16 July 2010

"Quakers believe that..."

--or, "Who owns the Quaker brand?"

I was looking at a news photo showing the arrest of artist/activist Pyotr Verzilov as he attempted to disrupt the Moscow trial of two artists accused of religious incitement. On the left side of the photo is a man holding a cross and wearing a shirt that, at the top, says "Orthodoxy or death."

The photo is heavy with ironies, but no serious and sympathetic observer would charge Russian Orthodoxy as a whole with approving the slogan on that shirt. The current Patriarch's predecessor, the late Aleksii II, did his best to confront anti-semitism and extreme nationalism in his church, but it's obvious that they persist.

If a hierarchical structure such as the Moscow Patriarchate cannot enforce a coherent presentation of Jesus's loving and reconciling gospel, what chance do we Friends have? (Not that any group of Quakers I know is printing t-shirts asserting "Quakers or death"!)

On the one hand, many Friends in Britain Yearly Meeting are pleased at the publicity they've earned as the first prominent British denomination to celebrate same-sex marriages. In Britain, many Friends describe themselves as non-Christian or post-Christian, and the yearly meeting as a whole requires no explicit Christian commitment for membership. "In fact, you don't actually have to believe in God to be a Quaker."

On the other hand, most members of the worldwide Quaker family would not recognize themselves in a British description of Friends. For us, a Christian commitment is absolutely central to Quaker identity; in fact, to many of us, the word "Quaker" simply stands for a set of teachings, practices, and historical experiences of Christian discipleship. Our movement began as an intensification of--not a relativization of--Christianity. We confronted nominal Christendom with the challenge, with huge theological and political ramifications, that "Christ has come to teach his people himself." Ever since then, we gather at least weekly to wait on the Holy Spirit to keep that promise, and we try to work out its implications in our daily lives.

Those who approve post-Christian redefinitions of Friends sometimes argue that early Friends didn't know better than to use Christian language for their insights and mystical experiences, since Christian references were all that was available to them. This is historically inaccurate; it insufficiently accounts for their prophetic stance against much of the church establishment of their time; and it seems to rule out the logical possibility that their teachings and insights were nevertheless valid!

Besides, why would one want to belong to a movement founded by people whose passionate and often counter-cultural proclamations were apparently embarrassingly inadequate and limited by their narrow horizons? Is it possible that the pervasive skepticism and post-Christian assertions of much of modern liberal Quakerism reflect today's limited horizons, namely the prevailing orthodoxies of their larger social sphere?

All of us, of course, could probably stand to ask ourselves occasionally how much of our religious behavior is influenced by our need for the approval of those around us. (I seem to remember John Punshon writing somewhere that his Christian conversion cost him twenty years of liberal cool.) To be honest, if we evangelical Quakers are ever asked about what happened to our prophetic voice--that which made us so obnoxious to the religious and political powers of our founding era--we'd have a lot to answer for. Friends in many parts of the world have settled for what's respectable, what's acceptable. Is it a coincidence that evangelical Friends flourish where the wider social context allows middle-class people to be evangelical, and liberal Friends flourish in pervasively secular contexts? (Honest question: is this a valid correlation?)

It was precisely in our most evangelistic era that our witness for the equality of men and women in spiritual leadership, and our refusal to participate in war, was most costly. Now, to risk a generalization, liberal Friends use these distinctives to show how wonderful we are, and too many evangelical Friends neglect these dimensions of Jesus-centered discipleship--but in either case, there's not much in the way of sacrifice.

The question of wanting others' approval becomes especially acute when we're dealing with wounded people (which probably means most of us). As I've said before, when we become codependent to wounded people, seeking their approval rather than their healing, those people end up exercising emotional veto power over us. Can't say anything that might offend them!!

The radical hospitality implied by Jesus coming to teach his people himself also requires us to confront our temperamental biases. What right do some Friends have to drive away anyone who is ready to make a strong and enthusiastic commitment to the living God, rather than only a nuanced and conditional commitment to personal exploration? Elitism, unconfronted, guarantees our permanent marginalization.

I'm going to come out and say it: Quakerism without Jesus at the very center is a tangent. However, to those who don't agree with me, I want to say a bit more: I know in the world as it really is, even with our preponderance of numbers we evangelicals don't own the Quaker brand. Furthermore, we need your ethical zeal. In this world of spiritual, political, and social bondage, there is a lot we can do together without compromising what we know to be true. And to my evangelical brothers and sisters: an evangelical faith that simply aims to please the wider evangelical establishment is, well, not necessarily Jesus-centered either!

