Friday, July 08, 2005

What Is It With the Quakers and Jesus Christ?

Judging from the questions I have heard from time to time over the last thirty years, many new visitors to Friends’ meetings are quite surprised at the attitudes and beliefs about Jesus and Christianity they find there. Whatever they have read or heard about Friends (also known as Quakers) elsewhere – even from Friends ourselves – often seems different from what they observe in an actual Quaker community. This may be true, for all I know, in Quaker communities of all kinds (and they are very diverse) but my experience is with a small number of mostly “liberal” meetings that practice silent unprogrammed worship.

The kinds of surprise that I have heard fall into two broad categories, which I would describe as follows: Some people are surprised that these silent liberal Quakers are “more Christian” than they had thought, others are surprised that Quakers are “less Christian” than they had thought – or even that they seem to not be Christian at all. Each kind of surprise may strike some visitors as disappointing, others as welcome, and still others as simply odd.

I would add that although I am no longer a new visitor, the ambiguities and complexities of Quaker attitudes about Jesus are still somewhat surprising -- and curious or strange -- even to me. My aim in this essay is not to explain away apparent contradictions or inconsistencies, but to explore where they come from, and to make my case that despite these paradoxes Quakerism is still very much a Christian religion. I will also explain why the fact that some other Quakers do not agree has not led me to reject them as Friends, nor to feel that I must join a break-away faction or turn to some other denomination for Christian fellowship.

The Two Kinds of Surprise
1. Some visitors are surprised that Quakers seem “more Christian” than they had thought.

By this I don’t mean that they are surprised to find Quakers leading “Christian” or spiritual lives. Quakers have a pretty good reputation for that, probably a better reputation than we deserve. What these visitors find surprising is not our way of life, but the amount of Christian theology and belief that they find among us. Not to put too fine a point on it, they are surprised to find people like me in Meeting: people who pray to Jesus, who quote Him as an authority, and who use the Christian scriptures as a spiritual resource.

These expressions of a specifically Christian spirituality are often not mentioned in “outreach” literature that may be an inquirer’s first source of information about Friends, and they may not even be mentioned by the Ministry and Counsel of some local meetings. The outreach literature often comes from Quaker service organizations and institutions such as the American Friends Service Committee or the Quaker schools in many cities. These quite properly exist to serve broad constituencies regardless of religious belief and they also rely on the efforts of many non-Quakers from all possible backgrounds to assist them in their work. While these groups often uphold “Quaker values” in the broad sense, it is not their primary mission to interpret the Quaker faith or the tradition behind it.

To the extent that these service institutions and schools refer explicitly to Quaker tradition they tend to rely heavily on certain isolated catch phrases such as “that of God in every one”, or on a list of Quaker ethical stands presented as “testimonies”. While this bare-bones version of Quakerism may be somewhat accurate as far as it goes, it hardly scratches the surface of what our faith has meant to generations of Friends or of what it has to offer for seekers. Unfortunately, in the absence of a fuller account from actual Quaker meetings – the worshipping communities that attempt to put Quakerism into daily practice – this superficial picture may become the only picture available. It is no wonder, then, that many spiritual seekers and other visitors come to us without any advance knowledge that Quakerism at its inception was a particularly intense and concentrated form of Christianity. It was distinguished from other Christian denominations in many ways, but especially by the degree of its zeal to experience again the spirit-filled and Christ-directed life of the early Christian church. Consider this description by George Fox, often regarded as the founder of the Quaker movement, of what his mission was as he understood it:

“Now I was to turn people from darkness to the light that they might receive Christ Jesus, for as many as should receive him in his light I saw that he would give power to become the sons of God, which I had obtained by receiving Christ. And I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all Truth, and so up to Christ and God as they had been who gave them forth. And I was to turn them to the Grace of God, and to the Truth in the heart which came by Jesus that by this grace they might be taught, which would bring them into salvation, that their hearts might be established by it, and their words might be seasoned, and all might come to know their salvation nigh. For I saw that Christ had died for all men and was a propitiation for all, and had enlightened all men with his divine and saving light, and that none could be a true believer but who believed in it…” [Journal of George Fox, John L. Nickalls, ed., published by London Yearly Meeting 1975, p. 34]

This is not the language of a non-theistic mysticism or an open-ended “seekers” religion, or even of a conciliatory inter-denominational or ecumenical Christianity. This is, rather, the announcement of a mission to gather people into a movement radically centered on no one else but Jesus, a movement whose members would actually live by His teaching in their hearts. It was that movement which eventually became the Religious Society of Friends. Friends today would do well to acknowledge to each other and to any inquirers who want to learn about us that this Christ-centered vision was the cause that first gathered us as a people, and that it remains a living part of our tradition today.

It is true that over 350 years have passed since George Fox began his preaching. It is true that Quakers have lived in the world with many other peoples and have modified our practices and way of thinking from time to time under the influence of insights from other faiths – from evangelical Christendom to Zen Buddhism. It is true that advances in science and technology have given Quakers – like everyone else – new things to think about and pray about and question. It is even true that some Friends today will feel that George Fox’s statement does not speak for them or that it needs to be interpreted or explained or translated somehow into a more modern idiom before they can embrace it. Nevertheless, this explicitly Christ-centered vision still speaks very powerfully to many, including me, and it is not likely to be expunged from Quaker consciousness. There are signs, indeed, that openness to the Christian testimony of earlier Friends is once again growing, rather than diminishing, among Friends of today.

