02 March 2023

Vanity of vanities: partly a repost

'Your post titled "Vanity of vanities" has been unpublished.' 

About a week ago, I was startled to get this notice from blogger.com. It went on to explain that "Your post titled 'Vanity of vanities' was flagged to us for review. We have determined that it violates our guidelines and have unpublished the URL http://blog.canyoubelieve.me/2008/01/vanity-of-vanities.html, making it unavailable to blog readers."

The letter went on to explain how I could edit the post and submit it for reconsideration. Naturally, being a spiritually mature, even-tempered Quaker, I was ... INCENSED! I looked back at this fifteen-year-old post (archive.org version) which I'd revisited a couple of years ago to edit dead links, photos, and video, and tried to figure out what could have caused the blogger platform to blow the whistle.

After a day or two of calming down, I made a couple more changes—one or two more dead links eliminated, and a newer version of a video subbed in—and republished. Only then did I notice that I had received another notice from blogger.com, from the same date as the previous notice. Subject line: "Your post titled 'Vanity of vanities" has been reinstated." Well!

It just happens that this "Vanity" post's theme, class issues among Friends, has been popping up again.

For one thing, I've had a long-standing concern that I've sometimes shared in this blog, that the ways we Quakers talk about our faith is often too wordy. According to Elizabeth Gray Vining's biography of Rufus Jones, he once gave an address after which he was gently criticized with these words: "Our dear Lord said,'Feed my lambs.' He did not say, 'Feed my giraffes.'"

I've had a couple of chances to help edit text on Quaker Web sites, and I've looked for chances to use language that doesn't imply "if you don't have an advanced education, you're not welcome among Friends." I also remember a Methodist writer who pointed out, rightly or wrongly, that most devotional literature is written by intuitive introverts for intuitive introverts.

And for another thing, Quaker writer and activist George Lakey is coming to our town and to our church this month (information below), and that reminded me of something I've always appreciated about him: his advice that successful movements united people across class lines, rather than dividing them. See the links section below for a couple of samples of Lakey's thinking on class.

Here's an edited and shortened version of my "Vanity of vanities" post. (You can read the comments on the original post through this link.)

Two Johan Fredrik Maurers, both nattily dressed. (At right, my great-great grandfather, 1817-1887.)

Vanity of Vanities [January 2008] 

Questions about Friends and social class have been prominent again in recent weeks in the Friends blogging community.

For examples, go here, if you haven't already:

The Friendly Funnel, "22 Class Steps Forward" [archived]
Susanne Kromberg, "Poll on Class and Faith"
Social Class and Quakers, "Questions, Questions"

Some of these questions came up a couple of years ago, when Brooklyn Quaker wrote his "Thoughts on the New York City Transit Strike--and Quaker Class Narrowness."

I'm happy about this development, in part because of my visceral dislike of elitism and of the spiritual violence that we do when we objectify others. (We "objectify" when we look at people coldly, forgetting their equal status with us as made in the image of God; when we reduce people to categories; when we see them as objects of our agendas, or as irrelevant to those agendas.)

Some of my intense feelings no doubt come from growing up with my mother who believed in the superiority of her German "master race"—to the point that she displayed a swastika on her Skokie, Illinois, front lawn during the controversy over Nazis' wanting to march in Skokie. (Did she ever see the irony later on when she moved north to, of all places, Zion?)

For reasons that relate to our family's own violent history, we straddle classes, which gives me insights that I sometimes would rather not have. No doubt this also adds to my blind spots.

But, turning to Friends, I also share a concern that elitism in any form is a dangerous heresy. It is a betrayal of Friends theology, which is radically hospitable because it respects no categories that are not directly tied to God. You (every possible "you") and I are, first of all, created and loved by God—we have no license to create a category outside that compass. The only relevant remaining categories are (1) presently in community with God (converted and convinced, in Christian Quakerese) or (2) potentially in community with God!

The big issue in my mind is: what is the nature of the border between those two categories? From God's all-encompassing perspective, I'm sure the answer is far more interesting and gracious than anything we can conceive. But descending to our Quaker perspectives for a moment, I can imagine how personal biases affect our answers. I want to defend the importance of conscious personal decision, of saying "yes" to God, so I see a definite boundary there, although one for which that "yes" is the only, and I mean only, requirement to pass. Universalists inside and outside Christianity would see that boundary differently, or not at all. A strict Calvinist would have a different understanding, too.

