30 October 2006

The Geography of Belief

Due to a recent discussion with Marshall, I was thinking about George Fox and how his witness relates to my life. Fox lived in a very different world than I do,and he was shaped by it as I have been shaped by my world.

As I thought about this, one of the things that struck me was that Fox lived in an almost exclusively Christian world. He might never have met a Jewish person, let alone someone who practices a non-Abrahamic faith. I, on the other hand, grew up in one of the more multi-cultural corners of the United States. As a child, I was exposed not only to many different flavors of Christianity, but also to Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. My friends practiced these faiths, and I was taught to respect diversity.

I was also taught to be humble about my own religion and cultural practices. Christian practices were not better or more right than Jewish or Buddhist practices; they were just different. Indeed, the assumption that Christianity was right and Judaism (or Islam) wrong had caused a whole lot of suffering and evil in the world.

I was raised Universalist, in the same way I was raised to be sensitive to social and economic injustice. Growing up in a racially and culturally diverse city was one of the more precious gifts I have received in life.

Fox received his messages in a Christian frame. An exclusively Christian frame, however, seems too small to me. When I read the writings of the early Quakers, I re-frame them in more Universalist terms. With my life experience, anything that excludes human beings of other faiths won't work. God would not be so short-sighted and cruel as to leave out Buddhists and Hindus. I cannot believe in a God who would play favorites that way; slipping the truth to children born in Christian households and denying it to children born in other households.

If I had grown up in another sort of community, in a lily-white town where everyone was Christian, I don't think I would have the same feelings about the exclusivity of Christianity. I wouldn't know Jewish and Moslem and Hindu and Buddhist people as friends and individuals. I wouldn't have learned how to sing "Happy Birthday" in Farsi (a much better and livelier song than our English "Happy Birthday"); I wouldn't have contemplated the meaning of Rosh Hashonah; I wouldn't have learned about the great Ramayana myth cycle; I wouldn't have thought of working a Ramadan-like fast into our celebration of Thanksgiving. I think I would be more sure that the way I and my friends and neighbors do things was the Right Way, and that people who do things differently are just plain wrong.

Continuing revelation is both a tremendous opportunity and a great challenge. We are asked to listen continually for revisions to the expression to the truth. What past expressions of the truth are still true and which ones were part of the fabric of time and place? I wonder whether there are things that are true for this time in Marshall's place but not true for this time in my place.

I am shaped and called to be a Universalist. Christianity is part of that Universalism, but not all of it. I am called to recognize truth wherever I see it, by whatever name it is called. I can accept that other people are called in other ways; they might be called to go deeply into Christianity or Islam or Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism or Paganism. I think it's important to stay in fellowship with all of them, to recognize that truth goes far deeper than words and symbols.

Mostly, though, I think that what God really cares about is how we treat one another. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is a recipe for the kingdom of God here on Earth. Our greatest challenge as human beings is to learn how to live in harmony with one another.


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Heather. I stayed out of the last comments, not knowing how to really add anything useful.

The problem that I see is the somewhat bizarre relationship between modern liberal Friends and George Fox. We want to claim him as some sort of authorizing agent but we don't want to actually have to listen to him. We're quick to take some snippet of a quote completely out of context but we get bent out of shape if someone continues the next sentence of the quote. I've seen official Quaker publications knowingly distort his message into some Buddhist sounding nonsense that would make him roll over in his grave. It's fine if someone has fundamental core disagreements with Fox but then why quote him? Why claim him? Is liberal Quakerism on such sandy soil that it would blow away if it couldn't claim George Fox?

Mark Wutka said...

Martin's comment reminded me of discussion about George Fox and Quakerism last year on the Brooklyn Quaker blog that touches on some the things you have written here. Martin's reply here seems like a shorter version of his reply on the BQ blog.
With love,

Dave Carl said...


I'm wondering if "claiming" George Fox is an all or nothing proposition? I "claim" my parents, they had a huge impact on my life, of course, but neither do I agree or even appreciate all they said, believed, or did. In his Journal, George Fox recounts how he saw in a man "the nature of a dog" so, "I called him a dog." Maybe that served some divine purpose in Fox's day, maybe that's the best he could do with the light he was given. Hopefully we can (and it seems to me, must) be able to do better today.

