The scent of communal religion

A recent arti­cle on the art and sci­ence of taste and smell in the New York­er had a para­graph that stood out for me. The author John Lan­ches­ter had just shared a moment where he sud­den­ly under­stood the mean­ing behind “grainy,” a term that had pre­vi­ous­ly been an eso­teric wine descrip­tor. He then writes:

The idea that your palate and your vocab­u­lary expand simultaneously
might sound felic­i­tous, but there is a catch. The words and the
ref­er­ences are real­ly use­ful only to peo­ple who have had the same
expe­ri­ences and use the same vocab­u­lary: those ref­er­ences are to a
shared basis of sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence and a shared lan­guage. To peo­ple who
haven’t had those shared expe­ri­ences, this way of talk­ing can seem like
horse manure, and not in a good way.

How might this apply to Quak­erism? A post-modernist philoso­pher might argue that our words are our expe­ri­ence and their argu­ment would be even stronger for com­mu­nal expe­ri­ences. I once spent a long after­noon wor­ry­ing whether the col­ors I saw were real­ly the same col­ors oth­ers saw: what if what I inter­pret­ed as yel­low was the col­or oth­ers saw as blue? After turn­ing around the rid­dle I end­ed up real­iz­ing it didn’t mat­ter as long as we all could point to the same col­or and give it the same name.

But what hap­pens when we’re not just talk­ing about yel­low. Turn­ing to the Cray­ola box, what if we’re try­ing to describe the yel­low­ish col­ors apri­cot, dan­de­lion, peach and the touch-feely 2008 “super hap­py”. Being a Cray­ola con­nois­seur requires an invest­ment not only in a box of col­ored wax but also in time: the time need­ed to expe­ri­ence, under­stand and take own­er­ship in the var­i­ous colors. 

Reli­gion can be a like wine snob­bery. If you take the time to read the old Quak­er jour­nals and reflect on your spir­i­tu­al expe­ri­ences you can start to under­stand what the lan­guage means. The terms stop being fussy and obscure, out­dat­ed and parochial. They become your own reli­gious vocab­u­lary. When I pick up an engag­ing nine­teenth jour­nal (not all are!) and read sto­ries about the author’s spir­i­tu­al up and downs and strug­gles with ego and com­mu­ni­ty, I smile with shared recog­ni­tion. When I read an engag­ing historian’s account of some long-forgotten debate I nod know­ing that many of the same issues are at the root of some blo­gos­pher­ic bruhaha.

Of course I love out­reach and want to share the Friends “sen­so­ry expe­ri­ence.” One way to do that is to strip the lan­guage and make it all gener­ic. The dan­ger of course is that we’re actu­al­ly chang­ing the reli­gion when we’re change the lan­guage. It’s not the expe­ri­ence that makes us Friends – all peo­ple of all spir­i­tu­al per­sua­sions have access to legit­i­mate reli­gious expe­ri­ences no mat­ter how fleet­ing, mis­un­der­stood or mis­la­beled. We are unique in how we frame that expe­ri­ence, how we make sense of it and how we use the shared under­stand­ing to direct our lives. 

We can go the oth­er direc­tion and stay as close to our tra­di­tion­al lan­guage as pos­si­ble, demand­ing that any­one com­ing into our reli­gious society’s influ­ence take the time to under­stand us on our terms. That of course opens us to charges of spread­ing horse manure, in Lanchester’s words (which we do some­times) and it also means we threat­en to stay a small insid­er com­mu­ni­ty. We also for­get to speak “nor­mal,” start think­ing the lan­guage real­ly is the expe­ri­ence and start car­ing more about show­ing off our vocab­u­lary than about lov­ing God or tend­ing to our neighbors.

I don’t see any good way out of this conun­drum, no easy advice to wrap a post up. A lot of Friends in my neck of the woods are doing what I’d call wink-wink nudge-nudge Quak­erism, speak­ing dif­fer­ent­ly in pub­lic than in pri­vate (see this post) but I wor­ry this insti­tu­tion­al­izes the snob­bery and excus­es the manure, and it sure doesn’t give me much hope. What if we saw our role as taste edu­ca­tors? For want of a bet­ter anal­o­gy I won­der if there might be a Quak­er ver­sion of Star­bucks (yes yes, Star­bucks is Quak­er, I’m talk­ing cof­fee), a kind of move­ment that would edu­cate seek­ers at the same time as it sold them the Quak­er expe­ri­ence. Could we get peo­ple excit­ed enough that they’d com­mit to the high­er costs involved in under­stand­ing us? 

