Friday, July 22, 2005

Could Gandhi Be a Quaker? Would He if He Could?

Mark Wutka wrote, in commenting on the post "What Is It With The Quakers and Jesus Christ?", wrote:

Now that I have explained where I am coming from, I can try to formuate why some of the other comments are difficult for me. What exactly do we mean by "Christian" ? Is it that we believe that Christ is God and that we are worshipping and communing with him? Can't someone listen to God and do God's will without believing that Christ is God? ... When I read Gandhi's writings, it seems to me that he is trying to listen to and follow God's will. And outwardly, he certainly appears to have lived out the testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community and equality, so it would appear that he was doing pretty well with discernment. I don't think he would fit in with the definition of "Christian". Besides indicating a willingness to join, what else would he have to do to be considered a Quaker?

There are several questions here. First, "What exactly do we mean by Christian?" I suggest that one possible definition is that a Christian is someone who is trying to be a follower of Jesus Christ. That definition is broad enough to encompass lots of folks with different beliefs about who Jesus is/was and also different convictions about how to follow him. It is a value-neutral definition. It doen't presume that all Christians are good, nor that all non-Christians are bad. It is also not the same thing as a definition of Quakerism. It is broad enough to includes many many people who would not be comfortable with the testimonies of Friends (Jerry Falwell springs to mind), and also narrow enough that it excludes a number of good and even saintly people. I am the kind of Christian who believes that Jesus is God. This claim seems to be made in the New Testament, though the point is debatable. Christ is also presented as the "Son of God", the "Son of Man", the "Christ" or "Messiah", the "Lord", the "Master", the "Teacher", the "Word", the "Light", etc. etc. Not an easy guy to pin down. It may not be necessary to pin down the theories about Him in order to be His follower. His first followers in Galilee seem to have started following first and to have developed their explanations of Him later. In later generations, when the explanations finally became more important than love, faith and obedience, Christianity began to lose its way and to suffer divisions.

Next "Can't someone listen to God and do God's will without believing that Christ is God." The shortest true answer is "Yes". A related but different question might be "Can't someone listen to God and do God's will without being a Christian?" Again, the answer (in my opinion) is "Yes". From the context of these questions, I suspect Mark's underlying assumption is that since I have said Quakerism is a Christian faith I think non-Christians can't do the will of God. I have often known my universalist/liberal Friends to leap to this conclusion. I don't really understand where it comes from. Surely liberal Friends don't assume that a person who can't or won't join a Meeting is thereby rendered incapable of listening to God? If so, it is no wonder that many of them are so diffident about raising questions with applicants for membership!

Mark then presents the case of Gandhi. He points out that Gandhi was not a Christian but that he tried to follow God's will and that as far as we mortals can tell he seems to have succeeded pretty well. This is an understatement, of course. I am not (Thank you, Jesus!) in the business of judging souls, but if I were I suppose I would judge Gandhi's to be greater than any other more-or-less contemporary person I can think of. That must be why people called him "Mahatma", meaning "Great Soul". So, then, Mark asks: if Gandhi was so great "Besides indicating a willingness to join, what else would he have to do to be considered a Quaker?"

I could answer literally by saying things like "He'd have to attend unprogrammed worship regularly for a year, he'd have to read Faith and Practice, and he'd have to serve for a while on the Greeting Committee", but I suppose that would miss the point of Mark's question. I could also raise questions about how Gandhi would handle traditional Friends' attitudes toward things like religious statues, honorific titles (remember "Mahatma"?), etc. I think I'll get closer to Mark's point, though, if I focus attention on the part of the question Mark himself almost glides right past: "Besides indicating a willingness to join..." The picture we have here is that of a man who is a great spiritual, moral and political leader in his own right, already well-nourished by his own (and other) religious traditions, somehow deciding that he wants to sign up with a tiny sect like the Religious Society of Friends. Let's stipulate that we're talking about a liberal unprogrammed Quaker meeting here, since that's the kind of Meeting that might not make an issue of Christian belief. Let's make the idea of Gandhi's application a bit more credible by assuming first that somehow the liberal Quakers of his time had burst the bonds of their cultural and class exclusiveness and actually settled a Meeting in India with active members who were not English or American expatriates. My question would be "Under what conditions would Mohandas Gandhi "indicate a willingness", much less a desire, to join such a Meeting? And if he did so, what would he be joining?

