Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Quaker Ontology

What it boils down to is, what does it mean to be a Quaker?

Mark quite rightly called me on name-calling. I said "But here I am, gettin' pissed off. And not against small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians." My intent was to say I was not getting angry at our typical liberal strawman, the evangelical. And I should point out that I was not saying "Christians are small-minded, homophobic, filled with hate, cling to guns and bibles, and spout fire and brimstone." I'd say none of my self-identifying Christian friends exhibit any of these qualities.

So why was that name-calling? Because I was conjuring up a sub group of Christians, identifying them, and then smearing them. I was doing the same thing the Outgoing Occupant has done in defining our countries' enemies as "terrorists." I was simultaneously creating an identity group and tarring it wholesale.

"Name-calling" is a weird phrase. I call all kinds of things by name, not all of them names they had before (I've been reading Roald Dahl's The BFG to our son and am greatly enjoying the BFG's wholesale creation of new words for things like snozzcumbers). But calling something by name is different than name-calling. Or is it?

When I decided to request membership the Society of Friends, I was asking to be recognized with a name, Quaker. I was accepting that I was growing into being part of an identity group. Membership is a formal process, but it usually reflects a longer informal process of becoming. The question is, though, what are we becoming? That's where a lot of the current sturm and drang comes from, I think. At least that's the root of my sturm and drang.

I don't believe I am becoming a Christian. I am in an environment, both in my marriage and in meeting, where I am in communion with Christians, but I do not identify as one and am uninterested in being identified as one. Now, I have absorbed much of the story, the teachings and the example of Jesus, but I have absorbed a lot of other stories, and I do not wish to privelege Jesus's stories above others I find meaningful, nor his life, nor his teachings.

And I do not like feeling I must define myself as a "non-Christian Quaker," any more than I like being labeled a "non-theist." Which is about as much as a Christian Quaker would like to be defined as a "non-secularist" or a "non-humanist" or a "non-snozzwangler." No one likes to be defined by a negative, at root. And yet here we are, Protestant (protesting against the Roman church), non-theist/a-theist, secularist (not sacred) type people. I like being able to say I am a Quaker. I plan to keep saying it.

Well, probably I plan to. Here's the problem for me: by naming myself part of this identity group, I risk making membership in the group more important than truth. I think this is a risk in any group, and indeed any naming: we name something, or measure something, and then we apply the name or measurement back onto the thing itself. It's a basic human trait, certainly not particular to Friends, but it's one that especially in other conversations on this blog I am growing to recognize as inherently destructive of perceiving truth.

In this instance, we are Quakers because we say we are Quakers. We come together. But then we try to ferret out what exactly we have in common as Quakers. Once we have decided that, what happens when one of our number, or we ourselves, deviate from that definition? We are forced (or force ourselves) to get back in line, or are shown (or show ourselves) the back door.

And why is this? What makes this happen? I think it is, simply, human nature. We form groups. We want to reassure ourselves, through formalizing, that these groups have some basis in meaning, that they have definition. And once we are assured of this, we don't want to let it go. I've certainly seen, in myself and others in meeting, a deep anxiety over not maintaining some sort of definition. Just letting it be, letting just anybody (or any idea) in makes the experience of our community and its work somehow paler and less interesting. Emptier.

I hold this up. I've got no answer. It's a Quandary and a Query. It warrants more sitting with, I think.


Mark Wutka said...

I wrestle with similar questions. I do consider myself a Christian, and ultimately, while I do consider myself Quaker, I consider the most important thing is to follow the leading of Christ in my heart - as opposed to "being a Quaker".

Your mention of defining ourselves by what we are not also resonated with me. We have to be able to say "this is what we are". How many times, when people say "What's a Quaker?" do we say things like "well, we worship together, but we don't have a pre-planned order of worship, we don't do this, we don't do that ...".

For me, what feels empty about not having a definition is that you really don't have a reason to do what you are doing. For me, the process of waiting in the Light is one of being "conformed into the image of Christ" - that is, there is a process of improvement going on, in which I should expect to exhibit more "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness and self-control". Having come to Friends while coming out of 15 years of being agnostic (and non-theist at times), I am able to see how I have been changed, and not worry so much about where other people are - except that I strongly believe that we must continue to be led and changed by the Spirit.

