November 6, 2005

The slippery nature of a corporate faith

Over on Paul L's Showers of Blessings, there is a conversation about the well-known analogy of the elephant and a group of blind men describing it to one another. Within the comments, Friend Phil raises this beautiful question:

What I really fail to understand is, why can't we all love one another and worship together?
Here he and I are, standing side by side, hands on the elephant.

I would say to my neighbor Phil: Quakerism and the search for Truth does allow us to love one another, and we can and do worship together.

AND, I would add, in Quakerism, and in the search for Truth, and in the experience of Truth, and in the hands-on-the-elephant analogy, talking about the elephant is different from getting to know the elephant; and how we each get to know the elephant is different for each of us.

For me, I want to come close to the Living Presence and listen for its loving direction--and that may not be what some Friends are seeking to do, or even are able to do, in Meeting for Worship, because of their religious beliefs.

Leaving or staying from a place of love

I can worship with my neighbor, yes, but I wish to open myself to an experience with a Presence that a different neighbor also shares; to open myself, in fact, to an experience that a good many "neighbors" have shared over the past 350 years.

And when I seek to worship with these other neighbors, with these other Friends, and when such worship brings me a new joy and a new path, I will hope that Friends like Friend Phil might say, "Oh, how wonderful that you have that experience with the elephant! Keep at it! I am so enjoying my own experience as well..."

Why would I not seek to continue to worship amidst a group that, for me, so frequently brings me closer to what I call God or the Holy Spirit? Who would deny me such joy?

And yes, I can still return to worship with Friend Phil. My leave-taking from a particular meeting community does not mean I condemn it or disown it--though I can understand that Friends may perceive that I do.

Just this First Day, yesterday, at the rise of meeting (at the monthly meeting), an older Friend who had noticed my absence over recent weeks approached me and said, "I hope you aren't thinking of leaving the meeting..."

I took a deep breath and replied, "The truth is, I probably will." (It hadn't occurred to me just then to say, "I am being led elsewhere, I believe.")

The Friend kindly added, "But I would like to think that the meeting has a broad enough diversity to embrace you and your beliefs."

Now: I know her intentions are in the right place. The words of this Friend mirrors the question that Friend Phil lifts up:
Why can't we all love one another and worship together?
I took another deep breath: "I am the type of Friend who needs a narrower experience of Quakerism for me to grow as a Friend, not a broad diversity of belief. But I understand that this meeting brings you much joy in your experience as a Friend, as does the worship group for me."

I don't know to what extent this Friend understands my experience, yet the question remains for me to hold and discern:
If the Way is shut for me to experience a corporate faith in a particular meeting, how do I leave--or stay--and do so from a place of love?
I can love many within meeting, and I can worship with many within meeting, but God calls me, today, to worship regularly in a community where corporately we listen for God.

Spiritual individualism

Sometimes among Friends, we fall unawares into a shared spiritual individualism: We each practice our own spiritual discipline on First Day during worship and appreciate how we can come to meeting and worship together, despite our differences of belief and even practice.

In unprogrammed worship, some of us may engage in meditation that is borrowed from one discipline or another; others simply let the outer world slip away and enjoy the meetingroom's stillness; still others may pursue a form of therapeutic self-talk (this was a former practice of mine, for example).

I have to wonder if we create this shared hour of unprogrammed individual spiritual practice because the first nature of a Quaker community is to be open and welcoming to worshipers of all faiths: "Love is the first motion," to quote John Woolman completely out of context.

Moreover, because we in fact share the experience of unprogrammed worship over the course of weeks and years, many of us believe that unprogrammed worship is enough, that Meeting for Worship with our individual disciplines is the core of Quakerism, and we should love one another and therefore continue to worship together.

I do believe that, yes, for many Friends, this experience is the core of their Quakerism. I also am concerned that it has become taboo for Friends like me, who have another experience of Quakerism and of worship, to call into question where that apparent core of Quakerism comes from:
the corporate experience of listening for and seeking Truth together.
But when a boundary is articulated as I have just done, that boundary is often interpreted as passing judgement: right--wrong; good--bad; Quaker--not Quaker.

