I was distressed by Marty Grundy’s review of Godless for God’s Sake (FJ Nov. 2006). I hear echoes of 1827 and all the Quaker divisions since. She implies that people like the authors are not real Quakers, although they "assume they are Quakers." She asks if Friends have become so "sloppy" in membership procedures that we have accepted people who don’t belong.
It’s true that our ideas about membership have been changing. For decades, many liberal meetings have accepted into membership people who don’t understand their spiritual lives in Christian or theistic terms. More than 30 years ago, I was accepted, although I told my clearness committee that I was not a Christian. I am very grateful. Since then, I and others like me have found our way to Christ through Quakerism. Perhaps members of my clearness committee hoped that would happen, but it was not a requirement and it certainly hasn’t happened for all such Friends. There are also Friends who were Christian when they joined, who later discovered that Christianity no longer spoke to their condition.
I love Robert Barclay’s words, "Not by strength of arguments . . . came I to receive and bear witness of the Truth, but by being secretly reached by the Life. For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart; and as I gave way unto it I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up." That is my experience; when I started attending meeting, I was an atheist, but I felt that secret power, without which I probably would never have come again.
Marty Grundy explains Meister Eckhart’s words as a warning "against making idols of our perceptions of the nature of God" and a call "to step into the void and in the unknowing find the Presence." That is an excellent description of what liberal Friends have been doing. We are struggling with a growing realization that religion, spiritual life, means something beyond any theological system, any definition of terms. In 1952, the Friends World Conference said, "The test for membership should not be doctrinal agreement, nor adherence to certain testimonies, but evidence of sincere seeking and striving for the Truth, together with an understanding of the lines along which Friends are seeking that Truth."
Unfortunately, we all tend to assume that affirmation of one way of describing our experience negates other ways, and too often we hurt each other. There are many Friends who speak of their experience in non-Christian terms—universalist, Jewish, nontheist, Buddhist, and many others—and who fear that some Christian Friends are demanding that they convert or leave. There are Christian Friends who feel bruised because someone objected when they spoke in Christian language, and who fear that some people are trying to take Christ out of Quakerism. Now we hear the incredible assumption that people who don’t describe their experience in theist terms are coming to meeting only for the "silence, peace activities, and community." But all of us are touched by the power that weakens the evil in us, and raises up the good, no matter what we call it or don’t call it. We don’t yet know how to say it in words that all can feel comfortable with, but we feel that secret power uniting us in the gathered silence, and we know experimentally that it is real.
It is far too late for liberal meetings to lock the barn door. The horses are running free in the fields, and many don’t want to live in a locked stable where all the horses are the same breed. Could so many seasoned Friends in so many meetings have been wrong in accepting people like me, or the 27 nontheist Friends who wrote Godless for God’s Sake, or the many, many others who can’t use the Christ language of early Friends? God has led us in a new direction, and we need to seek new ways to affirm our incredibly rich diversity as a blessing: to welcome all Friends to speak in the language of their heart, to hear joyfully and without fear where words come from, though the language may be foreign to us.
There’s the old parable of the many paths up the mountain. I have been led to a branch of the Christian path; others are following other paths, and some hardy souls follow no path at all, but seek their own way. The important thing is that we are all climbing, we all feel the call of the summit. Let’s affirm and rejoice in each other’s ways of speaking about our spiritual lives, let’s remember that the Spirit can move profoundly in those who don’t speak at all. Let’s draw strength and courage from the inspiring example of other climbers, whether on our own path or on other paths.
As for us Christian Friends, let’s remember: "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven." Let’s not make an idol of our perception of the nature of God and use it to hurt or exclude sincere seekers. Rather, let’s give thanks for the gift God has given us: the story of Jesus, the experience of the risen Christ, the Holy Spirit in our lives. It gives us a special bond with the way early Friends spoke of their experience, but let’s not delude ourselves that we "own" that experience any more than others who speak of it in very different ways. Let’s remember what William Penn said: "The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers." Let’s not let different ideas about God make us strangers. Let’s be Friends.