We’re kicking off episode 1 of Quaker Faith & Podcast with a heavy topic: Jesus Christ is the Word of God. However, this belief is foundational to Quakerism’s origins and still resonates for most Quakers today. So, it’s pretty clear why the authors of Traditional Quaker Christianity chose to put it first.
Many Christians are fond of talking about the Bible as the end-all be-all of Christian authority. They’ll tell you the Bible is Word of God. Quakers, however, look at “the Word was made flesh” and come to a different conclusion: Christ is the Word of God. Yes, the Bible testifies to the Word of God, but that’s not quite the same thing.
This also means we discuss the place of Scripture in Quakerism. We’ll be talking more particularly about Scripture in a few months, but here we talk about how that balances with personal experience of the Inward Christ (or Inner Light). Consequently, we talk about the place of personal experience in our spiritual journeys and Christ’s role as the Inner Teacher or the Guide.
- The Scriptures As Understood and Used by Conservative Friends
- John 1:9
- John 1:14
Mackenzie: Hi and welcome to the first episode of Quaker Faith and Podcast. Our names are Mackenzie and Micah, and we’re two Quakers in the D.C. area. I’m Mackenzie, and I live just north of D.C. I’ve been into Quakerism for the last seven years, I think. I come from a background of having been originally a Catholic and then gone awhile of just nothing at all, kind of just agnostic, kind of leaning Atheist even. Then I found Quakers around Thanksgiving 2009 and have done some studying and sort of moved around, and oddly enough, ended up back over to being Christian, just of a rather different branch than I was when Catholic.
Micah: My name’s Micah, and I’m also a Quaker here in the D.C. area. My story is I started out as a child in a friend’s church out in Wichita, Kansas. From basically middle school through college, I wasn’t religious. I wasn’t involved in a congregation. Although for some of that time, I continued to identify as Quaker. How I really came back into Quakerism was through a Liberal Quaker meeting also in Wichita, Kansas.
Micah: From there, ended up going to seminary, our own school of religion, ended up getting involved in Conservative Quakers. At this point, I am a part of a group called The Friends of Jesus Fellowship, which is a weird little part of the religious society of friends that maybe I’ll get a chance to talk about later on in this series. Really, really happy to talk about Quakerism, talk about Jesus, and talk about how we can be friends together.
Mackenzie: We’re making this podcast because we know there are many Quaker meetings, or what some of you might call churches, out there, such as … Micah said that he went to a friend’s church that’s a Quaker church. There are so many that are so small that they just don’t really have the resources to have religious education for both kids and adults every single week. They might only be able to handle [inaudible 00:02:10] classes for kids and then leave the adults to self-study and say, “Hey, we have a library.”
Mackenzie: Because there’s so many Quakers who are out there, probably actually the majority at least in the U.S. and certainly in Britain, were raised in some other religion, or some other Christian denomination, or with no religion at all. That means that the kids can end up getting a whole lot more Quaker religious education time than their parents get.
Micah: Yeah, so what makes this even more complicated is that even if there is solid religious education in a particular community, it rarely is going to encompass what I would call maybe a full spectrum Quakerism, which catches the full richness of the tradition. That’s because Quakerism over the course of the centuries, Quakerism has been around about 350 years now, we’ve been torn apart by a number of schisms and then also just sort of by a general drifting apart.
Micah: Different parts of the Quaker world have sort of sided with different tendencies in American culture, or in the case of international friends, other national or international cultures. So, you’ve ended up with a situation where here in the United States there are sort of four broad tendencies, or branches, or offshoots of traditional Quakerism, which include Liberal Quakers, Conservative Quakers, which we’re going to talk a bit more about today, Evangelical Quakers, and sort of a hodge-podge group that’s called Friends United Meeting, which includes a lot of different kinds of Quakers.
Micah: So, there’s this whole spectrum, and it’s rare that individuals who don’t either go to seminary or do a lot of traveling among Quakers really get a broad sense of what the tradition is about as a whole and is about at its roots. We’re hoping that through this podcast we can help provide a sense of that broadness and that depth and how it all fits together in a coherent understanding of who God is, who Jesus is, and what it means for us to be in community together.
Mackenzie: Last year, I got a copy of a book that’s called Traditional Quaker Christianity. That’s published by Ohio Yearling Meeting. Ohio Yearly Meeting is from that Conservative branch Michael was just mentioning. When we say Conservative in terms of Quakers, what we mean is they’re Traditionalists. The Conservative Branch is sort of seen as being middle of the road Quakers.
