December 14, 2006

Starting a new thingie

In recent posts by Nancy of Nancy's Apology and by Rob of Consider the Lilies, both these Friends are exploring new forms for worship--or, as Nancy puts it, experimenting with creating a "church thingie."

Experimenting with new things makes sense for those of us who hunger for meaningful experiences that are deep and full of capital-L Life. I suppose that's much of the unstated, unconscious explanation for why the worship group that I participate in got started.

Starting a new faith community "thingie" sometimes requires concrete planning, but I suspect more often it requires a clear leading and rootedness in one's inspiration--hopefully an inspiration that comes from the Spirit and not from one's ego. That's where talking with a few trusted others might be helpful, even if those few others serve as a short-term informal clearness committee.

I admit, though, that sometimes that inspiration can come from disappointment or frustration with the existing community. Sometimes it is easier and empowering for us to know what we want when it's looked at in relation to what we know we don't want.

I have always known inwardly that God does not want us to be unhappy. What is less clear to me is the place of intentional, community-based discernment and testing when one is so discontented and has already wrestled with the community. When is it okay to walk away and look to starting a new thingie?

. . . . . . . . .

Reading Nancy's and Rob's posts reminds me of a frequent conversation I have had with any number of Friends, all of whom had some concerns about how and why the worship group got started.

The worship group has been in place as a worship group for at least two years (before that, we were an informal fellowship group). We've hosted some informational sessions at other meetings to help address some of the most frequently asked questions, hoping to quell misperceptions and have people hear directly from us.

More than a year after those presentations, questions still linger and Friends still wonder. A conversation just last week pretty much followed the same progression as other conversations over the past two years:

Friend: So, why did you all decide to start a worship group when there are already other meetings in the area?

Me: It's not anything that we set out to do, actually. We were just a small group, getting together about once a month for fellowship and maybe for some worship "if the kids were quiet enough..."


Friend: But why have a separate group? Why not be part of one of the existing meetings?

Me: Well, among the group of us, it seems like we get something out of having a belief in common, about the Divine and about how we can listen together for God...

Head nod. Pause.

Friend:Oh. You mean, you don't feel you can get that experience here...?
It's hard and sometimes tiresome for me to hear similar questions put forward from so many different people when I feel like we've done our part to communicate what we're about and why we're around.

On the other hand, the most recent conversation has given me a fresh opportunity to articulate who I am as a Friend and who the worship group is as Quaker body. And it's made me aware--again--that despite the announcements and presentations and one-on-ones, there will probably always be more questions to answer, more puzzlement to clear up.

On top of that, I'll have to think about what would happen if, when asked, "You mean you can't have that experience in the monthly meeting?" I would answer simply, "No, it doesn't seem I can."

Since the meeting is pretty clear about appreciating the theological diversity that exists there, I find myself affirming that I personally benefit from a sort of theological unity rather than spiritual diversity--though theological unity is not to be confused with theological uniformity, in much the same way that unity over an item at a business session is not the same as unanimity.

. . . . . . . . .

Another piece that Nancy's and Rob's posts have made me reflect on is that it seems no matter how careful we are about getting the word out about whatever "new church thingie" might be happening and however open it is, Friends are going to project onto it whatever unresolved issues or fears they still carry:

Divorce: Oh, you're starting a new group... Your splitting off from us.

Failing out of school: Oh, you're starting a new group... You think you've got the right answers and the rest of us are just getting it wrong!?!

Classism: Oh, you're starting a new group... It sounds pretty exclusive to me.

However, the conversations I've had in the past two years with Friends who are curious or genuinely concerned about the worship group have been some of the richest conversations I've had with local Friends in a long time, which feels very nurturing and, well... enriching. And I'd fathom a guess that the one-on-one conversations have had far more impact on these Friends than reading a history of the worship group that's printed in a newsletter or presented in a small pamphlet.

We never know when we'll be called to start a new thingie, and we also may never know that that's where we've been called until after the fact. Some things we just do, in the moment, because that's where God has put down the next stepping stone.

To be clear: the situations that Rob and Nancy are entering into seem very different from times when Friends come under the weight of a concern, or wrestle with seemingly being out of step with the meeting, etc. Theirs may not require the sort of disciplines I have written about, though having the support and mutual accountability that trusted fFriends can provide is still an important piece. We do the best we can with the information we have; we wait and hold and wonder and consider.

I'm not always clear about the need to have a clearness committee to test every single nudge and inward prompt we have. But I remain clear that we will know how well we were led and how faithful we were in following the leading by looking at the fruit that is borne of the thing, after we've walked on a few more stepping stones.


P.S. As an afterthought, I am suddenly reminded of one of my favorite series of books--and I am NOT an avid reader, by any stretch. Somewhat deep into the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card, the reader learns that the protagonist has a leading to build a church.