Thank you again for sharing this process you are going through. You can see it has spawned a lot of discussion, but I also think it is an experience that many people share in different forms, and it helps to see how you have wrestled with it.

With love,

natcase said...

Mark, I want to commend to you really thinking about what you mean by "definition." In particular, look at a blog entry from July.

We like to think that categories are defined by common qualities ("blue paper") or by some sanctioned classification ("citizen" or "registered alien"). What the paper it refers to points out, is that much of the way we really work is through exemplary categories: there may be a structural justification for classifying some creatures as "birds" but in our cognitive systems, we start with "typical" birds like sparrows and crows and work our way out to ostriches and penguins.

I think Quakers, at root, are the same way: we are all headed toward a common goal, from a whole lot of different directions. That common goal is Truth. Some people, coming from a Christian point of view, see that truth as coming from the person and/or teachings of Jesus (and some say that that is in fact the only Truth, and I have serious problems with them, but honestly I don't really think there are any with this point of view in my meeting). Some people come from a Buddhist point of view, some from a theist but not specifically Jesus-centered point of view, some come from a science-based point of view. Me, I come from all over the map: a little Taoist, a little mystical Christian, a little science, a little esoteric cosmology, a little fiction...

At the clearness committee I served on earlier this year, the proposition was made that what we are all centered on, what we are all aimed at, is the Friends Testimonies. I think these are definitely core pieces of our understandings as a group, but I want to argue that these are themselves grouped around this core of Truth. They are, at root, about as close as we have been able to get to that Truth and still use words that relate to the world around us. But we keep trying to get closer.

Mark Wutka said...

"Me, I come from all over the map"
Ha ha!

About 20 years ago, when "Fuzzy Logic" was a popular concept, I remember reading about something similar to the bird categorization in the blog entry you mentioned. The idea was sort of "an apple isn't an orange, but it is more of an orange than it is a volkswagen".

I understand that categories can be somewhat fuzzy. Robins and bluejays may be more alike than ducks and penguins. Now, how well do you think a community of robins, ducks, penguins and ostriches would do together? Can the robin give the penguin help with swimming? Can the penguin help the ostrich run faster? If their reason for being together in a community is to be birds together, fine, they are already birds. If they are trying to be better birds, to what extent does the community help them?

Imagine the Truth is a mountain, and we are all trying to reach the top via different paths. Are we really climbing together? Can someone on the other side of the mountain warn me about loose boulders, or give me a suggestion for getting around a particular icy place?

I think with respect to what I mean by "definition" is not just "where are we going?" but "how do we get there?" (this would seem to be creeping again into your map-making world)

With love,

natcase said...

Mark: I've really been enjoying and appreciating this back and forth. It has been real pleasure talking with you and I hope you stick around!

That's a very good analogy, the mountain. But it isn't one I resonate with in my spiritual life. Maybe that's where we (lovingly) differ. I don't want to "summit," odd as that may sound. The "summiting" that is such a core part of much of Christian orthodoxy leaves me cold and uninterested: being saved, joining God, getting to Heaven...

I do believe in grace, actually. I think it's all around us, falling like dust. I really really like Phillip Pullman's invention of Dust, an elementary particle in his stories he links with consciousness.

I'm more interested in exploring the territory than in climbing the mountain. Which suggests a different sort of teamwork, I think.

All this is very clarifying. Full blog entry to come on vertical and horizontal ways of thinking of approaching the divine. You are working here (I believe) on a vertical aproach. I am a horizontalist.

I want to clarify something about categories, where I don't think I was fully understood. I'm not talking about fuzzy categories (I don't think); I'm talking about meanings based on examplars rather than definitions. It's not a question of whether "robins and bluejays may be more alike than ducks and penguins", but of when I ask you to close your eyes and think of a bird, chances are you will not be thinking of a kiwi or a roseate spoonbill. In this mode of thinking, bats are birds, which is not true in a biological sense, which is based on categorical taxonomy.

The point of this is, the way our brains work starts with this exemplar-based way of thinking about things, and this is corrected and often overtaken by categorical thinking. But it still holds a lot of sway in terms of how we tick.

