Terry Wallace, in his article, “Misunderstanding Quaker Faith and Practice ” in Friends Journal, tried to correct what he sees as limitations of the unprogrammed Friends tradition, but I think he instead displayed a misunderstanding of the unprogrammed tradition, its opposition to creeds, its use of the Bible, and many other things.
First of all, those who follow the unprogrammed tradition cover a broad range of beliefs including some quite conservative beliefs about theology. The theological beliefs of some, especially some in the conservative yearly meetings, may be virtually identical to those of Terry Wallace, apart from the unprogrammed worship practice. It could also be argued that the unprogrammed tradition is the more conservative in terms of conserving the worship practices of early Quakers.
More importantly, the article shows a misunderstanding of unprogrammed Quaker attitudes about creeds. To say that I believe something does not mean I am stating a creed. My personal objection to creeds is based on a belief that divine reality is present now and is continually being revealed. Creeds fail miserably in capturing this reality. Creeds are concepts, statements, and ideas about truth and are based on an assumption that concepts can capture the essence of divine reality as it has been revealed and that future revelations of truth that would require changes to these statements are not possible. Concepts point to truths; they are not the truths themselves.
Our attempts to understand our religious experiences and to formulate concepts that explain and communicate them can change as we mature and as more of God’s truth is revealed to us. I am reminded of a Chinese parable that warns against gluing the tuning pegs on your zither. Beliefs change as a person matures and understanding changes.
Even worse than being an attempt to freeze a set of beliefs as unchanging truth, a creed is also about defining the acceptability of someone as part of a group. Without creeds you cannot have heresy, and without heresy you cannot have orthodoxy. And without orthodoxy you cannot control the beliefs of people who want to be part of your group. It is like using a trump card to shut off discussion. A simple statement of a belief, as was done by the authors of the poster and postcards at Philadelphia Yearly Meeting that Wallace used as an example of a creed, is certainly not a creed.
This does not mean we don’t have a kind of orthodoxy and heresy. But they tend to be more about unstated assumptions than about formulated beliefs. Someone trying to put up an American flag in many Quaker meetings would violate such an orthodoxy. Making a comparison of the blind obedience of suicide bombers who kill innocent people to the blind obedience of Air Force pilots who kill innocent people as they bomb cities is more likely to violate the stronger orthodoxies among more nationalistic Quakers.
I grew up in a conservative Christian tradition but am now a member of a Friends Meeting. However, there are many in that conservative Church back home who seem to be truly in touch with God, are deeply concerned about others, and who sincerely work to follow the teachings of Jesus. However, many of those people have conceptual understandings of the nature of God and reality that I cannot believe. I have also met devout people of other religions whose explanations of reality may differ from mine, but whose experience of truth I do not question. But the differences in our notions about the nature of God is not so important. Of course, one’s understanding is important to following a path to this divine reality, and there are many false paths. But still, there are many ways to that divine truth that is beyond all concepts, notions, and statements. I think William Penn spoke well in “Fruits of Solitude” when he stated, “The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious and devout souls are everywhere of one religion.”
The explanation that Wallace gives about unprogrammed Friends’ attitude toward the Bible misses the main point of the difference between us and many other Christian traditions. It is not about whether the Bible is elevated above all other books or not. It is about the issues of authority and defining what beliefs are acceptable. It is the same issue that divided Quakers from other protestants in England who were appealing to the authority of the Bible as they separated from the Church of England. They used the term “Word of God” in a manner similar to their use of creeds. Believing that the individual could know God without the interceding of priests, sacraments, or biblical authority was too radical for most protestants then and today.
It is true that many Friends whom I know tend to have limited knowledge of the Bible and we would do well to focus more on the teachings found there. Yet, Wallace would have done better to include a discussion of the issue of scriptural authority in comparison to the view of other protestants.
Wallace also spoke of why unprogrammed friends have come to accept what he calls “simplistic falsehoods.” Of course, there are many Quakers and non-Quakers who avoid real investigation of beliefs with people by resorting to vague generalizations, strong language that might silence opposition, expressions of indignation, and other means. It would be easy to find such avoidance of real discussion in any tradition. But Wallace talks more about the symptoms than the reasons for many in the non-conservative unprogrammed traditions avoidance of theological discussion.
The lack of interest in theological discussions among unprogrammed meeting attenders and members is to some extent a reaction to what they see as unquestioning acceptance of belief systems among conservative Christians. It is also about the dichotomy they see in the behavior and the stated beliefs of many right-wing Christian groups.
Attitudes of less conservative unprogrammed meetings are less about bitterness over colonialism, racism, and violence over the last five centuries, as Wallace suggests, and more about distress over the economic colonialism of American policy today and the racism and violence that allows our nation to kill hundreds of thousands of people today for the benefit of a few. It is about the religious right wanting to post the ten commandments everywhere while supporting the death penalty and the bombing of cities. It is about hearing about trusting in Jesus from the religious right while we see them trusting instead in military power, prosperity, and the use of force. It is about selecting passages in the Bible to support hatred of gays while ignoring Jesus’ emphasis on serving the poor, the hungry, and the imprisoned. The discomfort is not just about theology; it is also about a desire to distance themselves from the religious right.
But even aside from the civil religion we see in the religious right, the discussion of theology can be short-lived when it includes the questions of why should we believe such things as the authority of the Bible, the virginity of Mary, the bodily resurrection of Christ a priori on a faith in the teachings of the Church. The Bible is mixed with truth that is eternal as well as the biblical writers’ attempt to make sense of the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus from a world view of 2000 years ago. It takes a willingness to put those a priori beliefs of both sides on the table to have a discussion.
Discussion about theology also takes a willingness to forgo the use of emotionally laden terms that feel so good to say when making a point. These are words from the language of contempt like “simplistic”, “close-minded”, “shallow”, etc. as well as more crass words. It is hard to do, and if there is no confidence that discussions will not descend into this language of contempt it is asking a lot to propose such discussions.