Quaker-pocalypse—and Personal -pocalypse

September 19, 2015 § 8 Comments

In the next post in this series on reforming committee service in the service of Quaker renewal, I had planned to start laying out my plan. But I found myself reviewing the challenges we face, and when I was done, I had talked myself into a funk. I rolled back from my desk and looked out the window, overcome with grief and depression. My plan was just so much beaver pucky, because no meting was going to embrace it. Only a relative handful of Friends even read this blog, and I imagined that most would just shake their heads and say to themselves, some interesting ideas in there, Steve, but it will never fly in my meeting.

Now I believe in the dialectic of community evolution. It’s of some value to present the antithesis to a community’s thesis, a radical alternative to its current condition and direction. Even an unachievable vision, even a ridiculous proposal, will pull a community farther along the curve that it would have progressed otherwise. It will make only moderately radical (is there such a thing?) alternatives seem acceptable by contrast.

More to the point, though, this blog is for me a form of written ministry. I have to feel that it’s spirit-led before I can publish it. Reviewing my plan and the obstacles in its path left me wondering about my plan’s source. I questioned the balance between my head and my Muse.

It doesn’t help that I am now reading Neil Stephenson’s latest novel Seveneves, an apocalyptic science fiction thriller in which the moon has for reasons unknown broken up and planet Earth has roughly two years before the moon’s pieces start falling in a Hard Rain that will destroy most life on the planet.

Also, I have made a very in-depth study of biblical apocalyptic. I’ve read Jared Diamond’s Collapse. I am myself an apocalyptic by intellectual temperament. I’ve been thinking and talking (mostly with my brother) about the collapse of corporate capitalism and of civilization as we know it, since the mid-1970s.

My observation, born of my biblical study and from watching contemporary Christian apocalyptic movements—David Koresh and the Branch Davidians, in particular—is that apocalyptics usually do get the nature of the problem, the causes of the collapse, and of course, the prophecy of collapse itself, mostly right. But they always get the timeline wrong. It’s always going to be day after tomorrow, and it never is.

I think the book of Revelation was written during the first Jewish War, sometime between 65 and 73 CE. But even if it was written in the second century, as many scholars think, it’s been roughly two thousand years and we are still waiting—and still believing that our time is the Endtime.

The apocalyptic impulse arises (say its scholars, and I agree) when a fervent religious minority believes in its community’s rampant and deeply-rooted corruption, a corruption so endemic that human efforts at reform cannot suffice and only God can bring true renewal; that therefore God’s judgment is inevitably going to fall, and only the faithful remnant will remain.

The first paradigm for this pattern was the one the priests of captive Judah recrafted from Babylonian material during the Babylonian Exile to explain why this disaster had befallen God’s people—the story of Noah and the ark.

Six hundred years later, Jesus was praying for God’s manifestation on the slopes of the Mount of Olives with his disciples when the police showed up and his vision of God’s return had apparently been forsaken. His Little Apoclypse (Mark 13 and parallels in Matthew and Luke) lacks Revelation’s cosmic and iconic imagery, but it’s a pretty horrifying picture—one that did not come true until 35 years later when the Zealots could not take it any more and Rome muddled around for several years because they could not take these peasants very seriously. Jesus saw it coming, but he got the timeline wrong. And, of course, the wrong side won.

George Fox had the same experience. Empire usually wins the outward war. But the Lamb and the persecuted minority sometimes win the inward war.

I think we are going to lose the outward war. Liberal Quakerism is—outwardly—withering away. I suspect that our institutions will either collapse for lack of time, talent, and treasure, or accommodate themselves, the way our schools have, and AFSC has, getting time, talent, and treasure from other sources while trying, with varying degrees of success, to hold on to a distinctive Quaker character.

Two questions remain for me. First, how do we deal with the death of Quakerism as we know it? And, more importantly, where is God in all of this?

These questions mirror the questions I have regarding our global ecological collapse. Not how do we stop sea level rise from taking down New York City, but what ministries will arise in Fifteenth Street Meeting, and Brooklyn Meeting, and Morningside and Flushing Meetings, to deal with the suffering that will inevitably result when that drowning finally takes place. Because it’s going to.

God has somewhere between zero and maybe fifty years to raise those ministers up. The history of apocalyptic suggests that the prophets will not appear until the water is at the door. That was Hurricane Sandy. I’m eagerly waiting, looking, praying.

So we can stick our fingers in the committee service dike and hold back the tide for a while, struggling along with too few Friends doing too much work with too little monty until we can’t anymore—which is already happening in some meetings. But no grand scheme like mine will prevent the inevitable.
Only God can do that.

