I (Hope I) See Dead People

In M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 film The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment plays a troubled kid named Cole Sear. Cole is able to see and talk with dead people. His psychologist, Malcolm Crowe, played by the ever-versatile Bruce Willis, is equally troubled. Early in the movie we learn that he has had marital problems (his wife believes that he has placed his own career ahead of his love for her), and later he and his wife are brutally attacked by one of his unstable patients.

The next fall Crowe begins working with Cole, who over time gains enough of the kid’s trust to learn that he has a “sixth sense,” which  makes up the now famous line from the movie, “I see dead people.” Once Crowe finally believes Cole is speaking the truth, he begins to work with him to see this as a gift rather than the curse by which he has been troubled. Cole spends the rest of the movie helping dead people with their unfinished business so that they can move on from their state in limbo. It is only at the surprising ending of the film that Crowe learns, along with the audience, that he too is dead, and it is Cole who has been helping him to work through his own unfinished business with his estranged wife.

While watching the film, there is a moment when you realize that Crowe is dead, and an instant shift in perspective occurs that is incredible; talk about a paradigm shift! In fact, there are two shifts in the film that are powerful.  The first is Cole’s learning to see his sixth sense as a gift, rather than a curse; it is this shift that is needed to help Crowe come to terms with his own tortured past—something Crowe has neglected for the sake of helping others (a subtle nod to his wife’s pre-trauma complaint).

The Freedom of Tradition

And isn’t this the difficult truth of the movie? Coming to terms with the past is difficult for anyone and everyone alike. We wrestle with what it means to live meaningful lives in the present, while carrying around the negative (and positive) effects that have shaped our personal narratives. The deceased Crowe mirrors the modern individual, cut free from all roots, even life itself; he is lost in a world of fragmentation, trying to find his path to freedom. He must have missed Hans Georg Gadamer in philosophy class, who comments that “To stand within a tradition does not limit the freedom of knowledge, but makes it possible.”

Wrestling with the past and finding freedom in tradition—rather than limitation—rides against our modern sensibilities. In our technological society, where products become obsolete the moment there is a software or hardware update, we are used to moving quickly in the other direction. Think about your own Quaker meeting. What is its connection to its past? Is it sentimentalized? Antiquarian? Forgotten or ignored? Is it a tortured past or a past that brings freedom?

In our Quaker meetings we all access the connection to our past in different ways. Some Friends have grown up in our meetings, while others, convinced later in life, enter at a different point and bring with them outside perspectives. Both groups encounter the narrative of Quakerism at different angles. Some feel more attached to it; some are here because of the history; others couldn’t care less. Some struggle to move forward for fear of losing that history, while others are ready to move forward without any desire even to look at the old family photos.

No matter where you stand, the reality is that Quakers have a stock of “dead people”: people who have helped shape us and our communities. There are reasons why we do things; some are even deep convictions about what kind of God we profess to believe in. Unfortunately, from the evangelicals to the liberal-liberals, we are frightened by the “dead people” that surround us.  “Our history is a liability,” we might hear an Evangelical say. “It limits my individuality and creativity,” we might hear a liberal confess. The perspective of seeing history and tradition as anything but a curse is to have not made the shift that Crowe walks Cole through. This anti-tradition sentiment is straight from the Enlightenment and got its start by rejecting the authority of (papal) tradition. As we know now, even the rejection of tradition is itself a tradition, just the way non-denominationalism has become a denomination in the United States. It is inescapable; there is no place to stand outside tradition. This is why we have so many people wandering around terrified by all the “dead people” they see.

I have been helped by the distinction that Jaroslav Pelikan makes: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.” I am drawn towards this idea of the “living faith of the dead,” the stories and convictions of those Quakers who have gone before us; they have the scent of the Spirit’s movement. In his Apology, Robert Barclay writes about this same sentiment when thinking about the Bible: “God hath seen meet that herein we should, as in a looking-glass, see the conditions and experience of the saints of old; that finding our experience answer to theirs, we might thereby be the more confirmed and comforted, and our hope of attaining the same end strengthened.” These glimpses of resurrection, as we might call them, could be a lot like what Cole experienced in the movie, where seeing opened up opportunities to dialogue and learn from the past.

