The Soul

May 18, 2019 § 10 Comments

I saw David Brooks speak the other day. David Brooks is a conservative columnist in The New York Times and on PBS and NPR. I have not always agreed with his views, but I have always appreciated his moral sense and reasonableness. He was terrific—very funny, very insightful, with a deeply encouraging spiritual message: that we’ve been snookered into investing value and identity in outward things, but what really matters is relationships.

In his talk, he raised up a definition of soul that expresses something I’ve been reaching for in my Quaker writing for a long time, a way to talk about Spirit that is not theistic but still deeper and truer than the pure humanism that often characterizes Quaker nontheism. A way to anchor a theology—a way to talk about and share—liberal Quakerism that takes us forward, that honors the impulse against simplistic theism that animates our nontheists, an impulse that I share, without jettisoning our tradition completely.

Let me quote from the book he was promoting with the lecture (The Two Mountains):

I do not ask you to believe in God or not believe in God. I’m a writer not a missionary. That is not my department. But I do ask you to believe that you have a soul. There is some piece of your consciousness that has no shape, size, weight, or color. This is the piece of you that is of infinite value and dignity. . . .

The soul is the piece of your consciousness that has moral worth and bears moral responsibility. A river is not morally responsible for how it flows, and a tiger is not morally responsible for what it eats. But because you have a soul, you are morally responsible for what you do or don’t do. . . . Because you have this moral piece in you, you are judged for being the kind of person you are, for the thoughts you think and the actions you take.

Because each person has a soul, each person is owed a degree of respect and goodwill from others. [sound familiar?] Because each person has a soul, we are rightly indignant when that dignity is insulted, ignored, or obliterated. . . .

The soul is the seedbed of your moral consciousness and your ethical sense. . . .

Mostly, what the soul does is yearn. If the heart yearns for fusion with another person or a cause, the soul yearns for righteousness, for fusion with the good.

This last sentence is exactly how George Fox defined “that of God” within us, not as a piece of God within us, but as something in the conscience (which in 17th century English had a meaning closer to what we mean by consciousness) that yearned for God. It was this yearning that we could “answer” with our ministry, as he expresses it in the famous epistle that liberal Friends like to quote so often.

Of course, Fox was a theist and he believed it was God for whom we yearned, not just “fusion with the good”. But this distinction is one of faith, not really of practice, of doctrine rather than of living and acting. For Fox, the soul was more explicitly your identity before this God, something eternal. At the same time, however, Fox and early Friends did not fuss much about the afterlife or some deferred judgment; this life was what mattered and judgment was here and now. The soul might be immortal but what mattered was what it was doing in one’s lived life. In practice, Fox’s treatment of the soul was very similar to what David Brooks is proposing. And in practice, I see very little distinction between what Brooks means by the soul and what liberal Friends mean by “that of God in everyone”.

I will say, however, that both liberal Quakers and David Brooks focus on the wrong end of the ethical dynamic regarding the soul/that of God: Yes, murder or rape are abominations against another person’s soul, and against one’s own soul, as he says in his book. But the ethical impulse that turns us away from such abomination comes, not from regard for another person’s soul, but from the guidance of our own soul. Our testimonies are not grounded in the belief in that of God in everyone, but in the experience of that of God within ourselves, which seeks to guide us through this yearning for fusion with the good.

With this understanding of the human soul, we are talking about consciousness in an explicitly spiritual and moral sense without having to invoke the sin-judgment-salvation framework that we’ve inherited from our Christian roots, but also without abandoning its essential import for human action, personal transformation, and community life. We can speculate about where the soul comes from and where it goes when we die, but that’s just speculation. Real life happens right here and right now, and now, and now, until who knows what. This reality of the soul we know and can affirm experientially.

Next, I want to explore what I will call the collective soul, that piece of the consciousness of a community that years for fusion with the good. This collective soul is the medium of the gathered meeting. And I think it could bring us even closer to a new understanding of “God” or Spirit that is practicable, reasonable, experiential, and transcendental, mystical—deeper than a purely humanistic understanding of Quaker community and worship. And for me at least, it pushes right up against the membrane that separates us from simplistic theism. I call it para-theism.

