By David Johns
We never resolve the question, “Who are we as the Religious Society of Friends?” Perhaps this is inevitable; perhaps it is even good and right. Keeping this query open means we never stop asking ourselves what it is God is calling us to be and do. If we stop pondering the query and claim to have settled the question, we slip into triumphalism or into the delusion we have arrived at the destination of all our hopes.
There are numerous occasions inviting us to examine our identity and our purpose. Many of these occasions spring from divisiveness and from Quakers’ incapacity to resolve internal conflict. The lack of resolution of inner turmoil is unfortunate because when we ask the question “What is God calling us to do and to be?” it ought to come from a deep engagement in the world and from knowing the joy and pain it holds. The question ought to emerge as a result of our mission, not as an exasperated effort to hold together an unraveling movement.
Quaker theologian Maurice Creasey notes prophetic faith gravitates to one of two religious extremes which derail it from approaching corporate identity in a life-giving manner. On one hand is assimilation where the group takes on the characteris tics and expectations of the religious world — its practices, its mythologies, its way of governance. Of course, when a group adapts in such a manner it will resemble religion-in-general sufficient to be recognizable in public. When Quakers gather at this extreme of assimilation they more easily blend into the religious landscape avoiding the bewildering stares of onlookers. Yet, if the motivation for this extreme springs principally from a desire to belong the spark of life in the movement is extinguished. The intention of belonging creates a crippling emotional dysfunction within the group. No group can thrive by simply blending in.
At the other extreme is what Creasey called identification. If assimilation typifies the tendency of some Friends, identification is the tendency of many, many more. Rather than becoming just like any other religious group, this extreme places its emphasis on being a peculiar people, a people separate and distinct, a people obsessed with distinctives and cryptic speech. Who is in and who is out and what make us distinctly us; these are the overarching preoccupations. Of course, groups like Quakers will be characterized by certain patterns of life. When these grow organically from worship and witness they can be life giving to the group and a sign of God’s activity to those they encounter. However, as often happens at this extreme, groups like Quakers place their hope and their corporate identity in peculiarities such as the costumes and customs of other centuries. Sooner or later they find themselves defending and protecting what may be the fruit of a life rather than living the kind of life that produces it.
Neither extreme is useful and neither provides space for the Spirit to move. All along the spectrum of Quakerism, from evangelical to liberal to everything in between and beyond, there is a dangerous conservative impulse at work which is crushing the movement. This has nothing to do with the old dichotomy of conservative verses liberal because even the most liberal Friends are conservative in this sense. This conservative impulse recognizes there are precious inheritances which should be guarded and treasured — conserved — to enjoy now and to pass along to others. To a point this is good and even beautiful. However, as it exists among Friends along the entire spectrum, this impulse manifests a spiritual problem we are often not willing to face — the inability or unwillingness to let go of a moment of grace in time in order to follow the living Spirit of God into an unfolding future.
The transfiguration story in Luke chapter nine illustrates this point. After a peak religious experience where Jesus is met by Moses and Elijah, Peter’s response was to propose building shrines for each of the three to forever capture the power of that moment of graced experience. And why not? Quakers have created an entire industry of shrines commemorating such moments. Pilgrimages to “1652 country,” to the grave sites of Quaker saints, to historic meetinghouses in England, Kenya and the United States, and the list goes on. Luke does not record Jesus’ response to Peter but we read in the following verses they left the mountain of this experience and returned to the ministry of healing. Whether the shrine we build is to Elijah or whether it is to Mary Dyer, these mark moments in the past when grace moved in the life of a community. No residual energy is absorbed by touching where God moved yesterday.
The problem with monument building is the problem of the conservative impulse; the more we hold on, the more we must protect and defend; the more we protect and defend, the more we become protective and defensive (since we mostly become what we do). When the distinctive customs, practices or patterns of speech are the things which identify the group, all the fiercer is the defense, because one is not defending things but one’s very self. If they disappear, the group disappears. And so the conservative impulse becomes a struggle for life and death.
