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The Individual and the Meeting
by Martha Paxson Grundy
Part 1 of 4
The relationship between an individual and the meeting is a balance. Think of a seesaw, with each end balanced so that they work together. The seesaw is dynamic. It moves. The closer each partner comes toward the center the easier it is to balance and the less likely either is to throw the other off. For the Quaker seesaw, the important point is the fulcrum. The individual and the meeting are in balance in relation to each other because of their relation to God, the Center, the Fulcrum.
This paper starts with the assumption that there is a reality about the Religious Society of Friends that is more than the sum of our individual, diverse, and eclectic faiths and practices today. Perhaps the entity of the Religious Society of Friends never actually has existed in a pure form that is perfect and whole. But that does not mean that there is not a pretty clear set of concepts, based on experience, which can be understood, pointed to, and held up as the vision—the defining reality—of the Religious Society of Friends.
There is a tendency these days (it is particularly noticeable among some studies coming out of Britain YM) to jump to the conclusion that the reality of the Religious Society of Friends is merely the sum total of what people today say it is. This can lead to a sort of lowest-common-denominator summary. At the secular, material level this is certainly one way of describing what Quakerism looks like “on the ground.” But for a description of something spiritual, something that is based in a human-Divine interaction, the surface, material, what-you-can-see-and-touch view is woefully inadequate. So it is with such a description of the Religious Society of Friends: it is woefully incomplete and thus inadequate.
Quaker theologian Melvin Keiser describes Protestant theology as starting with a concept, such as salvation or election, and working out a logical system from the given concept. Friends have not done that. Instead we start with our experience of God, and build on “the divine presence experienced in the present amidst our relatedness to the community of being.” It is a very different way of doing theology. It uses our stories, our narratives, the “divine reality experienced in the present.” Most importantly, its purpose is “not to describe the characteristics of an object, whether God or self, but to bring the reader to an experience of the divine.” In addition, Quaker theology is relational. This is a point that will be returned to a little later.
The Religious Society of Friends takes as a fundamental assumption that what an individual can really know about God, about Truth and Love, about the Divine, is what he or she has experienced. Our knowledge of God is an inward, intuitive knowing. The words and images that earlier Friends used to describe and the lenses through which they understood that experience have been Christian and biblical. Douglas Gwyn describes the process of convincement for early Friends, when “the light of Christ gave them a searing, unmistakable knowledge of themselves. They were confronted as never before with their alienated conditions (including overt sins) and by the power of God to redeem them. These basic Christian tenets, which they had heard preached and which they had repeated endlessly before, became a staggering reality in that moment of convincement.”
The use of a common set of images and words helped to unite the group and to root this small Society into a much larger tradition. But in the beginning the choice of words and metaphors was not the point; the experience—radical and transforming—was what was important. We are a Religious Society, and we do not come into this knowing about God alone or isolated. The famous description by Robert Barclay remains a touchstone of our faith:
For when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart. And as I gave way to it, I found the evil in me weakening, and the good lifted up. Thus it was that I was knit into them and united with them. And I hungered more and more for the increase of this power and life until I could feel myself perfectly redeemed.
Our theology, our experience, is relational. That means first, it is founded on an I-Thou relationship with the Divine; and second, it is in relation to other humans that it finds its deepest and most powerful expression. The relational aspects are vertical, between ourselves and the Divine, and horizontal, among us humans.
It is the horizontal relationship between one individual and the others in the meeting that I want to examine and explore. My words about this are in the context of the above understanding that first, we know about God experientially—that is the basis of our faith, and second, our practice, as an expression of our faith, is learned, enlarged, and demonstrated in and through our relations with others, in the meeting and beyond it.
There is one other foundational piece that provides the larger context of this paper. The Religious Society of Friends has been likened to a three-legged stool. The first of these three legs is the individual’s personal relationship with the Divine and the personal spiritual practices that support that relationship. The second leg is the meeting as a faith community in which we grow and are formed spiritually. The third leg is our witness out into the larger world.
Playing a bit with this metaphor helps enlarge our understanding. First, what are the advantages of three legs, as opposed to two, or four or five? A three-legged stool will sit firmly on any sort of uneven terrain. It functions quite satisfactorily even if all legs are not identical, as long as they are approximately equal in length and strength. So each individual Friend, over the course of his or her life, needs to pay attention to each of these three legs: personal relationship with the Divine Center, cultivating and being formed within the meeting community, and witnessing our Quaker values and testimonies to the wider world. There may be a rhythm that shifts the emphasis between “navel gazer,” “committee Friend,” and “social activist,” but if any of these is entirely neglected, the individual Quaker is balanced rather precariously. If too many Friends ignore one or more of these legs, the entire Religious Society will be unbalanced and precarious.
If one leg is weakened or shortened disproportionately, the stool will collapse when weight or pressure is applied, or when it is stressed. If the stool has one large solid leg and two puny ones, it will eventually topple over. The other legs will need to get propped up to prevent collapse, or the large one will be trimmed down to match the others.
The addition of a fourth leg runs into interesting metaphorical difficulties. It won't sit solidly except under the most favorable conditions. It is almost inevitable that the legs will be uneven, or perhaps the surface on which it stands will be uneven. In either case the stool will rock and jiggle; without the right “terrain” it will not be solid or secure. What might the extraneous un-needed legs look like? All those syncretistic borrowings from today’s smorgasbord offerings of other faith practices and traditions, the seepage in from the secular, consumerist dominant culture. It might be emphases from the dominant evangelical culture, or from eastern religions, that do not really mesh with the basic Quaker understanding. In short, whatever does not support what Patricia Loring has identified as the “Quaker Gestalt,” the wholeness of our spirituality that involves listening and submitting to Divine Guidance in all three areas of personal spirituality, corporate life, and witness to the world. This paper looks at the relationship between two of the legs, but please do not forget that there is also a third leg.
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