What is the Religious Society of Friends for? — Spirituality vs Religion

December 13, 2013 § 9 Comments

Religion as Corporate Spirituality

My one-line answer to the question, What is Quakerism for? is: bringing people to G*d and bringing G*d into the world. “Bringing people to G*d” has two parts: personal spirituality and communal spirituality.

The last post’s discussion of worship provides a segue from personal spirituality to communal spirituality—that is, to religion.

Several years ago I was a Friendly Adult Presence in a youth conference sponsored by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and in one of the exercises, the young people were asked to sort themselves out by whether they had a spiritual life or not and whether they practiced a religion. The vast majority said yes to spirituality and no to religion. This made me feel bad.

I suspect that quite a few adult Friends have similar feelings. They are much more comfortable talking about spirituality and not so comfortable talking about their “religion”. For many Friends, I suspect, “religion” conjures traditional belief in a “God”, a supreme being, maybe even the trinity of Christianity, whom the community worships, and aspects of this traditional definition of religion just don’t work for them. Many, like me, I suspect, have no direct experience of such a God. Many may have had negative experiences of traditional worship of such a God. And thus many may be uncomfortable with “worship” when defined as adoration, praise, and supplication of such a God.

And then there’s Jesus and the intensely Christ-centered legacy of our own Quaker tradition. For many Friends, “religion” is relationship with him, placing him at the center of our individual lives and at the center of our life as a community. And again, for many Friends, this just is not their experience.

I’ve written about my own struggles with this question quite a lot—how confounding I usually find it to belong to what I believe is a Christian religious community and not be a Christian myself. As is happening right this second, every time I get to a certain depth in exploring Quakerism, in this blog and in my other writing, I find myself trying to identify who Jesus Christ is for me, and what Quakerism means without experience of him. And I mean experience of him, not belief in him; I have the belief, but not the experience. It is one of the central questions of my religious life. I believe it is perhaps the central question for modern Liberal Quakerism in general. I’m still working on it.

In the meantime, I keep beavering away at other questions while skirting this elephant in the room. Why? Because I feel led to, is the basic answer. But also in the hope that circling this central question will eventually lead to some answers. And finally, because I know I am not alone. I feel that I am exploring the issues I write about alongside many other nonChristian Friends, and I hope to be useful to others in their search.

So I do have a nonChristian definition of “religion” and “worship”. And I have a concern to bridge the gap between “spirituality” and “religion”, which I see as a misperception. I do not want a religion that is little more than a society for practicing individual spiritualities together. I have done that and it is not enough for me. The reason it’s not enough is that I have had collective spiritual experience, experience shared with others of something deep and profound. I have had religious experience. So my definition of religion starts with a definition of spirituality.

By “spirituality” I mean the faith and the practices through which we as individuals seek to open ourselves to the Light within us—to the presence, motion, guidance, teaching, healing, strengthening, inspiration, and redemption of the ChristSpirit acting in us—and the ways in which we try to follow its guidance in our lives.

“Religion” I define as the faith and the practices through which the community seeks to commune with the Mystery Reality that lies behind and beyond the Light within each of us as individuals, that lies between us or among us as a community, and that becomes real for us in the mystery of the gathered meeting for worship.

For the Light, the kingdom of heaven, is not only within us; it is also among us, as Jesus put it. It is the presence in the midst. It is the motion of love between us. It is the guidance, teaching, healing, strengthening, inspiration, and reconciliation of the Spirit acting through us as individuals and among us at the center of our worship and our fellowship. The presence within us and the presence in our midst—these are the same. This is our faith, born of our experience in the gathered meeting for worship.

Thus I define “religion” as the spiritual life, the faith and spiritual practices, of a community, the things a religious community does to renew its communion with the Divine.

This begs the question (again) of just what we mean by “the Divine”, which is one of Liberal Quakerism’s placeholders for whatever it is we are experiencing, when we don’t think it’s the traditional triune Christian God. I have dealt with this problem by using “G*d”, letting the asterisk stand in for whatever your experience is. Speaking this way, however—speaking around a more explicit naming of God—just throws us back into individualism, casting ourselves again as a society of individuals practicing our own spiritualities, rather than defining ourselves as an integral community with a clear focus for our worship.

