Reproclaiming the Everlasting Gospel
Due to the public nature of my outreach through QuakerJane.com, I sometimes have readers pose interesting questions. Recently a liberal Friend expressed concern about the wave of Conservatism that was overtaking the US, and she feared, the Religious Society of Friends. After some back and forth, we worked out three questions that spoke to some of her concerns, which I then answered. Even though this is in reference to the branch of Conservative Quakerism in the US rather than New Foundation Fellowship work in particular, I am posting them here because I thought it might be a good discussion to include here.
1. Because they don't accept non-Christians as members, Conservative Friends are intolerant.
A Conservative Friend from Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative) once answered this accusation quite well in a blog discussion, which I will take quotes from below. I highly recommend thee read the entire discussion. (http://thegoodraisedup.blogspot.com/2007/03/unraveling-myths-about-...)
"James Riemermann's comment -- "it is not tolerant, to tolerate intolerance" -- also needs some responding to, I think. We might recall that the Society of Friends was founded as a body of people committed to a particular project, "primitive Christianity revived" in William Penn's famous words. As such, the Society had no obligation to include people as members who were not prepared to join in that project. To whatever degree that the Society remains dedicated to "primitive Christianity revived" -- as it does remain, outside liberal circles! -- it still has no obligation to include such people.
"Not including those who are not joining in the project is not "intolerance", it is merely maintaining the Society's chosen focus. The secular world outside the Society is a big place, and there is plenty of room in it for people who are not prepared to join in the Society's project. It is not like (say) racial intolerance in the Deep South in the 1930s, which left destitute Southern blacks with no avenue of escape.
"As should be apparent from these comments, I utterly disagree with RichardM's statement that "liberal inclusivist Christianity with a distrust of notions is just the right place to go". Christ's own Christianity was neither liberal nor conservative but prior to both; it was not inclusive nor exclusive but dedicated to a purpose which the rest of us were asked to make a choice about, either to join and help with or not. (It is significant that the Gospels record Christ as saying, both, "Those who are not with us are against us," and, "Those who are not against us are with us.") I personally think Christ's own Christianity is just the right place to go."
Historical Quakers and their religious faith and practice, which is what Conservative Friends are trying to "conserve" had room to allow American Indians to preserve their own faith and practice and not try to convert them to Quakerism, which is one of many reasons Quakers had good relations with them. But they are not allowed membership. In one thing, particular, this makes perfect sense. We still believe that our unity is in Christ, and when we seek the sense of the meeting during our meetings for business, we are seeking to know Christ's guidance in the matter. Anyone who is seeking anything else would not be actually participating in the process, and it would not be appropriate for them to join in.
2. Conservative Friends believe everyone who isn't a Christian is going to hell.
That one is easy to refute, because the book we turn to for our theology is Robert Barclay's Apology, written in the first generation of Friends. An online version of the entire work is available here: http://www.qhpress.org/texts/barclay/apology/, but I am going to point thy attention particularly to the fifth and sixth propositions: (http://www.qhpress.org/texts/barclay/apology/props5-6.html) "Concerning the Universal Redemption by Christ, and also the Saving and Spiritual Light wherewith every man is enlightened."
In it he explains, as Conservative Friends still hold, that we believe Christ to be a fact not a belief, the "Light which lighteth EVERY man which cometh into the world" (John 1:9). He is available to anyone. God wishes everyone to be obedient to his will and enables everyone to be capable of obedience by giving us the Christ Within to guide us and show us what the Lord would have us do. One does not have to know Christ's name or accept his reality, one has only to be obedient to his guidance, no matter what one calls it. That is how Friends of all ages have been able to say that there are, in essence, faithful Friends in every religious profession and non-profession throughout the world. That is the miracle of Jesus Christ's saving grace. People are saved not by magical incantation of words and water sprinkling, or by holding the correct beliefs in their heads, but by being obedient to the loving guidance the Lord provides, and we work our salvation each day as we are obedient. We do believe that those who turn their back on the Light Within will be condemned by it, but that is a choice, choosing evil over good, and we believe there are consequences to such choices beyond this world.
3. Liberal Friends are the spiritual inheritors of Quakerism, having evolved Quakerism to its logical and most loving expression. By not participating in and even rejecting this evolved version of Quakerism, Conservative Friends are rejecting enlightenment, love, tolerance, diversity and many good people.
I confess this one is rather painful for me. It is one of the joys of my life to feel I am experiencing the Everlasting Gospel, to read in ancient and worthy Friends their descriptions of their religious experiences and see them describing precisely the religious experiences I am having. I believe the Lord is happy for those of us who have such experiences to enjoy one another's company, to be able to use the religious language that speaks to our condition, and to assist one another on the spiritual path he has placed us upon. It can be painful for me to be among those who reject and deny Christ, having had my own life transformed from misery to happiness by his kind and generous guidance. I appreciate that the liberal Friends meetinghouses offer refuge to those who have been injured by false professors, false Christians. I am glad that liberal Friends meetinghouses are there to meet that need. I am selfishly more glad to have Conservative Friends to go among, to enjoy their ministry that speaks to my condition, and to be able to share my religious experiences in the language that most accurately describes it without having to ameliorate my language or make it comfortable for those who have been injured by other Christians and their Christian language.
I would like to point out that the Secretary General of the Friends General Conference, Bruce Birchard, recently apologized on behalf of his branch of Quakerism for just such thoughts: (http://www.fgcquaker.org/enewsletter/v2/i2/apology)
"I know there have been times when I, and I believe other Friends within the FGC-affiliated meetings, have expressed a feeling that we have “grown beyond” the use of scripture and a personal commitment to Jesus, or Jesus Christ. This often comes out sounding as if we are “too educated” to take all that seriously. It is a kind of elitism, and I suspect it has caused much pain. I want you to know that, over the many years I have been participating in these annual retreats, I have learned a great deal from you. My spiritual journey has been deeply enriched by the faith, and the kind of faith, that you have expressed and lived. I want to apologize for any times I, and others from my branch of Friends, have made you and others in your branches feel “put down” in such a way."