Excerpted from Living the Quaker Way by Philip Gulley. Copyright ©2013 by Philip Gulley. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
While attending a summer gathering of Friends at a college, I found myself unable to sleep in the warm dormitory room I’d been assigned, so I went downstairs to the air-conditioned lobby where I found a small group of Friends also escaping the heat.
We began talking about the day’s events and soon fell into a spirited conversation that led to a good-natured disagreement.
In the middle of our debate a woman entered the lobby. One of the Friends said, “We’ll let Mary settle it!”
“Settle what?” Mary asked.
“Is Quakerism a way of life or a religion?” the Friend asked. “I say it is a religion, but these Friends say it is a way of life.”
“It is both,” Mary said. “It is a way of life rooted in our experience of God.”
I agreed with Mary, thinking to myself, one couldn’t be a Quaker without also believing in God. A few months later, I met several Friends who identified themselves as atheists. Initially, I thought they were rejecting an image of God they had been taught as children. Many of us do that, eventually arriving at an understanding of God that resonates with our spiritual experiences. But when I engaged these atheists in conversation, I learned their atheism went far beyond their disquiet with a specific childhood image of the Divine. They could not affirm the existence of a Divine Presence they had never personally experienced. They struck me as highly moral people working diligently to better the world. But their sense of integrity would not permit them to claim a relationship to a Divine Presence they had not encountered.
While my practice of Quakerism is rooted in my experience of God, that is not the case for all Quakers. For some Friends— indeed for most Friends—Quakerism is first a religion, an understanding and experience of God that leads to a certain way of life. But for others it is a way of life rich in its own right, needing no origin in or confirmation from a divine entity. To the question, “Is Quakerism a way of life or a religion?” I would answer, “It depends upon the Quaker.” This dual reality explains the wide diversity among Friends today. For some, Quakerism is a religion, a way of comprehending and relating to God, usually through the life and witness of Jesus. But that is not all it is. For the atheist Friend, Quakerism is a way of living in the world so that the world is made more just, loving, and peaceable by his or her presence.
It is not my place to say one understanding of Quakerism is superior to another. The God I believe in is happy to work anonymously, neither requiring nor demanding recognition for every act of human kindness.
The next time I see Mary, I might suggest to her that while Quakerism for some Friends is a way of life rooted in our experience of God, that is not the case for all. At one time, I would have mightily resisted that view, but now I am quite willing to welcome as brother and sister those persons whose integrity will not permit them to affirm a god they have not encountered. Though our perceptions of the Divine may differ, our mutual commitment to the Quaker way allows us to stand with one another as Friends and friends. It is this Quaker way—the way of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, and equality—I wish to explore in the pages ahead.