Some Quaker FAQs – Part 6
[Links to the previous segments in this series are here. ]
Last time we ended the segment with a question: Can You Sum Up Quakerism In Only Two Paragraphs?
My answer was: Yes. We’ll get to that next time. And now it’s time.
Q. Can You Sum Up Quakerism In Only Two Paragraphs?
(Yes. Here goes.)
About 360 years ago in England, God had an idea. He (or She) wanted a group of people to come together and do some special pieces of God’s work, in some particular ways. So when a man named George Fox climbed up a place called Pendle Hill, God called to him and showed him that there was “a great people to be gathered” there, to do that particular work, in those particular ways.
That “people” or group was the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. It appeared because God gathered it, to do some particular work, in the particular ways we’re supposed to do it. (What we call the Testimonies are part of this work; but only part.) We’re not done yet, and God’s not done with us, and that’s why Quakers are still around.
That’s my story of the Quakers, in two paragraphs.
But it’s not really “my” story. And it’s not a new one either. For a long time, this is how Quakers described their reason for being: they had been gathered by God as a separate group, or church, to do some particular pieces of God’s work in some particular ways.
Were Quakers gathered because they were better than everyone else? Truthfully, many of them thought so, especially at the beginning.
But soon enough, Quakers showed they could screw up the same as other people. (Remember those “deep holes” mentioned earlier? Quakers fell into some too. You can read in history books about how.) So the “better-than-everyone-else” notion had to go.
Q. Are Quakers Really Like God’s Plumbers? How?
Instead, a more modest idea took hold: Quakers were not necessarily God’s favorites, and most were not saints. Instead, we were more like plumbers: plumbers know how to do some specialized tasks, and good plumbers do those tasks very well. This doesn’t make them better people than everyone else; just fine plumbers, who are very special to have around when your drains get clogged up.
What are the special “plumbers’” tasks for Quakers? And how do we know God really wants us to do them?
Good questions. And here’s what I think: this “work” includes first of all our Quaker worship, which expresses the idea that there’s that of God or the Spirit in everyone, and that the Spirit will lead the worship directly.
Then there’s our “Quaker way” of doing business. That’s part of it too, where all are supposed to be equal, we are to learn how to listen (to each other, and God), and to wait. We can also learn when to stand firm and when to stand aside, as the real leadership comes from the Spirit, not from votes and politics.
Finally, not least, there are the special concerns we call testimonies. Many of us like to think we’re on a mission to get rid of war, even though truthfully we don’t seem to have made much progress on that in 360-plus years. (But who said it was supposed to be quick, or easy?) And both individual Quakers and groups (committees or Meetings) get “leadings” of work or witness that they are directly to do.
None of these items is unique to us, by the way. Other religions have silent worship, seek consensus, and work on concerns such as peace. So it’s not just one or the other, but the combination that adds up to the Quaker “work” in the world.
Now remember, this is my idea, not part of a creed that every Quaker signs on to. But it’s very close to the way Quakers described our reason for being for a very long time.
Q. Do Quaker Beliefs Change? And Is That Okay?
Again, in summary: Quakers are a distinct group because God called them (us) together, to worship and do some particular work in some particular ways. Quakers weren’t called because they’re better; they’re just called. And they’re still here because God is not done with them yet.
Having said that, though, I have to admit it’s not always clear just what all this work includes. Things change. Times change. Concerns change. Understandings change. And along the way, many Quakers have disagreed about all that.
Once Quaker men all dressed like the guy on the oatmeal box; once we protested loudly against the sale of beer and liquor, and against lotteries. And the surest way to get “disowned,” or kicked out was to marry someone who wasn’t a Quaker – that was an absolute no-no.
Today that’s all changed. (The graphic below shows some of the BIG changes in one yearly meeting; most others in the U.S. have been through many similar deep changes as well.)
These changes and disagreements were confusing to me for a long time. In some ways, they still are. There are even people who say that because of these changes and various Quaker disagreements over them, we’ve completely lost our way, and have abandoned the special work God has for us to do. I’ve occasionally wondered about that too.
But I felt better about all this after I studied the Bible. Because in the Bible, there were also stories of groups of people called together by God in much the same way, and they too had to cope with change and disagreements about what God was doing with and through them. (In fact, in the Bible such differences sometimes led to terrible violence. Not good; but better the book tells it straight.)
So I figured that if “peoples” who were gathered in the Bible remained useful to God, even while they were changing and disagreeing, screwing up and falling into those deep holes we talked about in earlier segments, then maybe today’s fractious Quakers were still useful too. That’s how I feel today.
Besides, even in the middle of all this change, we’re not completely confused. Despite the many mistakes, Quakers have also done a lot of good work.
So let’s go back to the ideas of “New Covenant Temple” and see how some Quaker ideas might be similar to or different from theirs.
Q. The Bible: How Much Of It Do Progressive Quakers Believe?
We can start with the Bible. I believe we have much to learn from the Bible. It’s a shame that young and new Quakers like you haven’t been taught more about it.
But like the earliest Quakers, and unlike the New Covenant creed, I don’t think everything in the Bible is true. Nor do all the commandments in it (there are several hundred) apply today; some seem downright wrong & even repulsive.
In fact, there are many Bible stories that show us what NOT to do and what NOT to believe. There are parts of it which don’t agree with other parts. And there’s lots in it that’s just plain confusing! (No wonder Christian churches have been arguing about what it means for so long!)
The idea that the Bible is supposed to all be true and we have to follow everything in it is just a mistake. It’s often been a dangerous mistake.
But still, the Bible is important; again, there’s much to learn from it.
Q. Does Jesus Have A Password? And What’s “Baloney” Got To Do With It?
Then about Jesus.
Again, we have lots to learn about and from Jesus, and it’s too bad young Quakers are not taught more about him. Many of his stories and teachings still ring true, at least to me, two thousand years later.
What happened to Jesus is also an important example: his teachings and way of life threatened the “powers that be” of his time; so they hunted him down and “strung him up” for it. One lesson: speaking and living truth can be a very dangerous path. It can lead to “taking up the cross.” (Anybody here remember Martin Luther King, Jr.? Tom Fox?)
Q. Do I think Jesus rose from the dead?
A famous Quaker Bible scholar, Henry Cadbury, had the best answer: he said he believed in the resurrection on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and sometimes Saturdays. I’m about like that too, except it’s every other week. But either way, Jesus is still important.
I even think there’s something to this “personal relationship” idea. And to being “saved.” I too have gotten into messy situations, similar to falling into that pit with the muddy slippery sides we imagined earlier, and needed help to get out. Usually it was other people who helped me; but sometimes it definitely felt like God was throwing down a ladder too.
Besides, “being saved,” doesn’t happen just once. And it’s not only Jesus who can do it. There isn’t just one “ladder.” But when I’m told that unless I get a “personal relationship” with Jesus I’m going to burn in hell, I say, “Baloney.” (Or maybe something a little stronger.) Because that kind of “personal relationship” sounds more like a secret password.
Passwords are okay on the internet and for bank accounts. But no ladder ever came down into my muddy pits with a keypad attached. So “password theology” is not for me, and I don’t think Jesus liked it either. The Quaker phrase for this is, “There is that of God in everyone.” Not just the ones with some special Christian password.
Next Time: What About Hell?
This post is adapted from the booklet, “Some Quaker FAQs,”
by Chuck Fager. More information about it is here.