Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
The poet Jalaluddin Rumi writes of night travelers who search the darkness instead of running from it, a companionship of people willing to know their own fear. (91)
When Things Fall Apart
Quaker Universalist Fellowship
What we are learning
Many modern people have a yearning to belong to a community united by shared faith, not just by proximity or politics. At the same time, they feel bound by conscience to a standard of personal integrity and responsibility. They feel that authentic spiritual paths cannot be defined or directed solely by external authorities or traditional systems of belief.
These two challenges often seem to be in opposition. How can a faith community both assure mutual personal commitment to each other and provide safe space for the real differences of belief and experience that individuals bring to it? How can such a community become one where people are accepted regardless of their differing questions, answers, and values?
Radical honesty requires that we embrace our own strengths and weaknesses, and that we speak the measure of the truth which we have been given, not as a confrontation with others, but simply as a witness and invitation. Radical toleration requires that we embrace the strengths and weaknesses of others, and that we are genuinely attentive when they speak their measure of the truth, not criticizing it, but listening to it carefully.
Parker Palmer1 writes:
Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.
This growth works both ways. We want to lift up authentic self-hood and to have it lifted up by our fellows. In its simplest form, the mission of Quaker Universalist Fellowship is thus to invite people into a public conversation about how to live such a life in community with each other.
"Spritual but not religious"
Yet why has a universalist understanding of Quaker faith and practice become so important in the modern world? Why reach out beyond Quakerism's historical Christian roots? Radical honesty and radical toleration have been core Quaker values since the very beginning of the Religious Society of Friends in seventeenth century England.
One key reason is this: counting the “none” responses to current sociological survey questions about communal faith identity reveals that “worldwide ‘unbelief’ now represents the world’s third largest ‘religion’.”2
With this observation, Linda Mercadante opens Belief without Borders (2014), her account and interpretation of nearly 100 open-ended semi-structured interviews with five generations of Americans who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).
Mercadante’s most crucial finding is that, contrary to a popular notion, SBNRs are not people who reject religion as hurtful or false. They are, rather, conscientious seekers after "lived religion." (14)
The SBNR ethos demands the sort of personal authenticity described above, an authenticity which arises through self-examination, not solely through outward instruction. In other words, many “nones” are not irreligious but, rather, innately religious in a way that defies the boundaries of conventional religious traditions.
What Mercadante says many SBNRs lack, what they seek—especially those born after the 1960s—is a safe, neutral framework for expressing their spiritual discoveries and for experimenting with them in a spiritual community shared with others. This predicament challenges modern people of many faiths across the globe.
A similar predicament faced Europeans during the rise of Quakerism in the 17th century. The peasant revolts and the Protestant Revolution of the previous century had undone any certainty about which religious or political authorities to trust and follow. Though Catholic and Protestant hierarchies across Europe reestablished external control over much of the population, there was great ferment among commoners of every sort.
A key factor in this disruption of religious “order” was the translation of the Bible into the common languages of the people, begun in the 1500s by such reformers as German monk Martin Luther. In England the pivotal event was the translation commissioned by James I in 1604 and published in 1611.
Though neither Luther nor King James intended for the mostly illiterate commoners to take the text away from the clergy and develop their own interpretations, that is just what happened.
James had hoped his translation would impose political unity across a populace divided by the Church of England, the Roman Catholic church, and the various dissenting Protestant factions.3 Instead, as more folk heard or read the English text for themselves, more of them challenged traditional church teachings and practice. Their most heartfelt questions were not about doctrine or ritual per se, but about how to live genuinely Christian lives.Among those seekers who fell away from the established churches were small groups in the northern highlands of England, seekers who struggled with fear and despair because the outward forms and teachings of those churches gave them no inward direction. Some of these groups stumbled onto a method which was eventually to yield profound spiritual openings. Rather than wrestle with the many contradictory arguments over doctrine and ritual, they lay down all outward forms of religion and sat together in silence, waiting for the Spirit to teach them directly.
In the mid-1640s, George Fox,4 son of a prosperous Puritan weaver, learned through his own spiritual crises how to bring focus to the methods of these seekers. Together they developed a communal life, sometimes called "primitive" Christianity, based on their sense of the faith and practice of Jesus himself. They were devout students of the scriptures, yet they were convinced that all authority came from "the Spirit that gave [the scriptures] forth" rather from the written words themselves.5
They came to call themselves "Friends of the Truth."6 Truth for them was not doctrinal. It was experiential, the "Light" of lived religion. The experiment of sitting in worshipful silence, alone or together, taught them two things. First they became able to see the hurtful ego defenses by which they and others tried to fend off pain. Then they became able to "tender" their hearts, so that they could not only confess those pains aloud to other Friends but also feel and act with compassion toward the pains of others.
