Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, a speaker, author of 22 books and a religious skeptic. His storytelling style has been compared to that of Garrison Keillor.
On Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 2-3, Gulley will discuss his most recent book, “Unlearning God: How Unbelieving Helped Me Believe,” at Otterbein United Methodist Church, 20 E. Clay St. He will speak at 7 p.m. Saturday and at Sunday’s 9:30 a.m. service. Sunday’s service will be followed by storytelling and a book signing. Those wishing to stay for a catered lunch should contact the church at 717-394-3755 by Friday.
Gulley is pastor at Fairfield Friends Meeting, 4 miles southwest of Indianapolis International Airport. It’s in a region of the state that was settled by Quakers in 1824.
“That particular Quaker meeting was founded in 1826,” he said.
Gulley also is a native of that area, having grown up 20 miles away in Danville, Indiana.
As a Quaker, Gulley is acquainted with the phrase “plain speech.” When he first inquired what it meant, a woman told him “It means saying what you mean and meaning what you say.”
And it certainly applies to Gulley.
In “Unlearning God,” Gulley’s 22nd book, he discusses the process of spiritual growth.
“It’s this process of unlearning the things we were first taught and what that means for us, and the consequences of that,” he said. “Some of which are painful and some of which are just beautiful.”
Gulley is a humorist and his Harmony novels have a way of making people laugh and think about life. One review compared it to “The ‘Andy Griffith Show’ with a homily tossed in.”
But not all of his works have been well-received. An earlier book, “If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person,” so rankled members of his own church that they spent eight years trying to get him defrocked.
“I made the case for universalism, which didn’t go over very well with the Quaker fundamentalists in my area,” he said by phone while traveling from Seattle to Yakima, Washington, where he had a speaking engagement.
He uses those speaking engagements — and plain speech — to challenge people about what they’ve been taught.
“I really want to help people understand that it is perfectly acceptable to question what they’ve been taught,” he said.
Religions, he said, preach that they have the truth and that members should not question that. That doesn’t fly with him.
“If something doesn’t make sense to us, if it’s ultimately unhelpful, we should feel free to jettison that and embrace beliefs that are helpful.”
That included the story of Jesus’ birth.
When addressing a group of Catholic nuns recently, he was asked if he believed in the virgin birth.
“I said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ ”
Claims of virgin birth are not unique to Christianity, he explained, and those claims have been made “in an effort to legitimize their own religion and often condemn other religions.”
Rights not ‘God given’
In an essay titled “God and Guns,” Gulley wrote that it’s time to stop asserting that rights are God-given. He said our creator gave people the ability to craft rights, but those rights are created by the human mind and based on human experience “and that’s how we were created.”
Ascribing a divine origin to rights or laws humans have devised, he said, is merely an attempt to enhance their credibility.
“Anytime I hear that something came from God, my first response is ‘We’ll see about that,’ and my second response is ‘There’s a test for that: Does this lead to a deeper love for others, a high regard for creation, for life, for justice, for peace?’
“It’s kind of like the old saying ‘by your fruits you will know them.’ So if somebody says something is from God. I want to see the evidence.”