On the other hand, there is much that is enobling and spiritually quickening in Fox's writing, which as a liberal Quaker, I claim the right to claim!

I do see a much higher degree of correlation between Fox and Buddhist teachings then you appear to. I'm not at all sure that we can predict what his reaction would have been. My "liberal" take is that he would not have held his nose at the teachings of the Buddha. I think it a human tendency, however, to assume that iconic historical figures, especially religious ones, would have confirmed our own biases, whether they be liberal, conservative, calvinist or new-agey. Its often easier to see the beam in another's eye in this regard. I see as much a tendency from convinced Friends from Christian backgrounds to assume that Fox meant "something like the Christianity I grew up with." Often that form of Christianity was unfortunately dismissive and disrespectful of other traditions, ergo, we might assume Fox would "turn over in his grave" because Grandpa surely would have.

For myself, I doubt I could have even appreciated Fox at all had it not been for decades of deep study and practice of writers and thinkers from the Indian subcontinent -- although Penn was a very effective mediator for me as well. The Lord works in mysterious ways, I suppose!

In Friendship,


Heather Madrone said...

Friends generally,

Would anyone like to talk about how your life experience influences the way you relate to early Quaker witness?

I am most interested in discussing our experiences as modern-day Friends.


Thanks for your articulate words.


Thanks for the tip. One of my least favorite things online is running into other people who are intent, not on the discussion at hand, but on grinding their pet axes.


It seems to me that you are continuing a disagreement you have with other people here on my blog. I don't like that. I'd appreciate if you'd keep your comments on this blog germane to my posts.

I don't claim Fox as any sort of authorizing agent. To me, that would smack of idolatry. I am a member of a tradition that started with Fox and others of his time, but I don't put the man on a pedestal. He was a human who had much good to say (and some that does not seem to me to be of God). It is up to me, and to all modern Quakers, to discern what is still valid in Fox's words and what was part of his time and place.

I do not think that you or Marshall or anyone else gets to decide who has the right to quote Fox nor what the correct interpretation is. We're not Catholics, Martin, and we don't allow professors and hireling clergy decide the truth for us.

I've read much of early Friends. The Buddhist-like messages are certainly there, along fire-and-brimstone preaching. To me, the Buddhist-like messages feel more true than the fire-and-brimstone preaching. My blog post explores some of why this is the case for me. I'd like to hear why your take on Fox is true for you. Don't just profess Fox's words; share the experience that makes it feel true for you.

It's absurd to suggest that we must be in complete agreement with someone before we quote him. I quote all sorts of people with whom I have fundamental disagreements because some of what they wrote resonates for me. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Fox was right much more of the time than that.

I have spent many years recovering from the idea that I either need to agree with 100% of Christianity or to reject 100% of Christianity. Sure, there are things in the Bible that are barbaric, dead wrong, and positively neolithic. In amongst those things, however, are the rudiments of a philosophy that is very precious.

Anyway, what is important to me in Quakerism is not mindlessly following Fox's directions, but using the Quaker processes that have evolved over the past 350 years to maintain my relationship with God during my lifetime.

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

Dear Heather, I hear you loud and clear when you say that I don't get to decide who has the right to quote George Fox or what the correct interpretation is. If you want to believe that Fox "might never have met a Jewish person, let alone someone who practices a non-Abrahamic faith", as you say in this posting, you are free to do so, and there is nothing I can do about it.

Nevertheless -- just for the record -- let me submit that George Fox's Journal does record dialogues that he had with native Americans while he was touring the American colonies. And most scholars believe that the faiths of the native Americans, at the time of Fox's visit, were "non-Abrahamic".

Mark Wutka said...

