December 31, 2009

The core and gestalt of Quakerism

A few weeks ago, a new attender to the worship group was hospitalized and he desperately wanted some of us to bring him some books. I brought him a spare copy I had of Lloyd Lee Wilson's Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, in part because he had read on our website that this book was one of the threads that had brought many of us together.

A week or two later, I visited the Friend and he started talking about the book and about the concept of a Quaker gestalt, mentioned in Chapter 2.* When he asked me how I myself would define the Quaker gestalt, I replied something like this:

    I think of a gestalt as something that is bigger than the whole and all of its parts. And when I think about Quakerism, I often think of it as a tapestry.
    The thing is, for many modern Liberal Friends, we think we can pull out one or even a few of the tapestry's threads and still have the pattern or image of the tapestry intact, especially when looking at it from a distance. What I believe, though, is that the interwoven quality of the tapestry, of the Quaker gestalt, is in fact hurt by pulling out any of its threads, by discarding any of its practices, disciplines, or doctrines.
    I also believe that from an outsider's perspective, the tapestry won't look different when a thread is removed. But from the inside, from those long-time Friends who have lived and breathed Quakerism, they have known it deeply and wordlessly as a thing-of-the-whole, and so by changing one thread of the pattern, the whole pattern is changed.
    As for the primary threads that make up the Quaker gestalt, I name them as the immediacy and centrality of God in our lives; the place of corporate worship and meetings for worship for business; the covenant community; and the transformative power of the Inner Light on our individual and corporate lives.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Now that I've typed this out here, I can add some additional thoughts to the initial answer I offered a few days ago.

For one thing, I don't know that the Quaker gestalt is "hurt" as much as it is changed--for better or for worse--when we start pulling out threads of our Quaker tapestry. Clearly, some early outward forms for many of us Quakers have become empty and we've discarded them or otherwise rely on them much less than our predecessors did, such as convening a meeting of elders or wearing plain dress.

Secondly, I continue to acknowledge fairly openly that I was not raised in the Christian tradition and I don't identify as Christian. Yet I certainly acknowledge that Quakerism's Christian roots are also a vital part of Quakerism's tapestry.

I would say in my earlier days among Friends, I yanked the "Quakerism is a part of Christianity" thread pretty hard, insisting that Quakerism could exist just fine without it being Christian. In hindsight, that was my way of saying I felt I belonged and was accepted by my local Quaker community, and it therefore followed that a belief Jesus didn't have to be a requirement for being Quaker.

Nowadays, as a more mature Friend, others have held my feet to the fire, saying that to be Quaker, I have to at least be willing to wrestle with the faith's Christian roots. And I do.

I wrestle with being Quaker while not identifying as Christian. Sometimes I scratch my head in confusion: How did I end up here?! On my better days, I understand it is not a matter of how we name that Loving Principle: it is how we live by it.

I also recognize that the more time I spend with Quakers--in worship and in fellowship--the deeper I sink into the Seed and the more I learn about how the threads of the tapestry are intertwined. Over the years, I seem to understand more deeply and intuitively that when one thread is changed, the whole pattern of the tapestry is intrinsically changed, even if not noticeably so until years or generations later.

It is a lesson I need to revisit from time to time, and another indication that when I think I understand the wholeness and prophetic ministry of Quakerism, I really have so much more to learn.


P.S. As I was crafting this post in my mind, I also was reading Marty Grundy's newest pamphlet, Early Friends & Ministry. In some ways, her review of how Friends' travel in the ministry has changed over the centuries speaks to the historical changes of the gestalt of Quakerism. I hope to write about this pamphlet very soon.

*I include a quote from this chapter about the Quaker gestalt in an earlier post.


Beth said...

Thank you so much for this post - I have been coming to similiar conclusions - I used to be quick to deny the importance of Christianity in Quakerism. And in this past year, more and more, I do see it as part of the Gesault. I'm very gentle with it but over the past month, I've explained to two non-Quakers who both said they thought that Quakerism was non-demoninal that in fact, Quakerism is a Christian religion. I'm finding it all very interesting and it's an interesting development on my spirtitual journey.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Liz,

The good news is that Jesus wasn't a Christian either:-) Would a Jewish individual who told parables and sayings that contradict much of what Christian churches stand for now, identify with them? Doubtful.

