Thursday, September 25, 2008

Convergence: Is "inclusiveness" the model?

C. Wess Daniel wrote a blog comment responding to my assertion that the central issue facing Quakerism is how to reconcile inclusivity with maintaining a strong core faith. He said: "So, we don't have to adhere to the terms of the debate if they are going to be locked into a question of inclusiveness. It's my contention that this question is one stemming from those still clinging to modern-liberalism, trying to rescue some kind of hegemony based in sameness rather than celebrating difference the way the postmodern does. "

I agree that modernism does try to impose a hegemony based on sameness. Modernism, in texts written primarily by white English and American males from a handful of elite universities in the early and mid parts of the last century, tried to boil the "major religions" down to a common denominator of universal assumptions. This was done for good reason: if religions could find a common ground, perhaps they would stop fighting. Of course, what happened by those embracing universalism was the creation of superficial, bland and homogenized spiritualism. Most of us, once we get past the aha moment of "all religions have a lot of common ethics" or "all religions practice the golden rule," or "Wow, Buddha sounds a lot like Christ," long for something deeper and more emotionally and intellectually satisfying. That means delving deeply into one faith tradition and struggling with its story -- and its otherness.

If we could just throw aside the question of inclusiveness and truly honor diversity by accepting that Quakerism has a particular history within the Christian tradition, then struggling with inclusivity versus faith would not be THE issue. However, Quakerism (at least liberal Quakerism) is mired in modernism. It's stuck there like an old-fashioned broken record, repeating the following worn ideas over and over: "All religions are different ways of expressing the same truth. All religions are different paths up the same mountain. We can incorporate all religions into one melting pot."

As long as a modernist notion of inclusivism is foundational to how Quakers think, we are going to have to struggle with how inclusivity dilutes the faith. One of the problems I see is that many Quakers don't perceive their worldview as modernist. It simply seems normative and true, a corrective to all the false notions of the past. They don't see themselves as caught in a particular and subjective historical moment. They don't see their concept that "all religions are the same" as the end result of a limited system of Enlightenment thinking that believes that scientific rationalism alone leads to truth and thus excludes as "irrational" diversities that don't support its presuppositions. Modernists can't stand outside the box of rationalism and critique rationalism itself. "All religions are different paths up the same mountain" is such a self-evident truth to some Quakers (despite being an immensely shaky metaphor) that they become frustrated with any challenge to it and sometimes believe that people who hold to other beliefs are ignorant or have an agenda. They believe they are straining out the impurities and superstitions within their faith tradition to produce what is clear, true and beautiful.

Religion in the world today struggles against a modernism that wants to control it and emphasize religions' universality at the expense of the different faith traditions' diversities. Many people of faith want what has made their particular faith distinct to be upheld and not softened, even if these marks of distinction are difficult for the modern mind to accept.

I have seen several house churches deal with the problem of Enlightenment thought by not accepting any doctrine that might be tainted by it. Usually this means basing the church's theology only on texts produced prior to 1700. That's a method to ensure a certain type of purity, just as accepting only those parts of a religion that are "universal" is, but it's also a wilfull distortion of the past 300 years of history just as much as Quaker universalism is a distortion of the pre-Enlightenment thought patterns of Quakerism's founders. Thus, I don't believe it's fruitful merely to ignore the Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking has helped us differentiate between superstition and faith, tall tales and miracle, bigotry and fair assessment of differences. We need instead to critique where the Enlightenment has fallen short. Many would say in an inability to appreciate miracle, mystery and passion.

Liberal Quakerism has repeatedly made the decision to include the hyphenated Quaker: the Quaker-pagan, Quaker-Wiccan, Quaker-nontheist, Quaker-Jew, Quaker-Buddhist and in the process of helping all these people to feel comfortable has repeatedly chosen to deny the particular miracles and mysteries at the heart of the faith and has justified doing so on the basis of Quakerism's non-creedal history. The problem is that this emptying of the particulars of the faith narrative--of tranforming a (tranformative) story that we can participate in and argue with to a series of dispassionate testimonies describing abstract ideas--equality, peace, integrity, etc.--has left people hungry and empty, longing for something more.

