The universe keeps surprising me

Briefly — My perspective on evangelical Friends changing, in part after reading more about Freedom Friends church, though I should say I’m not sure how representative they are of evangelical Friends generally; they aren’t even a part of Northwest YM. I’m not ready to say much more about this topic yet.

It’s partly explained by my feelings on good and evil, spiritual transformation (paid leadership and other ways of being more structured than most liberal meetings are.

8 Responses to “The universe keeps surprising me”

  1. 1 Pam Jul 23rd, 2007

    Hey Zach -

    I am interested to hear more about this, if you feel so inspired….

    I have to admit that I’m still more or less afraid/angry/disdainful of “evangelical Friends” - even though I really know very little about them (I just lump them in with other evangelicals/fundamentalists) - I assume that they, for example, take the bible “literally” and therefore interpret me (as a lesbian, or at least as an atheist) out of God’s family, So I flinch from interaction, or maybe even exploration as a result (I know, how unquakerly on so many levels!)

    I don’t think of Freedom Friends as part of that, though, I wonder if I”m being oblivious. I think of it as sort of something entirely new (but rising up out of traditions, for sure.)

  2. 2 Zach A Jul 23rd, 2007

    Sure Pam, let me see…

    It’s partly about appreciating communities that have relatively well-defined boundaries and identities, while still engaging with people outside the boundary. I still appreciate less well-defined communities like liberal Quakerism, and hope both continue to exist; different strokes for different folks. But when you don’t have a coherent identity, you have no compelling message.

    In that sense, I’m among those that would like to see liberal Quakerism become less vague and open, though to me the only acceptable way to do that is constructively (start a new meeting for any interested in such) rather than negatively (agitate in an existing one).

    Of course most often when people say that, they want liberal Quakerism to become less open specifically by becoming officially Christian, which I don’t, because I see Christianity as largely based on superstitious, outmoded ideas for which there is no real evidence (e.g. creation, virgin birth, special status, miracles, resurrection, second coming). But new Quaker meetings that were explicitly humanist, or if not humanist just explicitly evidence-based (instead of vaguely evidence-based like Quakerism generally is), and had a coherent, intelligible description of what that meeting believed at that particular time like Freedom Friends does — that I think would be a good thing.

    And the reason I see having a clear identity and message as so important, and the desire to share your message as important, is because the world is in too bad shape for the good people to futz around in obscure communities nobody knows about or can find, or can understand if they find them by some miracle. People say Quakers have done a lot of good in the world for our small numbers (i.e. not much in the grand scheme); what would the world be like if we were in the millions instead of the thousands?

    I think it’s good to be wary of “evangelism,” because that feeds into the idea that we, Group X, have everything figured out. But it goes so far that we don’t even do good publicity/outreach, and that’s a problem. Publicity just means you think you have something valuable to share with the world, and want to make sure people can find you. And we should be confident of that much.

  3. 3 James Riemermann Jul 24th, 2007


    I’ll grant that Quakerism has a PR problem, and I’m for finding ways to help people find us. But my sense is that explaining ourselves in terms of beliefs is explaining ourselves poorly. “What do you believe?” seems to be the question people most often ask when they want to learn about a religion, but that’s just not the way Quakerism works–not historically, not now. If we want to be honest we are just going to have to continue dancing when people ask that question. We can’t give a straightforward answer because there isn’t one. And the fact that there isn’t one is one of our great strengths, and we should never let go of that honest vagueness.

    We can and should talk around it, talk about the things we care about, our religious practices, some of the various shifting historically-based explanations we’ve offered over the years, our actions in the world, and that might be some help. But in the end the only way to get it is to sit with us, to get involved in our community, to see how it works on you over time. We can’t encapsulate it in a set of beliefs because it’s NOT a set of beliefs.

  4. 4 Zach A Jul 24th, 2007

    I’m glad we agree about the PR issue, and I admit that a lot can be done independently from what we’re talking about here. Britain YM, for example, is doing a wonderful thing I think in replacing Quaker jargon terms for meetings (”Preparative,” “Monthly,” etc.) with more intuitive terms like “Local Meeting” and “Quaker Meeting.”

