October 23, 2016 § 6 Comments
We worship in silent expectant waiting.
Silent, because we want to take away any busy-ness or noise that would keep us from hearing that “still small voice” within us.
Expectant, because we know that in the human soul, and in the center of our worship, there is a wellspring of G*d’s love and healing and forgiveness and strength and guidance and inspiration and renewal and creativity; and that, if we turn toward the Light within us, if we attend to the Presence in our midst, then we can expect this divine grace to manifest in holy communion.
And so we wait, not with our thumbs twiddling in some passive quiet, but actively wait as a waiter does, utterly attentive to the needs of those who have come to the divine banquet, ready to serve; we wait as ladies in waiting do, as companions to our Guide, ready to take up any task that may be required of us. This may take the form of vocal ministry; or emerge as acts of love or pastoral care; or as leadings into social witness, in acts that seek to bring G*d’s healing and peace and justice and progress into the world.
* I write the word G*d with an asterisk as a way to bypass the freight that the word often brings with it, in order to connect more directly with my readers. The asterisk stands in for whatever your experience of God is, rather than whatever connotations and associations it might bring from popular use, or even what I myself might mean by the word.
September 15, 2016 § 1 Comment
My post on the way we use the phrase “that of God” to explain our testimonies has generated such a lively discussion that I thought I would dig up some earlier posts on related topics. Lo and behold, I actually found the reference I thought I had lost to the place(s) in the writings of Rufus Jones in which he reinterprets the phrase to refer to a “divine spark”: Jones’s “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903 (George Fox, An Autobiography, 1919 edition, pp. 28 & 29), and reiterated specifically in Social Law in the Spiritual World (p. 5; 1904), thus:
What was the Inner Light? The simplest answer is: The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, ‘Something of God’ in the human soul.
But I discovered more while mining my own posts. And since there seems to be so much interest in the subject, I thought I would offer links to the three previous posts that I think Friends might find most valuable. These are all from 2010. (I can’t believe I’ve been blogging for six years!) To see all my posts on the topic, you can click on the category “that of God” in the sidebar to the right.
- Lewis Benson on the phrase, part one. Lewis Benson wrote a piece for Quaker Religious Thought (QRT) entitled “’That of God in Every Man’ – What Did George Fox Mean By It?” (Volume XII, Number 2, Spring 1970). In this post, I review some of Benson’s discussion in that article, mostly about his analysis and critique of how the phrase has come to take over liberal Quaker culture.
- Lewis Benson, part two. This post quotes Benson more extensively on what Fox actually meant by the phrase.
- That of God—what next? This post poses some questions that I raised in my last post about how, in the light of the testimony of integrity, we should take responsibility, not only for the way we’ve handled our past tradition, but how we should move forward.
September 10, 2016 § 17 Comments
Note: Something happened recently that set me off on this topic—again. I return to it over and over again from different angles, the way we use the phrase “that of God in everyone”.
It has become increasingly common for Friends to present some of our testimonies as based on the belief in that of God in everyone, that “there is that of God in every person, and thus we believe in human equality before God”, as the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting book of discipline puts it. In doing so, we also equate “that of God” with a divine spark, some aspect of the divine that dwells inherently in the human. We do this most commonly for the testimonies of equality, peace, and nonviolence; sometimes, also, for earthcare, claiming that there is also that of God in all creation.
This practice raises for me a number of questions.
- Is the divine spark/that of God really the foundation of these testimonies? I would answer no, not historically. But then again, maybe yes, since nowadays it’s such a common practice to make this claim. Does the fact that many Friends believe that our testimonies rest on this phrase make the claim true? Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, at least, seems to have established the case, having approved the claim when it approved its Faith and Practice, presumably in a meeting for business in worship held under the leadership of the Holy Spirit. Or maybe not. Apparently no one stood up for our tradition when the book was approved, or when that section was written. Or maybe they did, and it seemed too small a matter in the larger scope of the matter to fuss about overmuch. I wish I had been there to know what happened.
