Monday, February 21, 2011
Being Modern Artists of Quaker Faith and Practice
Light installation. Albright-Knox
(photograph by Jim Bush)
I think of Friends' religious education the same way I think about education in general as both a college teacher and a home schooling mom. I'm very, very liberal/progressive/leftist, but I think that before we dive into the modernist and postmodernist stuff, we have to start with the classics. When I was a child, my father and I were walking through a modern art gallery. This stuff looked nothing like the representational work from the Renaissance to the 19th century that we had just viewed together in the adjoining building! Was this really "art"?
Dad pointed out that there was a lot more going on in that gallery than random paint splashes on canvas. To understand modern art, I needed to understand the history of art and the ideas modern artists were highlighting, accentuating, or challenging. To the untrained observer, modern art might look like an anarchy of paint, but I should remember to ground my judgment in knowledge and recall that a truly excellent modern artist only broke the rules after they had learned all the rules of their craft and had a strong foundation in representational art and its history. Because they had that foundation and familiarity, they could break the rules in meaningful ways. Though clearly quite different from their predecessors, modern artists participate in a long tradition of evolving and dynamic artistic expression.
As one who can be identified within the "non-theist", "universalist", and "pagan" manifestations of modern Quaker perspective, I might be considered one of the modern artists of Quaker faith and practice. Among us, there many conversations about whether or not it is important for us to be grounded in Christ-centered perspectives or whether or not it is important to learn about Christian Quaker history. I think it is clear to anyone who reads my blog that I do not feel that Friends must be Christian or even theist to be good Quakers. In the end, I believe we should be judged by our fruits. Our service and love, not our fancy theologies and philosophies, are what matter to those who need that love. That which many call "God" remains ineffable. We are called to serve, not to define.
But what does that mean for Friends? Does that mean that anything goes? No. I don't think so. In Quaker history, the individual comes to trust the Inward Light within a community of people who support each other through collective discernment and gentle discipline. We believe in continuing revelation and do not mistake our past for our God, but we also know that in coming to know the Light together, with patience, and over time, we are able to be a stronger force for love than we could ever be alone. That strength of collective discernment and discipline is part of who we are. When I became a Friend, I knew that I must ground myself in that tradition. I knew that it was a process and discipline that would take me years (perhaps my whole life!) to learn, but that my contributions would be stronger if I submitted myself to that process.
I am hopeful that Christian Friends who feel uncomfortable with my presence among them will come to see me as a sister. I am also hopeful that non-Christian Friends who feel resentful of Christian language will come to value the beautiful ways that Friends have lived their Christianity. Quakers have a history worth learning and contemplating. Friends were a peculiar people not just because of how they dressed and spoke, but because they were so bold in their understanding of Christ in their lives. We may indeed be a theologically diverse group, but I feel that Friends like me who bring new thea/ological and philosophical ideas to the Quaker tradition show more skill in our service to the world if we remember to launch our avante garde spirituality from a solid foundational knowledge of Friends' historical origins in radical Christian spirituality. We don't have to be Christian, but we should understand the history of Christianity, particularly as Friends have understood that term. We should understand the metaphors, narratives, and historical context of those who went before us so that when it is our turn to add color to the canvas, even our boldest and most unorthodox strokes will come from a skilled hand.