Recognizing the Inner Light in Everyone: Quaker Beliefs Provide One Foundation to Seek Mutual Understanding
Lighting the Path
This reflection briefly treats the relationship between culture and spirituality and how these constructs bear on conceptions of human identity in the context of sketching my own experience as a member of the Quaker community. It is rare today to find a culture without hybridity, that is, where some degree of exposure to other cultures and other people does not exist. Moreover, human beings, irrespective of their culture, create constant change in their communities and environments and are themselves ever changing. Amidst this persistent tumult, I have found solace in the Quaker community. I highlight that group’s key beliefs and way of operating here. I am particularly interested in conveying how Quaker values relate to the perennially significant question of the human search for hope. After introducing the hybridity of culture and the conflicts that inevitably arise from differences, this essay addresses my experience as a Quaker and the state of Quakerism today. By introducing my own term, “empa-cate,” I highlight the importance of active listening and teaching, if human beings are to understand themselves and one another. The empa-cate construct has provided me space for understanding humanity’s past, encouraged me to take time actively to listen to others in the present and to work toward a future in which all may co-exist despite their differences.
Cultural Differences Spark a Necessity to Understand
People connect or divide along the fault lines created by the similarities and differences of their beliefs, values and norms. However, it is vital to understand that cultures, as the bedrock of such perspectives, constantly change as the populations that shape them alter their views and practices in light of shifting circumstances, experiences and ongoing dialogue. Yet, in the United States today, children often do not learn about or understand their nation’s history or present status, much less those of other cultures and countries. In contrast, when understood as “progress,” as described by theorist John Clammer culture represents a transnational space in which people around the globe are becoming more hybridized (2012, p.17). As a result, entire populations are now experiencing messy boundaries as trade, transport and communication breach traditional borders. This dynamic sets up a need for individuals to engage persistently in efforts to define the meanings of their specific spaces. This desire can emerge from wanting to preserve traditional norms and values or, more negatively, to prevent the perceived usurpation of one’s culture by “others.”
In either case, what such efforts to preserve existing social structures as immutable miss, both in conception and in execution, is that cultures are never static and those who inhabit them become something new over time, whether consciously or not. Cultures cannot be “preserved” intact as if for a museum display. Indeed, such would be a recipe for their early demise. Instead, as populations mesh and mix various aspects of each other’s beliefs and norms, it is essential for their residents to listen to one another in order to understand better their increasingly interwoven identities. Today, especially in the United States, but also in a number of other countries throughout the world, conflicts concerning perceived “differences,” whether constructed as threats to the status quo or related to innate characteristics, such as national origin, race, sexuality, ethnicity, gender and so on, are frequent and, too often, demeaning and violent. Given this context, it is obviously necessary for people to learn to listen to one another with openness and empathy to make connections across their perceived differences so that such distinctions can no longer serve as a source for misunderstanding, belligerence and worse.
Quakerism Represents a Tool to Listen
As a practicing non-theist Quaker for 10 years, I have pursued a role of acceptance and active listening further to that group’s philosophy and teaching. From the beliefs I have honed and the connections I have developed as a member of that community, I have coined a term, “empa-cate,” to describe how individuals can combine learning, listening, understanding and teaching. Empa-cate represents one example of a set of practices that people can embrace to empathize and educate one another regarding their beliefs and values. By dedicating themselves to these practices individuals agree to make an active effort to learn about each other and themselves and, as often, both. This combination of other-regardingness and self-knowledge can help those seeking to practice it build stronger and more mindful relationships with others. Doing so can also aid them in sorting through today’s rapidly shifting cultural currents and hybridization dynamics as these are daily revealed in those with whom they interact. In my view, empa-cating allows individuals to build bridges to connect their diverse identities regardless of whether they agree on specific concerns. Empa-cating requires that individuals suspend (not change) their own beliefs to listen and seek to understand those of others. That overt willingness simply to listen can help to overcome often-isolating behaviors arising from misinformation or ignorance.
I do not mean to imply that all Quakers are alike or believe identical things. Indeed, according to the Quaker Information Center there are currently four branches of Friends, which is how this group’s members refer to themselves (2011). I have only attended the original Quaker meeting branch for worship. This version of Quakerism is “unprogrammed.” It finds Friends joining together for one hour on Sunday morning to sit together in silence. While I personally have not attended a “programmed” Quaker service led by a pastor, I recognize the differences in their spirituality practice. Original Quakers (my group) are not expected to share the same beliefs. This is so because what makes a person a Quaker does not arise from common views or creed concerning the origins of the universe or justice, but from how they participate in the community, connect with spirituality, “attempt to live faithfully in harmony” (Quaker Information Center 2011) with others and recognize God within everyone and everything.
