Thursday, March 20, 2014

An Old Poem [revised]

I want to go home to America;
they taught me about it in school.

We were a rich country,
generous, compassionate --
brave champions of everyone's rights and needs.

Everyone welcomed our soldiers,
and we, in our turn, welcomed foreigners
who came here for Freedom and garbage disposals.

The young were the hope of the future
and everybody wanted us to learn.

So I learned, and came to realize
I yearned to return to that fantasy.
I've missed it so!

Forrest Curo
[revised (c)2014, permission granted for free noncommercial use, as written, with attribution.]

Thursday, December 26, 2013

That Rapture Notion...

This isn't a world for staying
if you've got a heart to break.

If you look forward to 'the Rapture'
you simply aren't going.

So brace yourself,
don't worry;
God is kinder and wiser
and so were many people
we've been losing lately.

About the Exam; it isn't one but
you should study the material in
that Sermon on the Mount;
work all the problems you find
and you'll be fit to die if you must.

Monday, December 02, 2013

God's Self-Disclosure Through Rebecca Trotter

My never-met beloved friend Rebecca Trotter keeps writing well about her life, producing a sort of modern, ongoing Book of Job. Poverty, kids, difficult husband, difficult self, friends & relatives eager to explain what she's been doing all wrong... In her latest piece she looks to be on to something.

The gist: It doesn't matter what she prays, does, says, thinks, believes, feels -- in that God will simply give her what she needs, whether that happens to be bliss, peace, agony, mental anguish, or indigestion. Well, yeah. & no.

In one sense, we wouldn't want it any other way. If we could control God by sacrificing one candy bar in the toaster-oven every full moon, we might really get out of hand. It's a relief to have a fuse between our wishes & what we get, because without one we'd be in serious trouble. At best, we'd be wording our prayers as carefully as contracts with the Devil, lying awake all night wondering what should/shouldn't have gone into the fine print.

In another sense, no! We want to count for something, have power to affect the world somehow, to help and please our friends. We want a handle on our fate, even if that handle is fated to fall off at an inconvenient time. We want the world predictable and controllable to some extent; to be a world and not just a chaos -- not even a benevolent, nurturing chaos. God has accommodated that need as well, putting in all sorts of regularities, tricks we can learn, etc.

Dependable machines are good for what they do; but that's not exactly what we want in our friends. 'Undependable'? Uh, not that either. Do we want God to be the sort of Parent we can push around or manipulate? Do we want God to be inflexible, implacable, a rock we can always count on to be painfully resting on our feet?

It's those thinking minds that make this difficult, trying to fix things-as-it-is [Suzuki's term] with a definition through its little thorax like a butterfly in a case. Life becomes livable only because it's stretched between a complete set of paradoxes.

And God? Utterly dependable, as the Bible says. Predictable, controllable, no. Not even controllable by our ideas of God's job description. If you need Him, He will show up in a funny hat and pull your nose. And everything will be all right!

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

The Self-Disclosure of God and Me # II

And now, how to know what to say next? What does God self-disclosing have to do with me self-disclosing?

Well, this is a complex endeavor for one poorsoul, with only one muddled lifetime to sort and display. Any one detail about me, by itself, is as likely to mislead as to clarify. What complexities, then, does God face?

"Hi, I'm God! We need to talk!" Hmmm, that's not it -- But how can God best start Divine Courtship Behavior? Not born anyplace, doesn't have a favorite team, doesn't do anything for a living. "Lord of the Universe"? -- too many contemporary readers are inclined to respond, "Get out of here, you Imaginary Creep! I wouldn't like You even if I believed in You!"

That, as it happens, is basically how I thought about God through much of my childhood, from then into early college.

My mother, whom I didn't respect, had grown up among the Mormons, had left them, believed in "a Supreme Being" but didn't think God wanted anything from people except for us to be painfully self-sacrificing in an annoying sort of way. My father was a flat-out atheist who'd enjoyed singing, as a child, in a Methodist church. Therefore they sent me to the nearest one, every Sunday.

No 'Sunday school' -- This was straight into grownup church, sometime fairly early in my elementary grades. I rather liked it, still fondly remember mumbling along to songs like 'Old Hundred'.

Hearing about "The Flood" was exciting, but that "fire next time" sounded scary as well. At the time I was also reading  my father's set of popular science books, had read that the sun would bloat up to swallow the Earth in about 7 billion years, found that even more worrisome!

But the Bible! My parents kept one in their one small bookshelf; and at some point I got into the book of 'Revelation'! God throwing fiery rocks out of the sky! Dead lambs walking about. Creatures made of eyeballs -- which could symbolize some interesting things, but I just imagined myself living as a sort of mobile tapioca pudding, which sounded downright unpleasant! And that curse at the end, against anybody daring to add or subtract one word from the book! [If only I'd known about the sort of copyists a writer had to deal with in those days, I might have been more sympathetic, not been so upset.] Mostly, it was the bits about people having to stand around praising God forever, without even a bathroom break -- Those were terrifying!

But I liked what I heard in church, about God making us all "in God's image."

What did that mean? We were all different, said the preacher. Male, female, big, little, fat, skinny, dark & light... but all these were "made in God's image." That image, he said, must be "a spiritual image." What we look like 'inside', what it is that lives, thinks, feels and all -- That's what God looks like!

It's clever to reverse this, to imagine that people have created [an illusion of] God in our own image. This image, of course, would be an illusion, not a working model of God.

The truth of it?-- People do have great difficulty disentangling whatever is actually there from whatever they've imagined. If God didn't want to be known, the effort would be futile -- and even so, it's been a persistent struggle with human presuppositions.

We've been given good metaphors. What? A 'metaphor' isn't 'a pretty literary comparison'; it's what a mathematician would call a 'mapping' or a scientist would call 'a model'. It doesn't give direct knowledge; to be useful at all a mapping has to be smaller than a country, can't show every loose pebble, has to be 'less than" but must mirror some significant structure of what we're studying.

