A Friend After 50 Years

A record of one journey into a peculiar type of Quaker Christianity, and a bit of silliness to boot.

Location: Arkansas

Monday, June 30, 2008

A Quaker and a Christian

[The following is a response to a query on our meeting listserv, "what is the spiritual glue that holds us together in the absence of a creed?" Much of what I have written here is unoriginal, and I acknowledge my debt to Quaker bloggers whose writings I have absorbed over the past few years. My time, energy and memory do not permit me to give proper attribution or links. Hopefully it will suffice to simply express my unflagging appreciation].

In response to the query, I would answer:

1) The principle that God's presence and guidance is experienced
directly as the Christ within through worship and is available to
everyone at all times
2) Our practice of making decisions by seeking unity in the Spirit.

Understanding that some Friends are not comfortable with the words "God" and "Christ" and although that is an ahistorical approach to Quakerism, I would note that I use the terms in a descriptive, rather than prescriptive sense. Several Friends (myself included) have come to "believe in God" through Quaker worship, although that phrase may not mean to them what it would have prior to convincement.

[The inquirer's] question about Christian identity implicates the "refugee"
problem: that a number of seekers have been so beat up in the "Christian" tradition of their past, that references to God, the Bible, and Jesus are painful to them. While this a plight that is deserving of care and tenderness, refugees sometimes go further and demand or expect meeting to function as "Christianity-free" in order
to protect them. After decades of sensitivity to such seekers,Christian Quakers may sometimes find themselves being treated with contempt and anger. This leads to a further reluctance to express oneself in Christian terms, leading more weight to the impression that Quakerism is obligated to provide a "comfort zone" for those who wish
to avoid any reminder of their painful histories.

This problem is compounded by another one: that those Christians new to Quakerism will understandably be tempted to simply overlay much of their preexisting understanding of Christianity onto their Quakerism. Much of that understanding may well contain elements that other Friends found painful in the first place.

So it seems to me that the question of our Christian identity is a delicate one. We (both Christians and non-) need to be mature about this. I think we need to understand and accept that Quakerism is a form of Christianity. That was nquestioned by Quakers themselves for over 300 years. If that gives you the jitters, then it would be well to examine exactly why that is. If, for example, it is because you believe that Christianity is oppressive to women, you might reflect on the Quaker-Christian arguments for equality of the sexes. If you are wounded over having been taught Christianity as a top-down hierarchically imposed theology, you might reflect on the experiential nature of Quaker worship, which encourages us to each listen for the still small voice within. If you can't believe that a loving God would require his son to suffer and die to pay for our sins, then you might ask yourself who, exactly, at your Quaker meeting told you that you must believe that in order to worship here. (Remember that no-creed thing. I have some book references for anyone who'd like to explore that topic further, BTW).

Perhaps I will be asked, can that still be Christianity? I say yes. The "Christian" tent is a much wider one than is often portrayed by both its adherents and detractors. Quakers right from the start were accused of being unchristian and stoutly defended themselves against that charge. They knew they were taking a much different tack from the status quo, and so can we.

On the other hand, Friends who identify as Christian do need to be tender with those Friends who have suffered in other churches. We don't need to impose "groupthink." I believe Jesus would understand the suffering of those who have been wounded by what has gone on in his name. As the bumper sticker says, "Jesus called. He wants his religion back." I believe Friends are in a position to respond to that call.

A common reaction to hearing that "Quakers is Christians" is fear of exclusion. "I'm not a Christian, so they'll throw me out!" I went through this stage myself (albeit through online discussions -- I'm more likely to get thrown out of my meeting for entirely different reasons!) For me, however, being a Quaker Christian by definition means NOT excluding anyone because of where they are on
their spiritual path. I believe God works with people through Quaker worship in God's own time and manner. Trying to force belief on anyone through pressure or coercive tactics, even subtly, is not the way of Christ.

Postscript: Marshall Massey sent me a note on facebook about this post. Although he seemed mostly in accord with its tenor, he asked that I disclaim that conservative and pastoral Friends have the sorts of issues discussed here. I personally have little experience with those groups, though I am happy to convey his thoughts and have little reason to doubt their accuracy. Moreover, I am planning a trip to the Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative)session coming up shortly, so perhaps I'll soon see for myself.

'What can I do?' - SiCKO