What’s God Got to Do, Got to Do With It?

This essay is my hes­i­tant attempt to answer the ques­tions James R. post­ed a few weeks ago, I Am What I Am.

Lov­ing God with All Our Hearts

My reli­gion teach­es me that the first com­mand­ment is to love God above all else. The pri­ma­ry mis­sion of a reli­gious com­mu­ni­ty is to serve God and to facil­i­tate the spir­i­tu­al growth and dis­cern­ment of its mem­bers in their search for God. For me, this needs to be an explic­it goal of my meeting.

I very much appre­ci­ate James’s hon­esty that for him to use the term of “God” would be “mis­lead­ing, even dis­hon­est.” One of the cen­tral open­ings of Quak­erism is that we should not pro­fess an abstract under­stand­ing of God. We believe in the neces­si­ty for “deep and repeat­ed bap­tisms” and for every tes­ti­mo­ny and act in the min­istry to come from the “imme­di­ate influ­ence of his Spir­it” in a “fresh annoint­ing” (won­der­ful lan­guage from a Irish memo­r­i­al minute for Job Scott). I would wish that more Friends would fol­low James’s exam­ple and not speak with­out that imme­di­ate direct knowl­edge of the divine. (How many ple­nary speak­ers at Quak­er events are read­ing from a pre­pared speech? How many of us real­ly find our­selves turn­ing to prayer when con­flicts arise in busi­ness meeting?)

I don’t think one does need an expe­ri­ence of God to be a part of a Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty. Many of us go through dry spells where the Spirit’s pres­ence seems absent and this cer­tain­ly doesn’t dis­qual­i­fy us for mem­ber­ship. But God is the cen­ter of our faith and our work: wor­ship is about lis­ten­ing to God’s call; busi­ness meet­ing is about dis­cern­ing God’s instruc­tions. This has to be under­stood. For those who can’t name God in their lives, it must be just a bit bizarre to come week after week to par­tic­i­pate with a group of peo­ple pray­ing for God’s guid­ance. But that’s okay. I think all that is good in our reli­gious soci­ety come from the Great Mas­ter. We are known by our fruits and the out­ward forms of our wit­ness­es con­stant­ly point back to God’s love. This is the only real out­reach we do. I’m hap­py spend­ing a life­time labor­ing with some­one in my com­mu­ni­ty point­ing out to the Spirit’s pres­ence in our midst. All that we love about Quak­ers comes from that source but part of my dis­ci­pline is the patience to wait for God to reveal Her­self to you.

I joined Friends via the fair­ly com­mon route of peace activism. I could sense that there was some­thing else at work among the Quak­er peace activists I knew and want­ed to taste of that some­thing myself. It’s tak­en me years to be able to name and artic­u­late the divine pres­ence I sensed fif­teen years ago. That’s okay, it’s a nor­mal route for some of us.

The oth­er piece that the com­ments have been danc­ing around is Jesus. I’m at the point where I can (final­ly) affirm that Chris­tian­i­ty is not acci­den­tal to Quak­erism. As I’ve delved deep­er I’ve real­ized just how much of our faith and work real­ly does grow out of the teach­ings of Jesus. I don’t want to be part of a Friends meet­ing where our Quak­er roots are large­ly absent. I want to know more about Friends, which means delv­ing ever deep­er into our past and engag­ing with it. We can’t do that with­out fre­quent­ly turn­ing to the Bible. Lib­er­al Friends need to start explor­ing our Chris­t­ian roots more ful­ly and need to get more seri­ous about read­ing Quak­er writ­ings that pre­date 1950. There have been many great fig­ures in human his­to­ry, but what­ev­er you think about the divin­i­ty of Jesus, he has had much more of an impact on Quak­erism than all of the heroes of Amer­i­can lib­er­al­ism com­bined. We’ve got a Friend in Jesus and we’ve got to get on speak­ing arrage­ments with him again if we’re going to keep this Quak­erism going.

Shak­ing the Sandy Foundation

James asked if the reg­u­lars at Quak­er Ranter want­ed a purg­ing. I cer­tain­ly don’t want to kick any­one out but I don’t think some of the peo­ple cur­rent­ly involved in Quak­erism would be with us if we were truer to our call­ing. We need to start talk­ing hon­est­ly and have a round or two of truth-telling and plain speak­ing about what it means to be a Friend. Yes, there are some del­i­cate peo­ple who are offend­ed by terms like God and wor­ship, Christ and obe­di­ence. And many have good rea­sons to be offend­ed (as Julie point­ed out to me this week­end, one of the great­est sins our reli­gious and polit­i­cal lead­ers have done over the cen­turies is to com­mit evil in the name of God, for they not only com­mit­ted that evil but have so scarred some seek­ers that they can­not come to God). One can know Jesus with­out using the name and God does hold us in His warm embrace even through our doubts. But for those of us lucky enough to know His name shouldn’t be afraid to use it.

Many peo­ple come to us sin­cere­ly as seek­ers, try­ing to under­stand the source of Quak­ers’ wit­ness and spir­i­tu­al ground­ing. I appre­ci­ate James’s ask­ing “why I feel so irrestibly drawn to a com­mu­ni­ty and reli­gious soci­ety in which the cen­tral term is God.” As long as that’s where we start, I’m hap­py to be in fellowship.

