The Challenge of Quaker Christianity

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, by Jusepe de Ribera, circa 1616. Via Wikimedia.

While driving a couple of years ago, I heard an interview on the radio that spoke to my condition so strongly that I pulled off the road to listen more carefully. David Brooks was discussing his book The Road to Character, which argues that modern society values aggrandizement of the individual over society, over cooperation, and over God. Brooks argued that this is a shift from earlier times, when society used to value humility, integrity, loyalty, friendship, and other what he calls “eulogy virtues,” instead of today’s “resumĂ© virtues” (“eulogy virtues” being what people would talk about in your eulogy). In earlier times, according to Brooks, there was an emphasis on building character, something best done by observing and learning from others with character: weighty Friends to Quakers.

In this message, I immediately recognized a goal of Friends which I think remains implicit in our emphasis on living one’s life according to the testimonies: the goals of working to improve oneself and one’s relationship with the Divine. A Quaker’s living expression of the testimonies definitely falls into Brooks’s category of eulogy virtues. Indeed, when my great-grandmother Laura Retus Clapp—who was raised Quaker—died, the minister of her church literally built her eulogy around the ways in which she had lived up to the “Quaker virtues.”

For both Brooks and Friends, building character involves hard work—looking deep inside, having the courage to recognize the flaws, and working to improve them. Friends have some unique answers to the question of how to build character. Discernment through silent worship allows us to reflect on our own failings and seek guidance on how to change. Our testimonies provide a model for living that may build character. We have many role models in weighty Friends from both past and present.

But I am increasingly thinking that our community’s Christian roots are also very helpful—at least to me—by providing a range and depth of spiritual material with which to challenge ourselves. We build character not just by repeating wisdom with which we already agree but also by disagreeing and wrestling with material with which we do not, and may never, agree.

My relationship with Christianity

Attending Quaker meeting for the first time in the 1990s, I had little interest in Christ-talk. I had left behind the (admittedly pretty progressive) United Church of Canada of my childhood. This had been a difficult decision that was made after I took confirmation classes in an unsuccessful attempt to get to the point where I could say in good conscience that I believed the church’s creed.

I came to Friends largely through environmental activism and an interest in philosophy. The lack of a creed and the openness of Quakers to the Light found in all faiths were and are hugely important aspects to me.

But I also found, although it took me a while to recognize it, that the Christianity of Friends was very different from the one that I had left behind. When the early Quakers maintained that Jesus Christ had returned to teach his people himself, they were making what is essentially a mystical claim about their relationship with the Divine that is nonetheless clearly Christian: insisting that an individual can have direct union with God (or the Light).

This direct relationship with God resulted in a radical equality: women and people of all races had an equal measure of the Light.

As is often the case with mystics, the Quakers recognized from the start that words and labels often fall short when describing the Divine, that there are other ways and other languages that may be used in connecting with what we call God. The emphasis was on works and (to use Brooks’s term) “character,” rather than theology.

William Penn wrote in 1693:

The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here makes them strangers.

There are (and have been) Friends who adopted a less tolerant approach or who failed to live up to these ideals, but still, this universalist tendency and the strong emphasis on equality is one of the things that drew me to Friends. It also is a reason that I, like many modern Friends, initially saw Christianity as unnecessary for my own personal journey.

Modern Friends encounter many more non-Christians than the early Friends did, and so we have more opportunity to see that of God at work within them. Newcomers to Friends (and perhaps even some longtime Friends) tend to judge Quaker Christianity as if it were the same as the Christianity of their youth, or the oppressive Christianity that they’ve experienced or read about.

Mainstream Christianity—the versions of Christianity that we see in television evangelists, mainstream churches, and Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on street corners—often does not have a lot of time for mysticism, or patience with the idea that the Divine may at work in the world among non-Christians.

Friends, both early and modern, have always rejected the idea that calling oneself Christian guarantees moral superiority or access to the Divine. (Just look at Fox ranting about “professors,” those who profess themselves Christian.) And likewise they rejected the idea that not being Christian limits access to the Divine.

And yet, while Christianity is not necessary for a relationship with the Divine (by whatever name), I believe that it is central to Quakerism and should not be easily dropped. If building character requires that we challenge ourselves, then we are failing when we drop or ignore aspects of our faith tradition simply because they are challenging.

I am grateful to my friend Anita Fast, a Mennonite who worshiped with Vancouver Meeting for several years for helping me understand this. We had a conversation that transformed my understanding of the Bible and my relationship with Christianity.

We were discussing the role of Christianity among Friends, and she said something like, “Of course, for me, the Bible is authoritative.” Frankly, I was shocked but never one to back down from a theological argument, I said, “But how can you say that? The Bible sometimes contradicts itself, and at various points, God tells people to do awful things: genocide, murder.”

“I didn’t say that I thought that the Bible was infallible or literally true,” she replied. “I said that it was authoritative.”

“What does that mean, then?” I asked. “Surely if it’s authoritative that means you accept it as true?”

“No,” she explained patiently. “When I say it’s authoritative, I mean that it is the book with which I have chosen to have a spiritual relationship, to wrestle with. It is the book which challenges me. If there is a passage in the Bible that I disagree with, I don’t need to agree with it, but I do need to understand what it means to me and why I disagree with it.”

If we abandon the Christian roots of Quakerism, then we give ourselves permission to not be fully challenged by, to not engage fully with those parts of the tradition that are Christian, which is to say, for the early Quakers, all of it.

