Easter reflections

Sometimes, it's hard for me to distinguish between different types of liberal friends. The majority of stuff I hear about FGC makes me roll my eyes. The tendency of certain active and well-known members in the large meeting I now attend to stand up and rebuke any ministry that is given about Christ is upsetting to me. The practice of combative "ministry," the aggressive dislike of Christianity, and the tendency to give membership to people who perhaps need a little more seasoning in order to truly believe in Quaker process and methods of worship make me long for more Conservative-style worship.

I am aware that there are many reasons to be uncomfortable with Christianity: aggressive evangelism, historical and contemporary persecution in Jesus' name, etc. I'm also aware that the "SPICE" testimonies which FGC friends tend to be so fond of are based in a cohesive and flexible interpretation of scripture. My own mother finds her feminism often conflicts with the New Testament, which is understandable given how much her Catholic upbringing/education chafed against her ideas about women and equality. It was when I announced when I was about two years old that I wanted to be a priest that my parents finally left the Catholic Church for Princeton Friends Meeting.

Over the weekend, I had the chance to worship with Princeton Friends for Easter. Princeton, like my local meeting, is an unprogrammed dual-affiliated (FGC/FUM) meeting in a college town. Unlike my local meeting, Princeton is a small meeting in a semi-rural setting on the outskirts of town. And there I found that several members were lead to speak of the crucifixion story and were not rebuked during worship by someone who identifies as a non-theist or pagan or Jewish Friend. I am certain these elements are present in the meeting, especially given the items and wishes that I was asked to pass on to family members, but they weren't combative, at least not on Easter Sunday.

I am trying to think of what I might be able to do to help heal the wounds that cause so much of the anti-Christian sentiment where I worship. I will continue to faithfully give the messages I am given, which are so often about comfort, sin, obedience, redemption, forgiveness and Christ's love. I will continue to spread the gospel as I am asked, although I feel my voice is largely unwelcomed. I don't feel that every Quaker needs to be fully Christian, but I simply can't understand how one can be virulently anti-Christian and still be a Quaker. Why can't one of the paths up the mountain be hand in hand with Christ Jesus?

I know that whatever I do, it will only be so far as I am led. In thinking about this issue, the only thing that is clear to me is that I need to continue to be fully honest about my faith. Honest about my universalism and it's limits. Honest about the power of Christian Salvation in my life. Honest about my struggles with theology and scripture. And perhaps most importantly, honest about how uncomfortable I feel expressing my Christianity in the Big Urban Meeting I attend.


Airlie Sattler Rose said...

Dear Friend,

You speak my mind, and I feel for you. Recently, I moved from NC where I was a member of Durham Monthly Meeting, a member of NCYM Conservative. I struggled with a few Friends there because they seemed uncomfortable with the Christian language that was part of the 300+ year old tradition of that yearly meeting, though these Friends were not against Christianity itself for the most part. For us, it was a friendly discussion.

Now, in my new meeting, we recently had a forum on non-theism in Friends where several Friends shared their disbelief in God. In the whole meeting, there were few who felt they could clearly state they believed in God, much less Christianity.

And, I thought I had troubles before... :)

Personally, I am deeply concerned. I treasure the history and practice of Friends. I want my children to grow-up in this tradition, but to throw-out God and Christianity is like saying that you like the fruit of the tree, but would like to do away with the roots and branches. I don't see how the faith can survive that kind of amputation.

On the other hand, I am drawn to the struggle of the non-theists, the agnostics, the seekers. In my experience, these tend to be people of high integrity. Trying to discern Truth, they are drawn to Quaker practice and community; perhaps, our meetings attract this sort of person because you can experience the presence of God in a Quaker meeting without believing a darn thing. You just need to sit there.

Sometimes, I think who cares what we call that experience as long as we can worship together?

But, to have a religious community outside of the silence, we must have language to share our experience and deepen our understanding of the practice. We certainly have to be willing to accept each others language, to listen to the Spirit behind the words.

What disturbs me most about your post is that some Friends in your meeting seem to have lost that respect for the Inner Light of those expressing their experience in Christian terms. I've never been in a meeting where people were openly hostile to Christianity in worship. Though, given my experience, I can imagine it.

I'll hold your meeting in the Light and maybe you can hold mine and hopefully God will help us find a way forward to heal the Society of Friends.

-Airlie Rose

Richard58 said...

I was saddened to hear about people in your meeting denouncing you for bringing up Jesus. Was not belief in Jesus a major force in the lives of our early Quaker leaders? Where does all this anti-Christian anger come from? Granted, many of those on the Religious Right have given Christianity a bad name. They have turned the loving message of Jesus into something bigoted and hateful and this has hurt many people. So I can see why many people bristle at the name of Christ. But we should not throw out the baby with the bath water!
Just out of curiosity what is it that they say to you when you give your message? What are they objecting to? Do they truly believe that the name of Jesus has no place in a Quaker meeting?

Johan Maurer said...

