Some Quaker FAQs – Part 7
[Links to the previous segments in this series are here. ]
Q. What About Hell?
I don’t believe in hell. Just don’t.
But why not, after all it’s in the Bible?
Well, I don’t believe that women are inferior, that gays should be killed, or that slavery is acceptable; all of which are in the Bible too. And actually, the notion of eternal hellfire is only in part of the Bible, and a pretty late entry.
Besides, burning in hell forever is just plain unfair. It’s an endless or infinite punishment. But even the worst human crime falls well short of being “infinite.”
I’m not against the idea of punishment; but if God is just, forever punishment just isn’t in the cards. I think the views of the Bible or Jesus that produce such burn-in-hell-forever beliefs today are just plain mistaken.
And dangerous. I’ve read about this and thought about it and sat in meeting with it – and that’s where I stand. I’m pretty darn sure God is okay with it, too. (Or if not, too bad for God.)
Christian/Quaker theology without hell is not a new idea. It has honorable ancestors and some distinguished current advocates. For that matter, I’m also doubtful about heaven.
So for me, Jesus’ teachings and life are much more useful and inspiring than the “perfect atoning sacrifice” concept. That one is in the same category as thinking that the world is flat.
Most people in Jesus’ day believed in a flat earth too. (You will find, though, that some Quakers still hang on to the atonement idea, and password theology, and hell; we disagree about that.)
Now regarding the church. As I understand it, a group like New Covenant Temple comes together around an experience of Jesus as being able to fill all their needs, and the Bible as being completely true. These experiences and beliefs are described in their creed.
There are other churches that form around common interests: like a favorite preacher, or a children’s program, or a practice like “speaking in tongues.”
Q. Are Quakers A “Gathered” Church? What’s That?
Quakers, as I said before, think of themselves as a “gathered” church, one called into being by God to worship and do some assigned work together. The key here is “gathered” or “called.”
I’ve been in Quaker meetings where the members and attenders had various beliefs about Jesus, the Bible, and even God – but they all felt called, or gathered, to worship together and work together. They had a “sense of the meeting” that kept them going.
There are people who think it’s silly to call a group with mixed beliefs a “church;” to have a “real” church, they say, the group must have a common set of beliefs about God, Jesus (or Buddha, or Muhammad).
A creed. (A password.)
There’s another story that explains why the “gathered church” idea is not silly to me. It’s about a special bus ride:
When I was eighteen, the U.S. government could tell any American young man to go into the army for two years. We called that “getting drafted.” It happened like this: a young man like me got a letter, directing him to go to an induction center. There he’d be given a physical examination. If he passed, he would be “drafted,” that is, “inducted” and put into the army. (Here’s a great song about all that. It’s funny, but based on much grim reality.)
To get to the induction center, young men usually got on an army bus down at city hall.
Once on the bus, the riders looked around at each other: some of them were acquainted, some weren’t. Some were friends, others maybe even teenage enemies. A few might be well-off, others poor. They could be Catholics, Protestants, or atheists. White, Black, Asian, Latino, Indian. Their political views, if they had any, likely varied.
But as different as all of the young men on that bus were, they all had one thing in common (besides being male): they had all received the same letter, telling them to show up. We had been “called” together. “Selected.” Chosen.
That’s how I think of Progressive Quakers, at least the ones who stay around: our beliefs about the Bible, Jesus, even God may differ. The way we do our Quaker work probably varies. But we all “got the letter.” That is, we have a sense that the Society of Friends, among the Quakers, is where we’re called to be.
Sometimes that feels great. Sometimes it doesn’t. But feeling good isn’t the point. Following our instructions (or “leadings”) is the point.
Okay, that’s a story about something that happened several decades ago. What about today? How do you know you’ve “got the letter,” and been “called” to be a Quaker?
Q. How Do I Know If I’m Really A Quaker?
Another good question.
Well, it doesn’t come like a letter in the mail. And generally people don’t get a text message from God saying,
“U R 2 join Qkrs. LOL!”
More often it’s a process of growth, like a seed sprouting. (Jesus told more than one story comparing his work to planting seeds and watching them grow.) It can involve visiting and studying various churches, to see which one “speaks to your condition,” in Quaker terms. It can include working on various “concerns” with different groups, and reflecting on the how and the why of that, as well as the results. And there are others ways of “seeking.”
All this adds up to what we call “discernment.” And eventually, the idea is that you reach “clearness” (another Quaker term), where you just know. Sometimes that happens fast, sometimes it takes years.
You don’t have to be in a hurry. Some churches will insist you should rush to “accept Jesus,” (with the right “password theology”) because if you don’t and you suddenly die, you’ll burn in hell forever. But you won’t hear much if any of that in Progressive Quaker circles.
By now you can guess what I think of that kind of pressure.
But here’s another reason: if God didn’t want you to follow where your seeking mind and questing heart take you, why did God give them to you in the first place? So if something happens along the way, don’t worry: God “gets it.”
You’re involved in this seeking and discernment process now, of course. That’s what I hope this series is for, to be a part of it. It’s one more step on what many Friends often call your spiritual journey.
There’s a lot more you can read about this, if you want. And there are some very interesting older Quakers you can talk to about it too. Many of them have “been there and done that.”
Q. Is Progressive Quakerism Really Quaker? Or Even Christian?
(Note: some of the following material was adapted from my book, Without Apology. I believe in recycling.)
To get at this question, I need to talk about church structure and governance. The way a church is set up, the way it is governed, and what’s required to be a recognized member: all these are part of its ecclesiology.
There are many kinds of ecclesiologies: Catholics have a pope, who is like a king. Some other churches have bishops, who run it as a group. Many Baptists have conventions, big annual conferences which vote on issues like Congress.
Progressive Quakers who know their history can advocate strongly that the Quaker roots of their ecclesiological model are ancient and authentic; and they have borne witness to this when the occasion seemed to demand it.
Q. But Weren’t The First Quakers All Christians?
They certainly thought so. (Though many other “Christian” leaders sharply disagreed.) Certainly Quakerism arose in Christian history, and was organized by self-identified Christian men and women, using Christian terminology. To deny this would make no more sense than denying that George Fox and Margaret Fell were born in England.
Instead, Progressives argue that the early Quaker understanding of Christianity was qualitatively different from other models of their day. Indeed, early Friends witnessed powerfully against different, more restrictive models, which were more characteristic of the church opponents who persecuted Friends fiercely.
For that matter, Progressive Friends can argue that their model of the church originates even further back than the time of Fox–and we will come to that part of their argument presently.
Their case is bolstered by a series of statements from earlier Friends.
Q. What Did Early Quakers Say About Their New Church?
They said many things. Here are only three of numerous available quotes:
“John did bear witness to the light of Christ; the great heavenly prophet hath enlightened every man who cometh into the world withal; that they may believe in it, become the children of the light, and so have the light.”
“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask, they will know one another, though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”
“There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages has different names. It is, however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren in the best sense of the expression.”
Based on these and similar statements, I believe the Progressive Quaker view of the church is true to the best spirit of authentic original Christian Quakerism.
I am not alone in this view. And next time, as an additional key witness, we’ll call on the premier theologian of early Quakerism, Robert Barclay.
This post is adapted from the booklet, Some Quaker FAQs, by Chuck Fager.