Religious Identity in an Age of Uncertainty
It was last year, during a summer which lingered long into a mild winter, when I came to my first Friends meeting in the hills of southern Vermont. It had been several months, and I was still the newcomer, when I was asked a curious question. It came from a great, big Quaker man of 70-something years who had just recovered from a stroke and was learning to live with some debilitating aftereffects. I had most likely met him at a meeting prior, but his memory was so spare that he addressed me as a stranger. “Are you a Friend?” His inquiry couldn’t have been more simple nor well-meaning if he had tried to make it so, but it caught me off-guard nonetheless. I knew that he meant, “Are you a Quaker?” and so I responded sheepishly, “Well, no.” But over the months since, the question has followed me. Am I a Friend? And what does that really mean?
As a 25-year-old “almost Quaker,” I am standing at the edges of the faith and in the dead center of a sort of predictable uncertainty. Questions of how to honestly present my whole self to the world occupy my mind daily. A good part of this uncertainty, for me and perhaps for many others, is the conundrum of identity and the intersection of its social aspect with the personal. Somewhere in that intersection falls my religious identity. But where? For example, can I be a Buddhist if I don’t go to a temple and engage in its life? Can I be a Quaker if I don’t attend a meeting and participate in its ritual coming-together? We’ve begun to think about religion and identity in new ways in the twenty-first century, and often it can be very hard to know where we stand. But one thing is sure: that our social religious identities can often look very different from our personal religious identities. Perhaps one of the challenges of the spiritual life consists of finding sure footing and safe passage on a bridge between the two. Either way, my own life has brought me to the doorstep of the proverbial meetinghouse, and I have been asked, are you a Friend?
Having been baptized into the Episcopal Church by my priest uncle, and raised accordingly by my church-going family, I am, by some standards of religious identity, an Episcopalian. I was born and grew up into a distinctly Episcopalian social environment. And yet somehow, as I’ve matured, that doesn’t quite do it for me anymore. I no longer attend church with my family apart from holidays, and when I do, I find myself scratching my head so often that I figure maybe this isn’t for me. I can confidently say, then, that I am no longer an Episcopalian.
What then? By another set of social standards, I suppose I am nothing but a nominal “Christian.” I show up to a small Quaker meeting when I can, attend the Episcopal holiday services with my family, read scriptures with no scheduled regularity, and that’s all. I have no clear social commitment, and it seems that, more and more among people of my generation, this is the norm. Some of us lead social lives dominated by engagement with a certain religious community, but perhaps feel that our hearts aren’t in it, that our souls thirst for something more than the weekly potluck and small talk. Others of us may lead rather unsocial lives dominated by a longing for involvement with a community centered in truly spiritual things. Indeed, we are more than our social engagements, for while we stutter before the other actors on the stage, we study our own lines obsessively, hoping to find a stronger voice.
If our own religious identities are more than social, more than relational, how do our personal lives influence them? Well, it could be said (and has been) that the whole of the spiritual life really begins within the individual, with the motions of the Spirit in the heart toward the Source of all things. If this is true, it spells good news for the armies of the uncommitted, the fringe seekers who don’t quite fit in any boxes. There must first be a pull in the heart toward something more, and the decision to show up to the temple, to the church, or to the meetinghouse must be the direct reflection of that pulling in the world. In the sense that the truly religious life begins with the life of the individual, the Psalmist was right in singing that “the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit” (Ps. 51:17). We cannot come before a meeting for worship with any honesty until our spirits are broken, until we are so beset by questions of paralyzing importance that sitting together in silence for an hour seems like the only answer.
Admittedly, these sentiments might only reflect the limited perspective of the “almost Quaker.” For many, like myself, on the fringes of the faith, there is that pulling toward it in the heart, or even no more than a vague and distant interest, which is keeping it in its orbit. There is a host of varying reasons why we may not show up to a meeting, but simply showing up might not be the most important part of the equation just yet. Of course, our lives are processes, and what is good for us at one stage would hurt us at the next. We learn, we grow, and our needs constantly evolve. In this sense, a generation of uncommitted seekers who still have in them a relation or interest in the Quaker faith could indeed be what lays the groundwork for a future generation of Friends that are not Friends in form alone, but first in truth.
