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Quaker and Pagan Means What, Exactly?

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom
Since I began describing myself as a Quaker Pagan, I run into people who are suspicious of my claim to be both Quaker and Pagan. To these folks, Peter and I look like spiritual cheats, trying to sneak fifteen items through the clearly labeled Twelve Item Express Lane of a spiritual life.

“Cafeteria spirituality,” I’ve heard it described, expressing the notion that my husband and I are picking and choosing only the tastiest morsels of either religion, like spoiled children loading our plates with desserts, but refusing to eat our vegetables.

This isn’t the case. The term “cafeteria religion” implies imposing human whims over the (presumably) sacred norms of religion. But Peter and I are both/ands not out of personal preference, but because we were called to our religion… twice. By two different families of Spirit.

I can explain this best through my own story.

I became a Pagan out of a childhood of yearning to be in relationship with nature, magic, and the glimmers of the numinous I found in fairy tales and Greek mythology. Growing up who I was, in love with the world as I was, I could never have become anything but a Pagan; the hills and trees had a lock on me as far back as I can remember. And then, once I’d become a Pagan, listening to the gods and spirits of nature, I could never have resisted the call of the Spirit of Peace when it demanded my attention as an adult. Learning to respond to one opened me up to respond to the other; it was the same lesson.

I am a Pagan because I worship Pagan gods, in a Pagan way, within a Pagan community. Your mileage may vary--we all have somewhat different understandings of what it means to be a Pagan. In my case, though my beliefs and practices have cross-pollinated with a dozen other Pagan paths, my original training, and my underlying orientation, is that of Wicca, of Witchcraft, both from a self-made, “boot-strapped” coven, and later, a family tradition that welcomed me in.

My conclusion, based on the thirty or so years I’ve spent in the Craft, is that we Witches are a practical lot. We tend to hang onto the stuff that works. Being syncretistic is a feature, not a bug, for us. That probably helps to explain the importance I place on living in a way that’s faithful to the truths I’ve discovered in my practices, and less concerned about the outward labels for them. Live your path! has been my philosophy. Worship the moon, not the finger pointing at the moon.

And that very Witchy orientation is at least partly to blame for my becoming a Quaker. Having learned to listen directly to the spirits of gods and the land as they spoke to me as a Pagan, how could I resist the call of the Spirit of Peace when it also demanded my attention? Learning to hear and respond to one part of the spiritual world opened me up to respond to more; hearing the voice of Quakers’ Inward Guide has always felt like part of the same lesson.

That first happened for me on September 11, 2001. I can remember the date so exactly because it happened very suddenly, only an hour or so after I learned about the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. As I was walking through a quiet park, trying to make sense of what had happened, Someone spoke to me.

It came not in words at first, but as a physical sensation. I have described it over the years as a feeling like a great hand taking hold of me by my spine. I stopped. And right then, I had a moment of gnosis. I knew something all the way down to the core of me.

The words for it that came to me are only a weak echo of the power of that moment of understanding. I'm still working on finding all the implications of that knowing, so no single set of words was going to capture it, but the words were these:

If half a dozen men, armed only with box-cutters, can kill thousands, then the day when force could "settle" conflicts--if it ever could--is over and done.

In the space of a single breath, I had come to believe that, as the old chestnut goes, there is no way to peace; that peace is the way.

And in response to that, I began attending Mt. Toby Quaker meeting.

Unlike Saul on the road to Damascus, I didn’t have a vision of Jesus… And as far as I knew, you had to be a Christian to be a Quaker. That might have been expected to keep me away from Quaker meeting.

However, on that sunny, terrible morning in September, I didn’t the luxury of quibbling about what I knew--or thought I knew--about Quakers. Having lived my entire life in the belief that the use of violence was a regrettable, unavoidable part of being human, I had no idea how to dedicate myself to nonviolence. I just knew that I had to do it, and that I had to do it right away. I didn’t have the option of worrying about theology--I needed teachers.

So I went to worship with the group with the most powerful peace testimony I knew about: the Religious Society of Friends. And when I got there, even though I didn’t know how it could possibly be so, I knew that I was home.

At Mt. Toby, I felt awash in a Spirit of fearlessness and peace. The Spirit that I had heard--had felt--in the park was right there, ringing in the silence of the meeting and shining from the eyes of the Quakers all around me. I seized hold of that first meeting like it was water in the desert, without any certainty that I would be allowed to stay.

Eventually, though, it emerged that in spite of what I thought I knew about Quakers, not all Quakers are Christian.

It turns out that, while the Quaker movement certainly started out as Christian, and while the vast majority of the world’s Quakers are Christian to this day, among Liberal Quakers today, the situation is a little more complicated.

Liberal Quakers turn out to be a pretty heterodox group. To my surprise, in the years that followed my conversion experience, I’ve learned that while Liberal Quakers often do identify as Christ-centered, some of them consider themselves to be universalists, or Jewish, non-theists, or even (like me) Pagan, as well as Quaker. And while that is controversial in some quarters, both/and Quakers are quite common in others.

