Separations and views of atonement.

If I could frame a question on this topic, it would be "what needs to be addressed in order for a single Quaker meeting to have differing views of the atonement?" The second question would be "what goals for a meeting are implicit in each view of the atonement."

It would be simpler to say why can’t we all just get along. But the answer to that would probably not help us understand our differences or the solutions that addresses these differences. It is easy to see why an unexamined solution would not have much success.

The initial Quaker view of the atonement, and the current Christian Quaker view, is one that says Jesus was divine in a way no other person could be divine and that Jesus in his resurrected body is alive in a way no one else is yet alive. This new life in Christ belongs to all who are willing and allow themselves to be changed by this new Spirit of Christ into the new creation where Jesus is Lord.

Another view of atonement which has ancient roots says, God is the larger spiritual life of the universe; and whenever we see ourselves a part of this spirit, we will move up the ladder of existence and be helping humankind move toward that evolutionary perfection that comes as we get better and better. Jesus was one of those a step up on the ladder of existence, and we can be too if we are more like Jesus.

Please forgive my crude descriptions of these two views of the atonement, I hope the descriptions are accurate enough to make some generalizations. The Christian Quaker view has a focus on the work of Jesus in the past, in the present and in the future. It is through Him that the Christian Quaker receives the understanding of what is good, the empowerment to do what is good and the body that brings people into a relationship with each other and with God. Part of the work a Quaker is to do, is to keep Jesus their lord, counselor, comforter, guide and friend.

We are aware that there are other people who follow completely different philosophies and therefore would not place themselves within the Christian view of atonement. On the other hand, those with different philosophies would fit into meetings that have a more generic view of the spirit and see Jesus as one more example of an improved life. Therefore one who has been listening to both positions knows that the way a meeting understands itself in relation to other philosophies comes from the very core of their belief about Jesus. Those who believe Jesus is essential do not have a goal of teaching that Jesus is only a good example but not the Lord, counselor, comforter, judge, and savior. Those teaching Jesus is a good example would technically also be able to see Jesus as savior and lord. To say that the example theory and the redemption by Jesus into a new creation in Christ are really the same or lead to the same meeting objectives is to affirm the example theory and oppose the Jesus as Lord theory.

There are liberal Quaker meetings who say that it is hateful, unloving and harmful to communicate to someone that they believe their position is true and yours is not. These meetings say that anyone who says this is a destructive, evil, abhorrent creature who is beyond the pale of protection provided by normal civility and Quaker process. This, of course, would make it difficult to have these two different views of atonement coexisting in the same meeting.

My understanding of the solution presented from the liberal side is to have Christian Quakers update their views to the liberal position or to enjoy the hospitality of the liberal meeting that believes in accepting all philosophical views as long as they don’t mention their views in the meeting.

As a Christian Quaker I look again at the word tolerance. The web site has some interesting comments.

"On this site we define it as allowing followers of other religions to follow their spiritual beliefs without oppression or discrimination. Religious tolerance is a fundamental right in a democracy. Most people believe that religious tolerance, using this definition, is a noble goal, and is vitally necessary for world peace.

Of course, no right is absolute. Tolerance may not necessarily extend beyond religious beliefs to include some religious actions -- particularly those that harm or harrass others.

Others, particularly conservatives in many religions, describe "religious tolerance" differently. Many define it as accepting all religious faiths as being equally true. This is one meaning of the phrase "religious pluralism." Since religions teach different beliefs, this definition of tolerance implies that absolute truth doesn't exist. Most religious conservatives reject these beliefs, and regard their own faith as the only absolutely true belief system. Thus, many conservatives believe that religious tolerance -- using their definition of the term -- is evil.

"We are continually amazed at the differences in definitions of religious terms as used by different faith groups. It makes religious debates and dialogue very difficult. It also makes our work in trying to objectively describe religious beliefs and practices quite challenging. ....

Paul Copan: "Contrary to popular definitions, true tolerance means ‘putting up with error’ - not ‘being accepting of all views’... It is because real differences exist between people that tolerance becomes necessary and virtuous."

As I understand the definition expressed above, it is a mistake when one thinks tolerance is equated with accepting all faiths as equally true because tolerance in the helpful sense is likely to be rejected. This makes sense to me; and surprisingly, I see this happening in liberal meetings when a person identifies differences in the positions held by people in meeting. That person is then harassed as a divisive, dangerous and harmful person. The difference between necessary tolerance and optional acceptance of multiple beliefs leads to confusion and lack of meaningful dialogue in meetings.

