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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Blogger Paul L said...

I do see your point that the specifics of Quaker culture Caldwell spoofs may, in fact, result from well-meaning attempts to live the gospel and the testimonies, and that perhaps the real criticism is of the gnat-straining self-righteousness of the practitioners than of the practices themselves. That'd be my criticism, anyway.

You might want to read this month's special issue of Friends Journal on "Friends and Money." I think the articles in it cover a pretty broad range of perspectives that addresses both Caldwell's ane your points of view. (Disclosure: I'm on the board of FJ. But don't let that steer you away from reading this issue, at least.)

I also look forward to Part III.

12:05 PM, June 26, 2006  
Blogger Paula said...


Just popping in to say hello. After I read Part I I finally realized why I left Meeting 13 years ago - it was the culture. This had been under my skin for the past 9 months. Why, if I have been living the testimonies for 13 years did I leave and not want to return? Thanks for the thought-provoking posts. I'm still thinking about this.

12:36 PM, June 26, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks to Paul and Paula for their comments. I'm not ready to post part III yet, but would like to ask both Paul and Paula to expand on their comments.

In particular, I wonder if Paul can say more about where he sees "gnat-straining self-righteousness" among Friends. (Not by pointing fingers at specific individuals, but by being specific about the kinds of behaviors and attitudes he is thinking of). Since this is an allusion to Matthew 23:23-24 I take it that "gnat-straining" is being very very picky about some small and insignificant point, while ignoring more important moral or spiritual requirement. I'm not sure that I think Quakers are especially guilty of this, but I'm willing to be convinced. It's the kind of thing that might hit too close to home for me to see on my own.

BTW, Learning that Paul is on the board of Friends Journal, actually adds to my list of reasons that I ought to subscribe again (I haven't read FJ very much for several years).

I also hope Paula will come back and say more about what it was about "the culture" of Quakerism that caused her to leave her Meeting 13 years ago. This is valuable information that those of us who care about the survival of Quakerism need to have. What is it about us that seems to drive so many seekers away? In Paula's case it doesn't seem that she turned away "grieved" like the would-be disciple in Mark 10:21-22 because Christ asked more than she would give (there would be nothing we could do about that), but something else that maybe we could do something about if we knew what it was.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

10:19 AM, July 02, 2006  
Blogger earthfreak said...

Rich -

Thanks for this wonderful post. I find that you articulate much of what I feel very well.

It struck me, in reading this, that the whole "issue" sounds to me a lot like one of "faith vs. works" -

If your faith requires of you (not as a "rule", but as a call (?)) that you, say, work with the poor or reuse your coffee cup, is it the FAITH that is important, or the result? If, to oversimplify, Jesus tells you to wear sensible shoes, is it the listening to Jesus or the wearing of the sensible shoes that is really important?

For me the whole "dichotomy" arises from our own seperation from God. They are one thing. If we hear Jesus but don't do what he says, (through defiance or denial) we are lost. If we do what he says without really hearing him (because everyone else is doing it, or we think it gets us some sort of 'brownie points') we are lost.

I find that this has led me to be much on the "side" of reusing cups and wearing sensible shoes, etc. (however, I think I'm poor cause I'm somewhat lazy, rather than because I disdain weatlth!) and VERY resistant to anyone who will tell me that those things are unimportant, and what really matters is a relationship with Christ. As far as I can tell, practical, loving action in the world IS relationship with Christ. certainly it has to be real - it can't simply be a "dead" list of rules.

And certainly the bane of all organized religion is our tendency to embrace those rules - to look for the divides between us, and to create walled fortresses - based on belief of doctrine, clothing, ritual, eco-practice, - we can find an infinite number of criteria to use to build walls, but it doesn't mean we can't choose another way, and it doesn't mean that those criteria are valueless. It's just about how we use them.


12:40 PM, July 03, 2006  
Blogger Mark Wutka said...

Rich, I don't doubt that some of the behaviors Caldwell points have at some point come out of someone's leading. But take the styrofoam cups for example, since this seems to be the one that really riles people up. If someone throws away a styrofoam cup, do you think it is more likely that someone would say "considering how it is made, do you think we might be able to reuse that cup?" or would they just say "that's not very Quakerly"? That still seems like the main issue, regardless of whether it comes out of a leading - that we characterize the reuse of a cup as "Quakerly".

I appreciate Pam's viewpoint here, and I think that on some level she and I agree, but because we look at things from differing viewpoints, I think we come to different conclusions. First of all, when it comes to "faith vs. works", I don't see it as an either-or, and I don't think Paul and James really did either. I think Paul was saying that just doing works is not enough (i.e. works without faith) and James was saying that faith should lead you to works. (Umm.. this is Paul and James from the bible, I'm talking about in case anyone is scrambling to find posts from Paul and James)

I would still say that faith is primary and that these actions are secondary, which is not the same as saying they are unimportant. Having read lots of Pam's posts, here and on her blog, I feel like I have at least some small idea of her world view, and it seems to me that if I adopted that same view, I would probably be in agreement with her conclusions. (Pam, if I misrepresent your point of view, I apologize, it is hard to really know someone just through blog postings.)

