The Journal of the
Quaker Universalist Fellowship
Spring & Summer 2004
In This Issue
The Quaker Universalist Fellowship is an informal
gathering of persons who cherish the spirit of universality that has
always been intrinsic to the Quaker faith. We acknowledge and
respect the diverse spiritual experience of those within our own
meetings as well as of the human family worldwide; we are enriched by
our conversation with all who search sincerely. Our mission
includes publishing and providing speakers and opportunities for
fellowship at regional and national Quaker gatherings.
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From the Clerk
It would be a mistake to claim that all religions are
essentially alike. Different religious communities have cohered around
faith perspectives of extraordinary diversity. Appreciation for
this diversity is what makes a universalist approach challenging
and productive. It is useful to appreciate just how a particular
faith other than one's own makes sense to those holding it, and
to understand how different religious traditions have
supported civilizations which have endured for centuries. This can
greatly deepen our engagement with reality, although it does
not necessarily follow that a wise spiritual life will become a
patchwork of borrowed ideas and practices.
But amid all this diversity, there are also some
common themes which one can detect. One of these which exists in
many religious traditions is the tension between orthodoxy
and prophecy. One of the main functions of all religions is to
preserve, to perfect and to pass along the gathered spiritual wisdom of
the community. As Friends we struggle to run First Day schools,
and frequently testify to such things as how the peace testimony
has endured among Friends since Quakerism's beginning. In
doing this we are acknowledging the preserving tasks of our own
faith and practice. In reality, the conserving function is an
essential element of any sensible religious life.
But times change, inevitably, and needs change, and
happily, even without a compelling need for adjustment, the Spirit
often leads us to an enlargement of spiritual vision. The religious
history of all faith communities provides much evidence that,
whether gradually or in cataclysmic, telling moments, prophecy has
broken forth and significant, perhaps even radical, adjustments
have occurred in spiritual vision and in practical living.
It is really not unnatural that the conservative
function should be in the ascendancy in most religious practice; after all,
a religious tradition which remade itself in a major way in
every generation would scarcely seem coherent enough or
reliable enough to attract people to follow it as a fundamental
orienting principle for their lives. Prophetic utterances usually meet
with substantial resistance and must overcome many hurdles
before prevailing. Indeed, one of the most sensitive of
discernment processes in all religious life is the need to winnow
authentic prophecy from mere fashion, from "the bad idea whose time
has come." Indeed, while we may lament how long it took for
a prophetic voice to be accepted in times past, we might also
be grateful that many voices announcing themselves as
prophetic did indeed not prevail.
We see this tension between conservatism and
innovation in religious life coming to play in present controversies
about extending the concept of marriage to embrace the
relationships of lesbian and gay people. Some advocates for change
struggle with the religious establishment patiently, expecting that
the discernment process is of necessity difficult, and exercising
loyalty and patience while setting forth with vigor their claims that
a new vision is called for. But others simply regard the struggle
as another aspect of oppression and give up on religious institutions.
Defenders of what they perceive to be timeless
orthodoxy regarding marriage, on the other hand, seem oblivious of
two things. First, it seems not to occur to them that part of
their religious tradition requires them to search prayerfully for the
truth, and not automatically to assume that every idea which
seems unwelcome at first blush should be dismissed. Second, they
seem quite unaware that marriage has undergone many
transformations in Judeo-Christian religious history, and that the sort of
"Ozzie and Harriet" image of marriage which they seem to regard as
a timeless and eternal truth is itself a relatively recent
innovation. After all, the prophets of Israel had many wives and
concubines, apparently with divine sanction. Later, for many
centuries, marriage contracts were matters for the elite, made for the
purpose of conserving their dynastic interests of power and wealth,
while common people were allowed more or less to shift for
themselves. At others times adultery could elicit a death penalty, and
divorce was impermissible. For many centuries marriage arrangements
were such that women were treated as commodities or chattel, and
had no rights of their own within the arrangement. Moves
toward equality between the genders within marriage is a very
recent phenomenon, indeed, and is very incompletely realized. Until
very recently inter-racial marriage was considered taboo. So while
the family may be a cornerstone of civilization, as is so often
said, marriage practices have neither been absolute nor eternal.