The only thing that belies this individualist reality, the only hope in all this mess, it seems to me, is to be found in the gathered meeting. As I have written earlier, the gathered meeting seems not to care about name tags. I have felt a meeting become gathered in spite of its theological confusion and diversity. I once felt a meeting gathered because of its diversity, reaching exquisitely joyous unity as the result of deep wrestling with the plurality of our experience.

Anyway, I hope that thinking of religion as the shared spiritual practice of a community encourages some Friends to warm up to the idea of Quakerism as a religion. And I, at least, find great encouragement in the fact that this practice now and again delivers genuine fulfillment—both spiritual fulfillment; that is, individual fulfillment, joy, healing, and inspiration; and religious fulfillment, a corporate experience of the presence in our midst, of love and the healing of conflict, of inspiration and prompting to corporate witness, and of unity and joy in the knowing of each other in that place where words come from.

If only it happened more often.

What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith

July 18, 2012 § 6 Comments

What follows is a general introduction to an essay that I began more than twenty years ago and have been working on ever since. After this introduction, I offer an outline version of a longer essay that is just too long for the blog format. Friends who want to read the full treatment can download this pdf, What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith.

What do Quakers believe?

When someone asks a Friend (at least a Quaker from the ‘liberal’ branch of Friends), “What do Quakers believe?”, we often find ourselves fumbling for an answer. How can you give an answer that is true to the depth of our tradition and yet simple enough and short enough to serve in the situation? How can you give an answer that honors the full breadth of our tradition, that includes Friends from Kenya and Philadelphia, from London and Belize, from Richmond, Indiana, and Barnesville, Ohio?

Such an answer was given to me in 1991 at the Friends Consultation on Quaker Treasure. Each year (do they still do this? I haven’t kept up), Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, co-sponsor a gathering of Friends from across the Quaker spectrum to consider some aspect of Quaker faith and practice. That year, the question was, “What do we all hold in common as Quaker treasure?” What are the essentials of Quaker faith? The full answer revealed to us that weekend was very much deeper and broader than the synthesis I offer here. But I have found myself led to distill the fruits of that labor into a framework that is both accessible and as faithful to the Truth as I can make it, hoping to put into the hands of Friends a way to answer the question of what we believe that serves both the needs of people who so enquire and, especially, the needs of Friends who want to be able to answer with integrity and confidence.

Friends at the consultation were brought into unity around four—and then five—basic tenets of Quaker faith.

  1. We believe—because we have experienced it ourselves—that we are each called to a personal, direct, unmediated relationship with God.
  2. We believe—because we have experienced it—that the meeting as a corporate body is also called to a direct, unmediated relationship with God.
  3. We believe in God’s continuing revelation.
  4. We believe that we are each called to live our lives as outward testimony to our inner truth.
  5. We are called to love—to love God, to love each other, to love even our enemies.

The consultation

Each year, Earlham School of Religion and Quaker Hill Conference Center in Richmond, Indiana, co-sponsor a consultation at the conference center on a theme of Quaker interest. The 1991 consultation followed the year in which Friends United Meeting came to final closure on the issue of “realignment,” in which some Friends were calling for FUM to declare itself unequivocally evangelical in its perspective and separate itself from its post-Christian and even non-evangelical elements. Out of this struggle over internal theological diversity came this query as a focus for the consultation: what do we hold in trust together—what do we all have in common as essential Quakerism?

The format of these consultations is one of the great contributions of modern Friends to our tradition of discernment, in my opinion. It’s simple and it makes ample room for the work of the Holy Spirit. The consultation is invitational. Invited are seasoned Friends and Friends who are relatively new to the Society but who have passion and show promise. Each participant is sent a set of queries ahead of time, to be answered briefly in writing. The consultation begins on Thursday night, so it includes all day Friday. There are three presentations that are intended to provide some framework and serve as springboards for discussion. But the substantive work is done in small groups of six, each with a prepared facilitator. In the first small group session, each person shares her or his answers to the queries. In the next sessions, the small groups seek to come to unity on an answer to the queries as a group. Finally, the small groups bring their corporate responses to the plenary and the whole body seeks to come to unity on one combined testimony. A couple of seasoned Friends are appointed as prayer elders to hold the gathering in the Light and a couple of Friends serve as recorders, so that each consultation produces a record document. The documents for this consultation and for many others are available at a reasonable price from the conference center’s bookstore. They are really vauable resources.

