I was beginning the book “Living The Quaker Way”, by Philip Gulley, when I came upon a scenario that I found a bit troubling.
Gulley tells the story of once observing a conservative Quaker ask someone else about how they viewed Quakerism. “Is Quakerism a way of life or a religion? I say it is a religion, but these Friends say it is a way of life.” The person responded that it was “both” : “It is a way of life rooted in our experience of God.”
This seemed to be a reasonable explanation, Gulley wrote, until he began a dialogue with two self-proclaimed atheist Friends. The encounter caused him to reject the above formulation as an appropriate expression of what it means to be a Quaker because “(Non-Theists) could not affirm the existence of a Divine Presence they had never personally experienced. They struck me as moral people working diligently to better the world. But their sense of integrity would not permit them to claim a relationship to a divine presence they had not encountered”. He went on to say that it is “not his place to say one understanding of Quakerism is superior to another”.
This line of thinking troubles me because it quite literally guts Quakerism, and makes it what I call a “lowest common Denominator” faith. If a belief in, and professed practice of, (for who can say what is or isn’t an actual practice of) Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, and Equality is all that it means to be Quaker, then who ISN’T a Quaker? The adherents of Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Wicca, Secular Humanism, and the Southern Baptist convention all claim to believe and practice these principles. Does this mean they are all also members of the Religious Society of Friends?
If being Quaker has only to do with claiming to follow the above principles, then Quakers can literally believe in anything as long as they claim that what they believe is according to the 5 principles. A person who believes that people should fight wars has only to say that it is the true path to peace. A person who lives luxuriously has but to claim they believe in simplicity. Because, again, who can judge?
And I don’t understand how a person who is practicing the principle of integrity would continue to belong to a theistic tradition if they no longer believe in God.How can claim to be part of a movement whose very foundation is based on the idea of “Christ” speaking to His people Himself, when the “Christ” being referred to is…….what? A figment of the imagination? How can you belong to a spiritual tradition if you don’t believe in a Spirit?
I am not saying that non-theists are bad people, because many aren’t. And many theists are. Some of the greatest people I know don’t believe in God. I AM saying that being a member of the Religious Society of Friends is more than being an ethical person of a humanitarian bent. And if it isn’t much more than that right now, it SHOULD be. We may disagree about what constitutes the Light of Christ, who God is, and what she wants, but what makes us Quakers is our belief that there IS a Light. And that this Light has made itself manifest through Jesus of Nazareth (and others). And that this Light wishes to live in US and work through us to bring about a World filled with this Light, that will transform the lives of all who have the privilege to bask in its invigorating rays.
You will look in vain for a declaration of 5 Quaker Principles in the writings of the early Friends.Those five principles can only be observed in the testimony of their words and lives as an outgrowth of their desire to follow the Living Christ who dwelled within them. What those 5 principles are, and what it means to follow them, can only be known in conjunction with some form of belief in God and some special recognition of Jesus. Without this, the Religious Society of Friends is merely a cross between an historical association and a human rights NGO. It would have nothing beyond historical trivia about 17th, 18th, and 19th century England and America to offer anyone, that they could not find somewhere else without the history lesson.