One major metaphor -- that "People are made 'in the image of' God." The other one: that we're God's 'children.' This one is really tricky to examine!

"Children." We are "like" our parents, sometimes painfully so. There's supposed to be an affectionate relationship. We're supposed to develop into distinct people, characterized by our varying talents and by whatever things we come to love for their own sakes, not just self-assemble into dutiful robots.  And we have to start out less than complete, relatively helpless and confused. Examples from the animal kingdom even suggest: The more helpless in the beginning, the greater the potential!

People will assert ourselves, will sneak into attics, will find interesting and dangerous new toys and playmates. We will rebel, try more or less consciously to run away from home, will make mistakes and feel guilty.

And above all, whatever mistakes our own parents will have made -- will cast their shadows on our images of God.

That has been occurring for thousands of years, and is very much evident in those works various peoples call "Scripture." And such works also represent how God has self-disclosed -- and been necessarily misunderstood -- in human history through the present.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How To Worship God

I've recognized God at work teaching me for some very long time; and yet I seem to keep needing the same lessons. This one is on the edge of my understanding, stretching me into areas that, like more typical modern Quakers, I've wanted to dismiss safely out-of-hand.

Why, when I discovered his writings, did Anthony Bloom, high in the Russian Orthodox clergy, remind me so thoroughly of early Friends? For one thing, he was clearly one who had encountered the living God, but beyond that, it was as though every word threatened to call up the witness of God against me. "If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him. We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer, 'I am busy, I am sorry' or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is.

"The second very important thing is that a meeting face to face with God is always a moment of judgment for us... Thanks be to Him that He does not always present Himself to us when we wish to meet Him, because we might not be able to endure such a meeting. Remember the many passages in Scripture in which we are told how bad it is to find oneself face to face with God, because God is power, God is truth, God is purity."

Now as I understand Jesus, God's demands on us are not aligned to rigid human abstractions, but directed to making us human beings, humane beings as God himself is ultimately humane. God is not as judgmental as all that -- but we are; and it is this measure we fear will justly recoil on us, find us innately condemned by our failure to fulfill the obligations we can't help expecting of ourselves. What considerations might we be failing to consider, for reasons not necessarily above suspicion? What might come to light, if we were to truly face the Light?

Sitting in a Saturday 'worship-or-meditation' session with a small group of Friends & acquaintances, I remembered being in teacher training at a continuation school. My supervising teacher had taught math (also ceramics, occasionally sailing) on an individual basis as any particular student showed up (or didn't) and while I'd liked his approach, I didn't have his rapport with the kids. One kid in particular was giving me nothing but contempt, and my teacher's comment was: "You may not care whether or not he respects you, but you can't do a thing for him until he does."

I told the group about that as a Message, because it seems to explain why so many of the Friends I know have not been coming noticeably closer to God. At one time, people were too afraid of God to dare know Him; now they've become too contemptuous to learn better.

But I myself was still immured in a long dry period, feeling I was no longer being much help to anyone else, nor learning anything new myself. This was an obvious time to consider, had I become like that kid in my relation to God -- not with that same conscious disrespect, but still approaching God with a heedless attitude that rendered me unteachable?

Giving this Message, I was knowingly asking God to let me know. I knew it might take some fairly unpleasant sort of experience to straighten me out. I wasn't easy about accepting that, but it seemed like I'd need to take that chance.

The next day I had a moment of heedlessness, at a wrong (right?) time, and took a short flight with a bad landing from my bicycle. I barely made it to Meeting afterwards, needed a ride home, had to borrow a pair of crutches to stumble upstairs to the apartment. "I told you to ride carefully!" said my darling Anne. I would have plenty of time that evening, to think about why I had made that particular mistake, when I did, and what it was telling me...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Self-Disclosure of God and Me -- # I

What could describing God, and describing me, have in common? Actually, the effort to properly disclose either -- presents extremely similar problems.

I think of one very significant difference: God has nothing to be ashamed of, not even the creation of people.

But that feeling of shame, which is suffered-by, or chronically threatening, most all of us -- is also relevant to God's self-disclosure; it's a major obstacle to people clearly seeing themselves, seeing other people, or seeing God either.

Neither God, nor I, nor any human being, can be completely disclosed here, not in one post, not in a whole series. Indeed, with such subjects, even trying to approach them too directly might prove counterproductive. This leaves me free to take my time, not worry about finishing, hope to make a little progress.

Either topic will involve us in secular human psychology.

We know, for example, how human beings develop in infancy; and we know what conditions favor good, well-functioning human development, contrasted with the sort of conditions that impede & impair. The conditions that God provides, for the raising of SHis children in this age, are a screaming disaster. How come?

Gabor Mate, who is a medical doctor and a mensch, uses his own life as an illustration of the kind of childhood misfortunes that can result in ADD and/or in addictive behavior. That is, he was born Jewish in Budapest, shortly before the Nazis took over Hungary; and the situation imposed unimaginable stress on his mother. At one point, she felt that she needed, in order to save his life, to hand her baby over to a complete stranger. When they were reunited a few weeks afterwards, he responded by totally shunning her -- a typical infant response, he says, to a mother absent for any significant length of time.

Years later, Mate -- a brilliant workaholic -- had made it through medical school, was married & raising a family, was serving as a compassionate, dedicated doctor, writing a newspaper medical column on the side -- when one of his colleagues suggested he investigate and do a few columns about ADD. Looking into the literature, he immediately recognized the chaotic lack of discipline in his life, the emotional turmoil, the addictive compulsions at work in his otherwise-harmless hoarding of classical cds -- realized that this was producing ADD symptoms in his children, disrupting emotional relations with his wife... His impairments hadn't rendered him a twitching illiterate, as in the common stereotype, but other doctors soon confirmed his self-diagnosis.

