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Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?

Are Quakers Guilty of the Sin of Pride?
This past weekend, I was up in New York City visiting an old friend and mentor, David McReynolds. Back in 2000, I did my teenage best to support him in his campaign for president. I’ve always seen David as an example of courageous thought and action, coupled with a gentleness that is often lost among activists.

On Saturday, I met David at his apartment in lower Manhattan. We drank seltzer water and he introduced me to his cat, Shaman. Then, we went out for a late lunch at a neighborhood restaurant. A nice afternoon.

Shortly before I left to catch my train, our conversation touched briefly on Quakers. David said something that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days. If he were going to convert, David said, he would more likely become a Roman Catholic than a Quaker. His reason for this? Your average Catholic tends to have a deep sense of human sinfulness and each person’s need for Jesus and the Church. There’s a built-in humility there. We Quakers tend to be pretty satisfied with ourselves.

There might have been a time in my life when this observation would have rubbed me the wrong way. But coming from David, who identifies as an Atheist, it resonated.

David is quick to add that not all Catholics are burdened by guilt, and he’s known Quakers who lived saintly lives. Still, I think he’s onto something here. I’ve recently been re-engaging with the liturgical and monastic Christian traditions. I’ve been impressed with the degree to which a sense of personal unworthiness and repentance is at the heart of monastic practice.

At the same time, I’ve felt convicted about how much confidence I have had in my own ability to know and follow God. In retrospect, I have often been confused, frightened, self-centered, and adrift. These days, I’m more skeptical about my own ability to know the will of God with a great deal of certainty. This puts me at odds with much of the Quaker community. Modern-day Quakers tend to view following God as a fairly straightforward process, and human nature as basically good.

To be clear, I am not saying that the root of Quaker tradition views human beings this way. Early Quakers were skeptical of humanity’s ability to do the right thing. Rather than viewing people as naturally good, they relied on the direct intervention of the Holy Spirit to correct and guide us. The bulk of Quakers throughout history viewed humanity as basically lost – if not depraved.

But there’s a gap between what the tradition has been and what the community now believes, in practice, today. In my experience, most of us Quakers – myself included – have a tendency to be pretty proud of ourselves. We’re proud that we have affirmed women in ministry for three and a half centuries. We’re proud that we renounced slavery a century earlier than the United States did. We’re proud of the work that our ancestors did in the civil rights and the peace movements. We think we’re pretty special. The world could learn a thing or two from us.

The issue is clouded because, as a matter of fact, Quakers have had an outsized impact on American history and culture. The Quaker community has been unique and important. But in the 20th and 21st centuries, this history of spiritual leadership has congealed into something far less attractive. We’ve developed a certain spiritual pride – a sense that we know better than those around us. We’ve come to believe that we’re good people.

The problem with this is, we’re not. I’m certainly not. The Quaker tradition is beautiful in many ways, silly in others. But in no way has it produced a community of perfect people. Quakers today are no better – or worse – than our Protestant, Catholic, Buddhist, or Atheist neighbors. We may still be a peculiar people, but we are not a special people. Our human nature is as fallen and in need of God’s grace as anyone else’s.

To repeat for clarity: A sense of our own sinful unworthiness is native to the Quaker tradition. But we seem to have lost it. We’ve traded it in for a self-congratulatory sense of Quaker-led historical progress.

I’m grateful for the faithfulness of past generations of Quakers. But I’m also convinced that it’s spiritually damaging for me to continue claiming their work as my own. I’m not a special person. I’ve not risen above my need for a savior. I am a poor sinner, at least as much in need of God’s grace as anyone else.

There are dangers here. It’s possible to embrace sin, seeing it as reality rather than a barrier that God can overcome. Many Christian groups have fallen into this trap. But the delusion that I and many other Quakers have fallen into is also problematic. The idea that sin is already defeated, or doesn’t even exist. The myth of “nice people like us.” At this point in my life, it seems safer to err on the side of over-questioning my own experience and motivations. Assuming the goodness of my thoughts and actions is dangerous.

My conversation with David was a reminder. The skeptical world is unimpressed with people who think they’re wonderful. People can see right through the false piety of Quaker self-satisfaction. But the humility of the God-yielded sinner is magnetic, even for those who are not yet ready to believe.

This dying world doesn’t need perfect people. It needs broken people who are able to confess their own thirst for living water. And invite others to join them in seeking it.

Related Posts:

The Harvest Is Plentiful – Why Are the Workers So Few?