Mackenzie: While some individuals at sort of opposite ends of the Quaker spectrum, if you want to think of it that way, might be ready to, as Quaker blogger Brenden Baker put it, vote off Quaker Island people who are on the other end of the spectrum, I kind of have the impression that everybody pretty much agrees that Conservatives are in. So, that’s what makes a book written from their perspective an ideal starting point for discussion. Sometimes one of the two of us might disagree with something that we see in the book or one of the guests we have on at some point might disagree, but it at least gives us a good centering point of reference to move from.
Mackenzie: We’re going to use this book as sort of a curriculum for the podcast. If you want to get a copy, they’re available online. It’s set up so that each topic has recommended readings. So, that might be something written by Quakers 350 years ago, or it might be something from the Bible, or something written relatively recently. Then gives a couple pages of explanation and a set of discussion questions. So, we’re going to be going through the book one topic per episode and give a little summary and then talk about it.
Mackenzie: Without further ado, one with a very heavy title, Section 1A, Jesus Christ is the Word of God.
Micah: I have to say, this is a really exciting section for me. I know that’s why friends in Ohio Yearling Meeting put this first, is that who Jesus is and his relationship with the Bible is foundational to the Quaker movement. In the early Quaker movement … Quakers got started in the 1640s, 1650s. During that time period, there were a lot of issues. There were a lot of stands that different religious groups were taking, but the heart of it all from the perspective of the early Quakers was, who is Jesus and what is the Bible.
Micah: For a lot of Christians then and now, the Bible is considered the Word of God. What that actually means is pretty nebulous, and it means different things for different groups. What it has often meant traditionally is that the Bible is the ultimate source of truth and that when we want to know God, when we want to know how we’re supposed to be as human beings, when we want to understand what God’s will is for us and how we act in it, this more mainstream Christian view is that you go to the Bible and you use the Bible to find the right way to go. You use the Bible to find the rules, to find the commandments, to find the path.
Micah: The radical assertion of the early Quaker movement was that the Bible is only sort of a vestment of Jesus, is only a vestment of the Word of God, but that Jesus himself is the Word of God and that the only way to be in a relationship with God, the only way to know God is to know Jesus himself and that the Bible, while very useful and very precious, is not sufficient as a rule of life, that we need to know Jesus and we need to follow him. In fact, you can know the Bible very well, you can be very proficient in it and have a great analysis of it and miss the mark and never actually meet Jesus.
Mackenzie: Yeah, actually what you just said about that you can know the Bible really well and miss the mark, that actually just reminded me of Margaret Fell, who she was an early Quaker. She was this huge major organizer for the early Quaker movement. The moment when she was convinced of Quakerism, she started crying and saying, and I might not get the quote quite right, but, “We’re all thieves, we’re all thieves. We’ve taken the scriptures in and know nothing of them in ourselves.”
Micah: Yeah. The early Quaker focus was on … You see, the early Quakers and generally Christians in general in their time were steeped in the Bible. People heard the Bible all the time being read in public places. I mean, there was no TV. So, the main form of entertainment in public assembly was religious gatherings, typically in state run meeting houses where the state run clergy would come and present sermons that would use biblical language and would lay out the Bible.
Micah: The printing press had just been invented, and so the Bible itself was getting into the hands of the people and everyone was reading it. What the Quakers were saying was that with all this knowledge of the Bible, it was still being used to basically prop up human arguments and human ambition. I mean, an example I would give is, we just got a new President here in the United States. One of the things he did during his first few days in office was he went to two different prayer services, one at St. Johns Episcopal near the White House the morning of his inauguration and the other a day later at the National Cathedral.
Micah: These were places where the new President sort of shrouded his own presidency in the language of religion but in a way where, I personally would argue, that his words, and his policies, and his principles have nothing to do with the person of Jesus and with true Christianity. So, the early Quakers were seeing that too. They were seeing all these different causes, from the king to the new parliament to different radical groups to people who wanted to fight wars among each other, using biblical language and using even the words of Jesus to say things that Jesus has nothing to do with.
Mackenzie: It kind of gets always a little bit into the whole … there this thing called Two Kingdoms Theology where there’s a bit in the Bible where Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” A lot of times when you see kingdoms that are a part of this world, which a lot of things don’t have kingdoms anymore, now we have republics in a lot of cases, but still when you see governments trying to use Jesus, then it’s sort of suspect.
Micah: To sort of direct us back to what’s the original prompt, which is Jesus is the Word of God … Of course, when Quakers say Jesus is the Word of God the understanding is as opposed to the Bible, that the Bible is ultimately a secondary source of information about Jesus.