This consultation was the most gathered meeting of Friends I have ever attended. On Saturday evening, we found ourselves agreeing to every one of the over fifty offerings presented in the small group reports. We were increasingly gathered in a Spirit of Love and Truth as we labored together, even as we felt our differences more and more acutely. Evangelical pastors and ‘liberal universalists’, Friends with a fundamental commitment to scripture and non-Christian Friends, programmed and unprogrammed Friends—across the full spectrum of Quaker faith and practice, we felt caught up in the presence of Christ in our midst. Though we named this Presence differently—and insisted on our separate names—yet we were shown experimentally that our experience was one, and that it was deeper than words or ideas. It was an experience of heart and soul, as well.

Some of us were literally Quaking during the Saturday evening plenary session. Most of us continued to feel this movement of the Spirit the next morning. I can still feel it right now, a little. So these ‘four things all Quakers believe’ are, for me, more than just a solid consensus representing today’s Quaker diversity. They have for me the authority of the Holy Spirit.

I must add, though, that since that gathering I have met a couple of Friends who literally believe—and felt at the time—that Satan had seized the gathering, leading it into untruth. These were evangelical Friends who obviously felt a spirit moving through us and whose deep commitment to Jesus Christ as the necessary center of Quaker faith felt, I think, that any expansion or softening of the boundaries to include beliefs and experience that were not fully centered in Christ were a movement away from the center, from the Truth and Life in Christ. That is Satan’s work.

So clearly, this attempt to express the essentials of Quaker faith that you are about to read speaks most clearly to liberal Quaker sensibilities and does not speak for all Friends. At the same time, this essay (the long version, at least) will probably feel very Christian and traditional to many readers. In the long version, I’ve included the Bible passages I know of that support each of these essentials and also quotes from George Fox that are saturated with his distinctive, forcefully Christian language. The vocabulary we have inherited from our tradition is Christian in its origins and in its ways of thinking. This worldview, these words and phrases, are so integral to the traditional language of Friends and the theology it expresses that opening up Quaker essentials without them would do real violence to the truth.

Liberal Friends have been moving away from this traditional language for a while, in several ways: by shifting to new vocabulary (for example, from “vocal ministry” to “speaking in meeting”); by redefining or ignoring the meaning of older language (for example, losing the context of divine judgment in the use of words like “testimony” and “witness”); and by our approach to theology itself, by redefining Quakerism in terms of values and behavior rather than tenets of faith, with an attendant nervousness and even hostility toward words and ideas, emphasizing instead the value of silence and personal experience. In the process, the content of traditional Quaker faith is dissolving. This is one of the reasons we have trouble answering the question, “What do Quakers believe?” With this short presentation and the longer essay, I seek to reverse this trend. We need our content. We need our tradition. We need to be able to articulate our faith, and still be faithful to our experience with our words. So this essay joyfully embraces our traditional language.

Moreover, I feel strongly that, for many important reasons, the Religious Society of Friends was and is still a Christian religion, even in its most liberal strongholds, notwithstanding the fact that post-Christian, nonbiblical, even post-traditional people and sensibilities now often dominate in liberal Quaker meetings. We are a Christian religion because of the weight of our history and the demographics of Quaker membership worldwide even today. More importantly, we are a Christian community because it is our practice that we only lay down a tradition for a new revelation when we know we have been led collectively to do so by the Spirit, as we have, for instance, in the case of slavery. Such a discernment—to declare ourselves post- or non-Christian—has never been undertaken by any meeting that I know of; it has only been taken for granted. Until we decide that we are no longer Christian in good gospel order, we remain what we always have been—a people gathered by Christ. Whether Christ still gathers us in our present state is a separate question.