This can apply to both those coming to the Quaker faith later in life and those raised in Quaker social environments. Many graduates of Friends schools, for example, while they may no longer be institutionally aligned with the Quakers, still seem to carry with them in some way the ingrained testimonies of community, simplicity, integrity, equality, and peace. By the same token, the unaffiliated seekers who feel beckoned to ask themselves, “Am I a Friend?” will consider these testimonies, see what silence might teach them, and only then make an effort to familiarize themselves with a local meeting. And here, it is vital that we ask ourselves, is it more important that we “almost Quakers” come to a meeting and engage in its modest forms of faith and practice, or perhaps that we first begin to understand what Isaac Penington meant when he said:
We come not to [the true way] by hearing or receiving new notions or apprehensions of things, but by experiencing that which puts an end to all creaturely notions and apprehensions; and we grow in it by the increase of that thing in us.
Perhaps to be a Friend, regular attendance at a meeting is not the greatest prerequisite, but an outgrowth of the life which sprouts humbly from a seed in each of our hearts, and which must first germinate in darkness.
It is in the spirit of these reflections that my mind often returns to that day, just after meeting, when I was asked, are you a Friend? I answered no, simply because I allowed myself to think, in that moment, in very narrow terms of what it might mean to be a Friend. In the social sense, I am an outsider. And yet I am drawn to the faith in ways I am still discovering. In silence, I am in awe. Of institutions, I am skeptical. I have been this way for as long as I can remember. So maybe I can say, in personal terms, I am a Friend, or at least that I have always held the values of a Friend. But then again, maybe not. Somehow in all of this, I am left expecting more from the word “Friend.” What was it that George Fox, Margaret Fell, James Nayler, and others meant by that appellation? Surely to them it meant more than just a signified affiliation with a group or a system of belief. To the first Friends, who interpreted every facet of life through the radical faith and practice of the gospel, the good news that Christ has come to teach people himself, being a Friend must have meant at all times to be a friend to the friendless, a friend of the truth in the face of mockery and shame. It meant standing in the world as an unyielding witness to the power of the Word, the Logos, written on every heart, “sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
To be a witness to this reality, this power which puts an end to all notions and apprehensions—in other words, to be a “Friend of the Truth,” what must we do first? Should we window-shop for a community that reflects our values? Should we try on, like garments, all the rituals of social institutions which fit our tastes? Or should we first strive to stand naked in the same Spirit that shed such a convicting light on the institutions and inclinations of George Fox’s day, and see where, in and around us, its light shines now? It is becoming clearer to me that, today, there is a generation of Friends of this sort, hesitant for now perhaps to dedicate themselves to an established religious community, wary of what it might mean. It is a hesitance that reflects not a disinterest in things spiritual, but rather an uncertainty as to how the Spirit actually moves and lives in community. In another sense, it is also the understanding that that part of us which combs desperately through groups and systems for a sense of belonging, whether fulfilled or not, is at last just that—a desperate, searching part, hungry for identity in the world, a mirage of meaning. The need to belong, to be recognized, and to feel the faint praise of our peers cannot, in the end, be what pulls us to involve ourselves in spiritual community. It must be something much more.
To stand still in the glare of the Light that illuminates every hidden part of us, still and not wavering until we are moved to act not of ourselves but of that which holds us, from beginning to end—this must be our rule, irrespective of title and tradition. If a generation of seekers and outsiders does not appear to the eye as traditional Friends, or as traditional Christians for that matter, it may be that they are called to serve as searchlights for our ideas of what tradition does for us. On this point, Margaret Fell quite aptly warned:
It’s a dangerous thing to lead young Friends much into the observation of outward things which may be easily done. For they can soon get into an outward garb, to be all alike outwardly, but this will not make them into true Christians: it’s the spirit that gives life.
The hesitance of some to invest fully in Quaker social life must awaken us to this fact: our communities are not beacons of the Spirit simply on the basis of being called “Quaker” and holding to certain values. Rather, we are meant to look much deeper, into both ourselves and our relations to others, so as to learn how to let the Spirit change us entirely and to dissolve all the habits of the old life in us, until what is left is the ever-new and pulsing Life common to us all. I think we become Friends when we allow this to take place. So, are you a Friend? If I could answer again, I might say that I ask myself that question every day.