If you’ve been following this blog for the past few months, you probably recall the entry “A post-Quaker vision of the Society of Friends”. When I wrote that, I was in the opening throes of a period of intellectual reorganization, which I think is mostly done now, at least for the time being.
So I’d like to share the perspective on Quakerism I’ve been coming to, including some reflections on the recent New England Yearly Meeting sessions. (It’s a little long…)
It was about a year ago that I admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in God anymore, and started associating with the nontheist Friends community. But don’t think I’ve been quite in the mainstream of that group, in the following way.
It seems most of them are basically happy with Quakerism as it is, and simply are asking for greater tolerance. I think that description fits many other marginal Quaker subcultures too, like Pagan and polyamorous Friends. At New England YM earlier this month, for example, apparently one of the “Bible half-hours” included a call by the speaker for radical inclusivity, for admitting as Friends anyone who experiences “Spirit,” even Pagans and nontheists. I heard this from Cat Chapin-Bishop (who I was incidentally very happy to finally meet :), who was visibly excited by this news.
I was glad to hear that, but not as much as Cat was. She could tell.
Part of the reason was that, as long as I’m being true to my conscience, I just don’t care that much about whether I’m accepted by any particular organization or not. Being the son of a man who got bodily carried out of at least one church meeting for speaking his mind tends to have that effect, perhaps.
Instead, I’ve been asking myself the opposite question: whether I can accept Quakerism, perceived warts and all.
Quaker religion vs. Quaker wisdom
That’s what I’ve been wrestling with more and more this past year. An article in Shambhala Sun called “Killing the Buddha” pretty much sums up exactly how I feel, if you replace “Buddhist” with “Quaker” and make the tone a notch less militant. In short, the wisdom of Quakerism is trapped within the religion of Quakerism, and we would do well to deconstruct our parochial little society and instead aim to contribute to a less sectarian and more evidence-based spiritual community for the 21st century. Sort of “Quaker Culture vs. Quaker Faith” (discussion) taken to a new level.
And if this is a “hard saying” to be dealing with on an intellectual level, it’s even harder when you add in the social. It’s been difficult to be around Quakers for the past six months, because I keep running into the same dilemma. On the one hand, when I hear someone talking about Christian doctrines, most of which I am convinced are untrue and in some cases immoral, or endorsing other kinds of superstition or dogmatism, I sometimes feel compelled to say something, to “elder” them. (If that sounds presumptuous, take it as a testament to how clear my convictions generally are on these things.) But on the other hand, I usually feel an equal-or-greater compulsion to bite my tongue, because I don’t want to be negative all the time, or “make the community revolve around me,” in the words of a Friend I met at NEYM. Also, I’m very much aware that the journey from faith to unbelief can be a long and painful one, and I’m reluctant to send anyone down that road, even though in my experience there’s light at the end.
Usually on balance, I keep quiet. (In person that is. On the blogosphere I’ve been somewhat less quiet, perhaps because the nonverbal level of communication is so absent. It feels very different to say something critical online than in person…)
But this creates a lot of internal tension, and twice now this has reached the point where I’ve felt I needed to head for the exits. [Edit: see this note below on these two anecdotes.] The first was in May when Cherice Bock gave a lecture at Beacon Hill Friends House, which hit a lot of wonderful notes about social witness and outreach, but also included a lot of good old fashioned christonormativity. I was surprised at how receptive and excited the ostensibly liberal Quaker audience was. The kicker was at the dinner afterwards, when people briefly discussed the resurrection of Jesus with no indications that anyone had a “stop in the mind” against this notion. That night I sent an email to to Boston YAF list saying I needed to suspend my Quaker activities indefinitely.
By summer I had cooled off, and decided to attend New England YM, which was the second “head for the exits” point.
It was wonderful to see people I know and meet new people (including Ethan Mitchell), and I appreciated a lot of the program, including Eden and James Grace’s workshop. But honestly, the level of dogmatic and superstitious thinking was almost intolerable. When one major speaker repeatedly used a Bronze Age metaphor of genital mutilation — “circumcising the foreskin of our hearts” — I cringed. When one committee clerk gave a ringing endorsement of the Richmond Declaration and everyone acted like that was normal, I was shocked. Essentially, this year I was finally disabused of the false impression I had gotten of NEYM when I first became a Quaker, namely, that it is a liberal yearly meeting. In reality, it is very much a half-Orthodox, half-liberal one, as the history would suggest. (And there was also a certain amount of liberal “woo woo” as well, e.g. suggestions that the spirits of our Quaker ancestors could “be here with us,” with no indication that this was meant metaphorically.)
Perhaps for that reason, it seemed right to me, as a participant in the business meeting, that NEYM remain in FUM. But it also felt wrong for me to remain within NEYM, a bit like how I wouldn’t dream of being a member of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Since then I’ve again cooled off a bit, and I’m not doing anything rash. The image that comes to me is the story of Fox telling Penn, “wear your sword as long as you can.”
That is, despite my concerns, a clean break would feel premature. I’ll probably lay down this blog soon, and possibly resign membership by the end of the year. But I’m probably going to keep attending some meetings, commenting on some blogs, writing Quakerpedia articles, and reading Letters, &c. of early Friends. I even have two possible major projects in mind for exploring these kinds of ideas, both of which which I think would be better vehicles than a personal blog: starting a forum-type website and writing a book.
But it’s hard to tell how long this kind of thing will feel like what I should be doing.
Ironically, many of the arguments for staying or leaving are the same as the ones used in the FUM controversy — to what extent must one agree with the groups one belongs to? When should one stay and work for change, and when leave? What about the more quiet or closeted dissidents who draw support from the more visible dissidents? And isn’t “division” something people of goodwill should always avoid?