A liberal Quaker rant against conservative-leaning liberal Quakerism

I’ve been bouncing around the world of Quaker blogs, as I sometimes do, and once again, I find that world filled with Friends who are disappointed with the liberalism of liberal Quakerism, who want it to become more conservative, which is mostly to say more narrowly defined and exclusive. Of course, they don’t want it to become so conservative so that it gores their favorite liberal oxen, but only the liberal oxen that they dislike.

As an enthusiastically liberal Quaker, one who sees the astonishing openness of liberal Quakerism as a great strength in a religiously divided world, I am feeling annoyed with all this carping about how unwilling our meetings are to draw boundaries around themselves. I also find myself baffled that so many in this movement do so in the name of Jesus, one whose life was fearlessly devoted to eliminating boundaries between human beings–especially those boundaries drawn by the religious leadership of his time. How can a Friend take on the ministry of deciding who is a proper Quaker, and who is not a proper Quaker, and speak of that as following Jesus? or following God, for that matter? What kind of God is this, who would bless a ministry dedicated to drawing lines for the purpose of separating human beings from one another?

Of course, religious literature, including the Bible itself, is filled with endorsements of this kind of exclusionary religious thought. But the central teachings of Jesus were for the most part deeply and radically inclusive. In fact, those who found themselves rejected were particularly welcome at Jesus’s table. Similar inclusive were the central teachings of Gandhi, who I find at least as worthy as Jesus to follow. Likewise Martin Luther King. Others might tell me that Gandhi and King believed in God as well as the particular tenets of their respective religions, but that is quite beside the point. The point is, how will we build a loving and inclusive human community, and what will be the role of liberal Quakerism in building that community?

Some might also take this as a rejection of Christians or Christianity in my vision of liberal Quakerism. It is not. It is a rejection of the notion that Christians (or theists, for that matter) are exclusively entitled to define us as a religious society, or that we should be centrally concerned with how to distinguish ourselves from everyone who is not a Quaker.

What defines Quakerism for me is, the people I sit with in worship. When someone new comes in and sits with us, they redefine Quakerism, immediately and without effort. A Quaker is one who shows up and takes part. To me this is breathtaking, that we can have the courage to be that open.

Some years ago in my home meeting, an individual came to worship week after week and told our lesbian and gay Friends that they would be condemned to hell if they continued in their homosexuality, as would our community if we supported their homosexuality. It was a painful process, but our meeting came to clearness that this condemning behavior was not acceptable to our community. When it became clear that this person would not stop the behavior, we forbade them to come to our meeting house. I think it was the right decision. Point being, we can legitimately say “no” to behavior that does violence to our community. Fully and openly welcoming all people does not have to mean accepting all behavior. We can be radically universalist and still set limits when necessary.

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45 Responses to A liberal Quaker rant against conservative-leaning liberal Quakerism

  1. James Riemermann March 9, 2006 at 9:15 am #

    >Elizabeth O’Sullivan – March 9, 2006
    >Do you feel that Conservative leaning Quakers
    >more exclusive than, say, Reform Jews? Lutherans?
    >Moderately liberal Muslims?

    In most cases probably not. I don’t feel very well qualified to say. I do know there are some extremely theologically radical reform Jews, including rabbis, out there who could honestly be described as nontheists. And many others who aren’t even close. Judaism has generally not been nearly as tied to theological beliefs as Christianity and Islam.

    >
    >Do you feel called to stand against what you feel
    >is a current of exclusion in those religions as
    >well?

    These religions are not my home, so it’s hard for me to stand there in any manner. But in general, yes, I stand in solidarity with the reformers in any religion who are trying to move focus away from theological agreement and toward a unity of the heart and a dedication to right living. I think there *is* a serious problem with orthodoxy in religion, or orthodoxy in anything else.

    I’m a liberal Quaker partly by accident, but also because I think it is a better living tradition than *any* orthodoxy–Jewish, Christian, Muslim, whatever. My tradition is not simply Quakerism, but liberal Quakerism. I am not a conservative Quaker, and I don’t want to be one. It is one thing to stand for conservativism in the conservative Quaker tradition, and another to stand for conservativism in the liberal Quaker tradition. I don’t want to decide what Quakerism should be based on what George Fox or Robert Barclay or any other historical Quaker said or believed. I do want to understand what they said, and in that understanding, with my fellow Quakers, create our religion afresh out of our lives, individually and communally.

    • Adam Zara May 10, 2017 at 3:53 am #

      Hello friends,
      I have started a YouTube channel reading some testimonies of Elias Hicks, in his own words. Most friends know nothing about him, but I believe his teachings were very profound and could really help further God’s kingdom. There is hardly any material out there about quakers in audio format, something I’m trying to accomplish. I will be adding new material pretty frequently, I’m working on adding the full sermon “let brotherly love continue” by Elias Hicks right now. , and I’m sure I will add others testimonies in the future. I just want to let you know that this resource is now available, and if you feel led to do so, feel free to listen yourself, or share with other believers.

      Here is the link to the channel.
      https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdFvMURf5ZzZEdprZHaPPxA

      May the peace of God be with you all in the light of Christ,
      Adam

  2. Elizabeth O'Sullivan March 9, 2006 at 7:28 pm #

    I’m finding this conversation to be kind of healing. That is exciting. I am appreciating hearing some of the distinctions being made here.

    I am having a hard time sleeping because I want to address what seems like a major misunderstanding.

    I don’t feel like being exclusive is more a part of my Conservative-leaning worship group than it is of my liberal meeting. I am suspecting that some of the dismissiveness and exclusion that Pam mentions experiencing at the hands of Conservative-leaning Friends might be similar to the dismissiveness and exclusion that I, and some of my friends, have experienced at the liberal meeting. Over the course of many years, from many people, I have heard this message at the large meeting when I or someone else has shared texts that are precious to me (like from Thomas Kelley, Lloyd Lee Wilson, and Scripture), or when we’ve spoken in the terms that felt most accurate:

    -That is not what we are doing here.
    -That theological terminology needs to be corrected.
    -If that terminology was more prevalent, and that concept was more widely valued, I would leave this group.
    -Those concepts are too flawed to be valuable.
    -You need to grow beyond those ideas until your spiritual framework is the same as mine.
    -We can’t relate to that.

    The big meeting has also been wonderfully loving and supportive in so many ways, but when there seems to be people saying these things over and over again during a long period of time, it becomes a pretty strong and clear message.

    I know that’s not what the big meeting wants. I know James hopes that the Spiritual Diversity statment might make it easier for people like me, too, and I appreciate that, but I don’t think a statement like that will change anything for me and people like me. Too many people come to the liberal meeting wounded by Christianity because they think it won’t trigger their wounds, and then they stay in that wounded place and get triggered by what I find gorgeous and instructive.

    So it seems ironic to me and really unfortunate that when people think about what I’m doing, they think “exclusivity.” That’s not what I think about, just as it is not what liberal Quakers think about when they would describe their faith. I am so thrilled and humbled by the idea of growing in the type of Quakerism described by Thomas Kelley. I want to practice a form of Quakerism that is grounded in Scripture, corporate discernment and mystical experience. I am excited about the idea of learning more about the kind of corporate discernment I see practiced at Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative. I want to use that strong base of corporate discernment to help me interpret spiritual experiences that are sometimes scary for me. I want to grow in my relationship with Christ. I want to learn how to lean heavily into the Spirit all the time. I want experience Quakerism as a fundamentally mystical form of Christianity, in a community that can share my joy in that.

    I don’t think any of this means that I’m dismissing other religions or rejecting other people or that I’m less open to continuing revelation.

    I have often been really disappointed (and sometimes wildly grieved) that the liberal meeting can not be what I want it to be. But it is what it is, and it’s good for a lot of people. I’ve prayed hard about this, and I think that for once I got an answer that wasn’t as round-about as those answers usually are. The answer was “There’s room.” That doesn’t mean I’m at peace, but during the last week I’ve been feeling an opening the growth of more peace.

  3. James Riemermann March 9, 2006 at 3:10 pm #

    Elizabeth,

    I think you got me on paragraphs 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6. I can see how you would read paragraph 2 as you did–as I confessed earlier, I over-generalized and exaggerated–this was my failure.

