Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Rectification of Names

The idea of the rectification of names is an important concept in Confucian thought. “If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” The idea is that names used in discussion should accurately reflect what is being discussed. Unrectified names are common in political discourse. The idea of using names that accurately reflect the thing being referred to has a lot in common with the Quaker ideals of integrity and plain speaking.

So what Quaker phrases would I like to rectify today? I have two candidates. In the interest of full disclosure, these are both terms that I have used but I have come to disfavor them. The first one is “Christocentric.” This word is often used to identify one of two groups in liberal Yearly Meetings (although I have heard the term used by Orthodox Friends as well.) I have no problem if this is used by someone to self-describe their spiritual condition. To me it indicates someone whose spirituality revolves around Christianity but they haven't fully committed to being a Christian. Certainly there was a time that I fit that description. I liked it then but it no longer fits me and it its use has other side effects. Many times it is used in describing the spectrum of Quaker belief. Often the spectrum of belief is identified as Non-Theist (or Universalist) to Christocentric. This truncates the spectrum of belief in the predominately Liberal yearly meetings. It makes it sounds as Friends are either non-Christian or are people with ambivalent feelings about Christianity. In even the most liberal Yearly Meetings, there are a number of deeply committed Christians. Only referring to Christocentric Friends marginalizes these Friends. It makes questioning Christianity sound like the norm. Over time I was able to overcome my resistance to using the word Christian. I think we need to do that collectively as well.

The second phrase I would like to remove from the Quaker lexicon is “dual-affiliated yearly meetings.” This phrase is used to describe the yearly meetings that are members of both FGC and FUM. These are Baltimore, Canadian, New England, New York and Southeastern Yearly Meetings. I dislike the dual-affiliated phrase because it implies that these yearly meetings are somehow divided by their dual membership. The phrase I prefer is “united yearly meetings.” This term is more accurate because it reflects that the dual-affiliation (except in the case of Southeastern) is the result of a reunification of yearly meetings that had split earlier. The dual affiliation is the result of peace-making among yearly meetings that had joined the different umbrella groups in the time that they had been divided. Southeastern is the exception in that it is a relatively new yearly meeting that made a conscious decision to join both organizations as a testimony to unity among Friends. United yearly meetings reflects that history of peace making. It is also a much less cumbersome phrase.

So are these changes more reflective of truth or am I just moving language away from reflecting the truth of things? Are there Quaker phrases that you would like to see rectified? Make your suggestions in the comments.

Blessings to all,

Will T


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Christocentric means centered around Christ. I believe it refers to committed Christians.

Dual affiliated yearly meeting mean those associated with both FGC and FUM. The words mean no more, and ought to mean no more, than that.

I do wish Quakers would be more careful with the words we use. In particular I wish we would not engage in hyperbole. For example, we have heard a great deal lately about torture. To me torture refers to excruciating pain. I have come to believe that waterboarding is torture, but certainly the practice of parading naked men around on a leash, while humiliating, is not torture. If we call it torture, what word would we use when some, say, shatter the eardrums of others?

Allan Kohrman

March 08, 2009 8:37 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Clearly our understanding of Christocentric differs. I know that it means centered around Christ, but that does not necessarily mean Christian. If it did, why not just use Christian?

As for united yearly meetings rather than dual-affiliated? They are both descriptive terms. I just prefer the one that emphasizes our unity and not our differences.


March 09, 2009 9:53 PM  
Blogger Hystery said...

My understanding of the term Christocentric comes from my seminary days when the term was used to apply to Christians who maintained the ascendancy of their faith over those of others and/or who denied the legitimacy of other metaphorical/symbolic spiritual systems in which the historical/mythological Christ is not central. I have always used the term to indicate intolerance of non-Christian (particularly non-Abrahamic) spiritual perspectives. I think of it as similar to the use of the word phallocentric. I clearly differentiate between someone I call "a good Christian" and a christocentric person. Both people would make Christ central in their lives but when I call someone a "good Christian" that's just about the biggest compliment I can give while when I say "christocentric" I do not intend to praise.

If anything, I would have said the task among Friends should be to enable a free and loving conversation emerging from our Christian history and beliefs without descending into christocentric dismissal or marginalization of non-Christian and non-theist Friends who also contribute to the formation of the Friends' collective spiritual expression.

March 24, 2009 3:36 PM  
Anonymous Kenneth said...

I'm afraid that your first suggestion moves us only a tiny bit closer to the truth. If (and I mean if we want to have a continuum, then I agree that Christian is the most traditional end and non-theistic is the most modern end. But the entire setup is not a good depiction of truth, because it implies that the only way to move from either pole is towards the other. There are, I suspect, many many fuzzy theists who are neither Christian nor non-theist, and not moving towards either pole.

And "united yearly meetings" as you suggest using it is just flat out not plain speaking. As you note, it doesn't properly include Southeastern, and your list leaves out Philadelphia, which belongs on it.

