I have attended Quaker meeting for over 40 years, and am a member of Rochester (N.Y.) Meeting, yet I do not consider myself a Christian and never have. I was raised in a Conservative Jewish family. Because George Fox was an ardent Christian, and because early Quakers considered that the “second coming” of Jesus had already happened (and was internal), it is perhaps apropos to explain the relationship I see between my Jewish upbringing and Quakerism of the traditional, unprogrammed variety. Primarily, this has to do with a focus not on the afterlife, but on the “here and now.”
Judaism of all sorts has always focused on the relationship between a person and fellow human beings. While daily Jewish prayers talk about a God who enlivens the dead in mercy and who keeps faith with those “who sleep in the dust,” Jewish thinking is not precise about an afterlife. A Talmudic saying has it that one more day of life is worth more than an eternity after death. When I mentioned this to a Christian Quaker acquaintance, he was shocked.
For Quakers, the indwelling God has made seeking after salvation less important than for other Christians. That there is that of God in everyone is a profound statement, and it freed Quakers to attend to the cares of their fellow human beings. Historically Quakers experienced periods of quietism, however, during which some Quakers considered social activity to be wrong. In my own meeting, Rochester, Isaac and Amy Post had to leave the meeting in order to express themselves freely against slavery, and participate in radical activities frowned upon by the elders of the meeting. These elders disapproved of slavery, but they also disapproved of the activities in which the Posts were involved.
The affinities of Judaism and Quakerism are exemplified in the thought of Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), a contemporary of George Fox (1624–1692). Spinoza believed that God lives in all that is, so a human being has direct access to the Divine (as Quakers also believe). Consequently, in a political society each member should be respected as equal to each other as they share God’s presence (again, a precept of Quakers). Spinoza believed in an interior religion. While George Fox was in prison, Margaret Fell wrote pamphlets addressed to the Jews, which were translated into Dutch (so that they could come into Spinoza’s hands), and he apparently translated them into Hebrew. So while Quaker thought and Spinoza’s arose independently, roughly at the same time, and while Spinoza had no influence of any sort on Judaism (he had been excommunicated from the Dutch Jewish community at the age of 23, perhaps because of his belief that human actions are predetermined and there is no free will), there was some tenuous contact between Quaker thought and his own.
Because Spinoza built on Jewish precepts and arrived at some Quaker-like positions, it is perhaps not hard to see how my Jewish heritage and Quakerism can be more compatible than might at first be thought. But it does not say why I am not a Christian. For me, this has very little to do with the horrors perpetuated in the name of Christianity, which are mostly the results of consistencies carried to the extreme; as Ralph Waldo Emerson told us, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” There have been many little minds in the past 1,700 or so years—Christianity only started perpetrating horrors when it acquired temporal power around the time of Constantine.
Let me be quite clear. I believe Jesus did exist—unlike some other critics of Christianity over the years. And I believe he was a person seeking to emphasize those parts of Judaism that he found virtuous and to de-emphasize or discard those he found worthless. There were many such people at the time, which was not a time of great stability in Judaism, and for which we have the histories of Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War, as surviving evidence. I do believe that his reference to Jesus, the only contemporary non-Christian source on him, is genuine.
As is well known, the earliest Christian scriptures are the Pauline letters. We do not know what happened on the road to Damascus, but some have suggested that Paul had an epileptic fit (he tells the story himself in Acts 26:12–18). In any case, Paul (or Saul), despite the stoning of Stephen, became a convinced follower of Jesus eager to spread Jesus’ originally Judaic message to all who would hear him and follow it. I have myself stood in the excavated amphitheatre of Ephesus and imagined how Paul was drowned out by the cries “Great is the Diana of the Ephesians!” Paul, always with his eyes set on some future occurrence rather than on the here and now, clearly believed in the imminent Parousia or “second coming” (1 Corinthians 15, especially 50–57, 1 Thessalonians 9:13–18, 2 Thessalonians 2:1–12, etc.). In the end, the imminent Parousia didn’t happen.
The future-oriented outlook of Christian thought continued into the second and third centuries when Christianity, just a barely recognizable belief system for the very few, became the principle of law and order in the Roman Empire. During this time, Christianity was occasionally persecuted, first by Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher who was emperor from 161 to 180 C.E., and then by Diocletian, emperor from 285 until his resignation in 305. Presumably one of the Christian “failings” was recognizing a power beyond the emperor. Christianity’s attitude toward emperorship changed, however, with Irenaeus, a Church father who condemned the bickering among Christian sects and realized that the Church had to have a unifying doctrine.
Constantine finished the job Irenaeus set out to complete. Whatever Constantine saw before his victory over Maxentius, the defining battle of his life, he chose Christianity, and the Chi- Rho, the monogram and symbol for Christ, was on his soldiers’ shields. His mother had already embraced Christianity. Constantine was not baptized until perhaps on his deathbed, a common practice in those times. Thus it was the cross that became, in James Carroll’s phrase, “the sword of Constantine,” rather than, say, the dagger with which Mithras slew the bull prominent in that religion. With secular power, Christianity became dominant, and its internal quarrels were settled by imperially approved councils at Chalcedon, Nicaea, and elsewhere. Among the theological assertions institutionalized at these councils was the dogma of the afterlife.
