Same as it ever was

Over on One Quak­er Take, Tim­o­thy is sur­prised to read a def­i­n­i­tion of “Con­ver­gent Friend” that sounds a lot like a cer­tain fla­vor of West Coast lib­er­al Quak­erism. It doesn’t seem so sur­pris­ing for me as it comes from Gregg Koskela, a pas­tor at an Evan­gel­i­cal Friends church. It was five years ago this month that I went to a loud piz­za shop in Philadel­phia to attend a  “Meet-Up” of read­ers of emerg­ing church blogs and real­ized I had more com­mon ground with these younger Evan­gel­i­cals than I would have ever thought:

Just about each of us at the table were com­ing from dif­fer­ent the­o­log­i­cal start­ing points, but it’s safe to say we are all “post” some­thing or oth­er. There was a shared sense that the stock answers our church­es have been pro­vid­ing aren’t work­ing for us. We are all try­ing to find new ways to relate to our faith, to Christ and to one anoth­er in our church com­mu­ni­ties. There’s some­thing about build­ing rela­tion­ships that are deep­er, more down-to-earth and real. Per­haps it’s find­ing a way to be less dog­mat­ic at the same time that we’re more dis­ci­plined. For Friends, that means ques­tion­ing the con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al ortho­doxy of liberal-think (get­ting beyond the cliched catch phras­es bor­rowed from lib­er­al Protes­tantism and sixties-style activism) while being less afraid of being pec­u­lar­i­ly Quaker.

Rich the Brook­lyn Quak­er was recent­ly ask­ing about ear­ly Friends views of atone­ment and heav­en and hell and it’s a great post, but so is Mar­shall Massey’s com­ment about how lat­er Friends altered the mes­sage in dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent ways. The dif­fer­ent fla­vors of Friends have spent a lot of ener­gy min­i­miz­ing cer­tain parts of the Quak­er mes­sage and over-emphasizing oth­ers and maybe the truth lies in some of the nuances we long ago paved over.

I have a work­ing the­o­ry that a move­ment of “Con­ver­gence” will feel sus­pi­cious­ly lib­er­al in evan­gel­i­cal cir­cles, sus­pi­cious­ly evan­gel­i­cal in lib­er­al cir­cles, and sus­pi­cious­ly world­ly in Quak­er con­ser­v­a­tive cir­cles. But that’s almost to be expect­ed. The work to be done is dif­fer­ent depend­ing on where we’re start­ing from.

I don’t think Friends are alone in these kinds of mat­ters. I see this phe­nom­e­non in oth­er reli­gious denom­i­na­tions – the post-Evangelicals I broke piz­za with back in 2003 weren’t Quak­ers. But Friends might have a bet­ter way out of the exis­ten­tial puz­zles that arise. For we (gen­er­al­ly) believe that our action should be moti­vat­ed first and fore­most by the direct instruc­tion of the risen Christ work­ing on us now. That means we can’t rely on canned answers. What worked in the past might not work now. The faith is the same. But what needs to be done and what needs to be preached is very much a here-and-now kind of proposition.

I can’t help but think of Howard Brin­ton. Back in the 1950s his gen­er­a­tion man­aged a reuni­fi­ca­tion of East Coast Quak­er fac­tions that had been war­ring for over a cen­tu­ry. One way they did it was hang­ing out togeth­er and then redefin­ing what it meant to be a Friend. In Friends for 300 Years, Brin­ton argued that tests for mem­ber­ship shouldn’t look at one’s beliefs or prac­tices. It was a truce and I’m sure it made sense at the time: there was a fair­ly strong con­sen­sus on what Quak­erism meant and the fights at the edges over details were dis­tract­ing. Fifty years lat­er, there’s lit­tle con­sen­sus among Philadel­phia Friends and even those in lead­er­ship posi­tions are loathe to talk about faith or prac­tice except in a kind of code. I can’t think of a sin­gle Philadel­phia Friend who pub­licly express­es Quak­er belief with the clar­i­ty or pas­sion of mid-century fig­ures like Brin­ton, Thomas Kel­ly or Rufus Jones. 

What worked in the past might not work now. What sounds like old hat to to us might be very lib­er­at­ing for oth­ers. Con­ver­gence isn’t very new. It’s just keep­ing our­selves from ossi­fy­ing into our own human con­cepts and stay­ing open to the direct Christ. It’s find­ing a way to main­tain that crazy bal­ance between tra­di­tion and the inward light. Same as it ever was.

  • I won­der if con­ver­gent is more of a descrip­tion of many Friends’ jour­neys to Quak­erism (I am uncom­fort­able with the “ism” part, but can’t seem to find a bet­ter sin­gle word or very short phrase). For many years I have felt that many Quak­ers are “com­ing togeth­er” FROM some­thing rather than TO some­thing. If there is an aspect of their reli­gious affil­i­a­tion that no longer seems to fit, then they have found some place where “any­thing” seems to fit. Inevitably, using a col­or anal­o­gy, this leads to either a mud­dled gray (actu­al­ly usu­al­ly a brown­ish col­or but in def­er­ence to tradition-grey (I know I used both spellings for both sides oft he Atlantic) or clash­ing col­ors. I per­son­al­ly sus­pect that Quak­er Insti­tu­tion and Quak­er “reli­gion” are both oxy­morons, at least from my under­stand­ing of insti­tu­tion as an estab­lished place for main­tain­ing a giv­en sit­u­a­tion and of reli­gion as a giv­ing of alle­giance to a defined set of beliefs.

