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.

Continue reading “Is Quaker Culture an Obstacle to Faith?”
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What is Renewal?

The Quaker way offers us a key to recognising what is authentic within any religious tradition, including Christianity, and distinguishing it from the distortions of power, privilege, literalism and dogmatism that tend to corrupt every human enterprise. Whatever stories and images display the guiding power of the Inward Light, in any tradition, can help to reveal the life of the Spirit and encourage us to encounter it for ourselves.

Craig Barnett

Reverend Doctor Robyn

It captures and concretizes the wordless, ephemeral moments of bliss and sorrow that come when you’re in a crush of strangers, unsure of the future. It marks a new phase in Robyn’s ongoing project, in which the force of her conviction continues to hold together what often seems impossible, musically or otherwise: maximum sadness, felt as the bedrock of absolute joy.

Jia Tolentino: “Honey,” Reviewed: Robyn Has Returned, and She Has What You Want

My approach to theology more-or-less can be summarized in those nine words.

What we’re for

Sometimes we Quakers are a little too good at being against things. We’re against war. Against slavery. Against injustice of all kinds. But this is what we are for: The light shining in the darkness. The healing Spirit hovering over the troubled waters of our soul and our society. The crucified Jesus whose life judges the blindness and hatred of this world.

At our best, Quakers aren’t against water baptism. We don’t need to be. It’s just a form that has fallen away. It served its purpose, but now the real baptism is here. If pouring water over your head makes you feel closer to God – go ahead. Or ask a friend to anoint you with oil. Or perhaps we could lay hands on you and pray, that you might receive the Holy Spirit. God wants us to reach out to him, no matter what form we choose.

But don’t yield to fear. Don’t let anyone tell you that a ritual is required for your relationship with God. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re going to hell because you didn’t check a liturgical box. Fear doesn’t come from God; and neither does water baptism that functions as fire insurance.

Micah Bales

Performative Ecstasy

Morgan Guyton (via Fred Clark):

There’s no way to distinguish fairly between people who are genuinely fired up about Jesus and people who are performatively On Fire For Jesus, but a culture that promotes zeal as a value in and of itself creates a lot of pressure to put your piety on display for others.

The post is mainly concerned with evangelical Christianity, but the dynamic it points out should be concerning for any faith that makes feeling it the primary unit of worship—like, say, Quakers. There’s a passage in Beyond Majority Rule where Michael Sheeran, a Catholic priest, compares Quaker worship, particularly the phenomenon of the gathered meeting, to the Catholic rite of the Eucharist. He notes that, while Quakers like to say that the experience of God in the gathered meeting is like the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, Catholic doctrine holds that the presence is there whether the worshippers experience it or not. So much of our spiritual life revolves around being led, being accompanied, touching and even tasting the Spirit; but if it’s not there, what fills the void? Or rather, what are we willing to call the presence of the Spirit, even if its provenance is doubtful? As Guyton notes, evangelical culture promotes zeal for zeal’s sake, or a sort of enforced positivity; among Quakers, I’ve seen everything from white middle-class ethics to revolutionary politics fill in as substitutes. We should take care, then, not to baptize our own passions, or make them into idols.

Distilling the living water

I believe we will only co‐create a racially diverse Religious Society of Friends within our Friends meetings, churches, and institutions when we take these steps:

1. We, especially white Friends, identify white, middle‐class, patriarchal cultural norms.
2. We, Friends of all races together, distill the living water of our faith tradition.
3. We, Friends with Spirit, reorient that which we center according to those norms of that living water, in spiritual and material ways.

These three challenging steps can allow each person to freely claim his or her rightful seat at the table unfettered by white, Anglo‐Saxon, Protestant culture (despite early Friends roots being in that very culture). They help build our community’s foundation not on whiteness but on the Source of our being, which harmoniously holds us all, in our unity and uniqueness, as beloved.

Viv Hawkins. This month’s Friends Journal, on the legacy of racism within the Society of Friends, is uncommonly good. So far, this and Vanessa Julye’s history of Quakers of color grappling with racism by white Quakers are my favorites. I had long ago dispensed with the story of Quakers being the so-called Good Guys of religious history, but this issue has reinforced just how depressingly ordinary we can be in our propagation of destructive social norms.

Flashes and fragments

The love of God is not a thing one comprehends
but that by which — and only by which — one is comprehended.
It is like the child’s time of pre-reflective being,
and like that time, we learn it by its lack.
Flashes and fragments, flashes and fragments,
these images are not facets of some unknowable whole
but entire existences in themselves, like worlds
that under God’s gaze shear and shear and, impossibly, are:
untouching, entangled, sustained, free.
If all love demands imagination, all love demands withdrawal.
We must create the life creating us, and must allow that life to be — 
and to be beyond, perhaps, whatever we might imagine.
I, too, am more (and less)
than anything I imagine myself to be.
“To know this,” says Simone Weil, “is forgiveness.”

Christian Wiman. Probably not the most representative part of the poem, but it’s the most quotable.

Advices to Ministers & Elders

I’m posting here (because I don’t see it elsewhere beside scanned public domain books) this collection of advices for Quaker ministers and elders published by London Yearly Meeting (now Britain Yearly Meeting) in the early 19th century. Most of it concerns speaking in meeting for worship and how to do it rightly, although some of it touches on traveling in the ministry and personal conduct generally. It’s dated in some places (there’s even a version of the Billy Graham rule!), but I find that a lot of it makes sense and even has opened my eyes in some ways to what Quaker worship can be. For example, the advice to not make a big deal out of being divinely inspired to speak, because all that matters is that the words spoken have a “baptizing” effect on the listener, has been encouraging to me in speaking during worship. Likewise, the advice against prophesying “in their own spirits against any nation, town, people, or person” is something a lot of us need to hear when it comes to political topics being brought up in meetings. In any case, I hope you find this similarly useful.

Continue reading “Advices to Ministers & Elders”

The only possible piety

The casual way that American Christians have of talking about God is not simply dispiriting, but is, for some sensibilities, actively destructive. There are times when silence is not only the highest, but the only possible, piety.

Christian Wiman (via Alan Jacobs)

Posted here for obvious reasons. Pair with this advice from North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative):

Prayer and thanksgiving are an important part of worship. May they be offered in spirit and in truth, with a right understanding, seasoned with grace. When engaged therein, avoid many words and repetitions, and be cautious of too often repeating the High and Holy Name of God. Neither let prayer be in a formal and customary way, nor without a reverent sense of Divine guidance.

The dead end of religious liberty

Fred Clark:

“Religious liberty” no longer refers to the constitutional principle enshrined in the First Amendment. It is a buzzword, a misleading slogan asserting religious privilege exclusive to a particular variety of politically conservative Christian — which is to say a privilege only for the kinds of Christians who always and only support the Republican Party.

I’m increasingly convinced that religious liberty in the United States has become a dead end, in part because of the way in which the concept has been abused in recent years by Hobby Lobby and others. Rather than being a shield to protect people of faith from state coercion, it has become a sword to hack away at the foundations of civil society—the very idea that there are things we must hold in common if we are going to have any kind of polity. It probably merits a post of its own, but this also applies to the tradition of war tax resistance and/or advocacy for a peace tax fund that many Quakers have participated in. At a time when the things that bind us together as a society are so fragile, I’m wary of efforts that smack of isolating oneself from the sins of the world, rather than building solidarity in hopes that, God willing, those sins might be overcome.