Quaker Universalism from a Conservative Friend's view

Friends General Conference and Conservative Friends have more in common that they have differences. An interesting difference is the concern for universalist thinking. It is my belief that the two Quaker entities can find a common ground through which a common communion can take place through concepts of universalism. However, there are some things that I feel must necessarily take place for communion to be possible.

First, I want to address some particulars. Conservative Friends, as well as myself, understand that salvation is made evident through the life of different individuals, some (or many) of whom are not even related to Christ-centered beliefs.  However, we understand that certain acts are indicative of Christ having come exactly because these actions can only be properly understood within the framework of Christ as Messiah. This is a particular and necessary belief for Conservative Friends. Salvation is known and made possible by the Christ. For Conservative Friends, Jesus Christ is at the center of our Quaker identity.

Perhaps those of us who are members of FGC meetings will wonder aloud why is there any need for particularism or Christ-centeredness. It is a good question, and one I have thought about. I put forth a narrative answer.

I can only make sense of those actions that potentially reveal salvific meaning if I have an actualized event that I can relate them to. The story of Jesus, part of the larger story of YHWH and Israel, or Creation and Creator relationship, lends context to the events that I hear about, observe, or participate in. Jesus is the language of my experience, and provides the baseline for my understanding of actions or events that pose revelatory value.

My understanding of current Quaker universalist thinking is that Christ is not a necessary aspect of salvation (if any salvation is necessary), but God can be known equally through any religion or faith community that is based in love and the value of the dignity of others. Therefore, in my perception of my fellow FGC Friends, Jesus is an unnecessary aspect of Quaker worship, and Christ-centeredness may actually impede or limit one’s understanding of the divine. However, many universalist seem to be unaware of the nature of universalism in its most popular theological expression. In my opinion, most liberal Friends are not so much universalist as they are avid practitioners of syncretism. The differences are significant.

I believe that many Americans tend to practice a sort of spiritual colonialism. I can become a student of Gandhi, or a student of Buddha, and I can incorporate specific claims made by the followers of Hinduism or Buddhism into my framework of knowledge. Ultimately, however, my immersion in the Christ-centered faith of my original spiritual experiences will act as a filter, and I will generally not do justice to those claims. Moreover, Americans tend to ignore substantial considerations of other faith expressions when adapting more popular or agreeable aspects. They begin to weave the various “acceptable” aspects, or narrative “proof texts” of diverse religions in order to suit personal preference. There is rarely an immersion into specific faith communities if those communities. Like Conservative Friends, maintain strict identity.

If I do fully immerse myself into Hinduism or Buddhism, and become a "professional" so to speak, then I have either began to view the world through a worldview different than that of my original Christ-centered faith, or I have come to further identify with it and have no need for the assistance of other views that may act to distort the Christ-centeredness of my particular narrative. In other words, if I immerse myself in Buddhism, I no longer have need for other faith expressions. I have accepted a coherent whole to as a spiritual identity. I become Buddhist, as opposed to “Buddhist Quaker.”

Additionally, when I combine the attractive aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity (It seems no one ever chooses Islam) and live accordingly, this creates a new religion, the particulars of which are necessarily rejected by the proponents of each of the original faiths. This is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with new religions (or old ones). It is only to suggest that spiritual or religious intelligibility and integrity must not only allow for the particularity of all religious claims, but must allow them to maintain their particularity and identity over and against mutations that insist upon co-opting the old identity by painting the new religion as the natural evolutionary advance of the old.

Remember, evolution is not (necessarily) an unquestionable improvement. It is an adaptation to an environment. Early followers of Jesus were certainly not out to improve on Palestinian Judaism, and I don't believe they were an adaptation of it. It was a continuation of the Yahwist faith by making a specific claim that was only intelligible within the Yahwism of its time. Messianic claims did not in any way change the nature of the way God was acting or acts in history. According to Judeans of the first centry. they fully expected God to act, most simply rejected that Jesus was the person the YHWH acted through.

Whatever has happened to the Christ-centered witness over two thousand years, it is the witness that God's desire is fully revealed in the historical Christ, and that those who believe that the life Jesus lived is normative for our understanding of humanity that lends context to our understanding of the world around us. If I understand the world through Jesus, with an assist on the goal from Buddha, then I may be a better person for it, but I am no longer Christ-centered.