A related post: on worship seeking more understanding (and on confronting my inner curmudgeon).

Write to me for the original poster in PDF format. (Thanks, Debbie Headley.)

Righteous links:

(Russian) Interfax-Religion: Over 80% of alternative-service conscientious objectors base their service on religious grounds.
Most of the young conscripts who stated a preference for alternative civilian service, say that did this for religious reasons.

80% of these alternative-service conscripts were assigned for religious reasons; about 3% because they belonged to indigenous peoples; and the rest had other reasons, Alexei Vovchenko, deputy head of the Federal Service for Labour and Employment, said Wednesday in a statement distributed at an Interfax press conference.
More on faith and social context: Pew Research Center documents "Widespread support for banning full Islamic veil in Western Europe." I was intrigued that, in this survey, Americans don't line up with the European majorities supporting the ban. What prior experiences in the USA might have predisposed us this way?

Jurist: Kyrgyzstan establishes commission to probe ethnic violence.

A Musing Environment has a question for you: Whom do you trust on climate change?

Another brand identity puzzle: who defines Islam? Max Carter says, "Don't define Muslims by the violent actions of a few." However, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite explains "Why telling Muslims what they believe is a bad idea." Finally, a repost of a link to a useful PDF-format article, "Getting Real about Christian-Muslim Dialogue."

"The Inseparable Bond of Technology and Mission."

More from Grace Potter. "Nothing But the Water."

... "I have fallen so many times for Satan's sweet cunning rhymes..."


Pat said...

"Friends in many parts of the world have settled for what's respectable, what's acceptable. Is it a coincidence that evangelical Friends flourish where the wider social context allows middle-class people to be evangelical, and liberal Friends flourish in pervasively secular contexts?"

Boy, you hit a nerve with me. I've recently begun to question whether Evangelicalism has watered down the Quaker movement, particularly when I see us as a church bowing to middle-class values rather than upholding the teachings of our Lord over those values. Being an evangelical Quaker has us expecting people to tow the party line before they can join us versus acknowledging and accepting and working through our differences. I think what Quakers should do is look to how they can better inform Evangelicalism versus letting it define us.

leftistquaker said...

Johan M. writes: "why would one want to belong to a movement founded by people whose passionate and often counter-cultural proclamations were apparently embarrassingly inadequate and limited by their narrow horizons?"

Friend Johan, as a former Pentecostal and a Mennonite for 10 years as an adult, I understand your perplexity at us post-Christian Quakers. As I searched for a new spiritual community after my beliefs shifted, I could have gone into humanist or Unitarian congregations, but my Christian upbringing had deeply marked me and a local liberal meeting had enough that was familiar that I could pursue my new path without a total rejection of Christianity.

I am not very comfortable with the middle-class culture of liberal Quakerism nor with the middle-class culture of Evangelicalism. I was deeply affected by the radical movements of the 60s and initially sought to live them out as a Pentecostal-Mennonite hybrid. In time, my radical ideas came into direct confrontation with classical orthodoxy. I no longer believed that the Bible was a miraculous book, or that God loved people who had a certain set of beliefs more.

Quakerism is a descendant of the left-wing of the English reformation. It is a precursor to feminism and anarchism. It even had some socialists in its number, notably Gerrard Winstanley (after the Digger movement collapsed). To my current way of thinking, these socially radical ideas, including pacifism, are my new religious center of gravity, as they are for some, not all, post-Christian Quakers.

If I'd joined the humanists, I don't think I would've maintained any sort of living connection to organized Christianity, and despite my nontheist views, that would be a loss to me. There aren't enough humanists in the world to do much good.

Within liberal Quakerism, I am free to pursue my nontheist thought but with a fruitful interaction with others of differing views. In fact, that is what is so great about liberal Quakerism, diversity. Evangelical and Pentecostal churches place enormous emphasis on right doctrine and beliefs. While I do believe in one truth, I also know that at best, I only understand a small fraction of it.

Peace! Charley

Johan Maurer said...

Hello, Charley, and thank you for writing about your experience. I dealt with some related themes in a post entitled The Hyphen Within.

The "brand" issue doesn't come up for me simply because of the existence of liberal Friends. I can understand how that (pardon me!) tangent evolved. What gets me is when British (or other liberal) Friends say without qualification that "Quakers believe that ..." (usually followed by some variation on "that of God in everyone") as if that were a fair and adequate summary of Quakers worldwide.

