Articles & News

Understanding Belief

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 2:40am

© mortortian

Like many other responsible seekers, I’ve read most of the recent atheist authors (Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and on back to Bertrand Russell in 1957) who criticize and even denigrate the belief systems of the ordinary Christians. As far as my own theology is concerned, I agree substantially with their conclusions; I call myself a post-Christian and a post-theist.

But why conclude that Christianity is wrong for everybody else? The fact that religious systems include a substantial element of magical thinking and mythology does not disprove their usefulness in a difficult world. Religious belief has been common in all cultures since the beginning of human time because, from an evolutionary point of view, it has demonstrable survival value. At all times in history, human life has been a dangerous and fearful proposition. Religion has often functioned well to abate fear, instill intention, promote courage, and protect from despair. So don’t knock it!


The basic concepts of transactional analysis are useful in understanding the dynamics of belief. The technique’s founder, Eric Berne, and his followers posit that all persons carry within themselves the emotional states of child, parent, and adult, and switch back and forth between them as circumstances change. The “child” includes an OK mood and a not-OK mood; the “parent” can be nurturing or punishing; the “adult” keeps primarily to a rational, reasoning state of mind.

In a primitive world or society, just as in a disadvantaged and poorly educated condition in our own era, there is much to fear and to cause a person to feel like a “not-OK child.” Even the most privileged among us often feel pretty bad about ourselves or our world.

To correct the fearful or helpless state of mind, a human instinctively looks for a nurturing “parent” (or possibly a competent “adult”). A grownup in a not-OK mindset who does not have a real-life father at hand may look for another “parent” source of reassurance. The conventional Christian God is the paradigmatic father. Like other fathers, He is believed to be nurturing so much of the time that He is endured when He is “punishing,” as “when bad things happen to good people.” He has power when the not-OK child does not.

In terms of correcting the fearful state of mind, it doesn’t matter if the father or parent figure is objectively real or not. It only matters that the suffering person can shift out of the helpless, not-OK mode and carry on. Religious thinking—magical or not—has functioned effectively in this way for millions of individuals throughout human history and continues to do so today. I hope that, despite my own non-believing condition, such magical thinking will come to my own aid if I ever need it. I have some treasured stones and tokens to revert to, just in case! They will help to move me from not-OK to an “adult” mode when that change is needed.

Meanwhile, though, like the educated and privileged Sams, Richards, and Christophers who write these post-scientific books, most of the time I have access to a competent “adult” state of mind and can find “adult” resources among my associates and in my library. (Books by Martin Buber, Erich Fromm, Galen Guengerich, and David Boulton are in my collection, for example.) As a Quaker, I am not tempted to look at others as “not-OK children” or to take on a “punishing parent” attitude toward them.

Above and beyond belief, belonging to a group is also crucial to the well-being of most humans and to their sense of being OK. Who is my tribe? Where do I fit in?

Almost everyone looks for a community to belong to. Some will adhere to a group that hates and hurts other people, and they should be urged to change their ways. My own tribe, the unprogrammed Quakers, lets others go their own ways, respected and unharmed. Operating primarily in an “adult” mode, Quakers even let me follow my own path as a post-Christian and post-theist. I am grateful.


The post Understanding Belief appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

A Consideration of Metaphors

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 2:35am

© Kevin Carden

How can we understand better the relationship between Christianity and Quakerism? In this piece, I want to look at some metaphors that we do, or could, use. I want to ask what these metaphors imply about the two traditions we’re looking at, what true and helpful points the metaphors capture, and where they might mislead us.

Before I start, a few words about what I take “Quakerism” and “Christianity” to be. In both cases, I’m talking about a tradition: a set of stories, practices, and characteristic language uses that is passed down from one generation to another. I’m talking about a religion (and the English word “religion” takes Christianity to be the model religion to such an extent that, especially in older uses, “religious” can just mean “Christian”) that has spiritual, cultural, and political elements. I’m not talking about individuals, and I’m generalizing across all the variation within the traditions. (Given my location and personal history though, I probably have a bias toward foregrounding Liberal Quakerism and Anglican Christianity.) I’m aware that some Quakers favor an anti-ism-ism that leads them to oppose racism, feminism, and alcoholism equally, but in my opinion, it’s just a grammatical feature, which is a handy way of distinguishing the tradition: “Quakerism” as distinct from individual “Quakers” or “Friends” or from the spiritual path of “the Quaker Way” (“Christianity,” “Christians,” and “the way of Christ” function similarly).

And what is a metaphor? Roughly, it’s when you take language from one area of life and apply it to another; the combination sets up a juxtaposition or comparison between them. In making metaphors explicit, they often become similes; in making the comparisons involved explicit, they can seem more like analogies. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to take them all together as figures of speech that work in related ways. One of the things a metaphor often allows us to do is cut corners and use shorthand, not going into every detail every time but giving a general impression that’s often very helpful. Sometimes Metaphor Megan, able to leap from premise to conclusion in a single expression, is just the superhero you need. Sometimes it helps, though, to work through the detail so you’re sure you’re leaping to the right conclusion.


What metaphors could we use to describe the relationship between Christianity and Quakerism? Here are some drawn from conversations with Friends and my own imagination. You might like to read through them slowly and notice your reactions to the different images.

  • On the Christian tree, Quakerism is a branch, which has many twigs and buds.
  • Quakerism is a child, sometimes clinging close to and sometimes rejecting parental Christianity.
  • Christianity is a long and complex book, in which Quakerism is no more than a page, or maybe a footnote.
  • Quakerism is a young and growing plant, rooted in the soil of Christianity.
  • Traditions are like stages of life: Christianity is a teenage phase, while Quakerism is more mature.
  • Quakerism is a car that keeps breaking down and being fixed with parts from other manufacturers. It needs to go back to the original builder, Christianity, to get a refit.

Sometimes these metaphors capture the judgments that Quakers make as we try and work out how to relate to Christianity. The image of “Quakerism as the child” who has mixed feelings about the parent Christianity—embarrassed by it, wanting reassurance from it, rebelling against it, rediscovering that it can actually be wise at times, or even feeling abused by it—captures within the metaphor this range of reactions. On the other hand, sometimes these judgments are embedded within the metaphor: the “stages of life” image does this, with its ranking of more- and less-mature traditions. Metaphors like this are often not spelled out, but can be hidden in language about primitive belief systems: a youthful need for certainty or an individual’s life story assumed to be a universal ideal.


I’m also intrigued by the way that some of these metaphors position Christianity and Quakerism as two things of the same type (parent and child are both people) or two parts of the same thing (tree, book), while others make them into two very different things (like a car and an engineer). This is especially striking in the “rooted in Christianity” image, where Quakerism is a plant—a living, growing, active thing—while Christianity is the soil. If, as I think many people do, we imagine the soil as relatively static and lifeless, this metaphor is saying something quite strong about Christianity. I think Quakers often do picture Christianity (or at least whatever church they knew in childhood or are leaving behind to join the Quaker community) as something static, not changing or even capable of change. I also know members of other churches who wouldn’t agree with that assessment!

Another aspect of these metaphors is the way in which they relate to other situations. In particular, the way we understand the relationship between Quakerism and Christianity is often reflected in—or from—our picture of the relationship between other traditions, especially Christianity and Judaism. Some of the metaphors Quakers use to describe the relationship between Christianity and Quakerism follow patterns that can also be seen in Christian descriptions of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The images of a tree branch, a parent and child, and stages of life are all sometimes used in this context. Unfortunately, these are often patterns which have been clearly identified as bad ideas: regarding Judaism as immature, static, or just old—rather than as a vibrant, ever-changing, living tradition—is a modern version of long-standing anti-Semitic ideas.

Making the same mistake about Christianity might not seem morally as bad, especially if you feel like a member of a minority group who is “punching up” when you attack socially powerful Christianity. Intellectually though it’s just as bad, and if you are part of a diverse Quaker community in which there are members who identify as not only Quaker but also Christian, Jewish, nontheist, Buddhist, and so on, you’re going to be insulting somebody every which way around. In the process of thinking through and trying to improve metaphors, these patterns are something to be aware of and to seek to avoid or subvert.


A related question is raised by the metaphors we don’t use. When Quakers talk about world religions, there’s often a path/mountain image: all religions are different paths, but they are traveling up the same mountain toward the same Deity (which is an odd thing to say when some of the paths are non-theistic or polytheistic). Sometimes it becomes a map/terrain metaphor: all religious teachings are maps of the same mountain, and while you can climb using just one map of one path, you can also learn a lot by studying other maps. Christian traditions are included in this image, but often very implicitly, while people name other traditions, especially Buddhism, as the ones from which they have learned.


One of the strengths of metaphor generally is that a suitable metaphor can capture not only facts, but also feelings. Someone who uses the car/repair work image for Quakerism and Christianity probably feels more positively about Christianity than someone who compares it to a teenage phase that needs to be outgrown. This is one of the strengths of this way of talking about things—so long as we are aware of it, ready to work with it, and don’t assume that everyone feels the same way! Personally, I feel neutral-to-positive about Christianity as a whole tradition, but there are people in my Quaker community for whom it’s the best thing ever, completely irrelevant, or the cause of more problems than it solves. Sticking to a single metaphor will tend to hide this, or to imply to some of these people that we think they are wrong. Using a wide range, however, has a fascinating potential to help us tell the truth of these many different perspectives.


What if Quakerism is a fish in a new tank? Sometimes it’s hiding in one familiar and safe corner and at other times darting out to explore other cooler, warmer, faster-flowing, or more exciting patches of water—and perhaps not fully aware that this stuff, water or Christianity, is already filling the safe corner as well.

What if traditions are workers in a big, open-plan office? Each with his or her own desk, similar but distinguishable (Quakerism has a peace lily in a rainbow-striped pot, Anglicanism has a big family photograph, and so on), all working in their own spaces and on their own projects but also contributing to the work of the company as a whole: the glory of God.

What would traditions be like if they were people? Can you see Christianity as a person: a quiet woman making instant coffee for rough sleepers, a bully who forces opinions onto others, or a man with dirty feet and big hands who likes to have dinner with sex workers and tax avoiders? Can you see Quakerism as a person: someone who yells at police officers and politicians; someone who dithers in the chocolate aisle, liking them all but not knowing which is best; or someone who quietly makes hot drinks for whoever comes?

The post A Consideration of Metaphors appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

A Space for Doubt

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 2:30am

Author Jeff Rasley first came to Indianpolis’s First Friends Meeting seeking fiscal sponsorship for small-scale development projects in the Basa area of Nepal. His first experience of a Quaker worship service led him to think First Friends might fill another, more personal desire. Photo courtesy of the author.

