I’m going to take a hiatus from Quaker blogging, for at least a month or two, though I’ll probably still be contributing to my non-Quaker blog and to Quakerpedia, a Quaker wiki reference project I’m working on, as well as commenting on other blogs.
Partially this is because I want to devote more time to my spiritual practice and my practical life. I’m trying to meditate more often. I’m trying to take part of the life of Friends Meeting at Cambridge, and to help YAFs in the Boston area to stay organized. I’m also trying to gain more clarity on where my work life is going.
But it’s mostly because I can feel myself entering a period of “root-level” reorganization in my thinking (how I’ve grown to hate and love these!), in this case about spirituality and religion, and it’s premature to write frequently until this process is more worked out.
After a long period of growing dissatisfaction with the narrowness and smallness of the Society of Friends, I’m coming to a more concrete picture of the kind of spiritual community I’m looking for, and that I think the world needs.
What would it be like? I’ll give you four basic points, the last one being just an illustrative example. Bear in mind this is all a very rough draft, and I’ll probably disagree with at least some of this in a couple months.
And because I think this kind of community would be similar to but not identical with Quakerism as we know it, I’m going to use a completely made-up phrase – “Spiritual Society of Friends” – so I’ll have a short way of describing it.
A vision of the “Spiritual Society of Friends”
(1.) The unifying purpose of the “Society” as a whole would be to foster the spiritual life, and nothing else.
I’m not clear yet on how or how specifically this would be defined – or not defined. It would be the key element, and therefore deserve much more discussion than I’m ready to give here.
But generally speaking, it would be something in the ballpark of what liberal Friends would recognize: openness, personal experience, continuing revelation, listening inwardly and to one another. Depending on how much influence I had, it might also include the neglected aspects of the mechanics of Quaker spiritual practice emphasized by the Experiment with Light.
(There was discussion along these lines on Kevin’s recent post.)
(2.) Because of this focus, it would be a big tent.
People who believe in God, the Dharma, Odin, or none of the above, would all in principle be equally welcome – as long as they were committed to the common spiritual practices of the community.
People who believe in pacifism or just wars, simplicity or extravagance, equality or respectful distinctions, would all in principle be equally welcome – as long as they were committed to the common spiritual practices of the community.
Only two things would be forbidden. (Remember, this is a draft.)
Practically speaking, basic adherence to the spiritual practices of the wider community would be required, because that’s what it would be about (see 1). And intellectually speaking, dogmatism at a universal level – the notion that my truth is an absolute, non-negotiable truth for all people in all time – would be unacceptable, because it is impossible to think in this way and also to practice a spirituality of continuing revelation. There are plenty of communities already where you can indulge yourself in that intellectual vice.
(3.) Within this big tent of inclusiveness and mutual recognition, diversity.
Different subcommunities would be allowed – even encouraged – to emerge with radically different peripheral practices, beliefs, organizational structures and cultures. Inclusiveness need not mean no one can go beyond the lowest common denominator. Smaller tents under the roof of the big tent, so to speak.*
So you might get people who felt led to particular practices or testimonies forming associations, while remaining in communion (if more distant) with everyone else.
Peace-loving folk might meet and organize themselves more closely and interact less closely with everyone else, if that’s what they felt led to do. And this would be fine, even encouraged, so long as they continued to recognize as “Friends” others who disagreed but were still committed to the spiritual practices of the larger community.
People drawn to the language of Christianity for expressing their spirituality would be free to form associations for more frequent contact, even that excluded non-Christians – so long as they continued to recognize others who were non-Christian but committed to the spiritual practices of the larger community.
Same for Pagans, nontheists, and so on.
Put differently, local “creeds” or “dogmas” (if not by that name) – metaphysical or behavioral, written or unwritten – would be fine, so long as they were local. In this way both deep local community (the “small tents”*) and inclusive, broader-but-shallower community (the “big tent”) would be maintained.
(In practice, this would serve to temper the in-theory openess of the community. For example, in theory, people with racist views could be a member of the community at the broadest level, but in practice would rightly have a hard time finding particular local communities that would admit them.)
(4.) Within this spiritual ecology, where would I live?
There may a million valid ways to be spiritually in the world, and we should value and respect each other’s paths with joy. Which why I want to see something like the above take shape.
But each of us has to figure out what we are led to do in our particular lives and situations – and to testify to it, in the process challenging others.
So, while continuing to recognize people walking other paths within this framework as my fellows, I personally would be looking for a (sub-)community more like this:
- A place that was not too embarassed by middle-class values to speak openly, and clearly about the need to love one another deeply, from the heart.
- A place where people more often shared their whole lives together – perhaps living together, making art and music together, supporting one another emotionally and practically, even extending economic mutual aid (gasp!), and otherwise resisting the individualism of modern society.
- A place where people take spiritual development seriously enough that they practice together several times a week.
- A place that actively seeks to participate in the surrounding community and to do good publicity and outreach.
- A place that took no part in the “silly poor gospel” of asceticism (both the activist and the spiritual sort) and saw real value in the arts and the senses.
- A place that was proactive about dismantling gender norms, heterosexism, racism and classism within its own walls and the surrounding community.
- A place wholeheartedly committed to ecological sustainability and restoration.
