Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare – Part Two

June 8, 2012 § 7 Comments

A response to Marshall Masssey’s comment

Marshall Massey’s strongly worded comment to my post on Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare rightly corrects a tendency I have to make just the kind of broad generalizations that flaw Lynn White’s article and a similarly White-like tendency to indulge in extreme rhetoric. So I have been struggling to clarify for myself and now for my readers what I am getting at, since I still feel I have something to say along these lines. And my response has become so long that I’ve decided to make it its own post.

I had claimed, along with Lynn White, the author of “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” which blames Christianity for our ecological woes, that traditional Christian faith and practice have stripped ‘nature’ of the sacred status it enjoys in indigenous spiritways; that this desacralization allows Christian cultures to treat their landbases as spiritually inert ‘resources’ over which they can exercise dominion (modified in theory by earth stewardship); and that religiously motivated earthcare requires that we go a step further: that we spiritually reinhabit our landbases, recognizing them once again as ‘sacred’ through a religious culture of place and incorporating them into our spiritual practice, in just the kinds of ways that traditional Christian culture resists; and finally, that Quakerism itself has no clear pathway to such a religious culture of place, either. Marshall disagreed.

The first problem is that I think Marshall and I are talking about two different ‘Christianities.’ Marshall may be right about the “articulately religious members of the Christian community” in his impressively long list of Christians who have celebrated the presence of God in creation and so on. I’ve not read even a small portion of these people’s works and haven’t even heard of quite a few of them. But I don’t think they represent “Christianity in general,” as Marshall puts it. I study this stuff somewhat and if I have not heard of Heinrich Suso or Andrew Linzey, the chances that the worshippers in the pews of Hopewell Second Baptist Church in my town have internalized their insights is not very good.

It’s not writers and theologians that mine uranium in the Black Hills, sacred to the Lakota, or who burned Europe’s sacred oak groves and its female herbal healers in the Middle Ages. It was/is ecclesiastical authorities who do these things, or religiously motivated mobs, or institutions that have no understanding of or respect for sacred place and whose leaders have no religious impulse to think of place as sacred. A clear example of this appeared in the May 27 issue of the New York Times Magazine, in an article about the Wisconsin governor recall titled “Land of Cheese and Rancor,” by Dan Kaufman. At the end of the article, on page 47, Kaufman is talking about the mining company Gogebic Taconite’s (GTac) attempt to open a large open-pit mine in the Penokee Hills near the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin, whose chairman is Mike Wiggins Jr. The mining bill was narrowly defeated, with one Republican Senator voting against it, Dale Schultz. Here’s part of the next to last paragraph of the article:

Schultz was sympathetic to Wiggins and the Bad River Chippewa. “For them, this place is like Bethlehem is for our Christians,” he said. “So they’re obviously going to fiercely defend their territory. If you read some of the comments from Assembly members, they’re saying, ‘We don’t have to listen to them.’ So there is an unbelievable amount of anger and fear that’s built up in the tribal community. When Mike first came to see me, I said: ‘I’m for mining, and I know that you’re never going to be for mining, and I understand that. But I want you to know I appreciate the fact that you’re here.’”

This is a very current example of what I call spiritual ecology in action and of our culture’s disrespect for religious culture of place. One of the sources for this disrespect is our Christian prejudices against peoples who practice a landbased spirituality—or at least, the fact that our own religious culture does nothing to prompt that mining company or that state Assembly to see that land as sacred.

Moreover, theologians that do get too close to true reverence for creation, like Matthew Fox, Thomas Berry, and Teilhard de Chardin, all too often face institutional censure. This is the Christianity that I claim has desacralized nature, not the exploratory thinkers and the reforming voices, but its Powers—the elements of the tradition that actually exercise power in the world. This reaches from the very top of church hierarchies down to the personal and micro-level. For instance, in my personal case, my pastors and conventionally religious parents taught me as a kid that there were no mosquitos or poison ivy in the world until the Fall—that nature itself is anti-sacred; it participates in sin along with us.

Second, these voices that speak for the sacredness of creation have utterly failed to reform their tradition. The people in the pews have hardly ever heard their ideas from the pulpit. The seminaries don’t even send their students into the wilderness for testing and communion with the voice of God as part of their spiritual formation, notwithstanding the stellar example of their own God. The synods, dioceses, and other denominational organizations have done a little to witness against creation’s destruction, but you wouldn’t know it unless you looked pretty hard.

As for Christian communities “speaking of local landbases and ecosystems,” I want them to do more than just “speak.” No Christian community, as far as I am aware, has designated a place as sacred and put institutional and ecclesiastical weight behind its protection, the way that the Bad River Band fought to protect its landbase, or the Lakota have fought to protect the Black Hills. As for Marshall’s examples, Eden is not a local landbase and the Promised Land, as a theological idea, is arguably the very religious/rhetorical foundation of American Manifest Destiny and the ethnic cleansing it engendered, beginning with the Puritans and their City on a Hill and continuing at least until Oklahoma was stolen from the First Nations and made a state in 1907 because oil had been discovered there. “This land is your land . . .”

The actual land of Israel—now that’s another matter. Jesus did in fact have a deep spiritual bond with his landbase and actively used its landscape in his own spiritual practice, a topic to which I will return in later posts. I have actually read Brueggemann’s The Land (though not the revised edition) and it’s a good book. But again, it’s great theology that hasn’t had any visible impact on “Christianity in general.” And anyway, Israel is not the landbase of any Christian community in North America. If “Christianity in general” is not hostile to the faith and practice of sacred place, then it is at least almost totally missing in action.

When I say that Christian practice is “virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries,” I mean that congregations generally worship indoors in services that focus on the written and spoken word, rehearsing themes that come mostly from interpretation of the Bible, and the central theme is salvation from sin through Christ’s atonement. Ecocide is sometimes added to the list of sins for which we will be judged, but when does that judgment take place? When we die or at the End Times, whichever comes first. The Christian tradition holds us accountable for our ecological behavior—when it does so at all—after we’re dead, or after the whole world is dead. This is not a foundation for meaningful earthcare in real time in the real places in which we live.

