« Portraits On Line | Main | Confucius for Quakers: 5 »

FGC's Sweat Lodge: An Effort at Discernment

Posted on Thursday, February 1, 2007 at 11:00AM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , , | Comments41 Comments

So FGC’s sweat lodge controversy, which has been simmering on a back burner for the past couple of years, is back steaming in the front place again.

Pick up the latest issue of Friends Journal — the February 2007 issue — and you’ll find that there, barely inside the front cover, is a full-right-hand-page letter from Bruce Birchard, General Secretary of Friends General Conference (FGC), quarreling with Chuck Fager over the issue. (Fager’s own letter about the matter was printed in the Journal last November.)

Birchard writes sternly: “Those who dismiss or belittle the voices of the many Friends who express concerns” about the sweat lodge — this being a finger pointed at Fager, the most visible of the dismissers and belittlers — “do not serve the cause of Truth in this matter.

Lordy — them is Quaker fightin’ words.

Now, some of you, dear readers, may be new to this issue, so let me talk a bit about what’s involved.

The Quaker Sweat Lodge, QSL for short, was an annual event at most FGC Summer Gatherings from 1989 through 2003. It was for the most part a re-creation of Native American sweat lodge ceremonies, from the mode of construction to the chanting of prayers in Native American tongues, although it laid claim to the status of an independent, “universalist” ceremony.

During the fifteen years that it was part of the FGC Gathering program, the Quaker Sweat Lodges became their own little semi-independent sub-gathering, largely comprised of younger folks who fell in love with the event.

A Quaker Sweat Lodge had been planned for the 2004 Summer Gathering as well — but in the spring of that year, Alice Lopez, a non-Quaker employee of the Mashpee Wampanoag (a Native American community in eastern Massachusetts), sent an impassioned letter of protest to various parties within FGC. This letter said, in part:

The sweat lodge is not an experience, it is a sacred ceremony practiced by many Native American tribes. You need to know that for Quakers to offer this is totally unacceptable and offensive to most Native peoples. …We ask that you insist that this workshop be permanently discontinued. It brings disrespect or outright sacrilege to native people’s ceremonies and is a flagrant example of racism as it is predicated on an assumption that an almost exclusively white non-Native group has the right to usurp any spiritual practice it finds meaningful. … Just because it seems to be acceptable to practitioners of Eastern religions for Friends to include yoga, or Buddhist chants, etc. doesn’t mean the use of the sweat lodge is acceptable to Native People.

In response to the letter, the planning committee for that year’s FGC Gathering immediately canceled the sweat.

The cancellation was driven by the best of motives: the planning committee didn’t want to do something deeply offensive to another religion, and it recognized that it would take longer than one spring or even one year to discern a good way to go forward with another Quaker Sweat Lodge event. Nonetheless it shocked and upset those who loved the ceremony — even as it confirmed the gut-level reservations of those who’d never felt comfortable seeing it happen at a Quaker event.

In the years since then, QSL loyalists have debated opponents of the practice at length, without coming to any agreement as to whether the practice should be resumed or permanently discontinued.



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:

  • On the one hand, we have those who believe that every religion has an integrity that must be respected — so that when a practice like the Native American sweat lodge ceremony is removed from the religious context where it arose, and grafted into some very different religious setting like that of Quakerism, both the practice, and the religion it is grafted into, are seriously compromised.

  • And on the other, we have those who value liberal Quakerism precisely because of the freedom they feel it gives them to develop their own personal spirituality.

Many members of each of these groups really do not understand the point of view of the other side; some don’t much care to even try to understand. Some of the folks on either side become agitated when the reasons why they take the side they do are challenged.

turn of the century Sioux sweat lodge site
A turn-of-the-century Sioux sweat lodge site. A fire hole is in the foreground; the frame for a lodge is further back. How much, if anything, is going on here that we lack sensitivity to see?


And no matter how FGC chooses to settle the debate — by cancelling the Quaker Sweat Lodge permanently, by giving it a blank check to continue as it pleases, or by something in between — the mere fact that these two groups are butting heads over this issue, is likely to widen the gap between them further.

Now, I presume my readers are worthy souls who don’t wish to commit that same error, and are willing to invest the effort needed to learn to see the points of view of both sides. Let’s pause for a bit, then, to let the two sides explain themselves.

Here, on the one side, is Lisa Graustein, of New England Yearly Meeting’s Working Party on Racism, a member of the group opposing the Quaker Sweat Lodge. She has written,

“…I would never dream of presiding over a Bat Mitzpah or Yom Kippur service with our Young Friends. To do so, would be deeply disrespectful of Judaism and would leave the Young Friends with an ungrounded, shallow, and faulty notion of Judaism, irrespective of how we experienced those services. …

“Is our own Religious Society so spiritually bankrupt that we must go outside our own traditions to provide spiritual nurture for our young people? I am terrified that the one of the most powerful spiritual, transformative, and Quaker-confirming experiences our young people name does not come from Quakerism. We have such a rich, vibrant, and spirit-filled history and faith; why are we not sharing it — with joy, passion, challenge, reverence — with our children?”.

— Lisa Graustein & Don Campbell, “Two Views of the       
Quaker Sweat Lodge Workshop at Friends General       
Conference (FGC) Gathering”, Prejudice And Poverty
14 (Summer 2005)
, p. 10.                                     

Opponents of the QSL have two basic concerns, both of which are visible in the quotation from Graustein’s essay above.

One is about the Quaker treatment of sacred rites belonging to other traditions — a concern summarized in the catchphrase “cultural appropriation”. As Bruce Birchard says in Friends Journal, “the members of the Mashpee Wampanoag … stated unequivocally that to allow a non-Native person to perform an adaptation of a sacred Native American religious ritual was spiritually risky, deeply disrespectful, an example of racist insensitivity and white privilege.”

The other concern involves what a sweat event does to the character of Quakerism itself. After all, Quakerism began as “Primitive Christianity Revived” (the title of one of William Penn’s best-known essays). Is a sweat ritual primitive Christianity revived? Martin Kelley, another critic of the QSL, complains about “younger Friends … spend[ing] a week at a Quaker event playing Indian when they could be diving deeper into their own faith tradition.”

But now here on the other side is Chuck Fager’s view, presented on his Quaker Sweat Lodge website.

Fager is a defender of the QSL because, for him, the key issue is not the nature of what young Friends are being drawn into at FGC Gatherings, nor the faithfulness of FGC Friends to their Christian-Quaker traditions. For him, the issue is the faithfulness of FGC Friends to the principles of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. The defendants (the producers of the Quaker Sweat Lodge) have been deprived of a “fair trial”, of their Sixth Amendment right “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation”, and of the presumption that they are “innocent until proven guilty”.

Fager writes, “The committee ‘procedure’ [by which the sweat lodge was cancelled] offends every meaning of ‘due process’ and good order that I know of. … If I was hired by some enemy of FGC to undermine the Gathering’s future, I could not have hatched a better scheme than this for making it happen. Karl Rove would be proud.”

