22 May 2007

Do You Call This a Religion?

At worship this week, we had about a dozen newcomers, several of whom were environmental activists. It was exciting to have so many new folks join us for worship.

One of the customs of our Meeting is to invite newcomers to introduce themselves before the rise of Meeting. When the closer ends the silence, we greet those near us, the children report on what they did in First Day school, we have newcomer introductions, and then various people make announcements.

The closer ends the silence by turning to the person next to hear, shaking hands, and saying, "Good morning." It was months before I realized that the morning greetings were not spontaneous. After several years as an occasional attender, my husband asked me how we all knew that worship was over. He thought (as I had before him) that we were all so spiritually attuned that we knew when to end the silence.

We invite the newcomers to share their names, where they're from, and a little bit about themselves. These newcomers got into the spirit, and many of them shared their previous Quaker experience and/or why they were interesting in Quakers.

Towards the end of introductions, a woman said that she'd always heard about Friends, and that she was interested in exploring our religion. Then she stopped, confused, and said, "Do you call this a religion?"

The Meeting was filled with merry laughter. I love it when we laugh together like this right after worship; no other laughter feels so free or so full of joy as post-worship laughter.

The closer affirmed that we do indeed call this a religion, and we went on to announcements.

It's a good question, though. "Do you call this a religion?" We are the Religious Society of Friends and yet many people seem confused about our status as Christians or even a religion. We don't use the outer forms that other religions use: no minister, no choir, no cross on the altar. Our chairs are arranged in three concentric ovals (we're soft chair Friends; some visiting Friends have intimated that this is sinful while others have threatened to take our chairs back to their home Meetings). How would anyone know that we're a religion instead of a meditation group or a group of people who just happen to like to sit together in (mostly) silence on Sunday mornings? Most of us don't even wear funny hats, and the funny hats we do wear don't match.

"Do you call this a religion?"

Thinking about this question later, I am reminded that we shall know Christians by their fruits, that people will know we are Christians by our love. In a similar fashion, I think that people will know our Meetings are a religion by the power of the Spirit who joins us in worship. It's part of the strength of our style of worship that people can attend Meeting with very different ideas of the Divine and still gather at the same well to drink from the same cup.

The other thing that makes me think that our Meeting is a religion, and a worthy one at that, is the example set by the older people in the Meeting. They are an extraordinary group of human beings, deep in love and compassion and wisdom. Whatever practices they follow have obviously borne fruit, and I yearn to grow into their kind of Light in what remains of my life.

I don't worry too much about whether others call what we do a religion. What does the name matter? If we earnestly try to turn our hearts to God, to sit together in waiting worship, and to follow the promptings of the Light revealed to us, then it doesn't matter what we're called.

I thought of the many other times and places where I feel the sense of worship: around trees, in meditation, at concerts, in acts of service, walking, dancing, in the presence of the ocean, listening to a child, making love with my husband, experiencing sudden natural beauty, doing mundane chores, knitting, sharing a cup of tea with a friend. I am reminded that it's all sacred, that God is everywhere, and that all I need to do is open my heart and be where I am, right now.

God bless you all, Friends.


MartinK said...

Hi Heather,
That is a good question. I think it's clear we're a religious community but what past there? Historically most Friends have considered themselves a branch of Christianity and would answer "Christian" if asked their religion. Early Friends would go further by saying that Quakerism is THE path of Christianity, the true primitive Christianity revived. Most of our language and forms, even our name, comes from the Gospels. We have a host of thorny questions pop up when we go post-Christian, including whether we're a religion.

I've heard some prominent Philadelphia Friends refer to "the Quaker religion" but I don't think this is a satisfying answer. It's certainly not historically accurate and I don't think it reflects the reality of our fellowship. Right now most liberal Friends meetings are religious societies and unsure of themselves past that.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

This Friend speaks my mind... *warm smile*

You write, "The other thing that makes me think that our Meeting is a religion, and a worthy one at that, is the example set by the older people in the Meeting. They are an extraordinary group of human beings, deep in love and compassion and wisdom," and I feel my eyes misting as I think of the older Friends at my meeting. Not all, perhaps, but some have an amazing inner Light that spills out all around them.