I still feel that meaningful earthcare requires a religious culture of place in which specific local religious communities treat real places as sacred, that is, as places that deserve their deepest religioius commitment, along the lines demonstrated by the Bad River Chippewa. The heart of such a religious culture of place, at least among the Iroquois, the First Nations with whom I have direct personal experience, is thanksgiving. Every traditional Iroquois gathering I ever attended, and even events not directly hosted by the traditional community, began with a thanksgiving prayer. I have known that prayer to take 45 minutes, enumerating an incredibly comprehensive list of gifts from the Creator and always including virtually every kind of creature. Except for short mealtime prayers, this kind of thanksgiving is rare in Christian practice. It might get a mention in one of the spoken prayers on a Sunday, but giving thanks for creation is not an integral part of Christian gospel. Giving thanks for the Atonement is; but that’s not what I’m talking about.

This kind of deep religious commitment and reverence would require the community to know its landbase intimately, the way Jesus knew his. You can’t love something until you know it. And its ecological health and integrity would have to be integral to your community’s physical health and spiritual integrity. Since most of us do not rely on locally grown food, the primary connections left between our religious community’s health and integrity and our landbases are our water supply and, of course, our air.

At the very least then, speaking in practical terms, Christian communities should treat their watersheds and their aquifers as sacred. That’s exactly what the Bad River Chippewa were doing. (In my next post on this topic, I want to look at the Black Hills and the Lakota as a case study of how this could work.) Churches that practice water baptism have a natural avenue into such a practice. Friends don’t practice water baptism, so for us, as I said in my original post, the inward and abstracted character of our religion poses an obstacle to this kind of earthcare.

Furthermore, just as we don’t single out “days and occasions” for special religious attention (though, of course, we do now, mostly, at least with Christmas), so we’re not inclined to single out places for special religious attention. There is no obvious avenue built into our traditional faith and practice for spiritually reinhabiting our landbases in the way I am proposing. The best we can do so far is add earthcare to our list of testimonies, which is our version of adding ecocide to the list of sins for which we’ll be held accountable somehow when we die and stand before the Judge. I don’t believe that testimonies and minutes—theology and words—are enough. Not so far anyway, based on empirical evidence.

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Obstacles to Quaker Earthcare

June 1, 2012 § 13 Comments

We are hard-wired to protect ourselves when we’re threatened. The environmental movement often invokes this reality in its appeals to care for the earth, claiming that, since we and the earth’s other creatures and processes are all interconnected, we protect ourselves when we protect the environment. This is especially true regarding climate change.

This sounds good and it is sound ecological science. But for most of us in the West, at least, this idea is what Friends used to call a ‘notion’—just an idea that has only very shallow roots in our actual experience. Even for those of us who have had profound spiritual experience of the natural world, these experiences tend to be isolated events that struggle to remain vivid in the face of modern life’s overwhelming alienation from a sense of relationship with the ecosystems we depend upon. And our communities—our meetings—only very rarely have had collective, land-based religious experience. Why? Some claim religion—Christianity, to be specific—is the reason.

In 1967, medieval technology historian Lynn White published a landmark article in Science magazine, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis” (Science, 3-10-67; vol. 155, no. 3767). In it, he blamed Christianity for our ecological crisis. Many have found fault with aspects of his argument, but its central thrust has the ring of truth: by desacralizing creation, by denying the presence of spirit in nature and locating spirit elsewhere and elsewhen instead, Christianity has abstracted the human from the natural world and removed the spiritual impulse to care for the creatures and processes that are our ecological relations.

This stands in stark contrast to the indigenous peoples of the world, for whom religion is defined by place, by spiritual practices that build relationships between communities and their landbases. These practices deeply involve, not just the sustenance patterns, the creatures and processes that their local ecosystems require for sustainable preindustrial civilization, but also the social, political, psychic, and religious lives of the community and its individuals. For these communities, spirit not only dwells in the heart of the natural world but also communicates directly with the human, through visions and other shamanic practices employed not just by their medicine people but by everyone in the community. The faith of the animist worldview and the practice of shamanic religion and spirituality guided indigenous peoples in ‘lifestyles’ that remained remarkably ecologically sustainable for centuries before contact with ‘civilized’ peoples.

I would take this argument a few steps further. Christianity is both a ‘cosmic’ and a universal religion. It speaks of ‘earth’ and ‘creation’ rather than the local landbases and ecosystems of its communities. And it claims to be spiritually relevant and valuable (if not spiritually necessary) for all peoples in all times in all places. Religious practice is virtually the same everywhere and through the centuries, with very little change (at least within any one tradition). Most importantly, our religious practices have nothing to do with where we live. We have almost no religious culture of place.

Christianity’s focus on Jesus Christ as the primary god of our religious attention and on his atonement for sin on the cross as God’s primary function has tended to devalue Jesus’ Father and the Father’s role as creator rather than judge. Furthermore, Christianity actually inverts the moral view of creation that prevails in animist and preindustrial and aboriginal spiritways: far from being sacred, creation is anti-sacred, even evil. Christianity views creation as the stage upon which the drama of sin, judgment and salvation plays, yes, but creation is not a morally inert ‘environment’; it actually shares in the sinfulness that lies at the heart of the drama. Nature is not just a stage upon which the salvation story plays; it is a character in that story. Sin came from a fruit, an animal, and a woman, after all.

Furthermore, from the cosmic battle between Yahweh and Baal in ancient Canaan through the conversion of the pagan peoples of Europe and the Western Hemisphere to the witch burnings in the Middle Ages to the war against ‘New Age Spirituality’ today, people who have felt drawn back to concrete spiritual relation to the land have often suffered violent persecution for answering that call.

Quakerism has spiritualized religion even further, doing away with all the religious practices that call to the senses: no music, no incense, no genuflections or sacred bodily movement, no art, no food. Most importantly, perhaps, we’ve done away with the two outward practices that could actually serve as channels back into relation with our landbases, baptism and the Eucharist. To be fair, these land-based sacraments don’t reconnect worshipping Christian communities to their landbases, anyway: how many parishes know where their baptismal water comes from or how it’s treated, let alone use rivers or lakes for baptism? How many know where the grapes for their wine are grown or whether the workers in those vineyards breathe and touch pesticides for a living, let alone make their own wine? But they could know and do these things if they chose. We Quakers can’t.

So how do Friends find their way back to the ‘earth’ if not to their local landbases? We have precedents: Fox and his days and years walking about England outdoors, his very localized visions and the way they opened the ‘virtues of the creatures’ to him; Woolman and his earthy compassion for the creatures around him. But naturally, inevitably, perhaps, we Quakers are drawn outside our tradition for meaningful ways to connect spiritually with our landbases.