Fager is not involved in this controversy as an advocate of the sweat ceremony per se. So he’s not exactly typical of the pro-QSL camp. Most of those who want Quaker Sweat Lodges to continue are more likely to say that they value QSL as a spiritual experience unavailable anywhere else. Thus (from Fager’s collection of “testimonies”), one supporter writes: “The Quaker Sweat Lodge was the most powerful spiritual experience my son has ever had. It needs to be available to other Friends.” And another confesses: “I never knew what silence could be without steam.

What the typical Quaker Sweat Lodge fan, and the untypical Chuck Fager, do feel in common is that FGC’s ban on the Quaker Sweat Lodges is a blow to their freedom to practice religion as they themselves see fit. By banning the Quaker Sweat Lodges, FGC has ceased to be “inclusive” and is on the way to becoming “creedal”.



We have now heard the primary arguments on both sides. But before we try to decide what the right way forward is, there’s still one more question we owe it to ourselves to ask: How well do these arguments stand up to scrutiny?

And unfortunately, the answer is that they don’t stand up well. Not on either side.

Let’s start with the arguments of the anti-Quaker Sweat Lodge critics. Probably the most basic is Alice Lopez’s assertion that “the sweat lodge is not an experience, it is a sacred ceremony practiced by many Native American tribes.” What this fails to square with is what the Oneida Indian Nation is now doing less than a day’s drive west of Mashpee, at “Ska:ná: The Spa at Turning Stone”, “New York State’s Largest Resort, Gaming, and Golf Complex”.

According to publicity copy, this 26-square-mile Indian-owned resort “features a vast entertainment arena, [a] casino hotel with bingo games, slots, and specialty restaurants, and [a] domed Golf Training Center.”

Ska:na spa
Ska:ná Spa: a promotional photo from its web site. We may ponder the national origin of the ritual depicted here.

The publicity copy describes the spa as a facility “blending elements of Native American healing traditions with upscale skin care and bodywork”. “Retail space,” it assures us, “figures prominently in the reception area, along with the salon for hair and nail services. This allows shoppers to visit before and after services.” (Services?) High-profile branding is everywhere: Kerstin Florian®, Naturopathica®, Kérastase®, Plantogen®, Molton Brown®, Penhaligon’s®.

At the spa, “the ultimate combination” offered is something involving a hot towel massage using oils from various native plants. “Treatments for two, dubbed ‘Dance of the Song Birds’ … can be enhanced in a private suite where the signature ritual (110 minutes) goes for $560.” Gratuities are expected in addition.

But if you don’t really need the ultimate, you can choose an interesting lesser option: to quote the publicity copy, “an authentic sweat lodge offer[ing] three-hour cleansing rituals for road warriors.” These rituals are held in a “sweat lodge made of red willow branches and draped with buffalo hides amid the resort’s golf greens, offering a cleansing, spiritual experience led by tribe members with drumming and chanting.”

And to restore your attitude after the sweat lodge ritual is finished, you can take in one of the entertainers at the resort — Josh Groban, Engelbert Humperdinck, Wierd Al Yankovic, or maybe the Chippendales, all of whom are (as I write this) slated for appearances real soon now.

I don’t think it’s too much to argue that this sort of sweat lodge, offered by an actual, official native American nation, is packaged and offered as a consumer experience, not a sacred ceremony. The very word “experience” is used as the central term describing it in the publicity copy quoted above. Moreover, as a commercial offering at a casino resort, this seems to me to prostitute the sacred aspects of traditional sweat ceremonies far worse than anything the FGC Quakers could possibly be doing.

So for the Mashpee Wampanoag to light into FGC Quakers as doing something supposedly disrespectful to the sacred character of the sweat lodge among native Americans, while a whole nation of native Americans are offering sweats to Anglos in as blatantly commercial, sensation-oriented, and meretricious a manner as we see at Ska:ná, seems to me a tad inconsistent. Is the FGC event really less sincere and respectful than the event on the Ska:ná golf course?

And this is not the only significant weakness in the anti-Quaker-Sweat-Lodge group’s position.

Graustein, as we’ve seen above, also complains that “we have such a rich, vibrant, and spirit-filled history and faith” and yet we are “not sharing it — with joy, passion, challenge, reverence — with our children”. Is this true? I have attended part or all of four FGC Gatherings, which I think is a fair sampling, plus sessions of four different yearly meetings affiliated with FGC, and many, many Sunday meetings for worship in various FGC Quaker communities. It seems to me that, in those settings, I saw plenty of ways in which FGC Friends were indeed sharing their history and faith.

If young Friends are turning to a bastardized form of native American spirituality in their Quaker Sweat Lodges, it is not because they are being deprived of exposure to FGC Quakerism, but precisely because they have been exposed, have weighed what they have been shown, and have for one reason or another found it wanting. There might be something they have to say to the rest of us about this, and if so, it might be good for the rest of us to stop attacking the Quaker Sweat Lodge and give them a listen.



So those are significant weaknesses in the anti-Quaker-Sweat-Lodge arguments. Now, what about the pro-QSL arguments?

The saddest thing about the testimonies that Fager has collected and posted on his web site is the profound lack of any comprehension of Quakerism that they display.

I never knew what silence could be without steam.” Good Lord. This rests on a mistaken idea that Quaker worship is somehow about silence. For one’s experience of silence will indeed be affected and transfigured by the intensity of a sweat; a sweat is a psychedelic, like LSD, capable of opening one’s senses up to perceptions that normal human minds tune out. In William Blake’s famous words, a sweat is all about cleansing the doors of perception.

sweat lodge fire
A sweat lodge fire at a modern Crow Indian event. The ritual encourages a deep communion with the natural elements involved, which is a good thing. But it does not necessarily draw one into equally deep communion with the Voice in the moral faculty, or with the subtle urgings of Christ in the heart.

But waiting worship, which is the original (and the only unique) form of Quaker worship, is not about having the doors of one’s perception opened — it’s about paying attention to something that every normal human mind is already connected with. Because this is so, it doesn’t depend on silence: the silence of a traditional Quaker meeting is a by-product of waiting worship, not a precondition for it.

Waiting worship isn’t about getting perceptually cleansed, so sweats and other psychedelics won’t help it along. It’s about listening to the voice in the heart and the conscience, and that voice will sound just as loud, and speak just as clearly, whether one is sitting in silence on Firbank Fell, hunkered down under fire in Basra, or standing on the corner at Twelfth Street and Vine.

Fager’s testimonies are thus an unintentional confession that — while the testifiers have undoubtedly been exposed to FGC’s history and faith — they have never learned what Friends do when they worship.

