Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Quakers and Humility

But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.” Instead of being humble before God and history, moral salvation could be found through intimate contact with oneself and by exposing the beauty, the power and the divinity within.
David Brooks, "High Five Nation," The New York Times 9/15/09

"There is a general way of treating people that are not seen as being part of the meeting that is condescending and standoff-ish. Young people are seen as being something novel but not to be trusted or counted on...and that is our own doing for not making more of a presence in meetings. However, I have been coming to this meeting for 3 years --fairly infrequently mind you...but enough that I should at least look familiar. I don't expect to be remembered or even to have someone remember that the familiarity is from meeting. But it would still be nice to be treated in a welcoming manner and maybe as if I had a brain. I realize that these are very unkind charges to be making."
Quaker Harlot James at quakingharlot.blogspot.com/2009/09/ive-got-sticky-everywhere.html

When I first came to Quakers, I experienced the insider/outsider divide James discusses in the quote above, and would have fled, had I not had a strong sense of calling. I was astonished at how self-congratulatory some Quakers were about the simple fact of being Quaker. Pride.

I remember once a question coming up at my meeting about "some people" being uncomfortable with calling meeting for worship, well, meeting for worship. The problem was the implication in the word worship that we were adoring a higher being or in some way were coming as supplicants. How about "meeting for meditation?" At this point I said I came to meeting to worship to worship, not meditate, and if we changed the wording, I was out of there. I thought, more angry at God than my fellow man and woman, that I have put up with a lot to be faithful to the call to be a Quaker, but if we're not at least attempting to worship, I, like Jonah, was going to head for being swallowed by the whale. In any case, that rather bizarre--but not too surprising--idea of meeting for meditation was dropped, but not the underlying assumption that the so-called "God within" makes ME the center of the universe. Pride.

I fear that pride goeth a fall and that for all our sense that Quakerism has been on the right side of history, such hubris as infects it will cause a huge blunder. I wouldn't be surprised if a century from now Quakers won't look back at this period of their history with embarrassment or shame.

Clearly, if we have the truth, are smarter than everyone, and are "better" than all those "evangelicals," our condescending mindset will be apparent--and alienating-- to newcomers. Like Martin Kelly, I too see the age demographics and I too worry, though I trust in God to refill the ranks when we become meek and broken spirited and yes, humble. Do such words offend? Surely, the quality of humility is not strained in the Quakers. Therefore, Harlot James teaches us. Posts like James's, written with such humility and so from the heart, can prod us to do better.

But truly to do better--and this ultimately is the point of this too-long post--we need to transform. I remember early on in Quakerism reading an editor's letter in a Friends' publication. The editor spoke of two Baptists turning up at her meeting, looking for a place to stay for the night. She didn't want to host Baptists (at this point, the red flags started to fly up in my mind--replace Baptists with blacks, gays, Muslims, Jews and see how that sounds)-- but, sigh, since the meeting had committed to hospitality, she had no choice. Anyway, she was pleased to report that the Baptists caused no trouble, stayed for Meeting for Worship the next morning, even spoke !! and she thought they "had learned something from us."

OK. I wanted to tear my hair out. What did the Baptists SAY at Meeting for Worship? Is it even slightly possible that God sent those great unwashees to us to teach US something? Why is the prevailing attitude so often what WE have to teach others? What makes us so holy? Why are we so unwilling to expect that others will teach us? Until we have the change of heart--the humility-- to wish and to hunger to learn from newcomers, visitors, strangers, and yes, perceived "enemies," I believe we will continue to shrink. We need to be transformed--that's why we are Quakers--and we do that through humility. We should be filled with gratitude when newcomers or infrequent attenders attend our shrinking, fading, boring meetings in shabby (sorry, I meant "simple" and if you don't "get" that, we will judge you) settings. We are not doing THEM a favor by allowing them into our exalted meetings. They are doing us the favor. God has sent them to teach us something, if we have ears to hear.

Am I being too harsh? I thought about "nicing" this up and decided not to pull my punches. Do you find Quakers too prideful? Can we improve on the humility front? How?


Ted M. Gossard said...


I've noticed this problem with groups in Christianity that tend to be sectarian, being raised in one such group where in places this problem is found.

Actually pride is a part of the fallen human condition. We can take pride in our humility of course.

I think it's good to hold on to what we think is helpful in living out the truth as it is in Jesus. But we need to hold on first and foremost and in a sense solely to the reality that we are one in Jesus and all else really falls by the wayside. Bonhoeffer in "Life Together" is very helpful in seeing the importance of this.

Diane said...


I think you've hit the nail on the head but as George Fox said, "The world would have a Christ, but not to rule over them." We all struggle with this.

Tom Smith said...

The comment that in a hundred years Quakers will be ashamed of this period brings to mind the fairly new book about Friends and the treatment of African-Americans. Looking back a hundred plus years in the book, the mistakes of Friends and their dealing with freed slaves is detailed. However, by and large the Friends of today often speak glowingly of the way Friends were in the forefront of treating slaves and freed slaves as "equals."

Levi Coffin, who is now revered as a "true Friend" and was then called the "President of the Underground Railroad," was read out of his Meeting for his beliefs and actions.

