So What Can We Say Now? Suggestions for Explaining Quakerism

Margaret Fell, "the mother of Quakerism," describes an occasion when George Fox challenged his listeners to recognize the experiential nature of "true religion." He is quoted as saying, "You will say Christ sayeth this, and the apostles sayeth this, but what canst thou say?" An irony about this famous quote is that while it emphasizes the inward and experiential it also lifts up the need to be able to speak about what one experiences, to say something as well that describes the content of one’s faith.

As one of only a few people employed full-time to lead a Quaker organization with a public profile, I am frequently asked to explain Quakerism. Since another part of my job involves working with monthly meetings, sometimes when they are experiencing conflict over what they should do or how they should do it, I have also often witnessed what occurs when our members do not understand the basic spiritual vision and central theological tenets that should undergird and shape our practice. As a result of both these experiences, I am convinced that modern, liberal (or unprogrammed) Friends need to develop a much greater and more skillful capacity to articulate the essential beliefs and convictions of our faith. Moreover, for a number of reasons, most especially relating to effectiveness in outreach, we need to learn how to do so in concise, simple, and compelling terms.

We face a couple of challenges in this regard. First, Quakerism is a religion centered in experience, where doctrine has largely been of secondary importance—so much so that many of us have not bothered to learn about, much less think about how best to explain, the central tenets or core theological convictions of our faith. But this is often what people ask, i.e. "What do you believe?" Second, Quakerism is a complex and, in some ways, subtle faith, and we live in an era of sound bites, where any explanation of anything requiring more than one minute or one page is likely to lose people’s attention.

Now some argue that we should just not worry. Friends have said to me, "We should just let our lives speak, and trust that the rest will work out. If we live our testimonies, others will be moved by our example, or perhaps drawn by our way of worship, to join us." This, of course, is precisely the approach that has led to the marked decline in the number of Friends of our type over the last two centuries, especially in relation to the total population, so that we now represent a statistically insignificant element of the U.S. religious landscape. So, if we do not want to die off completely, maybe we had better think more about how we present our faith to others.

Moreover, beyond a self-centered concern for survival, which may or may not be a good thing, there might be a question to be asked here about our responsibility to others, and to God, to share "the gift of faith" we have been given.

Quakerism had its origins in the experience of one person, George Fox, who was a religious seeker. It then set its roots in a movement of people who called themselves "Seekers." What they all sought was authentic spiritual experience, the kind that answered the deep spiritual hunger they felt. Many people still feel that hunger today. What do we have to say to those we encounter, or who come to our Quaker meetings, about what Quakerism has to offer them now?

The vast majority of Friends, I believe, understand—as the quote from Fox suggests—that the essential core of Quaker faith and practice is experiential. We know that the central, enlivening heart of Quakerism involves literally encountering and actually responding to an experience of the Divine Presence, the Holy, the Eternal Ground of all Being. Moreover, those who have had such an encounter know that this experience yields, as one might expect, a vision and understanding of faith that can be dramatic, yet subtle and complicated, and so very difficult to describe or explain in a few words. Still, if we want others to begin to understand our faith, perhaps even join and share in our faith, then we have to communicate this somehow.

St. Francis of Assisi once said, "Preach the good news always; and when necessary, use words." Do we want to encourage and support people in the practices of worship and service that might give them the same kind of direct experience of the love and grace of God and communion with the Divine that we ourselves have had, and which is the object and the ground of meeting for worship? If so—and I believe we should—then we must learn how to speak of the good things we have experienced in our faith with our words as well as our actions.

Unfortunately, the way this seems to work now, if asked to say what we believe, modern liberal Friends have two strong tendencies that make us poor communicators. First, we are very likely to begin our explanation with a long series of caveats and disclaimers. ("Well, I can only speak for myself. . . ." "Not all Friends believe the same things. . . ." "Of course, we have no creed. . . .") If a potential listener is not asleep at the end of that introduction, then (our second tendency) we are likely to launch into a long, complicated explanation that few have a chance of comprehending. "What we have here," as the prison camp warden said to Cool Hand Luke, "is a failure to communicate."

I recognize the challenges presented by who we are and the culture we live in, and the importance of being able to describe and explain our faith in ways others might want to listen to and be able to understand. Let me suggest what we ought to say when given an opportunity to describe who Quakers are or what Quakers believe. I recommend centering on five essential points. (I know not all Quakers would say this in this way. But what follows does, I think, fairly summarize what most Quakers have held to be essential features of our faith over most of our history.)

First: God is real. What the first Quakers found, and Quakers ever since have both experienced and taken as a fact, is that the Divine is real, and that spiritual experience is real. The most often repeated phrase in Fox’s Journal is "the power of God was over all." Isaac Pennington, Thomas Ellwood, and other early Friends all describe their first experiences of Quaker meetings for worship as occasions where they encountered a Presence that was unlike any other they had known—undeniably there, all encompassing, challenging, comforting, and transforming.

We should note that this conviction is, in and of itself, actually a radical conviction in our overwhelmingly empirical, scientific, and materialistic culture. This secular culture tells us in many ways, "If you cannot see it, touch it, measure it, or (better yet) buy it and sell it, then whatever it is, it doesn’t really matter." And the Divine cannot be seen, touched, measured or traded; but those who have experienced this Presence know that nothing could be more real or more important.

