Thursday, July 28, 2005

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.

Dascho 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. 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.

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15 Comments:

Blogger parcequilfaut said...

I tried to find e-mail to ask you this, because it's fairly tangential to your above point, but I've been trying to find the answer to this question for a minute, ever since I decided that I needed to stop identifying with the church that baptized me in a way that didn't entirely belie my Christian identity. Thus far I have had no success.

You said:
But the centrality of Jesus in Quakerism is - to my mind - much more fundamental...

When you use the word "centrality", are you indicating that Jesus' path is not the sole path, merely the one Quakers focus on as a vehicle for understanding? Or that while God reveals to all people, the revelation is most complete when in complement with Jesus' teachings? Or both, or neither, or something Entirely Different?

I have to understand the "Quaker model" and where Jesus stands in it before I seek any further on this path (and I'm not just asking you, but I'm trying to get a sample to see what, if any, range of understanding I can achieve). Sorry to ask it in an only tangentially related place, and not privately. (If you'd prefer, you can delete this comment and email me at parcequilfaut@yahoo.com instead.)

4:32 PM, July 31, 2005  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

Rich, as you compose your thoughts about Universalism, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the idea that you can be a universalist but still be committed to a particular religion. It seems like universalism gets this reputation of just being a melting pot of all religions, or the infamous "salad bar", but there are plenty of people who would consider themselves universalists who practice a particular religion and think that it is probably better to stick with a well-defined tradition rather than try to piece things together. I am using the term "universalist" as someone who doesn't believe that there is one specific religion that is the path to God.

9:24 PM, July 31, 2005  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

The question of whether George Fox would be a Christian today is rather difficult and so speculative that I'm not sure that the answer is beneficial, although I seems like the journey towards the answer is helpful.

Going back to our discussion about whether Gandhi would feel spiritually nourished by Quakers, you might ask the question of whether George Fox would have been a Christian if he was living in India at the time.

As Rich points out, it was the voice of God that led George Fox to Christ. Was that because Christ is the only path, or because that was the path that George was best familiar with after having read the bible thoroughly (or other reasons of familiarity)?

The phrase "there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition" seems to come up a lot in discussions like this. I would like to point out two things about it - first, that Christ is referred to in the third person. It isn't "I, Christ Jesus, am the only one.." Second, it says "thy" condition, not all conditions. I dislike picking apart phrases like this, I only bring it up to point out that while it might be taken as such, it does not incontravertably mean that Christ is the only path.

I hope that Rich might expound a bit on the phrase But the centrality of Jesus in Quakerism is - to my mind - much more fundamental than that.

I could take this statement of Rich's several ways. One is "the centrality of the divine spirit that guides us all, which I know as Jesus Christ, in Quakerism ...". If stated that way, I believe I could unite with it. I get the feeling, though, that Rich would not, because it would be a watered-down version of his concept. Perhaps I am wrong.

Another way of taking it is "knowing God as Jesus Christ is central to Quakerism". This gets back to the creedal discussion, and I think it is a difficult discussion that will probably end in the agreement to disagree. However, "knowing God through Jesus Christ.." might not imply a specific creed, with the assumption that regardless of whether Jesus is or is not God, he leads us to God.

It might be constructive for all of us if Rich has the time to describe his conception of a Quakerism with Jesus at the center. What would change from right now to get to that point? Membership? Practices? Beliefs? Vocal ministry? I know that's a lot to ask, but I think it might give a better illustration.

10:32 PM, July 31, 2005  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hi Rich,
Thanks for another thoughtful post. At this stage in my Quakerism I've gotten to the point where I have to chuckle at this perennial question. I don't know how you can read more than a page or two of Fox without realizing how deeply, irretrivably Christian he is.

There's something very patronizing and dismissive of this ahistorical what-if game. The implication is that poor little Georgie Fox just didn't know the options and wouldn't have been stuck in his little world if he lived today. That gives us the right to dismiss anything he says that we don't want to hear. Taking him out of history turns him into a cartoon character. If you don't want to engage with the real George Fox, the fellow who lived in a particular place and culture, then that's fine. But don't pretend that if only he wasn't him he'd be you.

(As an aside Rich, I think many Friends do treat other religious figures this way: look at all the Quakers who love the old Catholic mystics (St Francis, Brother Lawrence) but put down Roman Catholicism.)

We too live in a particular place and time and have multiple cultural influence shaping our language and our perceptions of the world. That's okay. Really.

