New Wine in New Bottles
miriam berg

Before we can answer this question, we must know what "Christian" means, and we must know what "Quaker" means. Unfortunately, it is probable that they mean different things to different people, so that our search for an answer to this question may ultimately be baffled despite our best intentions. But we must take this chance, and hope that we can resolve our different understandings of what the words mean.

To be a "Christian" may mean simply that one is associated with a church that calls itself "Christian", or wlth a culture or a country where most of the people call themselves Christian. But that is not a useful meaning, however much it may be common usage, since in that case we cannot distinguish a "Christian" from a "Catholic" or a "Westerner" or an "American" or "Englishperson". Our search for clarity is defeated at the start if we use only this definition of "Christian".

Are there Westerners who are not Christians, independently of what they may call themselves? Or Catholics or Englishpeople? On the other hand, are there "Christians" who are not Catholics or Westerners? Of course there are; many Westerners call themselves Jews or agnostics, and not Christians; and there are many denominations within Christianity which do not call themselves Catholic, and many non-Westerners who do call themselves Christians. So we must look deeper for what makes a "Christian" a Christian or a non-Christian not use the label "Christian".

Even deeper than this, is there a difference between "being" a Christian and "calling yourself" one? Does calling yourself a Christian make you one? or refusing the label mean you are not? Again, this means that we must bring into sharp focus the meaning of "Christian", so that we can know when the label is correct, and when it is not, or whether a person is or is not a Christian, regardless of what label they use.

So let us try again. To be a "Christian" may mean that you follow the instructions in the Sermon on the Mount, that you seek the "kingdom of God", that you try to live a daily life of truth and love. If I read the Sermon correctly, it would mean that you seek reconciliation with all persons regardless of what they have done to you, that you treat all persons the same as yourself, that you seek truthfulness in all things, that you do not return harm for harm but forgive without ceasing, that you love all persons even your enemies after the manner of Her who created all those people. It would mean that you pray and do your good works and pursue your spiritual growth in secret, not in public; and you would do all these things as those which it is your duty to do. It would mean that you would not accumulate things and would not be anxious about your food or shelter or clothing, but would share what you have with those in need, after the manner of the Samaritan of whom we were told by Jesus of Galilee; that you would keep yourself from all covetousness and self-righteousness; and that you would give and help wlthout thought of reward.

Now we must ask, Are there practitioners of these precepts who do not call themselves Christian? or those who call themselves Christian who do not practice these precepts'? If there are, then that practice cannot be equated with being Christian or vice versa. And we must admit that there are those who practice these benevolent principleS Who do not call themselves Christian (it is arrogant of Christians to think they are the only ones who love their neighbor), and there are many professed "Christians" who do not follow these teachings. So however much we may wish to have the word "Christian" mean such virtue and practice, the existence of practicing non-Christians and non-practicing "Christians" refutes that meaning and proves it to be delusional wishful thinking.

What about the person of Jesus? We are told in the bulk of the New Testament that we must "believe" on Jesus in order to be "saved". This was the belief of the early Christians and persists to the present day, including among those who call themselves Friends. The primary teaching of Christianity from Paul to John Paul has been that Jesus died "for our sins" and that he rose again to prove that he was the "only begotten son" of God. Christians have fought and killed and died themselves to enforce those beliefs on others. Now non-Christians may or may not live in "Christian" countries, and may or may not practice the teachings given by Jesus in the Gospels, but they certainly do not believe this myth about Jesus nor do a good many members of the various "Christian" denominations in this day and age and time. So while we can conclude that this myth about Jesus is the distinctive feature of traditional Christianity, and we can find no other, we fortunately find that even many of those who call themselves Christians no longer believe this myth literally nor fight and kill over it.