I was musing, in worship the other day that, though I can't explain what I mean by "God," I have come to believe that there is something in the universe that fills up every crack and cranny. And I realized that, whatever it is, it is something that is at least as warm, at least as compassionate, and at least as loving as J.P. (one of our older members).

That's good enough for me.

Anna said...

I always feel liked I'm beating a dead horse at this point; but since
Quakerism is a branch of Christianity and Christianity is a religion, I
think the answer would be "yes" we are a religion.
We worship God, we have a theology, we have scripture, and outward signs
(although not as many as most religions), we are therefore a religion. I
find this question extremely disturbing though. Where have we wondered to,
that we are no longer recognizable as a faith group of any sort?

Peace and Joy,

Chris M. said...

San Francisco Meeting is a combo meeting, in the matter of chairs as in the matter of so many things about us! We have hard folding chairs, with cushions that two Friends stitched together for us when we renovated our present location about a decade ago. They are getting a bit the worse for wear, but they have held up remarkably well considering. And they pile up wonderfully well, a service that the meeting's children joyfully participate in. Sometimes they don't even knock the piles down!

Lovely post, Heather. Thank you for "not worrying too much." That just sounds Right, in this context.

And may God bless you and your loved ones, too.

-- Chris M.

Zach A said...

Hi Anna,
I think I can appreciate your dismay, but I think part of the problem is that you seem to be thinking of Quakerism too monolithic-ly. What you say is all clearly true of Orthodox Quakerism, but I'll gently remind you this post is about liberal Quakerism.

And liberal Quakerism quite clearly is not, as a whole, a branch of Christianity. Except perhaps in a way similar to how Christianity is a branch of Judaism, or how the Baha'i faith is a branch of Islam - that is, primarily as a matter of genealogy.

PS - I'm not sure, internet names being as mysterious as they sometimes are, but I think we met at the Burlington gathering... did you recite to poems at the coffeehouse? (If so, thanks for those :)

Taking a brief shot at Heather's question, I would say partly yes, partly no. As some people commented on a recent post of mine, there seem to be some trends away from an identity as "religious" and perhaps towards "spiritual (but not religious)". I would compare this to how there seems to be a trend among evangelical Friends away from an identity as "Quakers" or part of the "Religious Society of Friends" (and towards identifying as part of the "Friends Church").

I'm doubtful that even liberal Friends will in any significant numbers corporately become "not a religion" and shed the R in RSoF, but it's an interesting prospect.

Liz Opp said...

Heather and Cat,

Perhaps someday I will find myself seated within your monthly meeting and yearn to be like some of the older Friends there...

As Zach referred to, I am uncertain that there would be unity in my monthly meeting around identifying Liberal Quakerism as a religion or as a spiritual path.

For now, I think I'll place the question, "Do you call this a religion?" up there with questions related to identity and membership!

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Heather Madrone said...

Ah, Friends, it's good to hear from you all.

I like the question, and I like the fact that it keeps emerging. Questions can be more important than answers, and the thing that remains unlabeled, undefined, and unlimited can be more powerful than the thing that can be pigeonholed.

Quakerism grew out of Christianity, and the vast majority of Quaker thought is still Christian in nature. We've picked up a few things from other religions and philosophical systems, but our apple has not fallen far from the Christian tree.

I don't really like the term "post-Christian." I see what we're doing more as an expansion of Christian thought than a replacement for it. We're trying to take Christian thought deeper, to get beyond the tribal and parochial view of Christianity to a more universal kind of Christianity.

Any person who starts attending our Meeting, though, has to come to grips with the fact that there's a Christian core to Quakerism. Folks from non-Christian backgrounds have to learn to accept that core; there's really no way around it.

At our best, I don't think we or our Meetings are unsure of ourselves. Many of us are comfortable with a more open-ended identity. We're willing to ride this strange wave (call it God) wherever it wants to take us.

rachel said...

I just skimmed a book called "The Religious Philosophy of Quakerism," so perhaps there could be the argument that it is a philosophy rather than-- or as well as-- a religion? Maybe the per son who asked this was coming to the question from a simillar standpoint?