I have known numerous members of Christian congregations who are “stealth worshipers.” They do not believe in the truth of their denomination’s doctrinal statements, but they continue to find meaning through membership in the faith community of their heritage. While stealth worshipers secretly reject the superstitions and dogma of their inherited religion, they still find meaning in participating in services and practices that express awe and gratitude, and they find meaning in the communal sharing and activities of the organization.

I have given talks and sermons to a number of diverse religious organizations in Indianapolis and Chicago and have heard “confessions” of these stealth worshipers. Many of these folks feel the need to keep their doubt and disbelief about official doctrines to themselves or to share only with trusted comrades.

A profound difference I experienced at Indianapolis First Friends Meeting was that there was no need for stealth. Howard, the atheist; Duffy, the outspoken evangelical-fundamentalist; and Daud, the Muslim, were all very active and beloved members of the meeting.

Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if we felt safe to have the courage of our convictions, or lack of convictions, and to be able to openly express them? Although I do not believe in or agree with some of what is spoken, sung, or prayed under the roof of First Friends, I do feel safe to express a contrary view. And I have never felt forced to mouth words I do not believe, as I did for so many years in Presbyterian services and classes.

Services that contain the elements of traditional Christian worship (the hymns, chants, incense, candles, prayers, sermons, meditative silences, confessions), but do not contain any declarations of faith create a more authentic experience for those of us who value the essential religious response of awe and gratitude but not the doctrines and dogma.

So many religious organizations claim to be welcoming to all, but sooner or later a confession of faith or affirmation of doctrine is usually required for full participation in the community. Doctrinal requirements divide and separate.

When religious services are stripped of doctrinal claims, doubters and skeptics can participate without having to be stealth worshipers. Why not truly welcome everyone into the community, so that anyone can enjoy all that is good about religion: the music, prayer and meditation, hearing a good message, supporting social justice causes, and drinking coffee after worship services?

First Friends, following Quaker tradition, has stripped worship services of any overt or implied requirement of a confession of faith. I wish it would take what I see as the next step, and cease and desist making statements about a God that I do not believe exists. But for me to try to impose my animist-agnosticism on the meeting would be to engage in the same sort of doctrinal intolerance that eventually drove me from the Presbyterian Church. So I participate, try to hear with open mind and heart what doesn’t seem right, and speak my own mind and heart when I feel led. It works.


I was once asked by a fellow Presbyterian what I should say when asked about the resurrection. I was a candidate for the ordained ministry, and this respected elder of the church knew a candidate committee was going to examine me about my beliefs. Bill sidled up beside me during the coffee klatch after services, darted suspicious looks in all directions, and then popped the question about the resurrection. He admitted to me that he didn’t believe in it, and he wondered how an educated and rational fellow like me was going to be able to duck the question. He presumed that I did not believe in Christian myths like the virgin birth and resurrection. He understood that we both had to pretend to believe in these myths in order to hold leadership positions within the Presbyterian denomination. It was sad, silly, and hypocritical.

If questions about the resurrection came up in the class I led at First Friends, there would have been no need for stealth in asking or answering the questions.

Because I went to seminary, I came to know quite a few Christian ministers. As an attorney, I represented several churches and Christian ministers in legal matters. Several ministers of Protestant denominations and two Catholic priests came clean with me about their personal beliefs. I discovered that when they were not “on,” many pastors would admit to the same doubts about the dogmas and superstitions of their churches as I had about mine.

As a candidate for the Presbyterian ministry, I was counseled by other ordained ministers to “tell them what they want to hear,” rather than what I really thought and believed, in order to pass the required examinations about my beliefs. I was co-valedictorian of my seminary class, won awards for accomplishments in ancient Greek and Hebrew, and was highly recommended by the psychologist who performed personality tests for our presbytery. But I felt forced to part ways with the Presbyterian Church as a result of the ordination examinations.

I had not followed the advice of my pastoral mentors to “tell them what they want to hear.” So, during my oral examination, a committee member was justified in her exclamation, “Why, you seem more like a Buddhist than a Calvinist!” What non-Calvinistic blasphemies and devilry might have been unleashed within a Presbyterian Church had I been allowed to lead a congregation in chanting, Om mani padme hum (“the jewel is in the lotus”), instead of the Apostles’ Creed!


Older members of the Basa village community performed a traditional “earth dance” in 2011, led by a dancer flourishing a yak tail. Photo courtesy of the author.

It makes sense to me to imagine that everything in the world has Spirit. My animistic friends in the Basa area of Nepal tell me that even rocks have Spirit. And it’s true that rocks and all inanimate things are composed of subatomic particles, which have motion and change over time. Is that Spirit?

Regardless of what beliefs one might hold about a possible reality beyond rational proof, surely we can all agree that it is good that our world exists and (unless one is suffering unbearable pain) to be alive in this awesome universe is good. And it is good to share gladness, and sadness, with others. Didn’t George Fox and the founding Quakers discover in the teachings of Jesus that we all share this earth and are all connected in each others’ pain and gladness? Isn’t that the plain and simple meaning of the divine spark in all?

Unfortunately, many of those who have claimed to be followers of Jesus have been unable to resist the temptation to move beyond the primal response of awe, gratitude, and connectedness to create divisive doctrines and belief mandates.

Some Christian and Jewish friends that have trekked with me in Nepal find it amusing that local Hindus actually believe paying homage to Ganesh will bring success in business or on a test in school. Ganesh’s father, Shiva, cut off his son’s head and replaced it with that of an elephant. Ganesh’s usual mode of transportation is to ride a mouse. How successful can that guy with the big ears and trunk riding a mouse be at securing a contract desired by a Hindu performing pujah in that temple!?

Yet, believing the walls of Jericho fell down because the Ark of the Covenant was paraded around for seven days is expected of a good Jew. Christians are to accept that Saul and his companions were blinded by a light on the Damascus Road, but that only Saul heard the voice of Jesus. Considering that hallucinations are a typical symptom of schizophrenia, Christians ought to be careful before laughing at the myths of other religions.

If we can discipline ourselves to respond to the great and fundamental questions of philosophy and theology with a sense of awe and gratitude and then admit our ignorance and inability to answer the unanswerable, then, in my experience, the Quaker understanding of God within all is easier to accept. The response of awe and gratitude is the creative source of beautiful art, literature, temple and cathedral architecture, the worshipful attitude of St. Francis, and the mindfulness of Thich Nhat Hanh. The schismatic and doctrinaire demands of authoritarian religious (and political) regimes have the opposite effect. They divide and conquer.


I first came to the Quakers at First Friends with an ulterior motive (to find fiscal sponsorship for a development project in Nepal). But instead of turning me away, the meeting responded like the Good Samaritan. By treating me as a Friend and listening to my entreaty for Basa Village, these Hoosier Quakers reached halfway round the world to help provide for others in need. And that is how I knew that Quakers were and are followers of Christ.

The post A Space for Doubt appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Quaker Christian Ways and Roots

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 2:00am

Beech tree roots, Creative Commons © by Stephen Craven.

In his 1950 Pendle Hill pamphlet, Prophetic Ministry, Quaker historian Howard Brinton writes: “The three main types of Christianity” include “Catholic, Protestant, and Quaker; the altar-centered, the sermon-centered and, at least in intention, the prophetic” or experience-centered. In his book Friends for 300 Years published two years later, Brinton spends several pages on Quakerism as a unique type of Christianity. The precedent for doing so, he says, was “set by Quakers of the seventeenth century,” specifically, by Robert Barclay in his Apology for the True Christian Divinity.

Barclay and other early Friends fervently distinguished their beliefs from those of Catholics and other Protestant groups. “Sometimes, for the sake of completeness,” Brinton writes, “Barclay also brings in a fourth position which he calls the Socinian, representing the rationalistic point of view” (Socinians were skeptical of many elements of Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ).

As an example of such distinctions, Brinton cites a section in the Apology in which Barclay defends the Quaker belief in “immediate revelation through the Spirit” which they considered a primary source for Truth. Says Brinton:

To those who argue the Spirit cannot be trusted as a guide to Truth, Barclay writes: “neither tradition, nor the scriptures, nor reason which the Papists [Catholics], Protestants and Socinians do respectively make the rule of their faith, are in any whit more certain.”

In summary, Brinton says, “The Catholics disagree about tradition; the Protestants about the meaning of Scriptures; and the Socinians about the conclusions of reason,” and “in the last resort they all depend on the Spirit which produced all three.” (A quick glance at church history and current events will show how each of these guides to Truth— tradition, scripture, reason, and being led by the Spirit—can be corrupted and manipulated. Seeking the Spirit within as a source of Truth is at least no worse than the other methods.)

In a telling comparison of the three approaches to Christianity, Brinton, a former university physics professor, sets up an analogy to different teaching/learning styles.

The Catholic approach is like a lecture or demonstration class. The Catholic emphasis on apostolic authority and ritual during worship focuses on the priest and the holy mass as a lecture focuses on the professor who conducts and explains experiments.

Protestant worship, with its emphasis on Scripture as authority explained by a preacher, is like a lecture class in which students listen to an expert expound on an authoritative text.

Brinton’s analogy assumes a class subject matter with underlying truth and substance, i.e. Christian faith and practice, though a Socinian/rationalist approach might involve a seminar-class discussion of whether the subject matter holds any truth worth studying.

The Quaker approach—“the laboratory method” in Brinton’s analogy—is characterized by a more participatory, inductive teaching/learning style in which students are actively involved. Brinton explains it this way: “the laboratory method is not unlike the Quaker meeting in which direct experience is sought and where words are used from time to time as they arise from, or lead to, direct experience.” This method involves more questions than answers, more exploration than memorization, and more mystery than certainty.

There are ways to be Christian, and early Friends distinguished them according to source of spiritual authority. Trusting their inner spiritual experiences as primary, the first Friends wisely used a combination of the other three sources to test and discern the validity of spiritual leadings:

  •   authority vested in persons and tradition
  •   authority vested in a text
  •   authority vested in reason
  •   authority vested in experience
“Apostle of the Quakers”

Among the sources of this Quaker approach to Christianity is Jacob Boehme (1575–1624). Brinton, Rufus Jones, and others have pointed out his influence on early Friends, including George Fox in his Journal. So influential was Boehme that one writer, Henry More, leader of the Platonists, referred to him as “the Apostle of the Quakers.” Boehme’s writings are, like Fox’s, sometimes difficult to understand. Here is a simpler passage as an example:

If I had no other book than only the book which I am myself so, I have books enough. The whole Bible lies in me if I have Christ’s spirit. If I read myself, I read God’s book and you my brothers are the alphabet which I read in myself, for my mind and will finds you within me. I wish from my heart you would also find me.

At the time, Brinton’s three types of Christians responded in predictable ways to such theology.

First, though their tradition has a rich history of mysticism, Catholics were suspicious of Boehme because he was a Protestant (a Lutheran) and thus functioned outside the apostolic tradition; he was condemned as a heretic.

