I've been giving some more thought to the idea of officially becoming a Quaker, and I think I am right to resist. While I certainly feel at home with Quaker theology, terminology, practice, and social teaching, "joining" the Religious Society of Friends would create a false dichotomy in my view of the world. The fact that there is a formal membership process means there is a divide between those who are convinced of the truth, as seen by Quakers, and those who either are not convinced, have not been exposed to it, or simply do not wish to make that final jump into membership for whatever reason.
Knowing myself, I would allow the Quaker label to carry the heavy lifting for me. I would expect - to some degree - to ride on the coattails of Quakers who have gone before me. I would outsource the heavy lifting of wrestling with ultimate questions such as the meaning of my life to what has already been said about it by other Quakers, just because I assume that we would be in agreement.
When I thought philosophical Taoism was a valid option for me, one of the very things that appealed to me was that it wasn't about membership, but rather a simple realization that one was already a Taoist. Except that this is a Western interpretation of an ancient Chinese religion, a watering down of a tradition that is not part of my European heritage.
Certainly, both Taoism and Quakerism can inform my moral judgment and approach to daily living. But resisting the urge to take on one or the other as a religious affiliation means that I can continue to benefit from the wisdom of both... and the many other traditions in the world.
I think it is my white privilege showing through when I feel I should be able to associate myself with a tradition based on partial commonality that it and I share. I think this even applies to the label of Catholic. I had previously discussed how Catholicism is a birthright religious tradition for me as a Pole. I think that's a fancy way of calling myself a Cultural Catholic, and even if I stand by this being a good enough reason to continue to affiliate myself with the religious tradition of my upbringing, is it being authentic to myself?
If I say, "I am Catholic", what does that bring up in the minds of other people and does it matter to me? Some may assume that I believe certain things about the nature of God and humanity, when in fact I don't. Some may expect me to hold certain political opinions when in fact I do not. Some may think I am riddled with the classic Catholic guilt (something I am actually trying to heal from), or follow certain practices such as abstaining from meat on Fridays (a pre-Vatican II tradition).
If I say, "I am Catholic", observant Catholics will assume that I am one of them and be mortified to find out I am not. Cultural Catholics and non-Catholics may go either way - take me for an observant Catholic or only apply surface definitions to me. No matter whom I'd be talking to, calling myself a Catholic would be sidestepping a bigger question.
If my personal religion calls for me to stand for something, and I am not ashamed to stand for this, then shouldn't my label be representative of that belief, even if it is little known to others?
Maybe that is why I have gone back and forth about calling myself a Deist. I don't expect most people to actually know what that means. Therefore, if I actually label myself a Deist, I expect follow-up questions: "What does that mean? What do you believe? How does being a Deist inform your approach to life?" And maybe I haven't quite worked out all the details there, so I don't want to set myself up to announce to someone that I am a Deist and, when asked what that entails, give them an awkward stare and stutter something about not having figured it out yet.
Surely a Deist who doesn't really know what it means to be a Deist isn't going to be a good representation of Deism. And even though no formal membership is required to call oneself a Deist, I do feel an obligation not to drag a philosophical outlook on life through the mud due to my own ignorance.
Ok, so how would I answer the follow up questions above about being a Deist?
What does that mean?
Deism is a natural religion, meaning that it is based on reason and observation of nature. It simply states that through observing nature and using our reasoning abilities, everyone can determine that God exists. There is no need for revelation to a prophet, sacred scriptures, or blind faith to convince people that God exists. I know God exists because I see his handiwork everywhere in nature.
What do you believe?
I believe that God created the entire known universe, all of nature, including human beings. I also believe that who we are at our core essence is immortal, though I cannot know any more details beyond that. I am comfortable knowing that I come from the Eternal Creator, and that I continue on in some form after my physical death.
How does being a Deist inform your approach to life?
For starters, I believe that God's design in nature is perfect and doesn't need human interpretation or projection of ideas. I don't believe there is a need to judge everything as being "either/or", since everything has its counterpart in nature. This includes issues of morality. I do not believe in abstract categories of good and evil actions. I believe the same action in different circumstances can be either good or bad. Therefore, I do not believe in judging others. (Do I fall short of this? Of course!) My aim is to be like the forces of nature - to go with the flow, be flexible, don't dwell on the past or worry about the future, enjoy the journey, learn to adapt from my surroundings.
I suppose there can be a plethora of further follow up questions, more specific and ones based on presuppositions of the inquirer's own religious assumptions, but I cannot sit at home behind closed doors until I figure out the perfect answer to every foreseeable question. And to be honest, not many people have asked me these questions - ok, no one has ever asked me these questions. Maybe because so far I have hidden behind the label of "Catholic" and allowed people to draw their own conclusions. People assume they know what it means for me to be Catholic, or at least what they think it SHOULD mean, and so there is no need for these questions. But once I come out as a Deist, I have to be prepared to face these questions. And it's OK.
I'm blessed to live in a society where there is freedom of religion. Perhaps the time has come for me to embrace my label, accept what I have known for over a year now, and take my own advice and not worry about the details. If others want to call me Catholic still, fine - cultural, lapsed, or otherwise. Heretic, even? Ok. My ultimate authority comes from the author of the universe, the author of life itself. My source of authority transcends human authority, human revelation, human organization, human interpretation, human limitation. I have no reason to fear mere mortals. All that is at stake is my ego, something that is a temporary illusion anyway, and not my true self.
What remains to be determined - if indeed it actually needs to be determined - is if there should be some sort of announcement that follows to let my circle of friends know where I stand, so there's no awkward assumptions based on past beliefs and practices that I need to correct as they come up. Or, perhaps I should just move on, and address any such awkwardness as it comes. It may be best for me to no longer hide from the truth of my personal religion. To stand up and face my life, not as a fake Catholic but as a real Deist.