The Quaker Pagans (Quagans) are trying. I haven’t followed this movement, so I don’t really know what they’re up to. But I was very close to some Wiccans for a while, some of them Friends, and the neo-pagans I’ve known have not found a way to get free of their European psycho-religious background. They are still attached to European gods and goddesses, for one thing. And what role would Demeter, for instance, have in a North American land-based spirituality? She’s the goddess of wheat, and we’ve used wheat as the standard bearer for European agro-imperialism on this continent: we have  ‘ethnically cleansed’ the indigenous grasses of North America, especially of the Great Plains, and almost wiped out the indigenous strains of maize, the primary grain of indigenous North America, and we’ve imported European grains instead. More catastrophically for the health of the continent, we have also imported European cattle culture, when the continent once teemed with its own indigenous ungulates. The European deities who embody the spiritual power of European sustenance patterns are no less ‘invasive species’ than the plants and animals these European patterns cultivate.

So also with the popular members of the culture-hero pantheons we’ve inherited from our Indo-European ancestors: the king-smith-warrior-herald (etc.) paradigm that has given us Zeus, Hephaestos, Thor, Hermes, etc. These gods reinforce the socio-political power dynamics of ancient monarchical Europe. Is that what we as Friends want to embrace?

Of course, most neo-pagans (and Quagans?) are women and they have gravitated toward the goddesses—Gaia, Persephone, Isis, Astarte, Innana, even Lilith—all Old World Powers who have nothing to do with New World ecosystems. And goddess-oriented neo-paganism tends, in my experience, to be a Jungian, depth-psychology spirituality: the goddesses are archetypes of female power through which women can rediscover sources of identity, meaning and power within themselves. This is a potentially powerful spiritual path, don’t get me wrong, especially in a social-political-religious milieu that suppresses female power, like ours does. But it has nothing directly to do with reconnecting to the spiritual presence of the land.

So where would Friends turn to resacralize the natural world in which we live, upon which we depend for everything, and which does have inherent spiritual presence? We know this latter claim to be true experientially. I’ve been part of many Quaker workshops and conferences on environmental concerns and these events almost always have opportunities to share personal stories that illustrate why we were attending. Everybody has stories of spiritual opening that took place in ‘nature.’ Many Friends have been profoundly affected by these experiences. Very often, they were childhood experiences.

So many of us have the experience. But our religion provides scant opportunity, either in its faith or in its practice, for exploring this experience, or for deepening and expanding it into a land-based spirituality or a religious culture of place. We have added earthcare to our testimonies. And many Friends have done a great deal to alter their lifestyles to make them more sustainable. But we still are far from a spirituality that would transform our landbases into sacred places that would demand that we protect them by direct spiritual communion.

We still tend to speak of earthcare rather than of care for the Sourlands (where I live in central New Jersey), or Lake Cayuga, or the White River in Richmond, Indiana. We still fly thousands of miles to attend continentally constituted committees of environmental concern rather than attending meetings of the local planning board or environmental commission. We still tend to name our macro-organizations after cities or politically defined geographical regions (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, Pacific Yearly Meeting, Indiana Yearly Meeting), rather than watersheds or bioregions. We still worship indoors using an inward-focused spirituality of silent waiting. We do nothing to open ourselves to the spiritual presence(s) waiting for us in the ecosystems in which we live.

Assuming we think this is desirable (and many of my readers may question this), I see three possible avenues forward. The first is the potential for leadership in our farming communities, especially those in the Conservative branch. They still have the intimate communion with the land that a religious culture of place requires and, because they are still essentially Christian, they will not veer off into ranterist paganism (though paganus means farmer and ‘heathen’ comes from heath—both meant country people originally).

Then there’s Christ himself. Jesus used his landbase in his own spirituality so intensely that it’s one of the most bizarre and telling indications of just how much our tradition has desacralized nature that we don’t think of him that way. He is always going off alone to “a deserted place” to pray, or taking his disciples with him, from the call of the twelve to the feeding of the multitudes to the last night in Gethsemane. I will talk more in a later post about what I call the spiritual ecology inherent in Jesus’ spirituality. Here let us just note that every major revelation associated with the Christ took place outdoors and many through natural agency. And this is true, not just for Jesus, but throughout our religious tradition, beginning with creation itself, the first revelation, through the Exodus and lawgiving to Fox’s vision on Pendle Hill and the conversion of the Seekers on Firbank Fell. The God of this tradition obviously prefers meeting God’s people outdoors, often on mountains, often in the ‘wilderness.’

Finally, there are our young people. They have environmental concerns in their spiritual DNA. Baby Boomers like me remember the birth of these concerns; we acquired them by choice. Our children have grown up with our secondary awareness built into their awareness as a primary reality. And they are just disaffected enough with our spirituality—with its abstractness and its apparent lack of meaningful transformational experience (as I discussed in my last post)—to be ready to seek something else. Maybe they can still hear the screams and pleading of the lands we inhabit and learn to spiritually reinhabit them.

Quakers and our young people—are we teachable?

May 11, 2012 § 23 Comments

A few weeks ago I had a freelance writing job reporting on the discussions in two breakout sessions at a conference for leaders of Jewish camps. The two sessions I covered were titled Connecting Camp to College and Beyond and Keeping Up with the Changing Face of the Jewish World. In both sessions, the attendees were preoccupied with the process by which young people form their religious identities and with the problem of how to serve young people in that process when their young people don’t care a hoot about the institutions and traditions that sponsor and support their camps. I could have been listening to a discussion at a Quaker yearly meeting or conference center—the same heartfelt concerns, the same conflicts and confusion in the face of forces both within their institutions and their traditions and in the wider world, that are hard to understand and even harder to deal with creatively.

Just a couple of weeks later, I had a long conversation with my younger son, who is 38, has a young family, and was raised Quaker. For many years, he and his brother went to New York Yearly Meeting sessions and its Junior Yearly Meeting program and to the youth programs at the Yearly Meeting’s conference center, Powell House. They loved it. In fact, it was their love of NYYM sessions that brought me into Quakerism. They both self-identify as Quakers. Neither one attends meeting or participates in Quaker institutional life, which they find boring and irrelevant to their lives. Specifically, Adam mentioned meetings for worship in which the same blowhards could be expected to say the same things week in and week out and meetings for business obsessed with process and with trivial concerns, while the world around them burned.

