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.
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.