To what extent is Quakerism – as expressed by unprogrammed liberal Friends – a mushy religion defined more by silent worship and stances on social issues than on deep theology? Based on where Friends show up and the bumper stickers on our cars, it is clear where we stand on war, military spending, gay rights, mountain-top removal, hydro-fracking and environmental issues. We have a standard-issue car – either a Toyota Prius or Honda Civic hybrid. These tend to all be expressions of our social gospel, but underneath all of this, is there a disciplined theology that guides our principles?
I often sense (perhaps project?) among Quaker circles a feeling that if we were to drop our rigidity on socio-enviro-political issues we would not be sure what we stand for, or if we dare to suggest that we question the applicability of Quaker process to our decision-making that we are violating something sacred. We have a clear social gospel that is averse to injustice, is earth-centered and very much about the common good, but what about our personal gospel – sacred truth – that provides the ballast for the social gospel? It’s not that there is anything wrong with the social gospel, but when that is all we have, it tends to need the “other” - someone on the other side of the issue - to give it validity, and it can lead to an emotional reactivity as we choose sides and point fingers.
The challenge seems to be that when the idea of a “personal gospel” is raised, there is an understandable reaction, as if piousness, purity, sin and damnation are to follow, none of which fit easily with both our social gospel and the sometimes mushy “all people are welcome” message. I often found myself recoiling at the thought. Does this mean unprogrammed Friends cannot advocate a personal gospel?
As I have found, Friends readily embrace some form of “there is that of God in All” as a common and core truth. Can this be embraced and nurtured as a personal gospel – one that, above all else, is our core truth in a way that does not threaten or negate the social gospel, but instead informs the social gospel? Many people come to Quakerism after painful experiences with rigid and/or orthodox gospel messages of judgment, sin, hell and damnation, finding comfort in the warmth of a loving and welcoming community that also generally sits on what they find the “right side” of social issues. Our embracing of the common truth, however, tends to be fairly soft.
One does not have to spend too much time with unprogrammed Friends to seen that many – perhaps 50% or more – of the folks that live in our community are really not welcome because of their politics or stances on social issues.
Is it possible to reverse this, and to say that all are welcome DESPITE their stance on social and political issues, and that these are secondary to our commitment to welcoming all? Certainly we have the words in our materials. For example, the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Vision Statement has these two points (page 121 of 2011 Yearbook):
• “We aspire to listen deeply and inclusively to each other”
• “We seek to…witness in the world to our shared experience of the infinite love of God”
To the first point, aspiring to listen deeply and inclusively: are not our Meetings and gathering places where we practice deep listening – not to each other, but just as a practice of deep listening? We can get caught up sometimes thinking we need to be listening for something or to each other, but deep listening is more of a holistic practice.
To the second point, when we seek (and we do so joyfully – the trickier part) to share our experience of the infinite love, this is a calling to try and be an example of that infinite love, knowing that we as humans can never perfect it but we can always get a bit better at it. Being joyful about seeking keeps a sense of wonder and enthusiasm alive while keeping the judgment and negative aspects at bay, allowing us to be more open to seeing that God/goodness in others. It is this deeper connection that allows for the truths of our social gospel to be held in civil rather than divisive discourse, ultimately advancing both the personal and social gospel through faith.
This is not some mushy theology, but is in fact one that calls for some of the deepest faith. If we truly believe there is that of God in all, and ours is to joyfully seek it while sharing that infinite love, we have to constantly be practicing it, trying to improve on it, every single day. We have to know that we will never perfect the practice of it. I certainly fail countless more times than I succeed. But in deepening our faith in it, we can always get better. It means that our Meetings and gatherings are places to more consciously practice it so that when we venture out in the world no matter where we are we are better practiced. It also means finding new places to practice – going to places where there not people of “like mind”, and not try to convince them the error of their ways, but to instead practice deep listening while joyfully seeking and loving.
As this election year unfolds, unprogrammed Friends have an opportunity and perhaps a responsibility to embrace this challenge. If ever there was a time to practice advancing both our personal and social gospel, this is it. I also believe that if we only focus on the social gospel while demonizing those who disagree with it (including conservatives, military, etc.), we are doing so at the expense of our personal and communal gospel and both will lose.
(Acknowledgment: Some of the inspiration for this discernment of personal and social gospel is due to 2 books I recently read; "Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices" by Brian McLaren and "Saint and the Sultan" - about St. Francis of Assisi meeting with the Sultan of Egypt during the height of the 5th crusade - by Paul Moses.)