MORE THAN A QUESTION OF IDENTITY

What would you be if you weren’t Quaker?

I usually pose it in terms of religious affiliation, skirting the bigger issue of what we’d be without that particular spiritual discipline and nurture.

The question often illuminates an individual’s leanings within the Society of Friends, and it’s one that can be telling in many other denominations as well.

Many of us come to where we are from other religious traditions, and even among Christians the variations can be vast. And then there are yogis of all stripes, Buddhists, Native practices, arcane and pagan seekers, non-theists, agnostics, and much more. Neo-Muggletonians, anyone?

Some Quakers are very drawn to the social activist side of our community; others, the meditative worship. Some are quite Biblical; others, anything but. (Shall we mention the Gospel of NPR?) And that’s before we get to the full spectrum of today’s Friends, from ultra-univeralist to evangelical to alternative Christian to, well, we’re all over the map. And yes, many of us do miss music in our worship.

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RECOVERING WHAT HAD BEEN LEFT UNSAID

Decades ago, faced with a question of just what Friends believe, I embarked on an exploration that might provide a more inclusive answer than “Some believe this …” or “Most do that …”

To the surprise of many, the Religious Society of Friends does have a rich underlying theology, one so radical our First Publishers of Truth (one of the original names for the Quaker movement) couldn’t voice it in its fullness in the earliest years before settling into a system of practice rather than fully pursuing its intellectual implications.

Call it an alternative Christianity if you will, but even Friends need to understand its dimensions.

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For more, check out my essays, Religion Turned Upside Down.

BEYOND CONSENSUS

I’d gladly renounce any desire to conduct holy business if I had it spare me, O Holy One, please *   *   * this session leaves me a headache and troubled this is not Gospel Order look at this agenda! and these to-do lists! where’s the Sabbath? our lives already so cluttered and overbooked before adding […]

CAN WE BREAK THROUGH POLARIZATION?

A pointed observation from the concluding chapter of Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience continues to echo in my mind. After noting that religion and spirituality, East and West, are being traded on a world market, a situation itself that reflects today’s dominant mindset of global capitalism, Gwyn remarks:

Global economic integration today is leading to social and spiritual stagnation, much as the progressive political consolidation of the Roman Empire slowly stifled spiritual energies in the ancient world. As the superstructure of the Roman Empire became increasingly otiose, cynical, and corrupt, men of rank increasingly withdrew from public leadership to pursue private life and philosophical speculation.

This immediately had me thinking of the nastiness of the current political scene and wondering why anyone of sensitivity or kindness would want to be subject to the abusive public glare that’s become the norm today. Gwyn continues his paragraph with a confirmation of my assumption:

Similarly, as multinational corporate conglomerations engulf the globe, we find people of means withdraw into private life, esoteric beliefs, and financial speculation. In both periods, the masses are left to seek truth in a din-filled marketplace.

Remember, this was published in 2000, and I’d say the situation has only intensified since then.

It’s a troubling situation, even before we get to the polarization now stressing the nation and much of the world. Gwyn sees much of that polarization and its way of captivating its partisans arising over the question of gnosis – that is, of knowing – with both sides disagreeing over essentially Platonic and Gnostic orientations toward truth. Crucially, he sees both sides assuming “that the truth is some static entity.”

At this point, Gwyn turns the perspective: “If we return, however, to the Hebraic and Johannine Christian sense of truth as something enacted through faithfulness and love, these polarities become academic. We act faithfully toward one another as we enter honest conversation with one another.”

The immensity of that task, I’ll admit, fills me with despair. It’s not just religion, which is largely marginalized from the dialogue; the polarization rips across economic, educational, geographic, and political fields as well. Looking around, I feel I might as well be speaking to a stone. A Wailing Wall would be more efficacious. Retreating from the public sphere makes all too much sense.

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Here, though, the example of Jesus also comes into play. He, too, retreated to the wilderness, but he also returned to the marketplace and spoke truth, forcefully and ultimately with love. Moreover, he was willing to bear the consequences.

Anyone else want to elaborate? We live in desperate times.

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More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.

LOOKING AFRESH AT PRAYER

She was right, of course, about prayer. What happened, though, was that when the others heard “the only way,” they were unaware of how many varieties of prayer there are – and since they rarely if ever get down on their knees or lift their voices to the Divine One, they likely thought you were saying they were damned, closed out, lost! The challenge, then, is in encouraging them to experiment with prayer! Once they begin to hear of the old Friend in Connecticut whose practice was to pray daily for individuals in the Yearly Meeting (“I want you to know that at 7.15 every night, I will be praying for your daughter’s recovery”) or of longstanding prayer partnerships between individuals, such as the one former Yearly Meeting clerk Jan Hoffman has shared for two decades or so, then the invitation is more readily heard.

