"Convincement" or "Uncertainment" - A Liberal Friend's Dilemma

While I could never be mistaken for a fundamentalist, I have a childish yearning for a completely literal burning bush-type experience, or perhaps one day, while driving to New York, (Damascus not being handy), I suddenly find myself being yanked from my car and cast down upon the side of the interstate and a voice tells me in no uncertain terms that this is Jesus speaking and you, Patricia, had better take heed! Now that's the sort of experience that leaves no room for doubt. Why is it that we live in an age when God seems to favor the "still small voice" over the Cecil B. DeMille announcement? Quakers are particularly fond of this method of revelation and even eschew the word "conversion" in favor of  "convincement," as if conversion is way too melodramatic for a peculiar people who appear to be too pig-headed to be anything other than talked into belief once all the pros and cons have been carefully weighed. Of course, this is a very 21st century definition of the verb "to convince." Even a cursory study of the convincement accounts of early Friends offers ample evidence that it was an entirely dramatic experience. Here's a sample from Francis Howgill:

My eyes were opened, and all the things that I had ever done were brought to remembrance and the ark of the testament was opened, and there was thunder and lightning and great hail. And then the trumpet of the Lord was sounded, and then nothing but war and rumor of war, and the dreadful power of the Lord fell on me: plague, and pestilence, and famine, and earthquake, and fear and terror, for the sights I saw with my eyes: and that which I heard with my ears, sorrow and pain...And all that ever I had done was judged and condemned, all things were accursed...And as I bore the indignation of the Lord, something rejoiced, the serpent's head began to be bruised...And as I did give up all to judgement, the captive came forth out of prison and rejoiced, and my heart was filled with joy...Then I saw the cross of Christ, and stood in it, and the enmity slain on it. And the new man was made...the holy law of God was revealed unto me and written on my heart.

Now, here's the kind of experience that made things happen! By 1662, a decade after George Fox and the early Seekers were "gathered" as a people, about 80,000 had been "convinced" - close to 1% of the population of Britain at that time. Three hundred and forty-nine years later, that number has dwindled to about 12,000 Friends in the UK, with around 180,000 in the Americas and 380,000 worldwide. For purposes of comparison, I offer the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints which has been around for 200 years less. In 1862, there were about 69,000 Mormons. Today, there are more than 14 million. Are they more convinced than we are? Looking at the numbers, they certainly seem to be.

Actually, going out and telling people that you have found something spectacularly wonderful seems to work for Quakers, too. Of the 380,000 Friends worldwide, a whopping 84% are affiliated with or reflect more evangelical branches of Quakerism. A paltry 15.7% make up the liberal, unprogrammed universe, with Conservative Friends flickering away valiantly at 0.4%. As one liberal Friend once said, "We don't just hide our light under a bushel basket. We hide the bushel basket under another bushel basket!" This is, after all, our little secret.

Which brings me to the question: what is it that we in the liberal branch of Quakerism are "convinced" of? And if we are so "convinced," why are we so shy about telling other people about it? Perhaps in the spirit of "let your yay be yay and your nay be nay," we should more truthfully call it "uncertainment" rather than "convincement." Recently, in my meeting the Friend on facing bench invited visitors to sign the guest book, adding impulsively and with the best of intentions, "And, don't worry, we won't try to contact you." I guess to "silent worship" we need to add "silent outreach." Mention the word "proselytize" to a liberal Friend and you get about the same reaction as "Beelzebub" or "Harry Potter" elicits in some other faith traditions. Yet I can't help feeling that we have perhaps retreated a little too far in the direction of modesty when expressing our liberal Quaker beliefs. We love the phrase "let your life speak" partly because it lets us off the hook in terms of verbally sharing something that many of us consider central to our lives. If we practice our faith in our daily lives, we don't actually need to share what motivates us because we'll "convince" people by some vague process of osmosis. Or maybe not. And do we care? Quaker Quest was started in Britain in large part because of the realization that unless something was done and done soon, the Religious Society of Friends was on the road to extinction in the country of its birth (some predictions have it at about 2037). Surely if we are convinced of something we should practice articulating it so that we can share it with others. For many liberal meetings outreach is done almost by default; if you happen to cross our threshold we'll do our best not to scare you off. Perhaps we need to have a small sign on each pew: Only the most determined need apply. I know from experience that many liberal Friends are people who are thoroughly "convinced," although frequently we transmit uncertainty. Surely in this troubled world we need to find a way to joyfully articulate what we are convinced about, what inspires us about the Quaker way and what excites us about the journey.

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Comment by William F Rushby on 12th mo. 10, 2011 at 7:08pm

Acts 9:18 "And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith..."

 Patricia, your insight into the liberal Quaker situation suggests to me that you too may have had the scales fall from your eyes!!  In any case, this post is "well put!"

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 12, 2011 at 12:13pm

Maybe you don't want to live in a Cecil B. Demille universe? God always thumping things about; everything dreadfully important but it's hard to get much rest?

Moses may have been happy standing on the mountain watching God throw big flaming boulders out, but the rest of his people were saying, "You talk to him, Moshe! We're feeling shy!"

God is still in the process of taming humans, and most of us have fears of anything bigger, smarter, or more powerful than us. "Excuse me, I'm God, do you mind if I throw great flaming boulders about?" So the special effects are saved up for those who really need them!

It's been a very long time since Quakers were that scary. Maybe the people around us won't be nearly as afraid of us as we are...

And if we can't find Anything to trust, we don't have that much to share, after all!