  • Craig

    Amen Mar­tin! You ask, “Could we get peo­ple excit­ed enough that they’d com­mit to the high­er costs involved in under­stand­ing us?” So what is it going to take to make this hap­pen. Or, is it already being birthed by God in the hearts of so many Friends who are return­ing to the Source of our faith?
    I’ve always been frus­trat­ed by our Year­ly Meet­ing. We have a won­der­ful Trea­sure in our cor­po­rate under­stand­ing of the faith as reflect­ed in NCYM©‘s Faith and Prac­tice. Yet, we seem slow to share our faith and spread the Good News. On the oth­er hand, I’m not so sure what that “shar­ing” of our faith should look like.
    It would be a shame to “mar­ket” Quak­erism like many protes­tant groups. Ohio Year­ly Meet­ing seems to be mov­ing for­ward in a direc­tion that push­es the lim­its of what has tra­di­tion­al­ly been con­sid­ered “Con­ser­v­a­tive Quak­er out­reach”. They must be applaud­ed for their effort…and it is pay­ing off. Wit­ness the num­ber of new Meet­ings OYM is birthing.
    Now if NCYM© could begin to do outreach…what would it look like? God knows and per­haps God is speak­ing to us even now as to the direc­tion God wish­es us to take. May we be faith­ful to lis­ten to that Voice and to act upon what we hear.
    Love and peace,

  • Paul Rick­etts

    The “Three-Legged Stool” of scrip­ture, reason,and tradition,
    has been a way of describ­ing the Epis­co­pal Church
    I am find­ing this image of a stool with three equal legs a very appeal­ing pic­ture as a Quaker.
    What would a three -legged Quak­er stool look like?
    For me the first leg would be, experiential-the direct experience
    with God,second leg contemplative-communal wor­ship under
    lead­er­ship Spir­it of Christ,three leg activism — peace/justice-
    doing the work of Christ in the World.
    Three-legged stool will top­ple if any one over­bal­ances the other.
    What I find today among Quak­ers is how can we keep this balance?

  • @Craig: def­i­nite­ly the most glar­ing part of the Quak­er mes­sage that Con­ser­v­a­tive Friends haven’t fol­lowed is the need to spread the Good News. Ohio’s exper­i­ments are cer­tain­ly inter­est­ing, if some­times iron­ic (in some ways they’re the most for­ward think­ing and lib­er­al year­ly meet­ings in the world). I def­i­nite­ly hope they con­tin­ue experimenting.
    @Paul: I’m not a car­pen­ter so I won’t try to fig­ure out the per­fect num­ber of legs for a stool. But the piece that’s miss­ing from your three legs is tra­di­tion. We don’t have to make all this up as we go along. Oth­ers have come before us and we are part of an old fam­i­ly. Quak­er jour­nals from gen­er­a­tions past and the Bible are all impor­tant touch­stones that gives us the lan­guage to under­stand and talk about the direct expe­ri­ence with one another.
    Many Friends today mis­un­der­stand the Quak­er under­stand­ing of con­tin­u­al rev­e­la­tion and think that what­ev­er pop cul­ture idea intrigues them can be rolled up into Quak­erism as long as we tweak the names of a few terms. You get some Friends pulling in New Age ideas as oth­ers pull in Chris­t­ian Evan­gel­i­cal ones, as oth­ers explore Bud­dhism and oth­ers go Pres­by­ter­ian. You can name just about any Amer­i­can spir­i­tu­al move­ment or sub-movements and find a Quak­er advo­cat­ing it as the next Quak­er thing, blog­ging about it and get­ting all offend­ed when oth­er Friends don’t want to write it into Faith and Prac­tice or don’t think it an appro­pri­ate work­shop at a Quak­er gathering.
    It’s not easy to bal­ance tra­di­tion with new expe­ri­ences and rev­e­la­tion – just look at how many Friends have hurt each oth­er and their neigh­bors around issues of slav­ery and same-sex accep­tance. Try­ing new things can get us out of our rut and can help us under­stand our­selves in a fresh way. But our shared his­to­ry and our hun­dreds (thou­sands) of years of prayer and dis­cern­ment need to be one of the legs of any stool we build.

