Friday, January 18, 2008

Quaker Jargon

Soon after I began attending Quaker meetings, I became aware that Quakers have their own meanings for some words and phrases that are different from the meanings used by non-Quakers. That kind of jargon frequently appears in cultural or vocational groups, and can serve an number of different purposes.

One possible purpose of jargon is to act as a shibboleth, or a way of distinguishing the "insiders" from the "outsiders." Although early English Quakers consciously adopted manners of "plain dress" and "plain speech" that distinguished them from other segments of English society, those manners arose out of spiritual concerns (the Testimony of Simplicity) and not out of a desire for separation. And I have found that Quakers are always willing to explain unusual words and phrases, and want people to understand the language they use, so the separation seems to be more of an undesirable side-effect than a goal.

Another possible purpose of jargon is to reduce the number of words needed to communicate complicated ideas by assigning a special or more specific meaning to those words. For example, a lawyer practicing in my area of law (trusts and estates) might refer to a "QTIP trust," which I would understand to be a trust for the benefit of a surviving spouse that qualifies for the federal estate tax marital deduction through a provision in the Internal Revenue Code for "qualified terminable interest property" ("QTIP"). That's a lot of meaning to pack into one abbreviation. And the primary purpose of most Quaker jargon is to pack more meaning into fewer words.

The following are some common Quaker expressions (in no particular order) that I think provide some insight into Quaker ways of thinking and the refinements of meaning that seem to be important to Quakers. This is not intended to be definitive or comprehensive, but just a point of view from this (fairly) recently convinced Quaker.
  • Meeting. This word is used in at least four different ways. It can be used in its usual sense, meaning any gathering of people (as in "there was a meeting of the committee last night"). It can also mean a Quaker worship service (i.e., a meeting for worship). It can also be used to refer to those Quakers who are gathered in worship (i.e., what other faiths might call the congregation), or to a group of Quakers as an organizational entity (i.e., what other faiths might call a church).
  • Leading. Short for "leading of the Spirit," it can be used to describe any spirit-led desire for any action or resolution. A leading might (or might not) result in a ministry or a witness.
  • Discernment. A spiritual decision. Specifically, the spiritual process by which leadings are determined. (What might look like a "decision" to other people becomes a "discernment" to Quakers.)
  • Concern. Something that is troubling to the spirit. It might be as big as world hunger, or as small as the size of the meeting's electric bill. Through discernment, a concern might (or might not) become a leading.
  • Ministry. This word can be used to describe almost any kind of faith-based service, but is usually reserved for regular or recognized service to the spiritual needs of others. So, for example, a commitment to regularly visit other Quakers in nursing-homes might be recognized as a ministry.
  • Vocal Ministry. The ministry that occurs when Quakers spontaneously rise to deliver messages during meeting for worship.
  • Witness. Can be used as both a noun and a verb to describe any action that is an expression of faith. So, for example, a refusal to be drafted into the armed forces, or a refusal to pay taxes to support the military, might be described as a "witness" or as "witnessing." See also, testimony.
  • Testimonies. Quaker "testimonies" are not words, but actions. So, for example, the Peace Testimony is not a form of words, but the act of living without violence.
  • Notion. A somewhat derisive term applied to an idea or belief that has no importance to the speaker, such as a theological concept with no apparent worldly consequences. A question about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin is definitely a "notion," and questions about the divinity of Jesus might also be considered "notions" to some Quakers.
  • Inner Light. The "that of God" that Quakers believe is in everyone.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

The Purpose of Forgiveness

In a previous post, on "doing the right thing," I proposed that the reason we should follow the teachings of Jesus, and God's laws generally, is not for any reward in an after-life, or any material reward here on earth, but in order to achieve an immediate spiritual reward or spiritual peace. Today, I want to talk more specifically about the purpose of one of Jesus's more challenging commandments, that we forgive one another.

The doctrine of forgiveness shows up in a lot of different places, and in a lot of different ways. It is explicit in the Lord's Prayer, but it is also inherent in the commandments that we love our neighbors as ourselves, that we love our enemies, and that we not judge others, because you can't love someone without also forgiving them, and you can't forgive someone while also judging them. Forgiveness is also central to the Quaker "Peace Testimony," which is not just about rejecting violence but also about rejecting hate, anger, resentment, greed, and other emotions that lead to violence.

But why are we to forgive one another? What is the purpose, and what is achieved?

When I hear others speak about forgiveness, it almost always sounds like something we are supposed to do for the benefit of the person forgiven. In other words, it is just a variation on the "be nice to others" theme. But why are we to be nice to others?

Forgiveness is also sometimes advocated (and criticized) because the "world will be a better place" if everyone did it. This is something I often hear from skeptics about the Quaker "Peace Testimony," which is that I am under the delusion that, if I stop fighting then my enemy will stop fighting, and if I disarm then my enemy will also disarm. But that is not what I believe at all.

Along the same lines, forgiveness is also sometimes presented as a matter of self-interest, based on the belief that, if we forgive, we will also be forgiven. This seems like a natural conclusion for statements such as "Judge not, that ye not be judged," and the "Golden Rule," which allows at least the implication that if we treat others as we would like to be treated, they might do the same.

All of these things might be ancillary results of forgiveness, but are not the central purpose of forgiveness, which I believe is our own spiritual peace, which I call "salvation."

Anger, resentment, and judgments are spiritual burdens, and angry, resentful, and judgmental people are unhappy people. It is only by letting go of our anger, resentment, or judgments towards others that we can be at peace with ourselves, and perhaps also at peace with them. And that means forgiving them.

In my own life, I have learned that peace and contentment come only when I have given up my point of view. I was reminded of this just this morning, because I had been turning over a dispute over and over again in my mind for several days, and was very troubled about how to prevail in the dispute, and this morning I realized that what was most troubling about the arguments that kept going through my head was that I felt mean and petty as I voiced them in my head. To be at peace, I need to let go of my emotions towards my opponents and forgive them.

So forgiveness is not something we do for others, but something we do for ourselves. Its purpose is our spiritual peace, and our salvation.