Because in these lines and elsewhere he claims authority other than canonical Scripture, Boehme’s Protestant contemporaries accused him of blasphemy. Another example of his blasphemous ideas was that Christ was incarnated, not as “a sacrificial offering to cancel out human sins,” but as “an offering of love for humanity, showing God’s willingness to bear the suffering that had been a necessary aspect of creation.” After his first book was published, Boehme was forbidden by Protestant authorities to publish anything else and was run out of Görlitz, his home town in Bohemia; he moved to Dresden, where he continued to write and publish.

As for the Quakers, they embraced Boehme’s unusual theology, emerging as it did from life-changing spiritual encounters such as the time when, gazing at a beam of sunlight reflected in a pewter dish, Boehme experienced what he called “illumination.” He writes:

 the gate was opened unto me, so that in one quarter of an hour I saw and knew more than if I had been many years together at an University. For I saw and knew the Being of all Beings, the Byss and Abyss; … the descent, and origin of this world, and of all creatures, through the divine Wisdom.

In Boehme’s writings, his Quaker contemporaries found affirmation of their own experiences with the Light. They embraced Boehme, read and quoted him widely; his language and theology echo throughout the writings of early Friends.

Comprehensive Christianity

For early Friends, Christianity was behavior, not just belief. Though they were critical of “professing Christians” who valued tradition and Scripture above inner guidance from the Source itself, early Friends were all-encompassing in their acceptance of those who practiced behavior advocated by Jesus even if they had never heard of him. One cannot imagine a more comprehensive definition of “Christian” than Barclay’s. Among the gathered people that constitute the Christian “church” for Quakers, he writes:

are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, (though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures) as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts.… There may be members therefore of this catholic [i.e. universal] church both among the heathens, Turks, Jews and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart, who … are by the secret touches of this holy light in their souls enlivened and quickened, thereby secretly united to God and there-through become true members of this [universal] church [parentheses added for clarity].

The first Friends were Christian, but different from what we commonly associate today with the term Christian. The first Friends would not care if we called ourselves Christians or not; they wouldn’t care how we worshiped, whether in a synagogue, mosque, or meetinghouse, in silent or programmed worship, so long as we practiced Christian behavior, which is to love and be tender with one another (even those we disagree with—even other Quakers we disagree with); to acknowledge equal worth in all persons; to help the poor; feed the hungry; support the oppressed; work for justice; avoid violence; judge not; seek and honor Truth; and remain humble in the face of great Mystery.

The post Quaker Christian Ways and Roots appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

How Am I a Christian?

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:55am

Photo by David Shankbone, via Wikimedia.

I recently found that some of the books at my local public library had a decal on the spine labeling them as “Christian Fiction.” That troubled me a bit, and I talked with the librarians about it. The library used other genre labels like “Mystery” and “Young Adult” that helped readers locate books of a sort they would like. So why object to this particular labeling? The cause is the kind of criteria that booksellers and librarians have come to accept for recognizing something as “Christian Fiction.”

What would count as Christian Fiction? Would Macbeth? Madame Bovary? No and no. How about Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which won the 2018 National Book Award. No again. All three are powerful tales of love, sin, forgiveness, and redemption, but none meet the criteria that publishers use in judging a work “Christian.”

Here is one list of criteria:

  • Accepts the infallible authority of the Bible.
  • Addresses life’s dilemmas through faith in Jesus.
  • Believes that Jesus is divine, died, and rose again for the sins of humankind and will return again.
  • No profanity, sex, or extraneous violence.
  • Characters do not have to be Christian in the beginning, but will be by the end.

These are criteria that have been actively promoted by publishers of Christian Fiction who claim to know what it means to be a Christian. Of course, it is not just publishers. There is a great phalanx of preachers, denominations, seminaries, theologians, and media outlets all promoting roughly the same understanding of Christian. Those criteria don’t capture for me what it means to be a Christian—far from it.

But as I say that, I’m surprised to notice that today I consider myself a Christian. How can that be? Two or three decades ago I would have recoiled from the thought. Quaker I might be, but that didn’t mean I was accepting the designation “Christian,” and I was just as happy when Jesus and the Bible were absent from worship.

Think of the litany of horrors in the name of Christianity. The worldwide roiling scandal of church-sanctioned sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church is only a recent example, along with the denigration of women; condemnation of same-sex love; support for extermination of Indigenous cultures; affirmation of slavery; and promotion of wars, witch trials, corruption, the Inquisition, and the Crusades. What a parade of crimes against humanity, all committed in the name of being Christian. How could I throw in with that?

It still gives me pause. And yet, over the course of my spiritual journey, I’ve found I need to draw on spiritual understanding from sources other than my own personal wellsprings. Those sources, for me, are quite varied; they constitute a spiritual conversation that ranges over centuries and continents. Being immersed in that spiritual conversation has become essential for me.

One of the Advices in the New England Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice reads, “Make space in your daily life for communion with God and for spiritual nurture through prayer, reading, meditation, and other disciplines which open you to the Spirit.”

By no means do I confine this ongoing spiritual nurture to those who self-identify as Christian. I do not doubt that many who call themselves Jews or Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus are on roughly the same journey and have much to teach me. Still, I read more from those who have identified themselves as Christians, especially those that know at least as well as I do the whole catalog of horrors. I find myself part of a company of Christians over the ages; I have elected to join a tradition of spiritual nurture. At various times in my life, Rufus Jones, Thomas Kelly, C.S. Lewis, the Book of Common Prayer, Marilynne Robinson, Howard Thurman, Mary Rose O’Reilley, and Henri Nouwen (to name just a very few) have fueled my spiritual journey.

No sooner was there a community of Christians than there was disagreement about what it meant to be a Christian. Paul’s letters in the Bible tell of his unceasing efforts to answer the right view of what Jesus’s life, teachings, and death had meant. In the four gospels, we see four different accounts of whether and how Jesus was (a) God. Within a few decades, early Christians had a rich set of disagreements about important questions. For some (for too many), this led to charges of heresy with consequent edicts of excommunication, even sentences of death. The Reformation promised a clearer Christianity through a deeper grounding in the Bible, but just a dozen years after Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door, the leading figures in the new movement gathered at Marburg only to discover they had deeply antithetical understandings of the meaning of communion. Any proper church history is a plunge into these wrangles.

This is the understanding of Christianity that repels me: the insistent claim that there is one true understanding, that it is easily known, that those in authority already know all that needs to be known and obeyed, and that deviants are sinners who need to be cast aside. That exclusivist view of Christianity is not mine. The decals of Christian Fiction gesture toward that narrow, brittle understanding.

I now see that encountering Quakers as a young man began to point me toward a much different kind of spiritual life than this hard-shell affirmation of a true faith. I found seekers who saw some things well, other things more dimly, and who were not ashamed to say that still other questions were beyond them. They were willing to share what they could. No creed captured their beliefs.

No creed captures my beliefs today; they don’t encompass how I am a Christian. It was quite a revelation to me to realize that the common Christian creeds (the Nicene, the Apostles’) are all about a “true” understanding of Jesus’s birth and death but say nothing at all about his life and teachings. I turn often to those teachings, mostly given through parables. I find them rich, complex, and often elusive. I am glad to hear others wrestle with those same teachings.

The Bible is hardly the only thing I read for spiritual stimulation, but it has become a much richer source for me today than it once was. Rather than the one true source the decal-certified Christianity would have me take it to be, I find in the Bible a wealth of stories about people seeking to know God and seeking to learn what knowing God asks of us. Often they are stories of people blundering about, like me. It is much more a source book than the answer key that the exclusivists would make it.

There is a central teaching in the Bible as I have now come to value it, a breathtaking, difficult, common sense-denying teaching: that limitless love is to be at the center of our lives. It comes in a remarkable moment in the stories of Jesus’s life. He is asked a direct, hard question, and for once he answered it in Matthew 22:36–40:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.

In 1966, Peter Scholtes (then a priest but soon to embrace a different vocation) wrote a lovely hymn titled “We Are One In the Spirit.” Its refrain runs: “And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Like many hymn writers, Scholtes was working from Bible verse, in this case John 13:35. In it Jesus says, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” We know we regularly fall short of that aspiration, and yet it points a direction, a better direction than a Christian Fiction decal on a book. What’s more, it recommends a practice—of learning from and with one another. As the hymn puts it, “We will walk with each other; we will walk hand in hand.”

It is from the best of those who have called themselves Christians; it is in their company that I find I learn the most. And that is why, today, I think of myself as a Christian.

The post How Am I a Christian? appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

The White Rabbit of Quaker Theology

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:50am

Detail from Arthur Rackham’s illustration for a 1907 edition of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. Via Wikimedia

I’m a theologian, having been trained in Christian theology. I’ve served as a minister in Christian churches, and have a doctorate in academic theology. I am also a convinced Quaker. These are just a few of the many elements which make up my theological “hermeneutic”: a fancy word which basically means my perspective, my context, my biases, and the ground which I am rooted in. This ground will inexorably shape how I view the world, and how I respond to the world I see and experience.

My training and my experience have confirmed two inescapable facts: (1) no human is freed from context, and (2) no human will ever be able to truly look “objectively” on any aspect of the world. We all come from somewhere, and will forever be shaped by those roots. In other words, we all have a “past,” and we will never be able to escape or deny our history.

This applies as much to communities as to individuals. Our communities, just as much as ourselves, will always bear the marks and scars of the contexts which have shaped them. This, of course, also applies to Quakerism. Everything I know, everything I have ever experienced, points to this ineluctable conclusion: Quakerism is Christian at its root. I am not saying that Quakerism is Christian; allow me to explain what I mean with two illustrations: one biographical, one enological.

Travels in Christianity

I still distinctly remember the heady mix of euphoria, fear—and a sneaking suspicion that I was betraying everything that was fundamentally important to me—which accompanied my first visit to an Episcopal church. I was 19, and as I made the trek across the campus of the University of Texas at Austin to the Episcopal Chaplaincy (or Canterbury, as it was known 20 years ago), I was filled to the brim with a sense of impending doom. I knew that once I’d crossed over to the Anglicans I’d never be fully Roman Catholic ever again, and I very well might lose the one constant home I’d ever known.

I wasn’t concerned with my everlasting soul and its fate. I was raised in a distinctly dual-denomination household; while my father, my brother, and myself were all firmly in the warm bosom of the Roman Catholicism and its sacraments, my mother was a devout United Methodist. We attended both churches on a regular basis, pinballing back and forth between congregations on Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, and…well, whenever anything was happening at either congregation. When I say that I grew up in the church, I’m not being metaphorical: my family was at some church building in some capacity most days of the week and most of the weekend. When my father’s job moved us yet again, we’d immediately locate two church buildings to settle into, at times finding our church home before we found an actual house to live in. My theology as a child was a bizarre mix of Roman Catholic liturgy and United Methodist social justice. I was a committed altar boy who never failed to ask the priests every Sunday why girls couldn’t serve on the altar as well. I saw no reason why I couldn’t hold both traditions in a rather productive tension, and I often “corrected” Roman Catholic theology with some Wesleyan insight.

