James R: I Am What I Am

By James Riemermann
Here's a thought-provoking comment that James left a few days ago on the "We're All Ranters Now":http://www.nonviolence.org/Quaker/ranters.php piece. It's an important testimony and a good challenge. I'm stumped trying to answer it upon first reading, which means it's definitely worth featuring!

There is much expressed in these pages which I can heartily support. Certainly, if Friends are reluctant to speak of God or Christ in the Religious Society of Friends for fear of disapproval or censure, something needs to be corrected. We cannot build deep, loving community in an atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust.
I also discern a sense that the author and many visitors to this site feel that many Friends are more interested in an easy, comfortable, unchallenging social and political club, than a place for serious spiritual growth and challenge. If you wish to call that being "convicted in our sin," so be it. The phrase does not speak to me, but I think its meaning does.
At the same time, I discern a sense here--rarely explicit, but frequently implied--that what liberal Quakers need is a good purging, a removal of those Friends who don't believe what "we" think Friends should believe. Who "we" are, and precisely which beliefs are acceptable and unacceptable, is very much in question.
I don't believe in God, and have spent the last 15 years among Friends trying to understand, among many other things, why I feel so irrestibly drawn to a community and religious society in which the central term is God. My relationship with that community is at the center of my life, and has transformed and improved me in ways that make me deeply grateful and reverent for whatever it is we experience or create together. It has not made me a theist.
In my large and very liberal meeting, a fair number of messages in meeting for worship invoke the name of God or Christ or Jesus. Perhaps a larger percentage do not, including many from Friends I know to be Christians of various sorts. That a message does not invoke the name of God, does not prove or even suggest that God is not present in the message. If I am mistaken and God does exist, surely he is manifest in all creation and humanity, and not merely at those moments when we invoke his name. If I am mistaken and God does exist, surely he is manifest in me, and in what I bring to my meeting, and what my meeting brings to me. Surely your conception of God is not that he is only present in the lives of those who hold certain theological propositions to be true. Or am I mistaken about this as well?
I do experience something mysterious and profound and life-changing in my religious life among Friends. I have a hard time describing it, though I occasionally try in my flawed and halting language. Perhaps the experience I have is the same as, or deeply similar to, that which you call God. For me to use that term would be misleading, even dishonest, because, mysterious as my experience sometimes is, nothing about it strikes me as unnatural. It is something beyond me, naturally, as it springs not from my own doing, but from the encounter or relationship between me and others, between me and the world. It is neither here nor there, but a living bond that comes from being alive in the world with other living beings. There is something sacred in that bond, and acting in ways that tend to violate it is not righteous. I depend on my community for many things, and one of those things is to keep me honest to that bond. I submit myself to that discipline freely and joyfully, and my willingness springs from the faith I have in the goodness of that community. I do not and cannot, however, submit my mind, my beliefs--my measure of the light--to any authority. To do so would be a violation of my integrity, and it is not in the tradition of George Fox or the founders to demand this sort of obedience, nor to deny the blessing of our community to those who will not state agreement with certain theological propositions.
I am confident that Fox and his followers would have been shocked to see the theological diversity that is the reality of modern liberal Friends. He also would have been shocked, I suspect, to learn that the creation story/stories of Genesis, taken literally, would soon be proven by science to be clearly and absolutely false. Given his unshakeable integrity, given the radical nature of his ministry, given 300 more years of light and learning, I think his beliefs would have changed in many ways that are hard to imagine. Should we have not changed during this period?
My goal is not to change Friends, though my presence among them will probably have some small effect. Like Popeye and Luther, I am what I am. At the same time, I applaud and honor the Christians and others whose faith in God is utterly central to everything of value in their lives. It would grieve me deeply if you were reluctant to speak your faith in worship to avoid offending me. Sometimes your language about God speaks to me very deeply, though on a metaphorical level. Other times, not so much. In any case, your beliefs are important to me. I want to know you. I would like for us to remain Friends.
Either way, I'm here. I'm not going anywhere.

This piece originally appeared as a comment on "We're All Ranters Now":http://www.nonviolence.org/Quaker/ranters.php.

  • Robin Mohr

    While many parts of this evoke a sym­pa­thet­ic response from me, I’ll just respond to one piece.
    “I do not and can­not, how­ev­er, sub­mit my mind, my beliefs—my mea­sure of the light—to any author­i­ty. To do so would be a vio­la­tion of my integri­ty, and it is not in the tra­di­tion of George Fox or the founders to demand this sort of obe­di­ence, nor to deny the bless­ing of our com­mu­ni­ty to those who will not state agree­ment with cer­tain the­o­log­i­cal propo­si­tions.” -J.R.
    Actu­al­ly, I think this is what sep­a­rat­ed Quak­ers from Ranters in the first place, in my lim­it­ed his­tor­i­cal knowledge.
    George Fox, and many oth­ers, did estab­lish and sub­mit to the author­i­ty of the gath­ered wor­ship­ping com­mu­ni­ty as the prop­er check of indi­vid­ual lead­ings, along with Scrip­ture, to pre­vent us from run­ning out into fool­ish notions. One of the inter­est­ing things about Quak­er author­i­ty was that dis­own­ment didn’t mean one couldn’t wor­ship with the com­mu­ni­ty, but that one couldn’t speak for Friends if one wasn’t will­ing to sub­mit to test­ing by the author­i­ty of the Meeting.
    Among mod­ern U.S. Friends, our unwill­ing­ness to sub­mit our indi­vid­ual lead­ings and lives to com­mu­ni­ty over­sight is more reflec­tive of our indi­vid­u­al­ist mate­ri­al­is­tic cul­ture than of fideli­ty to Quak­er tradition.

