Spirit Rising – A Review In Installments – Part 2: Convergent Friends, Unequal Yokes & All That Jazz

[Note: Part I of this review is here.]

Two pieces in “Spirit Rising deal with the phenomenon known as “Convergent Friends,” a loose network of people, mostly younger than fifty, talking across various traditional divisional lines: “Convergent Friends as New Jazz Traditionalists,” by Chad Stephenson of San Francisco Meeting; and “Convergent Friendship and Playing with the Quaker ‘Other’” by C. Wess Daniels, pastor of Camas Friends Church in Northwest Yearly Meeting.

Stephenson’s piece draws an elaborate set of parallels between the convergents and “New Jazz,” epitomized in the career of virtuoso jazz trumpeter and innovator Wynton Marsalis.

Stephenson describes Marsalis’s career as one which has combined the best of many older traditions in jazz, and even some music from outside jazz (i.e., classical trumpet pieces) with new ideas of his own to lead a renewal of jazz after a period of serious decline, reinvigorating its creative vitality and rebuilding its audience.

(Not being a jazz fan, I can’t judge this account, and will stipulate to Stephenson’s version.)
Wynton Marsalis

Wynton Marsalis

Then Stephenson sketches his analogy:

“Convergent Friends are being offered a chance to bring alive the variances of Quaker faith through correlation of he roots of its past. By knowing one another’s faith traditions and seeing common roots, convergent Friends can build a web of support to nurture a future together.”

One hopes he is right. But I detect a lapse, a lacuna, in the analogy: the convergent discussions are happening – but where is our Wynton Marsalis, the commanding virtuoso of this projected renewal?

Says Stephenson:

“Marsalis offers Quakers a model for evangelism that is unique. He demonstrated that a revival an occur through mastering the roots of tradition with rigorous study, practice, cultivation, and showcasing new talent alongside weightier members of the community.” The obvious internal model for this is George Fox; but as Stephenson asks, where is the “one person who so embodies the Spirit that encapsulates Quakerism’s core, where disparate groups can unite?”

Where indeed? One can be hopeful about the “convergent” conversations, but if there is a Quaker Wynton Marsalis emerging therefrom, I have yet to learn about him/her. The vacuum for this person to fill, in my view, yawns widest in the matter of the “mastering the roots” and history to be plumbed and renewed. Current US Quaker culture, certainly on the liberal side, is deeply, doggedly ignorant of Quaker history and “roots,” and in my experience, often proudly anti-intellectual about both, as described here. There are parallel trends in much of the pastoral, I’m-a-Christian-first-and-foremost-then-a-Quaker-if-I-have-time “Friends church” population.

BTW this embedded ignorance is no respecter of age or region, so this barb is not aimed at the “convergents” more than anyone else; it is an equal opportunity Quaker scandal.

The convergent discussions I’ve observed so far (mainly online) have been modestly interesting. But they don’t yet seem to be yielding many signs of this deep engagement. Which is no surprise; it’s hard work, as I’m sure Marsalis could show from his own career.

Maybe the Quaker Marsalis is out there, and either hasn’t yet made a breakout debut –or has, but news has not yet reached our obscure corner of Carolina. Either way, I hope we’ll soon see unmistakable evidence. Extended chatter, especially online, is easy to proliferate, but is no substitute for substance.

C. Wess Daniels, besides being a pastor, is also a grad student at Fuller Theological Seminary, which as I recall is the largest evangelical seminary in the US. It is also thoroughly missionary-evangelism oriented.

Fuller Theological Seminary

In his “Convergent Friendship and Playing with the Quaker ‘Other’,” this academic effort provides the background and framework, and not always to best advantage.
Fuller:

Daniels starts well, repeating three of “the biggest questions asked of convergent Friends,” which are:

1. Are you telling me we need to subscribe to a lowest-common-denominator faith so that we can get along with Friends of other branches?
2. Why would we want to dialogue with them? We’ve got no interest in that form of Quakerism, their beliefs and practices.
3. “Should we be unequally yoked with people who don’t believe what we believe?

C. Wess Daniels
C. Wess Daniels

 

Number two is the easiest to dispose of: If one has no interest in talking to other kinds of Friends, then don’t do it. End of discussion; just get out of the way of those who have.

Number three is more meaty. Daniels says it is “one of the most popular questions I hear time and again . . . .” and I don’t doubt it.

Still, the third query highlights the evangelical background from which Daniels is writing, and which shapes his piece. For it is a question more likely to be asked by evangelicals, to a “straying” evangelical like him. I mean, in forty-plus years among liberal Friends, I can say confidently I have never heard one of them complain about being “unequally yoked” with another group. We don’t talk that way.