How will the presence of this Christian spirituality in our meetings affect seekers who come to us? Will it be seen in a positive light, as an expression of a faith and a spiritual practice that is worthy to be considered? Or will the very mention of Christianity raise a barrier that turns people off? The answer may be different for each person who comes to us. It will depend in part on each one’s spiritual needs and each one’s receptiveness, or lack of same, as influenced by any prior experience they may have had with people who claimed to speak or act in the name of Christ. The same could be said for the other forms of spirituality found in our meetings. Any conceivable spiritual path would be unpalatable to someone, either because of what it is in itself, or because of the reputation it has been given by those who follow it. But the receptiveness of the audience is not something we can control or should even want to control. Our faith is not a product to be marketed, nor can we fine-tune our witness and ministry using focus groups. What Christian Friends can do, however, is labor to be so grounded in God that our words and actions draw life from the Holy Spirit we seek to serve. We should not be afraid to give offense by sincerely representing the gospel of peace. But we should guard with all our might against giving offense by misusing the name of Christ to justify hatred, prejudice, self-righteousness, vindictiveness, greed or jealousy.

2. Other visitors experience surprise of the opposite type – surprise that Friends seem “less Christian” than they had expected.

Once again, I am not referring to any judgements these seekers may make about how “really” Christian our lives may be. It is true that Quakers are often far less saintly than our reputation might lead people to expect, but that is not the topic of this essay. Rather, I am speaking of the surprise some people express by saying things like “I thought Quakers believed in Jesus but now I see they don’t.” Or “I thought this was a Christian Church, now I see that it isn’t”.

How does this kind of surprise occur? Is it justified? What gives some people the impression that Quakerism has ceased to be a Christian movement?

There are several reasons for this impression, some more to the point than others. First, our unprogrammed silent meetings lack many of the features most other Christian Churches have in common. There are no hymns, no paid clergy, no altar, no pulpit, no rite of water baptism, no ritual celebration of communion, no observation of religious festivals or holy days, no religious statues or images or sacred objects or substances such as crosses, crucifixes, monstrances, censers, or fonts of holy water. People who have grown up thinking of these things as essential to Christian faith may be surprised to not find them in a Quaker meetinghouse. These “peculiarities” of Quakerism do not arise from a rejection of Christianity, however. They date from the earliest and most explicitly Christian period of Quaker history, and represent what the earliest Friends thought was the purest and most essential form of Christian worship. They had their own understanding, based on the Bible as they read it in the Spirit, of what constituted true baptism, true communion, true ministry, the true organizing principle of the Christian church, and so on. George Fox had experienced “openings” on all of these matters and they are described in his Journal. This is too large a topic for further development here, but the essential point is that Quaker worship and Quaker church government were both grounded originally on the faith that Christ himself would be present among the people and guide them in how to serve Him.

Second, a great many Quaker Meetings today do not require a statement of Christian belief - or indeed any kind of theological commitment – as a precondition of membership.

In a sense, this open membership policy is consistent with a strand in earliest Quaker thinking – that your ideas or “notions” about God, and your adherence or non-adherence to a written creed are not as important spiritually as your actual experience of God and your faithfulness of that experience. It is also consistent with a general attitude of respect for each person’s spiritual journey and for the honest questions that may coexist with real faith and real love for God and humanity. It may be that a potential member who shies away from definite theological affirmations is nevertheless more firmly on the road to true spiritual worship and spiritual community than someone who has absorbed the letter but not the spirit of the Bible or of the writings of Friends.

In my opinion, however, this diffidence about discussing theological questions with applicants for membership has gone too far in many meetings. As a result it isn’t hard to find Quakers in official good standing who will say without any sense of incongruity or paradox that they are Quakers but not Christians. In many meetings, such Friends are actually a majority. This has to be confusing for anyone who understands the Christian framework that earlier periods of Quakerism always took for granted.

Of course it is possible to be a Quaker without being a Christian. It is also possible to be a Quaker without being a pacifist or to be a Quaker and buy lottery tickets. This doesn’t change the fact that normative Quakerism has a peace testimony and a testimony against gambling. Nor does it change the fact that the witness of Quakerism is that “Christ has come to teach His people Himself.” Any of us in our journeys toward understanding may have to live with contradictions and paradoxes. But when we do we ought to be able to recognize them as such.

I personally am grateful to have been admitted as a member myself while still a seeker who was unsure about Jesus and his relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. I am afraid that rejection of my application on those grounds might have truncated my spiritual growth. At the same time, I am also grateful that those who interviewed me clearly communicated that these were important questions and not matters of indifference. I believe that this should always be communicated to those who wish to join Friends. In my case, I knew that I was joining my life to a Christian tradition and faith, even if my intellect and reason were still having trouble with Christian concepts and beliefs. This paradox seemed possible to me because I felt and trusted the One who some Friends were calling Christ, even though I myself did not know what to call Him. I was grateful for the Meeting’s openness to me, but I did not presume that this was an opportunity to push for a modification of Quakerism’s basic nature in order to fit my preferences.


So…Is Quakerism Christian, or isn’t it?

I have admitted that in many Quaker meetings a majority of the members will say they are not Christians. I have even defended – up to a point – the idea that embracing Christian theology should not be an ironclad criterion of membership. Why, then, do I hang onto the belief that Quakerism is and should be a Christian faith? Why not accept it as a kind of inter-faith spiritual community where no single world religion has any preferred status? Isn’t it overly “exclusionary” and narrow to limit Quakerism by calling it Christian? Or if I want to be in an explicitly Christian group, why don’t I join another denomination that already identifies in that way? Or maybe start or join up with a breakaway group of Friends who reclaim their Christian roots? Let me take those questions one at a time.

1. Why not accept that Quakerism is an inter-faith spiritual community rather than a Christian Church?

This at first glance might seem to be nothing more than realism. If such a question could be settled by a poll, it would be accepted in many meetings that this has already happened. But I don’t believe that this question can be settled in that way. The meetings where the poll might go that way are not in a position to speak for Quakerism as a whole, nor – for the most part – do they really want to divorce themselves from the larger Quaker movement. The seeming rejection of our Christian tradition is so historically recent, so demographically and geographically narrow, and so theologically shallow that I think it is entirely too early for Christian Friends to surrender to it.