  • I’m writ­ing in love and truth, and I hope my words will be read that way. I don’t feel any need for “purg­ing”. My per­cep­tion of our church is that there is a gath­ered guid­ed peo­ple, called to fol­low Christ, who do so with great faith and strug­gle and integri­ty. There are also a great num­ber of peo­ple who are drawn to the fruits of the com­mu­ni­ty, the out­growth of the Tes­ti­mo­ny of life in Christ in envi­ron­men­tal and social jus­tice, per­son­al, local and wider peace work, non­vi­o­lence and so on. My under­stand­ing is that all these grow from one root — and that is non-dogmatic, hum­ble dis­ci­ple­ship to Jesus Christ, head of the Church.
    The fellow-travellers are an inte­gral part of the work of the soci­ety in the world, and not all of them have an under­stand­ing of Love’s pow­er or the real­i­ty of Divine pres­ence and guid­ance. That’s fine with me. I was a mem­ber of the Soci­ety for at least 15 years and did many years of study of Quak­er the­olo­gies, his­to­ry, jour­nal, took lots of cours­es at Wood­brooke etc, and yet only recent­ly start­ed to “get it” for myself.
    Most­ly that hap­pened because three or four peo­ple I respect­ed in the Soci­ety were able to say direct­ly to me “but actu­al­ly it’s all about fol­low­ing Christ isn’t it? Every­thing else fol­lows if I can put that first”. From that wit­ness I start­ed out as what I called an “athe­ist Chris­t­ian”, read­ing the gospels, watch­ing the lives of believ­ers I knew, know­ing that some­thing there was my clue to full abun­dant life.
    I start­ed to try to fol­low, to live the real Love that Jesus and his dis­ci­ples did. I don’t feel I can do it out of my “own pow­er”, but only in appro­pri­ate depen­dence on that greater Love which moves through me. Now I feel I real­ly do have faith, and it is found­ed on the man­i­fest real­i­ty of Love, and now an under­stand­ing that the Divine is the ulti­mate real­i­ty, no need to fear it break­ing or “try to beleive” any­thing. I haven’t sold all that I have to join the poor­est (yet?!) but I am learn­ing at His feet and fol­low­ing Him as I am able.
    I realise that prob­a­bly the peo­ple whom I call fellow-travellers see things total­ly dif­fer­ent­ly! Prob­a­bly some of them think I am trapped in illu­sion, liv­ing in the past or some­thing. To me, after many years of chew­ing on it, Quak­erism doesn’t make sense with­out Christ at the cen­tre, although it works fine with a lot of peo­ple com­ing along because of what His guid­ance pro­duces. There might be a way of liv­ing in the pow­er and life of Christ with­out using that lan­guage — I think Gand­hi was doing so — but at the moment I need to use the Name to find my way to Him. I am liv­ing in response the grace that I have been giv­en, and I am very thank­ful for it.

  • Wow, Alice. That is very pow­er­ful tes­ti­mo­ny. I’d repost it to thy blog if I were thee. I feel that I am fol­low­ing a sim­i­lar path, though I don’t think I’ve got­ten quite as far as you. I don’t think I’m an “athe­ist chris­t­ian”, but I feel I am some­thing equal­ly ambiva­lent. I often feel an over­whelm­ing, almost crush­ing sense that the truth about God is unfath­omable, unspeak­able, unde­fin­able, beyond all thought, speech, writ­ing, and under­stand­ing, reach­able only through Love. Some­times I feel as though any­thing I could say or claim about the nature and exis­tence of God would nec­es­sar­i­ly be so far from the real­i­ty, it would be almost a lie, and there­fore increase my igno­rance of God’s true nature. From the out­side, this can look a lot like athe­ism. When James R says:
    I do expe­ri­ence some­thing mys­te­ri­ous and pro­found and life-changing in my reli­gious life among Friends. I have a hard time describ­ing it, though I occa­sion­al­ly try in my flawed and halt­ing lan­guage. Per­haps the expe­ri­ence I have is the same as, or deeply sim­i­lar to, that which you call God. For me to use that term would be mis­lead­ing, even dis­hon­est, because, mys­te­ri­ous as my expe­ri­ence some­times is, noth­ing about it strikes me as unnat­ur­al. It is some­thing beyond me, nat­u­ral­ly, as it springs not from my own doing, but from the encounter or rela­tion­ship between me and oth­ers, between me and the world. It is nei­ther here nor there, but a liv­ing bond that comes from being alive in the world with oth­er liv­ing beings.”
    I feel that I know exact­ly what he means.
    As for the Chris­t­ian part, I am strug­gling with this. I am try­ing to uni­fy my expe­ri­ence of Christ with my expe­ri­ence of Jesus. Do I fol­low Christ? How do we define Christ? As Love? As the gospel Jesus? If I say that I fol­low Love, and if Love is per­fect­ly expressed in the per­son of Jesus, am I a default Chris­t­ian? That would be nice.

  • Robin Mohr

    “Cer­tain­ly, if Friends are reluc­tant to speak of God or Christ in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends for fear of dis­ap­proval or cen­sure, some­thing needs to be cor­rect­ed. We can­not build deep, lov­ing com­mu­ni­ty in an atmos­phere of anx­i­ety and mis­trust. … It would grieve me deeply if you were reluc­tant to speak your faith in wor­ship to avoid offend­ing me. … In any case, your beliefs are impor­tant to me…” J.R.
    This whole piece is one of the most elo­quent expo­si­tions I’ve ever read of the “Tol­er­ance Is the Great­est Good” theory.
    The deep­est ded­i­ca­tion to Truth does not require us to deny other’s attempts to under­stand, but it does not require us to accept all under­stand­ings as equal.

