The Making of a Quaker Atheist

Copyright © George Amoss, Jr., 1999
All rights reserved.

How did I come to be a Quaker and an atheist?

I was raised as neither; my early life was filled with faith in God and a fascination with the Catholic priesthood and “the religious life”–life under vows in an order of friars or monks. It was not until young adulthood that I began to abandon my dream of that life, when I lost my faith in the Catholic Church and its God.

That faith was lost when, as the military attempted to conscript me, the Church, in the grip of the nationalism that had placed the flag next to Christ’s tabernacle and engraved “Pro Deo et Patria” over our parochial school’s door, would not support my conscientious objection to participation in war. When “Holy Mother Church”could insist that I violate my conscience and obey orders to maim and kill, I could not but question her authority.

To my surprise, I found that she could not withstand intense questioning: she claimed Jesus Christ as her cornerstone, but a study of Jesus’ recorded teachings on violence revealed her to be in error. The stone removed, the sanctuary crumbled.

As the dust cleared, I was shocked to find that the sanctuary had been empty. The Christian God, my God, was revealed as the Church’s creation, a fresco on a now-fallen wall. He had terrified me at times, but he had been the heart of my world; he had loved me, and I had loved him. My life ached with longing for my lost God.

Devastated by his death, I turned to Buddhism, a faith founded, like Christianity, on a profound reaction against human suffering. Whereas Jesus had expected that God would quickly end all suffering by creating a new world, the Buddha had taught a way for us to overcome pain here and now. Buddhism sought spiritual liberation through one’s own efforts, but it left open the possibility of God. Captivated, I pored over sutras, Zen dialogues, and Madhyamika dialectics. And I learned to allow my mind to become still in zazen meditation, a practice that later enriched my Quaker worship.

But Buddhism lacked an activist social conscience, and it lacked the person of Jesus. Moved by Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God, a transformed world of peace, justice, and well-being, and sensing that his crucifixion symbolized a divine self-emptying at the heart of all things, I began to study the works of scripture scholars and contemporary theologians, hoping to find a way to believe in his presence again. For a dozen years, I struggled to work out both a theology of a suffering, kenotic God and an exegesis that would make New Testament eschatology something other than a barrier to belief. It was an effort that, despite my hopes, would ultimately fail; for a time, however, both disciplines being elastic, it provided a canvas for a Christocentric faith.

It was during that time that I began to worship among Friends at Little Falls Meeting in Maryland.

Drawn by curiosity about my ancestors, who are buried in the Meeting’s cemetery, and about Friends’ beliefs and practices, I visited the meetinghouse one day when it was unoccupied. My eye was caught by a lettered wooden sign posted by the door; it testified to a belief, “based on the life and teachings of Jesus,” in working for peace and equality. Feeling in sympathy with that statement, I joined the small group of Friends for worship on the next Sunday. When I was invited to stay for the business meeting afterward, I accepted, and my life was changed.

The Friends, concerned over their dwindling numbers, were planning to renovate an old schoolhouse on the property to provide classroom and meeting space as well as a kitchen and washrooms, of which there were none in the meetinghouse. The project was clearly essential to the survival of the meeting, but one member was blocking consensus on grounds that, I thought, approached being irrational. Despite their obvious sense of urgency about the project, the other Friends labored patiently and lovingly with the dissenter, and when it became clear that he could not agree to the proposed building design, the issue was set aside for further consideration.

I was astonished: never before had I seen a group of people so single-mindedly put love and respect above “getting things done.”

There was a real spiritual power among the Friends. As I participated in their worship and business practice, learned of their work and witness, and experienced their respect for and challenges to individual and community consciences, I became convinced that the Friends were living in the spirit of Jesus. Through them, I came to believe–unlike, ironically, some of those Friends themselves–in the presence and guiding activity of Christ. The experience was strong and sure enough, I felt, to warrant belief in the resurrection of Jesus and therefore in the Christian God. I had recovered–reconstructed–my God.