Adam exemplifies the issues with which both Quakers and those Jewish camp leaders are struggling:

  • young people who are forming personal and spiritual identities seemingly independently of their religious traditions, and often in reaction to those traditions;
  • who have formed very strong bonds with their peers in the bosom of religious institutions, and with those peers, have been exploring what their spirituality is, having rejected the identities offered to them by those very institutions;
  • who, under the circumstances, are cobbling together spiritual identities with elements pulled from here and there, using whatever beliefs, ideas and practices they’ve come across more or less accidentally in their journeys so far;
  • who clearly embrace “spirituality” and often clearly reject “religion”;
  • young adults who feel disconnected from their original religious homes for lots of reasons, many of these reasons merely a result of their life circumstances, and who are drifting farther away from their religious homes the older they get;
  • and young adults with young families who want to raise their kids in a community that is at least values-based if not religious, who I think trust Friends meetings to do right by their children in this regard (since it did right by them), but who find that meeting does little to nurture them as adults.
  • Meanwhile, they call themselves Quakers—at least they do so selectively, when it seems to properly identify them in a given situation—but they aren’t actually being Quakers in community.

I felt very similar things about the Lutheran church that I grew up in. I left the Lutherans mainly for two reasons: most of the parishioners (including my father) supported the war in Vietnam; but more importantly, I didn’t know a single person in that church who was having the kind of transforming religious experience for which I yearned. Well, there was one: Pastor Harmony, the associate pastor, who was, fittingly, our organist and choir director. He was an uninspired sermonizer, quiet and uncharismatic, unlike our main pastor. But he loved Bach. He was really getting off on those Bach preludes.  And he described to me mystical experiences that, at the time, I didn’t fully understand, but I knew that something real had happened to him.

I think that’s what’s behind our young people’s dissatisfaction. The adult Quakers around them are just going through the Quaker motions and those motions are not visibly getting them off. They don’t see anybody having profound religious experience as Quakers. They want something more, something real and relevant.

A big part of the relevance problem is the relative inexperience of youth. When you’ve never owned property, or managed a large, complex budget, or had employees, or tried to organize the collective life of a community, especially without the help of professional staff, then the business of all that management holds no interest. But this does not account for the glaring lack of items on the business agenda that address the woes of the world. Often the best that it gets is a too-long and often whacky and belabored discussion that finally leads to a minute—just a minute, words on a piece of paper that are lost to memory by the next business meeting.

More problematic, though, is the apparent lack of genuine religious experience, especially when the history of Friends is so full of such experience—George Fox having visions, John Woolman working against slavery, Elizabeth Fry in the prisons, the emotional depths of Thomas Kelly. Our kids hear these stories and then wonder what happened. Why isn’t the same thing happening today?

Why are so few meetings being gathered in the Spirit with enough frequency, in ways that are truly palpable, that would demonstrate to our young people that this tradition is still alive with that Spirit? (Maybe it isn’t.) Why are those among us who are prophetically led so few and so invisible that our young people don’t know about them? Why do we so consistently resist prophetic leadings among us?

Meanwhile, I think the Holy Spirit may just be moving among our young people—or about to be. The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the fervor and anger evinced when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting cut its Young Adult Friends staff position, the tiny bit of buzz that reaches my aged ears here on the periphery of our youth community—I believe these events and trends suggest that something is happening, or is trying to happen, anyway, among the young people of the world, including our own.

Will our young people, who are putting together spiritual identities that they call Quaker, but which don’t look like anything we elders would call Quaker, bring those gifts back to us? Or will they split, like I did, and try to figure it out on their own? Will young adult Friends give birth to a movement for renewal, as young adult Friends have done so many times before in our history? And if they do, will we resist it or nurture it? Will we recognize and welcome spiritual identities that they’ve cobbled together from here and there (just like many of us did), even though none of it reflects the Quaker tradition? Does our tradition have anything to offer them that would work for them?

We will resist whatever they do, of that I’m certain. We have every other time in our history that young people have tried to move us in a new direction. But some of us might try to nurture it, as well. And in the past, we often have finally said “yes” to God’s new direction.

In the meantime, in anticipation of the rising of the Spirit, we have work to do. First, we have to listen and keep our eyes open. We have to go beyond the anguished insistence that, yes, young people are the future of Quakerism and we do love you, claims that are both empty and lame when nothing else happens. I’m not talking, necessarily, about restoring funding to YAF staff positions or other purely institutional responses. The institutions themselves are the problem here. I am talking about the kind of openness to leadings that we bring (theoretically) to meeting for worship, brought in humble attention to our young people, to their lives and words, to their yearnings and their anger and disappointment.

Second, we must experiment. We must open ourselves to new forms of Quaker faith and practice, if only to keep ourselves nimble and in the habit of entertaining new ideas. This means challenging ourselves, forcing ourselves to let things go. Can we focus specifically on the things that turn young people off and try to do something about them? About blowhards, for instance, or boring business agendas?

Third, and most important, I think, we need to learn, explore, teach and practice techniques for deepening our spiritual and religious lives. I would start with Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline and start playing with Quaker versions of all of the disciplines he discusses. I would focus especially on meditation and fasting, two disciplines that, for thousands of years, have reliably led to genuine religious experience. Specifically, I would start with centering prayer: make sure every meeting and every member and attender knows how to do it (it could not be simpler) and has had a chance to experience it. We already know these things work. Just sitting quietly in a meetinghouse once a week doesn’t seem to deliver spiritual experience that is transforming enough often enough to convince our young people.  Or to attract many newcomers, for that matter.

And how could it? Attend meeting just one hour a week and then pepper that hour with a blowhard or two, and your chances of meeting God are pretty slim.

Now an awful lot of Friends do not “believe” in a “God” you could “meet.” Many Friends have drastically lowered the bar for what constitutes “religious experience.” One only needs to listen to the vocal ministry in our meetings: messages that are simply personal, heartfelt, and uplifting qualify as “religious experience.” Very heartfelt and uplifting messages are as good as it gets. The warmth of shared community is evidence enough of the Light.

Don’t get me wrong. This is great stuff and absolutely necessary for healthy religious community. But comfortable sharing amongst ourselves will not bring religious renewal to the Quaker movement. And we’ve already taught our kids how to do it. They have sharing down solid. Do we have anything else to teach? And, more importantly, are we ourselves teachable, if the Holy Spirit should light a fire among them? I am praying that it does, and I am praying that we are.

Tradition and Religious Experience

July 25, 2011 § 8 Comments

Note: This post began as a reply to a comment on a previous post by George Amoss Jr, but it got so long and felt so important that I decided to make it its own post. Here is George’s original comment, for context:

Steven, it’s not clear to me in the preceding material that you take this view, but I read your final paragraph as implying that the experience of the light or that of God within is primary, the interpretation being secondary. That’s a place of possible difference for you and me, and so, as an offer of a little food for thought, I’ll share my thinking very briefly.