How My Faith Blew Up and I Learned to be Human Again

  • Wolf Boyle

    Hello Micah. As a Quaker of some 24 years standing I don’t know whether I can say that I find Quakers self-satisfied or not. I believe that we are a bit too individualistic for that. But I do concur that ‘sin’ or to give it it’s proper Biblical translation our ‘falling short’ or, more simply, our shortcomings do not seem to be a subject that come up amongst us. It may be because I was brought up a Catholic that I am constantly aware of my failing to come ‘up to standard’. For example when I lost my temper at my eldest son the other day, when he was just being himself and the truth was that I was stressed out about something else. God knows it and I know it and I know that obviously I do not have the power to fix this in myself. I have to turn it over to Him. This continuous looking to, allowing and relying on the Spirit to make us into the way that God sees us is something that, I agree, is missing in Quaker discourse.
    However, I feel that the notion of God as Saviour, in this sense, has been hijacked by modern Evangelicalism. When it preaches that one heartfelt prayer to Jesus to forgive our sins basically exonerates us for life it has trivialised, no, desecrated the true meaning of that doctrine. Most evangelicals who follow this idea do not know that Martin Luther, who was probably the first to publicly propose that we are ‘saved by Faith not works’, talked of ‘daily repentance’. I read some of the works of the Evangelical clergy and laity from Britain in the 19th century. It became clear that they held a different view. This was before the evangelical movement began to turn into what I term ‘American Revivalism’ (preached, in great part, by dubious, travelling ‘snake oil salesmen’) creating a ‘cheapjack Christianity’ so prevalent today. These 19th century less emotional evangelicals regarded one’s ‘conversion’ as a receiving of a ‘repentant spirit’ which would change a person’s whole view of themselves and the world for the rest of their life. Their encounter with Christ was the beginning of a new life; not in the artificially spiritual sense of evangelicalism today, but a continual striving to grow to the ‘stature of the fullness of Christ’ by His power, admitting that they did not possess this power themselves. It wasn’t a ‘get out Hell free’ card! And they looked to demonstrate this growth through good works and increasing acts of kindness, honesty and integrity. It is worth noting that many Quakers were, at the time, evangelicals in the same mould. This was how they were being ‘saved’ and prepared for Heaven. It is why they endeavoured to give other people the same experience of Christ and the power to become ‘holy’ and thus, by being changed themselves, to change the world, in fact, to bring about God’s Kingdom on Earth.
    I would like to see a re-introduction of encouraging people to find the Spirit of Christ, the Light within themselves that can start the work of identifying and overcoming the shortcomings that we will find revealed to us by this discovery. This is not just so that they become a force for good in the world (and thus begin to make it look more like Christ’s Kingdom and a happier place). It is also to prepare the individual to perceive the Beatific Vision without being near-tortured by its beauty and to withstand the onslaught of pure Divine Love that they will encounter at death.

    • Bill Rushby

      Wolf, your commentary on prideful Quakerism slipped into a somewhat lengthy denunciation of modern Evangelicalism. For me, this is an indication of our problem!

  • Bill Rushby

    Micah, since my wife and I were “released” from our membership in Friends (and even before), we both fellowshipped with Mennonites of various stripes and Old Order Brethren. The contrast in quality of commitment between unprogrammed Friends and these related groups is STARK. And Friends who never (or rarely) venture outside of their own denomination are usually quite unaware of their weaknesses.

    • Maggie Meehan

      Good point. My experience has been that residing too steadily behind our own wall is a risky proposition.
      Thank you all for your thoughts.

  • Donna McDaniel

    Probably the single message that stands out the most for me–and I think others- from researching and reading Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice (imagine italics for title, please) is that the truth is that we have not all been friends and supporters of people of African descent over the years. More than a few Friends that Vanessa Julye, the co-author and I. met in visiting many Meetings, let us know they objected to our conclusion that Quakers did/do not live up to our self-image of Quakers as advocates and practitioners of equality in and out of our meetings and schools and daily lives.
    Like any other generalization, the truth needs to be balanced in reality, not to cover us in blame, but to give us perspective on all that remains to be done.
    Helpful in the search: Fit for Freedom, full title above (available from Friends bookstore at Pendle Hill) and attending the annual White Privilege Conference (info at FGC website).

  • Howard Brod

    Thanks Micah for having the courage to share your current ponderings while you are yet uncertain as to where it is taking you.

