NOTE TO SELF, BASED ON QUAKER TESTIMONIES OF INTEGRITY, SIMPLICITY, PEACE, EQUALITY, AND COMMUNITY:

1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.
2. Do what you say, say what you think, think what is true.
3. Subtract superfluities from your life, speech, desires and thoughts.
4. Don't initiate aggression against the persons or property of others, nor support people who do, including the people who "constitute" the government.
5. Respect life and natural law.
6. All people are endowed by their Creator with equal and inalienable rights to the earth and to the fruits of their own labor, and a "Citizen's Dividend" funded by a "Single Tax" on the unimproved value of land and other natural resources would be the fairest way to protect these rights.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A further reflection on convergence and a proposal for a double-standard

My previous post on convergent Friends implies something of a "double standard;" i.e., it's okay for a Friends meeting or organization to say that, e.g., pre-marital sex or having an abortion are wrong, while another Friends meeting or organization that believes that either of these things are not wrong, or are not wrong given certain circumstances, should refrain from declaring that belief, or at least think thrice before doing so.

It seems to me that there may actually be something to be said for such an apparent double standard, and not only because it would if followed obviously have a salutary tendency towards convergence and unity among Friends. (We're not seeking an artificial "unity for the sake of unity" that vainly asks Friends to dampen or deny the Light within.) It seems to me that the justification for this way of looking at things is not solely or primarily grounded in what the Scriptures may or may not expressly forbid, but in the First and Greatest Commandment, which may be known by an open mind and an open heart prior to familiarity with Scripture, to "Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all of your mind, and with all of your soul." Our Quaker Testimony of Simplicity, and against all superfluities, follows naturally from this Greatest of Commandments. Conservative Friend Lloyd Lee Wilson likewise describes what he calls "the first great theme" of Quaker spirituality, the "path of spiritual subtraction," as follows: "The spirituality of subtraction makes room in our lives for the type of direct interaction with the Divine that George Fox reported and that we wait for, expectantly, in meeting for worship. As it is hard to hear one another in a noisy room, it is hard to hear God in a noisy life. As our heart-longing for God grows, it is only natural that we should be continually simplifying our life, subtracting whatever is not God or not of God so that our awareness is single-pointed and competition for our attention is minimized. A noisy life not only competes with the Divine message, it distorts what it can not drown out completely."

Why in the world might a liberal Friend go along with such a double standard? First, and most obviously, the declarations concerning sexual morality of Conservative and Evangelical Friends meetings are not binding on him or her, and it's not imagined that they would be in a more convergent Quakerism.

Second, a greater appreciation of the Greatest Commandment, the Testimony of Simplicity and against superfluities, and the spirituality of subtraction (all of which I think liberal Quakers already naturally appreciate) may lead the liberal Friend to become less scandalized by "prudish" conservative Quaker declarations concerning sexual morality. Isn't there a sense in which all sex is superfluous (particularly when closed to procreation), and don't we recognize its power to focus the mind away from God, not to mention its potential (often actualized) to hurt both ourselves and other people? Now, of course, there's another very important and beautiful side to sex, but the aspect I've just mentioned is nevertheless valid and real.

Third, the liberal Friend may come to see that, with regard to acts that are morally ambiguous or controversial, the chances and the consequences of error are less serious, spiritually and socially, when a community of Friends declares that such an act "appears distinguishable from perfect purity," than they are when another community of Friends declares or implies that the act is not wrong.

Note the reference in quotes above to the diplomatically-worded formula often used by John Woolman. While I think Friends and Friends meetings should be ready and willing, in love and brotherhood, to warn our members and the wider society against particular perceived spiritual perils more often than we now do, it seems we should in doing so express ourselves in words such as these, with modest recognition of our own fallibility and without the "judgment" Jesus enjoined us from. (With regard to things that are obviously and horribly wrong, like war, we should and do speak more forcefully. Some Friends also, according to the Light given them, may be be led to speak as forcefully against other things.)

By contrast, and keeping in mind the Testimony of Integrity, how sure can we be that we're right when we say or imply that some act is not wrong? It's hard to go seriously wrong when we simply say that something "appears distinguishable from perfect purity," which could reasonably (though perhaps over-scrupulously) be said of things like wasting time watching a TV show or other frivolous pastimes, as well as of more serious things, i.e., it could be said of anything which is not of God or leads to God. But how do we know that God agrees with us when we affirmatively declare or imply, e.g., that it's morally acceptable for an unmarried person to engage in sex or for a woman to have an abortion? Do we want to be responsible for any consequences to that person's soul and the social effects in the wider society if we're wrong? Much better to exhort our brothers and sisters towards perfect purity, to humbly and non-judgmentally tell them our thoughts if we think they're going seriously astray, and to leave to the Light within them the rest.