Quaker Faith & Podcast on Plainness

This is a really good episode. The leveling up/leveling down question, in particular, is important for Quakers to think about—not just with respect to plain speech and dress, but also with respect to the place that Quakers occupy in contemporary (North American and British) society. If we’re mostly white and middle class, then it makes sense to find ways for us to check our privilege, for lack of a better term. But what message does that send to people who are poor or face discrimination due to race, disability, or sexuality? “You, whom society already demeans and effaces, demean and efface yourself some more”—that’s hard to square with the promises of the gospel.

In fact, this speaks to a contradiction in the testimony of plain speech and dress that goes back to the early days of Quakerism. Here’s Robert Barclay:

And if a man be clothed soberly and without superfluity, though they may be finer, than that which his servant is clothed with, we shall not blame him for it: the abstaining from superfluities, which his condition and education have accustomed him to, may be, in him, a greater act of mortification than the abstaining from finer clothes in the servant, who never was accustomed to them.

So we can imagine Mark Zuckerberg and his assistant both wearing t-shirts and jeans, but one of them buys from, say, DKNY or Kenneth Cole, while the other buys from Target or Wal-Mart. This would count as a responsible form of plain dress, per Barclay. But as Mackenzie and Micah point out, this arrangement masks the vast inequality in wealth and power between the two. And though the early Quaker movement was egalitarian in many respects, their radicalism didn’t really extend to overturning the economic structures of English society, in the way that the Diggers, for example, did.

One thing worth reading in this regard is a post by Richard Beck in which he discusses the theological concept of kenosis (or self-emptying) and how it looks different for people at the top of society versus people at the bottom. In short, if kenosis at the top means giving up your privileges and self-importance, then kenosis at the bottom has to mean ridding yourself of the self-loathing that makes you think you deserve to be at the bottom. Otherwise you’re just preaching abuse to the already abused. That awareness of the two different meanings of kenosis is something worth cultivating.

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Who Is Anna March? (probably not a Quaker)

This story of a con artist in the literary world is worth reading on its own, but the passing detail here is worth lingering over (NB: Kruse was one of Anna March’s aliases):

The contract had landed, in part, thanks to Barbara Appleby, a public radio fundraising consultant Kruse had hired — and charmed. “She played up her Quaker background and her feminist beliefs,” recalls Appleby. “She said her mother was high up in the press office, that she was press secretary for Carter … . Why wouldn’t I believe her?”

As Annalee on Twitter notes, flaunting one’s Quakerism as a way to demonstrate one’s honesty is, to put it charitably, not Quakerly. The image of Quakers as uniquely trustworthy is founded on a few scraps of historical truth—e.g., the refusal of Friends to swear oaths (because it implies one would lie in other circumstances) or Quaker merchants replacing haggling with fixed prices (because charging two different prices for the same thing is wrong)—but it doesn’t give a true account of actual Quaker behavior through the ages, and certainly not today. Grifting on the order of Anna March may not be common, but I can think of a few cases in recent memory in which gross financial mismanagement has plagued Quaker communities. A prominent example can be found in Larry Ingle’s account of the time the treasurer of his meeting was caught embezzling over $33,000. Fortunately, that story had a happy ending, as the treasurer committed to repaying the meeting in full.

Another thing to point out with respect to the Anna March story is that appealing to (real or imagined) Quaker honesty has a long history in the United States, of which the Quaker Oats brand (invented by a Presbyterian!) is only the most egregious case.

Past the shallows of moderation

Steven Davison:

But there’s more to our unease with evil than believing that we all have a divine spark. I think we associate evil with theism and with the traditional Christian understanding of divine judgment and the war between good and evil that’s implicit in that worldview. And this links in with our cultural distaste for conflict in general.

Because “evil” calls for a much more radical response than mere human brokenness and mental disease, which are our usual alternatives. One feels called to a kind of spiritual warfare if you face a kind of spiritual darkness—a la the Lamb’s War. I suspect that modern liberal Quaker sensibilities and sensitivities are loathe to wade past the shallows of moderation into the deep waters of spiritual warfare. I myself can’t help but be repelled by the image of Bible-thumping evangelicals quoting Ephesians on the whole armor of God—while I am also weirdly attracted to it.

So taking evil seriously does cause problems. But so does denying its existence.

Could Quakerism be the radical faith that the millennial generation is looking for?

A few thoughts on this by Chris Venables:

  • Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, while cliché, continues to be a useful heuristic.
  • A commenter on Facebook had a brutally pithy response: “At least some parts of our culture seem more eager for our message than has been the case in a long time. I’m not sure, though, that they are especially eager for our Society.”
  • It so happens that I was talking recently with a young Friend who goes to the college near my local meeting. He had started a Quaker worship group on campus, but it never got off the ground due to lack of interest. So there’s a data point against this article’s thesis.
  • Progressive faith traditions, including Quakerism, are all falling off a cliff in terms of membership, which suggests a deeper disengagement with institutional religion that a better social media game or a more streamlined church bureaucracy won’t solve.
  • I’d put the dilemma of Quakerism in the 21st century this way: It’s not just that our treasures are in jars of clay, it’s that no one would even know the treasures were there, and it seems like they’re easier to find elsewhere. And how do we know that what we have are even treasures?