- Should the divine spark/that of God be presented as the foundation of our testimonies? I would answer definitely not. Doing so misrepresents our tradition and the practice has not received the level of discernment that integrity would demand of our practice, PhYM’s decision notwithstanding. As far as I can tell, this practice has crept into our tradition through a back door left open by inattention.
- What really are the foundations of our testimonies? The answer is, foremost, the leadings of the Holy Spirit, confirmed over time in the hearts of countless individual Friends and collectively over time by innumerable meetings gathered in the Spirit for discernment—in theory, at least. Secondarily, but not insignificantly, early Friends also found confirmation of the proto-testimonies they held to be true in their distinctive readings of the Bible.
- What do we mean by a divine-spark that-of-God anyway? We are professing the belief that there is something inherent in every human being (and in all creation?) that partakes in some way of divinity. A “spark” implies something struck off from God, something that shares with God some substance, or perhaps just some aspect. In Hindu theology, it is called atman, the drop of spirit in the human that comes from the ocean spirit that is brahma. In the phrase lifted from Fox, we use “that of” to stand in for this spark. But defining “that of God” as a divine spark begs the question of what, in this context, we mean by “God”. We don’t answer this question; we don’t define “that of” in terms of “God”. In fact, rather than using a shared understanding of “God” to define “that of God”, we we go the other way: we use “that of God” to redefine God: God is that of which we have a divine spark. This, I believe, is the decisive theological turn that defines liberal Quakerism—defining God in terms of ourselves.
- Is the faith-claim of a divine-spark that-of-God in everyone true? I question this. Do we each possess a piece of the divine? On what basis can we claim this to be true? To be true, the claim must, first of all, be based on our own actual religious experience. I don’t personally have such experience. Well, I have experienced that something I referred to (I call it the Light), but it has not presented itself to me as divine; I seem all too human to me. I have only once heard a Friend speak at all convincingly about their experience of the divine spark in themselves; never in someone else. And that explanation was fraught with deep epistemological questions about how we know what we know, especially in the realm of religious experience.
- My point is that we have adopted this practice mostly without grounding it in our experience in any meaningful way, in contradiction to one of our essential articles of faith, which we have encapsulated in the famous question, What canst thou say? But even if we had thousands of Friends testifying to their experience of the divine spark within themselves, how do we leap from that personal claim to the universal claim that everyone has a divine spark? How do we know that? How would we know that? This leap, it seems to me, is an exciting but rather ethereal conjecture; it is metaphysical speculation about the nature of the human. It is, in early Friends’ parlance, a “notion”, and one without substantiation, a shadow of a truth rather than its substance.
- Where did the idea of a divine-spark that-of-God come from? For this we have a clear answer: Rufus Jones. Rufus Jones was an avid student of mysticism. It was he who first cast Quakerism as a “mystical” religion. And he proposed as the common foundation of mystical experience in all traditions the divine spark that had been clarified and elaborated by Plotinus and the neo-Platonic philosophers who followed and advanced his ideas. My research here is incomplete; I have seen a reference that pointed to where in Jones’s work to look for his divine spark interpretation of that of God, but I have lost that reference. I had thought it would be in his 1909 book Studies in Mystical Religion, but I’ve just finished scanning it without luck. I hope that some of you my readers will be able to guide my search.
- Why and how has the divine spark/that of God come to supplant our historical tradition as the foundation of our testimonies? Okay, what follows is more of an exploration and speculation than a thorough historical analysis, but this is my theory. The hallmarks of liberal Quakerism opened the door to this practice. These elements were introduced into the tradition by Rufus Jones and by his dear f/Friend John Wilhelm Rountree and the cohort that championed what we now call liberal Quakerism beginning in the early twentieth century. These elements were in part reactions to the evangelicalism that had dominated Quaker culture for a century. But they were also a positive vision of a new kind of Christianity. They included
- a new emphasis on experience over doctrine, which had ossified into dogma;
- an openness to science, to healthy skepticism, and especially, to the new scientific approach to biblical criticism;
- an optimism of spirit, including a passion for “progress”, as an antidote to the negative evangelical preoccupation with sin and damnation;
- along similar lines, an embrace of the theory of evolution such as could now envision the evolution of religion, the evolution of Quakerism, a commitment to a religion that actively sought to adapt to its times in order to speak to the needs of the modern person and of a rapidly changing society;
- a new openness to other traditions, recognizing not only their worth, but also their truth, the birth of a new kind of universalism, at least as regards the universal experience of the mystic, with a corresponding relaxation of the exclusivist claims that evangelicals made for the Christian gospel as they understood it.