How does this apply to Quakers? My suggestion is that as we disclaim creeds, we find ourselves thrown back on this sense of "more like this, less like that" identity. When (if) we radically disclaim not only creed but theology as an identifying mark, this tendency gets even stronger. What holds us together then? Aim or orientation, like metal filings around a magnet. And the question is, is the magnet in fact defined by a name, or are we defined by the single fact of our surrounding it, a fact we share one way or another with all humans.

I hope this is useful.

James Riemermann said...

Rather than categorical definitions or "aim or orientation" as ways to decide what a Quaker is, I'm going to trot out my personal favorite: a Quaker is one who shows up and takes part.

I know it doesn't carry much information. You can't tell a damned thing from a "definition" like that, and yet it's the one we use, almost exclusively, for deciding who is in our community. This is the way it actually works.

We can't tell what is inside a fellow Friends' head. In fact a great deal of most of our fellow Friends' external behavior is largely opaque to us, since we don't all live in the same house, work in the same building, or sleep in the same bed. We get a sense, more or less accurate depending on the transparency of the personality, of who people are and what they are like, that we could use to decide who is a Quaker among us and who is not. But do we really want to do that?

"Showing up and taking part" makes for an incredibly porous community, and the quality of our "gathered people" can be transformed a great deal just by different people walking through the doors. I've seen this happen quite a bit in my time with Friends. It is scary, it could at some point transform our community into something I couldn't stay with, but I think it is alive and real in a way that reflects humanity itself.

Now there are, and I do see, common human qualities among Friends I know that contribute to the richness and beauty of that amorphous community. Love and forgiveness and humility and listening all play a part (if I had to name a core quality it would be listening, but I don't have to name one so I won't); arrogance and meanness diminish what we are doing together. Our practice of worship and business help us greatly to maintain these qualities.

But the idea of us figuring out what a Quaker is so we can distinguish between those of us who are real Quakers, and those of us who aren't...it just leaves me cold. I don't want to do it.

James Riemermann said...

Sorry to post twice in a row, but, Nat, I just read more carefully your last comment, and particularly the phrase "defined by the single fact of our surrounding it." I wonder if that's exactly what I mean by "those who show up and take part." Quakerism 'r' us.

Mark Wutka said...

I have very much enjoyed the discussion as well!

You might misunderstand some of what I think of as a summit, although "joining God" seems pretty close. I don't think it has anything to do with "do this, or say that in order to get to Heaven". I do think that the "summit" is allowing myself to be transformed, changed for the better, and that through what I say and do, others might also experience that same Spirit that is working in me. I understand if that doesn't resonate with you, but I also understand that concept to have been an integral part of Quakerism from the beginning, and at least surviving the Hicksite-Orthodox split - I'm not sure how it fared with the followers of Gurney a generation later. So I have to ask why it is okay
to give up on that?

I have been wrestling all morning with the category stuff, but in the end I feel, as you said in the original entry here "It warrants more sitting with".

I look forward to your horizontal/vertical blog entry!

With love,

Mark Wutka said...

On one level I agree with "showing up and taking part" - that is certainly necessary in an experiential community. But what does it mean to take part? Take part in what? If I want to do blacksmithing in the middle of meeting am I taking part? If you tell me to stop, are you telling me I'm not a real Quaker? That's where I have a problem with your definition.

I also think that it is possible for a community to say "this is what we do and where we are going" and still allow people to be a part of the community who aren't yet in sync with that.
With love,

James Riemermann said...


I agree, I've not said what I mean by taking part, and I don't mean that absolutely anything goes. I do mean we should strive for openness a great deal we haven't seen yet, to take the risk of someone coming and doing something that shakes us. We need that courage to stay alive as a community.

Nat's story in an earlier post touches on this, where "Twin Cities Meeting asked someone not to return after she made some extremely heartfelt but (to many present) hurtful and even threatening statements in meeting about homosexuality."

As a meeting we learned something in that encounter: showing up and delivering a monologue denigrating everyone and condemning us to hell, is not taking part. That is not what we do. That decision was painful for many of us, but I think we did right. I also think we were right to labor over it as we did. I don' think we were telling them they were not Quakers--that really wasn't at issue. We were telling them they cannot do what they had been doing in our meeting.

So, a few things this tells me: we don't know what is enough until we know what is too much. Also, the limits we discovered/created were not about beliefs but about behavior. These folks were not banned from our meeting because of what they believed, but because of what they did, and what they would not stop doing after our sincere laboring with them.

