What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Evangelism

January 31, 2014 § 9 Comments

Typical of a Liberal Friend, only now, after unpacking all the other subjects under “Bringing people to G*d”, have I realized that I had left out one crucial (if you’ll forgive the pun) category—evangelism, bringing souls to Christ.

If we were not seriously allergic to the word itself and what it usually stands for, we Liberal Friends might redefine “evangelism” as energetically getting the Quaker message out there, with the goal of bringing people to Quakerism—evangelism as outreach, essentially. But of course, that begs the question of what “the Quaker message” is. And it evades the basic question implied by evangelism: what is our relation to the Christ and to salvation in Christ? And we don’t want to bring people to Quakerism with our evangelism, anyway; it is to G*d, to the Light within them, to the Christ, that we want to awaken them. If they end up finding their religious home with us, great.

I do think that Liberal Quakers should be “energetically getting our message out there”. And I do have an answer for what the Liberal message could be—and it includes the Christ. In a nutshell:

There is in everyone a light that guides and strengthens us to do the right, that awakens us to the wrong we have done and are about to do, that heals us, that saves us from our demons and relieves us of our inner suffering, that inspires us to acts of kindness and to creativity, that leads us to become the people we were meant to be, and that opens to us direct communion with God (however you experience God), both as individuals and as a community. We Quakers have experienced this light as the Light of Christ, as a Spirit of Love and Truth, as a Presence in our midst, as that which has gathered us as a people of God and continues to guide our meetings and our movement into the future, when we are faithful to its call. In this light, G*d is always trying to reveal to us the way of love and peace and truth.

What my understanding of evangelism does not include is the more forceful and exclusionary evangelical message that salvation in Christ is the only thing that really matters and you better believe or else.

In fact, nothing about what I call the salvation paradigm of evangelical Christianity works for me:

  • I do not believe that sinfulness is the only aspect of human nature that really matters in religious life, or that it is even the most important aspect of human nature.
  • I do not experience God as primarily, let alone essentially, a lawgiver, king, and judge—a divine being defined primarily by will and who expresses his (sic) love primarily by his willingness to forgive us and kill his only son in order to do it. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son?” I don’t think so, or he is a monster, like Kronos.
  • I do not confine my understanding of sin to disobedience against such a God and his laws or will. My most serious sins have victims; they are sins against people, not against a divine lawgiver and judge.
  • Nor do I believe that even my most egregious sins would so inflame this God that I deserve eternal damnation under his judgment.
  • I would not believe that the human sacrifice/divine sacrifice of God’s son would ever be required to save me from this fate, either, even if I believed in such a fate.
  • And I do not believe that all I would have to do to escape this fate is to accept this sacrificial son as my savior.

I recognize that traditional Quakerism doesn’t base human salvation on simple acceptance of a set of beliefs, either. Rather, we have believed that only inward alignment toward and experience of Christ can bring salvation.

Now, I have experienced the light in the conscience, as early Friends put it. I have since childhood sought constantly to turn toward the light within me, that it might reveal to me the wrong things I have done and the right things to do, and help me to resist wrongdoing. I had experienced this light long before I had learned about Quakerism, the Light of Christ, or the Inner Light of modern liberal Quakerism.

And of course, I have failed many, many times—uncountable times—to follow the light. Does that mean I am damned, because I have repeatedly turned away from the light within me, and haven’t asked this divine judge to forgive me for it or named or experienced his son as my savior? And is this struggle with wrongdoing the only role of the Light in a truly religious person’s life? I do not believe so.

I am not saying that the Christ is not a savior. I know people who have been saved by Christ, who have been released from their demons and their inner suffering by Christ, and I believe their testimony, and I can see what a great blessing it has been.

No, I am saying that the Christian gospel and the Quaker message can both be much bigger and in general more positive than a preoccupation with sin and “salvation in Christ” would suggest. The good news we have to proclaim includes salvation in Christ, but there’s a lot more to it; it is fuller and richer than this, and more universal, more exciting to more people.