Airlie Rose says, On the other hand, I am drawn to the struggle of the non-theists, the agnostics, the seekers. In my experience, these tend to be people of high integrity. Trying to discern Truth, they are drawn to Quaker practice and community; perhaps, our meetings attract this sort of person because you can experience the presence of God in a Quaker meeting without believing a darn thing. You just need to sit there.

I really honor this appreciation for the integrity of the seeker. If we Friends ever lose our love for people who are seeking and are determined not to fake certainty when it's not there, we won't be FRIENDS any more.

If we conceive of our meetings as hosts (representing as best we can the true host, Jesus), our hospitality ought to be generous. I hope that every soul who comes into contact with us and our meetings will feel heard. When healing is needed, I hope it is available.

This doesn't prevent us from having a teaching voice of our own, or having a strong identity. It is not right to expect an atheist or a seeker to have as their individual highest priority the flourishing of our Christian community. They may well be attracted to us by some of those fruits, and that is a valid attraction. It doesn't give them the right to change what makes them uncomfortable, but they do have the right to ask searching and challenging questions, and to receive answers that demonstrate our deep listening to THEM as well as to our own sources.

We're not limited to choosing between a narrow, defensive orthodoxy and being codependent people-pleasers. There's a lot of territory in between, but we "hosts" need to be people of prayer who love each other and love the model of discipleship that is our legacy as Friends. That's what powers our hospitality.

Anonymous said...

things that I find odd about these sorts of situations:

a) Sometimes it's true---even if a Christian says it. Sometimes it's wrong--even if a non-Christian says it. Sometimes its wrong even if a Quaker says it. Saying it rudely doesn't make it right.
So, is the objection to the end or the means? If it's the end, that is a different conversation than if it is the means.

b) People think of contemporary Quakers as relativistic, or without any central beliefs(the "all paths lead up the same mountain" idea). But, both Christians and non-Christians should recognise that any non-Christian who attends a Quaker Meeting is doing something that goes against the tenets of their self-proclaimed spirituality(ie they aren't following the "path up the Mountain" that their proclaimed core faith prescribes). For instance, anybody who described him/herself as a "Muslim who worships in silence with Quakers" to another Muslim would be told "You're not a proper Muslim". The same goes for anybody else who claims to be following their non-Christian spirituality while worshipping in silence with Quakers. Even Non-Theists who worship with Quakers have trouble justifying this activity to other Non-Theists because it makes allowance for irrationality. So, everyone is overlooking that everybody is in the "People who live in glass houses, etc." situation.

c) yes, Quakers in the beginning considered themselves Christian. But, Quakerism was proclaimed as a reform of all previous variations of Christianity, not just another variation. Fox et al were only partially inclusive("yes, God, out of love, speaks to all humans,not just to white male Europeans, but only people who react to that prompting in the way we Quakers do are acting absolutely correctly, and believers of other sects and religions are correct only insofar as they agree with us). That is something vital to understanding Quaker theology, and something that both sides to this dispute seem to gloss over. A Christian Member should be constantly analysing why they believe this is "proper" Christianity, and cognisant of how it differs from all other types. Non-Christian Members should also acknowledge the difference, not just react unthinkingly to any word variation of "Christian". And anyone who doesn't understand this history has already disposed of the roots and branch of the Quaker tree anyway, regardless of whether they call themselves Christian or not. History matters in this situation, and those who talk without understanding it are adding nothing helpful to the debate.

d) the Bible holds helpful information even for those who don't think that it is "God's Good News" or "Gospel". Mutatis, mutandis, the same holds for many other books that are the foundation for the spirituality that other people bring to Meeting. Even if you don't think there is a God, there is plenty about "Human Nature" to be found in the Bible and these other books for a lifetime. Furthermore, one of the core tenets of Quakerism is that Bible interpretation is only as good as the interpreter is guided by the Holy Spirit. But, there is no rule that says that that rule only applies when reading the Bible. So, Quakerism isn't supposed to be Bible-centric, Darwin-centric, Koran-centric, Marx-centric, Science-centric, etc. It's supposed to be Spirit-centric. Any way you want to look at some book, supposedly, it's only words unless the Spirit says its something to take to heart. If you get into disputes with someone over a Biblical reference, then their problem isn't with the Bible, it's with the central role that the Spirit is supposed to play in their lives(according to Quaker theology). Until everyone realises that, no progress will happen.(Note: I realise that this sounds very "Hicksite", but we're talking about Meetings affiliated with the FGC, a stream of Quakerism directly descended from the Hicksites. This type of conflict doesn't happen outside of a FGC Meeting, so there isn't any point in trying to avoid sounding like a " neo-Hicksite".)

e) Quakers in most places live surrounded by other people who identify themselves as Christians. Christians might not always be the dominant religion, but they are at least a part of the environment. Trying to construct a "NO GOD! NO JESUS! NO BIBLE!" bubble-world doesn't make the real world go away. At some point you have to try to understand where the rest of the world is "coming from" in order to affect change. Quakers can't be "prophetic" if they don't work within the context in which they live.

f) "Community" doesn't mean "Fighting never happens". It means that people are expected to not let their differences define their relationship. If somebody is rude with someone else, and is not taken aside and councilled about it, why not? Where are the "Weighty Members"? Why are they letting this fester? You should be questioning them too.