Mark Wutka said...

Thanks, James, I much appreciate how you fit that story in with what you are trying to say. That context helps me understand where you are coming from a little better, and it doesn't sound as chaotic as it first did to me.
With love,

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Well, Nat, as you know, I try to be precise in my speech as much as I am able, so as not to mislead or misrepresent.

And in my pursuit of precision, I have found that there are "Quakers" and there are "Friends", and the two are not defined the same way.

"Quaker", as applied to human beings, is basically defined the same way in every dictionary I've looked at, and also by at least one Quaker book of discipline, as "a member of the Religious Society of Friends". George Fox traced the usage back to a derisive comment by a judge, and prior to the nineteenth century I know of no evidence that Friends ever liked the name. (When early Friends themselves used it, it was framed in such language as "the People of God Called in Scorn Quakers".)

Now, in fact, our membership doesn't reside in the Society, it resides in the local community, the monthly meeting. (There are some who do not have a local meeting, but become affiliated with FWCC, but I don't want to get into that right now.) But the idea of membership is key. One becomes a Quaker by being accepted into a shared group identity with others who are Quakers, by those same Quakers.

So "Quaker" is by definition simple and straightforward, cut and dried. You got membership? Okay, you qualify. You don't, you don't. Other considerations, like behavior, are clearly secondary, which is precisely why disowning those who had membership, but then ceased to behave in an exemplary manner, used to be so important. The behavioral meaning of "Quaker" was observed in the behavior of those who were members, rather than being written into the definition, and so the right to membership had to be policed accordingly.

When, in the past, I've said the things above in other settings, I have heard complaints from people who don't have membership but who nevertheless feel themselves entitled to the term. All I'm going to say about that is, I don't care to participate in the general cheapening of the term. I can't stop them from calling themselves "Quakers" if they want to. But for myself, while I will happily describe them as "attenders", "regular attenders", or "valued attenders", I have a stop in my mind and heart against going further: it seems to me that "fuzzy membership" does not serve the cause of Truth.

I could go on and talk about the meaning of "Friend", but this comment is long enough already!

Daniel Wilcox said...

The word "Quaker" has become like the word "Christian" a term that means almost anything. Since I first became involved with Friends in 1967 when doing my C.O. time in Pennsylvania, I have observed Quakers support everything from nuclear weapons to suicide, actually claim that there is no Ultimate Truth to worship or love, yet practice weekly worship (to whom?), reject most of the theological distinctives of early Friends and adopt Fundamentalistic theology, etc.

I became so disillusioned by all of this dilution of the terms that I stopped calling myself a Friend and Christian because people almost always got the wrong idea of what I meant.

But that didn't work so I began to hyphenate. But that becomes confusing too. Here's where that would have to lead me: I am a very-liberal-nonfundametalistic-Christian-in-some-ways-Hicksite-in-some-Guerneyite--unprogrammed-mission-and-evangelistic-but-not-proselytizing-antiwar-anti-abortion-anticapitalpunishment-anti-suicide-pro-environment...Quaker;-)

Well, you see that becomes a ridiculously long monologue and I've never actually said all of that together, though eventually I have to explain it.

And that takes us back to daily life where while the term means almost anything, we just do need to identifiy as Quaker and then get into a conversation and say what the term means to us.

I am on the inclusivist side. Let anyone who wants to identify as Quaker do so. Maybe he or she will begin to yield to the Spirit of God and become all that the term originally meant: to quake before God; and what 'Friend' originally meant: being a Friend of God and Jesus (as Jesus says in the Gospel of John).

And that my Friends is the Good News, not that we have decided who is 'in' or 'out' but that God is drawing people to the Light that we might be little seeds to the nations:-)

Daniel Wilcox

David Carl said...

Daniel speaks my mind, as I wandered into a Quaker meeting thinking it was a nice place to do my Zen-like meditation, and was encouraged (as a former Unitarian-Universalist) by finding Quaker Universalist tracts lying around. I stayed on and fell in love with Quaker Christianity (not a self-defining category, I know, but 'nuff said about that for now).

