The Heart of Quakerism

I want to speak about the heart of Quakerism. In order to do that, I must speak about Jesus, Christ, God. I am not a theist. So when I speak in those terms, I’m not pushing a standard Christian, or even theistic, belief agenda; I’m using the religious metaphors of our tradition to point to the heart of our identity as Friends. That heart is a very specific, ongoing experience that is, as Quakers have insisted from the very first, available to believers and nonbelievers alike, an experience that is, in fact, as our ancestors pointed out repeatedly, very often blocked by religious belief. So I’m not talking at all about belief, or what normally passes for belief, but about the experience of having our fundamental ways of thinking and feeling be “turned around” — converted — from the normal, commonsense “wisdom of the world” to the foolish wisdom of the spirit of Christ.

If the question then is “how do we know what we mean by ‘the spirit of Christ’?” then the otherwise meaningless slogan is correct: Jesus is the answer. The spirit of Christ is the spirit that animated Jesus, that is shown to us in his life and death and teachings.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus, “the visible form of the invisible God” who is love, announced the coming of the Kingdom of God, the wisdom of which is not of this world. What does that image, “Kingdom of God,” mean? The evangelist Luke has Jesus define the Kingdom clearly, at the very outset of his ministry, in words borrowed from Isaiah, a great prophet of social justice: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me, and has sent me to proclaim good news for the poor….” He continues, but I think it’s highly significant that the very first phrase Jesus uses to describe the new order, the Kingdom of God, is “good news for the poor.” That’s the agenda of the spirit of Christ in nutshell: “good news for the poor.”

And what would be good news for the poor, except that those of us who have more than enough would learn to share much more than we do now, so that justice would be realized? In another place, Jesus tells the story of two men. One, well off, relaxes comfortably in his spacious home every evening, enjoying his plentiful and delicious dinner, perhaps planning his postprandial pleasures while he eats; the other, the poor man Lazarus, lies just on the other side of the well-off man’s locked gate, bleeding and starving to death, hoping for crumbs from the other’s table — as if human beings can survive on crumbs, as if we well-off should consider ourselves generous if we give our crumbs to the poor. If you don’t know the rest of the story, you can find it in the same Gospel of Luke (and read George Fox’s “sermon” on it here): briefly, it graphically illustrates just what Jesus thought of that well-off man and those like him, who use the rationalizations of accepted worldly wisdom to justify their pleasures while the poor lie bleeding at their gates.

[T]he Lord has anointed me, and has sent me to proclaim good news for the poor, healing for the broken-hearted, freedom for the imprisoned, sight for the blind, liberation for the oppressed: to preach the year of the Lord’s favor.

“The year of the Lord’s favor” is the Jubilee year, the year in which the commonsense, private-property economic rules of society are set aside for the sake of justice, a year in which land is taken back from those who have hoarded it, slaves are freed, and debts are forgiven. In the Kingdom of God, the Jubilee year is now. Justice, healing, liberation, vision: the agenda of the spirit of Christ.

So we’re talking about a man who put the poor first, who fed the hungry when he could, healed the sick when he could, associated with sinners and outcasts, insisted that we care for the just and the unjust alike, openly challenged religious people whose religion is a mask for unacknowledged self-centeredness and aggression, turned on their heads the commonsense rules of conventional morality — which always favor those who have and hoard wealth and power — and was therefore tortured to death. But he passed on his vision of the Kingdom, and he passed on the Spirit of Christ, and he became the key to our realizing that Kingdom and Spirit in our lives.

Some sixteen hundred years later, our ancestors, too, were tortured, sometimes to death, because they dared to assert their right and their obligation to be possessed of and by the Spirit that was in Jesus — the spirit that gives and then gives more, that forgives and then forgives more; that willingly sacrifices for justice, for love of the other, and that calls on all of us to do the same, to open our hearts to the suffering of the world and to be moved to action.

They, in their turn, passed that Spirit on to us. And they handed down to us this institution called Quakerism, all of the accomplishments of which come out of that transformation of individual hearts. They gave us our unique forms of meeting: for worship in silence, and for making decisions in the Spirit of Christ — both expressions of the unique gift which Quakerism offers the world. And these forms of gathering together have deep and serious purpose and meaning: the crucifixion of the “natural” person, the raising of the spiritual Christ in our hearts, and the manifestation of that spirit in and among us and, through us, in the world.

I’ve been told that Quaker meeting is a place where all opinions are respected and can get a hearing, and that Quaker decision-making is a process of arriving at truth through attending to each person’s expressed opinion. Our ancestors, however, tell us that the only place personal opinions have within the meetinghouse walls is on the cross, as we courageously allow them to be crucified by love so that the spirit of Christ, which they have been trampling and trying to destroy while telling us they’re doing the opposite, can be raised in us. As the first Friends read Paul, “if Christ be not raised [in us], then our faith is in vain.” Our faith, our coming together, our going out into the world under the name of Quaker: all vanity unless we allow our worldly wisdom to die in silence so that the spirit of love can be raised in our hearts, can break open our hearts and make us new — unless we help each other set aside our cherished opinions and ways of seeing the world in order that we may, as Paul said, “have the mind of Christ,” that we may be brought into one mind, one heart, one body.

