Monday, April 27, 2009

Podcast: Introduction to the Quaker Faith

The Ripley Quaker Meeting in the UK has put out a nice, brief Introduction to the Quaker Faith on MP3. You can listen to it by clicking here.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Here's one way to deal with rivalries between churches...

Sunday, April 05, 2009

How Quakerism Unites Universalism and Christianity

This is an excerpt from The Inward Light: How Quakerism Unites Universalism and Christianity
by Samuel D. Caldwell
(You can read the entire essay here.)

What many Christian Quakers fail to understand or accept about the Quaker approach to Christianity is that it is Universalist to the core. Universalism is thoroughly embedded in the Quaker perspective precisely because it is intrinsic to our most central and distinctive religious insight: the principle of the Inner Light.

It is helpful to remind ourselves of the essential core of this important insight. Historically, it is this: God gives to every human being who comes into the world a measure of the divine spirit as a Living Witness and a Light to be inwardly guided by. Those who learn to heed the promptings of this Light within them come to be "saved" - that is, they come into fullness and wholeness of life and right relationship with God, themselves, and one another.

Those who resist, ignore, or otherwise deny the workings of this pure spirit within them, though they make a profession of faith, are "condemned" - that is, they become alienated from God, from themselves, and from one another. The chief end of religious life, therefore, is to hearken to and act in accordance with the promptings of the Inner Light in one's life. This description closely parallels George Fox's original "opening" concerning the Light in 1648, as recorded in his Journal (Nickalls edition, p. 33).

A number of important characteristics of the Light can be readily inferred from this description. First, this Light is "divine" or "supernatural." That is, it pertains to God and God's activity. Numerous Friends, among them George Fox and Robert Barclay, have been urgent in cautioning us against confusing the Inner Light with such natural phenomena as reason or conscience, both of which are physically and socially conditioned. Rather, they have emphasized that the Light is God's eternal and indwelling power resident within our mortal frames, there to enlighten and inform the natural reason and conscience with truth of a higher order.

This Light is personal. It is no mindless, purposeless, undifferentiated force or power. It is the mind and will of God - the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Sarah - who indwells our souls. To claim, as we do, that we are led or taught by the Light is to accept by inference that the power by which we are led or taught is capable of actively leading or teaching us. This requires a personal or theistic conception of the Spirit, which Friends have traditionally held.

This Light is saving. It is the instrument or means by which we are drawn into fullness and wholeness of life and right relationship to God, ourselves, and one another. It is not primarily through the mechanism of assent to certain theological propositions, however heartfelt, nor by participation in certain established rituals, however sincere, that one comes to be "saved" in- Quaker faith and practice; it is chiefly through the operation of this Saving Light in human hearts - in the hearing and doing of the Living Word as inwardly revealed in the course of common life.

This Light is eternal. It was before time, is now, and will be forevermore. As the writer of John says, "in the beginning was the Word." Friends have always identified the Inner Light with this "logos" or Eternal Word. It is by this Eternal Light and Word that all of the saints and sages down through the ages have known and spoken the Truth. It is by this Light that the Holy Scriptures of the ages have been written (and must be read). It is by this Light that whatever is true, good, and beautiful has been brought forth in human community over time. This Light is and has always been the source and fountain of all human creativity.

This Light is resistible. It is not an inevitable force or automatic power; it can be resisted, ignored, or otherwise denied in the human heart. To quote C. S. Lewis, "God does not ravish; He only woos." Although we receive this Light freely and from birth, we are free to choose whether or not and how to respond to its promptings. As someone once remarked, "We are predestinated and foreordained to decide for ourselves!"

This Light is persistent. The Light never ceases to make its Living Witness within each and every human heart, even when it is resisted. Although stubborn resistance and persistent disobedience may greatly dim its luminosity, the Light can never be fully extinguished within us. This is the unfailing love and mercy of God which passes all understanding.

This Light is pure. It is utterly infallible and perfectly good. Although we may err in our discernment of the Light's witness within us, for any and all who turn to it in humility of heart, the Light is an inerrant guide to truth and wisdom. And, because it is the pure love of God within us, this Light is completely good and trustworthy.

This Light is ineffable. It defies complete and accurate description. Like much in the realm of spirit, the Light cannot be completely understood, but it can be experienced and known.

Lastly, and perhaps most important to the present discussion, this Light is unequivocally universal. It is freely given by God to each and every human being who comes into the world, regardless of race, sex, nationality, philosophical orientation, religious creed, or station in life. It is the divine birthright and inheritance of all, not the privileged possession of a few. To paraphrase the scripture, it is the Good News of God "preached to every creature under heaven" (Colossians 1:23).

Now it can readily be seen from these characteristics that the Quaker concept of the Inner Light is radically universalist in its thrust. As such, it offers a strong challenge to many of the exclusivist assumptions of conventional Christian faith. Here is where the tension between Christianity and Universalism in Quakerism begins to be felt.

It is hard to overstate, for instance, how radically different the Quaker view of salvation is from the popular Christian conception. According to our understanding of the Inner Light, any person of whatever religious persuasion, who turns in sincerity of heart to the Divine Light within, and lives in accordance with its promptings, will be saved. All of God's children, Christians and non-Christians alike, have equal access to salvation through the Light.

This view constitutes an outright denial of the exclusivist Christian assumption that salvation comes only to those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and participate in certain established rituals of the Church. One need not be a professing Christian, in other words, to be saved; and many who are professing Christians are (apparently) not saved.