If you intended to produce a smoothly-functioning human being, one who easily 'got along with' others and comfortably enjoyed his life, this isn't how you would treat a baby. But if you'd wanted someone to grow up able to recognize and sympathize with the common humanity of people we typically despise and shun -- drug addicts, for example -- suffering can sometimes, somehow, produce a better person. I don't recommend making people suffer; I just observe that God does it and the results can be remarkable...

Sometimes, bleh, the results are simply mixed... I myself didn't turn out to be a doctor; and my compassion could use a tune-up. What I can do -- is to relate to what Mate says about the flailings and interpersonal disasters all too familiar to anyone whose mind has a mind of its own.

My persistent estrangement from mother and father, despite their obvious efforts to make the best of continual quarrels with a difficult son... I vaguely remember, extremely early, lying in a hospital bed, missing them a great deal. There were several times this might have been; a favorite aunt used to talk about how I'd been when she'd first met me, but then when I'd just come back from the hospital one time, she said, "You just kept wringing your hands." People have suffered more; people have suffered less; the thing about this kind of suffering, with a child of the right age... is that one doesn't grow up with reasonable emotional 'control'; our emotions overwhelm or they hide altogether."Work habits?" One is obsessed about a subject, or one just can't squeeze it into one's mind.

I can sometimes envy other people's more conventional lives... but when I think about it, no, this life I was intended to be has been a marvelous gift, exactly as it is.

Quoting Rabbi Arthur Waskow: "...in the Talmud—that extraordinary collection of Rabbinic wisdom over five centuries and a few thousand miles of separation — there is an ongoing discussion on the Torah passage in Genesis that says, 'God created humankind in God’s own Image.' B’tselem elohim.

"So one of the rabbis asks, 'What does this mean, "In God’s image?” ' And another rabbi answers, 'When Caesar puts his image on a coin, all the coins come out identical. When that One Who is beyond rulers puts the Divine Image on a coin, all the coins come out unique.' ”

So, today. A little about me, a little about God and how SHe works.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

About Quakers

[I was invited to talk about Quakers for my wife's adult Sunday school class at St Mark's Episcopal Church nearby, which I normally attend on my way to Meeting. What I told them is true and accurate to the best of my knowledge, but is not a description agreed to by any official Quaker body.

This post was short enough to read in the first week's session, together with short portions of George Fox's Journal and Pacific Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice. The next post is twice as long; I passed out copies and simply talked about it. The class has asked me back for a third presentation tomorrow in which I hope to respond more adequately to some questions raised by the first two posts.

I hope these three pieces, while far from complete, will be helpful to others trying to explain who we are and how we got this way...]
------------------------------


Since our beginnings in the 1640's, almost everything one could truly say about Quakers has changed. Even the name 'Religious Society of Friends' was a late afterthought, for a movement which its adherents described variously as 'Children of Light,' 'Friends of the Light', 'Friends of Truth', 'Friends', 'The Elect People of God Who in Scorn Are Called Quakers', or simply those 'in the Truth.'

With 'Continuing Revelation' among our earliest doctrines, transformations would seem quite natural, but there's more to it than that. We have evolved an organizational structure and form of worship capable of accommodating practically any imaginable content, and within those forms we disagree drastically with one another and with our founders. At one end of the spectrum of Quaker faith and practice some of the Friends' Churches can barely be distinguished from 'Conservative' protestant worship services; other Friends' Churches and Meetings incorporate periods of silent worship ranging from most of the service down to a token few minutes. There are 'Conservative Friends', often politically liberal, upholding the practices of 18th and 19th Century American Meetings. The most widespread Meetings are those of 'Liberal' Friends, which generally maintain a strict one hour period, in which silence is the norm, but anyone who feels 'led' by the Spirit to speak must do so.

Many 'Liberal', 'unprogrammed' Meetings, such as my own, have been overwhelmingly secular-humanist for a very long time; it is only in recent years that we've acquired people and organizations proudly proclaiming themselves 'Nontheist Friends.' Some of these simply object to ways that people have habitually misinterpreted the word “God”; most of them are more-or-less frankly atheist. The Meetings themselves tend to a tacit 'Don't ask; don't tell!' policy that renders us practically incapable of saying what, if anything, we collectively believe.

I am left wondering: How did the greatest outpouring of Spirit in the English Reformation turn into the obsessively solemn, ingrown Quietist sect of the 18th Century, merge disasterously with the Evangelical movements of the 19th Century and split into hostile factions, one of which produced the smug and comfortable congregations of modern Liberal Meetings? And is this how we are meant to end?

Looking at all churches as failed religious experiments – I can say that this particular failure has been remarkably fruitful and illuminating.

Why Are We So Peculiar? Should It Matter?

We've called ourselves “a peculiar people” via a 17th Century usage of the term, meaning that we considered ourselves 'a people' who were God's personal property, a 'chosen people.' At the time, like many among the early Christians, we probably considered ourselves a replacement people, a new people who were being called into existence because the previous examples hadn't worked out.

For the founders, we also represented the recreation of the apostolic Christian church, as it had been “before the Apostasy” – one of many efforts the Puritan movement made in this direction, but one which read the Christian scriptures in a radically spiritualized sense to produce a universalist Christian perfectionist sect which affirmed an entirely different foundation for doctrinal authority. The resulting position was considered radically Protestant by Catholics, while patriotic English Protestants accused us of being closet Catholics.

Our unique solution to that question of human religious authority had put us squarely on a radical third side of the Reformation. In the 19th Century the major Friends' institution shied away from the implications of this earlier doctrine, and none of the major modern divisions seem altogether comfortable with them.

Specifically, our earliest traditions locate religious authority in Christ alive within each human being, ruling in us so far as we can remain attentive and loyal to that.