I don't know if you read much of what I said in that link I posted, I hope you will forgive me if I repeat some of the ideas that I believe are germane to the discussion here.
There are different ways to look at universalism. One is that there are many paths - that Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. are all valid paths to God (with perhaps an acknowledgement that some may be more effective in different cultures than others). There is another universalism, that seems fairly common amongst liberal Friends, that means you can mix&match pieces from various traditions and still have something that is useful and effective. I tend to be closer to the former description. The latter makes me think of a dog sled being pulled by cats, each heading off in a totally different direction.
I am, of course, open to correction, but it is my impression that what universalism there was among early Quakers was closer to my first description - that other religions could also enable their members to gain knowledge of the living Christ, though they may not use the same name, but that Quakerism itself was still a Christian tradition.
While you may be unhappy with what Martin said or the way he said it, I think his overall point here was that it is not necessarily valid to assume that George Fox would speak differently if he grew up in the 20th/21st century. To some extent, you touched on the point I am trying to grasp at, that is just out of my reach, when you said what is important to me in Quakerism is not mindlessly following Fox's directions, but using the Quaker processes that have evolved over the past 350 years to maintain my relationship with God during my lifetime. You recognize a valuable tradition and you want to use it to help you get closer to God. Early Quakers saw themselves as a revival of primitive Christianity - recovering a valuable tradition that had been lost or covered up. While Fox and others might see similarities between their knowledge of God and that which the Buddhists reveal, they would not necessarily have found any need to incorporate any of it because they may have already felt their tradition was sufficient.
With love,

Martin Kelley said...

Just because I repeat an observation doesn't mean I'm trying to extend an argument made elsewhere. I have an ongoing concern that we liberal Friends don't take enough care when quoting early Friends. Heather's response puts a lot of words in my mouth and while I agree with much of what she say I don't think that would come through in an extended back-and-forth so I'll refrain from more of a reply.

Dave Carl said...

Hi Marshall,

Did Fox discuss native American religion with them? I'd be interested to know what he thought of that. I do recall that he did a rather "quick test" of whether a native American had a conscience or not. Was there more?


Heather Madrone said...


Thank you for continuing this discussion. I appreciate your attempt to stay in fellowship with me even as we disagree.

This discussion comes at a bad time for me. I am under a lot of stress at work, I have sick children at home, and my father is going to have surgery for a rapidly growing brain tumor this Thursday.

I imagine that I'm as calm and rational as I usually am, but evidence suggests that I am not.

Marshall, thanks for the reminder of Fox's American sojourn. I think that the point that Fox lived in an almost exclusively Christian world still stands. His contact with non-Christians seems to have come late and fleetingly. Do you know if he ever met a Jewish or Moslem person?

Martin, I think I understand your concerns a little better now. It wasn't my intention to say that Fox would have been my kind of Universalist if he'd been raised in Berkeley. I have no idea what he would have done. One of the joys of cultural diversity is that it gives you a lot of options. Maybe he would have gone for direct political action or joined an ashram or become a Moonie or drummed in Sproul Plaza.

What I am really talking about is how I can reconcile Fox's (or, more generally) Christian witness with my own experience. This has been a long journey for me.

Mark, I've never divided Universalism into categories. It seems to me that the kernel of Universalism is that each individual has direct access to God. Religious traditions are constructed over time from individual religious experience. To me, Universalism is neither many paths nor mix-and-match, but a peeling back of layers of historic religious practice to get to the authentic religious experience.

As an example of this, I attended a Methodist church with my grandmother last spring. The sermon was on communion. The preacher's words led me to think about the way we practice communion in Quaker Meetings (i.e. by having Meeting for Worship). The Methodist communion was not a good form for me, but I had to admit that it seemed to serve for the many hundreds of Methodists around me.

When you mention the difficulty of mixing and matching pieces of different traditions, I immediately thought of fusion cooking. Some of the most wonderful dishes happen when we mix elements from different cultures.

In any event, I don't really have a choice. God has seen fit to give me taco meat, pita bread, and sushi. It would be more of an affectation for me to try to return to some kind of original Christianity than to try to express my direct spiritual experience in the terms of the traditions of the people around me.

Marshall Massey said...

George Fox did not record any meetings with Jews or Muslims in his Journal. That doesn't mean that none happened; it does mean that he didn't think any happened that were noteworthy enough to record.