  • Eliz­a­beth O’Sullivan

    Hi Friends (and Hi James)!
    I go to the same meet­ing as James. Let me first address what I feel is at the heart of James mes­sage — a fear that he will be “purged” — deemed expend­able in a spir­i­tu­al way, which is one of the most inti­mate parts of our lives.
    I don’t think our meet­ing will ever feel that way about you, James. I don’t feel that way about you even though I dis­agree with you so pro­found­ly about issues of our reli­gion. I’ll add, too, that I feel called by God to seek mem­ber­ship the meet­ing, and that I feel that I have a great deal to learn from it, and from you.
    I don’t think the prob­lem is that there are some indi­vid­u­als in meet­ing who don’t believe in God. I think the prob­lem is that there is not a con­cen­sus about what we are doing togeth­er. If that con­cen­sus were there, then dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives would be less like­ly to change the course of the reli­gion, and I believe that falling away from God is pro­found­ly chang­ing the course of the reli­gion. (Of course that change start­ed hap­pen­ing long before I became a Quaker!)
    Although I think that God was not the core of our cor­po­rate wor­ship at our par­tic­u­lar meet­ing — maybe since it began dur­ing World War II — it feels to me that James being vocal about his per­spec­tive, and start­ing a Quak­ers with­out God group, made this offi­cial. I am pro­found­ly dis­ap­point­ed about that, but I guess it’s best to have things out in the open so to speak.
    I see the lack of spir­i­tu­al con­cen­sus as a grave weak­ness in our meet­ing. To address that, I am spend­ing a lot less ener­gy on our meet­ing, help­ing to start a Conservative-leaning wor­ship group. Maybe some day it will become a meet­ing of its own. (And at the same time, I am seek­ing mem­ber­ship in our meeting.)
    Here’s the obsta­cles that I see com­ing up when there is not a con­cen­sus that the com­mu­ni­ty is wor­ship­ing God:
    Like I said when James gave a pre­sen­ta­tion about Quak­ers with­out God at our meet­ing, I feel like wor­ship­ing God col­lec­tive­ly is a real and fair­ly spe­cif­ic thing to be doing. I want to restate that for empha­sis. Seek­ing and wor­ship­ing God is a real thing for me (not a metaphor), and doing it cor­po­rate­ly is not the same as doing it indi­vid­u­al­ly. I can’t over­state how impor­tant that con­cept is in under­stand­ing where I’m com­ing from.
    After read­ing Friends for 300 Years and see­ing a sign every time I walk in the meet­ing house that says we’re seek­ing God togeth­er, I had the impres­sion that’s what we were doing, but there is not that concensus.
    I like to com­pare seek­ing God cor­po­rate­ly in Quak­er meet­ing to play­ing bas­ket­ball. Play­ing bas­ket­ball is not the only way to be an ath­lete. It’s not the only way to be a good per­son. But it is a fair­ly spe­cif­ic thing, and it is some­thing that must be done with oth­er people.
    I find in our meet­ing, we’re not play­ing bas­ket­ball togeth­er. Some peo­ple are play­ing bas­ket­ball. Some are doing tai chi. Some are doing aer­o­bics. Some are doing stretch­es to pre­pare for cross-country run­ning. It’s nice to see peo­ple get­ting exer­cise and putting so much work into their fit­ness. It’s a a nice envi­ron­ment for lots of peo­ple. (I know that many peo­ple are very hap­py with our Meet­ing and its spir­i­tu­al diver­si­ty.) But it is not basketball!
    I think that because we have such vari­ety in pur­pose, we lose great poten­tial for depth. If we were all “play­ing the same game,” we’d have peo­ple to encour­age us to become bet­ter bas­ket­ball play­ers and to show us what that means and to chal­lenge us in the game.
    Also, our struc­ture of busi­ness was designed to be done by a group of peo­ple who was all seek­ing God (and Christ) togeth­er. I think it starts unrav­el­ling and becomes very hard to keep up the spir­i­tu­al momen­tum in a com­mu­ni­ty where there’s not that con­cen­sus. Not that peo­ple like James unrav­el the momen­tum– that’s not true. James has a depth to him that is real­ly beau­ti­ful to feel while wor­ship­ing or doing com­mit­tee work togeth­er. But in com­mit­tee work or meet­ing for busi­ness, because we can’t say “OK, let’s seek God now” with­out know­ing that that’s like open­ing a debate, then it’s real­ly hard to have high stan­dards in the way we do busi­ness and com­mit­tee work.
    I know once when we were talk­ing about this James, you said that maybe I want to have more spir­i­tu­al uni­ty because it is pos­si­ble for me, as a Chris­t­ian, to go to oth­er hous­es of wor­ship and find peo­ple who agree with me. Because that is so present in the world, then I expect it at meet­ing, too.
    I’m not just a Chris­t­ian though; I’m a Quak­er. I want to prac­tice the reli­gion that I fell in love with when I read Friends for 300 Years, and when I had the Holy Spir­it fall on me the first time I vis­it­ed our meet­ing. I want enough of a col­lec­tive under­stand­ing of pur­pose to be able facil­i­tate cor­po­rate wor­ship, cor­po­rate busi­ness, cor­po­rate dis­cern­ment of leadings.
    Like I said, I see our meeting’s lack of col­lec­tive pur­pose as some­thing that was there long before James or I were a part of meet­ing. It’s not his “fault.” (And I rec­og­nize that most peo­ple there see it as a strength, and not a fault at all.)
    We can main­tain stan­dards with­out purg­ing if we have groups that are pas­sion­ate­ly engaged in col­lec­tive pur­suit — and if we can artic­u­late what we’re doing. That’s what I’m seek­ing in my small wor­ship group.
    Inter­est­ing­ly enough, I see our larg­er meet­ing (that James and I share) as cul­ti­vat­ing a selec­tive mem­ber­ship, too. Peo­ple who feel like they don’t fit in because they need a stronger sense of focus or a more tra­di­tion­al Quak­erism just leave. Or they back up, like I have done. A place of wor­ship can not be every­thing to every­body, and “purg­ing” is in fact hap­pen­ing at our meet­ing in a more sub­tle, self-selective way than some­one in author­i­ty say­ing, “We dis­agree! You’re out!”
    I respect the work that you are doing Mar­tin, as a Conservative-leaning, vocal young friend, kind of like me. I’d real­ly like to hear more of your thoughts about this issue.
    In the Light,

  • This whole piece is one of the most elo­quent expo­si­tions I’ve ever read of the “Tol­er­ance Is the Great­est Good” theory.
    The deep­est ded­i­ca­tion to Truth does not require us to deny other’s attempts to under­stand, but it does not require us to accept all under­stand­ings as equal.
    Giv­en the neg­a­tive spin put on the word “tol­er­ance” on many conservative-liberal-quaker blogs, I’m not sure if this is a crit­i­cism or a com­pli­ment. If the lat­ter, I thank you. If the former…I still thank you.
    To clar­i­fy my own view, I don’t feel tol­er­ance is the “great­est good.” It is cer­tain­ly one of the greater goods, and aban­don­ing it as a val­ue has played a cen­tral part in most of the great­est crimes in his­to­ry, reli­gious and sec­u­lar alike. It is not every­thing, but it is far more than the mil­que­toast nice­ness it is often crit­i­cized for being.
    I agree that not all human under­tand­ings are equal. Some, such as Nation­al Social­ism, are pos­i­tive­ly abysmal. Oth­ers, such as a ded­i­ca­tion to kind­ness and humil­i­ty, are sub­lime. Between the poles, it can be hard­er to sort it all out. I am cer­tain­ly a long way from hav­ing it sort­ed out.

