Liberal Quakerism, Part 3—Is Quakerism Christian?

April 9, 2013 § 6 Comments

I said at the end of my last entry that I believe that this is the essential question for Liberal Friends: is Quakerism Christian? And if it is, then what am I doing here? I personally have felt compelled by the testimony of integrity to honestly wrestle with these questions and answer them. But this assumes, of course, that I am right in saying that we are a Christian religion.

So why do I say Quakerism is a Christian religion, even though many of our meetings have, at most, only a handful of Christian members and very many of us have not had any meaningful Christian experience?

Because I care about this so much, I have felt compelled to ask whether I myself am a Christian, also, and that means that I have had to come up with a definition of Christian. Actually, I have come up with five definitions, and I am not a Christian by any of them. So I’ll be getting to that in a later post. But first I want to explain why I believe that Quakerism is a Christian religion.

  1. First, because of history: we have been self-consciously Christian, even in the so-called Liberal tradition, for all but the past fifty years or so in our 350-year history.
  2. Second, we are Christian because of demographics: the vast majority of Friends are still Christians even today.
  3. Third, we are Christian because it is our traditional practice that, until we discern otherwise in a meeting gathered in the Spirit, our traditional testimonies still apply. I know of no meetings that have formally asked themselves in a meeting for business in worship (or otherwise) whether they are still Christian and then decided that they are not. Until meetings undertake this kind of discernment, our tradition obtains and we are, if only nominally, Christian.
  4. But most importantly, we are Christian because it was Jesus Christ who gathered us into a “peculiar people”. It was “one, even Christ Jesus, who spoke to [George Fox’s] condition” and Christ has continued to speak to the condition of Friends ever since.

For how can we deny the spiritual power that created us as a people of God? if we do deny that it was the spirit of Christ who galvanized our movement and inspired its genius in subsequent generations, then we deny the testimony of tens of thousands of Friends. Denying the truth of our forebears’ testimony, or redefining their experience to fit more comfortably with our own worldview, would be deeply disrespectful. Would you want someone to tell you that your religious experience is bogus, that you misunderstand your own heart and soul? Furthermore, if we say that no, it wasn’t Christ who gathered us as a people, then who or what did?

Many Liberal Friends might say that we gathered ourselves, that we do not need to invoke some “supernatural power” to account for the inspiration of our movement. But that is not how early Friends or generations of Quakers ever since have described their experience. More to the point, it challenges us to account for the profound, collective, transcendental experiences we ourselves have had—those of us, at least, who have experienced a gathered meeting. Something deeper than “we ourselves” is going on in a gathered meeting.

I am saying that respect for the testimony of others—the kind of respect that we would demand for ourselves and our own experience—requires that we take at face value the many compelling accounts of encounter with Jesus Christ. Out of respect, if nothing else, we must assume that Jesus Christ does, in fact, exist as so many Friends testify that he does, even though we ourselves have no experience of him.

Nor am I talking about simply adopting a generous-spirited acceptance or tolerance of opinions that we do not share ourselves. From myself I have demanded something deeper than just the grudging acceptance of a proposition based merely on respect. I have demanded of myself something like faith. I believe that the Jesus Christ of our tradition was and is a living presence in our midst. I just have not experienced him as such myself. But more about that later.

So I do not ask who gathered us as a people as a rhetorical question. I really want post-Christian Friends to answer me. Are you in fact willing to deny the experience of your fellow Quakers? Do you believe that no spiritual power lies behind our religious experience, that Fox and Woolman and Elias Hicks and Rufus Jones all were deluded by their own subconscious, or whatever—but that you are not? If religion is nothing but psychology and sociology, without a true spiritual basis, then what makes Quakerism a religion? To be more specific, what accounts for the psychic and mystical experience of the gathered meeting?

I am not talking about abstract ideas here. I am talking about experience, Have you experienced a gathered meeting? Yes? Then did Christ present himself in that meeting as the Gatherer? No? Then what was happening?

Have you experienced the Light within you? Yes? Did the Light present itself to you as Christ? No? Then what is happening?

