Tuesday, November 07, 2006

what's in a name?

We've been having an interesting discussion on the World Gathering of Young Friends 2005 listserv about what, if anything, all Quakers hold in common. Colin Saxton posted a summary of a book by Will Cooper, "A Living Faith," which I haven't read and he said he didn't have it right in front of him, so he paraphrased Cooper thus:

1. We can know God in our experience
2. We are given the life & power to obey God
3. We are called to community
4. We are called to a sacramental view of life
5. We are called to peace
6. We are called to simplicity
7. We are called to integrity
8. We are called to equality

The WGYF people said perhaps these summarize a majority of Quakers, but of course some wouldn't want to be characterized by any sort of belief in God, although they might agree with most of the others. Some evangelical Friends also might not agree with calls to peace, equality, etc., but they also might not really think of themselves as Friends, mostly just evangelical Christians.

So for those of us to whom "Quaker" or "Religious Society of Friends (of Jesus)" is an important monicker, does this seem to fit who we are as a Society today, worldwide?

I think it names our heritage pretty well--we come from a group of people to whom the real presence of someone Other was very important, and it was on the direction of this Other that they based their actions for peace/simplicity/equality, etc. Most Quakers worldwide are Christians, and most still hold to the other distinctives, although I think the one we've lost the most is the idea of all of life being sacramental.

I think maybe we can say this is the center of Quakerism, although we've always been anti-creed, so it's not like people have to sign this statement to hang out with us. Anyone is welcome to be a part of Friends fellowship, but the things that truly characterize Quakerism are well encapsulated in Cooper's list. I don't think early Friends were against creeds because they didn't think Friends should be on the same page about what they believed, but because it's not saying a set of words that brings salvation, but living in the true life and power of God in Christ.

The problem is, if we define Quakerism like this, some people feel left out. I guess that's the problem with defining any social group. And yet, naming something necessarily includes some and excludes others. Defining things as one thing and not another is helpful--it's helpful to be able to say that a tree is a tree, not a flower, and that trees and flowers are living but not animals. These distinctions help us know how to live within the world, providing categories of meaning.

If a name ceases to mean anything, should it still be used? I think not. And Quakers are rather dangerously close to this place, where being Quaker could just mean "mostly nice people who get together some First-days and do something spiritual in whatever way they think best." Is this enough? And if we disagree with others about what it means to be a "real" Quaker, who gets the power of naming what's true? What do we base it on? Numbers? Consensus? Historical data? Lowest common denominator?


Peterson Toscano said...

Ah the challenge of names/labels in a post-modern world. Similar discussions go on in many realms where we once thought identity and understanding were fixed.

I am a white bio gay
male vegan Christ-centered Quaker. But even my descriptors leave plenty of room for confusion and are not fixed. I mean am I still 100% male when I wear a skirt? Gender is not only what I am; it is also what I do.

Same with Quakerism. Perhaps more than many other expressions of Christianity, Friends have focused more on "doing Quaker" than simply talking and being Quaker. Faith without works is dead. The letter of the law (and I believe ceeds and sacrements) brings death, but Spirit gives life, blowing here and there, not easily contained, labled or explained.

Vibrant faith living can be a messy ordeal.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

It seems to me the problem with Colin Saxton's list of things "all Quakers" hold in common is that it is a list of (supposed) fruits of the Vine, rather than a finger pointing to the Vine itself.

I would far rather have a Society defining itself in terms of its attachment to the Vine than a Society defining itself in terms of its attachment to a human list of fruits.

Nancy A said...

Perhaps this is why Quakers shy away from definitions. They're always incomplete and inadequate, even the best ones. And most go stale very quickly.

Christians do the same thing with their creeds. Ironically, some Christian bodies allow Quakers in, and some don't. It's all in the definitions.

I think we're Quakers because we say we're Quakers. And then we look at each other across our differences and find those links and resonances.

The Quaker blogosphere has been great for allowing each "flavour" of Quaker to show their Light and explore each other's contributions.

Martin Kelley said...

I find myself agreeing with Marshall that this is a list of fruits and not the vine itself. It is perhaps impossible to come up with a complete definition of Quaker and this is a good thing. We're meant to focus our lives around the direct, immediate guidance of the risen Jesus speaking inwardly in our hearts. Every definition threatens to become a shortcut, a potential idol, that keeps us from consulting that Guide. That said, our tradition does provide ways of knowing when and how the Spirit acts in our lives. And there's an implicit trust that our spiritual ancestors got at least part of the message right and that their experiences and answers shouldn't be dismissed lightly.

