Tuesday, 20 February 2018

The Spiritual and Moral Imperative of Outreach

A heavy wooden door in an old stone building. The door hangs open.
It is not enough for the door to be open. People
need to know it is there, and have some idea
about where it might lead.
I have often bemoaned the tepid attitude to outreach among many liberal Quaker Meetings, especially here in my home Yearly Meeting in Britain. There is, perhaps, more enthusiasm centrally, but in many Local and Area Meetings, it is not something that people put a great deal of thought or energy into. There are those Meetings that do go at it wholeheartedly, of course, and I applaud them for it.
Some of the arguments for greater outreach that I see – in fact, if I'm honest, most of them – focus on the fact our numbers are dwindling, and that there is a practical need to get more people involved in our Meetings. I feel there should be more attention given to the spiritual imperative for outreach, and so that is what I will be presenting in this post.
For the many denominations commonly considered evangelical, there is a clear justification for their work to bring others to their faith, and the insistent persuasion, sometimes veering into badgering, that they tend to employ. The Great Commission of Matthew 26, for those who do not believe it to have been fulfilled (preterism being a fascinating subject that I might return to on an occasion that I feel like doing more research into Christian stuff), is a clear injunction that does not seem unreasonable to consider to have been passed on to the whole Church. From that point of view, attempting to cause as many people as possible to become Christians is perfectly logical, however irritating some might find it. Some Christian or Christian-derived groups even hold the conversion of others to give one some sort of credit with God, to ensure a better result in the afterlife.
For that matter, in any faith – whether Christian or not – in which there is an idea of “salvation”, of a good or bad outcome after death that is largely determined by right belief (and perhaps right action as well), there is a clear moral imperative to at least give as many people as possible the opportunity to come to that right belief and to understand how they should act, and why. Repugnant as some of the acts it was used to justify over history might have been, there is a logic of compassion in trying to bring people “to God” in such a framework.
Liberal Quakers, as a community, do not have such justifications. Even those liberal Friends who are Christians, and believe more-or-less in the Bible, rarely take the Great Commission in the manner of evangelical protestants. Evangelical Friends, of course, see things differently, and are beyond the scope of this post – though I gather that some such Friends feel that their churches have also lost sight of mission work and living out the Great Commission. Among liberal Quakers, of course, there are a great many Christian Friends who do not see scripture as key to their understanding of Christ, who feel that the Great Commission has not been passed on to Christians today, or who even take a textual criticism argument to question the authenticity of the Great Commission as Christ's words. There are also a significant number of non-Christian Quakers in liberal Yearly Meetings, and the idea of the Great Commission will hold no sway with them.
Likewise, the argument from salvation (a term of which I am aware of the use in Christology, different from my use here, but I hope my use is of reasonable transparent meaning) holds little water with many liberal Friends. The understanding of, or any sense of belief in, salvation varies hugely even among Christian liberal Friends, in my experience. Certainly many that do believe in that sense of salvation believe it in a Christian universalist sense – that all are saved by the substitutionary atonement of Christ, whether they believe in him or not, let alone whether they accept him as Lord and Saviour. Even Christians can have a broader universalist view, seeing Christianity as their path, but other paths as equally valid for others, all reflections of some greater, possibly unknowable, truth. Indeed, I could probably write an entire post on attitudes to salvation and universalism that I have experienced among Friends, and may well do so, so I shall draw that point to a close here.
So we have no impulse to bring others to our faith from the Great Commission, and none from a moral requirement to enable the salvation of others. We also have a degree of moral reluctance to suggest that others should become Quakers, because we believe that everyone should find their own path. We do not wish to tell others that their spirituality is wrong, even if we truly believe that it is (which happens fairly rarely, in my experience); we feel that people rarely find a path that suits them because other people lectured them into it. In much the same vein, we have a very human reluctance to engage in such evangelism, as it leads to unpleasant confrontation. We reserve our unpleasant confrontation for those that we believe are doing something wrong that actually affects others, such as those supplying arms to dubious regimes, or those seeking to exploit natural resources without regard to the effect on the natural world or human communities. We speak truth to power, but we don't piss people off for no good reason – and thinking their faith is wrong, with no effect on others, is certainly not a good reason.
Many of us have also been burned by negative experiences of outreach. We might have organised an event we felt would be wonderful, but no-one came, or came and were difficult or unpleasant. We might have been misunderstood, our objectives misread as being badgering and persuasive, which is rarely our intent (more on which below). Such experiences make us more reluctant to put resources in that direction, even if others will be bearing the burden, because we do not wish to see our Friends hurt in the same way.
I agree with the feeling that our liberal theology (or perhaps that should be theologies) mean that we should not proselytise, in the sense of telling people they should be Quakers. But the lack of a Great Commission or argument from salvation does not mean we should not let people know what we have, invite them to share it, tell them that they might get something from our way of doing religion. Indeed, it is clear to see that their lack is only a lack of imperative towards action, not an imperative against action. Even without those moral and spiritual imperatives, it is not hard to see that we do have moral and spiritual imperatives. If we understand and express them properly, they may help more Friends to overcome the reasonable reluctance that is common in our Meetings.
