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Posts Tagged ‘Quakerism’

I’m a little bit angry with a particular aspect of Mormonism today. Mostly, I find myself just caring less about the Mormon Church all the time, but when something directly affects me or my relationships, it’s hard to just grin and bear it.  even if it means coming out of blogging semi-retirement.

Mormonism teaches that if you pray to ask with a sincere heart, that God will tell you that the Church is True. It’s a guarantee- you do x and God will do y. That seems innocuous enough, until you apply it to the real world, to real people, and discover that actually plenty of people have prayed about the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and Mormonism in general, and have not gotten a satisfactory answer. This is difficult to reconcile. God has supposedly made a promise, right? So either God breaks his promises, or the people who aren’t getting an answer are the problem. And Mormonism teaches that God is a God of truth and cannot lie. Therefore, people like me must be lying. It’s the only logical conclusion- or something like it. Either we’re being dishonest with ourselves, we’re blinded by our pride, we’re too far in sin or too caught up in the world to recognize the Spirit, or something like that. But any way you want to fold it, the result is offensive and insulting. This line of logic means that everyone who doesn’t join (or stay in) the Church is either lying or has allowed themselves to be in the bondage of Satan.

There are two ways out of this for Mormons. One is the fairly common idea that God answers prayers in his own time, and you’ve just got to have faith. That is total crap. Why should I have faith that God is eventually going to give me a satisfactory answer? How long do I wait? Forever? Why? Why would I do that? There’s a point where it just becomes more likely that the reason why God’s not telling you Mormonism is true is because it isn’t. If I don;t know the Church is true, what possible reason would I have to keep asking and persevering for my entire life until I find out that it is? If I want it that bad, I’ll wind up manufacturing it myself.

Plus, by that same logic, I should be just as persevering with any other Church or religion, if my only assurance is the testimony of others. What makes the people testifying the truth of Mormonism any more trustworthy or reliable than the people testifying the truth of Catholicism, Islam, Quakerism, or Atheism?

Furthermore, what good is a promise that will for all intents and purposes never be fulfilled, or fulfilled in a way that is completely unlike what you expect or is completely unlike what the plain meaning of the promise is, the reasonable interpretation of the promise. If God does that, then he’s wiggling out of his promises on technicalities, and that isn’t really being a God of Truth. Promising something that reasonably sounds like x when you really mean y isn’t honest, even if y is technically one possible interpretation of the promise. That’s not honesty and Truth, that’s deception, which is the opposite.

There’s one other way Mormons can escape the insulting reconciliation that forces them to brand everyone else a liar, and that is the ability to live with paradox. This is the best way, the most productive way- reconciling God’s promises with people who don’t get answers to their prayers by not reconciling it at all. By chalking it up to something they just don’t understand. This allows the Mormon to be a believer without assigning dishonest or evil motives to everyone else. It allows the believer to take people like me at face value, to not have to assume that I have a hidden motive or agenda when I say I just don’t believe the Church is true and I just don’t believe that the Holy Ghost has told me it is.

Unfortunately, not everyone can do this. Living with paradox means maintaining a kind of cognitive dissonance, and cognitive dissonance makes people uncomfortable.

So instead of just accepting the paradox, most Mormons reconcile a (God’s promises) and b (people who don’t get answers) by assigning ulterior motives, by questioning peoples’ integrity, and by assuming that there’s some hidden but grievous sin. In short, reconciling Mormon doctrine with reality requires Mormons to pass exactly the kind judgment that Christ commanded us not to pass.

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Since I started looking for a church, the one that has appealed to me the most has been the Episcopal church.  I liked the Lutheran church, too- in practice it was very similar, but I wasn;t excited about it having Luther’s name attached to it, and I felt like a British church was slightly more culturally relevant to me than a German church, although the preference is only mild.