But the Christ that speaks to us today is the same that spoke to Fox, which is the same that spoke to the prophets of old. This is a fundamental bedrock of Quakerism: the idea that history isn't over and that Christ has come to teach the people himself. The words we use to name that Holy Spirit might be different today (and arguably can be described using non-Christian language) but that experience is the same.

There are Friends today who really wish that the first couple of hundred years of Quakerism hadn't occured. That's what we're talking about here, isn't it? With a slight of hand, inconvenient history is rhetorically swept aside. I don't want to return to 17th Century Quakerism but I think those of us calling ourselves Quakers need to have it as one of our major cultural influences. That means taking George Fox for who he was. We don't have to fall in lockstep with him, but please let's not patronize him. Take him or leave him, but make a choice and be honest about it.

If we are more influenced by the concepts, ideas and language of 20th Century religious liberalism, then just let call ourselves 20th Century religious liberals. There's nothing wrong with that, it's become an honorable tradition in itself. We don't need to hoist the banner of George Fox (or Gandhi or St Francis or even Christ) if that's not our parade.

11:46 AM, August 01, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks to Mark Wutka and Martin Kelley for their comments, which I hope to do more justice to later.

I particularly want to thank parcequilfaut (a newcomer to Broklyn Quaker) for her comment/question and to say that it doesn't seem tangential to me at all. The original post is part of an ongoing conversation about the relationship of Quakerism to Christianity. My position is that Christ is central to Quakerism, and it is certainly fair to ask what I mean by "central" or "centrality", and to ask whether I feel Jesus is the "only path".

I'm glad, though, that she says she is also asking for other people's opinions on where Jesus stands in the "Quaker model". I would feel very uncomfortable if a seeker's whole decision about whether to explore Quakerism further hinged on my individual opinion.

I will start with the "only path" question: It is obvious that there are many many paths through life. Some paths lead to God and some -- at least as far along them as we can see -- do not. (Some, as we've seen all too clearly in the past 100 years, lead people to exploit, murder, torture, oppress and humiliate each other and nature). The paths that lead to God and to the Kingdom of Heaven may start from very different places but since they are leading to the same place they will at some point converge. I believe that as they reach their ultimate goal, if not before, they will come together in Christ Jesus. This will not be my Jesus or your Jesus or the Jesus of the West or the Jesus of Quakerism or the Jesus of any particular denomination or religion, including the religion of Christianity. It will just be Jesus.

So in this sense I do indeed believe that Jesus is "the only way" to God. But I seldom use those words because the non-Christian who hears them (or even the Christian who loves a non-Christian) may falsely interpret them to mean that God is going to reject people and exclude them from the Kingdom because of their theological opinions or cultural background or the groups they are affiliated with. I don't claim to have any knowledge at all of who will ultimately come to God through Christ and who, if anyone, will not. I don't claim to know whether when that happens it has to happen explicitly and consciously or on a deeper more hidden level. I don't claim to know whether it always happens in this life or whether it happens at the instant of "passing" to another life in which the person comes face to face with God.

All of the above, notice, is my belief and opinion. Many Quakers, including many Christian Quakers, would have a different opinion. As far as I know, early Quakers didn't really address this question at all in these particular terms. They focussed on how best to be joined with Christ, how to hear Him, know Him and serve Him, how to bring their lives into harmony with his, and how to witness for Him both individually and in their corporate life as a church community. Speculation about non-Christian paths and where they might lead was not a pressing concern for them.

This was probably not a complete answer. Perhaps I can do better later. But I hope it helps.

- - Rich

9:21 AM, August 02, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I'm afraid my response to Mark will have to wait a little longer. He asks very good questions that tend to make me generate very long answers.

Responding to Martin is a tad eaier, if only because Martin and I seem to mostly agree with each other about this topic.

Martin says:
At this stage in my Quakerism I've gotten to the point where I have to chuckle at this perennial question. I don't know how you can read more than a page or two of Fox without realizing how deeply, irretrivably Christian he is.

This speaks my mind. I suspect that some [not all, I hasten to add] non-Christians who see Fox as man of like mind with them may not have actually read his writings. During my early years as a Friend I did occasionally run into folks (including a member of Ministry and Oversight at 15th Street) who tried to steer seekers away from reading Fox because they considered his "language" (i.e. his ideas) to be archaic and off-putting. The bland summaries of Fox's message that appear in some outreach literature do not to my mind make him more "accessible", just less interesting and laregly unrecognizeable.