Ultimately, however, I believe that Conservative Friends must, at some point, relinquish an attempt to discuss the Christ and the salvation effected by his ministry as a propositional truth. Our commitment to the Christ and the Christian narrative is one of faith, to be vindicated in history by God. Despite our faith in the Christ, we are not in control of outcomes, nor do we corner the market on revealed truths. We must be dedicated to our witness to the belief that Christ has come himself to rule his kingdom. However, this is a witness to faith, and not a rule to be coerced onto others. We must embrace universalism as the valuable part of our American heritage – that of pluralist society,

I believe the Conservative Friends objection to liberal universalism is not its insistence upon legitimizing other faith expressions or accepting the potential that other truth claims may in fact be truthful. I believe the Conservative Quaker objection to liberal faith and practice should be that melting various aspects of other religions into a Quakerism without boundaries or peculiarities creates an environment of silence without any attention to Quaker specifics.

It is important to me that FGC meetings maintain their universalist tendencies. However, I believe that contemporary Friends are misunderstanding the nature of theological universalism and social pluralism. Universalism can be popularly defined as an affirmation of the worth and value of each religion and faith expression. However, this definition does not call for the adaptation of other religions as potentially dovetailing with other faith and practice. This universalism actually erodes diversity and pluralism, as it begins to deny the importance of peculiar practices of each faith. Soon, American faith and practice will not be an affirmation of pluralism, but a disregard for the peculiar practices that have made each faith community a contributor to the important nature of diversity. Syncretistic universalism actually destroys diversity and generates an almost unhealthy sense of individual spirituality that makes it impossible at some point for others to be in communion with such practitioners.

The importance of religious universalism is that salvation is an occasion that can be experienced in within every faith community, but such experiences are an opportunity for self-awareness and spiritual growth, and not necessarily a experience that we must seek out ourselves by adapting aspects of other faiths into our own. Continuing to adapt aspects of other faiths into our own Quaker communities furthers two concerns that I believe Friends are already burdened with – accountability for our actions to a broader community of faith, and a tendency for Friends to believe that if they continue to adapt aspects of other faiths into Quakerism – it strengthens our community witness. I believe that continued adaptation of other faith practices dilutes Friends worship to the point where it is no longer Quaker, but a new religion of some sort, a sort of which none can agree upon other than to commandeer an ancient name of a people once chosen, and now more resembling a people who pick and choose.

I urge Conservative Friends to maintain Christ-centerdness with passion and without the shame that often paralyzes our Christ-centered counterparts in FGC meetings (we’ve all heard the horror stories). Yet, it is just as important that we urge and affirm our FGC Friends to maintain their universalist tendencies, and seek out communion with those Quakers. Of course, the catch is the ever-present Christian caveat – respect our peculiar sense of the Christ as foundational, not just to faith, but to our understanding of God and Creation, and Quakerism. Without our particularity, there is no real diversity. And without a properly boundaried universalism among our liberal Friends, it is entirely possible that the very fact of unprogrammed Quaker worship will meet its demise. Silent worship will become no more than a meditation group, and that does a disservice to the World,

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Comment by Howard Brod on 10th mo. 25, 2012 at 10:37pm
I think you may misunderstand the view of most liberal Quakers that I know. Their experience during 'silent waiting' worship has not caused them to reject Jesus. Rather, it has demonstrated to them that the Spirit that was manifested in Jesus of Nazareth is also very capable of manifesting through other venues. And Quaker worship is the common place for us all to experience that divine power together - no matter what we call it, no matter where historically we get our inspiration from.

This is proof of the power available in the practice of 'silent waiting' worship which conservative and liberal Friends share. It is by that power that we have salvation in this world and the next. And it matters not what we call it. A truly liberal Friend or meeting should be completely comfortable with Jesus. What's there to dislike?