What if the interpretation were, in a sense, to come first, to be the necessary matrix in which the experience takes place? That is, might the experience be the imaginative playing-out of the “narrative” that Fox and others developed from a particular reading of scripture? That’s how it looks to me as I read Fox’s Journal — for example, his famous auditory experience appears to happen well into his development of a radical hermeneutic — and as I compare the Quakerisms of various periods. And if that’s the case, then does the loss of the narrative mean the loss of the original experience, and the substitution of experience shaped by some other narrative? Also, could it be that liberal Quakers can’t explain their experience well because of the incoherent nature of the “narrative” that gives it shape; i.e., because the experience is of the same nature as its parent?

Again, just food for thought.

George, you’ve touched on a subject that I find truly fascinating and I think it’s really important, too: the dynamic relationship between our tradition and our experience—how they shape each other and depend on each other. Behind this issue lies an even deeper question: where do religious experiences come from?

You are right about me: I do think experience is primary. I don’t think religious experience is an “imaginary playing-out of the ‘narrative'”, as you put it. Well, sometimes I suppose it is. But not the profound, life-changing experiences, like those of George Fox and other Friends who have given us our tradition—and not my own formative spiritual experience, either. My own experience encourages me to act as though God is the source, not me or my narrative.

There are all kinds of spiritual and religious experiences, of course, (* see note below), but, like Fox, I have experienced my experience as coming from somewhere outside of myself. My formative spiritual experience, and many of its aftershocks (less powerful experiences that seemed to grow out of the first and helped to develop its meaning and importance for me) came with—or as—a sense of presence, a presence distinct and personal, a ‘personality’ who made an offer of relationship that was covenantal in character. I experienced this ‘angel’, for want of a better word, as Other than me.

Nor was it ‘imaginary’. It was real. The changes it wrought in me testify to its reality. However, by ‘imaginary’ perhaps you mean, not something that isn’t real but something that has been produced by the imagination—not quite the same thing. Well, I could easily explain it all as a projection of my unconscious or my imagination. Or, to turn Jungian for a moment (and I think I am a Jungian), I could say the experience was my own unconscious tapping archetypes in the collective unconscious to project an experience that plays out my own inner narrative in the garb of a cultural narrative. It happens that the ‘narrative’ in my case was Native American, the situation was a sweat lodge ceremony, and the whole thing was animistic in its essential elements. In fact, I have done a lot of thinking along these psychological lines, and this speculation is rather satisfying to me intellectually. But that’s NOT how I experienced it. I had an encounter with an Other and nothing has ever been the same since.

And, I refuse to redefine my own experience just because an elegant social science gives me the tools to ‘make sense’ of an otherwise almost ineffable experience and because my primary cultural (that is, scientific and secular) milieu encourages me to do so. Rather, I choose to honor my own experience by owning it as it came to me. Just so, I refuse to redefine other people’s experience for them. I refuse to say that George Fox was playing out a narrative built on his interpretation of scripture rather than experiencing the living Christ. It seems deeply disrespectful to me to do that. I don’t want anybody telling me what my experience really means, and I try to return the favor.

This is not for me just a kind of respectful tolerance, with which I keep my mouth shut but still inwardly translate the other person’s experience into something that works for me. These testimonies, these witnesses to the Truth lay upon me the responsibility I have in meeting for worship: not just to listen respectfully to someone’s vocal ministry, but to try to actually HEAR the Truth inside the message. So I take their experience at face value: if George Fox says it was Christ, then it WAS Christ who spoke to his condition. Nor is he alone. Millions of people have experienced Christ; dozens—hundreds—of his Quaker contemporaries shared his experience. I take that to mean that their Christ exists, even though I have no experience of him myself. This makes me a polytheist, I suppose, because I take everyone’s account of their experience at face value, meaning that whatever they experienced really exists. One way to put this, I suppose, is that we do not have spiritual or religious experiences—they have us. This is not to say, however, that interpretation does not have a role to play.

I first started thinking about this when reading a great book by Alan F. Segal titled Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee. Among other things, Segal uses studies in the sociology of religion, and especially of conversion experiences, to look at Paul, and Paul is a good case study in how it goes: You have a life-changing experience—you’re changed for sure, but at first it’s all power and little content—you’re dazzled and blind and all you’ve got to go on is one or two short sentences. You can’t really see how you’re changed right away for all the light, or what it means, or where you fit in the larger tradition that seems to be the context for the little bit of content you do have to work with. (This is exactly how it was for me in my own formative visionary experience: all I had was an overwhelming sense of presence and some indecipherable auditory data, a voice I could not understand.) If you are lucky, someone—Ananias, in Paul’s case—is there to teach you what your experience means, to guide you in reordering your life according to your vision, to help you with the interpretation.

So most of the interpretation comes AFTER the experience. But still, religious experience rarely comes in a cultural vacuum. The little bit of content that comprises the experience (for Paul, the voice of Christ saying just a couple of sentences; for Jesus, just one sentence from heaven)—most of the time, the core of your experience has behind it a religious tradition, a context. Even when your experience launches you on a trajectory that diverges from the tradition that was its original context, as the experience of Paul and Jesus and George Fox did, still there is a meme, as it were, that comes from a tradition that forms the seed for your vision.

So tradition helps to shape experience up front, and then that tradition—or some other mutation of the tradition—helps to give it meaning afterward. And then some prophetic experiences have the power to reshape the tradition, to cause a mutation. It’s a feedback system constantly spiraling forward. Continuing revelation.

Which brings us to liberal Quakers and the radical erosion of tradition, of meaningful narrative, and the dearth of deep, transformative religious experience among liberal Friends. Many of us have abandoned the Christian and biblical traditions, not just intellectually, as a belief system, but more viscerally, as a deep spiritual disconnect; for some, it’s even a form of revulsion.

Ironically, that seems to be how George Fox felt. Like him, we feel that the tradition we inherited no longer works for us, that its memes are no longer available to us as seeds for religious experience. But salvation in Christ—the ur-meme of Christianity—did, in fact, seed his experience, and he gave that experience primacy. A religious genius, he was able to interpret it on his own, without the help of an Ananias. He did not so much interpret his experience in terms of scripture as he interpreted scripture in terms of his experience. The result was the major mutation known as Quakerism.

Meanwhile, we modern liberal Friends have no shared narrative to provide us with new seeds. Some of us, like me, come to Quakers from other traditions, formed by experiences already seeded and interpreted in those traditions. We share these experiences only very reluctantly, partly because that’s how you treat your own sacred experience, and partly because we don’t know how it fits in.