Furthermore, I do not think that the conventional evangelical message that I laid out above is faithful to Christian scripture, anyway. At least it is not faithful to the gospel of Jesus as we have it in the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

The conventional evangelical gospel comes, it seems to me, mostly from Paul, and from John the evangelist, and I think they both got Jesus wrong. Or put it this way, if I must hew to Scripture in the first place: given the huge and, in my opinion irreconcilable, disparities between the Jesus of the synoptics, the Jesus of John, and the Christ of Paul, I feel I must choose which seems more faithful, and the Jesus of the synoptics seems to me closer to the truth.

But I don’t want to get into this right now. Unpacking Steven Davison’s interpretation of Scripture in this matter would take an awful lot of blog posts. Another time, perhaps. Back to “evangelism”.

For me, the conventional evangelical understanding of “salvation” is essentially a pathological preoccupation. It makes human nature a disease and for the cure, it focuses only on a battle with evil and is preoccupied with death—our death, the death of the Christ, and even the death of the whole world.

For me, human nature is a blessing, not a disease, notwithstanding that it is made of both shadow and light, of—yes—disease and suffering and evil, but also of love and community and communication and science and striving for the good, and striving for truth and for wholeness. Human nature is art: blues riffs on Eric Clapton’s fretboard, van Gogh’s Starry Night, Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Romeo and Juliet, Oedipus at Colonus, Balanchine’s Serenade. And, yes, Adolf Hitler, the Thirty Years War, the Hundred Years War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, napalm, the bomb. And Gandhi, MLK, Sojourner Truth, and the Friends I know who have followed a call into prison ministry. My point is that the light of Christ inspires truth and art and goodness and progress and life. It does not just reveal to us our shadows.

I know this does not square with the gospel as George Fox and early Friends believed it and preached it. Yes, I have stepped outside the stream in which even those Friends who gave birth to the Liberal Quaker movement at the turn of the twentieth century lived their religious lives. My approach is not traditional Quakerism, I admit it. I have to admit it: I think these Friends got it wrong, too. Well, not wrong so much, as lopsided. They emphasized the darkness too much. They “preached up” sin too much, even though Fox famously railed against his contemporaries for “preaching up sin”. His point was that they didn’t preach up salvation from Christ acting within us. My point is that the whole sin-salvation framework focuses our spiritual attention too narrowly and in the wrong direction.

Why obsess about sin and salvation when there is so much good and beauty going on in the human world? Why obsess, I ask? I do not deny evil and I do not recast sin as simply “missing the mark”, as many Liberal Friends do. There is too much sin and oppression in the world to deny it or to think of it as just a mistake. Sin and evil are real and so is salvation. But why obsess about it? Why narrow religion to that concern only?

No, for me, one of the gifts of the experience of the light within us is that the light shines in all directions. It shines inward and outward, it illuminates the way forward and it reveals our hidden shadows. For me, true religion radiates in the same way, in all directions. It does not just focus on sin, judgment, and salvation. It also leads us forward in revelation, while it heals us along the way. And that is the direction I choose to face.

Well, I’ve ranted about my rejection of evangelism as evangelical Christianity traditionally understands it, without expressing much of my positive vision for it—this in unconscious mimicry of the very thing I am criticizing: here I am focusing on the negative myself.

See? When you become preoccupied with an enemy, you become like the enemy. If you focus on sin and sinfulness and judgment and damnation and the torture and blood of the cross, you become pathological. Your thoughts fill up with darkness and wrong and this crowds out thoughts of the good and the light. This historical theological preoccupation is why Paradise Lost and the Inferno are great works of poetry and nobody reads Paradise Regained and the Paradiso. This is why we know all about hell and its horrors and we have Hieronymous Bosch, and our vision of heaven is puerile, sterile, and boring. Our legacy religious ideology is an obsession with darkness and it tends to crowd out all the other colors in the light.

Well, I’m ranting again. I hunger so much for a religion of the positive. I remember something Timothy Leary used to say: that traditional religion said, “For God’s sake, feel bad”, when, instead, we should “for God’s sake feel good”.

So, in the next post, a positive vision for evangelism and for the role of the Christ in an inclusive message that I think we Liberal Quakers could proclaim with confidence and enthusiasm.

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§ 9 Responses to What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Evangelism

  • vombutch says:

    Great Evangelist Strategy: Don’t give the devil its due if you want good news to come due.