Anonymous said...

Dear Liz,

I think that when you're asked, "You mean you can't have that experience in the monthly meeting?" the simple answer, "No, it doesn't seem I can" is a very good one: honest, humble, and phrased in "I-message" form. It's just the sort of answer that one might hope would trigger a deeper, more fruitful conversation, if any such conversation is possible at all. I hope you will not hesitate to give such an answer when asked.

Your analogies to divorce, dropping out of school, and classism, strike me as quite penetrating. There is painful truth in all three analogies, and the truth needs to be faced squarely and the pain acknowledged and worked through.

Theological diversity can be wonderful, but I don't think the purpose of a Quaker meeting is to be a spiritual smörgåsbord. Isaac Penington wrote once, long ago:

A true church is a truly spiritual body, gathered out of the world, or worldly nature and spirit, into God's Spirit and nature, there to live and walk with him, and worship him in spirit and truth, and for him to tabernacle in and walk among, and fill with his glorious presence and powerful life. Eph. 2:21,22; I Pet. 2:5; John 4:23; II Cor. 6:16. It is not the profession of the truth makes a true believer; nor is it a company of professors makes a true church; but their proceeding from, and union with, the truth itself; and their abiding in the life and power of that which they profess. Eph. 4:16. (Penington, Concerning The Church or of The Church State under the Gospel... [1666])

Perhaps the Friends who appreciate the theological diversity in your local monthly meeting also find in it what Penington describes here; I don't know. But whether they do or not, I think what Penington describes is what we all actually need.

Liz Opp said...

Marshall --

Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Reading your words that reflect some of my own thoughts and feelings back to me give me a sense of... well, of finding my way when it comes to responding to Friends who ask about the worship group.

Also, it seems to me I have come across that Penington quote--or something very like it--and have come to the same conclusion as you: It matters so very little what we "profess" or how we name our experience. What matters more is how we proceed from, unite with, and abide in "the life and power of that which [we] profess."


Anonymous said...

Ouch! Liz, it's always wonderful to have your response to my words. But no, that is not the conclusion that I myself draw from Penington's words.

Penington himself is not saying that it doesn't matter how we name our experience. What he is saying is that it is not the mere naming of it that makes a true believer or a true church -- in other words, he is saying that it takes more than just naming it to accomplish what is needed. That is a very different assertion.

I personally believe that it may very well matter how we name the experience. For the name we give it may have associations in our minds that mislead us into going in wrong directions, and we may, as a result, never get to our goal of becoming true believers or a true church.

Liz Opp said...

Well, Marshall, now I'm a bit confused and could be helped to see more from you about Penington's passage.

To me, there is not much difference between my own affirmation and a summary statement I thought you were making about Penington.

My affirmation was that I am understanding that it doesn't matter so much how we talk about our experience as much as it does that we live by what we understand to be the Truth; and your summary statement of Penington was (as I read it) that "it takes more than just naming [our experience] to accomplish what is needed."

Are those two statements different? or are you pointing to the gathered spiritual body to which Penington refers? or something else?

On the other hand, if you are lifting up that you disagree with Penington--that you "personally believe that it may very well matter how we neame the experience," well, yes: you and I might not be on the same page.

That said, I agree that language affects thought and vice versa; and that language and culture (i.e. a communal way of life) are closely connected. Hence, what we say about our experience--of the Light, of God, of our beliefs, etc.--may well impact how we live into and as a result of that experience.

The briefer back-and-forths are helping me consider more seriously what your points are, so I'll be checking back to see if you've added anything more, to clarify what I might be missing or what-have-you.

Oh my, and I am overtired, which for me is seldom a good time to review early Quakers' writing!


Anonymous said...

Hi, again, Liz!

I'm sorry to have caused confusion.

Let me try to clarify.

You say your "affirmation was that ... it doesn't matter so much how we talk about our experience as much as it does that we live by what we understand to be the Truth."

Penington said that "the profession of truth" is not enough to make a "true believer", but "proceeding from, and union with, the truth itself", is needed.

Penington did not say that "how we talk about it" doesn't matter. He merely said it's not enough.

By way of analogy: one could say that water alone is not enough to make a cup of coffee, that you need coffee beans, too. That doesn't mean that water doesn't matter. It just means it's not enough.

Again, Penington did not say that living by what we understand to be the Truth is what matters. He said that proceeding from, and union with, the truth itself, is what matters.

We might note that "the truth itself" is not necessarily the same as "what we understand to be the Truth". Plenty of folk have made mistakes of understanding, down through the ages.

By way of analogy: it's not enough to use what we understand to be coffee beans to make a cup of coffee. If they're not really coffee beans, we won't get the desired result.

