Responding to Pam
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:
...it 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