If he wanted to join an inter-faith organization to compare differences and look for commonalities with various religious traditions, then there would be other places for him to look than to the Quakers. (I even hope that if he did join such an interfaith group he would find some Quakers there and find that they had some interesting and unique perspectives for him to think about). If he wanted a group that shared the moral and spiritual vision he already embraced, he might very well find the Quakers disappointing. Even if not, he really would have no need of them since he already had his own ashram where his beliefs were actively practiced.

If, however, the Meeting understood itself as a particular kind of Christian Church, practicing the discipline of waiting for Christ's Spirit to guide their worship and unite them in His service, understanding themselves corporately as His body in the world, willing to overcome self-will to follow Him, etc. then he might or he might not be interested in joining. It would no doubt be an adjustment for him. I like to think he would understand and respect such a group, whether he wanted to join it or not.

But if this hypothetical Meeting in India had no distinct views of its own at all, or if it refused to take these views seriously enough to discuss them with applicants for membership, then I find it highly unlikely that it would have anything to offer to Mohandas Gandhi.

Labels: , ,

Links to this post

8 Comments:

Blogger Mark Wutka said...

I would like to thank Rich for his very detailed response to my questions. They help me see where he is coming from, and where we may disagree.

I feel like this discussion boils down to the fact that if Quakerism must be defined as "Christian", then the creed of Quakerism is something like "I believe that we are communing with Christ in meeting for worship" (I take that from Rich's statement "if, however, the Meeting understood itself as a particular kind of Christian Church, practicing the discipline of waiting for Christ's Spirit to guide their worship..."). Perhaps Rich is just stating this from his understanding of things, and he allows that one could substitute "God" or the "Divine" in that statement and it would be okay. But if that is permitted, would there be any requirement for Quakers to be Christian?

I felt that Rich dodged the question about Gandhi being a Quaker. The reason I asked the question is that I was trying to make the unspoken creed visible. Gandhi must believe X in order to become a Quaker. Rich instead questioned whether Gandhi would want to be a Quaker. Also, it was my understanding that Gandhi discouraged the use of the term "Mahatma".

I thought that Quakerism was about experiencing God and not about believing some set of theological statements about God.

As I was eagerly awaiting Rich's response this week, I went back and re-read the recent Pendle Hill Pamphlet "Creeds and Quakers: What's Belief Got To Do With It?"
I am hoping that maybe Rich has read this so he could comment on it in relation to this discussion.

4:44 PM, July 22, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"….that one could substitute "God" or the "Divine" in that statement … if that is permitted, would there be any requirement for Quakers to be Christian?"

It isn't a matter of creed/no creed. It is a practical matter of not having means of translating the experience to others who are surprised to find out that Quakers are Christians.

It has only been in the last 100 years that Quakers have developed the reputation of non-Christian and Universalist in the "all paths lead to God" sense of the term. This presents difficulties for Quakers because Quakerism was first conceived of as a reform of Christianity (the reform consisting of jettisoning almost everything other Christians thought necessary to get to Heaven, but not the goal of following Jesus to Heaven). So, just as Buddhism would never have existed if Hinduism had not already existed and shares many of the same concepts in a modified form, Quakerism would never have existed if Christianity had not existed and shares many of the same concepts in a modified form. While it is true that, in addition, there was a doctrine about how people who had never heard of Jesus might get to Heaven anyway(a very narrow type of Universality that at that time was mostly intended for the ears of Christians prejudiced against non-Christians), that was never intended as the most important part of Quakerism. Fundamentally, Quakerism was/is still devised as a “one-trick pony”: a means to get to God by following the Paraclete.

Why is this all important? Brooklyn Q says in the first thread on Quakers and Jesus that "Our faith is not a product to be marketed". Unfortunately, that has not been true. In the same way that "A poem says more than the Poet understands",
George Fox is inspiring dreams in non-Christians, and those unfulfilled by Christianity, that he never thought of and would not understand. And present day Quakers, while intending nothing but good, haven’t been careful to assess whether they are promising more than Quaker religious practices can currently deliver to non-Christians(to Christians also, but that is not what this thread is about). I think that some in the past thought that this would all work itself out eventually, and therefore never saw any problem in encouraging non-Christians to join American Meetings. But, I think that “eventually” is still along ways off. For instance, although there have been Quaker Meetings in Japan and Korea for about 120 years, and in Kenya for about 100 years, there has been little cross-fertilization between those Meetings and American Meetings. Meanwhile, in America, the cultural background of most Quakers continues to be pretty much the same as everybody else: Americo- Eurocentric. And that is a big problem for non-Christians (and non-Western Christians) who try to enter into the life of an American Meeting.

