Friday, October 05, 2007

Quakers and Baptism

Since the question arose concerning whether Quakers were Christian since they don't practice water baptism, I think most of us agreed that their understanding was sufficient though we might disagree with the interpretation. With that in mind, I went looking and found a Quaker statement on baptism. This is from the Richmond Declaration of 1887. As you can see from this, they interepret all references to baptism in spiritual/inward ways. Now, I would interepret these as calling for the use of water, but it's good to listen to another way of looking at things.

We would express our continued conviction that our Lord appointed no outward rite or ceremony for observance in His church. We accept every command of our Lord in what we believe to be its genuine import, as absolutely conclusive. The question of the use of outward ordinances is with us a question, not as to the authority of Christ, but as to his real meaning. We reverently believe that, as there is one Lord and one faith, so there is, under the Christian dispensation, but one baptism, (Eph 4:4,5) even that whereby all believers are baptized in the one Spirit into the one body. (1 Cor 12:13 RV) This is not an outward baptism with water, but a spiritual experience; not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, (1 Pet 3:21) but that inward work which, by transforming the heart and settling the soul upon Christ, brings forth the answer of a good conscience towards God, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the experience of His love and power, as the risen and ascended Savior. No baptism in outward water can satisfy the description of the apostle, of being buried with Christ by baptism unto death. (Rom 6:4) It is with the Spirit alone that any can thus be baptized. In this experience the announcement of the Forerunner of our Lord is fulfilled, "He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire." (Matt 3:11) In this view we accept the commission of our blessed Lord as given in Matthew 28:18, 19 and 20th verses: "And Jesus came to them and spake unto them saying, All authority hath been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go ye, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you, and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." (RV) This commission, as we believe, was not designed to set up a new ritual under the new covenant, or to connect the initiation into a membership, in its nature essentially spiritual, with a mere ceremony of a typical character. Otherwise it was not possible for the Apostle Paul, who was not a whit behind the very chiefest apostle, (2 Cor 11:5) to have disclaimed that which would, in that case, have been of the essence of his commission when he wrote, "Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the Gospel." (1 Cor 1:17) Whenever an external ceremony is commanded, the particulars, the mode and incidents of that ceremony, become of its essence. There is an utter absence of these particulars in the text before us. Which confirms our persuasion that the commission must be construed in connection with the spiritual power which the risen Lord promised should attend the witness of his apostles and of the church
to Him, and which, after Pentecost, so mightily accompanied their ministry of the word and prayer, that those to whom they were sent were introduced into an experience wherein they had a saving knowledge of, and living fellowship with, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

I've highlighted a couple of phrases here. I'd be interested in comments on this statement. At the Faith and Order meeting of 1982, the assumption was made that Baptism included the use of water
17. Baptism is administered with water n the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
18. In the celebration of baptism the symbolic dimension of water should be taken seriously and not minimalized. The act of immersion can vividly express the reality that in baptism the Christian participates in the death, burial and resurrectoin of Christ.
Mention is made here in the commentary of African churches that practice baptism of the Holy Spirit without water baptism -- a study is recommended of this practice. So, what say ye?


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

The question for me is not whether or not Quakers are Christian. Most are, although some liberal Friends Meetings refuse to call themselves such--and some even call themselves Quaker Buddhists!

The question is whether or not Quakers correctly understand baptism. I contend that they never have. This complete spiritualization is, as I have said, at bottom a failure to understand the embodied nature of existence. Yes, Quaker mysticism may be world affirming--but it still reinforces body/soul dualisms that are unbiblical.

However, since the vast majority of Christians since Constantine failed to understand gospel nonviolence, but Quakers DO--I am willing to cut some slack. :-)

After all, as important as baptism is, nonviolence is even more important.

Mystical Seeker said...

As you can guess, this is one area that I am in agreement with the Quakers on. In my view, dividing human activities into the sacramental and non-sacramental creates a wall of separation in our ordinary lives between ourselves and God. The Quaker approach seeks to break down this wall of separation by making all of our activities potentially sacramental. The Quaker belief in the immanence of the Spirit in the world around us is reflected in the Quakers assertion of "that of God in everyone", which in many circles comes as close as you will find to a Quaker creed. Quakerism was founded by George Fox after he had an epiphany that God speaks directly to us, unmediated by anyone or anything. The abolition of formal sacraments is a continuation of this principle. There is no need for any special mediating acts as part of worship; God is with us already.

