One Road Home

By Merle Harton, Jr.

The study of comparative religions reveals one thing with absolute certainty—there are many gods. I do not mean that literally there are many gods, or that I affirm this. What I mean is that there are many things in the world for people to worship, and people worship many things. And we do not have to look far to find this: Within our own faith community Friends too have turned to the worship of other gods.

I have a concern about this. I recently read a short piece by a self-professed "pagan Friend" who was celebrating the diversity of the Quaker way. She was happily discussing her relationship with the Spirit and how this Spirit was a Her, and how she left Christianity because she could never make a decision about the existence of God in the first place. Walking in a circle, which took most of her adult life, she came back to her faith community with the conviction that all parts of the universe are sacred and that God is indwelling in everything. For her, God is now a Goddess, a dancing life-partner, whose small voice she sometimes detects in silent worship. It was a well-prepared piece, and certainly written from the heart, but my first response to it was the deepest sadness—how could we as a community have let this woman down? For how, really, is her religious conviction in any meaningful sense different from that of the Baal worshipper? How is her declaration that she worships a world-indwelling She-Spirit-dancing-life-partner different from the Canaanite's admission: "I worship the golden image of Baal"? Of course, these are not rhetorical questions, and there is a real difference between this poor pagan Quaker and the idolater from Canaan. But from another perspective there is no difference, and I say this because the pagan Quaker, like the Baal worshipper, is just plain lost and unsaved—because she has failed in her search for a real relationship with God.

There was a time when a Quaker was a Christian and the thought of a "pagan Quaker" would have been an absurdity. But times change, fads come and go, and in the flux of cultural change the worst of these fads sometimes leave behind droppings. Diversity (which is where a community is all things to all people) is, I think, one of these cultural droppings. But in this case it has a far-reaching outcome. In our quest for honest diversity within our faith communities, Friends have abrogated the responsibility to be good stewards of God's word. While we can claim success in domestic and international social services and reform, we still fail miserably in the most important area of our obligations—our commitment to the truth. In losing our commitment to the truth, we fall prey to the darkest impulses of the spirit and lose the capacity to act as a safe haven for seekers who need their paths lit with our bright light.

My emotions toward the pagan Quaker are born, I think, more out of intimacy than out of strangeness. I too did time in the prison of humanistic creeds. This experience has given me a larger perspective, enabling me to look at many sides of an issue with wide eyes. So I have no misgivings about claiming that this "quest for diversity" among Quakers will only end with the Religious Society of Friends as a kind of Universalist faith, which is really no faith at all, but a perpetual search for truth. Here I also speak from experience. When I was hungry and looking about for the truth, I spent time with such a community. I ended up leaving empty-handed and with an even greater hunger—after a long parade of pagan presentations, chanting, drum-beating, oak and spirit worship, Native American Indian ceremonies, orations on transcendentalism and Thoreau-isms, deprecations of dead men, appreciations of Biblical figures as common people with special gifts. And I listened dutifully to lectures by self-important pipe-smoking academic women, pagans-as-environmentalists, people who were fond of the classical Western religions (but only at a distance, like archivists or curators) and others who just liked to talk about things such as spirit, divinity, supreme power, and similar basically empty words. This was a cul-de-sac, littered with bodies of spiritual wanderers, smatterers, and poseurs. At some point, I had to realize that I was just coming to a room full of lost people. So it ended for me, at least, when our group's minister announced that she was embracing her husband's orthodox Jewish faith. Apparently, she too could not stand wandering aimlessly in search of God along roads that went nowhere.

One great failure of the church is that it has not been a good example of its own values. This is of course a historical problem, but the church continues to perpetuate its failings through multiplicity of doctrines, discordant voices, encouraging the separation of priest and laity, occasionally showing good fruits, but more often than not failing to create a true atmosphere for spiritual nourishment and growth. Hence there is still a great hunger for truth and, not finding it, people continue searching, sometimes landing in weird territory. It is one thing, surely, to appreciate primitive beliefs, and still another to embrace and practice them, as though they were true. It is one thing, too, to drink a long draft of life-giving water, and still another to wander through the desert with water and a dribble glass.

There are two errors one can make in studying other religions, other religious beliefs, other communities. The first error is that all faiths affirm one god. The second is that there are many roads to God. There are not many roads to God, and the roads that other faiths follow do not always lead to his door. Jesus said: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." [John 14:6] While a multiplicity of faiths proclaims a road to God, the basic fact is that there is only one road. When Jesus said, "No one comes to the Father except through me," he was not stating a historical or experiential fact. He was prescribing the true direction people's lives should take in their search for a relationship with God. Without a relationship with Jesus Christ, there is no relationship with God. This message is inseparable from the Gospel.

Sadly, Jesus Christ is a secret for some Quaker communities. Where otherwise he is a light that outshines the darkness in the lives of the lost, he is in some quarters kept hidden under a bushel. As children of light, we should be bright beacons of hope for the lost, not dark leaders of refuge that at once give hope and love with one hand and with the other hand let those in our care die. Diversity is an admirable goal for a community that has a blueprint for consolidating the diverse elements into an organic, functioning whole. How can this be an effective evangelical strategy for Friends, though, when there is no evangelical goal beyond the mere inclusion of community members? It cannot, of course. As Christians, Friends need to stop cowering before this cultural icon called "diversity" and speak the truth to those who need from us integrity and authenticity.

The point I am trying to make is that the world is full of lost souls, longing for truth, for a relationship with God, for a community of responsible believers. If the church cannot provide this safe haven, then where will these lost souls go? When Jesus was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, many of his disciples found his lessons obscure, and they quickly deserted him. Asked whether he too wanted to leave, Peter said: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God." [John 6:68-69]

To whom shall we go? Like Peter, Christian Friends need to stand firm and be authentic in our faith. As Quakers, we have a tremendous opportunity for the most effective form of evangelism—lifestyle evangelism. Our lifestyle is in part what attracts unbelievers to our community, for we work diligently to live a life that pleases God. We are Christians who practice our faith every day. We are a Christian people who can present a balanced life with a respect and understanding of the biblical covenants, an obedient worship in spirit-led anticipation of God's presence, and a fellowship that gives open arms to those in need. As Christians, though, we ought not to forget our obligations. We ought, above all things, to be the final refuge for unbelievers who hunger and thirst for the relationship with God that we have to offer. In this role, however, we should remember the duties of our station. We have been given the ministry and message of reconciliation [2 Cor. 5:18-19]; we are "Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us" [2 Cor. 5:20]. And we should not forget Jesus' Great Commission: "[G]o and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" [Matt. 28:19-20].

As Christians, we are called upon to be witnesses for Jesus Christ; we therefore must stop hiding our duties behind the barriers of changing cultures and remain true signposts of our faith. Thus will Quaker communities prevail as harbors of salvation—instead of social clubs with an agenda that speaks not from the Holy Spirit.

"One Road Home"
Copyright © 1998 Merle Harton, Jr.  All rights reserved