January 8, 2006

For the love of Quakerism

Over on Lorcan's blog, Plain in the City, there is an important post--and a great many comments--about the potential divisiveness about speaking the name "Jesus" and other Christian language used among Quakers.

The more I sat with Lorcan's post and all of the comments, the more I pondered what it is that I may have to say. The more I worked on crafting a comment, the more I felt I wanted to lift up some of my own experience. So here it is.

First of all, what comes across to me is that making our faith public to non-Quakers is one thing, but when we make our faith public to other Friends, we begin to discover that we don't necessarily agree with one another about what Quakerism means or how it might be practiced. Not just worship but all of it: spiritual discernment, testing leadings, mutual accountability, yielding and staying low...

Having lived with and labored over some of these concerns during the past 2-3 years, here is the current understanding I have:

In the end, we all wish to belong, to feel safe. And we all have a drive to protect and nurture what we love.
In this case, "what we love" is the experience we know as our Quakerism. And each of us experiences it, practices it, and defines it differently, thereby potentially dividing us.

But it's not just the name Jesus and related Christian theology that potentially divides us. It's also the belief and the unbelief in God that we have that may split the Religious Society once more.

And I would say again, as I labor with Friends, that it is in the loving of Quakerism that we are, in part, united.

Having said that, and because of references within Lorcan's post and related comments about Friends who leave their meetings, let me confess that I am one of those Friends who has been slowly moving away from my own monthly meeting. My movement is largely related to this "united in love, divided by difference" theme.

I wouldn't say that the meeting is divided over Jesus' name. I wouldn't say that use of Jesus' name began to rub me the wrong way as an individual, despite my upbringing. I wouldn't even say that it was the growing visibility of nontheist Friends or the challenges they bring and how we all might labor with one another in seeking the Truth.
[ASIDE: I have to say about the essay linked to "the challenges they bring": for the more God-centered Friend, this essay on "religious skeptics" is worth reading--especially when read without getting "hooked" into debating each point. This essay has opened me unexpectedly... -Liz]
My backing away--or heading towards something more fulfilling, depending on how you look at it: the glass half-full or half-empty--is in part a result of one meeting's desire to embrace both a God-based faith-and-practice of Quakerism and a nontheistic faith-and-practice of Quakerism.

Now, I didn't disappear from the monthly meeting just because I recognized my growing dissatisfaction and rising concern. There had been no single precipitating incident within the meeting that I would describe as unpalatable.

Instead, as I became aware of my uneasiness, I sat with the concern, desiring to understand what was getting under my skin. I talked about it with others within and outside of the meeting community. I held my relationship with the meeting in the Light. Eventually I requested a discernment committee to help me understand my relationship to the meeting and to let M&C know that something was amiss for me.

(One of the gifts of this process was that I learned experimentally what is meant by being released or not being released by the Spirit. God had not released me then in my participation in the meeting. I could have left, but I did not feel released.)

It is only in retrospect that I can reframe what was going on during that committee time, which lasted several months. It is only in retrospect that I can see what it was that united those of us on the committee, despite our differences in belief, our differences in how we individually viewed my concern, and our differences in how we felt about the life and direction of the meeting.
What united us was love for our individual experience of Quakerism.
True: I still disagree with most Friends about the state of the meeting, and I now see my concern being based in what happens when secular individual freedoms intersect that with traditional Quaker religious practice.

Putting these various pieces together, it seems as though our shared desire as Friends to protect the Quakerism we love is expressed in at least two ways:
Emphasis on the individual experience: "Quakerism is our religion and any of us can believe or not believe what we want. Our shared experience is primarily worship."

Emphasis on the corporate experience: "Quakerism is a shared practice of seeking and finding the Light together. Our individual experience is primarily living faithful lives."
And still: What unites us as Friends is that individually and corporately, we love our Quakerism and what it provides us. And we will safeguard that which we love.

Now, two years after that discernment committee was laid down, I have come into greater acceptance that many Friends in the monthly meeting are nourished by the above emphasis on the individual experience of Quakerism; that they grow because they have room to believe or not believe in God.