Convergent Friends and Tradition

What Convergent Friends (and many of those who were of a similar mind but didn’t necessarily share the name or have their own blogs) have done is to play the role of Crowe. They want to aid in the shift that Cole experiences, so that our communities stop seeing tradition, practices, and convictions as a curse, but rather as a deep and beautiful gift. They are not obstacles to truth but the very vehicles through which we might know and experience God’s love and faithfulness.

When I first became a Quaker, I had the existential experience of realizing that I had always been a Quaker but didn’t know it (in fact, I didn’t even know that Quakers existed until college). My becoming convinced retroactively helped me understand my past. As T.S. Eliot would have said, I discovered what it means “to know it for the first time.” As a 20-year-old, I found it life-giving to think that I was a part of a much bigger story than I could have ever created on my own. Here was the revolutionary, beloved, Christian community I longed for and that produced the likes of Fox, Nayler, Fell, Woolman, Fry, Mott, and so many others. How do I connect with what they had? I remember thinking, “those are the kinds of people I want to be like; that’s the kind of community I want to be a part of.” I see dead people and am moved by them.

I believe that the work of Friends everywhere (whether we call ourselves convergent, Evangelical, Liberal, Conservative, or my favorite, just plain old “Quaker”) is to be faithful in the present following the leading of the Spirit of Christ. However, we should not, even for a second, assume that means relinquishing the taking into account of all that we have been taught, all that we have learned through our tradition’s history, and the power of the stories and the practices that shape us. Why are we reading Emergent Church literature for ideas on how to be the church in the world when we haven’t even internalized the stories and teachings of our own tradition?

I am convinced we are to become apprentices of our tradition: people who are so formed and steeped in the language and movements of what it means to be Quakers that it is second nature, or maybe a sixth sense. Then, when the time comes to innovate (or as I like to say, remix), it can be done from a place of faithfulness, love, and grace. If our first question about tradition is “how do we avoid tyranny?” we’ve already tipped our hand. Convergent Friends are not iconoclasts so much as they are people in love with renaissance.

Today, the convergent Friends conversation, if there is such a thing, continues wherever our meetings begin developing what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says is “the virtue of having an adequate sense of the traditions to which one belongs.” The move is in the direction of the local meeting, supporting and building up the communities in which we’re already involved, establishing dialogue with those with whom we’ve lost contact, and wrestling with our identity as Quakers in the twenty-first century. Convergent Friends want to participate in seeing this lived out. I think that’s what many of us are doing today. Blogs may have helped forge new relationships and inspiration, but now the task ahead is the long and patient work of being midwife to a new, Spirit-birthed movement, under the banner of the Religious Society of Friends.

In our meeting in Camas, Wash., for example, we not only read the early journals and study our history, but have focused on learning how to practice discernment. And we consider questions like “what does it mean to be Quakers in Camas?” We know there are many things we could put our energy into and also many things we cannot do (or do well), but we do know that we can be the Quakers in our community. The process of discernment brings the threads of tradition, scripture, community, and guidance of the Spirit together in the present moment. In discernment we seek unity with God’s guidance; the process helps us become God’s people. This practice offers us rich experiences to draw on and has given our community new vibrancy.

What I have learned as pastor of a Quaker meeting is that many people have had similar experiences  connecting to the Quaker tradition. Convergent Friends are everywhere. People are drawn, not simply to the “spices” that make up Quakerism but to its deeply-held convictions, to its heart, to its stories, to both its container and the content. In a world where we are so quick to bury the dead and move on, I am relieved to find that there are so many who still hope to see dead people.


C. Wess Daniels

C. Wess Daniels loves being a Quaker pastor and has enjoyed pastoring Camas Friends Church since 2009. He is a father of two (and one on the way), husband, and a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary. He continues to learn about the depth of God’s love from the people in his meeting, the importance of the Quaker tradition, and the meaning of being rooted in a place. Visit him at gatheringinlight.com

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