Quaker-pocalypse — Whole is the goal

February 2, 2015 § 3 Comments

Whole is the goal—the goal is holy

I’ve been reading an essay by Wendel Berry in which he criticizes our culture’s love of analysis for the way that it does violence to our sense of the whole—just as I have done with my analysis of the causes of our decline, breaking the phenomenon down into its parts, intending to address each cause with a cure, with some kind of program. For analysis often goes hand in hand with program: we analyze a problem, work up a solution, create a program around the solution, and then implement it.

That’s where I was going. I was already laying out programs for one set of cures, programs for what I would call spiritual formation. This has specific meanings in the Christian tradition that don’t really express what I’m interested in here. By spiritual formation I mean

  • helping each other discover our own spiritual paths and practices, the faith and the practices that work for us, that make us more whole; and
  • helping to equip each other with the tools we need to follow our path, once we’ve found it—opportunities for ideas, learning, and knowledge; techniques and opportunities to practice them; and opportunities to explore, develop, and share our gifts.

And I suspect that I will come back to some of these programs. My analytic-programmatic goal had been to create a kind of master program, or a program buffet, an outline that a meeting could use to strengthen itself in the areas that impede its spiritual vitality and growth. And the ideas I have along those lines have not gone away.

But after reading Berry’s essay, I decided to take his advice and step back a bit and look at our situation more holistically. Whole is the goal. Holy is the goal, for holy is wholeness. So is healing. Heal, whole, and holy all have the same root. We do not seek to be cured of some spiritual disease so much as we seek to become whole.

Then I discovered a meeting that I think is modeling some of the very things I was going to propose.

I have moved into Philadelphia and I’ve been visiting meetings in the city to find a new religious home. Central Philadelphia Meeting has what I want:

  • a robust infrastructure for spiritual nurture;
  • a collective responsiveness to leadings;
  • opportunities for Friends to share with the meeting the ministries they are pursuing outside the meeting;
  • a First Day School;
  • adult religious education;
  • openness to small groups pursuing interests together;
  • an active corporate witness;
  • a meeting room that is not too big for the worshipping body (just barely) so that Friends do more or less sit together (in my opinion, a major factor in fostering a gathered meeting); and
  • an apparent overall culture of spiritual awareness, by which I mean that the way the members talk and the structures they have in place for the life of the spirit, both individual and collective, suggest that they really are trying to live it and that they know how to in the Quaker way; or at least a certain critical mass of Friends do. And that’s really all it takes.

I say “apparent” culture because I’ve only been there twice and while my second impression was quite strong, the first impression wasn’t so much (though it was high summer and there were not very many people there). But I corralled a member to ask some questions after meeting for worship and I liked all the answers. I am sure they have their issues. Every meeting has its issues. But I am eager now to write a letter requesting a transfer of membership.

So in my next post, I want to explore some of these examples in greater depth.

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§ 3 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse — Whole is the goal

  • I think perhaps you are fearing analysis because you are more familiar with its use in ‘hard’ sciences. As someone with training in both ‘hard’ and social sciences, I have developed an impression of analysis in each context and the values to be found in them.

    This is very much a social question – whatever the theological view, the locus of the problems and any solution is human, and social. For if we hold to a Christian conception of God, that God cannot be at fault; and if we have a contructivist interpretation of God, that God is created between us and has no existence beyond us, then the entire phenomenon and situation is entirely human and social.

    Now, analysis in social sciences does tend to the picking apart of a problem, but we try to put it back together at the end. Indeed, my experience of one of my favourite methodologies (grounded theory, of which I tend to the Straussian form) is that, as you follow the unravelled strands along, they knit themselves back together as you work towards a conclusion – but often in surprising ways. Indeed, if the synthesis were not surprising, the pursuit would not be necessary.

  • Steven,

    As you know, I responded to your initial announcement with some enthusiasm. Already, however, I find it necessary, with all due respect to you and W.B., to express disappointment.

    The promise to analyze the problem and then look for solutions based on the analysis was, well, promising, but perhaps you have reneged on that. You seem to be proposing solutions while declining analysis (giving the appearance, at least, of not dealing with the problem at all, but of attempting to further an agenda). That, I suggest, is more likely to exacerbate than ameliorate the problem. Without analysis, the problem is not understood, and in fact the very assumptions that create and sustain the problem may be carried over into the proposed solution, making the entire effort, such as it was, self-defeating.

    Seizing the already problematic concept of spiritual formation, you arbitrarily redefine it in a contemporary universalistic way as not being a matter of formation at all. That is in line with your arbitrary redefinition of “holy” as “whole” or “healthy” as well (as if the crowd at the “triumphal entry” of Jesus — and the Quaker James Nayler — were chanting, “Healthy! Healthy!”), so that holiness is no longer holiness as understood through the ages — no longer transcendence of self but enhancement/fulfillment of self.

    And that, it appears to me, is where the analysis should have begun: the point at which what was Quakerism has been changed into another form of contemporary spiritual consumerism (and a weak and relatively unappealing form at that). What was a community embodying a unique way of thinking, feeling, experiencing, and acting — a way of being in the world — is to be replaced by a group of people who will help one find and then “follow” one’s “own” way of being in the world. Baby boomers have recreated Quakerism in their own image.

    I have found, however, that many people who look for a “spiritual”/religious community are not looking for a place where they can be encouraged to make up (or appropriate from some guru or poorly-understood tradition) their own way: they come precisely because they seek a way of thinking, feeling, experiencing, and acting that opens meaning in life, gives them access to the spiritual power to live generously, and provides a time-tested structure in which that meaning can be owned, celebrated, and expressed through their manner of living. For much of its history, Quakerism was such a place. Now, at least in the liberal branch, it increasingly rejects that identity and that ministry.

    At the same time, it attempts to cling to vestiges of what it was. But there is no necessary connection between spiritual formation such as you have (re-)defined it and the Quaker way of being that has now been relegated to arbitrary rules called testimonies. There is, in fact, nothing on offer other than the willingness of a group to watch and cheer you on while you build your own spiritual house on sand — and this despite the fact that people come to us seeking a house already built on a solid foundation.

    We had a treasure, and we threw it away. No we aspire to be a place where people can come and find, or create, some other treasure, whatever it may be (as long as it fits reasonably well into the box of behavioral expectations that we’ve constructed from a once-living tradition). In other words, we have no identity. People come to liberal Quakerism and find that there’s no there there. Our encouraging of individual searching and constructing is a betrayal of our heritage and of the trust of those who come to us in sincere seeking for what many non-Quakers still believe is a distinctive, challenging, and deeply meaningful Quaker way.

    I trust that my bluntness is welcome in the interest of understanding each other, and I find encouragement in your mention of “the Quaker way” in Central Philadelphia Meeting’s culture, although if that Quaker way is defined in terms of the spiritual formation you’ve described, then I would want to rename it. I do hope that you will do some serious critical anaylsis and offer possible solutions based on that analysis rather than on unexamined acceptance of factors that may well be causing the problem.

    Thanks for “listening.”

  • Isaac says:

    Thanks for this, Steven. Reading through CPMM’s website was illuminating and gave me some ideas for my own Meeting.

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