Saturday, June 24, 2006

Quaker Culture vs Quaker Faith Part II

In a recent post called My Take on Quaker Culture vs. Quaker Faith: Part I I began a discussion of a speech given by Friend Samuel Caldwell in 1998. The speech was a critique of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting that I took as a more general critique of Quakers today. Friend Caldwell made the argument that that Friends (or at least those of PhYM) have come to value our culture and tradition over our faith, and that as a result we are selling the faith short. I thought that I agreed with him, until I read his list of what troulbes him about the "Quaker Culture". My first post on this topic ended by reproducing his list of some characteristics of Quaker culture, and with a stated intention to say more about it in Part II.

Some of the commenters on my post thought I had missed the main point of Sam Caldwell's speech. Paul L creator of the blog Showers of Blessings said that the real point of the speech was its "clear and powerful exposition of Quaker Faith", and that the list of Quaker cultural characteristics only sounds "peevish and curmudgeonly" if it is read without the context of that exposition. Mark Wutka, who blogs at The Ear of the Soul, said that " focus on his complaints about Quaker culture is to miss the main point of the article, which is that we have raised the culture to such a level that it obscures the faith - the culture, in essence, has become the faith." I, however, still want to address that list. As I said already, in my own comment to the commenters
I hope I made it clear already that I agree with his general point that our "culture" can get in the way of our "faith". I don't think that gets us very far, though, unless we agree on where to draw the distinction between culture and faith. That's why I think it's important not to just pass by the detailed illustrations in order to concentrate on the "main point". Some (not all) of the things Sam Caldwell objects to as "culture" feel to me like they grow pretty directly out of the core faith, at least as I understand it. I'll try to explain further when I get to Part II.
So this is Part II, and what follows is me trying to "explain further"...

Sam Caldwell's first listed characteristic of Quaker culture is a (no doubt humorously exaggerated) claim that among Friends Everyone is required, almost as a matter of religious principle, to reuse their styrofoam cups; Taken literally, this would be nowhere near true. In fact, the most conspicuous feature of Quaker culture I have noticed - which I admit is also an exaggeration - is that among Friends no one is ever required as a matter of religious principle to do anything at all. But let's disregard the exaggerations. What is being complained of here? There is a somewhat heightened consciousness among many Friends of ecological issues, and a heightened tendency to examine and question how even our small daily habits may feed into big social problems. So we may or may not use styrofoam cups at Quaker gatherings; and if we do we may or may not reuse them. But there will perhaps be someone in a given Quaker community who calls our attention to the cost of styrofoam cups as a drain on non-renewable natural resources, a source of damage to the environment, and a small but real contributing factor in the global struggle for access to petroleum. Is this aspect of Quaker culture about "customs rather than leadings" as Mark put it? Or does it grow directly out of spiritual insights first glimpsed by our ancestors and still available to us when we settle into the Silence and listen to God? Think of George Fox's warning that "the tempter" will come in that which we are addicted to. Even George Bush has now acknowledged that we are addicted as a society to consumption of petroleum-related products (of which styrofoam is decidely one). Think also of John Woolman's advice to try whether the seeds of war are to be found in our possessions. I have no doubt that from time to time some Friend gets overly self-righteous about things like styrofoam cups. I know I did myself in my foolish-but-fervent youth before I realized how little standing I have to criticize anyone else about anything. But this is an occupational hazard of trying to live by any kind of principle. Its best cure is the humility that comes of falling short of one's own standards. There is nothing merely customary or traditional as far as I can see in trying to maintain a consistent testimony of stewardship for the earth through little gestures like minimizing the waste of styrofoam cups.