    I would offer just one observation of my own which I know you are aware: Quakers are not a monolithic group. Even within a particular branch (Evangelical, Conservative, pastoral, or liberal) one church/meeting can be quite different from another. One church/meeting in the same branch of Quakers can have the pride you mentioned and another can have a tone of humility and deep seeking of the Spirit to help them live in a deeper union with God. And the dichotomies are perhaps endless between meetings/churches. I go to a meeting in the same branch as a Quaker meeting just 20 minutes away – both are unprogrammed and even part of the same yearly meeting. Yet, there is quite a list to discover of how those two unprogrammed meetings are very different – so much so that quite a few members of each will drive by the other to go to the meeting 20 minutes away because they rather make the drive than go to the meeting closest to them.

    I have also found that at least in the liberal Quaker branch, it is quite easy over time to change the tone of a meeting if Friends are seeking Light for the community of Friends, rather slipping into that prideful state you are warning about.

    We are all struggling to mind the Light, and your ponderings are certainly helpful to stay on that path.

  • OH Micah! The answer is neither in pride nor in self negation. It is not found in a sense of human sinfulness. BUT IT IS FOUND IN THE POWER OF GOD TO RESTORE MANKIND INTO THE IMAGE OF GOD. You state you have not outgrown your need for a saviour and that the world does not need perfect people. The work of Jesus Christ, that which makes him saviour, is that he alone can make us perfect, i.e. complete. But this only occurs as we walk in dynamic relationship with him, hearing his voice and living by that voice (individually and corporately). You write of uncertainty and unwillingness to claim more than you posses. These are steps–necessary steps–to gain that sense of “Thus says the Lord” from which the early Quakers acted. Read again Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones in the 37th chapter. “Behold, I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people…And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves…And I will put my spirit within you and you shall live…then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken, and I have done it… (verses 12-14) compare that portion with John 5:24-25 “Behold the hour is coming and now is when the dead shall hear the voice of the son, and those who will hear shall live.” (My quote from memory) and the further statement from Jesus in John 6:63 “The flesh profits nothing, the words I have spoken/am speaking to you, these are spirit, these are life.” This word, coming from the mouth of him whose name is The Word of God, is the only hope of mankind. Wait for it! When the Word comes and you are raised up out of your grave then, and not before, you will know “that I, the Lord, have spoken and I have done it…”

  • forrestcuro

    My wife (Most weekends she escapes the Quakers to get religion from the Episcopalians) calls it “Quaker smugness.”

    It isn’t that it’s hard to follow God — as if God were trying to be difficult. It’s just too easy to follow what we’d like God to be saying, We tend to pray “Let me build my kingdom for You” where we need to remember it’s “Thy kingdom” we really want and need.

    “Good people are not perfect people; perfect people are not good people.” “Be perfect” by Jesus’ recommendation looks like “treat everyone lovingly” (ie with sincere good wishes and helpfulness) because that’s what God wants and does.

    It is, as Ellis Hein says here, a big mistake to make an issue of personal worthiness or unworthiness — or to paraphrase Eric Schiffmann, ‘You didn’t create yourself and have no good reason to take credit or blame for how you’ve turned out so far.’ It’s paradoxical to think of yourself as a locus of God expressing Godself in the world — but maybe if you can see yourself as one of God’s fictional characters this will make more sense. We don’t want to be one of the villains in this story, and that wish is also part of God’s creation. Trust God to make it good, not yourself!

    for what it’s worth:

  • Patricia Dallmann

    Penington gives a good summary of possible spiritual conditions in the following excerpt, using imagery of the Exodus. Whatever one’s condition, God is working with us to bring us to completion, whether “opening the eye that can see the captivity,” “bringing under his discipline,” or “rebuilding the stones.”

    The particular estates and conditions are innumerable; but they may be referred to these three general heads: First, An estate of breaking down the former building. Secondly, An estate of devastation or preparation to be new built. Thirdly, An estate of rebuilding. [spiritual Egypt] God doth not forget but exercise his people in Egypt, even while they are in bondage, before they come to receive his law. He is visiting them in the dark land, opening the eye that can see the captivity, causing groans and sighs in their oppressed spirits, and then holding forth to them the promise, and preparing them for a departure from that land. Secondly, [spiritual wilderness] He hath a time of stripping them, of nurturing and bringing them up under his discipline and close exercises, wherein they are desolate, and ready to sin and perish every moment; but as they are wonderfully provided for, and abundantly helped and pardoned. Thirdly, [spiritual Canaan]There is a state of rebuilding the stones, when they are prepared therefor, into a new building for the life to dwell in, and for their entrance into the land of life (Works, II, 240).