  • Paul Rick­etts

    You are right,
    We are not Quak­ers in iso­la­tion but are part of a
    liv­ing faith that spans 2000 years.
    First leg would be, experiential-the direct experience.
    God speaks to us not only today but in the livesof our sis­ters and broth­ers who have went before us.
    The three-legged stool for me is a metaphor to describe how we take into con­sid­er­a­tion Expe­ri­en­tial, Con­tem­pla­tive, Activism, each one inform­ing the oth­er two, to dis­cern truth.

  • Rudy

    The phrase “what­ev­er pop cul­ture idea intrigues them” jumps out at
    me as not very respectful.
    I’m intrigued by any num­ber of popcultural/mainstream/philosophical
    ideas because the “speak to my condition”.
    I agree with you about the need to look deep­er into our own tra­di­tion. Com­pare Catholi­cism though: that huge, huge denom­i­na­tion has/had Teil­hard, Ricouer, lib­er­a­tion the­ol­o­gy, Rose­mary Ruether, Rene Girard (I think he’s Catholic), con­ser­v­a­tive and reac­tionary thinkers, the cur­rent Pope.
    Quak­ers are just not that large a tra­di­tion. New ideas are just
    in the nature of things, going to come from the outside.

  • @Rudy, well yes, I don’t have all that much respect for some of the sil­ly ideas that peo­ple have tried to label Quak­er. New ideas are fine but insist­ing that any­thing any Quak­er believes is de fac­to Quak­er means the term doesn’t mean any­thing. I find it very dis­re­spect­ful and very dis­tract­ing to those of us who are try­ing to under­stand what this tra­di­tion means.

  • Rudy

    Mar­tin, I am not try­ing to con­vince you to respect the ideas; I have a lot of trou­ble with New Age stuff in par­tic­u­lar. And I imag­ine that you *do* respect some of the ideas on your list. What I am hav­ing trou­ble with is just the “what­ev­er pop idea intrigues them” expres­sion, which sounds to me like you’re diss­ing the peo­ple who
    hold the ideas.
    I under­stand that you are try­ing to say that they shouldn’t say that
    Buddhist/Evangelical/whatever ideas are -Quaker- ideas, and I can
    see how irri­tat­ing that could be, but why the snide dis­missal as
    “pop ideas” that sim­ply “intrigue” them? As opposed to “deep ideas
    that speak to their con­di­tion, but are sim­ply not Quakerism?”
    I often find Bud­dhist writ­ings that speak to me, though I’m not
    a Bud­dhist Quak­er. The Epis­tle of James is often said to have a Bud­dhist tone; I recall read­ing that con­nec­tion years before I became a Quak­er, and learned that James was a favorite among Quak­ers. There has got to some­thing deep going on there.
    I may be over­ly sen­si­tive about this; I recall being upset with a friend who dis­missed ideas of mine he dis­agreed with as “fash­ion­able”, as though I had just absorbed them from People
    I am not sure what to say to the oth­er part of your feel­ings, about the Every­thing Can Be Quak­erism being dis­re­spect­ful to the tra­di­tion, or to peo­ple try­ing to recov­er the tra­di­tion. I sort of sense what you mean, but I’m not sure what those peo­ple could do dif­fer­ent­ly, espe­cial­ly since the Quak­er tra­di­tion of the future might include the ideas of those people.

  • Rudy

    Oops, as soon as I left the key­board I had a few addi­tion­al thoughts…
    The major­i­ty of Friends in the world are Evan­gel­i­cal, and those ideas came from “out­side” in the 19th cen­tu­ry. I’m not sure what
    to make of this exact­ly in the con­text of your project, but I think
    it means “Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian” is very much part of the Quak­er tra­di­tion now.
    On the oth­er hand, my wife is from upstate New York, the Burned Over Dis­trict, and in local his­to­ry there one runs into all vari­eties of reli­gion, includ­ing Jemi­ma Wilkin­son, the Pub­lick Uni­ver­sal Friend; she start­ed out as a Quak­er. I think Moth­er Ann Lee was a Quak­er orig­i­nal­ly, or at least an atten­der 🙂 in the UK, before start­ing her move­ment and mov­ing to the US.
    They obvi­ous­ly had lit­tle influ­ence on Quak­er tra­di­tion (well, except “Sim­ple Gifts”).