The rejection of Christian beliefs among Friends is much more historically recent than many realize. We have already seen that George Fox, Margaret Fell and all of the 17th century Friends were intensely Christian. So was John Woolman, the most widely known Friend in the late 18th century, and so were Elizabeth Fry and other well-known Quaker activists. In fact, almost all Friends from 1648 until well into the 20th century assumed that the Society of Friends was a Christian movement. During the great separations of the 19th century Friends disputed many things – and adherents of each new branch sometimes considered the other branches to be unchristian – but Wilbur, Hicks, Gurney and nearly all their respective followers considered themselves Christians. Elias Hicks would not agree with the “Hicksites” of today who think he was not a Christian. He was, perhaps, a unitarian rather than trinitarian Christian, but he found support for his theological views in the New Testament and was willing to debate them in those terms. Even in the early twentieth century, liberal Quaker leaders like Rufus Jones interpreted Quakerism as a form of Christianity, albeit a “mystical” form.

The rejection of Christian beliefs among Friends is demographically and geographically narrow, in that it is largely confined to certain parts of North America and Europe, and to only a subset of meetings even in North America. Quakerism in Africa, parts of Asia, and South America, not to mention much of the Midwestern United States is still a predominantly Christian phenomenon. The form this Christianity takes may be quite different from anything our Quaker ancestors would recognize, but it also has continuities. If those in liberal meetings can engage in ongoing dialog with other kinds of Quakers there is a chance that we can help each other reclaim lost parts of our heritage. But if liberal meetings decisively reject their Christian identification the remaining bonds of unity may be broken altogether.

Finally, the rejection of Christian beliefs among Friends is (often, but not always) theologically shallow. How many Friends have really heard, understood, and considered the radical and prophetic Christianity that is at the heart of our tradition? How many who think they have rejected it have, in fact, merely rejected some other kind of Christianity learned in some other place?


2. Isn’t it overly “exclusionary” or narrow to limit Quakerism by identifying it as Christian?

I don’t think it is exclusionary in any useful sense of the term for any religion to simply be what it is. Mosques practice Islam. Roman Catholic Churches practice Catholicism. By the same token, Quaker Meetings should practice Quakerism – which is a form of Christianity. Practicing these various faiths doesn’t in itself mean that these religious bodies have to turn their backs on others or shut their doors against them.

Curiously, I have not heard many people argue that it is “exclusionary” for the Religious Society of Friends to uphold its peace testimony, even though the number of the people in the world who profess to be pacifists is far fewer than the number who profess to be Christians (Quakers being one of the few groups who have traditionally taught that Christianity implies pacifism). We seem to understand quite well that it is OK for people with the ideal of pacifism to form a group devoted to pacifism. But for some reason, when we acknowledge that the Quaker peace testimony is at bottom also a Christian testimony some Friends get nervous and want us to underplay that aspect of it.

Our attitude toward pacifism can also illustrate how it is possible to uphold a certain view while remaining open to some who may doubt that view. I have known several Quakers, including some who thought themselves Christian, who didn’t think they could completely endorse Jesus’ teachings about non-violence. Some have thought, for example, that they would probably have joined the military during World War II. They are not thoroughgoing and consistent adherents of the traditional peace testimony of Friends. Nevertheless, they feel close enough to Friends in spirit, and close enough in practice as far as the current world situation is concerned, to feel comfortable as members. Friends can easily accept these members, without surrendering our commitment – as a body – to the peace testimony.


3. Why don’t I join some other Christian Church?

The short answer to this is: “Because I’m a Quaker”. Quakerism is not the same as Roman Catholicism or Methodism or even the Mennonite faith (which I admit comes close). I do not believe that Christ wants me to endorse the views of these other churches when they go against the truth as I see it. Some radical early Quaker positions have since become widely accepted by other Christian groups: the view that Christ died for all, and not just for a predestined few is one example. Other Quaker views are still rejected by almost every other denomination: the view that baptism and communion are inward spiritual realities rather than ritual practices, for example. Most fundamentally, no other church that I know of even attempts to conduct both its worship services and its decision-making meetings directly under divine leadership, without a professional clergy to lead the worship and without voting and other secular procedures to make decisions. The Religious Society of Friends has a testimony to bear that is unique among all sects in Christendom, and I believe my place is within it.


4. Why don’t I start or join up with a break-away group of Friends who reclaim their Christian roots?

Perhaps if I really believed that the Society of Friends I know and love had decisively left Christianity behind I would do something like this. But I don’t believe it has. Over the past thirty years I have sensed a growing interest in the Christian message among Friends and a growing understanding of its centrality to what Quakerism actually is. I have felt the presence of Christ as active among us, even in gatherings where many present would have recognized it only as “the Spirit” and not as His Spirit. I have also witnessed the spirit of division at work and have not been able to see that it in any way serves Christ. During a particularly trying session of New York Yearly Meeting several years ago, I was given a somewhat enigmatic message that I believe to have come from Christ.

“I am not,” He seemed to say to me “the leader of a faction.”

I wish that Hicks and Wilbur and Gurney had heard that message in their day (though of course I understand that the pressures on these prominent ministers were quite different from anything I will ever experience). It may be that I do not fully understand this message myself. But what I hear in it right now is that if I want to follow Christ I should work for unity rather than division among my Friends.

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19 Comments:

Anonymous Zach Alexander said...

Of course it is possible to be a Quaker without being a Christian. It is also possible to be a Quaker without being a pacifist or to be a Quaker and buy lottery tickets. This doesn’t change the fact that normative Quakerism has a peace testimony and a testimony against gambling. Nor does it change the fact that the witness of Quakerism is that “Christ has come to teach His people Himself.” Any of us in our journeys toward understanding may have to live with contradictions and paradoxes. But when we do we ought to be able to recognize them as such.
...
I was grateful for the Meeting’s openness to me, but that I did not presume that this was an opportunity to push for a modification of Quakerism’s basic nature in order to fit my preferences.