Christian Friends, by and large, have answers for these questions. Liberal Friends, by and large, do not. I feel led to try to answer them, not for you, but for myself—to testify to the truth as I experience it, and to test whether I may still with integrity call myself a Friend.

In my next post I will try to clarify what I mean by “Christian” and then to describe my own quasi-Christian experience. For I do have experience of Jesus, but these experiences have not made me his disciple.

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§ 6 Responses to Liberal Quakerism, Part 3—Is Quakerism Christian?

  • Patricia Dallmann says:

    This post brings to mind a verse in John (20:29) in which the risen Christ speaks to Thomas after this disciple has seen and acknowledged him: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet believed.”

    This verse has puzzled me, as I’ve always felt that one’s experience of seeing and hearing should inform one’s belief, that after childhood one shouldn’t claim to believe as a result of others’ testimony (or worse, peer conformity).

    At this point, however, I understand this verse as preparation for beginning a social movement that must thrive if the knowledge is to survive in the present and become available for those who come after. The religious traditions, if nothing else, have kept the information available to give a language and structure to those who, like Fox, cry in the wilderness for some true foundation on which to base their lives. “And blessed are all they indeed,” said Fox, “that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; they shall be satisfied with it.”

    Quakerism is in the odd position of being the Christian tradition where inclusion is based upon experiential knowledge rather than hearsay. There aren’t many in Liberal meetings who have found that Fox’s words or Scriptures speak to their condition, because their experience hasn’t prepared them to understand these writings.

    For social organizations to flourish, it seems that there must be a goodly number participating “who have not seen, and yet believed.” Instead, a better solution would be for all to genuinely hunger and thirst after righteousness, which is what the prophets have always said.

  • Christine Greenland says:

    When I first came to Friends, I was very allergic to the Bible-thumpy language I’d endured in childhood. One seasoned Friend, when I inquired about joining meeting, advised me to wait a while… “First, get to know the variety possible. Then see if you can still stand us!”

    That took nearly a decade, though when I joined a meeting, I still wasn’t sure I’d call myself “Christian.” I’m cautious about God-language, preferring the traditions of not referring to the name of the Other — who exists in all others. Call it Force, call it God, at the heart of it is a living, pulsating Presence in the midst of daily life. A Jewish friend once joked that if I became Jewish, I’d need to change my name.

    It took a few decades for me to become somewhat less than a “wistful unbeliever”. At the moment, I’m not exactly a “liberal” Friend. I feel equally at home among evangelical or conservative Friends, and many points between. I feel much more at home with the languages others use to describe faith — whatever that happens to be. This resulted from some pretty astounding inward experiences that convinced me that I am indeed Christian, more than in name, but in direct experience with the Presence in the midst. I try to follow Christ’s teachings as inwardly expressed (and tested), True, I often come up short of the ideal.

    Over 15 years ago, Steve and I had an exchange that clarified some earlier experiences that were turning points in my candid admission that the experiences were both real and inward. I’m very grateful. These exchanges were a beginning as I found a language I can use, and which allows rather easy transitions among the variety possible among Friends.

  • Steve, this is turning into a classic that I want to see published elsewhere, too. Unfortunately, it may be too starkly truthful (“controversial”) for the big magazines – Friends Journal, Quaker Life, and Britain’s The Friend. Could it be grown into a Pendle Hill Pamphlet or a Friends Tract Association tract? But it may be too personal to fit neatly into the pattern of either of them, and too subjective for Quaker Religious Thought; but what about Chuck Fager’s _Quaker Theology_? The entire Quaker world really needs to read this!

  • Howard says:

    Steven,

    It sounds like to me that you are providing an either/or (black and white) choice here: spirituality through Jesus, or no spirituality (just a secular outlook). Maybe that’s not your intention. And I apologize if I am misunderstanding your words.

    I think the vast majority of liberal Friends truly believe that a primal spiritual Force is at work among us, and when we are in ‘expectant waiting’ worship, we are recognizing and experiencing that Force. In the liberal meetings I have attended, there is not an over-powering secular approach; although, there may be a few secular Friends among us. All of the meetings I’ve attended have been spiritual groups rooted in spiritual, Quaker practices.

