Christ-Centeredness & Quaker Identity

I have a memory of a member of my monthly meeting responding to the news that some meetings have pastors, and that those pastors deliver prepared sermons. "Why, that’s not Quaker at all!" she cried. Admittedly, I suffered my own such hubris when discovering the diversity of faith and practice that exists amongst Friends while sojourning at the Earlham School of Religion (ESR). My family attended an Evangelical Friends church in New Westville, Ohio, one Sunday evening, and I asked the pastor if they were preaching the Peace Testimony during these troubled times. His reply was that they "did not really see much of a need for it." Now that, I thought, is "not Quaker at all!"

I have discovered that other Quaker controversies exist in this part of the United States, which is more heavily populated with Friends than I thought existed. And, while I have only been committed to the witness of Friends for ten years now, I recognize the importance of certain theological discussions occurring amongst the worship communities of Indiana Yearly Meeting (FUM). These discussions, centering around the practice of physical sacraments in Friends worship, threaten to drive a wedge into a faith organization that is perceived by some observers as already suffering from dysfunction. Some members of this yearly meeting are challenging those notions of Quakerism that have, for centuries, been commonly accepted as a core tenet of our faith and practice—namely, that the practice of water baptism and substantial Eucharist are not necessary (or perhaps not even favorable) for right relationship with God as experienced by the Religious Society of Friends.

I wish to elaborate upon two quick points. First, I understand there is no concern that the practice of water baptism is threatening our unprogrammed communities. However, the experiences of Indiana Yearly Meeting illustrate concerns that I see looming in the future of unprogrammed communities in the United States, which are those of identity. I will also address an issue that I assume many readers will be critical of: the suggestion that there is the possibility of an orthodoxy in the context of unprogrammed meetings.

Discussions that centered around the subject of Friends’ identity among some ESR students sometimes revealed the presence of unintelligibility. It exists not as much between pastoral and unprogrammed meetings, but between those who might envision unprogrammed Quakerism as a vanguard of the changing face of U.S. religious expression, and those who feel that contemporary unprogrammed Friends are devaluing the praxis of a worship community whose identity was profoundly centered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This may or may not be properly illustrated by the reality of non-theistic Friends, and the quiet discussions about whether such individual expressions of Quakerism are comprehensible within the traditional framework of Friends.

It is my contention that, if the Religious Society of Friends is to maintain integrity as a community of faith, something along the lines of Christ-centered expressions of Friends testimonies are necessary to retaining self-awareness and spiritual growth. The rapidity with which Western (or more specifically, U.S.) consumer values have lured individuals to view Quakerism as a marketplace of spiritual (or even explicitly material) revelatory experiences has deconstructed a progressive expression of corporate faith into a hodgepodge of relativity. As such, even our long-standing commitment to peculiarities, such as the Peace Testimony, is subject to manipulation as mere expressions of individual conscience.

Accordingly, along with the erosion of the Christocentric identity that lends continuity and history to the ongoing Quaker narrative, so erodes any understanding of why we have a praxis of peace. Without faithfulness to our spiritual roots and to the narrative of our spiritual mothers and fathers, we will not remember why we work for peace, or even from where the fountain for such inspiration flows. Without faithfulness to these roots, it is not possible to remember why peace is the appropriate response to violence when confronted with a reality where such a response makes no rational, or even moral, sense.

Throughout the history of our Religious Society, Friends have questioned one another concerning an unalterable commitment to the Peace Testimony. The American Revolution, the issue of slavery, and the specter of Nazism have all proven too much for some Quakers to resist taking up arms as a response. Even the recent tragedy of September 11, or the realities of Bosnia or Afghanistan, have tested the resolve of faithful people to respond within the limits of nonviolence. In some instances, it may be that we can offer no rational motive for nonviolence other than that, as Quakers, we are called to practice nonviolence in the midst of a violent world because we can be no other way. Our faithfulness is expressed in terms of nonviolence because we stay committed to a story of a God who has expressed a desire for the people of God to respond to violence with love.

If we as Friends lose sight of the origin of our historical testimonies, if we continue to lose our identity as a people of faith committed to a God who is revealed to our community in Christ-centered terms, we run the risk of forgetting our history as a people committed to peace. This by no means suggests that God is not revealed in other faiths, or through other religious leaders. I do not suggest that Friends have nothing to learn by dedicating ourselves to conversing honestly with people of other faiths, especially in order to engage in the practice of self-critique. Yet, how can we even discuss spiritual matters with honesty and integrity if we abandon our history? We are a people defined by our history, and as such, unintelligible without its presence in our witness.

If we continue as a community to maintain that the incorporation of other faith practices or nontheism is the best way to honor our Quaker tradition of tolerance, I believe there will be no Quakers left to work for the equal standing of all faiths in the world community. We will no longer be a people of peace, equality, or integrity because there will be no truth to witness to. My fear is that Quakerism will be swallowed by the universals of the modern world, and when universals are practiced, there are no "heretics" to express an alternative vision of what faith might look like. Quaker orthodoxy is not the acceptance of universals, but a practice of peculiarities. Friends have always challenged the established way of worshiping God, but we must insist on the peculiar practice of Quaker traditions as orthodox for those who call themselves Friends. This invariably calls Friends to worship in memory of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth—and in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Do attenders need to be "Christian" in order to be Quakers? This neglects my point. No one need adhere to an orthodoxy in order to worship with Friends. And no person need be identified as "Christian" in order to contribute to meetings or the wider Friends community. My point is, that if we are to maintain an identity as a people of peace, and especially as a people of God, then we must always remember and retell a story that claims Jesus as the center of our corporate expression of faith, and the impetus for our actions. We must affirm our testimonies as an expression of faithfulness to the vision of God as expressed through the life of Jesus, and not as simple expressions of universal spiritual maturity. And, as for those progressives who might identify themselves as "Buddhist Quakers" or "nontheist Quakers," I pray that they find wholeness by being better Buddhists, or kinder and gentler materialists. But if we saturate Quakerism with varieties of other faith traditions, we do a disservice, not only to the Friends narrative, but to the practice of Buddhism, or Paganism, or any other faith that is colonized to suit individual spiritual preferences.

We are a people called to express a new way of life to the world, who have traditionally believed that "there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition." I hope we are not reduced to a people who exist to underwrite an individual preference for peace, or a benign or irrelevant God who sprinkles humanity with saccharine-coated grace. More importantly, I hope this can be accomplished with love and a commitment to healthy relationships with others, as opposed to nervously constructed unity that lacks spiritual depth or integrity.

R. Scot Miller

R. Scot Miller is a member of Grand Rapids (Mich.) Meeting and a regular attender of Crossroads Meeting in Flint, Mich. A graduate of Earlham School of Religion, he is currently an MSW candidate at Grand Valley State University, and is engaged in men's ministry at "The Other Way" urban ministries in Grand Rapids. He and his wife, Jenn Seif, work a very small CSA farm in Shelbyville. His most recent published work is Pisteos lesou Christou: The Faithful Life of Jesus Christ and Covenant Fulfillment in the Judeo-Christian Narrative.