It's a real puzzle to me. I know that Friends culture and tradition is attractive to some who see us as a uniquely gentle, nonprescriptive access to spirituality--including Christian spirituality--without doctrine, wrapped in sweet, civil, unhurried, attractively antique folkways. But to raise up those folkways to a higher level of importance than Jesus, whose centrality those folkways were originally intended to demonstrate, just doesn't seem quite right to me. Forgive me for repeating an illustration I've used before: London Yearly Meeting used to sell a poster that said something like this: "Tired of organized religion? Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater." To me, the Baby was Jesus, and the bathwater represented the trappings of the religion industry, against which our founders rightly rebelled. Some liberal Friends seem to me to have abstracted a fragrant oh-so-quakerly bathwater, but there's no Baby.

(Evangelicals: don't get smug. We keep getting seduced by secondhand bathwater! We spend precious time arguing whether it is pure enough, and has the right oils, while the world simply needs to see that the Baby is still among us, and our door is wide open.)

Pat: your last sentence is one of my own personal agendas. Sometimes cultural-evangelical behavior (as distinct from theory) seems to reveal fear of the Holy Spirit, or fear of the Spirit's absence, rather than joyful self-abandonment. With trust in God as perhaps the central distinctive of Friends, shouldn't we be doing more to stimulate conversations about trust and fear and joy and Spirit-led worship (and the ethical consequences) in evangelical circles? My guess is that we'd find plenty of allies, and the resulting fertile exchanges might help wake us up!

Rapunzel said...

"Quakerism without Jesus at the very center is a tangent" ?

While I can see the logic of that, for me God is the center, and Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Buddha, and so on are the tangents.
God seems to have been around for awhile and seems to have kept the world going well enough before any of these relative newcomers arrived on the scene.

In following Jesus I would be wise to keep in mind that Jesus did not worship Jesus, He worshipped God. I try to do likewise.

I suspect if we cling too insistently to our favorite tangent we miss a greater connection with the Source.

ben schultz said...

Another concern troll sadly lets is us in on the sad fact that non-christian quakers are just uneducated, why if we only knew anything about our history we would simply be just like him.

Anonymous said...

Oh! Those black-robed Orthodox radicals look really creepy! I believe it's the same guy in this picture I found circulating across livejournal: http://i31.tinypic.com/jr5v1c.jpg

Anonymous said...

Oh! Those black-robed Orthodox radicals look really creepy! I believe it's the same guy in this picture I found circulating across livejournal: http://i31.tinypic.com/jr5v1c.jpg

Joanna Hoyt said...

"All of us, of course, could probably stand to ask ourselves occasionally how much of our religious behavior is influenced by our need for the approval of those around us."

Amen. I need to spend a while doing that before I comment further, except to say: thank you for this post.

Jeremy Mott said...

As a preface to what I will say,
I must report that it costs me plenty to be a Christ-centered Friend here in the northeastern United States among predominately
Light-centered Quakers. Many Light-centered Quakers simply think my view is old-fashioned, or
somehow illegitimate. The best way
I know to get them to change their
mind is to get them to know Christ-
centered Quakers as they actually are, by becoming familiar with them through programs like Bolivian Quaker Education Fund or
African Great Lakes Initiative.
Such programs are active in Britain Yearly Meeting as well;
note Quaker Congo Partnership.
LIke it or not, and often they eventually do like it, Light-centered Friends do often come to
recognize Christ-centered Friends
as legitimate. History rules, and
majority rules, and the current
sacrifices and achievements of
Christ-centered Friends worldwide rule in this matter.
All that said, there are some
understandable reasons why many
Light-centered Friends do not accept Christ-centered Quakerism.
It's by no means all unthinking
acceptance of social pressure
towards not being "religious."
First, Friends know the terrible history of "Christian"
persecution of Jews, of heretics,
and all sorts of pagans and the
like. Many Friends, knowing this,
are unwilling to call themselves
Christ-centered, even though they
know that being Light-centered
implies this.
Second, many many Friends and
friends of Friends---including my
daughter and her life partner---
have had personal experience of
ridicule and persecution for not being fundamentalist "Christians."
They've been told many times that,
because they don't use Christian
langauge or accept orthodox Christian theology, they are headed for hell. I am glad that
some of these people are willing to
consider themselves Light-centered
though not Christ-centered Friends.
Third, many Friends have been
told many times that they must
accept the Bible as infallibe or
inerrant. This they cannot do, and
they may not realize that the Christ Within, the Light Within, may nevertheless be available to them.
Instead of trying to push
non-Christian Friends our of our
Society, we should be trying to
make room for Quaker Christians,
wherever they're not at home.
Jeremy Mott

Jeremy Mott said...