The second characteristic of Quaker culture Sam Caldwell points to is that ...people who earn a good living are regarded as suspicious and marginalized from the spiritual life of their meetings." Here I wish I had at least some concept of what our Friend is talking about. What qualifies as a "good living" in his mind? Here in New York we have a few Friends who are poor, many who struggle to pay their New York rents or mortages, and a few who are materially comfortable by any measure. Almost all of us earn a "good living" as I see it; only a few if any actually lack for food, for example. I am not aware of any Friend I know ever having been criticized for earning too much. To the extent that we ever consider these matters at all ( with most other "personal' matters..our more usual tendency is to be totally silent about the implications of our faith in matters of money) I think Friends are less interested in how much a person earns than in how the person earns it and how the person uses it. This may make wealthy Friends uncomfortable at times, I know it makes me uncomfortable at times. But this kind of discomfort comes not from an arbitrary "culture" or "tradition" but from our spiritual heritage itself; the very thing that Friend Caldwell seems to want us to cherish and build upon. After all, the same rabbi who told the parable at the top of his speech also had some disconcerting things to say to the wealth of his time. (See for example Matthew 19:24, or Luke 6:24-25.

If anything, it may be that Friends today are a bit more comfortable with the wealthy and powerful than is really good for our witness and faith. Quaker schools in large metropolitan areas, for example, seldom serve the poor including poor Friends. Their student bodies tend to come overwhelmingly from very high-income families who are not even Quakers.

So, I've only covered two of Sam's 13 points. I plan to do a Part III, but not to continue looking at each point in turn. My point is that some part of Quaker culture does in fact spring from Quaker faith. It's good that we no longer require broad-brim hats (and also that we still permit them), but it would not necessarily be good if we gave up all of the characteristics that might make us seem weird or out-of-place to others. In Part III, I hope to focus less on Sam's speech as such and more on what is seed and what is chaff in our Quaker culture.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

About time they discussed this!

I saw this paragraph on the Washington Post website today.

As the Pentagon announced the 2,500th death of a U.S. service member in the conflict, the House embarked on its first extended discussion of the war since Congress authorized force nearly four years ago. More than 140 lawmakers took the floor to applaud or attack President Bush's prosecution of the war in an 11-hour debate scheduled to last until nearly midnight.
(emphasis added)

The most important public issue of the decade (so far,anyway) and the politicians are just getting around to dealing with it. I am reinforced in believing that the real seeds of change are planted outside the political process in social and spiritual movements; they only bear fruit in public policy, legislation, or even mainstream debate after hearts and minds have already been changed by the witness of "impractical", "radical", "unrealistic" visionaries.


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Sunday, June 11, 2006

While ageing this morning

while ageing
this morning
i thought ---
this too
is as
it should

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

My Take on Quaker Culture vs Quaker Faith: Part I

I was reading Johan Maurer's excellent blog Can You Believe a couple of days ago and followed some of the links I found there until I came to a speech by Sam Caldwell given back in 1998 and recently posted on the Downtown Manhattan Friends Meeting website.

As I read the speech I realized that I had read it once before (I don't remember when), and I was soon re-living the strange experience the first time I read it. What kind of strange experience? Well, it was sort of like the kind of abbreviated political conversation I've sometimes had with new acquaintances. The acquaintance will introduce some current controversy and comment on the "ridiculousness" of one side's position in a way that makes me think he is critiquing the same side that I critique (the Republicans, usually). I enjoy what he is saying and the vigor of his criticism even though maybe he goes a tad farther than I would. Then, as we talk a little longer and he expands his argument, I suddenly realize thatt actually he is critiquing the "side" of the issue that I identify with. The "ridiculous" positions he is talking about are my positions. An example of this is a conversation I once had about the Terry Schiavo case. My conversation partner started by railing against the "outsiders" who "intervened in a private matter." I thought he meant the Republican Congress and President Bush. It turned out he was referring to "activist judges" whose rulings the Congress was trying to contravene.