I see two great imperatives towards outreach: one spiritual, and thus somewhat akin to the Great Commission, though almost entirely contrary to it in purpose; one moral, and thus somewhat akin to the argument from salvation, close to it in effect but with a more immediate meaning in this life. We shall consider them in that order.
The spiritual imperative is selfish, in a sense, though it is for the benefit of the community of Friends generally. In any case, the counterbalance of the moral imperative should ease ethical concerns about it; each party to the outreach transaction, however far that outreach is effective, stand to gain. It is rooted in the idea that we be “open to new light, from whatever source it may come”. This light comes from the diverse experiences of those with whom we share our spiritual journeys – experiences in life, in business, and in spirituality. The wider the pool of people we share our journey with, from diverse backgrounds, the greater the opportunity for new light, and the greater the variety we will find in it. While we draw mainly on a small number of spiritual traditions – Judaeo-Christian and Buddhist seeming to be those most frequently identifiable in my experience – the opportunities for light from the body of religious traditions, teaching and speculation are limited. If more come to our community, our spiritual fellowship, whose experiences are Islamic, neopagan, even Hermetic, then the richness of the variety of prior experience and learning that our community can draw on will increase. While we are largely educated, white and middle-class, the life experiences that lead to our spiritual insight are limited. If we become a Religious Society that embraces in fact, not just in theory, a wider range of backgrounds and life experiences, we will be able to experience more light in unexpected ways.
This is contrary to the idea of the Great Commission, in that the Great Commission seeks to make others like those who go out to fulfil it. Our Quakerly spiritual imperative instead seeks to make us, in part, like those we reach. It seeks to allow us some insight and benefit of their different experiences, without seeking to erase those experiences, but rather to see them as of equal value, and worthy of being part of a collective whole.
The moral imperative is about what our practices and teachings can bring to others. We do not promise a blissful eternal life after death, though some of us may believe that such will be the reward for a faithful life. We do not promise that accepting some set creed will magically bring fortune and fortitude. We do not promise that faithfully following a set of practices and learning will change you so as to reduce attachment and therefore suffering. We promise little but fellowship and friendship. It doesn't seem much that we can hold up as giving a moral imperative to share.
Yet who among us can say that our lives have not been enriched by our Quaker faith, our spiritual practices, or our Meeting community? Indeed, I expect many of us have found enrichment from all three. There are many who have experienced some form of healing in relation to their Quaker experience, be it a possibly-miraculous healing of the body, or a healing of the soul. We come to Meeting for Worship not out of obligation (I sincerely hope!) but because of what we get from it. That might not be the same thing for all of us, but I do not doubt that the vast majority of us get something that we are not finding it easy to get elsewhere.
We have unique teachings, and most especially unique practices. They produce things that each of us has generally been unable to find elsewhere. We would be prideful to think they would do the same for everyone, but we would be ridiculous think that everyone they would benefit will find their own way to a Quaker Meeting at the right time. It is hard to find your way to a place you don't even know exists. By doing outreach, letting people know we exist, yes, and what believe, what we do – more than just those things that get us on the news standing up for economic justice and marriage equality. Even if those we speak to don't start coming to Meeting for Worship, we have increased that knowledge and awareness – and they may remember, years later, when they are ready for it.
But beyond that, we have perfectly good reason to hope that we will speak to some who are ready for it, and we can show them that they will be welcome as they get their Quaker feet wet. We can let them know that we don't expect anything from them but their presence and a very low minimal standard of behaviour. I've heard from some who were interested in Quakerism, but felt they “weren't good enough”; we can do our outreach in such a way as to show them there's no such thing. They might gamble, they might brawl, and we will be content that they wear it as long as they can – so long as they don't do it in Meeting. If Quakers are especially virtuous, and I can't say I think that's a proven fact, it is because of our faith journey, not vice versa.
We have something wonderful to share, but so often we share it only when people come and ask for it. We need to offer with more than just a sign outside the Meeting House, more than just a visible presence in the political issue of the day. We need to be visible as a faith community beyond our Meeting Houses and action groups and protest sites. We need our faith to be visible, not just the results of it. We don't have to tell people they should be Quakers, as we don't necessarily think that's true. Nor yet that they could be Quakers, even though they could. Merely that they are welcome to share their journey with us, and we will share ours with them, and whatever will come of that will come.
This is not a claim that it is vital that each of us be engaged in such work; it is an imperative for our community, not each of us as individuals. For as there are a great many gifts, not all of us are suited to this sort of work. We might have skills or temperament better suited to other service, as sometimes outreach can require a pretty thick skin, and it certainly requires the ability to talk about one's faith with both humility and confidence; it is very clear that not all Friends have those characteristics, though we all have ways we can serve our Meetings and communities. That does not mean that everyone else can forget about outreach, however – just as we uphold our clerks and our elders, our finance committees and premises committees, the whole Meeting does need to uphold and support the work of those engaged in outreach.
We are denying others the opportunity of sharing in our discoveries, not by locking the door but by hiding it behind an overgrown garden. And we are denying ourselves the opportunity of what we will discover when other people, with different experiences, become part of our community.
How long can we wear that?
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