Today's controversies among Friends are being well addressed by several tender and courteous bloggers whom I always enjoy reading. But what I often find missing is a persuasive rationale for why we agonize so much about specifically being Quakers rather than about being faithful believers who happen to have a Quaker-flavored way of expressing belief. Is it because people who are out evangelizing, committing civil disobedience, serving in relief and development work, lobbying for peace, or simply living lives of daily devotion don't have time to blog, and are therefore underrepresented in these discussions? Or somehow our Internet searches fail to find them? Or have the words "Quaker" and "Friend" taken on some sort of cultish power that needs to be exorcised?
I'm reminded of an incident at Indiana Yearly Meeting maybe twenty years ago. The evening meeting for worship at the Yearly Meeting sessions was being led by the youth. One young man got up and said something like the following: "I've really enjoyed my first year at Indiana Wesleyan. I've learned that my denomination is not important--what's important is following Christ."
Another young man asked for prayer because he was going into the military, where he felt he would be exposed to lots of worldliness, and he wanted to emerge from military service with his morality intact.
I sat there, immersed in a swirl of thoughts.
- Yes, denominational loyalties are trivial in comparison to the importance of following Christ.
- But on the other hand, we don't follow Jesus in the abstract, we follow him in flesh and blood situations, in community. "You are in Christ Jesus by God's act" (1 Cor. 1:30) and God acts in history, in time and place. So as community, denomination is important.
- What had we done to make denominational distinctives so trivial, so decorative, so NOT a matter of following Christ, that a young man could get up among several hundred Quakers and unblushingly ask us to bless his going into the military?
Today's reflections were prompted by this post from A Place to Stand. In my comment there, I wrote,
. . . I'm just trying to tease out an implication of a lot of what I read in Quaker blogs, and see whether it's worth following up.... I don't claim to have a permanent or perfect answer.I've seen so many discussions about why Friends are (or are not) a Christian body, but I've seen less discussion in the same circles about what differentiates Friends who are Christians (for whom that first discussion simply doesn't arise) from other Christians, and what doesn't differentiate us. So let me take a crack at it, and please cite other discussions or add your own points if you wish. But, for me, the stakes are high: if I'm totally wrong about how Quakers are both Christian and different, I might be in the wrong place!
The way my concern is usually posed is this: Am I a Quaker first, or a Christian first? I don't like this way of posing the issue, because it seems to imply precision and Venn diagrams where precision is either impossible or deceptive. But bear with me, please.
1. I'm a Christian first, in that I have put all my eggs in the Jesus basket. To use a specific phrase that's precious to some (including me) and obscure to others, I've been sealed by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ. I stepped over this inner threshold before I ever set foot in a Friends meeting.
2. On the other hand, I'm a Friend because I personally don't know any other way of being Christian, of living an embodied, real-life, day-to-day Christian life. Others do know (and I visit them in their churches and temples with great benefit to me) but I don't.
So I have been convinced of the value and integrity of Quaker discipleship, and I love to be among others who are similarly convinced. To draw on the beautiful imagery of Ben Richmond's book, Signs of Salvation, I have become part of a covenant relationship, a relationship of mutual promises that involves God and other believers--specific flesh and blood believers like me. The more specific the promises, the more I'm empowered to keep them; and the Friends testimonies are quite specific.
But if I were in a community that had no concept of discipleship and where I experienced no empowerment, the name "Quaker" certainly would not be enough to keep me there. And if I found a community with an understanding of discipleship and covenant relationship sufficiently similar to what was opened to me at my conversion, the lack of the word "Quaker" would not be enough to keep me away.
When I was at Ottawa Meeting, not everyone was explicitly Christian, but several people in the meeting exercised a loving and deliberate mentorship of me in the direction I've just outlined. It was enough for this baby Quaker.
Now I'm at Reedwood Friends Church, where the Christian language is our "official" language, but if we were not struggling together on discipleship and the meaning of Friends testimonies, neither the language alone nor the name "Friends" would be enough to keep me.
I have to stand in complete humility when talking with those who feel as if they may be led to be a lonely voice in a heterodox Quaker community. I personally need to be part of a substantial Christian covenant community just to keep my head above water. But on another level entirely, I feel an affinity with all those who are drawn by the passion and the ethical imperatives of the movement kindled by G Fox and the Valiant Sixty, however they understand the apostolic roots of that movement. That would continue to be true even if I had to relocate my own membership outside Friends for the sake of my own need for a more concrete support for my discipleship.
- We are not different from other Christians in the God whom we worship, and the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, the historic and risen Son of God, we follow, and in the Holy Spirit who seals us into God's commonwealth.
- But we are different from Christians who require a deceptive (to my mind) textual precision in defining how God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit relate. We accept the historic teaching of the church concerning their intimate relationship, the community of the Trinity, while remaining, in Penn's words, "...tender of quitting Scripture terms and phrases for schoolmen's...."
