Core Beliefs of Quakers
By Dana Kester-McCabe
Recently I attended a weekend gathering to study Quaker theology. It was an introduction to the terms and the traditions used in exploring this topic. The event was hosted by Chuck Fager and Ann Riggs. It was intended to inspire more people to explore and discuss what the Religious Society of Friends believes. There was a lot of very interesting information. Some of it was challenging to understand. But I had come hoping to learn something new. If I had not been challenged I would probably not have learned much. The presenters and the other students were likable and enjoyable to listen to. Like most other Quaker gatherings I have been to, I found that the people attending had a great desire to encourage and include the ideas of everyone present. Even those who may have disagreed with some ideas presented were listened to with consideration and sincere attention.
I came away with a concern. How can I share what I learned there and what I believe with other people? How can I put these things into simple terms? There were a lot of words used that are not in the daily vocabulary of most people. The ideas themselves are the stuff of long walks, deep thoughts or heated debates. They are not easily explained. Whether it is a leading from God or a matter of personal pride – I feel bound to try.
In most religious traditions there seems to be an “official” set of beliefs. These are followed by a whole range of beliefs that started with the “official” ones – but have evolved into some that are very different. The Religious Society of Friends is a little different. We do not have one set of ideas that can be memorized and recited. Though we have many widely accepted writings, there is not one that stands alone as “official.” There are a wide range of belief systems held by Quakers. These are “flavored” by many traditions, some Quaker, some from other Christian faiths and some from other religions. Many Quaker groups accept people into their faith communities regardless of their beliefs. Even people who are still unsure about God or reject God altogether are welcomed into the worshiping body. That is one reason Quakers are very hard to pin down about their “theology.”
For the purposes of this article, I would argue that people who are unsure if there is a God , or reject God, but still worship with The Religious Society of Friends are loving exceptions. They are accepted in spiritual love without expectation or conditions. I would suggest that most Quakers believe that there is one God. That I am sure of. After that it gets complicated. I choose, at this time, not to talk about what all the different branches of Quakerism believe. I want to focus on what we have in common. I think that most Quakers can agree on the following statements:
- There is one God that is part of everything in the universe.
- There is that of God in everyone.
- God wants us to treat each other with compassion and understanding.
- God reveals the truth to us.
- God wants us to continue to seek the truth.
All living things are filled with a common living spirit which is God. It is at the same time different from the human soul and yet intertwined with it. God is so great and mysterious that we can not completely explain God. Some would call God a “Higher Power.” There are in fact many names for God. Some people want to call God – He or She. More than likely God does not have a human nature, so God probably does not care what name is used. God has much bigger things to work on. If God is part of everything in the universe then of course, God is part of everyone of us. And, if God is part of every one of us, then, of course, God’s love is available to each of us.
God’s nature is so vast, so powerful and so complicated that it can only be revealed to us in amounts that we, as individuals and as groups, are ready to receive. Individuals should seek out faith communities that help them to grow in their relationship with God. For some this means increased understanding of God, but more importantly it means a deeper, stronger sense of faith and inner peace.
That spirit, which is God, calls us to come together in communities, to wait upon living evidence of that spirit, which is working amongst us. This comes in a number of forms including mutual respect, compassion, tolerance and understanding. During Quaker Meetings for Worship, God inspires us to seek the truth, revealing it to us in the ministry of the Meeting, whether it is through prayerful silence or spoken words. Each individual is called to be both follower and leader: to be the instrument of God’s truth.
Individuals are responsible for assuring the good order, the comfort of others and the joy experienced in all Meeting activities. This is best accomplished through a willingness to seek a higher purpose than our own. Ultimately the spiritual satisfaction of each person in the faith community is directly related to the honesty and compassion of everyone in that community. The community is formed and strengthened by the willingness of the individuals in it who seek truth and unity in that truth. In other words, the way we conduct business is as important as the business it self.
It is up to each Meeting to seek God’s plan for them and to deliberate with each other in a spirit of love, sacred trust and holy purpose. It is important that Meetings be open to a multitude of sources of information about issues of concern. But in the end, it is important that they look to one source above all else: the spirit of God working among them. One person can be a leader, but Meeting for Worship is a unique way for people to choose a righteous path. The words or leadings of one single person are held up to the light of God. That light is allowed to shine on it and through it, giving the community guidance and inspiration.
There is no one simple truth that can be written down, that will fit every one of life’s situations. Quakers have long recognized this. That is one reason why they remain committed to a search for God’s truth. For every person you ask you may get a variety of other reasons. But this deeply held belief is the basis for every other in the Quaker tradition. God is available to each of us. If we make ourselves available to God, truth will be revealed to us. That truth is what we need to know, in this time, in this place. There are truths that have stood the test of time, and God continues to remind us of them. But just as each person needs to learn to walk for the first time, each person has to decide to take a path that accepts or declines God’s loving guidance. So too do our Quaker Meetings have to recognize and intentionally accept God’s sacred counsel. This cannot be done automatically or without serious prayerful consideration. It must be heartfelt and sincere, or it is not real. So, no matter how universal or time tested a “truth” may seem, it is merely empty words unless it is sincerely accepted into the hearts, minds and souls of those who preach it.
The gathering that inspired me to write this was, as I said, not unlike many other Quaker gatherings I have attended. The company is always good and I always learn something. That fellowship is an important part of people seeking God’s word together. People become willing to share their thoughts and feelings. Our common humanity shines forth. We see ourselves in each other. That is the essence of seeking “that of God” in everyone. Two things for sure, it seems to be me, can be said about what Quakers believe: We believe in God and we are seeking truth. I am sure there is much more I, and many others, can say about what we believe. This is a start.