Shades of Gray: A Liberal Christian Quaker Speaks Up

Liberal Quakers today often frame our discussions about theology as a debate between Christocentric and Universalist Friends. I’m leery, however, of viewing any significant topic in such polarized terms. There are many nuances and shades along the broad spectrum of belief within our branch of Quakerism. We do ourselves a disfavor when we try to pin people down as belonging to this or that camp, because we stop listening for the voice of God speaking to us through one another.

In recent years it seems many Friends have grown more tolerant and less fearful of those who hold a different understanding of Quaker theology than their own. Total unity is clearly not on the horizon, but mutual respect for each other and thoughtful exploration of the issues thankfully seem to be on the increase. I’m hopeful many of us will take advantage of this increased opportunity for honest dialogue about the matters that lie at the core of our faith.

None of us has the ultimate answer, of course, but we should all continue to search for God’s truth with open hearts and minds. I’m convinced the health and indeed the future of the Religious Society of Friends depends on our willingness to speak our truths to one another in love and, most importantly, in humility. God is granting each of us new wisdom every day, and we need to remain open to receiving new insights and new leadings as we proceed on our spiritual journeys.

With the goal of speaking my truth as I understand it today, I’d like to share some thoughts about my faith. I am a middle-aged Friend, born into an FGC meeting, who began calling myself a Christian in my early 30s. The term "Christocentric" does not speak to my condition, and in fact I know very few Christians who use that word to describe themselves. "God-centric" might be more appropriate for me, because God is at the center of my life. Christ is one aspect of God; the Holy Spirit is another. But my primary personal relationship is with God as a whole, my Creator and ever-present Guide and Comforter.

In listening to Friends with various perspectives on faith, I have heard many people declare discomfort with Christianity because certain elements of Christian belief and practice are simply unacceptable to them. When people list their grievances with traditional Christianity, such as its emphasis on the blood of Jesus or talk of eternal damnation, I often totally agree with them.

But there is at least as much diversity within Christianity as there is within all of Quakerism! If you or I find a particular version of Christian thought untenable, that does not mean that we must reject Christianity entirely. (If it weren’t such an overworked cliché, I’d say not to throw the baby out with the bath water—but it is, so I won’t.)

Before I go any further I’d like to stress that just because I have found my way to God along the path of Christianity does not mean I think you are wrong if you’ve chosen a different path. My faith is between God and me and I have no right to judge anyone else’s spiritual journey.

At the same time, I do claim the right to affirm that I believe the traditional Quaker version of the Christian message to be essentially true. That is to say, I believe that the spirit of Christ is present in all people, even those who lived before the birth of Jesus or who are not Christians.

I’m aware that my belief in the universal presence of Christ is offensive to some non-Christians, but I implore you not to be defensive and feel that I’m somehow trying to force my beliefs on you or others. It seems among liberal Friends we are so fearful of giving or taking offense that we hesitate to share with one another our deepest thoughts on faith matters. What a pity! If we can’t talk about personal spiritual issues within our faith communities, something is seriously wrong with us. Coming to a common understanding is not the point. Within the dialogue itself is where I find life, where I experience God working in our midst.

Lately I’ve taken to calling myself a "liberal Christian Quaker." What exactly do I mean by liberal Christianity, and how does it differ from more conservative versions? In many respects liberal Christianity as I understand it closely mirrors the theology of early Friends. I view the Bible as the inspired words of God, but not as the final authority in religious matters. The ultimate source of knowledge about God’s truth is the Holy Spirit, which we can experience and test both individually and corporately. This same Spirit was at work in the writing of the Bible so we may accept that document as trustworthy, even if we know it is not always literally true in our modern, scientific sense. We know from literature that great truths can be contained in stories that are not strictly factual.

It is clear that the Bible has been horribly misused over the centuries to oppress millions of people. The Bible is a powerful tool and in the wrong hands it can be used to commit great evil, supposedly in the name of God. I think the Bible is most dangerous when we expect it to reveal a clear and simplistic message. God, faith, and the Bible are all more complex than our human understanding can fathom. If we can learn to live with the ambiguity, with the shades of gray, then I think we can start to understand the kind of faith God calls us to have.

For a long time I struggled with the notion of the Trinity. Thinking of God as somehow "three-in-one" seemed contrived. As much as folks in the first millennium of Christian history struggled to clarify and pin down this image, it just didn’t make sense to me. Then two concepts—the complexity of God and the relationality of God—helped move me to the understanding I hold today.

We are all familiar with the story of the three blind men and the elephant. Each person touches a separate part of the animal and concludes that it is something altogether different. None has the complete truth. I think that God is so complex that God’s identity cannot be contained in one single image. The idea of God as creator, companion, and guide for me is more helpfully symbolized by thinking of God as multifaceted rather than as monolithic. We can never understand God completely, but by conceiving of God as a union of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, we are constantly reminded that God is not like anything else we know.

Relationality is the other aspect of God’s character that is well represented by the idea of the Trinity.

I’ve come to understand the essence of Christianity as loving relationality. The central biblical message for me is that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. The significance of relationality is highlighted when we think of God’s very nature as internally relational among the three aspects of God.

Okay, so what about Jesus? I believe that Jesus is both fully divine (the Christ) and fully human (the historical Jesus). He is the human incarnation of the Spirit of Christ, the Logos, the Word of God, which has existed since the beginning of time. God loves us so much that God became human in order to teach us by example the lessons we so desperately need. Jesus fully experienced life on Earth, as we all do, except he had a relationship with God more perfect than any human could ever have.

Except for the bit about the divinity of Jesus, I’m probably not yet straying too far from typical liberal Quaker beliefs (if there is such a thing), but there’s more. I also believe in the virgin birth and physical resurrection of Jesus. I’m quite willing to give up some traditional Christian beliefs, but these two somehow seem to cling to me. The primary reason I believe in the miracles of the virgin birth and the physical resurrection is because I have no reason not to believe them. I have trouble saying something is impossible for God, because I reject trying to limit God to only what I can understand.

The death of Jesus on the Cross is a different matter altogether. I don’t buy a traditional assertion that his death was preordained by God and is somehow necessary for the restoration of humanity. Instead, I see the Crucifixion as a sign of Jesus’ perfect faith. He was so faithful that he willingly bore the destructive human consequences for spreading his unpopular message. The Resurrection shows us that evil does not have the last word, but that God’s love will prevail in the end. The Resurrection is the source of our hope.

All of these specific beliefs about God and Jesus are perfectly valid Christian convictions. You do not have to abandon Christianity if you are uncomfortable with certain parts of it. There are a lot of rooms in the Christian mansion, all with different sizes and décors. If we abandon Christianity to the fundamentalists, we effectively lock the doors to many of God’s glorious rooms.

I hope that by sharing a few of my beliefs I can spark more dialogue among Friends. We need to get over our concern that simply by talking about our faith we are passing judgment on the faith of others. At the same time, we should listen deeply to the voices of each other to discern whether God might be calling us to move in a new direction. I rejoice that I am learning how compatible liberal Christianity is with my Quaker faith, and I invite any Friends who are uncomfortable with Christianity to take another look at it with an open heart and mind. Try to see where God might be calling you today.

Cathy Habschmidt

Cathy Habschmidt, a member of Clear Creek Meeting in Richmond, Ind., is the controller of Earlham College and is active in Friends World Committee for Consultation.