- We are not different from other Christians in recognizing that not one of us is born morally self-sufficient; we are all mortally vulnerable to sin and temptation.
- But we are different from Christians who believe we humans are categorically depraved from conception--a desperately bad doctrine which is not universally shared among other Christians, either.
- Like other Christians, we esteem the Scriptures, believing that they are "God-breathed and ... useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that [we] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and that they can make us "wise for salvation" (2 Timothy 3:15).
Unlike many Christians, however, we notice how the Bible does not oversell itself. If we take 2 Timothy 3:15-17 literally, nowhere do those words justify a mechanical, rigid, totalitarian, unspiritual, coercive, or literal application. God breathed the Holy Spirit into the creation, assembly, and ratification of the Bible, and God continues to breathe the Holy Spirit into faithful meetings for worship, and into individual disciples, according to God's own pleasure and not according to the agendas of Christian power brokers. The Bible is not magic, nor is it a member of the Trinity.
- We honor and cherish Jesus Christ, whose life, death on the cross, and resurrection were all part of God's perfect plan for reconciliation with creation. I know of no "orthodox" Quaker body who has broken with the historic teachings of the larger church on this point, and this is a crucial marker for me, the principal reason I can even be among Friends. George Fox did not come into my life with assurance of healing and forgiveness, Jesus did.
- Jesus's involvement with us did not end with the resurrection. We are his Body; we recognize him as the head of our communities, and the whole point of being Quakers is to experience that Headship directly, learning its ethical consequences, and supporting each other in living out what we learn. And as with the Trinity and the Bible, Friends have never united on any rigid or legalistic understanding of the Cross, or of Christ's atoning death. We differ from Christians who insist that we must understand his death as a satisfaction for God's holy wrath--a doctrine which is made incoherent by the very nature of God's sovereignty. God relates to us directly through Christ and the Holy Spirit, not indirectly through symbolic juridical transactions, as useful as those transactions might have been in metaphorically explaining the atonement centuries ago.
- With other Christians, we realize that the Christian life is not just a matter of professing faith, but requires discipleship--prayer, study, self-discipline, discernment (with community help) of our own spiritual gifts, and a public witness to our faith. With some other Christians, we see discipleship extending to our social, political, and economic behavior. We Friends were once pioneers in this area, but less so now.
- Most Christians avail themselves of outward sacraments and often assign priestly roles to church officers, as ways of mediating the Divine-human encounter. Most Friends believe that we can experience sacramental reality without mediation of official or ceremony. Without the Holy Spirit's baptism and communion, no intermediary is sufficient; with them, no intermediary is necessary.
- Christians gather frequently to pray, praise, teach, learn, exhort, confess, and sacrifice for the maintenance of the community. So do Friends, while also leaving space for the immediate intervention and ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Read this book: The Feast of Love: A Novel by Charles Baxter. Back-cover blurbs:
Rich, strange, alive with the miracles of daily life, this novel is a banquet for the soul. So many wonderful characters, all of who I came to cherish as I watched them intersecting, the initial configurations of love reconfiguring themselves by the end. Truly, this is a novel in which the unexpected is always upon us. (Andrea Barrett)These writers said exactly what I wanted to say about this novel. They didn't waste words; why should I?
The Feast of Love is hilarious and at the same time desperately sad, full of wit and poetry and exquisitely observed perceptions of the human condition, erudite and streetwise at once. It conveys the delicacy, the violence, the salvation, and the destruction of love. What a brilliant, powerful novel. (Alan Lightman)
President Bush vetoes the war funding bill with classic red herrings: "It makes no sense to tell the enemy when you plan to start withdrawing. All the terrorists would have to do is mark their calendars and gather their strength -- and begin plotting how to overthrow the government and take control of the country of Iraq." Instead, they can continue to pick off our soldiers, bleed us dry financially, increase our bad odor in the Middle East, provide unparalleled target practice and clinical internships to a whole new generation of terrorists, and continue to propagandize in the spiritual and ideological vacuum we've created at the highest leadership level.
Bush went on: "...The bill would impose impossible conditions on our commanders in combat. After forcing most of our troops to withdraw, the bill would dictate the terms on which the remaining commanders and troops could engage the enemy. That means American commanders in the middle of a combat zone would have to take fighting directions from politicians 6,000 miles away in Washington, D.C. This is a prescription for chaos and confusion, and we must not impose it on our troops." A bizarre confusion--policy and strategy are different from tactics and operations. Commanders are supposed to get policy from the CIVILIANS! Instead Bush forces the commanders to slog on under an impossible and amoral mandate.
Two items on Virginia Tech on the Martin Marty Center's Sightings site: Marty "against reductionism" and Jerome Eric Copulsky's "what is there to say?"
Charlie Musselwhite and his daughter Layla Musselwhite give a moving performance of his song, "In Your Darkest Hour," a song that he recorded on his album One Night in America--an album I highly recommend.