But fel­low­ship is an imme­di­ate rela­tion­ship that doesn’t always last. There are peo­ple involved in Quak­erism for rea­sons that are inci­den­tal to the mis­sion of our reli­gious soci­ety. We know the types: peace activists who seem to be around because Quak­ers have a good mail­ing list; Friends from ancient Quak­er fam­i­lies who are around because they want to be buried out with great-grandma in the ceme­tery out back; twenty-something lib­er­al seek­ers who like the open­ness and affa­bil­i­ty of Quak­ers. These are sandy foun­da­tions for reli­gious faith and they will not nec­es­sar­i­ly hold. If Quak­ers start­ed artic­u­lat­ing our beliefs and recom­mit­ting our­selves to be a peo­ple of God, we will have those who will decide to drift away. They might be hurt when they real­ize their attrac­tion to Quak­erism was misplaced.

Nam­ing the Trolls

We’ve all met peo­ple who have walked into a meet­ing­house with seri­ous dis­agree­ments with basic fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples of Quak­erism. This is to say we attract some loonies, or more pre­cise­ly: vis­i­tors who have come to pick a fight. Most reli­gious insti­tu­tions show them the door. As Friends we have a proud tra­di­tion of tol­er­ance but we’re too quick nowa­days to let tol­er­ance trump gospel order and destroy the “safe space” of our meet­ing­house. This is a dis­ser­vice to our com­mu­ni­ty. Every so often we get some­one who stands up to angri­ly denounce Chris­t­ian lan­guage in a Quak­er meet­ing. It’s fine to chal­lenge an in-group’s unex­am­ined pieties but I’m talk­ing about those who try to get the meet­ing to cen­sor ideas by claim­ing vic­tim­hood sta­tus when­ev­er they hear a Chris­t­ian world­view expressed. The person’s moti­va­tions for being there need to be ques­tioned and they need to be lov­ing­ly labored with. We attract some peo­ple who deeply hurt and come with axes to grind. Some of them will use non-theism as their ral­ly­ing call. When they are eldered they will claim it’s because of their phi­los­o­phy, not their action. These kind of con­flicts are messy, unpleas­ant and often con­fus­ing but we need to address them head on.

There are plen­ty of pro­fess­ing Chris­tians who also need to be called on their dis­rup­tive behav­ior. They too would claim that any elder­ship is a reac­tion to their Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy. (Actu­al­ly, I know more pro­fess­ing Chris­tians than pro­fess­ing non-theists who should be chal­lenged this way (Julie asked “who?” and I came up with a list of three right off the bat)). But there are dis­rupters of all fla­vors who will trum­pet their mar­tyr­dom when Friends final­ly begin to take seri­ous­ly the prob­lems of detrac­tion (a fine Quak­er con­cept we need to revis­it). If we suf­fer unfair­ly we need to be able to muster up a cer­tain humil­i­ty and obe­di­ence to the meet­ing, even if we’re sure it’s wrong. Again, it will be messy and all too-human but we need to work with each oth­er on this one.

Shar­ing the Treasure

The real prob­lem as I see it is not respect­ful non-theists among us: it’s those of us who have tast­ed of the boun­ty but hoard the trea­sure for our­selves. We hide the open­ings we’ve been giv­en. A few weeks ago I was at year­ly meet­ing ses­sions attend­ed by some of the most rec­og­nized min­is­ters in Philadel­phia when a woman said she was offend­ed by the (fair­ly tame) psalms we were asked to read. She explained “I’m used to Quak­erese, Light and all that, and I don’t like all this lan­guage about God as an enti­ty.” No one in that room stood to explain that these psalms _are one of the sources_ of our Quak­erese and that the “Light” Friends have have been talk­ing about for most of the past three and a half cen­turies is explic­it­ly the Light _of Christ_. I don’t want to make too big a deal of this inci­dent, but this kind of thing hap­pens all the time: we cen­sor our lan­guage to the point where it’s full of inof­fen­sive double-meanings. Let’s not be afraid to talk in the lan­guage we have. We need to share the trea­sure we’ve been given.

Relat­ed Reading:

This post was inspired by James R’s com­ment, which I titled I Am What I Am. He was respond­ing orig­i­nal­ly to my essay We’re All Ranters Now. I remain deeply grate­ful that James post­ed his com­ment and then allowed me to fea­ture it. These are not easy issues, cer­tain­ly not, and its easy to mis­read what we all are say­ing. I hope that what I’m con­tribut­ing is seen through the lens of love and char­i­ty, in whose spir­it I’ve been try­ing to respond. I’m not try­ing to write a posi­tion paper, but to share hon­est­ly what I’ve seen and the open­ings I feel I have been giv­en – I reserve the right to change my opin­ions! From what I’ve read, I’d be hon­ored to be in fel­low­ship with James.

Liz Oppen­heimer has opened up with a thought­ful, ten­der piece called My Friend­ly jour­ney with Christ.

You know the dis­claimer at the bot­tom that says I’m not speak­ing for any Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion? I mean it. I’m just take phone orders and crank out web pages for a par­tic­u­lar orga­ni­za­tion. This isn’t them speaking.

  • QuaC­arol

    I cer­tain­ly don’t want to kick any­one out but I don’t think some of the peo­ple cur­rent­ly involved in Quak­erism would be with us if we were truer to our calling.
    This lit­er­al­ly took my breath away. Beau­ti­ful­ly put, Mar­tin. Thank you. There’s so much in what you have writ­ten, but this sen­tence is going to haunt me for a while. Let me go and sit with it for now.

