Saturday, November 17, 2012
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.