Is there a Quaker Creed?

Posted by Paul Landskroener

We know there isn’t a Quaker Creed, but I just came across this quote that was offered as a succinct definition of the Quaker Faith by a former executive secretary of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I found it strikingly clear and accurate and is the kind of thing that could easily be placed on the “What we believe” section of any meeting’s web site or brochure. What do you think?

God gives to every human being who comes into the world—regardless of race, religion, gender, or station–a measure of the divine spirit as a living witness and an eternal Light to be inwardly guided by on a daily basis. That Inner Light is supernatural, personal, universal, saving, eternal, persistent, and pure. The chief end of religious life is to learn to listen to and act upon the promptings of this Light under the authority of God and within the bonds of human community. Those who learn to heed the promptings of this Light come to be “saved”–that is, they come into fullness and wholeness of life and right relationship with God, themselves, the universe and one another. Those who resist, ignore, or otherwise deny the workings of this pure spirit within them, though they profess themselves to be religious, are “condemned”–that is, they become alienated from God, from themselves, from the universe, and from one another.

Samuel D Caldwell
From “The time has come to choose”
A Pendle Hill Mondy Night Lecture
Nov. 8. 1998

Paul Landskroener

9 Responses to Is there a Quaker Creed?

  1. James Riemermann December 18, 2004 at 5:15 pm #

    I greatly value the sort of listening that is held up in this passage, but it only belongs in a “What we believe” document if that “we” does not include me. And the “we” of Quakerdom, it seems, does include me. I think I do experience the light the Friend speaks of here, but I most definitely do not agree with the executive secretary as to the origins of that light, nor its relationship to the universe, nor its relationship to anything outside the consciousness of mortal and imperfect creatures such as ourselves. Nor do I believe that it is supernatural, or eternal. I believe that one day consciousness itself will disappear from the universe, along with any trace of this light. Nor do I have any sense of the God referred to here.

    The important question is not whether I am right or wrong on any of these questions, nor whether the executive secretary is right or wrong. In any case we cannot answer those questions with any certainty. Rather, the question is this: if that light exists, and human beings can come into fullness and wholeness of life by seeking, honoring and nurturing that light, does it matter whether it comes from God, or from the subtle and complex patterns of energy that dance in our brains and in our relationships with each other and the world, or from radiations from the rings of Saturn? I think it absolutely does not matter.

    What matters is our community of love, which is the central means for nurturing that light. A community of love is not at its best when it erects barriers of theology or belief of any sort. Such a “what we believe” statement is a creed, and a creed has no purpose other than to exclude.

  2. Michael Bischoff December 19, 2004 at 5:17 pm #

    Hi James, Paul, and all,

    I was drawn to the forum by your email prompting, James. Thanks for reminding us of this.

    I see implicit in your posting, James, another proposal for a set of shared beliefs that binds us together as a community–the belief that there is an inner light (whatever its source) that guides us, and that light is best nurtured through a loving community. In my experience, long term community without some shared beliefs and commitments can be hollow. I think that as Friends we are called to define those shared beliefs differently than many other religious paths, but I think we still need to define and boldy articulate them. I think one of our shared beliefs is that the light that guides us can’t be pinned down by one name or in one conceptual understanding. I think another shared belief is that any claims we make about spiritual truth are most grounded when they grow out of our spiritual experience–and that this experience can be both individual and corporate. So, I think part of our task as a spiritual community is to be struggling to give voice to our individual and corporate spiritual experiences.

  3. James Riemermann December 19, 2004 at 5:19 pm #

    Michael,

    I agree with just about everything you say, but I would probably not describe these sorts of commonalities as beliefs–at least not in the sense religion has used the word belief. To seek to live in the light is essentially a value, a principle of living, rather than a belief. We need no theology, nor even a particular conception of “the light” as a distinct quality, in order to seek to live by it.

    Perhaps it would help me to clarify my point, if I described my own quirky, incomplete, and mostly psychological sense of where “the light” comes from

    Human beings, like many creatures, need one another. We are born with a deep need to be held, to be cared for, to be paid attention to. If we are fortunate, our parents fulfill these needs as best they can. In the beginning we are pure need, pure hunger, with no sense or expectation that we have to return anything to those who care for us. At some point we express our delight at being cared for, we smile, and those who care for us return the expression. What a breathtaking experience for a parent, to see our child’s delight expressed for the first time, in seeing our faces! So we respond, we redouble our efforts in hopes of seeing that smile again, and again. Over time, the child notices: there is a connection between expressing love, and receiving love. A powerful bond is forged between the purely natural human need to be loved, and the initially unformed potential to give love.

