09 August 2007

Conditions for Quaker Revival: will ideas converge, or will people converge?

I'd planned to do a brief review of Philip Jenkins' God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious Crisis. (I still will, below.) But in gathering materials for that review, I came across a Jenkins quote in Christianity Today that felt like a breath of fresh air:

In any society, ideas tend to become associated with particular traditions, so that ideologies represent packages of themes and beliefs. Tell me an American's stance on gun control, and I will make a plausible bet about his views on abortion, or on granting POW status to terrorist suspects. Western Christians, too, take their beliefs not singly but in packages, and we know what is implied by umbrella terms like "liberal" and "conservative." Or to take other ideological labels, Americans know that liberation theology advocates social justice activism, and opposes unjust or exploitative political structures. At the opposite end of the spectrum we would expect to find charismatic believers in deliverance, who espouse spiritual warfare and confront the demonic or supernatural forces holding humanity in thrall. Politically, such believers would be presumed to be on the Right just as assuredly as liberation is on the Left.

All of which prepares us poorly for the world of the emerging Christian churches, which have rediscovered the basic semantic truth that liberation and deliverance are actually the same thing. To be credible, any presentation of the Christian message must offer the prospect of freedom from the oppressive forces of this world and the other worlds. We should not be startled when global South evangelicals are "conservative" about abortion or homosexuality but also demand forceful state intervention to fight poverty, even if that means regulating the free market. And we should not expect that newer churches will respect the walls that separate styles of worship and belief among Europeans and North Americans, between churches that are evangelical and catholic, liturgical and charismatic.

Jenkins' listing of convenient correlations (anti-abortion = anti-gun control, with no perceived irony, as I found strongly a couple of weeks ago in northern Idaho) is not complete, in this brief essay; neither is his listing of cross-cutting factors. Geographic, cultural, economic, and generational differences all help shape our inhibitions and blind spots, but breaking through those difference for a glimpse of new connections can help love overcome.

Even apparently intractable conflicts such as that over homosexuality, where established conservatisms seem to speak with one voice across geographic distances, look very different through the eyes of people half my age or younger. Jean M. Twenge writes, "A recent article in Time magazine found that otherwise conservative college Republicans are remarkably uninterested in gay marriage as an issue. While only 30% of the overall American population supports gay marriage, 59%--nearly twice as many--of 18-year-olds do." (Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled--and More Miserable Than Ever Before.) (For some equivalent indications among younger evangelicals, see the Postmission excerpts I posted here.) What will happen to today's governing certainties as that attitudinal bulge works its way through the demographics?

I'm convinced that Quaker revival will be fueled by all sorts of unlicensed and impertinent connections, for which ancient models already exist, especially if we take a long-term look at history. Whatever stupidities, cultural captivities, and blind spots Christians have carried in the short-term, the long-term impact of the Christian movement on this planet has been astounding. Without needing to assert sole credit for anything--in fact reserving all credit to the Holy Spirit who can operate even in spite of Christians, and certainly through non-Christians--Christianity has been subversive to tyranny, patriarchy, elitism, gnosticism, superstition, and coercive ideologies. Why stop now??

One example of these crossways connections is the Seamless Garment movement. Another example is directly linked to Philip Jenkins' liberation/deliverance connection: the dialogue between Walter Wink on the "left" and Peter Wagner on the "right," a dialogue exemplified by Wagner's book Churches That Pray. Most of the people in the conservative American church probably understand "spiritual warfare" to be a spiritual issue, and if there's a political dimension, it seems solely concerned with electing "bible-believing" politicians who will support today's structures of violence and affluence and preserve the myth of middle-class America while smothering the actual middle class. Something far deeper happens when those who care about "spiritual warfare" begin to talk with those who intensely care about social justice and who've begun to realize that, without taking spiritual realities into account, their victories will usually be fragile and incremental.

Are Quakers more likely to experience this revival than other Christians? With our spare, functional ecclesiology and our theology of direct dependence on the Holy Spirit, we ought to be. But if our present state of passivity is any indication, not really. I'm so utterly frustrated by how, in some quarters, our best minds seem content to argue about the supposed imperfections of Friends United Meeting, and whether their yearly meeting, which is of course perfect in comparison to FUM, should stay or go. (And FUM's supporters, who have amazing resources of theology and discipleship and mission experience to share, built up over generations, seem to sit on their hands, even in the face of secondhand insinuations and stale conventional wisdom!!) Is anyone asking publicly how to leverage FUM's involvements in social concern, integrated evangelism, strategic locations in Africa, the Caribbean, and the Middle East, for the sake of a delivering/liberating revival?