Anyway, when I look for a direction to go, a way to follow Christ, Anglicanism (and since I’m in the US, that means the Episcopal church) continues to beckon as an attractive and meaningful path.  In all honesty, the odds are decent that this is the direction that I will eventually go, once I get all of my issues sorted out.

Of all the mainline Protestant denominations I am familiar with, the Episcopal church appealed to me the most for several reasons.  I like the liturgical aspect, and I like the communion/eucharist-centered service.  However, my concerns with Episcopalianism/Anglicanism that I am going to express in this post also apply to the rest of mainline Protestantism  So keep that in mind.  In general, I am more interested in older Protestant denominations, though, i.e., the ones that came more or less directly out of the Reformation.

Anglicanism’s via media is very appealing to me.  In theory, it has the good parts of Catholicism- the meaningful liturgy and ritual, an ordained clergy that can trace apostolic succession, and a lot of tradition, coupled with basic Protestant theology, a lot of tolerance, and (in theory) a tradition of latitudinarianism that allows for a pretty theologically diverse bunch to all be united in one communion.

I also really, really like Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  If allAnglicans were like him, I would join the Episcopal church without reservation.  He is intelligent, creative, insightful, and he is able to maintain the same kind of balance between theological orthodoxy and progressive social action and an inclusive attitude that Brian McLaren advocates.  Except where McLaren is kind of adorably fumbling about it, the Archbishop does it all with such elegance.  Unfortunately, it seems that instead of a church of Rowan Williamses, the Anglican communion is more a church of John Shelby Spongs and Peter Akinolas, tearing at each others’ throats, and I want nothing to do with either of those types.

First I want to address my Bishop Spong problem, and it’s really not a problem with Spong per se  so much as it is a problem with theological liberalism in general.  But given how outspoken Spong has been, and the kind of “Christianity” he has advocated, he’s kind of my lightning rod for everything I think is wrong with that side of the theological spectrum.  In my opinion, theological liberalism is dross.  Why be a Christian is you don;t really believe in the empty tomb, the incarnation, the resurrection?  Why bother?

As Rowan Williams put it in his eloquent (if slightly academic) response to Spong’s 12 theses, back when Williams was the Bishop of Monmouth,

For the record: I have never quite managed to see how we can make sense of the sacramental life of the Church without a theology of the risen body; and I have never managed to see how to put together such a theology without belief in the empty tomb. If a corpse clearly marked ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ turned up, I should save myself a lot of trouble and become a Quaker.

If Jesus is just a mortal philosopher, I see no reason to bother with Christianity at all.  I realize that accepting Jesus as God means having to deal with some hard issues and maybe living with some serious paradoxes, but I see it as the only way to be a Christian, and I want to be a Christian.

My point is that mainline Christianity in general and the Episcopal Church in specific are so riddled with theological liberalism that I don’t know if they’re really worth bothering with, or if I’ll just be frustrated all the time.

At the same time, I think religious fundamentalism is equally ridiculous.  Both religious fundamentalism and theological liberalism are the bastard children of modernism, and are in my mind the chief case for why modernism was horribly bad for Christianity.

If the Episcopal church could find a way to be progressive without compromising the essential beliefs of Christianity, it would, in my opinion, be the best of all worlds.  Unfortunately, at least the American Episcopal church seems to be doing a whole lot of compromising.

I have other concerns with the Episcopal church, too.  Chief among them is that so far, I haven’t seen much in the way of authentic community.  Juice and cookies in the undercroft do not a community make.  I imagine that part of this is a matter of finding the right parish, and also of persisting- real community is like a living thing, and living things don’t usually spontaneously spring fully grown into existence.

There’s also a teeny tiny bit of stigma attached, since becoming an Episcopalian would mean pretty much embracing the ultimate expression of WASPishness.  But I guess I can deal with that.