Fortunately, it is no longer possible to burn people at
the stake for advancing ideas regarded as unwelcome by the
religious defenders of orthodoxy, but an attempt to pass an amendment
to the United States Constitution banning same-sex marriage
would seem to be motivated by a desire for closure to the discussion
with a similar degree of finality.
As universalist Friends let us hold all people in the Light
as they address the paradoxical tension between orthodoxy
and prophecy in the practice of their faiths.
Daniel A. Seeger, Clerk
From Northern Yearly Meeting, 2003
By Rich van Dellen
Have you ever been asked, "What do Quakers believe?"
and struggled for a concise answer? Have you ever heard
someone say, "Quakers can believe anything they want"? We do not
have creeds, yet we have strongly held beliefs. Throughout our
history Friends have suffered, gone to jail or even died from living
the consequences of our beliefs. Can one draft a
concise state-ment summarizing the beliefs of unprogrammed
Friends? Northern Yearly Meeting is attempting to do that.
Northern was formally established in 1975. We are a
young yearly meeting, and we are in the process of writing our first
book of Faith and Practice. Seven chapters have been approved.
The Faith and Practice Committee plans to have a chapter early
in the book summarizing what we have called "The Spiritual
Beliefs of Friends of Northern Yearly Meeting."
The process of writing this chapter began by gathering
ideas in a workshop held at a yearly meeting session. The first draft
was written, reviewed by the Faith and Practice Committee, and
then sent to all constituent meetings and worship groups within
our yearly meeting for feedback. We received many comments
and revised the chapter. We were ready to present it to the
yearly meeting for approval when we received some strong
objections to the chapter as written. Thus we decided to request a
plenary session at the yearly meeting session of 2003 to be focused
on differences in beliefs within Northern Yearly Meeting. The
three talks that follow were presented at this plenary.
We hope you will find them thought-provoking,
stimulating and challenging.
The Living Spirit Of Christ,
Historically And Today
By Kathryn S. White
So, this Light that lights every man that comes
into the world, this is the true Light that shines in the
dark heart, and this is the true Day, that dawns in the
heart, and Christ Jesus is the Day-Star that ariseth in the heart.
Margaret Fell Fox1
For, he that hath the Son hath Life, and he
that hath not the Son, hath not Life. So to the measure
of God's Grace in every one of you I speak, that with
it you may search and try where you are, and what
you can really and truly, in the presence of God,
witness born up in you; . . . that you do not deceive your
Souls and worship the Works of your own Hands; for God
is not worshiped, but in that which is spirit and Truth.
Margaret Fell Fox2
My dear Hearts, God is Light, and in him is no Darkness at all. . . . Therefore if you love your Souls . .
. abide in the Light, and love the Light, and walk in
the Light, where the Fellowship and the unity is. . . .
And the Light which comes from Jesus Christ, which is
the Messenger of the Living God, sent from God, may
bring your Souls out of Egypt.
Margaret Fell Fox3
Christ Jesus, who is the Light which John bears witness to, which is come a Light into the world
and lighteth every Man that cometh into the World.
Margaret Fell Fox4
My heritage is Quaker; more relevant is that my
faith community continues to be the Society of Friends. One and
a half years ago, the First Day School teachers of our meeting
asked me to be Margaret Fell for a day. That began an immersion
into her life and her writings that still brings meaning to me.
I think I would have had some difficulty with that
very forthright person, George Fox. But Margaret feels like a
mentor from the past for me. She was a capable parent, manager of
home and servants, and the wife of a judge. When she encountered
the Living Spirit of the words so many around her were
preaching and studying, she was initially in great turmoil.
She was counseled only to return to the Light and she
would receive guidance for her own life. Thus the ordinary life of
an English lady of the manor became a most extraordinary life,
so that we still know of her 350 years later.