Don't know whether this helps you but it sure helps me.


James Riemermann said...

As a nontheist Friend, I feel deeply for any fellow Friend who has been chastised for using Christian or theistic language in their meeting. The vast majority of nontheist Friends I have been in conversation with--and I have been in a lot of these conversations--are very clear on this question: we do not want to intimidate believers into silence. I know there have been instances like this, and they sadden me. There is nothing universalist or tolerant about a community where people fear to speak their beliefs. My beliefs the same as yours.

But it is a difficult question. I know that nontheism is at the edges of Quakerism, not at the center, but I also acknowledge that the vocal presence of Friends like me may well change things over time. My hope is that the greatest change will be to encourage those at the edges to speak openly of their beliefs, to stop hiding. I have a very strong feeling that radical doubt has always existed in Quakerism, in fact in every faith. However, in most faith communities in most eras, the most radical doubters have kept their doubt to themselves, for fear of losing their connection to the communities and traditions they had come to love. In many centuries, one of the fears was that of being killed by the keepers of the faith.

If nontheist Friends have the effect that I hope for, then any Friend who feels a strong need for theological unity in their faith community is going to have some difficult adjustments to make. I am willing and ready to stand by such Friends in love and fellowship to help them adjust to that new atmosphere, where none are afraid to say what they believe. I do not apologize for the changes we bring, and I acknowledge that the changes are real and significant. I don't think they are fatal, but healthy and somewhat dangerous at once. Rather than an amputation, I see it as an opening into truth and light. Not the truth and light of unbelief--that would just be a notion--but the truth of telling the truth about ourselves, and the light of seeing each other the way we really are.

RichardM said...

A couple of observations. Having spent the last nine months checking out the Quaker blogosphere on a regular basis I'd say that people in what I identify as the center of the Quaker spectrum (liberal inclusivist Christians and theists who prefer more nuetral "Light" language over traditional Christian language) experience attacks or at least condescending "oh-when-you-are-as-enlightened-as-I-am-you'll-grow-out-of-it" remarks. James, I appreciate your understanding of the need to avoid such attacks on those of us in the middle, but apparantly such attacks are disturbingly common. There are also attacks that come from the direction of Quakers who have abandoned traditional liberal inclusivist Christianity in favor of the more intolerant dogmatic evangelical kind. And make no mistake about that either. They are attacking those of us in the middle not just those who deny the existence of God such as yourself.

We take flack from both sides as namby-pamby flip-floppers. While it certainly sounds to me like the extremists on both sides are much bolder and more aggressive.

I just want to see those of us in the middle take a stronger stand. And I am encouraged in reading many of these posts and seeing folks like me (Elizabeth, Quakerboy, and Laurie as examples) digging in their heels and saying they have found a solid center and attacks from the extreme left or extreme right are not going to sway them. And we will stay right where we are. Our experience of a guiding Spirit, an Inner Teacher, (call it what you will) is clear. The experience is positive and repeated and could not plausibly be interpreted as mere insights bubbling up from our subconscious minds. No, I am quite sure that the source of the experience is something quite other than myself. As William James put it we recognize the presence of something real--it pushes back.

Atheism cannot have positive experience to verify itself. You cannot have experience of the non-existence of unicorns. The best you can have is experience of a long, fruitless search. The positive experience of theists will always trump the non-experience of atheists. It's rather like the Sufi story about the donkey. A man had a donkey that his neighbor was always borrowing. The man got tired of it. When he saw the neighbor heading his way he hid the donkey in a closet. Sure enough, the neighbor asked to borrow the donkey. The man said "I'm sorry, the donkey is not here. I lent it to my brother-in-law." Just then the donkey in the closet started to bray and the neighbor looked indignantly at the man. The man stared back and said "Who are you going to believe? Me or that jackass!" Well, those of us who actually experience God are going to trust our own experience and that's that. People who are only seekers who have read about God and are really unsure of his existence can be swayed. But those with the experience have their feet firmly planted.

Anonymous said...

I am a Christian have been for many years. As far as I know it has always ment that I believe in Jesus as the Son of God, who died, was made living again, and assended into Heaven and is sitting at the right hand of the Father...etc. Jesus in my Lord and savior. I do not belong to a denomination of any kind, however, I have attended a friend's church quite a bit. It is sad to see the division in the body of Christ. But, that's the world for ya! No matter what church you go to...keep your eyes on Jesus.

Laurie Kruczek said...

Friend Elizabeth,

I also struggle with this conflict in meetings and have recently come to realize that there is no perfect meeting. I want to be understood as a Liberal Christian Quaker who leans toward Conservative Convergent Quakerism. I want to know others who feel the same way. In my neck of the woods, they are not out there. So I have Quaker blogs, and those who share stories, such as yours. Unless I start my own meeting, and someone actually attends that meeting, I'm just adrift in spiritual cyberspace. I hope you find like minds where you are.