By Mary Linda McKinney
This is the second installment in a three-part series by Mary Linda. The first part can be read here.
Some Friends believe that the Religious Society of Friends is and should be explicitly Christian. Other Friends feel that we should tip our hats to the Christian roots of the RSoF but feel that we have moved beyond them now. I’ve heard a few Friends say things like, “Sure, Quakerism grew out of Christianity because that was all that was available back then. Our understandings, however, have evolved and we are no longer limited to the Bible. People who want to practice a Christian faith have many other choices. They should step back so we can enjoy the universal understanding that is central to what George Fox meant.” And also, “We are the RELIGIOUS Society of Friends. People who don’t get that, don’t belong.”
Confession: I have, at moments in my time as a Friend, had similar notions…usually during a frustrating business meeting in which someone stood in the way of a minute that seemed an obvious “yes” to me or demanded that we change the wording of something that my committee had long labored over in order to better reflect their spiritual understanding. I won’t tell you which direction I leaned because over the course of my relationship with Friends, I’ve inclined this way and that. When I came to Friends, I was a refugee from my evangelical Midwest Baptist upbringing and felt very uncomfortable with anything churchy. I grew to recognize my relationship with God and over time fell in love with Jesus. I spent a while as a Christian Quaker, focusing my attention on his life and ministry. My spiritual sojourn of the past few years has taken me into a couple of liberal Christian churches where I was warmly accepted and spiritually nurtured but where I found that I could no longer call myself a Christian because the miraculous birth and resurrection stories do not feel true to me the way they are understood to be, even among the most progressive Christian communities. Now I find Spirit everywhere, infusing everything. I engage in spiritual practice most often with Friends and am currently most edified in a Hindu Sunday School class studying the Bhagavad Gita.
And so I think about the times when I had an impulse to require a condition for belonging to the Religious Society of Friends and I know that I would be excluding who I was or would become at some point on my faith journey. I had a lot of religious trauma when I first came to Friends. I needed to feel safe from fear and judgment-based theology. Nashville Friends Meeting welcomed me as I was. I am extremely grateful that my meeting was woven through with a culture of “listening in tongues” so that diverse beliefs and understandings, including non-theism, New Age, Taoism, animism, and traditional Christianity were all accepted. I heard many different words for how folks connect with Spirit and learned a lovely variety of ways that Friends in my meeting experience their faith through waiting worship, ritual, activism, prayer, listening and caring for others. Hearing the diverse expressions of faith from the folks I respected, admired, and grew to love helped me to heal my acute sensitivity to Christian language and invited me to be curious about words and concepts that seemed at first very “woo-woo” to me. And now here I am, talking about Jesus and “woo-wooing” at the same time!
A couple of years ago, I was perplexed by non-theist Friends. I’d read Nat Case’s excellent essay in Aeon “I Contradict Myself” many times since discovering it and found it compelling and useful but I was still stuck. Why do folks who don’t believe in a Higher Power (or “higher power”, if you prefer) want to be part of a religious community? So I read a lot of blogposts written by non-theist Friends and I had conversations with folks who don’t believe in a god but who are firmly grounded in Quaker community and practices. And what I’ve found is individuals with a great deal of integrity.
What I see is that non-theist Friends are unwilling to use words that are not true for them and decline to claim experiences or relationships they do not know. They refuse to be thieves in the Margaret Fell sense: “We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves”. They will not force the unknowable into a box nor will they allow themselves to be forced into one. And yet, they are drawn to be in community with Friends. I will not speculate about why any individual might want to be a Friend. All I can say is that I know a good number of non-theist or atheist Friends and in my experience and my personal understanding, they help our communities reflect the fullness of God’s creation.
I believe that each one of us is uniquely created in the image of God. Because of that, we each have our own unique relationship with the Divine that reflects who we were created to be. Perhaps non-theists are manifesting an aspect of the Divine Mystery that is beyond words and logic and so defies description but is nonetheless true. I don’t know. What I do know is that being in communities that welcome Christian Friends, non-theist Friends, and the huge variety of hyphenated Friends feels most right to me. It is hard work to make each of us feel safe to bring our full selves into our shared spaces but my experience tells me that it is worth the effort.
What about you? Do you have an experience of “listening in tongues” or a story about diversity in Friends community that you would like to share?
If you would like, please share your responses to these questions in the forum.