Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Discerning the Will of God---A Quaker Dilemma?

In a diverse body of well intentioned Friends, how can we be certain of the will of God? Is not this a present Quaker dilemma? This may get me branded a heretic for questioning this fundamental tenet of Friends spirituality, but it has brought about more than one impasse among Friends, and seems to be at the center of the “to reconfigure or not to reconfigure” issue presently facing Indiana Yearly Meeting. I was led (I hope) to write these thoughts after reading an exchange this morning on the IYM Facebook Discussion Page in which two sincere Friends framed the problem by asking why the “other side” could not accept the possibility that their side was led by the Spirit. So allow me pose the issue in the form of a heavenly conversation:

The Holy Spirit returns home after a long day’s work among Quakers of Indiana, and the Heavenly Father asks how it went. The Spirit answered, “It’s just….just AWFUL!” The Father says, “Oh? Do you want to tell me about it?” The Spirit replies, “I shouldn’t have to. You set up that impossible scenario!” The Father asks, “I did? In what way?” The Spirit replies, “You created them to be persons with the capacity to be individually led by us, and even in corporate situations, to have different perspectives, each one claiming our leadership!” The Father replies: “Hmm, I guess you are right. Well, it’s the only way I could give them a sacred dignity and worth, and immediate access to The Family---You, Me, and Jesus.” After another pause, the Father says: “Well….I guess they’ll just have to live or die with it.” The Spirit replies, “You got that right!”

Indiana Yearly Meeting Representative Council gathers again on Saturday, September 29 to consider the Task Force’s recommendation concerning reconfiguration after having heard from all of the meetings that are going to reply. And the decision may lead to life among IYM churches…or death. My figures may not be exactly right, but I think there are 4 meetings who are now going with the “A” option, and around 10 or 12 who have not replied at all. I think there are 38 meetings that wish to go with “B”, and 10 or 12 who do not wish to reconfigure. I’m sure there are some persons reading this who will say Bill Wagoner is off here or there, and that’s okay, but I think the numbers are close enough for me to continue these thoughts.

So to get to those, let me quote from IYM Faith and Practice on Ideals, Chapter I on Government, Section 4 on Friends’ Methods” (page 50):

“It is the practice of Friends to give unhurried and sympathetic consideration to all proposals and expressions of opinions as the will of God is sought. Friends endeavor to respect an earnest and sincere minority and, if it seems necessary, may postpone action until Friends have secured more light on the question at issue and attained a greater degree of unanimity. When exercising this privilege each Friend should be certain that the expressed concern and comments are led by the Spirit of God. After due consideration has been given to all points of view, it is the responsibility of the Presiding Clerk of the Meeting to weigh carefully the various expressions and to discern and present to the Monthly Meeting what he or she believes to be the will of God for the Meeting.”

Three comments: (1) The italics and high-lighting are mine; (2) I assume these words apply also to Quarterly Meeting and Yearly Meeting Presiding Clerks; and finally, (3) in response to the words, “…believes to be the will of God for the Meeting,” I want to say, “Wow! That’some kind of responsibility.” But there it is, on page 50 of IYM’s book on Faith and Practice. I know that would give me pause if I was asked to be a Presiding Clerk anywhere up and down our Quaker organizational scale. If under the guidance and scenario of the words above I as a Presiding Clerk was required to announce a decision, I’m not sure I could be absolutely, completely, perfectly led to believe and announce the will of God…Not just the better of two or more options, but the very will of God.

I can just hear someone say, “Oh well, Bill, that’s just religious language or the proper Quaker way of putting it. Don’t take that will of God thing so seriously. We’ve got to move on, so all we want is for the leader of our meeting to settle it so we can all go home.” Well pardon me, but trying to determine how or even why our yearly meeting should go through painful division is not a casual matter, and it certainly isn’t a matter for one appointed Presiding Clerk to decide so we can all go home.

“Ah,” but you say, “the Faith and Practice gives that person that power, and any changes in Faith and Practice cannot be approved until next yearly meeting.” “Ah,” but I say, “it may behoove a Clerk and all of us to give this more time.”

So in closing I have two questions, both bearing on Faith and Practice, and on the question of whether “to reconfigure or not to reconfigure”:

First, should we change that will of God language in Faith and Practice, unless we really think one mortal among us, where there are differing strongly held views, can confidently announce God’s will, without  previous bias bearing upon her or his mind? Why couldn’t we just say that the Clerk has discerned a way in which Friends might move on, or has discerned the best possible solution in a difficult situation, and not be so presumptuous about divine sanction? Otherwise unity, which is always what God desires, will take a lot more praying and seeking God’s face than we have done so far.