This same fact also comes out in Anglo (non-native American) talk of the sweat lodge as a “liminal” rite. George Price, founder of the Quaker Sweat Lodge, is only one of many people who have described sweat ceremonies in “liminal” terms. The idea is that a sweat participant enters the lodge as if he or she were reëntering the womb, and in the lodge, crosses a threshhold (“limen”) by which he dies to his old life and then starts over, “born again”.

Liminality is a nice metaphor; in fact, the first Christians used the same metaphor to express the meaning of water baptism. And many Friends have had powerful experiences of being reborn in God’s Spirit. (I have myself.) But Quakerism isn’t about inducing such experiences by ritual means; it’s simply about living together in faithfulness to the Guide in our hearts and consciences.

By highlighting the fact that the Quaker Sweat Lodge experience is something quite different from Quaker worship, and that the “liminal” transformation is something quite different from Quaker practice, Fager’s testimonies and George Price’s talk of “liminality” both point to the fact that the QSL truly is a different sort of religion from Quakerism. And as such, there is no real reason why the FGC Gatherings need a Quaker Sweat Lodge component, any more than they need a water baptism component, an LSD component, or for that matter a Santería component.

Fager’s own arguments, on the other hand, rest not on discoveries made experientially in a sweat, but on appeals to the U.S. Constitution. He invokes — as I’ve noted above — the right to a “fair trial”, the Sixth Amendment right “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation”, and the presumption that a person is “innocent until proven guilty”. And this betrays as basic a misunderstanding as the business about silence and steam does.

For Quakerism is not, properly or historically, a legalistic religion, like the religion of the Pharisees or the religion of the fundamentalists. Nor is it a cult of individual rights, like the ACLU. The principles of the U.S. Constitution are in many ways admirable, but what happened to the Quaker Sweat Lodge in 2004 did not involve some sort of defiance of basic Quaker legal principles, for the simple fact that it was not a trial and conviction of Friends George Price, Breeze Richardson (née Luetke-Stahlman), and Cullen Carns-Hilliker; it was the precautionary cancellation of an event.

Let’s face it: such cancellations happen all the time. Nightclubs cancel appearances by bands if they have reason to believe the band’s audience might turn violent; doing this is not the same as convicting the band itself of some crime. Hockey players and university professors accused of some misdeed will be suspended while the matter is being investigated; there is no presumption of guilt involved, just an attitude that business as usual would not be appropriate while such a major concern remains unsettled.

The cancellation of the 2004 Quaker Sweat Lodge was a case of the same sort. Histrionics about how Price, Richardson and Carns-Hilliker were “found guilty” by the FGC planning committee are simply inappropriate.

Fager is in any case perhaps not the best choice of apologist for the pro-Quaker Sweat Lodge position. One page of his web site features photos of Quaker Sweat Lodge participants, over captions that ask, “Take a close look: is this a display of ‘flagrant racism’?” One looks at these photos, and sees that, of the dozens of people pictured, every single one is non-native American (“Anglo”). It’s like waving around a photo of the all-white membership of a country club in Philadelphia while demanding to know, “Is this a display of flagrant racism?”

Quaker Sweat Lodge participants
One of Chuck Fager’s photos of participants at a Quaker Sweat Lodge.

But it would seem, in any case, that neither side in this controversy really has much of a complaint. The native Americans have not been done any greater disservice by FGC Friends than they are doing to themselves with Ska:ná Spa. Critics of the Quaker Sweat Lodge are not being denied the opportunity to make a sales pitch for Quakerism to the kids involved. The QSL participants are not being denied a chance to practice a superior form of Quakerism at a Quaker gathering. And the QSL organizers are not being unjustly tried or unjustly convicted, they are merely having to wait while Friends sort things out.

The real problem is not that any injustice is being done to anybody. The real problem is that the two sides want to fight, and each wants to win.



Readers of this journal will already have gathered that my own view of Quakerism is different from both Graustein’s and Fager’s.

I don’t regard Quakerism as a theater for interreligious experimentation protected by the Bill of Rights. But neither do I regard the FGC Gatherings as a place from which everything non-Quaker should be excluded. To me, both sides of that debate miss the point. I am mindful that our Religious Society began as a tribal community established to set a new example of faithfulness to the teachings and example of Christ. Such faithfulness demands adaptability, but not interreligious experimentation. It demands anchoredness and focus but not exclusion.

And the key word here, I think, is “faithfulness” rather than “faith”. “Faith”, or “belief”, connotes something mental: it becomes a narrowness and rigidity of mind, and engenders institutions that are equally narrow and rigid. “Faithfulness” on the other hand is not mental but relational: it’s a matter of following Christ in whatever journey he may choose to lead us, and the journeys he leads us on have a tendency to surprise us, challenge our preconceptions, and loosen up our minds and hearts.

Thus ours has not been a rigid, changeless, religion, even though Quaker elders tried for a while to make it so. And I don’t think it can be made to become rigid and changeless now. But Quakerism does have a groundedness in Christ’s teachings and example, as expressed in Penn’s essay title “Primitive Christianity Revived”, and that groundedness is built right into the logic of every one of its practices — waiting worship, corporate discernment, prophetic witness, the testimonies of pacifism, integrity and community, and so on.

That groundedness is what determines the meaning and character of those practices, and gives them their general sense. For instance, it is loyalty, not just to pacifism, but specifically to the pacifism of Christ — the pacifism of a God whose kingdom was not of this world — that explains why Friends have historically refused to fight even when every practical worldly consideration would have found better sense in fighting. And it is worship, not just as a place where each person can come and practice something different, but as an active group attentiveness to the urgings of the living Christ in our hearts and consciences, that makes unified corporate discernments possible.

Without that groundedness, our practices decay into dysfunctional parodies of themselves. Waiting worship decays into “silent worship”, and corporate discernment into a “consensus” practice that conceals the differences between opposing parties. Prophetic witness decays into protests, and the testimonies into social and political maneuvers. To deny the importance of that groundedness is not just to lose sight of what Quakerism is about, it’s to lose possession of functional Quakerism altogether.

As a tribal faith, Quakerism is something that evolved out of prophetic Judaism, by way of Christ and the Church, in a process encompassing millennia of spiritual exploration and slow, painful recovery from errors. Quakerism’s collective awareness of the damage done by such errors — from the Inquisition on the one hand and the Münster Anabaptist commune on the other, down through Ranterism on the one hand and the Restorationist right-wing backlash on the other, to the modern extremes of the Christian Right on one the hand and Haight-Ashbury and Rajneeshpuram on the other, EFI on the one hand and FGC on the other — is one of the things that has done the most to shape it.

And thus, while modern liberal Friends’ willingness to try new things may be the first thing to catch many newcomers’ eyes, I see Quakerism’s essential shape as determined by a great deal of hard-to-come-by accumulated wisdom. Its central moving parts — worship, discernment, clerking, eldership, corporate witness, caring service, plain speech, radical simplicity, mutual accountability, intimacy and immediacy, and so forth — fit together like the parts of a well-designed engine, with a precision and an economy of design that need to be respected for the whole thing to work properly.

