I’d like to clear up right away a question that seems to crop up repeatedly at these more public moments in my life, and that is where I got my name. My parents were strict atheists, one intellectually, one emotionally—any religion on the television and it would be turned off, and the vicar welcoming us to our new home when we moved had the door shut in his face by my mother, but when in their 40s, one year after they married, they had a son, they called me "Benjamin," born of elderly parents after the biblical story of Jacob and Ruth. So that’s how I got to be called "Ben."
I’m glad we’ve got that out of the way.
I have in my time elicited such reactions as: "What Ben Pink Dandelion says is largely nonsense" (The London Friend); "That Ben Pink Dandelion—he’s nuts" (ministry during worship in Indiana in 1997); and "I wanted to throw the manuscript across the room and scream" (colleague on reading one of my drafts). However, I have the perfect response inspired by the Friend who asked, "Are you the Ben Pink Dandelion?" No—I’m the other one.
I have also been eldered in my teaching: "What’s more important: the truth, or getting a laugh?" Getting a laugh, I replied—but of course they didn’t know if I was telling the truth.
All these caveats aside, let us begin.
I grew up as what I have termed a strict and particular atheist. Ethics were important but after that, hedonism or the degree of pleasure an action resulted in, was the usual criterion for decision making. Which is most fun? However, when my family moved north from London close to the border with Scotland when I was 11, both the local private schools had a religious foundation: I was sent to the Quaker school rather than the Catholic one as they thought it would do me the least harm.
I left as I had arrived, theologically speaking, and after a year out, mainly on a seven-month cycle trip, I went to college only to become quickly involved in student politics and the surely soon-to-be revolution. I was a member of a whole variety of socialist, communist, Trotskyite groups—I was elected to the student union executive but resigned when I became an anarchist. I left college, too, and went to live at an anarchist peace camp for some six months. (That’s where I changed my name to Pink Dandelion, by the way, reserving "Ben" for my friends). When, within another few months and after many arrests, I finally concluded that the revolution was unlikely to take place in England, I left the camp, trained to become a chauffeur, but remained anarchistically unemployed for the next five years, and revisited Friends. Here seemed to me a group of voteless, leaderless pacifists much like my anarchist group. Maybe Quakers would bring about the change in society I still dreamt of.
I have to admit one of the first draws was the free refreshments. I was still largely atheistic, seeing in Quakerism a set of values and aspirations but not understanding at all the "rooted in spirit" of our theme. I joined after only six months so I could attend business meeting, and I believe I was let in too quickly. Sometimes others agree!
Two years on, I was given a bursary to come to the United States to look at the different political context of the origins of U.S. and English Quakerism. At the end of my study time, I used a Trailways bus pass to go to San Francisco, traveling three days for two days there—after all, to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive—and then back again. However, on Labor Day the schedules changed and I found myself waiting in Denver for 12 hours instead of two, suddenly realizing that on the new timetable I would miss my flight home from New York. What was a boy to do? I had $67 in my pocket and the only chance of catching my plane was to buy a Greyhound ticket for $120. I begged. Try it: "I’ll send you a check—no, I’m a Quaker, you can trust me." Finally I found another Briton and cajoled him to buy me a ticket on his credit card giving him every dollar and cent I owned as sign of good faith. I caught the Greyhound bus and all was right in the world. Every time the bus stopped for food, I washed instead, thus finding other forms of self-care to nourish me. I rationed out a few grapes I had. Perfect.
In the midst of this onward journey, just outside St. Louis, unbidden, unwanted, unimagined, and all the more powerful and compelling for all that, I felt lifted up and cradled by what I have called God, held and reassured even in that time of contentment and apparent confidence. It was a powerful experience for me and delightfully, it hasn’t ever left me since. Since that time, I have lived an accompanied life. God is with me, and I know this in George Fox’s terms, experientially. Thus I became a lapsed atheist kind of Quaker.
For five years God sat alongside me, affirming and encouraging me in my choices, sort of, "Whatever you want to do, Benny, I’m right with you."
In 1991, my mother died and in early 1992, I had a motorcycle accident. Then began what I call "holy nudges," times of God calling me to greater faithfulness. "Ben, you need to be more responsible," was the message at that time. I felt God guiding me, but also reminding me, calling me to account—an overdose of pride would lead to an embarrassment, undue materialism would be beset with complication, or at least illumination. Along with some other Friends in the mid-’90s I developed a personal rule to help me lead a more faithful life. It addressed in particular key areas of temptation for me, where the desire for pleasure outran the ethical consequences. One of these was my love of cars. After another motorcycle accident, I sold my car to buy another bike and included in my rule that from here on, I would buy only to replace, so much had I accumulated. It is clear that if I held to my rule, I would not be buying another car. A year later, I had three. Well, if you’re going to break the rule, why not break it! It also highlights that you have the explicit aspiration only when it is in doubt! I have never been interested in books, that more typical Quaker vice—I didn’t have a rule about or for that. I had the rule because I might be tempted to break it!