None of this is new stuff but it leads me back to a question that is not abstract at all to me, but something I anguish over: how do I love and cherish and respect the non-Christian Quaker I share a pew with while loving, cherishing and respecting the Christian story and particularities that are of the heart of Quakerism? Therefore, I end up agreeing with Daniel that Convergence needs to define itself in ways other than through inclusivity. But how is that going to happen?


Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

Diane, I agree with you that inclusivity on its own isn't much of a ground for religious practice. But I'm left, as I often am when speaking with Quakers outside my own meeting, wrestling with what your position means for me as a Friend.

You quote C. Wess Daniel as saying that questions around inclusivity stem "from those still clinging to a modern-liberalism, trying to rescue some kind of hegemony based in sameness..." And you seem to say yourself that universalism among liberal Friends leads to a "superficial, bland and homogenized spiritualism," and then go on to point to the inclusion of "hyphenated Quakers" (like me) as part of the problem.

I dispute that. I'm sure that there are plenty of hyphenated and Liberal Quakers out there who do fit the pattern you're holding up here, of insisting on the rightness of that "superficial, bland and homogenized" religion with no identifiable Christian features. But I don't identify with that portrait, because I don't think that, for me, at least, it's a very good likeness.

It's not your problem to figure out what to do with me, of course, but it is mine. Here I am, metaphorically at least sitting in the pew beside you, not merely feeling deeply led to both my Paganism and to Quaker practice, but also drawn to Convergence among Friends.

I feel a little funny saying so. I know that at least one way of defining Convergent Friends is as the combination of the Emergent (Christian) Church and Conservative (Christian) Friends. I've never been a Christian, so I realize that saying I identify with Convergent Friends is a bit like insisting on attending a party just because I haven't been invited.

But there are things about Convergence that speak to me very powerfully. I've used the word "practice" enough times that a skillful reader might be a bit suspicious of it. "Practice" is such a Buddhist word (and such a Pagan word.) Why do I speak of religious practice all the time, rather than faith, a word I hear far more often from Christian Friends? Is it a way of sliding out from under questions about Christianity?

There's no question that my focus on practice rather than faith does allow me to sidestep some questions that are of great importance to Christians--questions about belief, doctrine, and theology, about which I have no answers most Christians would find satisfying. But I use the word--and I'm attracted to Convergent Friends--not because I wish to subvert the clear theological understandings of those Friends who have them, Christian or not, but because there is also, within Friends and within Conservative Friends particularly, a strong vein of teachings on practice. Only, somehow, when they're called "disciplines" it seems a little less like a cop-out, and a little bit more...Quakerly, rather than mushy-minded universalist.

I do find it hard going, accessing Conservative Friends' teachings on disciplines. After all, these teachings are deeply rooted in Christianity and steeped in Christian language, which I will freely admit to feeling ambivalent about. There's nothing original or unusual about my discomfort with Christian language; like many non-Christians, I've come to view much of Christianity as a kind of spiritual Borg. I don't want to be "assimilated" and it's sometimes tough to battle through that fear.

Nonetheless, I regard battling through the fear as my job; I don't expect the Christian on the bench next to me to stop saying things that make me nervous. One of my own core disciplines as a Friend has become centering down and listening into Christian language for the Seed speaking through another Friend's language. I wouldn't claim to be fluent, but I'm certainly working to become so.

So here's the question--am I Convergent, or Divergent? My own meeting seems to find Life in my presence and my work within it. I certainly am not aiming to erode the Christianity of other Quakers. But, until and unless convinced otherwise by Spirit, neither do I intend to deny the Spirit as I have known and loved it within Paganism.

When I have sat in worship with Christian Friends, it has seemed to me that we are listening to the same Voice and the same Teacher. So far, that Teacher is not telling me to go away, or that I need to start calling Her Jesus. So far, the Friends who know me best haven't done so either.