Thus, if what we understand to be the Truth differs from the truth, our living by what we understand to be the Truth may be okay by you, but not necessarily by Penington.

So far as I know, Penington never addressed the question of what a "minimum necessary" thing to say about the experience might be. Generally speaking, this was an area in which all early Friends (not just Penington) resisted being pinned down and having their stands reduced to exact formulations.

Friends (including Penington) did reject the Ranters and Münsterites for making wrong statements-out-of-experience (such as statements that sexual promiscuity was holy.) But for early Friends, right statements about experience arise from a right connection to God. As Penington said in The Life of a Christian, "All truth ... is ... a reflection from an intenser substance; ... the shadow is a true shadow, as the substance is a true substance." And so, what was important was not to have people subscribe to a right formulation of belief, but to check to see whether people's statements were such as would arise from the right beginning place.

In this way of thinking, it could be said that the Ranters made wrong statements because they began with the wrong substance -- a connectedness to the wrong place. The wrong statements were significant as indicators that the thing behind them was wrong. This was different from the usual Protestant stance that right statements are necessary in and of themselves. But it was not the same as saying that wrong statements -- "how we talk about it" -- don't matter!

So how do I differ from Penington?

Penington, along with most other early Friends, lived in a place and time where nearly everyone he knew proceeded from the same basic body of beliefs, including belief that the whole of the Bible was historically and doctrinally true. I do not live in such a place or time.

Thus I have had ample reason to ponder something that Penington and other early Friends did not ponder: namely, the effect that it has on people, who do not start from Biblical premises, to be exposed to the Quaker experience.

This has led me to understand that wrong beliefs and wrong statements do not merely emerge from wrong experience; they also tend to mislead people about the nature of a new experience they encounter, and to lead them by degrees out of that new experience into one that fits their old familiar beliefs better.

Example 1: U.S. conservatives, exposed to truth in a covered meeting, tend to distort it into U.S. conservatism, and proceed from there to conclude that it requires that we respond to the world in ways compatible with U.S. conservative doctrine. They wind up with services gathered not around the pure truth but around the power and principality of the state religion of America. A conservative Friends church I visited on my walk last summer sang as a hymn, on the Sunday preceding the Fourth of July, "America the Beautiful". An envangelical Friends meeting familiar to a Friend of mine had people marching in procession around the sanctuary, carrying an American flag, as part of the service after the September 11 attacks.

Example 2: U.S. liberals, exposed to the same truth, tend to distort it into U.S. liberalism, and proceed to conclude that we must respond to the world in ways compatible with U.S. liberal doctrine; they wind up with meetings gathered around the power and principality of U.S. liberalism. I know of an unprogrammed meeting not terribly far from Omaha whose monthly newsletter is overwhelmingly dominated by liberal political messages.

Example 3: Wiccans exposed to the same truth tend to distort it into Wicca. Wiccan members of an unprogrammed Quaker meeting I attended for a bit before moving to Omaha, tried to get their meeting's sponsorship for nocturnal Wiccan rituals to be held in the meetinghouse. I gently asked the meeting how it would feel if the rituals turned out to involve activities inconsistent with the meeting's own principles, and the newspapers got wind of it.

I don't think this observation, that different starting beliefs tend to lead people away from an encounter with pure truth in different directions, is incompatible with Penington's views, but it does go beyond what Penington himself said.

Liz Opp said...

Marshall -

This additional comment gives me more to chew on (as if I didn't have enough already!), and I appreciate the distinctions and expansions you offer here. I'll need to read it more thoroughly, and carry it with me for awhile too, when I'm more rested.

You seem to take some care with how you craft your responses--and your own posts--which I appreciate.


Robin M. said...

Dear Liz,

How did I miss this when it came out?

It seems to me that it is important to remember that just because you explained it once doesn't mean that it sank in or that people will remember what you meant to say. And not to take it personally that they didn't get it. My kids teach me that lesson every day. "How many times do I have to tell you to...?" Jesus said something about seventy times seven. Different context, but same point.

Another point that seems valid to me is that we don't always recognize when a meeting has grown too large. Our 50-80 person meeting frequently feels too big for worship but too small to be a viable institution.

Johan Maurer has written about the synergy of more than one kind of Quaker meeting in an area. This appeals to me in principle, but in fact, the meeting I'm in is feeding my spirit and my spiritual growth and so I don't think I need something else or something new.

And it is an ongoing question for me: by what authority do a group of people get to call what they're doing Quaker? From worship groups to schools to peace programs, how do we know? How do we draw lines of what is and what isn't Quaker? It's ripe for a lot of wrestling, I think.

Robin M.

Mark Wutka said...

