Saturday, May 13, 2006

Responding to Pam

In order to cope with the larger task of responding to the comments on my recent post What This Christian is Looking for in Quakerism, I am going to break it down into the smaller and more agreeable task of responding to some of the individual people who wrote one or more of those comments. I would like to start with Pam, also known by her blogger name of earthfreak.

It was Pam who inspired this post in the first place by asking why I, as a Christian, chose to affiliate with Quakers rather than with some other denomination where I could "cleave to Christian doctrine". After I answered this question to the best of my ability with the new post, Pam continued to participate in the dialogue. One thing she said she wanted to make clear was
...I didn't ask it [i.e. the original question] so much as a challenge, but more out of really wanting to understand your christianity (and come to trust it) and also perhaps in hopes of inspiring understanding of what it feels like to have someone say something that can be interpreted as "I'm not sure you're a real quaker..."

I did understand this and I hope I responded in that spirit. I think it's a good thing for us to ask questions that force each other's unspoken assumptions to become explicit and discussable. In the latter part of the quote above, I guess Pam is saying that some of my own earlier comments could have been interpreted as my saying "I'm not sure you [read: you nontheist, or you non-Christian] are a real Quaker." This is a real problem in this type of dialogue. If any of us has a strong concept of what Quakerism essentially is, we risk offending folks who have come into the same Quaker community with a different concept of what Quakrism essentially is.

Roman Catholics don't have this problem; nor do most Protestants or most kinds of Moslems. I sometimes attend a Roman Catholic church with my wife or my son, and I am on friendly terms with the parishoners. However, I know for certain that I am not a Catholic, and they know I am not a Catholic because the question "what is a Catholic" has been pretty clearly answered over the past 2000 years and there is little chance that either they or I could be confused about it. For example, I do not believe that their bishop in the city of Rome is Christ's vicar on earth, nor that certain of his pronouncements "from the chair of Peter" are infallible. Nor - to take some older and more stable aspects of Catholicism - do I believe that bread and wine are transmuted into the body and blood of Jesus during the ceremony of the mass. I still think that many Catholics are wonderful people, and I am impressed with their Church's stand on certain social issues such as immigration, poverty, capital punishment, and war. (Their official positions on birth control, the roles of men and women, and the dignity and rights of homosexuals are another matter, but I know that many Catholics themselves think differently about those matters, and I imagine that the official position will evolve). My point here is that it would be very unfair for me to accuse the Roman Catholic Church of being "exclusive" because it won't accept me with my present beliefs as a member. My experience is that they are very "inclusive" and open - much more so than any Quaker meeting I know of - and that they would be more than willing they would even be eager to embrace anyone at all who wanted to adopt their faith, undergo the prescribed rituals of baptism and confirmation, etc. There does not seem to be anything snooty or snobbish about social class, education level, or ethnic background in the Roman Catholic Church. It's only because I don't want to be included in that particular faith that I have not been included.

For Quakers in the present historical period, it is more complicated. We lack a common understanding of what constitutes the essence of the faith-community we would or would not like to invite people into. We all want to be accepted by each other, even though we don't necessarily want to accept each other's visions of what it is we are joining. This leads to awkward situations. For example, I recently gave a message in Meeting about engaging with rather than retreating from the world. In it, I referred in passing to the world itself as "the world God made and the world God loves". After Meeting, a Friend told me that I should have clarified this was only my belief and not a Quaker belief. She was upset that someone might equate it with "scientific creationism". If I weren't already pretty confident of my status as a Quaker-in-good-standing I might have thought "ooops. made a mistake. I guess this isn't a Christian religion after all. I don't belong here." Conversely, if that particular Friend had read my article "What Is It With the Quakers and Jesus Christ?" she might have thought "ooops. I thought this was a non-doctrinal group. I didn't realize it was a bunch of Christians. Guess I'd better join someone else." The fact is that both she and I have already been accepted into the Quaker community. Neither of us has particular standing to define Quakerism for the other. But both of us have freedom to witness to the Quaker faith as we understand it. We both also have some responsibility to understand the tradition that was handed down to us, and not to promulgate mistaken notions about what that tradition was orginally. I think it is an essential and often-neglected task of our Ministry and Counsel or equivalent committees to give people information about that tradition.