I'm beginning to wonder if that boundary can be reframed as distinctive between liberal Friend--Conservative Friend. But even this distinction is overly simplistic.

Historical faith, contemporary faith

From my experience, I have come to question if Quakerism as an historical faith is a corporate faith; and Quakerism as a contemporary faith is, among liberal Friends, an individualistic one.

By historical, I do not mean that it is dead and exists only in the past. I mean that it has a rich tradition, cultivated over history, that exists today. Sometimes the historical Quaker faith exists in disconnected pieces today, like the Biblical authority of some evangelical Friends, and the power of continuing revelation of some Conservative and liberal Friends. Sometimes the historical and contemporary elements of Quakerism are integrated into a balanced whole, referencing the Bible while also identifying some new Light that has been revealed to them.

Furthermore, among some Friends, an historical Quakerism is being renewed, and the yearning of a Spirit-led, shared faith experience is reigniting individuals, small communities, and Quaker publishers.

Putting "corporate faith" into words

A corporate faith is hard to put into words, in part because we as Americans are inundated with individualism in our culture. Just look on the streets as you walk, bike, or drive, and see how many cars have a single passenger in them. Or count how many televisions are in the household of our non-Quaker brothers and sisters, or even how many computers there are in our own (one TV--without cable or satellite--but three computers in my own household, for example).

I know we're not in the Me Generation any longer, but we remain in the Me culture.

A corporate faith puts That Which Is Eternal ahead of me, myself, and I. A corporate faith goes beyond a shared weekly hour of unprogrammed worship. In Meeting for Worship for Business, we do not seek to know what each individual desires for an outcome and work towards consensus, but we seek to know how Spirit, the Light, a Higher Love is moving among us, and we work towards understanding the the sense of the meeting.

I am grateful for the Friend who in business session speaks up to remind us that we must practice the discipline of laying aside what it is that we each want for ourselves and listen for what it is that God wants for us corporately, as a body.

The nature of explaining a corporate faith, even to those of us who practice it, is very slippery. I often fall into language that betrays my own personal preference, rather than weigh my preference with God's guidance or test my preference against the practiced discernment of the group.

But I very much lean on the truth of my experience of the quality of worship when I am worshiping with Friends who believe there is a Living Presence among us, and we rest in that Presence and open ourselves to that Presence together, as a body, each First Day.

The damsel in distress

In writing this piece, I have come across this question:
Do we love only the worship experience, or do we also love the faith tradition that gives birth to the worship?
The love that we have developed for spiritual individualism, for unprogrammed worship, for the apparent freedom to worship and believe as we wish, becomes the damsel in distress that we mistakenly believe we must protect, even at the expense of losing our kingdom.

Perhaps we don't need to protect the damsel. Perhaps we need to protect the kingdom in which she lives.


ADDITIONAL POSTS from The Good Raised Up that continue exploring the corporate nature of Quakerism include:
The Great Jigsaw Puzzle
Report about Iowa Conservative's 2006 Midyear Meeting
Understanding what God wants
More about individualism and the corporate nature of Quakerism

UPDATE: Seventh Month 2006. ANOTHER POST that speaks to the corporate ethic of Friends is from Marshall's Earthwitness Journal.
The first half of this particular post provides excellent descriptions of the corporate practice and nature of Quakerism. Also worthwhile in this post is an excerpt from Rufus Jones about an incident on the farm where Jones grew up.
UPDATE: Fourth Month 2008. This is great: ANOTHER POST that continues the exploration about corporate worship, by Peter at Quaker Pagan Reflections.


TheNormalMiddle said...

When I left the Quaker church altogether to move to an evangelical southern baptist church, I was somewhat ostracized for my moving. It was like I had died and many of the members at my home meeting (where I had been for 20 years) treated me as if I were losing my salvation and moving to a completely different planet. If I wasn't Quaker, then I was no longer valuable. I like your blog by the way..found it through Scott Wagoner's blog, he was my Quaker minister who married me and I admire him and his thoughts very much. Be blessed.