- A place where rigorous and critical thinking was seen as important (however much it doesn’t belong in the meeting room during “worship”).
I could go on about each of these numbered and bulleted points. But you get the general idea. In essence, I’m simply unpacking what I, Richard, and Simon discussed recently on Richard’s blog about a community that would be the spiritual/ethical incarnation of the “scientific” ethic – that is, the practice of seeking the truth together, basing our beliefs on evidence, and forever remaining open to new truth.
(Richard, if you’re reading, I’m interested to know to what extent the above jives with what you had in mind there.)
The RSoF and post-Quakerism
The question you might be asking is, where does Quakerism fit into this?
Well it does and it doesn’t, as far as I can tell.
It does because the kind of spirituality I have in mind is mostly inspired from Quakerism in its early and modern unprogrammed varieties. That’s a significant connection, so maybe the above should be seen as a new kind of Quakerism. And beyond that, any possible real-life embodiment of the “Spiritual Society of Friends” or anything like it would have a lot of overlap with the RSoF in a multitude of ways – and that would be a good thing.
But I don’t think the RSoF and the “SSoF” described above are the same thing. Because the common spiritual practices are about where the similarity ends. I’ll explain why, taking the divergences from my above points in order.
Programmed Friends have emphasized the “biblicality” and evangelical fervor of early Friends, but generally abandoned the distinctive forms of Quaker spiritual practice, and correspondingly have come to see the Bible as a higher authority than spiritual practice and experience. It’s possible that this is a basically valid Quaker position, but it’s not compatible with what I described above.
Conservative (-leaning) Friends generally don’t have this problem, but like many Orthodox Friends in general, some appear to be dogmatic about their faith, in that many, though not all, are unwilling even to consider that theism or other Christian doctrines might be misapprehensions (contra 2 above). This does not appear to be a controversial attitude in Conservative circles – nor should we necessarily expect it to be on Quaker grounds. But it’s not really compatible with what I described above either.
And liberal Quakerism, the apparent best candidate for being a prototype for the “Spiritual Society of Friends,” has its own problems. It doesn’t seem to take its own spiritual practices terribly seriously, though I suppose that’s debatable. More surely, it still includes many people who think belief in God or Christ should be a dogma for the community, as well as a culture and a “behavioral creed” (SPICE, etc.) that is as limiting as any doctrinal creed. (This is the “Quaker Culture” Samuell Caldwell railed against, unfortunately in a fairly obnoxious way).
I still see liberal Quakerism as the best approximation, however, because I can imagine, with difficulty, liberal Friends learning to accept non-pacifist spiritual seekers as their fellows, for example, as they are beginning to do with nontheist ones.
But even if this were to happen, I still question whether “Quakerism,” whatever the adjective, is the best name for a community so radically different than what Quakerism has been historically. It would seem more natural that much of liberal Quakerism and some of the other branches be incorporated as subgroups within the “Spiritual Society of Friends” or something similar, should such a thing ever exist (while probably remaining within the RSoF also of course).
We can finish up the next two points quickly. (2′) Neither Quakerism as a whole nor liberal Quakerism in particular is really a big tent, and for that reason (3′) does not embrace diversity as much as it could. Buddhist Quakers, nontheist Quakers, libertarian Quakers, people who work in fashion or public relations, etc. all have to justify their existence to an audience with a long list of specific ideas about what counts as “Quaker.”
These cultural/historical biases of what Quakerism is even negatively affect the Christians. Because Quakerism is nominally Christian, non-Christians in liberal meetings feel the need to be especially vigilant against any attempt to re-impose Christianity on everyone (a more realistic fear than the token Muslim Quaker imposing Islam on the meeting), which sometimes results in overzealousness and undue hostility. An explicitly metaphysic-neutral community would not have these problems.
And on a personal note, (4′) Particular unprogrammed Quaker meetings generally are not ones I’d ideally want to be a part of. Everyone has their separate lives, houses, cars, jobs, finances, and seeing each other for a couple hours each week is considered normal. The extent to which we express and talk about love is perhaps greater than many places, but still seems hampered by norms of middle-class Anglo respectability. Spiritual practices aren’t taken as seriously as I think they should be. Most meetings do little or no publicity and outreach. Printed materials are typically — it has to be said — ugly (Times and Helvetica anyone?), because the aesthetic dimension of life isn’t seen as worthwhile. In my experience they’re overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and frequently located in the bougy neighborhoods. And sometimes it seems that we actively prize fuzzy and cliched thinking.
So I’m not sure the venerable RSoF is what I’m looking for. For all my complaining, I still find the various Quaker communities I’m a part of to be a blessing, and have no intention of leaving. But I most certainly am looking for something more, both for myself and for the world – not entirely unlike Howard Brinton was in his comment that our faith needs to be spread beyond the narrow confines of the RSoF.
So call me post-Quaker, perhaps.
I’m not sure what the way forward is, or whether I personally even feel led to devote my time to realizing something like this. I’m sure I’ll have more clarity about that in a few months. As I said, I probably won’t be posting here, but I look forward to discussing things with all of you in the comments here and elsewhere.
*The image of “small tents” beneath the “big tent” was added as a clarification after reading Richard’s comment below.