  • Bar­bara Smith

    Hey James — thanks for your putting your beliefs into words and thanks Mar­tin for post­ing them. Now, rather than an implied “lib­er­al Quak­ers need a good purg­ing” (glad we ‘Christo-centric’ Quak­ers aren’t the only para­noid ones out there) I pre­fer to think of this blo­gos­phere as a sort of place to process famil­ial ten­sions, and a place to sort out our own beliefs thru thresh­ing, dis­cus­sion, elder­ing, some spank­ing, and even dis­cern­ment. Kind of like a cor­ner elec­tron­ic bar for Quak­ers. I’m in full throt­tle agree­ment with Robin Mohr and appre­ci­ate her insights. I got­ta point out some­thing that implies that God is ‘unnat­ur­al’, altho I’m sure that is not quite your mean­ing, but:
    “Per­haps the expe­ri­ence I have is the same as, or deeply sim­i­lar to, that which you call God. For me to use that term would be mis­lead­ing, even dis­hon­est, because, mys­te­ri­ous as my expe­ri­ence some­times is, noth­ing about it strikes me as unnatural.”
    Does this imply that if God and/or the Holy Spir­it is the mys­te­ri­ous some­thing, that some­how makes it unnat­ur­al? Super­nat­ur­al per­haps, but this to is a mis­nomer. Appar­ent super­nat­ur­al, but God is ‘nat­ur­al’ and we are prob­a­bly more of the abber­ent mate­ri­al­ists. Also:
    “He also would have been shocked, I sus­pect, to learn that the cre­ation story/stories of Gen­e­sis, tak­en lit­er­al­ly, would soon be proven by sci­ence to be clear­ly and absolute­ly false.”
    Oh, James hon­ey, not all Chris­tians buy into the ‘cre­ation sci­ence’ crap that says the world was cre­at­ed 6,000 years ago or some such non­sense. Sci­ence has not proven cre­ation as ‘absolute­ly false’ if you believe the Gen­e­sis account as a deep­er myth­ic but TRUE spir­i­tu­al account of cre­ation. James, the Holy Spir­it has to reveal God to you, with­out this, its all fool­ish­ness and con­found­ing and appar­ent­ly hokum. The Spir­it is seen with spir­i­tu­al eyes. Ask and you shall receive.

  • James Riemer­mann

    I go to the same meet­ing as James. Let me first address what I feel is at the heart of James mes­sage — a fear that he will be “purged” — deemed expend­able in a spir­i­tu­al way, which is one of the most inti­mate parts of our lives.
    Thanks for you heart­felt mes­sage. I have respond­ed to you in full off-blog. For the pub­lic record, though, I do not at all fear being purged by Twin Cities Friends Meet­ing. I feel very much with­in the arms of our meet­ing. I know there are a hand­ful of Friends there who are trou­bled by the vocal pres­ence of folks like me, and wish to sup­port those Friends in any way short of with­draw­al, but I do not feel in the least threat­ened or wor­ried for my own sake.
    I have spo­ken with non­the­ist Friends with oth­er meet­ings, how­ev­er, who have been berat­ed, insult­ed and even removed from their meet­ings for their beliefs. I speak only for myself, but it is the suf­fer­ing of these Friends that moves me. A tone of intol­er­ance, even a sub­tle one, can have sad con­se­quences in people’s lives.

  • Eliz­a­beth O’Sullivan

    Hi again Friends
    This debate is such an emo­tion­al one for me. Until I can get myself in check and approach it with a greater mea­sure of Christ’s peace, I’m going to have to drop out.
    Maybe I’m out­run­ning my guide as I post this com­ment. (Like hav­ing a last cig­a­rette before quit­ting!) It is direct­ed at those of you who, like me, believe that a meet­ing with a cor­po­rate focus on God is pre­cious and irreplacable.
    We will need to be extreme­ly gen­tle as we set bound­aries that allow us to prac­tice our faith. This does not mean that we should not or can not set bound­aries, but it means that we can’t ever do it with even a hint of mean spirit­ed­ness or pride. Bound­aries don’t nece­sar­i­ly mean kick­ing peo­ple out.
    I think we need to wor­ship and pray as much as we can to build up the spir­i­tu­al matu­ri­ty that it will take to dis­cern God’s will and to act not accord­ing to pride and emo­tion in this.
    In prayer,

  • Robin

    So, Mar­tin. What’s your point? I had expect­ed to hear more from you, or are you not blog­ging in April now too?
    I am strug­gling with how to com­ment on a top­ic which I have some very strong opin­ions, between a wide­ly Quak­er ten­den­cy to avoid con­flict and a con­cern not to crit­i­cize a per­son I don’t even know.
    I am torn between tak­ing a big, fat (ver­bal) swing at the incon­sis­ten­cies in this post and try­ing to keep in mind the real human being who wrote it; between not want­i­ng to mince words just to be nice and not want­i­ng to get car­ried away from the unvar­nished truth.
    I pray for guid­ance from God as to how much time I should even spend think­ing about this.