While Quakers don’t require that you sign on to a Creed, they are still almost all Western in their thinking, almost all Christian in their religious orientation and all Quaker in the way they relate to the Divine. So, although a non-Christian is welcome to come and sit in silence, if you get stuck on your spiritual path, it is very unlikely that’s someone will be available to help you out. For instance, almost nobody would understand how to answer Gandhi if he had asked someone how Quakerism would help him achieve moksha/liberation. He would have been lucky if he was able to find someone who even knew what moksha is. And Gandhi’s moral philosophy was routed in his culture and the Upanishads more than the Sermon on the Mount. He looked for inspiration in Christianity, but for new ways to persuade his fellow Indians to live up to the ethical standards of Hinduism (not Christianity). But almost no Quakers have read any part of the Upanishads, and most don’t know what they are. I think that is what Brooklyn Q is getting at when he says “If he wanted a group that shared the moral and spiritual vision he already embraced, he might very well find the Quakers disappointing. Even if not, he really would have no need of them since he already had his own ashram where his beliefs were actively practiced.”

So it isn’t a question of asking “Gandhi must believe X in order to become a Quaker.” It is a matter of Quakers not being as spiritually nourishing for non-Christians as their own communities. Despite the hopes of some, it is not insignificant to a Hindu that a Quaker Meeting isn’t an ashram; to a Buddhist that a Meeting isn’t or a sangha; to a Taoist that so many Quakers have only the vaguest of notions of wei-wu; to a Sufi that almost none have ever heard of Rumi or read any of his writings. In fact, that is the same reason that Quaker Meetings aren’t attractive to most Catholics, E Orthodox, Anglicans or Protestants over the long term. They would likely have the same reaction as Gandhi: “If he wanted a group that shared the moral and spiritual vision he already embraced, he might very well find the Quakers disappointing.” No matter who you are, it isn’t about what Quakers demand of you, it is what you expect for yourself.

That isn’t to say that the interaction provides nothing good. Who could forget Gandhi’s reworking of an “eye for an eye” into “An eye for an eye will make us all blind.” But, most Quakers aren’t generally cross-culturally educated enough at present to have those insights into other cultures and faiths(don’t forget, the Upanishads and the various Dharma are not taught in American schools). That is why someone who does know a little about the Eastern faiths can hear Quakers talk about concepts and attitudes that are remarkably like concepts and attitudes common among people in “the East”, but that is all news to most Quakers. The explanation given for pretty well every parallel between Quakers and other faiths is that they are interesting co-incidences(being a follower of Quakerism I think that is not necessarily true. I think that some things have been introduced into one Meeting by someone in the past who was cross-culturally literate and they have spread in virus-like fashion through out the rest of Quaker Meetings; but I also believe in the Universalism unique to Quakerism, that God reveals Himself to all people, and that some of these commonalities are a result of that process of revelation). So for a non-Christian, this means that they end up having to do all the translating for themselves, and then they have almost no one to ask if they have made the right conclusions. To borrow a idea from the Bible, Meetings as they are presently are pretty stony soil for this type of spiritual exercise to grow in. Perhaps over a long period some good results will come from the interaction of Christian and non-Christian in Meetings, but that process has barely started. Refering back to Christian history, if it took more than 1000 years for the Church to incorporate both of its parents into one faith, it should surprise nobody that its going to take much longer than 100 years for a stable hybrid Quakerism to emerge.

But I don’t think all the blame should fall on Quakers of the original type. What surprises me is the constant repetitive reaction from non-Christians of the type Brooklyn Q mentioned(“I suspect Mark's underlying assumption is that since I have said Quakerism is a Christian faith I think non-Christians can't do the will of God. I have often known my universalist/liberal Friends to leap to this conclusion.”). So, OK, Quakers are more Christian than you thought they were before your first visit. But, I think that if you are determined to be adult and open-minded about it, after a certain point three notions should have occurred to you. First, you should have acknowledged that Quakers believe in a kinder gentler version of God than most other Christians. They don’t worship the version that encourages people to do bad things to each other(there even have been incidents in the 18th C of Quaker Meetings disapplining people who cast doubt on truth of the parts of the Bible which say that it was God that led the ancient Hebrews to massacre the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine, as opposed to thinking of it as a mystery why that version of God does not match with the version that come to us each Sunday). That which attracted you to Quakers in the first palce is a constant point of friction between Quakers and some Christians. So, if you think that you are being manipulated into worshiping God(not true but it seems a unshakeable suspicion and hot button for some people), at the very least be adult enough to admit that there is no evidence of any Friend trying to tell that God is trying to turn you into a hate-filled vengeful mean-spirited prejudiced person. And maybe that is the first lesson that you need to learn from Quakers: not every Christian has the same image of God. Second, if you a humble about it, you will remember that there are other non-Christian faiths at this table too, and unless you are a veritable “walking United Nations”, you know just as little about some of those other non-Christian faiths as the Christians do. So it is a double standard to get upset with Quakers trying to “act Christly” while remaining calm and collected with those trying to pattern themselves after Rumi or Socrates. Third, it should have occurred to you that although it isn’t what you thought it was, if you really want to turn Quakers into a cross-cultural inter-faith hybrid, getting upset at the native-born Christianity of Quakers isn’t going achieve that goal. You have to be a good ambassador for you faith if you expect Quakers to look more closely into it. We’re people too. Alternatively, if you are determined that Quaker Meetings are to be a “Christian-free zone” in you life, then your on your own. There is nothing in the history or historical writings to light your way. And, from observation, that attitude seems to lead to much anxiety, because it is like being at sea in a lifeboat, and you have no way to get your ethical bearings. That attitude impeads your ability to follow the path laid out by your own faith, not Christianity.