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For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

ARISING OUT OF SILENCE

Another form of study we have found helpful is Worship Sharing, in which a topic is announced, a facilitator shares a brief (up to twenty minute) introduction, and then each person can respond out of the silence, speaking only once until all have shared and observing the other “rules” of vocal ministry: no direct rebuttals, space between messages, and so on. Thus, your original proposal could be turned into a series, “How To Meet God,” beginning with a session on experiences each person has had in encountering the Divine. A second session could examine varieties of prayer, in which individuals might begin to see the silence and social service as prayer, in addition to supplication, thanksgiving, praise, confession, and so on. Yet another session might examine ways of centering down for a better “sit” in Meeting (prayer returns here!). Each of the queries makes a good Worship Sharing focus, as does a carefully selected piece of scripture. Larry and Joanna Sparks, by the way, have prepared an excellent approach for group study of scripture, that requires the readers to sweep away their baggage and then to examine the text closely to see what it actually does say; a circle at Agamenticus spent six weeks on Jonah and felt they needed more time! Oh, yes, confession of our individual spiritual baggage and our initial religious training can also be useful Worship Sharing. Testimony about one’s spiritual journey to date has formed the basis for some Agamenticus Friends for monthly breakfasts at one family’s farm.

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For more Seasons of the Spirit, click here.

RECONSIDERING THE NATURE OF TRUTH

Contrary to the opinion of many contemporary Quakers, theology among Friends did not cease developing after the death of George Fox. While I have argued that early Friends had their reasons for not fully articulating their radical vision publicly, they left us enough dots to connect to rediscover their revolutionary line of thinking. As I’ve written, this is built on three central metaphors: Light, the Seed, and the Truth.

Of the three, I’ve found Truth to be the most difficult to grasp. Metaphor typically builds around an image, but just what works for Truth, no matter how many layers of meaning and experience we compress into it? Moreover, metaphor rarely settles into something as comfortable as a noun. In other words, just how do we turn Truth into a verb?

I was delighted to see Douglas Gwyn pick up on in his book Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experienence, with his own elegant turns. He begins with a concept of  spiritual formation: “The Quaker truth-stance was constituted by four distinct aspects, or ‘moments,’ … that can be related to four standard philosophical accounts of truth.” He addresses this from the psychology perspective of individual experience as a reality. Among them:

Powerful catharsis of being “convinced of the truth”

Gwyn begins with the sensation early Friends reported in their encounter with the Quaker apocalypse:

At that moment, the light of Christ gave them a searing, unmistakable knowledge of themselves. They were confronted as never before with their alienated conditions (including overt sins) and by the power of God to redeem them.

Yes, they were shaped by earlier teachings and beliefs:

The first moment of truth, therefore, was one of correspondence between propositional belief and lived experience. … The insistence on a lived experience of Christian beliefs … was an important breakthrough at the culminating – and self-defeating – moment of the English Reformation.

Coherence

Making sense of the experience presents its own challenges.

The truth of any proposition is established by its consistency or harmony with a larger body of previously established truths. Coherence, then, implies a framework within which one interprets either ideas or the data of experience (spiritual or empirical). But simultaneously, new experiences, while corresponding to elements within that existing framework, may also alter the framework (“shift the paradigm”), sometimes drastically.

Verification

Gwyn notes that Quakers could be more orthodox, especially in their insistence on moral accountability or the behavioral codes, which

not only expected outcomes of the convincement process but also the necessary means of conformity with Christ. This strong “process” aspect of Quaker truth has affinity with operationalist philosophical theories, which posit that a hypothesis must be verified by appropriate procedures of investigation. Here, the emphasis is upon the active means of testing the proposed idea or action, in contrast with the static framework of established truths suggested by coherence theory.

Pragmatism

But truth’s fourth moment is still rightly called pragmatic. … Like operationalism, pragmatism is concerned with action, but judges truth by end results, rather than means.

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Gwyn delves deeply into the workings of these, and more, but as he observes,

these comprise the framework within which early Friends found, served, and remained faithful to the truth. The truth itself remains a divine reality, defined by God’s loving faithfulness to humanity and all creation.

Here, then, is Gwyn’s breakthrough key in approaching this Truth – it’s active, as love, allowing him to present us at last with a requisite image: Jesus himself!

While not all metaphors have to be visual – the ringing of a bell, for instance, might be a richer connection than the bell itself – I’d simply overlooked the idea of using a person itself. But why not? The English can speak of the Crown, after all, and in our times, a picture of the Queen comes to mind. Americans have long spoken of George Washington as the Father of Our Country and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait springs forth, along with statuary in parks and other public places across the land. We even have a major city and a vast state named in Washington’s honor, which simply magnify him as a metaphor.

To continue, Gwyn turns to the gospel and letters of John, who

portrays Jesus in conversation with a variety of individuals who take different positions in relation to him. A Christian dialectic emerges from these conversations. … John’s dialectical universalism contrasts with the syncretistic universalism of Hellenic culture, where various deities mixed and matched for the masses, while philosophy served the more refined pastime of the privileged. … The Gospel of John called various peoples into service to the one true God. … Again, this God who sent Jesus is less “true” in the sense of opposition to false gods, than in the Hebrew sense of faithfulness. … One did not choose Jesus from a long list of seeking options. Rather, “I choose you” (John 15:16). That call of truth was enormously energizing …

Gwyn’s insight certainly opens John 3:16 in a fresh light: “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” Look at the compression of metaphor!

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More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.