While I don't see the same connotations in "dual-affiliated" that you do, I applaud your effort to rectify names. "Liberal Friends" as shorthand for any grouping of yearly meetings is a phrase calling out for rectification, in my mind.

March 24, 2009 5:37 PM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

I myself try to use the simplest phrases--it seems like the longer the term and more philosophical its meaning the more contradictory people's usage of it becomes. "Christo-centeric," "post-modern," "universalism" are all terms that have contradictory meanings. Why are we all so eager to be armchair sociologists anyway? It doesn't seem like good use of our loving Friendship to bicker over language. We need to spend more time speaking our spiritual truths and less time categorizing our spiritual bodies.

When it comes to Friends and language my concern these days are over the purposefully ambiguous terms we use to dodge spiritual talk. "Community" and "Light" are two of the biggest Macguffins today.

March 24, 2009 5:45 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

It looks as though the meanings we attach to words derive a lot from the first contexts in which we saw them. It seems as though the story of the tower of Babel might still have some relevance.

The word verification:
oddran: Perhaps in this post I have oddran my Guide.

Will T

March 24, 2009 9:26 PM  
Blogger Dr. N said...

I love the Quaker understanding that words are so inadequate in the face of our deepest spiritual experiences. I have been lead to recognize myself as a Christian, but I am not at all certain Christ is the center of my spirituality. I don't have a shorrthand term to describe this phenomenon, and I am not concerned how others might label me.

March 24, 2009 9:29 PM  
Blogger Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Will,

Thanks for the reflection. While God is far beyond our rational and languaged understanding, we are language-communicating beings. So the Confucian idea does seem to bring light.

So many modern words including Quaker ones have become "empty-bucket" words-- language which has no objective content but has a good feeling without any basis in reality.

Consider the phrase "Nontheist Friend." The phrase makes no language sense according to basic definitions.

Some individuals can be seekers, and many of us are doubters. That's a given. But how can anyone say he/she is a Friend who claims categorically there is no God. Then who are we worshiping? If there is no eternal love, no essential ethics, no Ultimate Reality to worship, what are we doing but delusion?

Anybody heard of George Orwell and double-speak?

As for "Christocentric," most Friends for hundreds of years have been focused on Christ. Indeed, the very word Friend relates to the Gospel of John where Jesus calls us friends.

So in my mind, the word seems to be of the same doubling as "bornagain Christian," etc.

Pass the buckets;-)

And I agree with your point about "dual affiliated."

Here's my own take on names--

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

March 25, 2009 12:18 AM  
Blogger James Riemermann said...

The greatest difficulty I have with the phrase Christocentric (or Christian, for that matter) is the way the term is used in contrast with universalism, as if one could not center one's life around Christ or Christianity without considering oneself spiritually superior to all those who are not Christian.

Certainly that sort of Christian exists. But I know a good number of folks, Quaker and otherwise, who are both unabashedly Christian, and unabashedly universalist.

(This is not the same as saying all religions are the same, or of equal value. It is saying that among the thousand religions there is not one one that is correct and 999 that are not.)

Outside of that false dichotomy I have no problem with the labels.

March 25, 2009 8:55 AM  
Blogger Mary Elizabeth Bullock-Rest said...

A new friend of mine said she felt hurt when someone called people in her meeting "Christocentric." It was the first time she had heard the term. She said with tears in her eyes, "Christocentric? What is this? Why are they labeling me?" She perceived it as a put-down, like the word "eccentric." She felt "put in a box." In her mind, it was like calling a person with schizophrenia, "schizophrenic," as if that label defined the totality of their being. To her it felt dismissive, though she could see that probably no ill intent was meant.

Since this encounter, I have decided that maybe the word Christocentric is too fancy, not Quaker plain speech. Maybe the best word, the one with the most kindness and Christian love is just "Friend."

March 25, 2009 12:18 PM  
Blogger Hystery said...

I agree with the sentiment that ultimately, Friend is really the only word we need to refer to one another. I'm a huge fan of Christian love, finding it to be among the most powerful forces for healing in the world. However, as a non-Christian, I maintain that we need to honor the expression of love from outside Christian traditions. Since I use the word Christocentric to refer to those Christians who (consciously or unconsciously) maintain the ascendancy of their own spiritual perspective over those of non-Christian and non-theist Friends, I am hesitant to remove it from my toolbox. It is easy for those in the majority to decry distinguishing labels since the default position is always their own (thus our discussion of plain speech can be attributed to "Christian love" and not to rational humanism or a Neo-Pagan belief in the continuity of All Life). But as a matter or justice, marginalized persons need a vocabulary of difference so that others remember that 1) we exist and that 2)our differences can become honorable and loving contributions.

March 27, 2009 2:47 PM  
Blogger James Riemermann said...

Lovely, Hystery. You speak my mind. If the FACT of theological diversity of Friends is to be a source of light rather than division, people like me can't marginalize people like you (and you and you and you). And vice versa.

March 28, 2009 11:44 AM  

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