  • Mar­tin, thank thee for this beau­ti­ful post. I am very much moved by it, and remind­ed of a Mer­ton prayer…
    “Oh God, my God, why am I so mute? I long to cry out and out to Thee, over and over, and Thou are name­less and infi­nite. All our names for Thee are not Thy name, infi­nite Trin­i­ty. But Thy Word is Jesus and I cry the name of Thy Son and live in the love of His heart and believe, if He wills, that He will bring me the answer to my only prayer: that I may renounce every­thing and belong entire­ly to the Lord!”
    It’s not easy for me, nor am I sure that Jesus is “The” word of God, but for some rea­son this sprang to mind imme­di­ate­ly. If I feel this long­ing to reach God, and Quak­erism is my path, and Quak­erism is Chris­tian­i­ty, and Jesus is the begin­ning of that, then per­haps He is the Word I (or, maybe…we, as Quak­ers…) have been giv­en, with which to reach God, and it should be embraced as a gift.

  • Hey Mar­tin, great post.
    I think you’re right that Friends dance around hon­est con­ver­sa­tions about what it means to be God-centered and what the rel­a­tive impor­tance is of being God-centered or Jesus-centered. Cer­tain­ly Chris­tian­i­ty is foun­da­tion­al for Quak­erism (of all sorts). But is it (or should it be) nor­ma­tive for a God-centered lib­er­al Quak­erism? And where does such a con­ver­sa­tion take place? Friends are clear­ly not the only peo­ple of faith pre­sent­ed with this ques­tion: wit­ness John Spong in the Epis­co­pal Church. (Not that I would sug­gest him as a mod­el for how Friends should engage the con­ver­sa­tion – but he does put it right out there!)
    It’s always very painful when peo­ple can­not “lis­ten in tongues.” I still remem­ber very clear­ly one meet­ing at Cen­tral Philadel­phia when a mes­sage ref­ered to God as “she” and was fol­lowed imme­di­ate­ly by a weighty Friend speak­ing about how God has no gen­der. God=He would have passed right through that sec­ond Friend’s fil­ters with­out com­ment. Peo­ple shut their ears through fear and pain, and also through habit and com­pla­cen­cy. Job Scott wrote about the pain of hav­ing a mes­sage he could not deliv­er because the ears of the hear­ers were shut.
    You’ve done a very good job of nam­ing the trolls. (With­out, of course, nam­ing any spe­cif­ic names, which would be detrac­tion! I can cer­tain­ly think of a few on my own.)
    Your com­ments on shar­ing the trea­sure ring true to my expe­ri­ences as a teacher. I gen­er­al­ly begin a Quak­erism course using an adap­ta­tion of the Friend­ly Bible Study method on the first few vers­es of the Gospel of John. Even expe­ri­enced Friends are often tak­en aback at find­ing the tex­tu­al source of some basic Quak­er vocab­u­lary. Not to men­tion the con­ster­na­tion felt by some at start­ing with the Bible at all. It’s a scan­dal, whether we’re indi­vid­u­al­ly Chris­t­ian or not, to be so igno­rant of our reli­gious heritage.
    I have a per­son­al ques­tion about one sen­tence. (Although it’s per­fect for cherry-picking, this isn’t meant as a rhetor­i­cal device; I’d like to know more about your tran­si­tion from activist to Christian.)
    I cer­tain­ly don’t want to kick any­one out but I don’t think some of the peo­ple cur­rent­ly involved in Quak­erism would be with us if we were truer to our calling.
    If Friends had been truer to their call­ing when you came via the activist route, would you have stuck around? Would you be a Friend now? Would you have come to some­thing like your cur­rent under­stand­ing soon­er? Some­thing total­ly else?