Next, I think the worldwide Anglican Communion’s current shenanigans over homosexuality are shameful.  Don’t get me wrong- I think Christianity’s attitude towards homosexual people has been decidedly un-Christian.  However, I think that by stepping out on its own to ordain gay bishops and bless homosexual unions, the American Episcopal church pretty much pissed all over the idea of unity within the Communion.  It was rash and reckless, and probably (if also unfortunately) too soon.

At the same time, the response of the Northern Virginia parishes has been tantamount to “taking our toys and going home” when the game doesn’t go their way, which is equally disrespectful to unity and togetherness.  And Peter Akinola’s response, to actually promote the schism, has been the crowning deed of the whole affair, completely un-called-for and inappropriate, displaying a kind of scorn and derision to the Anglcian Communion as a whole that completely undermines everything that it is supposed to stand for.

Whatever it turns out that God really wants, I’m pretty sure it’s not recriminations and schism.  The actions of both sides of this debate betray a disregard for Christian unity and brotherhood/sisterhood that makes me very sad.  Kudos to the Archbishop for dis-inviting both sides to the Lambeth conference.

Now, as a non-Anglican, it can be argued that the whole thing is none of my business.  But at the same time, I’m considering becoming an Anglican, and so the situation is important to me.  I’m not excited about the prospect of joining up and then being caught in the ultra-liberal faction of a schism that never should have happened in the first place.

But I have to weigh that concern against the incredible good that I see in Anglicanism.  I feel the sense of authoritative-ness that I’m looking for, both in the clergy and in the institution.  I feel that there is so much room for spirituality and even mysticism (especially with Rowan Williams in the Archbishop’s seat), and also Christlike life and social action.  The churches and the liturgy are beautiful, and they bring a sense of holiness and connection to God.

In any case, this is the situation where I am seriously torn.  I want very badly to go down this road, but I am afraid that the obstacles are simply too great.

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There are things that I do affirmatively believe and am sure of, and things that I outright deny. In between the two is a broad spectrum of belief. Somewhere in that spectrum is the fact that I strongly doubt the existence of God, at least in the traditional personal sense), enough to where I’m comfortable saying that I do not believe in him.

Also somewhere in between the two are things that I might believe. Things that I could believe, but that I’m not really willing to commit to.

I started this post a long time ago, and never finished it.  I might believe that there is something out there that I could call God- some sort of sentience or superconsciousness to the universe, sort of Spinoza-esque, or Pantheistic like Brahman.  I could imagine that there’s something like that, and if I believed it I could be a Quaker or something, but I don’t affirmatively believe it because I don’t feel like I have a reason to, other than wishful thinking, and I don’t see what difference it makes.  The universe is awesome and majestic, whether it has a consciousness or not.

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In conjunction with all of the feelings, thoughts, and decisions that have been going through my head, I’ve been wondering if maybe a Quaker meeting is the right place for me after all. I have a hankering to visit one again. I have my apprehensions about Quakerism, too.

At a minimum, a Quaker meeting is a place where you can go and feel the grand divine whatever, without getting a lot of theological nonsense thrown at you. There’s something to that.

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Last night, I prayed,

God reveal yourself to me, and let me know You. 

If that means to know You through Jesus Christ, in the pages of the Bible, in the communty of Christians, or in the ritual and liturgy of the Church, then let me know You that way. 

If that means to know You through the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, the Book of Mormon, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, then let me know You that way.

If that means to know You in silence, in peace, in integrity, and in lisetning to the Light, then let me know You that way.

If that means to know You through the trees, through magick, the awesome power and majesty of nature, and through the beliefs of my most ancient ancestors, then let me know You that way.

If that means to know You through His holy word as revealed through his prophet, be it Moses of Muhammad, then let me know You that way.

If You are the Tao, or Brahman, or  Ahura Mazda, or simply the consciousness of the cosmos, let me know You in whatever way you would have me know You.  If that means to know You through whatever path or faith or religion You might choose for me, then let me know You that way. 

If You exist at all, I pray that I might know You.

But I did not get an answer.