Despite my obvious debt to the Protestant Reformation, however, I felt bound to Roman Catholicism as I entered young adulthood and when I could, conceivably, have made whatever choice about my denominational affiliation that struck my fancy. When my rather-disappointed mother asked why I attended the Roman Catholic chaplaincy as opposed to the United Methodist one, she betrayed her secret hope that she had been sowing seeds of doubt which would come to full fruit in the rich soil of college life. In a sense, her efforts were quite successful, yet in a rather unexpected way. I had been unable to let Methodism go, yet neither could I ignore the fact that I was marked, forever, by Roman Catholicism. I belonged to both and could no more leave one than leave the other.

In an ironically Anglican move, I compromised: I found a denomination with Protestant theology and Catholic liturgy, and for a time, I felt as if I was truly home. My fears that day in Canterbury were unfounded: my home wasn’t simply one denomination: it was the experience of belonging to a community who cared both for God and for me, whose care for one drove their care for the other. Therefore, when I found myself in a shockingly humorous echo the first time I visited a Quaker meeting several years later—filled to the brim again with doom and euphoria and a feeling of true belonging—I knew that I’d be ok.

This is narrative theology, where a person seeks to use narrative—whether personal or fictional—to relate some core truth about the Divine, through the actions of the Divine in the world and human response to those actions. It should be exceedingly familiar to Quakers, because it’s fundamental to both our theology and identity. Whenever we refer to the experience of Quakers, whether they be the early Friends, or even use our own experience to craft our ministry in meeting for worship, we are engaging in narrative theology.

Wine-Dark Theology

A dear friend of mine is a winemaker, and once tried to explain to me why wine is such a unique substance. He began with this blindingly obvious, yet still earth-shattering, statement: fundamentally, no matter how much meaning (and thus, price) anyone applies to wine, it is simply an agricultural product made out of a series of chemical interactions between grapes, water, yeast, and time. Anyone who leaves a bunch of grapes sitting in a closed vat for a long enough time can make wine. The process of fermentation, when left on its own, will work its own wonders without any complex tweaking. The grapes are inveterate sponges of their environment: they will take in every element of their surroundings, including the tiniest differences in climate, soil composition, or water quality. Basically, the grape will taste however it’s going to taste.

What separates fermenting grapes from the art of winemaking is the recognition on the part of the winemakers that their role is to make a series of seemingly minor choices seeking to influence the grape in both its growth and fermentation. The art of winemaking lies more with guiding the grape gradually and gently, in an effort to influence the grape to move closer to the winemaker’s vision.

This is metaphorical theology, where a person seeks to use metaphor—the device of winemaking—to relate some core truth about the Divine and explain the fundamentally inexplicable. This should also should be exceedingly familiar to Quakers. Since our first attempts to answer the question of “what canst thou say?,” Quakers have consistently turned to metaphors and have developed a lexicon from the agricultural and organic (Inner Seed), to the mystically Christian (Light of Christ), and even to universalist mystical language (Inner Light). The use of “Spirit” as a byword for Divine or even God, in certain quarters of Quakerism, follows this same process of creative theologizing. Yet, all of these terms stem from metaphorical language already present within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures themselves. Our continued dependence on metaphor in Quakerism is rooted at its core in Christianity and Christian hermeneutic, no matter where that language has moved to.

The Common Thread of Belonging

There is a common thread of “belonging” in the narratives of Friends. They generally include some iteration of this framework: “when I sat in worship/read the words of (insert weighty Friend here), I had an overpowering sense that I was home.” Some element of Quakerism snags onto something deep within. As they struggle to make sense of it—the more that the threads knitted together into the sweater of their personhood come undone—they find themselves free and shivering in the bracing wind of the realization that they cannot avoid: they are Quaker, at their root. The experience of engaging with the Light has transformed them fundamentally. They know that this is where they belong.

One never really ceases to “belong” to a former home, spiritual or otherwise. We always carry pieces of all of our homes along with us, even if those pieces are actually visceral rejections of a previous home.

Further Down the Rabbit Hole…

I find great value in the title of Damaris Parker-Rhodes’s 1977 Swarthmore Lecture, “Truth: A Path and Not a Possession.” The lecture is fabulous, of course, yet Parker-Rhodes achieves that most elusive thing for a writer: a title which both summarizes clearly and concisely the writing, while leaving space for curiosity to bloom. For Quakers, “truth” can never be possessed, in the sense that a person can never control the boundaries of what is “true.” Instead, we are all called to continuously seek truth. We are forever on a journey of discovery, following truth down some potentially surprising paths as it bounds along, always ahead while never really leaving us behind. Quakers have given this journey the moniker “continuing revelation,” yet that somewhat dry phrase leaves even my theologian’s precise heart cold. It fails to encapsulate the playfulness of God. I find much greater meaning in the metaphor of the Divine as a rabbit who is leaping ahead as my inner Alice chases behind, thrilled at what new adventures lay just around the corner.

I’d argue that any desire for a “true Quakerism” misses the point entirely, or at least fails to capture two essential points about Quakerism: it is experienced both individually and communally; and as an experienced reality, it is inherently metaphorical. This means that Quakerism continuously demands human engagement and dialogue with what is experienced, as well as with who experiences it.

This is, at root, the work of theology. Quakerism cannot avoid theology and the rejection of theology is itself a theological act. Quaker theology is thus all things that Quakerism is: experiential, metaphorical, narrative, individual, and communal. It is the sum total of all people in the community, stretching back through time. Quaker theology is thus, at root, Christian, for what we experience today in meeting for worship, the text of Faith and Practice, or even Quaker business practice, is inescapably shaped by all those strongly self-identified Christians who have experienced these instruments of Quaker life for centuries.

The twist at the end, however, is that while Quakerism is at root Christian, many other traditions have been grafted into our community over the years. These traditions use different metaphors for explaining the experience of the Divine, which might seem disturbing and challenging. Christian Quakers shouldn’t be afraid of this because expanding our understanding of the Divine is actually at the root of the Christian theological tradition. This work of expanding the meaning of the Divine to include other voices is a running theme in the Christian Scriptures, most especially the Book of Acts as well as the theology of Paul of Tarsus, arguably the first major Christian theologian. One example is Paul’s metaphor of the Body of Christ in First Corinthians 12, where Christ is itself both the unified body of all of humanity, while each human is also the unique and individual part of the Body. Humans are gathered as one community into the one Body, yet each individual plays their own role in enacting the will of God. This vision of individuated unity reflects the core Quaker theological tenet, which states that there is “that of God within everyone.” If God is within everyone, then everyone is within God.

Doing theology as a Quaker forces me to contend with what might be a troubling, yet also exciting realization: I can’t ignore that the Divine speaks through the diverse and multi-faceted experience of others, including potentially others whose roots and “belongings” speak to visions of the Divine which challenge my understanding of God. The Light is speaking through many of these experiences. While others can’t escape the root of Christianity, I also can’t escape all of the amazing places the White Rabbit has taken our community.

How far down the rabbit hole will Alice go? The Light only knows.

The post The White Rabbit of Quaker Theology appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Sweet Baby Jesus

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:45am

San Salvador mural depicting Archbishop Óscar Romero and other victims of El Salvador’s violent civil war, which killed more than 75,000 people and left another 8,000 missing. Via Wikimedia.

“And when all my hopes in [dissenting people] and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, Oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,’ and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.” —George Fox, 1647

What did the word Christ actually mean to George Fox? This foundational question came to me during silent worship one morning. A former Unitarian Universalist from childhood, the word Christ has been tainted for me, associated with those elements of Christianity I have felt most squeamish or heartbroken or confused about: the Crucifixion, the Crusades, communion, for example. So this Spirit-generated prompt intrigued me. Might such an exploration offer “great openings,” as Fox would say?

I began my exploration by reading the Journal of George Fox, which I’d never read cover to cover before; I quickly realized I needed a timeline. A convinced Friend since 1982 and descended from an Andover, Massachusetts woman accused of witchcraft in 1692 about whom I’d done lengthy research, I was fairly conversant with seventeenth-century English and American history. Still, it was grounding to be reminded, for example, that in 1625 (the year after Fox was born and six years after the first enslaved people were forcibly transported to Britain’s North American colonies) 35,000 people died from the bubonic plague in London; John Milton began his study of Latin, Greek, and Italian at Christ’s College, Cambridge; and Charles I, who would be beheaded when Fox was 25, became king. How charismatic, how relatable, how prophetic—in the Old Testament sense of that word—Fox must have been to attract the attention of his exhausted, fearful, and profoundly unsettled listeners!

But what could Fox have said that so moved those profoundly unsettled people? And how might Fox’s Christ-centered language speak to our (exhausted, fearful, unsettled) condition today?


In her 2011 New England Yearly Meeting’s Bible Half-Hours, Maggie Edmondson talked about “portals” when culling the Bible for references to ecology and environmental concerns. My portal into Fox’s teachings and writings has been Lewis Benson’s “George Fox’s Teaching About Christ,” a 1975 essay published by Quaker Religious Thought and recommended by one of my spiritual advisors, Marty Grundy, Quaker historian and member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting. What a gift to discover this twentieth-century Friend who, as a 2009 Cleveland (Ohio) Meeting newsletter put it, “has done more than anyone else to study and make available to modern Friends the revolutionary, empowering, transforming message of Fox and early Friends.”

I must confess there were times reading Benson’s essay when I felt as though I were staring at a random-dot autostereogram: those wriggly line drawings that if perceived correctly, i.e. wall-eyed or cross-eyed, suddenly reveal something. I’d read the same paragraph again and again, unable to see what Benson wanted me to see until, ah-hah, a 3-D picture emerged: Fox’s revolutionary, empowering, transforming message! What follows are the bits of that vibrant picture Lewis drew that most spoke to me.

Not surprising, Fox often used Christ language some might find challenging; words like Savior, Priest, and King. (How the word King landed on the ears of his fellow seventeenth-century English citizens is worthy of its own essay!) But notice in this passage that Benson quotes, the point is made that Christ was functional in all his offices and, far more important, that Christ is present, alive, accessible. Fox has strung together a list of signifiers, some opposites paired together:

dead and is alive again, and lives forevermore, a prophet, counselor, bishop and shepherd, a circumciser and baptizer, a living rock and foundation for evermore, the beginning and ending, the first and last, the Amen.

Here was my first opening: In Fox’s rhetoric, I hear permission to use whatever signifiers most speak to me. (Circumciser is not one of them!) But I also hear his present-tense verbs. Repeatedly Fox declared, “Christ is come to teach his people himself”: teachings, Fox reminds us, that are authorized by God, (Who says of His Son, “in whom I am well pleased” [Mt. 3:17]) and accessible, available, and free.