    I don’t think “Exclusivity is at the root of this movement,” or “The purpose of this movement is to draw lines between people” In fact I’m not entirely sure there is a movement, and if there is its purposes are far broader and more wide-ranging than your statement. I think some conservative-leaning Quakers are making very good points, one of which is, Christians should not feel abashed about expressing their Christianity in Quaker meetings. I agree with that with all my heart, and that is an important part of the work I have been doing with theological diversity in my (our) own meeting.

    So, I do not think that exclusivity or drawing lines is fundamentally what conservative/liberal Quakers are seeking. I do think that there is a clear current of exclusivity and drawing lines running through the “movement,” if that’s what it is. That is not all the movement is, but it is a genuine part of what it is. I am speaking in opposition to that current.

  4. Martin Kelly March 18, 2006 at 7:18 pm #

    Am I missing something here? Quakerism didn’t start in a Minneapolis suburb in 1955. It’s a religious society built on thousands of years of humans trying to understand God: people like Mott, Penn, Fox, Jesus, the early prophets like Isaiah. The discoveries & revelation of these people of faith have given us a language and practice. Why join a religious society deeply rooted in Judeo-Christianity and then get all bent our of shape that people are talking about Jesus? It just doesn’t make sense.

    Yes, our tradition has a privileged role. Is this a surprise? That’s true for any social group from any tradition. We’re not making this stuff up as we go along. We get to question the tradition, to challenge it, to adapt it, etc., but it’s there and it’s going to be there. We have a very open-minded tradition, very liberal, one that’s happy to explore other religious language and that’s great: I don’t think I would have joined Friends if we were any other way. I started hanging around meetinghouses because I liked and deeply respected the Friends I met. I sensed there was something more going on and wanted to understand it. I assumed I had something to learn from these teachers. I knew I might need to seriously consider my own life and beliefs if I found what they professed to be true to my inner experiences.

    James, you joined a religious community knowing you were unconvinced of some of its most basic principles. That’s a tough place to be. But I trust two things: 1) that you joined for a reason and have an authentic interest in trying to understand these people and suss out what is essential to the friendliness and light they showed you; and 2) that you were brought to Friends for a reason and that you’re questioning is helping us grow in the continual revelation.

    You can probably insulate yourself by spending a lot of time with other nontheist Friends, online, at gatherings, at your meeting perhaps, but when you surf off into the wider Quaker world, you’re going to find a lot of talk about the nature of Quakerism. Our religious beliefs are not “quite beside the point” as you argued for King and Gandhi in your original post. When you join a religious society, you should expect some talk about religion.

    Anyway, I’m going to surf off now. I don’t think another back-and-forth would serve us well. We’ve shared where we are. I should say that I try not to be contentious for its own sake, which is a way of saying that the reason I’ve posted here twice now is that I do respect you and sympathize with the tough place you’re at. Maybe we should share some bread at Gathering, my Friend. It’d be nice to share our stories face to face. Till then, take care,
    Your Friend and brother,
    Martin

  5. James Riemermann March 19, 2006 at 10:18 pm #

    Martin,

    I understand your expressed disinterest in continuing the conversation online, but felt a need to respond nonetheless. Of course, I would love to find a time to speak with you at Gathering this summer.

    I’m not sure whose words you’re mistaking for mine. I’m not bent out of shape that people are talking about Jesus. As a rule (depends on the individual message) I love it when people talk about Jesus. Even the messages I don’t particularly love, I welcome as a necessary part of whatever it is we’re building together, from all our different perspectives. I think it’s crucial that our meetings welcome and encourage such talk, and have made that point many times in this exchange and elsewhere.

    And I don’t know why you would think I’m in a tough place. Nothing of the sort. I am hopelessly in love with my meeting, and with Quakerism as I’ve come to understand it. I feel so embraced and cared for by my Quaker community, and its blessed tradition of seeing that of God in every one, that I can hardly bear the joy sometimes.

    No, my criticism has nothing to do with feeling rejected. I am criticizing certain notions expressed by you and some other Quakers which are deeply untrue to my real-world experience of Quakerism, notions that bring to mind a finger pointing down a dead end street.

    Nor am I am criticizing notions of Christianity. Christian notions have a central place in Quakerism, beyond question, and I have a bone to pick with anyone who says otherwise. I have had this argument more than once with Friends on the Nontheist Friends e-mail list. Rather, I am criticizing notions of inequality, of privilege, of drawing boundaries between human beings based on whether they hold certain theological beliefs.

    Perhaps you have known a Quakerism where such boundaries are firmly drawn–I know there are meetings which tend to describe themselves as such. The liberal, radically universalist Quakerism in which I live is simply not that way, though there are some voices among us calling for it. From reading some of your posts and comments, my sense is that you are disappointed specifically because the Quakerism you know is not sufficiently willing to draw such boundaries. I am delighted because the Quakerism I know is not willing to draw such boundaries.

    I am not a second-string Quaker because my beliefs are not typical, any more than an orthodox-minded Christian Friend is a second-string Quaker because his or her beliefs are not typical. This is not a wish of mine, but a fact. Another fact is, the prophets, Jesus, Fox, Barclay, Pennington are where we came from, and not necessarily where we are going. My hope is that we will fully engage with those voices, embrace that which is life-giving in them, and walk fearlessly away from that which is not. As an example, Jesus himself, in the otherwise magnificent Sermon on the Mount, spent entirely too much time speaking of the afterlife, of paradise or damnation, as motivations for righteous behavior. He was a man of his time speaking to others for whom the notion of an afterlife was powerfully resonant. It is time we left this particular poison behind. The reason we should seek righteousness is not to seek heaven or avoid hell, but for its own sake.

    A small point: St. Paul is not a suburb of Minneapolis, but the older of the two cities. Our meeting is fairly new, but its roots are in a worship group formed in St. Paul the late 30s, not the mid-50s. It did become a monthly meeting in ’55, but this was in Minneapolis proper. And as I’ve said, I am less concerned with how Quakerism started than how we are creating it every day of our lives.

    your friend,

    james

  6. James Riemermann March 23, 2006 at 6:55 pm #

    I find it hard to answer directly whether I see “truth as one,” because I’m not sure I understand the phrase, or accept its premises. Though I have heard it expressed many times.

    First, I think there a conflation of truth and goodness in much religious language that doesn’t serve understanding very well. The primary meaning of truth is “that which is the case,” an essentially objective notion. The primary meaning of “goodness” is quite different, and considerably more subjective.

    So, truth may be one in the sense that some things are genuinely the case, regardless of our human notions. But if by truth we mean goodness (a definition I would rather avoid), the question gets mighty slippery. In the real world, the good conflicts with the good again and again. In real life situations, the best solution or answer we can find often causes suffering or injury in some way, no matter how good our intentions. Good exists at many levels: the individual, the family, the neighborhood, the faith community, the nation, the human race, the affiliation of all living creatures, the entire web of natural events. Perhaps the highest good is “that which affirms life,” but again, I have a hard time thinking of that as one or unified. The creative vibrancy and dynamism of life in the world depends utterly on conflict, competition, exploitation, devouring, at least as much as creativity, love, tenderness, compassion.

    I work with my Quaker community to seek good as the most generous sort of compassion we can muster. I think the way we sit and worship together is a powerful method of seeking this highest or deepest goodness. But I do not see this as a goal we can expect to finally reach. I don’t even think it exists other than as an ideal we hold before ourselves. The very nature of existence opposes us. But our faith (not faith as belief that something is the case, but faithfulness to the good as well as we can discern it) demands that we continue, regardless of how the world might oppose us. Basically, I find hope to be a distraction from faithfulness.

    I recognize that there is much that might be considered unQuakerly in this perspective. But there it is.

  7. Pam Marguerite March 22, 2006 at 7:17 pm #

    I’m sorry to see that David got in during a lag in the activity around this post. I think the points and questions here are worthy of attention.

    David, you ask,

    “do liberal Friends today believe that Truth is one? And if so, “one” in what way? I’m not sure if I really have answers, so would appreciate others’ comments.”

    I think this really gets to the center of this “debate” – Do we *have* to agree that “truth is one” to worship and seek truth together???

    I would say the problem is that we get answers all the way from “no, it’s oppressive to even claim there is only one truth” to “yes, and I already know it, and anyone who disagrees with me isn’t worth my time”

    Both paraphrasings, obviously, more antagonistically put than is necessary, but I often think that this is how people hear them.

