What Quakers and Unitarians have in Common
Christpher Small, April 5, 2009
Let me begin with my thanks to you, the Unitarian Congregation of Guelph for this opportunity to speak, and for the chance to be part of this beautiful service. What a wonderful choice of children's book this morning. Old Turtle has always been one of my favorites, and its message resonates with me and what I wish to talk about today.
My topic: what Quakers and Unitarians have in common
My topic this morning focuses on—but is not restricted to—Quakers and Unitarians: what Quakers are, and also what Quakers have in common with Unitarians. In choosing this topic, I realize the challenges I have set for myself. While I have been a Quaker for almost 30 years of my life, my experience of Unitarian practices and beliefs is very limited. Thus it may seem to many of you that it is presumptuous of me to talk on a subject which necessitates a understanding of both groups. But I can assure you that if I were talking to some other group—perhaps in a Southern Baptist church, a Jewish synagogue, or a congregation of Muslims—my topic might well be the same, despite my even deeper ignorance of these faith communities. I start from a principle which experience has convinced is true, namely that what our communities have in common is greater than that which divides us. I presume to talk on this subject in the confidence that spiritual experiences are universal, and are not restricted to those who practice certain set religious rituals or believe certain creeds. In fact, the idea that religion is essentially to be experienced rather than just talked about is a central truth to which Quakers have born witness.
What do Quakers believe?
Some of you may be wondering what Quakers believe. In what way are Quakers similar to Unitarians and in what way are they different? For me—and for many Quakers—the question what is a Quaker, or what do Quakers believe is a difficult one to answer, because the Quaker movement is not creedal in nature. There is no list of statements to which all Quakers agree. This should not be interpreted as saying that Quakers have no beliefs—they have many and can be quite loud in support of those beliefs. Rather, it is to say that those beliefs do not define what it is to be a Quaker.
God encountered as mystery
Spiritual experiences are personal. Therefore, let me begin by describing my own journey. At some point in our lives we have probably all been led to ponder the nature of our own existence and its meaning. Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? as Paul Gauguin famously asked. Science tells us about the materials of which we are composed—DNA, RNA, proteins, cells, including approximately 100 billion neurons in the brain. Science tells us the laws under which these materials operate—the physical principles, the metabolic pathways. For many of us, the spiritual journey began with the recognition that none of this knowledge could provide an answer to that most basic of questions: who am I? The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that whole I call myself. It is mystery beyond knowledge. Turning to the world beyond ourselves we find another mystery. The world, like the self, is more the sum of its parts. Some people describe the encounter with this deep truth the “oceanic feeling.” It is the feeling of connectedness with all creation that comes to us in intense reflective moments where we also encounter our true selves. It is this fact, that many spiritually inclined people choose to call God.
Spiritual crisis and the founding of Quakers
The encounter with these two mysteries, and the failure of our accumulated wisdom to explain them, can lead to a spiritual crisis. It is common to find that the founders of religious movements have experienced such spiritual crises. George Fox, the seventeenth century English founder of the Quaker movement, was one such person. As a young man, he approached many religious authorities to try to find the answer to life's mysteries, and to understand the will of God. Finally, he had a revelation. He had been looking in the wrong place. Instead of looking to authority figures or Biblical passages for the answers to these deep questions, he looked within himself, and recognized that he could have a direct and personal relationship to God. That the door to the boundless plenitude that is God lay within himself.
Quaker silence and the Inner Light
But how could he and other seekers—who gathered around him and became known as Quakers—to open themselves to the divine? They took Psalm 46 verse 10 seriously: be still and know that I am God. When we still the mind and listen for the voice of God—what Quakers call the Inner Light—we put aside the individual cares and details of life and still ourselves in expectation of an encounter with that mystery which is the fullness that we call God. For George Fox and for Quakers, then and now, the path to God is found in the silence of a stilled mind. For many of you this morning, this may sound a lot like eastern mysticism. Quaker mysticism has much in common with eastern mysticism to be sure. But there are some differences also. For George Fox and other Quakers the point of sitting in silence to listen to God was not to achieve a higher consciousness, or to dispel illusions about the nature of reality. It was not about withdrawing from the world to follow in path inward. Quaker silence exists—and this is the essential point—to listen to God, so that we can be obedient to the will of God. This will of God is revealed not in a voice of authority within us—far from it—but through the light of our reason. This inner illumination which brings truth and understanding is what Quakers refer to as the Inner Light.