YES. There is much to be learned from other religions, and I see no problem (perhaps even less than you) with the existence of Quaker Buddhists and nontheists and so on. I actually see this as 10x more acceptable than breaches of the peace testimoney (as you said, by their fruits will you know them). But to allow these facts to dilute the nature of corporate Quakerism into a religious we-can-tolerate-anything-but-intolerance zone is a mistake. It doesn't do justice to Zen Buddhism or any other religion, let alone Quakerism.

I think Doug Gwyn is getting at something similar in this essay.

9:48 PM, July 08, 2005  
Blogger Joe G. said...

Dear Rich,

I'm glad you took the time to discern and write this lovely post. You may already be familiar with my own struggles along the lines to which I write about: I needed to read this.

As Liz O. might reply, "There's a lot to chew on here." But, it's the kind of chewiness that I presently need. I'm so happy that you articulated this vision and understanding of the unique form of Christianity amongst Friends.

One question: any thoughts about publishing this such as a Pendle Hill pamphlet (something along those lines). This would make for a great article in several (liberal) Friends magazines that I can think of. :)

[As a caveat: wouldn't it be nice to have a compilation of Quaker blog entries over the past year printed up? I'm uncertain exactly whyfore or whofore, but I like the idea of it! :) And I'd definitely want to include this one!]

Anyway, before my imagination of the possibilities gets the best of me, thanks again for following the Guide.

11:21 PM, July 08, 2005  
Blogger Lorcan said...

YIKES!!!!!
No wonder we had to wait so long!!!! It is going to take that long again for me to read this all carefully and comment!!!!!!!!!
Well, good to see you back in the traces... there is a lot to chew on here...
love and light
lor

12:30 PM, July 09, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I'm grateful for all 3 comments posted so far.

Zach's quote from my post revealed to me that there is at least one typo in it: an extra that (shown here in bold) in the sentence "I was grateful for the Meeting’s openness to me, but that I did not presume that this was an opportunity to push for a modification of Quakerism’s basic nature in order to fit my preferences". I will correct it soon.

I'm also grateful to Zach for the link to Doug Gwyn's article. I will add this link to my sidebar.

I certainly agree with Zach in not seeing a problem with "the existence of Quaker Buddhists, nontheists, and so on". In fact, I would hate to think of anyone's existence as a "problem". That said, if "Buddhist" implies "non-Christian" (and I don't know whether Buddhists think it does), then I think it also implies "non-Quaker" and therefore a Quaker Buddhist is someone with two mutually contradictory commitments. This is possible because paradox is possible. But it is a paradox. Ditto only more so for nontheists (though I recognize that "nontheist" is a pretty slippery term and that even so Christian a theologian as Paul Tillich claimed that his God was not the "god of theism").

I also think I see what Zach is driving at in saying that these theological differenes are "more acceptable than breaches of the peace testimony". However, my approach is not to dictate what is acceptable. My approach is to articulate what I think is true.

Beppe's comment is also most welcome. Yes, I am aware that Beppe's blog has mentioned a thirst among Friends for more appreciation of our Christian roots. I'm glad Beppe stopped off at Brooklyn Quaker, and certainly recommend that people visit his blog as well.

As to whether I have thought of publishing my post as a Pendle Hill pamphlet: I haven't had any such thought, but I am intrigued. I'm afraid I don't even know how I would go about exploring the feasibility of this. Ditto for other possible outlets such as the Friends Tract Association, Friends Journal, etc.

I have written an awful lot of stuff over the decades, but have not tried to officially publish very much of it. Mostly, I inflict it on people I know or - now that blogs exist - on whoever it is who reads my blog. One exception is a review I wrote of Barlay's Apology (The Quaker Heritage Press edition, not the Dean Freiday edition) for Quaker Life a couple of years ago or so. I also once wrote to Friends Journal offering to review books on Quakerism from time to time, but they wrote back saying (more or less) that they'd prefer reviews by someone who is more qualified in the field.

And finally, it's good to hear from Lorcan of Plain In the City. I look forward to any comments he may want to make once he's had a chance to read the whole post.

I notice that both Beppe and Lorcan refer to "chewiness" or "chewing" in reference to my post. To each his own. Others may simply want to read it. ;-)
- - Rich

10:29 AM, July 10, 2005  
Anonymous Robin M. said...

How did you know? How did you come to write this the week after my M&O committee decided to have a discussion at Meeting this fall about Are you a Christian? Yes, No or Maybe? I have forwarded copies of this to the rest of our committee, because I think this lays out the range quite nicely, along with a specific opinion that Friends can respond to, depending on their point of view.

"To the extent that these service institutions and schools refer explicitly to Quaker tradition they tend to rely heavily on certain isolated catch phrases such as “that of God in every one”, or on a list of Quaker ethical stands presented as “testimonies”. While this bare-bones version of Quakerism may be somewhat accurate as far as it goes, it hardly scratches the surface of what our faith has meant to generations of Friends or of what it has to offer for seekers. Unfortunately, in the absence of a fuller account from actual Quaker meetings – the worshipping communities that attempt to put Quakerism into daily practice – this superficial picture may become the only picture available."

I won't start on why this is a problem in Quaker schools. Too often, this is all that people get at our Meetings, even after they've been here a while, which leads to the two kinds of suprises on an ongoing basis. I think we fail to speak about what is transformative and challenging about Quaker Meeting because it seems more friendly-like to talk about how much we liked it right from the beginning.

"In my opinion, however, this diffidence about discussing theological questions with applicants for membership has gone too far in many meetings."