And yes, I have concerns about a Quakerism that is skewed so heavily toward the individual. It is a spiritual concern that I have carried for a number of months now and have written elsewhere, for example about the slippery nature of our corporate faith.

I don't yet know or understand how to prevent my love of Quakerism from being in conflict with someone else's love of Quakerism. But I still believe in the transformative nature of the Light, however it is defined.

Well.

Throughout writing and revising this post, and for a time before this topic was ever lifted up by Lorcan, I have had this story of Solomon recur to me:
Two women come before King Solomon with a baby, each claiming to be the mother. Solomon orders the baby be cut in half. One woman is prepared to accept the decision, but the other begs the king to allow the baby to live and to give the child to the other woman.
Blessings,
Liz

14 comments:

Peterson Toscano said...

Liz, As I read this, I think of the many people I know who identify as gay or lesbian Christians (non-Quaker) and the struggle they experience in expressing their faith in what they feel is a anti-Christian LGBT secular community.

The word "Christian" carries such a weight for many of us and has multiple meanings, many of which are not apparent until we add discriptors. So many try to own the term or claim to be the genuine manifestation of it.

As a Quaker Christian, I have had to explore in the Light and with others what that means for me (and possibly to others) and the learning continues. Regardless of the words and identifications, I find it profoundly encouraging when we gather together in silent worship and share an experience that cannot be described in words.

Amanda said...

Wendy Sanford, Clerk of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, has written an extraordinarily clear and tender article on this subject in Jan.'s Friends Journal.

"Towards Deeper Communion across Our Theological Divides
Wendy Sanford
From accepting same-sex weddings to confronting anti-Semitism, she pleads for a healthy Christianity."

It's an amazing read.

Nancy A said...

There are a lot of layers to this post.

Christianity certainly has a deep divide; it not just within Quakerism. Christianity has become copyrighted by the Religious Right and preoccupies itself with its own salvation doctrines. Peace, nonviolence, care of the poor, and other of Jesus's teachings have been cornered by the left, which may or may not be religious, depending on your definitions. This is the divide. Each "side" of the ethical spectrum has its own fiefdom.

The other divide is the attitude toward truth. The "right" Christian side sees truth as a pearl, a thing, a noun, fixed and unchanging. The "left" mixed-bag side sees truth as a seed, a way of life, a verb.

But despite our internal barriers, I don't think Quakers fall precisely into these "right" and "left" categories. We place an extremely high value on truth. Through the discipline of silence, we learn not to lie to ourselves or to each other, not to maintain fictions we don't believe in.

This can lead to individualism. But on the other side is the open listening, the desire to learn, the willingness to be wrong. It's a sort of helpless individualism, as if this is where we end up when we make truth a verb and the teachings of Jesus a central idea. It's certainly not a proud, pip-pip-for-us individualism. Otherwise we wouldn't experience these vague pulls toward orthodoxy, our desire to escape it.

I wonder if what really ties Quakers together is not so much the love of Quakerism as much as a deep sense of the rightness of the Quaker way: to be true, to listen, to submit, to build a better world, to speak when called.

Religion is hard in the days of smart bombs. Sometimes i think Quakerism is the only religion possible without surrendering either one's intelligence or one's compassion.


...Rereading this, it doesn't seem to make much sense, but hopefully you know what i mean...

James Riemermann said...

Liz,

I find this a thoughtful post, reflecting a genuine openness and desire to understand Quakers who see things differently than you. Thank you.

I do find your proposed fault line in Quakerism, between "Emphasis on the individual experience" and "Emphasis on the corporate experience" unsatisfying, mainly because it fails to make a distinction between belief and experience. As a nontheist Quaker with a deep commitment to theological diversity among Friends, I do not see myself as thereby less committed to the importance of corporate experience. Rather, I trust that we can develop a strong, genuine and meaningful corporate experience that is not fundamentally dependent on holding the same theological beliefs. What's more, I think that those religious communities which stress unity of theological beliefs, rather than the unity to be found by going deeper into our common humanity, tend to have a rather shallow corporate experience. The reason I feel this way, is that strong expectations of shared belief discourage honesty about disagreement. So, members keep their disagreements to themselves, even hide their own doubts *from* themselves, and the end result is not a shared corporate experience, but a thin veneer over an artificial community.