  • Hi Robin,
    Sor­ry to leave you, James and every­one else hang­ing. I thought James asked some very good ques­tions and I think it deserves sig­nif­i­cant prayer and thought before I answer. It also requires a free hour or two to pull it alto­geth­er. Var­i­ous threads have been run­ning through my head but I won’t under­stand how they weave togeth­er until I sit down and start writ­ing. Martin

  • I’ve been trav­el­ing for the past week (and still am) and only now have had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to look at a few blogs.
    James, I’m so glad you took the time to post your thoughts and that they found their way here. Your clar­i­ty about your place among Friends is some­thing I have always appre­ci­at­ed about you (James, Eliz­a­beth, and I all attend the same meet­ing). As I’ve writ­ten else­where, it’s when peo­ple are ground­ed in their faith that real dia­logue and shar­ing can hap­pen, with­out the fear of being converted.
    Each time I lis­ten to you, James, I can­not help but feel vis­cer­al­ly that you and I are expe­ri­enc­ing the same Thing That Can­not Be Named Or Cap­tured In Words. Maybe you are being more faith­ful by not nam­ing It, and I am sim­ply using a word I am famil­iar with: God. But your ten­der­ness and your com­mit­ment to the meeting-community is clear to me, and I know exper­i­men­tal­ly the pow­er of belong­ing and of Being Home.
    At the same time, Eliz­a­beth, your descrip­tion of the pow­er of the wor­ship group in which we both par­tic­i­pate speaks to my condition.
    In a vari­ety of ways over the years, I have pur­sued lift­ing up to the month­ly meet­ing my con­cern about just how lib­er­al this Lib­er­al Friends Meet­ing is. I have nev­er felt ful­ly heard, nev­er felt ful­ly “lis­tened into Truth,” nev­er felt as though Friends or the meet­ing wished to labor with me. Like Eliz­a­beth, I have looked else­where for spir­i­tu­al­ly Quak­er nour­ish­ment that sup­ports my jour­ney to be faith­ful to the Divine, and the inward trans­for­ma­tion that accom­pa­nies such a journey.
    Slow­ly over a num­ber of months, I am com­ing to under­stand that the meet­ing and I are not a good fit for one anoth­er; and though I feel a bit released from the ini­tial call for me to raise the con­cern I men­tioned, I also am clear that I am not released from par­tic­i­pat­ing in the month­ly meet­ing for the time-being. So I stay and dis­cern where God is call­ing me among these Friends who have, in fact, car­ried me thus far.
    In some ways, as I type this, I feel like the moth­er in the sto­ry of the King who, when con­front­ed with two women claim­ing to be the moth­er of a cer­tain child, declared the child be cut in two, so that each woman may have a fair por­tion: I love Quak­erism so much that I do not wish to see it cut in two. I would pre­fer to leave it whole and allow non­the­ist Quak­ers to live up to their mea­sure of Light; and I myself will know the child lives on and grows, and I will find oth­er such moth­ers and fathers who have made sim­i­lar choices…
    This anal­o­gy is not quite right, but it is what occurs to me for now.
    And now I must go and catch a plane!

  • “Per­haps the expe­ri­ence I have is the same as, or deeply sim­i­lar to, that which you call God. For me to use that term would be mis­lead­ing, even dis­hon­est, because, mys­te­ri­ous as my expe­ri­ence some­times is, noth­ing about it strikes me as unnat­ur­al. It is some­thing beyond me, nat­u­ral­ly, as it springs not from my own doing, but from the encounter or rela­tion­ship between me and oth­ers, between me and the world. It is nei­ther here nor there, but a liv­ing bond that comes from being alive in the world with oth­er liv­ing beings. There is some­thing sacred in that bond, and act­ing in ways that tend to vio­late it is not right­eous. I depend on my com­mu­ni­ty for many things, and one of those things is to keep me hon­est to that bond. I sub­mit myself to that dis­ci­pline freely and joy­ful­ly, and my will­ing­ness springs from the faith I have in the good­ness of that com­mu­ni­ty. I do not and can­not, how­ev­er, sub­mit my mind, my beliefs—my mea­sure of the light—to any authority.”
    First, James, let me say that what you wrote was ele­gant­ly writ­ten and spoke to me on many lev­els, if not all. I feel that, although I’m com­fort­able with using the word God when refer­ring to the energy/relationship you iden­ti­fy with, we feel and believe very sim­il­iar things. I am not, how­ev­er (like you), com­fort­able with the word Christ, despite my will­ing­ness to use God as a sort of default when no oth­er word can describe the rela­tion­ship I feel with the world around me.
    When I think of the word Christ, I think of some­one walk­ing the earth who was con­sid­ered more a part of God than the rest of us, who wasn’t just enlight­ened (like Bud­dha or Ghan­di, etc.), but WAS God, in a way that implies the rest of us are God to a less­er degree by first being led by Christ. I’m not com­fort­able with this, although I respect and admire those who live sim­ple, wor­ship­ful lives with these beliefs.
    I think of Jesus as a man, like Bud­dha, who was wise, enlight­ened, and whose teach­ings are invalu­able, but I do not con­sid­er him any­more God than Bud­dha, or myself, or any oth­er part or per­son of this earth. I don’t feel com­fort­able with the idea of believ­ing that one per­son was EVER, on this earth or in this uni­verse, more a part of God or more in tune with God than any­one else was or will be.
    I love the teach­ings of Jesus like I love any wise teach­ings that guide me fur­ther down a path toward my own Truth. I love Bud­dhist teach­ings in the same way, as indis­pens­able wis­dom and sources of insight. I don’t feel it nec­es­sary or com­fort­able to asso­ciate my spir­i­tu­al path with a cor­po­ral deity, espe­cial­ly when I feel that believ­ing in the Chris­t­ian term Christ would also imply cer­tain things I don’t accept when think­ing of the term God… were I to con­sid­er the term God con­sis­tent with the term Christ, I would no longer believe in “God.”
    I think what you said real­ly spoke to me, and point­ed out cer­tain ways in which I myself don’t believe in the typ­i­cal ideas of God, but also ways in which you and I believe in the same things and I can more eas­i­ly call them God, as long as my def­i­n­i­tion of God can encom­pass any num­ber of con­nect­ed rela­tion­ships between every­thing, a Light that remains with­in all of us, and a sim­plic­i­ty that for me doesn’t require holi­er names for one of many great and holy men.
    I say all of the above with love for ALL shapes of faith. I just want­ed to express some­thing that formed in my mind when read­ing the orig­i­nal post, and also express grat­i­tude for those who have spo­ken my mind in this con­ver­sa­tion. 🙂 It’s done great good for me to see this con­ver­sa­tion, being new­er to the Quak­er faith, and learn­ing about so many dif­fer­ent ideas of God and our faith.
    Alice said “Quak­erism doesn’t make sense with­out Christ at the centre.”
    For me, it doesn’t make sense with any one per­son at the cen­ter, espe­cial­ly if there is that of God is each of us. 🙂 I don’t know if that makes sense to any of you, but I see so many addi­tion­al teach­ers with whom I hold the same rev­er­ence as Jesus. What I deeply love about the Quak­er faith is that, despite this huge dif­fer­ence of opin­ion, I would still be wel­come to wor­ship with you, and I would still wel­come you to wor­ship with me. 🙂 That, in itself, is a les­son in tol­er­ance to me, and hope­ful­ly to those with more Christ-based beliefs as well.