    This potential emerges naturally out of the experience of being human, but it is not invulnerable. If we are neglected, beaten, humiliated, or otherwise cared for poorly, the potential is likely to be supressed. Also, while the potential is universal, it is by no means equally distributed among humans at birth. A relative handful of us are born with an especially powerful potential for loving that can survive almost any abuse; a small number are born with sociopathic tendencies in which the potential for loving is deeply buried. (Research shows that some sociopaths are made, and others are born, though it is no easy matter to tell the difference.) In terms of potential, where we fall along the continuum is a matter of pure genetic and environmental luck. The vast majority of us, I think, fall in the middle and can easily go either way, depending on how we are cared for in our formative years.

    This is all just theory of course, and I cannot say beyond any doubt that there is no supernatural source. In fact, even if the theory holds, there still could be a supernatural/divine source. Though I personally see no need for such a source. In either case, this model of “the light” calls attention to a number of imperatives:

    1. We have no business judging anyone for their moral failings. There, but for the grace of…whatever…go I.
    2. When we love more and better, we help to create a world in which others love more and better.
    3. What we believe or profess to believe is of minor importance to increasing the light in the world. What matters is how we care for each other.

  4. Paul Landskroener December 19, 2004 at 5:20 pm #

    Re the attributes of the Light are (universal, supernatural, personal, etc.), you may want to read the entire lecture at

    http://www.pendlehill.org/Lectures%20and%20Writings/caldwell.html

    Perhaps they aren’t as alien to you as they may appear unexplained and undefined.

    The point of the lecture is to draw a distinction between Quaker culture and faith and to argue that it is the faith that inspires and sustains the kind of community that we long for, not the culture.

    Also, don’t confuse faith with belief. They are as different concepts as being morality and moralism, or righteousness and self-righteousness (or, to refer to an earlier conversation, hope and optimism).

    To answer this question:

    If that light exists, and human beings can come into fullness and wholeness of life by seeking, honoring and nurturing that light, does it matter whether it comes from God, or from the subtle and complex patterns of energy that dance in our brains and in our relationships with each other and the world, or from radiations from the rings of Saturn?

    The answer is yes, it matters if you’re trying to describe the particular attributes of how Quakers have historically understood the Light, but no, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to make the point that the light can be seen & understood from other perspectives.

    I mean, apples have a distinct flavor and unique qualities that are not possessed by, say, onions or fried chicken. If your perspective is to understand and describe the biological nature of nourishment in general, those unique qualities become less important; vitamins are vitamins. But if you’re trying to describe an apple and explain why it’s more pleasurable to bite into one than on onion, you have to be able to tell the difference.

  5. James Riemermann December 27, 2004 at 5:23 pm #

    The point of the lecture is to draw a distinction between Quaker culture and faith and to argue that it is the faith that inspires and sustains the kind of community that we long for, not the culture.

    I read the lecture, and had mixed feelings toward it. Reading his list of spiritually shallow, politically correct Quaker pecadilloes, I grimaced in recognition again and again. These are genuine problems he points out. I can’t agree with Caldwell that the problem is that we value “Quaker Culture” over “Quaker Faith.” I don’t think there’s any simple single explanation for these problems, but overall they reflect a tendency to moral absolutism over moral balance, pre-packaged liberalism over critical thinking, dutifulness over human joy and spontaneity, and a general unwillingness to acknowledge and work through serious disagreement over substantial matters. And, like most cultural flaws, they are the flip-side of our greatest cultural strengths. I very seriously doubt that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was or is anywhere near as depraved and shallow as he portrays it. As I said, I see all these issues in our own TCFM culture, but overall I find our culture far more genuinely loving, caring and spiritually grounded than…well, than any other group of people I have ever been involved with.

    Also, don’t confuse faith with belief. They are as different concepts as being morality and moralism, or righteousness and self-righteousness (or, to refer to an earlier conversation, hope and optimism).

    Caldwell himself essentially equates faith with belief: “When I speak of “Quaker Faith,” I am referring to that particular set of foundational theological beliefs, principles, and experiences which, taken together, form the basis for our spiritual life and practices as Quakers today.”

