Monday, April 02, 2007

History of Friends

I visited Cherice's blog, and then Martin's blog, and they both got me thinking about the history of Friends, the whispery winds of long ago that keep wrapping themselves around us. Those whispery, controversial, dividing, confusing, niggling winds...

How much do we owe to our religious forebears?

Some cultures engage in ancestor worship. Some nations do too. What was there that started everything is sacred in people's minds. The first president, the first constitution...

Religions do a form of ancestor worship too.

The first book of Christianity eventually became known as the Bible, the ultimate reference book of Christianity.

The first person of Quakerism was George Fox, whose written words, for many Friends, are the ultimate reference point for Quakerism.

The first doctrines of Christianity were those of the what-was-to-become-the-Catholic Church, which eventually became the ultimate doctrines of Christianity. Their first interpretations of the Jesus story have become the ultimate interpretations.

I could go on. Basically, whatever happened first becomes the determiner of what should be allowed to follow. And people ever after use that First as the measure.

How much loyalty do we owe to these firsts? How much loyalty do today's Quakers owe to George Fox? To what extent must they allign themselves with his theologies and worldviews? Some Friends would say: completely. But is old better than new?

Are we called to stick by the original?

I call this whole concept Firstism. Firstism is a cultural thing, a worldview. To me, Firstism is a notion. It has three definite features:

1. Firstism is based on illusion or self-delusion. Nations embroider their histories to make their first leader seem like a god out of a Greek legend. They build folklore around the creation of key cultural icons (like flags and constitutions). They ignore or airbrush all the imperfections. Religions do this about their founders, their first books, their first doctrines. Only the Firsts are God-inspired; everything else that comes later is subordinate.

2. Firstism reflects collective ego. By having grandly embroidered First stories, correct in every detail from the very first minute, we express our superiority to others. If we don't uphold our Firsts, then we admit ours is a human story, full of faults and foibles, rather than a legendary narrative.

3. Firstism expresses itself with centuries of dogged loyalty. The longer the loyalty, the more valued the First becomes. A 300-year-old constitution is better than a 20-year-old constitution. An ancient church doctrine is better than a theology book published last year. The King James Bible is better than the New International Version.

I am not a Firstist.

My brain says: whatever was first was the wonky prototype. With centuries of care, things improve a great deal.

We owe reflection to those old Firsts. Such as perhaps attempting to read George Fox's journal, but don't sweat it if you can't stand it.

Or attempting to understand how the early church ever understood those theologies of trinities and personal salvation through crucifixions and how they managed to connect it all to Jesus's life and teachings. But again, don't sweat it if you can't do it.

Many of Jesus's parables were about seeds. Quakers talk about truth as a seed, not a pearl.

Firsts are seeds. They're small and hard, not pretty like pearls. George Fox's teachings were seeds. The early church's teachings were seeds. Many of Jesus's teachings were seeds. The bible was a seed.

But they're not seeds anymore. They've grown into living, growing plants. Yay. That's what they were supposed to do. A seed that doesn't grow is a dead seed.

But when the seed grows, it's no longer a seed anymore. It's a plant. Different thing entirely.

I just don't see how the seed could be considered superior to the plant that it grew into.

But then again, an oak seed should grow into an oak tree. If the tree suddenly starts sprouting maple leaves, then there's been a mutation. Maybe that's not good. But can we really undo a mutation?


At 1:36 AM, Blogger Laurie Kruczek said...

Friend Nancy, if I haven't told you lately, I love your writing style. You always have my attention and I love that. Remind me to read here more often.

That aside, THIS POST SPEAKS TO MY CONDITION. You have completely read my mind tonight. I catch myself wincing over the idol worship I see of early Friends faith and practice, and it is good to see I am not wincing alone.

Some of the words and actions are valid, certainly, or we wouldn't be here. The basis for Quakerism is so sweet and simple, it rings of The Truth no matter how I look at it. What is frustrating is the lock these notions have on modern Quakerism. It is as if we cannot free up interpretation, nor can we worship in new directions, without the ancestors falling down upon us. How sacred should we hold these early Quakers, and just how much of it is hyperbole?

To accept the religion as a whole, to look at how far the ideas have grown, is a blessing to be sure. I think we have to be willing to move forward, accepting the past, not living in it.

Thanks for the insightful post.


At 6:39 AM, Anonymous Alice M. said...

Dear Nancy

Thanks for writing this. I too have a really strong sense of both scripture and Early Friends' writings as prototype, not archetype (Is it Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza who first described it like this - I think she describes it this way in Bread not Stone). The Kingdom we're being called home to is in the future, not in the past.

This relates to one of the things I value very highly about Friends - together we mostly manage to tell the truth about what we find, even against the human temptation to make our experience fit the story we've been holding onto. But God is Truth, and it was the experience of a Truth that transformed them that powered those earlier generations of believers to go out into the world as changed people, riding on the wave of God's grace.

I believe it's only when we are anchored in Truth-telling that the awe and transformation of God can start to grow through us. I think religion as I learned it as a child was all lies, and those lies still hold people in their webs. But when I am with people who are fearless to tell the truth, and who are find ing together that something powerful and compassionate and revolutionary is calling us: that's when I start to feel like I'm standing in the same river I hear written about in the Psalms and Gospels and Letters and Journals - and importantly without having to cut off any part of my brain.

