Individualism and community

episode 31 individualism and community

This time around we’re discussing individualism and community in the Quaker tradition. Section 6C in Traditional Quaker Christianity quotes heavily from William Penn’s True Spiritual Liberty. The opening paragraph of this chapter is gold:

Western individualism, which elevates individuals above the group, destroys community, eats away at our concern for others’ welfare, and too often produces cadres of self-styled prophets who point the way to promised lands in their own imaginations. However, there are many religious bodies who expect complete obedience to the group and its leaders, obedience enforced with expulsion, excommunication, shunning, or other more draconian devices.

Wow. Tell us how you really feel.

This doesn’t just apply to individualism and community but also to local authority versus hierarchy. When Indiana YM split related to LGBTQ inclusion, it started out that one church said they were affirming. The yearly meeting said you can’t do that. The result was a debate about whether the yearly meeting could or couldn’t tell the local meetings what to do.

There’s a balance to be struck between individualism and community. Neither the individual nor the community should be having absolute authority. Liberal and Evangelical Quakers, unsurprisingly, tend to be pretty opposite. Liberals expect individual meetings to be totally on their own and for people to do what they want. Evangelical Quakers often have the yearly meeting being “in charge.” Some will sometimes go so far as the yearly meeting owning all the land and all the buildings. The local meetings simply occupy yearly meeting buildings as long as they have permission to do so.

Revelation & the Bible

William Penn includes many questions and answers in his True Spiritual Liberty. One is the question of whether has to conform to things they don’t accept. His says you need to question why you don’t accept it. In short, consider you might be wrong.

Hannah Barnard was an American Friends minister who was sent back from Britain as a heretic. She didn’t affirm every little thing in the Bible as truth, saying “nothing is revealed truth to me, as doctrine, until it is sealed as such in my mind, through the illumination of…the word of God, the divine light, and intelligence, to which the Scriptures…bear plentiful testimony” (as quoted in Elias Hicks: Quaker Liberal).  She also wouldn’t affirm that the Bible translations they had were true to the past. Scholars today do know of some changes, such as an extra line about the trinity. In general, though, current Bible versions are pretty accurate (but watch for bias).

Sometimes that revelation might be “you’ve been reading it wrong.” For example, we’ve had women preaching from the early days. That’s in contrast to usual readings of the Bible. The book Face to Face: Early Quaker Encounters With the Bible explores how Quakers have read the Bible over time. Mackenzie’s been reading it and really enjoys it.

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Mackenzie: Welcome to Quaker Faith & Podcast, where we will explore traditional Quaker beliefs and the variety of Quaker beliefs found today.
Welcome back to Quaker Faith & Podcast with Mackenzie and Micah. The chapter that we are looking at today is 6C, and it’s called “The Place of the Individual in the Body of Christ.” It’s taken almost entirely from William Penn’s “True Spiritual Liberty.” We’re looking at individualism and community, and we’ve talked about this some before.

Micah: I think you should read the first couple lines from the chapter because it’s really salty.

Mackenzie: Oh, it is. I called it spicy. The first sentence says, “Western individualism, which elevates individuals above the group, destroys community, eats away at our concern for others’ welfare, and too often produces cadres of self-styled prophets who point the way to Promised Lands in their own imaginations.”

Micah: Yeah.

Mackenzie: That sets a tone.

Micah: Yeah. I think that’s fair, but it does go-

Mackenzie: It then contrasts.

Micah: It does contrast.

Mackenzie: It says, “However, there are many religious bodies who expect complete obedience to the group and its leaders, obedience enforced with expulsion, excommunication, shunning, or other more draconian devices.”

Micah: Right. I think this is actually really relevant. These two sides we can fall off on, does the individual have no responsibility to the community or does the individual have too much responsibility to the community? Does the community have too much power over the individual? When do you know?

Mackenzie: Yeah, I would certainly feel that being in an Amish community would be very repressive. It’s harder from a woman’s example, but men’s clothing. “Oh, your suspenders are two inches wide. They’re only allowed to be an inch and a half. You’re in trouble now.”

Micah: I think this is relevant. I think we’re gonna primarily be talking about the individual, but I want to flag that I think this is also a relevant question for groups. This is something that’s played out in recent years in Quaker communities where there have been several schisms in recent years in Quaker Yearly Meetings where at the root of things, the real question at the end of the day was, “Who’s in charge, the Yearly Meeting or the local Meeting?” That was actually whose authority trumps whose?

