“Are Quakers Christian, not Christian—or both—in the historical perspective of 400 years? What has been your experience of Christianity? How have your experiences of Christianity influenced your spiritual journey? Have they strengthened you? Hurt you?”
These are questions that are going to be explored at a workshop titled “ Quakers and Christianity Personal Spiritual Experience vs Religious Affiliation,” which will take place at Pima Meeting (Tucson,AZ) at the end of this month.
Since I have been asked to speak at this gathering, I’d to share these questions with you and would appreciate your thoughts.
My initial response to these questions is colored by the fact that I am both a Universalist and a Christian, and I see elements of both in the history of Quakerism. There is no doubt that early Quakers saw themselves as Christian—in fact, they saw themselves as the only real Christians, and argued vociferously in pamphlet wars and in tracts like Barclay’s Apology that their approach to Christianity was the most valid one. On the other hand, some Quakers embraced a tolerant view of other forms of Christianity, and even of other religions, as is evident in the writings of William Penn, Isaac Penington, and John Woolman.
“There is a Principle which is pure, placed in the human Mind, which in different Places and Ages hath had different Names; it is, however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep, and inward, confined to no Forms of Religion, nor excluded from any, where the Heart stands in perfect Sincerity. In whomsoever this takes Root and grows, of what Nation soever, they become Brethren.”—John Woolman.
“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 liveries they wear here make them strangers.”—WilliamPenn.
Until the 1960s or so (I don’t have any data to prove this, but this is my impression), most Quakers identified with being Christian. Over the past twenty or thirty years, many have come to unprogrammed meetings who are “refugees” from Christian denominations where they didn’t feel comfortable, or where they felt spiritually abused. Others have come from other faiths, such as Judaism and Buddhism. And a growing number are non-theists. Among the 50 thousand or so unprogrammed Friends in Britain and the United States, I would guess that probably a minority identify with being Christian. Most espouse a theology closer to Unitarian Universalism.
Nationally, the majority of Quakers are Christian since one third belong to Friends United Meeting and another third are Evangelicals. Worldwide, the vast majority of Friends living in Africa andLatin America are Evangelicals. This is a fact I am being obliged to take more seriously and personally since I plan to attend the World Conference of Friends in Kenya, where Friends are almost all Evangelical.
But these labels can be misleading. They beg the question: What is a Christian? And who is truly a follower of Christ? Is Christianity about correct belief (orthodoxy) or about correct action (orthopraxis)?
I consider myself a Matthew 25 Christian because I believe that Christianity is about orthopraxis. In Matthew 25 Jesus says that nations will be judged on the basis on whether they care for the sick, help the poor, and visit the prisoner. “As you do for the least of these, you do for me.” According to Jesus, many who do not profess to be his followers will pass the divine “final exam” because they do the will of God and help those in need. Those who profess to be followers of Christ and don’t help the needy will flunk this exam because they have been hearers, not doers of the Word.
I also resonate with the epistle of James (a favorite text of early Quakers), because it makes a similar point: “True religion means caring for the widow and orphan (i.e. the poor and marginalized), and remaining unspotted by the world.”
Christians who live their faith in the way described by James and Jesus have inspired me in countless ways, and I feel deep gratitude to people like Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Jim Wallis, etc.
Those who make a mockery of Christianity by siding with the rich, or espousing war, seem to me hurtful. I wonder why people professing to be Christian seem to totally misunderstand Jesus’ core teachings: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Forgive your enemies. As you do to the least of these, you do for me. Treat others as you wish to be treated.” Recently, Ron Paul was loudly booed at a Republican debate in North Carolina when he said, “I believe we ought to apply the Golden Rule to our foreign policy. Let’s not treat other nations the way we would not want to be treated.” Certainly, the Golden Rule might be hard to apply to foreign policy, but why boo someone for suggesting that Jesus’ teachings might actually be worth trying? Respect for other nations might well produce far better results than our current arrogance and belligerence.
What do you think it means to be Christian? Or a Quaker? These are larger questions worth exploring.