Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Convincement" or "Uncertainment" - a Liberal Friend's dilemma

While I could never be mistaken for a fundamentalist, I have a childish yearning for a completely literal burning bush-type experience, or perhaps one day, while driving to New York, (Damascus not being handy), I suddenly find myself being yanked from my car and cast down upon the side of the interstate and a voice tells me in no uncertain terms that this is Jesus speaking and you, Patricia, had better take heed! Now that's the sort of experience that leaves no room for doubt. Why is it that we live in an age when God seems to favor the "still small voice" over the Cecil B. DeMille announcement? Quakers are particularly fond of this method of revelation and even eschew the word "conversion" in favor of  "convincement," as if conversion is way too melodramatic for a peculiar people who appear to be too pig-headed to be anything other than talked into belief once all the pros and cons have been carefully weighed. Of course, this is a very 21st century definition of the verb "to convince." Even a cursory study of the convincement accounts of early Friends offers ample evidence that it was an entirely dramatic experience. Here's a sample from Francis Howgill:

My eyes were opened, and all the things that I had ever done were brought to remembrance and the ark of the testament was opened, and there was thunder and lightning and great hail. And then the trumpet of the Lord was sounded, and then nothing but war and rumor of war, and the dreadful power of the Lord fell on me: plague, and pestilence, and famine, and earthquake, and fear and terror, for the sights I saw with my eyes: and that which I heard with my ears, sorrow and pain...And all that ever I had done was judged and condemned, all things were accursed...And as I bore the indignation of the Lord, something rejoiced, the serpent's head began to be bruised...And as I did give up all to judgement, the captive came forth out of prison and rejoiced, and my heart was filled with joy...Then I saw the cross of Christ, and stood in it, and the enmity slain on it. And the new man was made...the holy law of God was revealed unto me and written on my heart.

Now, here's the kind of experience that made things happen! By 1662, a decade after George Fox and the early Seekers were "gathered" as a people, about 80,000 had been "convinced" - close to 1% of the population of Britain at that time. Three hundred and forty-nine years later, that number has dwindled to about 12,000 Friends in the UK, with around 180,000 in the Americas and 380,000 worldwide. For purposes of comparison, I offer the Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints which has been around for 200 years less. In 1862, there were about 69,000 Mormons. Today, there are more than 14 million. Are they more convinced than we are? Looking at the numbers, they certainly seem to be.

Actually, going out and telling people that you have found something spectacularly wonderful seems to work for Quakers, too. Of the 380,000 Friends worldwide, a whopping 84% are affiliated with or reflect more evangelical branches of Quakerism. A paltry 15.7% make up the liberal, unprogrammed universe, with Conservative Friends flickering away valiantly at 0.4%. As one liberal Friend once said, "We don't just hide our light under a bushel basket. We hide the bushel basket under another bushel basket!" This is, after all, our little secret.

Which brings me to the question: what is it that we in the liberal branch of Quakerism are "convinced" of? And if we are so "convinced," why are we so shy about telling other people about it? Perhaps in the spirit of "let your yay be yay and your nay be nay," we should more truthfully call it "uncertainment" rather than "convincement." Recently, in my meeting the Friend on facing bench invited visitors to sign the guest book, adding impulsively and with the best of intentions, "And, don't worry, we won't try to contact you." I guess to "silent worship" we need to add "silent outreach." Mention the word "proselytize" to a liberal Friend and you get about the same reaction as "Beelzebub" or "Harry Potter" elicits in some other faith traditions. Yet I can't help feeling that we have perhaps retreated a little too far in the direction of modesty when expressing our liberal Quaker beliefs. We love the phrase "let your life speak" partly because it lets us off the hook in terms of verbally sharing something that many of us consider central to our lives. If we practice our faith in our daily lives, we don't actually need to share what motivates us because we'll "convince" people by some vague process of osmosis. Or maybe not. And do we care? Quaker Quest was started in Britain in large part because of the realization that unless something was done and done soon, the Religious Society of Friends was on the road to extinction in the country of its birth (some predictions have it at about 2037). Surely if we are convinced of something we should practice articulating it so that we can share it with others. For many liberal meetings outreach is done almost by default; if you happen to cross our threshold we'll do our best not to scare you off. Perhaps we need to have a small sign on each pew: Only the most determined need apply. I know from experience that many liberal Friends are people who are thoroughly "convinced," although frequently we transmit uncertainty. Surely in this troubled world we need to find a way to joyfully articulate what we are convinced about, what inspires us about the Quaker way and what excites us about the journey.


  1. i struggled with this recently...a new friend (lowercase) expressed an interest in the Meeting. I immediately became uncomfortable. I wanted to tell her to "Come! It's cool! you might sit there for an hour in total silence so bring a book or something but try it out for a few weeks and see if you hear or see something that speaks to you!" and yet i was really held back by something that told me not to push her too hard. i've thought of her so often in the past couple weeks since this conversation...not sure how to reach back out and not be so off-putting.

  2. Sara, I have found that the more Quakerism comes to define who I am, the more natural it is for me to talk about it. I don't feel as if I am proselytizing. Rather, I feel the same way as if I am talking about myself as a mother or a wife or any of the other things that are fundamentally "me." I think that sometimes people come to us hungry for a spiritual path but they won't articulate it as such. Rather, they will "express an interest." It's up to us to recognize this and open the door for them (rather than shove them from behind). For lots of folks who are either entering the spiritual life for the first time or re-entering after a long absence, the hardest thing is often just stepping over the threshold for the first time. That's where we can help them a bit by being open and welcoming. Don't beat yourself over the head about a lost opportunity. Just keep in the back of your mind that she is interested and wait for another opening. It'll come. Remember, way opens.