As mentioned in Beyond Reason by Fisher and Shapiro, unity in meetings comes when each party knows their autonomy is respected, their status is acknowledged, their role is meaningful, their presence is appreciated and their efforts are seen to be an important contribution toward a common goal. If there is no common goal, one essential piece is missing on which the other relationship qualities depend. I think this common goal has not been identified by all parties in the liberal vs Christian meetings.

Friends, I doubt if any of this is new to you or others, but I do think it is helpful to review these topics when discussing the evils of separations caused by different views of the atonement.




Views: 950

Comment by William F Rushby on 8th mo. 17, 2013 at 6:58pm

Hello, Lee!

Thanks for the informative essay.  At this point in Quaker history, we have moved beyond a simple pluralism of views of the Atonement.  For many unprogrammed Friends, faith in Christ is no longer an option--regardless of view of Atonement.  And, even more recently, faith in God in any form may not be assumed; hence the "non-theist" viewpoint.  Formerly, we were not all on the same page.  Now, we are not even in the same book!

IMHO, the sensible thing to do is to sort ourselves out enough to have spiritually and theologically coherent meetings, always exercising as much charity as one can muster for those who choose other options.  I guess this is what has happened in Indiana.  I think that it makes good sense.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 8th mo. 17, 2013 at 11:59pm

Before Quakerism or even Christianity... Some people had a sense that humanity overall had become estranged from God, but that God was seeking to reveal 'His' self to people, so far as they could profitably receive it ...

According to the Hebrews, God had given them a prominent place in that attempt to self-reveal -- and the Christian position was that Jesus had taken that effort to a new level, made that revelation accessible to a wider range of humanity than previous Jews had generally expected (although there were certainly strong hints that God had intended to someday do so.)

One doesn't need to take everything in the Hebrew scriptures -- or the Christian -- at face value to see them as elements in that process of Divine self-disclosure. It is obviously not a process intended to culminate in insights like: "There is no God" -- but many people do seem to need to pass through such beliefs, to let go of how they've expected God to be, if only to open their minds to letting God speak for Godself on how God truly is.

We have a sense, strongly influenced by the words and example of Jesus, of what God is like... and while Christians have been inclined to describe Jesus as offering the full self-disclosure of God, this doesn't mean that we (or anyone else) have fully understood that self-disclosure. That doesn't imply that all understandings are equally good or equally mistaken; it does suggest that more than one way of seeing Jesus, or of seeing God, can contribute to people apprehending a fuller picture.

We can't make much progress together, under the assumption that theology 'doesn't matter' -- nor under the assumption that we can/should impose a theological belief system, from outside, on anyone who doesn't share it. This looks like an impassable impasse of principles -- & how could we expect to break through such a situation, except by reliance on God's power and wisdom?

Isn't that last, really, the "Quaker" position?

Comment by James C Schultz on 8th mo. 18, 2013 at 5:26pm

There are beliefs and there are beliefs.  It doesn't really matter what your belief is if it doesn't affect your life and it isn't going to fully affect your life unless you can walk in it.  So you can have all the correct beliefs but if you can't love your neighbor as yourself it doesn't mean a hill of beans or a pig's ear (which last time I checked was now over a dollar).  My personal experience is that different people have different spiritual experiences at different times in their lives and that those spiritual experiences influence their "beliefs" and that those "beliefs" continue to evolve as they move on in their spiritual journey.  I believe if we are open to His presence during worhsip we can be used to help each other on that journey as the Spirit knows the hearts of those in attendance at any given meeting for worship and what that attender needs to hear, if anything.  I enjoy theological discussions as much as the next person but they have no place in bringing a body into unity.  That's LOVE's(Compassion's) job.  I believe we have to trust in the Lord with all of our heart and rely not on our own understanding.


Comment by Lee Nichols on 8th mo. 22, 2013 at 5:52pm

A response to Jim Schultz and Forrest Curo

A blog like this, being free of some concerns of meetings, such as how comments move it in one direction or another and how control of the meeting is maintained, may be a place to have a more open discussion about the various beliefs Quakers hold.  A blog also has the big advantage of hiding first reactions, so that members are free to transform first responses into more thoughtful replies.  Could this blog be a place for us to be honest, tolerant and thoughtful in discussing one persons belief in light of another?