When the design and its precision are kept intact, the engine generates a spiritual power that I personally find astounding. I think, for example, of how it defused Puritan and Restoration intolerance of religious dissent, how it guided Friends in their ultimately successful handling of the slavery question, how it fed tens of thousands of war victims in the aftermath of World War I, how it enabled Friends to establish conscientious objection as an acceptable stance in wartime, and how it made Friends an important shaping influence on the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s.

These were not minor accomplishments, friends; and I honestly doubt that our Society could have accomplished any of them if its internal workings had been any less coherent.

When the design and its precision are forgotten, events like the FGC Gatherings decay into twelve-ring circuses. And my impression of the FGC Gatherings is that their organizers are to some extent caught up in a constant struggle against that tendency. Their strategy over the years has been to pick an overriding theme for each Gathering — such as “…but who is my neighbor?”, the theme for this current year’s event — which will pull together at least some portion of the activities there, and so reduce the sense of its being a circus.

But of course, this does not eliminate the circus-like character of the event, which remains quite pronounced. And it doesn’t even begin to restore the FGC Gatherings to the way that they would feel were they composed of participants who’d all come together for a single common purpose. The unifying power of a theme is just no substitute for the unifying power of a common spiritual focus.

Grafting something like the Quaker Sweat Lodge onto the framework of a living Quakerism does not destroy Quakerism. But it may not be the wisest thing to do, because it clearly does not help QSL participants to understand or appreciate what Quakerism is actually all about. And without such an understanding and such an appreciation, the FGC Summer Gatherings remain a twelve-ring circus, rather than a true Quaker event.



So — is there a solution to the controversy? I think there is, although what I see as the solution is unlikely to be popular with very many people. (Remember, the two sides want to fight; they will not appreciate anything that gets in the way of this desire.)

First, the two sides need to stop quarreling. No further accusations, no impassioned web sites or impassioned downloadable essays, nothing like that. The way of peace is the way of not-fighting, and the only way to get there is by not-fighting.

Second, there must be mutual listening on a much deeper level. Participants in, and defenders of, the Quaker Sweat Lodge need to learn what waiting worship is, and learn how to practice it, well enough to see that the Quaker Sweat Lodge is no substitute, while opponents of the Quaker Sweat Lodge need to learn its rewards well enough to understand why the participants love it so. For only by getting to that point can the two sides lose their taste for quarreling.

Third, both sides need to get a psychological divorce from the native American cause. Both sides currently seem to think they are defending native American spirituality by what they are doing — the advocates of the Quaker Sweat Lodge, by encouraging sweat lodge ceremonies; the opponents, by opposing “cultural appropriation”.

But the advocates need to understand that if sweat lodge ceremonies really built up native American spirituality, the sweat lodge leaders among the Oneida wouldn’t be endorsing resort/casino endeavors like Turning Stone. And the opponents need to understand that if the culture of native Americans can survive Ska:ná, it can most certainly survive the respectful explorations of Friends, and that the brittle Mashpee Wampanoag hostility to Anglo sweats has nothing to do with the greatness of spirit that so many of the native American leaders displayed down through history — and that we ourselves so very dearly hope to learn.

(The New Testament dishes out a bit of advice about the importance of “testing the spirits” that seems very relevant to me here. Not that the spirit of native American religion is necessarily a bad one. But I think one has to wonder about the spirit behind Turning Stone, and about the one behind the Mashpee Wampanoag attitude.)

Turning Stone Resort & Casino
The main entrance to Turning Stone Resort and Casino, where the Oneida Nation offers sweat ceremonies to “road warriors” for a steep fee. Only a very small part of the overall facility can be seen in this shot.

Fourth, there’s an unsettled question as to whether the Quaker Sweat Lodge can actually be integrated into real Quaker religion or not. We’ve already seen that it aims at a different sort of goal — a liminal rebirth, a cleansing of perception — from what Quakerism is actually about.

If we cannot discover a bridge between what it aims at, and what Quakerism is about, that allows it to become a truly integral part of Quakerism, then there’s really no reason why it should remain as part of the FGC Gathering. Let it spin itself off as a separate event, the way AFSC and FCNL meetings are separate events. But if there actually is such a bridge, it’s to everyone’s benefit to discover what that bridge is and take some advantage of it. There’s a crying need for us to talk this thing out and work it through.

Finally, the fact that the young Friends involved in the Quaker Sweat Lodge have been doing something genuinely spiritual and catalytic needs to be recognized and honored, and they need to be given a chance to do the same sort of work, within the Quaker religion, that up to now they’ve only felt free to do within the tiny confines of QSL. Maybe they don’t want that chance; maybe they have no interest in the real Quaker religion. But the chance should be offered them, and if they take it up, there needs to be a two-way commitment.

Can the Quaker Sweat Lodge leaders give the rest of us the commitment, and can their opponents promise to make some room for it, so that the sweat lodge crowd can facilitate a rediscovery of waiting worship as they have already facilitated a Quaker discovery of sweats? Would they be willing to commit, and their opponents be willing to give them the same sort of space and autonomy, in which to explore Quaker practice, that they were given to explore sweat ceremonies?

Big questions, these. But these are the sorts of things that genuine reconciliation is all about. And Quakerism is not Quakerism without genuine reconciliation.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (41)


I am sad to see your post. It touches on tender places that have been with me since 2004; it reminds me that the work of reconciliation around a concern and an issue as complex as this one is the work of the LORD.

Maybe I could have been helped by knowing what your direct experience has been with the QSL. But probably not. My own experience, including serving on FGC's Central Committee when all this came to a head, cannot address the pre-2004 multi-year history, the private conversations, the internal struggle FGC experienced...

There is much more to the story than what you or I or any single individual can write in a blogpost. (A medium-sized book with multiple contributors might stand a chance at this point.)

I am withholding an awful many things I could include in this comment; they are things that would not move the issue forward. Many of us have fFriends on both sides of the issue. Oh, the things I could tell you... and I consider myself as one who was only peripherally involved, but I have heard things and I have seen things that have broken my spirit.

Personally...? I would like FGC to have a series of open Meetings for Worship for Healing over the course of several years, especially during Gatherings but also at other times of the year. And I would like those Friends who are only now learning about the Quaker Sweat Lodge and the history around it to hold in the Light those who have been directly involved.

Clearly many Friends are still hurting. I certainly am.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Feb 1, 2007 at 05:57PM | Unregistered CommenterLiz Opp

Oh, I forgot to mention: You open this post by saying that the issue had been 'simmering on a back burner for the past couple of years."