I trust that in a hundred years Friends may look back at the current time and talk about the time that the "openness" and trust in "that of God in everyone" led to an examination of the basics of Friends and led to a fuller understanding of Friends. I think Philadelphia YM is already beginning some of this process and the leadership is looking at returning to a more grounded faith.

(Most of my comments on posts are composed at the time of my response. I have found this tends to get at a response that comes from "deep" while a more thoughtful response often involves MY intellect. It also reflects MY opinion which is meant to reflect my "leadings" rather than an authoritative voice citing "chapter nd verse.")

Brad Ogilvie/The William Penn House/The Mosaic Initiative said...

Diane - as Friends are apt to say, "Friend speaks my mind". I come from righteous liberals, and ended up working with and among conservative Christians and evangelicals on mostly HIV/AIDS. I found openness and love where I least expected it. We even found room to talk about and hold the tension around my sexual orientation, to the point that we all went through a transformation. Now, back in DC at William Penn House, I find a persistent rigidity to the open-mindedness of the "left". For example, while speaking on invitation at a Friends meeting about sexual orientation, I reflected that this "open and affirming" group would be less so were I a gay Republican.

So what holds it all together for me: LOVE. Really as simple as that, and the faith that if there is that of God in all, that means all, not just those with whom I agree. I look at Truth (capital T) as a diamond, and all of our truths are facets of that diamond. The more facets we see, the more brilliant the entirety. The trick is to hold dearly on to our truth with a healthy dose of doubt.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Thank you, Diane. The points you make are excellent, and need to be much more widely preached in the liberal Quaker world.

Yes, there truly is a difference between coming together in worship to be taught by the Teacher and led by the Guide, and thinking we are ourselves the teachers and the guides.

Micah Bales said...


Thanks for posting this.

Micah Bales

James Naylor said...


Thank you. I love the fact that you lay it all out there and speak your Truth. Pride is a terrible thing. Love and humility brings us together and unfortunately, I think all "progresives" and/or Quakers of all stripes could learn a lot from being mindful of that.

"James Naylor"

Diane said...

Tom, Brad, Marshall, Micah, James,

Thank you for the support--I expected to be shredded for this and probably will be--so thanks!

(The other side of this, of course, is that I've met such astonishing yes, Quaker, people living out the faith ...but everything can't go into one blog entry!)

Diane said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Johan Maurer said...

You've touched on some of the same areas of pain and wonderment that I was wrestling with in my posts on "publishers of truth." I was asking why Friends mostly write about ourselves rather than being more audience-centered. Your angle is equally important, if not more so, and relates to our ability or willingness to learn from those whom we communicate with.

Thank you!

Gil S said...

Yes indeed this Friend speaks my mind! I have come across so many examples of Friends being too pleased with themselves and proud of their version of history.

Even if they do interact with others [and I include other Quakers in this] there is an assumption that the 'other' can learn from us but no willingness to make this a two-way process.

I think the tragedy is not what Quakers in a hundred years will think when they look back, but that if they are anything like Friends today they will not be looking back at all, and certainly not in order to learn what was really going on.

Of course there are always exceptions. Some of us 'liberals' are willing to listen and learn from others and I hope that what we say may be listened to in turn.

But thanks for making your point so plainly and well.

Diane said...


Yes, I read your essay and think we're touching the same elephant ...



Hystery said...

"Clearly, if we have the truth, are smarter than everyone, and are "better" than all those "evangelicals," our condescending mindset will be apparent--and alienating-- to newcomers."

Also, clearly, if we assume that those who wish to meditate instead of pray or those who continue to lead spiritual lives of research, questioning, and open-mindedness to other faith traditions (like Buddhism, Paganism, Hinduism, Gnosticism, etc.) are arrogant because they are intellectual then we will also alienate truly decent and loving people who wish to be among us but who don't fit nicely into theism.

It goes both ways. I don't think that either christocentric or universalist Friends have a monopoly on being unwelcoming and arrogant. It is something we all can work on together.

Diane said...


What would I do without you? Love you, love you ... and usually disagree with you, but in this instance I agree, that, yes, the arrogance can go both ways. Yes. Yes. But it has my experience--and grant you this is simply My undoubtedly feeble-minded experience-- that most Christians are so completely battered down in universalist meetings that they are not able to muster much arrogance in between tending to the wounds. Remember, we tend to be the ones, should we mention liking the Richmond Declaration (I even suggested my meeting write a minute embracing it. You can imagine how that was received) or Jesus or the Holy Spirit or our belief in the resurrection, we immediately have some angry person down our throats telling us our "language" offends them (and they are usually quivering with fury, so I know they are telling the truth) and that they wish we would use a less exclusionary vocabulary and that, of course, don't we KNOW the resurrection is a metaphor, myth, lie ... and that their Sunday School teacher lied to them in sixth grade and they have traumatized for life by it and aren't we personally responsible for every atrocity ever committed in the name of Christ, haven't we personally turned every thumb screw, lit every fire to burn some poor innocent at the stake ...:) OK, OK ...I'm getting ranty !!!!! I'm not trying to start a war ... but am I at least allowed to say I believe in the real, traditional, non-metaphorical, right hand of God Jesus Christ without it somehow becoming an insult to the nontheist personal space ... ...and OK. I'll stop. Really. Now I feel so much better.