Sunday, November 19, 2006

what's in a name?

As so often happens, I started to comment on a post in an another blog and found I had more to say than is appropriate for a comment.

The following was inspired by the discussion at: quakeroatslive.blogspot.com (what's in a name?)

It is a discussion about what it is, if anything, that all Friends have in common. This is a disucssion that happens where ever I go in the Society of Friends and it's a good one to have.

I agree with the discussion there; both that definitons can turn into idols and that the lack of definition saps meaning. I also agree that much of what was extracted from Cooper, quoted there, mixes outcomes from that which animates those outcomes.

I have come, for myself, to the place where I think that what is basic to "Quakerism" is living with the the two seeds and in the power that causes one to grow and the other to wither. The Light, the Voice, the Spirit, the Word--It moves toward us and we are moved toward it--unevenly, with the ability and free will to turn away ("crucify") from it. It will show us what is to be done (crucify our "selves") and give us the power to do it, if we are faithful, obedient to it's movements. This work conforms us to that Spirit and evidence of this transformation is the manifestation, in our lives, of the fruits of the spirit (Galations 5:23-24).

From what I have read, from talking to people in the Society, that's where I have the experience of unity with the largest number of Friends.

Sometimes I head off into the weeds, in the eyes of some, when I go on to restate these fruits as the five testimonies around which we "Liberals" sometimes organize our theology (harmony, integrity, simplicity, equality and community) and that there are other lists--from other spiritual traditions--that offer the same test of the work of transformation done by this same Spirit, available to all people, everywhere, at all times (John 1, if some verses would be helpful). I can head a lot farther into the weeds, from here, but I digress--and move away from this broad brush unity (which I freely admit and acknowledge is not really universally acceptable to all who would call themselves Friends).

In legislative work it is often said that "the devil is in the details," meaning that broad agreements are often difficult things from which to work toward specific applications because people who can agree on ends will conflict over means.

I am fond of pointing out that it is God that is actually in those details, for when unity is found it is not the product of the Enemy but, rather, of the work of the Word in people's lives--it is a fruit, indeed, of the Spirit.

What has moved the discussion of what we have in common forward, for me, is to look at it from the other end: What is it that divides us?

I have spent quite a bit of time, lately, reading about the divisions and separations that worked on the Society beginning around the turn of the 19th Century. I say it that way because my reading in (and about) the work of that first generation of Friends tells me that all of the sources of division--both spiritual and doctrinal--were already present among that group that came together in the middle of the 17th Century. They had both the personality traits and the diversity of beliefs that all of us have today and that Friends have been led by and carried with them through the separations.

It is of importance to me that all of us in the Society--from the most EFI to the most Beanite and beyond--can look through the literature of the founding generation and find justification for our points of view. That is, I think, how it is that Friends could separate and divide while believing that they were the real Quakers, here, and that those from whom they separated--or were separated--were not.

So, even though all through all the divisions and the separations Friends could find "themselves" in the doctrinal watershed of the original Quaker Movement they also stand convicted of ignoring that those with whom they (and we) disagree can also find themselves in that same watershed. Friends who went through the separations, as each and every one of us do today, hold beliefs and operate in clear contradiction of, in some measure, what is found in that watershed.

That is not a revelation, although what flows from it is so often ignored. What is striking to me is that the spirit that held together the founding generation holding these diverse and conflicting beliefs utterly failed later generations of Friends and too often fails us today.

I want to focus on the fact that the divisions and the separations were accompanied by a retreat from the spiritual "position" that kept the Society from (major) separations for more about 150 years. This retreat is illustrated by the spirit that animated George Kieth, during that founding period. What happend in regard to this American Friend who was disowned by Philadelphia Yearly meeting and, rejected by English Friends, may have been one of the earliest manifestations of what would be so destructive to the unity of the Society as time went on. English Friends, hearing his critique, commented, according to Braithwaite (Second Period, p. 483), that it was more man's "spirit" than his beliefs that caused them to turn away from what he had to say.

One English Friend wrote of him: "...yet himself far from making him a lively example in meekness and humility. Friends have had many private meetings with him, and by them all I don't find great hopes of his coming more near us in spirit."

Coming more near us in spirit...not an example of meekness and humility...

Along with that, I am struck, as I look at how the later divisions came about and how they continue, by two quotations. One is from William Penn, in that old timey Quaker "FAQ" form:

"Question: But if I do not presently see that service in a thing that the rest of my brethren [sic] agree in? In this case what is my duty, and theirs?

"Answer. It is thy duty to wait upon God in silence and in patience, and as thou abide in the simplicity of Truth thou wilt receive an understanding with the rest of thy brethren [sic] about the thing doubted. And it is their duty, whilst thou behavest thyself in meekness, to bear with thee, and carry themselves tenderly and lovingly towards thee.

"True Spiritual Liberty," William Penn, 1681
(condensed by Lewis Benson), Tract Association of Friends


The second quotation that bears on this, for me, is from an eyewitness to and "survivor" of the pain and the heartache generated by one of the major divisions.

"“And now, as I write this, after years of reflection and observation of the effect of promulgating opinions and doctrines not essential in themselves, especially on the mission of Christ in that prepared body, I am confirmed in the belief that it tends to unprofitable discussion and controversy, and often to alienation of love for one another…Had love of God abounded in the heart, it would have been seen that obedience to Him [sic] in all things was the plan of salvation ordained by Him from the foundation of the world, and we should then have remained a united people of great influence in gathering the nations to the peaceable kingdom of Him who was ushered into the world with the anthem, “Glory to God in the heist, and on earth peace, good-will to men!”