Liz Opp said...

Lindsey, thanks for your comment. I'm sorry to read about how Friends in your meeting responded to your search for a new spiritual home.

I am remembering a time when I had been worshiping at an early worship for awhile, and I made an appearance at the meeting's late worship. A Friend greeted me at the rise of worship and asked where I had been. When I replied that I was worshiping more frequently at early worship, the Friend said, "But don't you miss the people?"

Without thinking, I stated what is true for me: "I don't miss the people as much as I've missed the worship."

. . . . . . . .

Tony, I appreciate the reflection of the concern for Friends becoming too comfortable, too attached to our ways. One of the most exhilirating elements of Quakerism I have come across is that God asks us to allow ourselves to be transformed, to become the best and most faithful person we can be.

I love the idea--which for some Friends is their practice--of coming to Meeting for Worship expecting to be changed.

And I unite with your statement, that those who are secure and strong in their own faith will be able to wish others God's speed as they walk their own path, even if it leads away from Quakerism.


David Carl said...

Only one TV (no cable or satellite either) and only one computer in our house. Now the eight guitars, they don't, uh, count, .... right?

Nancy A said...


I have the same sense in my meeting: that everyone is doing something completely different simultaneously and that in a vague way it is all self-worship. Navel-gazing, my husband calls it.

But at the Meeting I attended before this one, there wasn't this sense of vagueness. There was a solid feel of something unified, of moving forward together. I miss it.

It was a different style of meeting. After the hour of silence, there was up to an hour of discussion, led by one member for a month. The member introduced the topic or read the passage and we discussed it in a thoughtful way under his or her guidance. This helped bring us all together in our thoughts and spiritual growth. It meant long meetings, but often the spouses of the Quakers would drop by to take part in the discussion, rather than the silence. I learned so much from those discussions!

Another difference is at that former meeting, people brought their spiritual reading to meeting. It was rare to see anyone sitting without a book in their hand. Often, they read short passages from their books as ministry. By constantly reading, the members of that meeting were anchoring themselves to a wider tradition, were stirring themselves to learn from others, rather than simply being satisfied with what they already believed.

In contrast, I have seen people eldered for reading in meeting. Yet sitting in silence is not enough. We have to talk, discuss, share, read, grow together. Otherwise, we are too much alone, and we fail to grow.

Rambling on in this comment has made me think that perhaps I should bring this concern to monthly meeting to see if we can't arrange for a mid-week book study group. There must be others in the meeting who thirst as I/we do.

Thanks for your message. It has nudged me.

Anonymous said...


Once again, you get to the heart of the matter. What is our corporate faith?

The corporate search for Truth and Love is the piece of our practice that we in the unprogrammed tradition need to take up more intentionally. We don't know all the answers, we don't know everything, and we really don't know how to save the world all by ourselves, and we need to be humble about that. I think the corporate search is the key practice.

I wrote a much less eloquent post recently on a closely related topic, Toward a Collective Quaker Witness.

Liz Opp said...

Terrific comments, everyone. They keep me smiling, like Dave Carl's guitar count, and they keep me open and searching, which I appreciate.

For example, Nancy A., I would never have considered reading during MfW as appropriate, yet clearly there was something binding and of value in that practice within your former monthly meeting. As you put it, Friends were "anchoring themselves to a wider tradition," which I agree is an important piece in helping us sustain our Quaker identity.

I would say that my experience of worship is that MfW is not to be a passive silence but it is to be a silence where there is active seeking and listening going on. I like how Chris M. puts it, that we are engaged in a "corporate search for Truth and Love."

Thanks too, Chris M., for the link to your related post. I'll be sure to take a look at it!


ef said...

Liz -

I find that there is so much in your post that I balk a bit every time I try to sit down and respond to it - what a blessing that difficulty can be.

