Ben Schnell
Blog

Why I’m a Quaker

If you don’t already know, I recently became a Quaker. It’s a recent development in my life (November 2016), so I’m still learning what it means, but I like what I’m finding so far.

Let me give you some background. I had a wonderful experience growing up Seventh-Day Adventist and I really have no complaints. I left the Adventist church for theological reasons and because of the nature of institutional religion – it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t really expect to affiliate with a religion or denomination again, and I especially didn’t think I’d become a Quaker.

I was looking for a spiritual community of some sort, and I thought about creating my own discussion group, which I still think is a valid option. But one day I was helping my grandmother move and she was giving away a bunch of books. I picked up a 1950’s volume about religious sects in America. I read the chapter about Quakers and was impressed.

One of my issues with religion is it seems to come with a lot of unnecessary baggage. I like the community and the people, but the good things are often tainted with gender and race issues, homophobia, and a long list of exclusive and untenable doctrines.

Episcopal and Universalist Unitarian are two common choices for people who are looking for a more liberal tradition and I have the utmost respect for both groups. In my case though, I’m frustrated that they maintain a similar format as traditional church, with a hired priest or pastor up the front giving a sermon, which has never felt very egalitarian to me. And in the Episcopal case, they still maintain a large and expensive organizational structure.

What I like about Quakers

I was pleasantly surprised to learn about the simplicity of the Quaker way. From their beliefs to their practices, Quakers seem to have stripped away the bloat of religion to get to the core of what really matters.

Quaker Belief

Quakers have one theological idea. It’s called Inner Light and it holds that everyone has access to God or that of God in them. In Adventism, there are 28 fundamental beliefs. I can’t remember all of them. Compared to 28, the simplicity of one theological idea is refreshing. It feels like religion without the extra baggage, religion paired down to what is actually important.

Quaker theology is simple, but not simplistic. The implications of the doctrine of Inner Light are far reaching. I’m barely scratching the surface, but below are 3 implications of Inner Light that stand out to me. 

Implications of the Doctrine of Inner Light

A Robust Moral Foundation

This idea of inner light and the radical equality it engenders is a sufficient basis for a very robust moral foundation. Every human is a spiritual being with a connection to the divine, and therefore is essentially valuable. As opposed to a morality based on “because God said so” (and we can never seem to agree on what God actually said) or as opposed to rejecting morality altogether, inner light equality demands that each person be treated as a person, and not as a thing or an object. It’s morality of human dignity. This implication is fundamental for the implications that follow.

Religious Empathy

Quakers don’t have a position on most of the major worldview questions that generally distinguish world religions. You can be a Muslim Quaker or a Buddhist Quaker. The Inner light doctrine teaches that all people have access to God, so who is to say your convictions are wrong?

Also – an important note here – the “God” of the Inner Light doctrine is not defined. Some Quakers believe in a traditional Christian God and others think in terms of the Universe or Love or a Sustaining Force. Quakers don’t have an agenda for who you believe God to be. In another blog post I explore some of these alternative views of God.

This is important to me because I believe there is a lot of value in different religions, as well as agnosticism and atheism. I don’t claim all religions and philosophies are created equal or that everything every religion teaches is true, but I do believe they have value.

Quakers respect and embrace a diversity of ideas believing there is truth to be found wherever people are thinking about the great questions of life. Quaker community can help you live out your convictions more effectively, while celebrating a diversity of perspectives and creating an environment for mutual learning and growth. In our increasingly polarized political culture, with the demonization of Muslims and immigrants, the last thing we need is more adamant orthodoxies. Quaker meeting is a place where all ideas are genuinely welcomed and considered.

Equality and activism

Because of the doctrine of Inner Light, Quakers have been on the right side of history on many human rights issues.

Gender – Quakerism has not suffered from the patriarchal sexism that seems such a prominent feature of Abrahamic traditions. While Quakers come from the Christian tradition, from the earliest times, women had equal roles with men in Quaker meetings. Quakers were very active in the women’s suffrage movement.

Native Peoples – Native Americans were treated fairly in Colonial times by Quakers when most settlers saw Native Americans as religionless savages. Advocacy for Native Americans has been a feature of Quakerism ever since. (Quakers followed the Standing Rock protest very closely. Many sent supplies or volunteered in person.)

Race – Quakers were some of the first to corporately oppose slavery and were the primary players in the famous Underground Railroad. They continue to work for racial justice today.

Sexuality – Since the 1990’s they have welcomed LGBTQ people and affirmed homosexual marriage and practice.

Quakers are the most socially active group I’ve ever seen or been a part of. With Quakers, the point is not what you believe, it’s how you live. This is also evident in the Quaker testimonies, which I describe below.

Quaker Practice

Unprogrammed Worship

In addition to the simplicity of theology, Quakers have a simplicity of practice that I really appreciate. If you would attend any Sunday worship there are a couple of things you would immediately notice. There is no pastor or paid staff. People trickle in and sit down in the meeting room. No one calls the meeting to order. The worship service consists of an hour of silence. During the hour, people pray or meditate or think. After the first 15-20 minutes of silence people can stand up and share if they have something they want to say, but it’s not uncommon for the entire hour to pass in silence. I have to admit, I’m kind of burned out on sermons. Good preachers who are interesting to listen to are rare. Even with a good preacher, I feel like we’re always circling back to the same answers. Silent worship is a big part of the draw of Quakerism for me.

5 Testimonies

Another of my favorite things about Quakerism is that the emphasis is not on what you believe, it’s how you live. There are 5 testimonies in Quakerism that express values for how they try to live. They are:

Simplicity—Letting go of distractions and focusing on the meaningful things in life.

Peace—Living in a way that takes away the need for war. Working for justice, healing, and a better life for all people and the whole Earth.

Integrity—Presenting the same face and witness in our private lives and our public lives. Matching our actions to our beliefs.

Community—Supporting and sharing our spiritual paths and each others’ lives in both joy and sorrow.

Equality—Treating all people as equals.

Again, these feel like the essentials in life – religion without the baggage. I’ve just begun to try to live out these testimonies with the Quakers, but I look forward to see how they will change my life.

So yeah, that’s why I’m a Quaker, in a nutshell. There is more to the story that I’ll hopefully share in other posts, but that’s an overview of Quakerism. I’ve already become quite evangelical about it in a certain way. I don’t believe everyone should become a Quaker, but I feel like there may be more people like me who would find a spiritual home with the Quakers if they knew what they were about.

If you have a Quaker meeting in your area, I encourage you to check it out. Even if you think it’s probably not for you, a silent meeting is worth experiencing at least once. Give simple religion a chance, you may be pleasantly surprised.