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Well, I might have lots of problems, and maybe one of them is bigger than this one, but for now this feels like my biggest problem.

It is this: I am still holding out for a Testimony of the True Church.

I have already concluded at least for the meantime that I believe the Mormon church is not at all what it claims to be, and thus is not, at least in the way it claims, “The True Church.”  So that’s not what I’m talking about.

This is hard to articulate, and I expect that I will miscommunicate it terribly.

I have this mental block.  I can tell myself all I want that it doesn’t matter what church you go to, as long as it brings you closer to Christ.  I even believe it most of the time, intellectually.  It makes sense to me, in light of the way I understand Christianity and the teachings laid out in the Bible.  I can accept it into my schema.  In fact, it actualy makes a lot more sense to me than any kind of denominational claim to exclusive Truth.

On days when I am feeling less Christian, I can apply the same reasoning to religion in general.  What Jeff Lilly and Malaclypse the Younger say about it seem completely reasonable to me: that all religions are “true,” and that it is simply important that you commit to a belief system in which you grow and draw closer to God (however you choose to personify him/her/it).

The idea that one religion, much less one denomination of one religion, has a singular claim to absolute truth seems immeasurably unlikely, if not naïvely arrogant.  I just don’t buy it.  No religion seems universal enough to be universal, and those few that do are generally not very credible anyway.

So my course should be obvious.  Depending on whether I decide for Christ or not, I should pick a denomination or religion that rings true to me, that meets my needs and seems closest to the truth as I understand it, and go with it.

So why can I not do that?  I have several good candidates in mind (Episcopalianism/Anglicanism, Quakerism, and emerging Evangelicalism are all comfortable and appealing in different ways, and if I wasn’t going to be Christian, I’ve got Asatru, Druidry, and perhaps Buddhism after a longer more serious look); why don’t I just pick one?

I feel like I have a mental block, a stubborn thing laying around in my brain that I can’t get rid of.  It’s like a little goblin in my head that insists on Absolute Truth.  It won’t let me pick a good religion; it will only let me pick The True Religion.  I try to tell this stubborn mental block that there is no True Religion, but this stubborn mental block doesn’t seem to care.

Even worse, this stubborn mental block will only be convinced of Absolute Truth when it is presented with some kind of Incontrovertible Mystical Experience.  And it can’t be logically flawed, either.  I try to tell the mental block that logically airtight Incontrovertible Mystical Experiences are not only really hard to come by, but in the end they aren’t as good a foundation for religious belief as deliberate faith and commitment are anyway.  But the mental block does not seem to care what I say or think.  It stubbornly insists on only accepting a church that is proven Absolutely True by Incontrovertible Mystical Experience, with no logical flaws.  End of discussion.

Do you see my conundrum?  What am I supposed to do?  I have a standard for religion that is completely unrealistic, and one that not only guarantees that virtually all churches will fail, but that probably won’t result in a lasting commitment anyway.

Why is the mental block there?  Why won’t it go away?  It clearly smacks of Mormonism, which is no surprise since I have been a dedicated Mormon for most of my 28 years. But what does it mean?  Am I simply so conditioned by Mormon-logic that I am more or less ruined spiritually, since Mormon-logic ensures that no other church could ever possibly pass its rigged and biased “test” for authenticity?  Or does it mean that something in my soul, deep down, knows that Mormonism is true, and will thus never really be satisfied until I come back?  But the problem with that is, now Mormonism even fails the mental block’s test, since my mystical proof is not at all incontrovertible, and I feel like Mormonism is completely  full of holes, a veritable theological/philosophical swiss cheese.

When I was still an active member but my brother Racticas was in the process of leaving the Church, I supported him on the grounds that since Mormonism is absolutely and exclusively true, he would not find spiritual fulfillment anywhere else and so he would eventually come back.  Is that what this is?  Am I proving my own hypothesis?   Or is spiritual fulfillment waiting for me somewhere (or even everywhere), as soon as I’m willing to take a leap of faith and plunge in instead of perpetually wetting my toes in the shallows of religious commitment?