This was and still is a present-tense revolutionary. Christ is here, now, available, and present. Benson writes:

“[Fox’s] hearers were familiar with the offices of Christ as priest and king and had been taught to think of his saviorhood primarily in terms of his priestly act of sacrifice on the cross. But when Fox told them that Christ is also savior as he is teacher and prophet, they were hearing something they had not heard before… Fox was preaching that Jesus is savior as he is revealer and he was giving full weight to the importance of the knowledge of Christ as he is present in the midst of his people in all his offices” (Benson’s emphasis).

And while I will continue to use other language—like “sweet baby Jesus!”—to express my own abiding sense of spiritual accompaniment, I now have a deeper love of this human embodiment of Spirit’s immediacy, and a deeper appreciation of Fox’s revolutionary, transformative message.

On numerous occasions Fox talked about the “Long night of apostasy”; I’ll let Benson explain what that means:

Of course it is not the word “apostasy” that is important, but the claim. Was there indeed a gospel which was preached during the lifetime of the first Christian apostles, which went into eclipse when Christianity moved from Palestine into the regions to the west, where there was a great influence from Greek and Roman cultures? It is generally agreed that the gospel was, at the least, somewhat altered in emphasis by this move; this has been considered by most historians as a positive development, because it helped Christianity to prosper in the Greek and Roman culture. But the question remains: was anything lost in the transition? Fox says, Yes, the main thing was lost in the transition. The gospel, the power of God, was lost.

Might the “Christ” quoted by those first apostles resemble the “pre-Easter Jesus” Marcus Borg so wonderfully elucidates in his Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time? For me, being able to affirmatively answer that question is not nearly as important as being reminded how Borg’s slender, scholarly work was, years ago, another “great opening” for me. It allowed me to become a cafeteria Christian who took what fed me—Matthew 25:35, for example, or the story of the Prodigal Son—and leave the rest on the steam table. I can be nourished; I can be moved by the paradoxical, parental love—and tragic loss—exemplified in John 3:16’s “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son.” And I can let the second half of John’s sentence remain uneaten on my plate.


But what of that uneaten portion? What of “that everyone who has faith in him may not die but have eternal life”? Is my reluctance to swallow that second half of the sentence simply my lifelong queasiness with Christianity’s preoccupation with death? My bewilderment that Christ’s message of compassion and inclusion and love is so often subsumed by the story of how he died and was reborn? Benson notes:

Fox said the symbol of the cross had become a “lying sign … If Christ died for you, then why do you not put … on Christ and live to him and own him to be your teacher and your prophet, shepherd and bishop and priest to open to you, to feed and oversee you, and you to live to Christ and not to yourselves?”

Sweet baby Jesus! As the UU Sunday school student who had been taught that Easter was nothing more than a pagan holiday, a myth, a charming metaphor about spring and renewal, yet who had always yearned for something more, something beyond metaphor, Fox’s present-tense (conditional!) question offers the Easter story I have always craved. In very simple language, Fox asks me to weigh the expiatory death of Christ with my own rebirth, my own renewal, my own willingness to open myself to Spirit when, for example, in the silence of worship, I again ask, “What am I asked to do?”


When Fox heard that heart-stirring voice, he was 23 years old. Much later in life, he and Margaret Fell offered another descriptive, far different from his earlier “Savior” or “Priest” or “King” language: “Servant,” as in “the Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53. Reading this in Benson’s essay, my heart leapt with joy! For here was a Christ-word that speaks to me in a way King or Circumciser never will.

Twenty-first century Quakers may find it strange that this word so chained to slavery, obsequiousness, and oppression could open me up to Christ. But Isaiah’s compassion for this blameless servant, who “grew up before the Lord like a young plant whose roots are in parched ground” (and who was, in fact, a metaphoric stand-in for Israel, servant of God) moves me as, apparently, it moved Margaret and George Fox.

Much like the fascinating conversation I’d overheard at a party once, when two dancers shared their respective modern-dance teacher history, so Benson traces the lineage of this touching, liberation-theology descriptive. He references Lutheran theologian Oscar Cullman who’d noted that for the apostle Peter, Servant “was a title for Jesus comparable to the title Christ.” And Benson ends with “Fox and Margaret Fell were strongly influenced by the speeches of Peter and Stephen.” (It should be noted that for Fox, Christ-as-prophet’s lineage may be traced to before Isaiah: from Deuteronomy to Moses to Isaiah.)

Like you, perhaps I’d been familiar with much of the language of Isaiah 53 thanks to Handel’s Messiah (“Oh we like sheep” or “He was despised”), but had never read in its entirety this Old Testament story of Israel’s suffering as God’s servant. Led to do prison ministry for many years and having read Fox’s Journal and better acquainted with his horrific suffering in the excrement-filled dungeons of seventeenth-century England, I welled up at verse eight: “Without protection, without justice, he was taken away; and who gave a thought to his fate, and how he was cut off from the world of living men … ?” Here is a Christ I can love.

But perhaps, at Borg’s suggestion, I should say “believe in,” as that verb’s Greek and Latin roots mean “giving one’s heart to.” Employing “Lord” language, which immediately challenges me to be open-hearted, Borg continues:

Believing in Jesus does not mean believing doctrines about him. Rather, it means to give one’s heart, one’s self at its deepest level, to the post-Easter Jesus who is the living Lord, the side of God turned toward us, the face of God, the Lord who is also Spirit.


Words, it’s all about words, isn’t it? Accessible words; words that guide us; words that can open us up to that living, present, prophetic Inner Teacher; words, whether in Isaiah’s or in Fox’s writings, it’s about words that let us hear a truly revolutionary, transforming, and powerful message. As Benson’s quoted string of Christ-words illustrates, Fox loved language, loved words, and used them well. This brings us, finally, to the Word/Logos and the prologue to the Gospel of John, which, Benson observes, Fox heavily drew upon. “In turning people from darkness to light Fox believed he was turning them to the word by which all things were made.… Salvation, the turning from darkness to light, comes by hearing and obeying that word.”

What did Word mean for Fox? “After 1678,” Benson writes, “Fox often repeated the phrase, ‘the light, which is the life in Christ the word, by whom all things were made and created.’ ” Fox recognized that word-that-became-flesh in Abraham; in Moses; and in Psalm 119, he believed word was the lamp at David’s feet. “By the word did the prophets speak forth divine things,” Fox declared.

So let us end with the exquisite beginning to the last gospel—which also offers us another word beloved by twenty-first-century Quakers: Light, a Christ-word Fox began to use after 1678:

When all things began, the Word already was. The Word dwelt with God, and what God was, the Word was. The Word, then, was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be; no single thing was created without him. All that came to be was alive with his life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines on the dark, and the darkness has never mastered it.


The post Sweet Baby Jesus appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

The Challenge of Quaker Christianity

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:40am

Saint Peter and Saint Paul, by Jusepe de Ribera, circa 1616. Via Wikimedia.

While driving a couple of years ago, I heard an interview on the radio that spoke to my condition so strongly that I pulled off the road to listen more carefully. David Brooks was discussing his book The Road to Character, which argues that modern society values aggrandizement of the individual over society, over cooperation, and over God. Brooks argued that this is a shift from earlier times, when society used to value humility, integrity, loyalty, friendship, and other what he calls “eulogy virtues,” instead of today’s “resumé virtues” (“eulogy virtues” being what people would talk about in your eulogy). In earlier times, according to Brooks, there was an emphasis on building character, something best done by observing and learning from others with character: weighty Friends to Quakers.

In this message, I immediately recognized a goal of Friends which I think remains implicit in our emphasis on living one’s life according to the testimonies: the goals of working to improve oneself and one’s relationship with the Divine. A Quaker’s living expression of the testimonies definitely falls into Brooks’s category of eulogy virtues. Indeed, when my great-grandmother Laura Retus Clapp—who was raised Quaker—died, the minister of her church literally built her eulogy around the ways in which she had lived up to the “Quaker virtues.”

For both Brooks and Friends, building character involves hard work—looking deep inside, having the courage to recognize the flaws, and working to improve them. Friends have some unique answers to the question of how to build character. Discernment through silent worship allows us to reflect on our own failings and seek guidance on how to change. Our testimonies provide a model for living that may build character. We have many role models in weighty Friends from both past and present.

But I am increasingly thinking that our community’s Christian roots are also very helpful—at least to me—by providing a range and depth of spiritual material with which to challenge ourselves. We build character not just by repeating wisdom with which we already agree but also by disagreeing and wrestling with material with which we do not, and may never, agree.

My relationship with Christianity

Attending Quaker meeting for the first time in the 1990s, I had little interest in Christ-talk. I had left behind the (admittedly pretty progressive) United Church of Canada of my childhood. This had been a difficult decision that was made after I took confirmation classes in an unsuccessful attempt to get to the point where I could say in good conscience that I believed the church’s creed.

I came to Friends largely through environmental activism and an interest in philosophy. The lack of a creed and the openness of Quakers to the Light found in all faiths were and are hugely important aspects to me.

But I also found, although it took me a while to recognize it, that the Christianity of Friends was very different from the one that I had left behind. When the early Quakers maintained that Jesus Christ had returned to teach his people himself, they were making what is essentially a mystical claim about their relationship with the Divine that is nonetheless clearly Christian: insisting that an individual can have direct union with God (or the Light).

This direct relationship with God resulted in a radical equality: women and people of all races had an equal measure of the Light.

As is often the case with mystics, the Quakers recognized from the start that words and labels often fall short when describing the Divine, that there are other ways and other languages that may be used in connecting with what we call God. The emphasis was on works and (to use Brooks’s term) “character,” rather than theology.

William Penn wrote in 1693:

The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here makes them strangers.

There are (and have been) Friends who adopted a less tolerant approach or who failed to live up to these ideals, but still, this universalist tendency and the strong emphasis on equality is one of the things that drew me to Friends. It also is a reason that I, like many modern Friends, initially saw Christianity as unnecessary for my own personal journey.

Modern Friends encounter many more non-Christians than the early Friends did, and so we have more opportunity to see that of God at work within them. Newcomers to Friends (and perhaps even some longtime Friends) tend to judge Quaker Christianity as if it were the same as the Christianity of their youth, or the oppressive Christianity that they’ve experienced or read about.

Mainstream Christianity—the versions of Christianity that we see in television evangelists, mainstream churches, and Jehovah’s Witnesses standing on street corners—often does not have a lot of time for mysticism, or patience with the idea that the Divine may at work in the world among non-Christians.

Friends, both early and modern, have always rejected the idea that calling oneself Christian guarantees moral superiority or access to the Divine. (Just look at Fox ranting about “professors,” those who profess themselves Christian.) And likewise they rejected the idea that not being Christian limits access to the Divine.

