A Call to the Light
by Don Badgley
Recently, a young man and non-Quaker observed to me that, in his experience, New York Yearly Meeting was best described as a “social justice club.” This observation is important and while incomplete, it is uncomfortably accurate. There is no question that our social causes in the world define Eastern non-programmed Quakers to those very few who notice us at all.
Friends have been laboring in the causes of earth care, prison reform, racial justice, women’s rights, native American rights, anti-poverty, and the anti-war/peace movement for generations. We often point proudly to our early work as abolitionists. We claim this work as our heritage and as the legacy of 365 years of Quaker history. This Friend supports and participates in much of this work. Yet, even as I support these worthy efforts I observe a Yearly Meeting increasingly disconnected from its constituent meetings and further observe the shrinking, aging and seemingly inevitable collapse of a majority of those local meetings. With few exceptions our meetings struggle to attract young people and young families. Many are figuratively and literally dying.
Social justice outreach concerns do not make Quakers unique and, it seems clear to me that worthy causes in “the world,” while laudable, are a weak foundation on which to build a faith community. In fact, these efforts are not foundational at all. Furthermore, the connection to our Quaker history is not sufficient unto itself to define us as a faith community. Yes, we gather in silent “worship” once a week. We reference “The Inner Light,” “being led,” Divine Love, and call our meetings for business an exercise in worship. In truth, the connection to and trust in the Divine Presence to guide us and to order our lives sometimes seems to be a quaint and vestigial artifact.
This is a somber indictment and it is not made lightly. I am well-aware of my own failings in this concern and trust that awareness of these failings in myself will temper and clarify my vision for a revival of the right-minded emphasis on living experiential faith.
Our founders did not set out to create a new religion, new creed, new doctrines or even new insights. The insights and leadings of those inspired women and men were in fact very old, even timeless. They named themselves a “society” because they considered themselves to be a society within a larger and eternal construct. They named themselves Friends quite simply because of words attributed to Jesus in scripture. (John 15:15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.).
Friends initially jettisoned the outward trappings of the church because these were considered superfluous and distractions from the direct experience of the Divine Presence that they named the Spirit of Christ. This Presence in their midst informed all else. Friends did not gather in worship to effect social justice. Those causes were some of the good fruits of lives ordered by living in unity with the holy, the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable Divine Source. Upon that foundation and attached to that living root the Society of Friends grew into an influential force in the world.
Religion can have many dubious and difficult constructs. Discomfort with creedal and hierarchical religion is still very Quaker, and answering those concerns was a primary motivation for this new “society” that Fox and others formed. Many of that founding generation repeatedly excoriated the hypocrisies of the various churches with far more vehemence than we do today. That notwithstanding, they did it with love, even as they consistently proclaimed the Holy Spirit that inspired, motivated and informed their practice of Experiential Faith. It was unity with the Light and the direct correlation of that Experience with scripture that empowered their ministries. It was on that foundation that their interfaith encounters and interactions with the world were built. While scripture was not considered authoritative, scriptural fluency combined with the authority of gentle yet firm experiential witness was compelling and carried remarkable weight, even among those in opposition. It was once very difficult to ignore the Quakers.
Today, many Friends are uneasy with the spiritual, scriptural, proto-Christian and living root of Quaker Experiential Faith. Many Friends have abandoned this foundation entirely. They come for the good social causes, and in some cases to appropriate a liberal quasi-religious platform to enable social justice. And, so our small remnant branch of Quakerism fades into deserved oblivion. When the root is unhealthy the tree begins to die.
Let us not judge Friends’ “spiritual” journeys. This Friend is simply suggesting that our social justice causes will gain in impact and grow in power when we attribute those efforts to the Divine Light, while also nurturing that Divine Seed within those who may encounter us. Our ministry only has power when it originates in Experiential Faith and is nearly powerless when it originates in worldly concerns.
I share these thoughts because it is my hope that we will remember, seek, and trust the grace-filled stillness that is discovered in the silence of worship. I know that within this pure Stillness we experience Unity with the unchangeable Source, The Ocean of Light that flows over the impermanent and transient affairs of the world. That Experience does not just alter our lives, it reorders our priorities and gives us greatly enhanced power to help create the better world we all seek for ourselves and for humankind. Psalm 46:10 (Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth.)