Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
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,