  • Jef­frey Hipp

    This is some of the most touch­ing min­istry I’ve encoun­tered in your writ­ing. And the post has a won­der­ful­ly sil­ly, sil­ly title. 🙂
    I find that we conservative-leaning Friends in Lib­er­al meet­ings are often quick to cry out that our meet­ings must return to our Chris­t­ian roots or seek to know Christ togeth­er. And this is what I per­son­al­ly yearn for in the Soci­ety of Friends in many ways. But it is far too often said with a sen­ti­ment that *WE* Chris­t­ian Friends have to do this. TODAY. NOW. God can’t wait. And we can’t wait for God. We have to con­vince every­one we are right and Quak­erism with­out Christ is no Quak­erism at all. No won­der James and so many oth­er non-theists some­times wor­ry that Christ-centered Friends are crav­ing an inquisition-like purge!
    Cor­po­rate change can only occur with cor­po­rate lead­ing. It will not and can­not come by a few deter­mined, “enlight­ened souls” who will attempt to non-violently twist the arm of the meet­ing until they cry “Jesus!”
    I don’t want a purge. And, as a Christ-centered, Lib­er­al Friend, schism is often a tempt­ing day­dream for me to dwell in, but I’m doubt­ful that that is where I will be led any­time soon. We aren’t called to “fix” the Soci­ety of Friends on our own. That’s Christ’s work, and it’s hubris to assume it’s all on our shoul­ders. Our job is to sim­ply bear wit­ness to the mea­sure we’ve been giv­en, open our hearts to receiv­ing the mea­sure giv­en to oth­ers, and hon­or our covenant of mem­ber­ship with one anoth­er as we seek to under­stand the next step in find­ing our shared faith. And it just so hap­pens that that is everyone’s job in meet­ing – Christ-centered, uni­ver­sal­ist, non-theist, or what­ev­er label a Friend might apply to them­selves. We will all be used in this process.
    I don’t want to leave this at an abstract lev­el, how­ev­er. Let me offer an extreme­ly per­son­al and dear example:
    When I spoke on a pan­el at my meet­ing explor­ing the dif­fer­ences of our community’s lan­guages, expe­ri­ences and beliefs, I bore wit­ness to Christ in my life as a per­son­al, cre­ative Source of Life and Truth. After­wards, a cou­ple came up to me and thanked me for offer­ing my min­istry. One of them said I spoke of Christ with a “prophet­ic voice.” This cou­ple iden­ti­fies them­selves and Jew­ish, non-theist Friends. It meant so much to me.
    I con­tin­ued to deep­en my rela­tion­ship in the Spir­it with each of them. When I was wel­comed into mem­ber­ship at a small meet­ing din­ner (months after I had become a mem­ber, in prop­er Quak­er fash­ion), one of the mem­bers of this cou­ple clear­ly expressed her com­mit­ment to my jour­ney, under­stood as fol­low­ing Christ. I voiced my com­mit­ment to them in their spir­i­tu­al journey.
    Did I make a mis­take in that moment? To say I am com­mit­ted to another’s spir­i­tu­al jour­ney that doesn’t pro­fess Christ or even God? I think not – because this com­mit­ment was not born when I ver­bal­ized it to them – it began when I became a mem­ber of Friends Meet­ing at Cam­bridge, a mem­ber of the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, and a mem­ber of these two Friends. And to that I was clear­ly led. Our covenant of mem­ber­ship is a call to be mem­bers of one anoth­er. And I use the word covenant quite inten­tion­al­ly — I believe that one of the ways that God reveals her­self to us is through the mod­el of the beloved com­mu­ni­ty. In seek­ing to hon­or the covenant we have made with our fel­low Friends, we fur­ther under­stand the bless­ings and chal­lenges of seek­ing to hon­or our covenant with God.
    This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t bold­ly and com­pas­sion­ate­ly speak of the lov­ing work of the Light of Christ with­in me. It just means being open to the fact that I might have a lot of spir­i­tu­al wis­dom to receive from search­es for Truth that don’t involve a recog­ni­tion of Christ, and I should sup­port those jour­neys as much as I am clear to. And in doing so, I may find my own under­stand­ing of Truth has grown.
    I take this com­mit­ment of mem­ber­ship very seri­ous­ly – to labor, nur­ture, sup­port and chal­lenge my fel­low Friends; to walk in the Light togeth­er, and to give, receive, and pray with my fel­low sojourn­ers when the next step is unclear. My feet are on sol­id ground. Hon­est­ly, I fear my meeting’s are often in sink­ing sand. But to attempt to force our com­mu­ni­ty into the­o­log­i­cal fla­gel­la­tions with­out the hand of the Holy Spir­it active­ly pulling us all up togeth­er will only cause us to sink in deeper.
    Fur­ther­more, to lose patience and walk alone towards the light before me is to leave oth­ers behind. And the next time I lose my way, I don’t want to be alone.

  • Ken­neth asked:
    >If Friends had been truer to their call­ing when you came via the
    >activist route, would you have stuck around?
    Hi Ken­neth: good ques­tion. I actu­al­ly feel a bit unqual­i­fied to answer it; I’m not sure I can get that far back inside my head. Some­times I feel very dis­tant from that Mar­tin of fif­teen years ago but then some­times I read some old piece and laugh out loud at the echoed themes.
    That said, I think I would have stuck around. I would have been intrigued with the faith. It might have tak­en a longer time for me to feel com­fort­able with the Quak­er label but I won­der if I wouldn’t have become a mem­ber sooner.
    As part of my col­lege appli­ca­tion I had to write an essay about why I want­ed to go to a Catholic col­lege and be part of its Hon­ors Pro­gram. Although I was essen­tial­ly agnos­tic, my answers were all about search­ing for the mean­ing of life. I don’t know if I said “God” but I want­ed to go to a (sup­pos­ed­ly) reli­gious school since I thought that all col­lege kids and their profs would be dis­cussing the big issues (yes I was naïve!).
    I don’t mean to say that Quak­ers need to speak as Chris­tians and use “He” for God all the time, just that we all need to be more open to share what faith we’ve found. That’s one of the rea­sons why I appre­ci­ate James’s arti­cle so much.

  • But for those of us lucky enough to know His name shouldn’t be afraid to use it.
    This is so very true. 🙂 Chris­t­ian Quak­ers should nev­er feel oblig­at­ed to leave Christ out of their wor­ship or speech because of any­one else’s con­vic­tions or anoth­er person’s non-belief. I often find the words of a fel­low Quak­er help­ful even if they speak in terms of Christ, because at the root of both of our beliefs lies a com­mon idea, or a com­mon con­cept: love. I often wish that my meet­ing WOULD read the bible more often in dis­cus­sion group, because I actu­al­ly learned very lit­tle from scrip­ture when I went to church as a child, and now I find myself want­i­ng to read the vers­es for myself, as an adult, so that I have a more than basic under­stand­ing of the book. 🙂
    I’ve iden­ti­fied a lot with what James said, and also with what oth­ers have said from the Chris­t­ian point of view, and I find myself some­where in the mid­dle… nam­ing God, but not “Christ”, although I believe there is a lot to be learned from Jesus.
    It seems like there so much less of a dif­fer­ence when you take James, myself and a Chris­t­ian (any of those who post­ed com­ments), and find a basic idea of doing good, main­tain­ing peace and liv­ing a sim­ple, thought­ful life at the root of all three of us. I can’t imag­ine that any of the three sets of beliefs are real­ly all that dif­fer­ent when it comes to basic val­ues; they’re just dressed in dif­fer­ent lan­guage and some­times involve oth­er beliefs that coin­cide with those core ideals, but are not required by all three of us to main­tain our faith, if that makes sense.
    I’ve real­ly enjoyed read­ing the con­ver­sa­tion with­in that orig­i­nal post, and it’s spurred me to think a great deal about what I per­son­al­ly believe, and how that does and does not tie into ideas of Christ and God and the wor­ship process.
    Thank you for your post.