If I can work to understand the language of Christianity, if I can seemingly sit in United fellowship with other Friends, if I feel moved to explore "Convergence" for the sake of continuing to deepen in the spiritual disciplines of life in community and with God that have been allowing my heart to grow for the past seven years, but I do not use the same names for God that you do or share the same theology, does that cause you, or the Society of Friends, harm?

I keep remembering one of the first Quakers I had contact with on the Internet, who emailed me to explain to me essentially that I wasn't really a Quaker, and when I went and talked to the real Quakers at my local meeting, they would explain to me how I couldn't be.

In the event, they didn't. Does that mean that, if I am Divergent, they are Divergent, too?

Or perhaps is there yet another way to look at what this "Covergence" is that neither allows featureless universalism to sweep away spiritual depth among Friends, nor feels the need to discard those among us who are theologically heterodox?

Sorry to be so wordy. I'm sure I'm saying this badly. But it is on my mind and in my heart, however badly I'm expressing it.

Diane said...


You very generously and beautifully explain the problem but from the mirror image of your point of view. You are probably a better person that I am. How could I judge you? Or exclude you?

I hear what you have to say about practice, and it is true that convergent is more about practice than the unprogrammed Quaker meeting. The practice part of convergent that you embrace (and I respect you) is a part I'm not comfortable with. So again, we're at different poles.

But the bigger point is this: we have, at some level, contradictory beliefs, if we actually admit we believe anything, which I do and you seem to. I want to love you and not hurt you, and yet I want also love and serve a God I access through Biblical revelation. So what to do? These are hard issues and I don't have an answer.

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Bill Samuel said...

Well the dilemma may be about what is meant by inclusiveness. Inclusiveness is a strong value of Cedar Ridge Community Church, where I am a member, but it doesn't lead where the liberal Quaker notion of inclusiveness does.

Helpful to me was the message our pastor gave about bounded sets vs. centered set. We operate out of a centered set approach. We have a center that is solidly based on Jesus Christ, and is further elaborated through our Mission and Vision statements. We don't try to define boundaries. Anyone is welcome, but this doesn't lead to the kind of fuzziness you see among liberal Quakers because our center is clear and strong.

A part of Cedar Ridge's revisioning was moving away from the interest group approach that reflects American culture, and can be seen in many churches and Quaker meetings. This involves groups all doing their own thing, under the broad umbrella of their church or meeting. This has to do with hyphenated Quakerism. Some can be Buddhist, some new age, some pagan, some Christian, etc. & can gather in little groups around whatever they are. But there is no clear center.

Now we lost a number of people when we moved towards focusing everything around our Mission and Vision, but we gained unity and depth. We are becoming a truer community and we are better able to help each other grow spiritually.

Our unity is not around a creed or statement of faith. That's part of our strength, IMHO. Some Evangelical Friends have moved towards being centered around a doctrinal statement. I think that's dangerous. I think the center needs to be more operational, rather than doctrinal.

I think liberal Quakers tend to be caught in one form of modernism. Evangelical Quakers tend to be caught in another form of modernism. But there are places in Quakerism which I think are moving beyond that, and that's where the vitality that will last into the future is.

Diane said...


I also like the image of the unbounded set with a strong center. We may not all believe in God, Jesus, etc, but we all acknowledge that's what we're working toward.

I agree that Evangelical Quakers are caught in another form of modernism.

I would love for you to clarify what you mean by a center that is more operational than doctrinal. I fall back on doctrine not altogether happily, but because I believe there has to be a strong center. But I'm very interested in other ideas.

Bill Samuel said...

What I mean by operational is that it is how we are and are becoming, and how we behave, rather than by what set of intellectual constructs we hold to. You can see that in Cedar Ridge's Vision:

Cedar Ridge is a community of hope and transformation dedicated to following Jesus.