    I use the term “Force” in my comment here to cover any name modern liberal Friends may give this spiritual experience. Isn’t a “rose by any other name still a rose”? Isn’t it possible that early Christians experienced the spiritual Force of the universe as embodied/exemplified (for their human need) in Jesus? Yet, others throughout history and in modern times are experiencing the same transforming Force in different forms, or in no form? My God (no pun intended), we are talking about the unifying Force of the Universe. Can’t it/she/he “get through to us” in a multitude of ways? To say that it can’t (not that you are), is to discredit that Force.

    I agree with you that liberal Quakers would be foolish to not recognize that we are indeed a Christian religion, whether we might personally understand our spiritual experience through the life and work of Jesus, or not. Every structure and testimony within our meetings is based on so much Christian understanding and tradition, that to deny Jesus’ influence on us is like denying one’s own parent’s influence on them.

    Yet, all good parents want their children to take their childhood parent-provided experiences, and then have their own meaningful experiences. And if those lived experiences of the child honors the life of the parent, isn’t any parent happy? In order to be worthwhile, does the child have to live their life through the experience of their parent? I think your assumption that if we have an experience outside of Jesus, we are discrediting him and early Friends – is not true.

    I also caution you (and others) to not see Jesus just through the canonized New Testament Bible alone. There are writings from the same time that were not canonized by the Catholic church, that present a much more ecumentical, mystical, and universalist Jesus (“The Gospel of Thomas” for one). And there are also modern spiritual works based on Jesus that do similarly (“A Course In Miracles” for example).

    Perhaps some liberal Friends are at a place where form, models, and traditional ways have “faded away, and only love remains”, as the apostle Paul said would happen one day within the Christian church.

    I for one recognize and cherish the foundational contributions of Jesus to our faith tradition. But I cherish the words and faith traditions of others, as well. This is because I have found that Light is Light in all its varied forms. So I do believe I am having the same spiritual experience as George Fox and other early Friends, even though I don’t personify that experience through the person of Jesus. That doesn’t deny their experience. It just let’s me have my own experience with that same spiritual Force in a way I can understand and use to transform my everyday life.

    What more would a ‘son of God’; i.e., Jesus, want for me?

    • Howard, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I definitely am not trying to provide an either/or choice here, just the contrary. I am trying for a both/and, a way to understand and talk about our experience that does not abandon our roots in the Bible and, more important, in our experience of Jesus as our “Gatherer”. And I agree with you that we might all be experiencing the same thing. Christianity has been rather exclusivist throughout its history, claiming to be, if not the only religious truth, at least the one necessary religious truth. I’ve experienced truth in too many places to agree with that. Fortunately, I think that the Quaker Christian mutation is a lot more inclusive than that; it has always had a universalist message, as I said in my post, though many Friends have not agreed with that either.

      But my real point is we were formed in intimate relationship with Jesus Christ as a specific “Force”, to use your language, one with a discernable identity and message, and one which has always been connected to the testimony of Scripture. I believe that that “Force” is still in relationship with us, at least in theory, or in possibility. He didn’t just guide early Friends into the founding of a new religion and then walk off, leaving us to ourselves.

      That is the reality that I believe Liberal Friends need to deal with somehow. Many simply deny the basic premise of a living Christ active in the Society’s life, at least in principle. Many, in fact, deny the very possibility of such a spiritual entity—they are not theists of any kind.

      But I submit that they feel that way mainly because they haven’t experienced Jesus. I understand. I haven’t either. But our lack of experience does not equate with his non-existence.

      On the other hand, why aren’t we experiencing him? This is a really important question for Christian Quakers to answer. If Jesus is so present and powerful, then why is he so absent?

      I plan to explore these questions in later posts.

      • Howard says:

        My thought is that we are experiencing the same Light. Language is just the identifier for the same experience. One calls it Jesus, one calls it God, one calls it Spirit. It simply IS the primal force of the universe.

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