    My thoughts on the subject are (Well, some of them anyway)

    * “Truth is one” is a bit different from “there is one truth” – only in phrasing and nuances, but still strikingly so for me. The first seems to encompass and embrace us all, while the second seems something that one person could theorectically own, and even lord over another person.

    It’s a bit like finding the sense of the meeting – when it actually happens. Not silencing dissent, not blindly following the most powerful or insistent member, but truly embracing that of God that exists when we are gathered it its name (or in the openness to it, believing in it or not)

    * My experience of the sort of unity I do experience and expect among Friends goes beyond dogma or doctrine. I have felt that connection with christians, pagans, atheists, buddhists. I’m sure I could also feel it with Hindus, Muslims, and others, though I lack exposure.

    * I find myself quite confused by all this. I find myself hearing others say “we are called to go deep, to find that in us that unites us, to be true to our quakerism” and I think “YES!” and then they say “it is Jesus!” and I think “NO!”

    It is very much not Jesus for me. I have a variety of Christian experience, from the adoration I felt for the nuns at my catholic school, who taught me about their God, in whose embrace I felt fully safe and loved, to the complete blank I felt whenever I tried to feel any sort of a gratitude that a man died a painful death to somehow save me from my own sinfulness. Jesus interests me greatly, but as yet I have felt spirit much more strongly in nature than in any awareness of Jesus or Christ.

    I think I’ve lost my train of thought a bit….. I guess for me, and I’ve said it before, there IS something that unites us as quakers – our seeking, our openness to spirit (or God, or Jesus, or the best in ourselves, or community, or love, or the universe, …….), the testimonies (or rather, that in which they are grounded), but not a belief in a certain religious story. That has never made sense to me. The fact that it has never made sense to me is what made quakerism feel so right to me in the first place.

    It may be that I am called to welcome Jesus into my life, and am simply resisting. I get the impression that others think this frequently. It may also be that they are called to look beyond their assumptions about what I need to develop spiritually. Hopefully we will all find the strength and courage to proceed on our spiritual paths.

    One other thing I wanted to mention. I am a bit concerned about our concern about defining quakerism, being true to quakerism, the history of quakerism. I have a concern that quakerism itself is becoming an empty outward form, that we value being “good quakers” above being TRUE, loving, honest, kind, centered. Has anyone else felt anything like that?

    peace
    Pam

  8. David March 20, 2006 at 7:17 pm #

    Early Friends help the view that Truth is one. That is, they assumed that if people (or at least Friends) waited in silent worship, they would eventually converge on some shared notion of the Truth. Practices such as relying on unity at meeting for business don’t make any sense unless that basic assumption is accepted. Such a belief also explains the practice, adopted since the times of early Friends, of not relying exclusively on individual revelation as a guide, but testing it against the Bible, traditions, and corporate discernment (which, it should be added, is not the same thing as saying that those three things would always overrule individual leadings and revelations). That doesn’t mean that they felt that only Quaker forms of worship were valid. The Woolman quote posted here earlier is one famous example, but I also remember a passage from Isaac Pennington, one of the earliest of Friends, who wrote in the 1660s something to this effect: “We Friends think that silent worship is the best system of worship, but if you Anglicans think that worship with the prayer book is best, well, we’re sorry that you’re a little mistaken, but you should stay with what you have, because you should do as you are led.” It is a form of religious toleration, though short of the full-blown celebration of diversity which is often assumed to be the same as toleration (which I say without making any judgment about which is better).

    Having said that, that early Friends assume that Truth is one, that still raises difficult questions of what “one-ness” means. Does it mean shared beliefs? Shared behavior? Shared testimonies? Part of the back-and-forth on this list is clearly a mutual expression and exploration of personal difficulties which get in the way of unity—Christian-oriented Friends who feel excluded at meetings, or non-Christian Friends who feel disturbed when some Friend in meeting speaks in Christian terms. I think the exchange on those terms is wonderful, and helpful. There is a member of our meeting who speaks in meeting regularly, almost every week, and he says (as most ministers do) nearly the same thing every time—not the same words, of course, but the same sentiments. For some time I had found his ministry tedious—it didn’t “speak to me.” And recently I read John Punshon’s Encounter with Silence, in which he says he makes it a point of principle to take each bit of ministry seriously—which I took to mean, he goes in with the assumption that every bit of ministry speaks to his condition, that every bit is divinely inspired (to use the terms that Punshon would). That isn’t necessarily the case of course, but it is probably the case more often than we would think. When I adopted this technique, I found my appreciation for the ministry of that regular speaker in our meeting did in fact increase. So perhaps it may be that all sides (and obviously I include myself here) would benefit from just adopting Punshon’s rule?

    Having said that, I would like to end with a couple of questions, referring back to what I said earlier: do liberal Friends today believe that Truth is one? And if so, “one” in what way? I’m not sure if I really have answers, so would appreciate others’ comments.

    David

  9. Mark Wutka March 17, 2006 at 7:19 pm #

    I have been struggling with this conversation for a few days, especially because I felt deep down that my initial reaction was probably an overreaction.

    Quakerism is about listening to, and following the leadings of the Inner Light. It has been that way since the beginning, but what has changed is what Liberal Quakers have come to recognize that people do have different understandings of what that light is and where it comes from, including the understanding that it is a naturally occurring phenomenon and not a conscious entity.

    You have to balance radical inclusiveness with the end goal. That is, you can welcome everyone, but everyone is striving towards a particular goal – in a wide variety of ways, perhaps, but still the same goal. To define Quakerism by “who shows up” or to let everyone decide for themselves what it means is to lose direction.

    With love,
    Mark

    I admire Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., George Fox, and many others not because of their beliefs but because they followed those leadings of the Inner Light – that they talked about them in terms of God is not the important thing.

  10. James Riemermann March 16, 2006 at 7:20 pm #

    Dear Martin and all,

    I must begin my response by stating, again, that my original post here was flawed, and not in insignificant ways. Over-generalized and exaggerated, specifically. Yet I sense that these flaws have brought some directness to the conversation that a more measured post might not have elicited.

    The way you posted my my “I am what I am” comment on your blog last year was gracious, moving, a testament to much of what appeals to me in your ministry. I was and remain grateful, and continue to see much in your work that speaks to me.

    However, there was a criticism in that original comment of mine, and it still holds. I genuinely believe that ambivalence or anxiety about theological diversity within Quakerism–an ambivalence which you and a number of Quaker bloggers express with some frequency–does more harm than good, and deserves criticism. I do not get the sense that you, or Liz O., or Paul L., or other blogger Friends, in seeking some return to tradition, want to exclude me or others from the society. I do, however, think that there is implicit in your criticism of diversity, a sense that the Christian perspective should be not only welcomed (as it should), but somehow privileged, within liberal Quakerism. I do not accept that privilege.

    There is a jewel within Quakerism worth guarding, indeed, but I do not think that that jewel is a set of theological beliefs, or anything like it. Struggling with our beliefs within a Quaker context, listening and speaking, sharing our diverse perspectives, all within our beloved community, is enormously important to a healthy Quakerism. But sharing our perspectives does not, or should not, suggest that what Quakerism needs to do is grow into my beliefs, or your beliefs, or George Fox’s, or even Jesus’s, beliefs. Rather, we should open up to being changed by each other, without any prejudice other than our own integrity and measure of the light.


    Regarding changes to this site: I apologize for hiccups in our site’s display. There may be some more to come as I make some changes behind the scenes. The site is not a blog per se, be I/we have been consciously trying to make it an easier place for open conversations of this sort between theist and non-theist Friends, by using some blog-like features. At first blush, it seems to be working.

    your friend,

    james

  11. Martin Kelly March 15, 2006 at 7:20 pm #

    [The nontheistfriends site went down when I first tried to post a comment, so I put it up on my blog instead. Hope it doesn’t cause a confusion of conversations. Here it is again.]

    Hi James and everyone,

    Well, I think I was one of the first of the Quaker bloggers to talk about conservative-leaning liberal Quakers back in July 2003. I too am not sure it’s anything worth calling a “movement.”

