Does God Need Friends? What For?

This site is a place where Friends (and others) may disagree agreeably.

It does not speak for any Meeting within The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers.) Therefore it can go beyond what we've agreed on between ourselves; we hope people can talk freely here about the world, our place in it, what good we might be for ourselves and others.

What you see here will include some material from our Faith and Practice, some by regulars at our two local Meetings. Comments may be from any sincere well-meaning person.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Jesus and Friends

Our Faith and Practice acknowledges that the Quaker movement is historically rooted in Christianity. It then goes on to explain that Pacific Yearly Meeting includes many people "who were not raised in the Religious Society of Friends" or "for whom Christianity is not part of their faith experience.

"There is thus a great variety of religious belief and expression. Many Pacific Yearly Meeting Friends articulate their Quaker faith in Jewish, Universalist, Buddhist or other terms. Similarly, Friends hold diverse definitions of Christianity, interpreting and reacting to traditional Christian terminology differently. Some do not accept the defining beliefs required by the church of their youth or of current mainstream Christianity. This has been a point of lively discussion in Pacific Yearly Meeting for the past fifty years."

The crucial early moment in Quakerism (in the 1650's) was when George Fox, having given up seeking religious truth from his contemporary priests and preachers, heard a voice telling him, "There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to your condition." He concluded that Christ was "come to teach his people himself," from within each person, so that the goal of Fox's preaching became directing people to heed "their teacher within." Hence the movement that later took shape around Fox's leadership was explicitly Christian, but Christian in a way that many outsiders felt to be heretical or even blasphemous.

Other Christian sects insisted that what Friends called "The Light" was not Christ, that what Friends turned to for religious guidance was "merely a natural light" like their own reason or conscience, not at all the man once called "Jesus." Early Friends, including Fox, insisted that they were meeting with Christ Himself, while other churches were simply idolizing their own religious notions.

It can be difficult to understand the disagreement; it's now commonplace for modern preachers to tell their audiences to "look for Jesus in your heart." But opponents could easily misinterpret  a significant universalist element of Quaker Christianity. The "mystical" depiction of Jesus in the Book of John appealed to early Friends greatly, and Fox was utterly literal in his belief that "Christ enlightens every [one] who comes into the World." This had to mean "everyone"; this had to include people born long before Jesus as well as vast multitudes since then who'd never heard of him. It isn't immediately obvious that "Christ" is the same as a certain 2000-year-old Messianic contender, but wasn't that the ancient Christian understanding?

A wide range of different terms for "Christ" (or "God at work in us", as the Episcopalian William Stringfellow once defined the term) was common among Friends from the beginning. Generally this was handled in a respectful, nonjudgmental spirit, as in the basic rule of discourse at Pendle Hill (a Quaker study & publishing center): "Speak in the religious language that comes most naturally to you; seek to understand other people's statements according to the meaning they intend.") When many Friends sought to impose statements of what was (or wasn't) correct Quaker doctrine about Jesus, in the early 19th Century, American Friends split apart into several groups, no longer mutually hostile but upholding their differences to this day.

There is a persistent feeling (and not just among explicit "Christians") that modern Friends could benefit from a deeper study of Jesus, his role in human history, and the various messages attributed to him. Some of us may have been too easily content with superficial interpretations... but see this.

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