As Barclay puts it in his Apology (this quote is from a modern English translation), Quakers reject the notion that worship is "outward", or that it is "limited to set times, places, and persons,", or that it is "performed according to prescribed rituals and observances." Quakers believe that "it is not acted out according to established forms and prescribed ritual, but as the unmediated Spirit of God actuates, impels, and leads, whether it be to preach, pray, or sing. This is also true of our [Quaker] worship."

Barclay's Apology goes into a lot of detail on this in Proposition 12.

Mystical Seeker said...

Patricial Williams wrote an article about Quakerism in the July-August issue of "The Fourth R" that also goes over this concept. She wrote:

One way to characterize Quakerism is to situate it among the three customary types of religion: the prophetic, the sacramental, and the mystical. No religion is a pure type, yet each type locates the divine in a different place.

Prophetic religions make humanity the main locus of the divine--the society, its history, and the revelations of the gods to human beings. They tend to revere sacred texts. Although Quakerism believes in continuing revelation through inspired human beings, it abolishes the other characteristics of prophetic religions. Moreover, it considers revelation to be more centered on the gathered community than on the individual. Quakerism is far more communal than outsiders suspect. Rejecting external authorities, it finds stability through communal examination and acknowledgment or dismissal of individual claims to inspiration.

Sacramental religions locate the divine in objects and rituals. They separate the sacred from profane. An example from Christianity is the Eucharist in denominations accepting the Real Presence. With the appropriate ritual actions and words, the objects, originally ordinary bread and wine, become imbued with the divine. To partake of them is to partake of the divine. Quakerism is farthest form being a sacramental religion. Communion with the divine, when it occurs, is unmediated and internal, in need of no external vehicles.

Mystical religions emphasize the individual's unmediated experience of the divine and, perhaps ultimately, unity with it. Mystics believe that the divine pervades and transforms them. They regard sacred books, rituals, and ritual objects as useless or even as obstacles to communion with the divine...

Quakerism is a religion of the mystical type. At its center is silent communion with the divine light...

Yet, Quakerism is atypical in its mysticism. There are no Quaker monastic orders and no mystical techniques or gurus. Unlike mystics of most other religions, Quakers are deeply embedded in the world and seek to reform it. Over the centuries, they instituted the single price system, thereby eliminating haggling, cheating, and maninipulation in the marketplace. They stood in the forefront of the anti-slavery movement, both in England and America. They established schools for the poor, for females, and for freed slaves. They reformed prisons and insane asylums. They sought the abolition of capital punishment and the arbitration of international disputes. They have aided refugees and the stateless from all sides in wars and provided medical aid to victims of wars...

That being said, I would not say that any religion "got it wrong" on matters like these. I like Quaker theology because it, to use a Quaker phrase, "speaks to my condition." But I have no problem per se with sacramental or prophetic approaches, as Patricia Williams described it, or specifically with various other approaches to baptism (or communion). When I sit in a church service and stay seated while others get up to take communion, I watch that part of the service with full respect for its participants. It isn't that I think others are somehow wrong in wishing to partake of that ritual. It's just that it isn't my thing. As a religious pluralist, I think that there are many different routes to God, and some people prefer a more sacramental approach. More power to them.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Mystical Seeker, I have been thinking about your argument (on behalf of Quakers) that "all of life is sacramental" and thus we need no special sacraments--and the wall with God, etc. I won't get sidetracked over the term "sacrament," which some Baptists use but most don't, because, properly defined, I can use the term.
Instead, I would say that I agree (so do many non-Quaker theologians) that all of life is sacramental--in the sense of conveying the presence of God. This does not discount the need for special rituals, signs, symbols, sacraments--and baptism and the Lord's Supper are specifically commanded.
One could argue that one does not need to set aside a day as holy, because all days are holy. But Quakers have First Day meetings for worship just as other Christians do. Why? Because while it sounds super spiritual to say "all days are holy," in practice this comes to mean that all days are ordinary. The Sabbath and it's Christian counterpart, the Lord's Day, hallows time. We meet together to worship not because this is the only time we commune with God, but because this common time keeps us from forgetting in our busy lives. A holy day once a week doesn't set up a wall between people and God--but focuses the mind, calls attention to the holiness of other days.
When I was asked by a low church person from a tradition similar to mine why I paid any attention to the traditional Christian calendar (since it isn't biblical), I replied that I could either run my life and set my days by a sacred calendar or a secular one--I preferred the former.
Or take the example of weddings. Traditional Quaker weddings are quite simple; not elaborate. But Quakers wisely did not give up weddings. Why? Remember the "free love" movement that insisted that marriage was just a "meaningless piece of paper" or a "meaningless ceremony" that tried to tie down love? Very few couples lasted that way. Decades later, couples can recall weddings in vivid detail--and this can help in the daily struggle of marriage. It would be absurd to suggest that weddings "set up barriers" to marriage--or to the couple's immediate presence toward each other.
The same is true with sacraments or ordinances. Let's stick with baptism as our example. Sure water baptism is not as important as the baptism of the Spirit (another term for salvation). But Jesus didn't command it for no reason. We are not disembodied spirits. We are body-selves. When, upon profession of faith, we are plunged into water, our initiation into the Christian community is also an identification with Christ's baptism--and, even more, with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).