For (in my opinion) nontheism leaves important aspects of our individual spiritual experience and our collective worship experience unexplained, unarticulated, incapable of being shared with others in a meaningful way. But simplistic theism fails to answer essential questions and assaults the intelligence of the inquiring seeker. I am reaching for something that satisfactorily explains what we experience in worship when our worship is gathered, a way to answer the question, what is Quaker worship?


Are Quakers Christian?

April 13, 2019 § 12 Comments

Last week I attended a viewing of a relatively new documentary on Friends titled Quakers the Quiet Revolutionaries by The Gardner Documentary Group. The principals of the group, Janet Gardner and Dick Nurse, are members of Princeton Meeting in New Jersey. The film is quite good. The production quality is excellent and they covered quite a lot of ground very well. There were a couple of egregious misrepresentations of Friends, in my opinion, but overall, I give it a favorable rating.

As for these misrepresentations, the film claimed, as many liberal Friends do, that the foundation of the Quaker faith is the belief that there is that of God in everyone, and the film explicitly invoked the notion of a divine spark as the meaning of “that of God”. As my regular readers know, I believe this springs from ignorance of Fox’s real intention when using that phrase and of its revisioning by Rufus Jones around the turn of the twentieth century. It just isn’t true that this is the foundation of Quakerism or our testimonies. But I’m not digressing now into that theme.

The film also highlighted the SPICES in a scene with kids in a Quaker school. This scene made it clear why the odious SPICES are so successful—kids get it and they can remember it, sort of. Problem is, they’re getting the wrong thing. But no digression here, either.

In this post, I want to address a question that came from the audience in the Q&A: Are Quakers Christian?

The MC, Ingrid Lakey, and Dick Nurse gave what I thought were fairly satisfactory answers, given how difficult this question is to answer with integrity in the liberal branch. Their answers were the usual disclaimers about how diverse we are (it depends on who you ask) and good personal answers about the Inner Light. Here, however, is how I would have answered that question: Are Quakers Christian? Yes, mostly, yes, and it depends.

Yes—historically. Some meetings have become post-Christian only since the middle of the twentieth century. By post-Christian, I mean dominated by Friends who either never were Christians or have left behind their Christian upbringing. But the roots of the tree are Christian and most branches still draw their spiritsap from the Christian tradition. We are a Christian movement even if some of our meetings no longer identify that way.

Mostly—demographically. The vast majority of Friends today are Christians.

Yes—technically. By this I mean that Friends hold that we retain a tradition, identity, or position until we change it in a meeting for worship with attention to the life of the meeting held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that is, in a gathered meeting. Some yearly meetings have drifted into a post-Christian identity by a kind of thoughtless default as they remove more and more Christianity from their books of discipline. However, I know of no meeting that has ever clearly declared itself not Christian in a gathered meeting for business—or even considered the question, for that matter. Without such discernment, we remain technically Christian by our own standards—unless, as we apparently do, we consider these tacit unconsidered deletions from our formal statements of identity to be some kind of true discernment; or unless we think that just because our meeting doesn’t have many Christians that means Quakerism isn’t Christian. I don’t think this blind drift in our books of faith and practice does amount to true discernment, but I admit that this backing-out effect does carry some kind of weight—if there’s no Christianity there, then it’s not there—even if that weight is a negative weight of absence and is freighted with unconscious violations of the testimony of integrity.

Ultimately, whether we are Christian or not depends, not on who you ask or what you believe, but how you worship. It certainly is the case that many unprogrammed meetings are, in fact, post-Christian in terms of what most of their members believe. But more to the real point, since belief isn’t really the point, most liberal Friends do not put Jesus Christ at the heart of their religious lives and neither do their meetings.

That’s the real answer to the question, Are Quakers Christian? It depends, not on how a given individual might answer, and not even on how a meeting answers, but rather on how the meeting worships. Does your meeting worship Christ? Or—stretching things a little here—does your meeting understand itself to be worshipping in the spirit of Christ?

This begs a bunch of questions based on definitions, of course. What is worship? Who, or what, is Christ? And, following the stretch I offered just above, what is meant by “the spirit of Christ”? Questions for another post. Meanwhile, I think the answer for most unprogrammed meetings I know is: no, we’re not Christian. But are we then still Quaker?