Martin starts to lose me though when he says:
There's something very patronizing and dismissive of this ahistorical what-if game. The implication is that poor little Georgie Fox just didn't know the options and wouldn't have been stuck in his little world if he lived today. That gives us the right to dismiss anything he says that we don't want to hear.

Here the topic is no longer what George Fox believed or what you and I believe, but what are the motives of those who question our views on those things. I can feel and to some degree I share the frustration behind this comment, but I think it indulges in a bit more mind-reading than I am comfortable with. I'm going to assume that questions raised either here or in Quaker bull-sessions anywhere are raised in sincerity and with a desire to dialogue. I may have heard the "He-wouldn't-be-a-Christian-if-he-lived-today" idea 70 times 7 times and may have worked out my own seemingly definitive answer, but for the Friend who offers the argument today (Dascho, for instance) it may still be a fresh idea or an unsettled question. And in the ensuing dialogue I, too, may still hear a fresh angle on it.

In this context, I think the example of Friend Lewis Benson is a good one to emulate. Lewis knew more about George Fox than just about anybody in his time, having read and annotated just about everything Fox wrote at a time when most Friends knew only the journal and only an abbreviated and watered-down version of that. (or maybe knew only the George Fox song!) He also had very strong and controversial views about the relevance of Fox's theology for contemporary Quakerism.
Some Friends found Lewis to be dogmatic and excessively opinionated. I did, too, at times. BUT from my limited observation of him it appeared that he was tireless about answering questions and considering arguments from those who disagreed with him. It seems to me that this quality of patience and respect immensely multiplied his influence and importance as an interpreter of early Quakerism. So I think we all (even the "Quaker ranters" among us) would do well to adopt the same attitude insofar as we are able.

1:04 PM, August 03, 2005  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

I think that part of the reason that these discussions about George Fox come up is that he did live in a little different world than we do today. Friends today struggle to apply the experiences of early Friends to what we face today. We do the same thing with Jesus, and the prophets (I notice that nobody seems to have trouble with Jesus or the prophets not being Christian). I think we have a little less trouble recognizing the situational differences with them because they spoke a different language, lived in a much different culture and lived much longer ago.

I don't want to erase or ignore George's Christianity, it is so very much a part of him. It is wrong to try to drag George into the 21st century and leave his language and culture back in the 17th, but I also think that you can't drag him along with his 17th century language and culture and just plop him down in the 21st century and say "Here's George, this is how we should talk, act and believe." Just as a tiny example, I think the "thee and thou" language is antiquated. It belonged to a time when there was a distinction between formal and informal addresses, which is still present in other languages today. We don't speak that way now. It seems to me that "thee and thou" have now become a vanity. Now if you're speaking Spanish, perhaps the Quakerly thing to do us always use "tu", or in German "du".

There is some balance necessary. You can't just throw away the things you don't like, but I also don't think you can just keep everything. As willing as people seem to ignore George's Christianity, they seem more willing to ignore the miracles he performed. My feeling is that the most important thing about George is not his identity as a Christian but his "walking in the Light" -- his direct communion with the Divine and living according to God's will. Thus, he was able to perform wondrous healings, through the same spirit that was in Jesus. It's fine that he spoke the way he did, I'm not suggesting that we ignore that, just as it is fine that Rich and Martin and everyone else speak of their experience of God through the words of their beliefs.

Again, my understanding of Quakerism is that our goal is to live the will of God, as a community, trying to discern and hear that inner voice, and help each other with that discernment. It is a religion of doing, which is what sets it apart from mainstream Christianity. It is not about what you believe about God, it's that you listen and obey God. You might call that "universalist" and suggest that I open a salad bar, but I think it is very specific. The Quaker universalists don't emphasize Quaker practice because they can't deal with the Christianity of early Friends, they emphasize practice because they believe that's the most important thing. That's also why I often bring up Gandhi. Would you not want someone like him in your meeting because he might speak of God differently? The reasons people presented for Gandhi not feeling spiritually nourished by the Quakers would probably be just as true of Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. Frankly, I think that Gandhi would probably find a lot of parallels between "No Cross, No Crown" and "Baghavad Gita", to the extent that they talk about self-sacrifice and dying to self.

In response to Rich's original post, Beppe wrote:
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.

I think it is interesting that Beppe chose Buddists, because that is another religion that emphasizes doing over believing. And I believe that Quakers can do the same thing. We have our faith and our practice, and that is the tradition we should follow. To the extent that emphasizing/requiring a specific set of beliefs, expressions, scriptures gets in the way of the direct relationship with the divine, I believe that it would be un-Christ-like.

