19 May 2005

Creative discontent

Martin Kelley, Quaker Ranter, is at it again. He's stirring up ideas, modeling candor, asking awkward questions that perhaps ought to be left alone (if we are to continue our peaceful Quaker fadeout into oblivion). A quick index of examples:

Martin's blog, a collection of distress signals (but also much more than that) and a space to discuss openly our thoughts and feelings about the gaps between ideals and realities among Friends.
His article, "The Witness of Our Lost Twenty-Somethings." (diagnosis)
His blog archive article, "It's My Language Now: Thinking About Youth Ministry." (diagnosis and some tools for recovery)

In Martin's May 16 posting, which links to the two articles above and sets a context for them, he asks, "If we could get a message out to larger Quakerdom, what we want it to be?" I read with great appreciation the responses that have been accumulating as comments to that May 16 item. I am happy that important issues are being raised by Martin and the readers of his blog. I am happy that I don't know most of these people (beyond their familiarity to me as a reader of Martin's blog/forum for over a year) -- this means that a whole new generation of prophetic and creative voices is in the Friends movement, no thanks to previous generations, whose lack of vision and encouragement is frightening. And I am shocked at how many of the diagnoses articulated by these Friends and ex-Friends have arisen in my generation and earlier, remaining unaddressed.

Some of the reflects that arise for me in view of all this:
  • Haunting comments from over forty years ago: Albert Fowler in his Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Two Trends in Modern Quaker Thought, said:
    Members of the Society of Friends are increasingly disturbed by the comment that Quaker Meeting is a fine place for seeking, but one must go elsewhere if one’s object is finding. (page 12)

    Paul Lacey tells of people he has talked with who have found the Society of Friends a kind of incubator where they can develop just enough to realize that the real conditions of life and worship lie outside it. Many of these people, having looked to the Quaker Meeting as a source of inspiration and deepened faith, pass beyond it to find fuller meaning elsewhere. (page 19)
  • The tendency to hush up awkward issues (in fairness, not unique to Friends, but we do have an ideal of plain speaking!) has been wreaking havoc for a long time. I remember when a group of us had difficulty recruiting panelists for a 1978 panel discussion on the topic, "Is the Unspoken Message of Friends Racist?" Another incident that is vivid in my memory is the time a meeting responded to a Yearly Meeting query about men's and women's equality with a response along the lines of the following: "This is not a problem in our meeting and we felt it would be a divisive topic."
  • I have seen co-dependence to unhealed people - refugees who come to us from oppressive spiritual contexts and are granted veto power over any expressions that might remind them of their past - quench the spirit of several meetings. Over and over, I (and others) have warned: we can and must offer healing and hospitality without losing the distinction between host and guest, and without losing the teaching voice of our church.
I've known many Friends who have promoted a vision of youth ministry, have advanced the concepts of spiritual gifts and Gospel order, have created great syntheses of biblical faithfulness and social justice, have promoted collaboration between mystics and prophets, between stewards and elders; and what do we have to show for it all?

Before I admit that this is a shameless rhetorical question, I ought to answer it straightforwardly: we have thousands of Friends congregations worldwide who, despite all differences, seem to be animated by a wonderful blend of biblical faith and grace, and whose very presence in a community is a precious witness.

We also, however, have a cluster of self-defeating behaviors that may combine with external forces to marginalize and dilute our witness even more than it already is. My message to "larger Quakerdom" would be simply this: confront these issues openly, creatively, publicly, undefensively, or prepare to see the fadeout continue.
Here are some of the internal and external factors:
  • elitism ... too many Friends and their meetings are content with being isolated little islands of spiritual adepts of one kind or another, rather than a movement that understands the true universality of the Gospel invitation
  • a shockingly casual attitude toward Jesus Christ - content either to relegate him to the status of wise teacher of the past, which is a complete betrayal of our founding insights into the ongoing reality of apostolic Christianity, or to turn him into combination of lucky rabbit's foot and theological trump card, useful for personal reassurance and for trouncing liberals but not for true headship of our church; both problems often compounded in the Western church by the twin poisons of individualism and affluence
  • the cult of quakerishness and its in-group language, a self-sufficient enclosed system, sort of like the Pokemon universe or Magic the Gathering, that blinds us to the reality that the discipleship expected by early Friends is now often better exemplified outside Friends
  • the demise of denominational structures, replaced in the best cases by functional organizations with clear missions and communicable identities that earn their way by merit; and the parallel demise of denominational loyalties
  • weird and unnecessary dysfunctions in our relationship with leaders
Would an end to the Friends movement represent a world crisis? I doubt it; God's Holy Spirit will continue to form and animate communities of disciples. However, the urgency of a call to larger Quakerdom is really a call to integrity: have we been faithful to a vision and heritage of discipleship that once had liberating power, and might still? What is the proper stewardship of the network of relationships and promises that remains of that heritage?

