Draft Statement: Theological Diversity within Twin Cities Friends Meeting

Friends have traditionally rejected the use of creeds, largely from a conviction that no statement of belief can accurately describe or reflect divine reality. There is another compelling reason for us to reject creeds. Over time the spiritual and theological diversity among Friends has become far broader and deeper than early Friends could possibly have imagined. Twin Cities Friends Meeting has fully and joyfully embraced Friends from a great constellation of religious beliefs and traditions. Our community includes Christians, Jews, Buddhists, pagans, atheists, agnostics, and others, along with an even greater diversity of Friends who neither claim nor desire a label to describe their distinctive individual views of whatever is within and beyond us.Such is the diverse reality of our community. The purpose of this document is to express our gratitude for that diversity, and to explicitly affirm that differences along the full range of theological belief, including unbelief, are no barrier to membership, nor to full participation in our beloved religious community.

This is not to say that beliefs, theological or otherwise, are irrelevant to our community, or to the process of becoming a member. On the contrary, one of the great blessings of serving on a clearness committee for membership is the opportunity to better understand the deepest beliefs and spiritual passions of a potential member. What’s more, a discussion of such beliefs might in some cases reveal that an applicant does not feel sufficiently drawn to the ways of Friends, to become a member. The barrier in such cases is not belief per se, but affinity with our way of being together in religious community, while seeking along our own spiritual paths.

Sometimes in our discussions of spiritual and theological diversity, we are perhaps too quick to search for commonalities, for that which transcends the differences between us. This is a worthy effort, but it should not get in the way of our understanding what those differences are. To love genuinely is not to care for a person despite their individual peculiarities, nor to overlook those peculiarities, but to care for the person wholly, in full light of those blessed peculiarities. The beauty and richness of human community derives from difference as much as it does from similarity. What could we possibly learn from each other in a world where everyone had the same religious beliefs, political persuasions, family background, or ethnicity?

Similarly, it is not enough to be tolerant of our differences; we need to bring those differences to the surface, rising above our fear of offending or being offended. Speaking in meeting for worship requires discernment, to be sure, but this does not mean that we should withhold a message for fear that others might be made uncomfortable by our theology. We do not rightly discern a leading to speak by reflecting on how Friends might receive that message, but reflecting on the quality and power of the impulse to speak, and remaining faithful to spirit as we experience it. There are messages and ways of speaking that may be inappropriate in meeting for worship, but again, we do not make this distinction according to our agreement or disagreement with the message. It is one thing to deliver a message that expresses the light of our faith that we might kindle such a flame in others; it is quite another thing to proclaim ours as the only true light, or to berate others for being faithful to their own light. This means there is a place in our midst for evangelism in the best sense of that word– an evangelism that might be rooted in Jesus, Buddha, God or Goddess, nature, the hunger for scientific knowledge, or simple human love and compassion.

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The Friends listed below crafted and found unity in this statement as a group. This adult education forum is a step in our efforts to bring the statement, and the concerns it addresses, fully into the life of the meeting.

Elizabeth Barnard
Carol Bartoo
Rhoda Gilman
Ralph Hilgendorf
Don Irish
Kate Martinson
* Pat McGuire
** James Riemermann
Bob Schmitt

* Pat was unable to attend meetings, but has been following the group’s progress and supports the process.

**The process that produced the document had its genesis in a clearness/support committee James requested for discernment regarding an individual leading.


Response to this document from February 2006
Meeting for Worship with attention to Business:

MWB appreciates and expresses its gratitude for the one Friend initiating the desire to clearly articulate our welcome of our spiritual diversity and the support group who have nurtured the conversation. We are grateful for the gifts of dialogue that come from this effort. It touches us and encourages us to move deeper. We are, however, not prepared to endorse it in its current form. Specifically, Friends express a hunger for a contextual statement that expresses also that which unifies us.

MWB encourages continued dialogue among the community in a number of forums. We invite those who are so led to write responses to supplement and respond to the concerns put forward in this statement. The newsletter editors agreed to consider printing statements that are sent to them. Likewise, our website provides an excellent forum in which different statements could be linked together. Those interested in working with a more formal group discussion/writing forum to respond should contact Liz Oppenheimer.

MWB thanks Ministry and Counsel (M & C) for the work they have done in creating a statement about who we are as a community and what fundamentally unites us. Many in the community have a longing for such a statement and requests M & C to bring such a draft to MWB within the next six months.

(As of January 2009, Ministry and Counsel continues to wrestle with these issues. No statement has yet been approved by the meeting.)

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12 Responses to Draft Statement: Theological Diversity within Twin Cities Friends Meeting

  1. Pam November 11, 2005 at 1:40 pm #

    I love this statement, and I think I can say that I find myself in unity with it as well.