This is the dilemma of modern, post-Christian, post-traditional liberal Quakerism: no clear narrative context to support religious experience and, much more importantly, no coherent culture of eldership: We often don’t know people who have had religious experience, whose experience could inspire our own. Or we don’t know people whose religious experience corresponds to our own, who could therefore help us understand and integrate our experience. We don’t have the scriptural tools Fox had and we don’t have an Ananias.

Well, this is a very long response. But as I said, I think this subject lies at the crux of our condition as liberal Friends. Where does religious experience come from? What role does tradition or narrative play in our experience? And what do you do as a community and as individual seekers when you don’t have a traditional narrative to work with?

I’m still exploring these questions, and your comment has been very fruitful for me to think about. I feel increasingly called to a ministry of exploration, seeking ways to support transformative religious experience among liberal Friends, given the incoherent nature of our ‘narrative’, as you have put it. Our narrative is ‘incoherent’ . . .

  • because so many convinced Friends bring experiences from other traditions, as I have, making for a diverse polyglot of experience that militates against any coherent collective experience or narrative;
  • because so many liberal Friends have not had transformative religious experiences yet themselves, in the first place;
  • because we wouldn’t know it if they did: our culture of silence prevents us from knowing each others’ experience, so we would not know that an elder sits next to us who could help us with our own experience; and
  • because we’ve laid down the narrative we inherited, leaving us meme-less and bereft.

* On ‘spiritual experience’ vs ‘religious experience’: I think of spiritual experience as personal experience that is both transcendental and transformational—it transcends the ken of the senses and of normal consciousness, and it changes you for the better. I think of ‘religious experience’ as spiritual experience that takes place in the context of one’s religious life, that is, life within a tradition and a community of the spirit.

Liberal Quakerism: ‘Profession’ without ‘Possession’?

May 23, 2011 § 13 Comments

I’ve been reading Towards Tragedy/Reclaiming Hope: Literature, Theology and Sociology in Conversation, by Pink Dandelion, Douglas Gwyn, Rachel Muers, Brian Phillips, and Richard E. Sturm (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Hampshire, England and Burlington, Vermont; 2004). It’s a sometimes fascinating book that uses tragedy as a lens through which to view history—British history, especially, and Quaker history, in particular—and as a touchstone for evaluating contemporary (Quaker) culture and its trajectory into the future. It follows a more or less chronological scheme, with chapters on The Ancient Origin and Sense of Tragedy (Sturm), The Early Quaker Lamb’s War: Secularization and the Death of Tragedy (Gwyn), Apocalypse Without Tears: Hubris and Folly Among Late Victorian and Edwardian British Friends (Phillips), The Loss of Hope: England and its Establishment in the Twentieth Century (Dandelion), The Loss of Providence (Dandelion), New Voices, New Hopes? (Muers), and several Postscripts.

The book’s literary and somewhat abstract premise keeps it from appealing to many Quaker readers, I suspect, and every once in a while, I was glad that I had studied and read Greek tragedy somewhat. (If you haven’t, don’t let that stop you from reading Towards Tragedy, though—it won’t keep you from getting a lot out it.) The authors also make broad generalizations about the meaning and the ‘spirit’ of the periods they examine, without much rigorous historical detail or argument. I think and write this way myself—I have filled my own history of Quakers and Capitalism with similar schematic characterizations—so I didn’t mind. But we all have to watch the tendency to draw conclusions rather glibly, only to discover that we had not accounted for historical forces we didn’t know about or understood only superficially.

That said, in these authors’ hands, I found that new light did pass through this lens of tragedy, that it revealed much that is, if not unique in Quaker studies, at least fresh with valuable insight into who we are and how we got here. (“We” is mostly British Quakerism, but many of these insights apply just as well to liberal Quakerism in America.) I want to raise a couple of passages up for broader discussion among Friends. The first comes from Doug Gwyn’s Postscript (page 127-128):

[However,] given that Quaker spirituality took shape within the context of a deep reflection and personal immersion in the drama of the gospels, there is a Christoform quality to the deeper structures of Quaker faith and practice that has been too long ignored and outright denied. Liberal Quakerism has drifted over the twentieth century into a belief that it can take some of the central metaphors of Quaker language – key terms such as ‘light’, ‘seed’, ‘that of God in everyone’ – and strip them of their framing in the gospel and overall biblical framework of salvation history without losing any of their earlier potency. What has emerged from this process is a Quaker faith and practice that maintains a ‘profession’ in words of a reality no longer in ‘possession’ – the very hypocrisy that early Friends denounced so strongly in the Puritan culture of their day. It is only by continuing to use the sham of right-wing, fundamentalist Christianity as their rhetorical foil that Liberal Friends manage to maintain their own parody of Quaker faith and practice. By chronically trading in caricatures of ‘Christianity’, Liberal Quakerism has become a caricature of itself. This cannot last. And when it collapses, it will be no tragedy.

The tragedy is the present condition, when one confronts it and enters into its painful reality in the light of Christ. By ‘in the light of Christ’ I mean both the inward, revealing presence of Christ within and the ‘in light of’ the gospel narrative of Jesus’ own life, suffering, death and resurrection. There is no authentic Quaker epistemology of ‘the light within’ without its attendant hermeneutic of Scripture. Without the latter’s framing, the former knows anything, everything, nothing. Without the gospel, the reflexive self of postmodernity shrinks from suffering as a lethal blow to self-esteem and human dignity. And without the larger biblical saga of God’s providential designs in history, there is very little that Friends will corporately discern as their calling to do together in a world of suffering, violence and injustice. (emphases are Gwyn’s)

[epistemology: the study of the nature and grounds of knowledge—what we can know and how we know it—especially as regards the limits and validity of our knowledge;

hermeneutic: a way of interpreting texts, especially the Bible]

I think what Doug is saying is that, by abandoning the original Christian and biblical framework for our tradition while continuing to use the vocabulary, we end up talking jive.  And we violate the testimony of integrity: our outward expression has no meaningful connection to an inward truth. I would say that the distortion and hypocrisy go down to the core of Quaker spirituality, passing through three layers of self-deception (by the way, I consider myself a post-Christian, liberal Quaker, so I’m talking about myself here, not just about some ‘other’ Friends):