This is really a tragedy. I think that becoming a member ought to be a significant point in a person's religious life. A time to express and engage in the deepest theological questions. To consider deeply one's Quaker identity and that of a particular Monthly Meeting. My own membership experience was disappointing. It was rather formulaic and very brief. It was a change in name only, not a time of making a deeper commitment. A willingness to ask applicants real questions and wait for the answers could come easier if we in our Meetings had taken the time to come to some mutual understandings of our Meeting's theology - we could ask better questions if we were not afraid of the answers.

"I personally am grateful to have been admitted myself while still a seeker who was unsure about Jesus ... I did not presume that this was an opportunity to push for a modification of Quakerism’s basic nature in order to fit my preferences."

I didn't want to copy over this whole paragraph but as they say, this Friend speaks my mind. How did you know???

11:27 PM, July 11, 2005  
Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

Thank YOU! I needed this sort of thoughtful, well paced exploration of this topic. As a former evangelical and current Quaker, when asked, I find it challenging to talk about my faith. I used to have all the answers, now the slience speaks for me.

Even so, I some times need to answer the question, "So are you still a Christian?" Perhaps I need to print out your post and hand it out to folks when they ask. Then they might understand my answer better.

Thank you for the time and care you took in writing this post.

11:38 AM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Ahh, it's so nice to be back in the fray! And Rich, your essay reflects a number of comments and questions that were threshed in the workshop on Quaker identity at this year's Gathering...

Here's what I want to respond to. You write:

...the essential point is that Quaker worship and Quaker church government were both grounded originally on the faith that Christ himself would be present among the people and guide them in how to serve Him.

My understanding is that Quaker worship is grounded not only on the belief that Christ himself would be, and is, present to guide us, but also that worship requires the stripping away of all that would interfere with our ability to connect with God and hear God's Word. It seems to me we often forget the spiritual underpinnings to why we do what we do...

(It's worth mentioning here that some of the reminders of why Friends do what we do are included in the new Lloyd Lee Wilson book, Wrestling With Our Faith Tradition, which is a compilation of his presentations and ministry over the past 10 years! Apparently it is so new a volume, that it does not yet appear on the QuakerBooks website. Please do call QuakerBooks, though, at 1-800-966-4556; or email them at "bookstore@fgcquaker.org")

Related to the topic of membership in the Religious Society of Friends, I am struck by how seldom we talk about the place of the conversion experience—the inward transformation that aligns us more fully with the Light, the Living Presence...

It appears that my own membership clearness process was very unconventional, having met a good 4 or 6 times before both I and the committee felt clear to move forward with membership. Perhaps it was the condition that I was in at the time, in which case maybe our meetings are failing our prospective members:

By the time an attender requests membership, are they already feeling "resigned" to do so, rather than being in touch with God's love and guidance, or before having been transformed by a spiritual experience...?

I am learning and re-learning that words are traps for us humans and cannot replace the experience of being graced by the Spirit. Ironically, I am often reminded of this both by nontheists—who speak of their experiences of connectedness and increased goodness among Friends—and by devout Christ-centered Friends, who speak of their belief and witness that reflect what Fox, Penn, and others have called a "primitive Christianity."

Given that Jesus as a historical figure was Jewish, I wonder if his teachings might also reflect a "primitive [or extreme?] Judaism." Sadly, I don't know enough about the religion in which I was raised, to add more than just that final question...

Oh my; there is much to reflect on, weigh, and integrate. Thank you, Rich.

Blessings,
Liz, The Good Raised Up

1:49 PM, July 12, 2005  
Anonymous Chris M. said...

Big dittos on all the positive comments, Rich. Thanks.

How many Friends have really heard, understood, and considered the radical and prophetic Christianity that is at the heart of our tradition? How many who think they have rejected it have, in fact, merely rejected some other kind of Christianity learned in some other place?

This rings very true. A weighty Friend at our meeting corresponded with Robin recently and represented Jesus in a what I had to label an extremely "pietistic" way. I find the Christ Jesus of the RSOF to be much more robust and challenging than that image from churches elsewhere, or the culture generally.

Rich, it also reminds me of something John Maynard said one time in business meeting long ago, when 15th Street was considering some event or other, perhaps with a programed service. John stood up to say he thought there were plenty of other churches that could have such events, but an unprogramed Friends meeting was distinctive and didn't need to do the same.

Beppe said wouldn't it be nice to have a book of blogposts. I agree, and had the same thought the first day I read the Quaker Ranter, and it turned out Martin Kelley had already created a print-on-demand self-published book of posts from his site! It would indeed be interesting to collect and compile essays from numerous Quaker bloggers to publish in a traditional book.

I understand that Lloyd Lee has a clearness committee that helps him discern about right ordering of his writings. (Thanks, Liz, for the tip!) Perhaps Rich should seek such a committee. Or, he could submit a copy of the essay to Pendle Hill's editors and we could write fan letters encouraging them to publish it!

Robin -- whom I met at 15th Street Meeting and who like me first joined RSOF at San Francisco -- posted about her disappointing membership clearness experience. Ditto! I can't even remember who was on my committee. (Well, maybe one person, who hosted a welcome dinner at her house for me.)

Finally, as I finished reading the essay, I was formulating my response, which is going to include a reference to a book co-authored by Doug Gwyn, then I saw Zach's link to Doug's piece (which I haven't read yet).

Anyway, to get a sense of what early Quaker Christianity was like, I highly recommend Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming by Ben Pink Dandelion, Doug Gwyn, and Timothy Peat. Published by Woodbroke in 1998, I believe; not listed on quakerbooks as of now. I found it in my meeting library.

11:27 PM, July 12, 2005  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

This can sometimes be a difficult discussion for me, but I am glad it is being discussed. One of the difficulties I have is that I am a unitarian (if I understand the term correctly). When I pray, I pray with/to God, not Jesus. From Rich's description, that makes me think that I am not a Christian and my evangelical friends, neighbors and family members would probably agree.

