WHY HAVE THE YOUTH GONE?

Quakers are not alone in this regard, but what we’ve been enduring is that no matter how much effort we put into raising our children within the faith community, they disappear somewhere in their junior high years. For decades, we’ve been hoping they’d reappear as they started raising their own families, but we’re seeing little of that, and again, we’re not alone.

It’s all too easy to blame competition with Sunday morning soccer leagues and the like, although we might also argue that the values the kids learn in their athletic competition more closely fit those of the larger, secular society than those they are taught in religious settings. Rabbi Michael Lerner makes an extended argument in his 2006 The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right, as he contends that too often our children see all too clearly the dichotomy between what we say we believe in faith and what we actually do in a dog-eat-dog marketplace. It’s a harsh criticism. No wonder religion is losing.

As I gaze around our mostly graying worshiping circle, I wonder just where the young adults are today – not just within religious communities, but just about everywhere I venture. Maybe they’re all hidden away working multiple 24/7 jobs trying to make ends meet. I don’t envy them the economic scene they’re contending with.

But I also wonder about the message they carry about faith itself. If the teaching among youths growing up “under the care” of Quaker Meeting has been to build a hopeful, optimistic foundation of values, how do we help them survive the brutal struggles they’ll encounter in the wider world? How do we instill an awareness of the importance of religious community and shared discipline in maintaining a drive toward a more loving and just society?

Perhaps we’ve been too comfortable in our safe, middle-class, largely professional upbringings and neighborhoods and expectation of college and career.

In my own thinking, I keep returning to the concept of the two seeds, one of Christ and the other, call it what you wish – the point is, we face not just “that of God within each person” and its potential, but also a counter element to challenge. It was a line of thinking at the time the Quaker movement erupted in Britain. Think of the parable of the wheat and the tares.

Contending with the two may be what’s been missing in our teaching and example.

~*~

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

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RAISING THE STAKES

The kids raise a valid point when they notice how much we teach them about Quakers back then – but what about now?

Yes, what about NOW!

We need to get our act more together and acknowledge many of the remarkable ways we continue to witness today, usually in individual callings that deserve more support from the rest of us. So maybe the kids’ question can help us better focus on our greater purpose.

I’d like us to proclaim more of the courageous work of Friends internationally, too – I can think of examples in Cuba and Kenya in our own time.

Not all of the action involves peace and forgiveness issues, either.

Consider, too, two points from a visit to an Evangelical Friends Church on the other end of the Quaker spectrum from my own Meeting:

“Is Jesus Christ going to be exalted and praised?”

Her shocked look haunts me, considering the big Quaker gathering where I’m headed. I think, Yes, but in ways you wouldn’t recognize.

Also, humbly, as another realizes from one difficult exchange with a customer at her business previously that week: “I may be the only Jesus they’ll see.”

Now we’re talking business.

~*~

For similar thoughts, check out Religion Turned Upside Down.

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.

~*~

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

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.

~*~

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.

~*~

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

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.

~*~

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!

~*~

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

THE DRIVING FORCE IN THE MESSAGE

For much of its existence, the Society of Friends has embodied a peaceful, respectable, even restrained way of life. Not so the earliest decades, when the economy, political structure, religion, communities, and families throughout Britain were all in chaotic upheaval. As Quakers emerged in the tumult, they coalesced many of the more radical elements as movement after movement broke up under the pressures and changing conditions.

As many observers have noted, the early Quaker message was that this was a time of apocalypse – the ultimate victory of good over evil was at hand, making way for the Second Coming of Christ. In battles of such magnitude, which Douglas Gwyn repeatedly views as a Quaker pentecost of the 1650s, there was no place for reserve – boldness came to the fore. And then, when the openings of revolution closed up again, resulting in the Restoration of the monarchy, Friends were forced to bank their fires.

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