This stand might be traced to the decisive moment in George Fox's religious development, after he had studied the Bible to the point of knowing it almost verbatim, and consulted with the most spiritually-illuminated advisors anyone could recommend to him -- and still found himself with no firm sense of a revelation he could trust.

In a state of near-despair, he heard a voice saying: “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition.” Despite his familiarity with the Bible and the many contemporary Puritan insights that can be traced in his journal and many epistles, this is where he found his own insights: "This I saw in the pure openings of the Light, without the help of any man, neither did I know where to find it in the Scriptures, though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it. For I saw in that Light and Spirit which was before Scripture was given forth, and which led the holy men of God to give them forth, that all must come to that Spirit, if they would know God or Christ or the Scriptures aright, which they that gave them forth were led and taught by."

In a nation haunted by expectations of Jesus' imminent return, the chief point of early Quaker experience and belief was that Christ was already here within each human soul, that “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” In Cromwell's England, linked to the popular resentment against paying tithes to a national Church which had not served people in many districts for years, this movement grew rapidly, was wildly popular in some areas but was also widely feared, despised, and persecuted, as likely to undermine and destroy all social order.

The doctrine that God's Spirit lives in each human soul seems to be embedded in all world religions; and Fox had found it implied by his readings of the Bible... but most religious traditions keep it disguised. As an abstract idea, it sounds like trying to put a big box into a little one... but as intuited fact, it's perfectly commonplace.

As a principle of Church government, it's quite tricky to embody. If Christ's government comes by Christ governing each person, who has the right to tell whom what that person should or shouldn't be doing?

In 1656 James Naylor rode a donkey into Bristol, with a crowd of his admirers throwing their coats into his path, chanting "Holy, holy, holy" and clearly intending to reenact Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. Soon afterwards he was arrested and tried for blasphemy -- and though his answers to the authorities clearly show that he was not claiming that "James Naylor is the Messiah", that was how the incident was generally interpreted. As Naylor had been an eloquent and prominent preacher for the Quaker movement, our opponents were eager to see him in the worst light and impose the severest punishment possible, while his rivals among us were quick to distance themselves. Most modern Friends consider that Naylor gravely mistook his leading, and that his case showed a real need for the tighter forms of Quaker organization that began around this time.

Since that date there has been a continuing tension in Friends' customs and institutions, between the sanctity of individual inspiration, and the group authority people feel more safe within.

Relying on group processes to 'discern' truth and/or to "test leadings" is itself a dubious process; there are plenty of examples, Quaker examples among them, of groups which have simply amplified the mistakes of their members. But somehow Quakers seem more inclined to trust the validity of a statement "approved" by a Meeting, as though they'd hadn't just been trying to discern God's will in a matter, but had made it official.

Walt Whitman, heavily influenced by Quakers but never a member, wrote that one should "take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or any number of men" -- and this entirely opposite feeling is also a persistent element of the Quaker message.

Next week I hope to go a little deeper into these difficulties and how they have played out in our history and practice over the centuries.

About Quakers 2

Our main sacrament, the Quaker Meeting for Worship, has also changed considerably over the centuries, in accord with changes of doctrine and the balance between individual initiative and group dominance.

Most people, including most Quakers, would probably not think we had what other Christians call sacraments, but this terminology does help compare our practice to theirs. Along with the basic 'meeting for worship', I would include meetings for occasions such as marriage, death, or business -- while Dan Snyder titled a recent pamphlet (published by our study center at Pendle Hill) 'Quaker Witness As Sacrament' (ie political activism as a religious practice that can help connect and align us with God.)

The Quaker meeting for business has been traced to the customs of village government in northern England -- while the first meetings for worship were apparently those of people called 'Seekers' active in that same area.

These Seekers were one of several Christian sects who'd abandoned all church ceremonies except silently waiting for God (to clarify which practices He truly wanted of them.) How and when they'd begun this, how much they'd combined with prayer and discussion, was not recorded. People accused of being 'Seekers' had been subject to governmental persecution until Cromwell's reign, and some mob violence even then. But George Fox found himself at home among them. Some Friends in Nottingham wrote later that: "We never heard the name of the Children of Light given to us before the coming of George Fox amongst us," but had felt a "blessed fellowship" with him and those of that name ever since "George Fox preached the Light of Christ unto us as the Guide to eternal life from whence it came, to all that was willing to follow it..."

The first regular Quaker meeting in London was at the Bull and Mouth Tavern -- probably because this was a site open to religious debate, while people of the time (Fox included) drank ale as a matter of course. [Quaker attitudes toward alcohol changed considerably by the 19th Century, when Stephen Grellet resolved to hold a Quaker Meeting in every pub in Dublin.] Normally the first Meetings in a town might take place anywhere a travelling preacher was expected, or [if not expected] could arrange. He or (sometimes) she would wait silently, sometimes a considerable period, before speaking at all, and then might continue talking for hours afterwards.

If enough people were 'convinced', they would begin meeting together on a regular basis, probably in the home of a sympathetic local worthy. When the first Quaker meeting houses were constructed, they were built for a program in which certain people would be most likely to speak while others were expected to listen; the bulk of the group sat on benches facing forward while the 'facing benches' for recognized 'ministers' were built up like small bleachers.

A wooden partition could be drawn down the center of the room to separate the men's side of the room from the women's. This was not done in meetings for worship -- but to separate men's and women's meetings for business. Fox had insisted on instituting such women's meetings, against considerable opposition -- which women supporters responded to, on at least one occasion, with mooing & clucking sounds. (It was not until the late 19th Century that the partition was taken down in London Yearly Meeting, followed a few years later by the selection of their first woman Clerk.) Women's meetings typically undertook different sorts of business... but with fairly equivalent degrees of importance, responsibility, expenditures involved.

Upstairs there would typically be galleries where children would be decorously parked for the duration. There's a traditional rhyme I first heard from a 7th Day Adventist, a former Pennsylvania resident:
"Quaker meeting has begun:
No more laughter, no more fun."