  • As a Chris­t­ian Quak­er I notice some­times that when I speak of my Chris­tian­i­ty some peo­ple tend to wince a little.
    And you know what? — - I don’t blame them.
    When I look at what some men have done to the use of the Bible to mar­gin­al­ize, con­demn and hurt peo­ple through his­to­ry; when I see the idea of Jesus used to sup­port mil­i­tarism; when I see what some peo­ple have done to one anoth­er in the name of that faith; I have to open­ly won­der what Chris­tian­i­ty could pos­si­bly have for me that I could use.
    And since this I per­ceive as the actions of main­stream Chris­tian­i­ty — along with the argu­ments in the vestibule about which sized cross to march in with — it isn’t a sur­prise that peo­ple may be uncom­fort­able with my being a Chris­t­ian or speak­ing about Jesus.
    But I came to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between the idea and the way men have used the idea, and when I did this I did expe­ri­ence a kind of opening.
    Bud­dhism did not influ­ence the Khmer Rouge, but Pol Pot did grow in a Bud­dhist cul­ture. And this wasn’t the Buddha’s idea. Chris­tian­i­ty didn’t cause the Holo­caust, the Nazis did. And this wasn’t the teach­ings of Jesus. It wasn’t — it couldn’t have been — Allah who ordered 9/11.
    There­fore I see that it is the use men make of these things that is and can be the great wrong.
    And to the argu­ment that the dif­fer­ent tracks that exist with­in the world of Friends are a prob­lem; I think this is the case only to the degree we each use our modal­i­ties in the wrong way.
    Look — to the wider world Quak­ers are still pecu­liar. I sub­mit we are an echo of the founders of Amer­i­ca at least in one way; we either hang togeth­er or we will sure­ly hang separately.

  • James, you wrote: “I don’t believe in God.” I’m inter­est­ed in what God don’t you believe in? God is a 3 let­ter word and means zil­lions of things to zil­lions of peo­ple. How about “your ulti­mate con­cern” (Tillich)? Do you have one?
    If you could expli­cate the back­ground for your dis­be­lief in God, it might be heal­ing to many.
    Inci­den­tal­ly at Lan­g­ley Hill MM (North­ern VA) an old gen­tle­man had been going to meet­ing with his wife for 50 years and called him­self an athe­ist. Then he applied for mem­ber­ship– no problem.
    Belief in over-rated. In spite of most bib­li­cal inter­preters Jesus nev­er expect­ed us to believe any set of intel­lec­tu­al propo­si­tions. He just asked us to love God (good­ness, mer­cy, jus­tice, what­ev­er) and our neigh­bor. I sus­pect you do that, James. By my book that makes you a Christian.

  • Lar­ry,
    I appre­ci­ate the obvi­ous good will in your com­ment. And I agree that “belief is over-rated”. How­ev­er, I am not a Chris­t­ian. To equate a love of good­ness with Chris­tian­i­ty, if you think about it, is rather dis­mis­sive of the count­less non-Christians in the world who love good­ness, or at least try to do so. Chris­tian­i­ty is one path among many. Or, more hon­est­ly, Chris­tian­i­ty is many paths among many – the per­spec­tive of Chris­tians in the world is not uni­fied, in fact has nev­er been uni­fied. At its best (which is to say, infre­quent­ly) it has been a col­lec­tion of diverse humans unit­ed in car­ing com­mu­ni­ty, not in a belief system.
    From my read­ing of the Gospels, I can’t accept that Jesus thought of God as just anoth­er word for “good­ness, mer­cy, jus­tice, what­ev­er.” He was talk­ing about the lord of cre­ation, whom he held to be supreme­ly good, mer­ci­ful and just, and whom he expect­ed to rad­i­cal­ly trans­form the nature of cre­ation in the very near future. He was cer­tain­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ary in his attempts to erase bound­aries between the clean and the unclean in his high­ly strat­i­fied cul­ture, but he did have some par­tic­u­lar and some­what tra­di­tion­al beliefs about God – beliefs which I do not accept. Paul and the ear­ly Chris­tians had anoth­er, some­what dif­fer­ent set of beliefs, many of which Jesus seemed to show no signs of sharing.
    I know we could work over the def­i­n­i­tion of God until I could be includ­ed in the cir­cle of those who believe in God. I have no desire to do so, as it would feel dis­hon­est. The word can mean count­less things, yes, but it has always had strong asso­ci­a­tions with con­cepts such as the self-aware cre­ator of the uni­verse; the self-aware ruler of the uni­verse; an over­ar­ch­ing and benef­i­cent pur­pose to the uni­verse; and many oth­er con­cepts which do not res­onate for me.
    “My ulti­mate con­cern” is not sin­gu­lar, but even if it were that does not strike me as a his­tor­i­cal­ly coher­ent or hon­est descrip­tion of God. If I had to pick one con­cern – and I am very reluc­tant to do so – it would be com­pas­sion for the suf­fer­ing of all liv­ing creatures.
    I’m not sure what you mean by “the back­ground for [my] dis­be­lief.” I don’t remem­ber ever hav­ing believed in the exis­tence of God, though I have long found the “con­cept” of God, the poet­ic force of a per­son­al­iza­tion of the uni­verse, deeply com­pelling. I often find it expres­sive, use­ful, beau­ti­ful, reflec­tive of human yearn­ing, but not “true” in the sense of “an accu­rate descrip­tion of the real­i­ty out­side of my mind.”

