Thursday, October 17, 2013


ESR Director of Recruitment and Admissions Matt Hisrich reflects on a recent book about building bridges between atheists and those of faith:

Harvard University Assistant Humanist Chaplain Chris Stedman seeks to chart a different course from the combative “New Atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others. As the title of his book suggests – Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012) – his hope is to neither deny his secular humanism nor deny the value of those with differing perspectives. 

It is important to recognize from the outset that the short book (191 pages including notes) is primarily Stedman sharing the story about how he came to his current position. The “treatise” portion of the text that one interested in building bridges between secular and religious spheres might be looking for is limited to the concluding pages. Stedman spends a lot of time on his youth, in other words, but the point is to take readers on a journey through a variety of positions regarding faith. As he explains:
In my youth, being "right" held ultimacy. I valued precision and accuracy, and was sure to correct anyone I felt was “wrong.” I thought I was doing people a favor by correcting them. Now, I strive to lead with listening instead of lecturing.  We can be dogmatically fixated on who is "right" and who is "wrong", or we can discern a way to live together in tension and ambiguity. Joining forces, we can buck the clash-of-civilizations story that has come to define our world and dictate a new narrative – one that bridges the religious and the secular, rather than threatening the “other” with extinction. (180-181)

Having grown up in a non-religious family and then joining an evangelical Christian church, Stedman struggled for years to reconcile his sexuality with what he was taught the Bible proclaims on the subject. This eventually led him to reject faith entirely and violently. As the intensity of his hostility to religion waned he came into contact with Eboo Patel (who wrote the forward to the book) and the Interfaith Youth Core. As he describes it, the IFYC’s mission aligned with his own growing sense of communication and cooperation across faith (and non-faith) lines. “[I]t sounds like exactly what our world needs,” he says, “people of all different stripes and convictions coming together to deal with things that matter, announcing our differences without fear, enthusiastically embracing our commonalities, and intentionally seeking out points of mutuality and understanding in the face of vastly different metaphysical commitments.” (133)

Stedman gained a name for himself in advocating this view on his blog, NonProphet Status. His growing presence brought him to the attention of Harvard Humanist Chaplain and Good Without God author Greg Epstein, who hired him for his current role.
Stedman is part of an emerging group of “new new atheists.” As columnist Theo Hobson observes:
atheism’s younger advocates are reluctant to compete for the role of Dawkins’s disciple. They are more likely to bemoan the new atheist approach and call for large injections of nuance. A good example is the pop-philosopher Julian Baggini. He is a stalwart atheist who likes a bit of a scrap with believers, but he’s also able to admit that religion has its virtues, that humanism needs to learn from it… This is also the approach of the pop-philosopher king, Alain de Botton.

According to Stedman this more positive approach not only allows for collaboration with those of faith, but actually frees many atheists put off by the stridency of Dawkins and others to reclaim their identity (for those interested in non-theism among Friends, consider checking out Godless for God’s Sake). Toward the end of Faitheist, he issues an inspiring call to action: "Let’s learn from our shared past and imagine, together, a more vibrant future. I’m tired of seeing people pitted against one another because of these inherently false broad strokes that paint religious people as ‘delusional’ and atheists as ‘degenerates.’ Let’s start to see one another as people first." (156)

Any form of interfaith dialogue raises a host of questions, particularly for a “Christian seminary in the Quaker tradition,” as ESR describes itself. The idea of building bridges between theist and non-theist views takes this even a step further. If seeing “that of God” in every person was one way Friends advocated for equality across all of humanity, how do we continue to live into this testimony with integrity (for ourselves and respecting that of the other) when someone specifically rejects that of God within themselves, for instance? Perhaps we do not need to resolve all of the complexity and ambiguity at the outset. Perhaps, as Stedman suggests, starting to see one another as people first is enough of a step in the right direction. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

When might we be called to resist the demands of the state?

ESR Professor of Peace and Justice Studies Lonnie Valentine  was awarded the Elton Trueblood Chair of Christian Thought earlier this year to study Quakers and war tax resistance. Below, he shares a reflection on John Woolman's involvement in this effort:

Romans 13: 1-7  Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.  Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath, but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God's servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.

This text seems so straightforward: whatever the governing authorities command is to be obeyed just because “those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”  Most specifically, the text clearly says that one is to pay taxes to those authorities.  As we might expect, careful exegesis raises questions about how to understand Paul’s command to the fledgling congregation in Rome. In addition, the clear evidence that Paul was martyred under the emperor Nero ought make us wonder how his death at the hands of the authorities relates to this text.  I set aside such exegesis and such wonderings for now in order to lift up how John Woolman and his friend John Churchman dealt with this text as they were led to resist the payment of taxes used for war.