While that is probably what it looks like from the perspective of Friends who get information about the QSL only through one publication or another, my own "inside" perspective is that in no way has FGC and QSL proponents put this on the back burner, though it may be true that FGC has allowed one committee in particular to carry the ball. Also, the same issue of Friends Journal (February 2007) has a blip in the back, with news from Friends meetings, etc., that FGC has now created an ad hoc committee, dedicated to the QSL concern.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Feb 2, 2007 at 08:13AM | Unregistered CommenterLiz Opp

Hi Marshall,
Well I'm happy enough you wrote this. Why should this be some sort of taboo topic? Part of the problem with this issue has been the histrionics. Your statement that both sides have been itching for a fight sounds pretty right-on. The most devastating part of this whole issue has been all the attention it's demanded. Too many committee meetings have devolved into endlessly soul-searching "listening sessions," distracting us from the very real visioning work that needs to be done.

This is probably the best essay I've seen on the situation and while I don't agree with everything I'm glad to see it.

What your piece misses is a lot of sociology behind all this. If you saw Bruce Birchard and Chuck Fager off the pages of the Journal and in real life getting in one another's faces,you'd know there's more to all this than concern over some Gathering workshop. These are old feuds with new faces, Alpha males tangling over territory. It gets kind of weird and embarrassing (I sometime wish we could simply lock Chuck and Bruce in a squash court overnight and see who's left the next morning, the winner could be awarded clerkship of CIRC (sorry, insider FGC humor, I actually like that committee)).

That aside, I think you're a little too optimistic thinking that most FGC youth are exposed to Quaker faith and practice. Most of the religious education is spotty (I'm trying to be kind) and much of it has little to do Quakerism. All the hang-ups FGC Friends have about talking religion are multiplied fourfold when it comes to talking about religion with their kids or other young people. Quaker identity becomes measured by how many Gatherings you've attended, how many Quaker internships you've had, how many committees your parent's connections have gotten you on. When a question about Quaker theology or boundaries comes up over in the Quakers Livejournal boards, you'll inevitably get a socially-credentialed young Friend replying "well I'm a Quaker and I believe in XYX, so XYZ is a Quaker belief." (There are young Friends who are on fire about Quakerism and have a clue what it's about but they're a small minority.)

FGC's Achilles Heel is that it defines itself in terms of community, which means it has to prioritize those already in. As the children grow up and find other religious paths more interesting, FGC feels obliged to include those in the big tent that is Gathering. The older generation of FGC Friends has been very worried that their kids will stop coming to Gathering. It's not a worry about the future of Quakerism, since there's little attention given to the swarms of younger convinced Friends who want to get involved. Instead it's this desire that the insider youth clique feel comfortable, that group known to older Friends primarily as so-and-so's son or daughter. The Quaker Sweat Lodge filled a niche for Quaker youth who weren't excited by Quakerism, giving them a reason to follow their parents to Gathering. One of the big dramatic prophecies you'll hear is that canceling the QSL will drive away a generation of younger Friends but I've always thought that would be great. If the sweat lodge is the only attractive thing at Gathering then it's time to reconsider one's Quaker identity and think about other summer plans.

I've never called for cancellation of the QSL. I don't think its evil or particularly racist so much as silly (at least in a Quaker context), a distraction to those young Friends who come to Gathering to deepen their understanding of Friends. I've mostly ignored the debate, preferring to provide some alternatives. The Strangers to the Covenant workshop that I co-led with Zac Moon at the 2005 Gathering was an attempt to see if Quakerism could also excite the Quaker youth. It was well attended and we got positive feedback from participants (the only complaint we got about reading through the Sermon on the Mount each morning was that some of the participants mumbled through their part making it hard to hear!). Of course I'm no one's kid and thus expendable. Bruce's decisions this September means I've joined most of my fellow GenX Friends--relatively few thirty-somethings attend Gathering anymore. To be honest, I'm kind of relieved that when the QSL comes up, I can now just shake my head and think "those crazy FGC Friends."

Feb 2, 2007 at 10:18AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Kelley

Marshall, thanks for this post. I'm in that photograph (on the roof, 3rd from right) I took the workshop, I think the last week it was offered, and was left deeply conflicted personally in a way that somewhat mirrors the society.

I too pray (struggling for a word, that one works best) that we as a society can go deeper, really listen, and practice the waiting worship you describe (or the best approximate I can understand!)

I have been to one listening session, and it was painfully comprised of people seemingly yelling "this is what I WANT!" back and forth at each other.

We can live into something much better.


Feb 2, 2007 at 01:56PM | Unregistered CommenterPam

Fascinating insights as per usual. I was utterly unaware of this controversy so I cannot speak to the spectrum of views you depict.

Chuck Fager's approach fascinates me. A few years ago I began attending a small liberal Protestant church. Unknown to me the church had been divided and nearly closed its doors over the gay marriage debate. The anti-same-sex marriage folks left -- took their money and formed a "congregationalist" church down the road.

I settled into the pew of the so-called "gay-church" when someone completely unbidden turned to me and said, "People think we're the gay church. We're not. We're the church that believes in the Canadian Consititution!"

About a year later the pastor presided over a marriage of two lesbians without getting prior approval from the church board and the church nearly went through it all again.

Now I favour same-sex marriage. I was proud of that pastor for taking that stand. But at the same time, there's something peculiar about a church founded on the national constitution. Its just an insufficient basis for the kind of unity needed to be a church in the sense that George Fox spoke of.

Feb 2, 2007 at 06:05PM | Unregistered Commenterdavid

I know this may (will) be considered trite, but the first thing that popped into my head was call it a Sauna and be done with it. My people invented saunas and they play a significant role in Finnish culture still and we don't mind if other people appropriate them. Quaker - thy name is navel-gazer.

Feb 3, 2007 at 04:52AM | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

>>Let it spin itself off as a separate event...

This suggestion was percolating in my mind too as I read the history. Have to say, I was more than a tad befuddled when I read the letters and statements pro and con the sweat lodge. I had just started my subscription to Friends Journal. Between letters like these and the sometimes acrimonious haggling that passes for discussion on the "discussion lists" Quaker-L and Quaker-P (both of which I left a long time ago), I don't know how I didn't just turn and run.

Instead, I officially became a member of a small monthly meeting in the PYM group last January. I think that you alight perfectly (uh...I originally wrote "hit the nail right on the head" but then did some Quakerly revision :-) ) on the reason why when you say:

Its central moving parts — worship, discernment, clerking, eldership, corporate witness, caring service, plain speech, radical simplicity, mutual accountability, intimacy and immediacy, and so forth — fit together like the parts of a well-designed engine, with a precision and an economy of design that need to be respected for the whole thing to work properly.

I was able somehow to plug into those moving parts, keeping my eye on a couple of our members who seem to me to be so in keeping with the spirit of Quakers who went before .. doing good in utter humility and always walking cheerfully.


Feb 3, 2007 at 10:20AM | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

Astute observations, as usual, Marshall. I'm not certain I agree with all of them, but you've helped move the question along which is more than most of the other public writing I've read about this issue has done.

