Is Quaker Culture an Obstacle to Faith?

From Isaac Smith:

I have tend­ed to describe this shift in under­stand­ing as the moment when Quak­erism “clicked” for me — when it ceased to be just the weird sub­cul­ture I grew up in, and more a mat­ter of con­vic­tion. Prac­tices that I ignored or nev­er quite under­stood, like mak­ing group deci­sions with­out tak­ing a vote, now made sense, because they were borne out of an attempt to make Christ the present teacher in all affairs.

Isaac’s piece stems in part from the Decem­ber Friends Jour­nal, on Quak­ers and Chris­tian­i­ty. A large per­cent­age of the sub­mis­sions we received for the issue had remark­ably sim­i­lar per­son­al sto­ries: peo­ple had grown up in a restric­tive reli­gious tra­di­tion and come to Lib­er­al Friends because of its open­ness to spir­i­tu­al seek­ing. If any­thing they were hos­tile to Chris­tian­i­ty and dis­tinc­tive Quak­er pecu­liar­i­ties when they joined but over time they slow­ly shift­ed, often after get­ting to know ground­ed elder Friends. Now they qui­et­ly iden­ti­fied as Chris­t­ian Friends.

We could have print­ed a whole issue of (most­ly) con­vinced Lib­er­al Friends who had redis­cov­ered Chris­tian­i­ty. Instead we picked a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple for the print edi­tion and pub­lished the rest as part of our our extend­ed online edi­tion; you can read it all at the online con­tents. Although Isaac’s sto­ry is dif­fer­ent (he grew up as a Friend) it shares a sim­i­lar tra­jec­to­ry.

(Issac also has some ques­tions about Quak­er pub­lish­ing, with a link to a great 2009 blog post from Johan Mau­r­er. I feel I should talk about this issue too but that’ll take a bit more pon­der­ing on my part).

What is our vocation?

From Johan Mau­r­er, a return to a ques­tion he first pon­dered twelve years ago: do Quak­ers have a voca­tion among the larg­er body of Chris­tians? There’s lots of good obser­va­tions about our spir­i­tu­al gifts, like this one:

A com­mu­ni­ty empow­ered by spir­i­tu­al gifts is not cul­tur­al­ly nar­row. This asser­tion is backed by vast hopes and very lit­tle expe­ri­ence. Many Friends meet­ings and church­es yearn for cul­tur­al and racial diver­si­ty, but seem to be stuck argu­ing about the­o­ret­i­cal ideals rather than choos­ing to exam­ine hur­dles: loca­tion, unin­tend­ed or unex­am­ined “we‐they” mes­sages (no mat­ter how benev­o­lent or pro­gres­sive the inten­tion), and a ten­den­cy to see non‐members as objects of ser­vice rather than co‐equal par­tic­i­pants already part of “us” in God’s sto­ry. But most of all, I believe that spir­i­tu­al pow­er unites while cere­bral analy­sis divides.

Facebook superposters and the loss of our own narrative

In the NYTimes, a fas­ci­nat­ing piece on fil­ter bub­bles and the abil­i­ty of Face­book “super­posters” to dom­i­nate feeds, dis­tort real­i­ty, and pro­mote para­noia and vio­lence.

Super­posters tend to be “more opin­ion­at­ed, more extreme, more engaged, more every­thing,” said Andrew Guess, a Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty social sci­en­tist. When more casu­al users open Face­book, often what they see is a world shaped by super­posters like Mr. Wasser­man. Their exag­ger­at­ed world­views play well on the algo­rithm, allow­ing them to col­lec­tive­ly — and often unknow­ing­ly — dom­i­nate news­feeds. “That’s some­thing spe­cial about Face­book,” Dr. Paluck said. “If you end up get­ting a lot of time on the feed, you are influ­en­tial. It’s a dif­fer­ence with real life.”

A great many general‐interest Face­book groups that I see are dom­i­nat­ed by troll­ish peo­ple whose vis­i­bil­i­ty relies on how provoca­tive they can get with­out being banned. This is true in many Quaker‐focused groups. Face­book pri­or­i­tizes engage­ment and noth­ing seems to get our fin­gers mad­ly tap­ping more than provo­ca­tion by some­one half‐informed.

