A Place to Stand

I have been a member of North Carolina Yearly Meeting conservative for over twenty years. I am currently the clerk of our small Monthly Meeting. I am a recorded elder and presently serve as the Recording Clerk of our Yearly Meeting's Ministers, Elders and Overseers. My name has been put forward to be the next clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting Conservative. By trade I am a philosophy professor.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Language Barriers

I came of age in the 60’s and at that time the influx of religious ideas from Asia, particularly Hindu and Buddhist teachings was very stimulating to my imagination. Since that time Americans have been increasingly exposed to religious traditions other than Christianity. There are in our meetings many Friends who have picked up concepts and language that originated in India or China and use these along with or even in place of Christian language. There are even those who consider themselves Buddhist-Quakers or Taoist-Quakers. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

This question arouses considerable feeling among Friends and at times tempers have flared. In my opinion the matter calls for serious discernment. The view of those who see problems in our being too open to other religious traditions needs to be seriously considered as does the view of those who feel that any criticism of hyphenated Quakers is a betrayal of the our courage to be open to continuing revelation. It will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of these essays to discover that I think both sides are basically correct.

Both sides see themselves as being the true followers of Quaker tradition in this matter but arguments based on what earlier generations of Quakers thought are of little weight here. In the first place Fox, Barclay and Penn were living in a different world. The nonchristians they met, Jews and Native Americans, weren’t asking to be admitted to membership in the Society of Friends. So it is an issue they never had to face. There is no clear precedent to be cited. Secondly, the question is before us now. God is as much present in the world today as he was in the 17th century. It seems to me that we can repose more faith in God that he will lead us truly in this matter than we could in some murky precedent.

There is a real problem that could arise for meetings if they were to be flooded with hyphenated Quakers of many different varieties. The problem is not that the character of the meeting would change; the problem is that the meeting could lose all character and become a Tower of Babel. The reason we form religious societies is because in unity there is strength. In seeking to know God’s will for me and faithfully follow it I profit enormously from the help of other Friends, especially those of long and deep experience. To ask for and receive that help Friends must speak a common language. Christianity and Buddhism are like different languages. For a Christian Friend and a Buddhist Friend to help each other discern the shape and texture of a leading requires a lot of careful listening. And there is no doubt in my mind that such listening, not easy under the best of circumstances, is made more difficult by language barriers. It is easy to imagine a meeting full of Quakers speaking in many different spiritual languages being overwhelmed. The effort to deeply listen and offer mutual correction might prove too difficult and a tepid “I’m OK; You’re OK” relativism prevail in which individuals are indeed free to be whatever they want to be, but where all effort at communal discernment of Truth had vanished.

It is easy to imagine that happening and for all I know it may actually be happening in some meetings, but fear of this outcome should not lead us to close our hearts to those whose languages are strange to us. I recently participated in a clearness committee for a hyphenated Quaker. Those of us on the committee are all Christians. The Quaker we were trying to help is primarily fed by Native American spiritual tradition. The problem of different spiritual languages arose but did not pose an insurmountable barrier. The Friend in question respects Christianity and has made real efforts to learn Christianity as a second language. For our part the Christians on the committee made similar efforts. We had to proceed more slowly, give more thought to our choice of words, and especially to listen more deeply with longer periods of silent waiting. But God’s Spirit was over us that evening and Truth prospered.

For the continuing miracle of corporate discernment of Truth we must be able to speak to each other of spiritual things. It is easiest to do this if there is a strong core of weighty Friends in the meeting who speak a common language. But if there is such a core it has no need to fear the addition of newcomers who speak other languages. It takes additional effort to weave them fully into our community without destroying the sometimes fragile unity we have created, but everyone who is sincerely seeking to follow God’s will should be welcome among us.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Hyphenated Quakers

Buddhist-Quakers, Wiccan-Quakers, Jewish-Quakers, what sort of religion has this become? Along with these Native American spirituality, Taoism, Sufism, Zen, Feng Sui and a host of other ideas alien to the Christian tradition are now part of the reality of what the Religious Society of Friends has become. There is no question that this is something very different from the Quakerism of George Fox and John Woolman. The question before us is: what to do about it?

Quakers like to think of themselves as unique and in important ways we are, but we are really less different from other American churches on this point than we think. The world has been getting smaller and lines of communication have been opening wider and wider between the various cultures of the world. Not only are there books on these nonchristian religious traditions available in your local bookstore, but it is all over the internet and large numbers of Asians have moved to the United States and are our neighbors and coworkers. It is not just Quakers who are exposed to these ideas, it is every American.