    I find myself troubled by the struggles we are currently undergoing around theological diversity.

    I know that numerous attenders who consider themselves Christian have felt criticized or berated for their belief systems. And I don’t want that to happen.

    I also know that some people find a deeper form of worship in a smaller, more theologically unified group.

    I am not sure what to think of that. It makes sense in a way, and it feels like turning away from “that of God” in people who don’t agree with you about God, which saddens me.

    On the other hand, I would love to worship more often in smaller groups, and/or with people who share my experience of God in nature. I haven’t found such a cohesive group as yet, so I don’t get to do it. Far be it for me to begrudge it to someone else.

    Back to the statement. I find it accurate in terms of our meeting. A few years ago I would have hoped that it was true across the board of Quakers (that we know there is “that of God in everyone” even if it is expressed in a very different way from our bit of God) but I am realizing that is not true.

  2. Phil Grove November 18, 2005 at 1:41 pm #

    I came to the same realization as Pam recently after leaving a comment on a Quaker blog recently that expressed a Universalist sentiment, and getting a response that criticized my lack of understanding of the writer’s need to have unity in the project of corporate discernment of God’s will through Scripture, or something like that. I was supposed to know what scripture the writer was talking about, I guess. In the same comment, the writer expressed frustration that her sentiments have not always been received with enthusiasam at TCFM.

    I have no problem if TCFM members, in addition to participating in our corporate worship, seek other spiritual experiences in smaller groups with which they feel that have greater unity in thought or belief. But when they come to TCFM, they need to be tolerant of the belief or non-belief of others, because that is part of the essence of what we are about. We can tolerate a certain amount of intolerance among our members as long as all recognize that worship at TCFM is intended to be an exercise in tolerance.

    If there is a group at TCFM that has undertaken the project of establishing unity within the meeting around any kind of theist or Christian creed, their project should be vigorously opposed. There are plenty of other communities that would welcome their chauvinism.

    However, I have also heard complaints from Christians within our meeting who feel that that Christian expression is not valued. That is most regrettable. Those of us who are not Christian need to listen to those complaints and examine our own behavior for intolerance. We should search for ways to make everyone comfortable with their own spiritual language, expression, and beliefs. However, I must admit I am somewhat skeptical about those complaints from Christians, because my perception is that the individuals who wish that the entire meeting could achieve unity around the specific beliefs they happen to hold are Christian. It may be that sometimes the resistance they sense is resistance not to Christian expression per se, but to Christian intolerance. In my view, it is right to oppose and criticize any appearance of Christian intolerance in our meeting. Or anyone else’s intolerance.

    I have never had the feeling that anyone’s Christian, theist, or other belief system, however expressed, detracted from my experience of worship and community at TCFM. I have often benefited from authentic spiritual expression of Christian or other belief. I have little trouble seeing and benefiting from the spiritual depth of Christian or other theist expression. But unfortunately, there appear to be some within our meeting who feel that my participation in worship detracts from their experience, simply because I am nontheist. In all candor, I find that threatening. I am fearful that they will try to eliminate me from the community or marginalize me in some fashion.

    I feel in unity with the group’s statement on theological diversity, but I fear that some within our meeting do not. Perhaps we will hear from some of them.

    Phil Grove

  3. James Riemermann November 21, 2005 at 1:41 pm #

    Thanks, Phil & Pam. I, too, would love to hear more from those who have concerns with this statement. I would also hope such Friends would try to engage with what the statement actually says, setting aside for the moment fears and anxieties about what they think the statement represents. When we feel something important to us is at risk, it is easy to respond to our own fears and anxieties rather than respond to what is actually being expressed. I have seen that in Friends who support this statement, and Friends who might be troubled by this statement. I have made this error myself, many times.

    I really don’t think there is any group in TCFM with “the project of establishing unity within the meeting around any kind of theist or Christian creed,” though there are some individual Friends for whom our lack of (theological) unity is considered a failing. This saddens me, but it is does not equate to an effort to change TCFM into a less diverse place. Also, I can attest that some of those who seek a specifically Christian or theist unity in smaller groups, nonetheless greatly value the tolerance and diversity that TCFM represents. Which strongly suggests that, where you have two people, you have theological diversity, whether it is outwardly acknowledged or not.

    Rather than vigorous opposition, my hope is that we can continue to hold up the model of theological diversity by our example–by being present, by not hiding what makes us diverse, by engaging gently and honestly with those who see things differently, even those who are having a hard time with our difference.

