Quaker Universalist Fellowship

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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.

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