Whether or not you agree with me about the importance of that conscious and personal "yes," we probably all agree theoretically that nothing else should obstruct the threshold into the community. If there is anyone not living in the glorious freedom of the children of God, we should invite them in. We should certainly think carefully and creatively about what it would take to connect both honestly and persuasively with that person, and what aspects of our corner of the community would undercut our message of hospitality.

Back when Brooklyn Quaker first posted his "class narrowness" thoughts, I responded on his blog as follows:

... I won't take the space here to enumerate the number of class-related snubs I've seen or heard about among Friends.

One such snub deprived us of a working-class smoker (*gasp!* - yes, he smoked, but many of the nonsmokers drank like fish). [Fifteen years later, I am inclined to soften this last judgment.]

A working-class woman struggling with Catholicism was another brief visitor, snubbed in part because of her enthusiasm. [Let me add, however, that one of the weightiest members of that meeting said that this visitor was more like George Fox than anyone he knew.]

A husband and wife who wanted to do door-to-door evangelism were told, "Perhaps you'd be happier elsewhere." This, in a meeting that had shrunk to one-third of its size in fifteen years!!

A meeting made its bathroom off-limits to those coming to get boxes of food.

More pet peeves. (Sure feels good to get these off my chest.) ... Meetings whose rhetoric, however well-intentioned, makes it clear that poor people, low-income people, people of "other" races, addicts and members of addiction recovery groups, are not part of THIS fellowship, even when they actually are. [I'm referring to Friends who regard such people as not necessarily worse than us, but as OBJECTS of our goodness.]

I do have a hypothesis: a group that has integrity and spiritual power can attract people from any race and social class. (Unfortunately, so can groups that fake it well: there's never a time when discernment isn't required.) I remember one very dear Friends fellowship that was pretty homogenous but yearned for diversity; half a block away was a Pentecostal church where there was ACTUAL diversity—racial, social, class, temperament, language. Spiritual power does NOT necessarily mean emotional contortions, but it does mean crossing a threshold of conversion and self-abandonment not typically found among the self-satisfied or terminally autonomous.

For the nnnnth time, this sort of meditation has led me to the question: If I see so much incompleteness, why do I stay among Friends? Because I'm deeply convinced that Quaker discipleship is the most authentic way of being Christian that I've been led to. And the inhibitions and compromises that keep this authenticity under wraps are wearisomely familiar to me because ... I share them! Finally, every meeting for worship is a new opportunity to confront those inhibitions and take another step toward greater faithfulness for myself and my community.

Several of the above-referenced blogs refer in one way or another to cultural screens that may or may not play a role in our being inclusive or exclusive. For example, are we too intellectual? Does our comfort with ambiguity repel those who prefer certainty? Are our activist folkways too full of "inessential weirdnesses"? (Thanks to Jeanne/Social Class & Quakers for this link.)

I resist making these class issues—there are intellectuals in every discernible social class, and certainly self-regarding elites can be addicted to certainty. (How else did we get into Iraq despite the misgivings of ordinary people of every class?)

And I'm not at all worried about our having weirdnesses, since every social group has them, and nobody of any class is so stupid as to think that a new place they're visiting will have no peculiar features at all. My question is, are we willing to do the hard, worthwhile work of figuring out which of our behaviors is just our particular wallpaper, and which actually undercut our theology of radical hospitality?

Some additional thoughts, in no particular order:

  • I continue to believe that the most important pathology underneath Quaker elitism is a defective understanding of God's role in our community. I wrote about this at excessive length here: "Nancy's question" (What are we so afraid of?)
  • I've visited more than two hundred Friends meetings over the years, and we're in the middle of a ceaseless round of visitations within Northwest Yearly Meeting right now. Some Friends meetings have a very truncated social spectrum; others have an amazing range of people. The wider-range meetings seem to have at least a couple of characteristics in common: First, they are places where talking about one's faith is very easy and natural, where people speak openly about what God is doing in their lives. Second, they're places where it is possible to confess doubt, problems, failures, addictions, fear.