But the birth of liberal Quakerism around the turn of the twentieth century (beginning decisively with the Manchester Conference in 1895) only opened the door to redefining the testimonies in terms of a divine spark and that of God. Other factors gradually pushed the practice into the front parlor. Perhaps the greatest factor was the Great War. Never had human “progress” been more challenged, or more necessary, or more on display. Machine guns, tanks, chemical weapons, aeroplanes—these developments desperately called for the evolution of a new religious message that could counter the terrors of all-out industrial warfare and the grind of emerging corporate capitalism. Jones himself helped form the American Friends Service Committee, a novel response to these forces that abandoned the old structures Quakers had used for centuries to organize whatever “witness” activities they pursued. More importantly, Quakers faced persecution for their faith (as pacifists) for the first time since the late 18th century. They were forced to explain themselves. The modern “peace testimony” was born. More testimonies were to follow. Social witness emerged as a new discreet category of Quaker concern. And the old evangelical answer to all social problems—evangelization, that is, preaching and handing out Bibles—no longer served. A new rhetoric was required.
It took a while to sever all the bonds that had been loosened—to fully embrace Jones’s mystical definition of Quakerism; to look beyond the Bible for language and rationale; to turn decisively to science for a replacement rhetoric; to shift from service to advocacy, as AFSC was to do, and to become more engaged politically, and thus to absorb progressive political perspectives and the language of the polis; and, most decisively, to welcome into membership more and more Friends who had no roots in Christian faith or, in many cases, actually negative experience with the gospel of Christ.
With the explosion in the 1960s and ‘70x of options for people with a mystical temperament, even the mystical recasting of Quaker faith became more a label than a reality; we became more and more the home of spiritual activists and less and less the home of active spiritualists. Then a bullet in Memphis, and many other such disasters, deeply wounded the God whose universe bent toward justice, and whose presence and power were already in question because of the second world war and the Holocaust. No use starting with that God to explain your testimonial stand for peace and justice and equality and against violence and oppression.
Meanwhile, we were sounding the depths in gathered meetings for worship less and less often. We liked Jones’s idea of a “practical mysticism”, but we increasingly lost touch with the reality of the experience that had been so profound for Jones himself and the other early visionaries of liberal Quakerism. And Jones had given us the perfect segue into a superficially hallowed but in reality hollowed out testimonial rhetoric that seemed mystical and religious without getting too specific about it—the phrase “that of God”, understood as a divine spark. It had the benefit of exalting ourselves while groping for the hem of a now-distant divine garment; never mind who might be wearing that garment.
We re-hallowed the phrase that of God by making it the foundation of our testimonies, and indeed, of our faith as a whole; never mind that we had flipped Fox’s meaning on its head, forgotten both its original meaning and its mysterious path into our canon, and ignored virtually all the other elements of our tradition by making it the single slender pedestal upon which our movement now perched.
So if we really are going to proclaim a neo-Platonic divine spark as an essential element of our faith and call it “that of God”, then let’s do so with integrity. First of all, let’s test the truth of it. Our benchmarks for discernment are our actual experience, both our own personal experience and the experience of our meetings gathered in worship; common sense and sound reasoning; the rest of our tradition; the testimony of Scripture; and the testimony of those prophets for whom this idea is a leading and of the lives they are already living under its guidance. Let’s pursue this discernment with informed knowledge of our tradition, with creative and energetic thinking, and with care for how we write and speak about it.
