Quaker Culture vs Quaker Faith 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 "...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, 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 (and..as 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.