She was the first one to write that Quakers are a
peaceable people. It was in a letter she wrote in 1660. George Fox was
in prison at the time. He was one of the signers; Margaret was
the writer. She carried the letter directly to the king and waited
many months to deliver it in person.
It may be that today we would not find ourselves in
unity with some of her words. But what I want you to remember is
the illumination she received for her ordinary tasks and the
many others she was called to do. What she models is daily turning
to the Living Spirit; what she models is Spirit-led action.
Now, 350 years later, we are struggling to put a few words
on paper to clearly state our spiritual beliefs. When we look at
them they seem to cover it, and yet to be simplistic and
inadequate. What will fill our words with the depths of our passion and
This quotation, from our own time, begins to answer
that: "For Quakers, becoming a child of God is a lifelong project. . .
. Being a child of God requires an ongoing series of
breakthroughs that come from continuous living in the Light of
I hear a lot of sensitivity to the words of Christianity in
our yearly meeting. I think sometimes we are like the ancient
Jewish people of the Old Testament, who were afraid to actually say
the name of God. It may not really be fear for us so much as the
idea that if we label the Divine with the name God, Jesus Christ
or Goddess, we thereby have contained the holiness in
something less than it really is. Certainly, that is part of our reaction
to fundamentalist phrasing a sense that Christ and his rule
of divine love have been boxed in to words and patterns of
exclusion that shut out the Spirit and experience of God for us.
I was very grateful to hear Rich van Dellen and others
say that we should not let the fundamentalists take words away
from us. If we never read the good words in the Bible, if we never
offer them to our children, the fundamentalists will not know or
care. It will be our loss. There are good words there. When
illuminated by the Living Spirit, they can become pathways; they can
become nurture; they can become solace; they are a gift.
It is interesting to me that even though some do not want
to use these words, we can still sing them with great vigor. The
first song we sang at this gathering last night was "Amazing
Grace." When my Mother died two years ago, the phone call came in
the wee hours of the night. My first thought was, "She shall go
out with joy. . ." Those words are part of a hymn we sing often
in Madison meeting "The Trees of the Field". They
come originally from the book of Isaiah. They are words of
nurture, solace and illumination.
My understanding/idea of the Divine is this remarkable
Life Force that is in all, over all, that has been and that will be.
My experience of Quakerism tells me that it is possible to
experience the Divine presence steadily as I go through my life that I
do not have to be in a place labeled as holy by others, or have
to receive a special wafer in my physical body to experience
this presence. I simply have to remove the distractions of my day
and open myself to the possibility. There are times, such as when
we are on retreat, or with others who seek as we do, that
this experience seems to happen more readily, or possibly, in a
deeper, richer manner.
Another strong component of our faith is
continuing revelation. One encounter with God in a lifetime, through
a ceremony of baptism or conversion, does not do it. Nor does
one time of responding to a strong leading to a particular service.
We don't get done! Every day is new; Spirit is now; ours is a faith
of this time. No matter what we did yesterday how good or
how awful we are called to be present, to be faithful, and in
tune with God's will for us now. Ours is a faith of the steady turning
to that Living Spirit of Christ, so that we move beyond the
adolescent stages of giving warm fuzzies and into extraordinary
discipline, depth, peace and energy.
This continual opening to the Living Spirit as we
experience it each day seems like the pattern of those who isolate
themselves in religious communities. A very strong component of
my understanding of Friends is that we are called to seek and to
find the Living Presence of God in the very midst of the world, to
seek the nurture and loving direction of the Divine as we
immerse ourselves in the daily, worldly whirl. We are called to have
the simplicity and the discipline to live as we find God calls us
every day, every hour. Many other faith communities seem to
require one to withdraw from the world in order to worship and live
more fully the life of the Spirit. We find that times of retreat can
indeed be times of great nurture, sanctuary and blessing, but that
always we are called to return and to live fully in the world. The
Living Spirit of the Divine can illuminate even the most mundane tasks.
