Is Quaker Culture an Obstacle to Faith?

Look, just as time isn’t inside clocks,
Love isn’t inside bodies:
Bodies only tell the love.

Yehuda Amichai

A theme underlying both the outgoing issue of Friends Journal (on racial justice among Quakers) and the previous issue (on the place of Christianity among Quakers) is that the thing we call Quaker culture1—the pattern of folkways by which people identify as being a Quaker, rather than something else—is in many ways an obstacle to faith, or a barrier to people who may otherwise be attracted to the Quaker message.2 In the former, a presumption of white bourgeois lifestyles among American Friends3 implicitly discourages people of color from being considered as equals; in the latter, a sidelining of the Christian tradition not only conveys a subtle prejudice against professing Christians both inside and outside the Society of Friends, but also bowdlerizes the Quaker tradition itself. I have noticed this theme in my own life, which is one reason I have started identifying as a Christian first, and a Quaker second.

I grew up Quaker, and even during those years when I was disengaged from the Society of Friends, being Quaker figured greatly in telling the story of how I came to be who I am. If Christianity came up at all, it was mostly by noting how Quakers supposedly weren’t like those other Christians, or even Christians at all. Since I became an active member of my local meeting again several years ago, the situation has flipped: I now understand myself to be part of the broader story of Christianity, of which Quakerism is one particular chapter.4

I have tended to describe this shift in understanding as the moment when Quakerism “clicked” for me—when it ceased to be just the weird subculture I grew up in, and more a matter of conviction. Practices that I ignored or never quite understood, like making group decisions without taking a vote, now made sense, because they were borne out of an attempt to make Christ the present teacher in all affairs. It also helped that I was finding links between the universalism of Quaker theology—that God seeks to redeem all people, regardless of whether they call themselves Christians or not—and the universalism promoted by modern-day Christians like Thomas Talbott. I didn’t have to accept that white American evangelicals had a monopoly on what Christianity could mean, as too often even their detractors seem to concede.

But trying to live out this conviction is harder than it looks. C.S. Lewis described something called “mere” Christianity—an understanding of the Christian faith that people of every denomination could accept—as being like a lobby, through which people pass on the way to the rooms where their respective denominations reside. But just as no one lives in the lobby of an apartment building, no one can live with a bare set of propositions about God and Jesus. Cultures of one form or another must always be present to put flesh on those bones.

In a sense, then, there is no Christian culture. There is Catholic culture and Orthodox culture and Presbyterian culture and Baptist culture—and yes, there’s Quaker culture, too. But the events that constitute the core of what Christianity is—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—are so far in the darkness of history that they may as well be the Big Bang or the extinction of the dinosaurs. Like those events, the ministry of Jesus doesn’t always show its influence in my day-to-day life; but that it occurred shapes my life profoundly.5 Even so, the culture of being Quaker is more deeply felt in terms of how I live today as an American in the 21st century. The question is, how is this culture connected to the truths to which it ostensibly points?

For my part, I have been trying to, not reject Quaker culture, but relativize it in favor of the truths it is meant to uphold. It’s a healthy impulse for all religions to do this. Arguably this failure to relativize is what makes Quaker culture unintentionally oppressive in the ways that the two previous Friends Journal issues have highlighted. It also leads to things like what Johan Maurer has observed: whereas most religious publishing considers first the needs of the audience (i.e., the issues that are important to them, like building healthy relationships or coping with illness), Quaker publishing focuses mainly on us: our history, our virtues, our foibles. The culture is, in a way, a safe ground to travel and a common point of reference, but it can’t get us to where we want to go; and removing it, or relativizing it, risks the unraveling of what unity we do have.

Is there a way out for Friends on this matter? I don’t know. I suppose the first step is just to help Friends recognize the difference between the culture and the faith, and that the faith is not fill-in-the-blank.

Footnotes

  1. Although sometimes I wonder if what we mean by Quaker culture is just the product of the fact that so many of the organs of official Quakerdom are in Philadelphia—much in the same way that American culture at large is often equated with the peculiarities of life in New York City by dint of the fact that much of the media industry is headquartered there.
  2. I would be remiss not to mention Samuel Caldwell’s broadside against Quaker culture from about 20 years ago. It doesn’t seem like much has changed in this regard.
  3. I suspect British Friends have many of the same problems, but as I lack personal experience with them, I’ll stick with American Friends.
  4. Mackenzie on Twitter calls this the distinction between “Christian Quaker” (in which Christianity is one theological variety among many, like Jewish Quaker or Pagan Quaker) and “Quaker Christian” (in which Quaker practices are how one lives a Christian life).
  5. This would seem to deny the Quaker belief in continuing revelation; but I think one upshot of what I’m arguing here is that even continuing revelation needs to have some sort of connection to the past, and the past is a foreign country.
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One thought on “Is Quaker Culture an Obstacle to Faith?

  1. During the clearness committee for my travel minute to visit Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting, I was asked how long I’d been a Friend, as a point they’d like to include in the minute. I said I’d attended meeting since 2009 but only been Convinced since about 2013.

    They were confused by this, but it’s when I flipped to identifying as Christian (from being a nontheist Quaker), and so, to me, it’s when I embraced Quakerism’s core rather than its periphery.

    Liked by 1 person

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