One cost of our theological diversity
02/10/2019 § 23 Comments
The theme of the December 2018 issue of Friends Journal was “Quakers and Christianity.” I enjoyed it very much, and I can tell from subsequent letters columns that it was carefully read by Friends of many theologies — so I suspect it has made many good conversations possible.
In reflecting on my experience as a Friend who is Christian, I became aware of one aspect of the experience of being a Christian Quaker that was not addressed, and that is, the ways in which the diversity in our meetings can inhibit spiritual growth.
This reflection arose, I think, because of the principle emphasis, in the articles, on individual belief. This is, of course, an important part of the picture — but it’s not the whole picture. Now, Elizabeth Boardman (page 31) does place herself (as a post-Christian, post-theist Friend) in the kaleidescope of her meeting’s diversity:
Almost everyone looks for a community to belong to. Some will adhere to a group that hates and hurts other people, and they should be urged to change their ways. My own tribe, the unprogrammed Quakers, lets others go their own ways, respected and unharmed. Operating primarily in an “adult” mode, Quakers even let me follow my own path as a post-Christian and post-theist. I am grateful.
In this passage, the meeting’s gift to Elizabeth Boardman is spiritual hospitality, in the form of an unpressing acceptance. I know that she speaks for many, and this hospitality has allowed many to seek, grow, and change over the years.
I have to say, however, that being a Christian in a liberal, hospitable meeting can feel lonely sometimes. Since Christianity has occupied a position of cultural power in Western civilization, it is no wonder that people who feel no connection to it could be irritated, disturbed, or otherwise bothered by Christian Quakers, and I have known times when it was clear that speaking as a Christian was “not done.” I have known others who have been put down for doing so, though I have mostly not experienced that.
But this is not the point I want to make. Rather I am aware that a certain level of fellowship or companionship is missing. It can take a lifetime, I find, to explore the implications and meaning of the gospel life, to experience such a renewing of the mind that one can grow into the life of Christ, see and learn to honor the Sophia of God, the Logos in its appearing in humans, and in creation, and in ourselves in our measure. Fellowship with others who are following that same path ( a path “traditionally held by Friends”) is nourishing, stimulating, and educative in, well, particular ways. Fellowship with earnest seekers who understand their paths differently is also precious, and indeed necessary — but not the same.
Now, I love where the life of God is springing up in my Friends and anyone else in which I am graced to feel it, and give thanks for their faithfulness and clarity, which often exceeds mine (“Not everyone that says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but those that do the will of my Father that is in Heaven”). I am grateful, and not surprised, when I feel us gathered into the Presence that is beyond words and names.
Yet when I find myself with a friend or in a meeting where there is a common acceptance of Jesus’ invitation (“Take my yoke upon you and learn of me.”), so that we can explore together our experience as learners in the school of Christ, I feel a sense of relief, and opening, which is strengthening, refreshing, and instructive, and I think, What if my meeting were such a community? It would not be a utopia, surely; not without conflict, or confusion, or even sin. There would, however, be possibilities for mutual comfort, encouragement, and challenge that come from having a shared language.
When I have been in a situation where English not the principal language spoken, I have been able (in my degree) to communicate in the other idiom, and there is deep pleasure in doing so, but it can be hard work. It is also notoriously true that there are some things which come very close to the heart that are difficult to share across language boundaries — some kinds of humor, for example; or poetry.