For that matter, many early Friends weren't "Christian" in the institutional sense, but strongly opposed Christendom.

I identify with your statement: "it is not a matter of how we name that Loving Principle: it is how we live it (though I would change the "it" since "it"s aren't loving, only the Presence of G-d is.

Here's my favorite phrase on this:
True religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart does love and reverence God the Creator, and learns to exercise true justice and goodness...I found no narrowness respecting sects and opinions, but believed that sincere, upright-hearted people, in every society, who truly love God, were accepted of him.
John Woolman

John 15: 12-15 Love each other as I have loved you.. I call you friends because I have made known to you everything
I heard from my Father.

In the Light,


scot miller said...

Thank You Liz, for this post. As a Christ-centered Friend, it has never been my intention, at least not consciously, to insist that every Friend be committed to Jesus, only that we realize that the person and the biblical text are integral to the ongoing conversations about Quaker identity. So many folks tend to proof-text Quaker saints concerning a supposed universal or "ecumenical" approach to religion, when a thorough reading of the texts consistently reveal a Christ-centered faith that consistently denies the tenets of Christendom. When one allows that Christ-centeredness is a prerequisite for understanding the "ancient" texts of Quakerism, we can begin to speak more evenly about our future as Friends, and how to maintain these conversations about "Quaker gestalt" and what kind of faith exploration can occur under the auspices of the Judeo-Christian narratives.

Liz Opp said...

Beth -

Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing a bit of your own spiritual growing as a Friend. I wonder if this is part of "living into our measure of Light" that early Friends wrote and spoke of...

Daniel -

While I was writing this piece, I sometimes reflected on the distinction between today's Christianity (which I see you are referring to as "Christendom") and primitive Christianity, which I think is what more and more Friends are being called to and which early Friends sought to revive.

What's so clear to me, time and time again, is that because of my Jewish upbringing, there was no place to learn about a young Jewish scholar/rabbi/man who urged people to follow God in such a way that a mass movement was started.

...No: for me, my religious upbringing placed a tremendous taboo on Jesus and the Christian faith, and it is only through God's gentle presence in my life and through others that I have been able to connect the dots between God, Adonai, the Inner Light, the Inward Teacher, and the Living Christ.

Scot -

You write, "...a thorough reading of the texts consistently reveals a Christ-centered faith..."

I agree and I think my occasional reading of these early texts, along with more contemporary ones, have helped me personally integrate the place of Christ-centeredness within the Quaker gestalt... and not fear "what it MEANS" for me, as a person raised in the Jewish faith.

I also take heart when I see early and modern Friends make reference to the Hebrew texts and not just the New Testament.

Thanks, everyone, for your thoughts.


P.S. These are the sorts of points that are tossed about in the chapter on Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity, in Writing Cheerfully on the Web.

I'm pleased to see that the conversation continues...

Martin Kelley said...

I always thought LLW's use of "gestalt" was a odd word choice but a very useful concept.

I end up at Catholic mass a lot these days. I'm in no danger of converting but I do appreciate a certain unity between the theology and form (not necessarily the actual practice) and I find myself get agitated when I see someone do something that shows disregard for the symbolism in the Catholic gestalt.

When we find another religious path interesting, or talk about a "golden age" in our own tradition's past, I think we're talking about a moment when the faith and outward practiced balanced in a complementary way--at least from our perspectiv.

I'm reading John Wilbur these days. Interesting to see him describe the problems with nascent Gurneyism. A lot of the worries he's cataloging aren't really all that serious, things like speakers that are a bit too charismatic, meetinghouses a bit too grand, too much or little emphasis on particular Quaker teachings. But I think he's saw them as an imbalance of the Quaker gestalt that would quickly bring along major changes. When you think of faith and practice as a balance you can peer into the future sometimes.

Amy Jarret said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Liz Opp said...