Mackenzie: That was made explicit with Indiana Yearly Meeting, from which has now come the New Association of Friends. As with every schism in the last decade, it seems, LGBT stuff was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Micah: But it wasn’t the real issue.

Mackenzie: Right. What it revealed was a fundamental disagreement about authority. Indiana Yearly Meeting, I guess, maybe their faith and practice was set up or least there was a significant preponderance who believed that the Yearly Meeting had authority and could tell the local Meetings what to do.
And so when a local Meeting stepped out of line, the Yearly Meeting was like, “Ah, you’re in trouble.”

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: Meanwhile, there was some local Meetings who had been under the impression that the relationship was more like what we have in Baltimore Yearly Meeting, where each local Meeting is essentially autonomous and sometimes we are all able to agree on something and put a statement out from the Yearly Meeting, but if we can’t, that’s okay, we will all do our own thing.

Micah: And I would argue that neither of those is a healthy situation and that the ideal situation with individuals in the Meeting and with Meetings and a Yearly Meeting, is that there’s a genuine back-and-forth between the body as a whole and the individuals that make it up. So in the case of Yearly Meeting, there’s really a back-and-forth between the local Meetings and the Yearly Meeting as a whole. In a Meeting, there’s a back-and-forth between the individuals and the group as a whole and that the individuals submit themselves to the group and the group allows itself be held accountable by the prophetic voices that emerge from the individuals.
So sometimes, often times, we as individuals need to receive wisdom from the group and sometimes even admonishment from the group, but there are also many times when the group needs to receive wisdom, admonishment, a prophetic word from the individual.
So for either side to say, for the individual to say, “I’m the authority in my own life, and you can’t tell me what to do,” or for the group to say, “We are the authority and we don’t really want to hear out of you. You just need to obey.” Neither of those are healthy situations.

Mackenzie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). One of the … I’m just going to use the old-timey term … elders in my Meeting was surprised when I used the phrase “mutual submission” in a Facebook comment referring to the relationship between individuals and Meetings. She wasn’t expecting that, and I think it’s not a phrase that is commonly used among us liberal Quakers.

Micah: Liberal Quakers and Evangelical Quakers, as in many things, they’re sort of opposites day. Liberal Quakers, in their Yearly Meeting structures, but also in the local Meetings, emphasize complete individual autonomy. Whether it’s a Meeting, giving the Meeting complete autonomy to do its own thing, or whether it’s for the individual, giving the individual complete autonomy to do their own thing. Whereas in the Evangelical Yearly Meetings, individuals are expected to tow the line in a lot of ways, and Meetings are expected to tow the line in a lot of ways. In fact, I don’t know to what extent this is the case in the liberal Yearly Meetings, but it’s pretty standard. I think this is standard in a lot of denominations outside of Quakers, but it’s pretty standard for Evangelical Quakers to have all their local meeting houses be owned by the Yearly Meeting.

Mackenzie: That’s definitely not the case with us.

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: Yeah. Every local Meeting owns its own meeting house, and actually those are from Eric up at Northwest Yearly … Well, not Northwest anymore … Yearly Meeting, Sierra Cascades was telling me that Northwest Yearly Meeting owned all of the meeting houses and, officially, Northwest Yearly Meeting was a single, multi-campus church, is what the structure was, because they owned all the meeting houses. They owned all of the property, etc., and they’re all encapsulated under a single non-profit designation with the federal government.
In the U.S., you don’t actually have to register your church as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. However, anybody listening who doesn’t know if your Meeting has one … it probably doesn’t because it costs money to file the paperwork … but there are a lot of things your Meeting could be getting for free if you have that designation letter. Just so we’re clear.

Micah: On the other hand, while we’re talking about this incredibly tangental tangent, I would point out that if you have started a worship group or a small church or a house church, even, it is very, very easy to get yourself incorporated as a church. You do not have to be a 501(c)(3) to start getting the tax advantages and other-

Mackenzie: Right. That’s what I was meaning is that the incorporation is separate, but they are actually under one 501(c)(3) as opposed to, for us, my Meeting doesn’t have 501(c)(3) number, but it is incorporated as its own church. But that is a separate incorporation from the Yearly Meeting. I know our Yearly Meeting is 501(c)(3), but we can’t use their magic codes to get discounts.

Micah: So back to the individual versus the community.

Mackenzie: Right. Yes.