Jim, thanks for sharing what you believe when you say, "I believe we have to trust in the Lord with all of our heart and rely not on our own understanding."   I do not see a contradiction between trust in the Lord and an examination of beliefs and their consequences in my life and the lives of others.  It seems you also practice this when you express what you believe and what meetings should do in light of your belief.  Your position ,you could maintain,  is not your understanding but God's; and while discussing why you think that is true leads to further dialogue; a simple announcement that it is true does not.  

Forrest, thanks for sharing your understanding of the work of Jesus.  I see this as your position and request your correction as needed.  Human kind is estranged from God because they don't understand God, and so the Bible reflects God's actions in human history to allow people to see God more clearly.  Jesus is important because He allows people to see God as he really is, removing the cause of humanity's separation from God.   Not everyone has this more complete understanding of God because God has not brought everyone to this new level of revelation but all should expect God to help all people to break through to this new level of understanding.  

There are some thing we have in common.  One is to see Jesus as an important figure in bringing humanity and God together.  Another is that the new atheists would see both of our positions as evil influences causing all sorts of suffering.  

Here is why I am unable to follow your scenario.  I see Hebrews and all of Scripture saying human kind is not helped by the self disclosure of God because they have lost the ability to do the good that God reveals to them.  I don't see how you reached your conclusions about this and would welcome a more detailed discussion if the writings in the book of Hebrews or other scripture led you to your conclusion.

Setting aside the concern about the Biblical basis for your beliefs, I would like to understand a couple of points.  Why didn't people see God in his attempts to self-reveal before Jesus?  What did Jesus do that had not been done before so that people would overcome their estrangement from God?  Why are some people now still less good or more mistaken in their understanding of God?  If God's wisdom and power has not yet broken through to all people equally, why should we expect God to do so at this time?

Your last Question, "Isn't that last , really the "Quaker" position?" would have to depend on which Quakers you are talking about.  The traditional and early Christian Quaker would see as inadequate this unscriptural view and these vague descriptions of terms, however the liberal Quaker, I imagine, would say, "yes it is."   

Comment by Forrest Curo on 8th mo. 23, 2013 at 1:28am

Well, I wouldn't consider 'relying on God's power and wisdom' to be a particularly 'liberal' way to handle what looks to be insoluble by unaided human reasoning....

I'd say Paul, whether or not he was the actual author of Hebrews, got a number of things wrong. God's disclosure was still incomplete, still ongoing in his time, as it remains today.

Human 'wickedness' is one difficulty, but not the major one I see: What God is working to communicate is not what most people think it is. For people to realize what we need to see typically requires a lifetime, perhaps more than one (as some Hindu & Buddhist teachings have it.) There isn't much need to wonder: "Why didn't ___ get it yet?" -- certainly not if we're still learning ourselves!

More than one novelist has been asked: "What does your book mean?" And answered, "If I could tell you in a few sentences, I wouldn't have needed to write the book." And God wouldn't have needed to put up a world...

God is simply not finished with us, and the atheists, while mistaken, are just going through one phases of the same process we're in. Maybe they're in a wash cycle and we're getting spun dry, but it's the same machine.

Rather than "a Biblical basis" for what I believe, I have an 'experienced life' basis for finding significant truth in the Bible.

God, so far as God has been able to self-disclose to me, is the Authority for my religion, and rather than refer you to a text, it is God I must refer you to. What we don't see now becomes clearer as God clarifies us.

Comment by James C Schultz on 8th mo. 23, 2013 at 11:26am

Lee, hope you are well.  I also hope to see you labor day weekend at Powell House.  I guess the point I was trying to make is I definitely have my own beliefs about the Atonement but since it came from personal revelation I can't insist that everyone else agree with them.  I did not get this belief at a "gathered" Quaker meeting.  When I gather with my meeting and in fact any meeting for worship with Friends I try to listen to what is coming out of that meeting as I believe that is what the Spirit wishes to address amongst those in attendance.  Before my short tenure as a Quaker I would regularly attend prayer meetings where one would have a word, another a song and another a prophecy and at those times I would also try to discern what the Spirit was trying to address the meeting about.  I have been trying to do this since 1978 and in all that time I don't recall anything more theological than "I love you so much I allowed my son to die for you" without a deep discussion of exactly what that meant although I obviously have my opinion of what that means and in my mind the meaning seems obvious.  But I have never heard that come out of a Quaker meeting for worship which leads me to believe God hasn't wanted to address it with the body of Friends I was worshipping with.  I believe God's purpose is unity.  That we be one with Him and each other and I believe God is so great that He knows how to bring unity to any community of spiritual seekers.  That's why I choose to follow His lead and not project my opinion into Theological discussions except with Friends like yourself and Forest who actually enjoy such discussions and don't take them as confrontational.   Our meeting in Manhasset is an "All are Welcome" meeting and I believe God's concern with our meeting is that everyone who walks in the door feel His Love for them as they are with the intent that they will seek Him out more fully with all their hearts, all their soul and all their mind at their own pace.