  • Bar­bara Smith

    It’s inter­est­ing to note that the new Pope (Ratzinger/Boniface) is staunch­ly and unabashed­ly ‘ortho­dox’ in apply­ing the Catholic posi­tion to mod­ern life, and said he would rather see a small­er church that is ortho­dox, that takes the ‘no com­pro­mise with moral rel­a­tivism and moder­ni­ty stance’. At least he knows the cost of tak­ing this stand. My imme­di­ate thought was, Yea !! Here come more Catholics to Quak­erism ! The Popes have done won­ders for Friends growth (I’ve heard that the largest seg­ment of con­vinced Friends are ex-Catholics). But, I am dis­turbed by the ridgid ‘ortho­doxy’ posi­tion. Has the church’s ‘sanc­ti­ty of life’ at all costs posi­tion put it into tak­ing ‘extreme’ posi­tions? Where is God in all of this? At least the Quak­ers don’t have such a harsh hard line doc­trine. We have the even messier ‘con­tin­u­ing rev­e­la­tion’ and ‘dis­cern­ment’ approach (Thank God !!). I pray that Christ would be the cen­ter of all Chris­t­ian groups and activ­i­ty. God knows, with the 21st cen­tu­ry, we’re gonna need it. I dont know what my point is, except, thank you Mar­tin, and James and Quak­ers and Christ, who labors with us, in spite of all our best inten­tions, inven­tions, con­ven­tions and annu­al sessions.

  • Harold

    Beau­ti­ful post.
    I think it is obvi­ous to every­body that *some­thing* needs to be done. We just have to hon­est­ly and dili­gent­ly fig­ure out what it is that we want to do.
    If we Chris­t­ian Friends choose to stay idle and do noth­ing, I fear for the Soci­ety. There will no doubt be more schisms, less and less Chris­tian­i­ty involved, and even­tu­al­ly Quak­erism may no longer exist as a Chris­t­ian faith, at least in the Unit­ed States.
    I real­ly do not like to sound so sen­sa­tion­al­ist, but the prospect of no longer hav­ing a Chris­t­ian Quak­erism real­ly scares me. And I most defi­nate­ly see things head­ing in that direction.

  • Just one point to lift up in all this, moti­vat­ed by the descip­tions of me as a “Chris­t­ian.”
    Care­ful read­ers will see that I con­sis­tent­ly dodge the cen­tral tenets of Chris­t­ian ortho­doxy. I real­ly don’t know about the divin­i­ty of Christ or of his immac­u­late con­cep­tion or most of the talk­ing points on the “Apostle’s Creed”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostle%27s_Creed. Which is to say 95% of the world’s Chris­tians would not con­sid­er me a Chris­t­ian. I know there’s a cou­ple of mil­lenia of debate on what it real­ly means to be a Chris­t­ian, but it’s only in the rather small Quaker/UU/Very-Liberal-Protestant world that I would real­ly qual­i­fy. (While the whole neo-Gnosticism, “Lost Gospels” stuff is vague­ly inter­est­ing at times, its cham­pi­ons feel like the Democ­rats who still rant about the Bush/Gore elec­tion or the friend who just talks your ear off about the boy- or girl­friend that dumped them back in 1988. You just want to pat them on the back and tell them “dude, yeah you’re right it sucks big time but you know it’s over, you just got to move on.” The def­i­n­i­tion of “Chris­t­ian” was set­tled 1600 years ago, for bet­ter or worse. Let’s just find a nice alter­nate term like “Christo-centric” and chill out).
    I’m def­i­nite­ly com­fort­able with “Christo-Centric.” I don’t _mind_ being called a “Chris­t­ian” and indeed I think I qual­i­fy by a loos­er, more-sociological def­i­n­i­tion of the term. But we need to remem­ber that even my writ­ings here don’t qual­i­fy _at all_ by the stan­dard definition.

  • Harold said “the prospect of no longer hav­ing a Chris­t­ian Quak­erism real­ly scares me. And I most defi­nate­ly see things head­ing in that direction.”
    I hope no one read­ing Martin’s blog has any con­fu­sion over this fact: Most Quak­ers in the world, and in the Unit­ed States, are very clear about their Chris­t­ian faith. (For a par­tic­u­lar­ly good recent exam­ple of Friend­ly vig­or, see this Bar­clay Press Café forum on end of life issues.)
    If what is meant is Chris­t­ian unpro­grammed Quak­erism or Chris­t­ian lib­er­al Quak­erism, then go right ahead with your point. But please don’t dis­miss the vast major­i­ty of Friends.

  • Love­ly, post Mar­tin. You speak both to my con­di­tion and you speak my mind.
    I hope to blog about your thoughts and the issues you so nice­ly raise some­time soon.
    Bless­ings on your head for fol­low­ing the Guide!