This type of discussion reminds me of the notion amongst Quakers about “don’t outrun the Guide” . “Don’t outrun the Guide” is the warning not to speak more the the Spirit demands of you when you are supposed to be concentrating on what the Spirit is trying to bring out of you. Most people think of it as advice for individuals, not groups. But I think that groups can sometimes outrun the Guide too, and I think that we are coming to the realization that this is the case for all of us with respect to this issue. If Quakers stay mindful to that standard, I don’t see how they can help someone at this time who isn’t trying to get on the path of Jesus, given their average education and their own spiritual needs. That isn’t prejudice, it’s prudence. And it isn’t a plea for keeping things as they always were. I’m just suggesting that if we are to change this situation, it is going to require more awareness, patience and planning than most people are showing right now.

One way that I have thought about relates to another notion prevalent amongst early Friends: the “threshing Meeting”. That was the Quaker version of a Meeting where almost everyone was not a convinced Friend. The convention was to send a few confident Friends to conduct this threshing Meeting, and then to invite those who were more settled in their belief that Quakerism “spoke to them” to a second Meeting were the faithful could worship in peace away from “the tumultuous multitudes”. And it did not just happen in a Christian to Christian setting. When Penn and Woolman went to sojourn with the Native Americans, they went with the expectation that they would have to learn a lot about them before they would be able exchange meaningful commentary about what the Spirit was bringing out of each other. But that was not a permanent practice. After they had augmented their spiritual education in that way, they returned to their Meetings so that they could resume the more direct journey that was demanded of them.

Quakers rarely speak of this convention any more, but I think that it might be time to remember that those Friends knew that it was not a sign of weakness or doubt to admit that sometimes “less is more”. Right now every Meeting seems to resemble a threshing Meeting. Maybe one way out is to revive this old tradition in some fashion. Because the reverse way that is happening now(everyone goes to the same Meeting, and the “Seekers” go to short Quakerism 101 course that doesn’t fully address where everyone is coming from) doesn’t seem to be working. I think that this could be revised in a cross-cultural way that better suits current realities. Afterall we’re supposed be trying to teach people how to live “under the Power of the Lord”, not our own power.

2:01 PM, July 23, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I understand why Mark feels I dodged his question on Gandhi being a Quaker, though that was not my intention. It's true that I didn't directly answer the question in the terms that he posed it.

I'll give my direct answer now, and then relate it to my original answer. Mark's question had been "Besides indicating a willingness to join, what else would he [Gandhi] have to do to be considered a Quaker?" My direct answer would be: "Not neccessarily anything". The problem with that answer is that since it doesn't explore what is meant by "a willingness to join" it is open to a very misleading interpretation. So instead of answering Mark's question literally and directly, I responded by exploring that "willingness to join" assumption. To me the important question for Gandhi's clearness committee to ask would not be: "Do you believe thus and so?", but "Do you understand what you're getting into here? Are you prepared to identify yourself with a tradition and a living community that exists to follow and serve Jesus Christ?"

Another way to say this is: Quakerism is a Christian religion. If applicants for membership understand and accept that fact and they still want to join, and especially if their lives reflect the Spirit and teaching that comes from Jesus, then that desire and willingness should be weighed heavily against any doubts or even dissents they may have about Christian theology.

My whole effort in writing these recent posts has been to encourage a retention or recovery of the focus on Jesus Christ in unprogrammed meetings of today. However, it has not been an effort to impose a creedal requirement for joining Friends. I have personally sat on many interviews for new members and have never said "You must be a Christian and affirm your faith in Jesus Christ to be a member of this Meeting."

