Simplicity, beauty + testimony

At a diner after Burlington YAF conference

I haven’t blogged here for awhile, in one way or another mostly due to having attended the recent Young Adult Friends gathering in Burlington, New Jersey (photos | my photos). Met a lot of good people there. Hope to blog about it soon.

Right now though I want to highlight a post by Micah (who I met there) about getting past the “mindset of guilt and scarcity” that the Quaker value of simplicity can easily turn into, where he describes the joy and beauty he experienced recently visiting a friend of his in her not-so-simply furnished home.

I don’t know if Micah would agree, but to me this seems part of a bigger issue: Friends taking something that was once an authentic leading for earlier Friends (and still is for many today) and turning into a universal, Society-wide Quaker dogma — what sociologists have aptly described as the “behavioral creed” of our supposedly creedless community.

Simplicity as Testimony or testimony?

What once was a testimony to the truth particular Friends had perceived (the proper sense of the word) becomes a capital-T “Testimony” to which all Friends are expected to adhere, regardless of whether they themselves can testify to it in their experience. What could be spiritual society embracing and transforming the big, wide unQuakerly world becomes a narrow sect, a peculiar people. (Richard, Simon and I had a discussion about this, in slightly different terms, on a recent post by Richard, largely focusing on the Peace Testimony.)

I believe we’re getting over this approach to simplicity at least. Plain dress as a requirement has fallen by the wayside, 300 years after Margaret Fell called it a “silly poor gospel,” and is only practiced by individual Friends who feel led to it. Using the plain calendar — “First Day”, “Second Month,” not celebrating holidays — is no longer expected of all Friends. We no longer vilify the arts, except perhaps things like fashion.* Someone even had the guts to post a Declaration of Independence from Simplicity to Quaker-L a few months back.

I see all this as a good thing. I want to make clear though that I feel a leading to simplicity in my own life. And I’m glad Friends are a community with lots of other simplicity-lovers in it.

But the Society of Friends (particular meetings is another question) shouldn’t be a place where people are universally expected to conform to other people’s leadings that they don’t share. As Barclay said of scripture, we only hold to particular testimonies “because they proceeded from the Spirit,” and for the very same reason the Spirit itself must be the primary rule.

(See also: Samuel Caldwell’s incisive Quaker Culture vs. Quaker Faith. Too bad he had to write such a right-on basic point in such a meanspirited and insulting way… doctor heal thyself?)

*A former girlfriend with fashion design aspirations told me about how, during the few times she visited meeting, people would become confused when she told people what her job and plans were. I think one person even asked her, “So… why are you here?”

1 Response to “Simplicity, beauty + testimony”

  1. 1 Announcing Boston Young Adult Friends at The Seed Lifting Up Pingback on Mar 19th, 2007
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  • So his initial message was always the same: give up your dependence on doctrines, rituals, preachers and everything else that is external to you, and find the light within you because that will teach you all you need to know. And you already know what the light is, because it's that that makes you uncomfortable about the things you do wrong. So take note of those uncomfortable feelings, and let 'the light in your conscience' show you what they're all about it. If you allow it to, the light will show you the whole truth of your life, and if you then accept that truth, it will set you free – free from guilt and shame, but also free from the powerful desires that made you act wrongly in the first place.

    Rex Ambler,
    Light to Live By p. 7

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