And if we decide that we do hold a divine-spark that-of-God as a new light of truth, let’s add it to our tradition, rather than using it to replace our tradition, as we seem to have done
September 3, 2016 § 5 Comments
I have been reading Rufus Jones’ The Faith and Practice of the Quakers, which I find is really good. My goal has been to find definitively, if I can, where and when Rufus Jones reinterpreted Fox’s phrase “that of God in everyone” to mean a divine spark on the model of the neo-Platonic philosophers and gnostics. I think it’s actually in Studies in Mystical Religion, written in 1909, which I am also reading. Faith and Practice was written much later, in 1927.
I wanted to pass on the two paragraphs that appear below about George Fox because they are so wonderfully written and so insightful, and because they touch on my search in a manner that seems to contradict the impression I have about the divine spark idea. I have replaced Jones’s generic “man” in the text with gender-inclusive alternatives because I don’t want his language to interfere with our reading. And I have colored the text that I want to discuss after the excerpt.
We have in Fox a man who felt himself called to be a religious reformer. He was a mystic, not a scholastic or a rationalist. He was a prophet, not a priest or a scribe. He new extremely little Church history; he had as good as no theological learning; he was not even well versed in the literature of the movements which prepared the way for his mission. He well nigh knew the Bible by heart, but he had no historical knowledge of its background and no critical insight into the original meaning of texts or the purpose and significance of the different books of the great volume which he loved. He depended on flashes and openings and he turned most naturally to the luminous passages which proclaimed inward religion and announced the light and guidance of the Spirit. Under the constructive and integrating power of his experiences and his convictions, he became a strong and vigorous personality. He was changed from a weak, shy and timorous youth to a robust and fearless man. When once he had unsealed his commission and felt assured of his call, there was nothing on earth that could daunt him or terrify him. His greatest danger was not from without; it was from within. He broke with external authority; he had at the first few good counsellors; he was subject to visions; he was swept with enthusiasms; he was living in a time of seething dreams and expectations; he was visited by ranters and fanatics, yet he kept his head and, with slight exceptions, maintained his balance. Each year saw him growing steadier and wiser, and he came through the turmoils and the testings with sanity, poise and judgment. William Penn very finely says of him: “I write my knowledge and not report, and my witness is true, having been with him for weeks and months together on diversse occasions, and those of the nearest and most exercising nature, and that by night and by day, by sea and by land, in this and in foreign countries, and I can say I never saw him out of his place, or not a match for every service or occasion.”
When Fox started forth, in 1647–48, to be, as he believed, the prophet and apostle of a new and complete reformation, his battle-idea was the continuous revelation of God’s will in the soul of [the human]. He had been convinced by his own experience, by the testimony of those whom he met among the spiritual sects, and finally by the great seeds in Scripture, that there is a direct illumination from God within [the human’s] inner being. He met the Calvinist theory of a congenital seed of sin in the new-born child by the counter claim that there is a seed of God in every soul. This “seed” or “light”, which he proclaimed, was thought of as a capacity of response to divine intimations and openings, a basis of inward communication and correspondence between God and [the human] and a moral searchlight revealing to [us] the absolute distinction between right and wrong, making the path of righteousness and truth unmistakable. When he began his itinerant ministry, he had not thought through the implications of his discovery ; he had, of course, made no psychological or philosophical analysis of the ground for such a faith—he had merely leaped to the height of his great conviction, and he felt at once that it put Christianity on a new basis of authority. The master key was in the hand of the individual [person]. Nobody else could “open and shut”. The significant and eternal realities are those inward decisions, when the soul says “yes” or “no” to God. Fox no doubt overstressed the range and scope of inward guidance. He made it more specific, concrete and detailed than most of us find it to be. He thought that the organ of revelation in us was like a new sense that opened up a whole new world of life, and the scenery and circumstance of it, in minute detail, could infallibly come through to us. He made communication easier and more common than the facts will warrant, but at all events, the momentous truth seemed clear to thim that religion rests in the last resort not on a book or on a church but on the fundamental nature of [a person’s] inner being.
