Tuesday, 29 January 2019

A Quaker Rumspringa?

A rear left quarter view of an Amish covered buggy, drawn by a single horse.
In an earlier post, I suggested the idea that a spiritual convincement experience, involving a direct experience of the Divine, might be something we could consider a prerequisite for membership. This was not to advocate it as an actual change we should undertake right now. There are lots of problems with the idea, though it is attractive in principle. One of the problems is the experience of those raised among Friends.
The thing is, when you taste something you have never tasted before, particularly if it is a strong flavour, it is strange, it's unmistakable. It grabs your attention and you really know you've tasted it. If, however, the flavour has been familiar to you since your childhood, you might barely be aware of it. This is a major factor in culinary culture shock, noticeable even in something as simple as an American and a Brit trying tomato ketchup made for the other market. To me, American ketchup tastes unpleasantly sweet, but to an American, British ketchup tastes like it's been spiked with vinegar. When you get into things that are even more different, like spices or seasonings that are characteristic of particular cuisines, it is even more pronounced. Consider for instance kimchi, or the Japanese umeboshi. For the European palate, east Asian food is particularly apt for examples.
Experience of the Divine, however, is so personal and subjective, so far from amenable to corroboration, that it poses even more difficulty. Someone raised among Friends, I am given to understand, might wonder whether they have ever experienced it, or simply experienced it from such a young age that they cannot identify it as special. I know some people feel their own experiences are so vivid and unmistakable that no-one could be confused, but really, consider the umeboshi – and consider trying to describe its flavour. As someone who eats one for the first time in adulthood, you would tend to describe it as an extremely potent flavour, a very strange combination of salt and acid, and somewhat sweet (depending on the variety). It would be something that you couldn't mistake, something you would always know the first time you experienced it. To someone who has eaten them their entire life, they're just umeboshi. A westerner's vivid description of the flavour, without any specifics that identify the foodstuff in question, would be unlikely to put such a person in mind of the specific food.
I'm very aware of this as a problem with the idea of membership hinging on such a convincement experience, because my wife was raised among Friends. She has always identified as a Quaker, though she has never sought membership – and isn't sure she could if there were such an expectation. That isn't to say she's sure she hasn't had that experience, but if she has, the first time would have been at a pretty early age. One thing that people have suggested before is the idea of “learning through teaching”, sharpening one's own understanding out of necessity in order to pass it on to others. This does not suit all people, but even more importantly it's not as helpful for experiences as it is for concepts. That's not to say it isn't any help, but it often doesn't quite cut it. She did have an idea, though, related to the well-known (if not widely understood) Amish practice of rumspringa.
Rumspringa has had a certain mythology develop around it in popular understanding, that does not necessarily match actual practice. This confusion is naturally compounded by the fact that the Amish, thought of as some sort of single cultural bloc, is nothing of the sort. Different communities have very different practices. The version described herein should not be taken as in any way an accurate depiction of the practice among any community – it is naturally heavily influenced by the faulty popular understanding, though I have tried to mitigate that with some basic research. Interestingly, the term is apparently also used, with similar meaning (though different expectations of the age at which it occurs) among the Old Order Mennonites as well as the Old Order Amish.
The word comes from Pennsylvania Dutch (itself a misnomer due to English confusion), and its roots can mean “jumping around” or “running around”, with the latter understanding more common in the language as spoken by the Amish settlers. It is often translated as “running around time”, and in its most basic case may also be taken as meaning “adolescence”. Even in this basic case, the behavioural expectations of people at this age are somewhat slackened, as a concession to expediency if nothing else. It seems likely that every culture finds it hard to hold adolescents to behavioural standards. The popular image, however, has – as I understand it – featured in even some fairly serious fiction (and I think I remember it in non-serious fiction, in a particularly weird comedy about professional ten-pin bowling). This involves a person outright leaving their community, parting ways from it and sojourning in the wider world – perhaps even travelling. In such depictions, they are often shown keeping largely to their traditional dress (how else would you recognise the character on film or TV?), and may or may not keep to the most important moral restrictions, such as honesty, hard work, and chastity. I can certainly see the “dramatic” potential for relaxing the last of those, although it seems cheap.
As far as I can tell, this popular mythology is not actually practised in that way anywhere. However loose it is, there's a general expectation of keeping the most important moral restrictions – but even those are potentially forgivable. The underlying point of rumspringa seems to be that you can't expect adolescents to behave entirely sensibly, in accordance with expectations, or in accordance with the demands of their elders. I suspect we can all see the sense in that. It begins, depending on the sect, around the age of 14 to 16, and ends when a person is baptised, as an adult (some sects have a minimum age for this, especially among Old Order Mennonites, but there is no general minimum age for baptism other than being after school – and Amish schooling traditions have people leaving around the start of rumspringa, as noted below). Some of the “relaxation” of rules and expectations is, in fact, simply the fact these rules are not imposed yet. They apply to those who are baptised and have made their full commitment to the church. Parents are, however, required by the same rules to apply expectations to their children, and it is this parental discipline that tends to be relaxed to some extent.
It is also the time for courtship, for finding a spouse. This is, of course, done more chastely than among the “English” (the Amish term for all those outside their community), but it is still something that is often done, or at least begun, before full adulthood is reached either by baptism or separation from the community. Young Amish who are still considered fully children are excluded from events and activities that are major venues for courtship.
Some youngsters, in some communities, do separate from the community temporarily, rather than permanently, to learn more or to experience other ways, to “see the world” but ideally without being conformed to its ways. Things that a young person might do during rumspringa would include taking a job among the English, perhaps even mixing with their young people socially. They might consume recreational drugs, and in some communities they may be the only ones consuming alcohol – and even in those that accept alcohol they may be consuming most of it.
