Quaker Education: Thoughts on Our Words, Our Silence, and a Very Cool Milk Jug Raft

G. K. Chesterton once said that most educational debates more or less dead-end at "Let us not decide what is good, but let us give it to our children." Having sat in on more than a few discussions of First-day school and youth programs among Friends, I think Chesterton has us pegged. I have found Friends like me–in the liberal, unprogrammed tradition–to be very challenged in coming to agreement about what the essentials of our faith are, and how (or even whether) we ought to communicate them to our children. Sometimes we seem paralyzed by doctrinal disagreements. Sometimes our own childhood experiences of being force-fed unpalatable doctrines seem to have made us unwilling to share with our children any spiritual or religious beliefs at all. We who are long on mystical experience and short on systematic theology may feel that putting our experiences or beliefs into words somehow diminishes them. We may even believe that Friends are found, not made; that there is nothing we can or should do to influence the spiritual course of our children’s lives.

And I think: Now isn’t this odd? What else are we so shy about? We speak our minds all the time about global warming, the arms race, and gender and racial equality without worrying that we are force-feeding our children something unwelcome, or failing to respect their independence of thought. We don’t think it diminishes the truth of our environmental awareness or the sacredness of the Earth to talk about these issues. We don’t regard it as a form of political child abuse to speak our minds clearly and forcefully about the issues of the day. Many of us claim that our social/political/ environmental witness grows out of our faith. Why do we think it’s right to talk about the fruits of our faith, but not the roots? Why do we think it’s right for our kids to know our deepest convictions on racism and nuclear arms, but not our deepest experiences of God?

I have come to a heretical belief: that our reliance on silence is one of our problems. I once tried to articulate to a Jewish friend what was so hard about transmitting the Quaker faith to children. I finally blurted out, "Well, silence is kind of a hard way to convey your beliefs." He just about fell off his chair laughing at the thought that anyone would attempt such a thing. That was the first time it really hit me that this was what many of us were in fact trying to do! When you think about it, is there anything much more ambiguous than silence? Would you trust silence to communicate to your kids the fact that you are totally crazy about them? Would you rely on silence to save them if they were about to step on a rattlesnake? Would you trust silence to convey your hope that they will wash the dishes after dinner?

No? So why, then, do we trust silence to convey these other huge, important, and incredible things? That there is a God. That God loves us. That God has a will for us and will guide us if we listen. That if we do so, we will discover the incomparable joy of alignment with the Holy Spirit’s will, the peace of being "in a place just right." That God will give us hope, direction, solace, and strength. I mean, wow! We sit there in silence, thinking it’s unseemly to say anything, hoping our kids will just get it?

Don’t get me wrong; I love silence. It is one of my favorite vessels for worship, and I hope that by experiencing it each week my children will come to find richness in it as well. But by itself I believe it is totally inadequate as a tool for sharing our faith with each other, with newcomers, and most especially with our children.

At its best, and at our best, silence can help us to go deep, to a place beyond words, to a union with all that is holy. At its best, silence can help us transcend our human differences, unite in the Holy Spirit, and find a deeper ground of our being than words can ever convey. But at its worst, silence is a habit and not a conviction. It can be a means of avoiding encounters with the Divine as we avoid potentially difficult encounters with each other. It can enable us to avoid the responsibility of both scrutinizing and sharing what is–or isn’t–in our hearts.

I contrast our silence with the worship I have experienced in programmed Friends Meetings in El Salvador. Salvadoran Friends fill the silence with Scripture, song, and vocal prayer and preaching. The essentials of their faith are clearly articulated, over and over, out loud, and in public. There is joy in their proclamations of faith. There is little doubt about what it means to be a Friend. Relative to unprogrammed Friends, they do have a narrow range of beliefs and practices. Also relative to unprogrammed Friends, Salvadoran Friends’ language of faith is concrete, personal, and passionate. They have decided what is good, and they are not shy about giving it to their children. More often than not, their kids seem to get it, and experience it as a gift, not an imposition.

Let me be clear: I am not pushing for programmed worship, nor do I envy the doctrinal limits of a biblically literal, non-universalist Christian faith. However, I believe it is possible to communicate our faith far more effectively than we do, whatever the specifics of our beliefs. My experience, though, is that when liberal, unprogrammed adult Friends talk about God and faith, it is often with verbal distance and impersonality. It reminds me of what I once heard nuclear power plant operators call a meltdown: "core relocation." It is not only our silence that fails us, it is our words, too!

