In their book, The Final Days, Woodward and Bernstein record that on the evening before his resignation from the Presidency, Richard Nixon invited Henry Kissinger to join him in the Lincoln Sitting Room. "Henry," he said, "you are not a very orthodox Jew, and I am not an orthodox Quaker, but we need to pray."
For those of us interested in the issue, we may wonder whether Nixon was any kind of Quaker. Certainly, he was reared as a Quaker in a Friends’ evangelical church. His second cousin, Jessamyn West, the famous Quaker author, attended the same church. However, West matured into a more expansive Quakerism that was rooted in the silent, “unprogrammed” style of worship while Nixon largely left Quakerism behind as he pursued political power.
Nevertheless, the young Nixon was a birthright Quaker. In Nixon’s First Cover-up: The Religious Life of a Quaker President, H. Larry Ingle recounts his mother’s claim that young Nixon went to church three times each Sunday and once on Wednesday. Nixon regularly played the piano in these services, including the popular “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know.” For the Nixon boys there was a scripture lesson every day before breakfast; and, as time went on, Nixon taught Sunday school classes.
In his Senior year at Whittier College, he took a course in which he had to write twelve essays about his faith. These compositions reveal a Nixon who had moved away from biblical literalism and a literal Resurrection. “The important fact, “he wrote, “is that Jesus lived and taught a life so perfect that he continued to live and grow after his death—in the hearts of men.” With such a belief, Richard Nixon was closer to primitive Quakerism than the evangelical religion practiced in East Whittier Friends’ Church.
Nixon never (strong word) spoke of the Inner Light. He did speak of a “Peace at the center” that sounds Quakerish. However, for Nixon, this peace was really his inner conviction that he was acting rightly and could ignore his critics. Nixon’s inner peace was his ego, his personal sense of strength and power. This inward self was the source of his famous statement, “If the President does it, that means it’s not illegal.”
In the pursuit of power, Nixon could ignore the Quaker testimonies when they were inconvenient for his personal ends. Of course, Quakers do not have to adhere to all the Testimonies of their faith, but someone who doesn’t practice non-violence and truthfulness should certainly feel uncomfortable in the Society of Friends. It is true that Nixon won the Presidency with a pledge to bring peace to Vietnam; but instead of immediately withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam, he continued the war for some five years and even invaded Cambodia in the process. Candidate Nixon was willing to secretly sabotage the Paris peace talks because he feared that progress toward peace would undercut his own campaign for the Presidency. This duplicity may have cost both American and Vietnamese lives and violated both Testimonies mentioned above. Of course, the Watergate scandal was created by Nixon’s elaborate cover-up of the truth.
If we accept Nixon’s membership in East Whittier Friends Church as sufficient, Richard Nixon was a Quaker. However, in all his adult years, Nixon never attended East Whittier or any other Quaker meeting. He never “showed up” at Quaker events; and—according to Mary McKinney—the bare minimum for being a Quaker is to show up and to be as authentic as possible. Unfortunately, Nixon was an inveterate liar who only mentioned Quakerism when it served his political purposes. In fact, he came to rely on Billy Graham and evangelical Protestantism to present himself as a Christian trying to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.
In short, the adult Nixon was not a Quaker at all.
One evening when I was about eleven, my siblings and I waited in a car outside a restaurant. Kids on bikes circled us, calling us "Jew...Jew". Hunh? Their ignorance--we weren't Jews--mitigated the threat, but somehow even as a child I knew that yelling back "We're not Jews, you jerks!" was not the right response. I was a little scared, too.
More recently, my best friend in Lanesborough for ten years at that point (she has since moved) was an observant Jew and daughter of Holocaust survivors. I can't remember the context, but at a social occasion, she referred to myself and another friend with a similar surname, as “the Germans". Hunh? I spoke up--I've never been to Germany and my Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors came to this country in 1750. I don't identify as German. I was an "innocent" Quaker!
The kids on bikes scattered when my mother appeared. My friend and I remained very close. But these two incidents are linked in my mind. Am I Jewish or German, both, or neither?
We’ve all heard of glossolalia, “speaking in tongues” during moments of religious ecstasy. What seems to us nonsensical gibberish has spiritual meaning to the speaker. More important, I’d argue, is “listening in tongues,” especially during unprogrammed meetings of liberal Quakers. I say liberal Quakers because our meetings attract people with startlingly different belief systems. One liberal Quaker may be a quite traditional Christian, another may be Unitarian. There are Quakers who identify as Moslems or Buddhists, others who practice Paganism or Zoroastrianism. And then there are the atheists, agnostics, and humanists who belong to the Religious Society of Friends.
When someone with a quite different orientation than our own speaks in meeting, there’s often a tendency to discount, even ignore, what that person says. But if we listen in tongues, we will do the hard work of trying to empathize with and understand the speaker. We will try to discern the ideas and emotions that lie behind the words. We will not let words become barriers between people who appear to be different but may in fact be rather similar in attitude.
