Thursday, September 21, 2006

Quaker Renewal VI: How All This Applies to Friends

The Society of Friends was founded on the practice of waiting silently for God to reveal Godself. Early Friends were eager for such a revelation--being born into a world where political and religious authority were visibly unstable, while God's intention--the key to recognizing any true claim to authority--was subject to intense public dispute.

In the world we know, the hope of knowing God directly seems lost--even among many Friends. Among the American public, the need for God drives many people into the arms of the fundamentalist "God," a power whose passion for sexual conventionality is matched only by his general indifference to war, economic injustice and human suffering. Many others, repelled by that bogey, reject all concepts of God as a consciously and effectively active being.

For many years, now, Friends' traditional emphasis on embodying our beliefs in action, and our relative unconcern with belief systems have brought us many conscientious but not particularly devout new members. Contemporary Friends tend to favor peace, and agree that sitting in silence is a good thing, but those may be the only beliefs we have in common. The idea that God exists and can be known through silent waiting--the one support on which the whole Quaker way was built--does not seem to be generally accepted or even missed.

I can only conclude that sitting in silence--without the intention of knowing God better--has, overall, no direct religious effects. And so my long-cherished hope, shared with many Friends: That the Society of Friends might flourish here as it did in Cromwell's England, drawing multitudes to God, away from the false fears and false hopes of our American media delirium may be another false hope. It asks the Society of Friends--a great spiritual power, but merely a power--to accomplish what only God can do. As my wife once said, expecting a human being to give what has to come from God--can drive one to hatred. And so one poor spirit--that angel charged with maintaining the Society of Friends--endures the bewildered disappointment of many of us who love it.

Over and over through the centuries, God has brought forth spiritual movements. Each time people are filled with enthusiasm, see God at work in and around them, are willing to face death (or even embarrassment) for the new light they see. The spirit of the movement is new-born from God, innocent, shining with hope and fresh revelations. Even so, it is manifested in particular people who must interpret the vision in terms comprehensible to their contemporaries. Increasingly it falls under the domination of fallen human beings--and begins to seek dominion over them. And then, like a kitten growing up into a sedate adult cat, it solidifies and becomes merely the angel of another church.

Friends began with a stronger foundation. Although George Fox continually studied the Bible, his doctrines emphasized the "Spirit who gave forth the Scriptures." The Bible confirmed that we should come to know that Spirit, and everything else would follow. While many Protestants found that same doctrine, they did not read the Bible so freely, but felt that fallen humankind should seek truth primarily in biblical texts as filtered through established interpretations. And so their churches increasingly confined God to what had been written, forgetting to look for God before their eyes and listen for the Word spoken in each moment. Friends from time to time have fallen into that same sleep, but the initial emphasis on the Spirit remains available, against the inevitable human tendency to replace God with familiar things--whether our own ancient baggage, or the idols of our contemporaries.

The powers rule us by two means: actual force--and bamboozlement. While some principalities do command terrible force, it is their power to fool us that most deprives us of dominion. They pose as harmless; they pose as docile. They pose as invincible, and perilous; they hide behind the skirts of their sister "Reason", who tells us they are non-existent. Like human con artists, they offer us unearned gains--and dishonest justifications for why we really deserve them. They appeal to our better nature, give us sweet dreams that we can relieve suffering without getting too close to it.

Friends, from the beginning, have shown remarkable ability to resist violence and intimidation. Facing deception, however, we find (as Woolman observed in his day) that "the fruits of the spirit which is of this world are brought forth by many who profess to be led by the Spirit of truth, and cloudiness is felt to be gathering over the visible Church."

We, who see that cloudiness all too clearly, often seek help in the glorious Quaker past. We invoke Early Friends against the Friends we know; we dig up sensible old practices--but The Angel of Quaker Tradition is not the ally we're seeking! A true rebirth will require a return to our true root--the direct experience of God.

How can we "do" that? Do we sit back in comfort, saying, "I never got the message so it must not have been important?" Afflict ourselves with anguish, wailing "Why have you forsaken us?" Seek some "middle" way? None of the above. I have no "practical" suggestions. What comes to me is that we must learn, and preach, the gospel.

What's that? Fox, mining the Bible [Romans1.16], said that the gospel was "the Power of God to Salvation." He says it "expels away that which Darkens Life, and Immortality from People; and Captivates their Souls, Spirits and Minds, & keeps them in bondage." He demands that "now the Everlasting Gospel must be Preached again to all Nations, Kindreds, Tongues, and Peoples which dwell upon the Earth, that through that, Life and Immortality might come to Light in them." [George Fox, Some Principles of the Elect People of God Who in Scorn are called Quakers, London 1661, available online at]

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