Sunday, November 26, 2006

Samuel Caldwell Revisited

About 8 years ago, on a monday night in Philadelphia, Samuel Caldwell spoke about Quaker Faith vs. Quaker Culture, and had some pretty harsh words about the culture of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Parts of his speech came to mind this morning as I sat through a popcorn-ish meeting full of political messages about Palestine.

Caldwell opened with the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25:14-30:

For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them. To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! So you knew that I harvest where I didn’t sow and gather where I didn’t scatter? Then you should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten. For the one who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough. But the one who does not have, even what he has will be taken from him. And throw that worthless slave into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ (NET Bible)

The part of Caldwell's lecture that has always stuck with me is the notion that Liberal Friends (Caldwell limited it to PYM) have become the unfaithful servant in this parable. Caldwell suggests that PYM has taken its one talent - Quaker Faith - and buried it inside Quaker Culture. I propose something a little more radical - that Liberal Friends have taken the Quaker faith that was a revival of early Christianity, and buried it within a new definition of faith that does not yield additional talents. Modern Liberal Quakerism has become a faith that is kept within, it offers others the fruits of that faith, but fails to offer the faith itself.

The statement this morning that set me off was yet another use of "that of God in everyone" as a reason why we treat people the way we do. According to Lewis Benson, George Fox's use of the phrase "that of God in everyone" was not used as a theological statement that justified the peace and equality testimonies, but it was something of God in man that shows him what is evil and also that it was the witness of God in man [that] teaches us how to use, and not to misuse our natural environment. According to Benson, the phrase had disappeared from usage until Rufus Jones revived it in the early twentieth century, giving it a new interpretation as a theological justification for some of the testimonies. This new justification, I believe, is an example of burying the one talent in the ground. It means that we no longer look at "that of God" as something that is awakened and answered in others, bringing them into a right relationship with God, but is merely a philosophical reason why we act the way we do.

The second way we bury the one talent lies in the statement that "Quakers don't proselytize". This statement is not true, Liberal Quakers certainly do proselytize, often quite vocally. The difference is that instead of proselytizing about the spirit of Christ within them, Liberal Quakers tend to proselytize about the fruits of that spirit - opposition to war, equality, simplicity. If proselytizing about one's faith is considered bad, is it not worse to try to convert people to a viewpoint that is ostensibly achieved by the spirit of Christ working upon our hearts, especially when we seem to expect people to get to that same viewpoint without Christ?

The third way we bury this talent is in our individualism. Sometimes, it feels to me like Liberal Quakers act like a herd of cats - everyone goes in their own direction, following whatever path they want to. This course is often justified by the famous quote "what canst thou say?" The community aspect of Quakerism has been watered down in that meetings seem to be reluctant to accept responsibility for the spiritual health of its members - it is something left to the individuals. If you read the full quote, George Fox said You will say Christ saith this, and the apostles say this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God? It was not a call to do and say what you want, but to follow the guidance of God. The call of cross is not one of individualism but one of submission to God - to walk in the Light is to follow God's leadings and not our own. Our community should act as a guide to help us discern true leadings from our own individual wants and desires. Another aspect of this individualism is in the idea that Quaker business is conducted by consensus (I heard this several times this morning). We are supposed to be following God's will, and business meetings are for discerning that will corporately and acting upon it. When we take God out of the equation, we are left with individual ego's trying to make decisions that don't make anyone mad. Allowing our faith to be shut up in individuals and not truly shared corporately is yet another way we bury it.

Finally, we bury our talent when we give up our waiting worship to politics and individual crusades. I hear so many people speaking about various political issues, and it is extremely rare that anyone stands up and talks about listening to the still, small voice within. I almost seems like we have lost the ability to truly minister to one another, and to truly answer that of God in one another. Instead of paying attention to the vine and whether the roots are healthy, we focus solely on the fruit. Going back to "what canst thou say", when we rise to speak in meeting, we should take extra care to insure that what we speak is "inwardly from God". It is not enough to say "God wants us to be peaceful, so if I say something about peace it is from God." To close the ear of the soul to the whispers of that inner voice is to bury the talent deep in the soil where it does no good.

Timothy Travis posted a thought-provoking response to this on his blog.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Speaking and Listening

A few weeks ago, during Meeting for Worship at Atlanta Friends, a Friend rose and spoke at some length using very Christian language. This is not new, in that this particular Friend usually speaks this way. This time, however, another Friend spoke about using a language that others can hear, and it felt to me like she was referring to the first Friend's choice of words. It appears to me that many Friends in my meeting tend to stick with words like "Light" and "Spirit" and tend to shy away from saying "God" or "Jesus" and rarely use the name "Christ". I have some difficulties with this, especially with what I perceive as a bias against Christian language - that people who best express themselves with a Christian vocabulary must instead hide behind more vague terms. What I find particularly distressing is that the usual reason for this is that many people are refugees from spiritually abusive churches and find Christian language uncomfortable. By avoiding this language, we reinforce the idea that it is bad, instead of showing that it isn't the language that is bad but the way it has been used by others. While it seems that much of the focus is on how we speak, I believe we should instead be looking at how we listen.

The wife of a friend of mine is a native Spanish speaker, and she once found herself working with a couple of Italian engineers. She did not speak Italian, and they did not speak Spanish, but the languages are quite similar, and they discovered that if they each spoke their native languages, the other was able to understand well enough for them to work. It was much easier for them to find words in the vocabulary they knew, rather than to try to find fitting words in a language that they had only a little familiarity with. They were able to rely on the common ancestry of their languages to be able to hear what each other was trying to say. If our words in Meeting for Worship all come from that single divine source (hey, I can dream), why can we not listen and hear Christ's voice through those words. Why should we ask people to instead translate into language that may not express what God wants them to express?

The second chapter of Acts describes the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came and filled the apostles, and they spoke in other languages (i.e. they spoke in tongues). The remarkable thing is that those in the crowd heard the words in their own language. The Holy Spirit, the Inner Light , or whatever you wish to call it, helped those in the crowd to hear, just as it helped the apostles to speak. Can we not allow that Spirit to do the same thing in us today, and to truly hear and "feel where the words come from"?