Conservative Friend

An Outreach of Stillwater Monthly Meeting of Ohio Yearly Meeting of Friends

Convergent Friendship and Playing with the "Other" Kids

C. Wess Daniels lives in the uttermost west, although he admits to origins in Ohio.  Wess is part of the exploration called "Convergent Friends," an extended and extensive conversation occurring among a growing number of Friends.  He also has a piece summarizing the presentation he made at our 2007 Yearly Meeting along with Martin Kelley and David Male.  Look over his blog at www.gatheringinlight.com.

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One of the biggest Questions that continues to be put to the "convergent Friends" conversation sounds on the one hand like, "Are you telling me we need to subscribe to a lowest common denominator faith so that we can get along with Friends of other branches?" And on the other hand some Quakers have voiced the concern, "Why would we want to dialogue with ‘them’, we've got no interest in that form of Quakerism or their beliefs?"  One can imagine school children trying to remember what mom and dad said about who they are allowed to play with and who is "off limits."  A parent’s justification for deeming some kids “off limits” can be founded on all kinds of reasons, some of which can even be unjust, but regardless of whether we liked it or not we grew up being aware of “others” who we were not allowed to play with.  Of course, issues of faith and belief are far more difficult to navigate, but convergent Friends have tried to break down these, sometimes illusionary, walls.  

At Ohio Yearly Meeting this past August, I talked about "convergent," as signifying a conservative (to the tradition) and emergent (leaning towards mission) understanding of faith and how while it may be seeking to “break some walls down,” it is clearly not ecumenical, at least not in the modern sense.  I have decided to designate the word convergent with parenthesis, (conv)ergent, simply to stress the particular way in which it is getting used here.  First, I want to address how the much of the apprehension to the idea of all things converging is rooted within a modernist understanding of ecumenicism.

Ecumenicism in modernity

The modern period (or modernity) has shaped the way we think, talk and interact with the “others” of our world.  The philosophical underpinning of the modern age is the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment is built upon the foundation of reason (as opposed to and over against the "authority" of faith) and this has had tremendous, and often times negative, implications for the church.  One assumption that the Enlightenment espouses is the idea of universalizability of belief; the way we can best run a society is by eliminating as much difference and particularity as possible.  This will ensure that when we all come together to make decisions, work, and build our societies, there will be little struggle: difference is what causes our difficulties.  Thus in our society to be different in this way is often to be rendered the outcast (here we could also turn to the way the media has overused and abused the word ‘sect’ in recent years).  For many, the idea of being ecumenical operates within this universalizing framework of modernity.  For the church to be unified we must create a lowest common denominator vision of faith, we must get rid of difference.  This understanding of "ecumenical" is obviously very liberal.   But Quakers need not accept this idea of ecumenical at all.  For instance, I do not believe that God wishes to render all the world’s richness of diversity to be lost to the effects of globalization and mass media.

While I hope Martin Kelley and I “De-Mythologized” the idea behind (conv)ergent while at OYM, I now want to turn the tables again and explain just how (conv)ergent can be understood within the context of talking to people outside our particular Quaker circles. Just about everyone who identifies him or herself as being a (conv)ergent Friend has one thing in common: they have begun to connect with Friends from other parts of the Quaker tradition through a variety of modes, including blogs, online-chatting, email, traveling outside their yearly meetings, and through the works of groups like FWCC.  None of these (conv)ergent Friends that I know feel as though what they believe is the primary point of entering into these conversations.

If modernity was for a universalizing of language, ethics and religion, the contemporary “post-modern” culture leans the other way.  In postmodernity we argue that context, subjectivity and the particulars are of utmost importance for expressing who we are.  Here we see that it is our very different cultures, faiths, upbringings, educations, and political systems that inform the way we think and act – we cannot just turn these things off.  We are formed at a very deep and subconscious level by our culture and faith traditions.  This move towards the subjective and contextual ways of thinking has great implications for the way we think of ecumenicism and the (conv)ergent project.  
 
A New Vision For Friends and Ecumenicism

Below I offer a vision of how we ought to interact with ‘others.’  First, I mean ‘others’ who are Quakers.  How we interact with other Friends is a major concern among both Conservative and Evangelical Friends.  Seeing as how I am among this crowd, I argue that a (conv)ergent Friendship model could enable us to maintain fidelity while being open to Friendship.

The Virtue of Listening: Listening is a key virtue within the Quaker tradition and the Quaker understanding of listening has always been relational.  We listen because we believe that God is a relational God wanting to speak and commune with us.  In the same way that we believe that God’s Spirit directly speaks to us through silence, we have also historically believed that God can (and often does) speak to us through others, even people who are “different.”  Woolman’s ministry is but one example here.  (Conv)ergent Friends are seeking to put our listening to practice and “hear” the stories of others who are different from us because we know that people are relational and that God can speak to us through the most unlikely of sources.
 
Unity as Obedience: Mennonite John Howard Yoder was a huge proponent of “Ecumenicism,” but of a particular kind.  He believed that by being a faithful Mennonite, he had no choice but to work with the rest of the church.  Yoder did not think that unity came through trying to force people to believe one thing or another, but was to be sought after because Scripture calls us to be united.  Yoder says, “Christian unity is not to be created, but to be obeyed” (see Mark Theissen Nation, John Howard Yoder, 83:2006).  In other words, we have no choice but to continue to work for Christian unity from our particular traditions.

Peaceful and Prophetic: Speaking of particular traditions, Yoder points out (ironically) that because we have very strong beliefs about certain issues we ought to be in conversation with the rest of the church. Mark Theissen Nation says of Yoder,  “But if we believe…that the principles to which we hold are true before God, then they are also true for other Christians, and it is our responsibility to inform them of these principles.  On the other hand, Yoder asks, might it not be that our unwillingness to lay these claims before other Christians is based instead on fear?  Are we not sure enough of our convictions to believe that they will withstand the scrutiny of other Christians” (82:2003)?  Especially as one of the Historic Peace Churches, all Quakers should be striving to speak and live prophetically our belief in the Gospel of peace.

A Church in Mission: There are also missional reasons for opening the dialogue up with other Quakers and the world.  Here our relating to others is done personally and corporately as a way to give away the gift of the Gospel (in all of its richness).  We share the gift of love and grace with others because we have been given love and grace; we share with others in hopes that they will discover the mercy of God through the church.  For (conv)ergent Friends we are seeking what it means that the church is primarily missional.

Living a Convergent Friendship

Finally, I think it is best to think of the (conv)ergent in terms of friendship.  Friendship is based on listening, it is also committed to sticking together in spite of our differences, it is willing to stand up for what we believe is right (even if our friends go the other way), and it is always willing to give away all the good that we have for others.  It might be said that we are looking to embody a “redemptive-Friendship” through our faith in Christ.  

As LeRon Shultz said recently,

“Both missions and ecumenism involve tending to religious others – others from different religions altogether or others from different traditions within one religion.  The goal of such attention from a Christian perspective is redemptive fellowship – welcoming persons into the community of believers or facilitating more intimate communion among those who already strive to follow the way of Christ in the world.”  LeRon Shultz -- http://churchandpomo.typepad.com/conversation/2007/08/tending-to-reli.html

This vision of Friendship is a much richer account of an “ecumenical” (if we must call it that) faith than offered to us by modernity.  As peculiar as our faith can be, at times it is our differences that makes us who we are and because of that we have no choice but to interact with and listen to others both inside and outside our tradition.  We enter these relationships on our grounds, not through fear but love, hoping to hear God through others and share the Gospel with the world.