Quaker Theology #8 Spring-Summer 2003
A Quaker in a Material World: A Materialist Perspective -- 3
Materialism and Quakerism
As a child, I grew up attending Quaker Meeting. These were usually small groups gathered in someone’s home. Being Quaker was central to who we were as a family and how we lived our lives. I was also curious about the world, it’s beauty and surprises, the mystery of how it worked. We lived with mountain ranges in our back yards and I saw that we are part of the continuous movement of nature, a flow of physical events, one into another. I saw unity in the rising sun and singing bird and believing Quaker.
If I am a naturalist, how would I describe these peculiar people, the Quakers? We are passionate in our determination that each and every person merits our loving concern, and that in each person is an element of goodness to which we can respond. It is our faith that we can each search for what is essential in our life and we are not dissuaded by differences in our words as we speak of the truths we find. This is a personal experience of the individual seeker and it is available to all who seek it. No special training is needed. As this search goes on our Quaker faith is newly created in each of us.
The list goes on but you can see that the essentials of our Quaker faith can be described in the terms we use for the world around us. It is true that the Quaker religion is usually described in nonphysical terms, but we need not be limited to this.
Quakers are often described as seekers. Can materialists be genuine seekers? Certainly. We all live surrounded by people who do not agree with us, but with whom we dearly wish to cooperate. This requires a fundamental openness from each of us. The test of this openness is not in saying, "I don’t know." It is in being willing to question and to change. Seekers constantly strive to do better. They may hold strongly to their convictions, as Fox did in his day and as many Quakers do today. This may include views held for a life time, but a seeker is still open to change and to learning from others. Materialists, like anyone else, can be seekers.
Frequently, people are puzzled about why I go to Meeting if I don’t agree with most of the people there. Ah, but we do agree! We love the silence and the messages in Meeting. We continually seek better lives. We put great value on the life of a person – any and every person. We try to mend the world. We are bound together in so many ways that no one particular belief is needed to maintain this unity.
I find it easy to cooperate with Friends whose seeking has led them to views that differ from mine. It is a pleasure to sit in Meeting with a Buddhist Quaker on one side of me and an Evangelical Christian Quaker on the other! I would hope that a materialist’s views would be a welcome addition in the spectrum of Quaker belief. As Henry Cadbury said, "It would be a pity if the natural variety in Quakerism were artificially restrained." (Bacon, 1987)10
We are already admitting people who hold a wide variety of beliefs about the God Within. Is God capable of intervening in our affairs? Does God represent the universe or the principles manifest in the universe? Is God an abstract concept like love, or a word to be taken metaphorically? Is this belief relevant to the life we lead? The unity found in our Meetings today comes from our commitment to each other and to our heritage and our Quaker practices. This does not require our accepting the same beliefs concerning God.
We may not believe in the same God or use the same names for God, yet we worship together. We are in accord on the spirit even if not the letter of our beliefs. Our way of speaking has changed since Fox asked Quakers to consider, "What canst thou say?" but time has not altered our commitment to helping each other in the search for what we have to say. We are lifted by the messages in Meeting and by the silence, speaking from the heart, the core of our being. Are these messages divinely inspired? Do they come by telepathy or synchronicity? Does it matter? Aren’t they valuable in any case? The same is true of all our shared activities. Meetings lose nothing by being a human enterprise, a bit of the rolling along of the universe. It is no less marvelous than if there were divine involvement and no less important in our lives.11
I remain a Quaker in a material world because I am inspired by the lives of those around me and believe we can love each other. I value the history of Quakers and my history among them. During worship the silence is refreshing and the messages stimulating. The efforts to mend the world are often exemplary. I am comfortable as a Quaker and as a secularist; the two perspectives fit together seamlessly. But I am concerned, too. Will Friends welcome secular Quakers into membership? (Cresson, 2002b)
Membership decisions are usually made by individual Monthly Meetings. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Discipline advises Friends to consider whether the applicant participates in the life of the Meeting and is in harmony with the views of other members of the Meeting. Although beliefs common among Friends are mentioned, there is no call for conformity of belief. (1997)12
We are well aware of the danger of applying a doctrinal test for membership but not the equal danger of giving the impression that there is such a test when there isn’t. The brochures that grace the entryways of our Meetinghouses give cause for concern in this regard. Typical is "Quakerism at Moorestown Friends School," written for parents of prospective students, many of whom are nonQuakers. (Moorestown Friends School, undated) Several sentences begin with the phrases, "‘Quakers believe in–‘", "The Quaker belief in–", "A basic tenet of Quakerism is–", "Since Friends believe that–", "believing that–", "their central belief is–", and "The fundamental principle which Friends stress–". Six of these seven sentences about what Quakers believe end with references to God or the Inner Light. The reader would be pardoned for assuming that theistic beliefs are expected of new members.