Making similar comments here before, I have been misunderstood as criticizing the worship group you have been taking part in. This is not the way I see that group at all, which is a group of Friends who came together intentionally to create something they felt needful of. No one is in that group other than those who intentionally formed it. Rather, my criticism is of orthodox or belief-bound religious communities in general.

Nancy, I love your comment here. Your fourth paragraph particularly speaks to me:

"This can lead to individualism. But on the other side is the open listening, the desire to learn, the willingness to be wrong. It's a sort of helpless individualism, as if this is where we end up when we make truth a verb and the teachings of Jesus a central idea. It's certainly not a proud, pip-pip-for-us individualism. Otherwise we wouldn't experience these vague pulls toward orthodoxy, our desire to escape it."

Lorcan said...

Dear dear Liz:
Thy post speaks so to my pain in the pain that some have shown, taking assumed answers on my part from the questions I raise on my post. Some have even spoken of the split, once again. If we split on this, then we split on any other symbol or objectification, Gay members become a symbol, become objectified. We have to keep to the process of opening to each other's openings. Some Friends, angered by this, declined my invitation to meet and talk..., oh my. Other Friends who have met with me on this enriched my laboring, and I hope say the same. We spoke to each other with respect and some very comfortable silence.
The depth of the issue should not keep up from speaking to each other, rather the deeper the issue the more we need to lovingly strive for an active listening.
Thine
lor

Jeanne said...

Dispelling A Myth

James states that our worship group consists only of those who founded it.

This is false. One third of our nine regular attenders are not original founders. At least one other wants to worship with us but can't because we currently worship in the late afternoon. Three or four others have worshipped with us infrequently. We've had several visitors. Others have expressed an interest in worshipping with us.

I am speaking from my own experience Friend. I would appreciate your doing the same, especially about our Worship Group. Care to join us some Sunday?

Liz Opp said...

Friends,

I thank you each for taking the time to read this long post and to add your thoughts and musings.

Peterson, like you I have "had to explore in the Light and with others what [certain a certain Quaker phrase or concept] means for me (and possibly to others) and the learning continues."

I would also say that with a finely tuned balance of both worship and dialogue, we engage in the labor of seeking to understand the capital-T Truth that both undergirds and supercedes our individual understanding.

Amanda, thank you so much for the reference to Wendy Sanford's article! I am in search of a copy of the article, since having a subscription to Friends Journal has never worked out for our household for one reason or another. I know Wendy personally and I am eager to be exposed to her ministry around this topic.

And after reading your post, Nancy, a few times, I find myself resting on this remark: "I wonder if what really ties Quakers together is not so much the love of Quakerism as much as a deep sense of the rightness of the Quaker way..."

Part of why I am drawn to share these sorts of posts is that I find that when we Friends talk about the source of where we believe that deep sense of rightness comes from, we recognize that the lifeblood of our Quakerism perhaps does not flow out of the same heart as we had assumed...

But the assertion has been made--and I agree with it--that it doesn't matter so much in the end to agree on what the heart is, just as long as it keeps pumping healthy blood to our limbs and through our body.

And so I want to expand a bit on James' comment, which says in part: " I think that those religious communities which stress unity of theological beliefs, rather than the unity to be found by going deeper into our common humanity, tend to have a rather shallow corporate experience."

James, I agree with you in terms of to which side, and by how much, the balance tilts between the tension of

shared theology <----> shared humanity.

I would say that a group that shares theology without honoring our common humanity is often rigid and closed to new Light. And I would add that a group that emphasizes a shared humanity without a unifying theology risks being a pseudo-religious community... something I have already been a part of, for more than 10 years. In the end, decisions were made by lukewarm consensus rather than by seeking a Spirit-led decision that drew us together.

And so it is I have come to see that you prefer a Quakerism whose heart is a shared humanity; and I prefer a Quakerism whose heart is a shared theology. But if either of those two paradigms tilts too far into its weighted side, we will be lost as a body for one reason or another.

