This is a series of short, c.500-word posts looking at the underlying theology of the Advices and Queries – forty-two pithy statements that collectively capture the British Quaker faith.
The Religious Society of Friends is rooted in Christianity and has always found inspiration in the life and teachings of Jesus. How do you interpret your faith in the light of this heritage? How does Jesus speak to you today? Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action? Are you learning from his life the reality and cost of obedience to God? How does his relationship with God challenge and inspire you?
In Britain Yearly Meeting today, you don’t have to be a Christian to be a Quaker. The religious self-expression of individual British Quakers takes many forms: Buddhist, pagan and Islamic for example.
In such a landscape of individual theological variety, what does it mean for the Religious Society of Friends to be rooted in Christianity? According to this A&Q, Christianity is not a chain to be cast off, but the root structure that feeds the Quaker tradition. To cut ourselves off from our roots might put the whole Quaker project in jeopardy. Whatever our own individual beliefs are, we cannot fully understand the Quaker tradition without understanding its Christian roots. So much of our common language – such as ‘Friends’ and ‘the Light’ – is drawn from Scripture (particularly the Gospel of John). If we are to fully own our faith, then we have a responsibility to learn of its origins.
This responsibility is spelled out in terms of reflecting on the life and teachings of Jesus. Whatever our opinions of him, he can’t be ignored. According to this A&Q, the significance of Jesus is located in three areas.
- His example of love in action. This is a man who fed the hungry, healed the sick, and emphasised how God is close to those on the margins.
- His obedience to God. In living the prayer ‘not my will but yours be done’ Jesus experienced estrangement from family and friends, made enemies of the religious authorities, and was executed by an occupying power.
- His relationship with God. Jesus showed a startling intimacy with God, referring to God as ‘Abba’ (‘Daddy’), and repeatedly withdrew from public life for times of private prayer.
To obey God is to live a life of love in action. To live such a life is costly, and cannot be undertaken without a solid foundation in prayer.
It should be noted that in focusing on the ‘life and teachings of Jesus’, there are many fundamental mainstream Christian understandings of Jesus that are left aside. Here there is no Incarnation (the belief that Jesus is both wholly God and wholly human), no Resurrection (the belief that Jesus rose from the dead), no atonement (the belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection reconciles God and creation) and no Second Coming (the belief that Jesus will return). There is no virgin birth and no empty tomb, no Jesus Christ. What we have is the Jesus of 19th Century Protestant liberalism, shorn of miracles and metaphysical claims. The Jesus of the A&Qs is a teacher and moral example, not a Saviour or the Word Incarnate. This is a great shift from the first 250 years of Quaker belief in Britain, and a break from the majority of Quakers around the world.
This raises many questions, particularly regarding our relationship with the Bible. This modern Quaker understanding of Jesus is markedly different to how the authors of the New Testament saw Jesus, for whom the resurrection was of paramount importance. What are we to make of the New Testament authors? Do we distrust their motives? If we reject their account, upon what do we base our knowledge of Jesus? And how do we relate to our Quaker ancestors? When George Fox heard a voice say ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, how are we to interpret it? How do we relate to our fellow Quakers across the globe, the overwhelming majority of whom trust the Biblical account?
This is a well-crafted, diplomatic A&Q. It affirms the importance of Jesus (if not Jesus’ centrality) without making metaphysical claims that would prove divisive within the British Quaker community of the time. It does however raise questions that we are yet to fully wrestled with.
I’m glad that challenge and inspiration are paired together in this A&Q. Jesus is a figure of both mystery and hope. He is both frustrating and exciting. He refuses to be pinned down and summed up. His ‘otherness’ is part of what makes him Jesus. Whatever we individually make of Jesus, I hope that he will continue to provoke the British Quaker community to live ever more loving, riskier and prayerful lives of obedience to the ‘Love that moves the sun and the other stars’.