One of the most unfortunate consequences of growing up in an abusive household is the trait of hyper vigilance. Growing up, I always had to be aware of my surroundings and know what everyone was doing for my own safety’s sake. One couldn’t just relax in the knowledge that the world was going to be okay whether or not I maintained my vigilance. I could not assume anything. As soon as I assumed that things were all right, then something awful happened to prove that I had been wrong or had seriously misread the circumstances.
This means that my search for meaning in life and my search for security in relationships should always hold an element of rest from hyper vigilance. If I could find something solid on which to rest my ‘vigilance hat’ then life would be more bearable and I could finally relax. As I got older I saw that this end point for which I was searching was not always cut and dried. Relationships fail because humans are notoriously unreliable. My reading of circumstances could be fooled and miscalculations occur through no fault of my own.
This meant that, for me to continue on an even keel in the world, I had to find something immovable. I had to find something that I could rely on no matter what the circumstances. Is it any wonder I turned to God? Is it any wonder that those damaged seek a sure foundation on which to rest from fighting? There are those who daily work to keep their heads above water. Some have to dodge bullets. Some are tortured. Many have addictions. Others watch as loved ones die all around them. Is it so ridiculous for those in this situation to realize that in the midst of such chaos there is something/Someone who is unchangeable by human circumstances? And here I’m not speaking of creeds or church or anything institutional, only of the concept of God.
Who cares if what we rely on as a sure foundation can’t be proven? For those of us seeking a refuge you cannot pry this certainty out of our hands. This immovable God keeps us safe in the knowledge that suffering isn’t in vain; that we can relax our vigilance if we release the consequences from our grasp. For some of us, we see answers to prayer and we see others unanswered. For some of us, we see circumstances changed or pathways opened. Secularists seem infuriated by those of us who live in what they see as ‘fantasy-land’. Reason is much more comforting, they tell us. Science has all the answers, they tell us. Why can’t you see the world as it is; abandoned by anything resembling a God or Deity? Wouldn’t life be much easier if we got beyond this ‘fiction’?
John Gray wrote a wonderful article for BBC titled “The Childlike Faith in Reason”. Gray takes on the idea that human reason is somehow superior to faith. He writes,
Speaking as an atheist myself, I can’t help smiling when I hear religion being mocked in this way. Looking at the world as it has been and continues to be at the present time, it’s belief in human reason that’s childish. Religious faith is based on accepting that we know very little of God. But we know a great deal about human beings, and one of the things we know for sure is that we’re not rational animals. Believing in the power of human reason requires a greater leap of faith than believing in God…
If human beings were potentially capable of applying reason in their lives they would show some sign of learning from what they had done wrong in the past, but history and everyday practice show them committing the same follies over and over again. They would alter their beliefs in accordance with facts, but clinging to beliefs in the face of contrary evidence is one of the most powerful and enduring human traits.
As a Quaker, I suppose it is antithetical the views of The Religious Society of Friends to say that I have no faith in humanity’s ability to do the right thing. But, I don’t think I ever had that faith in humanity and it hasn’t changed much by my being a Quaker. I have never felt that the world is basically good and oh, what a wonderful blessing it is! No, for me, the world has always required careful navigation with a huge CAUTION, DANGER AHEAD sign posted at every turning and every decision. Only when I found God in the 80s could I rest from such hyper vigilance. My faith rests on the idea of the basic inhumanity of humanity and the stability of a God who sees and still commiserates with us and can even intervene to change circumstances. Only as a Quaker can I see that we should do what we can to alleviate suffering, but we need grander, more spiritual means to change humanity.
Mr. Gray continues,
The belief in reason that is being promoted today rests on a number of childishly simple ideas. One of the commonest is that history’s crimes are mistakes that can be avoided in future as we acquire greater knowledge. But human evil isn’t a type of error that can be discarded like an obsolete scientific theory. If history teaches us anything it’s that hatred and cruelty are permanent human flaws, which find expression whatever beliefs people may profess.
I don’t happen to believe that humanity’s flaws are ‘permanent’; there is a cure, but that’s another theological issue and one of which I’m sure many Quakers will disagree with me. All I’m saying is that it is not unreasonable to rest on God after all else fails us, especially science, including politics and activism.
