Would George Fox Be a Christian Today?
note: This post was slightly edited on 8/1/2005 to remove some typos in the version posted originally and to improve on word-choice in a couple of instances.I am really excited by all the discussion on the last few posts regarding the relationship of Christianity to Quakerism. Not only are we discussing questions very close to the heart, but we seem to be doing it while retaining a degree of mutual respect and civility that can sometimes be forgotten in this kind of discussion. The only downside is that I find I cannot possibly keep up with everything said, respond to all the questions, and weigh in on every issue raised. Or maybe that's not a downside. Maybe it means that I should just be glad to have started the conversation and be willing at some point to just sit back and listen as it continues.
But before I sit back...there are at least two general issues I'd like to write about. One is the hypothetical question as to whether George Fox and the early Friends just happened to be Christian because they were surrounded by others who were Christian, or whether the Christian focus of their message was an essential part of it. The other (which I will save for a separate post) is a cluster of questions brewing in my own mind by what is meant by the concept of a meeting (or other religious body) being "universalist" rather than committed to a particular religion.
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.
Beppe replied to this that
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.
I think I would go a little farther than Beppe here. Of course, there is a sense in which we "can't know" what would have been true in a situation that never existed. All we can do is make our assumptions about it. But why do we make this particular thought-experiment about early Friends and not about other groups that called themselves "Christian"? Would Francis of Assissi have tried to follow Christ if he had not been born in a culture that claimed to be Christian? Would Martin Luther? Would John Calvin? Why are we more ready to entertain this possibility when we think of George Fox than when we think of these other figures? I suspect it's because our notion of what Christianity is owes a lot more to the history of Western Christendom than to the Gospel itself.
As for George Fox, let's not forget that he "heard a voice" that told him "there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." So he at least believed that it was not his society that led him to Christ, but the very voice of God himself, the same God who in so many things led him to directly oppose the customs and assumptions of English society.
Consider, too, that Christianity in Fox's time had 1600 years of experience interacting with other religions and that in many respects it had been very open to them, incorporating into Christian practice the customs and observances of both Judaism and the polytheisms of ancient Rome and Greece. These influences showed themselves in everything from the veneration of saints (who were often treated in popular piety much like pagan gods), to the observance of pagan holidays under Christianized names such as Christmas and Easter. What distinguished George Fox and the early Friends from other Christian groups of their time (and our time) was not their greater tolerance for such inter-faith borrowing but their complete and utter rejection of it. Hence their use of the phrase "the time called Christmas", their insistence on talking about "First Day", "Second Day", etc. rather than "Sunday", and "Monday".
Finally, though of course Fox didn't know about Hinduism or Buddhism and even his knowledge of Islam was limited, he was not entirely ignorant of the existence of non-Christian religions and not entirely prejudiced against them. In one of his epistles he criticized establishment Christians by pointing out that they were less tolerant of each other than "the Turk" (i.e. the ruler of the Ottoman empire) who, although a Moslem, allowed Jews and Christians to also practice their religions and have their own sabbath days.
Of course, what Dascho may have been getting at is that whatever Quakerism was in George Fox's time does not necessarily dictate what it will be in ours. I agree, and in fact I would not want to return to Fox's attitude about art, for example. But the centrality of Jesus in Quakerism is - to my mind - much more fundamental than that. Whether Quakerism of the future will maintain that central focus is something that will be decided as we go along by the way we act and what we say. I am determined that for whatever they are worth my actions and my words will contribute to keeping, not losing, that focus.