  • Robin Mohr

    Dear Mar­tin,
    I agree so much with what you said in the main post and your sub­se­quent com­ments that either I could gush end­less­ly or I can quib­ble about this one lit­tle tiny piece of your most recent comment:
    “The def­i­n­i­tion of “Chris­t­ian” was set­tled 1600 years ago, for bet­ter or worse.”
    For me, this is like say­ing the def­i­n­i­tion of mar­riage was set­tled 1600 years ago. (As between one dom­i­nant male and one sub­servient female.) Many peo­ple think this is true, but I don’t agree. Peo­ple are still talk­ing about it, still dis­agree­ing, and I still have hope that the Truth will be found to be more lov­ing than the his­to­ry of the last 1600 years.
    It could be (and has been, by bet­ter schol­ars than me) argued that a more true state­ment is that the Chris­t­ian church was pow­er­ful­ly co-opted by the Roman empire about 1600 years ago, and that the Chris­tians over the first four cen­turies strayed from the prophet­ic basis of Jesus’s teach­ings back into the cul­tur­al norms of the soci­ety around them. A time hon­ored tra­di­tion among the Israelites as well.
    One of the things that is most amaz­ing to me about the whole “Lost Gospels stuff” is that the more I learn about the ear­li­est Church, the more it resem­bles the ear­ly Quak­ers: equal­i­ty of men and women, trav­el­ing evan­ge­lists, covenant com­mu­ni­ty, open debate of what the mes­sage of Christ is, and on the down­side, prison, beat­ings, fam­i­lies torn apart, etc. Lit­tle did they know when they said “prim­i­tive Chris­tian­i­ty revived” how right they were.

  • Ken­neth makes a good point. Most Quak­ers are Chris­t­ian. Most Friends in the lib­er­al tra­di­tion have been Chris­t­ian until quite recent­ly. I’ve seen a few sur­veys that hint that most lib­er­al Friends still iden­ti­fy as Chris­t­ian (this doesn’t jive with my expe­ri­ence and I know of no com­pre­hen­sive survey).
    Hi Robin: Yes, cer­tain­ly Quak­erism is built on a sto­ry of a true Chris­tian­i­ty gone bad, per­vert­ed by forces of world­ly pol­i­tics and lusts. The “Lost Gospels” books cer­tain­ly echoes some of that basic Quak­er world­view. My gut is that some of the excite­ment of the “Lost Gospels” is a attempt to jus­ti­fy our modern-day val­ues by claim­ing they were the val­ues of an orig­i­nal, true Church. I’m not sure I buy it, but because I haven’t real­ly stud­ied it all that much I buried that thought in a par­en­thet­i­cal remark deep in a com­ment. Julie and I are read­ing _Beyond Belief_ now, maybe we’ll do one of our ocas­sion­al joint reviews when we’re done…

  • First, let me say that this is a won­der­ful post and a won­der­ful dis­cus­sion. So much so that I hope I find enough time to com­ment on it at greater length in my own blog.
    For now, just a few points about the “purge” issue, about the “Chris­t­ian” label, and about the “Lost Gospel” mes­sage that seems to be turn­ing up in so many places.
    First, about the wor­ry that we “Chris­to­cen­tric” types (not my favorite word, but I’ll get to that under the sec­ond point) may get tempt­ed to purge oth­er Friends from the RSoF (or — more real­is­ti­cal­ly — to with­draw our­selves from it and start over again with a small­er and more pure­ly Chris­to­cen­tric group). This may be a nat­ur­al temp­ta­tion. If you want to be in a group cen­tered on Christ, it might seem that the log­i­cal way to get there is to sep­a­rate one­self from oth­ers who want a dif­fer­ent focus. The prob­lem with this is that it diverts atten­tion from our cen­ter to our bound­aries. It tries to make Christ cen­tral by shut­ting oth­ers out. I think a more direct approach is to make Christ cen­tral by mak­ing Christ cen­tral. I see my min­istry in Fif­teenth Street Meet­ing and New York Year­ly Meet­ing as a min­istry of tes­ti­fy­ing about Christ, not of argu­ing for him or dis­put­ing with oth­ers about oth­er reli­gious claims. Since Christ is Christ, I trust him to call oth­ers and make him­self heard. In time, we may find that a Soci­ety of Friends where Christ is open­ly and freely preached is not of much inter­est to some whose real call­ing is toward Bud­dhism or New Age spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. We may also find that some who think they have no use for Christ are more drawn to Him than they expect when His fol­low­ers make their lives speak (or “preach” as George Fox put it) in har­mo­ny with their words.
    I have a the­o­ry that one of the things that pre­pared the ground for the sep­a­ra­tions in the 19th cen­tu­ry was that Friends had been so busy pro­tect­ing their bound­aries (their hedge) and dis­cour­ag­ing inter­nal dis­sent dur­ing the qui­etist years that they were no longer heirs of a liv­ing and test­ed faith. Their faith became dry and brit­tle through over pro­tec­tion. So when they final­ly had to face new ques­tions pre­sent­ed in a new time they shat­tered into war­ring sects, each giv­ing up some pre­cious bit of orig­i­nal Quak­erism while cling­ing to the rest ferociously.
    I hope in time to tell the sto­ry of an “open­ing” I received — I believe from Christ — at a year­ly meet­ing when it was going through trou­bling times sparked by the­o­log­i­cal con­tro­ver­sy. Christ told me inward­ly that “I am not the leader of a fac­tion”. I took that to mean that in order to fol­low him I should not act like a mem­ber of a faction.
    Sec­ond — about the “Chris­t­ian” label. I like it much bet­ter than “Chris­to­cen­tric”. The lat­ter seems like an arti­fi­cial­ly coined term, a piece of aca­d­e­m­ic vocab­u­lary, and pos­si­bly a tad pre­ten­tious. I under­stand that there are many dif­fer­ent ways to define “Chris­t­ian”. Words are like that; they don’t stand still. But I don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly agree that most of the world’s Chris­tians wouldn’t think Mar­tin isn’t one. They might think he was a bad Chris­t­ian or a delud­ed Chris­t­ian, but if he cops to being a believ­er in Christ (and I imag­ine that’s implied in his word “Chris­to­cen­tric”) then I think they’d say he was a Chris­t­ian anyway.
    “Chris­t­ian” means to me that I am or try to be a fol­low­er of Jesus — who is alive and not dead (though he once died). I don’t get too caught up in defin­ing the rela­tion­ship between Christ and God the Cre­ator or God the Holy Spir­it or God the Word or God the Light (am I an Pen­tatar­i­an?), nor in puz­zling out how Jesus could at once be ful­ly human and also the eter­nal word made flesh. As I read the New Tes­ta­ment it seems to me that even His ear­li­est fol­low­ers had lots of dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing about these mat­ters. The thing is, though, that they loved Him and fol­lowed Him. I find no record that Jesus ever said you had to com­plete­ly under­stand Him in order to be His.
    Third, about the idea of a “Lost Gospel”. I think that the Gospel is “lost” only in the sense of being over­looked. I am not going to base my faith on a the­o­ry that the “real” gospels were hid­den away for cen­turies by a secre­tive sect then brought into the open dur­ing the Renais­sance or the 1960’s. A lot of “gnos­tic” lit­er­a­ture seems to me to be very prob­lem­at­ic and spir­i­tu­al­ly mis­lead­ing even though some of it is also enligten­ing and uplift­ing. Mean­wh­le, The four books known as the gospels in the New Tes­ta­ment give a pret­ty good and multi-faceted view of who Jesus was and is. The prob­lem we have is not that the truth is hid­den away in some vault, but that our eyes are blind­ed so that we don’t see it. I agree with Fox that in order to read the gospels aright we need to come into the pow­er and spir­it that gave them forth.
     — - Rich Accetta-Evans

