Tuesday, July 26, 2005

The core of Quakerism

Our meeting is undergoing a year-long process to discern what its ministries are, and how to organize itself to perform them. One of the first steps in the process was to ask Friends "What is the core of the meeting to you?"

I remember saying this in response in one meeting for worship: I'm not sure I like the metaphor of the "core" of the meeting, or of Quakerism. It makes me think of some kind of irreducible matter, like the wire core of a rope. But then I got to thinking that the core of the Earth is liquid, a molten mass that is alive and always moving. And the core of an apple or a peach is where the seed is, where the life and the future is, and with that in mind, that seed is an apt metaphor describing the core of the meeting to me.

Yesterday, I came across this article by Chuck Fager in the latest issue of Quaker Theology entitled "The Core of Quaker Theology: Is There Such a Thing?" In it, Chuck makes a similar observation:

. . . I want to raise questions about the notion of a "core" Quaker theology as a metaphor. It suggests that Quaker thought is like an apple, which at the center has a few seeds that are its heart and hope for the future. Or perhaps itÂ’s imagined to be like the core layers of a tree trunk, sometimes bending with strong winds but nonetheless standing resilient and steady at the center while the years add layers of history around the edges.

These are strong, comforting images. But I want to suggest that Quakerism may not be like that. Or at least, not like the tree trunk. The seeds, perhaps. ThatÂ’s because the seeds can carry not only continuity, but change.

He goes on to develop a thesis that, at the core of Quakerism is not a single, essential doctrineexperiencece, or any other "thing", but a number of parallel but overlapping "trajectories", always in motion:
[F]rom the Gospel of John . . . Jesus speaks of the spirit as being like the wind, . . . we hear the sound of it, but we don't know where it's coming from or where it's going. Religious trajectories are subject to those winds too. You can think of them as elements of the "core" if you like, but elements in motion through time and space, motion through our minds and experience, motion from being pushed and nudged by the wind of the spirit. And more important, this motion is not incidental; it's part of the essence of the elements. Quakerism isn't and never was a static thing. It moves and is moved.
He concludes:

If anything must be the "core" of Quaker theology, I commend this image to your consideration: wrestling with our tradition and experience as a people, and wrestling with what this can mean for us today and tomorrow. What we're doing today is an example of this. Don't worry about becoming too weary; you will also have time outs, periods of rest and blessed community in the process.

But wrestle we must, because we do not struggle alone, or only with each other. We are also struggling with the One who called us to be a people, and calls us still, and can still bless us, Friends, if we do not let go.

As is often the case, I find Chuck's insights penetrating and full of hope. I commend this article to anyone concerned with the renewal of the Society of Friends as a prophetic witness to the world. (It's also satisfying to find baseball used as an illustration in a discussion of Quakerism. It makes my evenings listening to ballgames seem less frivolous.)


Anonymous said...

For me, the core of Quakerism is being faithful to God. Everything else follows from there. I feel that this was the core of the religion for 300 years. It grieves me that this focus is not currently shared by the coroporate body.

In my everyday life, it makes a huge difference whether or not being faithful to God is at the core of everything I'm doing, and I can't imagine that phenomenon being different for us as a corporate body.

I need all the help I can get to keep up with the struggle of keeping God in the center. For quite a while now, it has felt like wrestling too much with the folks in my faith tradition about what we're doing together is usually a distraction from that work, for me at least.

Elizabeth O'Sullivan

Rich in Brooklyn said...

This is more of a comment on this blog as a whole than on this specific post: What a great blog! Thanks for producing it. I expect to become a regular visitor.

I've posted a mention of it on my own blog Brooklyn Quaker, and will soon be adding a permanent link to my sidebar.

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

Liz Opp said...

Friend Elizabeth speaks my mind and heart. I sometimes struggle with checking my ego at the door and keeping God at the center.

But I wonder, Paul, if you have also touched on the difficulty of your own or, more likely, the meeting's desire to capture into words an experience that is beyond language. We must listen for the Spirit beyond the words, the place "where the words come from..."

I should also say, that I happened to have peeked (!) at a number of replies that were written and dropped into the envelope where the query, "What is the core of the meeting to you?" was hanging. Many of the replies simply had the answer "Meeting for Worship" written out, which concerned me.

Is that all we can say? Why do we not go further to consider the query, then, What is the core of Meeting for Worship for you? Perhaps answers to this follow-up query would illuminate the spiritual condition (fragmentation?) of the meeting.

(I have to ask: If Meeting for Worship were no longer held due to some horrific tragedy, would people stop being Quakers? Would Quakerism simply vanish?)

But again, these are all just words we are using, being the humans that we are...

Thanks for the link to Chuck Fager's (not Faber) article--it fits right in with the other parts about Quaker identity that I've been exploring!

Liz, The Good Raised Up

david said...


I read CF's piece, too, and similar
to you and Liz, our meeting went
through a search for the core
during the mid 2003-mid 2004 year.
We did well, I think, and it
has an ongoing important impact
and gift. I do wonder, of course,
as time goes on, whether we will
find ourselves lucky enough
and blessed enough to fulfill
the promises of our core into
action, when there is so much
inaction and aging of our
population. But I do get the
sense that the exercise grounded
us more than we expected and also
in a way that revealed some
truths about our membership. All
of it, or nearly all, was a Good
Thing to have happened. A quarterly
meeting retreat that occurred in
March this year seemed to give us
continued hope that we are moving
somewhere. I do say that since
then I have felt a subtle pullback
but then usually the summer is a
bit of a frantic vacation time
around this region. Five of
six M/O members are continuing
from this July to the next, so
we are seeing some continued
continuity there, which I think
will be nothing but good. I also
know we are going to take up
one or two really really really
big and important
communal/corporate discernments
during the fall. It is likely
to brand who we are and what our
core is for a long time, and
our approach to that will be
the key, the process.

In this sense, I think LLW is
basically correct to point to
Order as the defining feature
that provides the core. The
language used in this blog, and
by both Brooklyn-Rich and Chuck F
differs only qualitatively when
pointing in a similar vein.

The hardest part, I find, of
doing good things As A Quaker
is the burden of continual
intentionality. It is a tension
unresolved, for most of us,
to live within Order and Intention
and also be in the moment of God
and be able to flow with one's
Call without rather burdensome
over-processing. Nonetheless,
your meeting will benefit and have
a good time going through the
soul searching for the core,
and it will be far far better in
that exercise to over-process than
to underprocess. Good luck