We have a more favorable account from Rufus Jones, raised in a rural Quaker community in 19th Century Maine: " “Very often in these meetings for Worship, there were long periods of silence … I do not think that anyone ever told me what the silence was for. It does not seem necessary to explain Quaker silence to children. They feel what it means …
“Sometimes a real spiritual wave would sweep over the Meeting in these silent hushes, which made me feel very solemn and which carried me – careless boy that I was – down into something deeper than my own thoughts, gave me a momentary sense of that Spirit who has been the life and light of people in all ages and in all lands.”

But generally, passing a parent's religious fervour on to the children, who have grown up in entirely different circumstances, where different ideas are in fashion -- children to whom those convincing first hand experiences are merely hearsay -- has been as difficult for us as it was for the Puritans, and continues so to this day.

The earliest Quaker meetings were accused of being loud and emotional, with new converts literally groaning with remorse as they saw their ways and their conventional religious foundations undermined. Margaret Fell's account, of the effects of Fox's preaching when she first encountered it in her church: "And so he went on, and said, 'That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God,' &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, "The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord': and said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, "Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;" but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, 'We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.'"

But when the monarchy returned to power, while persecutions increased and the hopes of universal spiritual awakening diminished, Friends underwent a significant shift of emphasis. Preaching addressed to The World diminished; while more and more Friends were striving merely to live and worship together in separation from its ways.

The resulting Quaker orientation has been called 'Quietism', after a contemporary spiritual movement among contemplative Catholics, the best known of these being Fenelon and Madame Guyon. Their books became popular among Quakers, who shared their distrust of the natural human will -- but that distrust had also been a prominent element in Puritan theology and the Quaker doctrines that developed from it.

Robert Barclay (for many of us still The Authority on traditional Quaker theology) in Apology for the True Christian Divinity, 1678:

"All Adam's posterity (or mankind), both Jews and Gentiles, as to the first Adam (or earthly man), is fallen, degenerated, and dead; deprived of the sensation (or feeling) of this inward testimony or seed of God; and is subject unto the power, nature, and seed of the serpent, which he soweth in men's hearts, while they abide in this natural and corrupted estate: from whence it comes that not only their words and deeds but all their imaginations are evil perpetually in the sight of God, as proceeding from this depraved and wicked seed. Man therefore, as he is in this state, can know nothing aright; yea his thoughts and conceptions concerning God and things spiritual, until he be disjoined from this evil seed and united to the Divine Light, are unprofitable both to himself and others... " [Barclay included an elaborate argument in disagreement with the Calvinists, as to whether babies were born damned. He insisted that they would first need to commit some actual sin – but given those carnal little natures, such transgressions were all too likely.]

John Woolman, the best-known 18th Century Quaker (far better admired than Fox, these days) was engaged in life-long struggle against taking any action or decision "in his own will." During a crucial yearly meeting session: "I was deeply engaged in inward cries to the Lord for help, that I might stand wholly resigned, and move only as He might be pleased to lead me."

Later, coming out of a fever, he "heard a soft melodious voice, more pure and harmonious than any I had heard with my ears before; I believed it was the voice of an angel who spake to the other angels; the words were, 'John Woolman is dead.' " This, he gratefully concluded, "meant no more than the death of my own will."

But Woolman was only one of many 'Quietist' Friends actively engaged in reforming social conditions in the 18th and 19th Centuries. (His particular contribution was persuading American Quakers to give up slave-owning, which they did in the mid 1770's.)

The significant change was that The Light, for most Friends, had stopped being an experience and had become a doctrine.

The consequence was an increasing reliance on outward signs and practices. If a sacrament can be an outward sign of a spiritual reality -- Then that outward sign can easily be done in the absence of what it's meant to show -- a fact that had prompted the whole Puritan upheaval in the first place, and led the first Quakers to reject the various Puritan alternatives as well.

When Samuel Bownas was growing up as one of the first Quakers born into an existing Meeting, he says he "had little consideration of religion, nor any taste thereof." But one day "A young woman named Anne Wilson was there and preached; she was very zealous, and fixing her eye upon me, she with a great zeal pointed her finger at me, uttering these words with much power, 'A traditional Quaker: Thou comest to meeting as thou went from it (the last time) and goes from it as thou came to it, but art no better for thy coming; what wilt thou do in the end?'" Overwhelmed, Bownas went on to become a traveling preacher himself, and was imprisoned for this half a year in the American colonies.

When he returned, Bownas was puzzled to sense a new deadness in Meetings there, an obstacle to his own preaching. "I found it very hard work in many places, and in some meetings was quite shut up, but where the people who did not profess with us came in plentifully it was not so, there being an open door." He asked another Friend "why it seemed more dead amongst Friends in this nation now, than in some other places. He gave this as a reason, that ‘the professors of truth in that nation were very strict and exact in some things, and placed much in outward appearance, but too much neglected the reformation and change of the mind, and having the inside thoroughly cleansed from pride and iniquity, for thou knowest,' said he, ‘the leaven of the Pharisees was always hurtful to the life of religion in all shapes.'"

The doctrine that Christ's followers can and should be "perfect", that any contrary, 'reasonable' position was merely "preaching up sin", soon brought all Friends under the relentless discipline of their Meeting overseers -- who were necessarily limited to regulating outward behavior.

Backsliding was a fact of life, and overseers were typically patient and forgiving -- after sincere repentance, public confession, and the return to life in accord with Friends' principles. These were strictly upheld, sometimes at considerable cost and suffering, sometimes to great advantage, often with strange and ironic consequences.

When Quaker merchants first refused to ask for more money than seemed fair, it initially cost them business from people accustomed to friendly dickering. And then it brought increased business, people grateful not to worry about being cheated. Denied access to respectable professions, Quakers turned to banking, and prospered. Reluctant to deal in hard liquor, some got rich selling chocolate.