And the liberal Friends I know are very comfortable associating and worshipping with conservative Friends until someone insists that they must see the historical person of Jesus as their source of salvation (there are "horror stories" on both sides of the Quaker divide). This is because liberal Friends see that saving Spirit nearly everywhere, if we only open up our eyes to its presence. Isn't the power of the divine bigger than our historical reference points?
Comment by Barbara Smith on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 9:13am
Scott - Thank you for your post. You touched on several different issues and I will comment on two of them. First, what you call "spiritual colonialism" has struck me as well. I was guilty of this in the past and I think it is a natural tendency of folks who are seeking and not yet finding. I could see aspects in many religions that spoke to me and seemed to help me along as I tried to understand God, Life etc. But now I see the danger in that practise. This hit me hard when we were watching a video on the selection of the Dali Lama. I saw how what many Americans understand Buddhism to be and what it is in its full blown Asian reality are not one and the same. We have westernized and sanitized Buddhism and made it palatable to modern thinking. I feel Liberal Quakers are doing the same with Quakerism, picking and choosing the parts that are comfortable and not TOO different from what a rational mind can find believable. But this, in my mind, takes the guts out of Quakerism, and definitely out of Christianity, making it a religion we can all feel good to be part of. But I agree completely that this practice affects the ability of the group to be in communion. A community must gather around a compelling concept or person in order to be strong. And the concept that the world is good, and that there is that of God in everyone, is not strong enough to bind a community for the long haul. Interestingly, those who stay in the community may feel this is indeed enough, but they are disregarding those who have come and found it lacking and have passed on. What were they seeking and what did they not find?

Your other point is about Universalism. If I understand you correctly, you are defining universalism not as the incorporation of other faiths into Quakerism, but as the acceptance of the value of those other faiths for other people? Is that accurate? If that is true I would say that as Americans, those of us who think of ourselves as tolerant, would agree that other faiths have value for other people and that people of other faiths can live good lives, whether we are Conservative or not. I would just call that religious tolerance. If you mean by universalism that a person who believes that Christ is essential for salvation can also say that He may not be essential, in other words that you believe a thing and its opposite, then I would say universalism is nonsense. So I am confused as to what you mean by wanting FGC Quakers to maintain universalism. Which part and why?
From my point of view as an ex-FGC Quaker turned Conservative I see the universalism as providing a place of safety and community for seekers who are questioning, where people can be uncertain, exploring etc. with comfort. But I'm not at all sure that in the long run this helped me. Often it felt more like the lost guiding the lost, rather than the found guiding the lost.

I know I will get blasted for this post, so "bring it on" to quote a famous American. (I do not intend to be disrespectful to anyone, and of course this is only my personal experience.) God leads each of us in different paths and it is always painfully difficult to try and communicate from one path over to the other.

Barb
Comment by scot miller on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 9:14am

Thank you Howard. I believe you overlooked my main point. We can agree that the manifestation of the Spirit of Jesus is found in other religions. However, that does not mean that we can incorporate all of those manifestations of the Spirit into our Quaker faith and still have an expression of faith that is roundly intelligible. A discourse without boundaries is a discourse bound to erode and lose any succinct meaning. Many "truly liberal Friends" are simply not comfortable with Christo-centric worship. My experience is that, Christ-centered Friends are often called upon to defend their commitment to the legitimacy of their claims, while a good many liberal Friends do not accept challenges to their own understandings of the Spirit. Of course, these are only my experiences, and not yours, so the circle of Quakers that we are a part of may be very different from one another. I don't think there is anything to "dislike" about Jesus. I believe it is the commitment to a single discourse that makes liberal Friends suspicious, as though a soul-saving conversion attempt is lurking around the  corner.Of course, many Conservative Friends do this, and, perhaps they should not. Evangelism is a matter of sacramental living that all Friends engage in in one way or another, and words tend to ruin the message. In many meetings, however, the suspicion of Christ-centered Friends, or the fear that they will attempt to "Christianize" the meeting, is palpable. Quantitatively, the remarkable number of Friends who seek affiliate membership in Ohio Yearly meeting indicates that many Christ-centered Friends find themselves unsupported, and that their spiritual experience is often mistrusted by other Friends.

Comment by scot miller on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 9:26am

Barbara, I believe you have a good grasp of my assumptions, as well as my experience. To address your point concerning Universalism, it is my belief that salvation has been effected by Jesus because his faithfulness allows for Gentiles to be adopted into the story of Abraham and Sarah; and YHWH. However, I believe that Jesus has represented a point where God has acted in history to begin to set things right - and it is the business of Quakers and the church to reflect what this salvation looks like in a non-coercive manner. The Good News is only good when it is received as such. The value of universalism is that Quakers can listen to those persons of other faiths reflect on our own assumptions, and grow from such reflection. This not only tolerates other faith expressions, but values them. The necessity of peculiarity in Quaker beliefs is not driven by a need to be right and salve others. I believe the importance of peculiarity and believing that one has been called to election is that Friends have the patience to allow for God to vindicate our faithfulness, and vindicate all of history, and will consider the faithfulness of all religious expression in light of the grace that you and I understand as beginning and ending with the work of the Christ. Grace and Peace to thee Friend

Comment by Howard Brod on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 1:45pm
My understanding of liberal Quakerism is that the essential distinctiveness that "safeguards" our Quakerness (did I just coin a new word?), is our belief that there is that of God in everyone. From that springs two essential practices: worship based on silent waiting in order to experience that ultimate reality directly, and the communal search for that of God in the business of the meeting (better known as Quaker process).