Quakerism in its origins included a belief in a "spirit of Christ" which was in each and every person and made priest and ritual and creed and steeplehouse unnecessary and an affront to that Spirit. This spirit has been called by Quakers Light and Seed and many other things, and has been equated with the person 'of Jesus or the everlasting spirit of Jesus living on and on even though the man died centuries ago. Here is where our difficulties grow intense. Quakers certainly believe in "that of God" in every persGn, which they also call "Christ" as a shorthand expression for "spirit of Christ" or "the spirit that was in Jesus". But why do they, why do we have to consider this divine spirit to be identical with the man Jesus? It arises from the Pauline confusion of the man Jesus and the title Messiah or Christ, and the failure of later Christians and early Quakers to distinguish between the man, the title, and the divine spirit which they believed to be in every person. The confusion is still there, and may make resolution of our question, Are Quakers Christians, impossible. But let us try.

Jesus was a man who lived two thousand years ago and died or was killed by the authorities in some way (we can at least say that). Subsequently his followers claimed that he had risen from the dead and was the literal "son of God" and upon his memory built an oppressive church which kept the people submissive and itself wealthy. That monolithic institution came apart during the last five hundred years and is still coming apart, though many of the fragments are still powerful.

Christ was the Greek word for "anointed" which was translated from the Hebrew word "Messiah" which was used to refer to a Jewish king who had been anointed with oil. The word was used to refer to Jesus by Paul and his followers who believed that Jesus fulfilled the Jewish predictions of a "Saviour". The term "Christ Jesus" or "Jesus Christ" came to be used as the name for Jesus when it had originally meant only "Jesus the Messiah" or the Anointed One.

On the other hand, the "spirit of Christ" or "spirit of God" or the Inward Light or the Seed of God were all terms used by the early Quakers to describe their perceptions of the innate divinity of each person, although it appears to have been also used in a self-righteous way (and still is!) to justify following one's own way rather than a premise by which they justified or enjoined loving behavior. Now whatever we know or don't know about the person of Jesus, or about the etymological origin and later use of the word "Christ", it is evident that these phrases and their referent are subjective at best; the person who has had no experience similar to them is justified in doubting their existence, and it is religious tyranny to insist on their literal truth in the face of others' differing "xperience. But that is not our question. All we need to notice here is that this entity, whether real or not, has no obvious or necessary relationship to a man who reportedly lived 2000 years ago, or to an expected leader who according to both Judean and Christian predictions failed to show up centuries ago. We may believe that our feelings of human familyhood are in some inexplicable sense due to that man or that leader within us, and in fact such a view may also be a distinctive feature of calling oneself a Christian; but such a belief is no evidence of that relationship, and we can have those feelings and live according to the principle of universal love without believing that those feelings come from "Jesus" within us, although we may believe that Jesus himself was a quintessential exemplar of that principle.

However, at this point we must take a closer look at precisely those beliefs of the early Quakers. They said, The spirit of Christ is within each person, and each person needs only to listen to that teacher within them. This contradicted the teachings of the traditional church, that men were depraved and that priestly craft and ritual were absolutely necessary in order for a person to receive God's grace. The Quakers said, We do not need churches, but can worship God anywhere and anytime. We do not need priests to interpret God to us, because God's spirit is already in each of us. We do not need rituals of baptism and communion, but only to listen to God's speaking within ourselves. We not only do not need hierarchy but it is against God's will because we are all equal before Her and She may speak to any of us at any time. Thus it is clear, or should be clear, that not only did the early Friends hold beliefs which were not a part of traditional Christianity, but they repudiated all or most of the traditional structure and practices. They haa no creed; they worshipped in silence, men and women and children together; they found religious authority within themselves and not in priests or scriptures.