Rachel Hicks
“Memoir”
(New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1880), p 39

I have seen so much of the "unruly spirit" (and its fruit of the lack of meekness and humility) by which George Kieth was apparently led in the writings of those who were the principles of the separations and divisions (and in myself). It stings to read it, let alone, I imagine, to have it said to or about oneself.

I have no doubt that the anguish that seeps out of the words of Friend Hicks' rememberances is the work of just such an unruly spirit, and that its damaging fruit might well have been ameliorated by the practice that Friend Penn suggests as the response to contention and disagreement.

I don't know, exactly, what all this means, quite yet. But I am working on it. I do know, however, that when I think about what is "Quakerism" and what is not "Quakerism" this is what I think about, anymore. And I think about how this unruly spirit has manifested itself in me, over the years, and how, in being turned by it from meekness and humility, I have contributed to division and separation both within the Society and outside it.

Perhaps this all comes down to saying that it is the Spirit that produces meekness and humility that should all seek, rather than any particular "Lo, here! Lo, there" that seems to be so important to us that we remove ourselves from the guidance of that Spirit and under the control of another whose fruits are contention and strife.

Or, perhaps, the returns are not in from all the outlaying precincts, quite yet, and all of this will mean something more to me as time goes on.

Right now it seems edifying for me to look at what power, what spirit, has us separated, and how we can move out from under that power, and find a Spirit from whom to take direction that will unify us in its likeness. And not just unifies us within the Society, but which unifies us with all of those who live in the commUnity of the "unseen church" and with all waiting to be brought in to it.

It is not unity for its own sake, of course, unless "unity" is to be used like Light, Spirit, Word, Love, Life as a metaphor for God. It is unity for the sake of reconcilliation and coming into right relationship with one another. For that is only possible as a fruit of right relationship with God and the Creation.

Harmony.

2 comments:

cherice said...

Thanks for this post! I really appreciate your take on this issue--we can't think about what unites us until we understand what divides us, and out of that we can work toward unity and reconciliation again. I agree that it is so often an "unruly spirit" in us that causes division. The hard part is that not everyone recognizes this as an unruly spirit, and some see it as the Spirit instead. So how do we know, as a Society, when we're following the Spirit? We might think we know, but how can we be sure we're not being enticed by an unruly spirit instead? I think your answer to that is excellent as well--does the s/Spirit we're following lead us to humility and meekness, to listening and waiting and openness to God's leading? If not, we're probably following a divisive spirit. If so, let us wait and hear what the Spirit has to say to us as a body.

If only we could do this all together, as Friends, and give it the time and trust to truly hear what the Spirit is calling us to together! It seems hypocritical that we talk about peace and yet have so much division in our tiny denomination. I think God desires us to be in unity, and I hope and pray that this unity may happen in our generation.

Thanks to Friend Marshall for pointing out this post to me!

~Cherice

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

Dear Timothy, this was another wonderful post! I appreciated your Veteran's Day posting too, was deeply moved by it, but not led to comment on it at the time. Here I feel led to comment, a little.

Neither of the two points I am going to offer by way of comment is a disagreement with what I hear you saying; both are amplifications, offered in hopes they might be useful.

First point. You write, "In legislative work it is often said that 'the devil is in the details,' meaning that broad agreements are often difficult things from which to work toward specific applications because people who can agree on ends will conflict over means.

"I am fond of pointing out that it is God that is actually in those details, for when unity is found it is not the product of the Enemy but, rather, of the work of the Word in people's lives...."


And I quite agree. Both God and the devil are in the details, warring over how we will act as we work toward broad goals that can prove either good fruit or bad --

William Blake once wrote, famously:
"He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars:
General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite & flatterer...
Establishment of Truth depends on destruction of Falsehood continually,
On Circumcision, not on Virginity, O Reasoners of Albion!"


Thus, as individuals, we struggle for our own faithfulness to the guidance of the Spirit, and ultimately our own salvation, one Minute Particular at a time. Or so I think Blake was saying, and so I myself believe.

I hear you reminding us that, as a group, we are called to go further, and -- as you say -- unite in what we do. A good reminder! I merely hope that we can remember that true unity is something done one Minute Particular at a time, and that the doing of it depends on that Circumcision that Blake referred to, that Circumcision which (as George Fox reminded Margaret Fell in the speech by which she was reached and convinced) is an Inward, not Outward Circumcision.

Second point. You write, "...All of us in the Society--from the most EFI to the most Beanite and beyond--can look through the literature of the founding generation and find justification for our points of view. That is, I think, how it is that Friends could separate and divide while believing that they were the real Quakers, here, and that those from whom they separated--or were separated--were not.

"So, even though all through all the divisions and the separations Friends could find 'themselves' in the doctrinal watershed of the original Quaker Movement they also stand convicted of ignoring that those with whom they (and we) disagree can also find themselves in that same watershed."


There is a problem here, I think, in the way we choose to listen to the founding two generations (the first being that of Fox and the Valiant Sixty, and the second, that of Barclay and Penn). And that problem is that we read them looking for confirmation of our own views, rather than trying to understand what they themselves were trying to communicate. EFI Friends, looking for confirmation of their own views, turn the early Friends into people like Billy Graham, while liberal unprogrammed Friends, looking for confirmation of theirs, turn them into people like Martin Luther King, Jr.

I would say: We cannot succeed in being Friends unless we first learn how to be true listeners -- true listeners to what early Friends were actually saying, and, again, true listeners in that same manner to what God is actually saying (which, again, is not just confirmation of our own views), and, again, true listeners in the same manner to one another. One Minute Particular at a time!

I think that my efforts to learn how to practice that sort of true listening have helped me, personally, to come a little nearer that spirit of meekness and humility that you are talking about. I hope I am not deceiving myself in this!