Liz, I really like the points you brought out in the original post, I have a fFriend who is struggling with something similar right now. I have also enjoyed your discussion with Marshall about the Penington quote.

Marshall, I appreciate the points you have raised about the Penington quote , but it feels to me like you are reading your own views into it.

You said:
Penington said that "the profession of truth" is not enough to make a "true believer", but "proceeding from, and union with, the truth itself", is needed., but when I look back at the original quote, the word "enough" does not appear. His statement about true believers seems to me to say that profession of truth is not a criterion of being a true believer - It is not the profession of the truth makes a true believer.

I am struggling with this discussion, because I think I understand your points, and I generally agree with them, but I don't agree that the Penington quote necessarily supports them. I have been thinking about the coffee analogy, and my impression of what Penington is saying would be more along the lines of:
If you want to "have coffee", you have to get the essence of the bean inside you. While hot water can convey it to you, hot water is not the essence of the coffee, nor is the cup. Now, the question is, is the water necessary? What if I eat a chocolate-covered espresso bean? My interpretation of the Penington quote is that however the essence of the bean gets into you, that's the important thing. Beyond that, it is a question of how out religious society functions - how do we know it is coffee, what are the side-effects, etc. I think you are getting more into that, but it is not necessarily derived from Penington.

With love,

RichardM said...

Interesting posts and comments all. The issue of how theology (what we say and think) relates to authentic spiritual life (what we are) is an issue close to my heart. I had the leading a few years back to push North Carolina Conservative into an open discussion of theology. I did this through a Bible study I led at Yearly Meeting the first year, then in an open worship sharing on theology I led the second year and then in discussion groups held at YM the third year and in a discussion held at Representative Body in Virginia Beach.

This is how I'd summarize my understanding of the relation of our theological beliefs to our standing in the Truth. Having correct theological truths is not necessary. In fact, strictly speaking it is impossible. The reality of the Spirit is beyond the power of human conceptualization. Speaking in traditional language we'd say it was a mystery. This means that any attempt we make to describe the reality of Spirit will fall short and distort that reality to some degree. Think about how all flat maps necessarily distort the round Earth. So is it a good idea to throw out all maps? Not on your life. Maps are extremely useful things despite their distortions. In matters of theology we have different traditions of map-making. It is possible for two map-making traditions to be equally good at representing reality and have different characteristic strengths and weaknesses. It is also possible for some maps to be simply bad--to distort reality much more than the unavoidable minimum.

The atheists map of reality--which is the map that some liberal Friends actually use--is to my way of thinking simply a bad map. The Buddhists map of reality--again to my way of thinking--is just one that distorts spiritual reality in a way different from the Christian map.

When our civilization was pretty uniformly Christian people's maps looked pretty much the same. This was good and comforting in its way but contained the danger that individuals would forget that the map was distorted at all. That is to say they would be tempted to lose respect for mystery. Now we live in a time of theological diversity. People get a bit of training in Christianity and then pick up bits and pieces from Buddhism or Wicca or Confucianism. It's much more confusing overall. Personal maps constructing out of bits and pieces of many mapping systems might seem to be able to transcend the limitations of any one tradition but the fact of the matter is not quite so cheery. In truth they are frequently just wind up being messy.

I think it is a good thing for us individually and corporately to explore these personal maps and work on them a bit. A good map, even if its necessarily imperfect, is still a useful thing to have to help you get from point A to point B. Dogmatically antiChristian Friends who want to proscribe any thought or speech that represents a basically Christian map are not hurting not helping individuals to get their maps straight. Dogmatically Christian Friends who want to proscribe any thought or speech that does not issue from a basically Christian map are being equally unhelpful. But I see the value in withdrawing into a smaller tighter community of people who are all operating with some version of the same map in order to help each other work their maps into something more coherent.

This conversation is far from finished and I am pleased to see so many thoughtful people moving it forward.

Johan Maurer said...

I too am grateful for this exchange. I find it very chewy.

Please forgive a tangent. Robin said, "Johan Maurer has written about the synergy of more than one kind of Quaker meeting in an area. This appeals to me in principle, but in fact, the meeting I'm in is feeding my spirit and my spiritual growth and so I don't think I need something else or something new."

I don't think that everyone should want or need more than one expression of Friends (regular and decaf?) in their area. It's not to enhance any particular individual's experience that I'd advocate this. The advantages are (a) for non-Friends, who would thereby have more access to Quaker faith and practice (I'm assuming that is a good thing!!); and (b) for Friends meetings, to have this form of creative partnership to address the needs of people presently not adequately reached by the Quaker message.

