Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
In 1966 Time magazine published a famous cover story asking “Is God Dead?,” and at the time it may have seemed to many to be a reasonable question. Membership in mainstream churches had begun its long decline; in some cases, according to Demographia.com, in traditions such as the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational (UCC) churches, membership has dropped by nearly fifty percent in the fifty years since 1960. In North America, the Catholic Church has seen their numbers grow almost exclusively because of new immigrants from the global south, but otherwise has experienced huge attrition. There has been growth however, sometimes spectacular growth, in many “conservative” denominations, among groups like the Evangelicals, the Mormons, and the so-called “fundamentalist” churches. This rapid growth in the social (and political) influence of the Christian fundamentalists beginning in the 1970's, especially in the United States, may be one of the most significant events in the “Christian century”.
But now there are voices, like theologian Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith, who are arguing that fundamentalism of all kinds is dying. It may be a slow, noisy, sometimes violent death, but there are signs that the dominant influences of fundamentalist religions are at least on the decline. Whether it can be seen in the public backlash against extremists like the Westboro Baptist Church or the “Koran burning” pastor Terry Jones, or the inability of the ultra-conservative religious messages in the last election to resonate with most of the public, or most significantly, the failure of Christian fundamentalism to enlist large numbers of young people, there are reasons to think fundamentalism has passed its peak, at least for now. Add to this the growth in an outspoken and populist version of Atheism, and it may almost look like Time was merely running fast a few decades...
But there is also something else happening. A growing number of Americans (nearly a third, according to one Gallop poll) describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” Books with titles like “Christianity After Religion,” “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time,” and “The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus” are gathering a growing audience. And the Emerging Church movement, seeking to live, as Harvey Cox puts it, “in a new Age of Faith rather than the old Age of Belief,” is inspiring many young people (and not a few of us old folks!) with fresh winds of the Spirit. It feels like once again, as in the old Buffy Ste. Marie song, “God is alive, magic is afoot.” And more and more people want to be a part of it.
If the Spirit of Jesus is doing wonderful new things in the world (as Quakers have always maintained), what role might the Religious Society of Friends play in this new Movement? We were - and still are - part of those declining church numbers. We never were (thankfully, IMO) part of the fundamentalist phenomenon. Do we have anything to say to those Red Letter Christians who are stepping around a doctrinal approach and are not looking for beliefs about Jesus, but are seeking the Way of Jesus? Is there anything our Quaker tradition can offer to this rising chorus?
I believe there is, and I would like to share my musings on just three things our tradition might offer as our spiritual gift (1Cor 12:4) to this new movement of the Spirit. These are not new ideas - these things have been said many times by Friends and others - but they are worth repeating.
1. As we often proclaim, Friends are, for the most part, non-creedal and non-hierarchical. When we are at our best we’ve avoided creeds, and when we are at our worst we’ve just been bad at them. One of the apparent features of the emerging church movement seems to be a general disinterest in formal creedal statements of belief that everyone is expected to conform to in order to be “in.” Friends’ attempts to wait for the Spirit to lead rather than turning to a human leader is one of our historic precedents. Our testimony on equality, so radical at the time of the early Friends, speaks to the cultural reality of the new Jesus People and the spiritual reality to which they aspire. And Friends, did anyone see something of “that Friend speaks my mind” in the People’s Microphone at Occupy Wall Street?
2. Friends have long held an abiding faith in the continuing revelation of God. We may disagree on what that revelation is, and our different branches may have different views on how that is revealed to us, but it is safe to say few Quakers believe that God went away when the canon was closed. Popular evangelists like Rob Bell and Shane Claiborne draw large crowds of young Seekers precisely because they speak of meeting the Holy Spirit through experience, not concept. For many of the speakers of this new Movement, and I can only assume for their aspiring listeners, the stories they want to hear are not about what God can do for us, but what God is doing in the world - and how can we be a part of it. Isn’t that the continuing revelation of God?
3. To these new Followers of Jesus, faith means an abiding trust in the non-violent and redemptive love of God for everyone regardless of race, religion, social status, sexual orientation, political beliefs, criminal occupation, or anything else we humans use to separate ourselves. This new Awakening expends little energy on theological debate and like many Friends does not equate Christian life with questions of reward/heaven versus punishment/hell. Sin and salvation are not so much ignored as trumped by Grace. And in a world filled with poverty, violence, addiction, exploitation, hopelessness, fear, and suffering of all kinds, the emerging church is longing for a prophetic witness for peace and reconciliation.
Like the one the Quakers are noted for.
Now everyone within the Society of Friends knows our reputation often far exceeds our reality. Friends have spent a great deal of the last two hundred years bickering over many of the same arguments the rest of the church has struggled with, and it is by no means over yet. In our individual Meetings we far too often clash over personalities, positions, and a general failure to love one another. We are just as fallen and in need of Grace as anyone else. But our best voices have always called us to turn toward the Light, “till by turning, turning we come ‘round right”, and our prophetic tradition has always found hope in the fact that there is that of God in every person.
The new movement within the Church is looking for a community of faith active in the world, engaging the world, feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, healing the broken, challenging the Powers and Principalities - and that is part of our Quaker heritage as well.
Friends, let us learn from this movement of the Spirit in our day. Let us join with them and pray with them and grow with them, not that they may “become Quakers” (whatever that means), but that together and across traditions, we may see what Love can do in our world today.