The witness against established, compulsorily public-supported clergy -- was popular, and no doubt facilitated the initial spread of the Quaker movement. It also demanded a principled resistance to paying tithes -- leading to widespread imprisonment and looting of Quaker possessions. Steadfast Quaker resistance then led to reluctant public admiration and trust. But this witness also contributed to Quaker isolation, since marrying outside the group implied accepting clerical services.  From an online local history: "One problem which continued to plague Third Haven Friends throughout the colonial period was the 'temptation' offered by the presence of Anglican ministers, especially where the youth were concerned. From time to time young Quakers would run to the priest to be married, especially those who were too young, those who did not have their parent’s approval, and those who were first cousins and therefore too closely related to receive Quaker permission to wed.  James Clayland, the Anglican minister at St.Michaels, and others from time to time, seemed to encourage the children of Quakers to come along for a quick marriage."

This was by far the most common of the many deviations that could lead to Friends being 'disowned.' A geneological site lists: "fiddling, dancing, drinking intoxicating liquor to excess, serving in the militia or other armed forces, using profane language, fighting, failure to meet financial obligations, marrying contrary to the order used by Friends, deviation from plainness in apparel or speech, joining another religious society, etc."  Another site: "It would be necessary to make amends in writing to the satisfaction of a committee of members of the monthly meeting if they wished to remain Quakers. Sometimes the spouse adopted the Quaker faith and was received by request. If the Quakers were unwilling to make amends for their actions they would be dismissed from the monthly meeting." If they really couldn't regret their action, this would be hard to do honestly, and by the mid 1850's British Friends noticed that disowning young members for marriage was causing a significant long-term decline in numbers. In 1859 they abandoned it, an example soon followed by yearly meetings elsewhere.

The Free Quakers, a splinter group of Quakers disowned for participating in the Revolutionary War, dissipated over several decades as members died off and/or returned to their original Meetings. In the Civil War, some southern Quakers died in prison for refusing to fight, while many northern Friends enlisted in what they considered a necessary war against slavery. After the war, they were generally welcomed home without censure; and since then Quakers have largely left such decisions to the individual conscience, a significant number of us being conscientious objectors and a significant number fighting.

The witness against slavery -- first led to the most fervent advocates being disowned for stirring up dissention in Meeting. When the Society of Friends did renounce slavery, those in the southern United States often became estranged from their neighbors; and significant numbers migrated northwest into Ohio and Indiana. There, isolated from larger Quaker organizations, heavily influenced by Methodist neighbors and the tent meetings of travelling preachers, they often adopted worship practices -- even the hiring of pastors -- typical of Protestant Christianity.

But the schisms that eventually split the American Quaker bodies reflected a different conflict: between rural congregations focused on traditional practices, vs those same evangelical movements at work among the increasingly wealthy leadership of the major bodies. [A large, cluttered wall chart of the resulting branches is available for anyone who wants the full story.] Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's history site observes that: "No definitive account nor interpretation [of the schisms] has gained universal assent among Friends even today," precisely because the differences that produced them remain, as any reader of Quaker websites and mailing lists can confirm.

Online, you'll find that most Friends today are pretty traditional Christians -- even in the United States. Outside of a few heavily-Quaker areas, however, the typical practice will be silent meetings for worship, everyone on chairs facing the same forward direction, or else facing inward in a square or round arrangement, for roughly an hour.

This is apparently typical of modern Conservative Friends as well, although they do keep up the traditional practice of "recording ministers" -- officially recognizing individuals unusually gifted in preaching, seeking to train them in distinguishing and giving true messages, while (so far as possible) restraining any erratic personal impulses that might seem briefly plausible. In rural communities, in past centuries, says Lloyd Lee Wilson: "Friends used to attend two meetings for worship on First Day, each considerably longer than an hour, and gathered as well on Fifth Day mornings... Beyond this, daily devotions including reading the Bible and waiting worship were the standard practice in every household."

It's pretty clear that one hour a week isn't enough to achieve ongoing intimacy with God. It's also clear that studying the scriptures, or maintaining traditional Quaker practices, or taking part in church services won't necessarily do it either. God has provided 'sacraments', 'yogas' -- practices that can make it possible -- but what people typically want instead is far too modest: to find dependable, safe ways to control the universe as if it were an insensate, mechanical object. Magic was one way of doing this; science is another. Religious movements start when a few people encounter the universe as a living, conscious Being -- but each such movement so far has soon ossified into what Walter Wink called 'methodolatry'. Friends and our practices have followed that pattern all too well, and now, like many other contemporary religious groups we stand in serious need of renewal. Many of us are yearning and striving for that; many others just want (as John Rowntree once put it) to have Christ "leave me alone in this life, and save me in the next." Only God can bring hope to this situation -- but God keeps right on working on us.

About Quakers 3 (Some questions)


I've been asked two questions about these discussions: What did I mean about "failed religious experiments"? and Could I say more about the schisms? Finding these questions intimately related, I'll try to respond to both together.

George Fox's mission as he described it:

"Now when the Lord God and His Son Jesus Christ sent me forth into the world, to preach His everlasting gospel and kingdom, I was glad that I was commanded to turn people to that inward light, spirit, and grace, by which all might know their salvation, and their way to God; even that divine Spirit which would lead them into all Truth, and which I infallibly knew would never deceive any.