How can that be?

Quakers talk about ours as a non-creedal religion. To be a member of the Religious Society of Friends, I went through what is called a clearness process. The question of what makes a Friend a Friend is not a matter of swearing to a set of core beliefs (or even “affirming” them, given Quakers historical views on oaths) but of it becoming clear to us, and to our local Quaker meeting, that we are indeed called to membership in that community by Spirit.

Rather than assuming that all Quakers believe in an identical, predetermined set of teachings, modern Liberal Quakers refer more broadly to a set of Testimonies that Friends have discerned as a community over time--like the peace testimony, or the testimony against oath taking, or their historic stand against slavery. These traditional Quaker witnesses are considered to have been discerned by the body of Friends, listening for what Spirit--what Christ, in the traditional language--has been trying to teach us over time. However, despite the belief that these testimonies come from Spirit, there is no sense that our understanding of what they mean is complete, or that we will all perceive them all identically. These communal witnesses have varied a bit over time--I know of no Quaker meetings that warn their members against listening to music, for instance. The thought is that our understandings are rooted in a lasting spiritual truth, but that our understanding of that truth is always partial, always subject to change over time. It’s as if there is an unchanging root, but that we understand that the leaves and blossoms put out by that root will be somewhat different, from season to season and from year to year.

For instance, that old Quaker testimony against music, which few meetings would hold to today could be seen as an earlier form of a warning against allowing the sort of ourselves to be distracted from our spiritual work by hobbies and entertainments. Today, such a testimony might focus on about Internet or video game addiction rather than music. The testimony hasn’t vanished, in other words, but it has changed shape, in order to remind us of the importance of reserving space in our days for encountering Spirit.

Because of that sense that our understanding of Quaker ways is subject to change, as Spirit breathes new inspiration into us in a changing world, orthodoxy isn’t a very high priority among Friends. It isn’t necessary for every Quaker to believe exactly the same list of things, in order to become a member of the Religious Society of Friends. It is necessary to become familiar with the witness of other Quakers, and to listen inwardly for parts of those testimonies Spirit still have Life for us. And it is necessary to work to be faithful “to the Light we’ve been shown,” in hopes of being given more of it. But this is more about accepting a kind of spiritual discipline than signing off on a list of beliefs. Perhaps it is for that reason that I have heard Quakers speaking their deepest truths in words from all sorts of religious traditions; the same meeting may feature Friends sharing passages from the Prophets of the Bible, from the Sufi mystic Rumi, Hildegarde of Bingen, Rilke, or that Nineteenth Century Quaker excommunicant, Walt Whitman. Spirit is considered able to express Herself through a range of human vocabularies, and that may be why the Charge of the Goddess doesn’t come as much of a shock to a modern Liberal Friend.

Most importantly, from my practical Witch’s point of view, in spite of all of our theological differences Quaker worship seems to work for us all. The same Spirit seems to move among us, despite our different words for what we hear.

I don't call that Spirit “Christ” ; it has never asked me too. Nor has it ever offered any objection I’ve ever sensed to my continuing to honor the Old Gods. But I have learned to honor the truths I hear from Christ-centered Friends, too. They use different words for the Light we share, but in the end, I’m not convinced the words are what matters: “It doesn’t hurt the Light to call it Jesus,” as I once heard Someone say to me in worship.

After all, how could any human-told stories or labels contain the Mysteries? Given the ineffable nature of what we’re trying to describe, it has never seemed to me matching terms were the point. Surely, the important thing is to live in a manner that is open to the Spirits we love.

As Margaret Fox describes George Fox saying, once upon a time when the Quakers were new,

“You will say, 'Christ saith this, and the apostles say this;' but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of the Light, and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?’ This... cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly we were all wrong… I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves; we are all thieves; we have taken the scriptures in words, and know nothing of them in ourselves.’”

I feel a kinship with Fell. I do not want to be a thief in the world of Spirit. I want to speak honestly about what I’ve lived, whether I call it Pagan or Quaker. Whatever I say, I want it not to come from words only, but from what I know in most deeply in myself.

It turns out that, when you are faithful to the path rather than to the map, you sometimes find yourself in unfamiliar territory. What I have found sometimes seems a little strange to people, myself included, but I can’t deny the beauty of what I have seen.

This blog, Quaker Pagan Reflections, is the place where Peter and I share with others the view from the uncharted hills we have come to call our home.


Pitch313 said…
The current of Paganism that I float along with--Post-WWII Northern Californian--seems far more attentive to paths rather than maps. (I enjoy that turn of phrase!)

Rooted in nature and the Earth, playful, chance-taking, making sense and extra-sense by experimenting, and appreciative of the particular leads of spirit. So, while the intertwining of a Pagan and Quaker path may not be my path, I think that it is an intertwining that nourishes today's post-modern and wide-viewed Paganism. And today's Friends.
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