I recently attended a programmed family worship session at a monthly meeting with a lot of small children. At one point, when the leader introduced the "talking stick" we were going to use, a toddler pointed out rather forcefully that "sticks don’t talk." This was much more than cute–it was a reminder that life, and faith, are necessarily concrete, literal, and personal for small children, and that language that avoids concreteness and literalness and being personal will not serve us well in nurturing their faith. We did actually talk about God and faith in that meeting, which I thought was great, but it seemed that every adult who said anything about a higher power referred to it as "the Divine." One adult did ask, helpfully, if the leader would explain what he meant by that term, but in general I believe the references to God were at a level of abstraction that provided little toehold for the young children in attendance. Unprogrammed Friends also have a lot of "code" expressions–a kind of group-speak–that I think is bewildering, exclusive, and off-putting to many newcomers as well as to children. For example: "The Friend speaks my mind." Really, can you think of an odder, colder, more impersonal way to say, "Yes, that’s just what I think, too!"

When our children were small, my husband and I had a nightly "circle time" during which, among other things, we each named God. The kids used to come up with names like "Snow Maker," "The One Who Holds Us in His Hands," and "Big Hugger." Compared to those terms, how compelling does "the Divine" or "that of God" sound for describing the daily miracle that should be at the center of our lives? If you want to call faith–and the love and transformation that should follow it—"core relocation," you can, but I’ll ask a preschooler for better words any day!

It’s fair to say that my kids enriched and emboldened my faith, often naming gifts I had not even noticed, much less thought to be thankful for. Their unpretentious words gave sturdy legs to my sometimes rather disembodied ideas. Something similar occurred for me in El Salvador. Despite initial touchiness about the "J-word" (born of experiences of its use as a weapon) I gradually became accustomed to the deeply personal, intimate petitions to Jesus that formed a staple of Salvadoran Friends’ prayer life, and which rested on the experience that Jesus was palpably present among us. While such a literal belief in the presence and attention of Jesus had never been convincing, much less attractive to me before, it became so when I was among Salvadoran Friends, and it emboldened and enriched my faith much as my children’s words had. Literalness became not a millstone to be abandoned, but a source of sustenance, immediacy, and delight. (I confess that when I come truly close to the Spirit in prayer, in a state of deeper surrender than I often manage, I usually lapse into Spanish. My left-brain "thought police" are definitely English speakers!)

I think many unprogrammed Friends are uncomfortable with literal, concrete terms of faith because these terms seem to leave no room to grow. They mean only one thing, and we are afraid they may straitjacket our or our children’s faith and prevent spiritual growth. Certainly, this can happen. There are expressions that admit of no ambiguity, that leave no room for the creative tension of paradox or differing interpretations, that cut Truth down to the size we are today. But I believe that the worse danger lies in not trying to find words at all, or imposing terms like "the Divine" on children who have no idea what that is, but know perfectly well what a hug is, what sun and snow are, and what big, capable hands are for. I have also come to believe that the literalness of words doesn’t have to be a limitation; it can be a portal into truths we may not have considered.

Many unprogrammed Friends seem to think we should wait until our children are teens before trying to share our faith with them. Our beliefs seem too complex, too nuanced, or too sophisticated to be understood or appreciated by small children. I believe this is a big mistake–and that if we truly have nothing of value to share with our children, then it is our faith that is limited, not the kids! I once attended a workshop on nurturing spirituality in children with a Friend who had taught at a Quaker college for many years. She had always had her students write a spiritual autobiography, and she learned something through reading well over a thousand of these over the years: those who had faith as young adults usually found it before they turned 12. Those who had not experienced it by that age generally did not find it at all by their college years. We seem to worry that an eight-year-old’s faith will prevent a more mature faith later. It appears that we should rather worry that an eight-year-old’s lack of faith will prevent any faith later!

I believe there is a growing sense among many unprogrammed Friends that we haven’t been doing a particularly good job of raising up our children in a living, vital faith. While I believe that there are many reasons for this, I think two of them are the silence that forms the bulk of our time together as Friends (and which is often our principal faith message to our children) and the language we use when we do talk about our faith. I also think that our failures in regard to our children are simply an extension of our failures with each other.