So, if someone says, “Jesus is Lord,” we will not let the idea of a powerful, male lord so offend our sensibility as to close heart and mind. Perhaps we are both followers of Jesus. Even if we are humanists, we may appreciate the way of life advocated by Jesus. Or consider the person who is a “born-again Christian.” We may have had mystical or spiritual experiences that allow us to comprehend the feeling of being spiritually reborn.
Although listening in tongues may involve listening for large ideas, we are primarily listening for emotions and aspirations. If Christian, we may aspire to love others in much the same way as non-theists who advocate for social justice. We must listen for the love that lies behind the words. And sometimes the emotion behind words is fear. When we understand that Fundamentalist Christians are so literal minded because of fear, because of anxiety that changing a single belief will destroy one’s entire faith, we may feel less threatened by that aggressive version of Christianity.
In this divided country, listening in tongues may allow liberal-minded people to better understand hard-core supporters of Donald Trump. Behind their racism and intolerance is fear—fear that they will be displaced as African Americans and Hispanic immigrants take their jobs and undermine their way of life. With this understanding, we may be in a better place psychologically as we try to dialog with an intransigent group of people.
In the strictest sense, listening in tongues only means seeking to understand the other. When we try to re-frame what is said so that it fits better with our beliefs, we are doing something that goes beyond listening. So, for example, if someone tells us they are a “born-again” Christian, we may not accept the constellation of meanings that usually attach to the phrase. We may feel that, yes, we have been born again spiritually and then simply substitute our meaning of “born-again” for the “born-again” that implies biblical literalism and a faith in Jesus as one’s personal Savior. We may reframe a speaker’s words, so they are less threatening to our identity and worldview. We may be listening to protect our ego, not really to empathize with the other person.
Of course, listening in tongues (even if the phrase is unfamiliar) is essential to our meetings. Without this practice we would dissolve into dissension and fragmentation. That is, in fact, an unfortunate aspect of Quaker history—at least in America, where Quakers have splintered into many different groups. A hopeful development is that many meetings are now united either to Friends General Conference or Friends United Meeting. Many Monthly Meetings belong to both FGC and FUM. And the Friends World Committee for Consultation tries to communicate with all branches of Quakerism.
Robin Mohr, an executive secretary of FWCC, thinks of “listening in tongues” as a kind of bilingualism. For her take on the subject, click HERE.
I recently posted a poem about a mystical experience of mine some forty years ago in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend. The poem dramatizes and romanticizes the actual event, but it was for me a powerful manifestation of what I call God. And that was it. No other grand spiritual experience in the four succeeding decades. In fact, I am a little irritated with God for only appearing that one time. Then again, maybe I should consider myself fortunate. After all, there are many people—many Friends, in fact—who have never experienced an earth-shattering revelation of The Eternal.
On the other hand, mysticism does not depend on sudden, life-changing revelations. We do not have to experience a flash of light from Heaven as did Paul on the road to Damascus. Rather, we may experience gentler, fleeting moments that are mystical and “from God.” Perhaps we may not even recognize such experiences as transcendent. Perhaps we may even protest that we are logical, skeptical people who have no use for mysticism. Yet the experiences are there.
Many such moments are evoked by some transient experience of nature like the smell of rain in a breeze or the rustling of dry leaves across the ground. But we could be inside the house, transfixed by dust motes in a sun beam or by a beloved pet in our lap.
Music is also a prime source of transcendent moments. For me, that’s the culmination of a crescendo in the first movement of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony. For an acquaintance of mine, that’s the perfect pitch of a note she plays on her violin. For the Sufi branch of Islam, music is, in fact, the primary way to approach the Divine.
Even sports can give us a glimpse of The Eternal. Gary Shaw in his book, Meat on the Hoof, recalls a pass play from a touch football game with friends:
…I began to feel some inexplicable postponement of time…. This
changeless spell brought an acute sense of temporalness and the
feeling of inevitably fading with the dusk. Yet just as acute was the
sense that this present intimately belonged to both past and future.
This time and our movements were one. As I released the ball with
giving length and completeness of my arm, I could see the beginning
of its easy soft arc.
When his friend catches the ball, Shaw remarks, “I knew we had connected.”
Connection is, of course, the whole point of Meeting for Worship. We want to connect with Spirit or God and through that connection to feel a spiritual oneness among ourselves. Sometimes not much feeling or connection is apparent, but sometimes—in a gathered meeting—that feeling engulfs everyone. Less obvious, but no less important, are the mystical moments that come to us as we individually wait in silence. There may be Friends who deny being mystics, but I doubt that there are many Friends who haven’t experienced a “silent word” of Spirit spoken to them personally. God does not have to thunder from a mountaintop when speaking to those in worship.
I’ve been blogging on a weekly schedule but am beginning to feel a little self-imposed deadline pressure. So, I may begin skipping a week here and there to preserve my leisurely, retired lifestyle.
