Presenting the work of Quaker atheists, agnostics, humanists, and others who practice Quakerism without supernatural beliefs

Quaker Culture vs. Quaker Faith

I’ve gotten into an interesting exchange HERE on Chris M’s mysteriously titled blog “Tables, Chairs and Oaken Chests.” I’ll have to look closer to see how he came to that title.

Anyway, Chris’s article holds up Samuel Caldwell’s well-known 1998 address at Pendle Hill, and I take a couple of jabs at it. Below is my most recent comment there, addressing some questions Chris put to me. I’m reposting it here because…well, nothing has been posted on this web site for quite a while, and I thought it might start some interesting discussions here:

I do remember when I first read Caldwell’s article, that I recognized along with him a certain moralistic rigidity around petty concerns from my own Quaker “milieu”–I’ll call it that because, in my experience of midwestern Quakers, it doesn’t strike as either deep enough or broad enough to be called “culture.” He used the example of excessive concern over things like the horrendous sin of throwing away a styrofoam cup. I hear him loud and clear. I honestly support conscious attention to how our consumption ties in with the destruction of the environment and the economic exploitation of the third world. But I don’t want to live in the shadow of guilt over every niggling little decision, and there is a thread in Quakerism that seems to want us to.

I see many other annoying pecadilloes in my Quaker community, and in truth they can tend to distract us from the far larger questions that help us to live into the fullness and wholeness of human life and right relationship. Let’s work on that. I know a great many Friends of great depth and grounding, and others who, from my limited perspective, seem to be barely dipping a toe in the water of our living tradition. But I’m OK with that; I don’t want to exclude Friends simply because they don’t meet my personal standard for spiritual depth or thoughtfulness. Further, I suspect that Quakerism has always had it’s share of, in Biblical terms, the “lukewarm.” This is the human race, after all. (It is emphatically *not* my experience that spiritual depth correlates with theological orthodoxy.)

In the end, I wouldn’t trade my occasionally annoying community for the largely oblivious culture that surrounds us for anything; by and large I have the honor and great fortune to worship with the most beautiful, kind, thoughtful, loving group of human beings I ever hoped to know. If it seems like some of us aren’t pulling our weight, then the others will just have to pull a little harder. That’s how it works.

It’s also possible–even likely–that the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting culture of which Caldwell speaks is far more stultifying than my own. I really can’t speak to that.

Hmm. How do I express my faithfulness? Well, all too often I don’t, I have to confess. In my Quaker community, I try to release the best of what I am into the our worship, our community, our business. Sometimes that expresses itself as silence, sometimes a spoken or written message, sometimes a laugh, sometimes a hug, sometimes washing the dishes. I care for my family. I open myself to being changed by the spirit of the Friends I most admire, and by the gathered power we sometimes–often, in my experience–find together.

In terms of writings or art, my greatest inspirations are not of Quaker origin by and large, though I fully appreciate the genius of Fox and his cohorts, mainly for the boldness of their rejection of the stultifying religious forms of their time. I understand that they were firmly Biblical and theist and Christian, but the essential impulse that moved through them was that of freedom, not orthodoxy. Freedom from everything except conscience, which they envisioned as the light of God/Christ within. Yet, when I read them, there are great stretches where their understanding is completely alien to me. So I take what feeds me, and leave the rest for others.

I don’t really look for comfort in what I read, but honesty. Personally, Camus speaks to me far more deeply than Fox or Barclay, most centrally in the way he delineates the contradiction between our longing for understanding and eternity, and the intractable limits imposed on us by our human condition in the world. To deny either is dishonest; to accept both is to live in constant tension. Others who speak to my condition more than Fox: Dostoevsky, Kafka, Neruda, Bellow, Robert Stone, Denis Johnson, and countless others.

It’s not a very Quakerly list, is it? So be it. But living in my Quaker community and trying to live up to my light feels to me like a far better teacher of living Quakerism than reading Barclay.


10 responses to “Quaker Culture vs. Quaker Faith”

  1. James – your last sentence really resonates with my experience. I find that I am perhaps too intellectually lazy, perhaps too uninterested in history, perhaps something else, but while I find that occasionally someone will post a quote from Pennington or Barclay (and I think that Margaret Fell was spot-on about the silliness of wearing only grey!) My grounding, whence comes my inspiration, is somewhere else. It is important to me that it feel alive, I think, and snd therefore writings by those who are no longer alive can only offer so much.

    As for culture vs. faith. I have found this dichotomy quite troubling. My experience of quakerism is that it is so terribly exciting and wonderfullly different from the religions of my childhood because it is faith in action. My first impression of quakerism was that the two were inextricably tied. We value intergrity, equality, simplicity, and nonviolence because they are in, of, about, and simpy ARE our faith. they are not “empty forms”- it’s not that we joined a cult that struggles for equality because the cult that plays volleyball was full.