I think where we disagree is in the first two terms of Caldwell's description of the light being "supernatural, personal, universal, saving, eternal, persistent, and pure". From the idea of God as being personal, I have the understanding God has some sort of plan, and that God calls me to do things that I will be able to do if I listen and follow. In a given situation, God may lead me to do one thing, while another person in the same situation may be led to do something different. As I am better able to follow those leadings, I may be asked to do more.

From my concept of God being supernatural, I believe that God does more than just speak to us, but that God gives us various gifts through the Holy Spirit to help us do our works. George Fox spoke numerous times of being revived and refreshed by the "power of the Lord." Thus, when I say that faith is primary, I am talking about nurturing that relationship with God so that we are more open to that strengthening and to those leadings. In turn, that enables us to do greater and greater things.

I'm not suggesting here that Pam needs to change her point of view. But I did want to give an example of why we may have differing priorities, and that it isn't something as simple as terminology.

9:28 PM, July 03, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

While I think that the "faith vs. works" question is important and always interesting I'm not sure it's quite the same question that Sam Caldwell was discussing in his article. I read him, not as contrasting faith to works per se(or "practice" as we Quakers tend to say), but as contrasting faith to particular practices that for some reason he finds silly and petty. In a sense I agree with him, but I find that my list of living and vital testimonies overlaps a lot with his list of petty prejudices.

Pam writes If your faith requires of you (not as a "rule", but as a call (?)) that you, say, work with the poor or reuse your coffee cup, is it the FAITH that is important, or the result? If, to oversimplify, Jesus tells you to wear sensible shoes, is it the listening to Jesus or the wearing of the sensible shoes that is really important?. This seems reminiscent of earlier discussions on this blog and elsewhere of how central Christian faith is or isn't to Quakerism. In context it sounds like Pam is assuming that Sam Caldwell takes the "other side" in this debate. In fact, though, it isn't clear to me that he does. His article refers to Jesus in quoting an important parable, but it does not otherwise speak of any particular view of Jesus or relationship to Jesus as central to Quaker faith. His statement of faith, rather is this...God gives to every human being who comes into the world—regardless of race, religion, gender, or station--a measure of the divine spirit as a living witness and an eternal Light to be inwardly guided by on a daily basis. That Inner Light is supernatural, personal, universal, saving, eternal, persistent, and pure. The chief end of religious life is to learn to listen to and act upon the promptings of this Light under the authority of God and within the bonds of human community. Those who learn to heed the promptings of this Light come to be "saved"--that is, they come into fullness and wholeness of life and right relationship with God, themselves, the universe and one another. Those who resist, ignore, or otherwise deny the workings of this pure spirit within them, though they profess themselves to be religious, are "condemned"--that is, they become alienated from God, from themselves, from the universe, and from one another. To me, while I endorse it up to a point, this sounds more like Pam's theology (on the days that Pam believes in God) than like mine.

Mark's comment alerts me to the fact that my experience of Quaker culture even after all these years is relatively narrow. I simply don't run into folks who easily label things like careless waste of resources "unQuakerly". The aspects of Quaker culture that I find off-putting are more often the little signs of middle-class-intellectual snobbery thought of uncritically as "Quakerly" though it is, if anything, in serious tension with our spiritual heritage.

I'm still not ready with part III of my post. I'm thinking now that it will focus on imagining what the characteristics of a Quaker culture truly grounded in the Spirit of Christ might be.

11:26 AM, July 04, 2006  
Blogger earthfreak said...

Rich -

I do think that Caldwell's point IS about "works" without "faith" really - even if that faith isn't explicitly in the risen Christ.

Particularly about the idea that we cling to these "silly" notions of how quakers "should be" and they are NOT informed by our faith.

The problem that I have, and that I read into what you've written, is that many of his examples DO feel deeply grounded in our "faith" (in whatever we have faith in :)

I myself have a GIGANTIC problem, more and more, with the admonition that something is "unquakerly" - now matter WHAT it is - war, for example, is certainly 'unquakerly' - The question for me, is, Is it's "unquakerliness" the reason not to do it? or perhaps something like, oh, say, it kills people???

any notion of what is or is not "quakerly" should never be confused with the movings of the spirit. We should be ready to abandon "quakerism" if God calls us to do so (and, in so doing, I believe would be more true to quakerism than we could otherwise imagine)

1:00 PM, July 04, 2006  
Blogger earthfreak said...

PS- just to clarify, there are not days that I believe in God and days that I don't.

I wouldn't say that I "believe in" anything, really, at least in the sense that I believe that the sun will rise tomorrow and I don't believe that the moon is made of cheese.

I do experience something, or "believe in" in the sense of "trust" - I trust that life and love are amazing and that things will go as they will go.

This doesnt' vary day to day, simply what I call it, and how contentious I am, varies :)


1:03 PM, July 04, 2006  

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