That is not easy. The logic of the Kingdom of God is illogic to the natural mind; the agenda of God seems to be madness. But I ask myself which is more of madness: an open life of giving and forgiving, filled with the joy and pain of love, or a life centered on the smallness of self, a life that closes its heart to Lazarus at my gate. Certainly, the life of love is very difficult and costly. But I can only echo Paul, who said that “Our present sufferings I count as nothing compared to the glory that is now unfolding within us.” Our ancestors taught that each of us has a measure, more or less of the divine glory of love within us. May we be faithful to that measure, help it grow, and help each other in that process.

The little essay above is reprinted, with minor changes, from the current section of my journal, where it was originally published in April of 2008. I post it here in order to offer it to a new readers and to permit comments and discussion. — G.A.

10 thoughts on “The Heart of Quakerism

  1. Thank you for this post concerning the heart of Quakerism.
    I recently read a comment by a theologically conservative Friend in which he stated that the basis for the Christian faith is the possibility of escaping death. That Friend certainly has scriptural support from Paul in 1 Cor 15, especially verse 19, “If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.”
    I disagree. I think you have laid it out in that transformation of heart that makes life in love the joy (and the pain) that it is. When Jesus said, “I am come that you might have life and have it more abundantly, He was not talking about “pie in the sky.”
    Life with God after death? Sign me up, but is is by no means the center or basis of my faith.

  2. Here’s something from Fox’s The Great Mystery:

    [Objection, apparently misapplying Deut. 6, to Quaker teaching]: ‘We may not learn to seek for happiness in this life; these words I command thee this day shall be in thy heart, to teach thy children, and to talk of them in thy house.’

    [Fox’s response]: These words have spoken long in your hearts, therefore have you led the world into wickedness; but the children of God find happiness in this life, being changed from the old nature in this life, they find God, and Christ, and find rest for their souls. And who is in Christ is a new creature, and such hath happiness.

    Fox would maintain, too, that those who are saints here and now, animated by the spirit of God, are “not distinct from” Christ and already “sit in heavenly places with Christ.” And he would note that John’s Jesus says that whoever believes in him and lives in him — which for primitive Quakerism means trusting in the light and thereby becoming completely one with him here and now — will never die; or, though he dies, he yet lives. Fox also argued that there is no human soul that survives death: that which has eternal life is of Christ and is Christ; it is “of God’s being,” and in that we “live and move and have our being” here and now.

    To be in Christ, then, is to have eternal life now. There is no worry about what happens after death, and it is not a major focus, in the very early writings — death has already been defeated in the lives of the saints, as evidenced by the crucifixion of the evil and the raising of the good in them.

    So I like to say that whether you believe in life after death or not, Quakerism has one message: live in the holy spirit of love now; leave the dead to the dead, and go publish the Kingdom of God.

  3. George,
    Thank you for casting modern views in the language typical of Quakers over the years. This involves giving your own meanings to old words, “using the religious metaphors of our tradition,” as you wrote. Surprisingly, conversations within our religious community can be successful even when we define religious terms differently. We do this all the time, for instance when the Light Within is a Christian concept for one and not for another, or God is an active agent for one and a principle for another. Apparently, Quaker religious terminology is available to all of us. This sounds unworkable but we’re not doing brain surgery. What we are doing is loving each other as best we can, seeking unity in the manner of Friends, worshiping together, and speaking as moved while our listeners interpret in the light given them.

    That said, redefining words already in use (speaking and writing metaphorically or poetically) is generally not my way because I have found people misinterpret my words. It is often unclear how much of the original context comes with the old words. Instead, I try to use words in their commonly understood sense as much as possible.

    I am delighted you are finding how to be a modern old Quaker. We need many voices.

    Go well, F/friend

    • Thanks for your comments, Os. It seems to me that it is increasingly difficult to find commonly understood senses for now-unmoored Quaker terms such as “Inner Light” and “Spirit,” and so I hope to provide some historical context and “translation” as a step toward a common understanding that respects our tradition as well as our postmodern condition. That requires a kind of multilingual approach that I’m still working out.

      My posts have generated discussions, here and elsewhere, that sometimes demonstrate the truth of your concern about misinterpretation of metaphorical and poetical speech. But to theopoetically redefine words and stories already in use is exactly what the first Friends did, and I hope to continue to learn from them and to carry that work forward. In any case, that’s how my mind works, so I’m simply offering what I can.

      I’m pleased to be conversing with you again. I welcome your insights.

