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.
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.
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.
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.
I had been kicking around writing something on the uses and abuses of creeds in the Quaker tradition, but then I discovered that Ben Wood had written a fairly definitive version of that essay already. So read that instead.
THOMASINA: Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library…. How can we sleep for grief?
SEPTIMUS: By counting our stock.
Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
Something has been lost, or is in the process of being lost, or is going to be lost if nothing is done. Every religion and every culture faces this reality when the question of its survival is raised. For Christians, it is especially disconcerting because of their relationship to the past. The gospel is not, we say, something that you would stumble upon in ordinary life or suss out through one’s own reason. Rather, it is rooted in particular events at specific points in history. Jesus of Nazareth, in the reign of the emperor Tiberius, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, etc. Part of the work of the church, then, is historic preservation: to show that those events of millennia ago make claims upon us living today, and for all time. This task is relatively easy when Christianity is the dominant culture, and thus the forces of cultural conservatism can be pressed into its service. But what happens when that dominance is gone?
I am at least as susceptible as anyone I know to self-deception and wishful thinking, to being untrue to myself and to God, and to looking outside myself, at the external aspects of thought and practice among people of faith, trying to distract myself from the work of the Spirit in my heart. But it is less easy to distract the Holy Spirit, and so I have been called back again and again to these uncomfortable, at times downright dangerous, places, out in the saltmarshes of the heart.
This paper by Marika Rose (h/t The Magnificast) is really helpful in thinking through the issues of racism and queer-phobia in Christianity and Quakerism I discussed yesterday. In it, Rose shows how contradictions within Christianity itself gave rise to racism as we know it. Progressive Christians like to cite Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”) as a statement of inclusivity, but that statement leaves the question of what to do with those who are not in Christ Jesus unanswered. Or rather, as the history of Christians over the centuries shows, it was answered—by oppressing non-Christians, a category that over time took on racial connotations.
One other thing Rose’s paper shows, though she doesn’t discuss it, is the limits of relying on scripture as a guide for navigating the world we live in today. By this I mean not simply the usual anti-fundamentalist bromide that the Bible isn’t meant to be used as an instruction manual for life, but rather that the biblical narrative itself is incomplete without accounting for the 2,000 or so years that have passed since the last of the scriptures were written. Imagine a Bible that ends with the handing down of the Law in Deuteronomy, or that ends with the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah to Babylon in 2 Kings; in both cases, they would offer very different pictures about who God was and what his purposes were than in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament as we have them today. Similarly, to talk about the Christian faith as something derived from the Bible without talking about how it has been lived out in actual history, warts and all, leaves a dangerously distorted picture of what the faith is or should be. It’s almost as if the Bible is merely a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself.