An Open Response to an Open Letter from a Quaker-Pagan

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

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Comment by Howard Brod on 7th mo. 19, 2013 at 7:14pm

Thank you Cat.  And thank you Jim for your response.  I enjoyed both posts immensely.

I will respond to both of you by first saying that it would be as foolish for Quakers to deny their Christian roots as it would be for a Hispanic person to deny his Hispanic roots just because he is fully engaged in the melting pot of American culture.

We are what we are as a religious society and we should be proud of our roots.

I often advise non-Christian Friends to read the Sermon on the Mount in the New Testament book of Matthew in order to help them recognize that liberal Quakerism is almost exclusively based on the teachings of Jesus.  He, much more than George Fox or Elias Hicks, is the founder of the liberal Quaker faith tradition.  George Fox simply embraced Jesus' original teachings, and later Elias Hicks merely emphasized the importance of loving tolerance and acceptance if we are to fully live in the same Spirit that Jesus did.  

When one reads further than the Sermon on the Mount and looks even further into the life of Jesus as represented in the Gospels (and the book 'The Gospel According to Thomas'), it becomes even more apparent that Jesus' was a universalist himself, in that he wanted all to experience the love and forgiveness of God.

The fact that liberal Quakers embrace people with many non-Christian faith practices is not surprising, since their founder (Jesus) did as well.  I have concluded that all he was saying was that "my teachings of love and forgiveness are the way, and I am here to provide an example of one who lived in love and forgiveness".  If that doesn't embody liberal Quakerism, then what does?

Liberal Quakerism is indeed a "big tent".  So was Jesus.  What's wrong with that?  Whether one uses the name "Jesus" or not in their spiritual practice, I don't think really matters.  What matters is that we accept the way of love and forgiveness.  If we do that, we are a follower of Jesus whether we recognize it or not.  Any liberal Quaker who routinely experiences 'expectant waiting' worship, soon discovers the way of love and forgiveness in their life - the way of Jesus, and ultimately the way of the Spirit/God within.  That's the power of Quaker worship.

I will now take a leap and attempt to interpret what I think Cat is saying when she said “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.”  I think she is saying that because Christian Friends are the original 'settlers' of the 'land of Quakerism', they need to be gentle to later 'immigrants' into Quakerism by not conveying that if they are not biblically oriented or not Christian by name, then they are somehow not quite right with God.  I think that attitude is presumptuous and not in the spirit of Jesus.  I do not think she was saying they should deny they are Christ-centered or enthralled with Jesus.  She was just saying they should recognize that others may have another path to the universal truth of 'love and forgiveness' that was so embodied in Jesus and his teachings.

Comment by Bill Samuel on 7th mo. 19, 2013 at 7:25pm

I resonate with much of what you say, Jim. The early Friends were simply seeking to truly follow Jesus Christ.  But just one factual question. While A Guide to True Peace was very widely read among Quakers in one period of our history, and the excerpts were compiled by Friends, the authors were Catholic mystics.

And maybe that should be instructive for us. Early Quakers, in their rage at the twisting of the gospel by other churches, were very suspicious of those from other Christian traditions. But 150 or so years later, the devotional book, aside from the Bible, in widest use among Quakers was  a selection of writings by Catholics - post-Reformation Catholics. The true spirit of Christ is found among Christians from a wide variety of traditions, and we should not be reluctant to learn from Christians outside of the RSF.

AndAmpersand, the symbol "&", representing the word "and"

Comment by Isabel Penraeth on 7th mo. 20, 2013 at 12:05am

Thanks, Jim, for this post.

I agree with what thee says, and it made me happy to see what thee has written, but I must say that in a way I agree with Cat, in the sense that the ways the Spirit has Guided me to act have aligned with her wish that Christians "keep low" in liberal meetings.

It has been many years since I have understood that not only must I not speak beyond what I am Given when I go among Liberal Friends, even in casual conversation (hello awkward silences), but I must not even go among them unless the Lord is strengthening me to do so. My mere presence can be problematic, even if I never say a word, and so going to a liberal meetinghouse is never a neutral thing. I can't go there to rest, renew, refresh. I must feel the prod from God to go, and feel His comforting hand on my shoulder telling me it is His will and in His hands, whatever may come of it. And so I go there almost never these days. I accept that, that the Lord has provided other Comforts for me, other Rest and Refreshment, and that He is setting aside the liberal meetinghouse for others, for reasons of His own. But my weak humanly part is sorry it has to be that way, sorry and disappointed.


Comment by Joanna Hoyt on 7th mo. 20, 2013 at 3:12pm

Dear Jim,

I agree with you about hearing the Spirit through a particular tradition--for me, that tradition has been Christian--and about the ways in which universalism also can close itself off to forms of religion which it sees as overly narrow.

But I read Cat's message somewhat differently than you did.  After the quoted remark that you found harsh, she wrote this:

"Yes, Christian Friends need to be tender and faithful when they speak what is on their hearts--but the care is to be faithful to The Spirit That Gathers Us.  It is most certainly not a duty to speak to a lowest common denominator with non-Christian Friends, spiritual refugees or no.

What is required is is to stay low to the Truth, not to hide it or apologize for it.  Here's what I would ask: Do not share one syllable more of your Scriptures than the "Spirit that gave them forth" is speaking in you--but equally, do not share one syllable less."

and also:

"Well, but what about me?  What about me, and other non-Christians among Friends?  What are we required to do, to give to this relationship?

It is our duty to be faithful, too: bold and low, just like you."

I don't see this as oppressive.  I am not sure yet about whether and how to apply in in certain contexts, and I said as much in the comments to her blog; but I think it's important to acknowledge these parts of her message.

Comment by Joanna Hoyt on 7th mo. 20, 2013 at 6:53pm

You might want to have a look at the comments and Cat's newly posted and very thoughtful responses--I found that this cleared up some of my own misunderstandings.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 7th mo. 22, 2013 at 10:05am

Thanks, Friends, for your thoughtful responses.  They have all made good points that are worth seasoning. 

Thy Friend Jim

Comment by Lee Nichols on 7th mo. 31, 2013 at 12:10pm

Here are some thoughts I had as I was thinking about Howard’s response to Jim’s "Open Letter"

Howard, your reply in part to Jim  said "it would be as foolish for Quakers to deny their Christian roots as it would be for a Hispanic person to deny his Hispanic roots." Denying roots, I think, may not be the most important issue in your response. The central issue is who has the right to determine what the Christian roots are?

The blog discussions remind me of a discussion that turn heated over the characteristics of a home town. Two people both born and reared near Erie and had Pittsburg(h) as the next larger town disagreed about it description. One said they could drive between the two towns in less than an hour. The other said that was impossible. One said the land was basically flat in Pittsburg while the other said it was so hilly it had traffic tunnels. One said Erie had a state park with beaches and the other said there were no such parks in Erie. Finally they decided what most of us guessed already. They lived in different states. In this case, one lived in Kansas and one in Pennsylvania. The names of the towns were the same but the realities were completely different.

Howard, you say you understand the Christian faith that is the root of the conservative Quaker belief. But this is as if Norwegian Americans were to define for Hispanics what their roots really are. Because as a liberal friend, Howard, you are telling the conservative-orthodox friends, the one whose roots are in early Quaker beliefs, what those beliefs really are or at least should be. You live in a faith with the same name as early Quaker beliefs, but you never lived in the life of that belief. You are defining something that has the same name but is not the same reality.

You imply that the sermon on the mount in Matthew is the summation of what Jesus believed rather than part of a description of behavior that pleases God. You act as if you are ignorant of the place of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus that is so clearly presented in Scripture as the heart of the work of Jesus that allows people like you and me to find the power in the Spirit of Christ to move into a life that pleases God. Early friends preached this.

You say Jesus believes what non-Christian liberal Quakers believe. The early Quakers did not preach this. You do not show how these ideas of non-Christian teachings came not out of our Quaker tradition but out of easily identified movements that have waxed and waned through out the course of human history. The early Quaker showed this.

You take little pieces out of scripture and other material and ignore obvious warnings of danger and consequences of our decisions that are present in Jesus’ teaching and in other scripture to conclude Jesus believes just what you believe. And you resurrect books (The Gospel of Thomas) that have long been considered clumsy attempts by people to redefine and discredit earlier writing about Jesus to try to redefine the roots of Quakers so that they are opposed to the teaching of early Quakers.

Howard may I encourage you to become more informed about the beliefs and the state of early Quaker life if you are to be one who teaches what the roots of their belief really are. Then when you decide what you as a modern Quaker believe, you will be able to contrast that with our early Quaker roots and not occasion disagreements over the characteristic of our (different) home towns.

Comment by Howard Brod on 7th mo. 31, 2013 at 2:33pm
Friend Lee,

I am not trying to explain Conservative Quakerism in any way. I leave that to you and other Conservative Quakers.

My efforts were addressed purely to liberal Friends who seem unaware that liberal Quakerism is fully rooted in the teachings of Jesus. In saying that I am not claiming that everything he said to his first century Jewish audience, is appropriate for modern audiences such as liberal Quakers. But he is our "founder", and we should be glad he is. We are living in that same Spirit that he lived in.

You may not believe that about liberal Quakers. But that's not my issue to resolve.
Comment by Lee Nichols on 8th mo. 1, 2013 at 3:30pm

Howard, thank you for your helpful comments. I thought I would get a sensitive, thoughtful and useful response from you based on your previous comments. I appreciate our common efforts to live in the teachings of Jesus. You have also made me realize that I failed to tie my comments into the topic of speaking of Jesus in meeting and the importance this has in our Quaker roots found in the early Quakers.

Using George Fox’s writings as an example, there are many place to point to but three or four will do. In his work "Trying of Spirits in our age now ...", he writes "friends, ye know the light of God hath commanded to shine out of darkness, and hath shined in your hearts to give you the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus, which light is the life in him.

In "Epistle CCCCX for them that are learned in Christ" this is a typical sentence, "So they that do not believe in Christ, the light, as he commands, John xii. 36, they abide in spiritual death and darkness,"

Or in one of Fox’s letters to meetings in America CCLXXXVIII, he admonishes "keep your meetings and meet together in the name of Jesus, whose name is above every name, and gathering is above every gathering; and there is no salvation in any other name, but by the name of Jesus; and you gathering in his name, where salvation is, he is your prophet, your shepherd, your bishop, your priest, in the midst of you ...."

And finally there is the Article completely about speaking of Jesus in meeting entitled "Concerning such as have forbidden preaching, or teaching in the name of Jesus, and such as are ashamed to confess Him before men, and call not on the name of the Lord, & etc". It is found in Vol 6 of the Works of George Fox.

It seems clear to me if we celebrate our roots or if we seek to live in the power of early Quaker life, we will be speaking of Jesus. To not have our meeting in the name of Jesus is to not be a conservative Quaker.

Comment by Howard Brod on 8th mo. 1, 2013 at 8:16pm


I believe you are touching on the differences between conservative and liberal Friends, and even the original reasons for the great Quaker schism of 1828. 

At least from my vantage point, it appears to me that conservative Friends are concerned with living in the life, person, and teachings of Jesus, as well as that of early Friends, such as George Fox.  I am certainly not here to determine if that path is right or correct for anyone.  I'm sure it is of great help and comfort on your walk with God.

I can only say this approach is not right for me and perhaps most liberal Friends. 

If I may speak for liberal Friends in generalities, I perceive they are concerned with living in the same Spirit that was manifested in Jesus so that it is also manifested in their lives today as they go forth into the modern world.  And liberal Friends, including me, are convinced that if Jesus were alive today as a human, he would be expressing that Spirit for a modern world as he relates to that of God in the world around him - rather than relating to the norms and practices of an ancient world steeped in a Jewish-centered outlook that no longer exists. Now, this approach may lead a liberal Friend to have a very personal relationship with the person of Jesus - but that personal relationship is not usually viewed as necessary for all people in order to be "right with God".

That is why when liberal Friends read the words of Jesus, they are hearing the motivation of his heart, rather than the contextual and cultural application he made.  This is because that contextual and cultural application is certainly transient and impermanent over time and cultures, whereas the spiritual motivation from whence it came is eternal and constant.  The same can be said for the words of early Quakers such as George Fox.

So, I offer the above explanation to help you perhaps understand that liberal Friends are not anti-Jesus.  It's just that the perceived adulation given by conservative and evangelical Friends towards the historically preserved person of Jesus (as presented in the Bible) and early Quaker leaders, is uncomfortable to a group who attempts to find that same Spirit manifested in all aspects and cultures of modern humanity.

The other difference between conservative and liberal Quakers that you are touching on is the outlook regarding the Bible.  I perceive that conservative Friends are quite comfortable that it is the word of God, even if they recognize that it is open to interpretation.  This is a matter of faith for them.  To many, if not most, liberal Friends this seems idolatrous, because we are primarily centered on the Spirit that inspired humans to write down their spiritual insights - rather than the insights as recorded in a book.  Liberal Friends are not even certain that these accounts are entirely accurate.  So, our faith can not rest on them.  It must rest on the Spirit that inspires all of us to encounter God each and every day of our lives.

I will close by assuring you that our spiritual life as liberal Friends is as rich and deep as that of a conservative Friend, producing those same fruits of the Spirit that all Christians hope to exhibit.  Isn't this the real test of the strength of one's spirituality?



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