    I would hope that rather, than a mud­dled gray of spir­i­tu­al con­fu­sion, we could become more of a beau­ti­ful tapes­try that has very unique dis­tinct col­ors (colours) but which when seen as a whole become a beau­ti­ful whole. I think the dis­tinc­tive col­ors are crit­i­cal in that each is clear­ly defined and does not try to claim to be the “true” col­or or the only col­or that “fits.” I also rec­og­nize that indi­vid­ual threads tend to get “lost” in a larg­er pic­ture and that it is a col­lec­tion of same col­or threads that pro­vide greater impact. 

    My sus­pi­cions are that one of the dif­fi­cul­ties that many, includ­ing myself, see in the Quak­er “divi­sions ” is that each seems to claim they are the “true” Quak­ers. It might be bet­ter if we could some­how agree that “we” are actu­al­ly wide­ly diver­gent groups which claim to be derived from a 350 (2000?) year old tra­di­tion. I would hope that Con­ver­gent tends to be more of a con­ver­gence with “prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty.” This prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty revived might actu­al­ly take the core of the mes­sage of Jesus as inter­pret­ed by vary­ing sources, but which relies on “Love the Lord your God” and “Love your neigh­bor as your­self.” God in this con­text does NOT seem to be the god of the Jews, Samar­i­tans, Phar­isees, Sad­ducees, Romans, Greeks, etc. just as neigh­bor also includes “our worst ene­mies,” (i.e. Samaritans) 

    • Hi Tom: After I post­ed this arti­cle I had an unset­tled feel­ing that perhaps
      I’ve once again strayed into “Quak­erism” define mode. It’s not wrong, just
      some­what point­less and a dis­trac­tion from out­reach. So I like the idea that
      maybe the point is to sim­ply con­verge toward that prim­i­tive Christianity

  • Thanks Mar­tin — I agree with your point that con­ver­gence will nev­er please every­one, a posi­tion I’m per­son­al­ly hap­py to hold.

  • Tom

    Mar­tin said: “I have a work­ing the­o­ry that a move­ment of “Con­ver­gence” will feel sus­pi­cious­ly lib­er­al in evan­gel­i­cal cir­cles, sus­pi­cious­ly evan­gel­i­cal in lib­er­al cir­cles, and sus­pi­cious­ly world­ly in Quak­er con­ser­v­a­tive circles”

    I had to chuck­le here, and add “and for the mys­tic, per­haps not rad­i­cal enough!”

    Great post and comments -
    Ive been look­ing much at this notion of con­ver­gence in the past sev­er­al weeks on every­ones blogs and web­pages … Im in the midst of my own per­son­al con­ver­gence with Quak­erism itself, and its fun, and invig­o­rat­ing, fas­ci­nat­ing, and as all worth­while things should be, hum­bling… to see the very strug­gles and ques­tions and pains played out on the field of the blog­post, also here in my rela­tion­ship with a brand new (to me) group of long-gathered Friends — but this is to be so for any new­com­er to any group that has found secu­ri­ty in its his­to­ry of meeting…

    Its so clear — just so clear — the MEETING is the con­ver­gence… this con­ver­gence that is being dis­cussed, is played out in every soul on the plan­et, for all that mat­ter — where­as every meet­ing with anoth­er is a meet­ing with God… con­verge with THAT! — this is the demand from God in every moment, to con­verge — to come togeth­er — to meet… to reex­am­ine what “his­to­ry” means and what books and quotes and say­ings Ive packed up at home, and brought to the meet­ing with me… that needs to be re-spected, in the truest sense of the word — to “look again” … con­verge with that!… this is the demand on me, from God, if- if- if- I want to come to meet­ing with Him… 

  • In the man­ner of Fox

    What worked in the past will work now, next year, through out eter­ni­ty because it does not and will not change. Because He’s the same, as long as you have the faith of a lit­tle child you can preach, teach, and heal. The prob­lem is the gospil has been changed into a lie. Pro­fess­ing them­selves wise, they have become fools; hav­ing a form of god­li­ness that denies the pow­er. If you get with the right ones they will demon­strate it to you.

  • Same as it ever was. Let­ting the days flow by, water flow­ing under­ground. That’s a good descrip­tion of trust­ing in God.

  • Just a lit­tle side note to tesmith…I, too, don’t find “Quak­erism” a use­ful label for all this. It makes it sound, to me, like an ide­ol­o­gy (social­ism, lib­er­tar­i­an­ism), a ratio­nal­is­tic kind of val­ue system.

    I don’t care if any­one else wants to use it, of course, but when some­one else express­es the desire to find anoth­er term I always sug­gest “the faith and prac­tice of Friends.”