  • He just asked us to love God (good­ness, mer­cy, jus­tice, what­ev­er) and our neigh­bor. I sus­pect you do that, James. By my book that makes you a Christian.
    You imply here that God can be *defined* in terms of good­ness, mer­cy, jus­tice, etc., which would imply that any­one who believes in these things would be a Chris­t­ian in your book… I think a Chris­t­ian def­i­n­i­tion of God is a lit­tle more than just an vague idea of good­ness, mer­cy or jus­tice, and that to claim that any­one who believes in con­cepts of basic good­ness and peace and love is Chris­t­ian is a lit­tle inac­cu­rate, at least for me. I think what mat­ters more is what each indi­vid­ual sees them­self as, and while I appre­ci­ate what you’re say­ing, you may run into bad feel­ings from a faith­ful Jew, Bud­dhist, athe­ist, or oth­er per­sons of non-Christian faith by claim­ing that because they believe in good, they are actu­al­ly Chris­t­ian. I think it’s a lit­tle more than that to most Chris­tians, and not nec­es­sar­i­ly for wrong per­cep­tions. There *are* dis­tinc­tive beliefs that sep­a­rate tra­di­tion­al Chris­tians from Jew­ish, Bud­dhist, and agnostic/atheist peo­ple. While I admire self-defined Chris­tians and their beliefs, I think it’s impor­tant not to impose def­i­n­i­tions on oth­ers’ faith so that they will fit into Christianity.
    🙂 You could prob­a­bly word it in a way that I would prob­a­bly be con­sid­ered Chris­t­ian, but I wouldn’t be com­fort­able with that, just as you might be uncom­fort­able with me word­ing agnos­ti­cism in a broad way that might include your­self, so that you would fit into my beliefs. I think it’s impor­tant to allow dis­tinc­tions and dif­fer­ences in the par­tic­u­lars of each faith, and in accept­ing that we are not all Chris­t­ian but still believe in good, find fur­ther under­stand­ing of unique or dif­fer­ent spir­i­tu­al beliefs.

  • Hi Brandice and everyone,
    I am hear­ing your point about not want­i­ng labels that don’t apply. But my expe­ri­ence of G-d is that G-d is the good­ness. I’m not try­ing to be inclu­sive, I’m say­ing what is true for me, and it does seem scary to try to describe my expe­ri­ence of the Divine Pow­er in this pub­lic forum because this is what is most pre­cious to me. But it is also the Lib­er­at­ing Truth that has freed my soul, and hav­ing been trust­ed with this under­stand­ing which has such pow­er and bless­ing for me. I owe the lib­er­at­ing pow­er a wit­ness. The pres­ence of love, kind­ness, good­ness in the uni­verse is man­i­fest­ly real. Love does exist, peo­ple do incred­i­ble things out of love every day. Love, G-d’s Pow­er, can move peo­ple beyond their lim­i­ta­tions and frail­ties to man­i­fest the Glo­ry of Love in the world.
    For me, the cre­ative pow­er, G-d, is all the good­ness, all the love that is in the uni­verse, open­ing every flower, entic­ing every shoot to unfurl from the seed. G-d is the cre­ative, pros­per­ing pow­er in the uni­verse and the rea­son the uni­verse exists. Like Teil­hard de Chardin’s Prime Entelechy(sense 2 in this def­i­n­i­tion)? The flow of Divine love is the impe­tus and also the pat­tern and the road and the promise of the future. That real love is an infi­nite­ly mer­ci­ful power.
    Christ Jesus is the seed poten­tial in every liv­ing thing. In one body, He was able to trans­form lives so deeply that the effects are still ring­ing about the world today and His risen pres­ence, His spir­it is both what­ev­er enlight­en­ing pow­er there is in our meet­ings and our hearts, and the com­forter that allows us to bear the sor­row of wit­ness­ing the dif­fi­cult parts of our human nature. He is the ray of light that illu­mi­nates the con­scious­ness to see the next step for­ward and He is the seed that is unfold­ing in each of us ded­i­cat­ed to Divine Goodness.
    I’m throw­ing words at this, try­ing to describe how I expe­ri­ence the world. I hope I might be com­mu­ni­cat­ing it, but who knows? Love and Blessings.

  • In one body, He was able to trans­form lives so deeply that the effects are still ring­ing about the world today
    For me, I can look at this state­ment and say the same thing about Bud­dha, to an equal or pos­si­bly even greater extent. 🙂 There are actu­al­ly more Bud­dhists in the world than there are Christians.
    Your words were very well spo­ken and I agreed with every­thing thing but that one para­graph. That’s where it’s dif­fer­ent for me, and that’s why, while I respect and iden­ti­fy with a lot of Chris­t­ian beliefs, I can’t say that I’m Chris­t­ian. 🙂 I hope that makes sense, the ref­er­ence to Buddha’s influ­ence being very sim­il­iar or even wider spread than Jesus Christ’s. I hold them with equal rev­er­ence, in addi­tion to many oth­er spir­i­tu­al­ly enlight­ened teach­ers over the years, and I think that’s what makes the dif­fer­ence for me.

  • Harold

    Hel­lo, Brandice. I don’t think most Quak­ers believe Jesus “had more God in him” than any­body else. There’s a ter­ri­ble assump­tion being made there – that Jesus was “just” a human.
    Thee has to under­stand that “that of God in every­one” comes from Jesus Christ. It is the indwelling Jesus Christ in our hearts and souls. That “still small voice” is Jesus Christ. With­out Christ, one can­not have “that of God” because Christ is God in human form.
    It seems like thee is assum­ing that Jesus was “only” a per­son, like me or thee. Most Quak­ers I know (myself includ­ed) under­stand Jesus as at the very least more than a wise human being.
    I am remind­ed very much of a para­graph from C. S. Lewis in Mere Chris­tian­i­ty. He says it far bet­ter than I could ever hope to: “I am try­ing to pre­vent any­one say­ing the real­ly fool­ish thing that peo­ple often say about Him: “I am ready to accept Jesus as the great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was mere­ly a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a lev­el with the man who says he is a boiled egg — or else he would be the Dev­il of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a mad­man or some­thing worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patron­iz­ing non­sense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

