Monday, March 26, 2007

That was Zen; this is Tao

David Plotz at his Blogging the Bible series at has a good post today. He's always funny in a gentle way, but today he supplies a pun that will live in infamy. I will rebuke him not, however. Writing on the Book of Proverbs, ch 30:

Solomon wraps up his proverbial duties after 29 chapters and hands the pen off to someone named Agur. Solomon writes in a straightforward, didactic style, but Agur is elusive, preferring riddles. For example: "Four are among the tiniest on earth, yet they are the wisest of the wise; Ants are a folk without power, yet they prepare food for themselves in summer; The badger is a folk without strength, yet it makes its home in the rock; The locusts have no king, yet they all march forth in formation; You can catch a lizard in your hand, yet it is found in royal palaces." (This is less a proverb than a Zen koan. Or perhaps, since this is the Hebrew Bible we are talking about, a Zen Cohen.)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Judge Fell: Quaker liberal?

I've resumed my journey through The Beginnings of Quakerism by Willam Braithwaite that I started before the Quakerism 101 class but had laid aside for a couple of months.

Today, I was taken with this passage concerning Margaret Fell's husband, after a paragraph that noted that he would often sit in his "justice-room" with the door ajar at Swarthmore Hall to hear Quaker preaching:

Thomas Fell protected the new [Quaker] movement, but he never identified himself with it. He showed many kindnesses to Friends, and shielded them from persecution: his wife says that during his last illness he became more than usually loving to them, having been always a merciful man to God's people. But the same breadth of judgment which enabled him to appreciate the deep spirituality of Quakerism would also give him unity with true-hearted men outside the Quaker pale, and he no doubt preserved to the last the catholicity which had thrown Swarthmore open to ministers and religious people of all kinds.
The Beginnings of Quakerism at 104.

If this is accurate, then I think we can identify Judge Fell as perhaps the first Quaker liberal. As we're told, he never accepted the label of Quaker, but this brief description paints a picture of a kind of person we all know from our meetings. He is kind and protective, a minister of justice. He permitted his home to be a sanctuary to the dissenters of his day with a wide front door. He obviously had a sentimental fondness for Quakers, especially at the end of his life. We might say he shared their values, if not their identity, and was the quintessential friend of Friends. He may well have live a sanctified life.

I know I would have loved him and enjoyed his company; he's the kind of man I've always been attracted to. I would also admire his cool reserve and his "unity with true-hearted men" and "catholicity" -- he was a universalist of the best sort, accepting, non-exclusive. But more than this, I love his honesty: despite his obvious sympathy with the Quakers and other dissenters, he did not "join" the movement, but served and supported it from a different position.

Today, I imagine he'd be like one of those long-time attenders of the meeting and surprises everyone when they learn he isn't a member. His insights and wisdom would be sought out and followed. He is probably a quiet and significant financial contributer to the meeting, and perhaps has made significant witness -- perhaps a war tax resister? -- with a kind of steady, solid depth that makes him "the kind of Friend I'd like to be" to most members of the meeting. Every meeting needs men and women like this in its midst.

Nevertheless, he would be clear in his own mind he was not himself a Quaker. Perhaps he was a skeptic by temperament, constitutionally incapable of commitment. But more likely he was simply fastidious and could not in good conscience "join" the Quakers without having experienced the convicting conversion experience that was at its core. He perhaps felt like Groucho Marx who didn't want to join any club that would accept somebody like him as a member.

Today, I think we have a lot of members of our meetings who are like Judge Fell in the strength of their character and their high-mindedness, except that they do not share his scruples against claiming membership in the Quaker movement. My sense is that a great many of the beloved elders of our Society came to Friends during the pre- and post-World War II era, the cream of the progressive religious and political traditions (the New Deal and the Social Gospel) -- especially in the college-town Beanite meetings -- who were attracted to Quakerism by its "values" and by their experiences in Quaker-run projects (e.g., CPS and AFSC work camps), but who never accepted the necessity of the conviction and conversion that was the heart of the Quaker experience, though many of them were deeply "spiritual" in their own ways. They lived the lives of saints and prophets.