  • Hi Mar­tin & everyone,
    I have a lot of reac­tions to these posts, and I’ve kept from respond­ing most­ly because it all makes me feel very weary. I’ve writ­ten before about the argu­ments –some­times bit­ter– that I’ve encoun­tered on Quak­er dis­cus­sion lists. How­ev­er (and hope­ful­ly, not to anyone’s dis­may), I final­ly feel that I can respond.
    I can­not even begin to express the joy and peace that Quak­erism has brought me. It’s been a long, long jour­ney for me (I’m not one of the “young” Quak­ers. I’m in my ear­ly, mind you!!!) 50’s. I final­ly have an exper­i­men­tal assur­ance –as Fox used the adverb exper­i­men­tal­ly– of accep­tance by a God who views me as an adult and expects me to use the spir­i­tu­al and intel­lec­tu­al fac­ul­ties he/she has giv­en me, trusts in me as I trust in him/her, has patience with my attempts to do what I believe is right and will­ing­ly for­gives my fail­ings; and most espe­cial­ly, a God that doesn’t demand that I be anyone’s door­mat in the name of humil­i­ty and reli­gion. That’s quite a gift after many years of spir­i­tu­al strug­gling and suffering.
    We’re very for­tu­nate right now to have Peter Blood-Patterson con­duct­ing a Quak­erism 101 course over the next few weeks at our meeting.
    One of the things that Peter has said, and that I think is ger­mane to this dis­cus­sion, is that Quak­erism is a gam­ble. Hav­ing come from a church with a strong locus of author­i­ty (and no hes­i­ta­tion to use that author­i­ty), I can see what a gam­ble it is for a spir­i­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty to trust that the Inward Light will indeed guide the words and deeds of its mem­bers. A great part of this naming/not nam­ing of God and/or of Jesus must be under­stood as a con­se­quence of that gam­ble, I think. We must expect that Quak­erism is going to be a lot less strict in how its mem­bers believe and speak of their beliefs. As Mar­tin says, oth­er reli­gions just show peo­ple the door.
    That said, I think that some of the dis­com­fort could be mit­i­gat­ed by edu­ca­tion. When a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of new atten­ders are seen at a meet­ing, per­haps a Quak­erism 101 course is in order to at least remind peo­ple of the ori­gins of Quak­erism. It should at least be acknowl­edged that the ear­ly Quak­ers were Chris­tians who prob­a­bly would have had no prob­lem with any of the tenets con­tained in the Nicene Creed.
    Does that mean that rev­e­la­tion doesn’t con­tin­ue or that those who have trou­ble sub­scrib­ing to pret­ty much every­thing in the Creed should be “purged”? No, not at all. But I think that a prop­er under­stand­ing of where Quak­ers “came from,” so to speak, could resolve some ambiguities.
    Any­one who wish­es to wor­ship with us should, I think, be able at least to tol­er­ate prayers addressed to God and men­tion of the name of Jesus. If someone’s look­ing for some oth­er more New Age-type spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, it might be bet­ter if they under­stand that that’s not what Quak­ers are all about. They prob­a­bly will move on any­way, eventually.
    As for those who would wish that God and Jesus be more force­ful­ly affirmed … I guess I’d just say that I see a lot of real­ly bro­ken peo­ple on the doorstep of our meet­ing, peo­ple who per­haps have felt judg­ment rather than wel­come at the “main line” Chris­t­ian church­es. I’d like to give them all the time they need, let them stay with us as long as they like, and offer them what com­fort we can.
    I think that’s what Jesus would do.
    Bless­ings to everyone.