Micah: I think that, as the book alludes to, it’s problematic to sort of set either the individual or the community … Again, I think it goes back to what I’ve said in an earlier episode. We tend to want to default to either “yes” or “no.” “Open” or “closed.” The reality is the most dynamic communities have a real interplay between the concerns and understandings and agendas of all the individuals and the community as a whole. Whereas when you have just the individuals doing their own thing or just the community shutting everyone down, it doesn’t lead itself to good discernment. At the end of the day, what we’re looking for as Quakers is to be hearing and obeying the voice of Jesus. So giving all the authority to individuals or giving all the authority to the community stifles us in that listening.

Mackenzie: Something that the authors of this book wrote, and which Micah was amused and said it sounds like there were some engineers involved in writing it, was, “What happens when an individual’s discernment conflicts with that of the Meeting? What if the individual’s discernment is correct? What if the Meeting’s is correct? What if both are partially correct and partially incorrect?” Got to cover all the bases here. Somebody worked out their truth tables.

Micah: In my experience, I would say, almost always, the third option is correct. The third thing is, “What if both the individual and the Meeting are both partially correct and partially incorrect?” That’s why when it’s done well, and when we are blessed by the Holy Spirit with guidance, the Meeting for business in the Quaker style can be truly powerful. We can have the experience of coming into a Meeting for business with different vying ideas in the heads of different individuals, a different group-think that the community as a whole has, and come into that space with those vying perceptions and come out of it having been given a perspective that is different than anything we came into the conversation with.
I don’t simply mean we put a pinch of one person’s opinion and a dash of another person’s opinion and came together with a synthesis. I mean a totally different idea that no one had considered. That happens sometimes. It happens because we were listening. When we just give all the authority to, say, the church leadership and shut everyone else down, or if we give all the authority to individuals and aren’t able to come to a collective decision, we can’t listen. We can’t have that experience of being given an answer that’s beyond what we had to start with.

Mackenzie: Most of this chapter is some questions from William Penn’s “True Spiritual Liberty,” which is apparently written catechism-style, or FAQ style, because he gives a question and an answer. I found the first one to be the most interesting of them because the question is, “Must I conform to things, whether I can receive them or no?” Sorry, 17th century English. I think “receive” would be like “understand” or-

Micah: Or “accept” them.

Mackenzie: “Accept.” Okay, there we go. So he says, “No, but now consider the reason thou canst not receive them. Is the fault in the things themselves? Are they inconsistent with Truth, or will not the Truth assent unto them? Or is the fault in thee? Is it thy weakness or carelessness? If thy weakness, it is to be borne with and informed; if thy carelessness, thou oughtest to be admonished. For it is the root of Ranterism to assert that nothing is a duty incumbent upon thee, but what thou art persuaded is thy duty. The seared conscience pleads liberty against all duty, the unenlightened conscience is unconcerned, and the dead conscience is uncondemned unless this distinction be allowed. There may be ignorance from inability or incapacity, and ignorance from disobedience and prejudice. So though thou art not to conform to a thing ignorantly, yet thou art seriously to consider why thou art ignorant and what the cause of such ignorance may be. It can’t be God; it must be thyself, who hast not yet received a sense for or against the matter about which thou art in doubt.”

Micah: So what I sort of feel like Barclay is saying here, because that was a lot-

Mackenzie: Penn. William Penn.

Micah: Oh, Penn. I’m sorry. We were just talking about Barclay before.

Mackenzie: This is the fifth thing we’ve recorded today. Sorry, guys.

Micah: I think what Penn is talking about here is that when we come into an encounter with scripture, when we come into an encounter with church tradition, if we disagree with something, the response of the individual is naturally going to be, “Well, that’s not right! I know what’s right, and that’s not right!” But what Penn is inviting us into is to consider that you might be wrong.

Mackenzie: Which is advice that you see in, at least in the written Yearly Meeting Faith & Practice-

Micah: Consider that you might be mistaken. I think, for me, that was a transformative moment in my relationship with the Bible. When I first started reading the Bible, I went into it with an attitude of, “I believe what I believe, and I’m going to believe the Bible insofar…” I didn’t explicitly think this, but this was what was subconsciously there. In my relationship with the Bible, I was like, “I believe what I believe, and if the Bible confirms what I believe, I’m going to like that, but if it says something that I think is wrong, then the fault is with the Bible, and I’m not going to accept that.”
My relationship with the Bible, and therefore with the church, with the Christian tradition, was transformed when I shifted my thinking to, “If I agree with something in the Bible, I’m going to embrace that, obviously. But if I disagree, if I find something in the Bible that seems to go against what I believe, then I am going to sit with that and consider why it might be that the writer of the Scripture is saying something I disagree with.” So putting the burden on myself, instead of putting the burden on the Scripture writer and saying, “The Scripture writer just needs to believe what I believe,” instead putting the burden on myself and saying, “Why don’t I like what they’re saying? Might I be mistaken?” And often, I’ve found that I was.