A more negative way of putting this latter point: When there is no nearby fellowship of "another" kind, Friends sometimes seem to assume that they have a monopoly on defining Quakerism in their area, or (exaggerating, but not much, to make a point) that somehow the spiritual needs of a metropolitan area of millions of people are adequately provided for by one group of a few dozen Quakers. Of course, some of us feel that the spiritual needs of millions of people are none of our concern; I'm not in that group. I DO understand that some Friends are led to be personally concerned with outreach and evangelism, with all the issues that I label "access," while others are led in entirely different directions, and that is completely okay.

End of tangent. I really do appreciate the main points being made, and the tender tone as well!

Heather Madrone said...

Dear Liz,

There is something very precious about a smaller group of like-hearted Friends. My women's prayer group provides such an oasis for me inside my Meeting.

It sounds to me like some of your Friends are threatened and/or saddened by the idea that a smaller group can give you what they cannot. Perhaps they are afraid of losing you.

If you are still in fellowship with the broader Meeting, perhaps you could accept their feelings as a sign of their love for you and ask for their support in tending your own spiritual growth by moving forward with the worship group. What part of you is still served by that Meeting? In what ways are those Friends precious to you?

From my point of view, we Quakers need more Meetings and more places to gather. The birth of a new worship group is an occasion for joy.

Anonymous said...

Mark, I think the problem is that when I've written of Penington's position in his essay -- Concerning The Church, or of The Church State under the Gospel -- I've been speaking of his position in that essay as a whole. But I've only quoted one little passage from that essay, and you are thus reduced to trying to discern Penington's position from that one little passage read in isolation.

No wonder, then, that you don't see sufficient support for my reading of that passage, from the passage alone. You don't have access to the context.

In context, then --

Penington's essay opens with the assertion that he is writing because, among other things, "the corruption of the Christian doctrine ... hath been great (yea, indeed very great) since the days of the apostles." This is a statement that implies that doctrine does matter.

The question, then, is, how does it matter?

A page or so further in, Penington condemns "men's notions". "Away with your notions, and empty husks, O several sorts of professors!" he writes; "come to the thing itself, or rather wait on the Lord to be led to it...."

So the doctrine that matters isn't notional.

But a few pages further, Penington invokes I John 4:2-3, which I will quote for you from the translation Penington himself customarily used, the Authorised ("King James") Version: "Hereby know ye the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God: And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is it in the world." And that is a doctrinal test, although Penington would not call it "notional", since he regarded it as revealed by God rather than as arrived at by human minds.

Now we have a clue to Penington's meaning.

Penington then condemns those whose confession of Christ come in the flesh is in words alone. "He that preacheth Christ in words, and denieth him in works, whose works are not wrought in Christ, nor brought forth by Christ, his confession is but outward, but formal; it is no true confession."

Thus Penington rejects empty hypocrisy.

But he immediately goes on to remind us of John 10:27: "'My sheep,' saith Christ, 'hear my voice.' ... Man may be deceived, and caught in the snare; but the elect, the sheep, know the voice of the Shepherd from the voice of the stranger."

Thus there is such a thing as a true recognition of Christ, and a consequent true confession, and that, it would seem, is what John 4:2-3 refers to in Penington's view.

Now I think we can see the implicit distinction that Penington is making between the true confession that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (with all that such a confession would imply), and empty professions of faith. The latter, the empty professions, do harm, not good. But the former, the true confession, is a genuine proof of salvation, one which all truly saved spirits can make -- and will make, on demand -- and which all other spirits cannot and will not.

Returning then to my feeble "coffee" analogy: Penington is not really interested in the "water" in this particular essay; his focus is on delivering the message to empty professors of Christianity that they will get nowhere without the true bean.

Nevertheless, Penington's underlying logic, as it rests on John 10:27, shows that the true connection to the true bean will begin with a true recognition of the Jesus Christ who came in the flesh, and as it rests on I John 4:2, it shows that this same true connection will inevitably give rise to true doctrinal affirmations such as the spoken words "Jesus Christ came in the flesh" -- affirmations in words as well as in deeds.

Thus, bearing in mind that, in my analogy, I have made such affirmations the "water" in the "coffee", this amounts to saying that, while Penington would affirm that you might certainly take your coffee beans dry (say, in the form of chocolate-coated espresso beans), he would also affirm that this will not be the end of it. Sooner or later, once you've swallowed those dry beans, you will begin spilling over with the force of your own affirmations, a living water that flows out of you as if you yourself were a wellspring. (That's John 7:38 -- another verse that Penington refers to in this essay.)

And once you start spilling over in this way, you'll be your own coffee urn, providing genuine cups of gourmet coffee to whoever asks -- God's own truth (the coffee essence), dissolved in the outpourings of your own affirming words as well as your own deeds, and smelling like all the good mornings in the world.