Meanwhile, I feel very stronglly that Friends like myself who are not Christian are guests in Christ’s house, and we should act like guests: we should welcome Christian and biblical language among us—we should welcome Christ himself among us! And, when someone asks us what Quakers believe, we should claim our Christian identity and not just our Christian roots when we answer them, without hesitation or apology. That’s what I’ve tried to do with this offering.

But these issues divert us from our course and they demand much more thorough treatment than I can give them here. I just needed to say that such a stark difference in experience at the consultation has made me question my own experience. I have meditated on this a great deal, and it has humbled me. I remain confident that something powerful and positive happened that weekend. I have tried to make this synthesis of its fruits as faithful a presentation as I can offer. And it reminds us that basic questions of faith and religious experience still divide Friends. My readers need to know where I stand and I hope you will listen carefully to your own Inner Guide while reading, to test whether you feel the truth awakened within you, even when you’re feeling uncomfortable.

Why do I focus on these four Quaker essentials when we actually agreed to more than fifty at the consultation? The first four were explicitly mentioned in some way by each of the six small groups in their plenary reports. We ended up agreeing to all fifty. But we started out agreeing to these four. Furthermore, the rest of the fifty can be subsumed under one or more of the central four, so that they become ‘headings’ of a sort. Even the fifth, the commandment of love, finds a home under this rubric. I have found that one of the most valuable things about these four is that they can be unpacked and used as a springboard from which to elaborate on the full breadth of Quaker faith and practice. They provide a simple, convenient framework for a rich discussion of Quaker tradition.

What about the fifth Quaker essential, love? On Sunday morning, during our only fully programmed meeting for worship, our clerk Jan Wood showed us in her sermon that we had with our labor and experience manifested a fifth thing we held in common: love. She opened a number of passages from the Bible on love in the context of our work together and she named the spirit that we had felt ourselves gathered into the night before: love, love of God manifesting as love of each other. And through her sermon we were gathered up again.

Now: let’s look at these Quaker essentials in some detail. Actually, this is just a list. For a full treatment of everything in this list, I invite you to download the longer essay, What Can We Say? The Essentials of Quaker Faith.

The Essentials of Quaker Faith—An Outline

Friends believe (because they have experienced it themselves) that . . .

  1. God calls each of us into a direct, personal, and unmediated relationship.
  2. God also calls the community into a direct and unmediated relationship.
  3. God is continually revealing God’s self through God’s ongoing presence.
  4. God calls us to live our faith in practice.

Subsumed under these principles are the Quaker distinctives, the elements of tradition that make up Quaker faith and practice:

1.  God calls each of us into a direct, personal, and unmediated relationship.

  • The Light—there is a principle in every person (often called the Light, the Seed, ‘that of God’) that can know God directly.
  • Experience—what canst thou say? Friends base their religious lives on what they themselves have experienced.
  • No outward sacraments.
  • Universal grace.
  • Equality before God.
  • Ministry—God can call anyone into service.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Quaking.
  • Miracles.

2.  God calls the community into a direct and unmediated relationship.

  • Silent, waiting worship.
  • Business under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.
  • Ministry—God generates ministry in the meeting for worship through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. This alone qualifies a minister, not formal training, certification, or outward liturgical forms like ordination.
  • Corporate discernment: the meeting for business in worship, minutes for travel or service, released ministry, recording.
  • Corporate discernment: clearness committees, meetings for threshing.
  • Gospel order.
  • No ‘days and occasions’.
  • Opportunities.
  • Advices & Queries.
  • State of society reports.

3.  God is continually revealing, through God’s ongoing presence.

  • Continuing revelation/illumination.
  • Openings, leadings, and callings.
  • Biblical authority secondary to that of the spirit of Christ, and interpretation of Scripture “in the Spirit in which they were given forth”.
  • No creeds.

4.  God calls us to live our outward lives as testimony to the Truth that has been awakened in us inwardly.

  • Quaker spirituality of inward “listening”.
  • Ministry—God reveals the Truth through the prophetic ministry of Friends whom God has prompted to serve. This involves discipline, discernment, and discipleship on the part of the individual minister, and discipline, discernment, and eldership (both nurture and oversight) on the part of the meeting.
  • The commandment of love.
  • The testimonies.
  • Witness.
  • Service
  • Missions and evangelism.

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.

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