    I hear this feeling of being excluded but I’m not sure where that’s coming from. When James had a really wonderful, thought-provoking response to my “We’re All Ranters Now” piece, I asked him if I could “reprint” the comment as its own guest piece. It got a lot of attention, a lot of comments. I didn’t realize you were using nontheistfriends.org as a blog these days but Robin M of What Canst Thou Say did and has added a link to your post from QuakerQuaker.org, which again is a validation that yours is an important voice (I can pretty much guarantee that this is going to be one of the more followed links). You and everyone here are part of the family.

    Yes, we have some disagreements. I don’t think Quakerism is simply made up of whoever makes it into the meetinghouse. I think we have a tradition that we’ve inherited. This consists of practices and values and ways of looking at the world. Much of that tradition comes from the gospel of Jesus and the epistles between the earliest Christian communities. Much of what might feel like neutral Quaker practice is a clear echo of that tradition, and that echo is what I talk about that in my blogs. I think it’s good to know where we’re coming from. That doesn’t mean we’re stuck there and we adapt it as our revelation changes (this attitude is why I’m a liberal Friend no matter how much I talk about Christ). These blog conversations are the ways we share our experiences, minister to and comfort one another.

    That people hold different religious understandings and practices isn’t in itself inherently exclusionary. Diversity is good for us, right? There’s no one Quaker center. There’s mulitiple conversations happening in multiple languages, much of it gloriously overlapping on the electronic pathways of the internet. That’s wonderful, it shows a great vitality. The religious tradition that is Quakerism is not dead, not mothballed away in a living history museum somewhere. It’s alive, with its assumptions and boundaries constantly being revisited. That’s cool. If a particular post feels too carping, there’s always the “eldering of the back button,” as I like to call it. Let’s try to hear each other from where we are and to remain open to the ministry from those who might appear to be coming from a different place. Love is the first movement and love is unconditional and accepts us for who we are.

    I better stop this before I get too mushy, with all this talk of love! See what I mean about being a liberal Quaker?
    Your Friend, Martin

  12. Alan Parker March 15, 2006 at 7:21 pm #

    Pam – if you’re still reading this dialogue I’ld like to remind you of this (I don’t mean to be patronising though)

    There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages had different names. It is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren in the best sense of the expression.

    I don’t think the native Americans had heard of Christ, and certainly not many of the 6 year olds I teach in state school have – but whatever its called – Holy Spirit, Great Spirit, The Force – old John Woolman knew it and these words have really spoken to me over the years.

  13. Pam Marguerite March 13, 2006 at 7:21 pm #

    Thank you, Elizabeth, for sharing all of that.

    It is healing for me too, I think.

    It seems as if I have been somewhat oblivious to the anti-christian sentiment in my liberal meetitng. I have actually always known it was there (and, for a while, visibly tensed myself when someone spoke of christian scripture, or Jesus, in their vocal ministry) But perhaps I never took it very seriously because it wasnt’ directed at me (how unfortunate!)

    I think that it IS probably a similar experience, actually, to be told that your experience of spirit is not welcome, is disrupting others’ experience (which seems impossible to me, if everyone has an open heart, but then, I can be naive)

    At the same time, I am reluctantly beginning to understand the value that you speak of, of being able to celebrate your spiritual experiences with people whom you don’t have to explain them to. I would like that to be possible in our large liberal meeting, but I have seen repeatedly that, if it is possible, it is not to be expected in most situations.

    Still, I had a wonderful experience of driving to NYM with a very Christ-centered quaker a few years ago. he asked me if I had had direct experiences of God, and I said no, but I had felt awe. He asked me to describe it, and I did, and he said simply “that’s what it’s like when I experience God”

    I suppose that I hope for more of that in my community. I find that that people who can understand my experiences of spirit, and who foster the light in me come from all walks, as I have said.

    And yet I think I am simply envious of you, Elizabeth, and many more conservative Friends. I yearn for direct experience of God, I yearn for a body of literature that makes sense to me and helps me grow in spirit. I yearn to recognize a Spirit, that I could lean into heavily, as you say.

    And I am afraid of Christianity. I think I grew up seeing it as a plague that might eat my brain. I loved Catholic school as a child, but as I grew I found that the Church seemed to be against me at every turn. I havent’ found a way to be at peace myself, and I fear that that envy and fear has hindered me in relating to my fellow christian quakers with a fully open heart.

    The message that you received, that “there is room” is immensely comforting to me.

    peace
    Pam

  14. Rob March 12, 2006 at 7:28 pm #

    James, Pam and Elizabeth, Many thanks for your tender responses. I appreciate your taking the time to draw out your thoughts and feelings. It is indeed very healing. Blessings, Rob

  15. Pam Marguerite March 9, 2006 at 3:30 pm #

    I am reluctant to chime in because I sense (and share) the great tenderness around this topic, and am painfully aware of my inadvertant bull-in-a-china-shop tendencies.

    But I have a quesiton, and a comment (answer?)

    1- I see a distinction between conservative Friends and conservative leaning liberal Friends. I thought that James articulated this, or at least acknowledged it, but I’m not totally sure.

    So, I read this post as challenging the tendency of people to essentially say “liberal Friends are doing it *wrong*, liberal meetings need to do work to become more conservative/christian/theist”

    Which is *very* different from saying that those who feel that their worship is richer among those who share their spiritual belief systems are somehow wrong themselves.

    I must admit that I have probably not made the distinction clear in my posting. I see the same (or similar) value in the wonderful diversity of Friends. I know many people whom I feel truly know God, and can foster my knowing of it. They are Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Atheists, Pagans, and even ambivalent about naming spirit. It saddens me that some people find their path leading them away from the richness of that diversity, but I realize that I can’t say they’re wrong.

    Secondly, to answer your question for myself, Elizabeth,

    I definitely do *not* think that conservative Friends are more exlclusive than any of the groups you listed (or, honestly, most religious groups I can think of)

    but,

    * to me, the essence of being a quaker and not, say, a lutheran, is very much rooted in the fact that quakers are open to continuing revelation, which (to me) means being open to all the different ways spirit manifests itself, and not limiting it by certain doctrine.

    *This is random, but I used to work at a local food co-op, and while I worked there, the management decided that employees should wear uniforms. There was much uproar, and the employees mostly felt that freedom of expression (in dress) was core to the culture of the co-op. In one discussion of this one of the managers said something like “people who work at Target have to wear uniforms” This is completely true. It was also true that NONE of us would ever want to work at Target. We worked where we worked partiallay because of the many, many ways it was different from working at Target. This question strikes me as the same thing.

    I was initially drawn to quakerism after a long bout of being without any sort of intentional spiritual life because it offered a spiritual home where dismissiveness of other faiths and exclusion made up NO part of our spirituality.

    That is very important to me.

    blessings,

    Pam

    (PS – I know that I didnt’ avoid being blunt, and potentially hurtful. I’m sorry, and I don’t mean to be. I am hurt, and I feel threatened, by the sense that some think that quakerism, to be true, must exclude or convert me. I would like to hear more about whether you feel as if it is exclusion, or something else, and why (or how) it feels necessary. But I realize that you may not feel safe or supported enough to share that. I would like to change that, but I feel at a loss. I’m open to suggestions.

    again,

    peace,

    Pam

  16. Elizabeth O'Sullivan March 9, 2006 at 3:03 pm #

    Do you feel that Conservative leaning Quakers more exclusive than, say, Reform Jews? Lutherans? Moderately liberal Muslims?

    Do you feel called to stand against what you feel is a current of exclusion in those religions as well?

    Why or why not?

    Elizabeth

  17. Elizabeth O'Sullivan March 9, 2006 at 3:01 pm #

    Communication about this issue has broken down thoroughly because of hurt and self-righteousness on both sides. Continuing conversations about this seem to be making things worse.

    If any meaningful conversation about this is to happen, listening needs to happen. I do not feel like it has been happening. I need to hear that people are understanding my point of view.

    I am assuming that because this is what I need, then it might be what you need, too.

