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An Assessment of East Coast Quakerism


Ellen T. Charry

May, 1992

I am pleased to be able to speak with' you today as part of a farewell to the Friends who have succored and healed our children over the past ten years and all of us as a family over the past seven years. We, like many Friends, were refugees from a religious tradition which we sadly concluded had gone astray. We had to rescue our children from our ancestral heritage because we concluded upon reflection that what had always been home had turned into a burning building. We sent the children to Quaker camps on the first principle of medical practice: do no harm. Well, summer camp grew into weekly meeting for worship, and eventual membership for two of us. Our children became immersed in the youth programming of two yearly meetings, and are still staffing at two of the summer youth programs of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting. Dana became deeply involved with every aspect of life at Plainfield Monthly Meeting and worked on committees of the New York Yearly Meeting. We both taught in the Quaker Studies program of the NYYM, etc. Our children were nurtured, challenged and healed at BYM and Powell House. Dana found a community where his gifts and talents were accepted and admired. I found a place to think through some hard questions that had been percolating for many years.

To those of you who fled to the Friends to escape organized religion, I must warn you that I speak as a convinced Christian student of theology who is about to go off to teach theology in a mainstream Christian denomination.

To begin I want to define what I mean by theology and why I study and teach theology. Theology is the task of reflecting on religious beliefs and practices so that members of religious communities know clearly who they are and that religious communities know what they are doing. Theologians are a religious tradition's thinkers. Thinkers are needed, though not often welcomed, because religious communities, like all human institutions, frequently are so close to the issues and trends of the moment that they lose sight of both the past and the present. Who they are is usually beclouded by what is happening at the moment. In other words, as collective entities, religious communities are institutionally nearsighted.

The task of theology may be summed up in a bumper sticker Dana brought home one day. It said: "The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing." And that is easier said than done. From time to time the intellectual or anti-intellectual currents that regularly buffet societies expose the 'main thing' in different lights, so that what started out as the 'main thing' may eventually come to be seen as an auxiliary thing,' or even an 'embarrassing thing'. Not only that but the very notion that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing may be challenged. In this case the main thing may be to find a new thing to be the main thing, or more simply do away with the idea of a main thing altogether. This last move may be motivated by the natural frustration that comes from realizing that human beings have almost invariably corrupted the main thing in the perennial cycle of reclaiming, purifying and eventually reinstitutionalizing it. More often and more dangerously, the desire for a new thing to be the main thing or offense taken at the very idea of a main thing results from sentimentality about how we've always done things, contempt for the past, sloppy thinking, the cultural nearsightedness I mentioned before, and just plain ignorance. The less comfortable a community is with careful study and reflection the more vulnerable it becomes to distortion, rigidification, and plain old confusion.

Theologians are people who study how their predecessors went about thinking through a religious tradition informed by its past, its texts, its conflicts and failures, and its customary ways of articulating its identity. Generally theological movements proceed cyclically. Religious traditions are often born with great explosive bursts of energy. These are followed by periods of organizing and institutionalizing. They often ossify and lose their way. And this in turn gives rise to fresh insights and bursts of energy which either repristinate or refocus the whole. Then the cycle starts anew. The hope is always to have clear thinking overpower fuzzy thinking, sentimentality, fear and half-knowledge.

The next thing I want to define is what I mean by religion. Religion is the identification of a transcendent reality that functions as the organizing principle of life in keeping with which beliefs, actions, and culturally determined practices are crafted. This definition of religion entails the following points.

  1. . By identification I mean to suggest that the center of the religious impulse, the 'transcendent reality' is not something that members or adherents believe they themselves create. Identification suggests that the transcendent reality named is disclosed to and or recognized by adherents; it is not created by them. This is what the three main Western religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam - call revelation. The people who gave generative shape to these traditions - Moses, Paul, and Muhammad - were conveying to others something they had received, not something they invented.

  2. . By transcendent reality I mean a realm that escapes those who try to articulate it. Transcendent reality is, by definition beyond our ability to domesticate and control. It is we who must take account of it; we cannot shape it in our own image, although we often talk as if we could; rather we must not be afraid to bow and bend - as the Shaker hymn 'Simple Gifts' puts it - 'til in turning and turning we come round right'. This is to say that religions, although the word is a bit out of phase just now, make truth claims. This is not to be confused with recognizing that each tradition expresses its truth claims in the form of what has misleadingly been called 'myth'. There is no necessary conflict between the words 'truth' and 'myth'. A religious myth is a way of talking about reality that claims to be true across time and space. Love, for example, is a true myth. Metaphors, for example, are used by poets and writers to convey truths beyond the specifics of a certain spatio-temporal situation.

    Many religious traditions, including Hinduism, Islam, Taoism, Christianity, and arguably Judaism hold the point of the religious life to be to properly align oneself with transcendent reality as the tradition articulates it. Most religious traditions articulate some form of what might be called salvation - the idea that it is both necessary and possible to 'come round right'.