God laughed, I think, and gradually decreased my income so that all the cars needed to go.
I have often suggested that greater seriousness on our part about the spiritual life can also lead to a greater sense of fun and joy. If we know what we are about, we can then joke about it, and bring laughter into even the most mundane moments. That is the balance I want us all to achieve, the balance that will help us all in our responsibilities and help others in theirs. Sometimes this means taking risks and we need to find the courage to create and sustain joy within an authentic everyday life.
In my new book Celebrating the Quaker Way I have written that "I am a Quaker and I inhabit that knowledge daily. . . . I feel clothed in my faith." What does that faith look like and how does it relate to 17th-century insights?
Here is the initial transforming experience of George Fox, age 23. He had been traveling around the army camps, among the dissenters once he stopped listening to the ministers, but was in a state of despair:
Now, after I had received that opening from the Lord, that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less, and looked more after the Dissenting people. . . . But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. When all my hopes in them and in all
men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition"; and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory. For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief, as I had been. . . . And this I knew experimentally.
This moment remains foundational and central to Quakers worldwide today. Indeed, we can see all the changes over time and divisions between Friends in terms of how this passage is interpreted and emphasized.
In Fox’s convincement, God breaks into Fox’s life, in God’s time. This is a critical experience of direct unmediated encounter with the Divine. This is still what we aspire to—we cannot summon God up but we can remain open and mindful so as to not miss those particular moments of intimate encounter. A repeated theme in early Quaker writing is that the more we surrender, the more we are given and the easier it is to inhabit our spiritual aspirations.
Importantly, the experience is inward. Also, there is a distinction between inward and inner—that shift came in the 20th century, dramatically redefining where divinity resides and for some replacing the former Quaker idea of original sin with a sense of innate goodness.
Fox is transformed by his 1647 experience as Margaret Fell is by listening to Fox in Ulverston church in 1652: All are "shut up in unbelief," in Fox’s terms; "thieves, all thieves" of true faith, as Fell puts it. Their former lives have been about profession not possession. The Light shows up their lives as they have truly been. Being "just" a "good Christian" is now exposed as anachronistic and part of the apostasy of all that is not Quaker as this new group of "saints" heralded a new New Covenant with God.
Consciousness and awareness were transformed, so was the sense of relationship with God. These early Friends were co-agents with God, an intimate relationship. They transcended their old selves by replacing the old self with God’s power acting through them.
In 1648 Fox had a second life-changing experience, when he felt taken back into Eden through the flaming sword God had put across the entrance after banishing Adam and Eve:
Now I was come up in spirit through the flaming sword, into the paradise of God. All things were new; and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness; being renewed into the image of God by Christ Jesus, to the state of Adam, which he was in before he fell. . . . But I was immediately taken up in spirit to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam’s innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus that should never fall.
Fox believed in original sin, but unlike the Calvinist Puritans around him, Fox believed that everyone could be saved and saved within their present lifetime. More than that, as this passage suggests, early Quakers preached a doctrine of perfectability. Nothing annoyed their opponents more than this claim to be "beyond Adam, beyond falling" while the Quakers claimed of them: "All you do is preach up sin."
Quakers did not have formal membership lists until the 1730s and only instituted them so as to be clear which meeting would give poor relief to which Friend. (This is one of the reasons we remain so confused about the meaning of membership). However, lists were not necessary to determine who was and who was not a Friend. Quakers even from the earliest days dressed and talked differently, refusing to participate in the world’s superfluities.
When new convert Thomas Ellwood met some of his friends, they all bowed in greeting as you did in those days. He stood straight and said nothing. They did it again, "Tom, it is us." Then one clapped him on the back and said, "What, Tom, a Quaker?"—already Quakers were an identifiable group. Forms of plain dress —no earrings!—came quite early on and Quakers used "thee" and "thou’" rather than the polite "you," leveling society down before God. They refused to use titles or the pagan names for days and months, and did not swear oaths in court for they sought to tell the truth at all times and because, in Matthew 5:34, Jesus says not to swear at all. Friends operated fixed price trading: no haggling and no eBay!
These first Friends had a new sense of how their lives were situated between heaven and Earth and how they were to further God’s purposes over and against "the world," a pejorative term in Quaker parlance. When we hear of walking cheerfully "over the world," I read this as "over and against" the world; as is said elsewhere in the passage, "trampling all that is contrary under."