    I have often heard some religious folks trying to make a distinction between between religious faith and religious belief, but have never found the distinctions convincing. I personally make a distinction between a sort of faith that equates with belief, and “faithfulness” in the sense of right action, of doing what must be done with no concern for outcome. It requires no belief; in fact, I think belief is the Achilles’ heel of the religious approach to ethical living, rather than its heart. If God exists, what he thinks is a mere distraction to any sort of faith I can get behind. If God demands that we abandon our fellow creatures, then faithfulness demands disobedience to God.

    If that light exists, and human beings can come into fullness and wholeness of life by seeking, honoring and nurturing that light, does it matter whether it comes from God, or from the subtle and complex patterns of energy that dance in our brains and in our relationships with each other and the world, or from radiations from the rings of Saturn?

    The answer is yes, it matters if you’re trying to describe the particular attributes of how Quakers have historically understood the Light, but no, it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to make the point that the light can be seen & understood from other perspectives.

    I mean, apples have a distinct flavor and unique qualities that are not possessed by, say, onions or fried chicken. If your perspective is to understand and describe the biological nature of nourishment in general, those unique qualities become less important; vitamins are vitamins. But if you’re trying to describe an apple and explain why it’s more pleasurable to bite into one than on onion, you have to be able to tell the difference.

    In my personal experience–I can’t claim this for anyone but myself–what gives Quakerism its distinctive flavor is not belief, but a distinct way of being and living together (also known as *culture*), in worship and in the rest of our lives. I have a hard time describing this way, though silent waiting and listening is a central element. But I don’t need to describe it to you. You live it; I can see it in your life.

    If Quakerism depends on believing that the light comes from God–meaning, the lord and creator of the Universe–than I cannot be a Quaker. But I am a Quaker–I know this in my bones–so apparently Quakerism does not depend on this belief. (We could work over the definition of God until we determine that anyone with a loving heart believes in God, but that really wouldn’t be honest.)

    Of course, belief is a crucial aspect of historical Quakerism, and probably for a very large majority of Quakers today. It is impossible to describe Quakerism without reference to it. It is quite another thing–a falsehood, I would say–to name belief as essential. Approaching Quakerism from Friends’ historical understanding is helpful as a starting point, but it is by no means our guiding star. Binding oneself primarily to that historical understanding is a cowardice far more harmful than the sort of cowardice Caldwell describes in his lecture. We need to push our boats off into the open sea, where nothing is certain but our eventual sinking. (And here, my own beliefs creep in…)

  6. Phil Grove January 30, 2005 at 5:29 pm #

    I think of a creed as a statement of beliefs about ultimate truth. There is a reason why Quaker’s eschew creed-making, or should — creeds mislead. They are not the Truth because the Truth is indescribable. The Truth is indescribable, not just because of the nature of Truth, but because of the nature of descriptions. Descriptions use words or other symbols to represent concepts. Concepts are mental models humans use to represent experience. But concepts do not represent the whole of the experience being modeled, only certain aspects of it, the way a map represents a territory. And the precise construction of concepts and the use of language to describe them is individual — you can never be sure that another human means the same thing as you, even if you are using the same words.

    The kind of abstract concepts generally used in religious creeds are especially difficult to communicate about, because they represent not experience, but other concepts or symbols. So they lead to endless debate and confusion about nothing. Suppose all Quakers got together and decided, “We believe in God.” Meaningless! Even if every Quaker agreed that they believe in God, each Quaker would mean something different by that. Same with, “I accept Christ as my personal savior.” You may think you know what you mean by that, but for all you know, I could be thinking about blueberry pancakes.

    Creeds mislead because they fool us into thinking they are Truth. They fool us into thinking we are talking about the same thing because we are using the same words. Or they fool us into thinking we are talking about different things because we are using different words and concepts.

    To describe something is to create a concept for it by relating it to other concepts. Ultimate truth is indescribable because it is all-encompassing, and therefore cannot be related to anything outside itself. It is illogical to attempt to describe ultimate truth.

    In our silent meetings, we Quakers attempt to experience Truth together. We don’t try to conceptualize truth and describe it to each other, we just sit there. As soon as we try to describe it — or even before that – as soon as we try to think about it, we are exiting the communal experience and constructing mental models that will inevitably differ from the next person’s. We are leaving peace and love and sowing the seeds of conflict. Pretty soon, we will have ideas about Truth that differ from those of other Quakers, and we will be arguing about creeds.