9:45 PM, August 03, 2005  
Blogger Paul L said...

Wouldn't it be more revealing to ask, "Would Jesus be a Jew today?"

12:36 PM, August 05, 2005  
Anonymous Dascho said...

I'd like to reiterate that I'm not really interested in establishing what George Fox's religion would be if he were alive today. Rather, I was responding to the idea that Quakers today must be Christian in order to be "authentic" Friends. My sense is that early Friends were "on to" something much deeper than merely being a member of "this" or "that" religion. And I believe that Friends today can access that "something" without identifying it with Jesus.

As I've said already, I certainly don't mean that Friends today should not be Christians. I hope that if they are however, they can welcome and understand that others may find the "Christ within" by other names, or no name at all.

On a personal note, I do at times identify with Christ as the teacher within, and take inspiration from Jesus' teachings. Reading George Fox and Wm. Penn has just rubbed off on me, I guess! However, I don't feel a need to identify myself as exclusively or "mainly" Christian in order to be a Friend of the Light. Nor do I want to make that a requirement for others who may be drawn to the Light but not a particular religious mental map.

Finally, I would like to echo Rich's appreciation for those Friends who have discussed this issue in a thoughtful and respectful manner.

Dascho

1:29 PM, August 05, 2005  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

I would also like to thank people for their thoughtful comments, civil discussion, and understanding.

That being said, I thought my last post got a little harsh towards the end. At least it sounded that way to me. I would like to apologize for that.

7:52 PM, August 05, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

" I may have heard the "He-wouldn't-be-a-Christian-if-he-lived-today" idea 70 times 7 times and may have worked out my own seemingly definitive answer, but for the Friend who offers the argument today (Dascho, for instance) it may still be a fresh idea or an unsettled question. And in the ensuing dialogue I, too, may still hear a fresh angle on it."

Thanks for that, Rich. As an aside, I had never heard the argument from any other source before. Guess I'm not the original thinker I thought I was!

Also, just to clarify, I'd like to characterize my argument as "he-might-well-not-have-been-a-Christian" rather than "would not have been." Or possibly "might not have been a Christian who would insist that all Quakers must be Christians." And I view that as a compliment to Ol' George rather than a patronizing dismissal! Far from being "stuck in his little world," he transcended the religious limitations of the existing order and saw deeply into the spiritual reality of our existence. A true Yogi! :)

Dascho

11:42 AM, August 06, 2005  
Blogger James Chang said...

Mary Fisher's missionary trip to Constantinople somehow cast light on early Friends' attitudes towards other faiths. Mary did not rule out the possibility that Islam is indeed trustworthy, and that Muhammad was indeed the Seal of the Prophets. Instead, she exhorted the Sultan of Turkey to examine inwardly through the lens of God's Spirit the doctrines of Islam, and of Christianity.

Regarding her own belief, the only thing she could say was that she had tasted the goodness of Christ, and that she had not done the same with Islam. Shouldn't this be true to all Christians? In the sense that we see that of God in other religions but we haven't tasted the fullness of it? Otherwise wouldn't we have converted?

Karl Barth's notion of "lesser Lights" came to mind.

In another sense if we were to conclude that the Bible is the Word of God (as Protestants do) and that Christians know everything about about God and salvation that others don't, we miss the point. God is undefinable, and any attempt to define him/it/her is blasphemous. That's why he refused to even give his name to Moses, or allow him to see him in face, lest Moses "die." So there is some elbow-room here, so to speak.

1:14 PM, August 22, 2005  
Blogger James Chang said...

For some reason the comment I just wrote wasn't posted, after I clicked the "Login" button.

I think Friends could perhaps look to the ministry of Mary Fisher in Constantinople 1657, to have a taste of early Friends' attitudes toward other faiths.

In my original post I spelled it all out, although now I feel I need to address something else first. Namely, that in many "inclusive" circles where texts from different faith traditions are studied (the Unitarians come immediately to mind), they are studied in a highly superficial fashion. For example, Dao De Jing, the canon of Daoism written by Laozi (or Lao Tsu), has often been treated as some kind of self-help booklet among New Age people I know.

1:30 PM, August 22, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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7:00 AM, October 13, 2005  
Blogger Abdul-Halim V. said...

This is a really interesting post. I often think about the relationship between universalism and particularity... it is always a tricky line to navigate...

you might be interested in
the light of muhammad or moore organized religion or other posts on the subject.

I think the idea of light/logos seems particularly relevant. The light is one, but we find it by fllowing a particular method.

1:53 PM, April 12, 2007  

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