And yet, while Christianity is not necessary for a relationship with the Divine (by whatever name), I believe that it is central to Quakerism and should not be easily dropped. If building character requires that we challenge ourselves, then we are failing when we drop or ignore aspects of our faith tradition simply because they are challenging.

I am grateful to my friend Anita Fast, a Mennonite who worshiped with Vancouver Meeting for several years for helping me understand this. We had a conversation that transformed my understanding of the Bible and my relationship with Christianity.

We were discussing the role of Christianity among Friends, and she said something like, “Of course, for me, the Bible is authoritative.” Frankly, I was shocked but never one to back down from a theological argument, I said, “But how can you say that? The Bible sometimes contradicts itself, and at various points, God tells people to do awful things: genocide, murder.”

“I didn’t say that I thought that the Bible was infallible or literally true,” she replied. “I said that it was authoritative.”

“What does that mean, then?” I asked. “Surely if it’s authoritative that means you accept it as true?”

“No,” she explained patiently. “When I say it’s authoritative, I mean that it is the book with which I have chosen to have a spiritual relationship, to wrestle with. It is the book which challenges me. If there is a passage in the Bible that I disagree with, I don’t need to agree with it, but I do need to understand what it means to me and why I disagree with it.”

If we abandon the Christian roots of Quakerism, then we give ourselves permission to not be fully challenged by, to not engage fully with those parts of the tradition that are Christian, which is to say, for the early Quakers, all of it.

John Woolman, seeking to understand a dream in which a voice announced, “John Woolman is dead,” turned to Paul’s declaration in Galatians 2:20, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me?” It is difficult to just translate away such explicitly Christian imagery, and yet clearly he is expressing a very powerful spiritual experience. If we have decided that such language is just a vestige of Quakerism’s early obsession with Christianity, then we are unlikely to dwell too long on what Woolman (or Paul) meant by “crucifixion” and “Christ,” or to challenge ourselves to experience it.

Even insights from early Friends that are expressed in less explicitly Christian language often contain biblical allusions or are grounded in Quaker Christian thought. Both Margaret Fell’s famous, “We are become thieves,” and George Fox’s references to the Light must be understood in their biblical context (John 10:8–10 and John 1:5 respectively).

None of which is to say that there are not equally powerful insights in other religions. I can learn (and have learned) from them. But if I give myself permission to disregard the insights of my own tradition that are challenging, then I am unlikely to pick the spiritual insights from Buddhism, Islam, or Judaism that will challenge me. I am most likely to pick spiritual insights that confirm my existing beliefs and experiences, and to ignore those that seem troubling or wrong but might—with work and reflection and time—lead me to a deepening relationship with the Light.

Living in an individualistic time

We live in a time when many of the social justice values that once marked Friends out as unique are widely held (even if some might argue that they are under attack). In particular, the testimony of equality, at least as it relates to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. is widely held in theory, even if not always in practice. (And, let’s face it, Quakers also have not always managed well in practice.) Testimonies related to care of creation and peace are also held by many beyond our faith.

But it is also a very individualistic, arrogant age. As Brooks points out, society is obsessed with instant gratification and appearances, rather than personal integrity and deep relationships. In addition, our society pushes individualism: the idea that each person is an island, self-made and capable of making choices independent from one’s culture and community.

Quakers in the past have been well aware that mainstream culture could undermine our spiritual community, practices, and lives, and they sought to establish a “hedge” between their community and broader society. At a time when mainstream media has perhaps never been more invasive, I wonder whether our willingness to drop our Christian roots in favour of individual discernment is not a product of our individualistic culture, rather than genuine discernment.

We recognize that cultures and languages around the world are going extinct, run down by the global cult of consumerism and individualism. We bemoan the loss of diversity and applaud those who strive to keep their cultures alive. We know that that’s hard work.

And yet, Friends have a unique spiritual language and culture that is fast disappearing, and we seem not to value it. We confuse it with the angry, hierarchical, and sexist faith that we see in too much of Christianity, and with the violent history of mainstream Christianity, without delving deep into our own Quaker interpretations of the Christian story. Even if we understand that Christian Quaker language has its own depth, we often worry that newcomers and outsiders will misunderstand and be offended. As a result, we are abandoning one of the most egalitarian, empowering, and peaceful of Christian traditions, a possible alternative to the narrow interpretation of Christ held by too many churches.

This is not to suggest that our Quakerism needs to be the Quakerism of the 1800s or 1950s, or even the Quakerism of Fox, Fell, and Penn. We are influenced by the play and passion of God that we see present in other faiths and cultures and in daily life. There are Friends who draw so heavily from Buddhism or Wicca or Islam that they identify as both Quakers and members of those faiths, and one need only talk to them to know that they are Quakers. I am not suggesting that Quakerism is frozen in time, unable to learn from other faiths or from continuing revelation.

I am suggesting that one cannot claim to be a student of Fox, Woolman, or Fry without having a profound appreciation for and fluency in their Christian language. Some of us may choose to be bilingual, but as Quakers we are custodians of that Christian language tradition.

Some Christian lessons for this Quaker

When I first came to Friends, I knew what I didn’t like in the Bible. I remember telling an elder in my monthly meeting how much I disliked Paul. She did not argue with me but quietly acknowledged my frustration and then shared that she had learned a lot from Paul. It brought me up short that someone who was so patient, tolerant, and Friendly had nonetheless learned important lessons from Paul. It made me wonder what she was seeing in those letters that I had missed.

I still don’t like some of what Paul wrote, but I’m increasingly finding wisdom there too. Where I once rejected outright Paul’s emphasis on human sin, I now see a rejection of the arrogance and individualism of modern society, and a recognition of the limits of humanity (Romans 3:22–26). These are lessons that I see reflected both in early Friends and in Brooks’s observations about character. I see a recognition of our dependence upon God that would have resonated strongly with Fox and which I increasingly see in my own life. In short, I see many lessons that are extremely challenging but which may, if I’m lucky and open to grappling, help me to build a better relationship with God and a little more character.

The post The Challenge of Quaker Christianity appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Learning from John Woolman, as a Christian Quaker

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:35am

From the 1932 edition of The journal and essays of John Woolman, edited by Amelia M. Gummere. Via Internet Archive.

On a fateful day 20 years ago, events were set in motion that pushed me to immerse myself with great intensity in a text by John Woolman with its accompanying biblical reference. Doing this was an important way for me to express my identity as a Christian Quaker. The narration below illustrates ways in which biblical and historical texts seem to be central to the experience of Christian Quakers.

My definition of a Christian Quaker is someone who grapples with the central questions of Christianity, in that person’s experience, and through exploring biblical passages and historical texts that tell the story of Quaker faith through the ages.

Quaker communities where this kind of exploration is central to the life of the meeting may define themselves as “Christian,” or they may not. In most Liberal meetings of my acquaintance, there is little collective grappling with the Christian faith. It’s hard to imagine such meetings self-identifying as Christian.


Here’s my story: I was sitting in a library, reading John Woolman’s Journal, and the word “church” jumped out at me with great power, emerging from the following sentence:

We rejoice in filling up that which remains of the afflictions of Christ, for his Body’s sake, which is the church.

The word “church” answered a deep longing that I hadn’t even been aware of having. It satisfied me, while calling me to go deeper and look for something more.

I had come to Friends many years prior, after leaving the Presbyterian Church. Quakerism attracted me because it seemed to have such potential for depth. I liked the emphasis on seeking one’s own Truth and living one’s convictions with integrity. I was living in Philadelphia, trying to find my place in a large Quaker network where Christians seemed to coexist perfectly comfortably with non-Christian Friends. Being an open-minded, universalist Christian had been central to my identity since childhood.

The word “church” spoke so powerfully to me because it it seemed like a lost treasure that was being unearthed, ready to spring forth in my life, ready to challenge me to new openness and new Truth.

I decided to memorize several verses adjacent to the one that had so attracted my attention, confident that the kind of attention given to the passage in the memorization process would bear fruit in time.

Here are the words that I eventually memorized (a contextual framework to the reference to “the church” that had so captivated me):

Now I find that, in the pure obedience, the mind learns contentment in appearing weak and foolish to that wisdom which is of the World. In these lowly labors, they who stand in a low place, rightly exercised under the cross, will find nourishment.

The gift is pure; and, while the eye is single in attending thereto, the understanding is preserved clear: self is kept out.

We rejoice in filling up that which remains of the afflictions of Christ, for his Body’s sake, which is the church.

Some years after memorizing this passage, I had the privilege of attending a program presented by the beloved Quaker elder and teacher William P. “Bill” Taber (1927–2005). It occurred to me to ask Bill privately about the Woolman passage. After hearing the passage, he quietly said that nothing was coming to him but suggested I take a look at the first chapter of Colossians. Here’s what I found:

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church. —Colossians 1:24 (New King James Version)

In this way I saw how the Woolman passage was in turn dependent on a biblical passage.


I started asking myself what it would be like to put into practice what Woolman was talking about. If I really tried to take the will of God seriously, as Woolman did, what would happen? Could I, like Woolman, actually put aside the limited self, out of a desire to go deeper? As I began making the effort, amazing joy and peace came to me seemingly out of nowhere, as a gift. Love multiplied in my life.

Then when I would return to the particular sentence about “the church” that had initially grabbed my attention (rejoicing in “filling up that which remains of the afflictions of Christ, for his Body’s sake, which is the church”) I found myself beset with questions that kept eluding any and all attempts at a solution, such as the following:

  • Sufferings—sufferings for another person—how do I feel about the many controversies and questions about the meaning of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection?
  • How can suffering possibly be “good”? Isn’t suffering necessarily incompatible with the will of God? How can I deal with residue of outdated theological assumptions about suffering that seem so hopelessly dysfunctional?
  • How can anything actually be “lacking” in the sufferings of Christ? Doesn’t the Resurrection bring about an end to Christ’s suffering?
  • Does God weep in solidarity with human and ecological brokenness? But the passage talks about suffering for the sake of the church. The two ideas don’t fit together.
  • If we are the church, do we necessarily need to be the Body of Christ? Do we need to represent Christ in the way that a person’s body represents that person?

Not getting any definitive answers, I discovered instead that these open questions were energizing just as they were—without being resolved. I came to the point of acknowledging that these types of questions were absolutely central to me as a Christian Quaker. In the case of this particular passage from Woolman’s journal, the questions led to an ongoing dialogue with God about brokenness and suffering, and about the nature of the church. Other passages invariably led to other conundrums, other acknowledgements of Mystery.

I asked myself repeatedly which of the issues mentioned by Woolman was most important in my life. Eventually I came to see that for me that issue was “the church.” This is because I’m the kind of person that Woolman saw as “feel[ing] the care of the churches upon them.” I’m the kind of person who labors in meekness to (in Woolman’s words) “keep the name of Christ sacred in the visible gathered church.” Sometimes the heavy burden I experience through my deep concern for the church can be misunderstood or rejected. There’s no easy resting place.