    I am going to try to reflect back what I heard in this essay as though I were trying to stand in your shoes. I hope this will help you feel like you’re being heard.

    paragraph one — You feel frustrated with conservative-leaning-liberal Quakers. At the root of this movement is exclusivity. You feel like conservative-leaning-liberal friends are “picking and choosing” the types of conservativism that suit our preferences.

    paragraph 2 — Exclusivity is at the root of this movement. The purpose of this movement is to draw lines between people. This does not match Jesus’ teaching.

    paragraph 3 — there is Biblical support for this damaging exclusivity, but Jesus spoke against that. The main goal of life and of Quakerism should be to build a loving, inclusive community.

    paragraph 4 — Conservative-leaning Quakers don’t have some extra privilege of defining what the religion should be. Quakerism should be defined by its openess.

    paragraph 5: Silent worship is what defines Quakerism. Anyone who joins in worship has an equal role in defining what the purpose of the worship is. This is a beautiful thing.

    paragraph 6. Being universalist does not mean having no limits. We don’t accept violence in our midst.

    In summary: Openness is the most exciting and promising part of Quakerism — and it is backed by Jesus’ teachings. A less universal purpose of worship is moves away from that openness — and from the exciting promise it brings. Because of this, people writing about wanting their religion to have a more common focus bring forth feelings of frustration in you. You feel frustrated because you see that longing as being based in exclusivity. This exclusivity feels unjust and unproductive.

    Let’s keep our conversation public for now.

    Holding you in the Light,
    Elizabeth

  18. James Riemermann March 8, 2006 at 7:32 pm #

    Thanks, Pam. I think I tried to make the distinction in my original post between excluding *people* on the grounds of who they are or what they believe, and (rarely, reluctantly) forbidding certain types of behavior. In this particular case the forbidden behavior was agressive and condemnatory speech which did violence to our community.

  19. Pam Marguerite March 8, 2006 at 6:32 pm #

    Wow, there’s so much here, I’m sure I won’t respond to everything that I wanted to.

    Rob- I know what James is talking about. I don’t want to “name names” and I don’t know that it would even be useful or possible, it is more of a “vibe” that surfaces (for me) often in perusing blogs. I can say that it never surfaces for me when reading your blog.

    It is not about saying “I am a christian”, as I think James and I (elsewhere) have stated. It is more about saying (not directly, that I can recall, but still pretty clearly) something like “quakers should be christians” (or even “quakers should be theists”)

    James’ point about Quakerism being about the people you’re worshipping with is uncomfortable and important for me. I attend the same meeting, and remember the woman he mentions. Like you, Rob, I do tend to want to draw lines – we are pacifist, we are plain, we are this way or that. We do not rant at each other about who is going to hell.

    And yet, I envision a community that is open to all. I believe it is important to articulate testimonies, values, perhaps even beliefs, that define us. And yet, I dont’ want to draw a line that says “you are not welcome”, while it might well say “we stive, as a community, to be like this…..”

    Of course, that requires a certain sort of unity. My experience of quakers is that we don’t strive as a community to be christian, though we hopefully strive to be certain ways (kind, faithful, alive in the spirit) which for many is synonymous with being christian.

    I, too, am scared of letting quakerism being defined by whoever shows up. (in fact, I think I recently said somewhere that there CLEARLY wasn’t an adequate “test”) – but how else to answer that of God in everyone? And when do you draw the line? when do you say “what you are doing is not of God?” quakers have faced this before – on the issue of slavery, the issue of whether to fight in a “just” war. Certainly I felt jusitified in saying essentially that (as part of my meeting) to this woman who came to preach to us. (not, again, “you are not of god” but only that the behavior isn’t, but don’t I sound like a good homophobe? “love the sinner, hate the sin”)

    I honor people’s desire to be surrounded with those whom they believe will help them seek (and find, periodically!) God’s will. I don’t particularly understand tying that to a particular belief system (perhaps because I don’t have one) – I would even say that that seems unquakerly to me (as it seems to limit continuing revelation – to presuppose what that revelation will look like) but I can only have so much insight into the spiritual life of another.

    I don’t think I’m done, but I need to be elsewhere soon, so for now, adieu

    blessings

    Pam

  20. James Riemermann March 7, 2006 at 7:33 pm #

    Dear Rob,

    Thanks for challenging me. I hold that there is truth in what I said, but there is also over-generalization and exaggeration borne out of frustration. Which is unfair of me.

    I was not referring to you. In fact I was not referring to anyone in particular, but I don’t think it’s hard to find the “liberal conservative” blogs I have in mind. Most of those blogs are in fact much more complex, diverse and thoughtful than my description implies–“filled with Friends who are disappointed with the liberalism of liberal Quakerism, who want it to become more conservative, which is mostly to say more narrowly defined and exclusive.” But, yes, I do think that is a substantial part of what many of those blogs are about. I have occasionally challenged these sorts of statements on those blogs directly, but it didn’t seem appropriate to name names in this context.

    I have difficulty with defining Quakers by how good they are or are not. I have infrequently known Quakers to express (mostly subtle, rarely explicit) racist, anti-semitic, and anti-Christian sentiments, and I do not believe that makes them not Quakers. I can say that such sentiments and statements are out of line with the best in our tradition (or the best in any tradition), and we should witness as much. If mean-spirited or immoral behavior or thoughts or speech made one not a Quaker, though, I would not be a Quaker–I try, but I’m just not that good.

    Seeking after the good together, certainly, is an essential aspect of our way and our practice–but this is a way and a practice, and not a bar we are required to clear in order to be admitted to the community.

    I do not know that I am a pacifist, exactly, though I tend that way very strongly. I do not think that not being a pacifist should be a bar to membership, and certainly not to participating in our community.

    I’m rather puzzled by the terms anti-spirit, anti-faith, and anti-spiritual. I don’t know any Quakers who would describe themselves that way. I’m not even sure what the terms mean. On the other hand, I know some Quakers–myself among them–who do not accept the notion that our experience can be sliced up into a part that is spiritual, and a part that is not spiritual. Nor do I believe that spirit exists independently of the natural, physical world–I see it, rather, as a mysterious, subtle, complex property that has emerged from that natural world. I am not entirely certain about my views on this, or do I see my views on spirit as something other Quakers need to accept, but I do think they are important questions to raise. I hope that doesn’t make me anti-spirit or anti-spiritual. It might make me a philosophical materialist, and I hope we can all live with that.

    I really do mean it, in the most radical way, when I define Quakerism as “the people I sit with in worship.” This is a dangerous definition, because it allows that Quakerism might change into something I can no longer live with. But I think there is something intrinsic in the practice of silent worship that brings out the best in us, and that will help us to keep on track.

  21. Rob March 6, 2006 at 7:34 pm #

    Now that I’ve had a chance to reread this, I’m wondering if folks could point me to the Quaker blogs “filled with Friends who are disappointed with the liberalism of liberal Quakerism, who want it to become more conservative, which is mostly to say more narrowly defined and exclusive.”

    Are you putting words in these Quakers mouths? Is this one voice or many? Is this referring to me?

    “What defines Quakerism for me is, the people I sit with in worship. When someone new comes in and sits with us, they redefine Quakerism, immediately and without effort. A Quaker is one who shows up and takes part.”

    Is an avowed racist a Quaker? An anti-Semite? One who is anti-Christian? What about someone who is ‘anti-spirit’ or ‘anti-faith’? Or one who is ‘anti-spiritual’? Or one who is not a pacifist? James, from the description of your Meeting’s treatment toward the homophobe, it sounds like you don’t believe that the people who sit with you on Sunday necessarily define Quakerism. Who then does? I feel like I’m hearing an implicit definition in this post, and I think it needs to be made explicit.

    Pointed questions, but I think there are some serious undercurrents that require further discussion.

    Rob

  22. Rob March 6, 2006 at 6:34 pm #

    Hi All –

    Pam and I were bouncing a few similar topics back and forth the other day, and I certainly welcome any thoughts folks might add to the conversation.

    Thanks for the ongoing discussion. If I wasn’t running out the door, I’d say more.
    Rob

  23. Pam Marguerite March 5, 2006 at 7:34 pm #

    James-

    Thank you for this. This topic is much on my mind and heart as well.

    It feels that we are, as a community, much caught up in a time of change. Perhaps we are all somewhat clumsy.

    I was talking about this with f/Friends last night. One mentioned her experience with coming out and learning about feminism, and the time, at the beginning of that awakening where she was radical, seperatist, and unyielding. I had a similar experience, and almost wrote off one of my dearest friends because he teased me about my stridency. Many of us seriously questioned whether we could (or wanted to) have men in our lives in any capacity. Most of us found, in the end, that we could, and it’s often a blessing.

