For some time now, I have been at a crossroads in my Quaker journey. On the one hand, I have come to accept that one of the ministries of the monthly meeting that holds my membership, is its openness to a broad spectrum of spiritual diversity among its worshipers. On the other hand, I have come to greater clearness—and also greater acceptance—that I am likely not to thrive in the life of the meeting because of its broad spiritual diversity.
This isn't exactly anything new that I'm relating here. But there is an image, a message, that has been wanting to be shared around similar thoughts, and I have been waiting for an opening to do so.
A tale of two natures
During an adult education program earlier this spring, about the Conservative-leaning worship group that has been established in the area, a number of Friends within the monthly meeting recalled fondly the days when they themselves were part of a smaller meeting or rural worship group, one in which Friends knew one another more deeply, "where everybody knows your name."
Towards the end of the hour, I recall that one Friend expressed her appreciation of the monthly meeting's variety of belief and spirituality that exists within it; that such variety is a blessing for her and others. Maybe she said that the spiritual variety enriches one's life, just as nature needs its biodiversity in order to thrive; and there is learning and an exchange of ideas that occur as a result of the diversity.
I recall that many Friends nodded in agreement. I also concurred, as far as nature's need for biodiversity goes. And it's true that God speaks to us through many vehicles, and all are needed.
Inwardly, though, I knew that the spiritual diversity of the meeting had been in essence creating a drought in my personal meadow: I had needed something different in order to thrive, and I had discovered a spiritual care in the worship group that brought healing water to my roots...
My recollection is that towards the end of her comments, the Friend—gentle in spirit and deeply caring in her soul—then asked those of us from the worship group:
Is there a danger for your group in having a unity of belief, a unity of theology?
In this question I am aware of a series of underlying cautions, that unity of belief is bad because it is insular; a unity of belief that is insular is dangerous because it is rigid; and a rigid, insular unity of belief can lead to a single, unquestionable creed that can be (and has been) used to oppress, disempower, persecute.
But just as quickly as came the awareness of possible cautions, so too came the awareness that inwardly, my heart was weeping. Not because of the cautions, but because in that moment, I felt I was horribly misunderstood. I wanted Friends to understand that for me, my learning has not been restricted because of the unity of belief within the worship group; my learning in fact has been enhanced in a different way because of the openness and commitment there is among us to seek the Spirit together!
Creeds and spectrums
And so I am aware of the intersection of both things: (1) It is true that if a shared understanding of belief, a theological unity is codified into a creed, it certainly could kill the spirit rather than lift up the Life out of which the unity originally grew, especially over the generations that follow. And (2) It is also true that if there is too broad a spectrum of belief—a theologically permeable membrane around the community of worshipers—eventually the Life out of which the acceptance was initially encouraged will draw in practices and beliefs that have little to do with the core of the Religious Society of Friends.
My understanding is that Friends have no creed because our direct experience of the Living Spirit and of our continuing revelation cannot be summarized or anticipated by a single statement of faith. The lack of a creed does not mean that "anything goes," though. As with many dualities in Quakerism, like the balance between the prophetic and the practical, and between the individual and the meeting community, there probably needs to be a balance struck between bringing out the welcome mat and showing folks the property lines: Yes, all are welcome to worship among us; and no, not all of us may be easy with coming under the discipline of the meeting, whether that discipline be loose or firm.
Be fully who we are called to be
I don't recall how the Friend's specific question was responded to at the time of the adult education program, but what I do recall is how the Spirit moved through me a few hours later that afternoon, during the worship group's regular meeting for worship, as I reflected on the events of that morning.
From my journal:
Third Month 2005. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It is true that we [in the worship group] all freely profess our belief in the Divine, and our belief that if we listen, we can hear the Guidance and Instruction that God would have for us (God or Jesus or Christ or Great Spirit or...)
Yet I believe it is also true that we shall be called to respond with great Love if one among us expresses a perspective that at first blush appears contrary to the Light.
And yet my mind was not [made] clear; I was not satisfied. And again the question did rise for me as I sat in worship. And this time, I sat myself aside and I attended deeply so that I may understand.
At first I was shown a meadow with wildflowers, and I thought I was being shown the monthly meeting of which the original Friend spoke, with each Friend being represented by each flower, and also the diversity of life as sustained by the biodiversity within the meadow.
I expected next to see a rose garden, with the same rose repeated over and over again—a unity of belief—but this was not to be.
Instead I was shown the center of an enormous seed head of a sunflower. Hundreds of seeds packed tightly together, dense and seemingly uniform.
And I was made to understand that God does not ask the sunflower to be a rose; God does not ask the sunflower seed to be a rose hip. God asks for the sunflower to be completely a sunflower; the sunflower seed to be completely a sunflower seed. And the sunflower would not exist if the sunflower seeds did not congregate around their completeness, their wholeness and fullness of their being sunflower seeds, a unity of their deepest essence.
If I do not go as fully as I can into my faith and belief in the Spirit, I will disallow the sunflower from reaching the Light. But neither must I insist that the coneflower seed be a sunflower seed or the rose hip be a grass head. For that is the danger in unity of belief, to restrict the freedom to be faithful in being fully who we are called to be.
And in that freedom, so is the meadow made healthy and alive.
At the time of the adult education program, I did not originally speak with the Friend who posed the question about unity of belief. Preparing this post prompted me to do so, and I'm glad I did. When I asked her about the intent behind her question, the Friend replied she truly meant for the question to be given a fair amount of thought; that she had no hidden agenda in asking it.
She and I had a delightful exchange, then, about the developmental need to have safe spaces in which to process, decompress, express ourselves freely, and gain support before re-engaging in the larger world. Also, we share the concern that at some point in our journey, if we remain insular to the point of being separatist, we run the danger of staying stuck in our thinking, not allowing more Light into our lives.
We ended the conversation:
Me: I find it ironic that as spiritually diverse as the monthly meeting is—which many Friends like—I am too God-oriented for it.Perhaps next time I'll be ready to ask the question:
Her: Well, Liz, it makes sense that the meeting may be too eclectic for you!
Is there a danger for your group in having so much variety of belief, so much variety of theology?