    It is important, what we do, how we live, is important. It is more important (to me) than a cross around your neck, or bowing towards Mecca 5 times a day (or wearing grey clothes, or making other people feel bad about styrofoam cup use)

    But styrofoam cup use does matter to me. Not trashing the planet is at the center of my faith. Being free of moronic fashion codes that cause women to mutilate their feet in “un-sensible” (ridiculous?) shoes matters to me.

    It was my experience, and opinion, that almost everything Caldwell attacked as “quaker culture” is something that has a genuine root in quaker faith. now, perhaps we have lost the connection. Perhaps (well, definitely) we frequently fail to approach each other ready to respond to that of God in them, rather than sneering at them for some failure of conformity.

    I dream of a society where all the women wear sensible shoes (if they wear shoes at all) and none of the men wear neckties and everyone has their own reusable cup and napkin (!) – but not because I dream of a world where I’m the dictator of everything (well, sometimes I do!) but because clothing that hurts doesnt’, in my opinion, serve God, and wasteful practices and careless littering (well, in my opinion sending it to a landfill is still in a larger sense littering) is antithetical to my experience of spirit.

    Now, I have been at meeting when we’ve found an old package on styrofoam cups and the dishwasher is broken. There are moments when adherence to “rules” that make sense overall doesn’t make sense. Being aware of this is part of living in the light (I think)

    But don’t you dare mess with my oh-so-sensible shoes


  2. Boy, this styrofoam cup thing is more divisive than you would think.

    I avoid styrofoam cups and disposables in general, try to buy food with minimal packaging. I think it’s good to care about those things, no question. But some of the arched eyebrows and guilt-slinging around politically correct consumption strikes me as unhealthy and essentiallly beside the point.

    Without really serious political change, strong legislation, a complete and massive shift in societal values around issues of the environment and worker exploitation, our nice little shopping habits are not going to make a dent. It’s symbolic, it makes us feel a little better, but what it really will take is political change at the national and international level. We are a drop in the bucket unless we engage with the society we live in and transform hearts and minds, with the end goal of changing governmental policy in significant ways.

    So, given the real situation, the huge challenges we are up against, I do think that shaming each other over shopping habits, coffee cups, etc, is not where we should be putting our energies. I’d rather put our energies into supporting and grounding each other in the work each of us is led to do, without necessarily expecting others to make the same choices we have made.

    Sensible shoes are wonderful. I can’t understand why anyone would choose to wear high heels. But we can get in the frame of mind where wearing high heels, or watching television, or not eating healthy, is a shameful thing. I think this is bad for us.

  3. James – I guess I’m surprised at the styrofoam cup thing. And it does really get to me, not because I think shaming people is okay, or appropriate, but because I feel like it WAS brought up as an example of something “silly”

    I guess I hear in the statement a message that basically says that actively making choices that further justice in some way (not using styrofoam cups, not buying sweatshop clothing) is an empty thing, while praying, or something more overtly “religious” would be a worthwhile spiritual activity for a Friend. This is completely counter to my experience. Activities that focus on deepening out religious experience can certainly be valuable, but they can also feel like so much navel gazing to me. Faith in Action is one of the most important aspects of quakerism to me (not that quakers use this term, to my knowledge) – it matters a LOT what we do.

    I guess my question is, would we find it “okay” to shame someone about something “serious” – an abusive parent, a racist, etc??? My belief, as with less offensive things like single instances of styrofoam cup usage, is that it is NEVER appropriate to try to address issues with an attempt to shame people into some sort of submission. My belief is that with support and love and an expectation or challenge to live up to the light granted (but not shaming) we can all live more in the light – which includes everything from loving relationships with other people, to finding alternatives to war, to protecting the environment. I had a debate with someone online years ago who was disturbed that quakers didnt’ take a stand against suicide, like most other religions do (and abortion came up in this context as well – both are violence, and we are supposedly committed to nonviolence)

    And, I don’t think I said it at the time, but it fits, it’s not that we hate war because it’s fashionable to, it’s that we strive to “live in a fasion that takes away the occasion for all outward wars” (paraphrased, but I think mostly accurate). I think suicide and abortion would both happen a LOT less if more people were recognizing that of God in each other, loving each other, supporting each other. I also think that both sometimes, at least as the world exists today, are the most light-filled choice available in some very sad circumstances. Do I want to live in a society where we tell depressed people that they will go to hell if they kill themselves, or have an abortion? (or use a styrofoam cup!) NO!!!! Do I want to live in a society where we respond to each other’s desperation with help, support, love, deep listening, so that fewer people feel that desperate? YES! To me that’s quaker FAITH, not CULTURE. Maybe that’s all Caldwell was trying to say???