Where does that leave Pam and me? I don't think Pam wants to exclude me from her vision of Quakerism, but I think she might (I say might becaue obviously I don't know) be a little uneasy with me if I were part of her Meeting. I also don't want to exclude Pam. If she moved to New York, I would welcome her into my Meeting, but I would not stop testifying about Christ in Meeting even if she, as a non-theist, found this testimony off-putting (Again, I am not saying she would find it off-putting; some non-theists do and some don't).

Pam went on to comment on the vision of the "church", a vision articulated by George Fox and early Quakers, that I had pointed to in my post. Pam said:
You [i.e. I, Rich]said:
no Christian denominations even trying to be the "church" as I understand that term, whereas the Quaker movement at least started out with that aim.
That resonates with me. It's pretty much why christianity never 'grabbed' me in the first place. I guess what I wonder is how much it matters whether others use the same language to discuss building the church (of course, in a real building project, it's easier if everyone agrees on what's a brick as opposed to a nail, but then, you could call a board a plank and probably still get it done) I personally feel called to build "the chruch" - but not to worship Jesus (which I believe that he himself wouldn't want) My question is whether we can still work together, and my hope is that we can

It sounds here as if maybe Pam and I are coming pretty close to each other's vision, with just a minor terminology problem remaining in the way. And maybe we are much closer than our rhetoric would suggest. I certainly recognize that there are lots of traps in words. But I confess I am quite confused about what Pam is saying here. The heart of my description of the church was this: is a body of people who are so united to Christ Jesus (the "true head" that Fox referred to) and to each other that they have become one body, able as a body to serve Him and witness for Him, and to do the kind of prophetic and reconciling work (not to mention humble service) that He did in the flesh before his crucifixion and resurrection. They will do His works because they allow Him to guide them.
Pam's response is that she wants to build this church but not to worship Christ. It sounds as if the identity of the "true head" of the church is pretty much a side-issue for her. But in my description it was the issue. I am not really hung up on the name. Call him Christ, call him Jesus, call him Yeshua, call him Moshiach, call him Son of God, call him Son of Man, call him Rabbi, call him Prophet, call him Carpenter, Call him Servant: just so we know we're talking about that guy who gave his life and took it up again sometime around 33 C.E. I'm sure we can work together on all kinds of good causes even if you have no interest in this particular person. If you believed in God but didn't believe in Jesus I'm sure we could even worship God together. I myself worshipped God before I came to see a unity between God and Jesus, and I'm convinced that I was worshipping the same God all along. But if you don't want to worship God and you don't want to worship Jesus, if you don't even think that God or Jesus are alive and available to worship, then I don't think you want to build the "church" that I was talking about.

Again, this is the kind of issue that is important or not depending on what side of it you come down on. If you don't think Christ Jesus is alive, it really isn't all that important whether the rest of your faith community believes in him or not. If you do think he is alove, nothing else is more important than finding a faith community in which all can listen to him together and unite in his service. It's as if you wanted to visit your mother on mother's day and wanted to welcome your partner to come along. Your partner wouldn't be "getting it" if his or her answer were "Great. Let's go. But let's drive to the beach instead of your hometown. What does it matter if we call it 'Ocean' or 'Mom'?"

Pam went on to discuss the fireside chat analogy in which in which I compared the voice of Christ in the Meeting to the voice of FDR on the radio during WWII. The purpose of the analogy was to explore the question of the speaker's identity was imoprtant to how/whether we gather together to hear his voice. She identified herself as one of the "mechanical voice" people in the analogy, and rejected those (i.e. the theists or Christians) who think there is "some kind of magic going on and are attentive to that, rather than the truth or non-truth of the message". I think this really is the nub of all that is different between Pam's point of view and mine on this issue. I really do think there is "some kind of magic" going on in Quaker meeting (though I'd prefer the term "miracle" to "magic").

Pam went on to explain that she would not want to base her acceptance of a message on who its speaker was, but on its inherent truth and goodness. She puts this very well as follows:
So, if Jesus says "love your neighbor" and you are inspired to do it because he's Jesus, and I'm inspired to do it because it sounds like a damn good idea, I'm not doing it as well? I suppose I can understand that, because I think just the reverse. I think Jesus said a really lot of good stuff, but if he came back and retracted it, I wouldn't give it up just cause he said so (unless some new revelation made it clear to me, I guess.)

