By Don Badgley
We few remaining Friends, find ourselves ever more diminished among the world’s myriad faith communities. We are scattered in small pockets around the globe, loosely connected, diverse in background, culture and theology. Our founders envisioned “a great people to be gathered” and for a brief time it was so. Yet, today we are but a remnant, less than 400,000 worldwide, with beliefs and practices so divergent they belie a single “religious society.” Today we call ourselves, “Liberal”, “Orthodox”, “Evangelical”, “Conservative”, “Protestant”, “Christ Centered” “Universalist”, and “non-theistic” Quakers. What changed?
It is certain that the Infinite and Eternal Divine that inspired, enlightened and empowered our founders, (and numerous others), waits quietly and unchanged to once again kindle the flames for that “great people” to become millions, newly dedicated to publishing Truth while living Disciplined lives that model Divine Love for the betterment of the world.
The kindling is as plentiful as humanity. But, what source of heat? What leadership? These are the questions that challenge us. Regrettably, our latter-day “Quaker” apprehensions concerning authority, proselytizing, evangelizing and courageous advocacy have rendered us generally impotent and nearly irrelevant as the ocean of darkness flows ever beneath. We hardly speak to fellow Friends of this reticence to minister in the world let alone share the simplest Truths beyond the meeting house door.
We may believe that it is sufficient unto itself but does “Quakerism” actually matter? Do Fox, Fell, Fry, Barclay, Penn, Hicks or Woolman matter? Perhaps not, except to the extent that their past ministries may inform and remind Friends that all that ever mattered was, and is, the living experience of the Divine, within and among us, inspiring and disciplining our lives. What absolutely matters is the Divine Love experienced and taught by Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, even that most powerful ministry, that ultimate human manifestation of God, is relevant only to the extent that his life and teachings lead us individually and corporately into the Experience of The Presence that transcends all else and so motivates our Discipline, as he instructed. (Luke 17:21)(John 3:6) And from the time of Fox: Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought. -Matsuo Basho, poet (1644-1694)
In most Yearly Meetings, Friends gather in small monthly meetings with an aging membership, concerned for a future that often seems reliant upon the familiar trappings and traditions of the past. While these Friends are activists for all manner of right causes in the world, there is nearly none of the vital prophetic ministry that moved Friends in the 17th and 18th Centuries, a ministry essential to awaken and comfort those who wait, thirsty and unaware, for the cooling waters of simple, loving and eternal Truth.
What Truth? It is certainly not the Protestant or Calvinist message of the original depravity of humankind and neither is it the message of salvation versus fear and suffering that is fundamental to nearly every post Constantinian Christian church. It is not the message of creeds, dogma, priests and human hierarchy so eloquently denounced by Jesus. (Matthew 23:8-12)
It is also and absolutely not the common notion of “inerrant” scripture. The concept of inerrancy is guaranteed to mislead and often to serve as a bludgeon. This does not have to be. Scripture is a powerful guide, full of Truth that can transform lives when approached in the Light, the same Spirit in which much of it was written. Beginning as oral traditions, the accounts of the Jesus movement were written by and for men, as communication and as records. Much later, selected pieces were compiled into a “holy” new canon by other men many of whom had an agenda of self-aggrandizement and consolidation of wealth and power under the sponsorship of the Roman State. In a single generation the understanding of the primacy of Love as a Discipline for living was nearly lost, replaced by the authority of the Church; a church that Jesus never imagined.
Truly and sadly, in this present age, we Friends seem to have lost the courage to name this darkness, even as we hesitate to share our knowledge of the infinite Light that flows over it. There is profound good being done in the churches of the world and clearly there is Divine Good reflected (1 Corinthians 13:12) in scripture but there are errors as well. (Leviticus 20:9-12) The scriptures are but the written words of imperfect men. As one letter writer said, “the letter kills and only the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)
We Friends offer no credal prescription for “salvation.” We offer only openings to experience the Divine, present among and within us, ever directing us toward lives that speak of discipline, simplicity, peace, integrity, equality and Love. In worship we Friends seek, expect and experience the Presence and the transformation it engenders.
That Experience cannot be compelled from without. It cannot be artificially produced by following any church, its dogma, creed, rituals, notions, pastors or priests. It cannot be magically created by any religion or canon and must always arise from the Divine Source within the hearts of all. We need only to humbly seek and sincerely ask.
Thus we gather, as a body of Friends to open the Way in expectant silence. This awareness is available to everyone, as it has ever been. Our uncompleted task is to make that Truth known, not by cursing the darkness, not by denouncing those who unknowingly mislead but only by gently guiding all the peoples we touch into an awareness of the Experience of Divine Love and its transformative power. And, let each be known by their fruit. (Matthew 7:16)
Are we willing to share this Truth with the world once again? Are we willing to say without fear that the Experience of the Divine Presence is the “Kingdom” that Jesus said was “at hand?” (Matthew 3:2) Are we willing to teach and practice the faith of Jesus instead of preaching a religion about Jesus? (John 15:9-17) Are we willing to challenge an ancient deception founded upon fear, threats and false promises and based in Fourth Century superstitious notions? Are we willing to risk possible censure in order to offer a quiet space in which seekers may discover Divine Peace?
“Quakerism” is not the answer. That is just an old name for a faith community that was once far more willing to publish a Divine Truth they had rediscovered, the Truth of infinite Divine Love, present within all of creation. We are Friends. Can we become publishers once again? (Matthew 5:15) Will our ministry in the world once again be devoted to sharing the good news of Divine Love and to living lives that are ordered by the eternal imperatives and disciplines of that Love?
Don Badgley is a member of Poughkeepsie NY monthly meeting.