  • hugoestr

    We shouldn’t idealize too much the idea about a community of sinners. Pride takes all kinds of forms. Yes, there is a lot of talk among us Roman Catholics about sin and humility, and not really being worthy. But at the same time we taught that no other Christian expression is real or legitimate, and only Roman Catholics can access heaven.

    Growing up as a Roman Catholic the idea of sin wasn’t one that builds on humility, but instead a kind of perfectionism where nothing you ever do is good enough. It was an ongoing anxiety of always being on the verge of eternal damnation because you thought the wrong thing at some point. Yes, you can confess and thus regain grace, but overall you would never be good enough.

    Maybe Protestants would say that this is because Roman Catholicism in Mexico wasn’t stressing grace. And perhaps that is true. But it is also strikes me as proud to have total certainty that because you felt emotionally overwhelmed one day and proclaimed that you accepted Jesus you are now saved by him. I have been emotionally overwhelmed when reading scripture. But also when I have watched Pixar movies and commercials. So my emotions cannot be trusted. Equating those strong emotions with a certainty that God has granted seems that the person is trusting too much on their emotions to decide what God has decided to do.

    For religious people it is very easy to fall into virtue signalling, which is how pride takes over us. And how we do it varies in different strains of Christianity. Being authentically humble is terribly hard, and I still don’t know how to do it.

    • Pete C

      “Pride takes all kinds of forms.”

      I was thinking this very thing. The Catholicism that I was born to did not teach humility nearly as much as it taught humiliation — that you can never be good enough to deserve the amazing gifts that god has seen fit to bestow on your unworthy ass. Believing I’m the worst thing on earth may seem to be more humble than believing I’m the best, but it’s still entirely self-centered.

      Frankly, I’m not sure how to get past the pride of feeling like you know what’s good for people when history seems to keep showing that the ideas Quakerism promotes are in fact good for people.

  • You basically ended your article on the same note of self-satisfaction you’re trying to denounce…

  • Francis Boyle

    I am sorry that I started off this discussion. I’ve read all comments and I am going to say something that will probably bring a floodtide of comments which will unwittingly smack of the very thing of which I will mention. I am not sure that it accords entirely with what Micah said, although its aim is to do so in spirit.
    I came from what we in the United Kingdom call a ‘working class’ background I think in the States you would call ‘blue collar’. I would be numbered amongst the ‘intellectual’ classes (much to my own amusement). I started a Roman Catholic but moved through various denominations: Brethren, Baptist, Pentecostal until ending up with the Quakers. Although I have been a ‘weighty’ Quaker, holding positions of responsibility and that of a ‘public’ Quaker being the correspondent for the newspapers, appearing on radio, even presenting a TV programme for a while, I have always had a difficulty with being a Quaker. I have drifted in and out. I wondered why Quakerism never appealed to Black or working class people like myself, it was so simple a idea and, on the face of it, without bias. So why? I came to but one conclusion. Let me explain. I was able to mix with a much broader range of Quakers than most Friends ever get the chance to do so. But all the time there were two things I found myself having to ‘get around’. Amongst other things I’m a Sociology major and eventually became a university lecturer. I made a study of the subtle and unwitting effect that any group has on its members, what could be termed its ‘culture’. All those who remain as members in a culture will find themselves eventually (and mostly unknowingly) affected. It is not only I who hold this notion; it is well-supported idea in the appropriate circles. This is the conclusion to which I came. OK, here goes. Firstly, Quakers are patronising in a subtle but unmistakeable way. Secondly they have their heads stuck up their intellectual, terribly spiritual butts. There I’ve said it.
    By the way, someone made a response to my first comment about my takedown of modern Evangelicalism. This was not me being guilty of what I have said. I stand by what I wrote because it comes from personal experience and learning. I have been slap-bang in the middle of it. I was an Evangelical preacher and teacher at a national level. I would appreciate that comment a little more if I knew the writer had similar experience.
    Yet somehow I am still a Quaker. Partly because as one dear Friend said “It’s the best ready-made suit of clothes I can find”. It is also partly because I hang on in the hope that we may one day absorb some of the power, confidence and commitment of the Evangelicals and Pentecostals but use the Quaker element to filter out the hypocrisy, artificial emotionalism, doctrinal nonsense and bigotry that exists there.