I especially appreciate the vigor and clarity of your thinking and writing; ditto for Martin Kelly's comments. One of the most frustrating things about trying to learn about this issue (and most intra-Quaker disagreements) is the heavily coded language that so many Friends use. Thanks for your saying it plainly.

Feb 3, 2007 at 12:54PM | Unregistered CommenterPaul L

Anon- Yes, why don't we call it a sauna and be done with it? Of course, it's not modeled after a sauna (and even involves chanting in native languages, which just seems silly if you ask me)

But quakers, who are mostly european, are also heirs to cultures which had spiritual experiences centered around heat and sweats - It pretty much removes all fears of "cultural appropriation" if we go back and work up something that makes sense from traditions we do have legitimate access to.

One thing that arises for me, and is of great concern, is that it might not be as popular, as Finns (or Celts, for that matter) are not thought to be more spiritual than the rest of us. That's one of my concerns about the sweat lodge, it feeds into some dangerous stereotypes.

But I don't think serious work, and even some "navel gazing' isn't in order when questions of racism arise.


Feb 3, 2007 at 01:27PM | Unregistered CommenterPam


I very much like the questions you raise at the end of your post about the value in discerning whether or not there is a bridge between these experiences and what we understand as generally or essentially Quaker experiences. I do wish that a greater respect for an important Native ceremony came through in your words.

Your saying that the Oneida offering sweat lodges for paying customers obviates the concerns of other Native groups wrt the QSL reads to me very like the logic some folks have used that it's ok for white folks to "use the N word" because some black folks use it among themselves. I find it at best jarring and completely removed from context, and doubt that that is your intention.

There are a lot of good questions to ask about the merits of the QSL and the experiences of participants, but I'd like to see them asked more tenderly, and with greater respect for the traditions being borrowed and the intentions of those doing the borrowing. Focusing on how those experiences lead one toward, deeper into, or perhaps away from Quakerism can be done without denigrating anyone. Perhaps we should look to Woolman's desire to learn from Native peoples as part of the bridge you suggest might exist. Maybe if we start there, it will be easier to have these conversations and to treat each other tenderly all the while.

Thank you for looking for another way to address this issue.

Feb 3, 2007 at 11:16PM | Unregistered CommenterRachel

It was good to receive such thoughtful feedback from so many caring Friends.

Liz, I understand about the sadness. I know this has been a painful issue for everyone involved these last few years. All the same, I think further talk is necessary, and particularly talking "outside the box" of the perspectives the two sides are presently invested in.

My "back burner" comment meant something different from what I think you took it to mean. What I meant was that FGC hadn't been putting the discussion where everyone would be confronted with it. Putting a letter by FGC's General Secretary at the front of Friends Journal thrusts the issue under everybody's nose -- and not in the most constructive way.

Martin, no, I don't know Bruce Birchard, but I do know Chuck Fager, and he happily gets in everybody's face, not just Bruce's.

But yes, I agree that the alpha male thing is a problem. In my opinion it's not good having alphas (be they male or female) running big Quaker organizations, unless it is very, very clear that they know how to lay their egos and their territoriality down. My impression is that large parts of the Quaker world do not understand this. The Thomas Jeavons issue is a case in point.

I also know about the sort of credentialed young Friend you're describing. We had 'em in my generation, too; and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of the Pharisees Christ lit into in his earthly ministry were Jews of the same credentialed sort.

I don't think sweats are silly in the least, but I'm inclined to agree that they're out of place at a Friends event.

Pam, your description of how you felt after a so-called listening session exactly matches my own feelings after such things!

david, your comparison with the Canadian churches you were involved with stopped me cold and really made me think. It's good to have such parallels to ponder.

anonymous, I think I understand what you mean by navel-gazing, but you have to understand that every family needs to talk out their issues from time to time -- including our Quaker family.

Barbara, you and I see eye-to-eye!

Rachel, you don't seem to me to have fully understood what I am saying. I don't regard the extension of the sweat ceremony tradition to Anglos as a wrong that Friends are allowed to commit because some of native Americans commit it. I don't think Friends are allowed to commit any wrongs; but I don't see the extension of the sweat tradition to Anglos as being intrinsically wrong, or as being a wrong in the eyes of most native Americans, and I believe that history and current native practice are both on my side in this.

So you and I don't see eye-to-eye; but I'm still glad you spoke up here where other readers could learn your point of view.

Thank you, everyone!

Feb 4, 2007 at 03:38PM | Unregistered CommenterMarshall Massey

This post helped me to better understand the Quaker Sweat Lodge Controversy and I am grateful for that. I especially appreciated (because, oddly, it hadn't even occurred to me) Marshall's suggestion that opponents of the sweat lodge should try to understand why the sweat lodge has been so deeply meaningful and important to its advocates.

I don't think I am really an "opponent" of the QSL, especially since I've never seen it ... or attended an FGC gathering for that matter. The prominent role of the Sweat Lodge is among the many many things that other people enthuse about in relation to FGC, but that tend to convince me I'd rather not be there. I think my own view of what Quaker worship is about is pretty close to Marshall's, though it sounds like he's a tad less cranky about it than I am. ;)

I do think there was a weakness in what Marshall had to say about the Native Americans who objected to the Sweat Lodge. It seems a little unfair to accuse them of inconsistency because another group of Native Americans exploits the sweat lodge experience for financial gain. Who says that different groups of Native Americans have to agree with each other? If the first group came out against gambling, would we accuse them of inconsistency because some other group operates a casino? This is, I think, a different point than the one already made and answered about claiming it's OK for whites to use the 'N' word because some African-Americans also do so.

One last observation: I have met some but not all of the people described here, including both Bruce Birchard and Chuck Fager (though I don't know either of them well and am not sure that Bruce would recognize me since we met only briefly in a very public setting). I respect both of them and believe in their good will. I wonder whether others find it jarring to hear them referred to by their last names only, as in "Fager says...", etc. It's not the way I usually talk about my Friends.

Quibbles aside: I thank Marshall very much for this post.

Feb 5, 2007 at 03:54PM | Unregistered CommenterRich Accetta-Evans

Editor's Note: Johan Maurer has posted his thoughts about this essay at his own blog site; they are well worth looking at, and you can look at them by clicking here.

Feb 5, 2007 at 08:10PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Hi, Rich! It's wonderful to hear from you again.

As to your comments, I guess the problem was that I didn't express myself clearly enough. For that, I apologize.

I wasn't "accusing the Native Americans who objected to the Sweat Lodge ... of inconsistency because another group of Native Americans exploits the sweat lodge experience for financial gain." Yes, I said there's an inconsistency, but I was locating that inconsistency in reality, not in the behavior of the Mashpee Wampanoag.

I pointed to two facts: on the one hand, the fact that the Mashpee Wampanoag are lighting into FGC Quakers as doing something supposedly disrespectful to the sacred character of the sweat lodge among native Americans; and on the other, the fact that the Oneida are offering sweats to Anglos in a blatantly commercial, sensation-oriented, meretricious manner at Ska:ná.