In his Journal, Chapter V (Moulton edition), Woolman talks at length about his struggle with the question of paying taxes to the authorities when such taxes will be used in large part for war. He describes the steps he took when it became clear to him that he along with others were rightly led to not only petition the governing authorities for relief from paying such taxes, but also to refuse payment when relief was denied.  How did they get to that position? How did they work with this text from Romans?

At the beginning of this chapter, Woolman lifts up John Huss who was burned at the stake by the governing authorities who acted with a Church Council in condemning him to death.  Woolman quotes Huss as saying to his governing authorities: “This I most humbly require and desire you all, even for his sake who is the God of us all, that I be not compelled to the thing which my conscience doth repugn or strive against...I refuse nothing, most noble Emperor, whatsoever the Council shall decree or determine upon me, this only one thing I except, that I do not offend God and my conscience” (76).  That is, though Huss would usually obey both Church and government, he felt he must obey God first when the commands of the authorities and what his conscience understood to be God's commands were in conflict.

Woolman then relates this to his own struggle with the question of whether or not to pay taxes used mostly for war to his own governing authorities. He notes that the Society of Friends did usually pay the taxes, but that his own conscience did not agree with such payment: “To refuse the active payment of a tax which our Society generally paid was exceeding disagreeable, but to do a thing contrary to my conscience appeared yet more dreadful” (77).

Woolman did not see “conscience” as something that merely reflected his own desires or reasoning or a view he absorbed from his times.  In the next compact paragraph we can see his multifaceted approach to conscientious discernment in this way. First, “When this exercise came upon me, I knew of none other under the like difficulty, and in my distress I besought the Lord to enable me to give up all, that so I might follow him wheresoever he was pleased to lead me.”  He then seeks out others who might help him discern a way forward: “(U)nder this exercise I went to our Yearly Meeting at Philadelphia.”  Next, Woolman reports that the Yearly Meeting responded by appointing one committee to correspond with London Meeting for Sufferings and another to visit the Monthly and Quarterly Meetings to explore this war tax question. Finally, before the committees left the Yearly Meeting sessions they met together “to consider some things in which the cause of Truth was concerned; and these committees meeting together had a weighty conference in the fear of the Lord” (77).  Woolman now had seasoned his concern, and after worship with others who were struggling with this same question, a way forward opened.

Woolman then includes in his Journal extensive notes of his friend John Churchman who had been struggling with the same concern and approached the problem in the same way that Woolman had. Churchman writes:

The concern rested on me several days and occasioned me with earnest breathings to seek to the Lord that if the motion was form him, he would be pleased to direct my steps therein so that I might be preserved form giving just cause of offense to any, for it appeared to be a difficult time, may even of our Society expressing a willingness that a sum should be given to show our loyalty to the king (78).
Woolman notes that Churchman was then led to go to the legislature as it was considering the matter of whether or not to impose a tax used primarily for war as the King had asked them to do.  It is in Churchman's recollections of what he said that we find he turns the usual reading of the Romans 13 text upside down.  Rather than reading the text as granting government “authority” over anything it had the power to claim, Churchman said that the governing authorities were “ordained by God” to act for God “that ordained the power and permitted them to be (God's) ministers.”  However, when those authorities put in that position of power by God do not act under God's guidance, then God will provide “a spirit of judgment to them who sit in judgment” and God, “withdrawing the arm of power, may permit those evils they feared to come suddenly upon them” (80).

Thus, the inward struggles and discernment process for Woolman and Chruchman and others led them to reinterpret the Romans 13 text that overturned the way it had usually been read in their day, and they overturn the way that text usually is read in our own day. 

Woolman then records the statement of twenty Friends, including himself and Churchman, to their governing authorities.  In very polite terms this document acknowledges the struggles the legislators face, and these petitioners do not desire to give them “any unnecessary trouble.” They also state to them the hope that “the immediate instruction of Supreme Wisdom may influence” their minds so they can “secure peace and tranquility” for themselves and those they represent. Further, this document offers as way out for both the government and for these Friends.  If those on conscientious grounds object to the payment of taxes when much of those taxes will be used for war, then let those who so object pay into a separate fund that will be used to “cultivate our friendship with our Indian neighbors, and to support such of our fellow subjects who are or may be in distress, and to support such other like benevolent purposes” (82).