    Just one verbal picture: At Melba Friends Church in Idaho, a few weeks ago, a meeting for healing prayer was announced to take place at the rise of meeting for worship. Those who wanted healing prayer were to gather at the front of the meetingroom, while the rest of us got ready for the potluck dinner. There was no mistaking the intense spiritual work that was going on among those gathered at that meeting—but everything about the atmosphere of that community told us that this was completely normal.
  • When I was a Friends denominational bureaucrat, I noticed (and wrote about) the divide between those who were temperamental skeptics and those who were temperamental proclaimers. The seminary, specifically Earlham School of Religion, was a perennial arena for collisions among those two groups. One group was there to explore their spiritual issues; the other was there to refine their existing commitments and prepare to deploy them in pastoral or other forms of service. What I longed for was a depth of love and accountability in the community that would allow both groups to be themselves and still contribute to building up a faithful, hospitable body.
  • No group will grow in numbers or faithfulness through guilt or shame. When Judy and I were young adults, we were at a meeting for business at which someone said, "What our church needs is more young couples." No, not so fast! ... what they needed was more confidence in their own identity as people of God. Anxiety about their defects was useful only if it led to positive, creative work on tearing down barriers, not to a negative tearing down of themselves. This was a meeting full of people who'd done amazing things in their (mostly) long lifetimes; they needed to reveal more of themselves, not obsess on their shortcomings.
  • But on the other hand, maybe that meeting I just mentioned did need to enter a season of self-doubt. They'd been a prestigious Main Street church for so long that perhaps it was important to face at least a few unpleasant realities. My point is to use those doubts creatively, let them break the power of respectability and denial, but then move on to build a more solid foundation of group identity. Recover your dear early love! (Revelation 2:4-5)
  • This same meeting had young people who once challenged the meeting, through a Sunday School teacher, "Some of you have been Quakers for 60 years—why can't you tell us more about why you became Friends and what you've learned about God in those years?" Well, part of the answer was: "Our generational culture is very private." That privacy is not something to be ashamed of, but it needs to be worked on.

Details on George Lakey's upcoming visit, and a few links:

Lakey on "the middle-class capture of Quakerism...."

... and on "coming out as a working class man."

... "How progressives can win."


Dining across the divide: Can these two Utah grandmothers have a civil conversation?

Sergei Chapnin's open letter to the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Last Sunday at Camas Friends Church, Leann Williams spoke on trauma and "conduits of healing." Recommended!

A couple more links on the Asbury revival: Nadia Bolz-Weber, "On Longing and the Asbury Revival"; and Zach Meerkreebs thought his sermon had bombed.

Greg Morgan: When is it ok to greet a death happily?

Yesterday Portland's Waterfront Blues Festival announced that Buddy Guy was scheduled for this July's Festival program as part of Guy's "Damn Right Farewell Tour." You guessed it: I have my pass.

Back to 1969: "My Time After Awhile."


Marshall Massey said...

An excellent sharing, Johan. You’ve made my morning.

Tom Smith said...

Johan, your post raises several questions for me personally (a certified intuitive introvert who often has played a role as teacher, minister, and/or clerk in a "public" setting). My grandfather was a farmer with an 8th grade education who wanted his children to go to college, 3 did,2 didn't and were farmers, and my father ended up having a "para docs" (a somewhat paradoxical promise as Parker Palmer commented). I in turn have had a "para docs" who are married to PhDs and our third child is Director of universities libraries. The first two of our grandchildren are heading to PhD programs this coming year. This is a preface to say that our family is clearly an "upper class" one, even though the only one of our six (spouses included) children who makes anywhere near an upper class salary is the only one not working in higher ed.
The questions I have tend to be of a practical sort as to how to break down the barriers between "classes" or personality "types."
Another question(?) I have is how is George Lakey being received in Northwest Yearly Meeting or Sierrra Cascades? Is his form of breaking barriers between classes and also other social distinctions that have caused division among Friends as sexuality, forms of pacifism, etc.
I still remember the Indiana Yearly Meeting session on "disowning" the name Quaker from the Quaker Action Group delivering aid to North Vietnam that called for a special session that led to a series of "informational workshops" in Meetings of Indiana YM. I participated in several of these.

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you, Friends!

I'm eager to see how Friends here will receive George Lakey. I notice that the Friends congregations on the section of his itinerary I put in my blog were once associated with Northwest Yearly Meeting, part of Evangelical Friends.

He'll probably get a warm reception because he generates warmth. Whether we'll do better at lowering our class barriers after his visit, or (looking at your note, Tom) lowering our urban/rural barriers, remains to be seen. I have hopes!