Science hasn’t enabled us to dispense with myths. Instead it has become a vehicle for myths – chief among them, the myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world.
But “humanity” isn’t marching anywhere. Humanity doesn’t exist, there are only human beings, each of them ruled by passions and illusions that conflict with one another and within themselves. (note 1) (John Gray, Can Religion Tell us More than Science?)
At times, I find that, again, I am becoming hyper-vigilant with everything or everyone around me. This is untenable, because it throws me right back into a childhood of super-awareness and distrust. Suspicions grow and I am required to play spy or psychologist or priest. This is why my faith cannot be about keeping rules or moral purity. I cannot be the moral police in any of my relationships, personal or casual. I don’t want to be. Those who claim to be sanctimonious morals-keepers perpetuate the worst sort of crimes in the world and are surely the most unhappy. I need somewhere to run to when all else fails.
Richard Foster writes, “….the condition of our hearts is more important to Jesus than how well we play by the rules. This frustrates moralists no end, because their primary concern is moral rule-keeping. It’s so much easier to point the finger of blame when we can keep score on behavior”. (Life With God, p. 27). Call me an ostrich who lives with my head in the sand, but I do not want to be a moral score-keeper. My job is not to police others. We know how well that has worked out in centuries past!
Yes, we can judge a tree by its fruits, but it’s not up to us to prune it and keep it healthy. That’s God’s job (Luke 6:43-45). My immovable foundation in a time of great uncertainty (which seems to be most of the time) is God and always will be.
1. For all we know, and Quakers will no doubt take extreme issue with this, war could be God’s way of allowing humanity to cleanse itself. (Matthew 10:34-45)
Love must inevitably change and mature, and every relationship has its times of stress as well as its times of renewal. But there are periods in some married lives when all that can be done is to go on trying to love and to continue to believe in that elusive and unique quality for which we gave ourselves to our partner… True love is proven when the loved one begins to be not only the mysterious beckoner of destiny, but becomes also the occasion of dull indubitable duty. At a frontier of life when one partner begins to say to him or herself: ‘How can I love longer? but I must love’, then sometimes steadfastness and faith have power to nurse into existence the new being needed as companion and lover. (489)
From: Christian Faith and Practice in the experience of the Society of Friends, 1959 ed.
Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.14 Isaac Penington (1616–1679) wrote:
At last, after all my distresses, wanderings and sore travails, I met with some writings of this people called Quakers, which I cast a slight eye upon and disdained, as falling very short of that wisdom, light, life and power, which I had been longing for and searching after… After a long time, I was invited to hear one of them (as I had been often, they in tender love pitying me and feeling my want of that which they possessed)… When I came, I felt the presence and power of the Most High among them, and words of truth from the Spirit of truth reaching to my heart and conscience, opening my state as in the presence of the Lord. Yea, I did not only feel words and demonstrations from without, but I felt the dead quickened, the seed raised; insomuch as my heart, in the certainty of light and clearness of true sense, said: ‘This is he; this is he; there is no other; this is he whom I have waited for and sought after from my childhood, who was always near me, and had often begotten life in my heart, but I knew him not distinctly, nor how to receive him or dwell with him’.
But some may desire to know what I have at last met with. I answer, ‘I have met with the Seed’. Understand that word, and thou wilt be satisfied and inquire no further. I have met with my God, I have met with my Saviour, and he hath not been present with me without his Salvation, but I have felt the healings drop upon my soul from under his wings. I have met with the Seed’s Father, and in the Seed I have felt him my Father; there I have read his nature, his love, his compassions, his tenderness, which have melted, overcome and changed my heart before him.
What shall I say? I have met with the true peace, the true righteousness, the true holiness, the true rest of the soul, the everlasting habitation which the redeemed dwell in.
Well this has been a very difficult post to write and rather long, so bear with me.
Come August, my husband and I will be traveling to Britain Yearly Gathering in Bath 2-9 August 2014. In preparation, BYG asks us to consider questions such as “What does it mean to be a Quaker today?” or “How does membership or non-membership in the Society of Friends affect your participation in the community of Quakers?” These are worthy questions considering that a revision of Quaker Faith and Practice may be in the works, so I’ve given it some serious thought, helped along by articles I’ve read and by watching the work done by Quakers in my local meeting and throughout the UK.