The definition I've imposed on QuakerQuaker.org is that all featured posts have to explicitly wrestle with Quakerism. A Friend whose post focuses generically around a testimony, cultural value or theology doesn't qualify. This is because these outer forms divide us but also because it's a little too easy to think that Quakers are just a narrow demographic of particular cultural values (in my neighborhood: slightly lefty NPR listeners with a distaste for churchy or Christian language). As an example, my own peace activism arises and certainly relates to my Quaker identity but I don't consider Nonviolence.org a "Quaker blog" because I rarely sit down and explain how my faith informs the work.
Martin @ Quaker Ranter.

Albion said...

Dear Cherice,

You said; "Most Quakers worldwide are Christians........."

To which I say, Wow, could've fooled ME!

Perhaps most "Quaker Churches", but certainly NOT most unprogrammed Friends Meetings.

I see the real 'Christians Quakers' as a tiny band, that are just BARELY tolerated (and looked

down upon) by the rest of the unprogrammed Friends.

There will always be Liberal Friends CALLING THEMSELVES 'Christians'.

But ARE they? Are their meetings Christ Centered places of Worship?

Is the Name of 'Jesus' glady spoken of among them?

Your right, the name "Quaker" has lost it's distinctiveness, among a sea of

thousands of "Liberal Friends".

Or at least that's MY opinion.

Blessings, Albion Guppy

cherice said...


It's actually a fact that a vast majority of Quakers worldwide are Christians. The funny thing about evangelicals is that they evangelize...meaning their numbers grow a lot faster than those meetings who generally spread by someone moving to a new place and starting a meeting every once in a great while. I just found on wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_Society_of_Friends#_ref-Qworldstats_0) that: "43 percent of Quakers worldwide are found in Africa, versus 30 percent in North America, 17 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 6 percent in Europe, and 4 percent in Asia/West Pacific." I'm pretty sure that in North America a majority of Friends are from fully FUM or EFI yearly meetings (and would therefore call themselves Chrsitians), but I can't find those stats right now (and I don't want to go to every YM's website and add things up). Even IF all the 30% of North American Friends and 6% of European Friends, and I'll even give you most of the 4% from Asia/West Pacific (especially Australia)--if all these were all non-Christ-centered YMs that's still fewer than the 43% of African Christians, who I think would almost entirely think of themselves as Christians, plus those in Latin America and other areas whose yearly meetings have been started by missionary endeavors of Christ-centered yearly meetings in EFI and FUM.

Perhaps the unprogrammed Friends generally think of these kinds of Friends as "barely tolerated (and looked down upon)," but unprogrammed Friends also need to realize that they themselves are the worldwide minority of Friends. Not to mention the fact that unprogrammed, liberal Friends who don't think of themselves as Christians are very different from the original Friends, who were passionately Christ-centered. George Fox started the Quaker movement when he heard God say to him, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition." I have no problem with Quakers who aren't Christians being involved in Quakerism, but for them to arrogantly look down on the history and majority of present-day Friends seems rude and un-Quakerly to me.

As for those who attend liberal meetings and call themselves Christians, yes, I think someone can be a Christian wherever they are. I attend a liberal Friends meeting now and I'm a Christian. I don't have to be somewhere that everyone is worshipping Christ in order to worship Christ myself.

Marshall & Martin,

I think you're right about this being a list of fruits rather than the vine itself. I guessmaybe we all have a hard time agreeing which vine they come from, but if we're all producing the same fruit, then does that show we're part of the same vine, even if we can't agree on its name? (The question then, of course, is "Are we all producing the same fruit?")


I agree that it's great to have the Quaker blogosphere to hear other voices out there about what it means to be Quaker, but to me it seems like we can't survive if we're just a bunch of people looking at each other and not doing anything in the world because we don't want to do something that might offend someone else's beliefs. So although I don't want us to make a creed or something, it seems like having ourselves defined to some degree so we can move in one direction together would be helpful. Otherwise it feels like we become stagnant and without purpose because we have nothing in common.


Labels are a problem, I know...but if we're self-labeling ourselves as Quakers, what does that mean? Faith without works is dead, but what about works without faith? What if we're just going through the motions of "doing Quaker" without understanding anything of what it means to BE Quaker, just doing stuff because that's what we've always done as a Society? Isn't this just the same as following a creed or a dead sacrament?

Quakers, contrary to popular opinion, didn't start out as a non-sacramental group--they actually thought of all of life as a sacrament, so you can't separate "sacred" moments from "profane" ones: your baptism isn't any more spiritual than working at your job or spending time with your family. I think we've lost this sense, and our current sacraments are silence and peace activism that doesn't really touch our lives (as a whole). Or in some yearly meetings, going to church and small groups and whatever other church activities there are. When do we actually change our lives to stand for peace, like wearing grey so as not to support slavery? The Spirit blows where it wills--but are we willing to take a stand to actually be in the Spirit, or are we too afraid to let ourselves be labeled and set apart from the world to actually do what the Spirit calls us to?