Naturally, I felt that my experience of God should be much as it had been when I was young, excepting those characteristics, which I attributed to Roman Catholicism, that had darkened my early life with abject fear of divine wrath. However, the Quakerism of Little Falls Meeting, although it had led me back to Christian faith, was not explicitly Christocentric, nor did it offer context for the exegetical and theological explorations I’d come to love. So I used my family’s move into the city as an opportunity to “isit other churches,”as I put it to one of the Friends, and I soon found that the local Episcopal church offered beautiful services and relative freedom of thought in a traditional Christian setting. It seemed to be just what I wanted, and, within three years of my discovery of Quakerism, I was ritually received into the Episcopal Church.

The sacred beauty and joy of the church’s liturgy outweighed, I told myself, the church’s failure to embrace equality and nonviolence. (“here is an Episcopal Peace Fellowship,”the rector told me, “but it’s not very active. You could try to start a chapter in this parish, but I mentioned it here a few years ago and found that there’s no interest in that sort of thing.”

The liturgy could give me a momentary sense of Christ’s presence as well as the comfort of returning to something like the religion of my childhood. But it could not, I eventually found, quiet my questions and concerns about equality, justice, and peace; nor could it shield God from harsh reality. When my grandfather, who had been crippled for much of his life with a painful, degenerative disease, died of colon cancer, my faith failed; already weakened by the church’s assent to injustice and violence, it could not withstand the sight of that beloved man’s agony of body and spirit.

No good God would allow such things, I knew. The Christian God had once more been revealed as fantasy. Twice-dead, he would not be raised again.

After that abortive return to a form of Catholicism, I wanted to abandon religion completely. But religion had sensitized me to the dark side of life, to the violence, injustice, and pain that characterize our world; I couldn’t keep my gaze averted. And I had seen a spirit of committed and courageous love among Friends, some of whom did not hold traditional Christian beliefs, that I had encountered nowhere else.

A friend who had become a member of another Quaker meeting happened to call at that time, and we began a series of conversations that led to my attendance at Homewood Meeting in Baltimore. As I began again to know the transforming power of Quaker practice, I dove into reading of Quaker history and spirituality, and I satisfied my desire for broader intellectual inquiry into religion by completing a college program of comparative religion, scripture criticism, and seminars on moral questions. Keeping a journal, I attempted to make critical sense of my experience, applying lessons learned in life as well as in school and reading.

Over some years, my experiences and studies came together in a synthesis that I expressed in an ancient image: “being Christ.” Jesus was not a supernatural being, I’d concluded, and his resurrection was a scripture-based myth born of desperate hope; nevertheless, in his willingness to give himself to and for the Kingdom, Jesus did incarnate a holy spirit, a deeply human spirit that dares to envision and work toward a loving world.

I knew that Jesus’spirit can live in human beings; I’d met that spirit among the Friends, and I’d felt it stir within me in response to their “answering that of God” in me. To learn to live in that spirit, to join with others as the heart and hands of Christ in the world, would, I decided, be the finest thing any human being could do. Quakerism focused directly on that challenge, letting everything else fall away; while the churches looked for Christ primarily in ritual and scripture, Friends quietly worked to make the Christ-spirit actively present here and now.

I shared the Quaker thirst for Jesus’ Kingdom of God; I found deep if ineffable meaning in the silent communion of worship; I knew the power of group discernment to awaken wisdom and love within us. Among Friends, I was, at last, at home. In response to my request for membership, Homewood Meeting graciously received me, asking not whether I believed in God or would conform myself to “testimonies” construed as rules, but whether I was committed to the people and practices of that Quaker community, particularly to seeking to live in that spirit we see in Jesus. I accepted membership with joy and a sense of responsibility to contribute to the life of the meeting and the society as best I could.

One part of that contribution would be to continue the task of interpreting my experience of Quakerism for myself and others. I knew first-hand the transforming power of our silent worship, but how could we understand a worship directed to no God? And how understand the ability of our business practice to weave our differences into unity?