Same goes for the antipathy to a “lowest-common-denominator faith” in query one; that’s an evangelical cavil. It’s the liberals who are constantly on the hunt for just such points of “commonality,” or, as they wistfully put it, “unity” among the various Quaker branches. And no interest? In the numerous inter-branch events I’ve attended, the liberal, “unity-seeking” contingent was always the largest.

I don’t say all this either to praise liberal Friends or complain about evangelicals; we’re just getting clear about the context for Daniels’ foray into “convergence.” Much of his essay is an apologia aimed at his parent bodies, in defense of his suspect visits among the heathen “other.”

In mounting his defense, Daniels makes two moves: one academic and one theological. The academic move speaks, as apparently it must, of “modernity” and the “Enlightenment.”

(Raise your hand if you’re getting tired of hearing these two terms . . .

Modernity the Enlightenment

. . . yeah, I thought so; but evidently it’s still de rigeur in academic circles.)

Theologically, he turns to the Mennonite John Howard Yoder. We’ll get to Yoder in a moment.

“The Enlightenment is built upon the foundation of individual reason,” he writes, “as opposed to and over against the authority of tradition.” The Enlightenment, he argues, wants to make us all the same, and that’s where the lowest-common-denominator faith impulse comes from. “This has had tremendous, and often negative, implications for the church.”

Maybe so, and maybe not. I’ve waded through a lot of more or less scholarly takedowns of the Enlightenment and its supposedly baleful impact on the world, and have come out with a rather cynical view on all that.

The tropes about it favoring individual reason and opposing “authority” and “tradition” are key. An awful lot of the anti-Enlightenment writing I’ve seen has come from advocates of various forms of churchly “authority” and “tradition” who feel they have been deprived of (dethroned from?) their “rightful” place of pre-eminence in society, the academy, and their church turf. (Which in many cases, they have been, and thank god for that!) Makes you wonder if they’re not protesting too much.

No it doesn’t: whether acknowledged or not, much such advocacy has an unmistakable agenda, the establishment, or re-establishment, of such churchly “authority” over the unruly and unwashed hordes now at the mercy of “individual reason” and Enlightenment notions.

    Christ the King: not Just a pretty picture: A Political agenda
Not just a pretty pastel picture: a potent political program

 

This is, of course, oversimplified, but not without evidence. I grew up within the confines of one such bastion of tradition (pre-Vatican II Catholicism), and had a bellyful of advocacy for the kind of “authoritative” church culture which has produced, say, the bottomlessly evil scandal of priestly pedophilia and its hierarchical coverups. So while Enlightenment values (e.g., “freedom,” and “human rights”) have their flaws, I’ve taken my stand with its renegades against the forces of such authoritative traditions – and I suggest that this attitude is basic to the liberal Quaker enterprise.

With this different take in mind, we can return to Question #3, with which Daniels has been hectored about whether evangelicals should be “unequally yoked” with others who have different beliefs. The phrase is an allusion to Paul in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers . . . .”

It’s worth filling in the rest of that verse, to get the full flavor of what he’s up against: “for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?”

Or as the Worldwide English version more bluntly puts it: “How can Christ agree with Belial, the devil? How can a person who believes work with a person who does not believe?”

That clarifies the matter usefully: in venturing out among liberal Friends, Daniels is not just fooling around; he’s consorting with the devil.

Jesus vs. Demon
“Get thee behind me, Liberal!”

 

Nor is this merely an outmoded notion from the Bible. The head of Northwest Yearly Meeting’s predecessor body, one Edward Mott, used it in 1929 to demolish a campaign for Quaker ecumenism, with words that ring unmistakably down the decades:

“The attempt,” he thundered, “to fellowship and work with unbelievers” [which is what he considered the other groups of Friends to be]“spells death. Any conclusion to the contrary is ruinous to all concerned.”

Just to be clear. Mott’s spirit still hovers over many evangelical Friends bodies, as Daniels testifies. Thus to be among them, yet open to being “unequally yoked,” (i.e., consorting with Satan) by dealing with liberal Friends, becomes more than a personal or even an institutional matter: it raises a theological challenge to Mott and his descendants. The received doctrine is undermined by such ventures, and if they continue, it will be changed by them. I would say it will be overthrown; but we shall see about that.

Daniels makes his theological defense by way of John Howard Yoder. From one angle this is positive, because Yoder is about as good as it gets in this area. But from another it’s still not good enough, at least for me.