    And I don’t know that that time was unnecessary, or avoidable. Sometimes when you feel as if you’ve had no room to be yourself (and many liberal christian Friends seem to feel that) you need a LOT of space, you need to test all the extremes, to come into yourself.

    I am happy that those in our meeting who find liberal quakerism to be against their leadings have founded their own meeting, rather than trying to change ours, or especially, to exclude others from it.

    At the same time, I miss them. And I agree with them on some of the concerns they raise. I seek a deep experience of spirit, a groundedness, a unity in worship and in community.

    The difference is that when I look at that question (how do we deepen our communal worship experience?), the answer is complex, and it’s about talking to each other, and really listening, and learning skills of centeredness (which I am still a novice at!) and truly answering that of God in each person (which is an immense challenge!) – the richness of such a vision – a deepened, grounded communal worship experience which includes everyone, is beyond words. It is what I seek.

    I am frustrated and baffled when I hear people saying (whether or not it’s what they said, or meant to say) that we can acheive that unity, that depth of experience by focusing our spirit life around the word “christ”

    Mostly I am hurt because it excludes me, to me it pretty much directly translates into “I can have a moving, deep spiritual experience without you, and I can’t with you?” it is pretty much that antithesis of responding to that of god in me.

    I am baffled because there are so many who use that word who I can’t imagine these Friends see as more their spiritual sisters and brothers than I am. George Bush is the easiest example, Fred Phelps also springs to mind. Are people really saying that the essence of their spirituality, their home, their core, is best named and honored by the words that they share with those people than the words they could share with me?

    Thank you for making the point that we can decide, corporately, that certain behavior is “unquakerly” and unwelcome (or forbidden)

    I feel that this is often a similar attempt, and I feel the genuine desire for spiritual depth and aliveness, which is sometimes lacking in large, and/or diverse meetings, but I also feel the proposed “answers” are all wrong, if only because they exclude me, but then, I hope that that is reason enough.

    blessings,

    Pam

  24. Os Cresson March 4, 2006 at 7:35 pm #

    James,
    Your frustration is normal. Do not regret its boiling over although remember that writing about it will attract the reactions you find frustrating – another reason for frustration!

    I wrap myself in the words of Friends why have endured this frustration before. Here are a few. It would be good to read of others.
    Os

    “Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.”
    (William Penn, 1682)

    “And I made answer: ‘Truth is one;
    And in all lands beneath the sun,
    Whoso hath eyes to see may see
    The tokens of its unity.
    No scroll of creed its fulness wraps,
    We trace it not by school-boy maps,
    Free as the sun and air it is
    Of latitudes and boundaries.
    In Vedic verse, in dull Koran,
    Are messages of good to man….’”
    (John Greenleaf Whittier, 1870)

    “have truth for authority, and not authority for truth”
    (Lucretia Mott, 1872)

    “Well, my answer to the question in general of what we shall do in the presence of these two possible spheres of loyalty, Quakerism and Christianity, is that perhaps it is both/and rather than either/or. I don’t think it has to be either/or. I suppose that to be completely honest, the amount of Christianity that you have, and the amount of Quakerism, in the last resort is your own selection out of those two orbits of what has come to appeal to you. Nobody can put down in writing either for a Christian or a Quaker what he has to be. He can put down in writing some of the things he can honestly attribute to those two groups; and we select from them, unconsciously I’m sure, those features which are congenial to us. I guess you know that in the Society of Friends people select very different things.”
    (Henry Joel Cadbury, 1966)

  25. James Riemermann March 10, 2006 at 3:51 pm #

    james riemermann – March 10, 2006 (Edit – Delete)
    Elizabeth,

    I, too, find myself understanding more after your last comment. Thank you.

    I will respond more fully later. In short, though, it is clear to me that tolerance of theological diversity has to run both ways. It is not fair for nontheist or non-Christian theist Friends to demand tolerance for their own views, without extending the same tolerance to those of more traditional views. In fact, it takes more than tolerance–we need to really listen and see what we can learn from each other.

    While I understand and sympathize with some of those who bristle at Christian language in their meetings, they’re going to need to get over it if we’re going to worship together and care for each other in a deep and genuine religious community.

  26. Charles Rathmann August 24, 2006 at 3:28 pm #

    Why do so many liberal Quakers ascribe to Christ Jesus their own secular political views? This poster claims that Christ came to break down barriers between people — but he clearly did not. He came to break down barriers between people and God. The Quaker message — which unfortunately has been trampled under the feet of secular liberal Quakers — is that Christ is present and speaking to us today. We need no intermediary or clergy or church. We need only to yield to the Holy Spirit and bend our will to the will of God.

    This Holy presence was felt so strongly that one might Quake in light of its power, hence the name. The idea of nontheist Quakers is an Oxymoron — is it not? What is it that thee is quaking before, Friend?

    In the Light of Christ,
    ~ Charles Rathmann
    http://john4-14.blogspot.com

  27. James Riemermann August 25, 2006 at 1:43 pm #

    “Love your enemies” he said. And many other similar commands and assertions. What could be clearer? What could be a greater barrier between people than hatred, than enmity?

    He hung around with prostitutes, publicans, the poor, the unclean, the unwanted, the sinners. Those who were considered to be beyond the pale of religious community.

    Breaking down barriers between people was the absolute heart of his ministry. Yes, of course, he saw the universal connection with God as that which could draw us all together, but that doesn’t change the fact that his purpose was to draw us together.

    Perhaps I do embody an oxymoron, Friend, but here I am, a nontheist Quaker. I exist. As Walt Whitman wrote:

    Do I contradict myself?
    Very well then I contradict myself,
    (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

    You seem to be suggesting I am quaking before something horrific, like Satan. Is this what you mean?

    I seldom quake, to be honest, though I do sometimes tremble when I am operating out of my depth, such as sometimes when I minister in worship. Trembling is a human thing that sometimes comes over me. I’m OK with it.

  28. Clint Williams September 21, 2006 at 9:41 pm #

    “The idea of nontheist Quakers is an Oxymoron — is it not? What is it that thee is quaking before, Friend?”

    While the idea of a nontheistic Quaker on the manner of spong is not an oxymoron,an atheist Quaker is.The sole purpose of the creation of a Quaker sect was a belief in “that of God in every man”, and of the ability of every man to meet God without intermediaries. Quakerism without God is a pointless exercise.

    “Yes, of course, he saw the universal connection with God as that which could draw us all together, but that doesn’t change the fact that his purpose was to draw us together.”

    The fact that doesn’t change is what you so wish to ignore,that Christ broke down barriers through a belief that in God all are equal. It is dishonest to emphasize the breaking down of barriers without acknowledging tha the basis for this to Christ was that in God all are equal.

  29. Eric Brink April 7, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    Hello! I just stumbled upon this site and appreciate everyhting you all wrote. But as someone new to “nontheist” Quakers, something doesn’t quite make sense to me. That you call yourselves “Quakers” and have a belief in God and a belief in openess and following the inner light — wouldn’t that make you “thiests”? Maybe thiests that are a bit more accepting of peoples ideas and forms of worship? It seems you are an organized religion with a belief system, just one that is a bit less ritualized and less condemning than some religions? But it seems you still are a religion to me. Something is just confusing to me about all this. Maybe I am missing something. God bless you all!

    • James Riemermann April 7, 2009 at 12:35 pm #

      Hi, Eric. Actually, most Quakers who describe themselves as nontheists don’t believe in God. That’s the fundamental distinction, although some of us would state our disbelief with more or less firmness, or more or less comfort with using the word God metaphorically. Most Friends do believe in God, and nontheist Friends are exceptions to that general rule.

      You say we are in an organized religion with a belief system. We are in a (loosely) organized religion, but many Friends, theist and nontheist alike, would argue that a “belief system” isn’t particularly what Quakerism is about. At least in the liberal branch of Quakerism, Friends tend to focus much more on practices, on ways of being together in community, and on responding to the world and our fellow creatures, than on beliefs.

  30. Eric Brink April 7, 2009 at 8:25 pm #

    Thank you, friend, for your thoughts. I appreciate it. Seems very hard to focus on practices without a lot of focus on beliefs initially though. But I think I understand what you are trying to say. Beliefs are important, but not dwelled upon so much in your religion? Take care!

