Accepting Wallace’s Challenge

{jcomments lock} Note: Friend Jerry Rudolph and I have exchanged a series of comments appended to his January 2nd post, “Response to Wallace Article in Friends Journal” (see comments 3 and 4). What follows is a slightly edited version of my comment number 6, which I wanted to share more widely.

–Mike Shell

Friend Jerry,

Following your January 7th reply to my Comment #3, I spent several days working over what I now recognize was merely a “defense of my defense of Wallace,” rather than a spirit-led response to the concerns which you clarified in your comment of January 7th. Instead of continuing with that academic exercise, it seems more important to do what Wallace challenges us to do, and to voice my own convictions in the context of your concerns.

First, I believe that Quakerism is neither a theology nor a political philosophy, but rather a spiritual discipline, grounded in the Christian tradition, which aspires to ever greater objectivity about the intersection of the spiritual and the material in human consciousness and action.

Second, I believe that every imagined pair of opposites actually draws our attention to a continuum of partial truths along one dimension, and that arguing for either/or prevents us from perceiving and affirming the greater unity.

You summarize well much of what I appreciate about Wallace’s criticism of tendencies he observes among some liberal Friends:

  • over-intellectual focus
  • over-reliance on political solutions
  • lack of convictions—I would say, rather, reluctance to give public voice to convictions
  • over-reliance on talk rather than on concrete, strategic sacrifice (e.g., Woolman’s avoidance of slave-produced goods).

I want to emphasize two more of Wallace’s themes.

First, our tendency to “homogenize” public religious statements arises in part from our wanting “to avoid any challenge or conflict” (what I used to call practicing the “niceness testimony”) and in part from our wanting to “avoid the difficult and uncomfortable struggle of seeking and finding God, and… seeking and doing God’s will.”

I observe both of these hesitations in myself all the time—and particularly when I am in situations in which I ought to voice explicit convictions for the sake of someone else. Two quick examples:

  • non-Quakers ask me what Quakers (and I in particular) believe
  • my evangelical Christian sister asks me questions arising from her own convictions.
Second, when we avoid voicing specific convictions out of our desire to practice a universal inclusiveness (my phrase, not Wallace’s), this circumspection can have at least two harmful results:
  • we fail to learn from genuine dialog with those who believe differently than we do
  • we (unintentionally) insult others by the implication that they cannot deal kindly with disagreement or conflict (see Wallace’s example of the Muslim student who said, “That reasoning treats people of others faiths…as bigots. It assumes we will be offended.”).

As for positing that Wallace would advocate “abandoning our current world view…and adopting the world view of Paul…and some other beliefs that the Church has defended,” I don’t find that inference in the article. I do find a cautionary note about bias against self-identified Christians and other dissenters from the popular opinions which liberal Quakers tend to share.

More pointedly, I find a historically accurate reminder that the first Quakers were not polite Rufus Jones-style mystics, but folks who considered themselves to be Friends of Jesus. This brings me to the tender, growing edge of my own faith and practice.

All people are born into a native religious language. Not only the first Quakers, but also all of us modern Quaker refugees from conventional Christian upbringings were born into a community and a biblical tradition which gave our infant minds their first songs and stories and names and words and concepts for talking about our human intersection with the divine.

Unless they traveled beyond Christian realms (as some of the boldest of them did), the first Quakers had no option but to take the Christian language of 17th century Europe with them as they settled down in despair and hope to wait for new revelation. In that refiner’s fire, as they let their home culture’s theological notions be burned away, and then as they let their own ego pretenses be burned away, they discovered—not atonement theology, but a living divine Presence which could comfort and teach them and lead them up from the darkness in which failed human religions had left them.

Furthermore, because they already knew of him from their Christian upbringing, they discovered that they could give the name of the historical Jesus—not the theological “Jesus” but the living person—to this Presence. They discovered that, beneath the learned theological notions, they had always known what this real person was like, because the reality of him is more powerful, more cleansing to the heart, than human theologies can be. In knowing him, they knew what genuine human intersection with the divine could be.

I have just described to you my own experience, over the twenty-some years I was “in the Church” and the thirty-some years since I told myself I had left. Unlike those boldest first Friends, I quested out beyond Christian realms before I was sure of the real Jesus. Yet he went along with me, because I had actually known him from childhood.

I do not believe that those born to other native religious languages need to adopt Christian language. I believe they need to settle into whatever refiner’s fire is meant for them—and, in time, to meet there the same Presence, by whatever name, that I and all
those early Quakers have met.

I say the same for those born to the Christian language who have been burned too badly by the outer forms and doings of religion. I say the same for nontheist and secular folk. Whatever language, whatever purer fire they are drawn to, they should step into it boldly and let it do its cleansing work.

It does not matter what names we use, for names are mere human inventions to point clumsily to realities. Even to blesséd realities to which we long to lead our fellows.

In Jesus,

Blesséd Be,