Entries in Mechanics of Quakerism (13)
Updated on Thursday, April 26, 2007 at 05:43AM by Marshall Massey
If the early Friends were unwilling to let a Jew or an atheist sit in their colonial legislature, it would seem a safe assumption that they would not have allowed such a one to sit on a facing bench, or to clerk a monthly meeting, either.
So the bare facts that most every Friend “knows” about early Quakerism, cannot really be taken as proving that the early Friends had no unwritten equivalent to a creed within their own communities.
The word “dogma” is Greek, and its original meaning in that language is “that which seems good”. Its evolution as a theological term begins in Acts 16:4….
The apostles’ hearers were called upon “to keep” what was being proclaimed to them — and the Greek word for “to keep” in this passage is psylassein, which means “to guard, watch over, protect, preserve”.
So they were not being told to “obey” these things as one obeys a commandment. Rather, they were being entrusted with a hard-won new wisdom, as a guard is entrusted with the care of a treasure (“that which seems good”). And they were being entrusted, too, with the task of converting that wisdom from theory into practice.
To entrust people with a new wisdom and a great task in this way is quite a compliment to the people so entrusted. It says that you see them as intelligent, capable and responsible, and that you see their judgment as worthy of trust and respect.
Thus the meaning of “dogma” in the mainstream Christian world has changed very significantly in the past nineteen centuries and a half: from meaning something empowering, something that “seems good” and that ordinary believers are wise and reliable enough to uphold in the best possible way, to meaning something inhibiting, something that is to be enforced on the untrustworthy by expulsion from the Church if need be.
The intriguing questions are, Why did this happen? — and, What good purpose was it supposed to serve? For we may be sure that the Church did not permit such a change without some reason that seemed good to it at the time.
The value of learning about doctrines, catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith, and creeds, has to do with the ways in which thinking and talking about such things can help our communities endure in bad times, flourish in good ones, and pass on the best of what they have to new generations.
It also has to do with the ways in thinking and talking about such things can help us simply to understand ourselves.
Who are we, Friends? What are we doing? And what are we accomplishing, if anything? Bringing our doctrines, dogmas, etc., to full consciousness, helps us get a grip on some answers.
As time permits, I hope I will have an opportunity to talk with you, my readers, about catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith and creeds. But in this essay I think we need to begin at the beginning. I invite you to join me in looking at Friends from the perspective of the ways we have shaped our doctrines — and our doctrines, in turn, have shaped us.
The problem that FGC is saddled with here is that the debate is between two groups whose respective hopes for Quakerism are half-way irreconcilable.
Each of these groups has the sneaking suspicion that, if it loses the struggle over the Quaker Sweat Lodge, this will be the first step toward losing more and more — until, ultimately, it will lose its chance for its kind of Quakerism altogether.
The very act of waiting, as a waiter waits on a customer, or a courtier on a king, is practice in setting aside one’s own ideas and opinions and learning to serve. Six months of hour-long waiting worship twice a week is the sort of intensive training in setting aside one’s self and learning to serve, that can change a person visibly. Six months of hour-long sitting in silence twice a week, seeking for truth and reality, may never once take a person beyond thinking that he knows the truth better than anyone else around him.
When we think of evangelical outreach, we normally think of a message that needs to be spoken. But what Confucius was saying … raises the interesting question of whether actions might not be a better way to express the Good News than words.
If even one person manifests the body of Christ … that will be a bit of the Good News made flesh: people will be drawn to it, and will want to be in community with that person and with Christ. As with Paul and Silas’s jailer, their conversions will not be far off.
There were good reasons for dividing this set of duties … as Friends eventually divided them, between two groups, the elders and the overseers…. But Dewsbury’s letter helps us see that a single type of person is needed for both sorts of duties: someone who
is himself (or herself) very familiar with such issues and their real-life solutions,
has shown sufficient steadiness and integrity to be worthy of Friends’ trust in handling them,
has developed the detachment and perspective needed to hear of them as they arise without becoming unduly disturbed, and
has gained the strength needed to deal with such issues without becoming faint of heart
— or as Dewsbury puts it, someone who is “grown in the power and life, and in the pure discernment in the Truth.”
And this insight, as to what qualifies Friends for eldership, is important for us here because it demystifies the matter.
We can see that in Dewsbury’s (and George Fox’s) estimation, an elder is not someone who has charismatic gifts beyond the measure of ordinary mortals; he or she is simply someone who has the necessary experience, seasoning and discipline to do the job right and without transgressing.
Dusk would fall, and the tattered clouds would scud and tumble over the emptying branches of the trees. Crows would call to one another. Leaves would tumble past my feet.