Anyhow, several years ago I took Beliefnet’s online quiz purporting to identify what kind of religion a person is. According to Belief-O-Matic, I was a Unitarian. I was aghast. I had been to several Unitarian services and disliked what I experienced at them. Anyway, I was pleased when I recently re-took the quiz and was scored as a liberal Quaker.
According to Beliefnet, I am 100% Liberal Quaker, 98% Unitarian Universalist (Hmmm?), 76% Liberal Christian Protestant, 67% Orthodox Quaker (FUM?), 45% Conservative Christian Protestant (Fundamentalist?), 43% Atheist (interesting), and 13% Roman Catholic (surprising). I guess the 13% score explains why I stopped being Catholic several years ago. I remember having to use “doublethink” to repeat the Nicene Creed at Mass, and I’ve never felt a truly Catholic reverence for the Virgin Mary or the Saints. I had less trouble with the idea of the Real Presence of Christ in the Host. After all, Quakers (some anyhow) believe in God’s omnipresence.
I also took the “What Kind of Christian Are You?” quiz. The results show me to be a “Brian McLaren Christian.” McLaren sees Christianity, not as a set of beliefs, but as a way of living. That way is the way of love, of coming to know God by recognizing and loving God in others. I may have trouble loving others at times, but I certainly recognize the validity of the concept (more about this later).
Besides McLaren, I’m supposed to be enamored of N.T. Wright. I have heard of Wright; but after an internet survey of his work, I must say that he and I have serious differences in our Christian faith. Wright believes in a literal Resurrection of Jesus whereas I think that the disciples had a mystical experience of Jesus’ presence which was later mythologized into a literal, historical resurrection. Wright also believes that the soul survives after death, a view to which I am sympathetic. However, I have no sense of certainty about the afterlife. I agree with another member of Old Chatham meeting who has stated that, “At death, we return to God, but I don’t know what that means.” Many Quakers will also agree with Wright’s statement that “Jesus is present, he is real, he can be talked to—and he will talk back.” To be on the safe side, I would say that God or Spirit talks. However, if the historical Jesus has, in some sense, returned to God, we may well feel His Presence in our meetings.
Other religious figures whom I am supposed to like include Rob Bell, Phyllis Tickle, Tim Keller, and Eugene Peterson. Bell questions the concept of Hell although he does not outright reject the idea. Tickle had a near death experience that convinced her of God’s existence. Keller is a born-again Christian who criticizes the alliance between evangelical Christians and Republicans. Eugene Peterson advocated a relational Christianity and translated the Bible into modern, colloquial language. My actual religious-figure favorites are Marcus Borg, Paul Tillich, Isaac Penington, and—well—Jesus of Nazareth.
The quiz also predicted six magazines that I would likely subscribe to, none of which I take. Of those mentioned, I have leafed through a few issues of Sojourners, and I’m continually being asked to subscribe to The Atlantic because I click on Atlantic articles in my Google News feed. In fact, I may as well right now follow the Beliefnet prediction and subscribe to the Kindle edition of The Atlantic. Done! (But as of March 4, I haven’t read any of my first Kindle issue!)
My test results also say, “Your Christian history is rooted in St. Francis, who leads (through Gandhi) to Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. You emphasize social justice as an element of God’s Kingdom.” Well, yes and no. I do like St. Francis’ love of animals and often see “That of God” in my two dachshunds. Certainly, I approve of the non-violence preached by Gandhi and King. I also approve of Mother Teresa, who—despite being a Catholic saint—experienced excruciating doubts as to God’s existence. I, too, sometimes find my faith wavering; but I’ve always been able to affirm, “Jesus is Lord.”
Like Jesus, I’m a big Kingdom of God fan; but—as much as I desire social justice and admire those who work for it—I’m not really a social justice activist. I’ve only done social justice things in a desultory and imperfect way, preferring reflection to action (thinking is usually safer than doing). And while the Kingdom of God contains an important focus on social justice, its Ruler gives us two more general commandments. We are to love God with all our heart, mind, and soul and our neighbor as ourselves.
I could follow those commandments by driving to Colorado and chaining myself to the fence around a Minutemen missile silo; or, more conveniently, I could try to work through my anger at Donald Trump supporters and remember that they are beloved members of God’s Kingdom. Social justice projects are worthy of our time and effort, but we can also serve The Kingdom just by loving our family, friends, and even our “enemies.”
Of course, no quiz can really measure one’s spirituality. I call myself a
Quaker by virtue of my spiritual attitudes and beliefs. However, I also have the
evidence of a New Jersey Friend’s verbal baptism of me. Moreover, a Hawaii
Friend has confirmed that I am a Quaker—in spirit, at least. (Zoom was the
connection for New Jersey—Hawaii—and me here in Texas.) One of these days
I’ll join a meeting and receive a letter of acceptance, which I’ll frame and mount
on a wall. Then I’ll have written, official, incontestable proof that I really am a
Quaker. I won’t have to rely on Belief-O-Matic.
For those who are interested in the entertaining (but less than reliable)
Beliefnet quizzes, they are listed HERE.
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