Comment by Patricia Barber on 12th mo. 12, 2011 at 1:47pm

Forest, it's a childish desire for certainty rather than fireworks. It makes it so much easier to articulate one's faith. I think one reason the Mormons have been so successful (ditto all successful evangelists) is that they project such certainty. It's much harder to talk about mystery and ask questions rather than provide answers. People usually set out on a spiritual journey in search of answers. It's hard to keep them coming back when you can't provide them with any - or at least not in the way they hoped you would.

Comment by William F Rushby on 12th mo. 12, 2011 at 3:57pm

From a paper I wrote on Cyrus Cooper (published in Quaker History; Spring 2000): "A further spiritual landmark in Cyrus Cooper's life occurred at a midweek meeting at West Grove.  Zebedee Haines queried whether there had been any growth in the Truth, and stated that greater concern about spiritual things was itself evidence of growth.  Cyrus felt that his own state was being described, and realized that he was more concerned.

...my heart was filled with joy and peace such as I had never known...my dedication and peace were fully owned..."  (quote from Memorial to Cyrus and Bertha Cooper)

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 12, 2011 at 5:14pm

I bet you think "childish" is a bad thing!!!

I'm also certain: that what your Mormons want, and what you want, is not "certainty" but a viable mental universe to live in.

A universe where your eggs might jump up off your plate and bite you would not be viable.

Neither is a more lawfully-ordered clockwork universe, set to kill you at some known or unknown time in the future-- although many people derive great comfort from believing that the world is really like that, that this is one thing they can at least be certain of. And not be fools.

Many many people are strongly convinced that the universe we in fact inhabit is inviable... so strongly, that you can make them uncomfortable with a simple statement that they are children of God, born here to live and not die-- and that they themselves can know this, will know this whenever their desire to know the truth overcomes their attachment to whatever false beliefs they're used to. They may wish they knew this for truth-- but they are certainly afraid to hope, and thereby risk losing the hope, that what you're saying is true!

But that isn't "a childish desire for certainty;" it's a perfectly reasonable desire not to lose the one security they've so far achieved, the belief that what they "know" and what they've been told-- is an accurate and adequate guide to navigation through this world and whatever surprises it's plotting to throw their way.

Real certainty, of how life really is, is not so easy to come by. You can't convey it by a few simple cliches, because whoever you try to hand these to will probably drop them! Maybe the best you can give them is the assurance that "That crazy fool believes ___!" If they can wish they could be that crazy, that much a fool, then you've set them a good example!

Where the credal churches have an advantage-- is not so much in being certain-- but in putting their faith in some verbal formula. They can easily pass that formula on; people can say they believe it. But they may need to be like Job in his last extremity, before they can truly get down to: "I'd heard of You by hearsay, but now I see you!"

A significant fraction of 'Early Friends' had reached that 'Job' level of certainty, and this was enough to threaten, and nearly overturn, the institutions of 17th Century England.

Are we there yet? What's stopping us?

Comment by Patricia Barber on 12th mo. 12, 2011 at 5:57pm

Paradoxically, in spite of my expressed yearning for certainty, one of the things I value most about Quakerism is its experiental aspect. Like Friend Cyrus, quoted above by William, I believe that the measure of Truth I am able to take in is in direct proportion to the measure of Light God has seen fit to grant me. In my pre-Quaker days, I tried very hard to swallow in one huge gulp the entire doctrine of the churches I was involved with. Obviously it didn't work (at least not for me) because I left those other faith communities after a year or two and now here I am 16 years into my path of "uncertainty." What I do know is that what I do believe is truly my belief and not someone else's. I am reminded of this poem by Emily Dickinson: 

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind--

And I have certainly had several powerful experiences of the presence of God to give me at least an inkling of what early Friends experienced as convincement. Blessings to you both for your thoughtful responses.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 12th mo. 12, 2011 at 7:06pm

I don't see the paradox. You (rightly) don't yearn for someone else's certainty!

That measure (at least for me) keeps arriving one mindboggle at a time. Or as my wife put it the other day, "Synchronicity always comes at the right time."

Comment by Paula Deming on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 1:14pm

Somewhere I learned about the concepts of convincement, conviction, and conversion. All different aspects of the Quaker journey. I didn't understand the second term, and was annoyed by the third (hey, we're Quakers, we don't do that). And then I underwent both of these latter experiences myself--many years after my convincement.

I wonder how such experiences would have been viewed in the 17th century. How many agnostics were there back then? I assume few. I assume that most people who became Friends did not doubt God or Christ but doubted doctrine, so that convincement had a different flavor.

Perhaps one of our scholars can unpack these experiences and terminology for us? How do we translate these experiences over 350 years?

Comment by Patricia Barber on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 1:34pm

Paula, I, too, have experienced these stages (much to my surprise!), and it has been a long process over many years. Where I am now is so very different from where I was even two or three years ago. Ben Pink Dandelion in his book "Introduction to Quakerism" lays out the early Quaker "convincement" process this way: 

The person undergoes:

1. a powerful in-breaking of God

2. a sense of conviction of sin

3. a choice, repentance

4. being born again into "perfection"

5. gathers together into community

6. calls the "world" towards a new mode of religious experience.

What I find exciting is the feeling that I'm not "done" yet. That the process is a lifelong one as we are able to process more and more of the Light.

I guess, in brief, in my experience, I underwent convincement that the Quaker path was the right one for me, conviction that Truth was being revealed to me, conversion to a deep  inner recognition of the abiding presence of God in my life and the promise of radical transformation if I remain faithful. I sometimes think we modern Quakers expect too little and are reluctant to open ourselves up in the radical way that the early Quakers did. 

Comment by Paula Deming on 12th mo. 13, 2011 at 1:39pm

Thank you, Patricia.


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