The early Friends also found ways of living which were radically different from the ways enjoined by the Church. They spoke bluntly to authority; they refused to bear arms; they lived simply and eschewed wealth; they treated all people everywhere as having the Spirit within them. As the decades rolled by Friends found themselves in the forefront of movements for religious freedom, for political freedom, for economic and social honesty and service to others. They sought to improve the lot of prisoners and were the leaders in the movement to free the Africans in American society. They always regarded women as equal to men and were among the first to work for women's rights and emancipation. This wholly different approach to living, together with the principled repudiation of all the rituals and hierarchy and structure of the Church, enables us to see that Quakerism is not just a new sect within Christianity, but is a new movement, a new religion, and need not be shackled by words and terms out of the old. As Jesus himself said, We should not put new wine into old bottles. We as Friends and Quakers do not have to consider ourselves "Christians" because we came out of the Christian tradition any more than the early Christians called themselves Jews because they came out of the Jewish tradition. We may revere Jesus; we may find more truth in his words than in any others we may hear; but as long as we do not accept or follow the ways of traditional Christianity we do not need to consider ourselves Christians. No more should we make it a requirement that members call themselves "Christian", which we of course do not, as there are many members of many meetings who do not call themselves such. There is no need for us to adopt such a "chosen people" attitude, nor to exclude any from membership because they do not call themselves "Christian". And as long as that is so, Quakerism is larger than Christianity in the breadth of its outlook.

It is of course true that the early Friends believed that they constituted a return to original Christianity, that is, to the beliefs and practices of the early Christians. This has also been commented on by many writers outside the Society of Friends, including William James, who described Quakerism as "a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men (sic) had ever known". Historians may distinguish "institutional" Christianity from "original" Christianity, and may even conclude that the Quakers are not a part of institutional Christianity but are an expression of "primitive" Christianity. But we cannot be so careless as to say that one who practices the teachings of Jesus is the same as one who follows and teaches the ways of the institutional church! Quakers may prefer to explain their practices as being the same as those of the early "Christians", and to say that the traditional church is not Christianity at all, but this is dangerously near to defining words to suit ourselves. The problem is, if that is so, what do we call the vast institution that calls itself Christianity? Some people may call it "Churchianity" or "Christolatry", but these names do not enjoy very wide use or acceptance. I like the term "Christolatry". We are all "Christolaters" if we believe that people must call themselves "Christians", or even if we tolerate their not doing so but feel secretly that they ought to or are missing something if they do not. But the impartial historians of the future must view the Western tradition which calls itself the Christian Church as correctly bearing the label "Christianity", and if that is something different from what Jesus and his early followers taught and practiced, then a new name needs to be found for those original beliefs and practices. We could call it "Eochristianity" ("dawn" Christianity) and call ourselves Eochristians, or we could call it Neojudaism, since Jesus was a Jew who never claimed to be anything else. Noplace in the Gospels does Jesus repudiate Judaism; it was Paul who did so. Or we could call ourselves Neochristians or "new" Christians if the thesis that we are a new movement appeals to people. We could also use the term "Jesusians", or those who follow the teachings of Jesus, although that can still be read as implying Jesus-worship. But if we do not make these distinctions, then we will "mash and confound all together" as Fox said about dreams.

But in the last analysis, it may be that the determining factor is what a person considers herself or himself to be, not what someone else considers that person to be. Thus one who calls himself or herself a "Christian" may be entitled to be called that, even if their sense of what that means differs from that of another "Christian" or is the same as that of one who does not call herself or himself Christian. We may want to use the label to refer to a sense of divinity within ourselves and within others, independently of anything at all that traditional Christianity believes or teaches or has stood for, and even at the risk of being thought believers in churches and creeds. But I do not call myself a "Christian" because to me it means believing in the myth about Jesus and the notion that my sense of human divinity or Godness is the "Jesus" within me, which language I am not able to use. I do call myself a "Jesusian" because to me the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount are a "sufficient guide to eternal life" and a basis for ethical and moral decisions, although the contributions of the early Friends and those of other moderns may be clearer for our time. I think we might even with considerable justification call ourselves "Foxians" because we essentially follow the path first walked cheerfully by that Quakerest of Friends George Fox!

(originally published under the name of John Fitz)