I am also intrigued because I generally consider myself to be on the liberal / individualist / universalist / etc. "side" of this issue (and I hate the persistend feeling that there are "sides") I still resonate with

Though I have to say that when you called us to examine whether we love only the worship, or also the faith tradition that it springs from, I expected that the next question would be about loving God (although then there is the darn word thing - Jesus? Spirit? Life? Nature? The thing worshipped?) I believe that both the worship and the faith traditions are yet more "outward forms" (though useful ones) and the question is really about what brings us there, what are we worshipping?

I too have felt a deep yearning (call?) to call my meeting, my community to examine that question. I believe that we lose something when we all are simply "doing our own thing" next to each other. (which is part of what I hear you saying)

But I also still cringe, even "tear up" at the idea of any group of quakers saying "you can't worship with us unless you believe...." - Now clearly we've done that. We expect attenders to believe in equality, simplicity (whatever THAT means), nonviolence and integrity (another one I think that we have no corporate "definition" of - beyond telling the truth, which I find to be significant, but inadequate)

But I find religious experience so diverse. I have found the same power in the ministry of people who "got it" from Jesus, who is sitting next to them, and from people who "thought of something" out walking in the woods.

I am interested in worshipping with people who are open to that power, whether or not they call it Jesus, or call it lifeforce, whether they see it as "submission" or as a call to activity (or both, which it often is)

I think that there is danger in trying to "define" it - as you say, the danger of putting our own labels on it.

It's relatively apparent to me that God can't be described very well in words (or even in dances, or paintings, or music) - that perhaps the longing can, perhaps the joy can, perhaps the course we are called to can, but that when we try to name "it" - we end up putting up a wall before most of it, simply because it is so much bigger than our vocabulary.

So, I guess where my "resonance" falls down is that I feel called to seek together, but not to name the thing that we expect or hope to find. To describe it, yes, knowing that our descriptions will never do it justice.

(I myself don't have a computer or a TV in my house - but I have too many clothes and books!)

And I don't know if I even said any of what I originally intended to say!


Anonymous said...

Dear Liz, I've read this two or three times, and each time I think, I ought to comment somehow so Liz knows I read it and enjoyed it. But all I can do is nod my head. I didn't come to any points I want to quibble over. I didn't think of anything I think you left out.

So maybe I'll just say that for me, the label that is arising for this new/old kind of Quakerism is Convergent Friends. Meaning a coming together of branches of the RSoF. Meaning a centering on God, a singleness of eye, a focal point. Alluding to Conservative Friends and Emergent Church.

It may be my spiritual theme for the month.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks, Robin M, for stopping by. I am still sitting with the idea of "Convergent Friends." I'm not sure that any single Friend, though, will get to name whoever it is that some of us are perhaps becoming... smile

Earthfreak, thanks for writing so plainly and tenderly of your experience, concern, and yearning. Your comments help me refine and clarify my own thoughts and how I wish to articulate them. (Have you yet had an opportunity to serve on a clearness committee? My sense is you'd be an important asset.)

Here are some points I want to expand on.

1. Taking sides. It is easy to use these words to describe a dynamic within a group that is laboring with one another. But in my heart I do not feel as though I am taking sides, part of a camp, or even drawing lines in the sand. This is not to say that Friends won't perceive me as doing this, though.

I believe that we each have our experiences in worship; and that how we worship brings each of us, individually, some gift or joy or comfort. And I also believe that the individual experience of worship, of the Divine, is only a part of what Quakerism is about, and that the corporate nature of our faith, especially among liberal Friends, has gotten the short end of the stick.

The main reason I started being able to "see" the corporate practice of Friends is because I began interacting with Friends who had experienced the Life and Power of such a corporate practice.

2. Loving God. I don't feel as though I am being asked to call Friends to love God; I feel as though I am being asked to call Friends to consider how we convey our faith and practice and how we grow into, deepen, and sustain our identity as Quakers.

3. "You can't worship with us unless you believe..." I agree that this is a hurtful statement. I would also say that this is not the same message as, "Friends have a tradition of seeking Divine Guidance, and of seeking together."

Whose responsibility is it to "translate" what it is we say to one another--the listener, the speaker, or both?