I believe that Jesus was opened to the presence of God in such a great way that he was living the will of God. I also believe that it is possible for us to become like Jesus.

My understanding of Quakerism in terms of my beliefs is that we order our lives around the inner guidance of God - we strive to discern and follow God's voice acting in us and to help each other in our discernment. The testimonies flow out of that, but they are not the root of Quakerism.

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?

Rich said:
In fact, I would hate to think of anyone's existence as a "problem". That said, if "Buddhist" implies "non-Christian" (and I don't know whether Buddhists think it does), then I think it also implies "non-Quaker" and therefore a Quaker Buddhist is someone with two mutually contradictory commitments.
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?

3:05 PM, July 15, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I've been reading this week's new comments on this post with eager interest, but have had a hard time carving out the time to respond adequately. Here's a beginning:

Robin M asked "how did [I] know" that this topic was so timely in her meeting? Of course, I didn't know this literally, but I am not suprised. I think it is felt as a timely topic in many meetings right now, and that it would probably be timely in some meeting somewhere at just about any time. I understand Robin is recommending my post as reading material for some other Friends in her meeting. My writer's ego is gratified, and even the bettter parts of me hope that it proves useful.

Many thanks to Peterson Toscano for his comments and also for providing a link to his profile and (through that) to his own quite interesting blog A Musing. I am adding a link to the latter to my sidebar.

I think Liz Opp's question about whether Jesus' teachings might reflect a form of Judaism is very good, and I think the answer is that Jesus was indeed very Jewish and that he felt every part of his message was thoroughly consistent with the Hebrew scriptures. In many cases the things he did and said were seen by both him and his followers as fulfillments of those scriptures. Some parts of the New Testament that we tend to interpret in the light of Greek thought also have roots in Hebrew thought, including most especially the Christian (and Quaker) understanding of what is meant by "The Word" and "The Light", not to mention "covenant", "salvation", and other key concepts.

Chris M (who it's great to hear from, by the way) mentions that he, like Robin M, had a disappointing experience when seeking clearness for membership. I think this illustrates how the "don't ask don't tell" policy toward theology can backfire - leaving some people feeling unchallenged rather than welcomed. At the same time, I hasten to add that what I am recommending for clearness committees is not that they say: "Here's what we believe. Join us if you agree, otherwise forget it!" I'll have more to say about that in response to Mark Wutka's very thoughtful and direct comments and questions. That, however, will be a whole separate post that I hope to have ready in a couple of days. All I will say now is that (1) I by no means take it for granted that a "unitarian" is "not Christian", and (2)I am very glad Mark posted and that he has put his finger exactly on exactly the issues I would like to discuss further.
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

1:21 PM, July 17, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, we can't say that Fox and the early Quakers had a lot of choice about being Christian. In the first place, they had little exposure to other religions. Secondly, they suffered enough for being as different as they were and announcing that they weren't necessarily "Christian" could only have made matters worse.

I don't mean to suggest that early Friends' Christianity was insincere or merely the product of coercion. Rather, it is clear that they didn't choose Jesus Christ as an alternative to say, the Buddha's dharma, or the way of Lao Tzu, the existence of which they were not aware. Principles of inner light, going beyond self-will, charity, etc. were expounded in their world by the Bible almost exclusively.

Nevertheless, Wm. Penn argued that early Friends did not believe that the light of Christ was only available to those who knew of the historical Jesus or who had read the scriptures. Penn cited extensively from the writings of the "Gentiles" (ancient Greeks) to show how similar they were to biblical scripture in spirit. (My source for this is the book 21st Century Penn by Paul Buckley).

Thus it is hard to say what George Fox's stance on, for example, the Buddha Dharma would have been, (although I'd like to think he'd feel at least a spiritual kinship to it).

As you may have gathered, I lean more to the "Universalist" camp. I probably would not have come to Quakerism at all had it been presented as "Christian only" as I did not grow up in a Christian environment and what I heard of it made little sense to me.

Having found my spiritual nourishment largely in Eastern philosophy, I now find myself more open to exploring Quaker Christianity and the Bible in order to explore Friends' spiritual roots and to be conversant with Christian Friends. I expect however, that this will make me a "better" Universalist -- one who is familiar with more of the world's spiritual tradition -- rather than a person who claims to be exclusively "Christian."

In short, Quaker Universalism is a Genie that is not about to go back into the bottle. Rather than arm wrestling over doctrine, I'd rather find the true spirit of unity that has made its appearance in all places over the centuries. Now that would be Christlike indeed!

Dascho

2:18 PM, July 19, 2005  
Blogger Joe G. said...

Dascho,

I realize this is Rich's blog, but I'd like to comment on what you wrote.

Of course, we can't say that Fox and the early Quakers had a lot of choice about being Christian. In the first place, they had little exposure to other religions.

I have read this line of thinking several times by Friends in articles and mostly online. It seems to assume that if early Friends had exposure to other religions, as some of us do today, that they probably would come to another (read: universalist) position. But, we don't know that (and we never will). For example, there are plenty of contemporary Friends who have had exposure to other religions and still choose to identify with the Judeo-Christian tradition as not only the "history" of Friends, but as a very much living part of the Quaker identity and practice.

In short, Quaker Universalism is a Genie that is not about to go back into the bottle. Rather than arm wrestling over doctrine, I'd rather find the true spirit of unity that has made its appearance in all places over the centuries. Now that would be Christlike indeed!

I find it interesting that whenever the subject of some greater uniformity or discipline in faith amongst (usually us liberal Friends), someone has to remind us that no one will stop the universalism that is now amongst Friends. I'm not interested in doing that nor is anyone else that I'm familiar with who yearns for a clearer communal sense of what we believe (beyond our individual experiences).