Micah: The best source of information about him, the best way to be in a relationship with him is to know him himself. That presupposes that we can actually know Jesus, that we’re not doing historical investigation into who Jesus was, but in fact we are in a relationship with who Jesus is and that he is alive. So, at the heart of the Quaker understanding in Christianity is an experience of the resurrection as a reality.
Mackenzie: I haven’t really thought of it that way before, but I do think it’s important to point out that for a lot of people who have had difficulties in the past where some past experience maybe with another faith community has left them feeling like they have a lot of trouble connecting with Christian language, there does end up being a significant contingent of people for whom I think they wouldn’t say that what’s going on with them in Quakerism is necessarily about a personal relationship with Jesus Christ so much as it is connecting directly with the Divine. They might even use that in more universal language of the Divine instead of saying Jesus’s name. That’s a part of the spiritual journey.
Micah: Yeah, that’s a fact. There’s a lot of, as Mackenzie … My job is to preach Jesus, and Mackenzie knew that inviting me on here, but Mackenzie’s going to keep reminding us of the broadness of the Quaker community, particularly some of the broadness in the Quaker community that she is a part of where there’s a range of theological understandings. The source of all that was the early Quaker experience that all these different groups were using the Bible as the Word of God, which to them often meant a legalist rule book that they could point to justify their own attitudes and actions. The Quakers discovered that the person who wrote the Bible was able to speak to them directly right now.
Mackenzie: Right. I think we still have that a lot today with … Something that has come up in Christianity that is a change since the days of early Quakerism is that nowadays we have what’s called biblical literalism as a movement in Christianity. That wasn’t really a thing yet. That got started in, I think, the 1800s if I’m remember right.
Mackenzie: That’s saying, “We just read the Bible completely literally. No, it’s not metaphor,” et cetera. That’s really different from how Quakers read the Bible, understand it, and understand how we’re supposed to interact with the Divine.
Micah: Yeah. One of the hallmarks of Quakerism is viewing the Bible as being multilayered, that we’re not dealing simply with a one dimensional text but that it’s more like an onion.
Mackenzie: Ogres are like onions.
Micah: That’s right. That’s right. I think I’m misunderstanding when it’s talking, again, about the differences between branches. I think a misunderstanding or a differentiation that happens in modern Quakerism is that lots of different Quaker groups or Quaker traditions want to say, “This layer of the onion, this is where it’s at.” So, maybe some of our more Evangelical traditions would say, “Well, it’s the literal truth of what happened.” For example, to go to a place that causes all sorts of schisms constantly throughout history and present day, to talk about the atonement.
Micah: When we look at Jesus’s death on the cross, there’s a tendency, and this is just one area where we can do this but you can do it with any part of the Bible, there’s a tendency to say, “Well, Jesus historically died on the cross, and that had a special saving power for us today,” and say it’s about the historical event. That’s one-
Mackenzie: Which, by the way, Episode Three is going to actually be talking about the atonement more in particular.
Micah: Awesome. In a sense, that’s right, that’s one layer of the onion. One layer of onion is in fact Jesus historically died on the cross, and his death had meaning, and it had power, and it continues to have power in our lives. Then there’s another layer of the onion, which is you can think about it from a sociological perspective, like what did it mean for the people around him, and what meaning did it have in their lives right then to see that happen. You can think about it from an intellectual perspective. You can think about it from a devotional perspective. What does this mean in my own life that Jesus died in this way, and what effect does that have on me personally?
Micah: There’s so many ways that you can un-peel this onion and find that each one has depth, and value, and meaning. The tragedy of the Quaker tradition, and probably in almost any Christian tradition or tradition at all, is that there tends to be a fixation on layer of the onion in saying, “This one layer,” whether it’s saying it’s the spiritual experience, it’s the historical event, it’s this, it’s that, whatever that thing is, taking that and idolizing it and saying, “This is the one thing.”
Micah: So, to bring it back to the Word of God, the genius of the early Quaker movement and the heart of the Quaker tradition is to say, “The one thing, the one thing is Jesus alive, and resurrected, and present in our lives.”
Mackenzie: Do we want to try actually looking at the discussion questions that are in the book just since we claimed we were going to do that?
Micah: We should probably do that to actually engage with this text.
Mackenzie: The first question, it says is, “There are millions of people who claim a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and there are many possible meanings for that phrase. So, how did George Fox understand his relationship with Jesus Christ?”