I will return another time to reflect on and respond to the other comments. There is much food here for me to take in.

Blessings,
Liz

Jim Schultz said...

Personally, I have just decided that I will do unto others as I want them to do unto me. I accept their place in their walk in the light and hope they will accept mine as well. Since I accept their references to the good in man, I hope they can accept my references to Jesus, His sonship and my pentacostal beliefs.

James Riemermann said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
James Riemermann said...

Well, that's a little embarrasing. I posted something, then removed it, then noticed that it displays "post deleted by author" which is worse than the comment itself. So, once again, here is the comment I deleted:

Liz wrote:

"...a group that emphasizes a shared humanity without a unifying theology risks being a pseudo-religious community..."

This is interesting to read. I don't think I've ever seen it put so explicitly.

As you might expect, I disagree.

I wonder what Fox or Barclay would have thought...

Liz Opp said...

Onto continued responses to your comments:

Lorcan, you write about the various reactions you have received by Friends, some who are open to labor with one another; others who have seemingly closed the door on such opportunities.

I don't know the specifics of which you write, but I can say that each of us is on our own journey, and some of us are able to be "open to each other's openings," as you have put it.

One way that I look at identity development is that we experience phases:

being open-hearted, being closed-minded; being aggressive, being contemplative; being seen and being heard, being invisible and being silent.

As we mature spiritually and emotionally, we are able to hold the tensions to be "both-and" and we become less black and white, less "either-or" thinkers.

When I consider that someone with whom I am in conflict may simply be at another stage of development than I am, I find I usually either move into greater compassion towards that person, or I recognize that I have more of my own growing to do.

Connected to Jeanne's comment, a number of Friends locally have asked how the monthly meeting and the worship group differ. I seem to point frequently to the difference in balance between the individual and the corporate; and between a spiritual diversity (nontheist to Christ-centered Friends) and a closer theological unity in belief to something Divine.

But even within that "closer theological unity" there is diversity: some Friends believe in Jesus; others, the Creator; others, God or the Spirit. But I still find, when pressed, I have no good description of what "corporate practice" means...

As for the origins of the worship group, I almost wish I could say that there was a definitive beginning to when the worship group got started... but I don't know that there was.

What I can state more clearly, is that 6 of us were drawn together for fellowship and a bit of worship from time to time a couple years ago. At some point, that "time to time" led us into considering gathering more regularly and more frequently, with a greater intention towards worship.

So I don't know how to determine when the worship group formally began, but it certainly has grown in numbers and has become more grounded as a small, reliable faith community of Friends.

Also, a clarification:

In my original post, I should have clarified that the "pseudo-religious community" that I had been involved in for 10 years wasn't a Quaker one.

And to Jim Schulz, thanks for stopping by. Yes, some of us are called to live the Golden Rule and go no further.

Others are called additionally to be more active and more engaged, to offer a prophetic ministry, to call us back to a harmony, a prayer life, and a covenant, and to remind us to test our leadings and to be faithful to how we are called.

Blessings,
Liz

Joe G. said...

shared theology <----> shared humanity.

I would say that a group that shares theology without honoring our common humanity is often rigid and closed to new Light. And I would add that a group that emphasizes a shared humanity without a unifying theology risks being a pseudo-religious community... something I have already been a part of, for more than 10 years. In the end, decisions were made by lukewarm consensus rather than by seeking a Spirit-led decision that drew us together.


Beautiful! Given that these days I've been advocating the "shared theology" end of things it's nice to be reminded of the negatives of "too much of a good thing". :)

Certainly, I think when we over emphasize "shared humanity" we get little more than a nice, warm, social club typically emphasizing politics or an ideology that refutes taking on any specific ideology. OOPS, there I go again emphasizing the "shared theology" with my critique of too much "shared humanity"!

Seriously, very helpful Liz. Blessings to you and your faithfulness to the Guide!

Lorcan said...

Liz... to respond with thee... but first to say, this issue, more the way we approach it, has caused me great joy... deep thought, and deep, deep, heart wrenching pain.