  3. . The phrase 'functions as the organizing principle' means to convey the idea that the identification of transcendent reality is intended to become the central principle around which a coherent way of life is self-consciously fashioned. It means that religions are intentional and reflective. It suggests that as a tradition of reflection accumulates over time, subsequent thinkers sift through the sediment so as continually to ask whether the organizing principle is prominent or has become obscured beneath cultural accretions or ways of talking about the transcendent reality it names .

  4. . The final issue of beliefs, actions, and culturally determined practices has to do with the issue of consistency. To what extent is the practice of the way of life consonant with the identification of transcendent reality at its center? This implies that a continuous process of reform is necessary in order to remain faithful to the vision of transcendent reality at the center of every religious tradition. This often takes a very long time as one must be sure that one is actually identifying inconsistencies in the tradition rather than imposing on the tradition one' s personal preferences, even widely shared ones. John Woolman, for example, assisted Christianity to recognize that slavery was incompatible with the gospel, even though this escaped St. Paul himself .

Now, let me repeat my definition of religion. Religion is the identification of a transcendent reality that functions as the organizing principle of life in keeping with which beliefs, actions, and culturally determined practices are crafted. There are two underlying implications of this definition which I want to be sure are clear. One is that although they seek to discern the truth and how it is related to us and how we are to be related to it, they require constant surveillance to keep them from corruption. The other is that the point of discerning or articulating the truth they try to convey is to shape us. They assume that we need what they offer us. That is, they assume that we are unable to craft ourselves in anything but our own image and that is simply an exercise in wheel spinning. Another way of putting this is to say bluntly that properly responsible religious beliefs teach humility and assume the need for help. While they may offer comfort they also challenge by holding out standards and models of human personhood which are genuinely helpful. That is, they are both therapeutic and soothing, and morally demanding.

Religious traditions claim to be good for us. But all parents and many adults know that what one needs is often not what one wants, and that what one wants may be more harmful than helpful. Given all this the question I want to pose to you today is whether contemporary east coast Quakerism is a religion by the criteria I have just outlined. But prior to that I want to add just a few words about the fate of religion in the past two centuries. Beginning with the 18th century what was called the Enlightenment, coupled with the inception of modern science found religion to be the root of all evil. (In the 19th century Karl Marx expanded that conclusion to include money.) And of course it is correct that religious beliefs are deeply implicated in violent conflict, or at least have been the mask for the exercise of political and military power.

Secularism developed as a safe alternative to the corrupting power of religion. But secularism has bred its own problems. Nationalism has not won accolades for itself in our century. And communism, sought as alternative both to nationalism and capitalism, has also proven disappointing. On the other hand, American secularism turns out to be naturalism and hedonism run wild. The Enlightenment notion of individual freedom has turned into an extreme form of individual autonomy and cultural relativism which denies the need for both individual and corporate responsibility.

Every problem it seems is someone else's responsibility. And the family that once was the vehicle of human formation is in disarray. Self-formation is the only acceptable form of guidance. Narrowly conceived forms of self-interest now guide quasi-religious groups based on gender and race. The guiding and shaping functions of religion have simply been abandoned. The mall, the television and the streets now raise our children who are locked away from the civilizing influences of family and religion in a variety of teen subcultures immune to adult intrusion. Parents are overwhelmed by the power of alcohol, vandalism, drugs, violence against property and persons; sex is entertainment. Our schools are in disarray, now burdened with being parents and police as well as educators. Our inner cities are moral and physical death traps that billions of dollars in social, educational and health programs cannot dent.

Well, before I run off at the mouth, I will simply say that I think it no exaggeration to say that our country is in a state of moral crisis. In this atmosphere, more and more people are beginning to reconsider whether the hope that religion would wither away was not shortsighted.

Now, after that circuitous route, I come to the specific examination of the question, is Quakerism a religion? There is no doubt that the earliest Quakers believed that they were part of the great movement of Reform that swept Western Christendom beginning in the 16th century. Their intention was to purify the faith by highlighting the power of divine guidance directly in the lives of the community and individuals. The abandonment of liturgy, rites, and trained leadership was undertaken by people who had internalized the Christian tradition and knew its scriptures so thoroughly that they were confident that they could be knit together in communion by the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit and the presence of Jesus Christ without the institutional forms relied upon by other communities.

In secular societies this ideal of religious community is unworkable. Today, ironically, Quakerism in this part of the country resembles early Quakerism in outward forms only: silent worship, and a distinctive vocabulary. Without time to trace how it happened, Quakerism has been transformed from a community trying to reclaim the primitive Christianity of the Acts of the Apostles into a group of post-Christians with varying interests. The possibility of holding together radical Christianity, modern paganism, New Ageism, witchcraft, ecofeminism, ideological homophilia (the opposite of homophobia), and a secular social activism in a coherent community is, I think, slim. Quakerism as I have experienced it in NYYM is not a community seeking the guidance of God but a group of individuals seeking their individual therapeutic needs in one another's company. Please do not conclude that Quakerism is the only community seeking to create a post-Christian tradition. The assault on Christianity at the present time is widespread and often deeply entrenched. Christian theological schools have post-Christian ideologues on their faculties and many have numerous post-Christians among their student bodies. The phenomenon occurring among the Friends is in no way distinctive.