Finally, I must have missed where the Faith and Practice emphasizes the use of the Clearness Committee as a way to help persons discern their way through a situation. If it’s there, will someone inform me. But has the yearly meeting given any thought to use a similar process for the reconfiguration impasse? There are organizations that can come in without bias and help us truly corporately discern the will of God.

And isn’t that what this is all about? 


  1. "There are organizations that can come in without bias and help us truly corporately discern the will of God." [sic.] Wow!

    Suppose the will of God should be thought of in a conditional sense? "If you guys really want to do something like this, then My will is that you do it in this manner"?

    That is, God's will as an intention might be quite firm, while God's will as to how that intention will be realized -- would be a response to the given situation, the people involved, how they feel about one thing or another.

    It might also be considered in a general sense: My own human will is that I should start a game of go today. It is not that I should win a game, certainly not that I should lose it -- simply that I and another person will engage in a mental struggle, which we'll both enjoy, except that one of us might well enjoy slightly more than the other.

    How do you account for the existence of someone like Joan of Arc? Did God care, one way or the other, whether a particular nation called "France" beat the English in a long (and probably horrible) war? -- or was it important to keep Europe from forming a single tyranny under the auspices of any nation whatsoever? Obviously I don't have a complete list of God's purposes in producing any outcome whatsoever -- but we can be sure that the world we have in fact, as far from ideal as it undoubtedly is, does reflect such purposes.

    The will of God for one particular person just might be all we might reasonably expect to know -- especially if we happen to be that particular person.

    God might well see some value in having a person struggle to find out what they're called to do -- just so they'll take an interest, if nothing else. Just so they'll know that their wishes count for something, even if they can't (and shouldn't) have absolute power to decide what happens. But ultimately, we can know what God wants us to know -- because God wants that. [Not because some organization is signed into God's website or something...]

    When Israel (the northern part of the monarchy) secedes from the Davidic dynasty in Jerusalem, there is considerable fuss & bother involved (and much trouble to follow.) But when the ruler of Judah starts preparing an army to unify the country by force, a prophet shows up, tells him: "You shall not go up or fight against your kinsmen the people of Israel. Return every man to his home, for this thing is from Me." Sometimes God may have reasons -- to let a certain tension between differing sides continue.

  2. Forrest may be correct, but I find myself asking is this desire of some Friends to set themselves apart of God or is this of men?

    I cannot help but think that this attempt to tear apart IYM comes right before a heavily culture wars oriented election - can those who wish to exclude Friends and neighbors from IYM say with perfect honesty they are not influenced by the political climate or that there has not been any influence from individuals and groups outside IYM to bring on this fracture?

    Perhaps it would be better to leave matters as they are and focus on where all meetings can work together rather then focus on dogma which has not been the historical strength of Friends?

  3. Hello William,

    Interesting. I am not informed enough to speak about IYM at all and am not personally involved in that struggle so likewise have no expertise.

    About the general "discernment of the will of God" question: it sounds awfully anxiety-inducing for anyone to have an overall view that this is some external decision instead of an internal decision individual by individual. I like your idea of clearness committees.

    I have envisioned your conversation between God and the Holy Spirit a little differently. I don't know if this matches what is happening there or not, given your note, but seems to well represent one vision of "the goal." What do you think?

    "The Holy Spirit returns home after a long day’s work among Quakers of Indiana, and the Heavenly Father asks how it went. The Spirit answers, “It’s just…just FANTASTIC!” The Father says, “Oh? Do you want to tell me about it?” The Spirit replies, “YES! YES! These people have all individually engaged with me in their own seeking of our Light and even when it hurt they were willing to stand on their own conviction about us." The Father asks, “Why did you make it so that this conviction did not lead them all in the same way?" The Spirit replies, “Because I am Grace, you know... THIS WAY, every one of them are coming to me. If they simply signed-on to the A-OK-path that was the RIGHT one, they would never have to find out how beautiful they are. This way, each one of them will have to find out what lies within them and what they are willing to suffer and die for. And WHATEVER THEY CHOOSE, whether freedom or unity or spiritual exploration for God, or the Light this way or that (for God is a Divine Wilderness), every one of them will have found me."