There I was, at the age of almost 13, away at camp for the first time. This camp ran a 24-hour recruitment program for being born again and baptized in the lake. There was a lot of pressure, so that none of us would leave at the end of the week without this conversion ritual. As I recall I held out until Thursday or Friday, but I wasn’t that strong; I wound up in the lake with the others, and I’ve never really lost the assumption that other people want me to come over to their religious beliefs and faith language.
The push to agree can also be found among Quakers. Decades later I had an argument with a weighty Friend at Pendle Hill, in which said Friend told me I was wrong for not wanting to pray “in Jesus’ name.” Now much older, I was able to stay true to my own experiences, which happen not to be Christian, or even theist. In my Meeting a rainbow of theology is accepted and welcomed. There may be some quiet tolerating going on, however, obscured by just not talking about differences of belief, which holds us apart from real unity.
THE BOOK: QUAKER AND NATURALIST TOO
Os Cresson is a member of Iowa Conservative Yearly Meeting and of Quaker Earthcare Witness, where we served together on a committee. He is a lover of language and a careful thinker. Until I read his book, I didn’t know that he is also a serious historian. His book, published by Morning Walk Press in 2014, is lively with voices, and easy to read.
Following a foreword by David Boulton, well-known British Quaker non-theist and historian, the book is organized into three sections.
In the first section, “Unity,” Cresson guides us beyond tolerance toward active love of each other, based in mutual confidence of acceptance despite differences. He sees each of us using the language that proceeds from our personal experience, not holding back because of the different words we use or the theology they imply. He says, “This contrasts with our usual practice of ignoring or hiding differences, limiting dialogue to terms we all agree on.” (p. 9) More than half of this section is an anthology of quotations from Quakers through the years, demonstrating through many voices that this kind of diversity is truly part of our heritage.
In the second section, “Quakers and Naturalists,” Cresson addresses the question of whether science and Quakerism are at odds. He has met Quakers who are skeptical of science. I have not run into this, possibly because I live near Cambridge (MA) with so many universities. Cresson suggests active Quaker outreach to scientists.
The third section is “History.” He provides convincing statements from early and modern Friends showing that non-theism has been present among Quakers from our beginning. Then he turns to what he calls “religious naturalism in the time of Fox,” looking at what Quakers and non-Quakers wrote about finding God through nature. Some held views similar to what we call stewardship, seeing God as Lord and Creator and humankind as responsible for the care of God’s Creation. Others found divinity in the unity of all being. Jacob Boehme, who was widely read by Friends, wrote, “[C]onsider how the whole Nature …is together the Body or Corporeity of God…” and “We can…in no wise say that God’s essence is something far off, which possesses a special abode or place, for the abyss of Nature and creation is God himself.” (p. 108) This quotation “speaks my mind” exactly.
The largest section of the book, over a third of the total pages, consists of appendices, glossary, publications on Quaker non-theism, bibliography, and source notes. I write this in gratitude, because I love it when someone does years of research for me and shows me where I can find the original material.
I recommend this book to Friends and others who are interested in unity within theological diversity and how we conceive and experience divinity in the natural world.