What will it take to get the knees on the ground, the hearts tender, the tears flowing, the laughter uncorked, the voice roaring? Same for Evangelical Friends Mission and the evangelical yearly meetings--how many readers of this blog are aware of the work being done in Central Africa to combine evangelism and sustainable human-scale agricultural development, or in South Asia to empower women in church leadership? What, in fact, are North Americans doing that is of equivalent crossways-modeling value right here at home? That's not a rhetorical question--I really want to know, because telling each other the stories of God's power at work, creating new connections, answering prayer and empowering action, is far more important and far more powerful than trying to reinforce existing divisions with endless rounds of mutual irritation.

Sometimes in my imagination I can almost taste what this Quaker revival could be like. I guess that's in part because crucial elements of that revival are concepts, ideas, visions--heartfelt prayer, repentance, a synthesizing creativity, a reduction in defensiveness, an awareness of an ocean of evil but an ocean of light and love flowing over it (thanks, Fox!), the connection between deliverance and liberation, the connections among the seamless-garment concerns, a whole new alliance of younger and older Friends, and a willingness to see our controversies (sexual ethics, sexual identity, authority of the Bible) as occasions of deep and honest dialogue instead of the last stands of the righteous.

Is it easier to assemble concepts than people? Converging ideas can fuel a revival, but ultimately people must make themselves available to be revived. That's why I'm so grateful to have this modest platform, and I'm grateful for the new energy in intervisitation. This morning, Reedwood pastor Ken Comfort and several others from our yearly meeting left for the Friends World Committee triennial in Ireland; it's my prayer that both people and ideas will converge there with powerful effect.

Yesterday evening, Joe Volk came to Reedwood Friends Church to speak to Friends and the public about the Christian delegation to Iran that took place in February of this year. Many of the details of this story can be found here at the Friends Committee on National Legislation Web site, and here on the Mennonite Central Committee site. What interested me was the way Joe told the story--with honesty and some quiet humor but also with respect for everyone involved and for the dilemmas they faced.

Having experienced delegation reports from progressives who were so dazzled by their visits that they could find no wrong in (say) Arafat or Castro and no right in the American side, I was hoping for better from Joe and FCNL, and I was not disappointed. Joe's presentation was nuanced and therefore credible, which made his case for ongoing dialogues all the more persuasive.

The February ecumenical delegation apparently conducted itself with so much credibility, in fact, that some representatives of the U.S. government who had not looked with favor on the prospect of this visit to Iran were, upon their return, eager to encourage a reciprocal visit to the USA by an Iranian delegation of religious leaders, a prospect that was not in sight when the Americans set out on their trip. This is the kind of connectional work that deserves to be given a higher priority among Friends. Joe ended his presentation with a Persian proverb, quoted to the delegation by an Iranian embassador: "Build a bridge to me, and I'll build 99 bridges back to you."

While I'm praising nuance ... back to Philip Jenkins's book, God's Continent: Christianity, Islam, and Europe's Religious CrisisThis post has already become way too long, so let me confine myself to a high recommendation, backed by these important main arguments from the book.

First: Europe's reputation as a graveyard for traditional European Christianity is in part deserved, but the realities vary from region to region. Two countervailing trends are also evident: First, part of the vacuum is being filled by immigrant Christianity, especially from Africa. Second, the implicit challenge/dialogue posed by Islam, as well as the identity conversations surrounding the formation of European Union institutions, have caused Europeans to take fresh notice of the important role Christianity played in building modern Europe.

Second: Islam is taking up more and more space in European consciousness. However, Jenkins makes several very important points about this reality. Comparisons of Christian numbers with Islamic numbers are often full of unclear definitions on both sides. Too often, people are being counted who have little or no investment in the labels being used for them. For example, Jenkins discusses the use of the label "Muslim" in some cases for anyone coming from a country whose majority religion is Islam rather than in reference to personal or even family faith. And Jenkins also warns us to spot the use of demographic projections ("Islam is taking over Europe through sheer population growth") as a political scare tactic. There are reasons to believe that eventually even apparently separatist Muslim immigration will, in a generation or two, lead to Muslim Europeans with many "European" values and "European" growth rates.