One article I read was in the latest issue of Quaker Voices (Vol. 5, No. 4). The lead article, “Theism and Nontheism: tension created and tension overcome?” by David Boulton signifies for me another notch in the slide toward non-religious humanism in the Religious Society of Friends in Great Britain. For some, this is extremely good news. For others, myself included, I foresee spiritual problems.
There are many gradations in the definition of God within the Religious Society of Friends. There are Quakers who would believe in a God but not believe in Christ. There are Quakers who don’t believe in God but believe Christ to be an enlightened being whose example we would do well to follow. There are now Buddhist Quakers and others who don’t define God as an entity and intertwine spiritual practices with Quaker practices. Then there is the traditional Christian view; that God, with and in Christ, creates a spiritual community called the Kingdom of God. This is the view of George Fox and other early Quakers who were solidly in the Christian camp but who protested creeds, ministers, and tithes to political authorities. Quakers who believe in God see God as controller of events and Christ as God’s emissary/example to the world. We see the Holy Spirit as the prime mover and motivator of our actions. Those who don’t believe this, or who don’t believe a God matters in the Universe, see humans as controllers and every wise person as emissary. The spirit of humanity is what moves them.
Boulton’s outline of the two strains of thought in Quakerism forces us to ask whether it matters where our Power comes from (theistic or non-theistic) as long as we pursue peace and justice? That’s a good question and its answer will probably align you with one camp or the other. Most don’t understand why it has to be one or the other. ‘Can’t we all exist in the same organization?’ they ask. Does it ultimately matter what we believe about God to make a difference in the world? How does it affect our communities and our ‘worship’? If it doesn’t matter, should we dispense with the name Religious Society of Friends once and for all? Should we also drop the term Quaker since its original meaning no longer applies? Quakers no longer ‘quake’ with the Spirit of the Lord. Has the shift from theism towards non-theism fundamentally changed anything about Quakers? Have they worked harder for justice? Have they spoken truth to power in a more or less forceful way? Did this move away from more conservative theology do anything significant that would sway the argument for or against theism in any direction? How can two distinct threads come together to achieve any consensus of action in such a world as ours?
Boulton praises the “sudden shift in emphasis and direction” that emerged from the 1895 Manchester conference “which steered the Society away from conservative evangelicalism and towards liberal modernism”. For him, this was a necessary move in the life of the Society. I confess that I had to look up the reference to the Manchester conference to see what Boulton was referring to. The Manchester conference addressed issues such as industrialization and capitalism, and outlined a move toward social conscience, all of which are worthy goals for the Society. Boulton marks it as a turn toward more liberal practice. Liberals of the time protested reliance on scripture as the sole basis of Truth, protested the gender divisions that were still rife in the organization, and rightly challenged a move toward pastoralism and programmed worship. They also challenged the power held by evangelicals in the Quaker movement. These are clearly settled issues today in the UK for which I am thankful, but I see that classism is still an issue. There is no doubt that some Quakers today still view Christianity or any sectarianism as something for the ‘lower orders’, or as Obama put it, those ‘who cling to guns or religion’.
There is an unspoken belief that the educated do not believe in sectarian religions. Studying the bible is seen as archaic and of not much use today. Politics is also still very much at the forefront. Is capitalism a dead issue for Quakers? Is capitalism irredeemable? It would seem so from the Yearly Meeting Gathering website which clearly uses socialist language to describe Quaker aims; “From each according their want; to each according to their need” which is a restatement of Marx’s “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.
Still some at the Manchester conference held out for more traditionalist views and took issue with the classist idea that believing in God and Christ was for the ill-informed. John William Rowntree wrote in a paper from this same conference:
Much earnest Christianity to-day fails to command the intellect and establish its own authority beyond all doubt and criticism. Yet a religion merely intellectual will never warm the heart with the fire of self-sacrificing love. Let us in our message offer that which is beyond all creeds—the evidence in our lives of communion with the spirit of God. The need of positive animating faith in the inward presence of His spirit was never greater than now. All who earnestly seek truth could unite with us in fellowship on the broad platform of faith in that indwelling guidance. “Has Quakerism a Message for the World Today?