Our late friend, Jim Greenley, was a wonderful mentor
on ways to deepen our sense of the Living Spirit even in the midst
of our day. He would nudge us to consider our pauses, our times
of waiting or maybe of anxiety. He would say, "Mind the Light
while you wait for the stoplight to turn green or the elevator to come
or over the warm dish water or . . ." When I was growing up in
a rural Friends community, one of my earliest understandings of
the spiritual beliefs of Friends was this steady seeking and then
acting in the Living Spirit in everything that occurred. Worship,
play, work, joy, grief, response to the wider world were all a part of
one whole. What was said on First Day was lived every day.
That was one of the primary reasons I returned to Friends as a
young adult. I wanted this experience of wholeness.
I would like to close with a modern parable. Several
weeks ago my husband, Stan, was part of a fairly large peace march.
This one was on an unusual route as it was aiming at the crowds
coming to a Big 10 basketball game just when the basketball season
was getting interesting. So the marchers were to take two or
three different routes and come together at the sports center. In
the crowd, Stan came upon Brian, a blind acquaintance
and offered him his arm. So they marched together, in the midst of
grown-ups and kids, wagons and strollers and picket signs of all
sorts. Stan felt some responsibility for Brian's welfare, so he
scanned, dodged, paused, analyzed, reacted, and generally had all of
his senses engaged. But, he said, when they crossed the
huge boulevards of hectic traffic, they crossed with Brian's white
cane. And that, Friends, is really what we are called to do. Lay aside
our academic studies, our analytical discussions, our sifting
and dissecting that leaves us only with fragments; hold out our
white cane of trust and faith and daily, steadily, walk in the Living
Spirit of Christ.
1. Judith Hayden, In Search of Margaret
Fell, p. 160 (London, 2002)
2. From "An Epistle of Margaret Fell to Friends - 1654,"
in Hidden in Plain Sight, Quaker Women's Writings
1650-1700, p. 458 (Wallingford, Pa, 1996).
3. Hidden in Plain Sight, p. 453.
4. Hidden in Plain Sight, p. 454.
5. David K. Leonard, in Friends
Journal, September 2001, p. 19.
Thoughts From A Quaker-Buddhist
By Rhoda Gilman
In his book Encounter With Silence John Punshon says
of Quaker worship: "The silence is less significant for what it is
than what it is not."1 What it is not, he goes on to say, is the
music, ritual, eloquent words and soaring architecture that form
the clothing of faith in other Christian churches.
That, Friend Punshon, is not enough for me.
If Quaker silence is primarily a rejection of other forms,
then how can I take it seriously in and for itself? And how can
my "encounter" with it be more than passing and shallow? Where
in this time of planetary crisis will I find the passion, the
inspiration, the transformation of self that George Fox and
his followers experienced? Where is the sense that each moment we
live and each breath we draw is something sacred? Where is the
feeling that everything in the world around us trembles with a
deeper dimension of meaning? "The Creation was opened to me,"
says Fox. "All things were new and . . . gave another smell unto
me than before, beyond what words
Not all Quakers agree with John Punshon. Many
cannot take faith for granted. We are still seekers. In my own life
journey, I have had to go elsewhere to find the real depth and meaning
of silence. That "elsewhere" has been a Buddhist meditation hall.
There I've spent many hours and days in total
stillness, following the flow of the breath, noting the sensations of the
body, and ultimately watching the movements of thought.
Neither recalling the past nor plotting the future, I try to be simply
aware that I am present in the here and now, in this one moment
of pure existence that is all we can ever really know.
It is sitting on the zafu that I've experienced at the core
of my being the words that blew Robert Barclay's mind when
anonymous Scottish Quaker rose in meeting to say: "In
stillness there is fullness; in fullness there is nothingness; in
nothingness there are all
things."3 So it is silence that for this Quaker has
been the greatest gift of Buddhism. Silence not as an absence
of form, but as a living, mysterious presence.