The inconsistency between these two facts may be illuminated by asking questions. For example: If the character of the sweat lodge is so sacred, why are the Oneida prostituting it? Or to turn the question around: if the Oneida see nothing wrong with making sweats available on a come-one-come-all basis to any gum-chewing turista who comes in off the Thruway and throws down some cash, then why do the Mashpee Wampanoag see the far more reverent behavior of FGC sweat participants as unacceptable?

Such questions reveal that the two things -- the Oneida position, and the Mashpee Wampanoag position -- don't fit together well. And that is the inconsistency of which I spoke: the fact that they don't fit together well.

And frankly, there are other inconsistencies of a similar sort. For example, one assertion the Mashpee Wampanoag made to Bruce Birchard is that it's spiritually dangerous for anyone but a native American to lead a sweat. But in other tribes there are native American teachers who have appointed non-native Americans (including a very good friend of mine who is not a Quaker) to lead sweats. George Price was apparently trained by some of these, and authorized by them to do what he was doing. These facts don't fit together well, and that is another inconsistency.

You ask, "Who says that different groups of Native Americans have to agree with each other?" That's a good question. And I don't say they do have to agree.

But if they don't agree, who says we have to accept the Mashpee Wampanoag position as gospel truth? Why not accept the Oneida position as gospel truth instead? Or better yet, why don't we think through the facts for ourselves?

That's what I personally think an inconsistency like this one does -- it opens the possibility of us thinking things out for ourselves.

Feb 6, 2007 at 07:38AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Dear Friends,
I think it is clear from the many words written about the sweat that many Friends who know very little about sweat lodges, Native Americans, and have limited parochial views of Quaker worship feel license to go on endlessly stating their views as though they were some sort of accepted truth. Marshall your ideas about liminality, ritual and worship are interesting but, in my experience, mistaken. I have been a Quaker all of my life and I have never heard the term "waiting worship". I kind of like it but you speak of it as though anyone who hasn't heard of it is really out of the loop in terms of worship. Conversely the term "silent worship" is very well known. If silence isn't an integral part of Quaker worship why do we practice it? If you can have Quaker worship as easily at "Twelfth and Vine" as any where else why do we have meetinghouses. Anyway that's a little off the subject. As for liminality, I suggest you read Victor Turner's book "The Ritual Process". It is one of the seminal works in the field of comparative religion (a subfield of cultural anthropology). Although I really can't do justice in this short forum to the idea I will consider the basics. What Turner posits is that liminality is native to all ritual and the the purpose of ritual. It is the source of mystical experience. Many Friends have the mistake idea that Friends eschew ritual but that is not true. Meeting for worship is a ritual and has all of the composite phases of ritual. One of the things I really love about Quakerism is that we don't have agreed upon dogmas as much as some would like to impose them. Each Friend and every meeting have their own unique way to worship. What I think is most powerful for me in Quakerism is the meeting community. And this is where we can find some truth about the QSL controversy. A f(F)riend of mine recently spoke about the idea of the specific versus the general. Generally, many might say that it is wrong for non-Native Americans to lead a sweat. But when we get to the specifics of my relationship with Native teachers and the unique and intimate way in which I was taught and given this ritual to share we will find that it is indeed a helpful and sacred event. Another book I would recommend for those who really wish to understand this issue is "The Lakota Ritual of the Sweat Lodge" by Raymond Bucko. It is an in-depth field study of the sweat. In chapter, 7 Bucko deals with the issue of non-Natives doing the sweat, at one point several of his Native American friends were complaining that non-Native should not lead sweats (the general). Bucko points out to them that he is a non-Native and that he leads sweats. His friends protest that is okay because they know him and know his intentions are good and pure (the specific).
This brings us to the QSL controversy. Every Native American I have met, and there have been many, when I have told them what we are doing with the sweat has been very supportive. It is only when people consider it in the general sense that they object. Of all the people at FGC that have concerned themselves with the sweat no one has spoken to my meeting and asked if we were following good Quaker process of discerning a leading - most, I suppose, have been too busy considering it objectively and generally.

Mar 2, 2007 at 01:02PM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Price

George, thank you very much for your comment on my essay. I am glad to hear your thoughts on the matter.

I'm delighted that this essay on the sweat lodge controversy gave you a chance to air some of your own concerns, and to make some of the points that are obviously important to you.

I am also grateful for your suggestion of Raymond Bucko's book. As it happens, I have a dear friend, an Anglo, who trained in the sweat lodge tradition among the Lakota under the tutelage of the late Wallace Black Elk, and who led at least one sweat lodge in Wallace's absence with Wallace's explicit approval. I will be interested to compare Bucko's understanding with my friend's.

On the handful of matters where you and I seem to disagree —

You write, "I have been a Quaker all of my life and I have never heard the term 'waiting worship'." I find this a bit surprising, since the phrase is widely used, and is grounded in another phrase — "waiting upon the Lord" — that goes all the way back to the first generation of Friends.

Just to check how widespread the use of the term "waiting worship" really is, I did a Google search on the phrase. I found it used on-line in official documents by Friends General Conference; by Baltimore, New England, North Carolina (Conservative), Ohio, Ohio Valley, and Philadelphia Yearly Meetings; by local meetings in San Francisco and Santa Cruz (CA), Fort Myers (FL), Evanston (IL), Bloomington and Wabash (IN), Louisville (KY), Annapolis (MD), Ann Arbor and White Lake (MI), Fifteenth Street, Manhattan (NY), Akron (OH), Milwaukee (WI), Hoddesdon and Warwickshire (England), Athens (Greece); and by many of the member monthly meetings of Ohio Yearly Meeting and North Carolina YM (Conservative).

I also found the phrase in the on-line pages of Quaker Life (the journal of Friends United Meeting); in an on-line description of activities at Earlham School of Religion (the one Quaker theological school that serves all branches of Friends); and in the writings of a fair number of Quaker bloggers -- Conservative Friends, liberals, and at least one evangelical Friends pastor.

You are most welcome to repeat this Google search yourself, for example by clicking here.

I might also note that Lloyd Lee Wilson has written a widely-read essay on the topic of "waiting worship", in his book Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order.

You ask, "If silence isn't an integral part of Quaker worship why do we practice it?" I'm a little wary of the word "we" in this context, friend, since different people do things for different reasons. But at least as regards traditional Quakerism, I know of two valid ways to answer your question. One (borrowing a phrase from Barclay) is that the silence was early found to be an "outward conveniency": not by any means a necessary part of Quaker worship, but still helpful, especially to beginners, in the process of "settling in". The other and far more basic way to answer to your question is the one already given in the essay you are responding to here: the silence in Quaker worship is a by-product of the actual practice of waiting attentively; when people are fully engaged in waiting attentively, they're too busy doing that to make much noise. The full answer is of course a combination of the two.