I believe that the silence of unprogrammed Friends has allowed a diversity—unprecedented and rich, but sometimes problematic—to flourish among us. The richness: we are surrounded by Friends who may have a different way to access the Divine than we have, whose vocabulary of faith points to different truths that could enrich us too, and whose spiritual practices could offer us new doors through which we may encounter God. How is our diversity a problem? We may find that people who claim the Quaker faith have beliefs that are significantly at odds with our own. Our silence may be filled not with unity in the Spirit, but with fear of the alternative to silence: engagement with each other on issues that matter and on which we disagree. When we do talk about our faith we often fail to venture beyond our safety zone. Either we speak with distance and impersonality about deep matters of the heart, or we confine ourselves to the progressive pieties that may be the only specifics upon which we easily agree. We give our children the fruits of our faith–our social, environmental, political witness—without nurturing the roots and vines that produce the fruits. We become mere harvesters, not tenders of the plants, and certainly not planters. We should not be surprised when the fruits wither on the vine, come forth less abundantly, or one day simply run out. Nor should we be surprised if our children ultimately find neither our silence nor our words nourishing, and go elsewhere in search of spiritual sustenance.

If unprogrammed Friends are to grapple with the dangers and experience the richness of the diversity that has blossomed among us, we will need both our silence and our words. If we are to delve deeper into our own faith as individuals, we will need both our silence and our words. If we are to share the riches we find with our children, we will need both our silence and our words. We needn’t assert certainties we don’t feel. Tentativeness when one is approaching a deep mystery is not wrong. The words can only point to the experience and the reality; they can never fully embody it. But we need to try! How about laying down our 11-foot verbal poles and getting up close and personal with our God and our faith and each other? How about grappling together, in words and in silence, with questions that matter?–What is the nature of God? How do we know? What does God want of me and for me, and how do I know? What takes me deeper into the joy of faith, what takes me further from it? What are the boundaries that describe our shared faith? Are there boundaries? Are there religious views we reject as incompatible with Quakerism? Which ones? Why? Can we enter into conversation with those who hold them? Are we willing to be transformed by the encounter, and perhaps admit we have been wrong?

I once heard a story about the economist Frank Knight, who saw a plaque on a wall with a quote from Lord Kelvin that read, "If you cannot express it in numbers your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind." Knight considered this, nodded, and said, "Yes, and when you can express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind!" My Friendly version of this is, "If you cannot express it in words, your faith is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind, and if you can express it in words, your faith is of a meager and unsatisfactory kind!"

I believe our children deserve to see us grapple, out loud as well as in silence, with our own deepest convictions. They deserve our best efforts to articulate what we find true and holy and transformative–and our humility in knowing that we cannot fully convey our deepest experiences. They deserve to be invited into the Living Waters in which we wade and swim and flounder. Both my swimming and my raft of faith may be clumsy and inadequate, but there is joy, delight, and challenge to be found in immersing myself in the water and learning to float in it. I owe it to the children in my life to invite them into the water, and to climb aboard to share and help build the raft. More than once when I have done this their faith has challenged my unbelief, sustained me through doubt, and kept me afloat in ways that surprised me.

My son built a raft last summer: 44 milk jugs lashed underneath a wooden pallet. I find it’s a pretty good metaphor for building a life of faith–all we need, really, for staying afloat in the Living Waters. Bjorn didn’t have to be a nautical engineer to build it; it didn’t require fancy materials; he didn’t have to be older than nine to succeed; and the raft didn’t have to win the America’s Cup to be a triumph. It holds up a lot of kids, it’s a blast to paddle around and jump off of, and everybody who sees it says, "I could do that! That looks like fun!"

And I think: Why should First-day school be any different? I want to build a raft together with our kids that will sustain us, delight us, and allow us to paddle around together. The verbal equivalent of milk jugs and wooden pallets–sturdy, functional, accessible, and unselfconscious—will do us just fine, I believe.

Kat Griffith

Kat Griffith, a member of Winnebago Worship Group in east-central Wisconsin, is a homeschooling mother of two, one of whom, Savannah Hauge, also has an article in this issue. Kat's last article in Friends Journal addressed her encounter with conservative Christian homeschoolers ("Conversations from the Heartland," October 2006).