This massive exposure insures that a significant minority of Americans will adopt some of these ideas. The virtual monopoly of Christian theology on the religious ideas of Western civilization is at an end. Quakers notice this trend affecting our meetings. In fact, however, it is affecting virtually every church in America. Quakers are different only in that the phenomenon is much more visible in our meetings, and especially in the unprogrammed meetings. But the same thing is going on less visibly in mainstream Christian churches. It is hidden from view because of the hierarchical structure of normal Christian churches. In those churches a pastor preaches and the laity listens. There is very little actual two-way conversation and the preacher’s opinions are tacitly taken by everyone to be more or less “official.” So, most of us just assume that the people in the pews all believe more or less the same things that the church officially teaches. But in reality many of them do not.

When sociologists dig below the surface and try to find out what the people in the pews really believe the results are fairly surprising. Some traditional Christian doctrines are no longer widely believed and significant minorities are coming to believe in Eastern ideas like reincarnation. But the continuing existence of priests, bishops and creeds prevents these views from being openly expressed in normal churches. Quakers don’t have the heavy layer of human authority to suppress these views. As a result we are much more likely to hear what people are actually thinking. Moreover, our tradition of tolerance probably attracts a higher percentage of nonconformists to our meetings. But I can assure Friends that there are plenty of hyphenated Episcopaleans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, and even Baptists out there. It’s just that most of them are in the closet.

Once we recognize what is happening and that it is not unique to Quakerism we can start to think seriously about what to do about it. But, as that is a very big topic, I will leave it for another day.

Friday, June 08, 2007


For the past ten years I’ve coached the chess team at one of our local high schools. Devoting one afternoon and one evening per week to coaching chess is not something that makes much sense on the face of it. It takes a considerable amount of time and energy that could more rationally be devoted to advancing my career and besides I’m not that great a chess player. So why am I doing this? The answer is that a couple of “coincidences” occurred that pointed quite explicitly in this direction. I knew I was being lead in this direction.

But leadings usually don’t clarify themselves for us all at once. At first I thought that this must be about getting the kids to work hard and develop discipline and intelligence through chess. I threw myself into it with elaborate plans for chess training regimens. It was frustrating when I realized I often couldn’t keep them focused on chess very long and that they were more interested in laughing and fooling around. It became obvious that we were not going to be tremendously successful at chess. I'm a type A personality and I hate losing. This was hard for me but I forced myself to relax and accept the situation. So, by and large, we talked less about chess and more about other things: their girlfriends or lack thereof, their problems with school, drug use, all the things that occupy the teenage mind. I learned to listen to them and offer advice. At first it seemed me that they never took my advice seriously. They seemed to just laugh it off and continue to do or not do whatever it was they were doing. Since they weren’t my own kids, this didn’t upset me. But it didn’t exactly make me feel useful or successful.

More than once I thought of packing it in and doing something else with my Tuesday afternoons and Thursday evenings. But since I knew I was clearly being led to do this I plodded on despite not seeing any positive results. But faith requires continuing to be faithful during times when you can’t see. Like Abraham when the Lord says go, you go. If you keep the faith eventually you do get to see at least in part.

Here is one story—or rather two. Ollie (not his real name) had been an honors student for his first two years in high school but this year was a disaster. He found he couldn’t concentrate and in the middle of the term was failing all his classes. Over the weeks we talked about this and tried to figure out what was going on. Eventually he told me about his girlfriend--Sally. Sally had been abandoned by her drug-addicted mother to be cared for by a succession of other relatives who didn’t really want her. She’s an intelligent and sensitive girl who has been damaged by an environment of drugs, abandonment and sexual abuse. I began to see that this relationship was Ollie’s problem. I took lifeguard training when I was a teenager and one part of the training stuck with me. A drowning person is often so desperate and so strong that they will push the rescuer under in their violent struggle to survive. When this happens the rescuer must pull away and get some air before even thinking about continuing the rescue. So I advised him to pull away. Remain friends with Sally but stop dating. I reminded him that he was only 16 years old and in my opinion he wasn’t strong enough to save her. This was not welcome advice but after about a month he did as I suggested. I’ve been getting regular reports since then.

School is out for the year but I ran into Ollie in the local coffeehouse last night. He managed to pass all his classes by acing his final exams. We talked a bit then he went over to talk to with a group of his friends. He will be alright I think. I do still worry about Sally. But Ollie is still in touch with her and thinks she is OK for now. He says she desperately wants to finish high school, go to college and leave this town and never come back. Obviously I haven’t seen everything. I don’t know how either of these stories will ultimately play out. But I’ve been shown enough for today.