For­mal mem­ber­ship in a Quak­er meet­ing is a con­sid­ered process; for many Quak­er groups, pub­lic min­istry is also a delib­er­at­ed process, with clear­ness com­mit­tees, anchor com­mit­tees, etc. On Face­book, mem­ber­ship con­sists of click­ing a like but­ton; pub­lic min­istry, aka vis­i­bil­i­ty, is a mat­ter of hav­ing a lot of time to post com­ments. Pub­lic groups with min­i­mal mod­er­a­tion which run on Facebook’s engagement‐inducing algo­rithms are the pub­lic face of Friends these days, far more vis­i­ble than any pub­li­ca­tion or rec­og­nized Quak­er body’s Face­book pres­ence. I writ­ten before of my long‐term wor­ry that with the rise of social media gate­keep­ing sites, we’re not the ones writ­ing our sto­ry any­more.

I don’t have any answers. But the NYTimes piece helped give me some use­ful ways of think­ing about these phe­nom­e­na.

Creeds and stories

Isaac Smith was going to write some­thing about creeds:

I had been kick­ing around writ­ing some­thing on the uses and abus­es of creeds in the Quak­er tra­di­tion, but then I dis­cov­ered that Ben Wood had writ­ten a fair­ly defin­i­tive ver­sion of that essay already. So read that instead.

Ben’s 2016 piece on Quak­ers and creeds is def­i­nite­ly worth a read. I checked my records and I must have missed it at the time, so I’ll share it now. He goes deep into the kinds of creeds that Penn and Bar­clay gave in their writ­ings but also what the ear­li­er Chris­t­ian creed‐makers were com­ing from. He also comes to today. Here’s a taste:

we can­not be creed‐makers before we are story‐preservers and story‐tellers. We can­not hope to resolve dif­fer­ences unless and until we dig down into our own Quak­er sto­ry; unless we come to terms with its pow­er and impli­ca­tions. At least part of our sense of spir­i­tu­al malaise is a ret­i­cence to engage with the depth of the Quak­er tale. Part­ly that ret­i­cence is about a lack of teach­ing min­istry among Friends. We haven’t giv­en each oth­er the tools to become skill­ful read­ers of our own nar­ra­tive. We have assumed that peo­ple can just ‘pick this stuff up’ through a mys­te­ri­ous process of osmo­sis. This has led to a frag­men­ta­tion of under­stand­ing about the mean­ing and impli­ca­tions of Quak­er gram­mar.

In my world, talk of creeds has sprung up recent­ly fol­low­ing the Quak­er­S­peak video of Arthur Larrabee’s nine core prin­ci­ples of unpro­grammed Friends. His prin­ci­ples seem fair­ly descrip­tive of main­stream Lib­er­al Friends to me, but pre­dictably enough the video’s com­ments have peo­ple wor­ried about any for­mu­la­tion: “Espous­ing core beliefs — no mat­ter how well inten­tioned — risks intro­duc­ing a creed.” One of my pet the­o­ries is that the mid‐century truce over the­ol­o­gy talk that helped Quak­er branch­es reunite (at least on the U.S. East Coast) has stopped work­ing.

Friends Journal seeking articles on Quakers and Christianity

The Decem­ber theme of Friends Jour­nal will look at the juicy top­ic of Friends’ rela­tion­ship with Chris­tian­i­ty. I wrote up an “Editor’s Desk” post about the kinds of arti­cles we might expect. Here’s an excerpt:

It’s a series of ques­tions that has dogged Friends since we did away with cler­gy and start­ed call­ing bap­tism a “sprin­kling,” and it has been an issue of con­tention in every Quak­er schism: Are we Chris­t­ian? Are we real­ly Chris­t­ian? Does it mat­ter if we’re Chris­t­ian? What does it even mean to be Chris­t­ian in the world?

One rea­son we began pub­lish­ing more themed issues begin­ning in 2012 was so we use the top­ics to invite fresh voic­es to write for us. While we’ve long had reg­u­lars who will send us a few arti­cles a year on mis­cel­la­neous top­ics, themes allow us to tempt peo­ple with spe­cif­ic inter­ests and min­istries: rec­on­cil­i­a­tion from war, cli­mate activism, work­place reform, men­tor­ship, ecu­meni­cal rela­tion­ships, the wider fam­i­ly of Friends, etc.

