January 20, 2006

Jade and the gestalt of Quakerism

Over on Consider the Lilies, Rob has a post about a crisis of faith tradition. In that post, he refers to Lloyd Lee Wilson's comment about how Quakerism is a gestalt, a whole of a thing that is bigger than the sum of its parts and that cannot be explained completely merely by studying its segments.

In the last week or so, prior to reading that post, I had been wondering myself about the Quaker gestalt and how to make sense of it. What makes a gestalt a gestalt? Why is Quakerism so hard to talk about, so hard to teach? Since we understand that Quakerism has its subtleties, why can't we just explain what those subtleties are and how to look for and listen for them...?

Over the same past few days, for seemingly no specific reason, I began to recall a story--perhaps it is Buddhist?--that I had read about a year or so ago, about a student wishing to seek some Answer from the student's wise teacher. The question was probably something like, How can I tell Truth from false truths?

In the story, which I admittedly only loosely recall, the student is first given the task to learn how to distinguish jade from other stones, and then the Answer will be given. Learning such a skill takes a very long time, of course.

The teacher places the student in a room, and each day, for many days, day after day, the teacher gives the student a piece of jade to study. The teacher says nothing, just leaves the student with the stone and returns at the end of the day to retrieve the stone, perhaps also to hear the observations made by the student.

Each morning, the teacher returns and gives the student another piece of jade to study. Each evening, the student shares what was noticed and observed of the stone with the teacher.

Day after day, the teacher returns and the routine is repeated. The student receives another stone, studies it. At night, the teacher returns, listens to the student's observations. And so it goes.

One morning, many days, or days after days, or months later, the teacher again returns to the student and gives the student yet another stone.

But before the teacher can turn and leave the room, the student calls out sternly to the teacher:

Teacher, why have you given me this stone? It is not jade!
And the teacher replies, "And so you have your Answer."

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

In the same way, I believe, it is hard to speak of what Quakerism is or isn't; it is difficult to convey our faith to others through words. And yet it is important to find a way. Maybe talking about the difficulty in doing so is part of the answer.

As a faith tradition, Quakerism is perhaps best passed onto others through an immersion experience, like learning to live in another culture or learning a second language. The gestalt of Quakerism might best be learned through keen observation and through sharing Quakerism in a variety of contexts with a variety of seasoned Friends, day after day, month after month, year after year. In that way, the faith may be acquired in addition to being learned.

Bill Taber talks about Quakerism as being "caught" rather than "taught."

It is unlikely that Quakerism can be learned only by sitting in worship, or only by attending religious education classes, or only be reading of it in books, blogs, and journals. It is unlikely that Quakerism can be learned only by interacting with Friends within one's own meeting or by reading only one Quaker author. It is unlikely that Quakerism can be taught by exclusively applying the Testimonies to hypothetical situations, by only discussing the branches of the Quaker tree, or by only reading the epistles of George Fox.

To do any of these in isolation and declare we know Quakerism would be like eating a walnut and proclaiming we know the ins and outs of the walnut tree.

Quakerism is a culture of a particular faith tradition; Quakerism is a gestalt of multigenerational experiences, beliefs, and witness. We must therefore have a variety of experiences within Quakerism to know it intimately and to know the Living Presence intimately through one another.

Hungry to know what a deep Quakerism is, perhaps we must each sit with a teacher, be handed a simple stone of our faith, study it, observe it, and share what we notice at the end of the day, only to be given another stone to study.

At the end of our long, contemplative study, perhaps we will have our Answer.


P.S. If someone has a resource for the jade story, I would appreciate knowing about it.

UPDATE: Another Quaker blogger touches on the related concepts of Quaker identity and being connected to a particular gestalt. In her own post, Anna writes about the Maori concept of whakapapa as it relates to her Quaker heritage and to her sense of Who She Is.

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