You Can’t Spell Spiritual Without Spirit.

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.



8 thoughts on “You Can’t Spell Spiritual Without Spirit.

  1. A couple of quibbles.

    First, I believe that to God it is relatively unimportant whether someone becomes ‘a Quaker’ than that they find some way to set their feet on the path wherever they happen to be.

    If someone is an atheist (a common affliction in these days) then he is apt to consider belief in “God” — something which he almost certainly misconceives in the first place — to be less important than “principles”; hence that departure from tradition does not seem a violation of Integrity to him.

    I agree that we need to recover the Friendship with Spirit that the term “Friends” originally refered to. But many of us fail to see the need. What seems to us like a direct route may not, in fact, be the way they can travel.

    Remember the story of Job, and the many other accounts of what it can take to wake people up spiritually. We don’t know what it will take for any particular person; we can trust God to know and lead them through it.

    1. I don’t believe that not believing in God is necessarily a violation of integrity, it’s being a part of a Religious society, which is centered around the Spirit and Light of Christ and not believing in spirit or spirits. Hence the title.
      Again, I don’t believe that atheist means immoral or unethical, or that God thinks so either. Nor do I believe that being Quaker is the most important thing (it certainly is not). But I do believe that non-spiritual spirituality is a contradiction in terms.
      And I am in full agreement with your last sentence. 🙂

      1. Ah, we’ve got a misunderstanding going. Back when I was an atheist, I thought that attending Friends Meetings would be a violation of my integrity.

        Many other people, not agreeing with us that ‘that God stuff is important!’ do not feel it’s a violation of their integrity to actually join a Friends Meeting for the warm fuzzy feeling and mutual support in activism.

  2. I recall reading a similar discussion on another website several years ago. The comment that most touched me was: “If I had been excluded from membership, I could not now be able to call myself ‘your Sister in Christ.’ ” It caused me to realize, what better way to bring someone into the fold than to hold them close in community, where the “patterns and examples” are on every side. Each meeting has its own ideas about who should enter into membership. I fancy myself a “liberal” Quaker, but when the meeting I was attending denied membership to someone because he came to Quakerism through reading George Fox and was too immersed in the God and Jesus of early Quakers, I decided not to petition for membership. I was seeking a community of Seekers. When in discussions about belief in God, I always come back to Pope Sixtus in the 2nd century who said, “God is not God’s name but an opinion about God.” So far, when I’ve met someone who does not believe in God, their description of God is something I couldn’t possibly believe in. I may not know what God’s name is, but I certainly know the presence when I experience it.

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