                            Love, Jim

Comment by Lee Nichols on 8th mo. 29, 2013 at 1:23pm

Further comments using the Journel and writings of James Bellangee

A Quaker minister, James Bellangee, traveled hundreds if not thousands of miles in ministry speaking to innumerable meetings to the benefit of many people as report in his journal; yet near his death in 1853, he makes this startling confession in a letter to his brother.

I have tried very hard, for many years, to serve two masters, who in some measure differ from each other. I always had a wish to worship, honor, and obey the God of my salvation above all other considerations; I also loved society, and the praise and applause of those who were standing high in society, and so it has kept me back from giving my honest sentiments, many a time, for fear I would become very unpopular.

Whose approval did he want and what did he say to get praise from people? Fortunately we can look for answers to these question because he left in his Journal a summary of his comments in various meetings. Here is how he answered questions about his beliefs when questioned by skeptical Quakers on the 25th day of the 8th month of his ministry tour which started 3 months earlier in Ill.

"25th. Had a meeting at Batstow Furnace, where they were much prejudiced against our part of Friends, and it was nearly half an hour before we could get liberty to hold a meeting with them. I told them they might ask me any question they pleased, and I would answer according to our faith. They then said, "Do you believe in a Saviour?" to which I replied, certainly, or you would not see me here. "Do you believe he was anything more than a common man?" I said certainly we do, for no man can save his brother or give to God a ransom for him. "Then," said they, "do you believe in the atonement?" I answered, I do not believe that Christ by his death and sufferings on the cross atoned for all the wicked, both for the past, present, and they who are yet to come, or all would be saved; but I believe his redeeming spirit atones for all who are obedient to his will. By the aid of his redeeming power we may make our calling and election sure, and work out our salvation by his holy spirit ruling in our hearts, both to will and to do his good pleasure. "Well," said an old woman, "that is what we believe;" and she was made to rejoice when she found we were not as our opposers had said of us.

His answers to questions "Do you believe in a Saviour?, Do you believe he was anything more than a common man?" and "do you believe in the atonement?" would determine if he would be greeted as a prophet or a thief. James had traveled a great distance to preach to these people, and he knew what they wanted to hear. Surely he could satisfy them while preaching what he truly believed. Did James answer without being deceitful in order to secure acknowledgment as a minister and be allowed to appoint a meeting? When James credited Jesus with possessing a redeeming spirit and the power to bring salvation to those who allow His spirit to rule in our hearts did he say what he really believed . Not according to his later confession. This was one time when he shaped his answers to convince the listener that he believed as they do. If this was not James’ true position, what does he believed about Jesus and atonement? He explains this further in his letter to his brother.

".... we may form a perfect judgment like that of our Author, entirely independent of each other, or of all men that ever lived before us, as respects true religion, a belief in God, and our duty towards each other as brethren. In order that we may come to a perfect knowledge of the truth as it was in Jesus, let us look for the laws of God within ourselves as he did, and it will lead us and guide us more and more into the divine nature; for in these last days he teacheth his people himself, even all those who seek to be taught by the revelation of his spirit. It is my full belief that God is as willing now to reveal his holy and divine truths to every seeking soul, as he was to Moses and the prophets, Christ and the apostles. I cannot see any advantage that one of them had, more than we can have."

We see that for James, Jesus does nothing more than we do. Atonement is looking to God’s law in yourself with out reference to any guide outside of ones personal thoughts. Jesus is not more than a normal man, Jesus does not intercede for us and Jesus definitely does not redeem us. It is obvious that this places James outside the historic, traditional or orthodox view of God’s work in Jesus, outside His plan for humankind and would have kept him from being received as a minister.

