Collaboration or conflict?

If you hang around Quaker circles long enough, you are likely to pick up on an often unexpressed tension between what are called the “mystics” and the “activists;" those who express their faith by doing, by acting in the world, by addressing social concerns, and those who prefer to express their faith through contemplation, conversation, and other spiritual practices.

Madeline Schaefer, blogging in the American Friends Service Committee’s Acting in Faith

It seems to me that in some ways this tension runs through humanity: it is the dichotomy between Elaine Aron’s dynamic, entrepreneurial Warrior Kings and her sensitive, spiritual Priestly Advisors; or between, say, INFPs and ESTJs in the Myers Briggs typology. It crops up in discussions within traditional religious communities, and often between evangelical Christians and those from the more contemplative traditions. Madeline Schaefer goes on to say:

Both of these expressions of faith are absolutely crucial for a world transformed, both spiritually and socially.  When combined, they lead to the development of real, human relationships that plant the spiritual seeds for cultural change and inspire powerful collective action.

Just as Aron’s Warrior Kings need their Priestly Advisors in order to put the brakes on, to avoid situations like the Iraq War and the conflict in Afghanistan, so the Priestly Advisors need a few Warrior Kings around in order to get anything done at all. We need some kind of framework within which we can collaborate, rather than conflict. Perhaps Quakers do provide just that – perhaps that is the reason this little minority of people has consistently challenged the structures of power, and achieved real social change, since the early days of the 17th century. But all too often in our meetings we don’t feel as though we do, or act as though we do. Schaefer goes on:

Perhaps Quakers have been unable to connect with communities working for grassroots change because we, as Quakers, have not yet learned how to ease the tension between mystics and activists within our own Quaker communities.

This tension is often felt in a strain in the responsibilities of the meeting, and the members can feel pressed for time and resources, both of which are likely being used to satisfy the needs of these two distinct approaches to faith rather than nurturing one coherent body.

As a result, resentment often builds between people who fall on either side of the spectrum.  Why don’t those mystic types go out and do something, the activists often wonder as they hear of the formation of another spiritual support group.  Why don’t those activists sit down and consider if their actions are motivated by Spirit or ego, say the mystics to themselves after the 4th or 5th announcement to donate food to a local shelter or attend an upcoming peace vigil.

How can we bring these two powerful means of knowing and living the Spirit together so that we are not only more powerful activists, but more powerful faith communities?

Rufus Jones, a Quaker from the 20th century and one of the founders of the American Friends Service Committee, referred to this unique combination of activist and mystic as “positive mysticism.”  According to Jones, an individual’s mystical experience is not a reason to leave the world or to annihilate the personality. To the contrary, the experience of a deep resonance with the Spirit is a call to be more truly oneself, to refine one’s personality so that it is in closer resonance with that divine Spirit in all walks of life.   To experience the Spirit is to experience a call to action and to act with the faith that the Light will be revealed—through deep listening—after each step is taken.

This is an on-going dialogue, and it would encourage me no end if Friends in this country were to take it up with the courage and clear-sightedness Madeline Schaefer shows here. Do read her whole post, and consider what it has to say to you, and to your meeting.

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