Monday, February 23, 2009

Why do some Quakers hate to talk about sin?

I cannot remember the last time I heard a Friend in my Yearly Meeting talk about sin except to say we don't talk about it or should not talk about it.

I have been thinking through a lot of things in light of a recent opening that the thrust of the Quaker movement was originally pretty much a rejection of Protestantism, and that the fragmenting of the movement--which began almost at the beginning and eventually undermined the Society of Friends by dividing it into separate domains --amounts to a re-introduction and acceptance the Protestant norms among Friends.

Quickly added, Friends (and everyone else) can certainly hold to Protestant thinking if they so choose--Protestantism and those who organize and conform their spiritual lives around its ideas are certainly within the ambit of the radical inclusiveness I am wont to talk up. I just find that confused thinking and action results, at times, when people are not clear about what that means.

If one says that someone's sins are forgiven that usually means that past wrong doings are laid to one side and no longer count against one. There may be outcomes from these which cannot be changed but when Jesus as advocate argues our case for everlasting life he will not have to address those charges. This comes from a Protestant belief in the nature of people--we are flawed by The Fall and we are pretty much doomed to fall short on things and, even though grace will, once in a while, allow us to come through in a good way, that's how it's going to be. Atonement and a lot of other bed-rock "fundamentals" of Protestant Christianity are based on this notion of people as hopeless wretches--only an undeserving elect of whom are going to do well in the end.

Our sins, then, are a body of deeds and we have no hope that we can stop amassing them.

George Fox--at least the early George Fox--and the likes of Penington and Naylor did not talk about sin in this way, at least not exclusively. They saw sin, rather, as the states of mind (conditions) (conditioning?) that give rise to the acts (of evil) that most people call, today, "sins."

One cannot do anything about past acts, but one can certainly do something about the continuing states of mind where those acts orginate. See, for example, Fox's Epistle #10. It's about escaping sin--not giving into "addicitions." Also, see the quotation from Penington at the top of this blog. They talked up that we can overcome sin in a way that would make Calvin spin (and did make English magistrates confiscate property).

Quakers were very much about a process of transformation that put an end to the evil deeds through a spiritual transformation that took, for example, away the occasion for all wars. This meant that people's states of mind would not include, any longer, that which moved them to war.

This drove the Protestant authorities nuts just to hear. People are too depraved for this kind of "progress," in the Protestant ideology.

And I think that's why it drives Liberal Friends nuts, today, to talk about sin: we tend to see it in the Protestant way instead of the Quaker way--the classical Quaker way. Not enough of us understand the difference to use that difference in a constructive and liberating way.

Liberal Friends, me among them, don't like the idea that we are are all worthless, helpless, hopeless spiritual worms condemned to doing evil with no hope of doing better this side of the grave. And we don't think it's helpful to constantly put ourselves down or to turn ourselves over to those authorities who cannot help but try to manipulate us into doing what they want us to do even though we know it's wrong and contrary to the openings Christ gives us and every other person on earth. Some of us seem to think that's vision of people as bumbling evil-doers is "Christian" but actually it's "Protestant."

Of course, Liberal Friends I know are not so big as Penington (see, again, above) was on "Quakerism" as a pursuit of transformation. Far too many of us are pretty darned self-satisfied and believe that the only transformation that needs to happen is that others need to vote for liberal Democrats, recycle more and listen to NPR. Oh, and lately, drive a Toyota Pious cheerfully across the earth in a socially responsible way that looks out for that of God in everyone.

Liberal Friends, I think, could benefit by thinking about the idea of sin as states of mind, rather than actions, because I think that leads to the conclusion that the eradication of these states of mind is not complete in us and we are supposed to be doing something about that.

I feel great sorrow, sometimes, when I hear Friends--myself included--speaking from greed or anger or lust or sloth or covetedness or pride (which did I leave out? It's a quiz! Can we even name--let along confront--the Seven Deadlies?) with no apparent sense that something is going on that needs to be changed.

Sometimes we look back at the 17th Century and are tempted to think that there was just some big misunderstanding and that's why Mary Dyer was hanged by the Protestants in Boston. But that's not true. Quaker ideas and practices threatened the foundation of the Protestant society from which it sprang. Only when Barclay and others gave the movement a firm shove back toward Protestantism did they allow us to affirm--rather than swear--in our quaint little way. Barclay assured people, for example that the Spirit would never contradict the Bible (and the Protestants heard him say the Spirit would never contradict their notion of what the Bible said or that it was truly the "word of God.")

