Tuesday, May 10, 2011

book review part 1: without apology

This book is, to some degree, on the other end of the Quaker spectrum from the last book I reviewed. And yet, both have truth to tell about us as a Society of Friends, historically and presently. I read this one about a year ago as well, and found it really interesting and helpful.

Written in 1996, this book by Chuck Fager is entitled Without Apology: The Heroes, The Heritage and the Hope of Liberal Quakerism. He states as his thesis, "Liberal Quakerism is an authentic and vibrant part of the people of God known as the Religious Society of Friends. We have many failings, but God is not finished with us yet--far from it. The Spirit is active here, we are still being called to renewal and witness, and many of us, in various places and various ways are responding" (Fager, x). I find it encouraging and somewhat humorous that if we substituted the word "liberal" for the word "evangelical" in that quote in my Evangelical Friends Yearly Meeting (NWYM), we would say that's what we've been working on lately, too. I've heard the exact same language used--in fact, I believe our keynote address from our yearly meeting superintendent a couple years ago was entitled, "God's not done with us yet." Fager states that his body of Friends struggles to hold together the words "liberal" and "Quaker," while those in NWYM struggle to figure out how to live out the best of the terms "evangelical" and "Quaker." Fager's book reminds me of all we have in common. Fager uses God-language and speaks of the true Church.

Sure, we have differences. The most important difference, of course, in this whole debate, is the role of Jesus. But here is Fager's definition of Liberal Quakerism:

"An ongoing effort to make visible a particular portion of the true Church, by means of the specific traditions and disciplines of the Religious Society of Friends. This very idea of manifesting the true Church is, we believe, rooted in the early Quakers' unique and inclusive understanding of the Society's Christian background and origins. The key Quaker disciplines by which this part of the Church is constituted are: silence-based, unprogrammed worship; a free ministry led by the spirit; decision-making by the worshipful sense of the meeting; church structures kept to a spartan, decentralized minimum; cultivation of the inward life of both individual and the group; a preference for unfolding experience of truth, or 'continuing revelation,' over creeds and doctrinal systems; and devotion to the historic but evolving Quaker testimonies, especially peace, simplicity and equality." (Fager, xi-xii)

This is something I feel that many in NWYM, at least, would also stand behind as being a definition of who we are (or want to be).

Fager starts off his book with a story about a gathering of the various streams of Friends to be held in 1977--the first to happen in over 50 years, due to evangelical Friends not wanting to associate with non-Christ centered folk (Fager says this much more kindly). The issue of homosexuality came up before the conference, and evangelical Friends refused to even come to the conference if the issue was even acknowledged. Evangelicals did eventually come, there was news coverage, no exhibits about sexual orientation were alllowed, although there was a workshop held off-site.

Fager points out that the real issue isn't homosexuality--and perhaps he would debate my contention stated earlier that the real issue is the role of Jesus. He says the real issue is ecclesiology, the nature of the church--who gets in, and who gets out. He puts his finger on the heart of the matter, I believe, because he shows that it is the desire to control access to God that really defines evangelicalism. He doesn't say it that way--he's actually very grace-filled in the way he deals with evangelicals. But since I'm a member of an evangelical yearly meeting I'll be a little more harsh with my own people. I think this point is so important! It's not that we really care who people are sleeping with or what they're drinking or any of those things that we endlessly debate. It's that we want to control access to God, and this is inherently un-Quakerly. Quakers historically stood for unmediated access to the real Presence of a God who can and does speak to and through each and every one of us. The question is, are we willing to let go long enough to trust God to speak to and through those with whom we disagree?

Of course this is a slippery slope...how do we know where to stop? Fager addresses this with, what else?, the Quaker idea of the Inner Light of Christ. We listen to the Inner Light of Christ in ourselves and in others. We allow God to choose who's "in" and who's "out," and we simply "Mind the Light"--in other words, we do as we're called to do and journey with others to try to help them make that journey as well. This is a concept found in Quakerism from very early on. Although early Friends were embarrassingly evangelistic, even for most modern-day evangelicals, they were also "universalist" in terms of their belief that God is speaking to and in all people. Fox and others recognized the same Spirit of Christ they knew at work in Native American tribes before they knew the name "Jesus."