  • Anony­mous

    I’ve expe­ri­enced a viva­cious young chrisian out­reach church(evangelical applies, but they, and I use that word with some cau­tion), and any num­ber of tra­di­tion­al & New­man house Cathlolic church­es, a few uni­tar­i­ans, a joy­ful Bap­tist (prob­a­bly south­ern), a fright­en­ing chris­t­ian evan­gel­i­cal, and quite a few methodist church­es. I’ve only had the chance to vis­it a meet­ing of friends once, when I was rather young. Look­ing for a faith that nev­er quite fit isn’t an easy path, but is educational.
    I’ve noticed that you’re right about using lan­guage to have some­thing to offer. Most church­es that are obvi­ous­ly learn­ing togeth­er, where the speak­er is shar­ing an idea that they’re learn­ing about, have been effec­tive at offer­ing some­thing for both the new and their expe­ri­enced mem­bers. Church­es blessed with a good speak­er, who is explor­ing areas of faith that the con­gre­ga­tion real­ly needs help under­stand­ing, cre­ate an incred­i­bly appeal­ing envi­ron­ment of learn­ing, trust and shared seeking.
    Once you expe­ri­ence that shared learn­ing, a moment of a preach­er try­ing to grasp a con­cept, try­ing to put words towards it, there’s an incred­i­ble crav­ing to talk about it, to find help­ful mate­r­i­al on it, whether it’s a rel­e­vant quote from a bible, anoth­er reli­gious writer, or your own expe­ri­ence. Hav­ing actu­al jour­nals to turn to must be amaz­ing. Of course, oth­er peo­ple have had to strug­gle with the same issues of faith… being able to go to an old jour­nal entry of some­one from the same faith think­ing their way through the prob­lem must be astound­ing. If we think this cen­tu­ry is a hard place for spir­i­tu­al peo­ple to live, what about the last? Amer­i­ca was grow­ing, peo­ple mov­ing away to seek oppor­tu­ni­ties, the econ­o­my heat­ing up and col­laps­ing in on itself like a bon­fire every few decades.. pop­u­lar cloth­ing becom­ing less mod­est, immi­grants com­ing into a soci­ety that’s not sure how to inte­grate them, or whether there are jobs to spare.. sound famil­iar? Most faiths I’ve been involved with don’t pro­vide much infor­ma­tion on how these chal­lenges were han­dled a cen­tu­ry ago.
    Hon­est­ly, from what I’ve seen, faith com­mu­ni­ties that talk about chal­lenges often form a vocab­u­lary around them. The process of dis­cussing it helps every­one build com­mon mean­ing for the words, and a com­mon under­stand­ing of the chal­lenges, and as that hap­pens, they gen­er­al­ly start han­dling the chal­lenges far more effec­tive­ly. A com­mu­ni­ty can be strength­ened. Most reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties that are strug­gling have some area where their member’s needs aren’t get­ting met, and they’re afraid to talk about it. I think we need words we can all under­stand together.
    So, we start with the gener­ic. As I’m not very famil­iar with your com­mu­ni­ty, I’ve been try­ing to stick to dic­tio­nary words that aren’t too heav­i­ly laden with impli­ca­tions. Lay min­is­ter is a use­ful term some­times, but speak­er is gen­er­al­ly just as good. I’ve also learned not to use hot words when it’s not nec­es­sary, as I often find I get burned. Evan­ge­list is a use­ful word.. but it’s unfair­ly weighed down with some less pleas­ant connotations.
    Gen­er­al­ly, I find church­es that talk about this type of per­son­al expe­ri­ence the most help­ful, and enlight­en­ing. They’ll build on terms like faith jour­ney, which means an ongo­ing jour­ney of seek­ing to get clos­er to god, or seek­ing.. till fair­ly sim­ple, under­stand­able terms start to car­ry a lit­tle more meaning

  • 3377Dawn

    Dear Friends, I traced my fam­i­ly tree to the1700’s & on my fathers side. I found that they were all quakers.Many of these peo­ple were teach­ers, Jus­tice of the Peace, & preach­ers. They believed in hard work,& strong fam­i­ly values.
    One of the quotes„„Misconception start­ed from an error,However an error no mat­ter how many times repeat­ed & no mat­ter how hon­est­ly beleived. Still remains an error. Our words are are own experience.…Dawn