But there is a huge leap from "Christ has come to teach his people himself" to "the mission of the Holy Spirit is to help us correctly understand scripture." Huge.

Quakers did not start out as Protestants--at least the brightest lights of movement did not. By 50 years later, of course, the cross currents were pulling many back to that shore. Those who wish to reside on that shore are welcome to do so. I live, in this regard, by Gamaliel's wisdom. But I think Liberal Friends could benefit it teasing out the difference between Protestantism and Quakerism.

It might help orient us.


Hystery said...

Fascinating. Very cool post. I can't help think but that there really was something threatening, relentless and even and obnoxious about Dyer's challenge to the Puritans. And I don't mean that in a bad way necessarily but in a kind of solemn acknowledgment that she was up to something that gets lost in the general outrage about the Puritans' injustice. Your post makes me want to ask deeper questions. What was she up to? Is the really interesting plot obscured by the meta-narrative?

I also think that the varied notions of sin and sinfulness in the development of American history is overlooked (again in our intense focus on those bummer Puritans.) We've been simplifying the story to a point of gross distortion...even to a point where the sacrifice Dyer made is rendered meaningless because we've condemned the Puritan act but bought the Puritan/Protestant storyline. Once buying their religious narrative and definitions we are left with the choice: accept or reject. The revelations for which Dyer died are therefore lost not in her death but in our failure of memory. Our historical/religious analysis glosses over some critical contributions like the radical perspectives of Friends, Spiritualists and Oneida Community Utopians. Their radically different approach to sin (and all specifically and fearlessly addressed sin) is minimized, ignored or even ridiculed in the historical literature. Hmmm. I think I have to follow this and see where it takes me.

Ashley W said...

Hi Timothy,

There is a lot of good stuff here. I started writing a comment yesterday and I realized that it was going to be way too long and made it a post on my blog instead. Thanks for talking about this!


RichardM said...

The biggest problem I have with this post is your equation of Protestantism with Calvinism. It is true that Calvinism is one major form of Protestantism but it is far from being identical with it. Protestantism represents all the groups that broke away from Catholicism and they broke away for many reasons. The Calvinists broke away because they adopted a more pessimistic view of the human condition than did the Catholics but others, among which were the Quakers, adopted a more optimistic view of the possibilities for human transformation than did the Catholics. And, in my own reading of Quaker history, there hasn't been any tendency for Quakers to become Calvinists. Quakers of all persuasions remain more theologically liberal than Catholics not, like the Calvinists, more conservative.

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

For what it's worth, dear Friend, I used to think as you do now — that "the thrust of the Quaker movement was originally pretty much a rejection of Protestantism". But having spent much of the past five months exploring the works of Luther, Calvin, and de B├Ęze, and being already familiar with a fair amount of seventeenth century English Protestant writing, I no longer think so.

I would now say that the twentieth-century Quaker historian Hugh Barbour was exactly right: Quakerism was from the start a variant of Lutheran-Calvinist-Puritan thinking, which carried some of the lesser lines of thought in that movement to a further extreme than the main movement did, and so found itself compelled to reject some of the other lines of thought within that movement.

I don't believe that "Quaker ideas and practices threatened the foundation of the Protestant society from which it sprang." I think the issue was more that Quaker ideas and practices threatened the social power structure, which was not the foundation of Protestant society but merely a superstructure trying to stay on top of it.

I quite agree with some of your other conclusions in this posting, though. Yes, the early Friends "talked up that we can overcome sin in a way that would make Calvin spin".

And yes, "there is a huge leap from 'Christ has come to teach his people himself' to 'the mission of the Holy Spirit is to help us correctly understand scripture'." Wonderfully well put! But I don't think the leap was quite what you represent it as being in this essay. For I can find no evidence, even in the earliest Quaker writings, that the main body of Friends thought the urgings of Christ would contradict scripture. There were splinter groups that associated with Friends in those early days, who thought the urgings of Christ, or the anointing of the Spirit, would free them from the strictures of the Bible, but the main body of Friends, Fox included, disowned them as Ranters.

So the "huge leap", I think, was a narrowing of the imagination: most Friends lost the courage to believe that the Spirit might lead them into unexpected projects and unexpected costly struggles, and so they ceased to be alert to such leadings.

I'd be interested in any response you might feel moved to offer!

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hi Timothy,

Thanks for the spring-board of a post. (My mind's jumping all over the place;-)

Quick questions:
#1 I see you identify as a Beanite.
Do you know where I can find a good biographical study of the Beans?

