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.