This points at a very deep issue of theology that could get the inquiring mind running in circles for centuries: Are good actions good because God wills them, or does God will them because they are good? I despair of a good logical answer, becaue the reality of "goodness" and the reality of "God" are so entwined with each other at a deep level that I can't see how to separate them for analysis. But in practical terms, if I thought I heard "Jesus" recanting His own basic teachings I think I would doubt my "hearing" before I doubted the teachings. The early Quakers' letter to Charles II said "the Spirit of Truth by which we are guided is not changeable so as to move us away from a thing as evil and again to move us unto it." (quoted only from memory, apologies for any departure from accuracy).

I set out to respond to all of Pam's comments in response to my post. I have spent so long on just the first comment she posted, that I'm afraid I'll have to postpone my responses to the others.

I expect I'll be hearing from Friends in the meantime.

Peace and Good Will,
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Blogger Lorcan said...

I suppose part of the banging heads is how we approach unity on all this. For Friends, the idea of unity is NOT to come to a lock step community, but to labor together, accepting that the other is true to their light, that is part of being present to God in the other, not as a meaningless parroted creed, but as an active part of our lives.
So... when we don't see eye to eye, we labor together to find where the middle ground exists, where the commonality exists, how we are in agreement, and leave to the process of God ( or for our non-thiest Friends - to whatever ) to move together towards light.

There IS a Quaker culture, and one that is being lost in some meetings, and that is the laboring in love together. I have seen it being steam rollered, cast aside, blown up by dynomite, trampled on, burried... ( I guess that is enough immagry... ) by those who cling to hatreds, mistrusts, anger, acusations, pointed fingers...

Richard, thee and I ... I wish we could share with others how we face so many things on which we don't see eye to eye (eye to ear, if thee wants not to find unity in the above :) ... ) listening, trusting each others intent... the presense to God in each other... I feel that so many who say they can't get what unites us as Friends... that is it... community in the face of not understanding each other, and staying in process.

See thee in a few hours...

7:56 AM, May 14, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Sorry I didn't see you "in a few hours". It was one of those rare Sundays when I didn't come to Meeting.

I recognize that we neglect the "Quaker culture" sometimes, but I don't feel as you do that it is under assault ("steam rollered, cast aside...etc.). It seems to me that often we do labor together, and sometimes we even play together, or eat together, which may be even more important to unity.

- - Peace,

8:52 AM, May 15, 2006  
Blogger earthfreak said...


It's funny, I don't think of it as banging heads. perhaps I'm used to conflict. I think of it as a dancing, that does get us somewhere eventually.


I feel overwhelmed, yet again (I feel like this is one that branches 20 different ways with each step, so that you can never follow up each thread! It's exciting, but overwhelming too)

A few things, though....

Most importantly, I think to me, is this: is a body of people who are so united to Christ Jesus (the "true head" that Fox referred to) and to each other that they have become one body, able as a body to serve Him and witness for Him, and to do the kind of prophetic and reconciling work (not to mention humble service) that He did in the flesh before his crucifixion and resurrection. They will do His works because they allow Him to guide them.

This does seem, to me, the point where we come closest together and are yet farthest apart.

I DO, wholeheartedly, believe that we can unite to do the kind of prophetic and reconciling work (not to mention humble service) that He did in the flesh before his crucifixion and resurrection

Of course, the "resurrection" part is something I would probably leave off. I don't believe in it as a physical occurence (and what's more, I don't actually care, if it DID happen as a physical occrence, that is not nearly so important as the spirit of his life)

That is the crux. I do see the "true head" as pretty much irrelevant. It strikes me as a creepily hierarchical concept, and I recoil somewhat from it. Not because I disbelieve the truth in Jesus' message and life, but because I retreat from hierarchy, from worship (as paying something to a being somehow more inherently worthy than you.)

In my readings of the gospels, Jesus was really tapped into truth and light in a way that not many other human beings ever are. But I am interested in that TRUTH and LIGHT, not in someone dying for me (echos of human sacrifice) or in calling anyone "king" - I believe tht all are equal children of God, and that setting one aside to worship simply creates divides. I am interesting in seeing and nurturing the Christ spirit in you and my neighbors, in myself. I am not interested in worshipping it as something outside of us.

