Monday, December 17, 2007

What a Difference Sensible Doctrines Make

This past weekend I attended a Quaker meeting and found it much to my liking. I noticed some similarities between its philosophy and the Unitarianism I practiced for eight years, but also recognized some crucial differences. By differences, I mean adherence to sensible doctrines that had Unitarian Universalism taken more strides towards adopting I'm very sure I would not have left it behind. Yet, upon further contemplation, I recall that I do know enough of change and the inevitable human tendency to resist it to have come to this conclusion--namely, that the needed reforms may not be forthcoming for quite some time to come, if they arrive at all, and I for one am not willing to sit around and play the game of wait-and-see.

Returning to Quakerism---upon my visit, I was handed the obligatory newcomer's packet, full of introductory materials. These I read through with no small degree of interest. One passage in particular caught my eye.

Quakerism is here described in terms of its ideals, not necessarily its attainments. In avoiding one form, Friends sometimes slip into another. Forms and creeds are inevitable. They have important uses, especially in education, where forms are used to show what ought to be their real content, and even, sometimes, to create the content. Our Christian religion would be weak and vague without the doctrines which undergird it. Quakerism does not aim at formlessness and undiluted mysticism (emphasis mine).

Unitarianism in its current incarnation purports to be a creedless faith which openly shuns dogma and doctrinal requirements. In reality, such a position often leaves it rudderless. The church adopted the Seven Principles as a means of addressing this lack. However, as the UU blog The Socinian recently pointed out, "[The Seven Principles] may be sound rules to live by, but they aren’t our creed or a statement of our highest truths. They are no more than a transitory statement of broad propositions that all of us in our wide theological diversity were at one time willing to support, a lowest common denominator."

I am not uncomfortable with doctrines when they serve a purpose, for I have observed for myself the sort of formless nihilism which results when they do not exist at all. The wording of the passage above takes into account several important precepts.

a) Human imperfection has a ways of reducing ideals to rougher, imperfect reality
b) Attempts to avoid creedal statements often inevitably become creedal statements in spite of themselves
c) Without some degree of underpinning, religion suffers from a lack of substance and strength

My other concern regards the unfortunate tendency that often Unitarians take in looking first, foremost, and sometimes only within their own ranks for the source of ultimate truth; this implies strongly that only we can understand us. Doing so produces a myopic, short-sighted tunnel vision which often discounts the usefulness of other faiths traditions. It's a circle-the-wagons, insular, bubble mentality that reminds me a little of a Soviet Propaganda film. This defensive posture couches all events, identities, policies, and daily minutia in cloying, self-referential terms of purpose and esoteric phrasing.

By contrast, I refer to the above passage one final time and note that that Quakerism makes a point to refer to itself as a Christian faith, even citing passages in The Bible to emphasize its roots. I do understand that some Friends do not self-identify as Christian but I daresay they are probably not as squeamish with scriptural references as UUs. When Unitarianism jettisoned itself from Christianity, the results rendered it closer to a cult of wounded souls in a state of suspended uncertainty. I am pleased to know that Quakers have not acted in kind.


Martin Kelley said...

Welcome aboard Comrade (grin). That's a great quote, I had to google to see where it's from. Howard Brinton--of course. He was one of the great welcoming voices of Quakerism in the mid-20th Century. The words to that pamphlet were written in 1955 and gender neutered in the early 90s.

I should warn you that one of the reasons you're getting a half-century old pamphlet in your packet is because few liberal Quaker groups today would be able to give such a clear description of Quakerism. I dare say none would so unequivocally and openly lump us in with the Christian religion. I don't actually think it's because the philosophy has changed so much, it's more a generation of tepid leadership-by-committee that has let us become defined more by our fringes than our middle. If a half-dozen Quakers somewhere disagree with something that's been a core piece of doctrine for 350 years we have to bend over backwards to include them (it's bad form to ask why someone with essential disagreements would join in the first place). We can't clearly say that "Quakers believe XYZ" even if 80% of us believe XYZ and even if it's a solid part of our religious legacy. We get around it by couching current statements in oblique metaphors and letting a 50-year-old pamphlet continue to introduce us to newcomers.

