Saturday, 23 December 2017

Liberal Quakerism as a "Self Religion"?

A translucent, pale green crystal with a flat bottom rests on a wooden surface. The colour is deeper at the base and gets lighter as you get closer to the pointed tip.
Shall we align our chakras with healing
crystals? The Quaker Way isn't just another
New Age mishmash.
One thing I have seen said, from time to time about liberal Quakerism is that it has become a “self religion”. Usually, this is said by way of criticism, often (but not always) by fairly traditionalist Friends. In this post, I'll be taking a look at what this term means, and the extent to which liberal Quakerism – as I've experienced it – fits that definition, and some thoughts on the extent to which it should.
The term itself is not used entirely consistently. It is widely used in a derogatory way towards “new age” spirituality, even identified with such things, and is also used by the less vociferous critics of Scientology to describe that faith. However, the underlying and original meaning appears to be religions or spiritual paths that aim for the development of the self, with specific reference to new age and other paths that developed in the 70s and 80s. A characteristic that is often derided in these faiths in extreme individualism, the ability to cherry-pick from a range of traditions in your attempt to perfect yourself – though reports rather suggest this is rather less true of Scientology, which is generally considered a self religion. Thus, I tend to feel that the main defining quality of a self religion is the goal of self-perfection – whether the faith says this leads to apotheosis, results after death, or a better life here and now. However, the implications of pick-and-choose are probably very important in the allegation that liberal Quakerism has become a self religion, so that must also be borne in mind.
So, here's the first question: does Quakerism aim for the perfection of the self? If so, how, and to what end?
As I've said before, the core aim of Quaker practice is – to me – to increase our conscious awareness of the divine, and so allow that to guide our life. As Advices and Queries 2 puts it, to “bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ”; while we might quibble about the phrase “spirit of Christ”, the sense is clear whatever you think to the nature of the Divine. In my understanding, a key element of that is becoming more aware of the Divine at all times. That is, in a very real sense, a question of self-improvement. We engage in practices like reflection and group worship, discussions, perhaps individual prayer or meditation as suits the individual, and in so doing we increase our awareness and let ourselves be guided by the Spirit. Indeed, it is not hard to argue that successfully bringing your whole life under that ordering could be considered self-perfection – though also perhaps unattainable, given our human natures.
However, the experience of Quakers suggests that this personal awareness of the Spirit is not enough to produce such an ordering. Perhaps it would be were it perfect and absolute, but I'm not sure that such a degree of awareness is possible – and certainly not plausible. We do not teach the achievement of Buddha-like enlightenment, after all, though I am sure that some Buddhist Quakers believe in such an idea. As I see it, Quaker enlightenment, if it exists, is not a solitary process. We meet together in Meeting for Worship, and we can all gain from the insights of others' ministry. We make our collective decisions through a worshipful process of group discernment. Where one of us has a difficult decision to make for our own lives, practical or spiritual, we can support one another using a clearness process. Our spiritual practice has always been a collective one, even if some of the results are individual.
Additionally, Quaker practice may aim for, and to some extent lead to, self-perfection, but that is not the whole story. “True godliness don't turn men out of the world,” writes Penn, “but enables them to live better in it, and excites their endeavours to mend it.” We do not wish merely to improve ourselves, but to improve the whole world. We may have a lot of different ideas as to how that could work, how we could achieve that, but our aim is a better world for all, not just a better life, or afterlife, for ourselves.
So, our first question gets a clear “yes, but” answer. Yes, we aim for the perfection of the self, but through a collective process, and with the goal of improving the world, not just ourselves.
The second question, however, more to the point of some who are critical in their description of liberal Quakerism as a “self religion”, hinges on the other part of the understanding of the term. Do people get to pick and choose, decide for themselves how to achieve that goal.
Well, in a fundamental sense, yes they do. We have no creed, we have no requirements of our faith. That sense is perhaps more fundamental than we should be considering for this question, however. You may say that Quakers can pick and choose beliefs, but there are two problems with that formula. Firstly, to truly engage with Quaker practice, there are some beliefs that are essential, though you might understand them and explain them in different terms. You must have some beliefs that allow those practices to make sense – some reason that ministry comes in Meeting for Worship, and some reason that it makes any sort of sense make a decision by careful attention to ministry in Meeting for Worship for Business. If your beliefs don't have some logical way of leading to the common testimonies, you may have trouble fitting in among Quakers; although understanding of those testimonies is varied, they are not generally varied enough to lead to fundamental contradiction.
More importantly, however, it is my experience that no-one gets to choose beliefs. I could not choose tomorrow to belief in the resurrection and divinity (at least, any more divinity than anyone else) of Christ. I could choose to say I had that belief, but no choice will make that belief real. People can't be a Quaker and choose whatever beliefs they want; they can be a Quaker while having a wide range of beliefs. That might sound like quibbling over words, but it is vitally important. Our beliefs are shaped by our life experiences, but also by our experience of the Divine, and our experience of the Divine is the root and feedstock of our lives as Quakers. The Spirit brings us this range of experience, and so to this range of belief. To me, this is a fundamental basis of liberal Quaker universalism, and thus we tolerate – or ideally celebrate – a wide range of belief.
There are also a wide range of non-core practices that people can choose. We have group practices like the Experiment with Light, we read and reflect on texts, we have individual reflection, prayer or meditation, we have journaling, we have labyrinths. There are so many practices out there, and people will use different combinations of them. We do, however, have the core practice of Meeting for Worship that is at the heart of the Quaker way. I will not say that it is impossible to be a Quaker without regular Meeting for Worship, for some are unable to engage in it for a variety of reasons – lack of a local worshipping community, inability to leave the house, or impairments that make holding a long silence difficult, or cause problems dealing with groups of people. I do think that it would be hard to be a Quaker, to really understand what is at the heart of our practice, if you have never experienced Meeting for Worship.
If you just agree with a lot of Quaker points, and read books and blog about being a Quaker, and try to put that stuff into practice in your life, then you might identify as a Quaker – and I'm not one to quibble with self-identification. I don't think that only those in formal membership should call themselves Quakers. But a person in that position should question how truly they are living up to that identity. Similarly, if you practice Quaker worship and are part of a Quaker community, but think that Quakers are completely and historically off-base when it comes to, say, the Peace testimony, then I can't say you aren't a Quaker, and I wouldn't necessarily think your Meeting should refuse you membership or disown you. If you aren't open to having that view changed, however, if you are not open to the possibility that you will only wear it as long as you can, I have to question your sincerity as to Quaker beliefs.
Being a Quaker, at least of the liberal variety, is about being constantly open to the transformation of the Spirit, and we have to trust that that transformation will be leading us closer to perfection. I could wake up tomorrow and experience a sudden transformation and come to a different understanding of the Divine. I could start seeing it in a theistic way. The most Christian traditionalist Quaker could experience something in their life that leads them towards a non-theist understanding. And both of those transformation could come from the Spirit and be leading us each towards our unattainable perfection.
So, practised properly, the Quaker way is something of a self religion, in that we aim for our own development. That is not the sole aim of our faith, however, and we should not, when we practice correctly, resemble the derisory image of the self-religion of the individual practitioner following a path of their choosing, and following it more or less alone, despite their relationship with other practitioners. When we move towards our goals, we move towards them together, and our community, our traditions and our record of insights of the past provide a sort of normalisation that defines, where words cannot, what is acceptable for a Quaker. It may just look otherwise because we choose not to police it strongly.
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