As I’ve said many times in this blog, I think we in the liberal branch need to be more forthright about what our post-Christian reality really means. How can we claim to be Quakers and not be Christians? How can we claim to be a true branch of the vine when we have cut ourselves off from its roots? How can we claim our worship is true when it does not draw its spiritsap from the spirit of Christ?

I am going to make a bold apology for a clarified liberal Quaker identity that retains its roots and recovers worship in the spirit of Christ, but yet releases us from the orthodox Christian preoccupations that no longer speak to so many unprogrammed Friends.

It will take a while to unpack my thinking here. For one thing, I’m not done thinking. For another, a blog is really not the ideal format for the kind of long-form writing that careful theology requires. But this is the platform I have.

The “Testimony of Community”

March 16, 2019 § 12 Comments

The testimony of community finds its way onto almost any list of Quaker testimonies these days, especially under the influence of the vexing anagram SPICES.

However: define for me the “testimony of community”. There’s no entry in the books of discipline of either New York Yearly Meeting or Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the two yearly meetings for which I have copies. It doesn’t appear in John Punshon’s pamphlet Testimony and Tradition, nor could I find anything in my own fairly extensive library on such a testimony, though our tradition is rich with discussion of community life.

I recently asked some Friends in my meeting to define it and they just looked at me. And I looked at them. We have no clear definition of this testimony. Nevertheless, they insisted that I include it in a list of our testimonies in a document we’re preparing for our meeting defining what membership means.

Oh, if asked we might come up with something. But it would be just our own ideas, not something clearly and corporately discerned by our meeting, or our yearly meeting.

What does the “testimony of community” mean? Where did this “testimony” come from? How did we come to espouse it without any apparent community discernment?

I suspect a process may be at work similar to the one that has made “that of God in everyone” the putative foundation of all our testimonies: an unselfconscious thought-drift in a culture increasingly impatient with intellectual/theological rigor, or even attention of any serious kind, not to mention care for the testimony of integrity. These ideas arise somehow, somewhere, and then get picked up and disseminated because they sound nice, they meet some need, and they don’t demand much. They apparently don’t require discernment, anyway.

For “that of God”, we know the point source—Rufus Jones. But for the “testimony of community”? Any ideas?

If Lewis Benson is correct about “that of God”, the disseminator of this idea that “that of God in everyone” is the foundation of our testimonies was AFSC. Not surprising, since Rufus Jones was a cofounder of AFSC. I suspect that AFSC may also have given us the testimony of community. It sort of sounds like them—to me, at least—if you know what I mean.

Anyway, I hereby call upon Friends to do some actual discernment, to decide, in our local meetings and our yearly meetings, whether the “testimony of community” really is one of our “testimonies”, and, in the process, tell us what it means. And if we can’t, then I suggest we get rid of it. Maybe that will finally put a spike in the heart of SPICES. I doubt we’d continue with SPIES.

Worship as the School of the Spirit

January 21, 2019 § 2 Comments

Quaker meeting for worship is a classroom and an exercise room in the school of the Spirit.

In the meeting for worship we learn and we practice how to center down, how to sink down in the Seed, wherein dwells our Guide.

And when that Guide prompts us to speak in meeting for worship, we learn and we practice recognizing the call, and to test the call to discern whether we should speak, and what we should say, and how we should say it, and to remain faithful to our Guide when we do rise to speak.

This spirituality of listening and of discerning and of surrendering in our action is schooling for the Spirit-led life outside of meeting, in the rest of our lives.

Vocal Ministry—What To Do?

January 17, 2019 § 3 Comments

Here are some ideas for how we might work more proactively, and yet tenderly, to improve the quality of our vocal ministry, based on the problems I’ve identified in the past couple of posts.

Facing denial and doubt

I would hold a blind survey of the meeting to establish without any doubt that there really is a problem. How many members are unhappy with the ministry and the worship? How many are staying away because of the worship and ministry? I suspect that the results will be surprising and undeniable. I hope this will lead to a clear call to action.

Meeting agreement

I suggest that the clerk make time on the business agenda to consider and clarify the committee’s charge and to formally declare its faith in the committee to act on its behalf to nurture and protect the worship and ministry. This will force a discussion about what that means.