Or is it merely a case of “once burned, twice shy?”  After years of Mormonism followed by the life-changing crash of walking away from it, maybe I’m just too timid to easily pick a new religion and start again.  Is my mental block really a Mormon-flavored manifestation of a very reasonable fear of religious commitment?

In any case, what do I do?  I know I have no reason to rush things, but the more I think about religion, the more frustrated I get, and I’m afraid that if I don’t pick something and stick with it, I’m eventually going to throw my hands up in frustration and walk away a “committed” agnostic.  And I don’t want that.

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Riprock has said several times around here that the ultimate goal of religion should be the quest for the mystical experience. I’m not sure I agree. On the other hand, I’m not sure I disagree either.

But I do have some thoughts on the matter, and this being my blog and all, I feel like it’s entirely appropriate to voice them.

It has been said that the real goal of religion is the mystical experience, and I think there’s something to that. The direct experiecne of the Divine seems like it would be the ultimate, well, experience. What could be more meaningful and fulfilling than directly encountering God, after all? In the end, isn’t that what everyone’s spiritual yearnings are all about? The desire to know God, to touch God, to be one with God?

But that’s where the problem begins. Once you’ve felt the presence of God, then what? Does it really change your life? It seems to me that powerful spiritual and/or mystical experience has an effect that is fleeting at best. It may fulfill you for the moment, and it may fillyou with a sense of direction for the moment, but the high goes away after awhile, and it can be hard to get back. With drugs, at least you can go buy more. Mystical experiences, on the other hand, don’t seem to be as readily forthcoming. They certainly don’t manifest on demand.

Is the mystical experience an end unto itself? That seems unlikely. Mystical experiences by themselves don’t seem to really lead you anywhere. On their own, they’re not transformational, at least not in a way that is permanent or even lasting. Maybe the trick is to have more and more powerful mystical experiences, to work on connecting with the Sacred until it comes naturally and more or less all the time, until you are in a constant state of union with the Divine, a living apotheosis, like being a Bodhisattva or something.

But I’m skeptical. I see a lot of value in what C. S. Lewis said on the subject- the quote I used in my post about Quakerism. In fact, you should go and read that post, since Quakerism really is a religion built more or less solely around seeking direct mystical experiences. While I think Quakerism deserves some serious investigation, I’m not sure it’s really the answer. it seems to me that for mystical experiences to really have a lsting effect, they need a concrete faith-framework. A religious framework gives the mystic not only a guide to interpret his experiences, but it also gives a better understanding of what the next step is supposed to be. Mystical experiences are a big deal, but it’s faith and religion that answer the question of “I’ve had a mystical experience; so what?”

The other problem with mystical experiences is their inherent untrustworthiness. How do you differentiate the real experience of the Divine from wishful thinking, or from a natural and ultimately mundane emotional experience? As someone who grew up in a religious system where personal revelation is extremely important (Mormonism), I can speak from experience and say that it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and think you’re touching the face of God, but later on you might not be so sure. Mystical experiences are hardly ever as clear as full-blown Biblical-style visions, and even when they are, how do you know that it wasn’t just something you ate?

I think mystical experiences are important, don’t get me wrong. But I just am not sure that they are the be-all end-all of religion. They’re part of it, sure. But they’re not it.

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For awhile last fall my wife and baby and I were attending a Quaker meeting for worship over in Bethesda. It was a “liberal” unprogrammed-style meeting, which means you sat in silence and listened to the Inner Light. The idea is that you sit and listen, and nobody says anything unless they are moved by the Spirit (which they usually call the Light, I guess).

It was actually really cool, and we had some intensely spiritual experiences that I’d like to talk about. But I also had some serious reservations, which I would likewise like to talk about.

