The Church, the Draft Board, and Me (Installment 12 of 12)
Postscript: Becoming an A-theistic Quaker
After my struggles with the Catholic Church and the Selective Service System, I continued my exploration of religion. Eventually, I became a member of the Religious Society of Friends. In 1999, I described that passage in a piece called “The Making of a Quaker Atheist” for the inaugural issue of Quaker Theology. The following sketch is adapted from that essay.
As we saw in the preceding narrative, my analysis of Jesus’ attitude toward violence revealed that the Catholic Church, which claimed him as its cornerstone, had abandoned his teachings and spirit. With the stone removed, the structure crumbled. The dust settled slowly, but when it had, I found that the sanctuary had been empty. The Christian God, my God, was but a creation of the Church, a fresco on a now-fallen wall. He had terrified me at times, but he had been the heart of my world. I longed for him and for the meaning he had provided.
I turned to Buddhism, a faith born, like Christianity, in a profound reaction against human suffering. Whereas Jesus had expected that God would end all pain by creating a new world, the Buddha had taught a way to overcome suffering. Buddhism sought liberation through personal effort, but it seemed to leave open the possibility of a divine reality. Captivated, I pored over sutras, Zen dialogues, and Madhyamika dialectic.22 Joining a local group that met regularly for Zen meditation (zazen), I learned to allow my mind to become calm and detached, a practice that would later enrich my Quaker worship.
But Buddhism lacked the person and vision of Jesus. I was moved by his ideal of the Kingdom of God, a world of peace, justice, and well-being. And I sensed that the story of his crucifixion could symbolize a divine self-emptying (kenosis) at the heart of all things. Hoping to find a way to believe in his presence again, I studied the works of Bible scholars and contemporary theologians. For a dozen years, I struggled to work out both a theology of a suffering, kenotic God and an exegesis that would make New Testament eschatology — expectation of the imminent end of the world — something other than a barrier to belief. It was an effort that would ultimately fail; for a time, however, both disciplines being elastic, it opened the possibility of a return to Christian faith.
It was during that time that I began to worship among Friends at Little Falls Meeting in the countryside north of Baltimore.
That Quaker Meeting traces its founding to William Amos Jr., who resigned from the militia and became a Quaker in 1738. William was of the Amos(s) family’s first native-born Maryland generation; I am of the eighth. When, in 1975, my grandfather told me of that family connection, I visited Little Falls on a day when the meetinghouse was unoccupied. My eye was caught by a wooden sign posted by the door. It testified to a belief, “based on the life and teaching of Jesus,” in responding to evil with good.
WHAT FRIENDS BELIEVE…
When Friends meet together, they do not rely on priests, clergy, or leaders. The meeting begins in living silence, one in which the clamor of everyday life is stilled and we can hear God’s voice. Then there may be brief passages of vocal prayer or ministry from any of those present. When thus seeking God consistently, we can at all times and in any place sense the eternal which is behind the succession of ordinary events.23
This for us is the sacramental life which need not be marked by outward rites. This attitude could only be founded on the life and teaching of Jesus. It involves an attempt to accept literally the command to love God and one another. It rules out war. It recognizes evil but meets it with that active good will which outlasts it or transforms it. Such beliefs have involved sacrifice and much suffering.
Our numbers are not large. Membership is open to those who share our outlook and who in worshipping with us find themselves “at home.” That simple expression is not out of place, for the Quaker way of life leads us to think of men and women all over the world as parts of the family of God.
Feeling in sympathy with that statement, I returned on Sunday to join the small group of Friends for worship. When I was invited to stay for their business meeting afterward, I accepted, and my life was changed.
The Friends, concerned over their dwindling numbers, were planning to renovate an old schoolhouse on the property to provide classroom and meeting space, a kitchen, and washrooms, which the place then lacked. The project seemed essential to the survival of the congregation, but one member was rejecting the architect’s design on grounds that, I thought, approached being irrational. Despite their evident sense of urgency, the other Friends labored patiently and lovingly with the dissenter. When it became clear that he could not set his concerns aside, the issue was held over for further study.
I was astonished: never before had I seen a group of people so single-mindedly put love and respect above “getting things done.”
I became a regular attender at Little Falls. As I participated in their worship and business practice, learned of their work and witness, and experienced their respect for and challenges to individual and community consciences, I became convinced that the Friends were living in the spirit of Jesus. Through them, I was able to believe – unlike, ironically, some of those Friends themselves — in the present guiding activity of Christ. That faith was strong and sure enough, I felt, to warrant belief in the resurrection of Jesus and therefore in the Christian God. I had recovered — reconstructed — my God.
Naturally, I felt that my experience of God should be much as it had been when I was young, excepting those characteristics, which I attributed to Roman Catholicism, that had darkened my life with fear. However, the Quakerism of Little Falls Meeting, although it had helped lead me back to Christian faith, was no longer explicitly Christocentric. Nor did it offer context for the exegetical and theological explorations I’d come to love. So I used my family’s move into Baltimore City as an opportunity to “visit other churches,” as I put it to one of the Friends. I soon found that the local Episcopal church, where an acquaintance served as priest, offered beautiful services and relative freedom of thought in a traditional setting. It seemed to be just what I needed, and, within three years of my discovery of Quakerism, I was ritually received into the Episcopal Church.
The sacred beauty and joy of the liturgy outweighed, I told myself, the Church’s failure to embrace equality, justice, and nonviolence. (“There is an Episcopal Peace Fellowship,” the rector told me, “but it’s not very active. You could try to start a chapter in this parish, but I mentioned it here a few years ago and found that there’s no interest in that sort of thing.”) And I took the Church’s recent decision to ordain women as a sign of a growing sensitivity.
