February 22, 2006

Is Quakerism a passive faith?

While catching up on some blog reading, I came across a comment on Claire's Spiritual Journeys, which reads in part:

"Some of our Quaker language ("leading", "waiting", "obedience", etc.) sounds very passive."

My initial reaction to reading this was "Nah-ah!"

...And that reaction of course was followed by a period of considering why my reaction was so strong.

First of all, I realized, I often interpret "passive" as being related to inaction, a lack of initiative, or having no impulse to take action in response to an event or other stimulus. But then I considered that one of the strengths of Quakerism is not that it is passive but that it is receptive. We worship as we do in order to receive God's guidance and instruction.

Yet I believe there is more "activeness" to our faith than meets the eye.

I feel empowered--in the Power--when I come under the discipline of God's leading. Waiting to receive clearness of how and when to move forward is, to me, a weighty matter indeed, and when I am discerning well, I feel very active in my waiting. There's nothing passive about it, because I am responding, I do have an impulse to respond to that inward nudge: to be obedient to the call.

So yes, to the observer and to the new attender, some Quaker terms make Quakerism seem very passive. "Don't just do something, sit there!" is a phrase that comes to mind.

But to delve more deeply into the practice and traditions of Friends moves us beyond the shared hour of worship. We become responsible for holding one another accountable to listen more closely to the Inward Teacher, yielding and submitting our will in order to be faithful to the Divine Will.

Perhaps, then, I would say that Quakerism is a faith of discipline:

The discipline to wait.

The discipline to listen.

The discipline to receive.

The disciplie to discern.

The discipline to yield.

The discipline to obey.


Gregg Koskela said...

Liz, this is very helpful. I have some of the same frustration with the word "passive". I love how you framed things as a discipline, because when we do those disciplines well, it is then that God leads us to right action.

Action before the discipline of waiting is just as wrong as passive inaction.

anonymous julie said...

Words are difficult things to wrangle indeed, and you did such a nice job of it here!

I'll forward a bit of an analogy that is accessible to many. Look at sports like diving, or sliding sports like skeleton, or (some, at least) martial arts, and shooting sports, for examples. The practitioner appears to be very passive but is actually still out of incredible discipline. It's not about action but about right and deliberate action.

Paul L said...

I've experienced a lot of frustration with so much Quaker writing being in the passive voice. "The minute was approved," "A time of worship was held", ""Some unease with the minute was expressed", "And the Scriptures were opened to them and their objections answered in their minds . . . and many were turned that day to the Lord Jesus Christ" etc.

We were taught, er, my writing teachers taught us, especially in law school, to avoid the passive voice because it is usually weak and flaccid, in large part because it hides the actor: It doesn't say who approved the minute, worshiped, or opened the people's minds.

So I pay close attention to avoid using the passive voice unless there's a reason to do so. (While the prosecutor would rather say "The defendant cut the victim's throat", the defense lawyer should use the passive "The victim's throat was cut".)

But I am slowly realizing that Friends may have a sound, if unintentional, reason for this tendency, and that is their conviction that it is God's power that is approving the minute and opening the people's minds. He is the real subject of the sentence. He acts through his people as his agents, but they aren't really doing it. Hence the passive voice gramatically, and the verbs you mention: wait, listen, receive, yield.

Chris M. said...

Splendid post, Liz. Thank you.

The distinction between receptivity and passivity is important. Seems to me Lloyd Lee Wilson in his latest book described meeting for worship as a time when our only task is to quiet ourselves and receive God's word. And the call to discipline (the path of discipleship) is clear!

Regarding Paul's comment: as my meeting's current recording clerk, I tend to write minutes in the passive voice for pretty much the reason he states. It's fairly intentional, for me. The point is that each individual ideally is striving to express God's openings, and it doesn't matter so much who said what, as long as the general themes are captured. (Or should I say, as long as I capture the general themes? Nah!)

Digression: I otherwise try to avoid the passive voice in writing, too. Check out E prime, which equals English minus the verb "to be."

Chris M.
Tables, Chairs and Oaken Chests

Liz Opp said...

Paul and Chris M - Your thinking reflects my own, in terms of how Quakers use the passive voice--that God is the agent acting upon us and through us.

Chris M - I took a look at the E-Prime website and I agree with the concern that the verb "to be" speaks of identity (one of my favorite topics!). But some of the words I strive to eliminate from my own usage include "it" and "my/mine."

Gregg and Julie - What an important summary: right and deliberate action, and the dangers of undisciplined action...



cherice said...


I agree whole-heartedly! It's hard to be associated with "passivity"--we get that regarding pacifism and such as well. I think the ideal of Quakerism is what you state: that the time of silence, waiting and receiving is just the preliminary stage. It takes time (usually lots of it!), and patience, but then we act.

The question is, how do our meetings encourage us to follow through with what we hear? In my experience meeting seems to be often a time for people to gather and sit in silence (or a programmed meeting) and receive the word of God, then go home and forget about it. I try not to do this, but without a community to support the action stage it's really difficult. Any ideas out there on how to discipline ourselves better on the follow-through?

Liz Opp said...

Hi Cherice-- Thanks for bringing up this question. It's similar to others that have been bouncing around in my head and heart for more than a year.

My short answer (I'm on the road very soon) about how to support ourselves better to follow through on the inward prompts and leadings we receive is this:

Stay connected to Friends and like-spirited companions who will help hold you accountable to be faithful to the Spirit.

This to me is part of the covenant community that Lloyd Lee Wilson and others write about. It is also an important part of eldership among Friends, especially in these days of extreme individualism ("I have the right to do what I want when I want to do it").

Someday I hope to write more about all of this, but for now I gotta run!


Irving Karchmar said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.