Imagine a community that dares to dream of heaven on earth; a community where everyone is accepted and respected and their journey cherished, regardless of their background, beliefs or place in society; where everyone looks out for the concerns of others and no one is alone. Imagine a community of peace and safety where it’s possible to shelter from the frenzied pace of life, in order to slow down and explore the mystery and meaning of our existence; where we can take time to address the roots of our anxieties and pain; a place of hope where we can find help and healing and the power to change, no matter how desperate our situation. Imagine a community of people devoted to following Jesus together, learning to live like him and helping one another grow in their relationship with God; where we are gradually transformed to become better people: better friends, better family members, better workers, better neighbors; becoming people who enjoy life to the full and who can also deal with adversity well, learning to grow through failure and suffering. Imagine that community scattered throughout the region around Washington, Baltimore and beyond working as agents of love, peace and hope wherever they are; serving our neighbors, caring for the poor, helping the oppressed. Imagine a community of people who live simply and ethically, who share their land and resources with their neighbors; a community that treasures the Earth and reaches out beyond global, cultural and political barriers to offer friendship and practical support.

Imagine a community of people who make the world a better place.

I have seen a similar approach in statements by other emerging churches I have looked up on the Web.

You can also see it in the Core Values statement of Friends in Christ:

We are committed to seeking God through Jesus Christ.
We are committed to fulfilling God's desire for us and others to become children of God.
We are committed to living Jesus' command to love one another.
We are committed to sharing God's love with others by bringing them into a loving spiritual community.
We are committed to the Bible as an essential resource for spiritual growth.
We are committed to the immediate experience of the Holy Spirit as an essential guide for spiritual growth.
We are committed to prayer, in its varied forms, as an essential method for our fulfillment as children of God.
We are committed to communal worship as the community's expression of its relationship to God.
We are committed to using expectant waiting as a vital form of prayer and worship.
We are committed to a serving ministry assisting the healing of brokenness and the implementation of justice.
We are committed to recognizing, nurturing and developing the gifts for ministry and leadership in all.
We are committed to unity with others in the body of Christ in a common effort to witness the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Martin Kelley said...

I've decided to drop out of the battle of who is or isn't a real Quaker. I've found it mis-directs my energies. I would characterize a Pagan-Quaker as a textbook example of divergence yet I've also felt the spirit of Jesus Christ in those who were expounding their non-theist or pagan theories. In "Beyond Majority Rule," the Jesuit Michael Sheeran said he thought the real divide among Friends was between those who had experienced the gathered meeting and those who didn't, and by that measure someone like Cat (hi!) is more clearly on board than many Christian Friends I know. Still, I'm clear that my understanding of Convergence (and Quakerism for that matter) is that it has to be explicitly Christian or Christian-curious and I guess I'd say that if it looks so enticing to non-Christians maybe they should be taking a hard look at the true source of their spiritual nourishment.

That said, I'm at the spot now where if the community isn't serious about following the direct experience of the risen Jesus Christ in its midst, then it's not one I'll take seriously as Quaker. And it's not one I want to regularly worship with. Most of the meetings around me are generic modern liberal, gussied up with a little Quaker language, but mostly clueless about free gospel ministry and ignorant of Barclay et al. The "signal to noise" ratio at these meetings is really low, and the Quaker is more glimpsed than experienced. I recently visited a urban liberal meeting I used to attend and the first message was some rambling, weird one that didn't speak to anything I recognize as Quaker. I found myself entering an old familiar state of worshipping through the noise. I don't think this tune-out is spiritually healthy.

So while I don't see inclusiveness as a central part of the Convergent equation, neither is fighting over definitions. My hope is that we can get more meetings and churches going that connect more explicitly with the direct experience and let the hyphenated Quakers either get curious enough to take a second look, or spin off into some outer orbit somewhere.

I should say that if there were a Conservative Quaker meeting nearby with a sense of humor and of mission and with members who had the talent to be serious while "keeping it real," well, I'd join in a flash.