Saturday, May 10, 2014
My Religious Beliefs
Some readers are, no doubt, unclear about my religious sensibilities. They notice that I use odd terminology, a language informally called Quaker-speak, spoken by fewer and fewer these days. I’ve been known to use passages from the Bible to reinforce my arguments. But I would never consider myself an Evangelical, a pulpit-pounder, or a born-again Christian.
I am a Christian, but a progressive strain. My religious background was somewhat more conservative than my beliefs are today, but I had skeptics for parents. Southerners like me went to church for lots of reasons, least of which was that everyone else did. There I was baptized at the age of 12 and confirmed in the Methodist church. I was engaged enough as a child to focus on my Sunday School teachers and to learn verses of Scripture.
Today, I live in an urbanized setting full of religious seekers, where the focus on individualism leads to a great diversity in expression. Quaker theology by its very formulation gives us five Testimonies (Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality) upon which to base our own inward work. Each Testimony has a looser, more generalized message, but varies from person to person.
For example, 19th Century Quakers used the Testimony of Equality to stand firm against slavery and turned their Meetinghouses into stops on the Underground Railroad. Our work with Peace won us the Nobel Prize in 1947. A Quaker emphasis on Simplicity would not seem out of place with any socially conscious young liberal buying clothes from a thrift store, rather than a department store. Groups of Friends (Quakers) have been moved to work together when leadings and causes from person to person were similar.
I’m reminded again of how crucial words are and especially those we assign to ourselves. As a member of the Religious Society of Friends, I could throw out any one of a thousand vocabulary words or descriptive phrases, most of which are hundreds of years old. I like the clever construction of our language. They were a result of how someone or a group of people interpreted a particular passage of the Bible. Every Christian faith emphasizes or subtly de-emphasizes individual sections of Scripture. We’re no different from anyone else.
I know that what I say is not always what people hear. Right-wing Christianity has tried to co-opt and substitute its own interpretation for my own. We’ve found ourselves divided in the same ways that every other left-wing ideology or group has. Sometimes I think we’re too busy finding ways to break ourselves apart for the supposed sake of diversity. I think that diversity is a good thing, but it has to be done responsibly.
Learn from our example. For such a small faith group, we have divided ourselves into three primary branches. What is called cross-branch work is very difficult. It’s at times like talking to a Republican when you’re a Democrat. Factions and rivalries have sprung up. Conservative Friends all face forward when seated on benches for Worship. Unprogrammed Friends like me sit facing each other. And these are only the most prominent outward signs. Every decision in Worship or in how we conduct our affairs was made for a reason, and that reason was very important to someone.
So be careful with words and how you pick them. Division exists everywhere, even within my own faith tradition. It’s difficult to get opinionated people to agree. At a Meeting level, every First Day (Sunday), I see the same 100 people. Making progress at even a very small level like this shows the difficulties present. For my feminist sisters and brothers, observe how difficult it is to have Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality. If you can get those five down, I think you’ll do fine.