The second gift of Buddhism to my life has been
equanimity. One often hears it said that Buddhism is pessimistic. I would
rather say that it rests serenely on the bedrock of existential
despair. And if there were ever a time in history when we needed a
firmer foundation than the shifting sands of myth, symbol, and
theology, it is now. No horrors of nuclear warfare, no post-modern
realism, no logical positivism, no tales of antimatter and exploding
galaxies can shake the inscrutable smile of the Buddha. He knows that
all of them, like the other stories we have been told, are
constructs of the mind. They have no substance in ultimate reality.
We are creatures of time and space. Time is our prison
and the source of our suffering. Even as we try to clutch those
things in life that are most dear to us, they evaporate like mist. The
only permanent thing within us is our yearning for permanence
just as the only permanent thing in the universe of time is
change itself. All things arise and fall away.
Annicha. If we can experience this in our heart as the very nature of self and of reality,
then liberation occurs, and we can indeed know that "in
nothingness there are all things."
So why do I remain a Quaker-Buddhist? What gifts
does Quakerism bring to Buddhism? One thing is compassion.
Yes, compassion is a fundamental concept of Buddhism, too. It
follows directly from silence and equanimity. And it is broader
than Quaker compassion. It is not human-centered. It takes in all
of life All Beings. But too often in Buddhism, it remains an
abstract concept. Compassion can only be truly practiced as
compassion-in-action. Like silent awareness, it is a thing that must
be experienced, not thought about. And Quakers at their best
have lived their compassion.
Mary Orr is another Buddhist-Quaker. For the past three
or four years she has taught an annual course at Pendle Hill
in mindfulness or insight meditation (known in Buddhism
as Vipassana). She writes: "Compassion is not feeling sorry
for someone, it's not pity but the willingness to be fully present with
the pain of the world, the pain of ourselves, the pain of another being."
Community is the other great gift of Quakerism.
Like compassion, it, too, exists in Buddhism, but only among
those who devote their lives to the spiritual path. And the
dedication to equality before God that has identified the Quaker
community from its earliest moments is largely absent from Buddhist
practice. Equality of lay and clergy. Equality of student and teacher.
Equality of sexes. Equality of social classes. Only with equality
can community truly exist.
So in today's global world we see these two traditions
drawn together and strengthened by each other. It is not only the
obvious parallels their rejection of divisive creeds and dogmas,
their shared precepts and testimonies of peace, compassion,
simplicity, right livelihood, and right speech. Quakers turning back to
their own mystical roots have been drawn to Buddhism by the
vitality of its practice and its direct link with living silence;
Buddhists pulled from monasteries by the modern world have
turned to Quakerism for its example of compassion in action and
viable spiritual community. In the West and in modern societies
across the East, the movement toward "Engaged Buddhism" reflects
this. Here in the United States, the Buddhist Peace Fellowship
joins with Quakers in proclaiming that peace is not only the goal,
but the way. Here Quakers take as much inspiration from Thich
Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama as from any Christian leader, and
in Sri Lanka Quakers, for their part, provide practical
guid-ance toward meeting nonviolently the flames of ethnic
hatred that Buddhists deal with there.
Silence. Equanimity. Compassion. Community.
If there is hope for today's crumbling world society, with
its materialism, its runaway technology, and its religious
fanaticisms, that hope lies in the shared strength of these two traditions.
1. John Punshon, Encounter With
Silence, p. 67 (London, 1987).
2. George Fox, Journal, p. 97 (Richmond, Indiana, 1983)
3. Quoted in William C. Braithwaite,
The Second Period of Quakerism, p. 336 (York, 1979). Braithwaite speculates
that the words may have been spoken by the Quaker mystic
Universalism And Quakers
By Larry Spears
Like all Quakers, I recognize the universalist theme in
my faith and practice. I think that we are well served to reflect
about this universalist element of our tradition in light of current
private and public experience.
Tradition is important. No one lives outside of her
religious tradition of birth. As Kathy White has indicated, some find
full and sufficient support and guidance within their birth
tradition. As Rhoda Gilman has explained, others seek to supplement
and enrich their birth tradition by reaching outside to other
traditions. I appreciate these testimonies of Quakers rooted in the
Christian and Christian/Buddhist traditions.