  31. James Riemermann April 8, 2009 at 8:06 am #

    Hmm. Personally, I don’t find it hard at all to focus on Quaker practices without focusing on particular beliefs. It’s kind of like walking without an in-depth knowledge of the muscular-skeletal-nervous system and the physical laws of motion. If we had to know how walking works in order to do it, we’d never get anywhere.

    The beliefs are theories, interpretations, notions. Sitting in worship together, building community, caring for one another, trying to be our best selves, is the real thing.

    Or so it seems to me.

  32. Eric Brink April 10, 2009 at 11:53 am #

    I guess what I mean is that even though we can try to erase belief from religion, all religion is based on belief.
    James, you wrote “The beliefs are theories, interpretations, notions. Sitting in worship together, building community, caring for one another, trying to be our best selves, is the real thing.”
    –What you wrote is a belief about belief (so I believe). So Quaker religion is based on belief as other religions, just in a differerent way? I don’t think there is anything wrong with that though. And the things you mentioned to me seem to be the core fruit of religious belief…but so many religious groups get caught up in debating who has the most accurate beliefs (which is sometimes good and sometimes counterproductive) that they end up excluding people and building walls. Ironically, this whole blog page seems to be Quakers expressing their beliefs (which I am not saying is wrong). I respect that you feel you don’t base yourself on a particular belief system, but I wonder if that in itself is a particular belief system?
    p.s. I agree that you don’t have to know what belief is absolutely correct in order to do good works, worship, ect. But as we can study the muscular-skeletal-nervous system to get some sense of how it works, I feel that you can study actions, compassion, etc. and discover that they all stem from belief in one way or the other.

  33. James Riemermann April 17, 2009 at 5:23 pm #

    I’m not saying that individual Friends don’t have beliefs, theological or otherwise. Of course they do! Everyone does! What I’m saying is, the religion itself is not founded on common beliefs, but common practices, and the experiences and relationships which seem to emerge from those practices.

    But there are certainly Quakers who would see things differently, as you seem to. That’s okay, too.

  34. Chace Erceg April 19, 2009 at 10:34 am #

    Hi everyone. My name is Chace and I am a member of Bangor meeting in Wales. While I myself do not consider myself an orthodox Christian (I prefer to call myself a conceptual perennial philosopher because I have had no full blown mystic experience though I do have faith in the theories) can emphasize with those who are or if not orthodox (in the early days quaker sense) are at least partial to beliefs and theologies of a transcendent nature.

    Does the rich Christian quaker tradition and notions (and yes I am fully aware that early quakers did not dwell on notions per se but direct experience) of the early friends now get defined as a free for all subjectivism/activist movement?

    Will silence at the meetings be the only uniting force of friends?And if quakerism in large part becomes defined atheist or agnostic then what ultimately can be said from such a point of view to make silence sacred? It doesnt become an environment in which one recieves illumination from God or the divine but an environment that maybe helps inspire one in having a better opinion about nature or the world or ethics. The reason why the early quakers left such a long lasting legacy was because they were united in the same basic theological beliefs except for some subtle differences.

    I myself could never devote myself to any orthodox belief system but I do have beliefs.

    I am of the opinion that George Fox, William Penn, Issac Pennington and Robert Barclay if they had of met true Hindus, Sufis or Buddhists in their time would probably have reformed their exclusive christian theological beliefs while maintaining the essential ‘experience of divinity’ aspect (nirvana in Hinayana Buddhism, a transcendent state of being could be compromised as experiencing the ‘kingdom of God within’ and the primordial buddha-womb in Mahayana Buddhism as ‘Godhead’ or God) but never would have compromised to pure secular or atheistic beliefs or notions. Such notions would have flown in the face of their personal experiences for a start.

    And while many modern quakers take joy in their activist history and think that all ‘evil’ is simply war that ought to be protested against and think that participation humanitarian efforts is the essence of quakerism, it should be remembered that the early quakers focused more on cleansing oneself from inward sin (ego?) and attaining spiritual perfection the best one can than being preoccupied with ‘outward’ works and just being a good person (though such things are not bad in themselves).

    Had george fox merely been satisfied with holding good ethical opinions and striven for worth while social reforms, he would not have left the impact he did on the early seekers and quakers. He would not have had the spiritual experiences which drove him beyond a fear of death. The early quakers felt the presence of grace come from him. He felt himself to be an apostle and believed that the spirituality he was experiencing should and can be experienced by everyone.

    Now while I agree it doesnt matter whether or not one has buddhist beliefs or christian ones in order to have such direct divine experience as Fox did. Nor that spiritual experience only occurs to those with an established theology.I do hold that Religious/spiritual beliefs do help sow the ground and create a better environment in which religious experience is encouraged and nourished.

    I understand how many Christocentric friends feel threatened that their ‘religious society’ is going to become a ‘personal philosophical society’ (British yearly meeting is more or less for which I am grateful).

    What happens if a friend is moved by the spirit to exhort or declare something to an atheist friend who doesnt believe in spirit? Both are defined as quakers right? Will it become taboo to express religious belief or insight in order to be politically correct to the non-believers? I am aware that the line isnt as simple as that. But if atheists, non-theists or agnostics feel that quakerism isnt making enough effort for secular philosophy then why join a religious society in the first place?

    Why not like george fox and the early quakers perhaps go and preach the gospel of holding the natural world and human reason,creativity etc (inspired by atoms and logic) as the highest good and that the best means of connection to it is via silence?

    Then if such a society forms and is successful then religious peoples or christians will then be feeling the frustration that non-theists dont include more christian values and beliefs in their corporate decisions.

    And here is where at least a large part of the controversy lies. The definition for the word ‘Quaker’.

    Here are some definitions I think could apply

    Quaker: Christian who believes that all humanity is lighted with a divine spark or light from God and that one must conform to God’s will via this light.

    Quaker: A person that believes something divine or ‘other’ can be experienced directly within themselves regardless of theological beliefs, and that one ought to live the best they can by the inspirations and leadings it gives forth.

    Quaker: A person who believes whatever they want and might if they want to, believe in divine inspiration and living by it.

    I know these are more or less oversimplifications but they roughly sum up the majority of quakers. Does the definition become exclusively one of the three, all of the three or only any two mixed together.

    I myself would not wish to see the first definition the modern prevailing one. Yet I think it would maybe be unjust and an insult to the early inspired quakers to make their legacy nothing but a memory footnote with no relevance.

    I myself would never had joined the quakers if I had to believe in something like the Richmond Declaration. In saying this I also never would have joined if quakers were just a group of self-opinionated activists.

    Yet also no one has the right to tell anyone what to believe, the silence is there for that.

    I guess I would like to conclude by saying that while I myself think it would be great if everyone had their own liberal theological belief with a uniting mystic core, those who dont hold such beliefs will still benefit best by sharing in an inoppressive religious environment.

    And if enough people at a quaker meeting humble themselves to the touchings of grace then hopefully it may be contagious enough to be caught by those that believe grace a myth.

  35. James Riemermann April 19, 2009 at 4:48 pm #

    Hi, Chace, and thanks for stopping by and commenting.

    One thing I’d say in response is, I’m not particularly interested in a Religious Society of Friends full of people who see things the way I do, nor are any of the many nontheist Friends I know. Nor do I think it likely. So I hope you don’t worry too much about the RSOF becoming “defined as atheist.” Religious belief is pretty deeply embedded in the human psyche, and I don’t think that’s going to go away in this millennium. I’m easy with that, and I hope you can be.

    My own feeling is, my naturalistic views would have flown in the face not of the *experiences* of the early Friends, but the way that experience is interpreted, by what the felt was the source of that experience. My sense is, deeply mystical and powerful experiences of a spiritual quality can rise out of a completely natural human life which is completely dependent on the physical body. To call those experiences natural and founded in biology, is not to dismiss those experiences as unreal or unimportant or delusional. Rather, it is to say, the depths of human psychology and biology are far more mysterious and subjectively powerful than we are able to comprehend or hold in our rational mind. I do not need to make any supernatural assumptions to accept the experiences of Fox, or of any of us. Having those kinds of experiences is an aspect of the kinds of beings we are.

    Beyond that, I would have difficulty with any definition that begins: “Quaker: A person who believes that…” It doesn’t matter how the sentence ends; if it begins with “believes” I think it is not quite right.

