What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Confidence in our Answers

November 15, 2013 § 5 Comments

Answers—restoring confidence in the “content” of Quakerism

In my original outline of answers to the question, What is the Religious Society of Friends for?, I included as part of Bringing People to G*d—

Answers: Help Friends find answers to their spiritual and religious questions (provide religious content).

Seekers come to us with questions about God and the life of the Spirit, and about the meaning of their own lives in general. So do our children. We owe it to them to be clear and confident in our answers, if we can. Our answers may not satisfy them. But we fail in our opportunity to bring them to G*d if we have no answer at all. And we also fail our meetings and the Religious Society of Friends.

We do have answers to offer—empowering answers that over the centuries have continued to meet the emerging needs of the times as the Society has evolved.

Yet we all too often lack the clarity and confidence we need to serve these inquirers properly. Take the basic question that is likely one of the first questions out of their mouths: What do Quakers believe?

We are likely to start with some disclaimers: “Well, Quakerism is so diverse theologically that I don’t feel that I can speak for all of us.” Or: “Quakers have never had a creed”, by which we mean we have no set doctrine; the former is true, the latter is not true, not quite.

When we get around to answering, the one thing most (Liberal) Friends can say is that we believe that there is that of God in everyone (see my earlier posts on “that of God”). Maybe after that, we mention the testimonies. At this point, though, we tend to run out of answers.

I have answered this basic question of what we believe in some depth in earlier blog entries. Here I want to just offer my elevator speech, a concise answer to the question, What do Quakers believe?

We believe—nay, rather we know, for we have experienced it for ourselves—

  1. the Light: every person is capable of direct, unmediated communion with G*d; see John 1:3, 9, 12, and Luke 17:21; George Fox: “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to they condition.” (Nickalls, p. 10); Robert Barclay: “Direct revelation is still the essential purpose of faith.” (Apology, Freiday ed., p. 28)
  2. the gathered meeting: the meeting is also capable as a worshipping community of direct, unmediated communion with G*d; this communion is the purpose of worship; see Matthew 18:20 and John 4:23–24; George Fox:  “But I brought them Scriptures, and told them there was an anointing within man to teach him, that the Lord would teach his people himself.” (Nickalls, p. 8)
  3. continuing revelation: G*d is always revealing G*d’s truth, healing, guidance, inspiration, grace, and love; it continues today, and is not confined to ancient tradition or scripture; see John 14:26 and John 15:15; George Fox: “And I was to direct people to the Spirit that gave forth the Scriptures, by which they might be led into all Truth, and so up to Christ and God, as they had been who gave them forth.” (Nickalls, p. 34)
  4. the testimonial life: we are called to live outward lives that express the truth, healing, guidance, inspiration, grace, and love that G*d inwardly awakens within us; see Matthew 5:16; George Fox: “And so be faithful every one to god, in your measures of his power and life, that ye may answer God’s love and mercy to you, as the obedient children of the Most Hight, dwelling in love, unity, and peace, and in innocency of heart towards one another, that God my be glorified in you, and you keep faithful witnesses for him and valiant for the Truth on earth.” (Nickalls, p. 282); and
  5. love: chief among the requirements of the life of the Spirit is the commandment to love; see John 15:9–17.

Five simple essentials of Quaker faith that you can then unpack to discuss the rest of what we often call the Quaker “distinctives”.

From the doctrine of the Light, from the principle of direct communion with the Divine, both personal and collective, we derive the practices of silent worship, of conducting our business in meetings for worship and all the meanings of gospel order, of universal ministry rather than paid professional ministry, the laying down of the outward sacraments and other outward forms, the testimonies and the testimonial life, and the rest of Quaker faith and practice.

Finally, because we know these things experientially, we believe that the important question is not what do you believe, but what have you experienced yourself? As George Fox, our founder, put it: “You will say, ‘Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;’ but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?” Hence, we believe that true religion is inward; it is directly experienced; it is not a set of propositions to which we adhere with our outward minds, but revelation and relationship known inwardly in the heart.