But if those affirmations, in deeds and words -- including the words that Jesus Christ came in the flesh -- don't start flowing, it will raise a real question as to whether what you've swallowed is the real bean. (I John 4:3)

That, at any rate, is how I read the underlying logic here.

RichardM said...

Marshall, Mark and interested others,

While I haven't gone back to read more of Pennington than Marshall quotes I have to disagree with this reading of both John and what early Friends in general thought. I'll put it this way: I think that contrary to Christians who created creeds, early Friends had an understanding of the faith that saves as a change of heart and not a change of mind.

Here is a passage from Barclay "This saving spiritual light is the gospel, which the apostle says explicitly has been preached 'to every creature under heaven' the same gospel 'of which I Paul became a minister" Col 1:23 For the gospel is not merely a declaration of good things, "it is the saving power of God for everyone who has faith," Although the mere outwsrd declaration of the gosple is sometimes considered to be the gospel, this is actually only a figurative usage. Properly speaking, the gospel is theinward power and life which preaches glad tidings in the hearts of all men offering them salvation and atempting to redeem their iniquities. This is the reason for saying that it has been preached "to every creature under heaven" even though there are many thousands of men and women who have never heard the outward gospel preached.

So faith is available to those who have never even heard of Christianity. Such "anonymous Christians" (the phrase is Karl Rahner's) never speak or think about Christian doctrine let alone affirm any part of it. Nevertheless they are true Christians because they listen to the Inner Light and obey it. Of course the early Friends frequently and gladly proclaimed the gospel in words, but they didn't think that doing so was either necessary or sufficient for real faith.

Liz Opp said...


I want to take a moment to acknowledge the exchange that is going on and for the thoughtfulness and respect that seems to come through.

I have more to add to some of what is being lifted up here, but it will have to wait for when I am a bit more rested. Still, it's important to me that I not "disappear" from the conversation, even as it is growing.

I hope to chime in, bit by bit, as Way opens.


Anonymous said...

Richard, you say that you have to disagree with my reading of Penington and John. But it's not clear to me where you disagree. As far as I can tell, the points you make do not contradict anything I've written.

Could you perhaps clarify this matter?

RichardM said...


If you see nothing in what I've written that contradicts what you think then maybe it is just misunderstanding on my part. I thought you meant that the verbal expression of some basic Christian doctrine was necessary but not sufficient, if not immediately then at least as time goes by. You were stressing that it was not sufficient (mere professing isn't of any value without the "bean") but you seemed to be urging that it was necessary.

The difference between us may be minor or it may even be nonexistent. I'd even agree that a person who has experienced the fundamental turn of heart from natural selfishness to Christlike love will express this change not merely in actions but also in how they speak and what they say. What I would deny (I'm now unsure what you would say) is that the verbal expression would necessarily use any form of Christian language. This may seem like splitting hairs but what with the conflicts that develop over the use of Christian language in Quaker meetings (people being "eldered" for using the word "Christ" etc.) I feel it worth while to stress that each Friend should feel free to use whatever words come naturally to them.

Liz Opp said...

Robin - I often need the reminder to be patient when others are exposed to something that I myself have been involved in for a while. I appreciate the "seven times seventy" Scripture reference, despite its slightly different context. And the questions you raise about how we "draw lines" between what is and isn't Quaker are important issues--ones that require loving patience, thoughtful wrestling, and courageous searching with one another as we strive to answer them as a body and not as individuals.

Mark - I just had to chuckle at the continued use of the "coffee" metaphor. Sometimes metaphors work wonderfully; sometimes they fall short; sometimes they provide entertainment. That said, I do appreciate the kernel of tTruth you seem to be reaching for...

RichardM - Your map analogy works for me in a way the coffee analogy doesn't--maybe because I use maps but don't drink coffee! At the same time, my experience in having a few rich conversations with atheist/nontheist Quakers has helped me understand that many of these Friends abide in the Spirit because of the map they use, even though it is not a map like our own and even though they themselves do not identify with words like "God," "Spirit," etc.

Using the map analogy a bit further, I see it like this: in my own case, the liberal monthly meeting gave me one map of a fairly large piece of terrain. I noticed (or discovered) that in the map, there were some blank spots or areas that didn't seem to match my experience of the terrain. So I traveled to those "blank spots" and asked for help in filling them in (e.g. through reading, conversation, and intervisitation with other Friends), until the map seemed more intact and had fewer areas of discontinuity.

...I don't know if the map itself is more complete as a result, or if I've simply "zoomed in" on a certain area in order to help a portion of the map become more detailed. I just know that my experience of and travels within the land of Quakerism seem to have a consistency and congruency for me that was lacking before.

But as you point out, we would be wise to remember that no map can replace the terrain itself; and theology is not the same as living an authentic life.