All other boundaries, beliefs, and practices are regarded as 'add-ons'; things that might be helpful for a given time or situation - but things that are not essential to our Quaker spirituality. Therefore, a "healthy" liberal Quaker meeting does not get hung up on terminology and language, while also recognizing that individuals and the meeting must use terms/language to communicate. Even so, a likewise healthy liberal Friend will look passed the language to find its conceptual source. That source is ultimately the Spirit that is present in all creation. Some may call it God, and some may call it Jesus, and some my call it "the Universe", and some may call it the Light.

This simple denominator is the focus of unity for liberal Friends. If someone must always focus on their particular idea, doctrine, or religious personage in order to feel spiritual, they will likely become frustrated among liberal Quakers. They will lack a feeling of unity with others there.

Even though I often use Christian terminology and reference Christ quite a bit, that simple denominator of "Spirit" found at my liberal Quaker meeting is just fine with me - because it unites all in an experience of it - which is so much more powerful than uniting behind a belief, personage, or doctrine.
Comment by Mackenzie on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 2:40pm

I commented over on Scott's blog with:

I’m one of those universalist liberal Friends, who’s a bit wishy washy about whether to claim Christ-centeredness or not. I grew up a Catholic, attending a parish school for about 10 years. I view universalism slightly different than you do. You see, when I was in religion class one day, someone asked “when people who aren’t Christian pray, does God hear it?” and the teacher answered “yes.” If there is only one deity out there, then regardless what name it is called by (God, Dios, Allah, Yahweh, Brahma,…), all prayers go to it. And so, can those who are unaware of the Light within them still be given lessons by it? Well, if God can listen to their prayers, I’m sure he can answer them too.

I think that is what Barclay meant in proposition 5, about the universal redemption by Christ. It’s the idea that Christ is speaking to everyone, whether they know his name and story or not.

So, to me, it’s not a fuzzy “they all have value and something good to take from them,” but rather “different words and forms don’t block out the still small voice.”

----------

If anyone wonders what I mean by wishy washy about claiming Christ-centeredness, it is this:

Some would say that one must regard Heaven and Hell as real physical places, and salvation as the ticket to Heaven instead of Hell, in order to be a true Christian. 

Others say that Heaven and Hell are states of being, and that when one is saved, they are saved...from themselves, from the negative parts of themselves, and changed to always try to be the best person they can be. From that perspective, saved and taught...well, they are the same thing. In that one, Jesus is a teacher, not someone pushing out you from in front of a bus.

I like hearing from that second camp, but I'm sure it means to any evangelical that I am not a Christian. And so I wonder if I can say "Christ-centered" to mean that I consider Jesus's teachings central, even if I think of him as the teacher who is the ultimate prophet.

Can one claim Christ-centeredness without claiming Christianity? For that matter, who decides who is a Christian? Certainly, the Religious Right would say I am not. But I have friends on the Christian Left who I think would say that calling Jesus teacher is enough. They've told me that if those on the Christian Left renounce the word "Christian" as I have, just because those on the Christian Right don't want to share it with me, that I am letting them be the gatekeepers, and exacerbating the problem of there seeming to be no room for a multiplicity of interpretations of scripture within Christianity.

Comment by Barbara Smith on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 4:13pm
Mackenzie - I know many evangelical fundamentalist Christians and I have yet to meet one who says Heaven is a physical place. As a conservative Christian Quaker I fully agree with your definition of heaven and hell as well as the universality of Christ's ability to redeem even those who don't know his name. The original Quakers were persecuted for emphasizing this very thing: that redemption is for the here and now and NOT for later when we are all in a physical place called heaven. This went against the Calvinist grain, who believed that no one could know whether they were redeemed or not and it we would all have to wait till after death to find out. And, as you quoted Barclay saying, Christ is in every man (woman) born into this world, whether they name Him or not. These are not liberal Quaker ideas, they are Quaker ideas.

