Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ensuring the Future of Liberal Quakerism: Transmission or Transformation?


I have been greatly nurtured by liberal Quakerism. But, like many liberal, Protestant faiths, Quakerism appears to be in trouble. Our numbers have been dropping steadily. And, if we continue to lose members at the current rate, it is believed that liberal Quakerism could cease to exist in our lifetimes.

Even so, I am not particularly interested in transmitting traditional Quakerism to future generations. What does interest me is seeing Quakerism transform. Continued transformation is the only way to ensure a religion’s future.

I believe that all religions are a partial understanding of something bigger that is in itself ultimately unknowable. Each religion, like the blind men and the elephant, sees a part of the whole but none is sufficient in and of itself.

If one sees Quakerism as the one true faith, as the religion “once delivered to the saints,” then faithful transmission is essential. But if Quakerism, like all religions, is a partial but incomplete understanding, isn’t spirit-led change something to be desired and encouraged?
Quakerism, of course, has gone through several transformations already. For example, there was the Quietist period, the evangelical transformation and most recently the modernist reformulation engineered by Rufus Jones and Howard Brinton.

If the modern remaking of Quakerism has just about played itself out, as many people think, the question arises, “Where do we go from here?”

Religion is every bit as much a human as a divine construction and, as such, religions can be typed in some of the same ways as human personalities. Quakerism, for example, where we turn inward in our unadorned buildings to discern the promptings of spirit, life or truth is a particularly introverted and intuitive religion.

This contrasts sharply with much of the rest of American religion which tends to be more extroverted and sensate (appealing to the senses). For example, consider the typical Christian church adorned with symbols, focused on the pastor’s explication of the word or conducting of sacraments, hymns, choir anthems, etc. The focus is largely outward, except for brief moments of silent prayer. Consider also how Christian churches tend to appeal to the senses: lofty ceilings, stained glass, religious symbols, “smells and bells.”

We sometimes forget just how different our form of worship is and how relatively small a portion of the population it is likely to appeal to. It is estimated that only 30% of the population are introverts. Intuitives also make up 30% of the population, with sensors coming in at 70%. Is it any wonder that Quakerism has remained a marginal religion?

If there is any religion intentionally designed to evolve and transform, it is Quakerism. Earlier Friends rejected fixed creeds, hierarchy and extensive church infrastructure. Instead, they placed the emphasis on individual and group discernment, a continuing attention to the ever changing movement of the spirit or life. After nearly 400 years of prophetic Quakerism, I find it surprising that we haven’t evolved any more than we have?

Carl Jung once stated that “Religion is a defense against an experience of God.” What he meant, I think, is that we can become so attached to our Quaker ideas and concepts that we totally miss where life is calling us now.

There is a problem when vocal ministry in Meeting for Worship becomes safe and predictable. Worship should not become a time for recycling old Quaker ideas over and over again. The spirit is always fresh and often speaks to us in new and surprising ways.

No, I will leave transmission of Quakerism to others. I will work for its transformation.

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