Instead of fixating on the future of that network, or its lack, should we focus on cultivating the discernment and commitment that will help those we influence to find the best spiritual communities for their gifts, inside or outside Friends? To favor a concern for faithful discernment over a concern for survival might be our best chance for survival.

6 comments:

David Myers said...

J:
You speak quite a lot of truth! I do not have the time to comment at length,
though I would like to find the time this weekend.
David Myers

Johan Maurer said...

Thanks, David.

When I say that the end of the Friends movement would not be a world crisis, I probably should add that the Friends movement has just about ended now. I see no sustained evidence of revivals, no sustained evidence of confrontation with the principalities and powers. Are we truly irrelevant, or are we still incubating the capacity to return to the world stage for a whole new wave of Christian community-building and public testimony?

Joe G. said...

I'm not surprised that I find this post reassuring given my posts on similar themes.

Several points that cause me to reflect further:

that these issues were present more than 40 years ago, as evidenced by the Pendle Hill pamphlet that you quote and mention

that Jesus means so little to us Quakers, which is utterly ironic given his centrality to the earliest convinced. They truly believed they could know him and be lead by him. Unfortunately, he's once again turned into a "shield" for the emporer, or, as you put it, a lucky, rabbits foot, or, as we liberal have done - turned him into a wise teacher that can easily be ignored while we pursue more "meaningful" truths of our own elsewhere.

Honestly, the reflection causes more sadness than anything else. Hmm.

Thanks, Johan!

david said...

Johan sez:
"[...] I am shocked at how many of the diagnoses articulated by these Friends and ex-Friends have arisen in my generation and earlier, remaining unaddressed."

comment1- It is strikingly noted
that one of the most visible faces
of Quakerism in America continues
to be peace witness, largely
carried forth from an activist
place instead of a God place. If
you stick around a while, you gain
the ability to see whether or not
a person is hiding their light,
failing to mention the spiritual
pretext for their witness, or
whether or not that light just
isn't linked to that activism.

We've grown scared of sharing those
convictions, but I disagree with
your final analysis from your
comment-reply, that the Friends
movement has been totally absorbed
and secularized/Paulineized to
the point of irrelevance.

While it is 100% true that we can't
seem to get it up for any truly
corporate confrontational speaking
of truth to power, it is also the
case that the secular culture
doesn't see that there even *IS*
a choice of living a religious
moral life that also values social
justice.

This remains Friends' undelivered
gift even after 50 years because
the culture war won't stop spinning
the incorrect idea that you can't
be a left-leaning evangelical
until the generation by which that
war was framed is in its grave.

People over 60 whose witness
connects to a true faith are highly
visibly distinguishable from those
whose witness is from a solely
activist place... and this is very
well reflected in the degree to
which they do or don't appreciate
the choices that people under 40
have to make. People who 'get it'
are very clear that it is more the
means than the ends that matter
when it comes to our personal
and corporate testimonies to the
world.

comment2-
"Members of the Society of Friends are increasingly disturbed by the comment that Quaker Meeting is a fine place for seeking, but one must go elsewhere if one’s object is finding."

Certainly there is a
training-wheels like quality to
operational Quakerism without
a vibrant corporate spirit. Are
we truly to believe that such
group experience has been made
less available by the failures
of past generations?

comment3-
"I have seen co-dependence to unhealed people - refugees who come to us from oppressive spiritual contexts and are granted veto power over any expressions that might remind them of their past - quench the spirit of several meetings. Over and over, I (and others) have warned: we can and must offer healing and hospitality without losing the distinction between host and guest, and without losing the teaching voice of our church."