More recent­ly I’ve start­ed these “Editor’s Desk” posts as a way of shar­ing some of the ideas we have around par­tic­u­lar upcom­ing issues. The post also gives us a URL that we can share on social media to drum up sub­mis­sions. I also hope that oth­ers will share the URL via email.

The absolute best way of reach­ing new peo­ple is when some­one we know shares an upcom­ing theme with some­one we don’t know. There are many peo­ple who by chance or incli­na­tion seem to strad­dle Quak­er worlds. They are invalu­able in ampli­fy­ing our calls for sub­mis­sions. Ques­tion: would it help if we start­ed an email list just for writ­ers or for peo­ple who want to be remind­ed of upcom­ing themes so they can share them with Friends?

Money and the things we really value

I think I’ve already shared that Friends Jour­nal is doing an issue on “Meet­ings and Mon­ey” in the fall. While I’ve heard from some poten­tial authors that they’re writ­ing some­thing, we haven’t actu­al­ly got­ten any­thing in‐hand yet. We’re extend­ing the dead­line to Fri­day, 7/20. This is a good oppor­tu­ni­ty to write for FJ.

How we spend mon­ey is often a telling indi­ca­tor of what val­ues we real­ly val­ue. Mon­ey is not just a mat­ter of finan­cial state­ments and invest­ment strate­gies. It’s chil­dren pro­gram. It’s local soup kitchens. It’s the town peace fair. It’s the acces­si­ble bath­room or hear­ing aid sys­tem. And how we dis­cuss and dis­cern and fight over mon­ey is often a test of our com­mit­ment to Quak­er val­ues.

Here’s some of the spe­cif­ic issues we’ve brain­stormed for the issue.

Where does our mon­ey come from? A lot of Quak­er wealth is locked up in endow­ments start­ed by “dead Quak­er mon­ey” — wealth bequeathed by Quak­ers of cen­turies past.

Much of our Amer­i­can Quak­er for­tunes trace back to a large land grant giv­en in pay­ment for war debt. For the first cen­tu­ry or so, this wealth was aug­ment­ed by slave labor. Lat­er Quak­er enter­pris­es were aug­ment­ed by cap­i­tal from these ini­tial wealth sources.

In times past, there were well‐known Quak­er fam­i­ly busi­ness­es and wealthy Quak­er indus­tri­al­ists. But Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism has changed: fam­i­lies rarely own medium‐ or large‐scale busi­ness­es; they own stocks in firms run by a pro­fes­sion­al man­agers. If the abil­i­ty to run busi­ness­es based on Quak­er val­ues is over, is share­hold­er activism our clos­est ana­logue?

Many Friends now work in ser­vice fields. Fam­i­ly life has also changed, and the (large­ly female) free labor of one‐income house­holds is no longer avail­able to sup­port Quak­er endeav­ors as read­i­ly. How have all of these changes affect­ed the finances of our denom­i­na­tion and the abil­i­ty to live out our val­ues in the work­place?

How do we sup­port our mem­bers? A per­son­al anec­dote: some years ago I unex­pect­ed­ly lost my job. It was touch and go for awhile whether we’d be able to keep up with mort­gage pay­ments; los­ing our house was a real pos­si­bil­i­ty. Mem­bers of a near­by non‐Quaker church heard that there was a fam­i­ly in need and a few days lat­er a stranger showed up on our back porch with a dozen bags of gro­ceries and new win­ter coats for each of us. When my Friends meet­ing heard, I was told there was a com­mit­tee that I could apply to that would con­sid­er whether it might help.

Where does the mon­ey go? A activist Friend of mine use to point to the nice fur­nish­ings in our meet­ing­house and chuck­le about how many good things we could fund in the com­mu­ni­ty if we sold some of it off. Has your meet­ing liq­ui­dat­ed any of its prop­er­ty for com­mu­ni­ty ser­vice?

