Quaker-pocalypse: Causes of our decline—an overview?
January 30, 2015 § 12 Comments
Note: As soon as I published this post, I started thinking of causes of our decline that I had missed. And I suspect that my readers will be adding more in their comments. So I’m going to try updating this post with additions as they come along, adding some kind of notation that identifies new material, so that people who read the post early on can come back and watch the thing unfold. Click here to go to the beginning of these additions.
A couple of readers have encouraged me to give some kind of overview on this topic, some sense of where I’m going. When I started thinking about that, I realized how huge this undertaking is. There’s a lot of ground to cover, and I’ve thought about it a lot, so I have a lot to say. But my thoughts are not all that well organized. Every time I choose a place to begin, it starts branching out immediately, and folding back, and connecting to other threads of thought. And finally, I’m trying to be more disciplined about writing under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, and the more I succeed the less predictable will be the outcome.
So I think a grand overview isn’t happening. But I can say this much about some of the causes I see for our decline:
Godlessness. In the end and at its root, ours is a spiritual crisis, or, in the vocabulary I have developed for myself, a religious crisis. I’ll explain how I see the difference in a later post. By this I mean that the core problem is that we are loosing touch with G*d. Of course, the very fact that I write G*d with an asterisk means that I’ll have to define God and look more deeply at our relationship with the divine, and that I myself struggle with my own relationship with G*d.
Structures and processes. But other forces are at work, as well. I think the structures for meeting life and what we now call Quaker process often divert us off of our walk with G*d into the ways of the world. We need to rethink some of our modern structures and processes and lay some of them down, and reform some others. And we need to recover some that we’ve lost and adapt them to our modern needs.
Membership and meeting identity. While the essential cause may be religious and the material causes may be structural, the efficient cause, to go a bit Aristotelian here, is our attitudes and practices around membership. Many of our problems walk in the door on two legs. And I don’t mean just problem people, but all of us. And I’m not proposing that we keep some people out, necessarily, but that we be much more intentional about membership. More importantly, as meetings we should redefine, not only what it means to be a member but also what it means to be a meeting. Membership is really about what kind of meeting do we want and most meetings are not even thinking about that question, let alone being clear and united about it. Our meetings need to rethink membership and their own identity.
Quaker culture. Every community has a collective psychology, a more visible personality, a less visible character, a set of habits and neuroses and programmed responses to stimuli, and tribal boundaries—who is us and who is them. These act as an unconscious filter that attracts some people and repels others, that encourages some people to come in and discourages others, and that seeks to maintain the status quo in the face of crisis or change. We need some kind of Jungian collective therapy. The recent energy around examining our own racist tendencies is a very encouraging sign that, at least on that front, we’ve decided to go on the couch.
Ignorance and ignore-ance. Too few of us know the Quaker way well enough to actually practice it with any confidence and many of us seem not to care or even to realize it’s happening. We need a sustained commitment to religious education.
Content and substance. As a result, we’ve let the incredibly rich content of Quaker tradition slip away. We do not know what to say to seekers. We can offer them a set of values and a distinctive process for worship and so on, but we can’t answer the basic questions that religious seekers bring to us, or guide them in their personal spiritual search and practice. We need a sustained commitment to religious education and spiritual formation.
Secularism and individualism. In his recent book, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker, Ben Pink Dandelion identified these two trends as primary drivers of our decline. I agree. These are dominant trends in the wider society and our boundaries are now so porous that these trends have leaked in—well, gushed in, really. We now define Quakerism as a faith in which you can be and do whatever you want and call yourself a Quaker. Reversing that trend will feel like a dangerous veer toward fundamentalism, and many Friends will resist it mightily as an apparent assault on their rights as Quakers. But Quakerism is not about rights. It’s about discipleship. If we mean what we say, that we seek to be led by the Holy Spirit in all that we do, as individuals and as communities, then that means perforce that we submit. This goes beyond just trying to let go of our personal agendas in meeting for business. It means a radical realignment of our individual and collective lives. This is the actual meaning of Islam, I know, and that raises fears. But it is the Quaker way. Or it was. I don’t know how we reclaim the meaning and value of community, some new balance between the community and the individual, without a hue and cry, some anger and some crying, but I think we need it.
[Added 1.30.15] Theological diversity. Friends love our diversity so much that it’s on the verge of becoming one of our idols, like the Silence. It’s proof that we don’t have a creed, which is one of our idols. And, yes, it is one of our great strengths. But I suspect that it also is one of our great weaknesses. How can we pursue unity in the Spirit when we cannot agree on what we’re about in a simple, coherent, and honest way?
I guess I’ll start unpacking some of these ideas in later posts.