Amy -

I deleted your comment because I don't accept straight-up "promotions" of businesses, products, etc. You are welcome, of course, to comment directly on the content that this blog contains. If you like what you read here, I'm glad.

Martin -

Thanks for the tip about what John Wilbur has written about, as well as sharing your concern as you see it play out among the Catholics with whom you worship.

It makes sense that each religion has its own gestalt--and its own breeches or intrusions of it.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Liz, I bit my tongue hard when you first put up this posting — not just because I didn’t want to speak too hastily, but more particularly because I didn’t want to provoke a quarrel with your avid readers.

Quarreling, after all, obstructs the clear-headed search for truth.

I figure that at this point, though, reader passion has largely moved on to other, newer postings. So let me now try to share my thought with you.

What I want to point out is that Christianity is not just part of the Quaker gestalt in the way that a tea-setting is part of the gestalt that makes a tea cup meaningful. Quakerism is a particular attempt to practice discipleship under Christ and the Holy Spirit. Hearing Christ clearly, and obeying Christ fully, are not merely one thread in the tapestry; they are the whole point of Quakerism.

To reduce that to a statement that Christianity is Quakerism’s “roots”, or that Christianity is one thread in the Quaker tapesty, is analogous to saying that, when you are performing a classical composition as a musician in an orchestra, the conductor is classical music’s heritage and one thread in the tapestry of your performance. From an outside observer’s point of view, that may perhaps seem true; you might find yourself drawn into pondering how classical performance evolved as something led by a conductor, and the conductor might seem simply one of the many interesting things you can pay attention to as the performance unfolds. But from the point of view of a musician in the orchestra, the conductor is not just a historical matter, and not just one part of the gestalt: she is the crucial center of the performance; your job as a musician is to pay her the closest attention and play your notes exactly when and as she directs, taking into account all the instructions she gave you regarding this piece in the weeks before the performance began. If you fail to do this, the performance as a whole will fail.

So with Christ in Quaker practice: the job of the individual Friend is to act precisely when and how he directs, taking into account all the preparatory instructions you received earlier (including, of course, those found in the Gospels). If Friends fail to do this, then the performance, known as the testimony of our faith, will go to pieces. As indeed it seems to have done in many meetings that have lost their way!

When you write that “it is not a matter of how we name that Loving Principle: it is how we live by it,” what you say is certainly true in part: it doesn’t really matter whether you call the conductor “Mme. Conductor” or “Dr. Alsop” or “Marin” or whatever. Friends have been describing Christ in the heart as a capital-P “Principle” ever since the days of William Penn, and it hasn’t led them wrong.

But we should be very clear who the conductor is, all the same; we should be looking to her for our cues, and not, say, to the concert mistress or first violinist instead. One may have a preferred word to use in place of “Christ”, but if one is looking to, say, the principle of one’s own self-righteousness, or the principle of romantic idealism, instead of to the one who revealed the path of the cross and showed how it can be walked, one’s performance is going to go to pieces in a test.

I apologize for carrying on at such length, but I do think this is an important issue, and one worth talking through in friendship.

Liz Opp said...

Marshall -

This is why "people need people," why Quakers need one another to remind us to stay close to the Root:

Your comment lifts a veil from my face.

I had not meant to reduce or minimize the place, impact, or role of Christ/ianity as it relates to Quakerism, yet I can see with your counsel that in essence, that is what I had been doing.

I can see how I still have Quakerism segregated from Christianity--perhaps my way to stay spiritually safe from the wrestling I'd have to do (again) to reconcile how I got to where I am...?

Thanks for your gentle but direct approach in bringing this to me.


Marshall Massey said...

Thank you, Liz, for such a kind and open-hearted response!

Anonymous said...

WOW! I happened upon this post while searching for examples of gestalt in the scriptures. I know little about Quakerism other than what Richard Foster writes, but the loving honest correction I see between Marshal and Liz make me want to leave the Menno church (in which I am very happy) and seek out a Quaker group close by.

I just want you both to know that Christ would be proud of the gentleness you exhibit in your responses to one another.


Liz Opp said...

Arnold -

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you never observed me when I was about 5-10 years younger!