Second: God is accessible and knowable directly and immediately. The central elements of Quaker practice—the way we worship, make decisions, and look for direction even as we are engaged in service—are based on this as a given. We look for, expect, and (if we are faithful) act on "leadings of the Holy Spirit." Quaker worship is about "communion" just as much as any celebration of the Mass is; but we believe that the presence of the Divine can be known inwardly and directly, without need for any outward, sacramental representation, or any intermediary (like a priest) of any sort. The ways we make decisions and seek guidance, both individually and corporately, simply make no sense unless one assumes God’s presence and wisdom can always be known by those who seek the Divine "in Spirit and in Truth."

Third: There is a spark of the Divine, "that of God," in every person. This is one reason God is knowable to us in an immediate way. Scripture tells us we are all "created in the image of God" (Gen: 1:27). Because of this, there is that of the Divine in us that recognizes the Divine Presence, Power, and Love that is at work in the universe—"that of God," by far the larger part, that is transcendent, that is beyond us. This is also one reason we have (traditionally, at least) been so clear and strong about affirming the dignity and inherent worth of every human being.

Fourth: Jesus Christ has some very special, uniquely important role in revealing the nature of God to humankind. George Fox’s transforming spiritual experience came as he heard a voice that said, "there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." Quakerism has always been strongly anchored in the Christian tradition. Quakers have long been certain that the Judeo-Christian Scriptures offer invaluable insights and present critical truths on which we should reflect and to which we must respond in order to live deeply spiritual and whole lives.

Now, whether we understand Jesus—as the Christ—as "the only begotten Son of God" (as the creed says), or "the Light that lights all who come into the world" (John 1:9), or "the Inward Teacher" (a favorite of early Friends) who helps us see and connect with the spiritual dimension of life may not matter so much. But that is true if, and only if, we at least see Jesus as a figure whose life and teachings we must reflect on and respond to in some significant way. To attempt to construct a version of Quakerism where Jesus—as the Christ—is unimportant is to engage in historical revisionism and create a spiritual text for Quakerism that is counterfeit in its content.

And Fifth: Being "faithful"—literally "full of faith"—requires and creates a genuine community. Living a whole and spiritual life is not a solo act. Jesus sometimes encountered people one by one, sometimes in large groups; but he created a small community around himself in his life, and a larger one after his death. The occasion of Pentecost, when his disciples were given the gift of the presence of the Holy Spirit, was also the occasion when they were formed into a community of power and grace, a community where "everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done . . . [and] all the believers were together and had everything in common." (Acts 2:43-44).

Quakers took that community, the early Church, as the model for their religious movement and community of faith. They looked to a community in which people were drawn into and nurtured in a living, transforming relationship with the Divine. And they believed—and created community practices, like the meeting for business that assumed—that the community of believers has a necessary role in helping each individual see God’s truth and love and live by that revelation. Always affirming the centrality of an individual’s personal relationship with the Divine, Quakers have also strongly affirmed the need for a community of believers to support and help guide individuals on their spiritual journeys.

So, here are five essential beliefs or theological tenets that shape and undergird modern Quaker faith. Now if I stop here, someone will surely say, "But what about the testimonies? What about the Peace Testimony, and the testimonies on Equality, Integrity, and Simplicity? Are these not essential elements of the Quaker faith?"

Not meaning to split semantic hairs, I would say, "No, they are not core elements, but rather vital fruits of our faith." The primary Quaker testimonies represent ways of being in the world that both depend upon and give evidence of our faith. They are ways of behaving and explaining our behavior that "testify to"—that is, point at and give evidence of—the core of our faith, which is our experience and conviction of the reality of the presence, love, and power of God that heals and transforms our lives.

If we really believe the five tenets I have described so deeply that they shape the way we see the world and live our lives on a day-to-day basis, then the testimonies inevitably emerge. They describe the ways in which our lives should speak. And if that is true, they are surely features or aspects of our lives—corporate and individual—that should mark us as Friends. Let me be clear: to say this about the testimonies is in no way to diminish their importance. Indeed, to say this is to recognize that, besides being ways of living that should change the world for the better, the testimonies should be valued as well as another way of sharing our faith.

In the first Epistle of Peter (3:8-16), the disciples in the early church are urged to live lives that are so marked by compassion, humility, service, and love that other people will have to take notice of them. In other words, they are exhorted to let their lives speak of the love and power of God as they experience it. And then they are told to "always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have" (3:15). In other words, to be able to explain who they are and what they believe in ways that will open the opportunity for a similar spiritual experience to others—to seekers, to fellow human beings who also long to know the transforming Presence of the Divine in their lives.

This, it seems to me, is the challenge we face as Friends today. Liberal Friends have often been good at preaching the Gospel with our lives, but too often unable (or unwilling) to use words effectively. Maybe this is because we do not know what words to use. Maybe it is because we have some unfortunate reluctance to share what we believe.

No matter what the reason, we have too often failed to offer others something they are looking for: the good news of the reality of God’s love and grace at work in the world and in our lives, and how the practice of faith can continue and extend one’s experience of that. So whether it is the words I have just used, or some others, I hope we will work at being better able to describe what we believe for ourselves and for others, better able to give a reason for the hope that we have. It is critical to our future as Friends, if we are to have one; and just possibly critical to the work that God wants done in the world.

Thomas H. Jeavons

Thomas H. Jeavons, general secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, is a member of Swarthmore (Pa.) Meeting.