August 8, 2016 § 4 Comments
In my previous post, I made a case for teaching Quakerism—and I would add the Bible—in our First Day Schools and in our other institutions for youth ministry. Teaching not just Quaker values, but the basic elements of our tradition—what we believe, how we work, and what our experience is of the Divine, as individuals and as a movement.
Most important, though, we should be using our time in First Day School to help young Friends discover what the life of the Spirit means for them. We should be doing this for the adults, too, of course, so this aspect of our religious education can very often be multigenerational. We should be answering that of God in our members of all ages.
This is especially important for us as (non-pastoral) Friends because we have no paid professionals to do it for us, as I had when I was in my Lutheran confirmation classes. Our meetings will be strong in direct proportion to how well equipped our members are to practice their Quakerism, and our youth should not have to play catch-up when they decide to participate in meeting life more fully. Nor—worst case scenario—should we take the chance that their lack of knowledge would prevent them from even trying.
So—what to teach?
First, a plug for the Godly Play and Faith and Play programs. In my previous meeting, a number of parents and Friends concerned for the health of our First Day School program took this training and it completely transformed our youth ministry. Those Friends gained confidence, a sense of direction, and excellent curriculum materials. I didn’t do the training myself, but my sense is that it would be a great framework for pursuing the goals I’m outlining below. I highly recommend it.
I would like to approach the larger question of what to teach our children—and all our members, for that matter—by defining what I think our goals are:
- Spiritual formation: awaken our youth to the Light within them. I said in my series on What Is Quakerism For? that I thought the purpose of a Quaker meeting was to bring people to G*d and to bring G*d into the world. For our youth, this means creating a safe, inviting environment in which to explore the Quaker approach to the spiritual life, some exposure to the other paths that we trust besides our own, and especially, to explore their own experience of the Spirit in a Quaker context. In practical terms, I think this could work on three channels:
- older Friends telling stories about their own direct experience of the divine;
- stories from the Bible and other religious literature of epiphanies, guidance, healing, consciousness raising, witness, etc.; and
- discussions that seek to help young people recognize and understand the spiritual experiences they have already had.
- None of this requires any curriculum materials or elaborate planning, though number one requires willing adults, number two requires some knowledge of Scripture, or at least, a Bible with a decent concordance, and number three requires a little skill at listening and encouraging young people to open up.
- Quaker faith: equip our youth to talk about their faith with confidence. That is, teach the basic elements of Quaker faith. What are they? Very simply:
- the Light—everyone can experience G*d directly;
- the covered meeting—the meeting can also commune directly with the Divine;
- continuing revelation—the Spirit is always there with guidance, insight, healing, forgiveness, personal transformation, and love; and
- the testimonial life—that our lives should speak, that we should be guided in our journey through this life by the Light within us, listening always for promptings to leave the world a better place.
- You can unpack these four to discuss all the rest of our tradition—why we don’t practice the outward sacraments, why we don’t program our meetings for worship or have priests, why we don’t vote to make decisions, how we feel about the Bible, why we pursue justice, equality, earthcare, etc.
- Quaker practice: prepare our youth to practice their Quakerism and participate in meeting life.
- Worship. Begin and end each session with some silence. Gradually extend this time, as it seems to work for the youth. Talk about their experience, what’s been going on in their heads during that time and share your own practice and experience in worship, seeking ways to deepen theirs. Encourage their vocal ministry. Take them into the meeting’s worship, eventually and gradually, for more than just a few minutes at the beginning or end, whatever your meeting’s practice has been. At some point, encourage those young Friends who want to to join the meeting in worship instead of attending First Day School. Share the conventions that we use as guides for behavior in meeting for worship.