When we do find our­selves with extra funds from a bequest or wind­fall, where do we spend it? How do we bal­ance our needs (such as meet­ing­house ren­o­va­tions, schol­ar­ships for Quak­er stu­dents), and when and how do we give it to oth­ers in our com­mu­ni­ty?

What can we let go of? There are a lot of meet­ing­hous­es in more rur­al areas that are most­ly emp­ty these days, even on First Day. Could we ever decide we don’t need all of these spaces? Could we con­sol­i­date? Or could we go fur­ther and sell our prop­er­ties and start meet­ing at a rent­ed space like a fire­hall or library once a week?

Who gets the meet­ing­house after a break‐up? In the last few years we’ve seen three major year­ly meet­ings split apart, prompt­ing a whole mess of finan­cial dis­en­tan­gle­ment. What hap­pens to the prop­er­ties and sum­mer camps and endow­ments when this hap­pens? How fierce­ly are we will­ing to fight fel­low Friends over mon­ey?

What con­ver­sa­tions aren’t we hav­ing? Where do we invest our cor­po­rate sav­ings? Who decides how we spend mon­ey in our meet­ings?

Please feel free to share this with any Friend who might have inter­est­ing obser­va­tions about Friends’ atti­tudes toward finances!

Mafias and chaos

I like this inter­view on the Ital­ian mafia by Isaac Chotin­er in Slate, “The Mafia Is More Pow­er­ful Than It’s Ever Been.”

It seems that this per­pet­u­al cyn­i­cism may be the great­est threat of our era. Is the child of irony? The grand­child of gov­ern­ment con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries? Maybe the cause doesn’t mat­ter as much as the effect.

The mob thrives on chaos. It likes chaos. It likes to be the alter­na­tive author­i­ty that you go to because you can’t get any­thing done through the legit­i­mate state. For that very rea­son, I think there’s no doubt that it pro­motes that chaos. It likes civic dis­trust. It likes cyn­i­cism. It can prof­it from that. I think the great tragedy of Italy is that, to a large extent, it’s kind of suc­ceed­ed.

I think that if we want­ed to con­struct a Quak­er cri­tique of the cur­rent Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment – and the type of cor­po­ra­tized cor­rup­tion we see in Rus­sia and the pet­rostates, it would best start with the polit­i­cal cul­ture that deny basic facts, gaslight cit­i­zens with ever‐changing ratio­nales, and cre­at­ing chaos that can let finan­cial huck­sters reap bil­lions. These are not gov­ern­ments based on integri­ty and fair play­ing fields.

Syncretism and dilution

Bri­an Dray­ton looks at the effects of syn­cretism, dilu­tion, and cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion on the Quak­er move­ment.

At first blush, such a process might be cel­e­brat­ed as a process of enrich­ment: Quak­erism ver­sion 1 turns into Quak­erism v2, now new and bet­ter because it has bells or out­ward sacra­ments or what‐have‐you. But note that this kind of change is not just a mat­ter of sim­ple addi­tion, because ele­ments drawn from var­i­ous oth­er tra­di­tions are them­selves embed­ded deeply in some cul­ture, and so they are clothed round with mean­ings and nuances that are implic­it­ly adopt­ed along with the idea or prac­tice that has been explic­it­ly import­ed.

Authentic anecdotes

I have some­thing of fas­ci­na­tion with the phe­nom­e­non of urban myths and mis­at­trib­uted quo­ta­tions. In the Jan­u­ary Friends Jour­nal I used the open­ing col­umn to track down “Live sim­ply so that oth­ers may sim­ply live,” a phrase that recurred in many of the arti­cles in the issue (the theme was Quak­er Lifestyles). Among Quak­ers, one of the more oft‐told tales involves a mad prophet and his fair‐haired noble pro­tégé…

It was late April on the north­ern moors and the win­ter had been espe­cial­ly harsh. Flow­ers were just start­ing to peek out of the ground as the farm­ers looked test­ed whether the soil was soft enough yet to plow. The noble­man dis­mount­ed his horse and asked the hamlet’s black­smith for direc­tions.