At the same time, I'm becoming less "liberal," I suppose, about the idea that Quakerism is a blank slate that is waiting to be written upon with the marker of personal preference. There is a "there" there, and the particularity of it has value. Part of that particularity is still a form of universalism, though I don't want to get into exactly what that means at the moment. Another piece of that particularity is that it is very "process" oriented (though I'm growing to dislike the p-word -- any suggestions for replacement will be welcomed). So for me, the particularity is not about whether Jesus actually arose from the dead, but about how we maintain love and unity among ourselves when we disagree about that.

Another piece of this for me as a Quaker Christian is that I am lovingly firm about attempts to de-Christianize the society. This is not necessarily because I believe that Christianity is "better" than some other religion or philosophy. Rather its more a matter of maintaining the integrity of the Society as a unique and gift-offering spiritual path. And its more about inclusion than exclusion. If "Christians" are people who chase you away because you don't have the same conceptual framework than they do, than neither do I want to be that type of Christian. And I fully recognize that a human being who is following the "Christ within" is not necessarily "wrong" for failing to think of it in those terms.

On the other hand, when my fellow Friends and attenders "reject Christianity" because it means "X," I usually find that my understanding of Christianity is that it doesn't mean "X" at all. So my "loving firmness" is not about trying to get anyone removed from the meeting hall, but more about gently asserting the positive, loving, and inclusive message of Quaker Christianity when that tradition is maligned or unfairly lumped with some other tradition. (I don't deny the existence of grounds for "fair" criticism of the Society, though I haven't had much local experience with that).

To wrap up a long comment, I also believe that a lot of the intellectual and definitional problems that we are wrestling with here are best addressed by "more worship." Our one-hour a week habit is insufficient to make inroads against the clamorous and over-busy culture in which we live. I once attended a meditation session with a Chinese Buddhist monk. In the Q&A session afterward, he answered each and every question with "keep meditating."

Keep worshipping, Friends. Let love and unity be maintained among us.

David Carl

Marshall Massey said...

Interesting to see this conversation still limping along!

"Inclusion" appears to be a liberal-Quaker thing. As far as I can tell, it was not a principle of Quakerism before secular liberal ideas began to dominate in Quaker decision-making.

In earlier periods, which is to say, before the late nineteenth century, everyone was welcome to attend Quaker meetings — absolutely everyone, even Friends who had been disowned, and certainly including public sinners and unbelievers. But the distinction between "attender" and "member" was carefully guarded. Attenders were not admitted to membership unless and until the meeting felt their conduct & conversation showed clear signs of "convincement", which meant submission to the guidance of Christ. And only members could participate in meeting decision-making.

Thus, in that time, no one was turned away from the community, but the identity of Quakerism as a witness for Christ was protected. The overriding principle that made this best-of-both-worlds arrangement possible was neither inclusion nor exclusion, but kindly Christian discernment.

"Inclusion" has erased that protection of Quakerism's identity. Liberals admit that this is so, but rather than discuss how their new system compares with the old, they discuss how it compares with an imaginary "exclusion" that, in fact, Friends never practiced. I find this interesting.

David Carl said...

Hi Marshall,

That is interesting. In my experience, though, the true foil is not what traditional Friends might have done, as few of us in our fairly liberal meeting have had any experience with that. The reaction, I have found, is more based on what these Friends have experienced in or from other denominations. My own struggles on the road to Christianity were of this nature, though having been raised a Unitarian-Universalist, my exposure to anything Christian was rather second-hand and attenuated.



natcase said...

Joanna asked me to post this for her (she'd had trouble getting Blogger to accept her comment.):

Mark W, thanks for this: "I also think that it is possible for a community to say "this is what we do and where we are going" and still allow people to be a part of the community who aren't yet in sync with that." That is what I wish we could do.

For me 'what we do" is listening attentively for God's guidance (inserting Christ, Spirit, Divine or something else in place of God's wouldn't matter much) and then acting on it faithfully, however inexplicable, unpleasant or unpopular it may be.

I've been part of Quaker groups that shared this understanding and very little else, and found that we were able to worship deeply together, support each other and hold each other accountable across huge political, theological and personal divides. And I have been part of Quaker groups where some participants found Spirit to be irrelevant and the basic agreement seemed to be that we will also listen kindly to one another. That is a good thing, and I think our society (and Society) could use more of it, but I don't find that it has the same unitive and transformative potential.

Joanna: I think the problem was using greater-than and lesser-than signs for quotes. Blogger reads these as elements of HTML tags.