I can count on most of my students arriving in the college classroom with an unexamined ideology of radical individualism. When we discuss food issues--how much power, say, should the government exercise over food--the response I hear usually is "none. Leave it up to the individual." We begin to parse that: what about alcohol: should people then be allowed to drink and drive? That, they tell me, is different. What about food labels? When I was a child, I tell them, we didn't know how much sugar, salt, calories, etc food contained. Should the government continue to mandate that? Well, yes, that's useful. And on it goes. We cling to an ideology that has swung to an extreme. As we examine it, we begin to realize that curbing radical individualism can be a gift rather than a curse.
I have internalized much of that individualism: it's part of the air I breathe. I don't want anyone to tell me what to do, in part because the people with the most proclivity to tell others the "truth" often have the least grasp of it themselves.
Individualism is a strong part of our meetings. In fact, Quakerism could be argued as the perfect religion for individualistic society: everyone in their own bubble, worshipping whatever God they want or none at all, practicing the mantra, "you go your way and I'll go mine and if our paths cross, it's beautiful."
Of course, we know that in reality indivdualism is not what Quakerism is about. In fact, it's a truism that Quakerism is more aligned with Catholicism in its notion of a corporate body than with Protestantism's focus on individual conscience (though we have that too). But how do we get to community and more particularly, the communal discernment we might crave, through the desert of radical individualism?
I spent a weekend with eleven other Quakers at the Friend's Center in Barnesville exploring that question. I found it a fruitful event for several reasons.
First, Herb Lape, the facilitator, invited everyone the first evening to talk about themselves. We got to know each other and were encouraged to share about often taboo topics, such as our political orientation. I felt from the start seen and heard and appreciated, as I believe others did as well. One of my chief illuminations confirmed that we can't do corporate discernment successfully if we are not seen and heard as who we are as individuals--and loved. Trust and intimacy is foundational and something we shouldn't skip over, or worse, gloss over by not seeing differences.
Second, if Herb seemed to be going off topic and people brought that up, he was responsive, truly listened and changed course or explained himself more clearly. I thought he was a wonderful facilitator, modeling both authority, humility in the strongest and best sense, and willingness to learn.
As we entered into our study, we looked at John Woolman, a good model for communal discernment as he represents the turn in Quakerism to what I call modern acceptable discourse. While Fox and his cohort were fully willing to mix it up, naming their enemies Antichrists and whores of Babylon, Woolman witnessed to loving empathy towards the other. He believed firmly that slavery was a great evil that must be abolished, but he was willing to listen to and love the slaveowner and to bow to the corporate discernment of the Meeting. If the Meeting told him to wait before acting, he waited. He was able to move Quakerism towards unity on abolishing slavery by his willingness to respect the community as a body.
We discussed or the pitfalls of corporate discernment: it shouldn't become group think. People at odds with the group may be the prophetic voices the group needs to hear. Also, there are no rules about timing: unity can come very quickly or can take years and either is OK.
Other "takeaways" from the weekend include the following, from John Bensons' notes:
Trust in speaking to that of God in everyone. Acknowledge gifts, and
bring them into community.
Value individual discernment in community:
Be willing to hear the lone voice in a community.
Have the courage to speak up and be the lone voice.
Do these concerns point toward being a prophet?
Community authority doesn't necessarily undermine individual freedom:
What is freedom in the spiritual sense? Doing whatever we want whenever we want? Or being free to say no to our urges and appetites? How can surrendering ourselves to God make us free?
Understanding communal discernment as a Quaker “distinctive” – other
religions don’t do it:
It is a horizontal process, not hierarchical. There is one vertical
connection: the one that links the community to God.
The consequences of this method can be awesome.
A process of sorting it out could look like this:
- what I want
- what the community wants
- what God wants for me and the community
- what God wants from me and the community
We need to know that God is alive and active among us.
Believe in God AND believe that we can hear God (from experience and practice)
We need help. So we join a community.
Notice the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist.
We need the cloud of witnesses who went before us, ie, a tradition.
Tradition is just democracy/consensus/unity spread over the centuries
For corporate discernment:
Use the Scriptures.
Test any new revelation that affects the community.
Practice humility, the discipline of not having all the answers.
Ask what is the most loving thing to do?
Some of this will not be appealing to non-theists, but nevertheless reflects the wisdom we gleaned. What do others think: what is the place of corporate discernment in our meetings and, if we think it is important, how do we get there?