    I agree that the heart of Quakerism isn’t about beliefs, but I’m not sure that detracts from what I’m saying. For one thing, even the sort of Quakerism you describe involves beliefs about and descriptions of our practices, “We believe sitting in silence together on a regular basis does ____,’ or even more modestly, “We do _____ and _____”. Sticking with the example of Freedom Friends, notice only part 1 out of 4 of What we believe is really about “beliefs” pure and simple, and the rest are practical statements or expressions of values.

    One way of looking at what I’m saying is that our F&P’s could be a lot more concise and accessible, rather than the Talmudic labyrinths they often are.

  5. 5 Zach A Jul 25th, 2007

    PS - Contemplative Scholar has an interesting post related to publicity, though she is using the term evangelism, something I suggested in a comment should be called outreach instead among liberal Friends. The link may not work, but here it is:

  6. 6 James Riemermann Jul 25th, 2007

    Indeed, there are few if any Faith and Practices that offer brief, simple and understandable introductions to what Quakerism is about, or what a particular yearly meeting is about. I am a great fan of brevity, of making such descriptions no more (and also no less) elaborate than they need to be to communicate. Some years ago I drafted the language you’ll find on the Twin Cities Friends Meeting home page at, from the words “How We Worship” on down. I’m certainly not holding this trifle as Quaker writing for the ages. It’s neither comprehensive nor prophetic, in fact wasn’t intended to be, and it could certainly be improved. But I think it does give visitors a simple and fairly straightforward sense of what we’re about without, I think, making any divisive or absolutist theological assertions.

    Any practice, certainly, can be reframed as a belief. “We do x.” becomes “We believe that doing x is a good thing.” There’s some legitimacy to that kind of linguistic transformation. But when we talk about beliefs in a religious context, we’re generally talking about theological beliefs in some sense: assertions about the nature of ultimate reality that go beyond what can be proven or even directly experienced. (Hearing a voice that resonates with authority is a real experience, but calling that voice God is an assertion, an interpretation.) And, while many Quakers have made many such assertions over the past 350 years, such assertions are not, have never been, the lifeblood of our tradition.

    I don’t think I’m disagreeing with much that you say here, but I would say that I’m not really looking for a religious community that is founded on a shared set of beliefs–humanist, experience based, theistic or otherwise. I’m part of a community that is founded on a way of being together.

  7. 7 Zach A Jul 25th, 2007

    I don’t think I’m able to give this enough thought to give you (or myself) a good answer, but as you say, I’m not sure we’re disagreeing that much. What you’re describing — being part of a community that is founded on a way of being together — is basically what I am looking for too.

    But I think most Quaker communities are not so founded, or if they are, that reality is obscured (and endangered) by theological debates. As I’ve said, we’re a queer mix of an experiential way-of-being-together and concrete Christian theological ideas.

    If that’s true, then perhaps your last sentence would better read “I want to be a part of a community that is…” And then I think we’re saying pretty similar things.

  8. 8 James Riemermann Jul 26th, 2007

    Hmm…I really do feel that way about my meeting, right now, today. All its depth and richness comes out of our way of being together, in all our diversity of belief. It’s delightful for me. I wish you had that. There are certainly some in our meeting–a small number in my reckoning–who bridle against that diversity, who *want* it to be founded on belief. But it simply isn’t, and the great majority of us like it that way.

    There are very few theological debates in my meeting–certainly nothing like I see on the web. I like it that way, but I would also like us to become more open about expressing our individual spiritual and theological perspectives–not in a spirit of debate, or of figuring out what perspective we should all have, but a spirit of understanding each other more deeply. Also a spirit of recognizing that there is often something valuable I can glean from perspectives very different from my own–and others can glean from mine.

    I don’t know how much of our differing impressions of our meetings comes from genuine cultural differences between them, and how much from our own temperaments and perceptions. I suspect there’s some of each.

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  • It seems to me to be a major issue for the Society of Friends today whether on the whole its emphasis is to be, once more, as in the beginning, for this type of open, expectant religion, or whether it is to seek for comfortable formulations that seem to ensure its safety, and that will be hostages against new and dangerous enterprises in the realm of truth.

    Rufus Jones, Rethinking Quaker Principles p. 12

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