- Business. Explain your meeting’s committee structure (and at some point, regional and yearly meeting structure) and invite committee members to talk about what they do. Explore what the youth’s own business might be. For instance, look at your First Day School room and see what improvements you might make and discuss how you might bring ideas to the property committee. Talk about their ambitions for life as adults and discuss clearness committees. Explain the conventions that guide our practice of meeting for business with a concern for the life of the meeting. Explain what clerks do. Watch for business agenda items that might interest the youth and bring them in for at least that segment of the meeting. Explain both the faith and the practice of what Friends have traditionally called “gospel order”—in this case, how concerns start with an individual, go to the meeting, then to the quarterly meeting, then to the yearly meeting. Always be thinking of how the discussion and the openings in First Day School might come before the meeting as a whole for attention as business.
- Ministry. Talk about what “Spirit-led” means. Talk about leadings and especially, the leading to speak in meeting for worship. Bring in Friends who are pursuing leadings to talk about what it’s like. Explore how the youth might feel led in various ways already and help them understand these promptings in the context of our faith and practice of Quaker ministry. Explain why we don’t have a separated ministry and what “releasing into ministry” means, referring to those Friends who serve as pastors and any Friend who receives support from their meeting that allows them to follow their leading. Talk about discernment, clearness committees for discernment, and the other ways we support people with leadings and ministries—minutes of travel and service, endorsement of these minutes, committees for care, support, and oversight. . . .
- Pastoral care. Talk about how the members of the meeting try to take care of each other. Though this seems like an extremely delicate matter, seek ways to encourage them to consider coming to the meeting with their own concerns, as long as you are confident that the meeting could respond effectively; some meetings aren’t so good at this. Talk about the life of the community and the meaning of fellowship.
- Witness. Emphasize that the heart of the witness life for Friends is being led inwardly by the Light in how we walk through the world. Explore their own impulses to make the world better in their own terms. Present the traditional “testimonies”, not as outward rules for living, but as things Friends have been led by the Spirit to do through history, both inwardly and collectively, so consistently that we now have settled principles that we call testimonies. Tell stories about the origins of our traditional testimonies. For God’s sake, don’t limit their understanding of the testimonies to SPICES. I wouldn’t even bring SPICES up.
This approach involves a lot of talking. In my experience, many Friends think young Friends would rather be doing something than talking. That’s true for some kids, for sure, and especially for younger ones. But in my experience as a First Day School teacher, many kids are ready to do something pretty substantive when they reach middle school, at least.
My confirmation classes as a Lutheran youth began in the summer before (or after—I don’t quite remember) seventh grade. And those classes were purely didactic indoctrination. I loved it. Some of my fellow students didn’t. And to be honest, I was shooting spitballs the next year myself. But I know from personal experience that religious discussion can be very engaging by at least the age of 12 or 13.
The point is that the program should always be looking for opportunities to explore Quakerism at the youths’ own level and to explore the young people’s own emerging spirituality.
August 3, 2016 § 6 Comments
More than 50 Young Adult Friends attended the annual sessions of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting held this year July 27–32 at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA.
Their epistle contained a witness about their place in the life of their local meetings and the Yearly Meeting and about the Yearly Meeting more generally.
Many of us seek spiritual community because we need support in our work in the world. For some of us, while we live Quaker faith and practice every day, monthly meetings are not offering the depth and groundedness we are seeking. And so, we are finding meaningful communities outside of traditional Quaker structures, but we’re still searching for ways into our powerful spiritual tradition. We are searching for Truth as early Friends did, making our own spiritual paths. Though some of us are active in monthly and yearly meeting leadership, many find membership inaccessible or undesirable. Our yearly meeting structures exclude those of us who aren’t members or regular attenders—even when we have a calling to service. Young adulthood often entails transience—geographically, financially, and spiritually. This can preclude our membership in a Meeting, even when we feel at home there. YAFs who became members as children can feel trapped in the meeting where they grew up—no longer feeling part of that community, but not connected enough to a new meeting to transfer their membership. Some of these Friends long for direct membership with the yearly meeting.
. . .
Many of us still feel alienated, patronized or unsupported. . . . We have experienced ageism and misogyny this week. Some YAFs are not able to be present for business sessions because many of them happen during the workweek. Our gifts are essential to our yearly meeting, but we have felt blocked from full participation—discouraged, frustrated, and ignored.