  • Marlene Pedigo says:

    Have you considered the witness of George Fox to salvation? Although he was born into a state church and was aware of God working in his life, it was not until he experienced Christ Jesus personally that his life was filled with the joy of salvation. After this experience with Christ Jesus, his Journal records the the transforming experience of the Holy Spirit where people came to observe the transformation in George’s life. Once you have experienced “primitive Christianity” revived within your personal life and in the midst of a gathered meeting, it is transforming! The Second Adam, Christ Jesus takes us back through the “flaming sword” to the ability to walk God in communion. This is the. Good news of the Gospel, the experience of George Fox, and evangelism worth sharing today!

  • Betty Steckman says:

    Good point, Forrest and Steve. There were other “messiahs” around at the time (I think Steve said this), but none of their movements caught fire after they were executed the way the Yeshua movement did. So Something Big and Unique must have happened after his death to give the movement the momentum to keep it going for the past 2000 years. As a 20th century liberal Quake, I have to grudgingly say, “so what was different here?”

    I would love to be able to strip away all the accretions of Church theology over the past two millennia and get a clearer look at that turning point. Or maybe I wouldn’t. I’m a lot more comfortable not thinking too deeply about it.

    • treegestalt says:

      The stories strike me as very much after-the-fact, like add-ons in response to outsiders with objections… ie “No, he wasn’t a ghost because he could eat with us.” But his followers would have added such details precisely because they were quite sure of the central fact the details were meant to support. That is, there probably wasn’t a witness with a notebook jotting down: “The Messiah then sat at the table and ate a fish”, but if Jesus had been around for some time, acting like a normal person aside from a few extraordinary abilities, such stories would have been consistent with ‘what everyone knew’ had taken place.

      One thing NT Wright says that seems very significant to me: We’ve got no trace of any pre-Christian source that says “The Messiah is going to be martyred & raised from the dead.” Suddenly you’ve got this Jewish sect that says, “We know Jesus was the Messiah because he was martyred & raised from the dead.” Does not compute unless… They’d found their candidate unexpectedly restored, concluded that God must be with him despite that unfortunate business with the cross — and then considered: “Whom, except the Messiah, would God have done that for?”

  • Betty Steckman says:

    Hear, hear! Or maybe oyez, oyez! I could not agree with you more, Steve, and it is so refreshing to hear my own thoughts so clearly articulated. I’ve been told that Celtic Christianity follows more or less this path: that we are in fact born perfect, and as we go through life we get kind of soiled and grotty, but we’re washable (read forgivable). I may not have this exactly right, but that’s the jist.

    As for Jesus’ death, he was a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker in a political world that didn’t take kindly to folk like that. ( What establishment does?) Of course he would have to be silenced, and as they say now, with extreme prejudice. We can,t know God’s will, but we sure recognize the will of the state and its enforcement power. I like the idea someone posted that perhaps his crucifixion simply showed that there could be no lasting harm to the Truth.

    So much in this to consider, new doors to open. Thanks for continuing your blog.

    • treegestalt says:

      Hi, I’m “somebody” [aka Forrest] and it wasn’t just that there could be no lasting harm to the Truth, but that there is no lasting harm to sentient persons. I know the Resurrection is a real thump in the plausibility-gauges for people with 20th & 21st Century world-views, but God isn’t stuck in a 20th or 21st Century worldview, no more than in a 1st Century worldview. Something happened after Jesus’ death that really blew some minds. The simplest explanation, to my mind, for ‘everybody believing this crazy thing’ is that some people really saw him. And weren’t so cowed by the state’s enforcement power after that.

      And while the Celtic flavor of Christianity might be a little tastier, I can’t really buy the idea that we’re just here to get our spiritual clothes dirty… Granted it’s a muddy place, the planet Dirt… I prefer the notion of an acquaintance who calls himself The Nonprophet: that this is God’s flower garden, where he grow saints in the sort of stuff we grow our roses in….?

      • I agree, Forrest. It seems that something really profound is behind reports of Jesus’ resurrection. Like you, I am convinced that some people really saw him. The curious thing is that so many people saw him and did not recognize him, at least not at first.