I was asked to outline some of the elements in the
universalist theme in the spiritual journeys among many Quakers.
To start, universalism is an element of all reflection
about God by all Quakers. That is what theology is collective
human reflection about God. There is today some confusion
about universalism. It has been a deeply rooted theme in
Quaker experience, yet there is much diversity in the current
conclusions Quakers draw about the nature and extent of universalism in
their spiritual lives. The influence of universalism is expanding for
us all, but within universalist thinking there are particular risks
of relativism to be minded.
Universalism is often misunderstood among Quakers,
due in large part to a general distaste for theological language
collective reflection among Friends. Universalism refers to
those who are now, and will be, in the love of God. Traditionally,
the issue of who does God care for has been expressed by asking
who is included in the scope of God's care and grace today, and
is addressed through the Christian doctrines of salvation and
the last judgment. (Who is included in the scope of God's care
and grace later in our history?)
Quakers are addressing these issues about God's love
within our Protestant tradition of our Roman Catholic tradition of
our Jewish tradition of our primordial human tradition of the
human spiritual life. They are deeply practical as well as spiritual
issues. The question "How far does God's love reach?" affects how
far our concern reaches for people in Iraq, North Korea,
Liberia, and elsewhere, because God's love for the world is
expressed through us.
Regarding the scope of God's love and care at the
present moment, the question to be answered is: "Who does God care
for now?" The pure universalist answer is: "Everyone,
without exception." However, there is a diversity of views among
individual Quakers that extends in one direction closer to "me alone"
and extends in the other direction out toward "everyone."
Those who embrace the universalist idea tend to provide
a wider scope for God's current love and concern than
others. Universalists, in practice, may not go all the way in
their universalism because it may be a difficult thing for them to
include the lives of Hitler, Stalin, bin Laden, Idi Amin, Bill Clinton
and George W. Bush in our own experience and the lives of
Nero, Hannibal and Genghis Kahn from the past not to speak
of persons who are relatives and acquaintances in our present
Regarding the doctrine of salvation, the question to
be answered is: "Who is rightly related to God at the end of a
lifetime and for eternal time?" The pure answer of universalists
is: "Everyone, without exception." But this is not easy, for it
may also be emotionally difficult to include these same
persons. There is also a diversity of views among
individual Quakers on this question of relationship to God at the end of
a lifetime. For some, the exceptional group is larger. For others, it
The doctrine of the last judgment is another way of
pointing to the same issue of personal salvation, but extending it to
the end of all time. The question to be answered is: "Who is
protected at the end of all time and given eternal life when Christ comes
to judge the quick and the dead?" In the same way, the answer
of universalists is, "Everyone, without exception," with a
diversity of views among individuals of this persuasion. Everyone wants
an exception for his hated ones.
Universalism is often contrasted with exclusivism. The
desire of some other Christian groups to insist on acceptance of
Jesus Christ as personal lord and savior is a way to affirm the
exclusion of those who do not make this particular affirmation from
access to God's current and future love. The assertions by religious
leaders that God does not listen to the prayers of Jews or Muslims have
a similar purpose. They assert, with some power, that people
like Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, Milosovich, the Rwandan leaders or
the Unibomber are, or should be, excluded from the scope of
God's salvation. In this, they appeal effectively to deep
human antipathies. They insert their painful preferences of the
moment into their understanding of the gospel message.
Recent History Of Universalism
Universalism has many streams in its theological
ancestry, just like the multiform spiritual ancestors of Quakerism itself.
For our purposes here, the American development of unversalism
in the 18th century arose in the early American democratic
belief that it is God's purpose to save every person from sin
through divine grace revealed in Jesus Christ. This was part of what
people believed about this Great Experiment in the New World.
Other elements of 18th-century universalist views
included the fatherhood of God for all people, the spiritual authority
and leadership of the example of Jesus, God's son, the
trustworthiness of the Bible as containing God's sufficient, but
non-exclusive, revelation, the certainty of just retribution for sin in the
future and the final harmony of all souls with God. There can be
much discussion of this summary among historians, but I believe it
points to the complex seeking of people, new in the American
experience, to bring together deeply held understandings of their world and lives.
