We call ourselves the “Religious Society of Friends,” but—as you may have noticed—we tend not to concern ourselves with what many people would consider “religious” matters, including the details of what other people, even our fellow Quakers, believe about God. While Friends meetings offer space and support for people seeking a more intimate relationship with the divine, we have little or no interest in controlling that relationship.
So what does religion mean to Quakers?
We could start by mentioning the Latin word religio, which had less to do with one’s beliefs than with fulfilling one’s obligations to others, starting with the ancient gods down to one’s neighbors.
Because Friends see “that of God in everyone,” how we treat other people is a demonstration of our relationship with God; for that matter, how we treat the world around us is a demonstration of our love for God’s creation. It might sound a bit corny to suggest Quaker faith and practice is all about “being a good person,” but it fits!
George Fox, whose visions helped shape the Society in its early days, offered Friends some crucial advice on how to live:
“Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come,” he wrote; “that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you.”
In those days, another word Friends might use to describe the way they sought to live their lives as a pattern or an example was testimony, in the sense that one’s conduct could be seen as a testimony of the values one held. (If you come from a Christian background, you may recognize this as being a lot like “giving witness.”) A Quaker’s faith was and is, ideally, reflected in their practice, not in their adherence to a checklist of credal propositions.
Early in the twentieth century, though, the language around testimony began to shift slightly, especially as people zeroed in specific moral and ethical issues; for example, “the testimony of nonviolence” or “the peace testimony.” Over time, Friends have increasingly come to speak of “testimonies” almost as if they were principles or values, and there is even a common acronym—SPICES, which stands for Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality or Equity, and Stewardship (or, in recent years, Sustainability).
Not every Friend cares for this shorthand; some worry that it reduces a lived expression of faith to a set of secular goals. Nevertheless, the various components of SPICES offer an excellent starting point to discuss the ways in which Quakers strive to live in alignment with Spirit.
“Quaker faith and practice, the deeper you go with it over time, the more you realize it’s not just lists of things like SPICES and different aspects of Quaker faith and practice…. it’s all one whole life and it’s a sustainable life that brings a lot of joy and wisdom over time.”