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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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like many of Caldwell's complaints about Quaker culture are that it isn't Rotary International culture, where business attitudes are prized, men are (or were, when I went long ago) wearing neckties, and lunch is served for you at a restaurant.

That said, I know of Rotarians who reuse styrofoam cups (and okay, some who burn them.)

4:13 PM, June 11, 2006  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

I think there is a difference between a Quaker having "business attitudes" and being a successful businessman. George Fox and John Woolman were, at some time, good businessmen because of their integrity and lack of greed. There are Quakers who have felt marginalized because they have successful businesses - even though they may live modestly and put their money to good use. That seemed to me to be one of the things he was addressing.

But to 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 thought this statement said it well: Quaker culture is all about customs, not leadings.

5:08 PM, June 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wowsers. Sometimes I feel like giving such a speech, but at the moment I feel a strong leading of God to keep my yapper silent - I don't think I'm at a point where I would speak out of love.

And with this talk, it's hard to infer his tone: was he jokingly whanging on folks? Was he incredibly serious in his words? My take isn't so much that he's complaining, but that he's choosing to point out some characteristics or qualities of being in a Friends Meeting that don't line up with living in the Kingdom of God. Life in the Kingdom seems like it should be loving and serving and full of God's bounty and healing and Light. Hmmm: things to think about. . .

11:48 PM, June 12, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, Rich, all I can say is that Philadelphia YM must be a very different sort of world from all the Quaker YMs I have ever known. Yes, the Friends I know do make an effort to cut down on consumption of disposable cups. But no, they don't regard their upper-income members with automatic suspicion. And while not many of us wear neckties, I myself sometimes do, and no one ever comes down on my case for it.

My experience of Friends is that most of them are neither knee-jerk liberals of the sort Caldwell caricatures, nor knee-jerk conservatives. Yes, we do have some purblind and difficult folks among us. But most Quaker communities are wiser than to let the purblind and difficult control policy. I find a wonderful degree of charity and goodness among Friends.

9:21 AM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger Paul L said...

I hope you finish this piece soon, because Friend Sam's description of Quaker culture sounds peevish and curmudgeonly (as well as hyperbolic) unless it is read in the context of his clear and powerful exposition of Quaker Faith that is the real point of his talk.

10:47 AM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger ef (Pam) said...

Paul - I agree that there is more to this speech, and the context gives it a different "feel" overall.

And, importantly, I think the "best" passage is currently under discussion over on Chris M's blog.

However, overall this piece just alienates me. Certainly, there is a statement of faith towards the end that we hopefully can all (more or less) "get behind" and which is more important than policing styrofoam cup use.

However, there is also a LOT of Rotarian values (as my limited experience perceives them) interspersed throughout. I find myself thinking "what if what God wants actually does lead to declinging membership?", "what if it IS really important to God that we don't throw a lot of stuff away, or drive big cars (or drive cars at all)?"

My faith is inextricably tied with action. And yes, when you reuse your cup so that people won't look at you funny, or yell at you, rather than because you have some understanding about nurturing life rather than garbage, that's a problem. But the problem isnt' that we're reusing styrofoam cups.

As for hiring ministers, I do have a strong negative reaction to it. Perhaps only because I am "culturally attached" to it, but I believe it has more to do with the amazing power of unprogrammed worship. Certainly it could be more powerful, and we could listen to see how we are led, but I have a lot of trouble imagining that it would be towards a paid ministry.

(though that might bring a lot more people through the door, but then, as they recently pointed out on public radio, Howard Stern is really popular too - maybe we should found a church with him as the leader. We'd probably make a lot more money)

I think I understand, and even resonate with Caldwell's larger point - that we are called to go deeper, take risks, and a be willing to "sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow me" - but kvetching about the people in your community and worrying that THEY (an always suspect word) will "keep you out" of the kingdom of heaven" is all quite disturbing, and seems to me questionably led, to be honest.


12:06 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I probably won't get to part II of this post until Saturday at the earliest, but I do have some brief responses to the comments thus far.

I really don't know where some of Sam Caldwell's complaints come from. I don't want to say he's a "Rotarian" and I also don't want to say it's a terrible thing if he is. Possibly some of the complaints come from personal experiences that he chooses not to describe, and possibly they would be more understandable if we knew that context. I don't know him personally and have not read anything else he has written, but the fact that he was invited to give such a speech in the first place suggests to me that he is a well-regarded Friend among those who know him.