I've read Quakers
in California by David LeShana and would like to read more about Joel and Hannah Bean but haven't beem able to locate anything so far.

#2 Do you have a blog where you share your transformation from a Marine to one who opposes war?

#3 Does it conflict with your faith in Jesus that most versions of Buddhism are atheistic?

I have received much spiritual help from the writings of Thich, the Buddhist monk, but the last few books I have read on Buddhism by Buddhists, in contrast, emphasize that Buddhism is atheistic and that we humans have no spiritual selves.

Troubling. Any comment?

#3 If it is true that we as humans first need inner transformation, why is it that the Quakers who put the most focus on sin and repentance (such as California Yearly Meeting, as it used to be termed), show a contrary spirit when it comes to actions?
When I was a member there, many members actually supported nuclear weapons, etc. I still don't understand that.

#Why do you think Quakers who talk about sin so often strongly support sinful actions, but Quakers who seldom talk about it, often are the most proactive in countering sin?

And I have a lot more comments and questions, but I better stop:-)

By the way I came to your site via Quaker Quaker. Also, I see you were helped by Chuck Fager. He also helped me spiritually in a time of my deep despair.


Daniel Wilcox

Babette said...

What a breath of fresh air. After 14 years of Quaker education and much reading,from the FGC tradition, it was a shock when I first encountered the "other" Friends, and even experienced a "Church". I am confused by Christian theology, by the concept of the Trinity, by the notion of Jesus as scapegoat, and by the new "convergent" Quakers. Can we, if we are all led deep within to within the center of the wheel to dwell in the inner light, forget the spoke or the path through which we entered? I find it difficult to share mental and spiritual space with those who insist that theirs is the "only" path. All by way of saying that reading your words, I felt that I had found a Friend. Thank you.

Mitch said...

Well, I was going to say that my experience of "sin" when raised in the Catholic tradition is the biggest barrier to this sin/tax that I have today.

I was taught that "action X" or "thought Y" was a sin because it "offended" God. Look into Catholicism yourself and you will find this idea harped on over and over again.

When I became a non-Theist, of course, the idea that there was some cosmic Father (or cosmic Politician) offended by my petty thoughts and actions became ludicrous. Come on: in a universe of a hundred billion galaxies, some One is worried about my eating meat on Friday?

However, I find myself encouraged along entirely a different train of thought by Hystery. I'm thrilled to see Hystery (perhaps a scribe I know) write:

"The revelations for which Dyer died are therefore lost not in her death but in our failure of memory. Our historical/religious analysis glosses over some critical contributions like the radical perspectives of Friends, Spiritualists and Oneida Community Utopians. Their radically different approach to sin (and all specifically and fearlessly addressed sin) is minimized, ignored or even ridiculed in the historical literature."

I've been saying the same thing for years. As far as Mary Dyer, goes, well, "There's Something About Mary" they didn't teach you in your Quaker Catechism:

Tmothy Travis said...

Apologies to all for not responding to these comments--I have been traveling on the East Coast on business and much of my time has been spent waiting to find out whether flights are leaving or not and dealing with the problems when they do not.

There is so much material I have stirred up, here, that I fear losing track of it all so I am going to try to get to all comments in separate blog posts. That will make it easier for me to actually get to all and keep the conversation coherent.

So today I am posting an answer to Richard M. and will entitle it as such.

I appreciate the comments all have made, here, and promise to get to all in good order.

Thank you.

forrest said...

One more difference from Protestantism... as it commonly develops. We did not, historically, see God as "having acted in the past", that is, as being essentially confined to his appearances in a finished book, plus a greater role in some mythical period which hasn't come yet but which we are to anticipate. We Quakers witnessed God at work in the present! (and were therefore, as this was once explained to me, accused of being closet Catholics in a time & place where this was considered muy bad.)

But back to "Sin." An alternate reading of the Genesis story would posit sin as an artifact of human consciousness: "The Knowledge of Good and Evil" that boils down to "I'm naked!" and "The woman YOU gave me MADE me do it." That is, the effort to ignore our own capacity for evil and to highlight the manifestations of evil in other people, is itself a curse on us that leads to great evils.

Jesus not so much "forgives sin"--which God has long ago done for himself--as much as Jesus sees people without that particular filter over his vision. He advises us to be "like God"--and then explains that this means to do good to everyone, 'Just' or 'Unjust.' Presumably, then, God is like this! Sin, in God's eyes, is an affliction (as the Buddhists tend to put it) and while it may require surgery, it is not an occasion for divine violence!