Worship and Ministry Committees

Appointments. This is sticky. I would ask Nominating Committee to be mindful of the committee’s charge to nurture and elder the vocal ministry when it considers names, choosing people who know our tradition, are seasoned ministers themselves, and are confident in their dedication to the committee’s charge. But of course, Nominating Committee may not be able to approach this problem with clarity either, and for the same reasons that hamstring Worship and Ministry committees.

Religious education

Meetings should sponsor RE programs on worship and vocal ministry. My meeting has a great format for this. The committee decides on topics, then identifies a pamphlet or two that speak to that topic, and chooses a facilitator, hopefully someone with some “expertise” or experience with the subject and with the resources on that subject. But if not, she or he simply reads the pamphlet ahead of time and comes up with a brief summary of highlights for presentation and facilitates a discussion. We advertise these ahead of time and make the pamphlets available ahead of time, both from the library and for sale.


I think holding sessions for the meeting in which Friends share their experience of their own vocal ministry helps. Queries might include: How do you know you should share a message? What are your tests? Do you feel a calling to vocal ministry? Where do your messages seem to come from? Whom do you seek to serve with your ministry? What has influenced your approach to vocal ministry—writings, people, experience? Have you ever been eldered and what was that like?

How to elder

Here’s how I would approach one of these delicate conversations with someone about their ministry:

[if they speak fairly frequently] [Name], can we talk for a few minutes about your vocal ministry? I have noticed that you speak fairly often in meeting for worship and I wondered whether you felt you might have a calling to vocal ministry. Have you ever thought about that?

[if yes] Would you like any kind of support? Books or pamphlets to read, or just a chance to have a longer conversation about how it feels and where you think it comes from and where it might be going?

[if no] Well, what do you think? Does the idea awaken anything in you? Do you think it’s possible to have such a calling? Would you like to have a longer conversation about it? Or anyway, would you like any kind of support? Books or …

[if “I’m not sure what you mean.”] Well, some sense of a source of your messages, or a sense of mission or purpose, or that some themes keep coming up for you, or some other need you might feel to speak. [follow on from there]

The point here is not to bring up the contents of their messages at all, or that anyone is uncomfortable with their ministry, but to focus rather on their potential gift for ministry (for we all have—or at least we claim that we all have—potential gifts in ministry), on their own spiritual life and path, and on an offer to nurture their gifts.

The conversation with someone who does not speak often might be somewhat different. For one thing, if they don’t speak often, then given time, their ministry might mature on its own, so one might just leave it alone for a while. But if their messages, however few, are a real problem, then maybe something like this:

[Name], can we talk for a few minutes about your vocal ministry? I would like to know more about what vocal ministry means to you. Where it comes from. How it feels. How you decide that you should share a message. [I might add that, “Sometimes I find myself reacting negatively to your message and I don’t want to. I know from personal experience that messages that have bothered other people have had a profound and positive affect on me, that you never know when a message is really going to speak to someone’s condition, all unexpectedly. So I suspect that my problem is just one of understanding.]

Here the point for me is to keep it about my reaction—as a potential problem—and about understanding rather than criticism.

Vocal Ministry and Worship and Ministry Committees

January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

In my last post I said that “our current culture of ministry continues because our worship and ministry committees are paralyzed, unable to address the problem for various reasons.” Here’s what I think those reasons are.

First, the committee rarely feels that it has the backing of the meeting as a whole, that it knows what the meeting wants. This is because the meeting never does know what kind of eldership culture it wants. Our meetings do not have a clear agreement about what constitutes Spirit-led ministry or how the committee should protect the worship. For protecting the worship and ministry is one of the charges of our worship and ministry committees. But it’s hard to expect the committee to act when it has no clear mandate from the meting and might fear that some in the meeting will be upset by its actions.

Then, there’s Quaker process. The committee has to come to unity about its approach and it only takes one member of the committee to make that impossible or at least very difficult. If it’s difficult, especially if the committee must labor a lot through meeting after meeting, exhaustion sets in. And meanwhile, there are other things to do, setting up the schedule for clerking worship, etc.