  1. First, we use words to say things that they weren’t meant to say, disconnecting them from their original meaning and context. The modern use of the phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is the quintessential example.
  2. More deeply, we still think we know what we’re saying and we blithely assume in our ignorance that we are right. We often (usually?) don’t know what Fox meant by ‘that of God’, for example; we don’t know that the modern ‘divine spark’ meaning comes from Rufus Jones barely a hundred years ago, and we assume that our meaning (whatever that is) is, in fact, Quaker tradition going way back, and furthermore, that it’s the foundation for the peace testimony and just about everything else, to boot; which it isn’t.
  3. Finally, at the very heart of this empty and misrepresented shell, we do not know the truth of what we say experimentally. We have not experienced the light, at least not ‘the light’ that Fox and Fell and Howgill and Woolman experienced. We have no knowledge of the ‘seed’. We have no direct experience of ‘that of God’ in others, or ourselves, for that matter. We have the profession without the possession. (In fact, we’ve made a fetish out of not knowing, of perpetually seeking as the only authentic spiritual path, teaching ourselves to actually suspect and fear those who profess to know—Doug’s fundamentalist foil at work.)

I’m not so sure about this last point. I bet a lot of my readers will protest that they have experienced ‘the light’, even if it did not have Christ’s nametag on its chest, even if it did not illuminate their sins, ‘convincing’ (convicting) them into repentance and new Life in Christ. Who are you to say I have not experienced ‘that of God’ in everyone, you might be saying?

What remains, however, is that no one has come forward with a new ‘profession’ of what these words—the content of our tradition—mean now in this post-Christian, post-biblical age. If we have the ‘possession’—if we possess a new truth—then where is the new explanation of the old words? More to the point, if we possess a new truth—one without Jesus and the gospel at its roots—then why use the old words at all? Where are the new ones?

Vocal ministry offers a good case study. We actually do have a ‘new’ language for vocal ministry: ‘speaking in meeting’. We no longer think of ‘speaking in meeting’ as speaking on God’s behalf, at the prompting of Christ within us. If fact, we’d get pretty nervous if someone claimed to be speaking God’s will. So where does a ‘message’ come from? What authority does it have? How does the meeting provide for the eldership of ‘speaking in meeting’ and of the speakers, themselves, if we do not know where their calling comes from or what authority their ‘messages’ should have? Is there anymore even such a thing as a calling to vocal ministry?

What is the new framework, the new epistemology and hermeneutic—the new way to explain what we know and how we know it and where our knowledge comes from?

The silence is deafening. We do not know.

‘Experiment with Light’ — a spiritual movement in British Quakerism

May 2, 2011 § 15 Comments

In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, Helen Meads has a chapter on a spiritual movement among British Friends that I found intriguing and surprising (“’Experiment with Light’: Radical Spiritual Wing of British Quakerism”, pages 217-232). Surprising because I’d never heard of it, intriguing because I thought it might really appeal to a lot of American liberal Friends. Experiment with Light has a website, www.experiment-with-light.org.uk, and I offer links to some other resources below.

Experiment with Light is a structured format for experiencing the Light and for sharing that experience with others in small groups that Rex Ambler started in 1996. The process is based on Ambler’s analysis of early Friends’ writings, in which he felt he had identified common steps in their experience of the Light and specifically, on a meditation process described in one of George Fox’s early publications (1653; see book description below). ‘Experimenters’ meet in ‘Light Groups’ for forty minutes of guided meditation, the meditation consisting of six steps interspersed with periods of silence, usually guided by a tape or CD recording (there’s also an online streaming version), but sometimes read aloud. There seem to be several versions of meditations to choose from: Meditation on the individual, Meditation on the world, and two Fox-based versions. After the meditation, there follows a period of silence for personal reflection and then a period of sharing. As with worship sharing, participants keep the sharing of others confidential.

Meads says that many Experimenters report having quite profound and often life-changing experiences during these sessions, that, for many, it deepens their spiritual lives in an ongoing way, both in meeting for worship and in their daily practice. It also creates strong bonds between the participants in a Light Group, and a sense of wider community with participants in other Light Groups.

According to Meads, Experiment with Light has also generated some tension within meetings. Friends sometimes turn to these Light Groups because of frustration with the lack of spiritual depth in their meeting or their meeting for worship, an attitude that their Light Group experience often reinforces—or awakens, if they had not felt that way before. Most Light Groups have been organized outside the formal structures of their meetings and the strong sense of spiritual sharing within the Light Group seems also to sometimes reinforce a sense of distance from the meeting.

For their part, meetings sometimes have resisted or resented the formation of Light Groups and often do not understand the impulse to start such a group or what goes on in them. While sharing your experience within the Light Group is an integral part of the Experiment with Light process, Experimenters often find it difficult to share their experiences outside the Light Group and meet with difficulties when they do, so the Experimenters and their group can seem secretive and opaque to outsiders, according to Meads. Furthermore, non-Experimenters have sometimes felt an implicit criticism in the Experimenters’ enthusiasm for their Groups and their experience and in the Experimenters’ conviction that what they are doing and experiencing is true or core Quakerism. The movement has chosen not to become a Listed Informal Group of Britain Yearly Meeting and usually organizes outside the formal structures of local meetings (only two Light Groups have done so, out of roughly one hundred formed so far), so there’s no formal way for meetings to engage with their local Light Group and, often, no sense of responsibility for them.

As I said, I am surprised that I have not heard of this movement; I’m not sure whether I’m just less well-informed than I thought I was or that the lines of communication between British and American Friends are just less efficient than I thought. Also, I’m surprised that no Light Groups seem to have formed in the U.S., especially since the basic resources are easily available online. Finally, I wonder whether liberal American Quaker meetings will provide fertile soil for Experiment with Light, and if Light Groups migrate here, will this cause problems in the US as it has in the UK? Do any of my readers have first hand experience with Experiment with Light? I would like to better understand this movement and its impact on British Quakerism and on local meetings in BYM, and to know of its progress in the U.S., if any Light Groups have formed here already.

If you are interested in knowing more, here are some resources:

Experiment with Light website: http://www.experiment-with-light.org.uk/.

Books about Experiment with Light:

Seeing, Hearing, Knowing: reflections on Experiment with Light, John Lampen editor. Chapters on “the origins of Experiment with Light, the experiences of some Light Groups, reflections on questions and difficulties that have arisen, and chapters linking the practice to worship, prayer, discernment, the psychology of ‘Focusing’, political action, and possible future developments.” Available from the Quaker Center Bookshop in England, £ 7. Quotes are from the Quaker Center blurb on the book.