I also resonate with your subsequent comment, that

faith is available to those who have never even heard of Christianity... [who] never speak or think about Christian doctrine let alone affirm any part of it... Nevertheless they... listen to the Inner Light and obey it.

That certainly reflects my own spiritual journey and the wrestling that I do about the secular (as opposed to primitive) Christian part of Quakerism.

Johan - Thanks so much for dropping by! I'd like to think that the worship group is working hard to maintain (or, if needed, repair) bridges between ourselves and the meeting(s) in town. We have a lot to gain by supporting one another in our spiritual journeys, being witnesses to one another, and being a presence in the community, despite theological differences. I think that's one of the reasons we've resisted identifying ourselves as a "split" from the monthly meeting, and it's one of the reasons we engaged in a private sort of Meeting for Worship for Healing, to return our focus to being two parts of the same body.

Heather - I appreciate your questions; they resonate with some of what I have been living with in recent months. Your comment also is a reminder to me that I must learn to see love in behaviors that are different from how I want to be shown love!

For Friends who want to read what Marshall, RichardM, and Mark are discussing, here's the essay by Penington: Concerning the Church or of the Church State under the Gospel whereby It May Appear.

Thanks to everyone for helping advance and deepen this important conversation. I feel stretched, called out, and supported.


Anonymous said...

Richard, friend, I was talking about the position Penington was taking, and very carefully distinguishing between his position and my own.

You began by arguing with my "reading of both John and what early Friends in general thought." (Your words.) That would seem to me to indicate that you wanted to disagree about the position that Penington was taking. However, your latest comment seems to talk only about what you, personally, think the modern Society of Friends should be like.

What John thought is one thing, what Penington thought is another, what I think is a third, what you think is a fourth. If we can't distinguish between them, we're going to have endless confusion, not a productive dialogue.

Penington was a universalist -- not a Unitarian-style universalist, believing that all religions have the same basic message, but an early-Quaker-style universalist, believing that all people have salvific access to Christ, the Guide, within them. Nevertheless, Penington also took I John 4:2-3 seriously, with all that that verse implies.

You may disagree on this point with Penington. You're very free to do so. But please don't confuse your views with his.

RichardM said...


You are right to point out that we need to distinguish between disagreeing with Pennington, disagreeing with someone's interpretation of Pennington, disagreeing with Pennington's interpretation of 1 John, disagreeing with someone's interpretation of Pennington's interpretation of 1 John... It can quickly get confusing. Let me try to clarify what I was disagreeing with.

I did not take myself to be disagreeing with Pennington but rather with your interpretation of Pennington and 1 John. Yes, Pennington quotes this passage but we disagree about what 1 John implies and about what Pennington (and Barclay) think that it implies.

The passage is often taken by exclusivist Christians to imply that you have to verbally assent to Christian doctrine to be a true Christian. There are of course a few other passages which they also cite as proof-texts in similar ways. I do not think that Pennington is using the passage in that way and I think that Christians who think that the passage implies the necessity of verbal assent are also misreading it.

I take 1 John to imply that a true Christian must recognize the authority of the Holy Spirit and distinguish it from men's opinions. Like the inclusivist Catholic theologian Karl Rahner I believe that this means that a Buddhist can be a true Christian while a professing Christian fails to be a true Christian. I take it as admitted on all sides that Pennington agree to the part about professing Christians not always being true Christians. Indeed that is the whole thrust of his essay. He doesn't explicitly address the question of Buddhists for obvious reasons. Does what the first epistle of John or Pennington says imply that Buddhists cannot be true Christians? Exclusivist Christians think that it does imply this. I say they are wrong. I say that recognizing the Holy Spirit and distinguishing it from the teachings to men is possible for people who have never heard about Jesus and will never hear about Jesus and never even think in those terms. It is a matter of recognizing the master's voice when you hear it. This is also possible for people in our culture who have also heard about Christianity but whose bad experiences with narrow-minded and hateful "Christians" lead them to be unable to use Christian language to describe their own experiences of listening to the master's voice. In other words they recognize the inward Christ when he speaks to them but they can bring themselves to say his name. Well, so what? A rose is a rose is a rose. Names don't matter.

Anonymous said...

Friend Richard, it sounds to me as if you are still missing the significance of the distinction between confession and profession.

What Penington, and all the early Friends, were critical of in their fellow Christians, was their fellow Christians' demand for a formal profession of Christian faith.

But what I John 4:2-3 asks for is a confession of faith -- the sort of thing that comes sincerely, spontaneously and unforcedly from the heart.