Initially, these newer, convinced Friends were familiar from their childhood with the biblical narrative and the Christian ethos that was common to traditional Quakers. This common religious vocabulary helped the newer and older Friends to talk with each other in meaningful ways, but for these Friends Quaker Christianity was accepted as an historical artifact rather than a defining characteristic or commitment, something incidental rather than essential to the movement. Instead of drawing their identity and role models from Abraham, Moses, David, Isaiah, Peter, Paul, or even Fox, Fell, Barclay, Penn, Pennington, Woolman, etc., they think of themselves more as heirs to the abolitionists, womens suffrigists, labor union organizers, civil rights martyrs, and peace protesters -- Quaker and non-Quaker alike.

In due time, acceptance the Bible as an important source of religious truth and authority (second only the authority of the Living God who continues to teach and instruct within our hearts) degraded into no authority and familarity with this heritage weakened. The Bible and its story and images is no longer the common tongue among liberal US Friends; it is, at best, one of many sources of sacred texts. (This is an opinion I expect Judge Fell might hold if he were among us today.)

The difference, of course, is that today, the meeting might encourage a man or woman like Judge Fell to become a formal member of the Quaker movement, despite his inability to commit to or identify with (what once was) its central tenets. It's not enough, somehow, to remain a friend and protecter and supporter of Friends because of an insignificant difference of religious opinion -- such as faith in a living God -- if it doesn't bother us, why should it bother you?

All of which creates the situation I faced recently where I was asked to preface statements I make about God to the 4-year olds I teach in First Day School (e.g., "Jesus is our great teacher" "God lives within you") with "I believe. . . " lest I indoctrinate them and thwart their individual spiritual development. When I protested that this qualification was unnecessary because "we" believe in God, I was told, "I'm a Quaker and I don't believe in God", and therefore my statement was disrespectful as well as untrue.

I don't think I would have had this problem with Judge Fell; or he with me.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Welcome back

I've learned from experience never to begin a presentation by apologizing, but for some reason I've begun a lot of my recent posts apologizing for not writing recently. So I won't, even though I've just missed the first calendar month (Feb. 2007) since I began this blog (June 2005). Here are two of the things that have kept me busy away from the blog.

Lovely Wife and I had a wonderful four-day vacation to New York in late January. Eldest Daughter and Dan-her-Man were out of town and let us stay in their beautiful apartment at 1 Main Street, Brooklyn, which is in the DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood, right between the Brooklyn & Manhattan Bridges on the East River.

We did a lot of the typical New York tourist stuff: museums (the Cloisters, MOMA, Natural History, American Indian); a Broadway show (The Apple Tree); Times Square at night; ate in gems of restaurants; enjoyed subway musicians, like this man playing his Chinese banjo with a snake-skin head; walked the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, etc. Our poor calves were as tight as the bridges' suspension cables from so much walking, but we loved every minute of it. (Thanks to Sister Holly for coming to care for Mother Holly and Children.)

We especially enjoyed visiting the meetinghouses of New York Yearly and 15th Street Monthly Meetings on 15th Street and Rutherford Place in Manhattan, across from Stuyvesant Park. We first went there on Friday evening to be sure we knew how to get there, and then again on Sunday morning for worship.

It was a good meeting with powerful ministry about witnessing to what we have ourselves seen, based on I John 1 ("For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness. . . ). I especially appreciated the ministry of the Friend who reminded us that we were witnessing for our Lord (which made me wish I could remember how to sing "Who'll be a witness for my Lord? My soul'll be a witness for my lord!" [click on Play Sample]).

Afterwards, I enjoyed meeting Rich the Brooklyn Quaker (on the right) and Lorcan and learning some of the history of the meetinghouse, including how it once sheltered free blacks in its coal room during the New York draft riots of 1863 (but not, Lorcan says, as part of the pre-war Underground Railroad).

Lorcan then helpfully directed us to the former Orthodox meetinghouse that is now a synagogue on Gramercy Park. (The Orthodox meetinghouse -- of quite a different architectural style -- was sold when the two meetings merged in the 1960s.) I have now visited Morningside, Brooklyn, and 15th St meetings in New York City and have enjoyed each one.