Why and how then did a non-theist contingent take hold in the Religious Society of Friends in the first place? Was it a move of the Spirit they try to deny? Obviously, loosening the requirements of membership was a key factor. There was a subtle shift away from faith in God and Christ as a requirement for membership. The move toward inclusive practice began to mean that everyone was welcome and no one was to be excluded! All that was required was a wish to be a member. What Edgar Dunstan wrote in the Membership chapter of the 1959 edition of Christian Faith and Practice in the experience of the Society of Friends was no longer relevant: “Our membership of the Society of Friends should commit us to the discipleship of the living Christ” (370). No longer relevant was what T. Edmund Harvey wrote: “In the great Christian society this unity is found in loyalty to Jesus Christ himself as our master and guide. Collectively His disciples share a common experience in fellowship with each other” (371). In today’s Quaker Faith and Practice one would be hard pressed to find such overt language anywhere in the chapter on membership.
Boulton cites another man, John Linton, as instrumental in moving the Society toward “universalism” and away from a distinct Christian view of faith and practice. Theologically, Christian universalism means that everyone is ‘saved’ and that there is no ‘hell’ to be saved from. This is certainly one of the views one could make from scripture. However, a more general Universalism is a movement that sees no distinction between a Christian salvation or a Muslim or Jewish one, even though adherents of these religions clearly believe there is a distinction. Salvation is not even a word used any longer in Quaker purview. Most British Quakers, even those who believe in God, would ask, ‘Salvation from what?’ Salvation, in the Christian scriptures, implies a destination or a state of being promised for those rescued from the kingdom of this world or from general sin. George Fox believed in a Christian Kingdom of God and in his journal wrote:
The kingdom of God, which most people talk of as something far in the future and refer to it only as happening after death, is in measure to be known and entered into in this life; but that none can know an entrance into it, other than those who are regenerated and born again.
Jesus Christ, for Fox and early Quakers, was the source of the Spirit of God and the means of our translation into the new Kingdom of God where Christ’s Spirit reigns and where sin is nowhere to be found. Quakers certainly disagree on whether it is a metaphysical or real state of existence, but that doesn’t matter. Whether Christ was spiritually or physically resurrected, the point is that the Kingdom of God is here and now. We are promised God’s Kingdom and Christ was our entrance. For Boulton and Linton, the Kingdom is a metaphor for an ideal human society where everyone participates and no one is excluded be they Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist or whatever. All of the biblical language is there, but the power is not.
Boulton relegates a very important issue, such as the definition of God, to language differences among Friends thereby confining a very real life-changing Spirit to the realm of philosophical discussion. I believe that it is far more than a language issue that divides us. He further defines the issue for us:
…one either believes in a God with a will and purpose which we can access, or one doesn’t. God is either our creator or our creation…I envision a Society of Friends where committed Christians, Universalist, Jews, Buddhists, theists, post-theists, nontheists, and religious humanists joyfully accept their theological and ideological differences, sharing their truths, listening to and respecting each other, and finding heresy only in any form of dogmatic assertion. Such a society with not be held together by a common theology, er even a common interpretation of Quaker tradition. These things matter, but they are not the essentials. The ties that bind us together will be our Quaker values and the practices by which we express those values….We shall be led by the Spirit, whether we experience the spirit as metaphysical or metaphorical……….
What I question in this statement is the phrase ‘Quaker values’. What are these Quaker values and more importantly, WHERE DO THEY COME FROM? What “truths” can we share? Do the Quaker values Boulton imagines come from the Spirit of God or from Britain Yearly Meeting? Where are they stated clearly for us to agree or disagree? What makes Boulton’s ideal Society and its practices specifically Quaker? In fact, his definition pushes out any commonality between us all but for an amorphous general feeling of goodwill among humans. If we no longer cling to God, why cling to Quakerism as a common tradition? Why not just call ourselves the Society of Humanists and get rid of the Quaker label? Or why not drop the “Religious” part and become the “Society of Friends”? It would certainly be more honest. Surely the word ‘Quaker’ is too specific a term for a pan-organizational structure that includes everyone and excludes no one! Why insist on membership if there is no need for membership other than a shared idealization of society? There are no Quaker values that are different from Humanist values, are there? Let’s get rid of the Membership chapter altogether in Quaker Faith and Practice!
