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Several Quaker bloggers this past week have been either asking or reflecting on Quaker identity, the Quaker movement’s calling, as it were. I recommend reading them all, and the comments the garnered, too:  my own, David Johns, Micah Bales, another Micah Bales post, and Johan Maurer (apologies if there are others I’ve missed). I find myself wondering, “What are we really trying to get at?”

In my post, I ask what is substance and what is trivia in what we know as Quakerism today, in any branch. May the authors have mercy on me for trying to capture their deep and rich blogs in one sentence each! In Micah Bales’ first post, he suggests that we shift our societal stance from being a response to threats to our society, to a trust-based openness to God’s leading. David Johns says that we should neither get too hung up in protecting a Quaker identity nor be too eager to be in touch with current popular culture, but focus on living like Jesus would have us live. In Micah’s second post, he continues David John’s theme of focusing on faithfulness as the key virtue. Johan Maurer draws our attention to the older branches of the Christian family, who look at Quakerism and wonder whether we have thrown out heritage, culture, richness, depth, and texture. 

I am heartened and inspired by these blog posts and heartily agree with the points made. Micah and David’s focus on faithfulness to the Living Christ and using Jesus as model and teacher seems true and right.  At the same time, I find myself wanting to mount a passionate speech in favor of Quakerism. Not as an object of worship, or for the purpose of venerating a tradition for its own sake, or heroes for the sake of hero-worship.

Quakerism is a means to an end – we all need some practical advice on how to live as Christians, and we need a community for encouragement and accountability. I wouldn’t claim  that Quakerism is a better way, objectively, than other approaches to God, but it is the way that God calls me and many others to be in. I’d like to suggest that we can and should be serious about our Quakerism, without giving it too much or too little weight.

The Bible suggests to me that there will be variety between groups of believers. Paul wrote letters containing distinctly different advice to several churches, based on their particular circumstances, culture, and the personalities within each church. The Book of Revelation contains the notion that churches have an “angel”, or a soul, with a distinct character. Walter Wink builds an analysis of human institutions (including churches) on Revelation. I find it helpful to my understanding of the role of Quakerism: Every human institution has three characteristics, and all are present at the same time: each one is created for a divine purpose; it bears within it the seeds of its own destruction; and it is redeemable. Churches, being human institutions, will all fall short of being the true representation of Christianity. Still, because of the divine purpose for which it is called, it is important for the church to try to find its calling. 

With the certainty both of our divine calling and of the inevitability of falling short of that calling, I draw several conclusions:

1. If we focus just on Jesus, not on the how-to of Quakerism, my experience tells me we are playing a high-stakes game. It means we dedicate ourselves to a high ideal, without much intentional evaluation of consequences, and without much ability to catch ourselves if there are undesired consequences. Sadly, a lot of harm is inadvertently done by well-intentioned people. I think a denomination does well not just to have high ideals, but also some stated intentions and practices, and also some practices for examining whether the outcomes of our actions affirm the original leading.

2. Assuming that all churches have a divine purpose, we can assume that other churches have wisdom in areas where we don’t. We carry within us the seeds of our own destruction, as Walter Wink would put it. We lack traditions, rich heritage, and a way to settle internal conflict. Here’s another: a Lutheran pastor once told me that Quakers are very elitist. She said, “Silent worship offers little to the many, many people who rarely or never have the dramatic kinds of openings, revelations, and mystical experiences Quakers are supposed to have. What about an everyday faith, for the regular days and regular people?” After I got over my initial shock, I conceded that she has a point. Either because of personality differences, stage in faith development, or experiencing a dry period, not everyone will have powerful religious experiences, or have them very often. Other churches offer ways to help people engage the divine using a variety of methods: through teaching, verbal reminders, smell, taste, imagination, sight, and rituals. I’m not suggesting that we change Quakerism, but I am suggesting we might be more aware of an area where we, perhaps, aren’t offering people support in something that may be difficult.

3.  The corollary is that we must be more aware of what our divine purpose as a church is? The possibility of  inward, unmediated revelation of God? That we can live in the Power that removes the occasion for war? That there is one, even Jesus, who can speak to my condition? The practice of waiting expectantly for God to speak to us? Emphasis on the fundamental spiritual meaning of many outward rituals and practices? Remind older churches not to take themselves and their rituals too seriously, and entertain the possibility that mistakes can and have been made, even by very holy people? (Whereas the testimonies may have seemed radical in the 1600s, ideas like equality, peace, and integrity are hardly unique in society today.) 

4. Our Faith & Practice is an important document. Do we submit to its authority? Do we train people to know what they are coming into when they become a member of the Religious Society of Friends? If we really do believe in the idea of “being faithful” as the main authority (rather than reason, Scripture, or our faith community), we should be very good at distinguishing between the pressure of personal emotions, our intellect, and divine leadings. Can we honestly say that we are very good at that? Do we teach it? Do we practice and model saying yes to some leadings, no to others? Or are we so eager to appear non-judgmental that we say yes to everything we can? 

In conclusion: Yes, Quakerism is worthy of our attention and study. But only as a means to Christian living, not as an end. We cannot worship it, we cannot make its preservation a goal in and of itself. Quakerism offers us a manual on how to be faithful. With attentiveness to the wisdom of other branches of Christianity, and the awareness of Quakerism’s divine purpose, we can learn from criticism from others, and become more faithful in our task of being faithful and teaching faithfulness.

How would you describe the “angel of Quakerism”? What is her calling? What are her character flaws? What are her prayer needs?

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In one of the last scenes of Monty Python’s comedy “Life of Brian”, poor Brian is trying to escape a crowd of followers who think him a real prophet when he is only pretending to be one in order to escape the Roman soldiers pursuing him.  In Brian’s haste, he drops a gourd that someone had forced into his hands earlier. One of the women among picks up the gourd Brian drops, and excitedly proclaims it to be a sacred sign from the prophet. The crowd is ecstatic to have found this sacred relic, and pursues Brian again when his sandal falls off and and he continues his flight with one bare foot and one foot in a sandal. When the pursuing crowd finds Brian’s abandoned sandal, an argument immediately breaks out between those who continue to worship the gourd and those who adopt the sandal as the superior sign of the prophet. This second group fractures just as quickly, one arguing that everyone should wear just one sandal, like their prophet Brian, the other half arrogantly claiming a superior position, understanding the sandal merely to be symbolic of some deeper meaning, not in the literal, primitive sense of the first group.   

“Life of Brian” is to me one of the most astute critiques of the cultures of believers because it focuses on the human failings of those of us in the wider Romano-Judeo-Christian sphere – in its English way. Monty Python pokes fun at our human tendency to get caught up in trivia and lose sight of substance.

If we were to take a Monty-Pythonesque view of the four branches of Quakerism, what would we find? Believers who are focused on the the substance of faith, using the lens of Quakerism? Or people fighting with each other over the supremacy of the gourd or the shoe, and whether the shoe is to be understood literally or metaphorically? Imagine for a moment that most of what we do falls into the category of shoe or gourd, what are the few elements you absolutely would insist are essential to Quakerism, not just a practice you have grown attached to?

Query for prayerful contemplation:

If you were to start a Quaker worship group today, built on the essentials of Quakerism, what would it do? What would worship be like?