In terms of our testimony today, much of the world has caught up in terms of titles and the right to affirm in court, but we have also relaxed: we are no longer accountable to our meetings but decide for ourselves what and what is not Quaker for us. Where are we united in the consequences of our spirituality in everyday life today?
Rufus Jones told a story about an allotment being given to an unemployed miner in Wales and how after tilling and tilling and a great deal of care, he turned a most unpromising bit of land into a fine garden. The local vicar came along and congratulated him saying "Look what you and God have achieved," to which the miner replied "Yes, but you should have seen it when God had it all to himself." What is our role in how tomorrow looks? How, in Rufus Jones’ terms, are we to lend our hands to God?
At some level, us all being here this evening is the mark of a luxuried people. We have the time, the lack of other pressing concerns. I suggest, given this privilege, we need to ensure that we make the most of it and that the consequences of being here "up the mountain" this week are felt throughout our lives by those we encounter. The quality of our everyday exchanges and manner is so crucial—the extra gesture of care, the extra engagement is a powerful ministry. And it means we need to get the pace of life, not just the peace of life, just right so we are able to have those extra words in the store or at the toll booth or down the telephone to the stranger trying to earn a living by conducting phone surveys. How we are in the world is a crucial reflection of the nature of our spirituality.
How do we transcend the individualism of modern society? How do we create community in our meetings, especially when, as Parker Palmer reminds us, they include the very last people we might hope to be in community with. (Though what riches that can bring!) In an era of increasing national and international travel, of always "leaving" to go to elsewhere, of allowing our technologies to take us away from face to face here-and-now contact I want to advocate that, if only we looked for it, we can find enchantment on our doorstep. Who am I to say I hesitate over being called a 21st-century Friend? Why do we try to set ourselves apart from other Quakers through such specific labeling as if difference is a virtue, and from wider community as if we do not care for the future of the world? Our Quaker heritage has always been about linking our mysticism with everyday life. Who am I not to go to business meeting because I don’t want to? "I" am "it." Any Quaker "they" are "we" and ultimately "me." If our business meetings are not speaking to us, let us revitalize them. If I don’t like a Quaker decision, I need to remember I am part of the Quaker priesthood who discerned it.
Sometimes attenders say they are hesitant to join a group of such good people with this amazing heritage of spiritual insight and social activism. What a terrible reputation to have that keeps others out. We are not Friends because we are good. Indeed, we are Friends together exactly because we are not good, or not good enough. We need each other, to help each other along, in our faithfulness in everyday life, in our discipline or discipleship, in our activism. Isaac Penington said: "Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another, and helping one another up with a tender hand."
The spiritual stakes today are much lower—few of us believe in original sin, and we don’t talk much about salvation. It is not our primary concern. We live our faith in a secularizing society in which we present Quakerism as one faith option equal to many or none, rather than as the True Church.
What, then, is our corporate calling? What is God calling us to do? And is it really something we need to do privately so only the most determined get to our doors? What is wrong with communicating our insights and growth?
What is our good news?
We could look for clues to the founding architects of liberal Quakerism such as John Wilhelm Rowntree or Rufus Jones. Seeking to counter evangelical revival and Quietist Quakerism, they reinvented the distinctiveness of Quaker faith along four principles:
- That experience was primary (i.e., rather than Scripture)
- That faith needed to be relevant to the age: they didn’t want the old practices of dress and speech back
- That Friends needed to be open to new light
- That we know more of God in each age and that new revelation has a necessary authority over earlier revelation—what is called progressivism.
This remains our framework. It has meant that our Quaker believing need not be tied to any text or any part of tradition, and over the 20th century we have seen patterns of believing shift beyond what Rowntree and Jones might have imagined.
Belief itself has become marginal for us. It is not how we identify ourselves as Quaker, and we are cautious about belief as a category, feeling the words never quite do justice to an experience that is ultimately "beyond what words can utter." Theology is a story rather than a truth claim. We emphasize silence over speech, and many of our theological differences are masked by our form of worship and a lack of sharing about where our believing currently is.
This fits very much with our historic opposition to creeds—put a group of Friends together, and quickly and with great unity we can come up with about 11 reasons why we do not hold to creedal statements of belief.
Sometimes I play devil’s advocate. Creeds are useful; they communicate the faith, draw boundaries, provide a form of memorable words to help newcomers. We often say we want these sorts of things. No, Ben, we do not have a creed. How about a little creed, just some basics? No, Ben, we do not have a creed. We could change it every year. No, Ben; or have perhaps a kind of creed, creed-ish. No, Ben, we do not have a creed. We do not have a creed. We believe we do not have a creed.
Ding. Not a belief creed but a creedal attitude to the form of Quakerism.
