The Gist of Quakerism

April 13, 2016

Chuck Fager has been running a series of Quaker FAQs to provide an introduction to Quakerism.  Of course he knows people disagree about such matters, but Chuck has a gift for plain speaking and he thinks his plainspoken FAQs might help people (even, or especially Friends) understand Quakerism better.  He’s now up to the sixth installment in the series, which in turn are collected into a booklet.

I’m enjoying the series, but I was intrigued by this item that leads the sixth installment:

Q. Can You Sum Up Quakerism In Only Two Paragraphs?
(Yes. Here goes.)

About 360 years ago in England, God had an idea. He (or She) wanted a group of people to come together and do some special pieces of God’s work, in some particular ways. So when a man named George Fox climbed up a place called Pendle Hill, God called to him and showed him that there was “a great people to be gathered” there, to do that particular work, in those particular ways.

That “people” or group was the Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers. It appeared because God gathered it, to do some particular work, in the particular ways we’re supposed to do it. (What we call the Testimonies are part of this work; but only part.) We’re not done yet, and God’s not done with us, and that’s why Quakers are still around.

Fager takes Quakerism to be a movement: a gathering of people for a purpose that continues to the present day.  I understand why he can see it that way, and I know he isn’t alone in seeing Quakerism in that way.  But it isn’t how I see Quakerism.

The gist of Quakerism for me lies in its being a particular spiritual discipline, a particular approach to knowing God.

I work from the assumption that all who seek God are seeking the same God, whoever or whatever God is.  God is hard to know so people come up with different understandings. That’s awkward, but that is the way it is.  Efforts to simplify knowing God lead regularly to trouble.  That’s my principal beef with fundamentalisms of all kind: they think they’ve got it all figured out.  Because God is difficult to know, people have different approaches or practices to help them.  Because people are different, I don’t see any point in insisting that there is just one best way to know God.

The Mass works well for some people. Monastic life works well for a few. Hymn singing is essential for some.  Fasting, the Labyrinth, sacred dance, Bible reading, even community suppers: all these work for some.

This is the clearest understanding I have (also the most generous) for why people divide into different religious groups even if everyone is seeking the same God.

For me, gathering with others in waiting worship is best for me.  Too many prescribed, ‘authoritative’ words from others tend to drive me away. I need a more active approach, and I prefer silence (at least my own) to saying things that call forth my doubts.  Too much ritual is not good for me as a steady diet, though I find occasional doses quite moving.  I find that waiting worship in Quaker meeting.  That’s my discipline, my approach.

Underneath any spiritual discipline is a hunch about why it works — when and to the degree it does work.  For me, that hunch implicit in waiting worship is that God is still wanting to speak to us, still has more to say; we have to still ourselves and listen. We can do this by ourselves, but joined in community we can do better, hear more and more clearly.

Are those Quaker meetings that have turned to pastoral form a break with this core spiritual discipline? (I am a member of such a meeting.)  I don’t think so, especially if they still provide a significant place for waiting worship.

The practice of waiting worship: that’s the gist of Quakerism for me.  It’s important to add that I’ll worship in community with anyone who wants to try the same approach to knowing God.  I don’t need them to agree with me about the gist of Quakerism.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Beliefs, Quaker Identity, Quaker Practices and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Gist of Quakerism

  1. Pingback: Meanings: “Gist” | The Observatory

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