Christ spoke, and acted, in support and reverence for a kingdom that was in each one of us, that was full of light and love of our neighbor. I am interested in THAT "kingdom"

As far as I can tell, he did not speak (except, I suppose I would say, metaphorically) of a kingdom where he was king. He didnt' even say "worship me" he said "follow me. I am not interested in creating that kingdom.

I suppose the as much as I can see says that The Truth would be there whether or not Jesus had pointed to it, and even if his followers had all been killed off and we today had never heard of him. I am very interested in that Truth. I am very wary of how the pillars of religion (in this case frequently used by governments to aid in domination for thousands of years now) can obscure, rather than celebrating that truth.

Okay, I gues I only got to one thing!




PS though - I did want to say that I don't want to exclude Rich from "my quakerism" - part of my passion about this is sadness that there seems to be a split working its way in. I also don't think I'd be uncomfortable worshipping with you. I appreciate the light as revealed through Christ.

I myself actually talk about God, and God making the world, or things as they are, which I find the best language for my experience, even though my image of God is ephemeral and ever changing.

12:16 PM, May 16, 2006  
Blogger Lorcan said...

I feel a bit... out of sorts these days, so it is hard to concentrate well enough to make sense, really ill... fever, coughing... but I feel called to try and clarify what I was saying before ( great try to make it clearer while really foggy... well here goes!)

I don't mean that the struggle to find unity on the out come of the healing of the schism, but - the fact that in conflict many Friends employ the culture of this nation, expressions of hatred... distrust... it is easy to understand why, last night, I was just so disgusted by the light hearted attitude towards violence on American TV. Forget the violence which seems the only way to make dramatic tension in every show, but the commercials, here's two in a row, two fellows burn their arms off in acid, the next commercial a fellow drives his car off a cliff, all this is presented as funny... this sick, sociopathic culture is imprinting itself on our meetings, slash and burn, winner takes all... no room for unity...

THIS IS not the case with Richard... Richard is a perfect example of laboring together, not head banging... There are other Quakers in our meeting, on line, who just seem incapable of taking a step towards another once they decide that Friend is wrong.

7:58 AM, May 19, 2006  
Blogger earthfreak said...

Lor and Rich-

I just wanted to drop a note and affirm that I do experience this as well, I have been moved by Rich's lack of inclination to turn away, OR to "bang heads" but to simply stay firmly rooted in his truth, and open to hearing the truth of others.


12:41 PM, May 19, 2006  
Blogger QuakerK said...


You wrote,

It's as if you wanted to visit your mother on mother's day and wanted to welcome your partner to come along. Your partner wouldn't be "getting it" if his or her answer were "Great. Let's go. But let's drive to the beach instead of your hometown. What does it matter if we call it 'Ocean' or 'Mom'?"

Perhaps the analogy is not quite correct. Perhaps the analogy is this: I want to visit my mother on mother's day, and my partner says, "Great idea, but why don't we visit my mother on mother's day this year?" Then the problem is not that my partner is missing the point, it is that I am insisting on my own way of celebrating something which is universal.

I'm not sure what conclusions I can draw from that, but it does seem to get at a key issue. The question which I have been wrestling with is, (to go back to your earlier post), why does it matter whether the people listening to the radio think they're listening to a real person named FDR or to some voice created by the radio? On the one hand, it makes sense to me that it does make a difference. On the other hand, I can't find a good justification for it--so far the only good justification I have come up with is, "because I want to worship with people who share my views"--and that sounds like a pretty selfish justification for defining a religious group (or any group for that matter). But perhaps it's not selfish, it's just (all too) human.

If anyone can help me answer that question, please do so. It's been bugging me.



1:54 PM, May 24, 2006  
Blogger earthfreak said...

I'm not sure if it's selfish, exactly.

It seems to me that people do need to have times when they're in "safe space" - where they feel embraced and understood. Perhaps just to regenerate so that they can go "back out" and serve the world, I don't know.