But it does not need to be so.
Consider for a moment the testimonies. They are, for Friends, a precious inheritance and a distinction that marks how the Society lives in the world. But they are not ours. In fact, saying “Quaker testimonies” over time may lead us to believe these convictions are possessions. They are not owned by anyone, certainly not by Quakers. The testimonies are Christ’s and they are of the Gospel; we assure our death as a movement when we claim them as our own. Our work never is to protect the testimonies, nor is it to promote them. Instead, our work is to embody them, enact them, to give them skin. Protecting them results in backward motion, circling the wagons and hunkering down around ideology and history. Promoting them suggests we have a proprietary interest in them. However, embodying them means we move as Christ calls us and enter the places where living these convictions takes us.
Our life together is scarred by the all-out struggle to defend ideas and practices when we structure our communities according to models that leave little room for the Spirit of God. Underlying many divisions within Quakerism, continuing to this very day, is the issue of authority. We are in serious trouble when leaders try to convince us they are in fact leaders by asserting rank, coercing, by diminishing diversity, and by squelching creative and prophetic voices.
The structure of our communities ought not grow from the extremes of assimilation and identification nor from the impulse to protect and defend. Creasey states it beautifully, “form and order are given, not from ‘above’ through the hier archy, nor from ‘behind’ though scrupulous imitation of New Testament norms, but rather ‘from the midst,’ from [Christ] to whom the scriptures bear witness but whom they must never supplant.”1 It makes sense for authority to emanate “from the midst”; that’s incarnational and the Church is from beginning to end Christ’s, not ours.
If these treasures are not ours to possess, protect or promote, but rather to embody then perhaps queries can assist us. How does your life demonstrate your acceptance of Jesus’ call to discipleship? In what way does your life manifest faith, hope, and love? Does your message and ministry of reconciliation have credibility by being practiced among the members of your own community of faith (meeting, church, yearly meeting, association, and so on)? By regularly asking us how Church or how the testimonies are made real in our lives, the queries will not let us forget what faith requires of us and they will also remind us that whatever religious end may exist we have not attained it and therefore cannot claim to possess it.
What is God calling us to be and to do?
We may be called to discipleship; we may be called to be more Christ-like; we may be called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God; we may be called to invest our lives deeply in the human family; we may be called to love ourselves and our neighbor with the wild abandon of the Good Shepherd.
But one thing is certain: God is not calling us to be Quakers.
Make faith, hope and love real in the world; work to make these visible. When the goal is to make Quakerism itself visible, or protect and promote an idealized and purified yearly meeting, then we will have missed the point of many things, including Quakerism itself. In fact, Quaker-ism as a thing we possess or a thing we are must die if the faith of Quakers is to live.
“What the world most deeply needs is more men and women who bear a family resemblance to Jesus.”2 Whether this family resemblance is glimpsed in Quakers or Swedenborgians or Buddhists or Muslims or in the growing ranks of the Nones, does not matter. Jesus’ sheep know his voice even when they are not all of the same flock.3 The future is where we are moving if we turn toward it rather than toward the ideas and practices and structures we think we possess and we think define who we are. We may hold on to moments of grace that once were, or we can press into tomorrow, unclear as it may be, knowing there is more than enough when we follow the living Spirit of God.
1 Maurice Creasey, “Form and Freedom” in David Johns, editor, Collected Essays of Maurice Creasey (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2011), 300.
2 Maurice Creasey, “Rethinking Quakerism,” in David Johns, editor, Collected Essays of Maurice Creasey (Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2011), 415.
3 John 10:16. “Nones” are those claiming no religious affiliation.
David Johns is Associate Professor of Theology at the Earlham School of Religion, where he has taught since 2001. He is a recorded Friends minister and has served Friends meetings in both Ohio and Indiana. He is currently a member of First Friends Meeting of Richmond, IN.