God is a community of persons, a community that is open to humankind in all our woundedness and immaturity, making a space for us to participate in and contribute to the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.How the Body of Christ Talks by C. Christopher Smith
In How the Body of Christ Talks, C. Christopher Smith reveals to readers the sacrament and vital function of conversation within Christian communities. He draws upon experience and stories from his own church’s initiation into healthy, deep, faith-based conversation, as well as stories from a variety of other religious communities. Weaved throughout the book is also a passionate vision of the church’s role within its surrounding community. Smith presents an expansive view of the church’s position in the community that is both exciting and challenging.
Smith gives guidance on moving carefully but determinedly from a state where conversation is lacking or too shallow, to gradually approaching more challenging topics and making larger decisions as a healthy body. Far too many churches fall into the traps of sticking to shallow discussions to avoid conflict or limiting what’s permitted in conversation to fit an imposed and often top-down unity. Smith reminds us that while we come together to find common ground and faith, homogeneity leads to brittle social structures that can be restrictive and easily shattered. His examples of the conversations some churches worked through together were difficult at times, as an LGBT person of faith, to read yet more stories of the trouble some have in finding love and acceptance toward people like me. However, Smith clearly expresses the need to prioritize the well-being and wholeness of oppressed and abused people as we engage in these conversations.
As a Quaker, I recognize some of the problems discussed around lack of deep conversations about faith, and I appreciated that Smith draws upon Friends’ communities and practices in parts of his writing. His approaches are not reliant on clergy or church hierarchy, leaving space for a wider range of religious communities to follow his advice. He also shows a deep respect for discernment within a whole community that feels deeply compatible with Quaker process. I believe that following Smith’s advice around conversation, combined with an openness to prophetic witness, could bring a renewed health and vigor to religious bodies of any tradition.
In Quaker Quicks: Telling the Truth About God, Rhiannon Grant presents a case that Quakers must talk more clearly and openly about God and theology, and encourages us to see the ways that we already do. The book gives a clear view of what (liberal) Quakers often do and don’t say about God, as well as what things could be added to the conversation to find unity in our diversity of beliefs. It could serve readers well who are looking for an entry point into Quaker theology, and it has many worthwhile insights for more experienced Quakers, as well.
The book explores the unique theology that Quakers express by pointing out some ways our values show up in conversations about God: value in negation, value in silence, and value in listing possibilities. Grant turns some of the standard Quaker tropes and jokes on their heads as she draws out the theology that we express with statements like “I wouldn’t say that” or “consider that you may be mistaken.” At the same time, she cautions that we may actually have an over-reliance on some of these less explicit conversational tools which can be detrimental to our community and shared story. She also shows sympathy to Quakers who feel hesitant to use more traditional Christian expressions and those who feel that doing so is vital to their religious practice, and presents some methods for bridging these conversational divides.
One thing which I deeply appreciated about this book was the way that it demonstrated how clear talk about theology in Quaker circles can push back on the hyper-individualistic tendencies of our culture. Grant points to ways that we express our openness to individual experience and leading, but reminds us that the essence of Quaker faith is to value and process those experiences in community. She highlights several ways that our universalist tendencies can be life-giving and acknowledges ways which they can be condescending to or exclusive of those who hold more focused beliefs in one definition of God.
This book is an excellent resource for Quakers looking for advice on how to work within the tension that exists in our broad faith community, as well as a tool for clarifying to newer Quakers what all our odd expressions and vague-sounding statements mean. Grant shows a way that we can value silence and be open to many experiences of God, but that we can hold our community together and grow stronger by living out our value of honesty in the ways we speak to each other about those experiences.
Two things in Quaker Quicks: What do Quakers Believe? that impressed me from the start were the avoidance of Quaker jargon (plain speech for the modern age!), and the focus on the present rather than idealizing the faith and activism of past generations of Quakers. This book provides a clear and concise overview of Quaker beliefs, practices, and organization with a focus on unprogrammed Quakerism. The author’s examples and experience are focused around British Quakers, but much of the book applies to the broader (Liberal) Quaker community. It highlights the way that Quakers value truths that are “opened” to them through direct experience, rather than creeds which others have presented to them.
One weakness this book suffers from at times is the tendency to overly emphasize individual and sometimes consumption-focused actions by Quakers. For instance, the focus on how Quakers live greener personal lifestyles presents a faith that has a footprint only as large as its own members. At times Quakers do fall into the trap of focusing exclusively on personal change, but Quakers often do (and should) work to change the wider world through both witness and action. Hopefully this book encourages people to experience Quaker faith for themselves, and they find it to be a community working toward systemic change.
The book is refreshing in its clear statements about Quaker beliefs, along with the acknowledgment that Quakers do not hold to dogmas or creeds. The blending of description, quotes from various Quakers, and summarizing statements helps the reader get a clear picture of Quaker faith. If you want to learn about how Quakers seek to find truth, live in that truth every day, and transform both their world through conviction rather than condemnation, this book is an excellent starting point.