So the real question is, how do we build a culture that knows God, that offers fertile soil for divine seed? This work will probably fall to a tiny remnant. And mostly to young people.

At least that’s been the pattern of Quaker renewal in the past. The original prophetic spark in the 1650s was largely a youth movement. Joseph Stephenson Rountree was in his early twenties when his essay Quakerism Past and Present won the £100 prize for the best description of the causes of London Yearly Meeting’s decline and the best solution; within two years, the Yearly Meeting had revised its book of discipline to correct the issues he described. So, too, with the renewal movement in midwestern Quakerism that gave rise to the programmed, pastoral tradition—mostly youth. And again with the emergence around the turn of the twentieth century of liberal Quakerism under the leadership of the young Rufus Jones and John Wilhelm Rountree.

We have been in decline before. And the Holy Spirit has never failed to raise up ministries of renewal. Our task is to be midwives to that renewal. To recognize the divine seeds when they fall on good soil and begin to sprout, and to water and feed those plants without standing in the way of the sun.

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§ 8 Responses to Quaker-pocalypse—and Personal -pocalypse

  • Don Badgley says:

    How many times have I felt myself separated from my Source? In such times of spiritual darkness the mountain before me seems un-climbable and a sense of futility plunges me deeper into the darkness at the base. It is in these times that apocalyptic visions arise. This is a natural human condition and seems evolutionary and hard wired into our DNA. Our own inevitable and looming personal demise is at the root of this perception and perhaps why all of the past apocalyptic prophets had a sense of imminence with regard to God’s final intervention at the “end of time.” The universe that is me is dying – then so too must the rest. All apocalyptic prophets have thus been wrong, even as they posited that something new and better was about to happen. This perceived imminence also arises in their personal existential awareness as terminal part of the living universe. Some believers drink the fatal Kool Aide when, hyper-aware of their own guaranteed non-existence, they choose a shortcut to heaven and salvation after death. Suicide bombers take this a step farther by taking non-believers with them in their “holy” cause. They become the righteous hand of God. How sad and how very human.

    This perception and the negative behaviors that proceed from it cannot exist without belief in a separate sovereign god, a saving King who will intervene for the righteous in the nick of time. And, that is the “good” outcome. The righteous will be saved and all others will perish.

    Such a separate, outside of the universe, omnipotent, omniscient and rather nasty creator is no longer tenable in my faith. It is a vestigial remnant. Such theism, though fading as thinking human beings evolve, is the root cause of much of the world’s present (and past) suffering, the lubricant for the engines of war and it is also an impediment to reversing the ecological destruction of our biosphere. This theistic perception of the Divine has decayed and yet the toxins of this rot continue to cause profound suffering.

    My mountain of darkness is an illusion provided by The Adversary. It is the natural product of our more primitive selves whose DNA began in primeval muck. However, I/we have been given an opening, a portal into the infinite well-lit garden that exists beyond space and time. Our sentience is the medium of perception. While our religions are human attempts to quantify and name the Experience of the Divine, these theistic religious strivings almost entirely obscure the miracle of the Divine Experience, or even suppress it.

    When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God he was pointing to the eternal, infinite and unchangeable Presence to which we all have access. He did not propose a new religion but pointed to the Kingdom at hand, already present and readily accessible to all who would simply seek and ask. Then, “reborn” in the Light we are called to model the Kingdom with our lives.

    This seems to have been the Experience of Fox and the other early Friends as well. Quakerism is not the wine. It is the delicate glass that holds the wine for us to breathe in, to savor and to share. Quaker renewal is not my goal. My goal is the renewal of the awareness that, in the stillness of worship we will be renewed, there and only there. Our task as Friends is to point to that transformative Experience of the immanent Divine. The rest will follow as surely as day follows night.

  • vombutch says:

    An apocalyptic approach to our(Friendly?) history would seem to call for preparative consideration(Preparative Meeting model?) of a possible future for the Quaker Meeting. This may fall within the far-fetched-idea realm, Steve, but what if every Meeting adopted a presumption of going back to a beginning-time in its existence in order to be ready for this end/new-time? Would we be looking at whether/why and where/when we should be meeting, with what primary gifts(enfleshed in elder, minister, and overseer) is our Meeting supplied, and what each member is willing to commit and surrender to the Body/corporate unity. Presumption, too, can make an ass out of you and me!

  • There’s something liberating about reading this post.

  • You wrote, Steve:”Only a relative handful of Friends even read this blog, and I imagined that most would just shake their heads and say to themselves, some interesting ideas in there, Steve, but it will never fly in my meeting.”

