11 November 2004

More about boldness

As my time here in Elektrostal, Russia, nears an end (for now, at least), I've been thinking about the future shape of Friends ministry in Russia. On the one hand, there is a small group of unprogrammed Friends with wildly varying theologies worshipping in Moscow, along with scattered Quaker believers, seekers and hobbyists in other places including Elektrostal. I have personally never seen more than about twenty at one time, not counting visitors from abroad. (Moscow is a city of about 12 million people.) On the other hand, the recent arrival of a Friends missionary family and ongoing preparation by another Friend for service in Russia signals that we are on the edge of at least an initial presence of evangelical Friends energy here. I have a foot in both groups, which makes me feel like an awkward creature sometimes.

Without intending to box in either group of Friends as being either simple or rigid, I have some thoughts and questions for both:
  1. Does God care if we are Friends? Does God care if anyone is a Friend, whether old-timer, recent arrival, or seeker? In other words, do we have an urgent message regarding faith and practice, reinforced by a community that can support people in that faith and practice? Or ... are we offering a lifestyle enhancement, a quaintly antiquarian way of being politically progressive, or a very slightly repackaged formulaic Protestantism that is more intended to reassure our donors and committees than offer spiritual liberation to human beings? In my bones, I know that the Friends message is worth presenting boldly -- and also that this sort of boldness (confidence) has little or nothing to do with arrogance, or with ego-driven ministry.
  2. If those of us who are bearing the Quaker message from overseas are squabbling or being snide about each other, how will we practice the deep listening that might genuinely connect us with what God is already doing in Russia, and in the lives of the people we're privileged to touch? Is it possible that the Holy Spirit will bring into being a new, creative hybrid of Friends worship and Friends community that doesn't correspond to any of our existing patterns? How will we know? Such hybrids of foreign influence and Russian creativity have been a primary characteristic of Russian cultural history.

I personally have a hard time with hobbyist Quakerism, especially when defined in terms of ultrafinicky prescriptions of how "we" do things, "our" special procedures and folkways, or anything else that detracts from Jesus being in the center of our community life. How can we present something so stilted and crabby and culturally specific as an answer to spiritual bondage? It is just another form of bondage! Russia has more than its share of cults already.

By the way, to many Russian Orthodox gatekeepers, any Protestant is already dangerously close to cult status. Given the North American tendencies to promote individualism, to define theology in juridical terms, and to fixate on personal behavioral symbolism over spirituality and the quality of our relationship with God, we often reinforce this perception.

Does what I've just said contradict my own advice about not squabbling or being snide? I hope not. I deeply respect those Friends I've worked with on Russian concerns and with whom I differ theologically. The world would be so much better off if these Friends were more numerous and more powerful, in either secular politics or church politics. By being clear about where I think liberal Quakerism has gone wrong, I hope I am contributing to dialogue rather than conflict. More than that, I think some of the distortions in what I've called hobbyist Quakerism (or, elsewhere, the cult of quakerishness) is not the result of deliberate decisions but of drift, a combination of wider cultural influences and insufficient discernment.

Here in Russia, I believe that we need to keep our essentials very simple. The Russians I know respect a clear, grounded devotion to Jesus Christ, an attentiveness to the Bible, a willingness to defer to one another in a community while not imposing thought control on anyone, and a powerful ethical message of peace, equality, and simplicity that shows we are serious about trusting God's provision in all things. One of our most powerful forms of witness is also one of our simplest: the ability to combine deep listening with joy.


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Johan,
Great, I love the description of hobbyist Quakers. I certainly recognize this tendency. I think we need to always relate what we do back to how this fits in with God. Tradition is good, but we need to be curious where it came from and not just make blind appeals to it as a point of argument. I'll post something about this too--good, chewy stuff. Thanks Johan, as always!
Your Friend, Martin

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for kind comments.

"to define theology in juridical terms" refers to the overuse of such categories, beloved by Western Protestants as redemption, justification, substitutionary atonement, and other essentially metaphoric concepts that are very useful when not pressed too far. "To fixate on personal behavioral symbolism" refers to judgments we make of others based on how adequately they fulfill our expectations of model Christian behavior. From one culture to another, that differs, of course, but that "of course" is not obvious to all. The Midwestern holiness model of purity (no movies, no alcohol, no cards, long-sleeved shirts year-round, no pants on women, etc) actually has some honor behind it, being the product of a genuine desire to worship God in the beauty of holiness. But it does not transmit well outside the culture that gives it a larger framework. (And if that framework is itself not openly discussed, it loses its life even in its original culture and begins to generate more neurotics and Fundamentalists Anonymous than saints, sooner or later.) Some Russian Orthodox people look at this kind of holiness culture and see people more living in fear of being gossipped about than living in a joyful relationship with God.