As suggested at the start, many 21st century people who want to be people of faith are nonetheless stymied by their sense that authentic spiritual paths cannot be defined by external authorities or traditions.
Many of us are familiar with or even have close relationships with folk from religious backgrounds other than our own, and we have experienced firsthand the authenticity of those peoples' faiths and practices. Many more of us have at least studied or even experimented with spiritual paths other than our own. We have tested these relationships and experiences against our inner sense of truth.
All of this puts us today in a position analogous to that of those 17th century English seekers, who longed for convincement and community yet who no longer shared the same understanding of the Christian religion. In the 21st century, we sometimes do not even share the same religions as our own families and friends.
Even so, we want that same radical honesty the first Friends practiced, both its fearless self-examination and its courage to speak revealed truth in the public square. We are aware though—sometimes painfully so—that to practice thus we also need the radical toleration of other seekers with whom we can share mutually supportive communities.
Many Quaker groups and many gatherings of other religious traditions do challenge themselves to learn the practice of radical honesty and radical toleration. This is a path that we all know from personal experience is difficult to follow—even with our closest family and friends, let alone with people we scarcely know or may even disagree with or dislike. Nonetheless, Quakers testify, as they have for centuries, that such a path is one which carries us past human-imposed boundaries toward inklings of the sacred reality that all beings have in common.
Universalist Friends add a dimension to this challenge. We seek to inspire and host fruitful conversations with those on paths other than our own—whether religious or not, whether theist, nontheist, humanism-based, science-based or whatever.
We invite you to join us in this ministry.
Mike Shell, Editor
Quaker Universalist Conversations
Notes & Image Sources
The link on “Quaker worship-sharing” in the Editor’s Introduction comes from Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. As another resource, Friends General Conference offers “Worship Sharing Guidelines.”
1 "Now I Become Myself," Chapter II of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation, by Parker J. Palmer (1999). Parker Palmer is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His other books include Healing the Heart of Democracy and A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and he is a weekly columnist for On Being.
2 Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious, by Linda A. Mercadante (2014, p.1).
Scotland’s James VI succeeded [Elizabeth I], thus becoming James I of England….
James wanted unity and stability in the church and state, but was well aware that the diversity of his constituents had to be considered. There were the Papists…. There were also the Puritans…. The Presbyterians…. The Nonconformists and Separatists, some of whom would later become America’s Pilgrims…. Then there was Parliament—eager to expand its power beyond the role it had at the time. There was a significant Puritan influence and representation in the Parliament…. [Finally, there were] the Bishops and the hierarchy of the English church….
Consider how preposterous it was to have a team of elite scholars writing for a largely illiterate public…. Think how ludicrous the translation mandate was. It called for a product commissioned to reinforce a clear-cut royal political agenda, to be done by elite scholarly committees, reviewed by a self-serving bureaucracy, with ultimate approval reserved to an absolutist monarch. The final product was intended primarily for public and popular consumption. It was to be read orally—intended more to be heard in public than to be read in private.
Image: “King James Version Bible first edition title page,” by Church of England [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
4 For an excellent historical account of Fox's life, see First Among Friends: George Fox and the Creation of Quakerism (1994; 2001), by Larry Ingles.
Image: Portrait of George Fox, attributed to Peter Lely (Swarthmore College) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
5 The following passage is from "The testimony of Margaret Fox concerning her late husband," from The Journal of George Fox (1694). In this excerpt, which contains the famous "what canst thou say?" query, Margaret Fell is describing George Fox's "sermon" at the Ulverston steeple-house. It was the first time she had heard him speak.
And so he went on, and said, "That Christ was the Light of the world, and lighteth every man that cometh into the world; and that by this light they might be gathered to God," &c. I stood up in my pew, and wondered at his doctrine, for I had never heard such before. And then he went on, and opened the scriptures, and said, "The scriptures were the prophets' words, and Christ's and the apostles' words, and what, as they spoke, they enjoyed and possessed, and had it from the Lord": and said, "Then what had any to do with the scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth? You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?" &c. This opened me so, that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong. So I sat down in my pew again, and cried bitterly: and I cried in my spirit to the Lord, "We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves."
6 The term "Quaker' was coined by Judge Bennett at Fox's trial for blasphemy in 1650 in mockery of his exhortation to "tremble at the word of the Lord."