By April Vanlonden
Editor’s Note: In the original, print version of this essay, context makes it clear that April is writing in response to another article by Matt Hisrich. In order to properly understand April’s argument, it is important to read that article first.
Friends have become so individualized. So much so that it has begun to hurt the corporate life of the Religious Society of Friends. To justify individualism by couching it within the context of the testimony of equality positions it to undermine its effectiveness within a community and further undermines the growing concept of a more global community.
The application of individualization to a single family can be seen in raising children, treating each differently. To treat each child the same denies their individuality and is not equality.
Individualism couched in the guises of equality reduces the application of this testimony to the past when it is sufficient only to the lowest common denominator. When taken to the communal setting, there is the risk that each of the individual communities of Friends will determine or ‘absolutize” (sic), and possess (Jensen) the “truth” as envisioned by each individual community/meeting. Thus, groups are led to falsely believe that they have each functioned as a whole and complete gathering, only to position themselves in conflict with others when they encounter larger groups such as yearly meetings or FUM/EFI/ FGC, who might not otherwise agree.
In the McDonald’s phenomenon, one can not underestimate the persistent desire for a consistent experience. Is that desire motivated simply by fear of something different? Exhaustion on long trips and the unwillingness to make a decision? Cheap and fast? Maybe. When the phenomenon is placed within the context of the Religious Society of Friends, the desire for a consistent experience may be the desire to recognize and relate to that of God in humanity, which may be warranted. Humans were created to be in community, and the God that comes to each, indwelling throughout human existence, is a God of community, a larger community.
Diane Butler Bass writes of “relational selfhood” in Christianity After Religion. She describes this existence through the African theology of “Ubuntu”: “I am because of who we all are.” Bass continues, “The spiritual search for God wends its way towards others and the world, for without others it is impossible to find God or to know who we are. We must belong in order to be and become.” Bass further writes that, while there is that of God in humans, the deeper question to ask is, “Who am I in God?”
Who are we in God? If we are all in this same God, does it stand to reason that there will be some consistency of experience? Consistency of believing and behaving? What is spoken here is not consistency of creeds and strict religious dogma. Rather, what these questions point to is the possibility that consistency is not always in direct conflict with individualism and equality.
It is indeed time to move forward. This means that what Peter Rollins in his book, Insurrection, refers to as a “radical interrogation” needs to be applied to the testimony of equality. Equality is far more than treating everyone the same and honoring the differences. This practice leaves Friends in the endless quagmire of honoring the wide variety of differences, where one can only reduce the “sameness” to the lowest common denominator. This is a cursory acknowledgment that there is that of God in each human encountered., with no time or energy available for exploring the consistency that arises from being each human encountered as existing in the same God.
April Vanlonden is a recorded minister of Western Yearly Meeting. She is a 2004 graduate of Earlham School of Religion where she serves as Director of Academic Services. April attends First Friends Meeting of Richmond, IN.