    In the most mechanical, pragmatic sense, it seems to me that a Quaker is a person who has been accepted as a member of a Friends Meeting. In a looser but still pragmatic sense, a Quaker is one who participates in the community of Friends, as a member or not. As I have said elsewhere, a Quaker is someone who shows up and takes part. One can challenge whether the fact that Quakerism includes atheists and agnostics is a good thing, but one can hardly argue with the fact that it does include us. We are here.

    In Friendship,

    james

  36. Chace Erceg April 20, 2009 at 3:42 pm #

    Ultimately we will never know what the early Quakers would think or say or accept about our modern outlook. However we can have a rough idea. Pure naturalistic ‘aweness’ at the wonder of nature while being a profound emotion in itself isnt a description of ‘transcendent’ experience. Whereas early quakers had transcendent experiences. As it was, in George fox’s journal, the notion that there is nothing transcendent and that it is all due to ‘nature’ is recorded as thus:

    After this I returned into Nottinghamshire again, and went into the Vale of Beavor.As I went, I preached repentance to the people. There were many convinced in the Vale of Beavor, in many towns; for I stayed some weeks amongst them.

    One morning, as I was sitting by the fire, a great cloud came over me, and a temptation beset me; and I sat still. It was said, “All things come by nature”; and the elements and stars came over me, so that I was in a manner quite clouded with it. But as I sat still and said nothing, the people of the house perceived nothing. And as I sat still under it and let it alone, a living hope and a true voice arose in me, which said, “There is a living God who made all things.”

    In all fairness I think that the early Quakers would probably have accepted your experiences as valid but would say that you are also deluded for forsaking God and the light and idolizing nature (this is by no means my opinion of you and your views and experiences).

    As for starting off the definitions with ‘believe’, I did so to be succinct. As much as I share to an extent your definition, it doesnt actually tell much about the underlying beliefs or principles of Quakers as a people and the beliefs that motivate them. A large measure of our actions is based on what we believe we are and the world is whether consciously or subconsciously and it is no degradation to the beauty of the life of a religiously practicing people, to, for the sake of explanation to encapsulate the principles in such a manner.

    The direct and mystic religious experience itself is the ultimate definition of Quakerism but this can never be adequately put into words.

    A nazi or groups of nazis can show up and take part as attendees to a Quaker meeting. Does Quakerism therefore extend to participating nazis in silent worship?

    I dont say this to prove that I am more right or anything. I myself am interested in a casual way in finding what would be the best definition for what modern progressive quakerism is. Beliefs as far as I see play a part in defining what quakerism is for practical distinction purposes. As to what beliefs, I dont know for one hundred percent. You have any thoughts?

    Your friend chace

  37. James Riemermann April 20, 2009 at 3:59 pm #

    I hear you–Fox would disagree with me. I didn’t expect otherwise. When I say I’m a Friend I don’t mean I’m a follower of Fox. I am deeply taken by many of the “seeds” he planted, but they’ve grown beyond what he expected.

    Yes, I think Nazis could come and worship. They can’t do or say any horrible thing they want–I do think there are limits to acceptable behavior in a meeting for worship. But I can’t think of any limits as to what kind of person can participate. As I said, showing up and taking part. Some behavior isn’t really taking part. I think our practices, if faithfully followed, have the potential to transform anyone for the better.

    I realize that my “definition” doesn’t say much–it’s hardly even a definition. I really, honestly am reluctant to defining Quakerism in order to decide who’s in and who’s out. I just don’t see much value to it, and a great deal of potential harm. While I’m not a Christian, I think one of Jesus’s most important ministries was around breaking down boundaries between people. I think he was onto something there.

  38. Chace Erceg April 21, 2009 at 5:22 am #

    I wasnt questioning whether or not Nazis could participate or not but whether Nazism could come under the definition for Quakerism since they can participate and since many Quakers (including myself) believe Quakers can and ought to be able to believe whatever they want. To have a free for all belief definition means that the beliefs that gather under that definition helps define it, and that no belief can ever be rejected.

    It would be the hope no doubt of many that Nazis quakers would change there beliefs by participating. If they were atheist Nazis quakers then why should they have to believe in ‘that of God in everybody’ which is the basis for the peace testimony for example?

    I myself dont want to find a definition to set up boundaries for those who are in or out as much as find a definition for definitions sake so I can see how Quakerism is truly distinct from other ‘isms’.

    Could Quakerism be the western equivalent of Hinduism? Hinduism embraces anything and everything because anything and everything they believe (or have experienced) comes from the divine reality of Brahman. This includes non-theist beliefs.

    Someone just coming along and taking part can be used to define someone who goes to a charity group to going to catholic church services (in the loose pragmatic sense).

    While Christ did I believe want to break down barriers and bring equality he did say that the first most important commandment is to love God with all our heart, mind and soul. He was God centered to the end and hence he was such a great Guru.

    It can be easily argued that one doesnt have to be Christian in the orthodox sense to fulfill this great commandment. How does a non-theist fulfill it?I can easily see how a non-theist in the sense that he or she doesnt accept a personal creator but a divine substance could. But how does a non-theist in the sense that they deny anything transcendent?
    I am not asking you to justify it to me as much as these are the questions we are bound to come across in trying to define something that many people believe is taboo to define.

    Your friend Chace

  39. Eric Brink April 21, 2009 at 12:49 pm #

    Sorry I have been away for awhile. Thanks for writing James. You state that Quakerism isn’t founded on common beliefs. What I am saying, and it may be splitting hairs, is Quakerism is founded on a common belief…the belief to found your religion on “common practices, and the experiences and relationships which seem to emerge from those practices”. I realize Quakers have theology, beliefs, ect. I wasn’t saying they don’t. All I am saying is Quakers do share a common belief at its core. In my opinion.

  40. James Riemermann April 27, 2009 at 6:44 am #

    I hear you, Eric, and Chace. It seems we disagree, and that’s OK with me. As I’ve said here, I think it’s something other than belief at the center. Mostly, it’s the choice we make to come together that’s holding us together.

  41. Peter Schogol April 27, 2009 at 11:18 pm #

    I feel that tradition has trapped transcendence in a vertical dimension which historically has served to keep humankind in a servile relationship to power expressed hierarchically.

    Theologies of liberation, including and especially feminist theologies, have shown that transcendence can also be expressed horizontally, with people standing in relation *with* rather than relation *to*. In this way, experiencing the breadth of life rather than the height of divine power is seen as transcendent experience.

    I truly believe that deep hearing of the Light entails extending oneself into the noise and business of life to the point that we cease being merely observers. At that point we don’t just have the Light within, we ARE Light, localized and specialized and luminous with transcendence.

  42. Christopher Gilbert October 6, 2015 at 5:50 am #

    Thank you for this story. I was recently baffled and greatly discouraged hearing my meeting’s former clerk advise me to wait until “all the official Friends are comfortable with you” before I wrote my membership letter. I have not been controversial in the least. The exclusion did not feel good at all. The current clerk said that kind of approval is not required, but I have not heard back about whether my membership letter was accepted. Also, my yearly meeting and even the FGC have not yet responded to my request for help. I felt so discouraged that I asked if I could become a Friend without a meeting – but no response.

  43. Rainer Möller March 22, 2016 at 10:56 am #

    Imho, the world is full of voluntary mutual exclusion. And why? Because we can simplify our lives by separating ourselves from people who have a deeply different view of life. We can move onward without always debating the basics, or the goal we want to arrive at.

    Exclusion may be unfair, if it is extremely one-sided; but on the whole, it’s the pragmatical way of life. Take divorce: How come that people are horrified with every kind of “exclusion”, but at the same time feel free to divorce (that is “exclude” their spouse)?

    The right of voluntary mutual exclusion is identical with the freedom of association – a real important progress in the history of mankind. We shouldn’t put it at stake by exaggerated inclusivism.

    My personal story in this case is that I was gently discouraged to join a Quaker Meeting, and even if I regretted it at the time I felt they were entitled to do so, on the base of a purely subjective feeling that I wouldn’t suit them – a feeling that I in hindsight think was correct (I’m an incorrigible controversialist which actually likes controversies, and I would have been more a liability than an asset for the gentleness, or genteelness, of the circle).

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