I was recently privileged to deliver a version of the below remarks at the first New York Yearly Meeting Quaker Exploration and Discourse (QuED) Day. QuED is a day of talks, fellowship and discussion taking place once a month aimed at connecting young adult Friends with Friends of diverse experiences from around the yearly meeting. You can watch the morning’s talks, including Q+A, here.
Objectivity has had a bad run recently. University professors are being criticized for encouraging debate rather than comforting their students. Great Britain is exiting the EU based largely on a campaign of xenophobic fear-mongering. Our recent presidential election was marked by lies, half-truths and exaggerations which, even when debunked, had no discernible negative impact on those spreading them. Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year was “post-truth,” an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In this environment, it is important to stand for facts, accuracy and fairness and against the swell of emotion that can blind us even as it binds us together.
So why, in the age of ISIS fundamentalists, of the alt-right, of truthiness and post-truth, do I believe conviction is essential? Isn’t skepticism humbler and ultimately wiser?
The world is shaped by those with conviction. Conviction spurs us to action and helps us stay the course. Skepticism feels sophisticated, but is often merely cynical, an excuse we use when we don’t want to spend the time and energy reflecting on our own beliefs or when we are uncomfortable following them to their logical conclusions. Skepticism and uncertainty breed hesitation: if you aren’t sure of which way to go, you’ll usually wind up standing still. By contrast, when you spend the time to understand yourself and your beliefs, you are unleashed to act and act boldly upon those beliefs.
As Friends, we rightly affirm that Truth may be found in a variety of people, places, and ideologies, including very unexpected ones. This may lead us to believe, or act as though we believe, that no belief system is more right or wrong than any other. I encourage you to challenge that belief and truly engage in the act of exploring different belief systems. Be open to one that makes sense for you. There is no virtue in being either ignorant or undecided. Being tolerant is admirable; being tentative is not. Being open to changing your beliefs is laudable; being unable to articulate or stand up for them is not. Of course, great harm can be done by people with wrong-headed convictions, but that should not deter you. Great harm can be done with a knife, but in the hand of a skilled surgeon, it is a life-saving instrument. Conviction is just the same. When it issues from our own thoughts and our own will, it can lead to ruin. When it is the result of a life-changing encounter with God himself, conviction can power us to acts of healing, courage and sacrifice, all infused with the joy of righteousness.
When Martin Luther King, Jr., put himself and his family in mortal danger to be a leader in the struggle for civil rights, he didn’t act out of an abstract belief in equality or even out of a personal desire to have his rights recognized. He acted out of the conviction that, as a Christian minister, God was calling him to raise a prophetic voice against an unjust system. When John Woolman labored with slaveholding Friends to show them the error of their ways, and putting himself to considerable hardship in the process, he didn’t do so out of a philosophical opinion, but out of the conviction that owning slaves was inconsistent with the Christian faith, and that God was calling him to do something about it. Conviction changes things.
There are all kinds of worthwhile things we can do with our time and energy: teaching First Day school; volunteering at an animal shelter; exercising; composing music or poetry. These activities are important and valuable. But if we aren’t acting out of a sense of calling, out of our convictions about God and his nature, about the world and our place in it, we will abandon all of these activities and more when challenges come our way and our time or energy is at a premium.
Right now, we are witnessing a turning point in history. Many of the shared assumptions and understandings built up since World War II – a constantly increasing standard of living, the steady march toward world peace and democracy, and faith in our ability to work together to solve complex problems for the public good – are dissolving before our eyes. The notion that progress is inevitable or assured is being daily proven false. There is a real chance that a day will come when we see things happening in America that would have been unimaginable ten years ago, things that demand that we either embody or abandon the principles we claim to hold dear. When that day comes, just repeating the SPICE testimonies is not going to be enough to keep us standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters among the poor, alien and outcast. We will not stand with them through dangerous times unless it is clear to us that we do not have the option of abandoning them, that something or someone larger and deeper than ourselves demands that we stand with them.
For me, that larger someone is Jesus Christ. Like George Fox, I have encountered the Spirit of Christ that leads into new life, and like William Penn, I have discovered that Christ’s way to Christ’s crown is through Christ’s cross. My prayer is that this knowledge will prepare my mind to suffer for the Truth even as the Holy Spirit prepares my heart. The Body of Christ has always been at its finest when true believers, such as the early Friends, were persecuted for the sake of the Gospel. But this is something that each of us needs to work out, really work out, for ourselves.
If your foundation isn’t Christ, what is it? What is the Truth that you will plant your feet in when every bone in your body screams for self-preservation? What is the conviction that will ground you when it’s time to put up or shut up? What is the Reality that will fuel your stand for integrity, for compassion, for a life of sacrifice in the face of evil? To say it a different way, what canst thou say? If you don’t know, now is the time to find out. Not tomorrow. Not next week. Now.