In some communities, there are long-established “gangs” for rumspringa-aged youth, and which gang one joins will determine some degree of how far one diverges from social norms. These are not, of course, gangs in the sense that many readers might immediate imagine. This is not organised crime. It is more a venue for socialising and experimentation, and different gangs will focus on different areas of “rebellion”. The cover art of the 2001 edition of Donald Kraybill's The Riddle of Amish Culture shows two young women in conventional garb for their community, but going along on inline skates. I can't vouch for the photograph being authentic, but it certainly gives an idea of the frank randomness that non-conformity during rumspringa might lead to.
I've found mention of people getting “English education” as a form of rumspringa, and I can see that communities might benefit from some of their members knowing about things that would mostly be taught outside the community. Amish formal education generally ends around age 14 or 15, going up to and including the eighth grade in American terms, which translates in the English and Welsh system as year 9, or S2 in the Scottish system – and is generally taught by someone who has also had only that education. The skills for one's working life are learned at work, and sometimes a correspondence course might be taken for specific skills that can be taught in that way (I understand that book-keeping is one of the more common ones). Sometimes, though, a young person will “return” from rumspringa, whether or not they actually moved away, with far more “advanced” knowledge gained the English way.
Rumspringa did sort-of show up once on a UK documentary, however – not fiction. British programme makers brought a group of rumspringa-age Amish kids over to England to spend time with English contemporaries (both in the Amish and the worldly sense). It was a fascinating programme, showing them participating in (largely innocent) recreational activities common among British young people, how they reacted to it and approached it. Young men and women both were involved, if memory serves, and they positively identified their involvement in the programme as part of their rumspringa.
Anyway, to get back to the point… whichever version of rumspringa one envisages, the eventual result is either baptism, voluntarily joining the community one was born into, or separation from that community for good (though the attitude of the community towards such severed ex-members, contact with them etc., seems to be variable). Personally, I very much support the idea of expecting people to make an affirmative choice, as an adult (or nearly so), to become part of a community they were born into. I never really understood infant baptism, it only being explained by the doctrine of original sin, which never made sense to me, viscerally – but that's by the by. You might be wondering what this all has to do with the problem I set out to potentially address. After all, I compared the experience of Quaker spirituality to the taste of umeboshi – and once you are used to something like that, you never experience it as new and amazing. So, let's look at another analogy.
Some towns and cities have their own peculiar smells. I suspect all do, to some extent, but some are so vivid that they can quite preoccupy a visitor. Some are pleasant, but most are, to the visitor, unpleasant. It might be a result of some local industry – in bygone centuries tanning towns were quite notable for it – or because of some purely natural feature, or just to do with how the city was built up in days gone by. It might be there all time or only under certain conditions, but it's there enough of the time that the locals all get used to it. It's not that they don't notice it, but it doesn't impinge on their awareness. They are aware of it the way most people are aware of the local birdsong most of the time, or how anyone is aware of the temperature and humidity in conditions that are normal to them.
Thing is, and I suspect many of you will have experienced something like this, people don't stay in one town or city their whole life so much any more. Some do, to be sure, but plenty don't. People move away, for a few months at a time for study, or for years at a time to relocate for work. They get used to another town's smells. Then they go home, to visit friends and family or just to see their old stomping grounds – and the smell hits them. Maybe it will be pleasant in itself, maybe it will be unpleasant. Maybe it will trigger pleasant memories, feel homely, welcoming. But they notice it, probably for the first time ever really notice it.
Perhaps one way for those raised among Friends to really be aware of the Quaker spiritual experience is to stop having it, and then start again. I'm not sure what that would look like. I'm not advocating people cutting all ties with Friends and then coming back later, though a lot of Quaker youngsters do something close to that just as they move through the course of life. People move on from children and young people's activities, clearly too old for them, but not feeling like they fit in among the adults. After all, in many cases their parents are among the youngest non-children in their Meeting. Maybe there's some way we can make a deliberate virtue of this, rather than something to wring hands over. Maybe we can say that this is fine, expected but not required, and not try to persuade people to maintain involvement in Quaker things as they start to find their feet as a university student, or any other sort of probationary adult. Perhaps that would lead to more finding their way back.
The essential idea of rumspringa, the relaxation of expectations, is hard to apply to liberal Quakers. It's difficult for us to even say that we relax expectations and discipline among our youngsters, as we by and large aren't applying any particular expectations or discipline beyond that of wider society. Indeed, in my experience many Quaker parents are more permissive in some respects than wider society, and this permissiveness may stem from Quaker beliefs.
Perhaps we can help those who were raised among Friends to appreciate our particular spiritual umeboshi by encouraging them to eat burgers, or kimchi. Perhaps they can develop a new appreciation for the home-town smell by visiting some other places, really spending time there. Perhaps we should encourage our youth to positively experience different spiritual practices. This doesn't just mean visiting churches or synagogues or mosques when they are holding services, or going to a meditation meeting run by a local sangha. It doesn't mean the sort of idealised descriptions of faith and practice that many of us were taught in school religious education classes. It means deep learning about different faiths, and shared experiences with those of that faith. Many faiths are perfectly open to those of other faiths sharing their experiences and learning about them; in some cases this is because they see it as an opportunity to win converts, but in others it is simply because they see it as a general good for people to learn and experience.
This may lead to them deciding their spiritual path lies along another road, but where it doesn't it will lead to a more meaningful deliberate decision to be a Quaker. It may also allow another route for new insights and experiences to feed into our theological diversity. It will be enriching and educational, and certainly foster a greater understanding of different faiths and traditions. It might also, perhaps, foster a greater understanding and appreciation of the Quaker way.
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