It seems to me that Quaker emphasis on the immediacy of God's presence, laudatory in itself, can become gnostic or docetic. Can we train ourselves to listen for God out of communal silence? Of course--and I have learned much from the writings of Quaker mystics.
But humans, as any anthropologist will tell you, are storied beings and symbol makers. We constitute reality through symbols. Dispensing with them threatens to cut us off from the narrative reality which they embody. I wonder if one reason why some liberal Quaker meetings have ceased calling themselves Christian and have begun having members who call themselves Wiccan or Buddhist or Neo-Pagan, but still Quaker, is because, after 3 + centuries without physical baptism, without weekly Lord's Suppers, without footwashing, some Friends' meetings have lost the Gospel narrative that is concentrated in those "sacraments?"
Maybe one reason George Fox and Margaret Fell and Barclay and Woolman were all so Christocentric (unlike so many contemporary Friends), is that they had already been steeped in the Story from their Puritan childhoods?

Water, wine, bread, basin and towel--these physical elements for the speech-acts of baptism, eucharist, and footwashing are not barriers to God, but part of our very language for speaking of God.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

And, although, I have argued for the importance of "sacraments" here, I fall most into prophetic religion. In fact, I wrote an article dividing religions into authoritarian types (concerned with precise doctrinal formulations and rigid ethical rules, narrowly interpreted), mystical types, and prophetic types.
All of us have elements of the others, but I fall most strongly in the prophetic category.

Mystical Seeker said...

Water, wine, bread, basin and towel--these physical elements for the speech-acts of baptism, eucharist, and footwashing are not barriers to God, but part of our very language for speaking of God.

If that is what works for you, then more power to you.

Not everyone finds their way to God in the same way. You have found your way, and Quakers have found theirs.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

I hope you are finding this discussion helpful and illuminating. I am. I tend to agree with Michael on the baptism issue and on the importance of visible/tangible signs. The Quaker call to spiritual/mysitical experience -- though I would disagree with taking it this far -- is a reminder that we must keep in mind the spiritual significance of these acts. I shall add some more comments for us to discuss soon.

Mystical Seeker said...

I do want to say that I don't want to be in the position of acting as a spokesperson for the Quaker faith here. I have presented some of what I understand to be the Quaker position on this subject. In my view, there is no right on wrong on this subject, no question of somebody "getting it wrong". I think that people of faith need to respect the fact that different people have different outlooks on the forms and practices of worship. Vive la difference.

I made a point of quoting quite a bit of the one article by Patricia Williams, because I wanted to stress that Quakerism is not even remotely world denying, because there seems to be some continuing confusion on this point.

As I have suggested, I personally don't have a problem with people who find value in baptism or communion. I stay seated during the communion portion of a service and watch it. I think it is great that other people derive value for the practice. It just doesn't work for me personally, for a variety of reasons, which is why I don't participate. But I would not choose to judge others who do value those practices. Again, vive la difference. There is no church that really works perfectly for me. I think there are a lot of people out there who are drawn to particular denominations or churches for various reasons, not necessarily because they are in complete agreement with everything that is done. Sometimes they tune out the parts they don't agree with. This is not such an uncommon phenomenon in the world of religion.

Still Learning :-) said...

Communion is an inward response to an outer symbol. We must consider why Jesus commanded it. Did He want us to do the symbol without in inward response? I commend you mystical seeker for abstaining if you don't have an inward response to communion. What worries me about the sacraments is the thought that it is the act that is sacred. I would like to contend that the response is sacred.

One of the most sacred communions I partook of was at a youth retreat. The elements? White bread and orange soda. I'm sure we could argue over whether it was a "real" communion, but I'd have to say, "real to whom?" The point of the lesson was that it is not the elements or process that matter. What matters is our response.

I embrace much Quaker theology, but I also am a little troubled by the absolute abolition of the sacraments. The focus on the practice and not the point of the sacraments is a legitimate concern. What understanding of God and his purpose do we miss if we abolish the sacraments altogether? This is an interesting thought to put in the context of our practice and belief, and thinking about what our practice/belief/denomination would be without the sacraments perhaps makes us value/respect/understand them more.