Thanks everyone for your comments! These are great thoughts.


Johan Maurer said...

I don't think there's anything wrong with having a fairly firm definition of what "Quaker" means and still living serenely in the reality that we share the label with people who don't agree with that definition.

It helps to know some of the historical reasons that our definitions diverged, but most of the time I'm trying not to live in history.

Quakers started out as being people who wanted to live as closely to Christ as possible, wanted to help each other do so, and (not immediately) recognized that there were ethical consequences of this way of life. That "living closely" involved avoiding false social distinctions, living an unencumbered life, running the church with the prayer-based discernment of the participants (and no unnecessary hierarchy), and telling the truth in season and out of season. Being closer to the Prince of Peace seemed to make it hard or impossible to use or threaten violence.

Since we started out as a relationship-based faith rather than a theory-based faith, or creed-based faith, I cannot imagine how a Quaker can reject that basic relationship that transformed the first generation of our movement, in favor of abstract theories. No Quaker group I've belonged to ever minuted that our founding relationship with Jesus now stands canceled or never existed in the first place, so I assume that the Quakerism that I've known directly continues to affirm that those founding experiences are true.

To me this implies that all Friends groups who are not Christ-centered have either betrayed that original relationship or have drifted away from it, and are therefore "disorderly," to use a quaint phrase.

However, they and our evangelical and "orthodox" (FUM) groups have plenty of crucial values and interests in common, which can form the basis of important cooperation and mutual support. I don't want to use my limited energy either to force a form of unity (or superficial congeniality) on these disparate groups or to pretend to be a great Quaker hero of the faith at the expense of people I disagree with. I simply will not be in an affiliation where I submit to the spiritual authority of people who do not follow Christ. (And without mutual submission, "belonging" means nothing to me.)

Marshall Massey said...

Dear Cherice,

You run what I think is one of the most interest Quaker blogs around. But I wish you had responded to our comments here a little more promptly! I would have totally missed your response to mine here, if it hadn't been that Timothy Travis posted his own comment on his own site, leading me to come back here to review what he was responding to.

I think defining ourselves by the Vine, rather than by the fruits, is important for two reasons. One is that our connection to the Vine is a connection of attentive waiting and deliberate submission, and if we stop looking to the Vine, and start looking to the fruits, that connection of attentive waiting and deliberate submission is diluted and attenuated, and the fruits become correspondingly lessened in quality.

This has happened to us, e.g., with the fruit of community, which involves far less real material sharing in most liberal Quaker communities today than it did in earlier centuries. It has also happened with the fruit of peace, which for many Quaker activists has devolved into a focus on outward and political peace and "nonviolent resistance", and a loss of remembrance that peace radiates outward from the truly God-attentive saint in the same way a halo does.

I would also point out that the fruit of community has been further attenuated by divisions in Quaker ranks. EFI Friends and liberal unprogrammed Friends display very little community with one another (and holiness Friends and radical Conservative Friends display very little community with anyone else). Pauline right-wing FUM Friends and gay/lesbian/bisexual/transsexual/queer/swingin'/polygamous/etc. Friends show very little community with one another. Environmental-activist and free-market-libertarian Friends show very little community with one another. Etc. All this, in my poor personal opinion, is due to an attenuated connection with the Vine, even though many on both sides of each of these divisions would say that their own connection with the Vine is Just Fine, Thank You, Look To The Other Guy For Fault, Not Me. I don't think these scandalous divisions in the family can be healed without our forgetting our rigidities on all sides and rediscovering the Vine.

Your statistical breakout of Friends world-wide is fine, except that it is an attempt to identify what percentage think of themselves as Christians, rather than what percentage truly submit to the Voice that says in our hearts and consciences: Marshall (or Cherice, or whoever), you're being proud; admit that you did wrong by so-and-so, and give up your opinions, and go to that person, and make amends. I fear that if we could really know the percentage that truly attend and submit to the Vine on a continuing basis, we'd find it was smaller. Of course, I might be wrong -- I might be the only disobedient one here! But it looks to me as if your statistics are in the same class as those surveys that show 98% of all professing Christians think they themselves will go to Heaven, but believe a large percentage of other professing Christians will not: obviously, these people cannot all be right on both counts!

quakerboy said...

Very interesting post and responses. Quakerism is what brought me back to Jesus and, although somewhat altered, the faith of my childhood. After being introduced to Friends, I defined myself as a Quaker first and foremost. It was Quakerism, after all, that took the harshness out of the "Christian" label. Using "Quaker" assured that I would not be confused for a nationalist Christian or, god forbid, a Republican Christian.

These days, I am more apt to define myself as a Christian who fellowships with Conservative Quakers. After all, isn't "Quaker" just a fruit of the Vine as well?

Peace ya'll,