Sunday, September 24, 2006

On Universalism--and Turks and Jews

Another blogger recently posted that Quakers were inclusive by 17th Century standards and then quoted "The George Fox
Song" as characterizing this inclusiveness.

I am hyper vigilant about what I believe is a mistaken notion of "universalism," currently embraced by many in the Liberal branch of Friends (where it has pleased God to plant me). It appears I see it in that blog post but, since this blogger may not have been expressing that notion, and I would thus be doing this Friend wrong by claiming that he did, I post here, rather than comment there. If this Friend is not expressing the sentiment that I took away from his words there are plenty of people in the Liberal wing of the Quaker Movement who do. I have been contemplating writing about this for some time now, and so am moved to now go on about it for a bit in writing (as I do verbally when the occasion arises--or when I think that it has).

It was, I believe, the Light, not necessarily the Truth, that was " the Turk and the Jew." The Holy Spirit is available to all people who come into the world, whether they know the name of Jesus or not. If anyone attends to this light, to its conviction and sanctification, then they will be transformed. Even if they hold onto the form of their religion or, to put it in more modern terms, even when they continue to organize and express their spirituality around the symbols of this or that religion of their circumstance, if they cooperate with being brought by The Light into this "right relationship" with God/The Spirit/the Transcendent Reality then they are members of the "true" or "gathered" church. There is much evidence in other spiritual traditions that similar transformation as "broke through" among Friends in the 17th Century has been at work in many times and places

This seems, from their writings, to be the conception of universalism that sent Fox, Penn and Woolman to the native peoples of North American to see if there was evidence that the Holy Spirit moved in their hearts. The three of them came back from that experience convinced that it did.

This seems to be the universalism originally conceived by Friends.

Universalism, among many in the Quaker Movement today--whether they cleave to or roll their eyes at it--seems to mean something entirely different. It seems to mean, in essence, that any religion is as good as any other religion, that there is equal Truth in all religions. This holds true even, or perhaps especially, for a spirituality centered on composite personal religions (or a total lack of religion) that have been constructed by individual modern seekers* who attend or have membership in Liberal Friends meetings.

This modern notion of universalism holds, in short, that any or all religions (except, it appears, sometimes, Christianity) lead to the same result and hold the same measure of truth as any other. I will admit that, in theory, this may be true in some sense. And I certainly do not think the doors of the meeting house should be barred to those who believe such. I do not think, though, that this is what is reflected in the faith and practice of the founding generation (and many subsequent generations) of Friends. It is not, I think, what is expressed in the lines

"There's a Light that is shining in the Turk and the Jew,
and a Light that is shining, Friend, in me and in You."

*(Seekers is another word that means something entirely different today than it did in the 17th Century and also sometimes causes modern Friends to misunderstand a phenomenon key to understanding the faith of early Friends who were not Seekers--at least not anymore--but finders.)


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

"It was, I believe, the Light, not necessarily the Truth, that was ' the Turk and the Jew.'" Indeed. And well put.

I think it's worth reminding ourselves, for the sake of balanced truthfulness, that it is also the Light, and not necessarily the Truth, that is present in christians, and in the U.S. And in Democrats, and in Republicans. And "in me and you".

Not that I am accusing you of anything, friend; I just think the self-reminder is always good practice.

quakerboy said...

Thank goodness God has seen fit to plant you in a liberal Meeting. I'm not sure what is happening, but it seems to me that there is a return to the Root of our faith in many of the liberal Meetings. God bless your efforts to point your sisters and brothers in your Meeting toward the Light which convicts us and leads us to the foot of the cross.

Anonymous said...

Meanings of words change over time--it kind of sucks. It makes it difficult to ascertain the authenticity of a concept. The meaning of "universalism" has only subtly changed over the past few hundred years.

For a much more difficult nut to crack, try classical concepts such as dignity. In Rome, dignitas was acquired by citizens by way of strenuous lifelong efforts. One's dignitas was a function of achievement, honor, reputation, and so forth in service of the state. What does human dignity mean a couple of thousand years later? Dignity has become an inborn trait of all humans--morally forbidding ill treatment of a fellow human. Part of the meaning of dignity has not changed in that time: namely, that which compels respect from others. What's changed drastically about dignity is *how* it's acquired. And while the Gauls are probably in need of a good ass-whooping about now, I prefer the contemporary notion of dignity to that of Julius Caesar.

I just wanted to illustrate that the term "universalism" is not unique insofar as having undergone change in meaning. The change in meaning of a word doesn't necessarily invalidate the definition that one doesn't care for. For example, imagine that the meaning of the term "universalism" had changed in a direction that we favor rather than the other way around. Just like dignity--instead of lamenting the corruption of the original meaning, we believe that our culture has progressed and our notion of dignity has become much more refined and noble as a result of the change. Has a term's meaning been refined? Or has it been attenuated? It depends on whether or not you approve of the newer meaning.

Yes, the newer notion of universalism stinks. But it doesn't stink because it's newer or because Woolman didn't see it that way. Why is the older meaning better? What is the harm of the new meaning? How do we convince people of that without simply appealing to tradition and authority. I have a pretty strong hunch that the line of reasoning such that "because that's what our leaders have always said it means" probably won't be too persuasive among liberal quakers.