Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Quakers Under the Microscope -- Participant-Observer Report No. 2


So I’ve heard that Quakers tend to be introverts who are not very outgoing with non-Quakers. How has that affected you as a non-Quaker extravert working with Friends?


Authors Note: This is the 2nd part of my series of working with Quakers. In this entry, I’ll attempt to describe some of my perceptions and misperceptions of Quaker beliefs. Also, I will attempt to describe an outsider’s perspective of the correct Quaker beliefs. -- Matt Bernot

Well, I too have heard stories about Quakers not being the most extraverted group on the planet, but to say they are not social would be, in my opinion, incorrect. A good part of this perception of Quakers comes from, in my personal belief, the fact that because Quakers do not actively try to convert or recruit new members they must be anti-social. I have found that Quakers are more passive and can be quite social if one takes the time to approach them first. Many Friends are quite friendly when approached. Another aspect of Quakers that may fuel the belief that Quakers are not social comes directly from the Quaker belief system.

The Quaker belief system is unlike most other religions. I will attempt to explain it in the best terms I can as a non-Quaker. I realize that I probably will not grasp the full concept of Friends beliefs, but I will make my best attempt and I invite our Friends to leave comments referring to whether or not they agree with what I say here.

For one, unlike most other religions Quakers do not have a set creed. Rather Quakers follow a set of Testimonies. There are many values found in the Testimonies. The role of these values, Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship (SPICES) are neither a creed nor commandments. Rather some Friends consider these values to be the guiding principles in decision making, while other Friends say that good decision making leads to these values being the product of a good decision. This argument reminds me of a favorite debate of the world today, which came first, the chicken or the egg. I would assume that if you asked ten different Friends about the role of the SPICES acronym, the ten Friends would give ten unique answers. Needless to say, this can be a bit off-putting to someone who is used to religions that have creeds and therefore the beliefs are set in stone.

Quaker beliefs come from within and it is, to an extent, up to each individual Friend to determine what is meant by the different teachings and what the correct course of action is in a given situation. When I first started working with Quakers, this unique way of thinking was surprising but also refreshing. It has challenged many of my own views and allowed me to think of things in a whole new way.

At first, I found it quite hard to understand how anyone could be a part of a religion that did not have a set creed or set beliefs. I also found it hard to see how a religion without few, if any, outward rituals could bring people closer together. However, after seeing Friends interact with each other, I realized soon after, that I was quite wrong. While outward rituals do seem to give the impression of bringing people together, I have come to see that the inner bond that Quakers have from their meetings runs far deeper than the outer bond that Catholics have from Mass. [Author’s Note: I was born and raised Catholic, but now fall under the category of lapsed Catholic.] In my own opinion, this inner bond that Quakers share and develop through silent, unprogrammed worship creates a bond between Friends that is far deeper than any bond created by participation in a ritual. One thing I think that causes this is the fact that all Quakers are equal since there is no minister or pastor that leads worship. This equality allows Friends to develop a spiritual bond that I have never observed before.

Now, from my time here, I have been able to correct my misperceptions of Quakers, which I am sure are shared by many other non-Friends. This experience so far has been enlightening.

Matt Bernot

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Equality, Honorifics, and Consistency among Friends


[Forwarded to QIC by Friends General Conference]
I am interested in participating in and finding out more about the Friends. I understand that the history of Friends is not to 'hat tip' —use honorary titles, for example. . . . I was concerned that the Friends religion may not be consistent with past spiritual and logical beliefs. [A Quaker publication’s] article on the physician, Marjorie Nelson, referred to her as Dr. Nelson. . . . "Your honor, Father, Mother Superior, Your Holiness " all show lack of respect for our fundamental, equal condition.

If Friends feel that verbal expressions of inequality are now acceptable as a form of acceptance or acquiescence to social norms, it seems that something dear has been lost. . . . Do you have any ideas where I can find a church that truly believes in the equal nature of humans?


Dear RC,

Friends General Conference has forwarded your message to me at the Quaker Information Center for a response. The concern you raise is one that Friends discuss among ourselves and has been a lively topic on Quaker list serves several times in recent years, so there is much to be said about our thinking on the use of honorifics, both historically and today. I am going to write a long response, including some of my own thoughts, but the first couple paragraphs will be a “short answer” to your question as you presented it.

That short answer is that if you are looking for a religion whose members exhibit full behavioral consistency, you are going to be disappointed with modern day Friends. We stress the value of individual conscience and we try to encourage members to be true to the Holy Spirit as they are guided by it. As a result, our witnesses vary from person to person, and we have many inconsistencies.