Also, to be fair, we should read
what British Friends actually say
about Friends on the web. In many
places, they state clearly that
the majority of Friends in the
world are evangelical Christians.
Not in all places, but in many.

I think the question posed by
what I said above, and what Leslie
said, and what Johan said, is this:
What is the difference between
eclectic not-necesarily-Christian
Friends and Unitarians? Does God
really have a use for both? For
Unitarians long ago gave up any
pretense of being Christians, and
surely would recognize themselves
in British (and American "liberal")
Friends' self-descriptions.
Jeremy Mott

Steven Davison said...

I speak as a post-Christian Friend who nonetheless agrees with Johann's disquiet with liberal Quakerism's now-longstanding and still continuing identity drift. I have two metaphors for the proces:

In one, Post-Christian, post-traditional, non-theist Friends are like guests who were invited into a decidedly Christian household, where Christ was the universally acknowledged head. Over time, these nonChristians ended up in the master bedroom and Christ ended up on the couch.

More apt, though, I think: post-Christian Friends are like Europeans who found themselves on the shores of North America, fleeing persecutions and bad situations at home and hoping for freedom. The natives welcomed them in. Now the Christian natives are (in some parts of the country, including the northeast where I live) are living on reservations and the post-Christians run everything.

I feel very strongly that Quakerism is a Christian religion until 1) the demographics of the community show an overwhelming post-Christian majority worldwide; 2) the history of post-Christian Quakerism has outlasted the 300 or so years of Christian Quaker history; and 3) Quaker communities consciously declare themselves no longer Christian in meetings gathered under the leadership of the Holy Spirit—oops! wait a minute . . .—under the leadership of—what?—according to gospel order—oops! wait a second . . . according to Quaker process (powerful, powerful language, that)—which has yet to happen (or even to come up) in any liberal meeting I've heard of.

Until then, post-Christian Friends like myself should act like the guests they are in the house that Christ and his 17th century Quaker disciples built. Forget being 'tolerant' of Christian and biblical messages: assume they are direct ministry from the One who gathered this people in the first place, and be grateful that nonChristian, nonbiblical messages are welcome. Encourage Christian and biblical religious education for young and old. Do not equivocate about our Christianity when asked about Quakerism by folks not familiar with our ways and finish your description of Quakerism as Christian discipleship with the disclaimer that you yourself aren't Christian but you're grateful to be welcome, anyway. Etc. In other words, be humble and faithful to the testimony of integrity, which requires that we act in accordance with the truth of our situation.

In the meantime, post-Christian Friends like me have some work to do. We have very little meaningful 'tradition' to stand on and the vocabulary we might use to articulate our 'faith' and our 'practice' is stunted, without the life and truth that animates Christian and biblical Quakerism; which is why we so often recast the traditional language instead, claiming that "that of God in everyone" is some neo-gnostic divine spark, for instance; thus do we violence to the truth of our heritage and to the testimony of integrity. Most importantly, our experience of Whatever-It-Is is all over the place: how do you build a whole tradition around all these other gods and experiences?

The obvious question, after all this, is: why am I still here? Why don't I go find some other religious household, where I don't sleep on the couch and I can be a legitimate title-holder rather than a guest? Well, that's another post. But I ask myself this question all the time and have done so for years. It's complicated.

Jeremy Mott said...

Since no one else has tried, I'll try to answer my own question.
First, Quakers generally practice
waiting worship, at least for part
of our worship; we attempt to allow
the Light Within, or the Christs Within, to come into our presence.
This is not Unitarians do; they discuss religious matters. Where
Friends don't practice waiting worship, as in East and Central Africa, we generally practice
African-style worship---another form of Pentecostal worship. We
worship in the spirit of Francis Howgill, at least at our best.
Second, most of us consider ourselves as followers of Jesus,
even if not Christians in terms
of the theology of the church during its first few centuries (or
later); thus we are more like the
original Unitarians, not the present ones, who are more eclectic in religion. Third, consider our peace testimony. True,
there are Unitarian pacifists, and
plenty of Quaker non-pacifists; but
ours is a corporate testimony, like
the testimonies of Mennonites and
Brethren (and several smaller Christian groups). What could be a
better inidication of our Christian
faith than our peace testimony?
Fourth, we believe in, and we
generally practice, the ministry
of all believers, in many ways.
Unitarians place great emphasis on
a highly educated ministry; Friends (including pastoral Friends) do not do so. Also, as a practical matter, we span the
Christian spectrum, but most of us
worldwide, as well as half of us in the U.S.A., are evangelical
Christians---many so evangelical as
to be fundamentalists. And our
church is still expanding vigorously in many countries, among all social classes, worldwide.