Saturday, May 06, 2006

passion of the quakers

Finals are over! So now I'll have time to get back to blogging. This will be my last response to QuakerK's post "Why Quakerism isn't Evangelical Christianity." Thanks again, QuakerK, for such an excellent post! It provided much food for thought.

By the way, make sure and read the comments from my other responses to QuakerK's post. There are some excellent thoughts and correctives from others--I don't profess to know everything about Quaker history (or to interpret it all accurately!) so it's good to hear other people's perspectives and information I didn't know.

QuakerK said:
The last, and I think, most important point, is a general one: when I read the early Quaker writings that I admire and am inspired by--Fox, Nayler, Penington, Penn, Woolman (though he's not so early), the tone of those writings is much different, to me, than reading, say, one of the more evangelical articles from Quaker Life. Jesus and Christ just aren't very prominent in early Quaker writings. That's not to say that they are not in the background, but the emphasis is very different.

I almost totally agree with QuakerK here. In my previous responses I've explained my thoughts on early Quakers' inclusion of Jesus in their writings so I won't write about that again. But I agree that the tone of Quaker writings is different in the past than it is now. Obviously some of this has to do with living in different cultures and the fact that different writing styles are popular (and although we all sometimes write run-on sentences most of us now have very different ideas of proper puntuation...), but is there something deeper?

The two major differences I see are these: 1) early Friends were a new group, and they were excited about this new community and wanted to convince other people to be part of what they were feeling led to (some even might call this a form of evangelizing...). 2) Early Friends' writings show an amazing passion. They weren't afraid to say what they thought, be it controversial, rather harsh words for their community and the world around them, or passionate expressions of their faith experiences.

These two things went together, probably--they were a part of a "quiet revolution," but this profound spiritual explosion was anything but quiet in their lives. They had found people to journey with who they connected with on a spiritual level. They challenged each other and encouraged each other and met often for meeting (even when it was illegal) and for planning the ministries they felt called to work on. They spoke out strongly, firmly, but uncynically about the injustices they saw around them and the abuse of faith they saw in the churches of their day. They risked their lives to do what they felt was right, and were willing to suffer the consequences as a community. They were figuring out together what it meant to be a member of the Religious Society of Friends, and they were excited to go through that defining process together.

I wonder if now that we're a fairly settled denomination we've just lost some of that fire because we're not new anymore. Maybe it's kind of like being in love--you have that warm fuzzy feeling for a while and it's exciting and new and you're willing to risk a lot (loss of sleep, letting other frienships fall by the wayside, others making fun of how much time you spend together, etc.) to be with that person. Then after you're together for a while, you are still completely in love, but the feelings change. Now this is normal life, the early getting to know each other and feeling out the relationship is over, and you're comfortable in your relationship and your love. Sometimes maybe you feel too comfortable--where's that passion you once had?

Our culture tends to solve this problem by ending the relationship and going to find that warm fuzzy feeling again. But in my experience it's in the too-comfortable stage where the real love begins, as you work through everyday stuff together and figure out what it means to stick with one another through thick and thin. Love is in all those little choices of how to talk to one another, how to work through conflicts, how to communicate in the ways the other needs.

Maybe it's the same with our spirituality. It happens over centuries sometimes, so it's harder to see. But it seems like a lot of times we just go along in a denomination until the life has fizzled out of it, then someone wants to revive that warm fuzzy feeling, and generally they break away and form their own new denomination. That's why there are so many denominations today. (It happens on a personal level, too--people church hop, staying somewhere as long as it meets their needs and then leaving for another group once the going gets tough.)

But where's our sense of loyalty? Where's our courage to work and listen and truly love one another? I think when we do this, when we truly work on stuff and remember what we love about each other (in interpersonal relationships as well as the church), we eventually experience a new kind of passion, a deeper, more mature passion, than the "love" we had wanted back. Love is in this hard work, it's in the committment to move ahead together and to try to learn what will work best.

Some people stay married and don't face into these problems. Their conversations become bland, they don't really know each other anymore, it's just two people living in the same house, bound by law but not by love. This happens in the church too, and I wonder if this isn't part of what QuakerK is sensing in the change in the writing of present-day Friends. We've already been divorced from those we feel we really can't get along with--that's why we have four branches of Friends. But those we're with now in some ways are just as bad. We don't know them anymore. We aren't being challenged, we aren't given a place to express creativity or true calling or passion.

But a lot of Friends, still feeling bound by "law," write dutiful articles in Quaker Life about a Jesus they don't really know and aren't in love with. Quakers in liberal circles write their own articles about social justice matters, but often with underlying cynicism, knowing the work they are doing won't really change anything. They too have lost their fire, their true reason for doing the justice work they're doing. We all sit in meeting, programmed or unprogrammed, putting in our time and working to some degree while we're there on building relationships with others there, but then we go home and forget what's been shared, forget wy we're Quaker, forget why we sit in silence or sing songs or listen to people speak about God.

So what can we do? Our relationships are failing. We're bound by our Quaker married name, we profess many of the same "laws." But where's the passion? Can we spark it again without more splits? Quakers splitting is similar in my mind to a divorce psychologist getting divorced. Can we practice what we preach, listen well to God and one another, and be moved into a deeper, more loving spirituality together than we've ever experienced before?

So as a general response to the post "Why Quakerism isn't Evangelical Christianity," I would say a resounding yes: Quakerism was never meant to resemble the Evangelical form of Christianity that it now does in many meetings. It also was never meant to resemble the form it holds in liberal Quakerism, or even middle-of-the-line Friends United Meeting. Conservative Friends are doing their best to live out the original vision of Friends, which is incredibly laudable, and I haven't been around them enough to know if it's working or not. But I would suspect that just trying to go back to the old days isn't enough. We need to grow and deepen and mature as a community, being willing to listen hard to not just do what we've always done, but to do new things which will meet the hungering needs of our aching spirits.

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