I don't think it is *merely*
about host and guest. We lack
a commonly fluent widespread
lingua franca for being able to
show our openness to people's
pain without it being interpreted
as a mere secular sign of
safe-haven. This confuses people.
But the hunt for a better way is
about more than just 'boundaries.'

It seems entirely appropriate to
say, as you do, that leadership
and stewardship has had a shoddy
record, and that it impairs
current efforts. I do think the
problems go beyond the inadequacies
of the eldership model. A lot of
what Martin, Beppe, and others
are really torn up about amounts
to the inadequacies of the
spiritual
nurturance/leadership/eldership
model that is in ad hoc practice.

To dwell on that spot too long
would be to believe that if only
we could fix that model, guidedness
would return. But the issue is
actually bigger than just this.
People *are* in pain. People *are*
seeking. People *are* conditioned
on a certain individualism.
We need ready understanding of
how to love without turning our
backs. Fixing the model, alone,
is not a sufficient option. Not
fixing the model is not an option.
Having enough people (ideally every member) careful enough
to talk through the concerns of
the codependent... and fluent in
a language not currently our own...
is something that is larger than
the eldership model because it is
the entire covenant and the entire
theology that is at the juncture.

the bad news:
That can't be witnessed to fully
without entire communities.
the good news:
Individuals are capable of personal
strides even still.

comment4-
"a shockingly casual attitude toward Jesus Christ - content either to relegate him to the status of wise teacher of the past [...] or to turn him into combination of lucky rabbit's foot and theological trump card"

I don't think people realize
there is another choice. Which
IS startling. It is really
easy for people to believe that
humanity has evolved past God
and Christ because of the junkheap
of poor models of our relationship
to them that continue to pile up.

It's such a hard problem (lifting
up our model without arrogance).

Johan Maurer said...

Thank you both!

David, you said, "the culture war won't stop spinning the incorrect idea that you can't be a left-leaning evangelical until the generation by which that war was framed is in its grave." One glimmer of hope I have for Friends is that our own internal culture-war generations, the ones who framed every issue as Hicksite vs Orthodox, who tossed labels around as if they summed up anyone's entire depth (like the guy who snidely called FUM "Friends United Methodist") ... those generations may be passing from the scene. Over the last twenty or so years, I have seen bridgebuilders arise in all areas of Friends - not levelers, but people who combine an irrepressible Christian faith that isn't formula-bound with gentle irreverence for conventional wisdom about our structures and labels.

When I was more active in Quaker intervisitation, both with Friends World Committee and with FUM, one of my concerns was to help people build common vocabularies and shared pools of reference, so that false scandals could be defanged and the true differences faced. Some theological conflicts are real, but others are just cultural disconnections in disguise. (I used as an example the word "sanctuary" - for some Friends it refers to the main meeting room, but for others, especially a decade or two back, it referred to the movement to assist non-USA citizens who were in the USA without documents, usually as political refugees. There was very little communication between the linguistic planets represented by those usages.)

I mentioned the betrayal of Christ that is so widespread among Friends. The betrayal is corporate and has ancient roots. I'm not criticizing anyone who has never even heard a tender and coherent presentation of the Gospel in the face of the liberal parodies and right-wing blasphemies that are current in the wider culture.

David, you open up the language issue beyond theological divisions, to a concern about our ability to communicate both pain and care. The leavening effect of love, the willingness to abandon old labels and assumptions, an infectious playfulness, a sober anger at injustice, healthy humility, ... I see all of these among the people whom I admire most in Friends. Through visitation, correspondence, blogs, articles such as Martin's, can we encourage a new spirit of goodwill, of being advocates for each other's well-being above and beyond our worthwhile conflicts over theology?

Bill Samuel said...

Johan, as usual you are right on in your commentary. When I resigned from my Meeting to join a Church that does take Jesus Christ seriously and shows there is an alternative to the common errors in the institutional church, a friend of mine on the Pastoral Care Committee of the Meeting noted that this is the third similar resignation from the Meeting recently. And this Meeting is not a particularly bad Meeting. In fact, it may be the Meetings that are not so bad that will experience this because the worst meetings have no one spiritually alive enough to make the transition.

I do think there are places in the Society of Friends where real alternatives to the two different traps Johan identifies are being lived. But I think, in North America, far more exemplify the traps.