Fager asks, "Which one is Quaker? or Christian?" in his third chapter. I personally conclude, "Both...and neither." I think both groups are doing good things, and both are doing some things we could improve upon. Fager tells a "parable" about the Golden Gate Bridge that I think is helpful. He says that, just like Jesus being the "narrow road," one doesn't have to know the whole origins of how the Golden Gate Bridge came into existence, what it's made of, its structure, etc. One simply has to find it and get onto it, and drive straight until one reaches the other side.

I guess to me it seems like in my yearly meeting it's too easy to get sidetracked on issues that don't matter, issues that seem too close to control issues and don't allow enough trust of God and God's ability to work in the world. We get sidetracked with debates about whether x or y behavior is OK, and we forget to do the work of actually showing Christ's love to people. We need to remember that it's not what we profess with our mouths that's important. Jesus said there will be people who cry, "Lord, Lord," but who didn't follow his teachings, and others who say, "Who the heck are you?" but whom Jesus knows because of their deeds. This parable is not about heaven and hell. It's about whether we're willing to do the hard work of following Jesus' teachings and example, or whether we're just going to talk about it. And I think a lot of times, Liberal Friends do a much better job of showing God's love and acceptance to people than Evangelical Friends.

OK, there's my rant for the evening. This post is long enough and I'm tired enough that I'd better stop here. Tomorrow (or sometime soon) I'll write an additional post about Fager's criticisms of Liberal Friends, and compare that to Evangelical Friends. I also might say some nice things about Evangelical Friends at some point...I haven't done that much here. But obviously there has to be something good about them, since I've chosen to align myself with them, right? And there is. But I think criticism from within is healthy, even if it's hard to hear.


Nate said...

Thanks Cherice!
I would whole heartedly agree, that the heart of evangelicalism is about controlling access to God, or maybe to say that it has become that. But, I would add, that's not only "un-Quakerly", but it's not Christocentric either. Thanks for another thought provoking post

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

Truly I do not know evangelical culture well enough to judge what it does right and what it does wrong.

I would humbly point out, though, that for more than 250 years, prior to the mid-twentieth century, the Society of Friends was very seriously concerned about who had a right to call herself a Friend and who did not — and also about who deserved to be included in meetings for business, where the Society’s policies were shaped, and who was not committed enough to faithfulness to Christ to be entrusted with a share of that responsibility.

These are very hard questions to answer, naturally, and I understand why my liberal Quaker friends do not like to hear them asked.

But if we recall that Friends in those two and a half centuries were very concerned about bearing a true and meaningful testimony for Christ to the world, and that they believed the testimony that means the most is a matter of deeds and not just words, then their concern about who had the right to call herself a Friend, and who had the right to help shape the decisions by which Friends were defined, begins to make a bit more sense.

I wonder how this evangelical desire that you refer to — the desire to control access to God — relates to that older concern about who should be considered a Friend. Can you speak to that, Cherice?

cherice said...

Nate--thanks, I agree: it's not just un-Quakerly but also not Christocentric to try to control access to God, and I guess that's the point. Who cares if we're Quakers? What we're about is following God/Christ.

Marshall, thanks for your good questions! I guess I would say that in quite a bit of that 250 years you speak of, people were trying to control access to God through books of discipline and so forth and so they weren't doing a much better job that some Evangelical Friends. Pretty much they were doing the same thing.

But I think you're right that at the heart of the matter, the intention behind this--and the intention behind evangelicalism, for that matter--is to live a godly life, a life that points to God and Christ. The problem is when we let our focus slip from God to living out these forms. And that's what Quakerism has always--in its ideal form--railed against. The hard part is not slipping back into those forms, or creating new forms. Forms we can control; living a life of obedience to Christ is harder to define. It's easier to have a list of who's in and who's out than to just do what feels like "Live and let live."