There is a charming well-worn anecdote about a devout old Quaker couple who were awakened one night by the sound of a commotion coming from downstairs. Shaking her husband the wife said, "Listen, I think there is a burglar in the house. Thee needs to go downstairs and investigate." Dutifully the old man reached for his hunting rifle and stealthily crept down the hallway. Sure enough just as he came to the staircase he found himself suddenly face to face with the prowler coming up from below. Aiming his shotgun at the intruder the Quaker said, "Friend, I mean thee no harm, but I'm about to shoot where thee is standing."
Likewise, let me assure Friends at the outset that although it may seem I’m aiming a blast in their direction, I mean no harm. I write as another who loves the Quaker Faith but increasingly wonders if he can find a place in it. I have been a part of three Quaker communities, serving as clerk for one and being invited to accept the pastorate of another. Having attended national Quaker gatherings and corresponded with meetings from the Atlantic to the Pacific, I have come to share the now widely held conclusion that unless the current trajectory is reversed, liberal Quakerism is headed for extinction. The patient is sick. The disease has been misdiagnosed. The prognosis may be serious but it is too early to hang black crepe from the windows and send out death notices. With the right medicine there is still hope. But let’s first examine the symptoms.
No one attending a Quaker meeting can fail to notice the preponderance of gray and white hair. In my own meeting it is rare for a person under thirty to join us in worship. And if they come once they never come again. Correspondence with other meetings informs me that our experience is hardly unique. The decline in membership is now so painfully undeniable that it has become a frequent topic in Friends journals, meetings, books and letters. The immediate response to this crisis has been a quintessentially American one--get busy! We are urged to hold more threshing sessions, hammer out novel visions, purchase the latest How To books that promise to rejuvenate our failing communities, rent a billboard, or invest in some entertaining internet programs for the young, the old, the alienated, and every hyphenated demographic that may present itself. And still our numbers continue to decline. Astonishingly, it is no longer even unusual to hear voices in meetings and on blogs suggesting that the wheel of history has turned so irrevocably against us that Quakerism must resign itself to a graceful death.
We have been doing a lot of soul searching these days and asking ourselves a lot of questions. But as far as I have been able to discover, no one has bothered to ask the deeper question of why we are headed for the same fate as the Shakers. Is it because our Quaker testimonies have become irrelevant? Equality, integrity, voluntary simplicity, and the work of peace making are urgently needed now more than ever. Is it because Friends (who are overwhelmingly white, overeducated, and comfortably middleclass) are disconnected from the needs of the larger communities in which they live and work? Nothing could be farther from the truth. Every meeting that I have been a part of has networked effectively with other religious, social, and political organizations to bring about positive change in their community. My own meeting recently played an important role in accomplishing our city's first LGBTQ civil rights resolution, and has organized non-violent communication seminars and interfaith prayer events for years. It is not because Quakers have suddenly become deficient in good works or social activism that we continue to see a steady hemorrhaging of membership. We are headed gently into Dylan Thomas' "good night" because, with all the best intentions in the world, the Religious Society of Friends has unhinged itself from the one thing a faith community must have in order to survive--a narrative: a coherent story that ties everything together in our lives in a way that gives meaning to our struggles, our suffering, and our efforts to build the “beloved community.”More than any other writer of the twentieth century, Joseph Campbell wrote of the importance of the narrative in the human search for meaning. He introduced entire generations to the Jungian concept of the archetype and reminded us how we continually draw upon those powerful subliminal images to make sense of our own lives. We are storytellers. From those first shaggy bards gathered around ancient campfires to the elegant Master of Monticello penning the Declaration of Independence we rely on stories to infuse our lives with meaning and help us understand the world in which we live. And whether we care to acknowledge it or not, the deeper narrative from which Quakerism sprang is the Christian narrative of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who functioned both as archetype and engine for the early Quakers. For most of our history, Friends have had no trouble identifying with that Christian narrative. The Religious Society of Friends began as a reform movement within Christianity, and for the early Friends there was no confusion when it came to identifying the Light with the historical person of Jesus. They lived and moved in a society that was saturated with a Christian ethos. The very stones around them proclaimed a Christian culture that we can no longer take for granted as they could. Embedded within a Christian milieu they found their meaning and their mission in the gospels.
But we are now faced with a dilemma. That Christian milieu has long since faded, and seeds that were planted early in our own history have left Quakers uniquely vulnerable to the stresses and challenges of a materialistic and aggressively secular civilization. The historic channels through which Christian Faith has typically been transmitted were scripture, tradition, and sacramental ritual. They weave together to form the narrative that is the Christian community’s collective memory of the Jesus event. To a certain degree, part of the uniqueness of Quakerism has been its rejection of scripture, tradition, and ritual as the principal sources of religious authority. In their place, Friends have historically elevated the individual’s experience of the Inward Light as primary. But it might now be asked whether the very thing that made Quakerism unique within Christianity is now making it uniquely vulnerable. Without scripture, tradition, or sacramental ritual, what is left to re-link us to the original narrative that gave shape and substance to what began as an explicitly Christian mysticism? We could do without a reliance on scripture, ordained ministry, or ritual while we lived in a Christian society that provided us with commonly held ethical presuppositions and a vocabulary to interpret our spiritual experiences. But that time has now past. Without the force of at least of an ostensibly Christian culture, where is the Religious Society of Friends to look for its identity and its engine?
