April 17, 2007

Membership and identity

Over on the nontheist Friends website, James R has posted his take on the basis of Quaker membership. I find that while I feel I have something to say about membership in the Religious Society of Friends, Way is not open for me to explore that topic head-on just yet.

Instead, I found myself turning to consider membership and identity side by side.

I think of one's membership as one's participation in a group to which she or he has chosen to belong; and I think of identity as one's self-concept or self-identification in relation to a group that reflects that person's own self-understanding.

Yet the concepts of membership and identity can be thought of as close cousins, or two sides of the same coin, especially when one's membership in a group stretches over a long period of time... to the extent that the person's identity may become intricately knit or wedded to being an active, long-time member of the group.

Similarities and differences between membership and identity

I have realized that there appears to be much in common between membership and identity:

  • Both membership in a group and an identity with a group develop and evolve over time.

  • The evolution of one's membership and of one's identity over time is impacted by personal experiences within the group and by shared experiences of the group (e.g. life transitions, handling of conflicts, celebration of holidays, response to world events, etc.).

  • Membership and identity involve a peer group or cohort--others who are going through what we are going through, and others with whom we might check out our assumptions, our reactions, our concerns.

  • Membership and identity could be multigenerational, carried from one generation to the next.

  • Membership and identity carry expressions of implicit and explicit norms, expectations, and values held by the group.

  • One's membership and one's identity imply that the individual is headed in the same general direction and faces the same challenges as the rest of the group, at least most of the time.

  • On the other hand, there are some important differences between membership and identity:
  • One's membership to a group is typically only part of one's life, whereas one's identity is the grounding of one's life. We might find that we must give up our membership to a group because of some violation to our core principles, for example, but we will retain our identity nonetheless. On the other hand, if we give up our identity, we lose ourselves, and membership in a group may become superficial or may be an attempt to meet our psychological need to belong.

  • Membership is often consciously chosen or even pursued, especially after childhood or adolescence, and it evolves for as long as the membership is intact; but one's identity is, at least initially, unconsciously acquired and developed from infancy, shifting and evolving from birth to death.

  • Similarly, the behaviors, norms, and expectations are often learned or even studied as part of one's membership, whereas the behaviors, norms, and expectations that extend from a person's identity are most likely acquired unknowingly.

  • With membership, there is usually some form of self-selected give-and-take, such as paying dues in exchange for receiving benefits. With one's identity, there is a sort of unconditional, often automatic inclusion within the group.

  • With membership, the individual is a part of the group because of what she or he does: "You're a part of us because of how you participate." For one's identity, though, the individual is a part of the group because of who the individual is: "You're a part of us because of who you are."
  • My membership among Friends and my identity as a Friend

    My own membership among Friends is a bit tricky since I feel I have integrated my membership in the Religious Society of Friends as part of my identity, part of my grounding for who and how I am.

    When I first sought membership in the monthly meeting, I was going through an identity shift from being a Quakerly Jew to being a Jewish Quaker. The membership clearness process lasted several months as I sought to reconcile my initial identity as a Jew with my developing identity--my consideration of membership--as a Friend.

    The tipping point for me was when I realized and accepted that I could not be happy, I could not "live up to my measure of Light," I could not become what God was asking me to become by holding onto Judaism.

    (The story is much longer than that, but this post is long enough as it is!)

    As I have said, I didn't automatically claim the identity "Quaker" when I became a member of the meeting. What changed, though, with my membership was that I more intentionally became part of the world of Quakers: I involved myself with committee work; I attended Meetings for Worship with attention to Business; I read more about Quakerism.

    These were conscious choices, made over time.

    But Quakerism didn't become part of the grounding of my being until years after I had started worshiping among Friends.

    I unknowingly took up the identity of "Quaker" some time after I began serving on a large (120+ Friends), Spirit-led committee that helped me link my own deeply held, then-unnamed values with specific outward practices I had not previously understood or knew about.

    The combination of many years among Friends; years of service on a disciplined committee that drew on Quaker traditions and vernacular to carry out its business; and personal relationships with Friends who supported my growth as a Friend all aligned with my experience-based faith in a loving Principle that binds us together.

    Even though there is great theological diversity across the spread of the Religious Society of Friends, I regularly see my own best self reflected in the lives and words of Friends for whom I have a great deal of love and tenderness. Unknowingly, my identity as a Quaker has been consistently affirmed by these other Friends, who also live (or in one case, had lived) their lives from their grounding as Quakers.

