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The Continuing Revelation of My Christianity

I’ve always identified as a Christian, but that identity has held very different meanings for me over the years. My father began taking me to an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church when I was in kindergarten. But even as I was “born again” as a rite of passage when I became a teenager, I never felt connected to what I was learning in Sunday School. Each week I would ask to not go to church with my father, and finally, when I was in high school, he acquiesced. I had been attending a Friends school throughout my childhood and had felt an affinity with Quaker values more strongly than I had with the AME church. When I was in eleventh grade, I attended the Quaker Youth Leadership Conference (QYLC), an annual gathering of Friends school teachers and students, and it made me realize that somewhere along the way, I had become Quaker. The QYLC was the first time I can remember explicitly learning the testimonies, and I recognized them as my own core values. I began attending meeting for worship with my friend’s mother and calling myself a Quaker. My Quaker identity remained a personal rather than religious identification for more than a decade.

Through my own clearness experience and my experience serving on clearness committees for others, I gained a deeper understanding of Quakerism as a Christian religion. Somewhere along the way, I read or was told that because Quakerism is a Christian religion, the expectation for Quakers is that we at least believe in the power and significance of the story of Jesus. I became comfortable answering the question of whether Quakers believed in Jesus as the Son of God with an explanation of how Quakers have diverse beliefs around Jesus because ours is not a dogmatic faith.

Five years ago I began working at a Catholic school as its director of social action. I was surprised by how similar Catholic thought about religion was to my own thought about Quakerism. My new colleagues referred to Catholicism as a religion grounded in peace and justice, which is how I think about the Religious Society of Friends. My role as director of social action centers on supporting the community in translating faith into action, which is also the focus of much of my Quaker committee work. Although I had been nervous about working at a school with a different faith from mine, what I found was that I was able to live my Quaker faith every day at work.

Because of the Catholic identity of my school, I have learned a great deal about what unites Christians. I have learned much more about the story of Jesus through my work than I ever have through Quaker forums. I have found that learning more of the details of the life of Jesus has deepened my Quaker faith. The more Bible stories I learn, the more the model of Jesus makes its way into my heart and my consciousness. I have become an associate, a lay partner in mission, of the Society of the Sacred Heart, the order of nuns that runs the network of schools to which my school belongs. Their mission is to bring more love into the world, and that is my mission as well. Similar to when I discovered Quakerism, Sacred Heart spirituality felt like a good fit for the values I already hold dear. I began to call myself not only a Quaker but also a Christian, as Jesus’s model became more central to my spirituality.

 

This summer I spent a month in Bethlehem with Holy Land Trust, whose website explains:

While Holy Land Trust is not a religious organization … we believe that, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, Jesus Christ in his teachings, compassion and interactions “was an extremist for love, truth and goodness.”

I signed up for their Summer Encounter program because of my work with the Quaker Palestine Israel Network and was surprised to discover once in Bethlehem that four of the five other participants in my group were Wheaton College students whose evangelical Christian identity was extremely important to them. To bridge what seemed like a chasm between us, I initially shared a website about the biblical roots of Quakerism and focused on our shared Christianity. I was hoping that we would never have to explore how different my Christian faith was from theirs.

The author and Jean Zaru in Ramallah.

My greatest fear came true when we met Jean Zaru, the inspirational Quaker leader in Ramallah. In discussing our different takes on her remarks, I ended up being asked if I believed in an omnipotent God. To their horror, I answered that I don’t not believe in one. That led to the follow‐up question of whether I believe in a trinitarian God, and they were even more horrified when I gave the same answer. They wondered how I considered myself a Christian if I did not share that basic foundation with them. I explained the centrality of Jesus’s model in my own life as I commit myself to bring more light and love into the world. One of the young men then asked how I understood love outside of the concept of a trinitarian God, to which another of them answered that I believed in a love with justice. That ended the conversation, because it made clear to everyone involved that we did, indeed, share at least that faith foundation.

My summer immersion among evangelical Christians reminded me of Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family,” which has the refrain “we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” I was a part of a group whose Christianity was about as different from mine as is possible, but we all felt that our faith called us, in the words of William Penn, to “try what love will do.” In her book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett writes:

There is a value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to a common ground that would have all the hard questions hanging.

 

I’m grateful to have been in a loving community with people whose Christianity was so different from mine and yet who questioned the nature of my Christianity; it pushed me to become clear on what my Christian identity means to me and to embrace what that identity means to others.

The author with colleagues and nuns (including a cutout of St. Philippine Duchesne) at the Sacred Heart Spirituality Forum in 2017.

Based on my time with my new evangelical friends, I have committed to learning more about the Christian aspect of my faith. Through their recommendations, I have been reading C.S. Lewis’s books and listening to the evangelical podcast The World and Everything in It. I do not agree with everything I read or hear, but I certainly feel that the exploration of a more conservative Christianity opens rather than closes my mind. There are some ways in which my faith will always be distinct from that of people on the other end of the spectrum of Christianity, but there are times when the differences are meaningful and push me to think about things in new ways. For example, in a recent episode of The World and Everything in It, John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, said: “One of the things I think is really important to realize is that if the Bible is inspired, it’s not just inspired in what it says, it’s inspired in how it chooses to say it to us.”

Although I may not think of the Bible as being divinely inspired in the same way that he does, I appreciate being pushed to consider whether I pick out the parts of it to use in my life that least challenge my worldview. And that is a question I never would have come to without hearing from Christians who approach the Bible differently from me.

Ever since my experience this summer, I have become more aware of how I describe Quakerism, taking care to explain not only my own unprogrammed experience of Quakerism but aiming to address the diversity with Quaker faith and practice. The diversity within Quakerism and the diversity within Christianity allow us additional windows into the Divine, if only we open our eyes. And at the end of the day, what I believe most strongly is a sentiment from British Orthodox rabbi Jonathan Sacks that is shared in Tippett’s Becoming Wise: “To be true to your faith is a blessing to others regardless of their faith.”

Lauren Brownlee is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting, a steering committee member of the Quaker Palestine Israel Network, and serves on Baltimore Yearly Meeting's Peace and Social Concerns Committee. She serves as director of social action at a Catholic School in Bethesda and is a Sacred Heart Associate.


Posted in: Features, Quakers and Christianity

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