The loss of that broad cultural ethos, with its presumed Christian narrative, has left liberal Quakerism adrift: progressive and compassionate, but conflicted and incoherent--the “Democratic party at prayer” --a faith increasingly reduced to a system of ethics devoid of any mystical content. If we have substituted a progressive social agenda in place of a core Christian faith, do our spiritual longings have anywhere to go? It seems questionable whether any religion can exist simply as a set of ethics. And lest we forget, three centuries of Quaker social activism were deeply rooted in the Gospels. We have taken for granted how belief in Jesus has changed the world. In the ancient world children were of little value, often sold into slavery and left to die if they happened to be of the wrong gender. Jesus’ treatment of children led to the forbidding of such practices. In the ancient world no one would have regarded forgiveness as a virtue. Hannah Arendt said, “The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus’ universal concern for those who suffered transcended the rules of the ancient world and inspired religious orders to found the first hospitals, orphanages, and ministries to the poor, the sick, and the imprisoned.
The early Friends were convinced that in worship they were connecting not with an abstraction but with a Divine power that was personal and transformative. Now our meetings seem to be little more than tautologies: gathering together to celebrate the fact that we have gathered together. The result being that our meetings for worship are beginning more and more to resemble a kind of watered down Zen meditation session with vocal ministry hardly ever offered. I once attended a meeting where the only vocal ministry offered over the space of many months was an admonition to tip waitresses more generously. There are two kinds of silence. There is silence that flows from a deep, spirit-filled connection that surpasses the need for words. And then there is the other kind: a nihilistic emptiness because there is simply nothing to say and nothing worth saying. Reformation divines may have debated over faith and works versus faith alone, but no Christian ever argued for works alone without faith!
The modern flight of American liberal Quakerism from the Christian narrative has been aided and abetted by the rise of a Biblical fundamentalism that has embarrassed the very brand of Christianity for many socially progressive people of faith. Fundamentalist preachers have been astonishingly successful at grabbing the microphone and presenting their version of Christianity as if it were the only orthodox view. The consequence of this has been that the mere mention of any word belonging to the Christian lexicon offered up in vocal ministry is likely to bring an embarrassed or even hostile reaction. I have experienced this myself in meetings where fables or readings from Eastern spiritual traditions are welcomed with smiles and nods, while any reference to the gospels or the lives of the saints is met with palpable tension or worse still, a breach of Quaker discipline in the form of an outright challenge disrupting worship. I have seen dwindling meetings reject any kind of outreach into the community because it might be mistaken as proselytizing, which was viewed as “too Christian.”
Is our only choice, then, between the nihilism of Quakerism shorn of its Christian mysticism or a Biblical fundamentalism whose literal reading of the Bible renders it increasingly untenable as an option to people living in the modern world? It seems to me that both options ultimately lead to the end of the Religious Society of Friends. But I believe that there is a third option that holds some real hope for the future. We can refuse to cede the ground to either the Biblical fundamentalists or the weary rationalists and instead reclaim the power of the Christian narrative but in a way that is consistent with the best of our tradition--Christocentric without being fossilized. One of the great Quaker insights was an acceptance of the idea of ongoing revelation. The mystery of God is uniquely visible in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who eternally “speaks to our condition” as Fox would say. The Incarnation is an ongoing reality; God is personally present and active in the heart of every human being. The great strength of Quakerism is the freedom to approach the Jesus event without being weighed down by the pre-packaged answers that were handed to us as dogmas by earlier orthodoxies.
Many people who long for a more personal faith in a more personal God, but who are revolted by the idea of a vengeful God whose divine justice could only be satisfied by the torture of his own son in order to “save” human beings, might be surprised to learn that this theory of substitutionary penal atonement put forth by fundamentalists has never been the only Christian understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. If, as adherents to the substitutionary theory believe, the sole purpose of Jesus mission was to act as a stand-in victim to appease the divine wrath, he could have accomplished that in a single day by his crucifixion alone. His miracles of love and healing, his example of forgiveness, his life of service would all have been completely superfluous. But the medieval Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus argued for another approach. He taught that the Incarnation was a manifestation of God’s presence in the universe from the beginning and would have happened even if there had never been any Fall. The Scotist school of theology taught that God was ever present in creation from microsecond to microsecond, sustaining it from the inside out and becoming personal at last in the Incarnation. The Incarnation and death of Jesus was not a rescue mission, but a personification in matter of the Divine Presence “who holds all things together in unity within Himself” (Colossians 1:15). It is an old idea making a comeback among modern theologians. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, “It is not the redemption from sin, but the unification of the world in itself and with God that is the ultimate motivating cause for the Incarnation and, as such, the very first idea of the Creator, existing in advance of all creation.”
Here is a picture of a Christianity that could have been, and wasn’t, but might yet be. The picture not of a vengeful God but a loving God breathing Himself into creation, romancing matter into spirit, and drawing that new creation back to Himself in a loving embrace. It is a picture of Jesus that was lost along the way during the long trek of Christian history but is being rediscovered by those who know that he is the place where our lives intersect with the beating heart of God.