It is true that I have tried to make sure applicants understood that the Society of Friends they want to join is at its heart a Christian movement, but I DO NOT believe that retaining or recovering our Christian focus is a matter of policing who can join our meetings. Our spiritual clarity will not come from defending our "borders" with the outside world, but from affirming our Center from within.

I am grateful for all of the comments by thoughtful posters-to-this-blog over the past week, and hope to respond in more detail soon.

It would be helpful if "anonymous" could give himself/herself a name to be known by in this discussion, though it is certainly not necessary to sign up and get an official google name.

10:45 AM, July 24, 2005  
Anonymous Dascho said...

"Another way to say this is: Quakerism is a Christian religion. If applicants for membership understand and accept that fact and they still want to join, and especially if their lives reflect the Spirit and teaching that comes from Jesus, then that desire and willingness should be weighed heavily against any doubts or even dissents they may have about Christian theology."

Rich,

I wondering if I can get you to clarify some of the above for me. "Christian Theology" itself is a fairly big tent. I assume that you mean a Quaker take on theology, but even that can vary widely. It could still run the gamut from "believe or burn in hell" literalism to Borg-Spong metaphorical mysticism. There are Christian theologians (probably even Quaker ones) who will say that Borg-Spong is not Christianity at all. Even were we to all settle on the Christian identity for Quakerism, we would then no doubt start blogging about whether the liberal/orthodox/conservative Christians qualify as Quakers. Liberal Christians might argue that "all Christians do" and the evangelicals would no doubt have the same types of complaints about that that you have with non-Christian Quakers at the moment - too amorphous and wishy washy.

I think these kinds of relentless arguments are a large part of what drives Quaker Universalists to emphasize praxis over doctrine. I believe the praxis is beneficial and will help bring people to God regardless of ideology. God could do that. He seeks us. Isn't it a great opportunity that all these heathens are sitting quietly where God can get at 'em? Quit rockin' the boat, buster! :)

Dascho

5:49 PM, July 25, 2005  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

Thank you, anonymous, for your insight, and thank you, Rich, for explaining further. I think I have a better idea of how you feel.

anonymous used the phrase "get upset" a few times in mentioning attitudes towards native-born Christianity of Quakers, or Quakers acting Christly. I understand where that comes from, but I would like to be clear that I am not upset by it. I'm not trying to silence the Christianity of Quakers.

With regard to Rich's and anonymous' comments about being comfortable with Christianity and what a clearness committee might ask potential members, it seems reasonable to me to point out the Christian background of Quakerism, and the fact that since most of the members are Christian or have a Christian upbringing, it may be difficult for someone of a different background to find the kind of nourishment they need.

I think it gets a little more difficult when Rich puts it in terms like this:
Are you prepared to identify yourself with a tradition and a living community that exists to follow and serve Jesus Christ?

9:28 PM, July 26, 2005  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

Oops.. I accidentally posted the previous comment before I had finished.

On one hand, I understand that this is Rich's language for discussing the divine. But since it is describing the entire community, it becomes a little harder for some people to deal with, since it assumes that the majority of Quakers believe Jesus Christ to be God (unless your are using Christ as another word for God). It's sounds a little like "We aren't requiring you conform to a creed, but you realize that this community is defined as people that believe X."

I'm not trying to twist Rich's words here, I'm just trying to identify my pain points. To me, there is a difference between making sure that someone is comfortable with the way a community expresses itself and making statements about the beliefs of the community. I think it is because the latter tends to ostracize people who don't necessarily conform to those beliefs, even though they may be comfortable with (not to mention inspired-by) the expression of those beliefs. I hope that makes sense.

9:56 PM, July 26, 2005  
Blogger Editor Choice said...

Excellent and original blog. I will comeback.
I wanted just to mention an interesting site regarding: Religions, with more than 500 pages, Religion News and Articles Religion Universe: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism (Daoism) and many others

10:47 AM, October 11, 2005  
Blogger Allison said...

Very interesting discussion. I am in the universalist/anarchic line of thought. I have been reading the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and what it says in there perfectly matches what I "saw" in my experience of the Light, which was an All. Mary herself was considered an especially beloved disciple of Jesus and also misunderstood by the other disciples, and I believe that she grasped more of the Truth than did his other disciples because she was a Seer. I am finding it a little frustrating as I explore Quakerism that that attitude seems to be "one day you'll understand" as I question exclusivity.

1:53 PM, November 27, 2007  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home