Times change. Perhaps certain aspects of reality don’t change, but times do change. As a poet I’d like to have lived in a matted hut on the misty, sloping mountains with Tu Fu and Wang Wei as neighbors, during the Tang dynasty in China, but it’s not going to happen. As a Friend I’d like to have lived during the early days of the Quaker awakening in mid-17th-century England, but that’s not going to happen. I can’t go back to my ideal mountain retreat with a community of exiled poet-monks, or sit in a large, hushed, low-ceilinged room with George Fox and Margaret Fell at Swarthmore Hall, while Judge Fell listens attentively from a secluded side study. Their life-choices were made in a culture far removed from my own. But I wonder if there is not some link between us, something that endures from their time to our time. Something earlier Friends might have to communicate to us today. Let us focus on one of the major differences.
The first thing that strikes me is that for liberal Friends (I’m not fond of labeling Friends but for our purposes here I must make some distinctions) Jesus is no longer the first option in their lives. When early Friends began to come together as a distinct community, Jesus was the first option. In their mystical experience and as a prophetic example, Jesus was the figure around whom they gathered. He was their Inner Teacher and guide. Later, during the Quietist period, Jesus was still "in the midst," i.e. the central presence in their meetings and their lives. That was back when Quakers wore gray bonnets and dark, distinctive clothing and, like my grandmother, said "thee" and "thou." But those quaint trappings came out of their Christian beliefs, which weren’t about what name to call Jesus. Theirs was an operational, not a creedal, faith in Christ, but they did talk about Jesus. They discussed his life and teachings, and how people had honored or not honored that life and teaching, how they experienced Jesus in their own lives. He was part of the fabric of their everyday lives. Whether they referred to Jesus as the Light, or the Seed, or the Inner Teacher didn’t matter, Jesus was an integral part of their lives.
For many Friends today, that is no longer their experience. Whatever else is going on in our meetings—and some wonderful, Spirit-led things are going on there—Jesus is no longer the first option. A respected figure, even a revered figure, but not the first option. Peace and justice perhaps, caring for Mother Earth, finding a personal spirituality, or wanting to raise our kids among like-minded friends in a self-glorifying, often violent, culture—these are some of the first options I sense driving our meetings. All worthy goals. Joining with other peaceful Quakers to demonstrate and take political action to protest injustice and war makes me proud to be a Friend. I have no doubt that the same Spirit that awakened George Fox, Margaret Fell, Elizabeth Fry, John Woolman, Elias Hicks (my own family’s special hero), Rufus Jones, Henry Cadbury, Howard Brinton, and Douglas and Dorothy Steere, is pleased with the courage and love present among Friends today.
Does that mean we no longer need Jesus as our first option? Yes, and no. Until we perceive a need, individually and as a body, I don’t believe we do need Jesus as a primal option. As long as we continue to lead Sermon-led lives, faithful to the teachings and example of Jesus, I believe the Spirit will sustain our efforts. Historically Friends have assumed a role as peacemakers, fighters for justice, and reconciling healers. I can’t imagine the Spirit having Friends abandon that role in today’s world. I also expect the Inner Light (which has taken on a new meaning in today’s post-Christian world) will continue to speak to each of us in a manner suited to our condition. Despite our earlier history many Friends do lead worthy lives without Jesus as the first option. That’s just the way things are today, and that’s a major change from earlier Friends.
A few of us, however, still seem to need Jesus as our first option. We’re called Christ-centered Friends, (another label that can oversimplify the complexities involved in defining religious faith). Some of us have experiences that remind us of the experiences of John Woolman, or Thomas Kelly, where Jesus has become a visceral part of our lives. When we share our encounters with Christ among Friends, we discover times have changed, and many Friends seem embarrassed and ill at ease, unable to relate to the significance Jesus has in our lives. It’s just not their experience. Often we remind other Friends—unintentional on our part—of the repressive Christianity they’ve left to become Friends or that they’ve outgrown in a more scientific age. But there we are, still part of our meetings, talking about Jesus in our own life, or in Scripture and earlier Quaker writings, or in the life of Martin Luther King Jr., or Mother Teresa, or Bishop Desmond Tutu. This can be awkward at times; for some liberal Friends it must seem as if they were stuck in a dead-end conversation with a zealous old-line Norman Thomas socialist who hasn’t moved on since the Great Depression. With a few good friends I’ve been able to get past these differences, and move into a deep sharing of the glimpses of the eternal reality that we both treasure.
Generally however, the conversations end in a stalemate, for which I can see no immediate solution.
At the individual level I think we can only continue as we are now, tolerating and perhaps learning from each other’s primary options. As we listen to the joys as well as the suffering and pain Christianity has caused in our lives, those with more joys than sorrows may need to be consoling to those who’ve been wounded by their experience with Christianity.
And perhaps those who’ve experienced mostly sorrows might listen to the pent-up enthusiasm some Friends still have for Christianity. In time the Spirit may speak to us more directly; but for now, since no one can—or should—change his or her primary options for the sake of tradition or somebody else’s experience, we must be patient with one another. Though we—well, I, speaking for myself—can sometimes be defensive, none of the Christ-centered Friends I know takes a hard-line, Christ-is-the-only-way approach. Nor does our commitment to Christ dim our appreciation for Spirit-led saints from other traditions—the Dalai Lama and Gandhi, for example. Nor can we be answerable for all the doctrines and attitudes being championed by less peace-minded Christians. All the Christ-centered Friends I know are as disappointed in the present, strident religious climate as early Friends were with the Puritans and other religious sects of the day. It pains us in a very deep way to hear our cherished Jesus enlisted in a support of war and economic exploitation of the poor.
I believe all Friends might reconsider Jesus as the peaceful but authoritative inner presence who enlivened so many of our predecessors: as a resource, not a requirement; avail-able if needed; a reminder and challenge perhaps, not a model. If religion is about aspects of reality that don’t change over time, then earlier Friends may still have something to communicate to us in addition to the testimonies on Peace and Simplicity, and being silent when we worship together.
Our Quaker heritage speaks not only about being an effective witness to truth, patient, kind, and courageous, but also about what to do when our aspirations and efforts don’t succeed. In my own life I found that eventually my efforts failed to produce the results I hoped for. I couldn’t be consistently kind, patient, and courageous. I couldn’t do it by myself; my self-absorption, my temper, my selfish inclinations eventually wore me down; and I needed to find a backup to my own nature in order to become the person I wanted to be. With Christ I can be more loving, more honest with myself, more courageous in caring for the needs of others because I know it’s not me doing it, but Christ in me. My being a good person doesn’t depend now on my own efforts but on God.
I do believe I share the same enduring resource that was available to Dr. King when he put his head down on the table in his Montgomery kitchen, groaning as the death threats poured in, pressuring him to move his family and give up the boycott. "Stand up," the Inner Guide said, "Stand up for justice, and I will be with you to the ends of the Earth." I believe that Inner Teacher, that enlivening Spirit, is still available to us in our times of most need. I know that Jesus, the Holy Spirit of Jesus returned from death, wants me to live a good life, a Sermon-scented life. That is my operational faith, my deepest experience. Jesus is the most real person I’ve ever met. I rejoice in the fullness of life I sense coming from the humble Jesus, who takes me into his care when my burdens grow too heavy for me to bear. I wouldn’t claim that my limited understanding of God’s nature is definitive in others’ lives but Christ is my backup, my hope, the great joy of my life. How could I not want to share that with people I love and respect? My friends in the Religious Society of Friends?