Friday, May 7, 2010

Quakers, Conscience, and (Incidentally?) Salvation

Q / A

This topic develops from questions that I was asked earlier this week, but it evolved in a roundabout way. A law student came in to interview me about conflict between church and state. Initially, she wanted to know the history of how Friends developed and defended our practice of non-officiated weddings. But that led to same-sex marriage, to questions about how we address differences between individual callings and how we think about the individual conscience, and finally to war tax concerns.

I ended up digging out papers from a 1989 court case in which the U.S. Justice Department brought suit against Philadelphia Yearly Meeting for not complying with levies against the wages of two Quaker employees who were war tax refusers. One of the challenges PYM had to answer was: why did the yearly meeting feel compelled to support the religious conscience of two particular staff members when the rest of the Quaker staff were not making the same witness?

Sam Caldwell, then the General Secretary of PYM, wrote a response that fascinated me, since I think it is the first time I ever read a definition of “salvation” from the perspective of Liberal Quakers.

God gives to every human being who comes into the world a measure of the Spirit through which divine guidance is inwardly received and the conscience enlightened. Every human being has direct access . . . to divine inspiration and guidance for living in accordance with God’s will. Those who discern and heed the promptings of this Inner Light in their daily lives are “saved”—that is, they come into fullness and wholeness of life and right relationship with God and one another. Those who resist, ignore, or disobey this Inner Light, even if they profess religion, are “damned”—that is, doomed to unhappiness and alienation from God, from themselves, and from one another.

Sam goes on to argue that it is the responsibility of the Friends community to support a member who is following the divinely-inspired conscience. “To withdraw such support, for any reason, would directly violate one of our most religious principles: the sanctity of obedience to the inner guidance of the Spirit as revealed in the individual conscience.”

It's important to note here that Friends have always been careful to make a distinction between the workaday conscience, and divine guidance. Early Friends were alert to a difference between the “natural conscience” (which comes from nature, from the judgment that we develop through living our lives in the world) and the conscience when it is a vehicle for divine guidance. They considered that our natural consciences, while generally good, may be flawed or poorly developed, but God can work through our consciences to guide us unerringly.

I have pondered these matters for the past several days. Do I really believe these statements? Do I live accordingly? It’s a little embarrassing to focus on the stark topic of “conscience” – it seems so Third Grade Sunday School class. But at the same time, it’s so basic because . . . well, it’s so basic.

So, I fall back on good old Quaker advice: when in doubt, wait and pay attention. These two practices are precursors to being able to say, with George Fox, “This I know experimentally.” One of our ways of paying attention is through queries. (For the uninitiated, queries are questions that Quakers sit with in worshipful attentiveness.) Here are a few queries I offer myself, and anyone else who wants them.

Queries on Conscience

• Am I sensible of the urgings of my conscience? Am I responsive to them?

• Do I strive to discern the difference between my own judgment and the promptings of the Light?

• How do I test what I perceive to be leadings of the Light?    [Note: whole books have been written in response to this question. See, for example, J. Brent Bill's Sacred Compass.]


• In our meeting communities, are we sensitive to each other’s consciences? Do we encourage each other to express prickings or promptings that come from the conscience? Do we both nurture and challenge each other in the discernment of the Light, as revealed through conscience?

• Do we take responsibility, as a community, for supporting our members when they are tried by their consciences or called into difficult expressions of faith?

Chel Avery