Authentic Community in a Disenchanted Age
I picture myself walking down some winding road that extends far off to the horizon. I have no idea where it ends or whether it ends. I am comforted in the knowledge that others traverse equally sinuous paths about which they are equally confused. It seems I’ve spent most of my still-young life scraping together meaning and purpose with Scotch tape and ear wax—with many other metaphors, too. Life becomes a mere build-up of the residue left after metaphors and the big ideas they convey have been consumed. Reflecting on my time growing up as a Young Friend, I see how Quaker process became my metaphor, and it enshrined a set of big ideas.
We were enamored with big ideas back then, yet we knew that they were incomplete somehow in their monadic perfection. So we clung to them in earnest, which catalyzed the nascent wrinkles on the laughing but worried faces of the adults charged with our care. Community was profoundly intimate and the only legitimate source of authority. Justice was the truest motivation for entering society’s ceaseless churning. Our leaders were stewards of a collective vision. These ideas positing Quakerism as a kind of spiritual anarchy were enshrined by Quaker process. In Quaker process, for once, our lives could retain a certain important purpose—transcending our idle and confounding adolescence. Then we all graduated high school.
We began to enter society for health insurance, too. We faced a unique type of disillusionment, which the children of Quaker parents and former civil rights activists are bound to face. It was only a matter of time before we noticed that you can’t be whomever you want, democracy is deeply flawed from its founding, and the rich just get richer. Community itself became lonely, and so we spent years—a decade for some of us—in search of the elusive intimacy of high school-age Quakerism. In every young adult Friends community, you’ll find the folks who haven’t yet adapted to the isolation of modern life and who cope by “cuddle-puddling.” The older, wiser young adults watch on in pity.
After high school, deeper comprehension of human intimacy, pain, and pleasure would broaden the sources for meaning and purpose available to us. We would eventually move on, and perhaps force ourselves fully to forget. Chock it up to the uniqueness of being so young, so naïve, and prohibited from having sex . . . never mind that many of us did it anyway (don’t tell my mom).
Now we don’t cling to Quaker process as we once did, nor do we cling to the ideals it once enshrined. If one were to venture into the corners of the local bars or into the halls of West Philly house parties, one might possibly coax a few young adult Friends into confessing their nostalgia. We will never forget, and we will always wish we could feel again that sort of purpose that, back then, we could achieve merely by reaching consensus.
Nostalgia, like anxiety, is predominantly mythical. Just as anxiety drives our imaginations off towering cliffs, nostalgia causes us to spin out stories about what was and what could have been. When in fact, the experience of the thing itself is long gone, and the production of it in the present is but a story, though a very good story. This particular telling co-opts with suspicious ease our nostalgia to explain away our isolation as a fact of adulthood. It would be irrational to expect to find in our monthly meetings something like the transcendent meaning we could once achieve. This is the price of the rational, and so disenchanted, present.
The story of isolation accounts for the present relationship between contemporary Liberal Quakers and Quaker process. In actuality, we are Quaker process junkies. We reduce Quaker process to its skeleton and erase whatever big ideas that may have given it life. We come back for more without satiation, despite the easily observed love/hate relationship with business meeting in Liberal Quaker community. We’ve forgotten the big ideas that our ancestors and elders heralded, and we have devoted inordinate amounts of our emotional energy to procedure and bureaucracy. We have become enchanted with disenchantment itself. We have individuated lives, separate careers, and families to rear largely outside the religious community. We go to worship on Sunday without knowing many with whom we worship, and without the solidarity that accompanies connection. We are almost never surprised that gathered meetings, in Thomas Kelly’s sense, are rare. Many of us can’t truly recall what they feel like.
The solution is not a return to adolescence. However, we can allow ourselves once again to become enamored with big ideas. We can acknowledge the ideas are imperfect, and we can acknowledge there is more work to be done. It is work we need to do together.
I recall a radical thought leader named Starhawk who confirmed my delusions. Or perhaps she deconstructed the nostalgia, which had prevented me from seeing past the acceptability of isolation. She insists:
Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open and receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.