It has been a long jour­ney. His ruf­fled silk shirt was dirty and full of the smells of a dozens of overnight acco­mo­da­tions in pig barns and lean‐tos of the Eng­lish Mid­lands. His most‐prized pos­ses­sion was spot­less, how­ev­er: the sil­ver sword giv­en him by his father, the admi­ral, last year on his eigh­teenth birth­day. It layed sheathed in its hand‐stiched sheath.

The black­smith point­ed the for­eign­er to the path that crossed the dark moors toward the hill­side of Judge Fell’s estate. The manor house was the de fac­to head­quar­ters of the new cult that was scan­dal­iz­ing the King­dom, the Chil­dren of the Light. A short ten minute walk and our trav­el­er was face‐to‐face with the man he had come so far to see.

A long tum­ble of rehersed speach­es came out of the young man’s mouth as George Fox war­i­ly sized him up. The young William Penn want­ed to join the move­ment. Fox knew it would be a coup for the Chil­dren of the Light. Penn’s father was one of the wealth­i­est men in Eng­land and the fam­i­ly mon­ey could buy pro­tec­tion, fame, and land in the new colonies.

But Penn wasn’t quite ready. He had that sword. It would be a grave dis­re­spect to his father to leave it or give it away. “Friend George, what can I do?” The wise Fox knew that Penn was led to join. With a lit­tle encour­age­ment, it was a mat­ter of time the new appren­tice adopt­ed their paci­fist prin­ci­ples. Fox cleared his throat and answered: “Wear thy sword as long as thee can, young William.” Before tears could well in each man’s eyes they turned their atten­tion to logis­tics of a preach­ing trip to Lon­don. On their way out a few days lat­er, Penn qui­et­ly slipped back into a black­smith shop and gave away his sword. By the time they left the York­shire, farm­ers were work­ing the spring soil with their new sil­ver plow­shares.

It is a beau­ti­ful sto­ry. Unfor­tu­nate­ly it’s also fake.

Both George Fox and William Penn left behind dozens of vol­umes of writ­ings and mem­oirs. Their friend­ship was one of the most sig­nif­i­cant rela­tion­ships for each of them. Sure­ly such a foun­da­tion­al sto­ry would have made it to print. Paul Buck­ley tracked down the sto­ry in “Time To Lay Down William Penn’s Sword” in the Decem­ber 2003 Friends Jour­nal.

The sword sto­ry is fake but it is also some­how true. Buck­ley calls it a “authen­tic anec­dote.” Every year Friends Jour­nal gets won­der­ful essays whose nar­ra­tive turns on the sto­ry of William Penn’s sword. We can’t run them with­out cor­rec­tion so it falls on me to tell authors that the scene nev­er took place. Occa­sion­al­ly I’m told it doesn’t mat­ter that it’s not true.

What is the deep­er myth inside our beloved tall tales? First: they depend on the celebri­ty sta­tus of their char­ac­ters. If I sub­sti­tut­ed more obscure ear­ly Friends in the sword sto­ry — George White­head ask­ing Solomon Eccles, say — I doubt it would be as com­pelling or get repeat­ed as often.

Fame is an odd draw for modern‐day Friends. There’s a baker’s-dozen of famous‐enough Friends upon which we graft these sorts of sto­ries — John Wool­man, Lucre­tia Mott, Elias Hicks, Joseph John Gur­ney and his sis­ter Eliz­a­beth Fry. And the story‐telling began ear­ly: edi­tors would chop out the embar­ras­ing bits of recently‐departed Friends’ jour­nals. Dreams would get snipped out. Accounts of mirac­u­lous heal­ings would dis­ap­pear.

It’s prob­a­bly no coin­ci­dence that the Penn/Fox sto­ry dates back to the moment when Amer­i­can Friends split. The denomination’s ori­gin sto­ry was frac­tur­ing. Paul Buck­ley thinks the sword sto­ry pre­fig­ured the tol­er­ance and for­bear­ance of the Hick­site Friends. Philadelphia‐area Friends healed that par­tic­u­lar wound almost three‐quarters of a cen­tu­ry ago. What does it say about us today that this tale is still so pop­u­lar? Relat­ed read­ing, I tracked down anoth­er authen­tic anec­dote in 2016, “Bring peo­ple to Christ / Leave them there.”