A New Mutation

If, as seems undeniable, the current form of the Quaker way is on a gradual but steady path towards extinction through failure to renew its numbers, perhaps this is evidence of a lack of ‘fit’ with the underlying reality of human beings’ need and desire for profound experiences of spiritual reality. In this case, perhaps the path towards renewal is not by returning to the cultural forms that were well-adapted to the society and culture of a previous Christian culture. Neither is it necessarily to be even more conformed to contemporary culture, if that means failing to meet the deep and compelling spiritual needs that are ignored or denied by a purely secular society. Instead, the renewal of the Quaker way may depend on a new ‘mutation’ in its language, imagery and concepts, that enables it to answer the deepest human needs in a way that fits their experience and the reality of our society, now and in the future.

Craig Barnett

The Difference Between a Gathered Meeting and a Focused Meeting (3)

One additional thought: any discussion of gathered meetings for worship would be incomplete without mentioning Michael Sheeran’s book Beyond Majority Rule, and especially Martin Kelley’s commentary on it. In my previous posts, the distinction between gathered and focused meetings seemed connected to one’s religious outlook, and thus related to the divide between Christ-centered and universalist Quakers that has bedeviled our faith for centuries. But as Sheeran and Kelley argue, the more fundamental divide in the liberal branch of Quakerism is between those who seek contact with the divine and those who don’t. Kelley in particular notes the particular historical context for this division:

The unstated condition behind the great Quaker reunifications of the mid-twentieth century was a taboo against talking about what we believe as a people. Quakerism became an individual mysticism coupled with a world-focused social activism – to talk about the area in between was to threaten the new unity.

It’s been about 15 years since that post was written, and that in-between area, a community life that nurtures and shapes both individual devotion and social concerns, still feels like the most underdeveloped part of Quakerdom. We would do well to pay more attention to it.

The Difference Between a Gathered Meeting and a Focused Meeting (2)

Reader Mary Linda writes concerning this post:

I would add that while my experience of gathered worship isn’t common–it doesn’t happen with frequency or regularity–it is also not that rare. […] Gathered worship isn’t contingent on everyone believing the same thing or sharing a common awareness or even expectation; it is really about everyone being open to the leading of the Holy Spirit, whatever they call it. I’ve even been in gathered worship during a business meeting with teenagers and at least one non-theist adult that was profound in its spiritual depth. It was possible because, in spite of our differences in understanding, we were all present to the work of Spirit and we trusted in that, even when we didn’t all understand what we were trusting in.

This is really insightful, and has made me rethink my original post. It is certainly true that the fact of people having their own perspectives doesn’t prevent their becoming gathered in worship. I suppose that the distinction between gathered and focused really comes down to what it means to be open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. Do we expect that turning our attention, or rather our most inward selves, toward God will change us? Or do we think nothing special is going on and we can proceed normally?

Francis Howgill famously described the experience of the first Friends thus: “The Kingdom of Heaven did gather us and catch us all, as in a net…” For me, that image points to what I’m getting at: if you’re swept up in a net, you’re off balance; you don’t have the same certainty about yourself and your surroundings as you did before. Part of what it means to be gathered is that uncertainty, that trust in something even if you don’t fully understand it. A focused meeting, by contrast, may have the same seriousness of purpose, but is more settled in what it’s doing and what it expects—as if resisting the net being thrown over it.

The Difference Between a Gathered Meeting and a Focused Meeting

An elder Friend once made this distinction:

From time to time, unprogrammed Quaker worship results in what’s called a gathered meeting, in which the presence of the Holy Spirit becomes especially palpable, lifting the worshippers out of their usual mindsets and perspectives. (Thomas Kelly’s essay on the gathered meeting remains the best description of what it is and why it is so important.) Gathered meetings are revered among Quakers, but are rare to the point that, it is said, almost no Quaker alive today could be said to have experienced one. I know I haven’t.

More frequently, to the extent that meetings for worship have any cohesion at all, they are focused meetings; that is, the worshippers are all paying attention to some spiritual principle, but each from their own perspectives. So for liberal Friends, a focused meeting might have Christians waiting upon the Lord; universalists seeking the Inner Light; pagans getting in touch with nature; Buddhists letting go of attachments; non-theists seeking a feeling of peace; etc. Even in meetings where there is more uniformity of theological opinion, there can be wide variation in how they are approaching worship or in what they imagine the object of worship to be. While this state of affairs is preferable to meetings in which Friends are disengaged or merely using them as a platform for their hobbyhorses, it nevertheless is a pale shadow of the gathered meeting as described by Kelly and other Quakers of past generations.

That said, I have experienced moments in worship when the usual boundaries between people melt a little bit and make room for forces besides our individual egos to act. At one recent meeting, for example, I had something on my mind, and another Friend rose and spoke on that very topic, albeit with different words. That kind of experience gestures toward the feeling of being gathered as earlier Quakers described it, but there’s a long road we would still have to walk to get there.