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

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Societal Standards & Gospel Order

This is in reply to an inquiry posed by a Friend on my Meetings listserv, "I'm wondering what are we doing now to 'be good'? Is the idea of "being good" in itself, trying to conform to some societal standard, ever viable?"

I'm not sure whether that's a rhetorical question. I get a sense that the implied answer is "no, not viable." In a sense I'd agree, because I think what the question may be really asking is something like, "can standards that are externally imposed and enforced without regard to the condition of the person upon whom theyare imposed and without that person's understanding or consent ever be viable?" Generally speaking, its easy to answer such a question in the negative, though of course there might be exceptions for children, people who are for whatever reason a danger to themselves or others, and so forth. Even in the latter cases, hopefully any "enforced" standard would not be arbitarily applied, but would take into account the needs, abilities, and awareness level of the person involved. I once read that even inthe Army, they discovered that they would get more cooperation from the soldiers if the GIs understood an order than if they didn't.

But must a "societal standard" always be interpreted according to my draconian rephrasing of the original question? I don't think so.

First of all, not all "societal standards" are monolithic. We live ina pluralistic society, with the blending of different cultures, and along with the relative freedom we have to debate, disagree, form our own conclusions, etc., there may be a wide variety of "standards"found in different communities and subcultures.

Next, that very pluralism and relative freedom militates against the ability of any supposed societal overseers to freely impose theirstandards upon us. Granted, there are forces in our "system" with great resources at their disposal -- dictatorial fiat in our culturehas largely been replaced with persuasion through advertising (with notable exceptions arising occasionally, present administration noted). And the advertising media may have been more brutally effective in shaping our behavior than any historical dictatorial fiat. Certainly other engines of force and fraud are employed, largley behind the scenes domestically, more nakedly abroad.
Nevertheless, we have the freedom to complain about such things. I'm confident I won't be arrested for what I've just written (knock on wood!), whereas such confidence would not be warranted everywhere inthe world.

But given the diversity of "societal standards," and my freedom to ignore at least a good portion of them, how useful is that terminologyat all? Should I decide whether or not to run a red light, give aidto the homeless, or pawn my neighbor's lawnmower based on my perception of whether such actions involve "societal standards?" If Idetermine that they do, then what have I learned about the wisdom of performing any one of those actions?

This gets partly to the reason, I think, for the original question. Should we act or refrain from acting solely because a behavior is somehow denominated "a standard" by some "societal" presence hovering over us? But that question can be dismissed fairly easily; in mostcases, if the answer to the question, "why do it?" is merely, "because society says so," that answer will fail to satisfy.

So obviously, we want more of an explanation. And sometimes an explanation will satisfy. "Don't run the red light because...." will be more convincing if avoiding a collision is the rationale rather than a mere, "because its the law" or "that's what the deciderdecided."

But there's more to all of this than giving rational explanations, though they certainly aren't to be avoided. In authoritarian, "power over" relationships, the humanity and spiritual qualities are simply left out. There is an attempt to "mechanize" the relationship, an order is given, and one is expected to obey. This is "efficient" in that the one in charge can get things done with aminimum of discussion or involvement with those receiving the orders.

Primitive Christianity (which Quakerism claims to revive) took a careful look at all of this. Jesus and Paul clearly taught that mere"rule-following" wasn't going to cut it. Nevertheless, neither did Jesus reject law -- "I came to fulfill" it, he said.

This, of course is a weighty topic, and I'm running long here already. But I think it boils down (partly) to this -- there is both an inner and an outer aspect to the question of law, norms, and standards, and how we are to apply and follow them. The classic Quaker take wasthat there was a Light within each of us that is to be our principal guide. Scripture -- the written word ("standards" if you will), was not the primary rule, but was consulted as evidence of the Spirit'sleadings. Friends believed that their own leadings would be consistent with scripture, as God would not command one thing one day and its opposite another. Leaving aside some difficulties in taking that literally, in broad strokes scripture still provides just such a check. Killing my neighbor (perhaps in order to pawn that lawnmower) or oppressing the poor cannot be justified by any internal "revelation" I may receive. In addition, Friends traditionally tested their leadings with another as a further check on misinterpreting a personal desire as a divine calling.

Back to "societal standards," though. They are a mixed bag, and therefore perhaps not such a useful source of guidance. Many of them, however, do have a spiritual lineage and even a spiritual utility today. There are standards in the forms of "laws" that remind employers not to fire their employees for taking family medical leave or because their employees have disabilities. Other standards may be harder to define or identify, but even having a discussion about our differences without raising our voices may be considered a societal norm that would hold us in good stead and promote the gospel order.

'What can I do?' - SiCKO