* * * * *

Quakerism 101. Upon returning home, I started leading a 7-week Quakerism 101 class. (Session 7 was to be last night, but we cancelled it because of the snowstorm that is still blizzarding as I type.) It was the third time in as many years that I've led it, but this year I did almost all of the teaching (my co-leader acted as my support person, like an elder) and, because I chose almost all new readings than those in the Philadelphia YM course we've used before, I had a lot more preparation to do. It was time consuming, but it was a labor of love.

More so than in previous years, I presented Quakerism from more explicitly Christian perspective, emphasizing the less well understood spiritual foundation of Quakerism somewhat more than the more familiar outward signs (e.g., "silent" worship, testimonies). I told the class on the first day of my bias and that there are other perspectives on Quaker theology and history and that they were under no obligation to take my word for any of it, so I felt more free to teach it from my viewpoint without distracting qualifications or disclaimers.

There were about 30 participants, some of whom are long-time Quakers (only one of whom, though, was raised in a Quaker family, and in our meeting), others who have begun to attend more recently, a couple of teachers from Friends School, and a handful who have never attended meeting who came on the recommendation of a spouse or friend. (Several were from other meetings in town.) This range of diverse experience was a challenge, but I was pleased that attendance held up and that the large and small group discussions consistently seemed engaged and energetic.

Here's the reading list I used:
Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition by Michael L Birkel
Quakers in America by Thomas Hamm
Encounter with Silence by John Punshon
Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order by Lloyd Lee Wilson

Creeds and Quakers: What's Belief Got To Do With It? by Robert Griswold (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 377)
Living in Virtue, Declaring Against War: The Spiritual Roots of the Peace Testimony by Steve Smith (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 378)
Members One of Another by Thomas Gates (Pendle Hill Pamphlet 371)
The Inward Light: How Quakerism Unites Universalism And Christianity by Samuel Caldwell
George Fox's Message is Relevant for Today by Lewis Benson (New Foundation -- Publication 2) (I couldn't find a source to buy this on-line except an e-bay auction asking $30 to buy-it-now for a 12 page pamphlet [but in new condition!].)

(Thanks to Martin Kelly for suggesting Silence and Witness and to the publisher for finally putting out a more affordable paperbound edition of Quakers in America ($25 vs. $40 for the hard-bound edition.) Even though we only read excerpts from the books, this was a pretty hefty reading list and it may have been a bit much. Nevertheless, most people seemed to have read most of the readings each week.

(If I lead this course again, I would like to use Marshall Massey's remarkable essay-in-progress on doctrines, dogma, and confession of faith if it is available in print.)

I guess my bias shows in my reading list, too. I didn't realize until after I had completed it that each book (except the Benson pamphlet) was written by a contemporary, living Quaker. While this wasn't by design, it did give me an unexpected source of hope for the survival of the Gospel during these troubled times.

But what I really want to say about my experience leading this class is that there is among Friends -- longtime and new attenders alike -- a hunger for information and a systematic way to learn about and study the phenomenon of Quakerism within a framework of familiar categories so it can be compared and contrasted to other religious communities and traditions they may be familiar with. It seems that almost everyone who comes to our meeting understands pretty well how Quakerism is similar to other religious traditions, but they also want to know what makes Quakers unique and worthy of their commitment. Books can help do this, of course, but learning together, interactively, is what it feels like people want and need.

We've now had more than a hundred people in three years participate in Quakerism 101 in our meeting. Many were relatively new to the meeting, and almost all of them have continued to attend meeting regularly and have increased their commitment to it. If I may generalize from our meeting's experience to other largish FGC-affiliated meetings, the fact that so many are willing to make such a commitment to learn about what Quakerism is tells me that there is pent up demand (as economists would say) for teaching ministry in our meetings.

This is a different hunger than that which my Friend Tom is feeding with the multi-week workshops he's been leading in our meeting that have more of a spiritual formation or devotional focus, e.g. how to praying without ceasing, vocal ministry, epistles of George Fox, readings from Pennington and Barclay, etc. Those workshops are also very well attended and received and have deepended the participants' spiritual lives and commitment to the meeting. They are, I believe, ultimately more valuable than the generic Q-101 course. But both are necessary if Quakerism is to have any kind of self-identity, it seems to me.