  • Robin Mohr

    Back in the days when I attend­ed 15th St Meet­ing, there was this old­er Friend who some­times described him­self as a for­mer back­bencher. He used to give some­what lengthy but pow­er­ful vocal min­istry, often telling a sto­ry that end­ed up with a point that had not been obvi­ous to me but always made me think for a good long while. He had a gen­tly Chris­t­ian out­look that was not my own, but it was nev­er pushy, just frank. I loved his min­istry. Chris and I asked him to give the intro­duc­tion to Quak­er wor­ship at our wed­ding. He is prob­a­bly still the same way, judg­ing by his writ­ing today. Thank you, Rich.
    Sor­ry if this con­tin­ues to be off top­ic, but here is my ques­tion of this afternoon’s med­i­ta­tion: Why is it that, just because there is some amaz­ing spir­i­tu­al Truth in the let­ters of Paul, it nec­es­sar­i­ly fol­lows that every­thing that he wrote is Truth? Why is it not accept­able (in Chris­t­ian ortho­doxy) to think that Paul, or even Christ Jesus, had some cranky days? What is inter­est­ing to me about the “Lost Gospels” is not that per­haps they are the Truth and the New Tes­ta­ment is not, but that their re-appearance and their con­tent shed fur­ther light on what human process­es went into defin­ing what is Christianity.

  • First of all, while the impor­tance of Friends and meet­ing for wor­ship in my life cer­tain­ly came as a great sur­prise to me, the expe­ri­ence itself has nev­er been in the least bizarre. We sit togeth­er in silence, we offer up prayers and reflec­tions and oth­er mes­sages as we are led, at the end of the hour we shake hands. Occa­sion­al­ly a mes­sage strikes me as bizarre, and once in a while I find myself led to offer a mes­sage that seems bizarre even to me. But the expe­ri­ence itself is rich, deep, peace­ful, excit­ing, lov­ing, heart­break­ing, occa­sion­al­ly tedious (I’ll admit it). It all depends on the week, and the per­son­al state of those who show up.
    It also seems to be assumed that, because I don’t believe in any tra­di­tion­al con­cep­tion of God, and am reluc­tant to use the word to describe my own expe­ri­ences, that I must not be expe­ri­enc­ing that which you call God. Is this right? If so, what is the foun­da­tion for this assumption?
    I do believe that our actu­al, inner expe­ri­ences are deeply var­i­ous, but I cer­tain­ly don’t think we can dis­tin­guish an expe­ri­ence of God, and an expe­ri­ence not of God, accord­ing a Friend’s will­ing­ness or reluc­tance to use the word God. Do you? If so, why?
    I haven’t heard such angry denun­ci­a­tions of Chris­t­ian lan­guage as you describe, but I cer­tain­ly don’t doubt that they occur, and feel they have the poten­tial for grave harm to our wor­ship and our com­mu­ni­ty. Depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, I would per­son­al­ly be inclined to elder the deliv­er­er of such a denun­ci­a­tion. (To state that one is not a Chris­t­ian, or does not accept cer­tain cen­tral Chris­t­ian beliefs, I would not call a denun­ci­a­tion of Chris­t­ian lan­guage, any more than stat­ing faith in God or Christ is a denun­ci­a­tion of my beliefs.) I do have knowl­edge of Friends who seem afraid to express their Chris­t­ian beliefs in meet­ing, and I sup­port their strug­gles to over­come that fear and speak out. The first and most impor­tant step, how­ev­er, is one they must take on their own.
    I have seen a fair num­ber of Friends come and go in our meet­ing over the last 15 years. My sense is that most of them left when they real­ized the com­mu­ni­ty was sim­ply not what they were look­ing for. I have seen a fair num­ber of “trolls,” as you describe them, sim­ply wan­der away after a few months or a year or two, along with some folks who had hoped for a more the­o­log­i­cal­ly exclu­sive envi­ron­ment. In some cas­es their needs will be bet­ter met by more tra­di­tion­al church­es; oth­ers might find a dif­fer­ent­ly fla­vored gath­er­ing of Friends. Some will come to terms with what we are. A few, I think, are not look­ing for a gen­uine com­mu­ni­ty at all, but a cap­tive audi­ence, and these sort tend to get frus­trat­ed soon­er than any­one as they real­ize that’s not what we do. Some have been for­mal­ly or infor­mal­ly eldered; prob­a­bly more even­tu­al­ly notice on their own that we’re not hang­ing on their every word.
    You wrote: “we cen­sor our lan­guage to the point where it’s full of inof­fen­sive double-meanings. Let’s not be afraid to talk in the lan­guage we have. We need to share the trea­sure we’ve been giv­en.” I could not agree more. I sim­ply need to add, “we” includes “me,” and many oth­ers of great diver­si­ty of belief. This point is not nego­tiable. It is sim­ply a fact.
    your friend,

  • While there were many com­pelling and intrigu­ing mes­sages on this page, Jef­frey Hipp’s mes­sage reached right into my heart.
    Fur­ther­more, to lose patience and walk alone towards the light before me is to leave oth­ers behind. And the next time I lose my way, I don’t want to be alone.
    I feel the same way.