Universalism and Me
by Kingdon Swayne
When I first tried to describe my own religious stance, about fifteen
years ago, I decided that I was a post-Christian agnostic, a phrase that
acknowledged my Christian heritage and suggested that I had moved beyond
it. I have since concluded that "agnostic" was the wrong word, for the
troika of believer-agnostic-atheist really limits the issue to whether or
not God exists. The true issue, I think, is how best to think about the
ability of humans to experience inner lives that seem in some sense to be
metaphysical--beyond the physical, the rational, and the emotional. I now
speak of my metaphysics as "non-theistic."
I have, I think, two grounds for claiming that my metaphysics is Quakerly.
The first is experiential, the second speculative.
My early Quaker training took place at George School, a boarding school
under the care of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (Hicksite), where my family
lived, and at a Hicksite First Day School in a nearby Friends Meeting.
Looking back, I can identify four major elements in my religious
instruction: Bible study focused on ethical teaching, a modest dose of
Quaker history, compulsory experience in the meeting for worship, and the
rational humanist ethics of John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. Missing, in
the Hicksite tradition, was the formal theology of mainstream Christianity.
George School leaders thought of the school as Christian and took great
pains not to insult or ostracize the non-Friends, almost all mainstream
Protestants, who made up about half the student body.
But I also learned that within the Christian family we Friends were
"peculiar," and for what I came to accept as sound reasons. The main one
was our rejection of formal Christian theology, an issue on which Hicksites
were very clear. That early experience is a crucial part of my definition
of Quakerism: strong on ethics, purposefulness, and service; open to
mystical experience; and preferring rational humanist philosophy to theology.
I spent most of my younger adulthood abroad, including nine years in Asia.
I came to understand the universality of the religious impulse and to
accept it as a fundamental part of being human. Bringing that experience
to bear on my sense of myself as a Quaker, I was led to speculate on the
difficulties George Fox must have faced, as a Christian in a militantly
Christian country, when he received inwardly a compelling message that
flatly contradicted the conventional wisdom. The essence of the message:
true religious experience is personal and inward. The translation, in
Fox's preconditioned mind: "There is one, even Christ Jesus, who can
speak [from within, as well as by example--KS] to thy condition."
The critical question for speculation: Had George Fox been a creature of
some other culture, how would he have phrased his "opening?" Had he been
educated by Buddhists, I think it likely his words would have been less
notional and more expressive of his experience.
My claim to be a non-Christian and a Quaker in the tradition of George Fox
is based on my conclusion that Fox had indeed grasped a fundamental truth
but lacked the words to say it quite right. But in shaping the way Friends
worship, the way they do business, the way they treat each other, and the
way they seek to be of service to the world, Fox got the basic patterns of
Quaker culture right. It is a culture in which I think I belong. Within it,
I call myself a universalist as a way of declaring my belief that in our
world the commonalities of inward religious experience are more significant
than the variations in religious culture. It is also a way of distancing
myself from some aspects of formal Christian culture and theology that seem
to me to be demonstrably designed not to advance the cause of religion but
to maintain the power of the clergy.
My service during the past eight years on the Faith and Practice Revision
Committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PYM) has led me to conclude
that PYM in the late twentieth century feels easy about defining itself
non-theologically. And my experience with new members, many of whom are
escaping from the strictures of theology, leads me to believe that PYM is
on the right track. These new members came looking for us because in
their own way they had intimations similar to those experienced by Fox. We
owe them a clear explanation, clearer than Fox himself could give, of the
profoundly universalist nature of his life-changing insight.