God bless,

Alice M

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear friend Nancy,

There may, perhaps, be people who want to hold to the Quakerism of the first Friends for the reasons you describe here. I've never actually met any, so far as I know, but that doesn't mean they can't exist. And I presume you describe such people because you've met some.

Still, there are other reasons besides Firstism that can motivate a person to want the Quakerism of the first Friends.

What motivates me, personally, is a two-part conviction.

-- First, I have become convinced, over years of struggle and wrestling with the issues, that Christ had it exactly right, and there is therefore no need to deviate from the teachings he laid out. I cannot say the same about any other religious exemplar I've studied, much as I have come to love and respect some of them.

-- And second, I have become convinced, again over years of personal experience and observation, that the first two generations of Friends, in turn, had an understanding of Christ's teachings, and a set of insights into how to put those teachings into practice, that were very nearly right, so that there is therefore no need to deviate in any major way from the system they worked out. (I can see good sense in deviating from their system on minor issues, such as the proper approach to wearing hats in worship.) I cannot say as much in favor of any other system of Christian faith and practice that I know of, subsequent to the third generation of Christianity. I certainly cannot say as much in favor of either modern liberal Quakerism or modern evangelical Quakerism.

This isn't ancestor worship. It isn't self-deluded, egoistic, or dogged loyalty. It's a thinking person's experience-and-observation-based agreement, grounded ultimately in what early Friends described as an experience of convincement. There's a huge difference.

I don't expect or demand that you agree with me, but I do hope you will hear what I am saying.

At 11:46 PM, Blogger markedixon said...

I think Fox may get too much attention as First Q. He had some talent for organization and is largely responsible (with Margaret Fell) for the governing structure of traditional Quakerism, i.e., yearly, quarterly, monthly and preparative meetings. But Quaker theology was actually the joint product of many people working simultaneously in a time of spiritual ferment.

Me? I've been liking James Naylor since reading "The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus." (Did you know that Fox visited Naylor in the latter's prison cell and ordered him to kiss his foot in recognition of Fox's supposed authority?)

There is a school of thought among Quaker historians that Fox's ego and Margaret Fell's social connections combined to put the early RSOF disproportionately under the leadership of wealthy and socially connected members such as William Penn. By and large, these were not bad people, but their role neverless set a precedent for the concept that some Friends are more equal than other Friends.

So, bottom line, I'm with you, Nancy. No idolatry.

At 1:54 AM, Blogger cherice said...

I agree we shouldn't idolize our forebears and they were really no different from us--just seeking a true and authentic experience.

On the other hand, I think there are important times in history where the Spirit breaks in in profound ways, or at least where someone or a group somehow manages to be aware in a special way. I think we should pay attention to those times, because that's what most of us yearn for--a true, powerful, communal experience of the Divine in a way we can't ignore, and the courage to follow that Spirit fully. That's why I like to learn about early Friends and early Christians.

For some reason, we're always in a state of needing renewal, and it's inspiring to me to know that's possible (even if the stories we tell bourselves are somewhat mythical).

At 5:28 PM, Blogger Heather Madrone said...

I just wanted to thank you for this, Nancy. You have articulated many thoughts hovering at the edge of my consciousness.

I especially love your extension of the seed metaphor. I usually have trouble with the seed metaphor, because of the bit about the seed going into the ground and dying before it can grow. Your dead seed accords much better with botanical truth.

At 11:49 AM, Blogger kwattles said...

A couple of thoughts, for those who find their way to this post, six weeks later and counting.

I agree with Mark who says there can be too much emphasis on George Fox. Ours is a minority position, perhaps, but there's the problem here that Firstism is compounded by Foxism.

In other words, emphasis on Fox as the "First Friend" must necessarily anchor Quakerism in the life and thought of Fox, which is long ago and not our own experience so it really makes it impossible to think of the Quaker movement (that we're part of, today) as a process of continuing revelation.

You have to read between the lines of Fox's Journal and other writings to see the broad movement that he joined, the individuals who taught and inspired him, and his own realization that no-one could hold the "franchise" on Truth.

Larry Ingle plays with that paradox in his book "First Among Friends." The title, by the way, is deliberately a take-off on the cliche "First Among Equals."

All that having been said, however, I think that the early Friends were able to work out some basic insights and structures that continue to hold validity under the name "Quaker." Maybe it's a semantic thing, but it seems to me if we call ourselves "Quaker" and if we associate with others who think the word applies to them, then we are obliged to honor the past associations that the word carries. To "honor" means to be responsive to everyone else (past and present) who identify with the term.

The test is this. If any group wants to go off and do something they say draws on those insights and structures, and do it with other people, but if they want to pick and choose what's most relevant to them -- without tying it into the past history of the Society of Friends, and without answering to others who call themselves Quakers or Friends -- then let them find their own name for themselves.

I think New Foundation tried to do that, and we can see how hard it is. There are probably other examples. "New Lights," maybe. The "Progressive" Friends who laid some of the precedent for secular progressives from the late 19th c. on. Perhaps the Vineyard movement in the late 20th c.


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