Christianity and Quakerism

September 26, 2019 § 9 Comments

Several months ago, Friends Journal dedicated an issue to Christianity and Quakerism, whose articles I read with great interest. When I had finished them, however, I ended up feeling that the real issue was different than the one posed by the issue’s title theme. The important questions aren’t about the relationship between the “isms”—between Quakerism and Christianity. The important questions are about the relationship between meetings, their members, and the Christ, and between the meeting and its Christian members and attenders. They are about worship and fellowship, not history and theology.

Do we fully welcome Christians into our worship and into our fellowship? By “fully” I mean the way many meetings now fully welcome LGBTQ Friends, for which the signature action is marrying under the care of the meeting. That is, do we not just tolerate Christian and biblical vocal ministry, for instance, but want it, even need it? Do we pray for the spirit of Christ to enter our worship?

Of course, many (most?) liberal Quakers do not “pray” in any traditional sense, do not believe that a theistic, sentient, spiritual entity exists who could “hear” or answer such a prayer—and specifically not Jesus Christ as traditionally understood.

This is because they have not experienced it. If they had experienced it they would “believe”. Nor do they trust the testimony of those who have experienced Jesus Christ. That is, they do not trust Christians, do not at least trust the foundational experience and truth of Christians. This in spite of the truth and testimony of the Friends who founded our movement and have carried the tradition faithfully to the present.

This disconnect damages our meetings.

For one thing, it is out of the testimony of integrity to deny a truth that has been essential to our movement throughout our history, and still is for the majority of Friends worldwide even today, when we have not actually explicitly abandoned that testimony in meetings for business held under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We have never forthrightly faced the question of our relationship with Christ, but only allowed Christianity to slip out of our books of discipline gradually and basically unconsciously as our culture has become increasingly post-Christian. Now, we presume our post-Christian character. We treat Christian Friends as, in some ways, outside this tacitly defined cultural consensus.

Self-identified nontheists usually carry the ball in this process in a weird manifestation of projection: Christian and biblical language makes many nontheists feel excluded, as though the cultural consensus was theistic—but it’s not. It’s the other way around, at least in many of the meetings I know. When nontheists express their sense of exclusion, they act to exclude theists from the nontheist cultural consensus that actually dominates in many meetings.

The tag for this behavior is “inclusiveness” or “diversity”, ironically. But God forbid we should fully include Christians and theists.

Full disclosure here: I have not experienced Jesus Christ, as traditionally understood, myself. But I’m not a nontheist, either, because I have experienced “theistic” spiritual entities—let’s call them angels or devas. Or at least that’s how these experiences presented themselves to me. They could be experiences projected from my unconscious, or memes or archetypes that “dwell” in the collective unconscious. I can explain them away any number of ways. But I choose to honor the form in which they presented, rather than rewrite my own experience out of some arbitrary fidelity to “science” or “reason” or some other Enlightenment trope. And I respect those who do not try to explain away their experience of Christ either; I completely understand.

For I am clear that these spiritual entities—like Jesus Christ—do “exist”, in the sense that people experience them as real, that is, as transforming in their lives, even if the experience transcends normal experience and consciousness, the physical senses, reason, and the apparent “laws of nature”. Spirit is by definition transcendental.

But back to my concern. Here are my queries: Do we not want everyone to see themselves reflected in the meeting’s worship, fellowship, and culture? People of color, LGBTQ folks, nontheists—and Christians? Or not?

And why, especially, would we not welcome—nay, actually pray for—the presence of the spirit of Christ, who first gathered Quakers as a people of God and who has been guiding both the movement and its members ever since—at least according the testimony of our most trustworthy guiding lights?

The obvious counter-argument is that he has not been manifesting lately. So many of us do not, in fact, have any experience of the spirit of Christ, myself included. Why? Because he doesn’t exist? If he does exist, then what is he up to? Is it his fault we don’t know him—or ours?

Or—has he been in our midst all along, just without his name tag on? Take the example of the very first disciples. In the vast majority of their first experiences of the spirit of Christ—that is, of the risen Christ as spirit rather than embodied man—THEY DID NOT RECOGNIZE HIM or they doubted. Why should it be different for us?

For me, the question is about the character of our worship and the respect and loving welcome in our fellowship. It’s about what we do and whom we embrace.

§ 9 Responses to Christianity and Quakerism

  • Geeta Jyothi says:

    We treasure all ministry in Celo Meeting. That of our Christian members is particularly welcome because it ties us to our roots and informs us of the power of being searched by the Light of Christ

  • […] Friend commented on my previous post and my reply got so long that I decided to make it its own post. I had started out focused on what […]

  • Jane Touhey says:

    We do not have to share the same understanding, experience or knowledge to worship together, hold each other up and be human together. We need to know each other and accept our differences. I rarely experience the issues Steven raises and it is usually a failure, on my part, to soften, to listen with openness or a problem of language.

  • Ellis Hein says:

    Steve, you raise some important issues in this post. Your concern “Do we fully welcome Christians into our worship and into our fellowship?” strikes me as not being the core issue either. How can people, whose agenda is “I want to feel good about who I am”, welcome into their fellowship and worship the one who comes demanding “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”? Among those who will declare that there is no God, how can the word of the Lord be welcome when it would burn up and beat down all that is contrary to God? How can the light be welcome when it reproves us, and convicts us of every evil deed, word, and thought, and by it, in us, we came to know good from evil, right from wrong, and whatsoever is of God, and according to him, from what is of the devil, and what was contrary to God in motion, word, and works? These are the foundations built into the beginning of the breaking forth of that people of God in scorn called Quakers as penned by Edward Burrough seven years after his convincement at Firbank Fell in 1652. He wrote:

    And we found this light to be a sufficient teacher, to lead us to Christ, from whence this light came, and thereby it gave us to receive Christ, and to witness him to dwell in us; and through it the new covenant we came to enter into, to be made heirs of life and salvation. And in all things we found the light which we were enlightened withal, (which is Christ,) to be alone and only sufficient to bring to life and eternal salvation; and that all who did own the light in them which Christ hath enlightened every man withal, they needed no man to teach them, but the Lord was their teacher, by his light in their own consciences, and they received the holy anointing.