You also ask, "if you can have Quaker worship as easily at 'Twelfth and Vine' as any where else why do we have meetinghouses." The answer here again is a matter of "outward conveniency". In fact, Friends have historically met for worship in all sorts of places, including the raucous public spaces of inns, taverns, and prisons, the decks of sailing ships at sea, the edges of busy English marketplaces and fairs, the town of Ramallah in the midst of bombardment by Israelis, and the noisy sidewalks of Columbus Circle in New York. Not being located in a quiet meetinghouse has not prevented Friends' meetings in all those places from being absolutely wonderful.

You then suggest that I read Victor Turner's The Ritual Process. Actually, friend, I already have. I read it for the first time in 1970, which was not long after it first came out in print, as a college student majoring in social anthropology. I have since re-read it once or twice more. It occupies a permanent place on the shelves of my home office library.

I believe you may be misremembering Turner yourself. His book was not a book of comparative religion, for all that he made references to numerous religions in it; it was a work of structural anthropology, indeed one of the greatest in that field. And he did not posit "that liminality is native to all ritual"; he was as aware as any other competent anthropologist that the majority of rituals do not involve liminality at all. (To name some easy examples: the rituals performed at a formal state banquet involve no liminality; the ritual of singing the national anthem before a baseball game involves no liminality; the ritual of the Christmas tree involves no liminality; the ritual of a handshake involves no liminality.)

Turner was writing in The Ritual Process only of a few particular kinds of ritual — most notably the transition rite or rite of passage, which had already been formally analyzed by Arnold van Gennep in van Gennep's The Rites of Passage. (And I might note here that it was van Gennep, not Turner, who first suggested the concept of liminality.)

And Turner was in fact as aware as anyone that "mystical" experience arrives through many routes. He did not deny that it can happen independently of ritual, as in the case of Saul on the road to Damascus, or the case of P'an-shan Pao-i, a ninth-century Ch'an Buddhist master who was unexpectedly awakened by the witticism of a butcher. Turner rightly treated liminality, and its cousins marginality and communitas, not as the routes through which mystical experience is accessed, but rather, as avenues through which human societies seek simultaneously to stimulate the human capacity for "mystical" experience, and to control it so that it produces harmless results.

As for the experience of the Inward Guide, the Still, Small Voice, which is what Quakerism has historically centered upon, and is what our meetings for worship have historically been all about — this experience does not depend on either ritual or liminality in order to manifest. It is far more common that a choice between doing a right thing, and doing a wrong one, or a realization that one has done a wrong thing, will bring awareness of the Inward Guide to the forefront of a person's consciousness, than that any sort of ritual will do so.

Someone who is sufficiently entranced with the idea of transition rites and liminality may project them upon every repetitive event that happens, clear down to mundane rituals like brushing one's teeth every night. But daily tooth-brushing, for all that it can have its ritual character, is not a transition rite or a rite of reversal or any of the other sorts of rituals that Turner was talking about, and it has no liminality unless the tooth-brusher brings the liminality into the ritual from outside. And exactly the same is true of Quaker meeting.

Mar 4, 2007 at 09:52AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Thank you for your enlightenment about the term "waiting worship". Isn't interesting that I could be a active Quaker all my life and not hear of it.

I had the distinct privilege to study with Alfonzo Ortiz at the University of New Mexico. Ortiz was a preeminent scholar in cultural anthropology and a MacArthur fellow. He was a student of Victor Turner at the University of Chicago. I can assure you that Turner was a scholar in comparative religion. You are confusing some terms. Structural anthropology is a school of thought related to cultural anthropology - comparative religion is a subfield. Structural anthropology is used to analyse comparative religion. Further Victor Turner was not a structural anthropologist in fact he spent much of he career debunking the writing of Levi-Strauss - the most prominent structuralist.
You too quickly dismiss liminality. Here is a quote from Turner: "Liminality may perhaps be regarded as the Nay to all positive structural assertions, but as in some sense the source of them all, and, more than that, as a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations arise" To me and to many others liminality is a powerful and useful concept in attempting to grasp the unexplainable. It is much more than a "nice metaphor".

Mar 6, 2007 at 10:53AM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Price

Hello again, friend George.

Studying with Alfonzo Ortiz must have been quite delightful.

Turner may well qualify as a scholar in comparative religion, but you and I were speaking specifically of his book The Ritual Process. That book's field of scope was not limited to religion — it covered, very notably, Woodstock, its prime example of communitas; and it also addressed human life-transitions, and the transition rites that go with them, as a general phenomenon, which phenomenon includes a wide variety of things that are not primarily religious in our society (e.g., military boot camp). For this reason, the real focus of Turner's book seems to me to lie in a rather different place from "comparative religion".

On the other hand, The Ritual Process was focused on the same project that structural anthropology in general was engaged in: the project of identifying some sort of universal underlying grammar that structures human social behavior. And in this regard, I find it significant that, in the final years of his life, Turner took the dynamics he had explored in The Ritual Process and looked for a neurophysiological entity that could seen as generating them. This is precisely a quest that Lévi-Strauss was also embarked upon — looking for human physiological structures that could be regarded as generating the things that he regarded as the elementary building blocks of human social structure.

Overall, as I'm sure you already know, Turner's thinking evolved markedly in the course of his life. He embraced and then rejected Marxism in his youth; he embraced British structuralism before writing The Ritual Process, only to reject it as he thought through his book. He came to his interest in rituals from an interest in symbols comparable to Lévi-Strauss's; and he moved on from ritual to an interest in the more complex dynamics of theatrical drama.

Turner's lifework has been described by his peers as "situational analysis", "symbolic action theory", "the semantics of symbolism", "comparative symbology", "anti-structural social anthropology", and "processual symbolic analysis", in efforts to express what it was as a whole. And "symbolic action theory" and "processual symbolic analysis" really don't seem bad to me.

But there is nevertheless still a definite continuity between the questions that Lévi-Strauss, Gluckman, Geertz and Leach were wrestling with, and those that Turner was wrestling with in his specific book The Ritual Process — even though the answers Turner offered were something new. It is for that reason that I think it is utterly valid to describe the specific book The Ritual Process as a work of structural anthropology.

One final point: I don't think I "too quickly dismiss liminality." I don't think I dismiss it at all. I merely say that it's not what Quakerism's about.

Mar 7, 2007 at 11:14AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Liminality is exactly what Quakerism is all about. It is the essence and source of my ministry and, I would say, the essence and source of mysticism. I would really encourage you to open yourself up to the experience - it is what a "gathered meeting" is all about.

Mar 7, 2007 at 12:46PM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Price

One last point - Woodstock happened the same year as the Ritual Process was published - it is not mentioned in the text. Also it is indeed a work in comparative religion. I suggest The Lessa and Vogt Reader in Comparative Religion - in it are many essays by the writers you mentioned.

Mar 7, 2007 at 03:40PM | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Price

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>