  4. George,
    I would like to consider these words in your essay: “converted — from the normal, commonsense ‘wisdom of the world’” (paragraph #1); “the Kingdom of God, the wisdom of which is not of this world.” (#3); “all [is] vanity unless we allow our worldly wisdom to die” (#10); “The logic of the Kingdom of God is illogic to the natural mind.” (#11); and “[Our Quaker ancestors] gave us our unique forms of meeting: for worship in silence, and for making decisions in the Spirit of Christ — both expressions of the unique gift which Quakerism offers the world. And these forms of gathering together have deep and serious purpose and meaning: the crucifixion of the ‘natural’ person”. (#9)

    This division into two realms, and assigning different values to each, is typical of the writings of early Quakers. It seems to me unnecessary and, sometimes, harmful. Rather than describing the world as morally wrong and to be rejected, we can describe it as all we are, as wonderful and awful, as what we make it. Some advise us to center for worship by closing out the world but I try to achieve the same end by letting it in, opening myself without the usual filtering reactions. We can embrace the natural world, around and within us, learning how to live well as part of it, seeking and to a degree finding the Kingdom of God in our lives.

    This matters because our purpose is effective action in the world, “the raising of the spiritual Christ in our hearts, and the manifestation of that spirit in and among us and, through us, in the world.” It also matters because one of our goals is to “unite in one mind, one heart, one body” which is easier when ones explanatory scheme encompasses all three (treating them all as behaving human bodies.) Finally, it matters because of the reactions of listeners and readers. I can interpret your words, and we can come into unity even if we disagree on this, but newcomers often do not do this. Many people who love nature have been sensitized by the efforts, ancient and modern, to explain the observed world by reference to unobserved phenomena requiring their own languages and other methods, and to harshly criticize those who reject this approach. George, Quakers who are sensitive to this ongoing cultural debate may have some concerns about this element of your approach.

    Go well,

  5. Os, thanks for pointing out the need for clarification. It’s a larger question than I can address this morning, so I’ll probably need to make more than one reply, but here, to start, is something from Wordsworth.

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

    “The world,” then, is not “Nature,” but a human construction, a psychosocial reality that develops from human nature. Note, however, that just now, in “human nature,” we use the word “nature” in the philosophical sense, to refer to the essential, inherent characteristics of a thing (the thing being human beings in this case). It was in something of a combination of those senses that I spoke, for example, of “the natural mind” — the mind whose inherent character, its “natural nature,” has not yet been changed (see below). Those two senses of “nature” are closely related yet different. I see that I need to provide more context clues in the future.

    At least two important issues remain to be addressed.

    First, what you have called “the division into two realms” — the critique of the normal human situation and the proposal of a new way of being in the world (“world” being used in a wider sense here) — is fundamental to transformational religions like original Quakerism and Buddhism. Such religions offer a radical transformation of that essential human “nature” which, until changed, causes suffering in ourselves and others. That critique and that offering are precisely what I am concerned to preserve as the basis of our faith and practice.

    Second, unlike certain poets, I do not romanticize or personify “Nature.” Nor, unlike certain Christians, do I condemn it as thoroughly evil. I recognize its beauty along with its fundamental Darwinian horrors — both of which we find within ourselves as well. For now, I can direct you to previous posts: “Primitive Christianity Revived” and “Re-wiring for Love”.


    • Hi,
      Thanks for the clarification. It helps.

      Conversations like these become hard to follow because what the writer means is not quite what the reader means in the presence of the same words. It is better in person, and still better in the context of a friendship or a meetingship, but at best it is so difficult and imperfect that I usually just go my own way. We do what we can and sometimes a bit of improvement results, as happened with our recent exchanges on your blog.

      Thank you, George,

      • Os, one more thing occurs to me as I re-read your comments. You write of “describing the world as morally wrong and to be rejected.” It is true that classic Quakerism seeks to reject that which is “morally wrong” and uses “the world” (in the sense of the psychosocial world created by unregenerate human nature) to refer to that. But it is also true that “the world” in the broader sense is not to be rejected but redeemed, that when humans reject “the [self-centered] world,” then they stop abusing the natural world, the creation. Indeed, Quakerism originally taught that, through metanoia, we are “taken up into the state Adam was in before he fell” to be in perfect union with all the creation.

    • I do think it is important to keep in mind that “human nature” is not all that simple as I pointed out in my comment on “Re-wiring for Love.” We are “wired for love,” but the wiring for self-interest is older and deeper. The “wiring” for love often needs a lot of help for full function.

      • Thanks, Nate. That’s a helpful reminder. It seems to me that if we weren’t already “wired for love” — already enlightened by Christ in some measure, as Quaker teaching would say — then there would be no inner light, no textual tradition that appeals to that light, and no possibility of metanoia. But it has been my experience, too, that the light-wiring “often needs a lot of help” (our ancestors pictured it as “trampled” and as “poor, low, weak, despicable” in us). That help is something for which I look, with more or less success at different times, to the Quaker community. But I know that the more important help comes from my own spiritual discipline and practice, my own learning to trust and walk in the light.

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