Universal Quaker Doctrines?

by Jeffrey Aaron
New Brunswick Meeting


The concept that there is that of God in every person is a central concept for Friends. It grounds our relationship to the world. But it is just that: a concept, not a doctrine or dogma. One should never assume it is a universal belief. When, more than once, I have heard Friends refer to that of God in everyone as “what we believe”, I cringe. I became a Friend because it was made clear to me that Friends— at least our branch—eschewed the soothing but mind-numbing yoke of a set of fixed beliefs; we are not a doctrinal or dogmatic sect. We must determine what we believe by remaining seekers. 


Today, I may believe that there is that of God in everyone, but I cannot guarantee that I will continue to adhere to that belief when next we meet. One of the greatest lessons I continue to re-learn from wise Friends, is that I must remain fully open to continuing revelation. If, in conversation, reading or in silent contemplation, I discover that I believe something different from what I previously believed, I determine to continue to test my beliefs, perhaps with the constructive help of wise Friends in a clearness committee, if I need further clearness. If I no longer believe that there is that of God in everyone, I am no less a Quaker than those Friends who whole heartedly ascribed to our famous peace testimony but decided to take up arms during World War II out of the belief that evil needed to be confronted to save the world from further misery, death and tyranny. To thine own self be true.


Quakers are famous for answering those who ask what Friends believe by responding with questions rather than with answers, in particular by asking, what sayest thou? If we become entirely comfortable in our personal belief system, we have stopped being seekers. If we think that we KNOW, we have lost spiritual humility, for who among us can know anything for certain, can claim to know the mind of God? Who can claim to speak with certainty for all?


It is human nature to seek solace with those who share our beliefs, and that is good. But as soon as we assume that we share all beliefs—including what we mean when we say “God”—we are in trouble. This divine conundrum is why religious sects are subject to branch forever into new sects. Sects sprout as soon as we recognize that we may have substantial differences of belief or opinion, including among Quakers. Some evangelical Friends have said that they are “the real Quakers”, in that they still adhere to Fox’s Bible-based Christianity, while some from the “liberal” branches claim that we are “the real Quakers”, adhering to silent, expectant worship and the absence of dogma. Where Quakerism differs from most religious sects is in our acceptance that there will always be differences among people, and that we can cherish and learn from our diversity. We recognize that we are all individuals and that our perception of the world may at times be at odds, but we can remain in unity even when we disagree. When we fail at business, it is because the exigency to respond positively to another Friend’s completely different perspective is so difficult. We are each inclined to think that we are the one who is right instead of thinking “why does that Friend think differently, and how can we cross the divide with Friendly loving curiosity instead of indignance or anger?” 


I welcome the Quaker challenge to examine my thinking and beliefs every day, as daunting a responsibility as that may be. I will always be grateful for the wise reminder from Friends that the most exquisite Quaker practice, that of consciously remaining a perpetual seeker, may be our greatest challenge, but that it will always make us better Friends.