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.