And I would love to worship with people who want to worship outside, because that's where I worship "best" and I want people with me, is that selfish, or simply true?? I don't understand getting special spiritual "oomph" from the Bible, but if you do, it makes sense that you'd want another human to talk to about it.

One thing I see as a recurring theme is that we just see it really differently. To Rich, Jesus is motherhood on mother's day, he's the water at an oasis. To me that center is something else, something that transcends any story, any name that we could give it - it's water, and whether you call it water or "acqua", or nothing, it will quench your thirst. I'm even willing to accept that for Rich "Jesus"="Water" - but the extension seems to be that someone who had never heard the word "water" (or had, and didn't use it, or remember it) wouldnt' know to drink it if they were thirsty.

For me I suppose talking about Jesus and the Bible to a spiritual seeker (thirster) would be much like giving a lecture on the etymology of the word water, or even its chemical composition, and the "whys" and "hows" of it's life sustaining properties, instead of rushing to them with a full cup and holding it to their lips. To Rich, I'm guessing, talking about Jesus is the act of holding up that cup.


4:58 PM, May 24, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I think Pam gets what I've been trying to say.

I could strengthen her metaphor a little by clarifying that to me Jesus is not so much "motherhood on mother's day", as "my Mom on mother's day".

Let it never be said that I am wedded to masculine imagery!

- - Rich

2:20 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger James Riemermann said...


I very much appreciate the spirit behind this post, in particular the patience and effort to understand those with whom you have disagreements. I am one of those.

I think the distinction you make between Catholicism and Quakerism is much too simple. In fact, while Catholicism holds itself to be circumscribed by dogma, huge numbers of Catholics, including priests, nuns, and the laity, either reject or silently ignore massive chunks of that dogma that is said to define the faith.

Catholicism does not require the holding of specific beliefs; it requires those who disagree with the "definitive" beliefs to lie, be silent, or speak and risk excommunication. Even in this last case, countless Catholics make public statements at odds with Church dogma, and the Church doesn't bother to respond. It seems to me that the rare act of excommunication has been more an act of politics than one of faith.

In terms of creeds, one may be required to say them, but at the same time 1) lie; 2) interpret even the most boldly literal statements in the creeds to be symbolic, and therefore not *really* untrue; 3) believe the creeds to begin with, and then change one's mind. Of course, one could claim that only those who truly accept all the dogma in their hearts are Catholics, but that would mean it is a far smaller Church than it is considered to be. Perhaps this is the case; like so much, it depends on our definitions.

These are not rare and unusual technicalities with Catholicism, but central aspects of real-world, mainstream Catholic reality. And very nearly all the Protestant denominations as well.

The Quakerism I know and love, on the other hand, *genuinely* has no creeds, which allows Friends, if they disagree with some common or early Quaker beliefs, to say so. In fact, the testimony of integrity strongly encourages that they do. I fully recognize that our creedlessness makes for awkwardness, difficulties, misunderstandings, tensions, within Quakerism. I think the strength of liberal Quakerism will depend on acknowledging and working with these tensions in love and integrity, and not in seeking ways to eliminate the tensions.

I absolutely sympathize with Christian Friends in liberal meetings who have been "corrected" for expressing their faith, as you describe in this post. It illustrates is a sad and serious problem, and this atheist Friend wants to put his shoulder to the wheel beside you to correct the problem. But I also feel strongly that the problem is not the diversity itself, nor is it the fact--and it is a fact--that there are no words to describe the essence of our religious community. We can and do dance around that essence with words and songs and the example of our lives in the world, but any firm and definitive statement about what Quakerism is, is necessarily going to be false. Not just incomplete, but false, because it will exclude Friends whom we all know are true Friends.

I am honestly perplexed as to how Jesus, of all people, serves as a divisive force in our discussions of theological diversity within Quakerism. Jesus's own ministry was not about agreement on theological beliefs, but, above all else, about erasing boundaries between human beings in the name of love and righteousness. Of course, there is much in the New Testament, and far more in the writings of Christian saints and theologians, that tries to bring back the boundaries. They have succeeded brilliantly; Christianity is probably the most fence-ridden faith in human history. But the words of Jesus himself--particularly in the synoptic Gospels--do not speak well of those who draw boundaries according to matters of belief, or according to anything other than love and righteousness.

2:03 PM, June 05, 2006  

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