  4. First, I don’t think there’s anything silly or unimportant about seeking ways to walk lightly on the earth. If we don’t find a way to do this as a species we may well destroy ourselves. In fact we may have already done too much damage to reverse in this milennium. If Caldwell doesn’t see this–and I can’t determine this one way or another from his address–then he has some serious thinking to do.

    What I resonated with in Caldwell’s words around the “styrofoam cup” question was subtler than the question of whether it is important or not. It’s more about moralistic rigidity, a sense I sometimes get that there is one way to understand or respond to a concern, and anyone who understands the concern differently just doesn’t care. A Friend talks about a TV show they like and gets disapproving glances because TV is evil. I’ve seen the same scary looks around all sorts of issues: Israel, mainstream journalism, brands of peanut butter, America’s role in world affairs, Green Party vs. Democratic Party, the lessons of 9/11, etc. Almost every one of these issues is far more complex and nuanced than the conventional left-wing understanding of them, yet anything outside of that understanding is regarded as morally diseased by some Friends. I say this as a dedicated left-winger. We need more critical thinking about our own views, not less.

    Once again, I hope you don’t see this as a denigration of your own views as wrong or unimportant. I agree with vast majority of your views, as I understand them. But I would be pleased if it were easier to express disagreement about such views in our meeting.

  5. James –

    I’m not even sure we’re in disagreement at all.

    My point was basically that I don’t think it’s “quakerly” to say “suicide is bad” – whereas it would be very quakerly to say “I really would be devastated if you killed yourself, and I’m wondering what we can do to help make sure it doesn’t happen”

    Similarly, scowling at someone who watches TV is simply stupid, and I think what Caldwell was talking about. But saying “I find TV to be destructive to my spiritual life, tell me about your experience” might be a very good way of seeing that of God in someone.

    I guess part of my problem is a sense that we’re being admonished to ignore “problems” and simply focus on Jesus. When I think Jesus might actually care about styrofoam cup use (if he existed! 🙂

    I see so much religion that is emplty of concern for life, the world, reality. I fear that for quakerism.

    I WORRY that he’s saying it’s not important, though it’s not necessarily what he’s saying.

    I also worry about the tendency among Friends to do that silent, passive-aggressive thing about all sorts of issues. I think it’s GOOD to say “hey, let’s stop buying styrofoam cups, because here is what I know about the damage they do…..” while it’s pretty useless to simply stare coldly at someone who uses them (I am, myself, terrible about this with people smoking near me. – I never ask them not to, or to change anything to accomodate my needs, but cough and scowl a lot!) Of course the quakers I know who smoke are really “underground” about it – probably largely because of people like me! *sigh*

    I would be pleased if it was easier to discuss disagreements in our meeting as well, and I think it would serve God (good?) better as well.

    Perhaps I dont’ disagree with him so much after all…..

  6. Crystal Heshmat Avatar
    Crystal Heshmat

    What? What do monkeys have to do with this discussion? I think I have to put on my “Data” or “Spock” hat and ask if that was a joke?

    Anyhow, I wanted to add my two cents that the Faith In Action idea is probably the KEY thing that attracts me to Quakers; well that and the fact that the kinds of things that Quakers do generally resonate with my sense of right.

    But speaking of monkeys, I’ve always wondered why the three monkeys are “see no evil,” “hear no evil” and “speak no evil.” Is it left out because “DO no evil” is hard to depict in a drawing or sculpture?

  7. Oh, gosh Crystal, sorry, I was fiddling with the system trying to see if something was working. Just plugging in a word from my strange mind at random.

    james, the monkey

  8. That “three monkeys” saying/image is old enough that I doubt it’s possible to figure out what was meant.

    My own thoughts are, first, it is focused on communication rather than action. I tend to use the saying in an ironic way, criticizing the tendency to protect ourselves from knowledge of unpleasant realities. I somehow doubt the original intent of the saying was ironic in that way, though–I think it was intended as a dictum to be followed.

    Perhaps the thought is that, if you are not exposed to knowledge of evil, you will naturally keep it out of your actions. I’m not sure I agree. In my experience, such an approach is as likely to lead to self-satisfied hypocrisy as to genuine virtue.

  9. There is a line from the first song in the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” in which Judas sings

    “Nazareth, your famous son
    Should have stayed a great unknown
    Like his father carving wood
    He’d have made good
    Tables, chairs and oaken chests
    Would’ve suited Jesus best
    He’d have caused nobody harm
    No one alarmed!”

  10. I cannot find the full text of Samuel Caldwell’s 1998 Pendle Hill address anywhere,

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