§ 5 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Confidence in our Answers

  • Thanks Steven for your series on what the religious society of friends should be for. I’ve read them all and it has been interesting and informative to get your take.
    Here is my question, are liberal Quakers essentially another form of UUism?

    I ask this question because I’m drawn to faiths that are LGBT friendly and are both rooted in and committed to following Jesus while being open to exploring conceptions of God that are broader than what you might find in your average Baptist church. This is why I believe both the Religious Society of Friends and Unitarian Universalism have appealed to me.

    But in the case of UUism, I found that there was no real spirituality. It was a community based on deference to the one most easily offended, and because those who don’t believe in anything are the ones most easily offended, most forms of religious tradition (especially Christian tradition) essentially had no place. We were fed a diet of warm humanism and not much else.

    I was hoping that Quakerism might be a place where the balance was being struck, but Liberal Quakers seem to have the same hesitancy to declare a limit to what it means to be Quaker beyond the superficial. And I don’t want to invest my time or energy in a faith that is essentially going to cease to be a faith in any meaningful way in a generation.

    All that to say that I’m still hoping for things to work out. I’ll have to see what my yearly meeting and monthly meeting are like before I make a decision. But I would be glad to be a part of a Quaker community that was seeking to strengthen itself in the ways you are outlining on this blog.

    So thanks.

    • Thanks, Daniel, for your supportive words.

      I guess it’s an open question what the future will bring for Liberal Quakerism. A superficial look at the broad trends suggests to me that we are in fact thinning out, becoming less and less clearly defined. But—there are pockets of amazing vitality. There are quite a few Friends looking to revitalize the Society. And most important, I think, there still are many Friends in the Liberal branch who have a deep abiding relationship with G*d, however they define G*d.

      Some of us are called to a ministry of renewal in the Light of those relationshiops. Are you?

      You are coming to Quakerism for something and hoping it appears. But you also come to Quakerism WITH something—a deep yearning, and behind that, your own religious and spiritual background and experience, your own spiritual gifts.

      True spiritual renewal comes from G*D, or the Spirit, or however you conceive the Mystery Reality behind your spiritual experience, whatever that is. And this renewal can only manifest through us—through people who feel called to spread the good news that we Friends offer: that is, that each of us is capable of direct communion with the Divine, that “Christ has come to teach his people himself”, that revelation and renewal is always pouring out of the Source, if only we turn toward it.

      I suggest that you—and me, and all my readers—stop waiting for Quakerism to become what we want it to be, and start making it what we want it to be—or rather, what G*d wants it to be. What canst thou say? Hast thou experienced the Light? If so, shine on, brother.

      • I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your response.
        Its good to be reminded that, if we are being drawn to fellowship with any community of faith, that we can contribute to its renewal. Because the Light who speaks in and through us does so for a reason. Thank You.

    • Roger D-W says:

      I was raised UU and joined Friends because there was a spiritual reality at the core of Meeting life that UUism didn’t have a clue about in the late 1960’s. After joining I decided that I should read George Fox’s “Journal” where I found that he objected to the same Christian doctrines that my UU mentors objected to, but that his arguments were scriptural! Reading the bible with Quaker eyes has deepened my faith and changed how I walk in the world.

  • Vonn New says:

    “Finally, because we know these things experientially, we believe that the important question is not what do you believe, but what have you experienced yourself?”

    Yes! If there were one thing I could change about contemporary Friends, it is that I would have more people understand this. Everywhere I go I hear Friends struggling to answer the ‘belief’ question with a ‘belief answer’, casting about for a commonly shared, concisely expressed belief like a holy grail.

    The gift that the RSOF brings to me is that our experiences can be experiments and so, our faith is experimental. It can be challenged and refined and it holds up to scrutiny.

    As Friends argue about theism/non-theism, christian/non-christian, and other belief systems, the point and real gift is being missed. I long for a community of faithful unbelievers who seek together and hold lightly the tenets and language of belief.

    “In silence of the mind, all believers can suspend their opinions and together contemplate reality.” – Alan Watts.

    Thanks for your blog!


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