I believe that God has invited me into spiritual membership in the “invisible gathered church,” which is very different from membership in a Quaker institutionalized community. An actual feeling for this kind of “membership” comes to me as I participate in various prayer or meditation groups, in the Experiment with Light, in extended worship, and in particular spiritual friendships. The empowerment that I experience in these groups and these friendships helps me face up to the fact that I do actually suffer. I mourn; I grieve; I lament for Friends, for (as Woolman puts it) “the sake of Christ’s body, which is the church.”


It’s not unusual to find other Friends who are concerned or who lament the current state of our religious society. But it’s hard to find people who envision Christ sharing our lament. To Woolman such people were “members of the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.” Woolman observed that such Friends tend to be sincere in heart, abiding in true stillness, and giving expression to that stillness in their lives. They would never do anything that would increase the “cloudiness” or “dimness” of the Quaker community by failing to follow the Divine Master. In Woolman’s words:

When our minds entirely yield to Christ, that silence is known [in which] we learn abiding in the divine will, and there feel that we have no cause to promote but only that in which the Light of Life directs us in our proceedings, and that the only way to be useful in the church of Christ is to abide faithfully under the leadings of his Holy Spirit in all cases … being preserved thereby in purity of heart and holiness of conversation.

Through his writings, with their related Bible passages, John Woolman gives me language for describing an emerging sense of empowerment in Christ (“Christ in me, the hope of glory”) that is actually my experience. I’m beset with both power and powerlessness, which go hand-in-hand. Speaking out of the “low place” that Woolman is talking about, I am often painfully alone, which leads me to the surprisingly happy and unexpected rediscovery of my utter dependence on God.


The post Learning from John Woolman, as a Christian Quaker appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Staying in It

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:30am
Being Quaker and Radically Christian in Our Time

The author (kneeling, on right) with the Evergreen Worship Group circa 2006. She wrote other aspects of her spiritual journey for Friends Journal last year, in Releasing One Another for Faithfulness. Photo courtesy of the author.

Quakers can play a powerful and transforming role in our world today, but to do so we must be something more than a liberal people with a welcoming faith. After three and a half centuries, God is still calling us to the challenging, uncomfortable condition of being radical Christians.

When I first joined with Quakers, I thought I had outgrown Christianity. Over time, however, I discovered that I had only outgrown the limits of mainstream Christianity, and that I was being called by the Light of Christ into a radical, experiential faith far more true and powerful than what I had known as a child.

I was raised to love Jesus. One day at parochial school, after becoming sick, I stood up on the bed in the infirmary and kissed Jesus on a little crucifix hanging over the bed. It suddenly occurred to me, however, that I was not worthy to kiss him, and I felt ashamed. In Sunday School I was taught rituals, rules, and doctrine. Expecting something miraculous to happen on the day of my first communion, I was disappointed. By my early teenage years, I was bored by the sermons at Mass on Sundays, and often critical of ideas that were preached. Deciding that admitting my sins directly to God in my prayers was sufficient, I stopped meeting with a priest for confession.

One day during Sunday School in tenth grade, the priest who was teaching us asked what we thought hell was. During the minutes he gave us to consider the question, it came to me that hell was a state of mind and that you could live in hell while you were still alive on earth. This understanding felt so complete to me that the explanation he gave added nothing. That was the last time I attended Sunday School. That same year, Transcendental Meditation was being widely introduced in the United States, and I did a research paper about it. With my saved-up babysitting money, I paid to learn TM, and for a few months practiced 20 minutes of meditation regularly in the morning and again (sometimes) in the evening.

During my first semester at college, while studying the French Existentialists, whose philosophy of life was based on the conviction that there is no God, I became agnostic and stopped attending Mass. I thought that would be the end of my spiritual life, but I eventually found that, for me, it was a doorway into a deeper spirituality. I had to discover for myself the nature of reality, the purpose of existence, moral guidelines for living, and whether or not God was real. In my senior year, I was shocked by the sudden death of an acquaintance and the end of my relationship with my college boyfriend. My heart was ripped open by loss and grief. I encountered frightening feelings, including anger. I received some unexpected inward instruction, guiding me to actually feel my turbulent emotions rather than suppress them. Big questions opened up. Did my human life result from mere chemical and biological processes and random evolution? Or was something more involved? Suddenly I needed to know the purpose of life, especially my life. To find calm stability, I began to meditate regularly again.


Years of searching followed. I looked within myself, and also explored ideas offered by other religions, including concepts about the nature of my consciousness. I eagerly read books that expanded my sense of what life might be about. During a period of intense, heart-felt inward seeking, I had some powerful mystical experiences of a radiant inner Light that flows through everything and a divine power that can heal any problem. My experiences convinced me that God is, indeed, real but much more vast, cosmic, present, and all-pervasive than anything I had been taught in church.

I found a meditation teacher and took up an intensive daily meditation practice for many years. I learned ways to turn my attention to the place of deep, peaceful inward silence, and I took time regularly to seek and receive direct spiritual guidance in prayer. I began to experience myself and everyone as part of what God is. At moments, everything became vibrant, filled with more life than I had previously imagined. Through dreams and images, I was shown that my life had a purpose, and that I was being inwardly guided, one small step after another, towards that purpose.

Following a leading to read the gospels, I was amazed to read the words of Jesus in a new way, a way that affirmed what I was experiencing. In dreams and prayers, as well as in some nighttime visions, I experienced Jesus as a divine teacher suffused with the Light. He invited me to open to the fullness of existence—in that Light —in God. However, I was embarrassed and repulsed by the judgmental proclamations and politics of many in the public realm who called themselves Christian. I had not rejected Jesus, but my ideas about who he was and what he came to teach had expanded, and my experiential faith was different from mainstream Christian beliefs. Because others who called themselves Christian might not accept me as such, I stopped defining myself that way.


I searched for a faith community where I could find support as someone with a sense of being directly guided by God, from within. Finally, I found Quakers. After reading a biography of George Fox, I felt I had found my spiritual home. I attended worship at many meetings but did not join one until I came to Newtown Square in Pennsylvania. There, sitting in the old meetinghouse, in a silent, deeply gathered meeting for worship with just a handful of people, I had a sense of Jesus present among us. I sensed that if I attended that meeting, I would experience him as an inward teacher, teaching me as he had taught his disciples. In Sunday morning meetings for worship and in gatherings of the Quaker Contemplative Community (which met there monthly for extended periods of worship), I often experienced the invisible presence and teaching of Jesus. Inwardly, he guided me to join a Quaker ministry of presence in the inner city of Philadelphia; he encouraged me to participate in a year-long course on the New Testament with radical Christians committed to social justice; he accompanied me in after-school work with inner-city children; and eventually he led me out of a romantic relationship when it stopped being life-giving for me.

I began to read the writings of seventeenth-century Quakers, starting with the Journal of George Fox. After learning more about the social context and writing of the first Quakers, I began to read other early Friends, as well. It was clear that they were committed, passionate Christians, and at the same time that their deeply experiential understanding of Christianity was radically different and more expanded than the conventional notions and practices of their time. Those of other denominations denounced them as heretics. Puritans in both old and New England persecuted, whipped, imprisoned, and killed Quakers because they experienced and spoke about Jesus in ways that were radically different. The first Friends, in turn, condemned the formal religion practiced by other churches of their time, in which people were not taught to look within to find the living presence of Christ—the Light —teaching and guiding them.

As I read the writing of the first Quakers, I recognized that my experience of being directly, inwardly guided by Christ—sometimes experienced as an inner Light—was a quintessentially Quaker experience. I recognized that I am a Christian, practicing a radical, experiential Christian faith, like the first Friends. Like them, my understanding of the reality of the inward Light comes from direct experience and is confirmed by passages of Scripture. Like them, I—and other contemporary Quakers—find the experience of the divine Mystery to be too vast and awesome and beyond words to encapsulate in a creed or pin down with limited doctrines.

In our contemporary culture, in which many who identify themselves as Christian espouse policies antithetical to the loving, inclusive teachings of Jesus, I still find it challenging to identify myself as a Christian. Some Liberal Friends who reject the dogma of many Christian churches and who don’t have an inward experience of Jesus as inward teacher look with disdain on fellow Quakers who call themselves Christian. I have struggled with how to define my faith to others.

In the decades since I first started worshiping among Quakers, I have continued to find help in my spiritual growth among people of other faiths, including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sufis, and Native Americans. My faith and spiritual experience have been deepened by engaging in the spiritual practices of other faiths, and I have met inspired teachers of different religions. I am convinced that many people of other faiths also know and are guided by the inward Light of God, including those who would not identify that Light as the Light of Christ and who do not experience Jesus as their inward teacher. I don’t believe that any faith has captured the full understanding of divine Reality, nor do I believe that growing in intimacy with God is limited to one religion. I am also convinced that different religions have important contributions to make to our understanding of consciousness, the nature of human life, and cosmic reality.


At various points in my spiritual journey, I have wondered why I need to call myself a Christian. Why not just emphasize the universality of God’s call through all faiths based on divine love and truth? Recently I dreamed of a large stained-glass window being made to represent Christianity, with different colorful images to show the various expressions of that faith today. Words were given to me in the dream: “Stay in it.” The radical Spirit of Christ does not want to be confined by rules and rituals and doctrine, but wants to be known, inwardly, in radical fullness. Wanting to confer spiritual power to those who are willing to be servants of Love and Truth, the Light of Christ guides us to be bold and to go beyond conventional boundaries. It asks us to open our hearts and pay attention.

During their last supper together, Jesus told his disciples that they were not ready to hear (or understand) everything he wanted to tell them. We, too, while blinded by cultural expectations and approaching him through analytical understanding, are unable to fully imagine what he might be trying to teach. Only by paying attention to the subtle, invisible work of the Spirit within our own hearts can we sense the larger possibilities of life into which we are invited, through the transformation of our hearts, minds, consciousness, ways of living, and our society. Let love and truth tender and open us to a deeper relationship with the divine Mystery and all of the life. The Light of Christ, as inward teacher, wants to show us the way.

Dedication to one path, along with others of the same faith, generally leads to a deeper experience of God and faithfulness. While other religions offer true paths to spiritual growth, Christianity has a unique and essential contribution to make to world religions. Jesus was more than a prophet. He not only spoke truth on behalf of God, as prophets do, but he incarnated the divine Spirit in a conscious way, as we are all called to do. He said that God was not just his father, but our father as well, and that everything he had done, his disciples were also called to do—and more (John 14:12). He quoted Psalm 82:6, which says, “all of you are children of the Most High.” The role of Jesus in history and in the salvation of the world is unique, but he challenged everybody to live as a child of God. Like him, we are all called to be obedient to the divine will and, as children of God, to manifest God’s love and divine miracles of healing and justice. In 1656 the first gathered group of Quaker elders, at Balby, referred to themselves as Sons of God. Some of the early Quakers, including William Dewsbury, used inclusive language when citing Romans 8:14, saying that all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God.