So the third problem is the makeup of the committee. Nominating committees always struggle with filling committee slots anyway, and this one can be especially hard. It’s hard to find Friends who really know the Quaker traditions of worship and ministry, who are gifted or even called vocal ministers themselves, and who are willing to serve. And inevitably, at least one person on the committee seems to think the ministry is more or less just fine, anyway. They may even be part of the problem themselves.

But one attribute may be even more important and it is certainly harder to find—confidence, decisiveness, even boldness, a temperament capable of acting in spite of the fear of over-stepping.

For this is perhaps the biggest problem. We are afraid to elder, and rightfully so. We are afraid to hurt someone. We are afraid to cross some line that, as individuals, we can rarely see with confidence, let alone share with confidence with a bunch of other Friends. Many of us have been hurt by some eldering experience ourselves. We know how it feels.

And we’re not sure how it’s to be done. How do you approach someone whose ministry is perfectly acceptable to some unknown but perhaps fairly large percentage of the meeting to tell them to get with the Spirit?

This brings us to the final problem. We are not a covenant community. We don’t see membership in the meeting as an agreement about our mutual accountability in the life of the Spirit. Put in concrete terms, we don’t say to applicants in our clearness committees for membership that we look forward to their gifts in ministry unfolding over time, that we plan to help that unfolding however we can, and that we hope (expect?) that it’s okay that we can have a direct conversation about their ministry as it unfolds, including even some questions when it seems they’ve “stepped through the traces”, as Friends used to say in the elder days—gotten tangled up in one’s relationship with the Guide.

If we have not broached this matter of mutual support and accountability regarding ministry in the clearness committee, it’s doubly hard to bring it up later, with no foundation on which to stand. We seem to be just coming in with the warship and dropping a bomb.

We need agreements: That, as individuals, we want nurture and support for our unfolding gifts in ministry and that we want correction when our ministry needs work. That, as a committee, protecting the worship and engaging with our ministers is our proper role. That, as a meeting, we need—we insist on—ministry that comes from the Spirit, and that we trust the committee to foster and protect it.

So this exercise in the last couple of posts has brought up some ideas about what to do. On to those in the next post.

Vocal Ministry—Some Questions Toward a Profile

January 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

I know I keep coming back to our problems with vocal ministry, but it really weighs heavily on my soul.

I can’t tell how widespread the problem is, but I fear that many of our meetings are in a crisis regarding their vocal ministry. I know mine is. Friends have stopped attending meeting for worship because the vocal ministry drives them nuts. I’ve done this twice myself in the past few months.

I don’t yet have any answers to this problem, but I do have some questions, and I’m hoping that airing these questions out loud, as it were, here in this blog, might unlock something, in myself and/or in my readers. I am praying for a breakthrough.

With the questions that follow, I hope to profile the problem.

What? What is happening?

Lots of worship sharing. Some harangues. Personal opinions, basically stand-up blog posts. Appeals for help. Demands for attention. Musings and anecdotes from the speaker’s past week. Hand-wringing about the state of our society and especially of our politics. A dearth of the Spirit and of the spirit of service.


A lot. Cascades of shallow, jarring, or merely personal messages filling the hour, especially the twenty or so minutes before the children come in ten minutes before rise of meeting. But also, unnervingly often, in the first twenty minutes, before we’ve had a good chance to settle and while the latecomers are still trickling in.


In loud, commanding voices. In voices so soft that even the only moderately hearing-impaired like me can’t hear it. Mostly quite confident; not much humility.


Lots of relative newcomers. Some more seasoned Friends. Rarely from our most seasoned elders.


I suspect that some of the relative newcomers simply have not yet been fully baptized in the Spirit. Also, they have learned what’s appropriate ministry by osmosis and that means that the current predominance of weak vocal ministry in the meeting makes it look like that’s what’s appropriate. It’s an unvirtuous circle, a feedback loop.

The disquiet that this culture creates in the more seasoned members and the sheer frequency of messages work together to suppress the ministry we might get from more seasoned Friends, so we hear fewer models of more Spirit-led ministry. It’s a feedback loop.

Some people seem desperate for a platform, for the sense of having been heard, for being known in a deeper way than is available in the rest of their lives.

And finally, our current culture of ministry continues because our worship and ministry committees are paralyzed, unable to address the problem for various reasons. I want to get deeper into this last problem in my next post.