The first time we went, our baby was making a little bit of noise. I had this overwhelming feeling that as a baby, he was so much closer to the ultimate source than we are as adults. He is totally unburdened by culture, society, philosophy, or even language–just completely pure, and as such what he had to say was probably so much more meaningful than anything the rest of us would say, filtered as it would be through established cognitive frameworks, etc. It struck me very powerfully. I also kept thinking of the music to “Candle of Life,” a fantastic song by the Moody Blues that captures perfectly the kind of cosmic awe that I was feeling at the meeting.

I also was attracted to the Quaker testimonies: their commitment to peace, to equality, and to integrity seemed to be the very heart of what Jesus Christ was trying to teach us. And I got the impression that Quakers were actually genuine about it, and not hypocritical.

Quakerism also handily deals with the question of how there can be so many different religions the world over. Their answer is that in every person there is some of that which is God, and anyone can listen to what it has to say and be inspired by it. In other words, nobody has a monopoly on the Light. That was nice as far as I was concerned. It meant that, as someone considering leaving the Mormon church, I didn’t even have to give up the Book of Mormon! Even if it wasn’t a factual record of the ancient Americas, it still can be inspired by God.

In many ways, Quakerism seemed like a true universal religion: all-encompassing enough to really take in everybody, but grounded in their testimonies in a way that, say, the Unitarian Universalists are not (I consider the UU’s fairly bland and wishy-washy). Quakerism seemed like the kind of religion that could not only be universal to all people, but in all times as well–it’s the kind of religion we could take to the stars and have it be still relevant, or even more so.

At the core Quakerism is about the mystical experience, and as a Mormon that was not unfamiliar territory. But it is also incredibly egalitarian, and a religion where the individual is really responsible for his own relationship with God, not needing a human intercessor of any kind.

But I did have concerns. We actualy stopped going to meetings because we were offended by the way one lady told us to put our baby in the nursery and not bring him to the meeting. My only real experience with church had been with Mormonism, where noisy babies in the service are just a part of things. Looking back now, I realize that most churches have child care during the worship service, and while it’s nice to be able to worship as a whole family, it’s also really nice to not be distracted by a fussy baby, as much as you may love him. A downside to the Mormon approach is that parents constantly have to take their crying children out of the chapel, which means that parents with babies often miss more Sacrament Meetings than they get to sit through, for years at a stretch.

The Quakers were nice about it–after the incident, they sent us cards apologizing, and they even called us to talk about it. We took the opportunity to look elsewhere though.

My biggest concern with Quakerism was the noticable lack of emphasis on Jesus Christ and on the Bible. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that’s important because like then, I am still trying to figure out how I feel about Jesus. Maybe the Quakers have it right! Maybe they’re dead wrong. In either case, the noticable lack of Bibles and Jesus was a little discomfiting. At a bare minimum, I saw nothing transformational about Quakerism, at least not in a divine sense. Jesus might have even been acknowledged, but I didn’t see where his Atonement fit in, and I certainly didn’t see any real sense in which His Atonement works directly in the life of a Quaker. Again, given how wishy-washy I am about Jesus, you would think this shouldn’t necessarily matter to me. And maybe it doesn’t.

Another concern I had arose over time, and that is a concern with the nature of mystical experience itself. C. S. Lewis said, in Mere Christianity,

In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F. an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, “I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt him: out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal!”

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is only admittedly coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single isolated glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion–all about feeling God in nature, and so on–is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

And I wonder if that isn’t particularly applicable to Quakerism. Yes, there’s plenty of the mystical experience there to satisfy the most God-hungry soul out there. But it is practical? Does it lead you anywhere? C. S. Lewis makes the argument in favor of the traditional Christian creeds. Do the Quakers’ testimonies accomplish the same thing (i.e. are they a map that gets you somewhere)? Maybe so, but it seems problematic to me.

In any case, I wouldn’t be against going back to a Quaker meeting. I haven’t completely written Quakerism off yet.

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