I continue to find gems in the most recent issue of Spark, the New York Yearly Meeting Newsletter.
The following is a letter in that issue from John Edminster, and refers to an article by Christopher Sammond in the November issue
that is also well worth reading. Here is John's letter (I hope I'm not violating any rights of New York Yearly Meeting by quoting it in full).
The Still, Small Voice
I was delighted to find Christopher Sammond wrestling with the question "What Do Friends Believe?" in the November Spark. Not only is it embarrassing to Friends not to be able to answer such a question from an outsider clearly, but it cannot help but weaken us spiritually not to be able to articulate what we instinctually feel to be a core faith that unites us. I applaud Christopher's groundbreaking work.
Christopher asserts that we share two central beliefs: (a) that there's That of God in each of us (call It what you will), and (b) that It can lead and guide us. I'd like to subtract a little from his statement of the first core belief, and add a little to the second. There are theological "minimalists" among us who avoid making any assumptions about what It is that leads and guides us, and might be more comfortable with our speaking of "the still, small voice." To speak of a "voice" refers merely to the experience of contact, which I think we all agree it's possible to have. To speak of the voice's Source or Owner is to make an ontological assumption that there's a He, She, or It speaking. I make that assumption when I answer the "voice" (rarely a voice for me, but more often a sense of holy presence) by addressing it as "God" or "Lord Jesus." But the Quaker sitting next to me who makes no such assumptions is not a worse Friend for her scrupulousness about avoiding assumptions; she may be a better one—if she's a better obeyer of that voice.
What I'd want to add to Christopher's formulation of the second central belief is that the still, small voice not only can lead and guide us, but we ought to let it lead and guide us. We who have experienced its promptings vividly know that when it expresses itself, we feel its absolute authority. (I am just now remembering a moment of temptation when I heard the Voice say "No!" to my impulse, with dreadful majesty.) Without this shared belief in the "oughtness" of following the holy prompting there could be no Quakerism. We might quickly become a club of flabby admirers of saintliness that made no effort to be saintly ourselves, and with no agreed-on basis for discipline grounded in our living experience of authoritative inward spiritual guidance, the Society of Friends would soon be no more than an umbrella organization of individuals that liked to call themselves Quakers for as many reasons as there were members.
Before I touch on our testimonies I'd like to add a third element: a central belief in the truthfulness, consistency and self-identity of the still, small voice. By this I mean that we would not accept it if a Friend that we were trying to discipline snapped back at us, "Well, you have your still, small voice, and I have mine!" No, light is light, and it shows things as they are. Nor would we fail to suspect a counterfeit if the still, small voice that rebuked our sins today winked at them tomorrow. The Heavenly Guide may keep me on a longer or shorter leash than It keeps you (as Paul recognized in Romans 14), but It will not contradict Itself when regulating our collective life: if two Friends bring incompatible directions to the community that defy a higher synthesis, one or both of the Friends must be wrong! Thus Friends indeed have a belief behind their tradition of collective discernment, that while individual Friends may be more or less accurate in their perception of the truth, there is an objective truth to be gotten at, which the still, small voice leads to.
And there is a Oneness to that voice. By this I mean that we Friends would —or most of us would—reject any world-view that ascribed mutually independent, multiple sources to our holy guidance: "What concord hath Christ with Belial?" (2 Cor: 6:15) Those who wish to make no assumptions about the Source of our guidance would, at least, refrain from imputing different Friends' guidance to, say, separate familiar spirits—or else risk serious confrontation with monotheist Friends.
As to our testimonies: Christopher is right that they "follow" from Quakerism's core beliefs, but they cannot be derived from our core beliefs by reasoning alone. They would not have been received by us without some tendering of the heart by the Holy Spirit —or whatever Friends wish to call It. How can we proud human egos hold to the testimony of equality, for example, without repeated humblings? Or the testimony of integrity, without feeling that awful shame over the lies we've told? Or the testimony of simplicity, without feeling sick of the cumber that keeps us distant from the Holy?
This is most telling, I think, with regard to our testimony against war. "Recognizing that of God in the other person" cannot be a sufficient reason not to take up the sword against him, because, in the Bhagavad Gita, the Incarnate Lord urges Arjuna the warrior to kill his opponents precisely because there is that of God in them, which undergoes no injury or diminution at the death of the body—and which, indeed, the Gita teaches, is all there is to the person that has any life, consciousness, or value! The living Christ seems never to have bothered using the "that of God in the other" argument (a product of 20th-century Liberal Quakerism, in any case) when He disarmed the first Friends: Thomas Lurting, aiming the cannon at the Spaniards, was stopped not by reasoning, or a dazzling revelation of their godlike qualities, but by having his heart pierced by the spirit of compassion. With theories about the indwelling God one can argue: with love's arrow one can only sink to one's knees.
I'm glad that Christopher mentioned corporate worship in connection with our core beliefs. One can be yogin, or a Christian hermit, without regular assembling for worship with co-religionists, but one cannot easily be a Quaker. Do we worship together because we like to, or because we have a commandment to? Is it an element of our covenant? Here we are likely to split into factions over the question of whether we have "commandments" or "covenants" at all, which in turn may lead back to the question of whether God is a Person with a will regarding His or Her creatures' conduct. If Friends ever had a tradition about the mandatory nature of meeting, one would expect to find it in Barclay's Apology, yet oddly, the whole of his discussion of "Proposition 11" cites no scriptural requirement to assemble for collective worship, but only Jesus' promise to be present "where two or three are gathered together in my name" (Matthew 18:20), a warning in Hebrews (10:24–26) not to avoid meeting together, and the Proverb (27:17) about iron sharpening iron. Perhaps the impulse to gather for worship can best be described as part of the "law written in the heart" (Jeremiah 31:33). Written out on paper as a codified obligation, it loses its living quality. Kept alive within, it regularly sets the alarm clock for First Day morning.
- John Edminster, 15th Street