Well, reading Sam Caldwell's speech was something like that for me. He started out by quoting Jesus' parable of the talents and proceeded to a ringing denunciation of Friends today (his particular target was Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, but I think his words would apply more broadly) for failing to preserve and expand the "spiritual treasure" of our faith, because we are too obsessed with our narrow sectarian "culture" and tradition. I was silently cheering as I read
Now, Friends, I have come tonight to tell you the truth — Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends is the unfaithful servant in this parable. Over 350 years ago, our master entrusted a great spiritual treasure to our safekeeping. At first, our forebears took it and invested it zealously, and it grew and multiplied. But, during the last few decades, we have become cautious, even cowardly. Instead of risking our spiritual capital to increase it, we have buried our treasure deep in the ground and run away and hid. The capital is still there, but it’s earning no interest. We risk nothing and gain nothing. We have become like the servant the master despises.

And, now, the time of reckoning is upon us. It will do us no good to dig up the talents we’ve hidden and return them to their rightful owner. Excuses and explanations will not suffice. God is not pleased. Mark my words, Friends: unless we do something radical soon, what treasure we have will be taken away from us and given to those who have invested their five talents and made five talents more. It is
already happening. We have only to look about us for the signs of the times.
I was still with him when he wrote:
We have become ardent conservators of an arid tradition, not ambassadors of a living faith...

and when he continued
And that, Friends, is the crux of the problem. On the one hand, we have the Quaker faith—a precious treasure given to us by God. On the other hand, we have Quaker tradition and culture--the ground, if you will, in which we have buried our treasure. The first spells life; the second spells death. Like the servant in the parable, if we merely conserve our traditions and culture, what faith we have will be taken away and given to others. And, this is precisely what is wrong with Philadelphia Yearly Meeting today--we are focused on conserving our culture, not venturing with our faith. What’s worse, we are confused between the two. The time has come for us to choose.
I thought to myself "Go Sam Caldwell, whoever you are. You really tell it like it is." Of course, I don't know the first thing about Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Philadelphia is over two hours away from New York City after all!) but it seemed to me that this speech was laying open the pathology of every Quaker Meeting I've ever known.

Then Friend Caldwell got down to specifics, and I found my smile fading a bit. First the rhetoric started to heat up a little beyond my comfort zone. "Philadelphia Yearly Meeting culture has become boring, petty, peevish, repressive, humorless, irrelevant, and generally repugnant to healthy human beings." Well, I don't know about Philadelphia, but Friends in New York are only like that part of the time. In between our skirmishes and feuds we sometimes have a good laugh or two and I even know some Friends here who occasionally (or regularly) do something generous and hopeful for our fellow-citizens, whether it's putting out sandwiches in the homeless shelter we host, or standing in a monthly vigil for peace and non-violence.

Then he offered a list of some characteristics of Quaker culture to illustrate how petty and ridiculous we are(and I say "we", notwithstanding that he's talking about Philadelphia, because by now I am starting to thoroughly identify with this group). I have numbered his list for discussion purposes, though in the published speech they are just un-numbered items:

We are the only religion I know of where:
(1)everyone is required, almost as a matter of religious principle, to reuse their styrofoam cups;
(2)where people who earn a good living are regarded as suspicious and marginalized from the spiritual life of their meetings;
(3)where fun is a potluck supper where you bring your own silver;
(4)where absolutely everyone is underpaid, and no one is ever fired for incompetence;
(5)where non-conformity and anti-social behaviors are consistently praised;
(6)where the pursuit of a free lunch is developed to a high art;
(7)where no-one is ever properly thanked or recognized, no matter how much they have done or achieved;
(8)where the typical family tree goes in a circle;
(9)where women always wear sensible shoes;
(10)where men never wear neckties;
(11)where indirectness and obfuscation are virtues;
(12)where fuss budgets and reactionaries are automatically appointed to high office;
(13)and where volunteers who attend important meetings are charged for their parking and meals.
And just to disabuse us if we should think that he is exaggerating for affectionate humorous purposes, he follows up this list by saying
Why, I ask myself, would any sane person want to become a member of the Religious Society of Friends?
Why indeed? What could be crazier than reusing a styrofoam cup?

I fully intend to say a lot more about this list, but the time I have available today is now used up. Part 2 of the post will have to wait.

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