From an orthodox Christian position, the strengths James owns are those that reflect the scriptural positions. When James answered Christian Quaker questions, he would start with a Biblical quote before he than reinterpreted it to support his own position. So his strengths are those places where he connects with the tradition view, and his weakness are where he follows the romantic, human perfectionist, platonic, or impersonal pantheistic eastern spiritual points of view.

The idea that people of good will, who felt connected to the greater spirit of the universe, are able to be good and avoid evil is unproven in any person, nation or community. The failure of utopian communities along with the world wars and the other moral failures of the early 20th century removed this position from it prominence in most places. James Bellangee, writing before these human weaknesses were unavoidably evident, stressed the need for perfect knowledge, perfect conduct and perfect thoughts in his journal; but he has no hope for those who do not form a perfect judgement and are not perfectly obedient to His will. The Christian perspective does have hope for the imperfect because we are reconciled to God in Christ so our task is to deny ourselves and live courageously, freely and fully without seeking perfection because of our faith is in Christ.

What happens when people fail in their efforts to be good like God? What does James do when he realizes his tremendous moral failure of ministering in order to please people rather than God. He doesn’t think that the closer you are to the Spirit of God the more you see your faults. I think that is true, and I also see how Fox struggled to understand the mistranslation of the word perfect in his version of the Bible. He shows this in his discussions of perfection where he quotes Bible verses that are translated perfect in his version but which are now translated mature. Perfection is more about oneself and our accomplishments. Maturity is about growing in Christ and letting his power produce fruit in our life.

Early and later Quakers, we have seen in other blogs, were very concerned to test individual leading by Scripture and by the wisdom of God in others, particular those experienced in the Christian life. This was a way to allow the spirit of Christ to be exercised in other members of his body and to limit the inescapable distortions of every aspect of human perception based on self interest and past experiences. James Bellangee has no room for such tests of his individual thoughts be they fantasies or leadings. Here are some reasons why I choose the Quaker Christian position to the more vaguely expressed spirituality of liberal Quakers as found in James Bellangee.



Comment by Jim Wilson on 8th mo. 29, 2013 at 3:40pm

Friend Lee:

I enjoyed your thoughtful post on James Bellangee.  I was struck by your view that given the numerous disasters of the 20th century, most people have put aside the idea that human beings can perfect themselves.  I would amend that to 'most thoughtful human beings'.  I share your view that the 20th century reveals the dark and deep well of human depravity in a way that is stark.  But my observation has been that most people do not draw that conclusion and the idea that human beings are perfectible by their own efforts continues apace.

It is one of the central pillars of various New Age movement.  It is also a central teaching of the non-dual movement which has established itself in the west.  Some of the non-dual teachers have generated large followings.  I believe that is because they flatter their audience with the idea that they are perfect 'just as they are'; a teaching that effectively sidelines any introspection on the tendency of human beings to sin.

I am intrigued by the idea that liberal quakers have absorbed this basic view that human beings are perfectible on their own terms, without surrender to a higher source, in particular Jesus.  It would explain why some liberal quakers I have met are so uncomfortable with the Christian roots of the Quaker tradition; because the central view of Christianity clashes with their own, often unstated, view of what the inner life of a human being actually consists of. 

Much to think about,


Comment by Lee Nichols on 9th mo. 2, 2013 at 8:13pm

Note to Jim Wilson

Thank for your reflection, Jim.  It is probably true that popular thought does not always follow intellectual movement.   Lately I have been acquainting myself with the writings of the new atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. Your comments made me wonder if the new atheists’ loud contention that religion is the basis of all evil is a way to avoid seeing what Solzhenitsyn said about his experience,  " Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either - but right through every human heart." 

On another subject, your experience with Buddhism puts you in a position to discuss the good and bad contribution Buddhism can make to Christian communities.  One website I read said Buddhism is all about suffering which is always the result of personal faults in direct opposition to Christ’s response to those caught up in disasters.  Jesus pointed out they were not worse sinners than anyone else, and we should all repent less we be judged for our sins. 

A Friend that grew up in Japan finds Buddhist ceremonies have a continuing pull on her affections because so much of it involves the extended family honoring common ancestors.  Her observation was that most Buddhists know very little about the teaching of Buddhism behind the various public ceremonies.  What do you see to be the most important differences between life as a Buddhist and life as a Christian?  I look forward to your comments.


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