I don't want to scare you off, just let you know that some of the issues that drove you from Unitarianism are here with us Friends too. Things aren't quite so dire: Howard Brinton is still our chief articulator (his book "Friends for 300 Years" is still the standard introductory text) and most regional editions of our "Faith and Practice" are still officially subtitled "Books of Christian Discipline." On the ground things are a lot less clearer. I think liberal Friends are much more Christian-influenced than they think they are but the formless nihilism is strong, as is the myopia. If you're lucky you've stumbled into a meeting with some deeply-Quaker Friends who aren't afraid to talk about Quaker spirituality. Welcome again, good luck and let us know how this exploration goes!

Martin @ Quaker Ranter

quakerboy said...

Welcome! My partner and I are refugees from Unitarian Universalism. Providentially, we found a Meeting that is very comfortable with its Christian roots. Most Meetings in our area draw upon the deep well of Quaker spirituality.

I would encourage you to check out the writtings of some of the early Friends and you might find, as did I, that they speak to our current condition. Most of all, be open to listening to that Still Small Voice, the Inward Light.

God's Peace Friend,

Anonymous said...

UU Minster Steve Edington in his sermon The Jesus Captivity
He speaks of " upholding of the religion of Jesus, as distinguished from the religion about Jesus. "pre-Easter Jesus, the teacher of wisdom and love and compassion and healing".
What attracts me to Quakerism is it has always been a religion of Jesus,
love and service then religion about Jesus, bound up in creeds.
That in a nutshell for me is the heart of Quakerism.
Denominational labels Quaker or other, are primarily a reflection of participation more than an identity, though I recognize that denominational experience is one of the ingredients. And while I use religious language with great in in trepidation,
we are all brothers and sisters.

Anonymous said...

Martin is so right that the same tendencies you saw among UUs are strong in some parts of Friends. The reasons you left UUs are close to the reasons a lot of people (dozens of whom I personally know) leave liberal Friends (including me).

We do need a spiritual center, but it is not necessarily found in spiritual doctrines as that is customarily understood. In fact, I don't think it is best found that way. If you read the Gospels, Jesus seemed to deliberately avoid presenting spiritual truths that way.

For an example of how that can be done, see the Vision and Mission of the faith community of which I am now a part. It is unapologetically a Christian community, but it isn't into spouting neat doctrinal formulations like so much of the institutional church is. Instead it is about being transformed into the likeness of Christ, and how that is lived day by day in the society in which we find ourselves.

Anonymous said...

While not having read the book this came from, so I'm sure there is more context that I would need to see to understand more fully, I have to say that this part of the quote troubles me:
"Forms and creeds are inevitable. They have important uses, especially in education, where forms are used to show what ought to be their real content, and even, sometimes, to create the content. Our Christian religion would be weak and vague without the doctrines which undergird it."
---it confuses me, as I have up 'til now read over and over about the Quaker RESISTANCE to creeds--- I'm unconfortable with creeds. (but forms/customs I am comfortable with).

"Quakerism does not aim at formlessness and undiluted mysticism."--- this part makes sense to me, in that silent worship we're not supposed to be "emptying" our minds like when Buddhists (I think) meditate, but to have our minds focused, yet open and waiting.

"Quakerism is here described in terms of its ideals, not necessarily its attainments."--this part is ringing true for me and can be used in many instances when one is explaining what we're hoping for, aiming for, wishing our practices could be like. said...

I think Quaker experience is a great deep fount, and hope that you can find there the religious home you was looking for.

But about being miopic towards other religions and practices, I must say that in my experience Quakers (even liberal) tend to be much self absorbed than Unitarians.

Just one example: How many non-Quaker groups have joined Quaker organizations? None as far as I know. On the Unitarian side, there are at least two examples, the Khasi Hills Unitarians (in Meghalaya, India) that decided in the 19th century to worship his animistic traditions ina unitarian framework, and recently an independent Church in Indonesia, The Global Church of God joned the Internactional Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

Greetings from a Mexican Unitarian with Quaker leanings.