To return to Jesus: To whom did he preach? He preached to the common people of his time, the “am ha-aretz,” the people of the land. He told them that salvation was neither to be found by following the legalistic Pharisees nor the rite-obsessed Sadducees. So where was it to be found? If it was not here and now (and it clearly wasn’t), then it was when “the last shall be first and the first last in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 20:16, etc.). Jesus was a Jew, and Judaism had always had an imprecisely defined notion of an afterlife (it was elaborated only much later, by Jewish mystics). But Jesus promised success again and again in the Kingdom of Heaven, where all the ills of this world would be recompensed. Christianity from the beginning was thus a religion focused on the afterlife.
There is, however, an open question: even if one does not believe in the resurrection of Jesus or the Immaculate Conception, should one not attempt to live in the way described in the Christian Testament, loving one’s neighbor as oneself? In the first place, we should not forget that Jesus was a Jew; that his preaching came from Jewish sources. I have often been surprised by the number of people who think “Thou should love thy neighbor as thyself” is a Christian pronouncement, when it is found in Leviticus 19:18. Paul wished to spread the Gospel to non- Jews, and to do so he stripped Judaism of all its rituals. (Of course, humans, being what they are, substituted different rituals in great number.) The Sabbath day of rest was postponed one day to avoid confusion. (Sabbath in Hebrew actually means seventh.) One only needed to behave well and have faith. Some early Quakers even refused to see divine inspiration in the Hebrew Testament, because, they argued, the historical books contained too much struggle, fighting, and killing to have a divine source.
What of God? In 2000, at the Friends General Conference Gathering, I heard someone ask Quaker presenter and astronomer Jocelyn Bell Burnell if she believed in God. She replied that God was all the goodness in the world. That description makes sense to me. Though it omits God as Creator, it does respond to the Quaker notion of an “indwelling God.” We can agree to disagree on whether that indwelling God is the second coming of Jesus, or whether it is an in-dwelling sense of the good. Quakers are aware of an indwelling Spirit that wants to accomplish what is good. They have no dogma to tell them what that is. (Bell Burnell stands in a tradition of Quakers who became scientists, because, unlike so many other religious persuasions, there is no conflict between the truth of science and the truth of Quakerism.)
This raises the question of how to determine the good or what it is. Quakers, unlike Spinoza, believe in free will. Free will implies responsibility for one’s actions, a responsibility reflected in the here and now, not in some future postmortem experience that may or may not exist. We all know that actions sometimes have surprising, unexpected consequences. All we can do is the best we know how to do: to alleviate misery, suffering, homelessness for others; to never use violence or violent expressions; to behave as simply as we know how; and to respect others as they are, rather than as we might wish them to be. There is certainly evil in the world; we need to avoid it when we recognize it, and make efforts to counter it, but always, if possible, recognizing the value and humanity of the individual. To take one historical example: John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry was an eloquent protest against the evil of slavery, but it was wrong, because it caused the death of others. Sometimes to some Quakers the evil to be combated seemed greater than the evil involved in taking up arms. That was especially true during the Civil War and World War II, and many Quakers served in the military in those wars. There was a split in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting over aiding the American Revolution.
But such behavior does not require Christian belief. Christianity, as distinct from Judaism and traditional Islam, depends on one’s belief or dogma, rather than on the welfare of the community as a whole. When Paul stripped Judaism of its ritual behavior in order to spread his message, what was left emphasized belief, and that belief was centered on resolution in the Kingdom of Heaven and that Christ (“the anointed”) died for one’s sins. Thus, eventual resurrection (thanks to Christ) of each individual became the individual’s focus in Christianity. This is true even in the various Protestant sects. In its most severe Calvinist form, Christianity stated that those who would be saved after death was predetermined. Unitarianism (adopting the Arian heresy of disbelieving in the divinity of Jesus) and some people within Quakerism, on the other hand, were different. The branch of Quakerism that I joined is concerned with how people are situated, how they comport themselves, and not particularly with what they believe. “That of God in every one” affirms the dignity of every human being as human. There has been a Christological revival within Quakerism recently, but the relationship of Quakers to traditional Christian beliefs has been a major point of disagreement among Friends for many years.
Christianity is focused on a presumed life after death. One can be a good person in the usual concept of treating fellow human beings with respect and honesty, and not prejudging them. But in Christianity the focus is on the individual’s future salvation, whereas in Judaism and traditional Islam the focus is on the community. For Christianity, being good is the price of the reward in heaven. In Judaism, one is good because it is the right thing to do.
My sort of Quakerism deals with our present life, such as it is, here on Earth. Some divisions of Christianity emphasize the role of good works, but even these are focused on an afterlife. Christianity, from its beginnings, was not focused on the “here and now,” but instead on what would come in the hereafter. This is not my focus, and it is why I am not a Christian.