    Many of them are Conservative or Conservative-leaning Friends, and I now understand why I speak of my membership within Liberal Friends but I speak of my identity as a Conservative-leaning Friend.

    What I am reaching for

    I think what I am reaching for here is that, understanding the close connection between membership and identity, I find myself less eager to judge Friends who treasure their participation in and their identification with Quakerism.

    So I must live into the paradox of carrying a concern for how we convey our faith and its traditions while also caring for persons whose identity is Quaker, just like my own.

    I sense I have not quite arrived at the core of what drew me to write about membership and identity, yet I have worked on this post for a number of days and then have let it season a while. My hope is that many of you in your comments will help advance the conversation, which may in turn help to draw out what it is that lives in me that I am still laboring to reach.

    As always, thanks for reading me.


    Here's a related post from Cat that offers more to chew on, at Quaker Pagan Reflections...

    ...and a subsequent quick-to-follow post from the other half of Quaker Pagan Reflections, Peter.


    Robin M. said...

    I know that I self-identified as a Quaker for a couple of years before I was settled enough to become a member of a specific meeting. In fact, it was the dissonance of wanting to publicly identify myself as a Friend but not feeling free to do so that nudged me to formally apply for membership.

    My identity as a Friend has shifted several times in my fifteen years of attending meetings. Starting from the instant sense of finding a religious tradition that reinforced the things I believed and didn't require assent to beliefs I didn't hold. Passing to a sense that Quaker practices call(ed) me and enable me to be more the person God created me to be. And now I am being opened to consider that some of my earlier beliefs were not completely true, or not the whole truth anyway. Quaker practices and particular Friends are both pushing me and supporting me and comforting me as I walk farther out on this ledge. I am both afraid and confident that I will fly when I come to the edge of what I know, rather than fall into a pit. My membership now represents a bind on my meeting as much as on me to stay with me through this next stage of my identity as a Quaker.

    Anonymous said...

    Dear Liz, I thought this was a marvelous essay, even for you. I much appreciated it!

    I have had a few immediate thoughts:

    1) Because of the unusual way that Quakerism is grounded in Christianity, and through Christianity in Judaism -- a way which is quite unlike the way Catholic and Protestant Orthodoxy are grounded in the two -- I see no special reason why Quakerism should be held to be in conflict with a Jewish identity. Yes, Quakerism challenges Jewish rituals just as it challenges Christian rituals; but modern Quakerism does not forbid them. And yes, Conservative Quakerism in particular calls us to a discipleship under Christ, but Conservative Quakerism is a whole lot more conscious than Catholic and Protestant Orthodoxy are of the fact that Christ was endeavoring to bring his followers back to the religion of the ancient Jewish prophets.

    Quakerism certainly does not deny any of the ancient Jewish truths, or the importance of the special Jewish identity. And it certainly shuts no doors against Jewishness, the way so much "christian" prejudice does.

    I would hope, then, that your own Quakerism never seems to shut any doors in your life against the community you have come from.

    2) There are a couple of (to my way of thinking) very important difference between membership in a group, and self-identification with a tradition, that you do not seem to speak about.

    One of these differences is that membership in a group gives the group permission to make demands of you, and even make changes in you, whereas self-identification with a tradition leaves the reins of your life in your own hands. Thus membership is communitarian, while identification is individualistic.

    And the other, related difference is that membership in a local Quaker community involves a certain measure of loss of one's own separate identity, as one comes to live and breathe as a part of the group. You forget that you are separate -- just as you do in a close friendship or a good marriage. Self-identification may do that, too, but it does not necessarily do that. Membership in a local Quaker community necessarily does that.

    You know, when I hear people claim that they are Quaker because they identify themselves as Quaker, regardless of their lack of formal membership, what distresses me above all else is the fact that they are claiming the power and right to alter what this community that they're attracted to is by the simple fact of their own presence, while granting the community no answering power and right to alter them. This is a power play on these individuals' part, even though they don't see it as such. In the places where it has been permitted to proceed, I think it has visibly hurt Quakerism.

    Anonymous said...

    Hi Liz,

    Thank you for this post. I've been dealing with questions of membership and identity especially since resigning my membership. Having much the same concern as Marshall, I do not feel I can in good faith call myself a Quaker, being neither a member nor an active participation in a meeting.

    Over the course of twenty years, "Quaker" became a core part of my identity, and now I am faced with the questions "What am I? Who am I?" The situation is made more pointed by my work: as a religious employee, I often have conversations that go like this:

    "I work for the Unitarian Universalists."