Seeking deeper insight into the foundational experiences of our movement, I returned to the history of early Quakerism. In his journal, George Fox claimed that, nearing despair at the failure of Christian teachings to “speak to [his] condition,” not knowing what to believe or how to act in order to fulfill God’s will, he had been inspired to see that the divine Christ could teach him, and all people, directly. In fact, Fox decided, only the inwardly-received leading of the living Christ could be relied upon. “There is one,” the voice of insight had told him, “even [Christ] Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.” In that “opening” was born the Quaker movement, which would call all people to disregard human teachings and to discern and obey the leading of the living Spirit of Christ, the Inner Light, within them. Such obedience would lead to perfection, Fox believed, and to the realization of the Kingdom of God, inwardly and outwardly, here and now.

But I saw that as the founding evangelists traveled through seventeenth-century England planting seeds of the new faith, tares of truth were already sprouting in their fertile fields. Friends’ sole reliance on Christ’s inward guidance led to unacceptable behavior and schism almost from the beginning of the Quaker movement.

Committed to their faith in the Inward Christ, Fox and other early leaders assumed that some Friends were confusing their own desires with the Light’s leadings. They addressed the problem by expanding the Quaker business practice, setting up a system, the outline of which remains today, of “meetings” or bodies to oversee the lives and practice of Friends. But to the extent that it imposed human authority and control, that system was a betrayal of the original faith in direct divine guidance, a tacit admission that the living Christ was not, after all, sufficient to guide human beings into truth. The system may have helped the fledgling movement survive a hostile time, but it ultimately failed to keep Friends in unity. And it opened the door to further appeals to authority, most destructively to demands that scripture be enthroned as a rule book.

When faithful to its foundation–and in every generation of Friends, there have been many faithful–the Quaker community reaches its decisions through the discernment of those who wait together upon the leading of the Inward Light. And it often happens that individuals who at first seem to be wrong or “out of the Light” eventually prove to be the community’s link to inspiration.

As a process, then, our practice seems circular: the community that must judge the validity of individual inspiration depends upon that inspiration for its judgments. Consequently, tension between individual and community claims to divine revelation cannot be resolved without subordinating inward inspiration to external authority.

The appeal to authority does break the circle, but in so doing it wrecks the process. Quaker practice “works” only when love is paramount, as it was in the business meeting I witnessed at Little Falls. When individual and group desires are “brought low” under love’s leading, all participants in the process are equal, and the community’s primary goal is not to judge but to love each other. In such a gathered meeting, there can be no tension between individual and group objectives, nor need or place for authority. The circle is dissolved.

And there I found the key: Quaker practice is nothing more or less than the actualization of love.

Love, available to all, is our Light on the way and our sole basis for unity: that is the central lesson of the Quaker experience. And silent worship is the womb of our corporate life. As we open ourselves in worship to loving as Jesus loved, we become one spirit and accomplish things great and small without striving or contention. Ultimately, belief in supernatural beings is unnecessary. Our strength, our vision, and our unity derive solely from the love in our hearts.

If some of us, at least, can no longer claim supernatural guidance, it is nonetheless true that our Quaker worship continues to center our lives in love, empowering us to live compassionately and courageously. And if we can no longer aspire to live as perfected beings in the Kingdom of God here and now, it is nonetheless true that the witness and work of Friends for relief of suffering, equality of persons, tolerance, freedom, peace, and justice continue to make the world a better place for countless people. The lives of Friends today and throughout our history prove that, whether Christ lives or not, what Fox believed to be Christ’s voice within the human heart is real. From the beginning, Friends have known experientially that something in us seeks Jesus’ Kingdom of God, and that through our uniquely powerful practice of waiting together upon its inspiration, we bring that something, that holy spirit of human love, to the fore, strengthening our dedication to discerning its voice and living as it leads us. In so doing, we become, corporately and severally, the living Christ.

In sharing that conviction, that experience, I am a Quaker.

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