Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
As this is my first post on QuakerQuaker, and as it might be relevant to understanding my perspective on this matter, I'll briefly introduce myself.
I'm Frederic Bayer, 19 years of age, a convinced and enthusiastic Friend living in the United Kingdom but born and brought up in Germany. I regard myself as a Christian Quaker. I was a "spiritual but not religious" atheist before I became a Quaker – the Quaker Way "reconciled" me with Christianity.
Within the Liberal Quaker framework of the United Kingdom, I suppose I could be considered somewhat "conservative", as I adhere to a form of "new plain" dress, and feel that the activist side of Quakerdom should not make us lose sight of the spiritual side – a view excellently expanded on by Ben Pink Dandelion in his Swarthmore Lecture this year.
I am also, however, a Quaker universalist, believing that the Quaker Way should be open to non-Christians, to anyone who shares our worldview and testimony. I firmly believe in non-creedalism, and as the Quaker Universalist Group puts it, I believe "that spiritual awareness is accessible to men and women of any religion or none, and that no one Faith can claim to have a monopoly of Truth."
In that light, I was shocked and dismayed at a major display of ill-spiritedness in the Facebook group "Religious Society of Friends". Here it is, summarised in a single screenshot, censored for privacy:
I find both the post and the comment shown here quite disturbing and "unquakerly", if I may be forgiven for passing that kind of judgment.
Before I get back to that, though: Other responses weren't much better either. One of the most common complaints? A sense of: "How dare he speak for God!"
That just puzzled me. Is it not the foundation of the Quaker Way – the unifying factor between all our branches, liberal, conservative and evangelical – that each and every one of us has the capacity to be moved by the Spirit and thus speak for God (or for our "collective unconscious" or whatever image the non-theists and polytheists among us might propose?) A phrase we use and hear all the time: "that of God in everyone" – are we really saying that some people do not have anything of God within them?
Another criticism I find more understandable was that this message was "preachy". And yes, that is a point of fault with it. In its tone, it insinuates that non-Christian Friends are either stupid, delusional, or both. At this point, I consulted §17 Advices and Queries of my yearly meeting:
Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.
This, to me, is one of the central insights of our community. This tender spirit in which we are to receive all speech, in case they might be ministry, in case they may have a purpose to fulfill in our own journeys of life, faith and thought.
That advice, I hope, makes obvious my quarrel with both the original ministry and the response: The original ministry leaves no room for error. It leaves no room for the belief that God may not exist. It leaves no room for the belief that Christ may not be his son, nor that the Bible may not be his word. Everyone is free to have their beliefs on God, on Christ and on Scripture, but not to criticise others for not sharing in them. In my view, that violates one of the tenets on which our Religious Society of Friends, at least here in Britain, is based: Acceptance and respect for one another.
The reply is guilty of the same. No attempt was made to "try to sense" where this querying came from. It is very possible that the Friend making the post was genuinely curious to see what non-Christian friends' views of God, Christ and Scripture are. And it was also hurtful and provocative, because it dismissed not only Christianity but theism as a whole, which permeates Quakerism and is held as a view by the vast majority of Quakers worldwide, as a "superstition", as something silly, facile, delusional.
On both accounts, I wonder: Where is the goodwill? The respect, acceptance, the attempt at understanding? The tender spirit and open heart which is one of the foundations, if not even the single-most important foundation, of our community?
Pink Dandelion warned in his Swarthmore Lecture that if the two major "types" of Quakers in Britain today – theist and nontheist – drift apart and radicalise in their views, hardening their hearts to those of others, this will lead to a schism. I would like to think that the unifying, reconciling spirit central to Quakerism should prevent that, but evidently, the danger of its failure is greater than I was willing to believe.
P.S.: I myself am not immune to this. We are all struck with anger or a temper on occasion, and I cannot claim to always react well to things that "rub me up the wrong way". But just as I am glad to be called out when that happens, I think it is the responsibility of every one of us to make others aware of when they do it, and that is what I have attempted to do here.