I John 4:3 says that any spirit (human or disembodied) that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, is not of God. It was perfectly possible for Penington, Barclay, and other early Friends to agree with this, without abandoning their position that professions of faith do more harm than good, without abandoning their confidence that a Jew or Turk may be a better Christian than some members in good standing of the Church of England, and without twisting the meaning of I John 4:2-3 in the slightest.

It seems to me, on the other hand, that because you do not take the time to distinguish between profession and confession, you are being forced into a very labored and unnatural reading of I John 4:3.

RichardM said...


Sorry you find my interpretation of first John labored and unnatural. We apparantly disagree about the best interpretation of confession. You seem to think, correct me if I am wrong, that confession requires the use of Christian language. On the other hand I think that it is purely a matter of the heart and that verbal formulations are unnecessary. Just as early Friends rejected water baptism and the actual sharing of physical bread in favor of more internal interpretations of baptism and communion, just so I interpret confession in a more internal way as to not require speech at all. Pennington contrasts a "confession of the mouth" with "true confession" which he says is a confession of the spirit. You seem to interpret this, again correct me if I misunderstand, as verbal expression combined with a sincere heart. I interpret it so as to make the movement of the heart essential and the verbal expression unnecessary. I find this a natural interpretation of both the epistle and of early Friends and regret that you do not agree.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Richard --

You write that I seem to think confession requires the use of Christian language. My answer is, it's the author of I John who thought this: he said that what makes the difference is a confession, specifically, that Christ has come in the flesh.

And this is the position that Penington cited approvingly.

It does seem to me that to read I John 4:2-3 as meaning that it doesn't have to be specifically a confession that Christ has come in the flesh, is to go against the plain sense of these sentences. Yes, I find such a reading labored and unnatural.

I agree that verbal formulations are unnecessary in Penington's understanding. It can be any sort of confession that Christ has come in the flesh; it doesn't have to follow a formula.

But it seems to me that a confession is more than just a movement of the heart. As the Oxford English Dictionary, Unabridged, seems to me to indicate, a "confession" is something given to another: as a disclosure, as an acknowledgment, or as a declaration.

And the Greek of thes verses in I John is even clearer on this point: it uses homologeô, a verb explicitly referring to things that happen in relationships, and meaning things like "to say the same thing as another", "to concede", and "to declare openly".

David Carl said...


Do you believe that a person who had never heard of the word "Christ" or its Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic equivalents, and with no knowledge of the existence of any form of Christianity, could still make such a confession? If so, could you provide an example of what that person's verbal confession might sound like?

In Friendship,

Dave Carl

Anonymous said...

Dear Dave Carl -- we are talking of Penington's position, not of mine. So what I believe is rather irrelevant to the issue.

I suspect, though, that Penington would have responded to your question by saying something along the following lines: "The person you describe may not have heard of Christ, but you and I have indeed heard of him. So if we are concerned about whether a person of this sort is of God or not, we can talk with him or her about Christ until Christ and his story makes sense to him/her, and then listen attentively to her or his response."

David Carl said...


It is not irrelevant to me.

In Friendship,


RichardM said...

I'll second that. Marshall, what canst thou say?

It's more relevant than what Pennington or the author of first John could say because 1) neither has more direct access to God than Marshall does 2) they aren't able to answer for themselves at the moment. I do think that some early Christians and this probably includes some of the authors of books of the New Testament were exclusivist Christians. I also think that exclusivist Christians are simply wrong about God. The Bible, as I read it, consists of the voices of many fallible human authors sincerely struggling to make sense of the Divine and in the process arguing with each other about both minor and major points. We moderns enter into the same dialogue and are no more and no less fallible than anybody else living or dead.

So, what canst thou say?

Anonymous said...

What I say, Dave Carl, RichardM, is that I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

That is, if and when I actually meet someone who has no knowledge of the existence of any form of Christianity, and I actually need to know whether she/he "is of God" or not, I'll look to the Spirit to show me a way.

-- Of course, I look to the Spirit to show me a way in any case, whether the person in front of me has any real acquaintance with Christianity or not --

Liz Opp said...

Though I haven't been reading too thoroughly the exchange between Marshall, Richard M, and Dave Carl--except for the last little bit, when the topic of confession was brought up--I thought I'd point to my own opening about what confession means to me, which I wrote about earlier.

I believe if we are truly to know one another in that which is eternal, we must make ourselves vulnerable by sharing what it is that we each believe; what it is that makes each of us tender; what it is that we each struggle with.

And to do that, while we might wrestle with the words of another text and analyze the author's intent, there may be times when we need to lay that discussion aside and return to prayer, worship, and gentle listening to one another's deepest heart and most tender spirit.

It may be that the discussion of Penington has run its course for the time-being. Each of us will need to discern that for ourselves. At the same time, I hope that something good has emerged as a result of everyone's participation here.