Wednesday, April 26, 2006

quakers, universalism & evangelicalism

As promised, I'll tackle the next issue raised by QuakerK on the blog Quaker Glimmerings, which happens to be about the Quaker tendency toward universalism. This is a good way to step on toes of Friends from all sides! Here goes.

QuakerK says:
2. Early Quakers tended towards some form of universalism (meaning this: being a Christian wasn't the only way to be saved). Or at least some did. I recall a passage in George Fox's journal, when in the colonies, where he questions a Native American to demonstrate that the Inner Light is in everyone. Or consider this passage from Isaac Penington: "The Lord holdeth forth some beams of his eternal light to all mankind, according to his pleasure, at some time or other visiting the darkest corners of the earth...The Lord is able to make any dispensation of his life effectual...The knowledge of Christ runs along in all the dispensations of the eternal life: the light cometh from him, and it manifests him in spirit." (From "Some Questions and Answers Showing Man His Duty")--I read it as this: in any dispensation of the Light, Christ is, by definition, present. And then of course there is the famous passage from John Woolman.

I actually completely agree with QuakerK here, except for the fact that I wouldn't necessarily call this "universalism." I think this is a more universalistic expression of Christianity than some, and I agree that this would support the title of the blog post, "Why Quakerism isn't Evangelical Christianity."

As a brief explanation of the origins of evangelicalism during the Great Awakenings in America in late 18th-early 19th centuries, when evangelicalism started it wasn't so connected with fundamentalist Christianity as it is today. Now it seems that evangelicalism and fundamentalism in American Christianity are often synonymous. But when evangelicalism began it was interested in social justice, in equality of peoples (at least to a progressive degree for the time), and personal spiritual experience. There was emphasis on "conversion," but basically what it meant was they were so excited about the experience of God they'd felt that they wanted everyone to experience that life and power and love. That's why some Quakers were originally drawn to the movement, because it seemed like a revitalization of some of the things Quakers had traditionally held dear.

Unfortunately, as the evangelical movement has "progressed," it has become more fundamentalist/conservative, more egocentric, focusing mainly on "me and my spiritual experience," and is often shallow because "conversion" is thought of as a one-time deal where nothing else is necessary for "faith" than to "invite Jesus into your heart." It has lost its other-centeredness, its sense of deep and true experience of the living God that affects the individual's life not just once but daily and moment by moment, and the focus on being called out to service in order to bring about the Kingdom of God has been lost.

So to defend "Evangelical Friends," it seems like this group has been caught in the middle of two groups going separate directions. What does a community do in a situation like this? Should they make up a new name? Or should they hold onto the old names (both "Friends" and "Evangelical") and try to live them as they feel the originators of the movement were attempting to do--and more importantly as they feel led by the Spirit to do today?

Another problem that Evangelical Friends face is that they draw in both those who consider themselves "evangelical" but don't know anything about Friends, and those who know something about the history of Friends but aren't necessarily evangelical (in the current sense of the word). This causes quite a bit of tension between those who want to be your basic evangelical church and those who feel led to live out the historical Quaker distinctives.

Yet another issue is the different meanings for these words among those who find themselves in "Evangelical Friends" settings. From my experience, those who are younger have a harder time wanting to describe themselves as "evangelical" because of the bad reputation that term has among those who aren't evangelicals in the United States and abroad. This comes from the shallow spirituality that is so often displayed by "evangelical" leaders, whether they be preachers or politicians, and by the fact that one can't necessarily tell that an American is an evangelical by their lifestyle except for the fish on their car.

But many Evangelical Friends have a hard time being called "Friends," too. They have too often had the experience of introducing themselves as a Quaker and having people make assumptions about their political and religious beliefs which aren't true, because the person they're talking to has been exposed to liberal Friends. These Evangelical Friends find themselves frustrated with the fact that not all Friends stand for anything, and in a desire to stand for their belief in Jesus as the Son of God they want to distance themselves from those who are more universalist than the above statement.

Which brings me back to responding to this statement. (Whew! That was a long digression.) I agree that Quakers have traditionally believed that, since the Light of Christ shines in everyone, everyone has the opportunity to respond to it, whether they have heard the name "Jesus" or not. The theological term for this is "general revelation," the idea being that God reveals God's self to everyone through the way the entire universe is made and the way history unfolds. Everyone has access to this and can know God through this. In Christianity there is also "special revelation," which is the understanding that Jesus is the Son of God, and witness to revelation from God in scripture.

In the Reformed tradition, which is what my school is so I'm learning a lot of it, they believe that although knowledge of God is available everywhere in nature, people are so corrupted by their sinful nature that they can't respond to it without the saving grace of the special revelation opening their eyes and changing their hearts. I think this is where Christian Quakers generally become protestants to the Protestants, because I think we have a more optimistic view of human nature and free will.

