Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Quakers Taking God Seriously

I have been quiet recently because I am in the end stages of finishing my 100+ page undergraduate thesis on the evolution of insecticide resistance. One 40-50 page review paper on the toxicology of various insecticides, as well as methods for handling pests without insecticides. One 40-50 page review paper about the various ways insects evolve resistance to evolution, the paralells we can draw between this and greater evolutionary theory, and the implications this all has for modern agriculture, which I criticize and suggest replacements for. One 3 page, theoretically publishable, research paper summarizing research I performed over the summer on insect evolution. And, finally, one 30-40 page paper discussing the controversy between creationism and evolution in America. I really can't complain; I designed this entirely myself, from exactly what I would be studying to exactly what papers I would write and how long they would be. I love my college. (The paginations are really just estimates of how it will look when it's done; I'm not held to anything)

I'm just a few weeks from finishing. Obviously this is devouring much of my time, focus, and attention.

I'll get to a point about Quakerism in a moment, I promise!

So in pursuit of writing that perfect final paper, I've been discussing creationism and evolution a fair amount with quite a number of folks. Last week, one of my faculty advisors mentioned to me that he was going to visit a class being taught by two other professors on 'The Search for the Scientific Method.' Apparently they had been discussing the book 'Darwin on Trial' written by Phillip Johnson, a law professor at Berekely and an ardent creationist. Todd was going to show up so that the students could ask a biologist for his perspective (one of the teachers of this course was a philosopher; the other was a physicist).

I asked whether I could tag along. My paper, you know! No one had a problem with this (no one generally does at my college), so I showed up at the class and listened, occasionally chiming in. The discussion was relatively interesting, if not exactly what I was writing about, and I enjoyed myself. During the class I mentioned that I was writing this paper, and after class I found myself caught up in a conversation with Travis and Neil (physics and philosophy professors, respectively) about it. We discussed various aspects of the scientific method, the mindset behind creationism, and my belief that there is no conflict between science and religion.

At one point Neil (a religious man) said something along the lines of (this is far from verbatim, forgive me), "Well, you say that science and religion cover two different topics, but I feel like often saying that is used by science to degrade what religion has to offer. Scientists say, 'Well, they're two different things . . . and science is the ONLY VALID ONE!"

I said, "Neil . . . I'm religious." He looked at me and asked me what sort of religious. I told him I was a Quaker. We then got into another, much briefer discussion about God and the problem of evil (at this point Travis wandered away). We started wandering out of the academic building and down the hill towards the dining hall together, still chatting about God and evil, and then he said something that stopped me in my tracks.

"You know, Sarah," he said, "I'm really surprised to find a Quaker who takes God seriously." My mouth dropped open. "I always thought of the Quakers as a very good, very moral people," he continued, "but I never thought they had much of a deep spirituality."

Well, I didn't quite know what to say for a moment. I wasn't going to say, "Gee, Neil, sometimes I feel like that too, but there are all of these cool bloggers . . . " Instead I started talking about Tom Fox, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams, and the incredibly strength of faith it takes to offer yourself up for your beliefs like that. If Tom Fox isn't an example of a Quaker taking God seriously . . . I don't know who is (heh, right after hearing about the CPT kidnappings my first impulse was to run out and join them . . . but I think God told me that I'm called to finish my thesis FIRST).

I kinda got to thinking. I'd been thinking about Amanda's post trying to define Quakerism, and I'd been thinking about something I'd heard at the very first Meeting I went to at the place that is my Meetinghouse now. And I'd been trying to define Quakerism myself. I hang out with a bunch of evangelical Christians, and I get asked a lot of questions.

What I finally told my confused evangelical friends a week or so back was that Quakerism is Christianity entirely stripped down. We got rid of the structure, we got rid of the preachers, we got rid of the churches, we got rid of most of the theology except for the intense connection betwen I and Thou. We even got rid of a lot of societal complexities- and I used plain speech as an example.

The problem is, I sometimes think our lack of ritual can become a custom in and of itself. If I were summoned to court and asked to take an oath, would my refusal to do so (because I would refuse) be coming from my deepest convictions, or from an irrelevant adherence to an old tenet that has little worth except in its ability to make me Feel Like a Quaker? On the flip side of things, me and my housemates are lighting candles every Sunday for Advent. Quaker custom says that such customs are unnecessary, but my love for the custom draws me to do it anyway. Is such a rejection of the formalism of a Quaker custom more Quakerly, or less Quakerly?

The thing that woman at my first Meeting was this: There are some doughnut Quakers. Quakers who have remembered all the peripherals, like to write their senators against the war and to wear birkenstocks (sometimes I think this is a Quaker advice!) and to volunteer at first day school . . . and have lost the spiritual core.

I wonder how one guards against that, for I could see myself slipping too easily into the comfort of Quaker tradition. I wear drab clothes from the thrift store and don't swear oaths and think the Bible is an open document, so I must be a good Quaker! God spare me.

At the same time, there is certainly a huge amount of value in, say, my Yearly Meeting's Faith and Practice. If there weren't, I wouldn't consider myself a Quaker. If it were just the faith that were important, I'd run off and join the Unitarians, or maybe my evangelical friends, depending on how Jesusy I was feeling that day. I don't want to be a doughnut Quaker, but I don't want to be a Munchkin (that bit of dough from the middle of a doughnut, for all you folks living outside the marketing sphere of Dunkin Donuts), either.

