“Faith and practice” versus “membership”

I think modern Quakers and people of other religions have a lot of confusion about what “membership” means.

I am a “convinced Friend” because in my faith and practice I choose to follow the Quaker way of worship, decision-making, and witness in the world.

I am a “member” of a particular Meeting if I have chosen to take responsibility for the support and well-being of that particular Meeting.

By analogy, one can be a Muslim or a Jew or a Christian, whether or not one “belongs” to a particular mosque or synagogue or church.

My faith and practice is the Quaker way. My membership (at the moment) is with Gainesville Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

A few years back I stopped using the term “Quakerism” and started saying “the Quaker way.” Similarly, the Christian or Buddhist or Islamic or Jewish “way,” instead of the -ISMs. This language affirms that there are many effective spiritual disciplines.

My near-term inspiration for this wording is British Quaker Rex Ambler’s excellent book, The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery.

A much deeper inspiration is a book that has been pivotal in my spiritual evolution: James P. Carse, The Religious Argument Against Belief. 1

View north from Asheville NC on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Carse articulates a critical distinction:

“Belief systems” are artificial conceptual constructs. They define and insist on boundaries and on labeling who is “in” and who is “out.”

“Religions,” by contrast, are organic communities of people, transcending time and space, who are drawn together [Latin re– + legio] by a shared experience of spiritual reality.

Religions reject illusory boundaries. They look, instead, toward horizons, which continue to expand forever as they are approached.


Image: “Horizons,” by Mike Shell on flickr (7/10/2012). North from Asheville, NC, on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

  1. For a detailed explication of James Carse’s argument, see these blog posts from 2008.

7 comments On “Faith and practice” versus “membership”

  • Excellent! Cults and belief systems have much in common.

  • I like your clear explanation of membership and faith and practice. Also reminder of “way” rather than “ism”. Refreshing to read about religion and “looking toward horizons” and legio – drawn together. Will check out your blog posts on James Carse.

    Thank you, Mike.

  • Sarah Bishop Merrill, M.S., Ph.D.

    Oh dear. While I appreciate these thoughts, which take Quaker ways seriously, I find I must object to the semantics chosen. Whether or not there is a personal God, or even Brahman (Ultimate Reality, in Hinduism and Buddhism, which train believers to merge their individual soul or Atman with the cosmic soul, Brahman) religion is not God. How on Earth could it “transcend space and time?!”

    This is surely nonsense, making religion into God. But whether or not God is found, present, or sought, in various religious practices, God is still there, and is transcendent of space and time. But religions? Very much limited by space, time, and attachments, biases, politics, hatred, educational and propaganda missions, attempts at social control at specific times and places, e.g., of women, controlling birth and reproduction, denying us the right to chose for ourselves, with our doctors and our God. What a bunch of hooey.

    Who is this “Carse?” RELIGION IS NOT GOD! What about the God beyond God of which Paul Tillich spoke?

    • Sally, unfortunately you have totally misunderstood what I am saying.

      No where do I equate true religious pathways—”organic communities of people, transcending time and space, who are drawn together…by a shared experience of spiritual reality”—with God.

      On the other hand, you seem to be speaking of hierarchically sustained religious traditions and institutions—in other words, sociopolitical cultural systems of enforced belief which are indeed “limited by space, time, and attachments, biases, politics, hatred, educational and propaganda missions, attempts at social control at specific times and places.”

      The latter are just what I am rejecting as being not religions but belief systems—”artificial conceptual constructs [that] define and insist on boundaries and on labeling who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out.'” All the crimes done “in the name of religion” are actually done in the name of ideological belief systems which sustain the power status quo.

      None of this is true religion in the original sense of the word, as I described it above.

      As for James P. Carse, you can read about him on his website. Here is an excerpt from his About page:

      For much of my thirty years at NYU I was the sole Professor of Religion. The Program in Religious Studies relied on the part-time contributions of members of other departments, especially Middle Eastern Studies, Hebrew and Judaic Studies, and Classics–altogether a gifted roster of academics. Two introductory courses–one on the religions of the West, the other religions of the East–were offered each year. Professor Frank Peters, renowned scholar and widely published author, taught highly popular courses on early Christianity and the relations between the three principal religions of the West. His course on Jesus and Muhammad was a particular favorite. My own teaching focused more on the encounter between religious thought and such secular fields as science, philosophy, literature, and political theory.

      Blessings, Mike

  • Has Carse even studied the World Religions in all their diversity? Very much NOT transcending space and time, as actual practices and spiritually mature and secure people can, in, say, Quaker Meditation, Buddhist sanghas meditating together and apart, … Hindus worshipping Kali and Shiva, … and the Meditators in Fairfield, Iowa, at Maharishi University.

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