An Oasis - Not a Fortress
I have had to be away from my blog for awhile because of other absolutely overwhelming real-life events. Last Saturday, sensing the light at the end of the tunnel, I sat down to write a humongous post basically catching up on all the comments re my last post What this Christian Is Looking for in Quakerism, but after I'd been writing for over two hours I saw the futility of even trying to respond to everything everybody said. There were just too many good comments for that. And, besides, I realized that I don't really have to have the last word in every conversation.
Today, I'd like to comment more briefly on some of the major themes. Then next week I'll try to go back and answer some particular questions people have asked me in more detail.
First, some people from varying points of view responded tenderly and respectfully to what I had said about a vivid personal experience of Christ more than 30 years ago. I just want to say that I appreciated these comments very much. Robin said something particularly meaningful to me about how learning of this experience made her feel "less unbalanced" about her own. Robin has written elsewhere (I can't find it any more but surely it was on her blog?) about what her experience was and I recall thinking at the time that it was really very similar to mine. Robin also said something about me "ministering to [her] personally" by telling about this experience. Since I am a great admirer of Robin and her husband Chris, perceiving that they seem to have a more consistent real-life spiritual practice than I do, it was very gratifying to me to hear that I may have in any way been a "minister" to Robin.
Second, I thought it was fascinating how different people riffed on the theme of my analogy between listening to the Light or Voice of Christ and listening to FDR's fireside chats. Some people elaborated the metaphor, others changed it in various ways so that it conveyed their own differing understandings of the real situation. I think all of this must have helped us understand each other a little better. To me, it does matter whether the voice we hear in worship is Christ or not, though I'm sure that I would still know it was saying good things even if I couldn't identify the speaker. I think there are other voices we could be listening to, as Marshall suggested, that would be less benign. These other voices might be the voices of things like nationalism, materialism, etc. They might be the internalized voices of our parents, our peer groups, our nation, etc. In theory, I think they might be the actual voices of other "spirits", though I have no experience of any such thing. At the same time, I felt a tad uncomfortable with some of the critical discussion of other religions. I really don't know anything about Krishna, and I accept Marshall's testimony based on his experience of Hinduism that there may be some Krishna-worshippers who are into some bad things. But Hinduism is such a vast religion with so many hundreds of millions of followers that I feel totally unqualified to make generalizations about it. It seems likely to me that many Hindus are truly guided by God (and hence - as I see it - by Christ). That doesn't mean that Hindus are Christians, of course, and I doubt that in practice a serious Hindu would want to join a group of people who saw themselves as looking for guidance from the living voice of Jesus Christ. I don't think there are many groups of either non-Christians or non-Quaker-Christians who even claim to base their practice on listening to the living, speaking voice of God, under any name, so in a sense it's pretty theoretical to drag other religions into the conversation when we're discussing voices and names of same.
To revert to the fireside chat analogy, this is where I think we are as a group of Friends: We all came to the fireside chat of Quakerism by explicit or implicit invitation from someone or something. For example, some of us came because we were invited by our parents, some by other Friends, some - less explicitly - by learning of the existence of Quakers through their public testimony, through reading about them in history books or whatever. The problem is that we came to the chat with different expectations. I came wanting to listen to FDR (the unlikely Christ-representative of our analogy) because I see him as a person who I love and trust and look to for guidance. Some came wanting to listen to whoever-that-guy-is (or whoever-or-whatever-that-voice-is) on the radio and they are willing to trust and follow him as long as what he says conforms to beliefs they already have about right and wrong and what is going on in the world. There may be still others who just want to spin the dial and see who else might be on the radio. All of us are a little befuddled about this situation, but here we are together and we have to make the best of it.
I very well understand how one might not think that it was important to identify the One who speaks to us as Jesus Christ. If I did not identify Him as such, I probably wouldn't think it was important either. But since I do believe He is Christ -- that He is a Person who loves us and who suffered for us -- then I do believe it is important to acknowledge Him. For me to not acknowledge Him would seem ungrateful and disloyal. In other words, this is an inherently asymmetric question. How you regard its importance may well depend on what you think its answer is.
On the other hand, my need to acknowledge Christ doesn't in itself create a need for anyone else to do so. If I need a group in which we can acknowledge Him and listen to Him together (as I do) this doesn't mean that others can't also sit in on the group while thinking of its purpose somewhat differently. But it will always be an awkward situation.
Another theme I'd like to comment on is Marshall's idea (actually, the classical Quaker idea) of "the hedge". This is the idea that one goal of some Quaker practices is to create a protected space for our faith - one where we won't be overexposed to non-Quaker influences that might be harmful. These outside influences might be "unsound" theological ideas, worldly attitudes toward war, toward hierarchy and inequality, toward consumerism, or whatever. In certain periods of Quaker history and perhaps in certain pockets of Quakerism today (such as the Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative that Marshall belongs to) this has been part of the reason for Quaker disciplinary practices, for separate Quaker schools, for "peculiar" Quaker dress and speech, and so on. Although in other respects I suppose I am much more of a "conservative" than "liberal" Quaker (how oddly either of those labels fits with Quakeism!), I am not much of a proponent for the "hedge" idea. To me, it feels like a defensive and fear-based approach to maintaining our identity. The very earliest Quakers weren't trying to protect a little enclave from the world: they were trying to launch an offensive on the world. They assumed that in interactions between "the people of God" and "the world's people" the "people of God" would be perfectly safe and the "world's people" would be challenged and maybe changed. The "hedge" became a central concept after Quakerism had stopped expanding, after the most blatant persecutions had ceased for the most part, and when succeeding generations sought just to live in peace among themselves. John Woolman's ministry thrived during this period, as well as that of many others less well known, so one can hardly generalize that the "hedge" always led to spiritual deadness. Yet in the long run I think that was its tendency. People who were brought up with Quakerism as a "tradition" that was never really questioned or tested against others' beliefs gradually lost a really vital conviction of its truth, or a sense of connection to what motivated its founding. So then, when new ideas arose in the world around or when new challenges presented themselves, the Quaker tradition itself was no longer supple enough to adapt from within. In the long run no hedge is high enough to keep out the world. Challenges to our faith will come, and it's better for us to meet them with a tested, living, flexible faith than a protected and brittle one.
So, since I've had some luck with proposing analogies that get people talking, here's another one: Can we think of Quakerism as indeed having a boundary and identity, but not one that is either sharply drawn or marked by a fence or hedge or wall? A fortress has a wall. An oasis in the desert is a bounded place, easily distinguished from the surrounding barrenness, but it needs no fence. Its character comes from the water that bubbles up at its center, and from the life that grows around it. I want to settle with other water-lovers around the well of living water which Jesus spoke of to the woman of Samaria.
I could elaborate at greater length (and probably will eventually) but this post, too, has now taken quite a while to write. I am closing it now and will await any comments.
Peace of Christ,