A lot has touched me and struck me about this situation with the CPT hostages in Iraq. I have been moved deeply by it. I think one of the things I'll be carrying away with me long after this is resolved, one way or another, is that Tom Fox is an example of the sort of person who is balancing both.

Anyway. I, like most other folks, am praying for the safety of all four of them.


david said...

good reflection piece here -- and good witnessing to the fellow who thought quakes couldn't do spiritual.

As for the doughnut stuff -- it tends to be the glue that holds us together on those occassions where we argue about the important stuff. That's where the Christian doctrine of Incarnation becomes helpful -- reminds us that the human stuff is needed to make the spiritual stuff manifest.

Robin M. said...


Sometimes I like to say that Quakerism is Christianity distilled - just the essence, nothing really original, but nothing superfluous either.

Another Friend I know says she knew she was in the right place when she first came to Quaker meeting because of all the sensible shoes.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of doughnut Christians - and I think their dough is a lot more bitter than most Quakers - that have remembered all the peripherals like in what order to take communion and all the points of the Nicene Creed but have missed the heart - the love those that hate you part, the equality of slave and free, male and female, Greek and Jew part, the sell all you have and give to the poor part.

Thanks for this post.

Johan Maurer said...

We've been doing some thinking along the same lines. I like the doughnut image; it rings true. When we Quakers brag about our beautiful doughnuts but leave out the Center, I think our spiritual teeth will rot. Christian doughnuts without the Center are no better. But they're no worse, either. To deny Christ because lots of Christians are functionally idiots and fakes and hypocrites is intellectually weak. Idiocy and hypocrisy are pretty much everywhere. Too often we compare our best to someone else's worst to gain rhetorical advantage, but hopefully in our hearts we know better.

I don't know why I run off at the mouth like this! Thanks for your web-hospitality and thanks for your good thoughts.


PS: Concerning the comment about being surprised to meet a Quaker who takes God seriously, did you see my post about Albert Fowler's Pendle Hill Pamphlet, "Two Trends in Modern Quaker Thought"? It's here.

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Sarah: sorry to only see your post now. It made me think about some Intelligent Design questions that have been running through my head in the last few weeks, ones which you almost address here. See today's post So Don't Quakers believe in Intelligent Design for my questions. I'd be interested to hear how you reconcile the religion/science (seeming?) divide on this.
Your Friend, Martin

Zach A said...

If I were summoned to court and asked to take an oath, would my refusal to do so (because I would refuse) be coming from my deepest convictions, or from an irrelevant adherence to an old tenet that has little worth except in its ability to make me Feel Like a Quaker?

My own feeling on that personally (I've thought about what would I do in that situation) is that if you have to ask, the answer is probably no... I think that refusal to swear oaths (for example) comes not from an intellectual line of reasoning as to why oaths are in a sense untruthful (which is what I think it is for most Friends, a line of reasoning), but from a very visceral aversion to anything that has any taint of untruthfulness. If the idea of swearing doesn't fill us with a gut-level revulsion, I think we probably aren't 'living in that power that takes away the occasion for all oaths' (to rewrite a well-known phrase). And if we aren't, why claim we are? I think it would be more Quakerly to admit that's the case, swear the oath, and keep working towards that higher kind of truth-loving-ness.

Sarah said...

So many comments all at once!


I hadn't seen that post before, but now I have. I often wonder how much our on-line blogging and God-talk really does or could constitute a trend back towards a more spiritually rich Quakerism.


I really liked that post of yours, and was tickled by the timing between that and this one. I was also so excited about the verdict coming out early (it was due in January)- like a Christmas present! Or maybe that's just because I've been following this so closely. :-) I was really surprised to see Sheila Harkins among the ID folks, too. Just a reminder to me that not all Quakers are cut from the same cloth . . .

I am bound to post something long about creationism and evolution in the near future, I just couldn't say when . . . but it's something I spend so much time pondering that it can't help but overflow into a post.


Hmmmmmmmmmm. I must ponder more.


Alan Parker, Lincoln (England) said...

Sarah - I've just discovered your blog, which made me laugh out loud - especially that chap who spoke about Quakers not really being very spiritual - I was reading this at last Meeting and its still with me; 'There is a principal which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and in different ages had different names; It is however, pure, and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no forms of religion nor excluded from anywhere the heart stands in perfect sincerity. In whomsoever this takes root and grows, of what nation soever, they become brethren.' John Woolman.
Birkenstock? The most Quakerly woman I know wears the cheapest shoes she can find - aren't those Birkenstocks the most expensive?

peter said...

Came across your blog surfing del.icio.us- pretty interested in your take on science and God. i'm from a different Christian tradition but I'm really enjoying a bit an insight into a tradition I know practically nothing about. Given your field of study, I'm sure you've come across Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by
Theodosius Dobzhansky- to me this is a really tidy summary of a (Russian Orthodox) Christian view of science that doesn't involve contradictions between the two. I particulary appreciate his argument that it is blasphemous to suggest that God includes vestigial features, homologous structures etc. that suggest evolution to be true, to mislead some of us.

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