And why is it un-Christ-like to suggest that we as a community choose to focus on a specific tradition and religious identity. Does that foreclose the possibility of being respectful of other religious traditions? I think not. Hey, if Buddhists can have compassion towards all beings while living (typically) a disciplined life of study and focus within their own tradition, I think Quakers can do the same thing.

1:22 AM, July 22, 2005  
Anonymous Dascho said...

"I have read this line of thinking several times by Friends in articles and mostly online. It seems to assume that if early Friends had exposure to other religions, as some of us do today, that they probably would come to another (read: universalist) position. But, we don't know that (and we never will)."

My comment wasn't really an attempt to divine what they would have chosen, although usually when people have more choices, they tend to make them. Rather, I think we need to be careful about arguing that in order to be authentically Quaker, we must limit ourselves to what Friends in the 1600s knew about religion. Perhaps noone here was really taking that position, although some of the other posts gave me that impression. Just as it would (probably)be impossible for early Friends to think about how the Gospel mirrors the Upanishads, it would be impossible for me not to think about it. I've had exposure to something they didn't and it has affected me profoundly. This means that in some important ways I can't be like them -- although in other ways I can.

"I find it interesting that whenever the subject of some greater uniformity or discipline in faith amongst (usually us liberal Friends), someone has to remind us that no one will stop the universalism that is now amongst Friends. I'm not interested in doing that nor is anyone else that I'm familiar with who yearns for a clearer communal sense of what we believe (beyond our individual experiences)."

I'm glad to hear that, and see my question below with respect to Universalists and bottles.

"And why is it un-Christ-like to suggest that we as a community choose to focus on a specific tradition and religious identity. Does that foreclose the possibility of being respectful of other religious traditions? I think not."

If my post implied that anyone here is un-Christ-like, then apologies all around! But efforts to establish religious boundaries historically have run from the bloody to the mild, and I'd assume your wishes would run more to the latter. But I'd be interested in how you plan to reconcile "we as a community" choosing a narrower (and I don't mean that pejoratively) focus than a universalist one, with not wanting to put the U's back in the bottle -- or send us packing? I'm not attempting to be argumentative here, its a question that genuinely interests me. What are we going to do with each other? :)

"Hey, if Buddhists can have compassion towards all beings while living (typically) a disciplined life of study and focus within their own tradition, I think Quakers can do the same thing."

Of course they can. I'd like to do a lot more of that myself -- focus on Quaker Christianity, that is. I wonder though, did Christ really say, "be a Christian?" There's a problem with identifying ourselves as "thises" and "thatses" -- it tends to create divisions among people that lead to strife. It also tends to (overly) narrow us spiritually -- God may call me to go "there" but my self-limiting labels might not allow it.

And, studying the religions of other cultures can be revelatory in itself. By doing so, we can see God working "there" as well as "here." Why tell God that his light can only come through to us from the Western window, not the Eastern one?

The original post is partly directed to non-Christian Friends "freaking" over the use of Christian language. In answer to the question, "what is it" with them, I'm sure we can all think of a fairly good list of answers deriving from the ill-tempered manner in which such Friends may been exposed to Christian teachings in their churches of origin. Were I a decidedly Christian Quaker, I would try to understand that and treat them with kindness and patience, and I have no doubt that that is the prevailing approach of many (hopefully most) Christian Friends. At the same time, it would seem rather untoward of me to insist that the spiritual descendants of Fox should shelve their Bibles and forswear its language! What kind of Universalist would I be if I did that, after all?

I think one thing I have in common with other post-ers in this topic is a desire to take our religious lives seriously. I am certainly cognizant of the "salad bar" critique of Universalism -- that it never goes deeply into anything because its focused on "everything." That's a danger, but not, in my view, an insurmountable or even a necessary one. But enough of my notions for now!

Dascho

4:34 PM, July 22, 2005  
Blogger Joe G. said...

Dascho,

You may not realize it, but there are several concerns that are expressed to Friends who share their concerns about the lack of a more explicit Christian identity for (liberal) Friends. There seems to be an assumption that to hope for a re-emergence of a more explicitly Jesus/Christ-centered Quakerism means -

a. all other religions are wrong
b. we can't learn anything from other religions
c. that we are ignoring the pain of those who have suffered at the hands of other Christian denominations.

None of these are being suggested by myself or by Rich or any other Friends with the same desire and hopes.

I see the issue as being those who hope for, what I label, a more "literalist" and "concrete" version of universalism (note that I don't capitlize this word since there is an actual Universalist Church, which I don't mean to refer to here). These are the folks who believe that honoring all traditions means that therefore Friends must give equal weight to those traditions. I've known of Meetings that have been encouraged to add ritual, such as observing the four seasons ala Neo-Paganism, into their Meetings for Worship. (Of course, if there had been the suggestion of adding the Christian rite of communion there would have been far more gnashing of the teeth).

There is a reason that Friends came to the conclusions they did about peace, the equality of all people, of integrity and simplicity. These did not come from any other source than their real, experienced relationship with God, which they were able to confirm in the Bible, the teachings of the prophets, and the life and teachings of Jesus. If we, as contemporary Friends, were to give all "paths" equal weight and influence on our community, than a unique, specifically western, Judeo-Christian tradition would be lost.

I am a Friend because I try to follow the life and teachings of Jesus, of the Jewish prophets that are known in the Hebrew/Ot, as understood by Quakers.

Of course there are those who have suffered, as I previously noted, from Christianity. You are reading exhibit #1. Thank God for Friends! Nonetheless, there was a need to fully heal from the pain caused by my previous experiences with other denominations. Sure, it's great that Quakers can be a refuge; but that's not enough for people or they risk getting "stuck" in the pain, shame, blame stuff. As a community, there's nothing wrong with encouraging others to move beyond that, even at the risk of being labelled rejecting or intolerant.

