Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A (very lengthy) Response to David Britton's "Knowing Experimentally" 10/09 Friends Journal

With great appreciation did I read David Britton’s letter in the Viewpoint section of in the October 2009 issue of Friends Journal ( Not only because he was thoughtfully provoked enough to respond, but because his response indicates that there is plenty to discuss among Friends regarding our identity as a religious society. It is my hope, and I believe, after reflecting on the number of letters and articles concerning Christ-centeredness in recent Journals, that this discussion has been a long time coming, and may soon find a way into the forefront of Quaker theological dialogue. I must say, that in view of my own fervent Christ-centeredness, by no means do I believe that any point of view amongst Friends should be shunned by the round tables of religious conversation.
I would like to continue by making a firm statement concerning the assumption by David Britton that my own Christ-centeredness, or that of any other Friend who has not stated as much, is a faith in a “supernatural Son of God.” It is my contention, a contention that is explicit in some of my other work, that the rigid belief in a supernatural messiah is something that is a bone of contention only among conservative fundamentalists like the late Jerry Falwell, and liberal “fundamentalists” like Shelby Spong. I have never stated that one must believe in a virgin birth or walking on water to maintain Christ-centered integrity.
Secondly, I believe that David Britton has not attempted to familiarize himself with my christology because he assumes that I prioritize a “belief” in Jesus over “behavior” that properly reflects Quaker values. I specifically used the word praxis, and have written extensively stressing the importance of Jesus’ own faithfulness and our own faithfulness in daily living, over the insistence of Protestant Christendom that a faith in Jesus is salvific. I urge others to read my exegetical article on the Book of Philippians, published on the website The Paul Page. This article makes it clear that community praxis reflects the salvific efficacy of Jesus’ work, as opposed to any supernatural aspects of death or execution. In regard to my membership with Conservative Friends, many of whom practice a faithful lifestyle that is the product of a firm faith in a supernatural messiah, I spoke at length at Ohio Yearly Meeting for a need for Friends of all persuasions to identify more closely with the faithful life of Jesus as both the atoning and liberating aspects of the Christ-centered narrative in contrast to a faith in Jesus. As a point of clarity, I am not arguing that liberal Friends need accept a Jesus that walks on water, nor am I arguing that Conservative Friends practice a pure Quaker faith. I am simply arguing for an intelligible narrative amongst Friends that provides for our place in the theological discussions that much of the rest of the world engages in.
Indeed, it is a narrative approach to Christ-centered Quakerism that I suggest as a step toward Friends maintaining a relevant place in both, discussions of faith and spirituality, and the practice of faithfulness in a broken world. My insistence upon a unified narrative that stands in continuity with early Friends and their own Christ-centeredness is not meant to be at the expense of non-theist Friends. However, it is non-theist and pagans and Buddhist that seem to be most shrill concerning diversity, all the while marginalizing Christ-centered Friends for their particularity. This has been my “experience.”
It has also been my experience that many Friends’ tolerance extends only to those who share the point of view that is common to relatively liberal, semi-affluent, and mainly educated persons. There is very little tolerance for faith expressions that are not universalist in nature. My experience is, that in the minds of many liberal Friends, it is a travesty to suggest a religious truth, but it is both morally and socially acceptable to state political truths, and even use ballot-box coercion to enforce rigidly liberal values. While this might seem like a rambling statement in the context of the discussion, it is my contention that many Friends simply feel uncomfortable about making religious statements of truth because they might offend their spiritual neighbor. Limiting the religious experience to the personal realm, as opposed to the corporate realm, is exactly what is endangering Friends’ unity and the intelligibility of our testimonies.
David Britton relies on the testimonies as the unifying aspect of Friends’ identity. Limiting my response to the peace testimony in particular, I want to stress that it is absolutely because of their dedication to a biblically informed Christ-centered faithfulness that Friends even bear witness to peace. Many early Friends were not pacifists, and there were an abundance of Quakers serving in the New Model Army. David Britton states as much when he asserts that “Fox recruited many of Cromwell’s soldiers.” What David Britton does not state, however, that Fox never suggested that Quakers leave the army, and he never insisted that they refrain from fighting. Quaker pacifism in the 1650’s was an individual expression of faith for many of the convinced, but Fox himself wrote to Cromwell suggesting military action against Catholic ruled nation-states like Spain and Italy. A unified Quaker peace testimony only came after Friends were politically threatened with extinction due to perceived plots against the crown.
However, when Friends, led by George Fox and others who had served in the military less than a decade prior, articulated the peace testimony, Friends - both pacifist and otherwise - unified over the existing example of Jesus and the witness of the Greek Testament. Interestingly, David Britton draws upon the biblical narrative himself when he uses phrases like “upon this rock that our church is built.” It was because of Friends’ perceived place in an ongoing drama of Christ Jesus, and their commitment to changing the world in the context of that particular narrative, that they could state corporately that they would not fight, and that their reasons for resisting war were not of their own making, but the directive of a creator God whom had made peace normative through self-expression in the person of Jesus. It is now up to Friends to allow this creator God to be expressed fully through our own person according to the normative revelation in Jesus.
Finally, David Britton contends that waiting worship is the practice that allows for unity. I firmly believe that waiting worship, and the ministry of the laity, are integral to Friends’ practice. My concern, however, is that many “refugees” from other traditions, or from Christendom, identify more with waiting worship as a refuge from their unfortunate experiences with mainstream faiths than as worship. I hope I am mistaken when I observe that many liberal Friends are not worshipping, but simply seeking refuge from religious professionals that might hold them hostage with sermons, lectures, or, may the deity forbid, corporate expressions of faithfulness.

1 comment:

Rudy said...

I found a lot to agree with in your post: Quakerism as a practice of following Christ's example, rather than depending on belief (if that is what you are saying).
You are emphasizing that this is the practice of a community, rather than just the individual, which is a wonderful theme of early Christianity, and early Friends.

Most of the time I am skeptical of the supernatural aspects of the New Testament stories (not all the time: sometimes the stories make more sense to me spiritually if the supernatural parts really happened), but I am always drawn to the example of Christ's life.
I find the idea of our friendship with God very moving, a part of Quakerism I didn't connect with for a long time.

I have to disagree with you about Friends' peace testimony being tied only to Christian practice. I think you are right about the history, but many Friends are pacifist without being Christian. It is not as though Christianity has a monopoly on pacifism in world religion: Jains are pacifist, as are many Buddhists, and of course Gandhi's nonviolence (itself informed by Hindu ahimsa, Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Christ) is a huge example for many Friends.

I'm sorry for the intolerance you've experienced from non Christ centered Friends (I'm a universalist Friend myself, and fit all the other categories you lump us into: higher education, semi(sigh)-affluent. I don't know what you are referring to as ballot box coercion.)

Your last sentence is disrespectful: if "refugee" Friends just wanted a refuge from sermons, etc. they would be staying home watching TV on First Days instead of going (sometimes driving long distances) to Meeting.