I have heard similar concerns from young adult Friends in New York Yearly Meeting. Feeling invisible, marginalized, and patronized. An inability to relate to the life of their local meetings. Seeking a meaningful entree into the life of the yearly meeting against subtle and not-so-subtle obstacles. Groping toward a Quaker identity without preparation, resources, or support from the wider Quaker community. Turning therefore to each other out of necessity and cobbling together an identity peer-to-peer with whatever is at hand, or just out of thin air. While at the same time older Friends wring their hands over our inability to hold onto our youth when they become young adults.
The primary institution for preparing young people to be active Friends is First Day School. Some yearly meetings also have camps or conference centers with youth programs, and some have youth programs during their sessions. But the most important place for Quaker religious education of our youth is the First Day School room.
But do our local meetings provide any meaningful Quaker religious education for their kids? I suspect that many do not, though they might deny this because their programs are, in fact, pretty good at passing on “Quaker values”. But there may not be any Quaker or religious content to speak of.
This fits right in with the trend in liberal Quakerism more generally to define Quakerism in terms of culture and values rather than with the content of the tradition. We have become so specifically post-Christian and so generally post-traditional that leaders in these programs often don’t feel safe teaching Quaker tradition and may be uncomfortable with the tradition themselves, especially with its Christian character and biblical language—if they know the tradition at all.
Meanwhile, our children mostly learn their values, not from our youth programs but from their parents. Of course, we don’t want our youth programs to undermine the values we teach our children as parents, so—first, do no harm, I suppose. But most families bring their kids to a religious community, not just to reinforce these values, but to get a religious education, and they turn to us in part because they often don’t feel equipped to pass on a religious education themselves. This is especially true of families who have just joined a meeting.
So lots of our kids graduate from high school and from First Day School knowing basically nothing about Quakerism. Why, then, would they stay? They don’t even have what many of us older Friends had—a tradition that they know . . . and don’t like. Many of us, especially us baby boomers, found Friends because we were so unsatisfied with the traditions we grew up with. But at least we knew what we didn’t like and had some sense of the broader religious landscape. That is actually a gift.
For the purpose of religious education is to awaken a person to the life of the spirit, in the first place, and to provide some context for spiritual formation—for discovering your identity as a spiritual and/or religious person. And identity requires content, not just values
Furthermore, if you want to participate in the life of a meeting, you have to know how. You need to understand how Quaker process works, and the structures we use to organize our work. You have to understand the dense and opaque Quaker vocabulary—what is FCNL? what does “discernment” mean? what is a clearness committee for membership? what is a gathered meeting?
More importantly, you need to see that something real is happening here. Young people—all people—yearn for real spiritual/religious experience. Are they getting it in First Day School? Do they see the adults around them sharing their own joy and fulfillment in the Spirit? Do they ever hear first-hand what that joy is like? Or do they feel, as one of my own grown sons does, that meeting for worship is “the same blowhards saying the same things each week” and that meeting for business in worship is boring and about matters that don’t really matter?
Most importantly, adult Friends of any age will participate in meeting life in a meaningful way when they have internalized the essentials of Quaker spirituality in terms that work for them. When they are awake to the Light within them, and when its inner guidance gives them direction, meaning, and identity. When they can speak with confidence about their faith to their friends. When they know they will receive the spiritual nurture they need because they have been getting it all along.
We should not make young adults, especially, but anyone new to the meeting, put all this together on their own. The direction our young people take may eventually lead them out of the Quaker community. That’s fine. We still will have done our job and they will be better prepared for whatever path they do take. And if they stay with us, they will step confidently into the life of the Spirit and the life of the meeting as Friends already mature in their tradition.
Our institutions for the religious education of our youth should teach Quakerism.
July 26, 2016 § 2 Comments
I have created a page for this blog that aggregates the posts I’ve published on vocal ministry in one place. I plan to do some similar organizing for other series in Through the Flaming Sword, now that I’m no longer working full-time.