This document then goes on to say that if some such way forward cannot be found, these Friends conclude that paying taxes to government who “may apply them to purpose inconsistent with the peaceable testimony we profess, and have borne to the world, appears in its consequences to be destructive of our religious liberates.”  Therefore, they will refuse to willingly pay those taxes and suffer whatever the government will then do to them (82).

In these few pages of Woolman's Journal he summarizes a process of discernment when it seems that no one else has been troubled by the question.  He finds that others have been so troubled, and they join together to address the problem in prayer and corporate discernment.  This leads to reinterpretation of how a biblical text has been read, leads to addressing the government for relief from their problem of conscience, leads to a creative solution offered to the government to solve the problem for everyone, and commits them to refuse compliance with government authorities if necessary 

What do we do now when issues relating to obedience to those “governing authorities” present difficulties of conscience? How do we support one another in discerning a way forward? How do we communicate with the state? When might we, finally, be called to resist the demands of the state?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Meet Hannah Whitall Smith, a “Convergent Friend” at the turn of the nineteenth century

Below, ESR's Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality Carole Spencer shares about discovering Hannah Whitall Smith. Carole recently delivered the 2013 J.M. Ward Distinguished Quaker Visitor Lecture at Guilford College on the subject of this important figure:

In 1903 Hannah Whitall Smith, a free-spirited product of "Orthodox Quakerism” in the nineteenth century, proudly admitted in her spiritual autobiography:

“I have always rather enjoyed being considered a heretic, and have never wanted to be endorsed by any one. I have felt that to be endorsed was to be bound, and that it was better, for me at least, to be a free lance, with no hindrances to my absolute mental and spiritual freedom.” 

When I read that line I knew I had found the Quaker woman of my dreams!  A woman who defies classification even today, whose life embodied multiple identities and contradictions, yet a woman who has illumined my own life as well as my understanding of the evolution of Quakerism.   Hannah was evangelical in orientation, and today she is read and revered largely by conservative Christians-- yet she was a universalist, and admitted she held heretical views.    She was progressive, even radical in politics, a fierce feminist who marched with her daughters for woman’s suffrage.   Later in life she gave labor union speeches and explored Christian socialism. A birthright Orthodox Quaker, she was baptized by water as an adult.  An author who wrote her most famous book on the subject of happiness and truly espoused joy in life, she experienced deep pain and suffering, and both fame and scandal in her very public life. 

Hannah was one of the most prominent female religious figures of her day, an international celebrity preacher and best-selling author.  Today she is perhaps the most famous Quaker that most Quakers have never heard of.

Initially, I knew her, not as a Quaker, but as a holiness evangelist and the author of TheChristian's Secret of a Happy Life, (1875) a nineteenth century self-help book, and popular expression of Christian mysticism.  Her book became an instant bestseller, going through numerous editions, and is still in print.

Later when I was in seminary and working on my first research paper in Quaker history, I was surprised to learn that a Quaker had written this most enduring book to emerge from the literature of the Holiness Movement.  Curious, I decided to read her spiritual autobiography, The Unselfishness of God, and discovered a most delightful and unexpected book, which became a significant primary resource for me in understanding the radical changes that occurred within the Religious Society of Friends in the latter half of the nineteenth century.   Her life spanned the transformation of American Friends into evangelicalism and English Friends into liberalism, and she was in the eye of the Quaker storm on both sides of the Atlantic for most of her life.  Her legacy however, has been largely confined to evangelical Christians, who read her work selectively, in censored editions, and maintain an idealized, and sentimental, one-sided view of her, with a blind eye to her radicalism. 

In 1901 on her 69th birthday, she circulated a letter to her friends informing them she was in process of writing her autobiography.  She revealed that her purpose in writing it was to share her discoveries about the nature of God.  She announced:

            “Not to be outdone by the younger generation, I too am preparing something for publication.  It is a part of my autobiography, and I call it “How I discovered God.” It is the story of my soul life from my early Quaker days, on through all the progressive steps of my experience until I reach that peace which cannot fail to come to the soul who has 'discovered God'!—I am putting all my heresies into my story, and am trying to show the steps that have led to them; and I flatter myself that it is going to be very convincing! So if you feel afraid of becoming heretics, I advise you not to read it.”

Her autobiography is now beginning to enjoy something of renaissance as it has been rediscovered by contemporary readers.  I would encourage all Friends, and spiritual seekers of all stripes to read this book and discover this fascinating Quaker feminist, mystic, and heretic!  The original 1903 edition entitled, The Unselfishness of God and How I Discovered It; a spiritual autobiography, can be found online and downloaded for free:

But be advised, you must read this 1903 edition, as all subsequent editions edited out her so-called heresies!