Merry and Peter were trained as leaders in FGC Couple Enrichment (FGC-CE) in 1995, and have since facilitated many interactive events, including weekend retreats, Gathering workshops, and growth groups with Friends seeking to learn how to listen tenderly and speak authentically with each other.  

In addition, they have conducted retreats with monthly meetings experiencing conflict, and with Lake Erie Yearly Meeting’s Spiritual Formation Program to assist participants in deepening their spiritual sharing back in their monthly meeting groups. Merry also travels in the ministry as part of the Traveling Ministry Program of FGC, and on behalf of Lake Erie Yearly Meeting.