The problem is that Yoder, while a broad-minded and irenic Christian triumphalist, is still a triumphalist – at least as summarized here. Yoder, Daniels writes, “was a huge proponent of ecumenism, but of a particular kind. He believed that by being a faithful Mennonite, he had no choice but to work with the rest of the church. (Emphasis added.) He quotes Yoder’s contention that “Christian unity” was a biblical command: “’Christian unity is not to be created but to be obeyed.’” Daniels adds that such efforts are part of the work of “A Church in Mission” (his italics) as part of the effort to “give away the gift of the gospel.”

John Howard Yoder
John Howard Yoder

 

And here we rub up against a big piece of unfinished business for the “convergent” network, or at least the evangelical chunks of it. Because much of the liberal end of the Society of Friends rejects this triumphalist Christian framework, and does not come to the table to be part of an internal “Christian church” reform agenda. (Or it does so, as in the impending Wichita YAF conference, either in ignorance or under duress. Cf. Liberal Emily Stewart’s comments in this same volume about the 2008 YAF event.)

The point here is that if inter-branch work in the Religious Society of Friends today is to be authentic, it will not be “ecumenical,” but “interfaith,” or even “inter-religious.” Many from the liberal end will be rightly suspicious of contacts that, when the wrapper is peeled back, turn out to be repackaged missionary programs.

As an answer to the charge of being “unequally yoked,” the suggestion that interfaith Quaker discussions are really just a better form of missionary work may persuade some Evangelical poohbahs (tho I doubt it), but it falls sort of the authenticity needed for the overall process to bear fruit.

It says to liberals, in effect, “you’re spawn of satan, but we’ll talk to you, in hopes we can thereby convert you and reclaim you from being spawn of satan.” This may make for more apparently [small “f”] friendly conversation, but still doesn’t cut it.

A better answer would also be a braver one: Liberal Friends are not spawn of Satan, but children of God, and it is not being “unequally yoked” to meet them on an equal, respectful footing, ready to learn as much as share. Such an equal meeting does not require abandoning one’s Christian identity. The Jesus who told the story of the Good Samaritan, assured us that his father’s house had many rooms, and described a judgment based on service to the least of these rather than doctrine – that Jesus will understand.

I think Daniels understands this, or most of it, even though it does not show clearly in this essay. But much of the rest of his parent body may not. To the extent that it doesn’t, it is also not yet ready for serious inter-branch conversations, convergent or otherwise. (And the record will show that US Evangelical Friends have typically been few in number at inter-branch gatherings organized by, say, the FWCC.)

So I suggest that this piece by Daniels is best understood as a contribution to the beginning of a debate within his home constituency. I wish him fortitude; it will likely be a lengthy and difficult one.

Postscript:
Another well-known Christian interfaith actor put my main point here somewhat differently, but with considerable force that caught my attention:

“What is required . . . is reverence for the other’s belief, along with the willingness to seek truth in what I find alien—a truth that concerns me and that can correct me and lead me further. What is required is the willingness to look behind what may appear strange in order to find the deeper reality it conceals. I must also be willing to let my narrow understanding of truth be broken open, to learn my own beliefs better by understanding the other, and in this way to let myself be furthered on the path to God, who is greater—in the certainty that I never wholly possess the truth about God and am always a learner before it, a pilgrim whose way to it is never at an end.”

I can hardly believe it, and God help me, but this is a quote from the Pope.

“Interreligious Dialogue and Jewish-Christian Relations” 25, no. 1 (1998): 29-41.

2 thoughts on “Spirit Rising – A Review In Installments – Part 2: Convergent Friends, Unequal Yokes & All That Jazz”

  1. While I have visited a farm where a liberal Quaker economist raised draft horses and sold some to Amish neighbors, I think you are right that the term ‘unequally yoked’ probably feels archaic to many eastern liberal Friends. It may however be an appropriate analogy for part of the issue in some united YMs about their role as members of FUM.

  2. One small quibble here.
    You seem to be making a case for convergence as a real issue and I’m just not sure about that.
    “The liberal end of the society of friends rejects the triumphalist christian framework’, I guess you mean quakers vs. friends church.
    I don’t think I’ve seen much except a certain benign indifference.
    I think if I were to make a Venn diagram of the situation [in] the liberal meetings, by which I mean the conservative ideas of quakerism (oh god sorry) ahem. I think the silent meetings can easily admit christians of whatever stripe as long as they behave themselves with —what? Dignity? Humility? Leaving the young’uns alone, etc.
    While that might not be true for the friends churches—-doesn’t it take two to tango?
    Sadly, the christian types always seem to get their knickers in a knot about their stuff.

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