But those things could not, I would find, quiet my concerns for long. Nor could they shield God from harsh reality. When my grandfather, who had been crippled for much of his life with a painful, degenerative disease, died of cancer, my faith failed once more. Already weakened by the churches’ complicity in injustice and violence, it could not withstand the sight of that beloved man’s agony of body and spirit. No good God would allow such things, I knew. The Christian God had once more been revealed as fantasy. Twice-dead, he would not be raised again.
After that abortive return to Christianity, I wanted to abandon religion completely. But religion had sensitized me to the dark side of life, to the violence, injustice, and pain that characterize our world; I couldn’t keep my gaze averted. And I had seen a spirit of committed and courageous love among Friends, some of whom did not hold traditional Christian beliefs, that I had encountered nowhere else.
A friend who was active in another Quaker congregation happened to call at that time, and we began a series of conversations that led to my attendance at Homewood Friends Meeting in Baltimore. As I began again to know the power of Quaker practice, I dove into reading of Quaker history and spirituality. At the same time, I satisfied my desire for broader intellectual inquiry by completing a college program of comparative religion, scripture criticism, and seminars on moral questions.
Over time, my experiences and studies came together in a synthesis that I expressed in an ancient image: “being Christ.” Jesus was not a supernatural being, I’d concluded, and his resurrection was a scripture-based myth born of desperate hope;24 nonetheless, in his willingness to give himself to and for the Kingdom, Jesus did incarnate a holy spirit, a deeply human spirit that dares to envision and work toward a loving world.
I knew that Jesus’ spirit could live in contemporary human beings: I’d met that spirit among the Friends, and I’d felt it stir within me in response to their “answering that of God” in me. To learn to live in that spirit, to join with others as the heart and hands of Christ in the world, would be, I decided, the finest thing any human being could do. Quakerism focused directly on that challenge, letting everything else fall away; while the churches looked for Christ primarily in ritual and scripture, Friends quietly worked to make the Christ-spirit actively present here and now.
I shared the Quaker thirst for Jesus’ Kingdom of God, found inspiration in the silent communion of worship, and experienced the power of group discernment to awaken wisdom and love. Back among Friends, I had come home. In response to my request for membership in the Religious Society of Friends, Homewood Meeting graciously received me, asking not whether I believed in God or would conform myself to a set of rules, but whether I was committed to the people and practices of that Quaker community, particularly to seeking to live in the spirit we see in Jesus. I accepted membership with joy and a sense of responsibility to contribute to the life of the congregation and the Society as best I could.
One part of that contribution would be to work at interpreting my experience of Quakerism for myself and others. I knew first-hand the power of our silent worship, but how could I conceptualize my worship directed to no God? And how understand the ability of our business practice to transcend our differences in unity of spirit?
Seeking insight into the foundational experiences of our movement, I turned to the writings of George Fox. In his journal, Fox recounted that, nearing despair at the failure of traditional Christian teachings to “speak to [his] condition,” not knowing what to believe or how to act in order to fulfill God’s will, he had been inspired to see that the divine spirit of Christ could teach him, and all people, directly. In fact, Fox had decided, only the inwardly-received leading of the living Christ could be relied upon. “There is one,” the voice of insight had told him, “even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” Thus was born the Quaker movement, which would call people to disregard human teachings and to discern and obey the leading of the spirit of Christ, the inner light, within them. Such obedience, Fox believed, would lead to love’s perfection, to the realization of the Kingdom of God inwardly and outwardly, here and now. Through faith in and obedience to that light, Friends would be the incarnation of Christ, the human face of God-who-is-love, in the world.
And there I found the key: the dynamic essence of Quaker faith and practice is nothing more or less than the actualization of love.
If some of us can no longer claim supernatural guidance, it is nonetheless true that our Quaker faith and worship continue to ground our lives in love, empowering us to live compassionately and courageously. And if we can no longer expect the arrival “in power” of the Kingdom of God,25 it is nonetheless true that the work of Friends for relief of suffering, equality of persons, tolerance, freedom, peace, and justice continue to make the world a better place. The lives of Friends today and throughout our history prove that, whether a supernatural Christ-being lives or not, what Fox believed to be Christ’s light within the human heart is real.
From the beginning, Friends have known that something in us seeks what Jesus called the Kingdom of God, and that through our uniquely powerful practice of waiting together upon its inspiration, we bring that something, that holy spirit of human love, to the fore. Discerning its voice and living as it leads us, we become, corporately and severally, the living body of Christ. In sharing that conviction, that experience, I am a Quaker.
. For an introduction to Madhyamika, see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article here. Given the parallels between Madhyamika (or Madhyamaka) and Derridean “differential” logic, it is not surprising that I should be drawn to Derridean thought later in life. For more on those parallels, see “Derrida and Madhyamika Buddhism: From Linguistic Deconstruction to Criticism of Onto-theologies.” See also Robert Magliola’s groundbreaking work, Derrida on the Mend — a rich book that, I have found, amply rewards the continual effort it calls forth.
. That phrase recalls for me William Blake’s verse from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, quoted in Note 18 of Installment 10 of the narrative: “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite. / For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
. Mark 9:1 (which, in my opinion, should be Mark 8:39): “And he said to them, ‘Amen I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who shall not taste death until they have seen the kingdom of God come in power.'”