        The most striking case is Mary Magdalene in John’s account. She was perhaps his most intimate friend, and yet she mistook him for the gardener and only recognizes him after he calls her name, playing out John 10:3: “The sheep hear his voice as he calls by name those that belong to him”.

        The most instructive case, though, are the two men who met him on the way to Emmaus. They even tell him his own story, during what was presumably quite a long walk. I say instructive because they only recognize him when they “break bread” together, a clear reference to the last supper and the role of the meal in the early church.

        We know from Acts that the early household churches held communal meals during which they shared food, distributed food and alms to their poor, held study classes in the gospel, and prayed together. It seems clear that the guys on the road to Emmaus were TAUGHT to recognize the risen Jesus, just as Paul had to be taught to understand the vision he had had of the risen Jesus.

        I believe that some of the disciples were having visions of Jesus after his death, but that the meaning and import of these visions were not necessarily immediately apparent, and the early church had to work it out ‘experimentally’. Just like we do.

  • Isaac Smith says:

    Great post, Steven. I’ve enjoyed this whole series so far, in fact.

    “Sin” is one of those words, like “love,” “truth,” or even “G-d,” that have been used and misused so much and for so long that it’s impossible to use it meaningfully without bringing up a lot of unwelcome associations. I’ve been drawn more to Francis Spufford’s definition of sin as “the human propensity to f*** things up” (HPtFtU).* Wherever you place the origin of sin, or even if you deny the existence of sin, you can’t deny that people have a tendency to create discord and strife with a rather alarming rate of success. Even, and perhaps especially, people who belong to religious communities. Moreover, people have a tendency to resolve conflict in a way that often just papers over differences or creates new conflicts down the line. (The history of warfare, for example, could be summarized in just this manner.) Being reminded of one’s HPtFtU is a necessary first step to welcoming the presence of G-d in our lives, though I agree that dwelling on it is unhealthy and unhelpful.

    * See: http://unapologetic-book.tumblr.com/post/36657752225/the-hptftu

  • treegestalt says:

    Hey, as usual lately, lots of ‘Yay!’ and a little bit of, ‘Uh…’

    Definitely human nature is no more a disease than childhood is. And the cure is analogous. Where the evangelists talk about ‘salvation from Christ’s death’ I think they’ve missed the actual meaning: ‘knowledge of salvation from Christ’s death.’

    So I’ve come to see the situation as: We are collectively behaving like very confused brats of God; most people seem to feel that if God has anything to say to them, they don’t want to hear it. How much of this is fear and how much is the pride of wanting to fill Daddy’s shoes, I really dunno.

    Maturity is the answer, but meanwhile there’s this problem of being afraid, ashamed, too full of ‘ego’ to face God. What Jesus said and did, in the synoptics as you say, can be a powerful corrective to that; but it’s too simple to be easily understood… so instead people give us ‘Theology’!

    And yes, ‘growing up’ is supposed to look like ‘learning to play with Daddy!’ How does Daddy play? — by creating beauty. That spirit and that desire is in every person, overshadowed for now by everything that keeps us estranged.

    Antihistorical as ‘John’ certainly is, he does carry some major Truths — like “Unless I go to the Father [ that is, as long as I’m just standing around talking to y’all like a human being outside of you ] you can’t receive the Spirit [recognize God as the actual Life living ‘your’ ‘life’.] In that Biblical blog I seem to have repelled you from (Alas!) I was thinking-and-meditating pretty intently on Jesus’ situation at the end of his visit to Jerusalem: What options did God have to resolve his career? And it looked like 1) Ride into Rome on a big white horse with a bunch of sword-waving zealots or 2) Let people have their way with Jesus, then show us that there was no lasting harm they could do that way.

    Are we in trouble, in need of ‘salvation’? Well, yeah, as the Hebrew scriptures understand ‘salvation’, in need of Daddy to pull our nuts out of the fire here & now, help repair the concrete mess we’ve made of things here. And in the Christian scriptures sense, to be able to accept the fact that there is One to save us, that we will be all right by the very nature of God and the nature of our connection to God.

    Should we spread the news, so far as God enables? Well, yeah, let’s do that!!!

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