And every group has it's "rules" as to who is in and who is out, every group has its "bottom-line" or "deal breakers". Just try and be a Republican in a few Meetings that I've attended and been a member of. :)

Is that a fair characterization? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But, my point is that every community has its boundaries or it wouldn't be a community. My concern is that we have become too diffuse in what makes for someone to be a Quaker and what doesn't. It's not enough just to say, "that of God in everyone" or "a God of each person's own understanding". I've often complained that some Friends groups have too many essentials as to who is in or out; but we liberal Friends have too few.

And Jesus didn't say "be a Christian" - of course not. But neither did the Buddha say, "Be a Buddhist" either. But, people still choose to live their lives according to the tradition that surrounds the one named the Buddha.

Rich just offered some other great thoughts about this topic in his most recent post/reply. I think I've written enough of my own notions for now.

10:01 PM, July 24, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beppe,

I appreciate your thoughtful response. From a "praxis" point of view, I would definitely not want to add pagan rituals, or place a statute of Buddha in the meeting house! At that point I'd be willing to provide an address to the nearest coven or sangha to anyone wanting that sort of experience.

I might have a second hour workshop on the Buddha's teachings (and would really dig it if it was a sort of compare/contrast with the teachings of Jesus), and I would not want to see anyone eldered for vocal ministry inspired by a Taoist text, for example. I'm not saying you would (or wouldn't), -- I guess I'm just asking where you "draw the line" (generally speaking) on the identity issue.

"It's not enough just to say, 'that of God in everyone' or 'a God of each person's own understanding.'"

What would be enough? At a certain level of generality, I agree with you. I'm not opposed to people having their own understanding nor do I want to impose an "understanding" on anyone. Quakerism is an experiential religion and involves being taught from within. If someone tells me that his "understanding" is that God is the stuffed turtle on his dresser at home and that's where he gets his marching orders, I'd willingly make the distinction between that and Quakerism. If he tells me that he feels a powerful loving presence guiding him from within, and an image of a turtle appears when this happens rather than a man in a robe, I might suggest going beyond (not getting stuck on) whatever the image is -- that grace itself can't be captured in the minds eye, only represented there inadequately.

Dascho

12:11 PM, July 25, 2005  
Anonymous Brian Doherty said...

Rich wrote "What Christian Friends can do, however, is to labor to be so grounded in God that our words and actions draw life from the Holy Spirit we seek to serve". This quote spoke to my condition. I believe that many conflicts within our meetings (over theological and other matters) could be healed with more faithfulness. Easy resorting to labels (ie. Christian and universalist) leads to conflicts, the construction of strawperson arguments and a failure to answer that of God in another.

In a later post, Rich wrote "That said, if "Buddhist" implies "non-Christian" (and I don't know whether Buddhists think it does) then I think it also implies "non-Quaker" and therefore a Quaker Buddhist is someone with two mutually contradictory commitments."

Robert Barclay wrote powerfully in opposition to the common belief that non-Christians could not be saved despite the near impossibility (at that time) of non-Christians learning of the historical Jesus through the Scriptures. I'm sure that Rich and I agree that a Buddhist or any other member of another faith tradition faithful to the Light within can be "saved" despite a failure to acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord. In the same manner, I believe that a meeting can reach unity and be faithful to the will of God despite an inability to agree on a label for the Light.

As Liz Opp beautifully stated: "I am learning and re-learning that words are traps for us humans and cannot replace the experience of being graced by the Spirit." I truly believe that Spirit is the Light of Christ while my wife calls that Light Buddha. As Fox often wrote, the Light gave forth the Scriptures and were before them. What matters is the life transforming experience of the Spirit and not how one labels it.

Richard, thank you for raising these issues in your blog. I feel that it isd highly important for Quakers to acknowledge their Christian roots while also acknowledging the reality of Christian and non-Christian members of our society. In that respect, we are similar to the early Christians who endured conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. This multiplicity of views can actually be seen as a strength of our Society. The division of Friends into factions does not indicate a common experience of the Spirit but a short sighted obsession with labels that often lack meaning.

I pray that we stay grounded in the Light and trust that the Spirit will unite us and overcome the divisions that often arise among us.

10:21 PM, July 26, 2005  
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1:37 PM, October 09, 2005  
Anonymous Samaw said...

@Mark Wutka said...

When I pray, I pray with/to God, not Jesus. From Rich's description, that makes me think that I am not a Christian and my evangelical friends, neighbors and family members would probably agree.

I believe that Jesus was opened to the presence of God in such a great way that he was living the will of God. I also believe that it is possible for us to become like Jesus.
-------------

Hm, without Jesus it is not possible for mortal man to go to God. It is only through Jesus Christ that we can go to God. Do not dwell in bad theology. Better not to take risk in beliefs. For there is only one mediator between God and man that is Jesus Christ. It is not possible for you to become like Jesus unless you follow him, have faith in him and walk in his footsteps.

Frankly speaking you are not Christian. If you think you are Christian better to follow what Christ taught.

1:56 PM, July 02, 2008  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I'm grateful to Samaw for posting to my blog, since no one else (including me) has done so in quite awhile.

I think he's being a bit hard on Mark Wutka, though. Mark is in pretty good company if he prays to God rather than to Jesus, and I'm not so sure that makes him non-Christian. I seem to recall that a famous prayer by Jesus himself is addressed to "our Father" rather than "the Son".

I agree with Samaw that it's only through Christ that we can go to God, but if Mark is really hoping to be "like Christ" and to try to do God's will, then who am I (or Samaw) to say that Christ won't be guiding him.

And, no, I am not contradicting here anything said in the post above, which I still stand by.

- - Rich

2:20 PM, July 02, 2008  

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