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.