Contentious and divisive

I have read many articles in Friends Journal over the years, but the article “Misunderstanding Quaker Faith and Practice” (FJ Jan.) prompted me to write, trying to understand, as a relatively new member of the Religious Society of Friends, what Terry Wallace is trying to say. After reading and examining it point for point, I’ve found the piece to be contentious and divisive. I don’t know what unprogrammed meetings Terry Wallace has attended, but I have never found what he has said to be the case. I offer my perspective on what he has written.

1. All religions are saying the same thing only in different words.
I agree with Terry Wallace completely. Underneath the surface, most religions are certainly not the same, but we have much to learn from all faiths!

2. You can believe anything you want to as a Friend.
Who, as a serious Friend, would ever state this? Never have I heard this uttered, and I know no fellow Quaker who ever would! I know of no unprogrammed meeting that has a bias against any faith.

3. Friends have no creeds.
Terry Wallace has italicized the words on Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s recent welcome poster: “We believe” and “These beliefs”—which do, in fact, resemble a creed, but not in the way that he infers. I grant that stating we have no creed is, in and of itself, a statement of creed. I agree that early Friends believed that creeds had no saving power. But I do not understand his statement that Friends who do not subscribe to this idea are “quietly isolated from the meeting.” What experience brings him to this sad conclusion?

4. That of God in every person is that Divine spark, that little piece of God, in each of us.
Did the 19th- and early 20th-century Friends take a definitive course to reinterpret Neo-Platonism to “make early 20th-century unprogrammed Quakerism more acceptable in college and intellectual circles”? I find it hard to believe that there was a conspiracy to bring Neo-Platonism into Quakerism. Granted, I see in Quakerism the Neo-Platonist dimension of spiritual love. We humans are the link between the material world and the spiritual world through our souls, just as the early Neo-Platonists believed. Just as humans are bound by love, so too are all parts of the universe held together by bonds of sympathetic love.

5. The Bible is just one great book among many.
I don’t believe that Quakers today think that early Quakers didn’t believe the Bible was really important. Of course they did, and so do Quakers today! I take issue with Terry Wallace’s statement that, “Even most non-Christian scriptures can’t match the Bible’s remarkable evolution, being the works of many hands over more than 1,000 years: a book of books detailing the work of God in salvation history.” The evolution of other religions’ testaments, however, has no lesser meaning for their believers.

6. All Friends embrace the Peace Testimony.
I don’t question Terry Wallace’s knowledge of early Quaker history; I am not well versed in it. But I see no difference in what Quakers believed then and now. Almost all 21st-century Quakers I know believe “There is no way to peace: peace is the way.” And they certainly do not divorce peace from integrity, compassion, gentleness, and truthfulness. I see so many of my Quaker friends, especially in my own Seaville (N.J.) Meeting who view their lives as testimony, a witness to the presence and power of Christ, but they do not discard or reject others who attend our meeting who do not believe as they do.

7. Friends are rugged, spiritual individualists.
Our meeting at Seaville and several other unprogrammed meetings I have attended are filled with many “rugged individualists” who, despite this feeling and demeanor, are still actively involved in the community of Friends. They are certainly not unwilling or intimidated not to bring their opinions and feelings to the meeting, but are also mindful of their responsibility to the community of Friends.

8. Quaker business meetings work by consensus.
No one would deny that we expect our Lord to be a very real presence at our meetings with a concern for business. We expect that the will of God will guide us as we make our decisions in the active power of God. I believe that the actual outcome of that however, is a sort of consensus, because when we cast aside our personal agendas, we defer to others, we see their point of view and sometimes disagree (with love and patience!). Is this not consensus?

I disagree that Quakers want to avoid any challenge and cut off conversation that may lead to conflict. The term “Quaker unprogrammed fundamentalism” is frankly insulting to the many unprogrammed meetings that do not demonstrate the behaviors “evidenced” in this article. I take serious issue with the statement that many Friends claim to be seekers, but are uncomfortable with those who claim to be finders. Our meeting has many who have come to us from a wide variety of religions: many ex-Catholics, a Jew, a Buddhist, several ex-Baptists, Presbyterians, and other Protestant denominations. No one who stood to speak of their foundations or ministered from their own beliefs would be ignored. Oftentimes I find myself enriched by the vast array of faiths that are brought to our meeting. Those people would attest that they can state their beliefs without fear of retribution or castigation.

I take great umbrage with the statement that positions taken by Friends are rooted in feelings of guilt over the sins of Western Civilization; that we feel bitterness over the sins of colonialism, racism, and violence done to other non-Western cultures. I know of no one who continues to “beat themselves up” that slavery and the horrors of “The Middle Passage” were perpetrated by our ancestors and are a fact of our history. Sure, we regret that it happened, but that was then; this is now. I am not judged by the behaviors of my ancestors. I live today and must demonstrate by my actions that I make myself a living witness to the power of Christ.

I think the biggest mistake Terry Wallace makes is to unfairly paint every Quaker (obviously we unprogrammed folks in particular) with the same broad brush. Using the pronoun “we,” he assumes all are making the same mistakes.

Bob Holden

Bob Holden

Bob Holden, a member of Seaville (N.J.) Meeting, was a public school elementary teacher for 31 years and currently teaches History at Atlantic Cape Community College and Cumberland Community College.