Thursday, February 28, 2008

Quakerism: A Study in Contradictions

I have just finished reading Thomas Hamm's 2003 book The Quakers in America, which for recently convinced friends such as me was quite an eye-opening experience.

What I see as the most substantial challenge to the Friends movement is that it is no monolithic entity. Though all Quakers ascribe to the same basic methodology, the presence of very Conservative Evangelicals counterbalanced with very liberal Unprogrammed Friends (of which I am the latter) presents a unique roadblock to unity. However, let me also argue that the diversity of Quakerism has a means of grounding and is far more akin to that of a traditional Protestant denomination. There are liberal Methodists and liberal Episcopalians and their more conservative brethren. As such, I feel like achieving any sort of mass unity between Quakers is likely implausible and impractical.

If I had to guess, I would place myself somewhere on the left-leaning continuum. Unabashedly liberal but skeptical of radicalism in any form. Liberal in some areas, and more moderate on others. Committed to social justice, but cautious that social justice can be divisive, though I agree it has a deeply moral and spiritual component to it. This places me more in line with Pastoral and Unprogrammed Friends than our Evangelical and Conservative brethren. But lest that seem as though I am conceding defeat, let me qualify what I am saying more firmly.

Quakers have many strengths, not least of which is name-recognition and our devotion to many important causes now lauded by the mainstream, not least of these is our historic support for Abolition, Women's rights, and Civil Rights. In recent times, we Friends have fractured and split and shrank in number much the same ways many liberal Protestant denominations have. Acknowledging that the world we live in is very different and that society at large has taken on a much more secular posture, I see us with two options. Either we change with the times or fight upstream and return to the past. I believe the former option is much more sound.

Moreover, I think it is imperative that all historically liberal Protestant faiths address this issue and there is growing evidence that reformers among many are quite willing and capable to do so. I do not have any pie-in-the-sky expectations and I expect denominational loyalty to trump common purpose every time. In conceding this point, however, let me add that I believe it is up to a new generation of believers to propose solutions for his/her own unique spiritual group. These are not unifying times. These are times which will see us increasing split and co-divided amongst ourselves, but my true focus is in growth, and growing in a way that is simultaneously orderly and refrains from overt attempts to convert. It is a focus that I think should start from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I believe it is imperative that the change should start from within ourselves first, our home church, congregation, fellowship, or meeting second, and then the larger denominational world last of all.

In that spirit, I encourage us to make alliance with other faith groups in our region, including the members of our own numbers. So often membership in a liberal Protestant group is an experience akin to an isolated oasis, where all concerns are focused inward, rather than outward towards the greater world behind the four walls of where we worship. To me, finding a spirit of common purpose will be its own reward and as we increase our networking ability, converts will follow. One should not underestimate the sound policy of leading by example and leading by the example of Jesus. I see no Biblical record in his words that placed focus on bringing souls to the world by force or by coercive measures, rather his approach was more subliminal. If we hold that each individual has free will, and we lift that doctrine up and let freedom of choice be sacrosanct, then I firmly believe we will see results. I am not expecting a raging river of swelled growth, seats in pews swelling, and monetary donations on the uptick. But what I am expecting is a renewed devotion to reaching out to our fellows in the ways we best deem necessary.

Change is a potent force in humanity. We have a paradoxical relationship with it. On one hand, many of us demand it, but on the other hand, many of us are slow to warm to it and may openly resist reform even when it is for our own best interest. Let us then strive to understand the challenges we face, with our eyes, minds, and hearts open and strive for the good of all. Let us challenge ourselves to think communally, rather than individually, and in doing so realize that the Kingdom of God exists within each of us.


Dr. Zaius said...

It was a Quaker that foiled Boris Karloff in the film "Bedlam". Grr...

Comrade Kevin said...

I do not speak for my church on public matters of horror movies--and the church does not speak for me.