Now back to the questions Britain Yearly Gathering asks of us. What drew me to Quakers and how does membership affect my service in the community?
First, what drew me to Quakerism was the Quaker belief in a literal God and a literal Christ and the wish to honor ‘THAT of God’ in everyone, not ‘That of the spirit of humanity’ in everyone. There is a modicum of Light in every person, but it must be encouraged, nurtured and fed by its Source; God/Jesus/Spirit. John 1:9-13 One can extinguish the Light one does have.
Second, what drew me to Quakers was that they eschewed adherence to an intellectual creed because it is the Spirit of Christ that unites us, not written rules. It is this Spirit which is the glue that holds all Quakers together. The Spirit of Christ is THE COMMON DENOMINATOR that should always be present. I’m not speaking of a communal spirit that we generate in our meetings to be whatever we wish it to be. I’m speaking of a real Spirit, transcendent of humankind, that changes hearts and minds and spurs us to social action. I’m speaking of something beyond us, that lifts our spirits to something greater than the conglomeration of human spirit. For me, the human spirit should never be idolized because humans can be mean and petty and evil and tend always toward the selfish and the greedy. No, I’m speaking of a wisdom beyond human wisdom, a Source that comes from a different place other than the capricious human heart.
10For us, however, God has drawn aside the veil through the teaching of the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, including the depths of the divine nature. 11For, among human beings, who knows a man’s inner thoughts except the man’s own spirit within him? In the same way, also, only God’s Spirit is acquainted with God’s inner thoughts. 12But we have not received the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which comes forth from God, that we may know the blessings that have been so freely given to us by God. 13Of these we speak—not in language which man’s wisdom teaches us, but in that which the Spirit teaches—adapting, as we do, spiritual words to spiritual truths.
14The unspiritual man rejects the things of the Spirit of God, and cannot attain to the knowledge of them, because they are spiritually judged. 15But the spiritual man judges of everything, although he is himself judged by no one. 16For who has penetrated the mind of the Lord, and will instruct Him? But *we* have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:10-16, Weymouth Translation)
We sit in silent worship to quieten our hearts and minds and open ourselves to receive ‘the Spirit which comes forth from God’. Can we do this with Quakers who don’t believe in God? Well we can certainly sit there and sense each other’s presence as human beings, but is that enough without a Spirit which comes from without to bind our hearts and minds toward a concern? For non-theists apparently it is enough. For me, having been in churches where I’ve felt the power of God move among believers and felt the presence of a Spirit that moves with such Love and Concern, it may not be enough. For me, a sense of the meeting may never be met.
My conscience tells me to side with God and Christ and the Holy Spirit regardless of what others are saying. I don’t believe our difference are merely differences in language. I believe there are concrete differences that affect our way of living in the world and our way of working as a Society of Friends. I don’t work for human peace, but God’s peace and it is incumbent upon me to read and study the bible and other writings to find out what this means. I don’t feed the hungry because humanity feels it’s the right thing to do but because God decrees that a just society does these things. I don’t fight classism because socially I’m on a lower rung of the social ladder. I fight classism because throughout the bible, God rails against it. Relying on God’s Spirit takes social action out of the realm of MY feelings and emotions and plants them squarely on a God who must ultimately bear the burden of injustice. Humans are notoriously intractable. I believe only God can change that spirit of intractability.
Am I being contentious? Am I not humble enough to accept that I could be wrong about this? Of course I could be wrong, but I have to go with my conscience here as Boulton has done with his. The theist vs. non-theist debate will no doubt continue among Britain’s Quakers long after I’m gone. Perhaps it will even die out as an issue. Perhaps God is doing a new thing! Depending on which way the tides turn however, my membership will always live where the Spirit of God lives, which sadly may or may not be with Britain Yearly Meeting. My heart and mind is open for Britain Yearly Gathering. Who knows what will come of it?