  • Pam

    Harold does a great job, I think of pre­sent­ing what I feel (and what I heard from Brandice & James) about the dif­fi­cul­ty of say­ing “if you’re lov­ing, you are a christian”
    cer­tain­ly many chris­tians hope to be lov­ing, as do many non-christians. For “Chris­t­ian” to mean any­thing beyond “lov­ing per­son” (and if it did, Alice, I assume you could just as eas­i­ly call your­self a lov­ing athe­ist, and adopt James’ words, rather than ask­ing him to adopt yours, in seek­ing “uni­ty”
    I dis­agree with Harold (and CS Lewis) that Jesus must either be the Son of God (in a way that we are not) or a lunatic, per­haps only because it makes me uncom­fort­able (per­haps I should take solace in the idea that many mys­tics walk the line of lunacy?)
    Since noth­ing was writ­ten down at the time, and all of the Bible is the inter­pre­ta­tion of human beings, I am will­ing to believe that his words when read to say that he is the ONLY WAY to God and such, are sim­ply poor­ly under­stood metaphors or suchlike.
    In any case, that he was more than human sim­ply does not res­onate with me, log­i­cal­ly or spir­i­tu­al­ly. And there­fore it is dis­hon­est (as James says) to iden­ti­fy as a chris­t­ian, no mat­ter how lov­ing I may aim to be.
    I have talked to many folks (well, a few) who are now Chris­tians due to a mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ence. Jesus came and sat down next to them, held them, called out to them. While such an expe­ri­ence would sure­ly scare the pants off me, I also feel a bit of envy, or grief, that I have not had one. But that does not change the fact that I have not.
    What am I then to do?

  • Chris Phoenix

    “I love Quak­erism so much that I do not wish to see it cut in two. I would pre­fer to leave it whole and allow non­the­ist Quak­ers to live up to their mea­sure of Light…” — Liz, in a pre­vi­ous comment.
    In anoth­er post, “We are all ranters now,” Mar­tin expressed dis­com­fort with hyphen­at­ed Quak­ers. You know, Buddist-Quakers, Catholic-Quakers…
    I only start­ed attend­ing last sum­mer, so I don’t yet know much about what being a Quak­er means. But I am very much drawn to what I see: Peo­ple seek­ing and cul­ti­vat­ing the Light in them­selves, nur­tur­ing it in each oth­er, work­ing togeth­er to form a com­mu­ni­ty, work­ing to trans­late their spir­i­tu­al growth into real-world actions.
    I do not want to be an Atheist-Quaker. I want to be a Quak­er. I intend to cul­ti­vate the Light in myself and to work with the Quak­er com­mu­ni­ties for a vari­ety of good pur­pos­es. As far as I can tell, that’s what being a Quak­er is about (though I’m sure I’ll learn more aspects).
    For me, the Light is not a euphemism; it is a real thing, some­thing to be cul­ti­vat­ed, some­thing that will improve me and show me how to improve the world. On the oth­er hand, the word and con­cept of God are dis­trac­tions from my prac­tice. For me, God is a neb­u­lous con­cept that does not have a tan­gi­ble real­i­ty, and that does have a tan­gle of bad and mis­lead­ing associations.
    I began this post by quot­ing Liz because she put into words some­thing that I have been feel­ing strong­ly over the past few weeks while think­ing about oth­er schisms and poten­tial schisms. It is a trag­ic and ter­ri­ble thing to say, “You’re not real­ly a Quaker.”
    And “You’re not real­ly a Quak­er” is real­ly what each schism is say­ing. Quak­ers could say, “We have dif­fer­ent lead­ings or under­stand­ings – come, let’s wor­ship togeth­er, and thresh, and dis­cern, and accept that we are all imper­fect, and let’s cul­ti­vate our Light, and val­ue our com­mu­ni­ty, and rec­og­nize that not every dif­fer­ence is an imperfection.”
    Is there a dif­fer­ence between non-theists and Bible-based Quak­ers? Yes, of course there is. Are we both Quak­ers? I believe we are. Will this cause dis­com­fort? Yes. I recent­ly attend­ed a meet­ing that began with hymns, and I found that in hon­esty I had to refrain from singing half of them.
    I would nev­er ask that the hymns not be sung. But I would ask those who sing them to wor­ship with me and work with me as a fel­low Quak­er. And I would nev­er ask that God not be men­tioned, or even invoked; my respect for Quak­er tra­di­tion makes me accept and even val­ue the invo­ca­tion of God as part of the com­mu­ni­ty process, even if I do not val­ue “God” personally.

  • James Riemer­mann

    Chris writes: “It is a trag­ic and ter­ri­ble thing to say, “You’re not real­ly a Quaker.” And “You’re not real­ly a Quak­er” is real­ly what each schism is say­ing. Quak­ers could say, “We have dif­fer­ent lead­ings or understandings—come, let’s wor­ship togeth­er, and thresh, and dis­cern, and accept that we are all imper­fect, and let’s cul­ti­vate our Light, and val­ue our com­mu­ni­ty, and rec­og­nize that not every dif­fer­ence is an imperfection.”
    Yes – love­ly, and true.
    “I do not want to be an Atheist-Quaker. I want to be a Quaker.”
    I think I under­stand the val­ue of what you are say­ing here. I don’t want a dilut­ed, watered down Quak­erism, nor do I want to sim­ply flirt with Quak­erism. But I do want my Quak­erism, which is to say my human­i­ty, to be exact­ly as com­pli­cat­ed and prob­lem­at­ic and gen­uine as it has to be in a per­son like me, or you, or Liz, or Mar­tin. I am an athe­ist, and an agnos­tic, and a Jew, and a Quak­er, and many oth­er things, and each of these car­ry some aspects of truth about me. But none of those words begin to grasp what I am, and how I am sim­i­lar to and dif­fer­ent from all of you, from all of Quak­er­dom, all of human­i­ty. Like­wise for the words all of us use to describe our­selves, I think. This is a strength, not a weakness.
    I am ded­i­cat­ed to the prac­tice and com­mu­ni­ty of Quak­erism I have found, but I have lit­tle inter­est in find­ing out exact­ly what a Quak­er is sup­posed to be, so that I can turn myself into that at the expense of being who I am.