In case there is any doubt about the two strands of thought I am trying to weave together, let me be clear. Christianity has provided the intellectual and moral backbone of Western civilization. In the US the separation of church and state has allowed for the development of secular political institutions while permitting religion to set standards of moral personhood and public responsibility. My own observation is that precisely at a moment when our country is in need of moral and spiritual guidance and uplift a movement hostile to Christianity has arisen to replace it with a hastily constructed coalition of interest groups which are not necessarily in agreement with one another.

Yet with so much territory carved out for Christians it is understandable that post-Christians want a room of their own. What irks Christian Quakers is that post-Christians have walked into the Quaker's living room and starting redecorating and rearranging the furniture without acknowledging or perhaps even realizing that someone else is living there! It rude not to say so much as is excuse me. It hurts to be evicted from one's own house.

What I have concluded from observing PMM and NYYM is that it is unhelpful for Christian and post-Christian/Jewish Quakers to continue to duke it out. It is not possible for Christians and post-Christians to try to live together amicably in one community. So much energy must be given over to the struggle for control of each faction by the other, that none remains for carrying out the mission and ministry of either group. If post-Christians want to try their hand at constructing an alternative to Christianity they need to do so without interference from Christians. And unless the post-Christians are ready to quietly relinquish their squatter's rights and truly start afresh on territory they mark out for themselves, which I do not think likely, Christians had best be the one's to regroup, even though they hold title to the land. Christian Quakers cannot profess their faith freely under the suspicious eyes of post-Christians, and they should not have to. They too need a space of their own.

As painful as it is, I am suggesting that a divorce is preferable to remaining in this dysfunctional marriage. But even as I say this I think the issue is moot. As far as I can tell the divorce has already occurred. Most of the Christians I know in the NYYM have already left. The coast is clear for post-Christian Quakers to strip the walls to the bare studs and build afresh., trying their hand at institutionalizing their beliefs, trying to minister to one another and to the world, and to hand on their beliefs to their children.

As a student of theological history I would offer a few suggestions to both sides. First to the post-Christians. As you undertake to build a new community you must decide whether or not what you are trying to build is a religion that seeks to succor and mold persons according to a calling that comes from beyond themselves or some other sort of community organized for political or social purposes or some other end. Trouble is often in store when people are confused about the purposes of a group.

As you go about designing a community on its own terms I would suggest keeping the following in mind:

1. Anti-intellectualism is a dangerous trap.

2. Children are not adults.

3. History is a friend not an enemy; your problem or issue has probably cropped up before somewhere.

4. Even if you didn't get along with your parents, minister, or youth group leader as a child, Ieadership is not necessarily oppressive .

5. Good ideas are easily corrupted and almost always become so.

6. Most of us are not the creative thinkers we think we are.

7. Most of us do not like to be comforted and challenged at the same time; it confuses us; we prefer being comforted to being challenged.

To the defeated Christians I want to offer some words of comfort. You are not alone. I believe your pain is part of a great watershed movement taking place within the Christian world. Christians are again a minority, sometimes a persecuted minority, just as they were before the Emperor Constantine legalized the faith.

Many battles like this have been fought in Christian history, especially in its first five centuries as it was finding its voice. Sometimes it took several centuries before the dust settled to discern just what has been won and what lost. Sometimes it took several centuries to discern what mistakes were made so that they could be avoided in the future. Maybe the earliest Quakers, even George Fox, or pivotal thinkers along the way like Rufus Jones made well-meaning strategic errors that led to the present state of affairs.

I suggest you keep in mind that Quakerism was only intended to be a corrective to 17th century Christianity. The earliest Quakers had a long and venerable tradition upon which they drew. They never understood themselves apart from the larger Christian community. Even should Christian Quakers decide that the Quaker experiment is no longer viable, they should not despair. All Christians know that religious institutions are earthen vessels. When they become ends in themselves, rather than helpful means to the knowledge and love of God, it is time for an overhaul. Whether, like Louis Bensen you try to begin again or return to other parts of the Christian family, your effort was not in vain.

Yes, it would be nice if the post-Christians apologized for displacing Christians, and yes it would be nice if the Christians accepted the post-Christians without making them feel guilty or judging them harshly. This cannot be. post-Christians do not understand why Christians cannot live peaceably with them or with one another. And Christians do not understand why post-Christians cannot accept the need for a theologically coherent and unified community. I hope you will all try to reach beyond your pain to see that the other side is acting out of what it takes to be its own integrity.

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