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.
- 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.
- Second, we are Christian because of demographics: the vast majority of Friends are still Christians even today.
- 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.
- 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.