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.