Quaker Universalist Tradition
Like other religious groups in our Christian tradition (as
well as the Jewish and Muslim traditions), Quakers are challenged
by universalism and exclusivism. However, there has been
a particularly constant and prominent theme of inclusiveness
in our Quaker tradition. This tradition is reflected in the
thinking and words of Fox, Barclay, Penn, Woolman and Pennington.
This universalist theme cannot be ignored by Quakers today as we
try to engage our tradition, with our experience, in pointing out
to one another where the bread of life is to be found within
our tradition. Here are some examples of the importance
attributed to universalism among recognized Friends:
Now the Lord hath opened to me by His invisible power how that every man was enlightened by
the divine Light of Christ, and I saw it shine through
all, and they that believed in it came out of
condemnation and came to the Light of life, and became
children of it. . .
The church is no other thing but a society, gathering or company of such as God has called out
of that world and worldly spirit to walk in his light
and life. . . . Under this church . . . are comprehended
all,and as many of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue
or people they be, though outwardly strangers and
remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in
words . . . as become obedient to the holy light and
testimony of God in their hearts. There may be members
therefore of this catholic church both among heathens,
Turks, Jews and all the several sorts of Christians, men
and women of integrity and simplicity of heart. . .
The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and
devout souls are everywhere of one religion. And when
death has taken off the mask, they will know one
another, though the several costumes they wear here makes
There is a principle that is pure, placed in
the human mind, which in different places and ages
has had different names. That principle is pure and
proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined by no
forms of religion, nor excluded from any, where the
heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this
principle takes root and grows, of whatever nation, they
become brothers and sisters.
The sum and substance of true religions does
not stand in getting a notion of Christ's righteousness,
but in feeling the power of endless life, receiving the
power, and being changed by the power. And where Christ
is, there is his righteousness.
These words show a clear engagement and general endorsement of the importance of the universalist theme.
course, these quotations do not prove anything about the truth
of these sentiments or of universalism. But, they do document
that the theme of universalism is one that has engaged Quakers
from the beginning of our Quaker tradition. This engagement
reflects the importance of this theme for serious lives and commends it
to our reflection on our tradition and experience.
Universalist Perception Of The Human Condition
The basic human question is: "How do we understand
others in the fold of God's care?" Universalists, within the
Christian tradition, address the question: "Is salvation universal to
all people?" Their answer is yes. Universalists stress the positive
in the value of the spiritual journeys of people both within and
outside the Christian tradition. Universalists recognize the value of
all other humans who have walked a spiritual journey.
Universalists embrace the insight of life experience
that God's love and promise extend to all people as an
objective underlying universal truth that may be poorly perceived by
seekers at any given moment, but is nevertheless real and present. As
a result, Universalists recognize the importance of the search
to identify the universal standards of practice underlying all religions.
This is another way of affirming and refining the natural
law tradition. There are truths and standards for living that
are universal and apply to all people, precisely because God's
love and concern applies equally to all people in all traditions.
On this theme, the testimony of universalists is to
value, not just to tolerate, other religious traditions.
Universalists emphasize that all religions have God's recognition and
favor, have value and, therefore, are to be respected.
Among Quakers, those in the universalist tradition
see important linkages of universalism with the distinctive
Quaker ideas regarding the universality of the inner light and
continuing revelation as a reality in our lives. Quakers with universalist
insight see important implications in universalism for how we live
lives. This points to how we treat others, what initiatives we
take in our communities and what is important to stress in
developing public policy.
Universalism is a limited, important element in
our theological thinking. Despite the name, universalism is not
a comprehensive viewpoint and it does not address all
theological issues within the Christian tradition. For example,
universalism is not related to the doctrine of the nature of God. It is not
related to the doctrine of the trinity. Despite the American
connection between universalism and unitarianism in the
Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship, there is no intrinsic connection
between these ideas. They are united in this unique American
organization by history and accident. Universalism is also not related
to Christology and the nature of the relationship between Jesus
and the Christ.