Mackenzie: Since one of the [crosstalk 00:17:03] foundational phrases we have in Quakerism is from a vision Fox had where he hears a voice that says, “There is one even Christ Jesus that can speak to your condition,” and this is while Fox has been going around trying to find someone who could answer his theological questions, in that instance at least, of talking about the teacher.
Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. I mean, George Fox, a lot of historians have referred to him as a spiritual genius or a religious genius in the sense that he had a very … he had a breakthrough, a breakthrough that he and then the Quaker movement of the whole brought a unique perspective into the Christian tradition. This in that time and place was the experience that just like the early disciples, if you read in the Bible, if you read in the Gospels, if you read in the Book of Acts, the early disciples … for them, Jesus wasn’t a metaphor. Jesus was a literal present reality in their lives.
Micah: He appeared to them. He spoke to them. He guided them. He directed them, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. For the early Quaker movement, their experience was the same. They had not simply read about Jesus in the book and then decided to follow him, they had met him. They had had a living experience of him, and they continued to. That’s ultimately what they felt was guiding their assemblies.
Mackenzie: Actually, you just reminded me that of course Christianity was an oral tradition for the first few hundred years. So, the second question that they have in the book is, “Does the traditional Quaker understanding of the Word of God surprise you, and how so?”
Mackenzie: I’m going to go with no in my case, because I like to joke that when it says in the Bible there that the word was made flesh, I’m pretty sure they weren’t talking about the calf skin parchment that they pricked the Bibles on.
Micah: Yeah. Just as a side note, to go back to sort of the biblical text itself, I’ve been very interested in this question for a long time. As I’ve said repeatedly I think in this show, I view this question of, “Who is the Word of God, what is the Word of God?”, as the central question really of Christianity when it comes down to it. So, I’ve done a lot of looking in the Bible to see what does the Bible itself say about the Word of God.
Micah: I think a part of the confusion in the Christian tradition, because there’s strong disagreement and most Christians would say the Bible is the Word of God, that’s just sort of taken for granted, I think the heart of this confusion and something that we Quakers should pay attention to, because it is there in the text, is that the Bible really talks about the Word of God in two ways. It’s talking about two different things. When I read through the New Testament in particular, I won’t try to opine about the Old Testament because I’m more of a New Testament scholar than Old Testament scholar-
Mackenzie: Yeah, I haven’t actually read through the Old Testament, only the New Testament.
Micah: There’s always more reading to do. When I’ve looked through very detailed way of how is the Word of God being used and sometimes just the word … For example, there are many places throughout both Old and New Testaments where they say, “They preach the word,” or, “They spoke the word.” Word tends to be used in two ways. By the way, the particular Greek word … There’s more than one word for … word for word in Greek, but I was particularly focusing on the word logos, which is for example in the Book of John, at the very beginning it says, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The word they’re using there is logos.
Micah: The word logos is also used to refer to the spoken proclamation of God’s message. So, there is some ambiguity. I think as a Quaker, as someone who … I have a fairly strong investment and a particular interpretation of Jesus as the Word of God. There is scriptural foundation to say that the proclamation of God’s message is also the word. So, I think we have to take that seriously as Quakers, that Jesus is the Word of God and the Word of God is also continuing to be proclaimed.
Micah: So, in that sense, I see how much of the Christian Church has gotten to a place of saying that the Bible is the Word of God, because the Bible is, as Christians generally hold and as Quakers generally hold, the Bible is a collection of inspired messages from God given through the Christian community. So, in that sense, I have to confess that in that sense the Bible is the Word of God. It is an inspired message proclaimed about Jesus through the church. In that sense, God has spoken through it and God continues to speak to us through the Holy Spirit. God uses it in that way.
Micah: So, there is that ambiguity, but I think something that’s very important for Quakers in that understanding of the Word of God is being the proclamation and I think is very deep in the Quaker tradition is that Quakers have a sense of the Word of God as being alive, and fresh, respoken through us all the time. That’s the basis for our meetings for worship, that in most Quaker meetings there is at least a time where there can be spoken ministry that is not preplanned necessarily, or if it is, there’s a lot of prayer that goes into prepared sermons too. There’s a deep sense in the Quaker tradition that God is still speaking.
Mackenzie: I think there was a hashtag that was like, “Explain your faith in four words,” and the Quaker answer was, “God is still speaking.”
Micah: And that Jesus is still present, and that we can speak those words, and that when we do … It’s really scary when you think about it. This is one of the scariest things about Quakerism to me when I got into it was the idea, and the experience, and the understanding that when I speak in meeting for worship, if I’m being faithful, God is literally speaking through me. In that sense, I am preaching the Word of God.