It may be that many of us are addicted to Quaker process because it is a vestige of something we remember—or think we remember—but believe to be false. We idolize Quaker process, perhaps, but we also forget that the strength of the process depends not upon adherence to its guide alone. The strength of the process depends also upon the strength of the community.
We can institute simple practices in our meetings to aide us in strengthening community. There are three practices I’d like to mention here, and there are others as yet unimagined.
First, we need to cultivate a robust discourse concerning gifts, leadings, and ministry. We are a community of ministers, and so each of us is accountable for knowing one’s gifts, how one is led to use them, and to what purpose. We are called to awareness of each other’s gifts as well. So one of our members may be a barista, working to pay for her painting. Let’s hang up her paintings on the walls of our meetinghouse; let’s support her in art class, in making connections with other artists, etc. So one of our members is a lawyer, or doctor, or teacher, or a community organizer? We usually keep our professions out of contact with the religious community, but why? Constant talk about gifts, leadings, and ministry helps us to bring our work life into connection with our spiritual life. We are individuals, but we need not be hyper-individuals, hoarding all the discernment to our lonely selves. When we do not share about ourselves, we cannot know the power of voices that celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. This practice alone reinforces the big idea that there is no separation between the sacred and the profane. As we retired the laity, so we retired the profane.
Secondly, we need to constitute community outside of worship on Sunday. Although committee service is one possible way to do so, it does not capture the full depth and breadth of possibility. Anchor groups are an additional imperative; they are as important as committees. We need to meet regularly with a small group of Friends (whose participants rotate) to talk about how our spiritual journeys are progressing, our gifts and ministries burgeoning. I am not the first to assert that we overdo committee work at the expense of the vibrancy in our communities. There are other ways to “do community,” too. Why not start a sports team? Is there a local league in your area? Why not start a dance troupe, a choir, or a book club? Why not commit as an entire meeting to protesting the latest war? Reasons against some of these are entrenched in the story of isolation, and they reinforce the separation between the sacred and profane that we know to be false.
There is a corollary to this anti-dualism: the Internet. Although social media and the Internet cannot be a replacement for authentic community, neither are they purely profane. They can help to enhance authentic community. We can use the Internet to our advantage as a tool for outreach. Whether we like it or not, the Internet has also helped to constitute a robust Quaker diaspora through which community is maintained over long distances. If used with the right amount of detachment, the Internet and social media can be powerful aides in the making of authentic community.
Finally, we need to reach unity before we do any business as a whole community. In meeting for worship with a concern for business, our sense of collective ego is relinquished in favor of a unifying sense of oneness with all things, with each other in the nameless divine. Unity should be sought before any decisions are to be made. We aim for this achievement before any agenda are brought to the gathered community. For how can we be joined in each other’s strength if we do not take the time to know it? How can we do the work that is to be done together, if we do not know whose gifts are suitable for which task? How, even, can we know what to do, if we are unaware of the many leadings that move each of us? How could we possibly speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats, if we do not even know much more than each other’s names?!
As a recovering Quaker process junkie, I contend that the process is less important than the big ideas it enshrines: Community is profoundly intimate and the only legitimate source of authority. Justice is the truest motivation for entering society’s ceaseless churning. Our leaders are stewards of a collective vision. Now, having rejected the story of isolation, I add some additional ideas: the discovery of gifts and leadings is an essential element to Liberal Quaker spiritual formation; committees are not the sole loci of growth and vitality; there is no difference between the sacred and the profane; the Internet is important for our increasingly diasporic religious community; and, in business meeting, unity comes first, not last.
Quaker process is just a metaphor, and these supposed big ideas may simply be more Scotch tape and ear wax, more road ahead to a horizon that will never reveal itself. Yet I would rather wander aimlessly through the fugue of life alongside you, my arms linked with yours, whoever you are. Let’s cease our conviction that this is a thing, whatever it is, we must do for ourselves, because, instead, it may be something to do for each other.