On the other hand, radicalization sometimes increases in succeeding generations after immigration, rather than decreasing. An important feature of Jenkins' book is a vivid portrayal of the sheer variety represented by Islam in Europe, and the varied nature of ties between homelands and immigrant communities. Some immigrant communities and their mosques are closely tied, both financially and politically, with religious authorities in their homelands or in such centers of Islamic activism as Saudi Arabia; other communities are assertively separatist, European, or determined to find their own synthesis of influences.

Jenkins looks at both the rhetoric and realities of terrorism in European Islam, as well as Islamic voices countering terrorism. He cautions against hasty correlations of terrorism and religious Islam, pointing out that some apparent terrorism is sheer criminality or inspired by secular politics. He reminds us that, in the not distant past in both the USA and Europe, most terrorism was committed by Christians, at least by social definition, yet the label Christian terrorism is rarely heard.

God's Continent does not shrink from describing the massive challenge to European liberal values posed by the growth of Islam in Europe. De facto censorship has descended on parts of Europe, preventing publications, films, and plays from reaching the public when they are deemed offensive to Muslims and others, while productions massively insulting to Christians (such as the BBC's broadcast of Jerry Springer--The Opera, cited by Jenkins), are endured, and critics are denounced, as Jenkins says, "for their bigotry and philistinism." He goes on to say:

The difference in response is striking, but the reasons are obvious. However incensed they became, Christian critics never threatened actual violence or even unruly demonstration. [Anglican] Archbishop Sentamu has denounced the BBC for its consistent display of religious double standards: "They can do to us what they dare not do to the Muslims. We are fair game because they can get away with it. We don't go down there and say, 'We are going to bomb your place.' That is not in our nature." The lesson for filmmakers or broadcasters is clear: when choosing religious topics to cover, only offend those groups who will respect legality.

This is just one dimension of a larger challenge faced by Europeans: how to reconcile liberal toleration with the reality of new communities who are themselves viscerally allergic to some aspects of that toleration. Often the authorities have to walk a tightrope: their toleration seems to condone harsh and hateful expressions at the extreme of those new communities, but to suppress those voices would simply drive them underground, where they and their ripple effects would be far harder to monitor.

Jenkins' book had a paradoxical effect on me: I felt I had a far more detailed picture of the dilemmas and dangers faced by a religiously bipolar Europe, but also more optimistic that, in the long run, European resilience will prevail, and within that resilience, new expressions of disestablished Christianity such as Kingsway and Taize will (not without some dissonance!) more than compensate for the fading religious establishments of the past.

Righteous links: Friends World Committee for Consultation plans a running weblog for to help us keep up with the 2007 Triennial and the world Quaker family. ~~~ Friends of Justice "is a faith-based, grassroots organization that works to restore due process to all Americans." One section of their Web site is devoted to the story of Jena, Louisiana, and the one-sided reaction of authorities to racial conflict in that town's high school. ~~~ Rosalie Grafe, the Quaker Mole, gives us easy access to two items of thought from Brian McLaren, including an interview by Becky Garrison of the totally crossways magazine Wittenburg Door.

The extraordinary Otis Spann, accompanied by Muddy Waters, performing "Cold Feeling Blues."


Bill Samuel said...

I think this is relevant. Quakers who see the peace testimony as extending to abortion are getting organized. If interested in being involved in what may be called Friends Witness for a Prolife Peace Testimony, contact Rachel MacNair, who is a member of Penn Valley Meeting in Kansas City. And look for ads in the October, November and December issues of Friends Journal.

Bill Samuel said...

Having tested it, it appears that links to email addresses don't work in Blogger so you get a 404 if you clicked on my link above. Email Rachel MacNair at drmacnair@hotmail.com

Chris M. said...

Johan: You wrote: "...a willingness to see our controversies (sexual ethics, sexual identity, authority of the Bible) as occasions of deep and honest dialogue instead of the last stands of the righteous."

Yes, yes, that's the kind of revival I want to be part of!

-- Chris M.

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks for the link, Bill.

Thanks, Chris, for the affirmation. I hope it's understood that I'm referring to an attitude, an approach to communication and relationship. I'm not declaring that a particular viewpoint isn't worth defending--even defending vigorously--but that a pugnacious or dismissive attitude toward those who disagree is unproductive and not consistent with the Gospel, even if it wins popularity points among one's partisans.

Chris M. said...

Johan: Yep, that seemed clear to me: The respectful approach to communication is exactly the point, not that we'll agree on everything. -- Chris M.

Anonymous said...

Following up on Bill Samuel's comments, this is Rachel MacNair. We do have the web page up now for Friends Witness for a Pro-life Peace Testimony, and it's www.prolifequakers.org.