Mackenzie: Yeah. I think that’s really important to keep in mind when speaking in meeting is that you’re supposed to only be speaking what’s coming to you from God, or from the Divine, or whatever, but that it’s not supposed to be your own ego. So, that’s one of the questions that’s on the little charts that are like, “How to tell when to speak in meeting.” It’s actually reminding me right now of something that Margaret Fell tells us George Fox once preached where he said, “You will say Christ sayest this, and the Apostles say this, but canst thou say? Art thou a child of the light? Hast thou walked in the light? And what thou speakest, is it inwardly from God?”
Mackenzie: He’s saying, “Yeah, yeah, you can recite what it says in the Bible, but what’s your experience? The things that you’re saying, are those coming from God, or is that just your own ego wanting to talk?”
Mackenzie: There’s actually one question left for this chapter that says, “Experience tends to be valued because it seems undeniable, yet over time we often come to deeper or different understandings of prior experiences. How do you evaluate your personal experiences?”, which is an interesting one.
Mackenzie: It takes some thought, I think.
Micah: How would you answer that?
Mackenzie: If you look at my history with spirituality and how you can sort of, as it was saying, come to new understandings or reinterpret something, when I first found Quakerism, at that point I was generally just kind of agnostic, not too sure about the whole God thing. The meeting that I went to was a very Liberal Quaker meeting where you don’t really hear a whole lot of talk about Jesus or God and more talking about spirit or the Divine.
Mackenzie: At that time, that was the closest I was getting to spirituality. It wouldn’t have worked for me to try to show up to a super Evangelical Baptist church or something, because that would have felt like way too much pressure. So, it was really good low pressure environment for me to sort of explore spirituality. While I was there, somebody asked me, “Well, how do you feel about the fact that Quakerism has these Christian roots?” I said, “Well, I don’t have any problem with Jesus. I really like the stuff Jesus says in the Bible. It’s just I’m not so sure about God, like this dude on a cloud,” and a very Sistine Chapel kind of thing or Zeus.
Mackenzie: Now in hindsight, and it wasn’t just me but I was talking to a woman and I told her this. She said that that environment … that God was providing that environment as a way to get to me and to nurture me into the spirit, because that’s the environment some people need.
Micah: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. In terms of the question of how we can know whether our experience is true, or valid, or leading us in the right direction, or in whatever sense we need to relate to our experience, for me experience was definitely … When I say experience, I mean what some people would call peak experience, or a mystical experience, or an ecstatic religious experience, whatever you’d want to call it, that kind of experience was at the core of why I became a Quaker and why I became a Christian.
Micah: So, that sort of raw felt experience of God’s presence was the cornerstone for me. As time has gone on, I have become more skeptical of experience in terms of it being a standalone source of truth. I’ve really come to value the Bible as a very important check on my understanding, the community and the tradition, both the Quaker tradition and the broader Christian tradition, I value them as sort of giving me a reality check, and just community, just the people around me. Hopefully surrounding myself with good, loving people that I can trust to sort of … If you ever really bowled as a kid or were really bad at bowling as an adult and did bumper bowling-
Micah: … I sort of feel like the Bible … the Bible, the community, the tradition, and these things are sort of like the bumpers for your experience, because your experience can sort of fly all over the place. To be totally honest, some days I’m a totally committed Christian. Other days, I feel like an Atheist. The bumpers of the community, the tradition, the Bible, these are what help keep me grounded amidst the storms of personal experience.
Micah: So, I would, yeah, the longer I’m in this path, the more I value the whole spectrum of resources that we have to inform our experience and help keep me more balanced, and more even keeled, and hopefully more faithful as I try to be a friend of Jesus.
Mackenzie: Yeah. I like that topic of role of the community and how community factors into almost spiritual authority. I know I really … I read something that really tweaks me because it was talking about the pastor’s authority and submitting to your pastor. I expressed this to the author who was like, “But somebody has to have authority.” I’m like, “Yeah, but you don’t give it to one person.” So, that could be an interesting topic for some later discussion. I suspect there’s probably something in that book where we’re going to hit on that later.
Micah: Yeah. I was about to say, I’d be really surprised if that didn’t come up.
Mackenzie: I think we’ve probably nattered on long enough.
Micah: Hopefully this was interesting for at least one or two listeners out there.
Mackenzie: Well, that’s time. We will see you back in two weeks where our next topic will be God’s Old and New Covenants with Humanity.
Mackenzie: You can find us on the web at quakerpodcast.org, on Twitter as Quaker Faith, on Facebook and on iTunes.