You asked about help finding a church that “truly believes in the equal nature of humans.” I believe that Friends come as close to being such a religion as you can find, but we are always learning, reconsidering, and evolving our practices. If we had it right from the beginning, there would never have been any Quaker slaveholders, and we cannot say which of our current practices might be considered deplorable in the light of future understandings. Thus, many Friends consider that spiritual exploration, that persistent testing of our practices, to be more important than a specific code of behavior that everyone adheres to in a uniform way. If there is a faith tradition that would be more satisfactory to you, I am not familiar with it. Perhaps you may find what you seek in a political group.

OK, here is a longer response, on the matter of recognitions of social status.

A common misperception—one held by many Friends— is that the original meaning of the “hat testimony,” and other such practices that withheld recognition of status difference between social classes, was an expression of Friends’ belief in equality. “Equality” as a principle was not much on the radar screens of early Friends. They believed in every person’s capacity to be enlivened by the spirit of God, they believed everyone had a soul (even women and non-whites, to the shock of many other Christians), and they valued the importance of honoring the sacred potential within every person. A number of Friends had been “Levellers,” a movement that sought to do away with differences in political power in England. So the seeds were there, but Friends were not yet thinking in the same terms that we now count as our “testimony of equality.”

Friends believed in truth. They also believed in humility as a quality necessary to be at one with the Divine Spirit. So social customs that contained flattery were objectionable to Friends because they were insincere. (Sometimes they were explicitly untruthful, such as calling a single person of high status by the then-plural term, “you.”) These customs were also seen as harmful, because to flatter someone would encourage vanity, not a healthy thing for their souls.

Modern Friends are more likely to interpret these customs of language and manners as expressions of our belief in equality, a testimony that is dear to us today. I have heard modern Friends wrestling very sincerely with the role of these traditions in their lives here and now. Some Friends feel these old customs are still meaningful and bear witness to them meticulously. Others feel that in our present society these oddities of speech are pretentious and legalistic and set us apart from other people rather than helping us forge connections. Some may argue that since equality is recognized (at least given lip service) as a social value in our culture today (as it was not in seventeenth century England), that point does not need to be made, and why alienate our potential allies with what they may experience as rudeness? They argue that if we care about equality, we should be putting our energy toward things like more just immigration laws or quality education in poor communities, rather than posturing over semantics.

For myself, situation has a lot to do with it. I don’t know what you think about situational ethics, but I find that in different contexts, the meaning of the words I use seems to change. Following are some ways I have wrestled with these matters.

A rigorous adherence to honorific-free speech would be never to use any titles at all, even “Mr.” or “Ms.” Traditionally Quakers called other people by both their first and last names, unless they were on a first name basis. This is a practice I mostly follow myself, but there are times when it does not seem right. For example, it feels different when I deny the prefix to a person whose rank is generally considered to be higher than my own than when I withhold it from a person over whom I have some kind of privilege or power. One instance involves elderly people in nursing homes, who are often infantilized by their situations and the treatment they receive. To call a resident in that context “Mr.” or “Mrs.,” in my experience, helps to equalize our status and preserve their dignity, rather than maintaining my “one-up” position as a person with mobility and resources.

I have no difficulty naming a person by his or her function. I am happy to call a judge “Judge,” although I would not say “Your Honor.” But sometimes the distinctions get fuzzy. I do copyediting for a Quaker organization. Our publications style guide says not to use honorifics. But that is easier in some instances than in others. When you write “Francis of Assissi” people make the connection to someone they know as “St. Francis.” “Mohandes Gandhi” is recognizable as the person many know as “Mahatma” Gandhi. But when a recent writer referred to Meister Eckhard, we faced a dilemma. His first name is so little used that historians disagree about what it actually was, and had that been resolved, how many readers would have recognized who “Johannes Eckhard” was? I honestly can’t remember what we decided, but the argument that our first responsibility was to our readers and that we owed them the respect of not confusing them was—we thought—a legitimate point.

Friends understand our traditional practices to have arisen because in their worship, early Friends experienced a condition of unity with the Divine Spirit. When they noticed that outward practices in their lives disrupted or were inharmonious with that inward condition, they changed the outward practices until they found them to be more consistent with their desired inward state. These practices are meaningful to us today only as long as we find that they still serve to keep us connected to the Spirit, in right relationship with God, ourselves, and one another. And if we are paying attention, if we are practicing our faith at its best, then we will continue to seek ways of living that preserve the unity of our outward and inward lives, whether those ways are a continuation of or a change in tradition.

If you decide that Friends still have a part to play in your search for a spiritual home, and if I can be of any further assistance to you, please contact me.

Chel Avery