Growing up in Liberal FGC Quakerism, I would often hear reference to “the light” as something warm and comforting. I felt comforted when someone said that they were going to hold me in the Light, and I felt comforted when I heard Friends profess to honor the Light within everyone.
After reading Early Quaker writings though, I wonder if I didn’t grow up with a Disney-esque version of “the Light”.
Our spiritual forefathers and mothers spoke of a “Light” that was more like a spotlight, intense and uncomfortable, that would shine on the the dark places inside of ourselves and reveal the things that we are trying to hide. This “Light”, honestly, sounds horrifying. It is no wonder they also called it the “refiner’s fire”.
The Early Friends believed that we must all go through the refiner’s fire before we are healed, before we are whole and before we step back from our greed, our oppression, our brokenness. We must let go of the ways that we are hiding, the things that we are using to shield ourselves. We must become naked.
Shining “the Light” on the Culture
By literally going naked though the streets, Early Quakers were attempting to direct that spotlight onto the society around them. To strip away the ways that people were hiding… behind their socio-economic class, their professions, their social status.
Solomon Eccles and other Friends went naked publicly to witness that it is not enough to be wealthy. It is not enough to be successful. It is not enough to be well-liked.
In fact, these things are mostly empty. By wearing these metaphorical articles of “clothing”, we are only capable of scratching the surface of the fulfillment that we are to feel in this life. This in fact interferes with our living in true communion.
Shining “the Light” on Ourselves
As I have been traveling and sharing Clothe Yourself in Righteousness with Friends, I have come to realize that the revealing light of the refiner’s fire is not just something that we shine on the culture around us, as Early Friends often did.
Indeed, the society we live in today is truly fallen. The evils committed by it are directly caused by the ways that those in power are hiding… not accountable, not authentic. It is our duty and responsibility to shine a bright spotlight upon our policy-makers, our wealthy and our powerful, revealing their true intentions, and transforming our systems into something altogether more whole, more transparent, more well-intentioned.
This is much of what the Early Friends were doing when they would go naked as a sign. It was a time of revolt and great hope for radical transformation of the culture.
And while there is deep need for this kind of “Light” to shine today… on our politicians, on our wealthy, behind closed doors, on the CEOs of corporations, we trick ourselves into complacency by not first inviting it to shine on ourselves.
The True “Light”: Quakerism Will Perish Without It
Friends, there is one thing that I can say with confidence after my 4 years of traveling in the ministry: the Religious Society of Friends is hurting.
At the very least, I think we can all agree that there is intense segregation between the generations. As the baby boomers start to look for the next generation to hand Quakerism off to, there might be no one there to take it.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
My belief is that Modern Quakerism is just a step away from vitality, relevance. We needn’t throw up our hands in exasperation. We needn’t hide our faces in shame. We needn’t pretend that it doesn’t matter or that it’s out of our control.
And we also needn’t pretend that there is no problem. There is a problem, Friends. And it is only reflected in our financial shortfalls, our dysfunctional business meetings, our dwindling numbers. These are the symptoms.
So what is the disease?
I don’t think that I am qualified for this diagnosis. In my travels I have heard literally hundreds of Quakers acknowledge the symptoms and go on to name a different diagnosis.
I don’t think any individual has a large enough view of the big picture to be able to fully name it.
I do, however, know what to prescribe: the Light. The refiner’s fire. A revealing. Nakedness.
It is only when we stop hiding from ourselves, hiding from each other, from God, that we will be able to come back into our power, our faith, and our usefulness as a religious society. It is only when we are naked that we can see each other clearly.
Let’s stop hiding, Friends.
As I’ve been traveling and sharing Clothe Yourself in Righteousness with Friends, some questions have emerged for us to ask ourselves as a religious society.
What are we (as Quakers) ashamed of?
What are we (as Quakers) afraid to admit to ourselves?
What are the conversations that we (as Quakers) fear most?
Where are we wearing fig leaves?
What are the parts that we’re wanting to hide?
What would happen if we took the fig leaves off?
What are we afraid to lose?
What could be gained?
10 thoughts on “Is it Time to Strip Quakerism Naked?”
May I reproduce this article in a future issue of ‘The Call’ (see web site)?
I was struck by the same contrast a few years back, researching a presentation on light and dark for Strawberry Creek Meeting. All my life, I had been told about an “Inner Light”, something of God inside each of us. I had seen that as the basis for our testimony on equality, and from there of most of our Quaker religion.
Imagine my surprise, when I couldn’t find any reference by early Friends to “Inner Light”. Rather, they spoke of an “Inward Light”, the kind of spotlight you describe. So that the tasks of worship were to submit ourselves to being searched by God, and to face our own flaws as revealed by that “Inward Light”.