Diversity Among Universalists
For purposes of this discussion, I have been outlining
the main approach of all universalists. But, universalists,
like exclusivists, are humans with a wide variety of views. In the
main, what I have said here, I believe, holds true. The important
note that I hope you will take away from this discussion is that
the issue of the scope of openness of God's present and future
love and care does matter in how we treat others in our
family, community and public policy. This is a big issue. Your
answers will have major consequences for your life and, in
aggregation with the views of others, for the future of our world.
As I have mentioned before, there is a spectrum of
views represented among universalists relative to these issues of
Christian theology. For example, the Quaker Universalist Fellowship
focuses on respect for the diverse spiritual experience within
meetings and the human family worldwide, enriched by dialogue with
all persons who search sincerely in the unity of God's creation.
Some universalists are broader in their embrace. Others are
There is a comparable diversity, in actual practice, among
those who do not explicitly identify with universalism.
Expanding Universalist Influence
From my observation, universalism is growing as an
aspect of the truth of continuing revelation among Quakers. It is
also growing in other faith traditions and in world culture generally
in response to diverse individual intercultural experiences and
the realities of world history. Travel, vocational connections and
the media are all contributing to awareness of the diversity
and permanency of the world's religious traditions. Universalist
ideas are a natural response to this enlarging experience and
closer communication. Within the Christian community, watch
the bellwether role of the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary
in California and the new discussions being undertaken by
Christian denominations with Islam. At the least, it calls us to some
level of humility in the face of the experience of others.
In my view, we are all universalist when we include
more than ourselves in the community of faith. How broad
our inclusiveness is receives diverse answers among Quakers.
The differences are in the scope of that inclusion and the
emotional vehemence with which the line of exclusion is drawn. In
my experience and observation, fear of the "other" is the source
of the difference in views and determines where the lines are drawn.
Dangers Of Relativism And Civil Religion
No theme of our spiritual lives can be extended
without facing distortion of its core insights. Universalists run
two particular distortion risks. The first is the danger of
embracing relativism in values and behavior. Attitudes like "It does not
matter what you believe and do as long as you are sincere," is a
particular and persistent problem for universalists, as it can be generally
for all of us.
This view is a problem because it does matter what
you believe and what you do. The circumcision of young girls is
wrong, whether it has a religious basis or not. Any parent
understands this dilemma in interpreting the world to young people.
Sincerity is not a sufficient justification for false ideas and wrong behavior.
It does matter what you believe and do. We are all
struggling to understand what are the universal standards of behavior
to which we can hold ourselves and others. We all recognize
that this requires reflection on our beliefs and better articulation
of those beliefs as guides for our actions.
The second danger is a new universalized civil
religion, beginning in America, but spreading worldwide,
which homogenizes all religion and distills it into the lowest
common denominator. The effect is to abandon historic, distinctive
Quaker testimonies and to silence the sustained moral criticism
within and between religious communities and, outwardly,
No view is without distortions or pitfalls as we
stumble together through the fog in pointing out to one another
where the bread of life is to be found.
Universalism is a way of seeing part of our spiritual
reality and a way of dealing with our experience in seeking to hold
our faith and practice together in our individual Quaker lives
and within our Quaker meetings. Universalism has a home
in American experience. The influence of universalist views
is expanding in the application of tolerance and inclusiveness.
The ideas among universalists are diverse as are the responses to
these ideas from other Quakers. Universalists particularly face
the dangers of relativism and a diluted civil religion in their
1. George Fox, Journal (Cambridge, 1952).
2. Robert Barclay, Apology for the True Christian
Divinity (Prop. 10) (1678).
3. William Penn, Some Fruits of
Solitude, p. 519 (1693).
4. John Woolman, "On Keeping Negroes (Part II)," in
Phillips P. Moulton, ed., The Journal and Major Essays of
John Woolman (1971).
5. Isaac Pennington, Letters (1828)