That said, I feel free to comment publicly on his speech, since it is a public speech, and to take the points he makes at face value. I appreciate his implication in point #11 that obfuscation and indirectness are not virtues, and will therefore try to be clear and direct in responding to him.

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.

Thanks to all for commenting.

2:55 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

By the way, I'm always pleased when I see "non-theist" Pam speaking of God, as in "What if it is important to God that..." ;)
- - Rich

3:33 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks to Pam for referring us to the discussion of this same speech on Chris M's blog. I recommend reading Chris' take on it.
- - Rich

5:49 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Just as a knee-jerk reaction, I would like to point out that Rotarians are in large part responsible for the near-eradication of polio in the world today.

I think that Caldwell's greatest fault here is using mild exaggeration and perhaps a touch of irony in his speech. Which present company may remember doesn't often go over well among Friends. I think the words 'always' and 'never' are clues. I think the line, "Now, let me nail my five theses to the wall," is another clue. I think the random mixing of major and minor issues is another clue. I think the fact that he was talking to PhYM Friends about themselves is another clue. I bet it wasn't a boring speech to hear on a Monday night in November.

I look forward to the rest of Rich's post before I comment further.

5:53 PM, June 13, 2006  
Blogger ef (Pam) said...

Robin, I suspect that you might be right.

and I know that the impact of the speech would be quite different if I knew the man and perhaps he was even taking a jab at himself - maybe he is very particular about reusing styrofoam cups (I have to say my immediate question is what were quakers doing using styrofoam cups the first time??!)

I think perhaps some sorts of irony are too easily lost on many people. I myself don't have much of a head for sarcasm (well, actually, I use it quite freely,. and find myself stumped when others do, most often, as Rich can attest :)

I also think that people who care about the environment and question the purchase of fancy cars get plenty of flak in the larger culture, and harping on them freely just isn't very useful.

I generally have a problem with any speech or position that posits that there are "good" quakers (or whatevers) and "bad" quakers - and the bad ones are dragging "us" (the good ones) down. We are a society, hopefully a covenant community. it is not about picking who to throw overboard, but about searching together for our core, and drawing a sort of unified strength from that.

Some of the things in his speech aren't even true at my meeting. I almost universally have no idea how much money people make. i think very few of us have inherited wealth, and that it is in no way seen as more pure than earned wealth (I'm not even sure why it would). I don't think that people aren't allowed to talk about Jesus. (though I am questioning that, because I am learning that folks have felt silenced)

And all my hackles go up when I hear someone say anything like "forget all those silly ideals, and focus on Jesus" - for one, Jesus as spiritual center holds little power for me (and lots of unpleasant baggage) but what's more important is the thing that I experience and associate with Christ spirit is where those values come from. They are that spirit in action (washing out that styrofoam cup is serving that spirit) and to say "stop worrying about being an ethical person and follow Christ" feels so twisted to me that I can't even hear it.

last note. My Dad is a Rotarian and a Quaker. There's noting wrong with Rotarians, they're just something different. And I do thinkt hat Simon's observation was quite apt. that's all.

12:06 AM, June 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I certainly wasn't saying that Rotarian culture is a horrible thing, just that it's very different from Quaker culture and, given the different approaches of the two groups, probably should be.

There are lots of potential good intersections between Quakerism and Rotary. The are lots of potential good intersections between Quakerism and business.

However, Caldwell's following the framing with Matthew 25:14-29, which is a parable about spriritual investment and wealth, with a set of complaints about attitudes toward wealth of this world, seems to me a very poor strategy, and a lost opportunity.

His complaint about Quaker culture is hardly a new one, and has, I think, been expressed more generously and more thoroughly in earlier writings. One classic, from Margaret Fell (in Jessamyn West's Quaker Reader):

but we must all be in one dress and one colour.

This is a silly poor gospel! It is more fit for us to be covered with God's eternal Spirit, and clothed with his eternal Light, which leads us and guides us into righteousness...

This is not delightful to me that I have this occasion to write to you; for wherever I saw it appear I have stood against it several years; and now I dare neglect no longer. For I see that our blesses precious holy truth, that hath visited us from the beginning, is kept under, and these silly outside imaginary practices is coming up, and practised with great zeal, which hath often grieved my heart. (228)

7:47 AM, June 14, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Er - that "blesses precious holy truth" should be "blessed precious holy truth".