Rather, we are held together by the way in which we are a religious group, what I have called a "behavioral creed": the way we worship and do business and areas of testimony.
If I were to run "how to resign from your Quaker meeting without a fuss" workshops, or maybe a telephone helpline, 1-800-EX-QUAKER, I would say there are two obvious ways to ease your departure:
- Cut across the behavioral creed: e.g., suggest an hour of hymn singing, or
- Rush into meeting and say you have found the truth for all people for all time, and that everyone needs to learn from you!
That will do it. Having a crisis of faith or a period of doubt will not work— chances are the meeting will see no dilemma, will labor tenderly with you, and you could be talked back in.
We are absolutely certain of being at least a little uncertain in our believing and are very cautious or even suspicious of those individuals and groups who claim to have the final revelation or whole truth.
From a rational place, the basis of liberal religion, we have come to be clear that any claims we make about God will necessarily be "perhaps" kinds of statements. We operate an "absolute perhaps" and it sets us apart from other spiritualities—it is very different to be certain of partial uncertainty than to be uncertain at times of the certainties of, e.g., the creed. It is a powerful and distinct aspect of our faith. It is to me the mark of a liberal Quaker, and total finders or zealots of any persuasion will be in tension with the group.
Those who feel eldered for the theology of their ministry, be it Christian or nontheist, may rather have been eldered for the certainty of their ministry.
This absolute perhaps is surely some of our good news. It is not about what we believe, it transcends our form, and it conveys wonderfully our intention to be faithful people, surely more important, especially given our tradition of inward spirituality.
Links with the wider Quaker family, which I think are crucial to revivify world Quakerism, need to be built on this intention, i.e. to be faithful above all, even where other Quakers hold different theologies, different forms, and different modes of believing. Intention is critical.
We liberal Quakers are a minority of the Quaker world, both in our way of worship and numerically, probably less than 15 percent of global Quakerdom. Only a lack of resources on their part and lack of will on ours keeps us from hearing the insights of our African and South American sisters and brothers. We may feel disinclined to their more traditionally Christian Quakerism. I am part of the now 86 percent of Britain Yearly Meeting who have come in as adults, and one of the 50 percent of that number that came from no immediately prior religious affiliation—some of us have little baggage as a result—and I have worshiped in programmed Friends churches without any distress because I have felt the sincerity, the intention, that surpasses form.
For others of us "refugees," there may be things we need to process about earlier affiliations before we can listen easily to different articulations of our faith. But we have a choice. We can go forward with confidence and infectious enthusiasm or we can remain a gathered remnant, hedged in by our disinclinations.
I have a list of our things that unite Quakers worldwide: direct encounter, forms of worship and business that reflect and nurture that; similar testimony; and the reality of the priesthood of all believers. At a recent gathering exploring new trends in Quakerism, one of the keynote speakers, young adult Friend Evelyn Jadin, listed three other commonalities that bind us: a) self-righteousness and pride; b) worship that is often ungrounded and ungathered; c) a superficial and often hypocritical witness in the world. Ouch! Let us make that list part of our past.
Romans 8:24 reads, "A hope that can be observed is not really hope, for who hopes for what can be seen?" In other words we need to go forward with faith, trusting that what is meant for us will be given and that we will be faithful to it.
I have been going through the Quaker motions for too long but am now ready to step up to the spiritual plate. I have been professing at times without possessing.
If our Quakerism is part of wider Quakerism, we need to keep celebrating, and keep talking. We need to find joy in and of our spiritual experience (I mean, after all, what a wonderful gift we are given in and through our worship in and out of meeting), its universality and the radical consequences for societal and church life, the possibility and reality of personal transformation, of global transformation, our life together in daily community (and not one tethered to technology but face to face), and through our communicating the wonderful insights we have as a people of faith to the rest of the world, particularly around the primacy of experience, the availability of experience, our finding and seeking, our testimony, our hope.
I can feel the excitement, even in me, starting to become obvious! Early Quakerism set up such a list of grand claims: unmediated spiritual experience, spiritual equality, personal transformation, perfection, salvation, the second coming—I can hear kettle drums beating—such vibrancy, such excitement. Friends, this experience, if we want it and if we are prepared to open ourselves to it fully, is still there for our taking and living and communicating, our living and breathing and acting. Let us embrace the passion and the joy and go forward authentically, with integrity and, as I have learned recently, with absolute confidence.
This is an edited and shortened text of an address to the Friends General Conference Gathering in Blacksburg, Va., on June 28, 2009. It is reprinted by permission from Friends General Conference. ©2009 FGC. To acquire an mp3, CD, or DVD of Ben’s full talk, go to http://www.quakerbooks.org.