    I hope that there’s more than a handful of us who read this blog, but Almighty God reads this blog, and who else matters?

    I’m also going to say, “Some interesting ideas in there, Steve, but it may never fly in my meeting… but so what?” I’m not going to shake my head in resignation, and evidently you didn’t either for very long (because you came back to tell us about your grief and depression), — and I’m so glad you did come back! because I think that the Holy Spirit often speaks important and relevant wisdom through you. And just as the Holy Spirit raises you up to speak, so does the Holy Spirit open hearts to hear what you have to say (cf. Barclay, _Apology_, Prop. 10, §VII, “…his words and ministry, proceeding from the inward power and virtue, reaches to the heart of his hearers and makes them approve of him and be subject unto him,” p.237 in the QHP edition). My heart, for example. And it doesn’t matter if there are only a handful of us who hear you (if that’s in fact the case); what matters is that you’re faithful to what you’re given. You’re the one who broadcasts the seed of the Kingdom into the field; God’s the one who determines how it’ll bear fruit.

    Please don’t get discouraged, brother Steve! We’ve been infected with the world’s way of thinking: that how many people we get to agree with us is the measure of our worth or our correctness or the meaningfulness of our lives — with extra points if whole Quaker meetings adopt the measures we suggest to them. (Which is Paul’s “justification by works” in secular disguise.) This is the way of thinking that tempts misguided Friends to presume to tell other Friends how to vote! I think that the mind-set that makes “personal effectiveness” our life-focus is a mind-set planted by the enemy of our souls.

  • Steven, I regularly read your blog and pass it along to others. You are an important voice, and I get what you are saying often. I identify with the personal and ecoprophetic sense of apocalypse.
    My principal blog is not the address below, but ecospirit.blogspot.com. My own recent depression, and how it was cured, are in the June and July posts.
    Thank you for your ministry, Steven.

  • Howard Brod says:

    I think the model of the eastern U.S. Yearly and local monthly meetings, as well as Britain Yearly and monthly meetings are likely going to have to yield to a new way (and quickly) or face a slow death. The modern seeker does NOT understand their emphasis on formal membership, use of ‘elders’, Quaker bureaucracy, use of permanent “steering” committees to “direct” the local meeting, on and on.

    A more appealing model is coming from U.S. western yearly and local meetings (in the liberal Quaker tradition), as well as newer liberal eastern yearly and local meetings. These are eagerly embracing a spiritual community where bureaucracy is NOT valued, formal membership is seen as inconsequential (and fading away), and use of meeting-wide discernment is being utilized heavily in place of just following the lead of permanent steering committees. Additionally, meeting apportionments to these yearly meetings are low i(due to no bureaucracy); and Christians, Republicans/Libertarians, and evangelicals are actively courted in local meetings along with all the other ‘others’ that should be making up our Quaker communities.

    As I’ve posted elsewhere, Quakers would do better to simply emphasize the spirit of Love and Light, and stick to our testimonies WITHOUT telling people how to implement them politically (how offensive to direct people how to vote! Definitely a spiritual turn-off to do so!).

    We need to decide where our Quakerism lies. Is it just in the simple message of Jesus to love, forgive, and be compassionate. And are our only tools to discern what is loving, forgiving, and compassionate our expectant waiting worship, complemented by a communal discernment process? Or, do we think what makes us Quaker is committees, membership rolls, bureaucracy, historical traditions, doctrines, and the world’s politics? If it is the latter, we are doomed to wither away as a religious group, as the Spirit finds someone else to speak to the hearts of seekers.

  • treegestalt says:

    Dmitri Orlov has a good analogy: When an engineer sees that the structure of a bridge is rusted and rotten, he can say things like “It might last another ten years” — but it could fall down in five, or last twenty. All he knows is that if it isn’t repaired, it’s going to fall.

    Much of ‘Revelation’ was (I suspect) written before the revolt — in anticipation of that, not in anticipation of literal fulfillments. Aramaic seems to lend itself to a certain amount of hyperbole to convey the abstract sense of ‘This is going to be really awful, and will upset everything!’

    Clearly we can’t go on the way we’ve been going the last fifty years or so… and meanwhile, we get to cross on the bridge we’ve got, or not at all. Probably LiberalFriendish meetings will go on meeting the needs they meet, for the dwindling population whose needs match its ways — but the Spirit will get its job done, within those ancient bottles or elsewhere. (Most likely in both ways.)

  • Steven, I like the word “midwife.” Meetings midwife the spiritual growth of the people who attend (members and attenders). Committees then should midwife the meeting into what it needs to be in order to be fertile ground for the spiritual growth.

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