God, Jesus, Christianity, and Quakers

© Kevin Carden

As a nontheist Friend, I sometimes confront questions about my belief in God, my understanding of Jesus, and my relationship with Christianity. I welcome these questions and generally enjoy discussing these subjects.

I don’t have any difficulty answering the God question or affirming my belief in God, although I don’t believe in a God who is a being, who is involved in my life, who answers my prayers, who judges me upon death, or who offers me everlasting life.

Also, I don’t have any difficulty answering questions about Jesus as I understand Jesus to be a teacher, healer, and social activist in the great tradition of Hebrew prophets. Although I don’t see Jesus as divine, I do see him as an amazing inspiration for the basic tenets of his teaching, specifically his two commandments: to love God with all your heart, and to treat others as you would wish to be treated.

The second commandment is easy to understand though often hard to practice. It isn’t as easy to understand what commandment one involves, especially if you don’t conceive of God as a being. Still, it does have meaning for me as I conceive of God as the primal life force of the universe—the thing, process, or force that brings universes into being and that has led to life on Earth. Life on Earth includes many ugly events and human tragedies, but it also includes many lovely developments. I can imagine life developing without these positives, so I experience them as a gift. This is how I understand commandment one: I am to live in a way that promotes lovely developments for Earth and its inhabitants, both human and animal. Admittedly, this is rather nebulous, but it provides some guidance and is consistent with the testimonies of Friends.

 

I find questions about the Quaker embrace, or my embrace, of Christianity more challenging. Many non-Quaker Christians, especially Evangelical ones, would of course answer the Quaker Christian question using a defined set of criteria: Do Quakers believe in a God who created the universe, who responds to prayer, and who judges us at death? Do Quakers believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead, and that belief in him leads to heaven and saves us from hell?

I don’t think these questions are at all helpful when we as Quakers address the question of Christianity for ourselves. In most Christian denominations, there is some kind of declaration of faith, some kind of baptism or ritual, and official membership is usually important and recognized. For members of these denominations, the question of Christianity is easy and straightforward.

Obviously, it is not such an easy question for unprogrammed Friends. There is no given creed to attest to and persons often attend meeting and serve on committees for years without formal membership. There is indeed the ritual of the clearness committee for membership and a hearty welcome to formal membership, but overall the initiation into formal membership is low-key and the distinction between members and attenders is minimal.

Yet, modern Quakers are the heirs of a long and rich Christian tradition. I will leave it to the Quaker historians to provide the details of this. I think the question of whether Quakers are Christian or individual Quakers are Christian are problematic, best replaced by questions about how we conceive of God, how we understand Jesus, or how we experience the sacred.

 

The question of my Christianity is certainly problematic for me, and I might give different answers on different occasions depending on a number of factors. When I might answer, yes, I am a Christian, I am considering that I am a member of a traditional Christian denomination, and I have a great love of Jesus and strive to uphold testimonies consistent with his commandments. I also take into account that the early followers of Jesus had different understandings of exactly who Jesus was and what his message was, so I understand that Christianity has always had a broad definition, even if individuals and denominations often sought to restrict the term to those who share their own beliefs. The definition of Christian I like best is simply “a follower of Jesus of Nazareth”—not Jesus Christ; I would be a Christian under that definition.

When I am tempted to answer, no, I’m not a Christian, I am considering that I don’t believe in an afterlife; I don’t believe in God as a being active in the world; I don’t accept the Nicene Creed, and I don’t believe Jesus physically rose from the dead. I also think that if I were magically able to share my beliefs with all of the world’s professed Christians, the majority would not consider me a Christian. This makes me think that describing myself as a Christian would go against the most widely accepted meaning of the word.

In any case, I am not so invested in being known as a Christian, and I am not enthusiastic about defending any right I might have to be known as such. I am more protective of my right to be known as a believer in God and as a lover of Jesus, even though my conception of both may differ from the mainstream.

 

How important is it for the Religious Society of Friends or Friends General Conference to decide if the Quaker body is Christian? Is it important for marketing purposes? Self-selection purposes? Other purposes? One thing is clear: present-day Quakers will never agree whether Quakerism remains a Christian religion.

What is unclear is whether Quakers can have a productive discussion on the topic. I think there are limited opportunities to discuss our own beliefs, so I fear thoughts and emotions on the topic often occur without clear understanding. I think and hope it is possible to discuss the range of beliefs, conceptions, and experiences existing within Quakerism in a way that creates understanding, acceptance, identity, and cohesion.

I know some Friends have accepted that Quakerism is held together by common testimonies and practices, and this is enough for them. I think there is a real value, however, in a discussion of our beliefs as well. My most moving and inspiring experiences as a Quaker have been participating in clearness committees for membership and hearing the beliefs and experiences that led someone to seek membership. Often our meeting would share letters for membership, and this was inspiring as well.

I have also been inspired by the lengthy exchanges that have occurred this past September on the Facebook Quakers group. Dozens of participants weighed in on questions about God, Christianity, and Quakerism in a very thoughtful and respectful way that made me proud and reinforced my belief that such discussions are both possible and powerful.

Jim Cain

Jim Cain is a member and former clerk of Atlanta (Ga.) Meeting, currently attending Collective Church, a "misfit faith community" in DeLand, Fla. He's recently retired from a long career in public mental health. He has co-led Friends General Conference Gathering workshops on "Nontheism Among Friends" and "Reclaiming the Sacred" and made a presentation on the evolution of God to nontheist Friends at this summer's Gathering.

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