    I personally use non-theist, non-Christian terms and concepts to describe my spiritual path, having moved away from theist and Christian concepts I once used. I recently read a “spiritual journey” account by a Christian, who moved from a secular, rationalistic philosophy he now describes disparagingly as “liberal cool,” to a theist, Christian philosophy. For him, this was a real change, not just conceptual. Conceptually, it appears that this Christian dude and I started at opposite poles, moved in opposite directions, and ended up at opposite poles again. Logically, we could not both be right. If our conflicting conceptualizations actually represented experience, one of us would have to be wrong. But since concepts do not accurately represent experience and are not congruent between different individuals, this is not necessarily the case. In fact, after carefully reading the account of the Christian dude, I concluded that we had experienced very similar spiritual evolutions, but that we were simply conceptualizing them differently.

    Should the Christian dude and I have a discussion, and try to achieve consensus on a creed? That would be hopeless and would probably just lead to conflict. But what we could do is sit together in a silent meeting, and experience the same Truth together, in the manner of Friends.

    Phil Grove

  7. James Riemermann February 16, 2006 at 5:30 pm #

    Phil,

    I agree with most of what you say, and I like your approach in terms of its tolerance and universality. Yet I wonder if it might assume a bit more universality than is actually the case.

    A fair amount of the theological difference between different Friends probably is just on the surface, owing to how we conceptualize and put our experience into language. But, in my conversations with Friends, I find that a fair amount of the difference is genuine and deep. That being the case, my hope is not that we can manage to avoid talking about those words and beliefs and concepts to avoid disagreement, but go deeper in trying to understand each other, not just using simple phrases like Christian, theist, deist, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, etc., but really going into detail about how the world seems to us. If we have this kind of conversation with someone in our meeting we have a deep love and respect for, and find out their beliefs are miles away from our own, maybe that will help us come to the truth that it is not theology and beliefs or even “faith” that binds us together, but the fact that we are distinct but related creatures who need each other on a fundamental level.

    It can be risky talking about our differences, and there might be times when we scare each other off or harm the relationship. But to me it seems worth the risk. I think the bonds between us are strong enough to weather genuine and deep disagreement, if we keep our hearts open throughout that disagreement.

    james

  8. Kay January 16, 2006 at 5:31 pm #

    I think that overlooking the differences IS the work of love, because love tends to be accepting, especially if it is unconditional. Willingness to offer this kind of love opens a person to original, mutually inclusive solutions to problems. Otherwise, you’re so focused on differences, that only win/lose answers are apparent.
    As far as Truth is concerned, I think that Truth is not something that is formulated by one group and set in stone. Truth sometimes rises up out of the most deepest of disagreements between opposing parties. It seems to be far more intelligent, merciful, and generous than anything I, or people who agree only with me, could concoct.

    So far, the nature of Universal Truth, to me, seems to be all inclusive and very consistant, and much more kind than I used to believe. And I also believe that it is something that is discovered individually and enmasse as each situation arises to teach us.

    Am I making sense? Kay

  9. Pam January 16, 2006 at 5:32 pm #

    This has been on my mind much lately.

    I have a yearning to deepen my quaker experience, and my relationship to God (?)

    I think my theology is much like James’, except that I am inclined (recently) to call this whatnot that connects us, love, energy, life, faith (in right action…), “God” which I havent’ before.

    I don’t believe that what I call “God” created anything on purpose, I don’t believe it’s eternal, I don’t believe it can answer prayers (though I think that the power of prayer – of holding something in your heart with intention, perhaps of sharing that with community, does exist)

    I resonate with concerns that liberal quakers have become so open-minded that our brain (well, our essence) has fallen out, to quote a t-shirt (and not anything anyone has actually said, in those words, about quakers – except, now, me) – I believe that stating common values is important

    but “beliefs” – what would that mean? I adamantly resist any attempt to claim “belief” in god – that jesus’ death saved me, that there is any intentional design in the universe (even by means of evolution)

    Sometimes I am tempted to say that I “believe” in the ultimate goodness of human beings. But I don’t know that that’s honest. I believe in the necessity of approaching the world as if it’s true, which is different from believing that it is, I think.

    I believe that there is value in sitting in silence and seeking God together. I believe that each one of us has a slightly differing view of what that “God” is because, as Phil so eloquently states, words are poor tools for describing the glimpses of Truth that we are granted.

    I believe the very lack of words gives us a great gift in the process of that seeking. We do not constrain God to dogma or creeds, and therefore it is allowed its fullness, its life, in our presence.

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