Can Christians and Non-Christians Co-Exist As Quakers?

Recently, on the Facebook Quaker Theology forum, Chris H. posted the following observations and query:

Within “my type of Quakers”, there is a string subtype of what I call religious refugees, people who have left a previous faith community (usually Christian) and who still have unfinished business. I count myself among their number.

Our reactivity to Christian language is damaging to Quakers whose spiritual journey is a strongly biblical and Christ-centered path.

I find myself wondering how Quakers might address the reactive energy, honouring its truth while allowing and assisting the transformation. As a faith community that grows primarily through immigration (new Quakers by convincement, rather that making new birthright Quakers), this seems to me to be very important.

I find that there are two distinct dynamics going on within liberal/progressive Quakerism. One is that a significant number of Christians and theists among us are convinced that only Christians or theists should be Quakers. This position is itself a reactive one. The other problem is a number of Quakers are hostile to Christianity or theism. Many of these latter fall into the group Chris H. identifies, but not all. I often interact with nontheist Quakers with no religious background who are quite intolerant of Christians or theists. As a nontheist Quaker myself, my experience suggests that most nontheists, theists, and Christians within our branch of Quakerism are actually skilled at being inclusive, however, there are enough persons who do hold such attitudes to warrant it being addressed directly.

I am firmly convinced that there is no justification for excluding any person from membership in the Society of Friends on the basis of their beliefs about Christ or God. That said, some Christians and non-Christians may not belong in the SoF, if they hold the view that the other side of the divide should be excluded.

This sort of prejudice impacts me personally, as many Christians assume that my current disbelief in God, the Incarnation, or biblical inspiration is a reaction to the emotional abuse that I experienced growing up as a Pentecostal preacher’s kid. I find this to be a similar error that some non-Christians make when they assume that all Christians are obnoxious bible-thumpers.

One of the complex things about my journey is that I was only able to release my religious beliefs when I was emotionally healed through a long process of counseling and medication. Until I was actually able to break free of irrational bondages to my father’s authority over me was I free to think for myself and decide what I believed was the truth. That meant to me nontheistic universalism within a Quaker commitment.

So, when I find the language of sin and “the fall” to be mythological and misleading ways to understand the nature of the darker parts of human behavior, it isn’t a knee-jerk reaction, it is a rational, researched conclusion. We can discuss it and if you find that believing the myth of Adam and Eve and the serpent and the forbidden fruit tell us some actual psychological truth, then I respectfully disagree. Is it a colorful, imaginative, and meaningful ancient story that tells us something about how our forebears grappled with problems we still face? Yes, but it is inadequate as an answer in our day and age.

So, I do believe in respecting Christians within Quakerism and honoring the Christian heritage and identity of Quakerism, but I also retain the right to respectfully disagree when I see some trying to make the Christian perspective the only legitimate frame for Quakerism. I vigorously uphold the Universalist perspective that sees all religions (and nontheisms) as limited human constructs. In our modern multicultural context, the idea that Christianity is the one true religion is outdated and deserves to be discarded. For that matter, the atheist prejudice that religious persons are all deluded is similarly a ridiculously intolerant attitude. 

If nontheists or non-Christians can’t develop a respectful willingness to listen to radically different perspectives, then they should consider a humanist or atheist fellowship, not Quakerism. What I am calling for is an community of honest dialogue and mutual respect. One that does not pretend disagreements are unimportant, but also able to hold our belief systems lightly. Love is the highest law we serve.

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3 thoughts on “Can Christians and Non-Christians Co-Exist As Quakers?

  1. I agree with your comments, Charley. I am often surprised when people assume that I am either an intolerant Christian or and intolerant nonChristian when I question an apparently intolerant comment. It seems that there is an expectation of one falling completely to one side or the other of a dualistic position. I too have had my woundedness within the “Christian” world, whatever “Christian” may have meant, may mean now, or may be becoming to mean. The arguments between various groups that call themselves “Christian” leaves me less and less inclined to call myself a Christian, although there are few ways that I could still do so with integrity. I find the message in the narratives about Jesus in many ways fits my experience of what can sometimes be, and I now call myself a follower of Jesus, but I have decided that it is too confusing to too many Christians to call myself a Christian any more. I no longer need to reclaim the title and wrest it from the fundamentalists, as some encouraged me to do and as I did for awhile.

  2. Friend,
    Thank you for your insight. I think the purpose of silence is to expand consciousness in the search for a connection with God (or “Other”, if that is more digestible) and to do this with all types of Friends forms a beautiful community that is only enhanced by the different paths that lead to all that is One. If you follow your path with an open heart and love, you are a part of my family.

    Peace.

  3. I would refer you to the Slovenian Philosopher Slavoj Zizek who is an Atheist Christian…in fact, he says “The only way really to be an atheist is through Christianity. Christianity is much more atheist than the usual atheism, which can claim there is no God and so on, but nonetheless it retains a certain trust in the Big Other. This Big Other can be called natural necessity, evolution, or whatever. We humans are nonetheless reduced to a position within the harmonious whole of evolution, whatever, but the difficult thing to accept is again that there is no Big Other, no point of reference which guarantees meaning.” For more, check out this video clip from his latest film project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tABnznhzdIY

    In other news, there’s an interesting blog called The Quaker Radical with some posts revolving around radical politics and Quaker practice: http://www.quakerradical.tumblr.com

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