At various times, and in various situations, I am asked to explain what Quakers believe. Folks generally ask out of genuine curiosity, though there are times when somebody’s clearly challenging me.
This is my current thirty-second summary:
“Quakers believe that every person has direct, unique, and personal access to God. God speaks to and through each of us somewhat differently, and for that reason, every person is of tremendous value; one human being lost represents a perspective and a set of gifts that are therefore lost forever. This is why we believe in peace and equality. When we worship, we sit in silence and do our best to listen for and understand what God would have us do.”
If the elevator stalls or if the person I’m speaking to finds this sufficiently interesting, there are follow-up questions, which are almost always the same:
Quakers are Christians, right? (Some of us are. Some of us aren’t.)
That must be hard for your minster. How do you meet everybody’s needs? (We don’t have a minister. Our meetings are silent. Sometimes, someone feels inspired to rise and speak.)
But doesn’t that mean anybody can say anything they want? (Yes, and sometimes people say really random things. But the idea is that you only speak when you are genuinely inspired by God.)
But what if people say conflicting things? (Well, I do my best to listen with an open heart and find the meaning behind the words, because sometimes language gets in the way. And sometimes somebody offers ministry that I can’t identify with at all. When that happens, I just let it go. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t genuinely inspired. After all, God speaks to every person differently.)
At that point, the person usually says one of two things: either
– Wow, that’s cool! or
– That sounds complicated and confusing.
While I understand the perspective of “complicated and confusing,” I actually find Quakerism to be extraordinarily simple. I guess what folks have trouble accepting is that your Truth and my Truth can be different–and both be true. Occasionally, someone actually snorts at this and/or calls me a “relativist,” which, from the tone of voice, I suspect is not meant as a compliment.
I do believe in black and white, right and wrong, and Absolute Truth. I also believe in differing personal Truths. I do not see a conflict here.
And since there’s never enough time to explain this on the elevator or in line at the ladies’ room, I’d like to take the opportunity now.
(It’s going to involve an extended metaphor. Feel free to close your browser if that’s not your thing.)
Let’s say that life involves crossing a forest–a huge, positively bewildering forest, with trees and rocks and grass and flowers and streams running every which-way and caves and blind canyons and some mountains tossed in. We’re trying to cross this forest, most of us without a map, essentially on our own and also knowing beyond a doubt that we will die mid-journey.
This would all be really, really depressing if it weren’t for the fact that crossing the forest is so dang much fun. I mean, think about it; we never have any idea what might be around the next rock or tree. And we’re constantly meeting other journeyers and sometimes stopping to chat or play. What an adventure! What an amazing thing!
Of course, it’s scary sometimes. Heck, outright terrifying. There are all kinds of dangers in this gigantic forest, many of which cause very real pain. We’re often not quite sure whether we’re moving forwards or backwards. Sometimes we get really lost and find ourselves traveling in circles for awhile.
You would think we could all just hold hands and proceed in a single-file, unbroken line of journeyers, letting whatever poor schmuck’s in front pave the way. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
For one thing, human beings are naturally contrary, especially when we’re children. We start traveling through the forest the day we’re born, if not earlier, and when Mom says “step over this fallen log,” the first thing we want to do is dig underneath it. Or Dad goes left around a tree, and we go right. At first, we don’t wander far (because remember, the forest is scary), but as we get older, we start to think to ourselves, Hey, this forest is big and awesome, and Mom and Dad (and my teachers and ministers and political leaders and just about everybody else) never let me explore anything my way. I could totally do a better job navigating on my own!
So off we go, and by the time it occurs to us that maybe we’d rather follow somebody else after all, we’re so far away from the “grown-ups” and their experiences that following their advice no longer really makes sense. When I’m standing at the edge of a stream, you can offer me general advice on crossing streams, but if you’re not right there next to me, I’d better be prepared to make some fast decisions and plot my own course.
Boom. Individual journey.
This is for the best anyway–because we’re not all the same. And here’s where “my Truth, your Truth” comes in. It’s my belief that some of us are fish, and some are birds, and some are squirrels, and some are bears, and some are moles…you get the idea. It’s not just that you and I are in different places in the forest. You and I are probably also fundamentally different creatures.
This matters, and it’s why evangelism doesn’t always make much sense. Let’s say that a squirrel crosses paths with a fish. They get to talking, and it just so happens that this squirrel is a really brilliant squirrel. She’s found the very best way to leap from tree to tree, which she begins to explain to the fish. Though he doesn’t understand it all, the fish does find this interesting.
The trouble comes when the squirrel convinces the fish to follow her. No matter how hard he tries, the fish is a fish, and for him, attempted tree-leaping is positively insane. Thus, the squirrel leaves him in the dust, and the fish views himself as a failed tree-leaper–when, in fact, he would have flourished if he’d used the river currents instead of the branches.
If the squirrel converts a chipmunk or a bird instead, the results will be much better, but the approach that works best for a squirrel is still limiting for these other critters. How much better would it be if the squirrel explained her way of doing things and then asked the chipmunk, “Okay, now how about you?” What if we were open to sharing with and learning from every person we meet?
In case I haven’t tortured this metaphor enough, the forest itself, I believe, is Absolute Truth as God sees it. But because we’re all restricted by our limited perspective, I might be telling a squirrel’s Truth while you’re telling the Truth of eagles or spiders or bears.
A tree is a tree. That never changes. But I (being a squirrel) am going to call it a springboard, while an eagle calls it a landing place, a spider calls it a wall, and a bear calls it a back-scratcher. It’s possible for us to have different and even conflicting ideas despite the fact that none of us is quantifiably wrong.
(And let me state here that this doesn’t mean there is no “wrong.” We all know that people can do things that are tragically and irreconcilably wrong.)
If elevators moved more slowly, this is what I would explain. A squirrel’s a squirrel, and among Quakers, no one will ever ask me to be anything else. It’s more about becoming the best squirrel I can be. And when I meet somebody new, no matter what kind of creature they happen to be, it’s about saying:
Hi. It’s so good to see you! How are things going?
You’ve made it this far, so you must have made some pretty awesome discoveries.
Can I hear your story?
Would you like to hear mine?
Is there some way I can help you?
Do you maybe want to play?
Are you traveling alone? Gosh, that can be scary.
Would you like to try traveling with me?