As for Jesus being a teacher, His very emphatic message was that salvation was NOT a matter of trying to be good, but of BEING a different person who is changed day by day into the person who cannot help but do good. It is a mystical change that Jesus described. As an exercise I went through all 4 gospels and copied everything that Jesus said about who he was and why he had come. After reading those quotes the only way anyone can still say Jesus just came to be a teacher is if they also question that he actually said all those things, or question the accuracy of the translations. After many years of not knowing who Jesus was, and trying so hard to believe that he was just a human like us who happened to have better insight than most of us, I gave up, read the Bible with open eyes, and saw what he was really truly saying! It was amazing and life changing!

So I just wanted to point out that we seem to have very similar views and yet are defining ourselves differently. It was not until I decided to immerse myself in the old Quakers, to investigate what they really believed by reading it from their own pens, that I found I actually agreed with everything they said! And in doing so discovered that I was a Quaker! Not a liberal Quaker, but a Quaker as passed down from the 17th Century! Now I unashamedly say I am Christian, and don't worry about what others mean when THEY say they are Christian. That's their problem.

Barb
Comment by Mackenzie on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 4:19pm

Hi Barb,

I say "try" in recognition of the fact that all we can do is try. Perfection is rare. I believe the first generation of Friends would say that each is given a measure of the Light, which may not be the same measure, as an explanation for why, even after being convinced they might still fail and be arrested for drunk & disorderly conduct.

Comment by Mackenzie on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 4:22pm

(Oh, and I realize the salvation-in-life stuff is very much traditional Quaker thought, but don't forget, Quakers were called heretics in the early days! I expect we probably still are by some groups...)

Comment by scot miller on 10th mo. 26, 2012 at 4:45pm

Thanks for your input Mackenzie. Since I posted and said what I needed to say, I'll finish with this and hope others will continue the conversation. I am an affiliate member of Ohio Yearly Meeting (conservative), yet my home meeting is an FGC meeting that is part of LEYM. I am Christ-centered and believe that the salvation that I have experienced in my life can be fully made sense of through the manner in which God is revealed in the life an faithfulness of Jesus. My salvation and my life before are part of a larger story that makes sense out of both brokenness and joy and lends continuity of experience between myself, my family, and the broader culture. That being said, I am ambivalent about being identified as a Christian, believing that the church has been reduced to public displays of civic religion.

I appreciate the sense of universalism that Friends historically bring to the table of religious discourse, but I want to make clear my understanding of universalism. Like early Friends, I believe that God's incarnational acting in history through Jesus extends the offer of salvation to everyone, who need only to respond to their measure of Light within. Early Friends knew this inward measure of light to be the Light of Christ - hardly syncritistic. However, Conservative Friends should accept certain aspects of universalist thought as indicative of continuing revelation - that being that the work that God has accomplished through Christ may be effected in a variety of ways which indicate that a God who acts in history is a God who will arbitrate history, and not the Bride of Christ. The Church, and in my opinion, Quaker (elect), are simply to show the world what God has revealed to us that salvation looks like. We are a witness to the work that has been accomplished in the Christ, but not the author of a final chapter of the soteriological text, so to speak.

However, to think that, because God can work as God chooses within the framework of any religious discourse does not suggest that Quakers should be open to building a worship environment that picks and chooses the best of everything and packages it into silence as the best representation of Fowler's sixth stage. Fowler was sorely mistaken in a varieyt of ways, certainly about the importance of identity maintenance as the foundation of true diversity. One need only here that salutation La'kesh or otherwise in a conversation to realize that, despite the attempts at diversity, if more than half of the group you are in worship with has no idea of the nature of what you are saying, or the context into which it fits, you have excluded others from your experience. There is nothing wrong with using terms from other religious communities, but, as an individual with some education at least, most of what passes as Buddhist Quakerism or whatever else, outside of Jewish or Christian thought, is simply lost on me. This does not mean one is better than the other, it simply means that such syncritism lends itself to individual satisfaction, yet burdens the corporate experience with unintelligibility when one is called to be accountable for their beliefs. It really does come down to "believe what you want" which opens the way for ranterism, or bullshit, which ever word you prefer. 

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