However, because of the influx of nondenominationalists and evangelicals into Evangelical Friends churches, many Evangelical Friends wouldn't agree with QuakerK's quotes of early Friends about universalism.

At the same time, I doubt many liberal Friends would agree with those statements either, because they say that it is the Light of Christ which is available to each person, not some non-specific God-Light whose name and historical actions don't matter.

Obviously these caricatures of evangelicals and liberals aren't completely true of most of either group, but show the extremes of the spectrum. Through the example of early Friends, I think we can be encouraged to look more closely at their universalism and their Christ-centeredness. We can focus on God's willingness to make God's self known to all people, and we can be part of helping them recognize that living Presence. At the same time, we can remember early Friends were firm in their faith in Jesus Christ as well as acknowledging that God works in ways of which they weren't aware. We can learn much from the amazing balancing act these early Friends pulled off: they were able to listen to God and act on that, and not worry too much about basing their faith on those who had gone immediately before. They remained focused on the historical teachings of God and Jesus in the Bible and the practices of early Christ-followers without idolizing those accounts. I hope we can all learn to balance our sometimes paradoxical faith with as much agility as these early Friends.


Joe G. said...

"...because of the influx of nondenominationalists and evangelicals into Evangelical Friends churches, many Evangelical Friends wouldn't agree with QuakerK's quotes of early Friends about universalism. At the same time, I doubt many liberal Friends would agree with those statements either..."

I've come to this sort of conclusion, too. My guess is that there are very few Friends, of any stripe, that could agree with early Friends' claims of a universalist nature. A lot of us Friends, and I include myself here, like to claim an early Friends' quote as support for our position. But, a lot of us are far from what they did or believed - as to whether that is a problem of not is another issue.

BTW, I enjoy your blog. You really offer a different take on things - having been raised amongst Evangelical Friends (right???), but also moving toward a different experience of Friends (right??? - sorry, if I'm mixing you up with another Quaker blogger - so many these days :)). Anyway, your contributions are welcomed and appreciated!

Rob said...

Thanks Cherice for this post. As an attender of a liberal Friends meeting, it's interesting to learn about the struggles going on among Evangelical Friends congregations. There seems to be a mirrored reflection of the generational divides among my meeting with subtle and interesting differences and similarities.

I haven't had a moment's worth of time to keep up on Quaker blogs or anything else lately, and I confess I can't be more articulate at the moment.

It's good to see you hanging around out here in the blogosphere. Take care,

NYAfterthoughts said...

Wow, this is a great post. The summary of the progress of evangelicalism is something I'm likely to end up forwarding to everyone who ever asks me about it, Quaker or no.

Nothing about religion worries me more than the idea that spiritual development is a one-time deal (like being inducted into the Rotary Club) or a checklist of rituals to perform (like becoming an Eagle Scout).

I recently read something in Fox's journal that really resonated with me: "This I saw in the pure openings of the Light without the help of any man; neither did I then know where to find it in the Scriptures; though afterwards, searching the Scriptures, I found it."

This sentence gives a really strong insight, I think, into the relationship between the Light and Jesus.

I was raised in a Christian church, and they did an excellent job of teaching me the Bible was boring and meaningless. Even four or five years ago I would have said that. But my personal journey was more of ageneral revelation, where afterward, I chanced upon a New Testament passage that struck me as newly and astonishingly profound. Since then, I've been reading the Bible, and amazed at how different (and unique) it is.

Anonymous said...

I'm impressed with your thinking processes which are quite evident in your writing. But, I'm concerned about your involvement with the common misunderstanding of Fox's concept of the "light of Christ!" If mankind could have "responded to the light" and thus come into a saving knowledge of God, why didn't they do it? It's all of grace, Cherise!! We cannot find our way to God apart from His grace. If we could, there would have been no need for Jesus to come, to suffer, to die and rise again. Why did Fox bother to preach Jesus, if he believed in your interpretation of what he said? He was wasting his time. And why did he bid the authorities to "quake at the Word of God" if he didn't believe it was God's Word of truth? The Bible clearly states---more than once---that there is "none good, no not one!"

I'm also concerned about your ideas about Quaker evangelicals. No doubt there are many in that "branch" of Quakerism who do not have the depth of belief and do not practice the tenets of their faith as some more mature individuals believe they should, but the same can be said of the church across the board. The fact remains that the basic mission of the church is to preach the message of Jesus crucified, buried and risen again. The rest of it is God's business! Thanks for giving me the space to vent! You will probably hear from me again.