"But with and by this divine power and spirit of God, and the light of Jesus, I was to bring people off from all their own ways, to Christ, the new and living way; and from their churches, which men had made and gathered, to the Church in God, the general assembly written in heaven which Christ is the head of: and off from the world's teachers, made by men, to learn of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life, of whom the Father said, "This is my beloved Son, hear ye Him"; and off from all the world's worships, to know the Spirit of truth in the inward parts, and to be led thereby; that in it they might worship the Father of spirits, who seeks such to worship Him; which Spirit they that worshipped not in, knew not what they worshipped. And I was to bring people off from all the world's religions, which are vain; that they might know the pure religion, might visit the fatherless, the widows, and the strangers, and keep themselves from the spots of the world; then there would not be so many beggars, the sight of whom often grieved my heart, to see so much hard-heartedness amongst them that professed the name of Christ. And I was to bring them off from all the world's fellowships, and prayings, and singings, which stood in forms without power, that their fellowship might be in the Holy Ghost, and in the Eternal Spirit of God; that they might pray in the Holy Ghost, and sing in the Spirit, and with the grace that comes by Jesus; making melody in their hearts to the Lord, who hath sent His beloved Son to be their Saviour, and caused His heavenly sun to shine upon all the world, and through them all, and His heavenly rain to fall upon the just and the unjust as His outward rain doth fall, and His outward sun doth shine on all, which is God's unspeakable love to the world..."

Briefly, Fox was called to turn people away from all previous ways of embodying worship, which had proved futile, towards complete reliance on the spirit of God at work in them, which would lead them into all truth.

Within his own lifetime, estranged followers were accusing Fox of imposing his own improper constraints on the Spirit. And by 1907, Warren Wilson remarks [Quaker Hill: A Sociological Study]: "Of religious ceremonies the Quakers claim to have none. But they are fond of ceremoniousness beyond most men. The very processes by which they abolish forms are made formal processes. They have ceremonies the intent of which is to free them from ceremony. The meeting is called to order by acts ever so simple, and dismissed by two old persons shaking hands; but these are invariable and formal as a doxology and a benediction."

Now if such ceremonious ways embodied the work of God's spirit effectively, more effectively than those practices Fox denounced, their ceremonious nature would not be a significant issue -- But the existence of schisms within his movement implies that its simple new ceremonies are not uniformly effective.

I'm not saying that God objects to differences in religious concepts, or friendly conflict about them, or fragmentation of human religious "authority"; all these things are probably within God's intention, and certainly have proved useful for God's purposes. What schisms demonstrate is that our practice has not uniformly convinced Friends that it alone can do the job -- because we divided on the issue of whether certain beliefs were also necessary, and remain so divided.

Worse, our history doesn't just undermine Quaker interpretations which I know to be true; it casts doubt on an essential piece of Christianity: that the Spirit of God will lead believers "into all truth". This isn't just the obvious loophole: that Jesus doesn't say 'how fast' or 'when' we are to receive such truth, or whether this means "every bit of it in one chunk" or merely "truth continuing to grow without limit." This is the same apparent lapse in God's universal benevolence that allows for the existence of "false prophets" -- and thereby undermines all assurances that anyone whatsoever can have valid faith in God's revelations to himself or anyone else.

Some false prophets might be psychopaths or con men, lacking faith or scuples -- but I would expect self-deception to be more common; and that's the most plausible explanation for the two examples I'm acquainted with among modern Friends.

In one case, a member of the Meeting had gone missing. He'd led an erratic life before becoming a member; and his friends were worried. The story is that another member rose to deliver a message: that ____ was dead but his spirit was happy and at peace, he blamed no one and they should not feel any guilt for his leaving. He was surprised to hear about this when he returned to town a few weeks later.

In the other case, a respected scholar and publisher of early Quaker writings, an emphatically devout Christian, announced a place and date on which Jesus would return to locally establish the Kingdom; all ailments would be healed and no one would die within the Farmington, Maine city limits from that date forward. I'm sure I wasn't the only one who would have been pleasantly surprised if this had happened; but I doubt that anyone but the prophet herself actually expected it.

The common element I see in both examples was a craving for certainty, on matters where it just wasn't available. 'Faith' can mean trust, whether appropriate or misplaced -- but as Jesus uses the word I see another meaning: having implicit faith in what one knows intuitively, faith in the 'word' which God continually speaks within each person. That is really the essence of the Quaker belief system -- but it is not a belief system, or faith in a belief system. The fact that Friends could condemn and separate from each other, in defense of differing belief systems, shows that in some sense we really didn't get it.

I've heard Quakerism defined as an "orthopraxy, not an orthodoxy." That is, Liberal Friends consider us a movement based on 'right practice' rather than 'right doctrine.' But by the time of the first major schism in 1827, we had been practicing over a hundred years, two days a week and twice on Sundays, daily at home with the Bible. "Quaker worship" as a formally-practiced form of worship, was unmasked as yet another 'vain form.'

The triggering event was controversy over the popular preaching of Elias Hicks. The 1827 Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was divided on whether he should be disowned; and by 1828 there were two Philadelphia Yearly Meetings: 'Hicksite' and 'Orthodox.'

As one of my teachers at Pendle Hill pointed out, the disagreement was largely a matter of emphasis. The trouble was, that tiny difference of emphasis was about where a person should find ultimate authority. Hicks placed this squarely on the inner Light; his opponents agreed that the Light was a good thing in its place -- but only so far as it confirmed their beliefs about Jesus and the authority of Scripture.

The best known advocate for the Orthodox position, the banker Joseph Gurney, did not actually visit the United States until years later -- but when he preached to the Orthodox remnant of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, many of his opponents fled to form 'Conservative' yearly meetings, to continue more traditional Quaker ways and understandings. Gurney's return to England triggered the separation of his more extreme followers there, although that movement dissipated over the next several decades. Belief in 'The Authority of Scripture' -- that is, belief in some authoritarive person's interpretation of Christian scriptures -- seems innately productive of schisms, most notably among small Anabaptist sects.