Light to live by: an exploration in Quaker spirituality, by Rex Ambler. An explication of Experiment with Light, describing Ambler’s personal story behind the work and discussing the specific source in a 1653 publication of George Fox where Ambler claims to have found a clearly described meditation process. This book is available from FGC bookstore ($11.00), where it’s listed as a “Bestseller”, along with a couple of other books by Ambler: http://www.quakerbooks.org/RexAmbler.

Membership

November 27, 2010 § 14 Comments

I started to respond to a post by Micah Bales on membership and it kept getting longer and longer, so I decided to move it to my blog. But I hope Friends will visit Micah’s blog, where he asks some great questions, and several Friends have thoughtfully responded.

I think membership is one of the key issues in Quakerism today. All the complaints we may have about our meetings come down to how we conduct our clearness process for membership, because each person we admit to membership helps to shape the culture of the meeting a little more, and each clearness process defines an initial set of assumptions about the boundaries between meeting and member.

Friends no longer think of membership as a ‘covenantal’ relationship in which they expect their fellow members and the meeting to get directly involved in their spiritual development in an active culture of eldership. They once did. So eldership and discipline, in both their positive and corrective applications, have become four letter words and the meeting has no leverage, no foundation to stand on when it’s needed. More importantly, though, by assuming a passive relationship between member and meeting the meeting has lost its first chance to be really helpful in its new member’s spiritual life: each will now wait until the other makes a move.

Friends tend to fear turning people away by asking for too much from people seeking membership, so they are lucky when they actually get something from them. Meanwhile, sociological studies of religious communities universally conclude that the communities that ask the most are the most vibrant and grow the most. Many people seeking religious community apparently want us to engage them, after all.

The steady shift away from liberal Quakerism’s traditional Christian and biblical identity and even occasional difficulties with hostility toward Christian or biblical vocal ministry and teaching in first day school, for instance, are a direct result of un-clearness about membership clearness. I am an anti-shining example myself. I told my committee that I was anti-Christian and a bit rabid and they took me in anyway (thank God). Sure enough, I started hassling Christians and blocked the Bible in first day school. We get a lot of refugees like me. My meeting got lucky; I woke up to my bad behavior on my own (after a few years and a few woundings of the innocent) and, though I still am not a Christian, and I still have my complaints about Christianity, I am now the guy who consistently insists that Quakers are a Christian community until we decide otherwise, that people like me are guests in the house of Christ and should act like guests, and I have become the local expert on the Bible. It turns out that this is one of my gifts.

Here’s what I think should have happened in my clearness committee: Okay, Steve, we welcome you, but we recognize that you come to us with some baggage, so we’re going to ask you two things: first, you have to be responsible with that anger and those ideas. We ask you not to hurt people with them. Second, we want to work with you to see if we can help you calm down. Will you be willing to work with us? (I would have said yes; just hearing someone say these things would have done a lot, in fact, to wake me up). Then great. Welcome. We’ll let you know soon who we would like you to meet with in what we call a clearness committee to hear about what your concerns are.

Thus, I believe clearness committees for membership should add the following to the tasks they set for themselves when they meet with applying attenders:

  • They should actively seek to find out if the applicant is hostile to Christian and biblical tradition, to “God talk”, to the testimonies. If so, they should ask for permission to work with them about these issues, once they become members, and remind them of their responsibility for the openness of worship and the feelings of others. I am not talking about a theological litmus test; I am talking about taking responsibility for the spirit of worship and the care of the members that wounded people might threaten.
  • They should ask how much the applicant is willing to allow the meeting to engage with them in their ministry, especially vocal ministry: ask them to read one of the good pamphlets about meeting for worship, at the very least. Try to find some way to open a two-way conversation about vocal ministry, mindful that most folks take a while to get over their original reticence about speaking in meeting, so you don’t want to scare them off, either. But they should know that you are available for support and encouragement.
  • Membership clearness committees should begin the process of discerning the applicant’s potential gifts of the spirit: what do they bring to the meeting, what forms of involvement in the meeting would give them an outlet for these gifts, how can the meeting help them fulfill the urge we believe all people have to serve God? This could be done in a later meeting to a greater depth, but the clearness committee should at least make it clear that this is the primary thing the meeting has to offer them as members: help in fulfilling themselves spiritually.

Without that, it’s not clear why someone would want to become a member, and, as we all know, many people attend for years without joining. I think this is the answer to the question, what will change, what will I get out of being a member, besides being assigned to a committee? We will help you discover and develop and express the gifts you have been given. This is the great distinctive breakthrough of Quaker spirituality: that we know that everyone has gifts, everyone is/can be called to God’s service, that we offer weekly opportunities for using those gifts in meeting for worship, that, in almost no other religious community are all members (potential) ministers—and that few joys can compare with the fulfillment of those gifts in service. Membership embodies the formal agreement between member and meeting to work together on awakening and developing and using our spiritual gifts.

Of course, this assumes that the meeting has the resources to sustain a vital culture of eldership—seasoned Friends with the gift of eldership, who know our traditions of ministry, who can sense where someone’s gifts lie, what someone is interested in, and then suggest a book, or somehow guide them toward some form of exploration and expression that will bring their gifts to full fruit. It also assumes that committees for worship and ministry and/or pastoral care have the will to be proactive and ask members and attenders how they can help, and that they have the resources to be of help, once they have a member’s permission to get involved.

To further this role of the meeting as spiritual nurturer, I think we should add a new practice to our conduct of clearness committees for membership. I think we should automatically convene a second clearness committee for discernment of gifts, to be conducted some time after membership, to build on the momentum, to equip new members with whatever will help them contribute to meeting life, and to find out how the meeting can begin to contribute to their spiritual growth. Clearness for membership should open a door into mutual engagement in the life of the Spirit. Membership itself should eventually give more to the member than they could ever give to the meeting—the joy of spiritual awakening and fulfillment.

We can do the same for attenders, of course. In fact, this is the way to encourage membership. But the key difference, I suggest, is that the relationship between attender and meeting is, sort of by definition, passive. The meeting makes spiritual nurture available, of course. The attender takes it or leaves it. And the meeting waits for the attender to apply. But membership means the attender now wants the meeting to actively work with them on their journey. It is ‘covenantal’. The attender asks the meeting to be proactive, to get involved. It is an invitation to active mutual engagement, and it includes the invitation to discipline. We all get into spiritual trouble, sometimes; being a member means you know you won’t be left to out to dry. Someone has promised to help you get back on track, if they can. And all along, they will be helping you find the way God has in mind for you.

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