Similarly, Quaker Universalism challenges the now-prevalent evangelical Christian view that the Holy Spirit "comes into one's heart," presumably from outside, at the moment of conversion. Friends have testified throughout their history that this Holy Spirit is already resident as a Divine Seed in every human heart, waiting to be decisively accepted and nurtured through attentive obedience in daily life. This difference in viewpoint explains the real distinction between Quaker "convincement" and evangelical "conversion. "

Salvation and conversion are not the only fronts on which Quaker Universalism challenges conventional Christianity. From the beginning, for instance, Friends have vociferously challenged the fundamentalist Christian assumption that the Bible is the Word of God, insisting instead that the Holy Spirit, the Christ Within, is the Word of God. The Bible is a declaration of the fountain; it is not the fountain itself The fountain is Christ, the Living Word. George Fox argued disarmingly that, if the Bible were really the Word of God, then one could buy and sell the Word of God and carry it around in one's pocket!

In a similar vein, the Quaker doctrine of "continuing revelation," which says that God continues to reveal Truth to those who have ears to hear, directly challenges the fundamentalist Christian belief that God's revelation was completed when the books of the biblical canon were finalized by the Church.

Quaker Universalism also challenges the conventional Christian definition of the Church, insisting that the Church is not a building. Nor is it an identifiable group of confessing Christians. It is, rather, the universal fellowship of all those persons, of whatever background or persuasion, who know and live in accordance with the Living Witness of God's Light within them. Unlike the standard Christian definition, the Quaker definition of the Church embraces non-Christians, and even theoretically excludes professing Christians who have no real inward, life-changing experience of God.

These few examples should make it clear how deeply-rooted and fundamental the Universalist perspective is in Quakerism, and how profoundly, in turn, this perspective affects the Quaker approach to Christianity - so much so that Quakerism takes a strongly prophetic stance over and against a number of widely accepted interpretations of Christian faith.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

The road back to joy

"The secret of happiness, is the avoidance of Angst. It is a mistake to consider happiness a positive state. By removing Angst, the condition of all unhappiness, we are then prepared to receive such blessings as may come our way."
- Cyril Connolly

I would replace Mr. Connolly's use of the word happiness with the word joy. Happiness is dependant upon external circumstance, whereas joy comes from within and can occur even in the midst of terrible circumstances (I'm reminded of Horatio Spafford, who--after being financially ruined in the Great Chicago Fire and losing his four daughters on the Titanic--wrote the hymn It Is Well with My Soul). Angst is a perfect word though for the feeling that permeates many people's lives. It is defined as fear, anxiety, apprehension, malaise, dis-ease.

If you watch young children who are raised in a healthy environment, you see joy (at least until bedtime when it is replaced by the fear of the monster in the closet). We are born with a joie de vivre. It is a gift from God. But as we grow up and are exposed to (and harmed by) the complex matrix of human sin that exists in the world, our joy is diminished--and in some cases, crushed.

We are also born with an innate desire for God, who is the source of joy. This desire gets redirected and mis-placed onto things much lower than God: The shiny new toy; The approval of others; A need for significance; Sexual conquest; Money and security, etc. This mis-placement of desire is one of the primary roots of sin. I think this is what the author of 1 John had in mind when he wrote:
"Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world--the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does--comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever." (2:15-17)

The objects of our mis-placed desire may bring a transient happiness, but they don't bring joy. In fact, the pursuit of these objects of desire actually leads to the further diminishment of our God-given joy. Oftentimes, our mis-placement of desire results in our becoming enslaved to addictions. Then our joy is truly crushed.

This erosion of joy by the rains of angst is a long and gradual process. And so, the road back to joy is also a process. Whereas the first process was one of grabbing onto things, the second process is one of letting go. As we let go of the objects of desire and as we allow and embrace the emptiness that results, joy begins to seep back in. The Author of joy, who has been with us all along, loves to fill the empty spaces with His light. Angst diminishes. A quiet joy comes in its place. Another word for this experience is shalom. Peace.

Jesus said, "I've come that you may have life, and have it to to the full." (John 10:10) This is what God wants for us: Abundant, joyous life! But Jesus also warned, "Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." (Luke 17:33)

Therein lies the paradox and the tricky part: How to let go? We want to grasp at joy, like we grasp at so many other things. But joy cannot be grasped. It can only be gratefully received. I find that just as joy is a gift from God, so is the ability to let go of the things that bring angst. For me, the more intent I become on accepting that God loves me without condition and then responding by simply being still in God's presence, the easier I find it to let go of my objects of desire. I care less, for example, what other people think of me. I find it easier, for another example, to not awaken the sleeping beast known as lust. The poison waters of angst begin to recede. Fresh waters of joy begin to bubble up unexpectedly.

And, I believe, this path of letting go and living in the awareness of God's loving presence will bring us to the point where we can honestly say, as Paul did, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through Him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:12-13)

For further reading on this subject, I would recommend the writings of Gerald May.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Quote of the day

"An extremely important part of our culture--of any culture--is not just a rock concert but a kind of environment where people get together and become a part of something. Like a collectiveness. There a collective experience happening at a rock concert that I've always assumed would probably be what church should be like if church was what it should be." - Jeff Tweedy (Wilco)

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Faith & Practice

Rather than emphasize the historic Christian creeds, Quakers generally outline their beliefs in documents called "Faith and Practice". These are not looked upon as being set in stone but rather as an evolving record of what Quakers agree that God has been speaking to them. Various Meetings independantly produce their own Faith & Practice statements.

Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Oregon has just posted their latest Faith & Practice online and I really like what it says and the way it says it. Click here to read it for yourself.