Gurney himself -- even in person -- could hardly have split the movement singlehandedly. But particular Quaker families that had "done well by doing good" had increasingly come to dominate Quaker institutional structures. Although Meetings could and did provide for the travels of recognized ministers -- including care for their families if that became necessary -- the absence of any professional clergy had tended to leave most tasks of church government to those members least encumbered with making a living. Upholding traditional Quaker theology, for such people, was less important than reconciling their differences with wealthy colleagues from other denominations, with whom they were often allied in charitable & reform projects. Their theology, like Gurney's, tended to see beliefs about Jesus as the essentials of salvation.

Christian theology has raised disturbing questions from our beginnings. Opponents intent on blasphemy charges pressed early Friends to specify how this Light they spoke of related to their personal opinions, loyalties, and consciences -- and to the actual historical man called 'Jesus.' Fox himself was definite that this word refers to Jesus Christ, who (variously) "is" the Light, or with it "enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power." But there was no effort to impose uniform terminology, to limit anyone's preferred name for the divine influence at work within each human being.  Fox, like other early Friends, insisted that it "enlightens every man who comes into the world" -- before or after Christ, whether raised in a church or in far corners of the world where no one ever heard the name 'Jesus'.

While Fox filled volumes with intricate theological rants -- he characteristically described people who left Friends over theological disagreements as having "run out after notions." That is, for Fox the primary source of Truth was the Spirit -- as the Bible itself told him -- rather than the Bible itself. He read the Bible diligently, and found truth in it; but believed this resulted from the Spirit "opening" its true meaning to him. If someone were "following notions," this meant relying on the text alone, working out meanings intellectually -- rather than being spiritually guided to true interpretations. It was not 'words about' Jesus that led to salvation, but Jesus himself wielding the Light within each person. It was not words about the Light that mattered, but whether one turned to follow it, or away.

Early Friends did not make it clear what, if anything, this had to do with a certain 1st Century Hebrew prophet. If they knew the Light, and followed it, they would be doing what Jesus had commanded; and this was what they considered necessary.

In the 19th Century controversy, Hicks had considerable reverence for Jesus the man, though his understanding of Jesus had a mystical flavor; and he shocked his contemporaries by not believing in the virgin birth. "[Jesus] had loved righteousness, you perceive, and therefore was prepared to receive the fullness of the spirit, the fullness of that divine anointing; for there was no germ of evil in him or about him; both his soul and his body were pure. He was anointed above all his fellows, to be the head of the church, the top stone, the chief corner stone, elect and precious. And what was it that was a Savior? Not that which was outward; it was not flesh and blood: For 'flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of Heaven;' it must go to the earth from which it was taken. It was that life, that same life that I have already mentioned, that was in him and which is the light and life of men, and which lights every man, and consequently every woman, that comes into the world. And we have this light and life in us; which is what the apostle meant by Jesus Christ; and if we have not this ruling in us we are dead, because we are not under the law of the spirit of life. For 'the law is life and the reproofs of instruction the way to life.'"

Gurney, on the other hand, was not one to deny the reality of the Light. "Now with Friends (and probably with many persons under other names) it is a leading principle in religion, that the work of the Holy Spirit in the soul is not only immediate and direct, but perceptible. We believe we are all furnished with an inward Guide or Monitor, who makes his voice known to us, and who, if faithfully obeyed and closely followed, will infallibly conduct us into all true virtue and happiness, because he leads us into a real conformity with the will of God... Under the Christian dispensation, the Holy Spirit is poured forth in pre-eminent abundance, as has already been observed, and as the Scriptures testify, on the souls of true believers in Jesus Christ..."

but then: "While it may be hoped that the spiritually-minded Christian will readily admit the force of these scriptural evidences, and will cheerfully embrace that profitable truth which they so clearly unfold; it is not to be forgotten that the human imagination is very active and delusive, and that persons who are superficial in religion, or who are not sufficiently watchful, may sometimes mistake the unauthorized dictates of their own minds, for the voice of a divine and unerring guide."

Here we are, right back at that fear of false prophecy -- and also, right back to what I consider the root cause of false prophecy: the need to shore up a precarious faith by external evidence.

Certainly, true faith will find confirmation in the external, physical world -- but it can't be based on finding any substitute whatsoever for God's ongoing revelation within each person. What we think we're seeing may be illusory. What we tell ourselves to believe might be simply wrong. What we thought last week may be have been mistaken; what we think at this moment may be mistaken -- but God continues to bring forth truth, in whatever form, to whatever extent we're able to understand it. How do we recognize that in ourselves? -- Do we, as Gurney implied, need to be somebody special in order to rely on it?

People in the gospels were often asking Jesus to perform a sign so they could have some reason, besides the unauthorized dictates of what they knew in their souls, to believe what he was saying. But at some point, those dictates are all we have. To find truth through new facts and better ideas, to understand the world so well that we'd never be mistaken, that would require someone special. What is needful is much simpler, to keep turning within for God to renew our minds.

Over the years since the 19th Century schisms, Friends have gradually and increasingly been talking across the divisions. We've found considerable kinship and significant disagreement with one another. And as I see it, most of us still haven't found our way back to that original insight.

We shore up our sandcastle notions by different means -- by the name of Jesus, by authority of scripture, by loyalty to tradition. Liberal Friends seem to rely on the practice of silent worship and what we call "Quaker Process," a toolkit of techniques for settling Meeting business. We all acknowledge the importance of the Light, all with different fears and different reservations about giving it our trust.

The results of our experiment are still coming in; but we aren't raising the dead yet. We have a valuable religious practice, of worshipping silently -- which really should be included among every religion's practices, as a means of leaving the door open to further revelations. It simply isn't enough on its own. So far as we're treating it ceremonially, as a way for everyone to have a nice, peaceful experience of silence, it leaves most Liberal Friends with spiritual malnuitrition. We leave Meeting each week with the same ideas we brought in, our emotions blanded over to avoid disturbing one another, relieved at the end to escape into refreshments and small talk with nice people. Many of us are satisfied with this -- but it isn't the reign of God; and many of us still want to see that.