Do the descriptions in these brochures of the Quaker position on creeds soften the impression that certain beliefs are required? This is where we meet another interesting pattern. Statements that we do not insist on the acceptance of a creed are followed immediately by statements that we believe in the God Within. An example comes from the brochure for parents, quoted above: "Friends have no formal creed; their central belief is the reality of the ‘Inner Light’ or ‘God Within.’" This is common in the literature we prepare for visitors.13 The authors are concerned that simply saying we have no creeds will give the misimpression that there are no core beliefs that are widely and strongly held, that we will take anyone, that beliefs don’t matter. Unfortunately, the qualifying statements address this problem by asserting that we are unified by one particular belief, a belief in God. Then we explain this isn’t a creed because it is not formally stated with one set of words, we don’t ask people to repeat it or swear to it, it is not a do-or-die issue when we consider an application for membership, and we might very well take you even if you don’t believe in God. We are trying to achieve the purpose of creeds, to have a group in which people agree on their beliefs, without the problems of insisting they do this.
There is a real possibility that people will draw the wrong conclusions from our position on creeds, but another remedy is available. Instead of saying "We don’t have creeds, although we hold this particular belief", we can say "We don’t have creeds, although we are in unity." Then we can explain that our chief concern is whether we are comfortable and in harmony with each other and work well together, that membership questions involve finding clearness and beliefs are part of this but not all of it, and that when we state our beliefs this does not mean members are expected to hold these beliefs. Rather than agree on one belief but not hold people to it, we can agree to hold on to each other, beliefs and all.
Please know that I am not asking Quakers to stop expressing their beliefs. We just need to make it clear, in our conversations and our literature, that Friends hold a variety of views. This can be expressed in many ways. In the words of Monteverde Monthly Meeting of Friends, "The spiritual values in the Discipline are presented as suggestions rather than commands. It questions or queries rather than giving specific answers. It places upon the individual conscience, rather than upon external authority, the responsibility for the discipline of the spirit." (1981)
This commitment to one another rather than to a particular belief does not mean that we have to accept just anyone or that we must give up our distinctive Quaker way of life. Admitting materialists will not bring the culture around us flooding into our Society.14 It just means we will look at the person’s entire life rather than whether they accept the concept of the God Within, as central as that has been in Quaker history.
Does it matter what a Quaker believes? Yes, it does and to test our beliefs we should look at our whole lives, not just what we say in reply to certain questions. What matters about the beliefs is not that they are the same as certain standard beliefs but that they are in harmony with Quaker tradition, they are appropriate to the individual holding them and they are the basis for participation in our Meeting and for a good life.
To whom does it matter? First of all to the Quaker who is believing. What matters to the rest of the Meeting is the life of the Quaker who is believing rather than the beliefs themselves. There is a sense in which what you believe doesn’t matter, in that I am going to try to love you whatever you believe. Rather than ask what you be-lieve, many meetings ask whether we can live Quaker lives together. But to say it doesn’t matter to us what you believe is misleading.
Yes, I would be wary of admitting materialists – just as I would be wary of admitting anyone. Before proceeding, we all need to be clear that membership is appropriate. There are certain behaviors that would interfere with this clarity for me, but they are not what you say when asked about your beliefs because saying something doesn’t usually predict what the rest of your behavior will be. (There would be exceptions, as in the case of people who advocate the violation of the human rights of others.) Accepting materialists in our midst need not mean we take people for whom this is an inappropriate step. It need not weaken the Religious Society of Friends. It will mean that we can appeal to a whole new population of potential Quakers. Opening our hearts and our doors to materialists could open the way for new Quakers of many kinds.
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