February 1, 2023

A different approach to religion

 Sam Smith – As a cynical, skeptical and sardonic journalist I  try not to discuss religion to avoid annoying others or having to explain my somewhat peculiar thoughts on the topic. But this article struck so close to home that I’ll risk saying that my religious view, which I describe as that of a Seventh Day Agnostic, is based on a couple of somewhat unusual experiences. One was majoring in anthropology in college where I learned that faith and myth is culturally universal and that even a journalist or a scientist can’t describe the world without considering the uniqueness of their own perspective.  The second is having gone to a Quaker high school, including weekly meetings, for five years.

A striking thing that I picked up from Quakerism was that faith and its belief systems were, at best, tertiary to what one did as a result of these feelings. As I sometimes put it now: I don’t give a shit about what you believe; it’s what you do with it that counts.  Clearly the Quakers put action first.

Here is an excerpt from an article in Friends Journal by an English professor at Pennsylvania State University who started going to Friends meetings. 

John Marsh, Friends Journal - In addition to devaluing revelation, more recent Quakers have also recast the God whom they listen for and who may speak to them. Liberal Friends, like the ones who populate the meeting I attend in central Pennsylvania, believe that God may take different forms for different people: from the singular entity described in the Bible to a more diffuse figure. In 2017, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting approved the latest version of its Faith and Practice, a guidebook of sorts for Quaker bodies. In addition to God, it refers to “the Divine” and to “the Light Within.” But it allows that even those references may be too prescriptive. As Faith and Practice observes:

Friends have used many terms or phrases to refer to the inner certainty of our faith: the Light Within, the Inner Light, the Christ Within, the Inward Teacher, the Divine Presence, Spirit, the Great Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, that of God in every person, and the Seed. . . . In contrast with early Friends, not all Friends today consider themselves to be Christians or even theists. Friends come from very diverse religious backgrounds and experiences and apply their different perspectives as they encounter the Light Within.

With belief in neither God nor the Bible required, some might think that for Quakers just about anything goes. And they would not be wide of the mark. As Quaker historian Ben Pink Dandelion has written: “Liberal Quaker diversity can look like a supermarket religion, a pick-and-mix approach.” Indeed, about the only thing Liberal Friends agree on is that when it comes to God or the Divine or the Light Within, they do not need to agree on anything. Instead, they commit to a theology of the “absolute perhaps.” As the same historian has put it, spiritual truth for Quakers is “partial, personal, and provisional.” Everyone ministers to themselves—with an occasional stab at conveying to others what has been conveyed to them.

What do I do during the hour we spend in silent worship every Sunday? I think about how well—or how poorly—I’ve practiced Quaker virtues the previous week and how I can practice them better in coming weeks. I also enjoy the reprieve that silence offers from the barrage of voices—books, newspapers, music, and the Internet—competing for my attention. But mostly I listen, by which I mean I remain open to whatever God or the Divine or the Light Within may have to communicate to me. Thus far, I cannot say if any of these entities has spoken to me. But I have had thoughts—epiphanies even—that only came because I spent an hour in silence. And for now, I do not much care where those thoughts came from, whether from me or from God. I am only grateful they came, and grateful to Friends for building and maintaining a place where they can come.

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