In 2001, the Pacific Yearly Meeting of the Friends explicitly acknowledged that Quakers have a responsibility to reflect and seek to understand:
The lack of a creed or clear description of Quaker beliefs has sometimes led to the misconception that Friends do not have beliefs or that one can believe anything and be a Friend. Most Quakers take the absence of a creed as an invitation and encouragement to exercise an extra measure of personal responsibility for the understanding and articulation of Quaker faith. Rather than rely on priests or professional theologians, each believer is encouraged to take seriously the personal disciplines associated with spiritual growth. Out of lives of reflection, prayer, faithfulness, and service flow the statements of belief, both in word and in deed (Pacific, 2001).
All Quakers, irrespective of their branch, do share a belief that God exists in every human being as an Inner Light. That understanding implies that, “all persons have inherent worth, independent of their gender, race, age, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation” (Robinson, 2009). Moreover, Quakerism highlights the “act of seeking” as inherent to Quaker identity (2009). When individuals come together to sit in silence in worship together, they are encouraged to recognize that no person is “better” or more spiritual than any other. They consider themselves to be equals and believe that all human beings should be accorded dignity and respect. In terms of my coined term, Quakers seek to empa-cate by seeing and acknowledging the Light within everyone.
Advocate Peace-Building by Seeking
Humans have developed technologies of all sorts exponentially in the past century. These innovations have yielded a more tangible awareness of other countries because of the advent of inventions such as the telephone, the Internet, satellite communications and mass media. In theory, improved capacities for exchange and communications should yield fewer conflicts among the world’s cultures and nations. But, of course, it has not always worked out that way. In any case, Quakers were advocating for peace long before advanced technologies allowed our world’s current advanced modes of connection. Quaker efforts to promote world peace, including the group’s historic work to abolish slavery and to secure the equal treatment of Native Americans as well as to ensure the rights of countless other peoples and cultures worldwide, are widely known and respected (Robinson 2009). Indeed, the Friends Service Council was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for its pursuit of “humanitarian aid projects for military and civilian war victims” of World Wars I and II (NobelPrize.org). Quakers today continue to support a number of peace-building non-profit organizations that are active around the world. In this sense, the group continues to represent one way that people can empa-cate by acknowledging and listening to all in order to come to understand each other more fully.
Empa-cate for Hope
I am often struck that humanity, despite all odds and all of its often self-imposed disasters, continues not only to survive, but also to thrive. In my view, at least a part of the reason for this situation is the existence of hope. Hope for something better and for something different. Hope can and does continuously shape human behavior. One traditional source of human hope has arisen from, and revolved around, spiritual beliefs. Clammer has highlighted the significance of listening, spirituality and hope, if human beings are to develop connections and understanding with other individuals and places different from those they know well (2012). Although the struggles of humanity are many and doubtless these will continue and become even more complex, as, for among other reasons, there will always be those, captivated by greed and personal ambition, who desire more and therefore seek to dominate others. While this may be so, the question is how that fact may be addressed in the long run. In my view, one way to address this dilemma is by and through relationships; for it is only by growing together that individuals and populations can reveal and pursue a more empathetic and mindful truth. For me, Quakerism represents one tradition that seeks daily to keep this possibility alive. As a Quaker and as a person who has hope for securing bonds among people, no matter their differences, I believe in the process of empa-cating in order to understand each other’s identities and how those beliefs and values are shaped by culture and spirituality. When we are able to listen to one another, we can better realize our own story and how we all connect.
Clammer, J. Culture, Development and Social Theory: Towards an Integrated Social Development. London: Zed Ltd., 2012.
NobelPeacePrize.org. Friends Service Council—Facts. Nobel Media AB. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/1947/friends-council/facts/. Accessed on October 1, 2018
Religious Society of Friends. (2001). “Creed,” Pacific Yearly Meeting, Retrieved from https://www.pacificyearlymeeting.org/fp/pymfp2001pg005.html, Accessed on October 1, 2018.
Robinson, B. A. (2009). Quaker beliefs and practices. Toronto, CA: Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Religious Tolerance.org. Retrieved from http://www.religioustolerance.org/quaker2.htm. Accessed on October 1, 2018.
Quaker Information Center. (2011). A Quaker Glossary. Quakerinfo.org. Retrieved from
http://www.quakerinfo.org/resources/glossary. Accessed on October 1, 2018.
Quaker Information Center. (2011). What do Quakers believe? Quakerinfo.org. Retrieved from
http://www.quakerinfo.org/quakerism/beliefs. Accessed on October 1, 2018.
Colie Touzel is a Master of Urban and Regional Planning student at Virginia Tech. She is especially interested in how community engagement inspires transportation infrastructure and hopes to work as a Community Outreach Specialist in Transportation Planning in the future. She received her Bachelor’s in Honors in English from the University of South Carolina Upstate. Apart from her professional interests, Colie likes to cycle, bake, garden and spend time with her family and her dog, Torrence.
October 22, 2018