    "That's cool. I've thought about going to AB Church. Which church do you belong to?"

    "I'm not a UU."

    "What are you?"

    And I find I no longer have a ready answer.

    It's disconcerting, and uncomfortable, not to have a ready answer, but I think it is inherent in the questioning and, I hope, growing time in which I've found myself.

    Liz Opp said...

    Robin -

    Thanks so much for dropping by. I know life is BUSY for you these days. ...Like you, I find that my own beliefs and understandings are being stretched and/or transformed by being among Friends, far beyond how I thought they could be. I don't feel like I'm about to break, though. Instead, I feel like I could be called out even further somehow, if that makes sense.

    Marshall -

    I take it your opening comment--"a marvelous essay, even for you"--includes a healthy dose of humor...? If it doesn't, you can tell me so privately by email! smile

    You raise the question that I have had to face, over and over again: Given that [early] Christianity is grounded in Judaism, "I see no special reason why Quakerism should be held to be in conflict with a Jewish identity."

    The thing is, as a Jew, I was raised with [read: indoctrinated with] the message that Jews do not believe in Jesus; Jews do not accept Christ. Period. So the logic that you present and that I have since considered, as I have grown in my understanding of Jesus'/Yeshua's relationship to Judaism, just doesn't count. Not for me, anyway. That's the power of indoctrination, I guess.

    But what's so cool about where I am now in my understanding, is that when a dear fFriend recently said to another Friend when the three of us were together that she has known Christ's love in me, I could hear that and not get "triggered."

    I also appreciate the description that you offer about Conservative Quakerism, that it is "more conscious" than other faiths. I hadn't thought of it that way, but there is resonance in that statement for me.

    Also, your hope is well met, that my own Quakerism doesn't "shut any doors" against the Judaism I grew up with--though it certainly cautions against empty rituals and forms. In fact, my grounding in Quakerism has made me less afraid to revisit and learn more about Judaism, as though I have a clearer view of that faith tradition because I am further from it. I still visit the Velveteen Rabbi from time to time.

    I also appreciate the distinctions you raise, beyond what I have offered, between membership and identity/self-identification. I differ a bit with you, though, about the statement that "membership in a local Quaker community involves a certain measure of loss of one's own separate identity."

    I see the "loss of one's separate identity" on a continuum, with Liberal Friends preserving a greater sense of individualism than I have experienced among Conservative Friends.

    If you have other thoughts in response to this post and related comments, more than your initial "immediate" ones, I trust you'll offer them here.

    Kenneth -

    I appreciate the "in-between place" where you find yourself. Much of my letting go of my Judaism, before I came to Friends, was filled with the same questions you are currently facing about identity.

    Personally, I find nothing wrong with answering truthfully when asked, "Well, if you're not a UU, what are you?" Can you not reply truthfully, "I am in-between faiths right now and am living into that answer"?

    ...But my guess is, you are searching for just how to put words to where it is exactly that you find yourself, so I don't wish to put words in your mouth. It's like when I don't want to answer the question, "How are you?" with the expected answer, "Fine," when that's not at all the truth of how I am, in the moment. Like you say, it's uncomfortable and disconcerting.

    Still, I have always appreciated the care with which you have approached tender circumstances, and I trust you are finding your way, even when you feel lost for a while.

    You are in my thoughts.


    Anonymous said...

    Um, no, Liz, I wasn't being humorous in my opening comment. You often write outstanding essays, but I thought in all seriousness that this one was marvelous even for you.

    And I'm glad to hear you're transcending the "triggers". That's a difficult attainment. I've had to struggle to do something similar with the straight-laced Calvinism I was brought in. Amazing how deeply our childhoods imprint us.

    The Velveteen Rabbi (great name) is generally too technical for a poor non-Jew like me. But I can certainly appreciate great rabbis when they're willing to take the time to teach me at a level I can understand. I met Arthur Waskow once, years and years ago, and had a chance to chat with him for twenty minutes or so. He corresponded with me by e-mail for a while after that, too. (We had Biblical environmentalism in common, you see.) It was quite a treat for me.

    Yewtree said...

    This discussion of membership and identity has been very interesting for me (started reading the discussion at QuakerPagan Reflections and then came here) as I am currently moving beyond labels but also wanting to find a group that I can be a member of with integrity - though I agree with Marshall that part of the purpose of a group is mutual accommodation. Thanks!

    Liz Opp said...

    Yvonne -

    Thanks for visiting and for leaving a comment. I see you've commented elsewhere on The Good Raised Up, so I have some catching up to do!