Preach it, Jon!
Thanks to you and Maggie for bringing this message to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. I was encouraged by her hope for the Yearly Meeting she grew up in, and for your words here about the Religious Society of Friends being one step away from vitality.
There is vitality, there is clarity and connectedness, but it exists only here and there, and nothing like a unity thereof. Perhaps it is veiled from some, or covered by scales for others. Yet, “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within/among you.”
I like that first query, Jon.
I often get the feeling that many Friends I’m familiar with on the East Coast are ashamed to let people know they believe in God. They seem to be afraid they’ll be perceived as immature, unsophisticated, or unintelligent.
Thanks for the comment, Carol! I think it is astute that we have frozen judgements about people who “believe in God”, but there have been enough re-definitions of those words now (slowly wrestling them away from right-wing evangelical “christianity”) that we do ourselves a disservice by suppressing conversation around it.
Much of what struck Maggie and me when we examined “going naked as a sign” in the 17th century was what sheer courage it took to be the person who steps out and begins a conversation by exposing their own vulnerability.
When we are honest with one another, there are serious risks. We might be silently judged, or openly ridiculed. We might be cast out of our communities, or lose friendships.
However, when compared with the consequences of going naked through the streets of 17th century England (arrest, prison, death, whippings) these risks seem trite and inconsequential. It is my prayer that we come into some small portion of courage — the kind that it took the Early Friends to do some of these outrageous acts — and confess to one another.
Whether it is “I believe in God and I’m afraid of how you’ll perceive me now that I’ve said that” or “I have judgement for people who say they believe in God” or “I admit that I don’t have any idea what you all mean when you say the word ‘God'”, we can only stand to benefit from this conversation.
What’s holding us back (ironically) is our silence. Whatever shame we have, it is not serving the Spirit.
When I first began attending Meeting for Worship I had lost any sense of God in my life, I was spiritually dead in the water. I cried out to the Spirit in which I did not believe and over the next few years experienced the Light as a kind of heat confronting me with my selfishness, my pride, my desire to be in control. Within that circle of Friends the Light was at work with me like a spiritual smoke house far from comfortable, painful but given the strength to endure and learn.
I am a former Quaker who still cherishes so much of what I learned growing up in the Religious Society of Friends (North Carolina Yearly Meeting FUM). I worked for Friends in Indiana, Western, Baltimore and New York Yearly Meetings. My basic disagreement with Friends is that they have severed the connection between the Light and the Lord Jesus Christ. Quakerism was founded upon a living experience of Jesus and a clear trust in his death and resurrection for salvation and power to live in the Light. Toward the end of my connection with Friends I was criticized for being Christ-centered, labeled “narrow-minded.” I love my f(F)riends in the Quaker movement and continue to have great respect for the testimonies and practices that grew out of early Friends knowledge of Jesus. The group I belong to today most clearly represents the “experience” of early Friends of any group I know. God bless you, Jon Watts, as you minister in the power of the Light.
And no man, when he hath lighted a lamp, covereth it with a vessel, or putteth it under a bed; but putteth it on a stand, that they that enter in may see the light. For nothing is hid, that shall not be made manifest; nor anything secret, that shall not be known and come to light. (Luke 8:16,17)
May the light shine on and through us all
I have been reading early Quaker literature too. It seems like early Quakers use the metaphor of light many different ways (good ways)—not just one. It seems like there was a lot of free association going on with regard to light. The main thing I get is that since light is inside people there is unity between spirit and matter, between god and people. Since people have light they are like god and they are one. This is why Christians hated Quakers. It was blasphemy and unlawful to claim that you were equal to god or that god was inside you. According to Christianity, one could only know god intellectually by reading, memorizing, and reciting bible verse. But, Quakers thought that those who studied the bible in order to know god lived in darkness and were ignorant. Christians denied light inside them and instead turned to a book. Ultimately, the bible was used to hit people over the head with. In some ways you could say that the bible kind of goofed things up for many people.
As far as believing in god (and going naked) my issue has always been that I am not able to imagine it. I think you have to be able to imagine something (that is you have to have something in mind) in order to say you actually believe in it. I can kind of imagine the big bang, and heavy gasses condensing and exploding to create the universe (again, kind of). But I cannot imagine where the gasses came from in the first place. It does not mean I don’t strongly feel things that can’t be seen, like love and happiness, etc. I just can’t picture spirit. I could say that the things I feel, like love and happiness, are actually spirit or god, but that is kind of dishonest, and it seems like, instead, I should just call them love and happiness. I know that many people do feel spirit—and I do not deny them their experiences at all, and I think they are definitely very real. I mean, all of the spirit that people feel throughout all of history obviously is at the heart of all religion (EXCEPT for those who used religion for the wrong reasons).