John Woolman, seeking to understand a dream in which a voice announced, “John Woolman is dead,” turned to Paul’s declaration in Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me?” It is difficult to just translate away such explicitly Christian imagery, and yet clearly he is expressing a very powerful spiritual experience. If we have decided that such language is just a vestige of Quakerism’s early obsession with Christianity, then we are unlikely to dwell too long on what Woolman (or Paul) meant by “crucifixion” and “Christ,” or to challenge ourselves to experience it.

Even insights from early Friends that are expressed in less explicitly Christian language often contain biblical allusions or are grounded in Quaker Christian thought. Both Margaret Fell’s famous, “We are become thieves,” and George Fox’s references to the Light must be understood in their biblical context (John 10:8–10 and John 1:5 respectively).

None of which is to say that there are not equally powerful insights in other religions. I can learn (and have learned) from them. But if I give myself permission to disregard the insights of my own tradition that are challenging, then I am unlikely to pick the spiritual insights from Buddhism, Islam, or Judaism that will challenge me. I am most likely to pick spiritual insights that confirm my existing beliefs and experiences, and to ignore those that seem troubling or wrong but might—with work and reflection and time—lead me to a deepening relationship with the Light.

Living in an individualistic time

We live in a time when many of the social justice values that once marked Friends out as unique are widely held (even if some might argue that they are under attack). In particular, the testimony of equality, at least as it relates to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. is widely held in theory, even if not always in practice. (And, let’s face it, Quakers also have not always managed well in practice.) Testimonies related to care of creation and peace are also held by many beyond our faith.

But it is also a very individualistic, arrogant age. As Brooks points out, society is obsessed with instant gratification and appearances, rather than personal integrity and deep relationships. In addition, our society pushes individualism: the idea that each person is an island, self-made and capable of making choices independent from one’s culture and community.

Quakers in the past have been well aware that mainstream culture could undermine our spiritual community, practices, and lives, and they sought to establish a “hedge” between their community and broader society. At a time when mainstream media has perhaps never been more invasive, I wonder whether our willingness to drop our Christian roots in favour of individual discernment is not a product of our individualistic culture, rather than genuine discernment.

We recognize that cultures and languages around the world are going extinct, run down by the global cult of consumerism and individualism. We bemoan the loss of diversity and applaud those who strive to keep their cultures alive. We know that that’s hard work.

And yet, Friends have a unique spiritual language and culture that is fast disappearing, and we seem not to value it. We confuse it with the angry, hierarchical, and sexist faith that we see in too much of Christianity, and with the violent history of mainstream Christianity, without delving deep into our own Quaker interpretations of the Christian story. Even if we understand that Christian Quaker language has its own depth, we often worry that newcomers and outsiders will misunderstand and be offended. As a result, we are abandoning one of the most egalitarian, empowering, and peaceful of Christian traditions, a possible alternative to the narrow interpretation of Christ held by too many churches.

This is not to suggest that our Quakerism needs to be the Quakerism of the 1800s or 1950s, or even the Quakerism of Fox, Fell, and Penn. We are influenced by the play and passion of God that we see present in other faiths and cultures and in daily life. There are Friends who draw so heavily from Buddhism or Wicca or Islam that they identify as both Quakers and members of those faiths, and one need only talk to them to know that they are Quakers. I am not suggesting that Quakerism is frozen in time, unable to learn from other faiths or from continuing revelation.

I am suggesting that one cannot claim to be a student of Fox, Woolman, or Fry without having a profound appreciation for and fluency in their Christian language. Some of us may choose to be bilingual, but as Quakers we are custodians of that Christian language tradition.

Some Christian lessons for this Quaker

When I first came to Friends, I knew what I didn’t like in the Bible. I remember telling an elder in my monthly meeting how much I disliked Paul. She did not argue with me but quietly acknowledged my frustration and then shared that she had learned a lot from Paul. It brought me up short that someone who was so patient, tolerant, and Friendly had nonetheless learned important lessons from Paul. It made me wonder what she was seeing in those letters that I had missed.

I still don’t like some of what Paul wrote, but I’m increasingly finding wisdom there too. Where I once rejected outright Paul’s emphasis on human sin, I now see a rejection of the arrogance and individualism of modern society, and a recognition of the limits of humanity (Romans 3:22-26). These are lessons that I see reflected both in early Friends and in Brooks’s observations about character. I see a recognition of our dependence upon God that would have resonated strongly with Fox and which I increasingly see in my own life. In short, I see many lessons that are extremely challenging but which may, if I’m lucky and open to grappling, help me to build a better relationship with God and a little more character.

Andrew Gage

Andrew Gage is a Quaker, an environmental lawyer, and a father of two from Victoria, B.C., Canada. He is grateful for each of those roles, but still wishes that he had more time to devote to his spirituality and writing. Follow him on Twitter at @singingwithin.

2 thoughts on “The Challenge of Quaker Christianity

  1. I so appreciate your thoughts, reflections, challenge. In particular – I am struck by your friend Anita’s distinction between authoritative and literal … and her helpful definition of what makes it authoritative. I am going to rethink and reconsider that word!

  2. I am ultra-individualistic in matters of faith. From that perspective I can see the merit of wrestling with scriptures. I can’t see how you can bear any responsibility for your faith without wrestling and sorting out for yourself what is true. “Individualistic” is for me a hallowed word, not a bad word. Perhaps the meaning for those who disparage individualism is “egotism” with perhaps a component of “worldliness” and “heedlessness.” My hackles rose with “authoritative” – and fell again.

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