Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
An Open Response to an Open Letter from a Quaker-Pagan
Dear Friend Cat:
I feel moved to respond to the first part of your open letter to ‘My Christian Quaker Friends’. I thought of waiting for Part 2 to be posted; and perhaps that would be the wiser course. Perhaps some of my concerns will be addressed therein. Having said that, I still feel called to make a few observations.
First, I want to share my background so there is an understanding of where I am coming from. I grew up in a secular, non-religious, home. I had only the barest, minimal, contact with religion; the kind of thing kids pick up just from being a member of the larger culture. When I did become interested in religion, in my twenties, I turned to Buddhism. I practiced Buddhism for about 30 years; with periods of study in Korea and Japan. I don’t want to take up a lot of time with the details, but I eventually found Buddhist practice drying up and no longer nourishing. After much exploration I eventually ended up joining my local Quaker Meeting, part of the Pacific Yearly Meeting, a liberal Quaker community.
It was a perfect match in every way. My Buddhist background was not only not a hindrance, but was welcome. I feel tremendously fortunate to have found this Way and this Community of Friends.
I share with you how the peace testimony was the primary factor that drew me to the Quakers. It was this factor, above all others, which spoke to me; it still does. And, like you, I grew to really love the decision making procedures of the Quaker community. This has been tough for me. Buddhism is a hierarchical religion and I was used to decisions being made in accordance with that kind of structure. Learning a different way of making decisions has been a struggle, but also wonderful.
From this point, though, our journeys differ. After coming to the Quakers I became passionately interested in Quaker writings, particularly the early ones. It was immediately apparent to me how deeply Christian the Quaker Way is. It is difficult to go for more than, say, three pages in early Quaker writings (or Quaker writings until the late 1800’s) without coming across a scriptural quotation. Quaker Faith and Practice is absolutely saturated with Christianity; and from the perspective of these early writers this is because the Quaker tradition is Christianity.
Being a Quaker has, for me, meant deepening my understanding of Christianity and even more so my relationship with Jesus. It is Quaker Faith and Practice which has allowed me to do that. So here, I think, the way that Quaker Faith and Practice has affected our lives differs. Perhaps that is because Buddhism is hierarchically structured whereas the neo-Pagan community tends to not have that kind of structure. From this perspective it would be easier for a Pagan like yourself to fit in with the decision processes of Quakers than for someone like myself who lacked experience with non-hierarchical decision making procedures. I found that I had to reject, to a significant extent, my Buddhist past experience, at least in terms of how community is comprehended and how interactions take place. In your case, my sense is that this was not the case.
So that’s my background; now on to some specific points you raised.
You say “I agree with those who say that Christian Friends must be particularly careful when they speak of Jesus, or when they speak of the Bible.” You acknowledge that this may sound harsh. Let me assure you; it does. I am, in all honesty, put off by the idea that Christians specifically have to ‘be particularly careful when they speak of Jesus or the Bible.’ Why is this not addressed to Quaker-Buddhists?, or to Non-Theist Quakers?, or, for that matter, to Quaker-Pagans? I mean why shouldn’t Non-Theists be ‘particularly careful’ when speaking of their point of view? I mean, after all, non-theism is at odds with nearly every single member of the Religious Society of Friends since its inception, down to the present day. So why shouldn’t they have the burden of care in this kind of interaction?
There is also, I think, a practical result if this is actually applied. The effect, I think, would be to exclude almost all Quaker writing from the first, roughly, 250 years of its existence. Let me give an example I have spent a lot of time with. My favorite Quaker work is ‘A Guide to True Peace’. It is a manual for the practice of the prayer of inward silence and stillness. It is saturated with a Christian perspective. In this short work of roughly 90 pages there are over 100 biblical citations. How would it be possible for me to share this work, to quote from it, without speaking from a Christian and Jesus-centered world view? I don’t think it would be possible. And I think the same applies to almost everything written by Quakers until very recently. The effect of applying this sort of cautious approach would be, I feel, that access to the ‘Guide’ would simply be denied as being too ‘particularist’ and not openly embracing of those Friends who do not share this Christian perspective. I find this attitude oppressive and a not so subtle way of shaming those Friends who have a traditional understanding of Quaker Faith and Practice.
In other words, the effect of applying this view would be to cut Friends off from their heritage in a systematic (I would say highly aggressive) way. I think that would be a great loss. Even a work of central importance, such as the Journal of George Fox, would be sidelined if such a procedure were put in place. Do liberal Quakers really want that? I don’t think so.
From my perspective your suggestion is, again, oppressive. Let me illustrate with an analogy. Suppose you join a Rose Society; a group dedicated to rose propagation. You join because you have always been attracted to roses and gardening. And the people are welcoming. So you join.
After some time you discover that there are people in the Rose Society who are really into geraniums. They push the idea that focusing on roses is too narrow, too confining. Geraniums are just as beautiful and just as worthy of cultivation. The Geranium faction grows larger. At some Meetings of the Rose Society there is no discussion about roses; it’s all about geraniums. When you ask why the Rose Society is discussing geraniums, the response is to not be so narrow. In addition, you are told that those who hold to ‘Roses Only’ position need to be especially cautious, and tender, and concerned for the feelings of the Geranium faction; but the reverse is not the case.
OK, I’m being deliberately funny here; but I’m trying to make a point. And my point is that if you take Quaker history and you look at it honestly, it is the history of a Christian tradition. So why should Christians in the liberal Quaker communities be required to be cautious about speaking from that point of view? That simply doesn’t make sense to me.
The closest you come to answering this (and perhaps there will be more of an answer in Part 2 of your open letter) is that ‘the territory of the Spirit does not belong to any of us humans’. If I understand you correctly, the idea is that by speaking in Christian terms a claim is being made on the territory of the Spirit which is unacceptable.
I have a different way of looking at this. I’m going to use an analogy again. No one experiences music in abstract general terms. When we experience music we experience specific pieces using actual instruments. We hear the flute, or the guitar, or a string quartet, or a jazz ensemble, etc. Music comes to us in particular presentations. No one hears an abstract ‘universal music’, whatever that would mean.
Similarly, the Spirit is presented to humans in specific terms. Moses met God in a burning bush; a specific bush. This particularism happens because we are particular human beings; we are not abstractions. Liberal Quakers who are universalists have, in my opinion, constructed yet another specific religious configuration with its own preferences for how the Spirit will manifest. In its own way it is just as specific, and just as demanding of its followers, as any other form of religion. It is an illusion that Quaker Universalism is somehow above all these specific religions or that it somehow embraces other forms of particularism. It is just as specific and particular as any other religious expression; the only difference is that universalists won’t acknowledge it. In other words, the demand to refrain from speaking of Spirit from a particular point of view is itself a type of particularism, and a highly demanding one at that.
Well, that’s enough for now (perhaps too much). I enjoyed reading your open letter. I hope my response will be taken in the spirit in which it is written; that is to say in the spirit of Spirit. And I look forward to Part 2 of your Open Letter.
Thy Friend Jim