Well, as to the two kinds of response, one in particular, placed a snide and dismissive comment on my blog and sent me an email which I can only describe as hate mail. This is a Friend I have always respected, and yet in that mail the friend speaks of me laying down the law with him in the past and on this issue. I am staggered. The raising of questions with each other, should never be seen as laying down the law, and the to dismiss the question of a people who have as much reason to question symbols and totalitarianism as we do, should consider that Black Friends would be well justified to say that dismissive reaction to the impassioned request that we think of the unintended symbol found in the term "overseer". That reaction closes the issue, a door slammed shut. That I can't see a our faith.

On the other hand, Richard Evens, ( Brooklyn Quaker ) is someone with whom I have labored on this and other deeply felt issues with a potential to divide. Richard and I may never agree until we find out in the hear after... but, we remain faithfully open to each other. We trust each other to the point that we can gently chide each other on some issues, lesser issues - confident that love remains.

Friends who close them selves off to listening, and still maintain they are present to God in others... well, I don't think I go out on a limb to say they might ask themselves if they are in fact convinced Friends.

Thy posting on the issue, dear Liz... resonates in my heart. On the loving advice of Jeff Hipp, I read the article which Amanda mentions here. It is a wonderful, peaceful, heartfelt and enlightening article. I find it a different article than I can write. It is the thoughts of someone who was comfortable in her love of Jesus, as THE Christ, who now looks at that, with new light and new questions.

My own experiences where different. I dearly loved Jesus as THE Christ as a conservative sort of a Hicksite, rather old fashioned Hicksite. But, the conflict, I did not understand was my own deep hurt and shame when called Jew Boy, by nazis on the street, by Irish bigots, in Ireland, a place I generally feel at home, not a visitor, until someone says, "I'd say you've got a touch of the Jew in you... " The shame is not in being Jewish, but in the pain of being a target of the kind of anti Semitism to which I was subjected recently on my blog, by one particular comment. If you haven't been there, you just can't get it. I can never say I fully understand the Black concern about symbols, because I have never been called n..... on the street, I can only learn to empathize, and compare it to my experience, but I would never say, I can understand in feeling, they way someone with the same experience can.

Most ... almost all, have been so faithful and gentle in this questioning.

and... what ever the parting... maybe, maybe it is profound enough to leave thy meeting, but I fully believe that staying in the process we learn to heal the world...

I feel I should share a little of a note to a Friend, I fear I hurt in all this... well to a Friend of that Friend to be very precise...

"For me, Merton's quote that God calls human persons to union with Himself and with one another... the church is the gathered community of love. This church is the office place, the bloggisphere, the sports field, the most out of control battle field or the middle of the moment of massacre in genocide... God calls us to union with Himself and one another - He does not come to get us in these dark satanic places... we go to him through going to each other. After Jesus' lesson, we do not expect the well to come to us, we go to the well, we don't say why are we Samaritans and Juedeans divided, lets work this out... we say, give me to drink, I thirst. God provides the well... the water, we provide the giving and that makes it water of life.

It is Hill el's "do nothing to another that which is abhorrent to thee, that is the Torah, and the rest is commentary"

Forgiveness based on... if only thee would... is not the letting go of pain, it is not the moving on into church. "

There is movement and growth to ask ... to not withhold our pain from each other, trusting in each others love, that wherever we may be, we may together make it church.

Jim Schultz said...

Reply to Liz. You must be pretty busy with all the responses you are getting. My wife and I were called into the Quaker community after being part of several different churches and communities. We see ourselves as individual building stones fitted together in a small section of a wall we cannot comprehend. When we first attended meeting we were reluctant to use the name of Jesus for fear of offending but as I said we now use His name as it is appropriate to the leading of the Spirit. Our monthly meeting is small and the members vary in religious beliefs. That is definitely a problem in attracting members but if the Spirit leads you to a Quaker meeting you should, with constant prayer, be able to serve Him there as well as anywhere. It has been my experience that Non-quaker churches and communities have too many headship issues hindering unity. With love, Jim Schultz