Confident or Dogmatic? Tentative or Unsure?

Modern Friends of the unprogrammed tradition are often reluctant to generalise about our collective Quaker experience, at least without qualifications or the familiar disclaimer, ‘I can’t speak for all Friends’.

Lack of dogmatism in matters of faith and of the Spirit is one of our great strengths as a community. It is probably the first quality which attracted many of us who joined the Society as convinced Friends. This character trait of modern Quakerism has its roots in the experience of early Friends, who found that real spirituality came from the inward guide, not from any outward authority, even scripture. Driven by the force of their inward experience, these Friends sought to make the personal encounter with God available to everyone. If their experience lacked dogmatism, it did not lack certainty.

This is a distinction modern Friends can fail to make. Rejecting dogmatism which relies on outward authorities to prove its authenticity or to exercise power, we have also lost the confidence to testify to our spiritual experience and share it gladly.

This loss has increasingly individualised our experience of Quakerism. We are a diverse group of people, who are more often aware of differences than of our common experiences as Friends.

Ursula Jane O’Shea, Living the Way: Quaker spirituality and community

I have occasionally noticed an equal and opposite tendency in a few Friends, to assert that expressions of spiritual certainty are not acceptable in a Quaker context at all – unless, it seems, they are expressions of scepticism! All of us, of course, speak from a shared framework of language and thought, whether we have come to convinced Quakerism as a Franciscan Tertiary, as I have, or from an evangelical, humanist, scientific, Buddhist or any other background, or indeed whether we were born into a Quaker family. This will naturally enough colour how we speak and write, even how we describe to ourselves our own spiritual experience. But Quakerism is an experimental faith or it is nothing. We need to be able to share with each other, and with those who do not yet know the Society of Friends, the results of our experiments in faith, in daring to receive the truth we encounter in the stillness, in daring to be open to the inward Light. It is this sharing which will allow our common experience as Friends to unite us in community, if only we will let it, if only we will let each other. After all, it was George Fox who said,

And when all my hopes in… all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give him all the glory; for all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus, when God doth work who shall let [i.e. hinder] it? And this I knew experimentally.

We might not use Fox’s words these days, but we need more of that kind of courageous certainty. Janey O’Shea, in the introduction to the book cited above, goes on to write of the ruler in the Gospel Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14-30) who takes the one talent from the careful, diffident servant who hid it, and gives it away to the one who was prepared to risk everything,

The Parable of the Talents is about a cautious timid soul… who tries to get by, playing it safe, hoping to stay out of the dark of his master’s disfavour. He has a small treasure which he tries to protect from all risk. In the story, his timidity is punished and his very caution earns him expulsion from the light…

I began to wonder: what if the ruler was not administering punishment for the servant’s behaviour, but describing the inevitable consequences of what he had done? What if the spiritual gifts we have received are not static treasures? Perhaps we are to use them or lose them.

Without use, even small, well-hoarded spiritual treasures may leave us dry. Spiritual experience and gifts are enlivening, functional and transformative only when their impact flows over into the daily life of the person and a wider community.

If this is true for each of us as individuals, it is also true for us as a Quaker community. We have been entrusted with a spiritual Way of which we are but the temporary custodians. A gift to us, we pass the Quaker Way on to others, transformed and augmented by our experience. In the image of the parable, transmitting our religious tradition to new Friends is not only returning the capital of the original investment, it has our interest added too.

If we were to live like this, write like this, if we were to have the courage to minister from the Light in whatever words we found lying around the junk room of our heart, might not this Quaker renewal we sometimes hear about overtake us unawares, and bring new Light into all our meeting houses?

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