One practice I draw on from time to time is that of shifting my "translation" of what a Friend has said. When I catch myself in judgment--which I don't always do--I shift my thinking and begin to question, "If I trust that this Friend is speaking from a place of Great Love and with a burden to speak, what might I understand this person to be saying...? What is the piece of Truth that here that I can see?"

4. Outward forms. Thanks for lifting this up. My understanding is that Fox and early Friends were concerned about empty outward forms--those rituals, sacraments, and objects that no longer carried Power. It's clear to me that the various ways in which we experience the Divine help transform us and help us live into our measure of Light.

I hope you'll continue to write and offer up your experiences and concerns. And I pray that you remain faithful to how you are led, and to draw on Friends to help you test your leadings, as Way opens.


Zach Alexander said...

Liz, have you seen this pamphlet on membership? I think you might find it interesting. I just wrote a little summary of what I took to be the main points on Beppe's blog.

Elaine said...

I am a less than regular reader, but did read this in my feed some weeks ago. I was discussing your comments with spouse this evening, and i realized that over time a response has formed in my mind.

First, i want to say that this is not meant to be a challenge to any decision you make. There are needs that require givers, but i believe no one is called to give in order to fill every need in front of them. And some of us have needs that must be met, perhaps, before we can give the gifts we're meant to give.

What stuck with me over time was your description of the different practices one might have in worship, giving an example of how you practiced in the past, and then you described the community of shared practice that you desire. If the answer for Friends seeking that intense community of common intention is to separate themselves from those still seeking or those on the very first steps of a faith journey (and those who seem satisfied with the station at which they've arrived), who will be there to offer a role model, an answer, a suggestion that there are other stations?

The metaphor of a journey is too linear. I know i am called to grow in so many different aspects. I sense in some aspects i've made such progress that i have no sense of seeking but of deepening. In other aspects, i wait and trust that there is a reason for my present experience and a call will come when all is ready. I do recognize that sometimes one needs to retreat and to be nurtured before one can necessarily have the reservoir to be able to be grounded around others who may not be so grounded, centered around others who may not be as centered.

Concessions to individual needs made -- if the leaven pulls away and separates from the salt which separates from the flour, there won't be any bread.

Liz Opp said...

Zach, the pamphlet you mention is one of the texts that has helped me articulate my understanding of what it is I yearn for from my faith community. Not only acceptance and living into shared values, but also a belief in the possibility of being transformed by the Light and being supported in striving to be obedient to God's call.

Judielaine, I appreciate what you share here of your own searching, reflection, and invitation for me to consider a few other things.

I don't know that "the answer for Friends seeking that intense community... is to separate themselves from those... on the very first steps of a faith journey", but at this point in my own faith walk, it has been one of the answers for me.

I'm not in a place to share all of my story, so I hope it is enough to say simply that my experiences and my inward prompts have led me elsewhere, at least for now. And yes, I do sense the care and tenderness with which you write. Thank you.

There are two other parts of your comment that move me to respond. One is the metaphor of a journey. I have to smile: Clearly you have not been in the car when my father was driving and decided to take a "daddy shortcut"!

I do not pretend to think that my own journey has been or will ever be as straight as the crow flies! Journeys, like the type of road trips I've taken, include detours, traffic snarls, spontaneous turn-offs, and "daddy shortcuts"... in addition to finding the way back onto the main road. smile

I also am drawn into the metaphor of leaven. It is a metaphor that a small group of Friends used when they visited the worship group, that perhaps the worship group might be leaven for other Friends in the area.

But the metaphor spoke to me in a new way as I read your comment. Have some Friends and meetings been pulling away from God, leaving the leavening behind...?

Thanks for taking the time to write. You are helping me continue to wrestle with concerns and ideas that are important to me.


Anonymous said...

Liz – I cannot resist participating in this discussion, although I have a tendency to say things on cyber-forums that I regret later. To show my true face instead of the face I would like others to see! I have written at times out of a place that is less than my clearest place, out of motives not the highest; especially fear. My comments on Paul's blog and other places may have been examples. What follows may be another!

