Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Sacred Compass 7: leadings and individualism

I enjoyed J. Brent Bill's Sacred Compass: The Way of Spiritual Discernment, which is an accessible and readable introduction to the Quaker concept of leadings. Leadings are the persistent pushings, nudgings and guidance of God in our lives, bringing us to places where we can do his work in the world in ways we might not have imagined.

As Brent pointed out in an e-mail, the book is aimed at non-Quaker Christians, since for most Quakers, the book's concepts will be familiar. However, probably even most Quaker readers will find new insights or ideas in the book to ponder. For instance, as I think about either employment, going back to do graduate work, and the overarching question of "what to do with the rest of my life," I find myself, as a result of the book, paying much more attention to how my body physically feels when I contemplate one course or another.

Fundamentally, however, I wonder if the way we understand the concept of leadings in contemporary society is too focused on the self. In a graduate course I took once, the professor, an Episcopal priest, believed that Quakers spend too much time on self-examination and on hair-splitting matters of faith and belief. He contrasted Quakerism with the Anglican tradition, in which people corporately affirm their faith through liturgy and then essentially go about their business, not having to scrutinize every action. Anglicans, he said, believe the liturgy and communion put them right with God. He recommended a book called The Doubting Disease, which he believed spoke to a neurosis of overanalysis and second guessing inherent in Quaker theology.

Clearly, as a Quaker, I come down on the side of self scrutiny. However, I also understand that a corporate liturgy can act as antidote to obsessive concern over individual conscience. I also believe that endless parsing of one's thoughts and beliefs can create paralysis. I have seen this in some Quakers. My theory is that overanalysis, coupled with the empiricist ideology of the educated classes has led to some of the "non-theism" in liberal Quakerism. I believe some Quakers get so caught up in parsing whether or not they "believe" in God with unshakeable certainty every second of every day, that they fall into nontheism. Or they are so consumed in knowing exactly what God is (which we can't know) that they back into nontheism.

That being said, I believe it's also a mistake to see weekly recitation of a liturgy and drinking and eating a bit of wine and wafer alone as the key to putting ourselves right with God. By themselves, these are empty rituals that can create in us an illusion of safety-- or a "pass" not to examine our lives-- unless they are the outward signs of an inward transformation. In other words, like a good Quaker, I believe outward change follows from inward change. Actually, it works both ways, that inward transformation leads to a life that is outwardly changed and also that willingly adopting new outward habits and behaviors can cause inward change. However, I would put the preponderance of weight on the power of inward transformation to effect change. Thus I would put more of my effort into self examination and changing my heart before changing my behavior, knowing the changed behavior would follow a transformed heart.

A good companion piece to Sacred Compass is Blackaby's Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. While acknowledging that we are all individuals who can't follow someone else's "success with God formula," Blackaby emphasizes that following God is not primarily about "me." Following where God is leading is seeing where God is at work around me and joining God in that work. This shifts the emphasis way from "me" as at the center of the universe to me as a worker in God's universe. I move toward the center of that universe as I join with God's work. I don't have to have a particular plan for me (which is what Brent also says) but I do have a responsibility to discern where God is and to work there.

So what do you think? What is the relationship of the inward self to the outward self? Do Quakers (and others) suffer from "the doubting disease?"


Bill Samuel said...

Well many Quakers may be suffering from the doubting disease, but I don't think that rituals in and of themselves have saving power. That Episcopal professor I don't think was really expressing Anglican doctrine, either.

Talking of Anglicans, our 9 AM group at Cedar Ridge is reading Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship by N.T. Wright, the Anglican Bishop of Durham. Wright has wonderful insights and expresses Gospel truths very well.

I think there needs to be a balance between the individual self-examination and the corporate discipline. Too many contemporary Quakers have jettisoned the corporate discipline part.

The bread and wine can just be their physical selves, or they can be a window into the heart of Christ. And worship in the manner of Friends can be empty silence or an opportunity to really hear Christ speak.

Diane said...


NT Wright -- wonderful. I wish I were in a group doing one of his books.