  4. seebs December 3, 2005 at 1:42 pm #

    Hi! (If you don’t know me, you don’t attend enough Wednesday night meetings.) This thread caught my eye because it’s an issue I’ve given some thought to in other contexts. I spend a lot of time advocating tolerance between different belief systems. I have been asked by indignant atheists whether it’s reasonable of me to ask tolerance of them, because after all, my church would never tolerate atheists. I have made great strides towards responding to such allegations charitably rather than just bursting out laughing.

    As a member who is a fairly orthodox Christian, I have to say, I can’t see any basis for excluding people who don’t share my position. I would hate to feel unwelcome due to my beliefs, but thus far I haven’t, so I guess that’s not a problem for me.

  5. seebs December 7, 2005 at 1:42 pm #

    It seems to me that, if atheists cannot be moral and good, then Christianity’s claim that there is an objective system of morality is wrong.

  6. Joe Landsberger January 3, 2006 at 1:42 pm #

    here’s a quote from my website http://www.studygs.net

    “Religious values motivate love, compassion, humility, justice and liberty for all people;
    religious beliefs and practices motivate hatred, cruelty, division, arrogance, injustice and oppression of others.”

    Reverend Kenneth Carder, United Methodist Bishop, State of Mississippi
    Currently director of Duke University Divinity School’s Center of Excellence in Ministry

  7. James Riemermann December 6, 2005 at 4:48 pm #

    Hi, Seebs! I’ve only been to Wednesday night meeting a couple times in my 15 years at TCFM. It’s good to hear from you.

    As a Quaker who doesn’t believe in God, I can appreciate your frustration with indignant atheists. It does seem like the ones most likely to publicly describe themselves as such, are the ones most likely to toss indiscriminate brickbats at even the most tolerant believers.

    At the same time, there are a much larger number of unbelievers who are reluctantant to say so out loud because of the fairly commonly expressed view that we are morally bankrupt by definition.

    So, it’s certainly unfair for these public atheists to be intolerant toward you, but in many cases this might reflect an understandable defensiveness resulting from a very real and common prejudice.

    Anyway, thanks for not bursting out laughing.

  8. Liz Opp(enheimer) January 24, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    Is there any way that a note can be added to the top of this document, requesting that readers NOT distribute it or refer to it, since this is a draft and is now, four years later, being reworked significantly by the monthly meeting?

    It seems so out of any sort of gospel order that, even with the word “Draft” in its title, the document is occasionally being picked up by folks like Quaker bloggers and the Quaker Universalist Fellowship without regard for the meeting’s own process.

    Since no statement has been adopted by the corporate body that is the meeting, it seems inappropriate to have even this drafted one so accessible.

    Blessings,

    Liz Opp(enheimer)
    The Good Raised Up

  9. James Riemermann January 26, 2009 at 9:16 am #

    Liz,

    First of all, the meeting specifically directed this statement to be posted on the web site and opened to comments–both before and after it was considered and finally not adopted by meeting for business–so I don’t see how it is out of order to have it here. If it were presented as a statement by the meeting, I would see your point. But it’s not presented that way at all.

    Secondly, the statement remains a legitimate expression of the undersigned Friends within our meeting. The fact that our meeting did not adopt it does not make it illegitimate or secret. The process we went through is part of our meeting’s public history, well-documented in our newsletters. It cannot and to my mind should not be expunged, nor prevented from further distribution.

    I can see the sense in adding a footnote spelling out that it was not adopted by our meeting, perhaps quoting from the minutes where that was expressed. I will work on that.

  10. John Cowan January 27, 2009 at 1:59 pm #

    It seems to me the first sentence hit the nail on the head. Since we think “divine reality” is not describable we do not have a creed. Granted there is a hilarious extension of this when some say “divine reality” is not “divine.” However, once we have stated the theory that it is indescribable, then the corolarry that it may not be divine is reasonable, because “divine” is a description and it becomes evident that it is permissible for a Quaker to challenge a description.

    However, to imply that because we allow people to be Quakers regardless of their theology makes it correct to allow them membership, is the same fallacy as “War in Iraq is justified because we must support our troops who are fighting in Iraq.”

    On the other hand, to say, for instance during a clearness committee, “Consider not being a Quaker because you are so certain of your truth you can no longer join us in the search for the truth.” might perhaps be a quite Quakerly statement? We are “seekers” are we not? And if we are not seeking can we be Quakers?

    Would it be fair to say that our certainty is in the worth of the process, and not in this or that specific result of the process in this moment?

    Liz, I am sympathetic to your desire that the meeting not be misunderstood but what can you do except what you have done? By the time the Gospels were written many of Jesus’ parables were bent to mean exactly the opposite of what he intended. As a loyal follower of Jesus I find that very irritating, but I am still happy the parables were published.

    John

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