Those early Friends experienced what they felt was a return to the original form of Christianity, experienced by the first Christians after the death of Jesus, when the risen Christ guided individuals and the community directly, from within, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The first Quakers, like the earliest Christians, experienced a faith based on substance rather than form, on reality rather than notions, on Truth rather than falsehoods. The Presence and Power that gathered them in their meetings for worship and guided them in solitary prayer gave them the courage, strength, and conviction to challenge their society in numerous ways; bear the persecution that came; and model an alternative way of life based on love, truth, justice, simplicity, and equality. Over the centuries since then, many societies and Christian denominations have gradually accepted the truth of revelations proclaimed by Quakers starting in the seventeenth century.


Quakers in our time are still called to model a radical, alternative Christianity. We are not meant to freeze our faith to the exact version proclaimed by Quakers in 1652. Revelation has continued, and contact with other faiths in our time has provided both confirmation and amplification of many truths proclaimed by the first Friends. Like the early Quakers, we are called to sense God’s Truth directly and allow the Holy Spirit to speak through us in prophetic ways that will challenge ourselves and everybody else. Growing into our inheritance as children of God, we are called to allow divine Life and Love to flow through us into the world. Regarding Christianity, we are called to “stay in it” and to be leaven, continuing to help other Christians to a fresher, fuller understanding of Christ’s teaching, inviting everyone to experience the divine Light within us, as we have done since our beginning.

The post Staying in It appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

A Chore Worth Doing

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:10am
© glisic_albina “I’ve come that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be full.” Day’s end, most chores done, some chores not. Chores pile up quicker than hours to do ‘em. I’m learning, a day’s worth is not in number of chores done but
Categories: Articles & News

Provide Sanctuary

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:10am
Emma Membreno-Sorto sharing a statement at the March 14, 2017 press conference held at Albuquerque Meeting. Image from YouTube. Read the related news item from our June/July 2017 issue. This is another time in history when the Religious Society of Friends can serve as yeast, participating in a social
Categories: Articles & News

Forum December 2018

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:05am
Money as a gift Lola Georg’s article “Money as Mutual Blessing” (FJ Oct.) was wonderful. I hope it is of use to many meetings. Perhaps the only thing to add is that George Fox’s words were grounded in the biblical ones from Matthew 6:30–33: will he [God] not much more clothe you, oh you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we drink?’ or ‘what shall we wear?’ … [for] your heavenly father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom, and all these things will
Categories: Articles & News

News December 2018

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 1:00am
Photo © Robin Hipple. Middletown Friends recognize unmarked slave burials On Saturday, October 6, over 300 people attended a memorial service for the forgotten slaves buried at Middletown Friends Meetinghouse in Langhorne, Pa. The service included songs performed by a choir from Lincoln University, a nearby historically Black university; the dedication of two memorial
Categories: Articles & News

From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 12:25am
By Kai Cheng Thom, illustrated by Wai-Yant Li and Kai Yun Ching. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2017. 40 pages. $17.95/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 3–8.

Gender variance has always been with us, but in recent years we’ve been drawn into greater awareness of what it means. Have we been paying sufficient attention? A long time ago, a Friend showed up at quarterly meeting sporting a button inquiring, “How dare you assume I am hetero?” Since the appearance of that button, American society has been challenged to become informed and aware in new ways. One way is the use of pronouns that keep up with new sensitivities. For those of us in the habit of using pronouns conventionally, a small effort suffices to learn to adopt pronouns requested by a friend or acquaintance, but it is a great courtesy to those who ask.

This is a brilliantly illustrated children’s picture book about a child “born when both the moon and the sun were in the sky, so the baby couldn’t decide what to be.” The child, who is able, at will, to grow feathers, fur, scales, or sparkles, is always changing. But every evening their mother brings them back to their little blue house, gives them a bath, and sings a loving song she learned from her own mother. Problems arise when Miu Lan goes to school. Will they make friends? The other children appear to be either boys or girls and don’t know what to make of Miu Lan’s tiger fur or peacock feathers. Once Miu Lan dresses as a boy and is invited to play baseball, but when Miu Lan attempts to join the hopscotch game, a little girl admonishes, “Boys don’t play hopscotch.” Miu Lan’s mother reassures Miu Lan that although it is not easy to be different, “you can only be who you are.” What can they do to make friends?

This is a beautiful book, easy to fall into and to enjoy its fanciful illustrations in bright colors. The illustrators have used edge-to-edge paintings on these pages, creating a world for the little blue house that is both familiar and unusual. The hand-lettered text closely resembles Comic Sans font, without capital letters except for the child’s name, but with standard punctuation. Kai Cheng Thom writes throughout using “they” and “them” to describe the genderfluid child, Miu Lan.

Children raised from birth as strongly pink or blue may be puzzled by this story, even in its fairy-tale form. For parent groups, the story raises questions that could generate enlightening discussion about societal stereotypes, what children need, and how to support them and each other. What is needed? Just as we see in this book, a child needs affirmation, understanding, and most of all love. Quakers know this. It is a large part of our work: to help our children, ourselves, and each other grow in loving understanding.

While thinking about this review, I found a helpful resource from Limerence Press: A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns by Archie Bongiovanni and Tristan Jimerson. It is a small comic book that would be a useful addition to meeting libraries.

The post From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea appeared first on Friends Journal.

Categories: Articles & News

Where Are You Hiding, God?

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 12:20am
By Elisabeth Zartl. Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 24 pages. $12/hardcover. Recommended for ages 4–8.

Since the original title of this lively picture book was Wo versteckst du dich, lieber Gott?, my first thought was to consult my German friend, who is a Lutheran. The English translation on the cover is “Where are you hiding, God?,” which my friend gently amended to “Where are you hiding, dear God?” “Much more friendly,” he explained. I’m still puzzled: why had the translator (who isn’t credited in the book) omitted the lovely word “lieber,” translated as “dear” or “beloved”? I am left wondering what else was lost in translation.

As I type this review, I notice that the book is open to one of my favorite pages. The little girl who has been searching for God is sitting on a tree branch, accompanied by butterflies, a bird, a small fox, a tiny rabbit, and surrounded by flowers. On the previous page, she sat under a tree “wishing I could see God. Then the wind blows a leaf down onto me.” The leaf has inspired her epiphany, the moment of revelation. “There you are! I’ve found you!” she says. “You are the leaf touching me. You are in the wind that sent the leaf down onto me.”

The first half of the book depicts the playing child seeking God in her bedroom “between my pants and socks?,” in her bathroom “under the washcloth and my little my rubber duck,” and in her garden “next to the flowers and the dragonflies.” It is only when she stops seeking so fervently that she becomes available for the silent message as the leaf blows onto her. Then she returns to the garden, the bathroom, the bedroom, understanding that God is everywhere. Finally, she realizes “You are here, and you are always inside me.” As the reading children see these words, they also see a picture of themselves, for the last page is dominated by a silver reflective mirror: “You are here and you are always inside me, too.”

Reviewing this book has taught me much, including a new word, pantheism: that everything is in God and God is in everything. For this I am indebted to the review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat that accompanies the 2017 Spirituality and Practice Award given to this book.

The message is clear and beautiful in both content and language. The book is visually beautiful too, glowing with color on every page. Every picture is full of interesting detail—to attract lively lookers who may not yet be readers—showing insects; birds; and other animals, including a naughty, amusing, companionable cat. It’s essential to ask whether this is a good book, or only a good book. I think it’s both.

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Categories: Articles & News

Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 12:15am
By Cynthia Grady, illustrated by Amiko Hirao. Charlesbridge, 2018. 32 pages. $16.99/hardcover; $9.99/eBook. Recommended for ages 4–8. Buy from QuakerBooks

When some of Clara Breed’s youthful patrons at the San Diego County Library told her they were to be interned during World War II, she saw them off at the station in 1942 with stamped postcards asking them to tell her where they were living and what they were doing. They were held briefly at Arcadia, where she visited them, and later at a bleak camp in Poston, Ariz., where she sent books, seeds, thread, soap, and craft supplies. Replicas of some of the postcards they sent are superimposed on the light colored-pencil illustrations.

Here is how the book explains their plight: “The U.S. government thought Katherine and all people of Japanese heritage living on the West Coast could be dangerous. They looked like an enemy of the United States in a complicated war halfway around the world, so the government ordered that they be imprisoned.”

The period photographs on the endpapers and the addenda describing Clara Breed’s life and “Selected History of Japanese People in the United States” make this book valuable for children slightly older than the early elementary audience for whom the story seems intended. Homes and First-day schools should find this a valuable addition, especially in these days when where you live and where your family came from seem more important than usual.

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Categories: Articles & News

Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship

Friends Journal - Sat, 12/01/2018 - 12:10am
By Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, illustrated by Scott Magoon. Candlewick Press, 2018. 32 pages. $16.99/hardcover or eBook. Recommended for ages 5–9.

This book tells the tale of a young girl amputee learning to walk again and a service dog named Rescue trained to serve her emotional and physical needs. Multiple dimensions to this story are handled so deftly they further enrich the already storied relationship between mankind and dogs. Jessica, although a young girl in our book, is based on the life of 37-year-old Jessica Kensky who became a double amputee as a result of the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Her fellow amputee and husband, Patrick Downes, cowrote the book. In the story and also in real life, Jessica first loses her left leg and must adjust to this loss. Then almost two years later, disappointing both Jessica and her doctors, it becomes clear that her right leg must be amputated as well.

In a parallel to Jessica’s double loss and readjustment, Rescue’s guide dog training is shifted from walking in front of a person disabled by blindness (his family and breed’s historical mission) to becoming a service dog who walks beside a person with a disabled limb or limbs. This dual transformation of seemingly pre-ordained purpose of a human being and of her canine guide is so subtly limned by both the words and illustrations that even readers who are not especially “dog people” will feel the close kinship of our breed with theirs.

Alongside and supporting the larger story of emotional teamwork between species are the mundane details of what a well-trained dog does for someone during a long recuperation from serious injury. There are hospital door buttons to push and street crosswalks to navigate. A service dog needs to be a steadying presence and have a strong back to assist a human mate graduating from a wheelchair to crutches, from inside routine and protection to outside freedom and risk.

If this attention to detail engages our curiosity so do the apt illustrations of two plucky and devoted but fragile life-forms cooperating spiritually and bodily to both live more fully. Reading this book together with a child, as I did, alongside my super reading buddy, Daniel, a first-grader at the Fletcher-Maynard Academy in Cambridge, Mass., enriched an already singular experience.

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Categories: Articles & News
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