Jami Hart of Multnomah Monthly Meeting (North Pacific Yearly Meeting) has given us permission to republish this essay, originally published in the March 1995 issue of Friends Bulletin (p.89), and republished recently in slightly different format as a blog post on QuakerQuaker.
After North Pacific Yearly Meeting Annual Session, one who is new to Friends expressed concern and dismay after attending an interest group on the Christian-Universalist split—that there was this difference on the part of Friends.
I felt an imperative to resolve this issue for myself several years ago when it first came to my attention. Believing as John Woolman that
There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath had different names. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion, nor excluded from any, when the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren….1
I set out to explore what this has meant and means now for me personally.
I am a Christian because that is how I was raised. It is the culture I came from with the belief system whose language I am familiar with, and through which I “approach” a dialogue with the Divine.
I am also a Universalist because I also believe that God reveals to all people, whether Hindu, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, or Native American, and therefore: all belief systems are avenues through which we can all discover more about and grow in the knowledge of our common creator.
In my worship group at NPYM, someone spoke of our obligation to speak when something did not seem right to us, when we were bothered in some way by concerns that arise from, perhaps, what others have said or from something inside that just doesn’t sit right. In other words, to me this may be a clue that one is being moved by the Spirit to engage in dialogue.
I wanted to say something then, but there wasn’t time—that we are equally obligated to listen. Through this speaking and listening we engage in a dialogue that enables us to discern that of God in ourselves, in each other, and in our corporate body. This is holy work. I believe this obligation carries over into the larger world of God’s creation, to engage in the process of dialogue and discernment with people of other cultures and belief systems, to grow in the knowledge and love of God, and to learn what God would have us do, individually and corporately.
Belief systems are from humankind and are therefore limited. Faith is from God and is unlimited. My faith will not be limited by my belief.
I recently watched the Dalai Lama in a video, Compassion in Exile (1993). He appeared to me to be clearly a man of God.
I saw and heard him and other Tibetans speak of forgiveness of the Chinese who are destroying the Tibetan temples and their culture and forcing the Tibetans into exile. I saw more than forgiveness. There was genuine concern about what will happen to the Chinese because of their actions, as the Tibetans have a strong belief that what one does to others will eventually be visited on oneself.
Is this forgiveness, love, and compassion not from God? I know of no human belief system in which forgiveness and concern greater than this magnitude are expressed. Is this forgiveness, love, and compassion not valid or not from God because it is not from a Christian belief system?
Can we who are Christian or Hindu or Jew or Muslim not add to our concepts of forgiveness, love, and compassion by this knowledge and belief from another culture and religion?
This is only one of many examples that I find from other belief systems that do not take away from or diminish my belief, but only add to and enhance my faith. I am discerning more and more that my/our God is truly a universal God who reveals to all people. We can only enhance our knowledge of this Divine Presence by engaging in this discovery (through study, dialogue, etc.) of what is being revealed through all of God’s people.
I also believe that, as children of one God, whatever separates us from each other also separates us from God.
We speak of Birthright Friends,2 as those who are born into the Religious Society of Friends, into that belief system. I like to keep in mind that we are all Birthright Children of God, born into an inherent knowledge of and faith in a Divine Presence that is present in, transcends, and encompasses all of our human systems of belief. If we truly knew and understood this, what might it allow us to accomplish in this world? I believe that we could truly become the People of God that God desires us to be.
2 See Sally Rickerman’s essay, “Growing Up Quaker And Universalist Too,” about being a Birthright Friend and Universalist Quaker.