Mackenzie: That kind of reminds me of Hannah Barnard, who was a Quaker minister in the late 1700s. She got shipped back to the U.S. from Britain, labeled a heretic-

Micah: Like you do.

Mackenzie: Yeah, like you do. She had said … There was something that’s in the Bible that … You know, usually, so often, there are things in the Bible where somebody’s got their interpretation of it, and they’re sure it’s the right one, and when you disagree with them, that means you disagree with the Bible, as opposed to disagreeing with their interpretation. Because human tendencies, right? She said, “Well, that hasn’t been revealed to me yet.”
I think, actually, “That hasn’t been revealed to me yet” is really what William Penn’s saying in there when he says … I lost the page now … When he says, “Who hast not yet received a sense for or against the matter.” I think that’s talking about, “It hasn’t been revealed to me yet.” But she’d also said that she thought it was possible that the Bible as written and known in the 1700s might not actually be completely accurate to when it was assembled 1400 years prior. We certainly do have more copies of old pieces of Greek writing nowadays.

Micah: And we know that the Bible, that the translations we received are incredibly accurate at this point.

Mackenzie: The modern translations.

Micah: We’ve even found out, when they found the Dead Sea Scrolls, we found out the translations we already had, which were much, much younger translations, were substantially the same. Which was impressive, to find that out.

Mackenzie: But we do know that there are some inaccuracies over Junia being written as Junius and things like that. Occasionally, there will be a line that exists in only one copy and not in all these other copies, and they’re like, “Wait a second! Was that an addition? Which one’s actually canonical?

Micah: I think in matters of … Interpretation is one thing, but sort of rejection of portions of scripture. I think we’ve all got passages like that, right? We’ve all got passages where it’s like, “I do not like this part!” I think those are really things … Our sort of visceral dislike of certain parts of the Bible, which I think we all have, is a place where we do best to submit ourselves to the church and say, “I don’t like this, but this is the Bible. This is a foundation of church teaching. I may not like this, but I accept that this is in our shared writings. I accept that this is a part of the tradition.” If I don’t like it … Accepting it means I have to wrestle with it. I can’t just say, “I don’t like this and I refuse it.” I have to wrestle with it.
So for me, it’s parts like the genocides in the Old Testament. Some of the passages where Paul seems really misogynistic. Places in the Letter of Jude that seems just really nasty to me at certain points. It’s the shortest letter in the New Testament, and it’s really mean and bitter. I may not like this, but that doesn’t matter because I’m just Micah Bales. The church wrote this, and the church has accepted this for 2000 years. I will deal.

Mackenzie: We were going to stop there, but in editing I realized that we didn’t really talk about interpretation. I’ve said before when we were talking about the women’s preaching that Quakers have basically always interpreted things in the Bible differently than the “traditional” interpretations. I’ve actually been reading a really good book lately called “Face to Face: Early Quaker Encounters with the Bible,” which is by T. Vail Palmer, Jr., who lives in Washington state. This is his life’s work, and he’s talking about how Quakers, the early Friends, read the Bible with empathy or like John Woolman said, with “near sympathy.” I’m really enjoying it. It really explains how we ended up with different interpretations, and it might be interesting for you in your explorations with the Bible.
This book was published by a good friend of mine and Micah’s, Eric over at Barclay Press. This kind of segues into, I don’t know if you signed up for our email list on our website. If you did, you might notice that the address that the government makes us include on the emails says “Oregon” even though we’ve both said that we’re from near Washington D.C.. So what’s going on there is we didn’t want to put our home addresses.
At the same time, we know that Barclay Press is being hit pretty hard by the shake-ups in the Evangelical Friends world. So I asked Eric over at Barclay Press, “Is there anything I could do to thank you for letting us use your address? Maybe something mutually beneficial, like could we have a coupon code to share with our listeners?” And he went, “Yeah! Coupon code sounds great. Here you go.” So for the month of April 2018, if you put “Quaker Faith” into the coupon code box on the Barclay Press online bookstore, you will get 10% off your order. Who doesn’t like discounts on books, right?
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