Of course I support you in worshipping with a group with which you feel greater unity, whether it be in “corporate” worship or whatever. I think I understand the desire for unity in worship. I think I understand you. But I think you profoundly misunderstand me, and others whom you perceive as engaging in what you call spiritual individualism.

Liz, let me share something with you. I know this is going to seem like a ridiculous boast, but I really believe that I have seen the whole elephant. It just hit me one day, after a period of very deep seeking. I was sitting in Town Square in Saint Paul during my lunch break, looking at a plant. And all of a sudden, there was a shift in my view of everythng that has changed everything for me ever since. I am no longer wondering what life is about, looking for deeper meaning, seeking God, or anything like that. Believe it or not (and it seems likely to me that you would be skeptical), I have found it. For me, the rest of my spiritual development involves trying to integrate the experience I had that day into my life. To be conscious of that truth in each moment. To live it

Now, it continues to be quite a struggle, despite my boast that I have “found it.” I read books by a great variety of spiritual masters of many different disciplines, and I feel that I understand them perfectly, and that they are all variations on the same themes. Yet, when an impatient motorist honked his horn at me the other day, I wanted so badly to give him the finger! I had a violent fantasy about forcing his SUV off the road with my Geo Metro, yanking him out of the drivers seat, and punching him repeatly in the face. So there remains quite a gap between knowing it and living it, in my case.

I guess I could be called a “spiritual individualist” because I did it my own way and continue to do it my own way. I do not know of, nor have I read of, a single other person who followed the same path, or even a particularly similar path, in arriving at that experience I had with that potted plant. I was “alone” during my period of deep seeking, and “alone” when I was looking at that plant. But if I were truly a “spiritual individualist,” why would I bother with Quakerism, and group worship? What am I doing in Meeting for Worship, anyway?

It's the sense of unity that draws me to Meeting for Worship. A powerful sense of unity that lifts me up and fortifies me in the struggle to grow in spirit. I often come out of worship with a powerful sense of oneness and love. I'm not sure how to describe what I actually do in meeting for worship. I don't have a plan. I try to open my heart to the people in the room, especially those with ministry to share. I try to open myself to the type of experience I had with the potted plant. I try not to think about it or put it into words. But I think I can say this – it is not a solitary experience. Sometimes, it is an experience of profound connection and unity. Of absolute love.

Now I ask you, am I really doing something wrong here? Is this really some kind of heresy? Is my experience really so different from yours, or do we just conceptualize it differently? (I hope you are ok with rhetorical questions!)

If you describe my experience of meeting in terms of “spiritual individualism” because I sometimes meditate, or because I am a nontheist and do not (usually) speak in terms of God, and do not seek out a common creed or set of words to frame the experience of worship or any other spiritual experience, I feel misunderstood. There seems to be an assumption that meditation or “navel-gazing” is some kind of self-seeking spiritual masturbation, and that it therefore does not belong in Meeting for Worship. An assumption that what these “individualists” are doing and what they are seeking is profoundly different from those who attempt corporate discernment of the will of God. But I question that assumption. I suggest that those you consider “individualists” may simply be those whose path to unity, or to God, is not understood by you.

So, I ask you to explain to me, in what respect is your spiritual labor so different from mine, that we can more profitably worship separately? I ask you this not to discourage you from worshipping in any group with which you feel greater unity, but to invite you to consider that you may be in greater unity with me and other nontheists than you seem to believe. Or perhaps I do not understand you. You have tried to explain, but perhaps I still don't get it. -- Phil G.

Liz Opp said...

Phil, you and I have communicated privately about how grateful I am for your post. You raise many important questions and I am sitting with my internal, nonverbal response (mostly positive) as well as with my initial intellectual musings (also mostly positive).

What I mean by "positive response" is that my heart and my brain are engaged in a way that feels good to me: You have presented questions and discussion points that have me chewing on things in the back of my mind while I work on other, more pressing items in my day-to-day life.

It will take me some time to find words to express my internal response and what I wish to lift up and externalize here. For now, I want to acknowledge that your comments seem to have opened me to a deeper place of seeking, and a stronger yearning to capture the subtleties of some of the topics you and I touch on. Thank you.