7:49 AM, June 14, 2006  
Blogger Chris M. said...

Thanks for your take on this, Rich, and for the link to my blog. :)

I re-found the essay by way of Johan's blog, too. Caldwell is, or was, on staff at Lawrenceville Friends School. This year, the SF Friends School newsletter reprinted a helpful short essay by him on Quaker education.

Pam wrote:
We are a society, hopefully a covenant community. it is not about picking who to throw overboard, but about searching together for our core, and drawing a sort of unified strength from that.

I like that. I also believe I have seen times where people would in fact be willing to "throw overboard" people who may be challenging in a cultural rather than a spiritual way.

For example, overly talky people in meeting for worship; are we willing to engage them, whether they are students at divinity school or homeless women? I'm thinking of two individuals who were eldered in what I thought was not a very friendly or compassionate way at my meeting, for example. So I think this often-unhelpful tendency toward defending group boundaries comes from the "practice" side, perhaps more than the "faith" side in many meetings.

Two other thoughts: 1) Ben Pink Dandelion writes about unprogrammed meetings having an "orthopraxis" -- what could be called a culturally correct way of behaving in meeting -- rather than an "orthodoxy" -- correct belief. (I think that was in Heaven on Earth, the book he co-wrote with Gwyn and Peat.) The problem comes when we don't explain our expectations to newcomers and they don't match expectations.

2) This helps explain the popularity of the card game Mao among Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends.

Chris M.
Tables, Chairs & Oaken Chests

1:17 PM, June 14, 2006  
Blogger Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

Our meeting reuses mugs, rather than styrofoam cups, so I guess we're off the hook :-).

And as someone who can't wear anything but sensible shoes, unless I want to be in serious pain, I'm not prepared to count wearing sensible shoes as a fault.

3:35 PM, June 14, 2006  
Blogger Lorcan said...

My my my my my.... I agree with thee Rich... we have such deep matters of culture and faith with which to wrestle. There are deep and troubling issues of ego and openness, and yet this article seems to focus on ... quirks. I think our great strength is that Friends like thee and me can be so different and labor so together.
Thine in the light

5:03 PM, June 14, 2006  
Blogger ef (Pam) said...

our great strength is that Friends like thee and me can be so different and labor so together

This Friend speaks my mind.


I'm not sure what else there is to be said about this list. Some of it I find to be offensive, some worthy of our attention as a community (if Friends feel that they cannot speak of their faith experience - be it Jesus or otherwise, and these two:)

(11)where indirectness and obfuscation are virtues;
(12)where fuss budgets and reactionaries are automatically appointed to high office

(though I think that they are overstated, as Robin points out, I think that at least #11 has more than a grain of truth to it, at least in some meetings.)

And some of them I think "what planet is he from?" - I went to school within PYM (to whatever extent the quaker schools are under their care) but never participated in the larger quaker community there.

But I do think a more interesting question than "what's wrong with this speech?" is "what should we be talking about instead?" I think this speech is one of many good jumping off points, containing, as it does,

-a critique of our "practices" and of our adulation of "practice" over "faith"
-a reasonable attempt at a sort of statement of faith
-lots of stuff to annoy a lot of us (and perhaps an example of how to get folks fired up, along with an example of how to alienate people)

I think it might be worth going through his list and examining our practices, and whether and how they are rooted in faith, as it is to go through items not on his list and examine their groundedness in faith. It can be a pathway to discovering more about our faith, which might lead to "better" practices arising from it, as well as a stronger faith.

It can all make my head spin!

And, yes, Rich, you caught me talking about God ;)

Just because I don't believe in "him" doesn't mean "he" can't have opinions!


5:24 PM, June 14, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Still didn't have time for Part II of this post today. If anyone is waiting with bated breath I'm afraid it may be a tad longer.

Note to Chris M: I was glad to link to your blog in my comment - - and surprised to find that I didn't already have a link to it in my sidebar. That omission is now corrected.
- - Rich

Note to Pam:
Would it be too smug of me to say: "You may not believe in God, but She believes in you?"
- - Rich

2:37 PM, June 17, 2006  

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