Ministry and action comes from silence: Quaker testimonies
For this reason, Quakers come together each Sunday and sit in silence. But the silence is not unbroken. From the silence comes ministry as Quakers listen to the still small voice of God, and speak from that silence when they are moved to do so. From the silence also comes action. For Quakers, like Unitarians in their own way, are engaged in the world and seeking to make this world a better place. Just as Unitarians have seven principles that they affirm, so also do Quakers have testimonies to which they witness. Of the testimonies which represent the outward express of Quaker faith, the four most relevant ones today as affectionately known by the acronym PEST, which stands for Peace, Equality, Simplicity, and Truth.
The Peace Testimony
The Peace Testimony is the best known of Quaker testimonies. Over the years, Quakers have been conscientious objectors to war, refusing to fight and kill. As George Fox wrote in 1651,
"I lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars,"
I am reminded that many Unitarians have also worked tirelessly for peace and social justice, which is necessary for any last peace. The witness of early Quakers to “that of God” in every person was instrumental in forming the Peace Testimony. If all people have access to the Inner Light and a direct relationship to God, then no person's life is to be despised and considered worthless.
The Equality Testimony
The Equality Testimony is just as important. Just as Unitarians affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and equity in human relations, so Quakers also affirm this as expressed in their testimony of equality. Quakers in the American colonies, such as John Woolman, witness for racial equality by working for the abolition of slavery a century before it became an accomplished fact. Quakers recognized the equality of the sexes, particularly in religious matters, by affirming women and men as equal partners in ministry and governance within the Society of Friends. Recently, many Quakers have worked to abolish discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation, as an outward expression of this testimony.
The Simplicity Testimony
Less well known is the Simplicity Testimony, which used to be called the Plainness Testimony. Early Quakers were famous for their plain gray clothing which was worn to avoid any outward show of ostentation. The Simplicity Testimony affirms that we should live our lives simply or plainly, thereby emphasizing what is important—God and our relation to God—and downplaying the unimportant—those things which are obstacles to our relationship to God. Quaker worship, which avoids (most) special symbols or rituals, is an expression of this testimony. Today, Quakers no long wear plain gray clothes, recognizing as they do, that too much attention to plainness is itself an obstacle to a relationship with God. However, a modern expression of this testimony is found in the Quaker belief that we should live a life with a small environmental footprint—a footprint that does not unnecessarily waste the world's resources.
Simplicity: a personal story
Simplicity has always been a particular challenge for me, because I am something of a gadget freak. If someone is selling something with a few extra bells and whistles which I can slip into my pocket, then I often have a strong urge to buy it. This is especially true when the gimmick is offered as a free upgrade, as phone companies do. I have a perfectly good cell phone at the moment. If I take it out and turn it on it does just what it is supposed to do. But I know that I am eligible for a new phone that will take pictures, and store photo albums, and have a little keyboard that is cuter than a bug's ear. How can I resist? Yet I do not need it, and the simplicity testimony tells me that I should not discard what I have for something new that I really don't need.
The Truth or Integrity Testimony
Finally, the Truth or Integrity Testimony affirms that we should be true to God and speak the truth as we see it to each other. An early expression of this testimony led Quaker merchants to introduce fixed prices for merchandise rather than allowing the price of an item to be subject to bargaining. These Quakers felt that it is dishonest to bargain so as to get a higher price than something is worth. Therefore, they fixed their prices in advance, and sold to all people at that price. This practice became so popular that it became the standard for all merchants. Quakers also refused to swear oaths, on the principle that one should tell the truth because it is the right thing to do, and not out of any fear of retaliation by God. Quakers do not just believe that telling the truth is a good idea. They believe that we should never act or speak so as to mislead others, even if by so doing, the consequences are painful. This makes it a hard testimony to bear witness to. We must be careful to speak the truth in love without any violence in ours words. Honesty cannot be used as an excuse for abuse. We can only tolerate a life of truth if we can also live a live of love.
Truth: a personal story
A wonderful illustration of the truth testimony occurred to me a few days ago. My daughter was having her weekly piano lesson with her Suzuki piano teacher. In the Suzuki manner, I—the parent—was sitting in an observing the lesson. My daughter Helen had been working very hard on some particularly difficult bars in the music score. When her teacher asked her about them, Helen turned to her teacher and said that she had been working hard on the “trouble spots” in the music. Her teacher responded that that was good, but that she—the teacher—preferred not to call these “trouble spots” but rather “working spots.” Helen looked at her for a moment. “Well, I still prefer to call them trouble spots,” she said. At that moment I was particularly proud of my daughter. She had chosen to speak the truth as she saw it, and was unwilling to use a word to hide her true situation.
Conclusion with Silence
To conclude, I ask to join with me in a few minutes of silence. Please feel free to use this silence inwardly in any way that seems fitting to you, whatever your beliefs. As this is to be a silence in the Quaker tradition, please feel free to speak briefly during that silence if you are moved to do so. Quaker silence concludes with the shaking of hands with those close to us.