    Forget history, forget theology, these words are beyond those concepts. “We found this light to be a sufficient teacher, to lead us to Christ…it gave us to receive Christ, and to witness him to dwell in us…” Is this the light Liberal Friends are talking about? If so, why is there not a universal testimony that “we witness him to dwell in us?” Why are Liberal Friends at ease talking about “the Spirit” or “the Holy Spirit” when Fox’s testimony is “The Father of life drew me to his son by his spirit?” Are we now talking about a different Spirit that does not draw us to the son? Notice E.B.’s qualifier, “all who did own the light in them which Christ hath enlightened every man withal,” are we willing to own the light Christ has enlightened us with?
    As you read on in Edward Burrough’s introduction to Vol. III of Fox’s Works, you will see that there are consequences to owning Christ’s light, to witnessing him to dwell in us, to entering into the new covenant. This experience does not leave us unchanged. We are remade into the image of God. We are rebreathed with the breath of life and are made living beings. We are gathered into a people who know (experience) Christ present in and among us in all his offices. The temple of the Lord is cleansed and that which defiles and desecrates is thrown out.
    In the days of our beginning we were wed to Christ come to teach us himself. Have we not, as a society, encountered a seducer stating, “I will be to you a better husband?” But a seducer and a seduced wife is not a better situation.
    These are the words of the Lord that cry out in my heart as I read your words.

  • Don Badgley says:

    It seems to this Friend that Steve’s phrase “I have not experienced Jesus Christ, as traditionally understood” is something of a key to my reaction to the important post. It seems to me that any traditional understanding of Jesus Christ or the Spirit of Christ is flawed by being an “understanding.”

    Have I experienced the “Spirit of Christ?” I can state unequivocally that I have experienced the identical transcendent Experience that many have named Christ. We can all be certain that Jesus’ Experience of God arose in the same Source and equally certain that he did not name it Christ. Words simply cannot capture the infinite, eternal and immanent Experience of the Divine Light. They can only point toward it, as did Jesus, Siddhartha, Fox, Woolman and many others. The Experience is sufficient unto itself.

    “In whomsoever this takes root, and grows, they become brethren.” Woolman

    The loss of the ministry of Jesus in some parts of Quakerism due to Christo-phobia is a tragedy and the diminishment of that branch of Friends can be largely attributed to this loss. When we approach Jesus as a wisdom teacher who helped found or religious society while we also reject the misrepresentations and failures of Christianity – we will once again begin to grow. It is where we began. Without that we are simply another ethical debating society that will continue to fade toward deserved oblivion.

  • dhfinke says:

    Thank you, Friend Steve. You have framed some important questions and I am copying your link to colleagues – spiritual sisters and brothers – of mine with whom I stay in close contact from Illinois Yearly Meeting and beyond.

    As a recorded member of 57th Street Meeting in Chicago which has been duly affiliated with FUM and FGC since its inception, I am also a member of Western Yearly Meeting.

    As I have experienced it, the contradictions and struggles in that particular Fellowship have been somewhat different from what you describe, and they have gone through some painful times, out of which it seems it to me “the Center has held”… by God’s Grace.

    I do offer you my encouragement for your ministry of writing and teaching. It is helpful for me, and I trust that many hundreds are thereby blessed.

    Your Brother in Christ, – DHF
    (Oberlin, Ohio. Lake Erie Yearly Meeting)

  • Howard Brod says:

    Thank you Steven for some very important reminders about our own testimonies and their implications for us. It is certainly sad that at some meetings (whether liberal Quakers, Conservative Quakers, or Evangelical Quakers) Friends sing the song of equality – as long as those “others” do not grace our meetinghouse door.

    I do believe, however, there are quite a few liberal and Conservative Quaker meetings in the South that truly are inclusive of all, and have made great efforts to be so. They seem to understand the importance of LIVING the spirit and culture of inclusiveness in the life of their meetings.

    I can speak personally about the local situation where I live. Over the last thirty years, the two liberal Quaker meetings in the Richmond VA area have emphasized the value of our Christian roots and the importance of the spirit of Christ to nearly all our current Quaker testimonies and Quaker practices – even if a great many Friends to not label themselves as “Christians”. However, this doesn’t mean they do not have a relationship with the spirit of Christ in some manner. And the presence of Christ-oriented Friends in these two local meetings seems to be actually increasing, as a result. There is much sharing within these two Richmond VA meetings across theological lines – joyfully! As a result, expressions of discomfort over another’s theology never occurs (that I’m aware of). Similarly, these two meetings encourage Friends to maintain the same level of inclusiveness regarding political leanings. In fact, Baltimore Yearly Meeting has gone to great lengths to remind its Friends that we should practice inclusiveness beyond mere words and we should practice inclusiveness primarily in our own meetinghouses before we attempt to counsel outside organizations to do so.

    I don’t believe this local Quaker situation is unusual throughout the southern part of the United States – and perhaps the mid-west as well.

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