Friends, our Integrity Testimony, and climate change

Friends (Quakers) are all over the place on solutions to climate change, and what role we should play in the solution. Some of us even disagree that climate change is important for all Friends to address.

At times, our discussions sound like we’re floor 54 in the Tower of Babel.

It’s time to step back. Before we describe Truth to one another, let us explain to one another where we find Truth, and how we recognize it. If a statement is true, how important is it? Which sources do we rely on, and why? We are far from a single standard of Truth.

From Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, section on the Integrity Testimony*:

Friends believe in speaking simply, avoiding misleading words or emotionally manipulative language, which could divert from the discernment of God’s will. Commitment to truth requires authenticity and veracity in following one’s conscience, illuminated by the Inner Light. When we depart from truth, we separate ourselves from God. Integrity is not simply a habit of speech, but a way of life increasingly aligned with God’s will.

When we depart from truth, we separate ourselves from God.

Friends distinguish between illumination of the inner light and a belief that we are always right. (One of my students from long ago insisted that whatever direction he faced was North. We all feel that to some extent!) We also value experiential understanding, in ourselves and others. The inner light isn’t the ego.

Leave a comment, let me know which sources of information you trust and why. Also, what will help Friends to discuss this question effectively, from the Monthly Meeting (congregation) to Yearly Meeting level, moving from Babel to the ocean of light over the ocean of darkness?

* Explanation for non-Friends:
Faith and Practice records the current beliefs of Friends. From Pacific YM’s Faith and Practice:

Testimonies are expressions of lives turned toward the Light, outward expressions that reflect the inward experience of divine guidance.

Check out Pacific YM’s Faith and Practice, or that for any other Yearly Meeting, to learn more.

Nothing in this blog should indicate that Friends do better with integrity than any other group. I just hate reading “we are better” posts.

10 Responses to “Friends, our Integrity Testimony, and climate change”

  1. Pam says:


    It’s an interesting question. I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at, though.

    It’s much more complicated to talk about “truth” when you don’t know what the truth is.

    It’s relatively easy for me to be honest about my feeilngs, for example, assuming I understand truly what they are.

    But of course I can fail to be honest about something like climate change simply by not understanding the issue. There’s lots of conflicting information out there, and it’s true that it’s not something that known (at least by me, but really at all) – at least not a securely as, say, my hair color, or who I love…..

    I mean, I am convinced that it’s happening, and that it’s a problem, and it’s worth doing everything we can to address, but I don’t know that like I know what my birthday is, I just trust what I’ve read that says it’s true.

    For information I can’t get experientially (I can’t live long enough, attentively enough, or on a large enough scale to experience global warming except on an anecdotal level) I believe scientists who have studied it, and particularly folks who don’t have an obvious agenda. I also trust friends who I know to be trustworthy who have studied it more than me and can explain things in a way that makes sense to me

  2. Joffan says:

    I just have to ask, was your North-facing student standing at the South Pole?

    Of course, once he goes North, the other directions magically reappear. I’m sure there’s an analogy to be stretched there about right opinions (“facing”) and right actions (“moving”)… but I can’t quite put it together.

  3. Karen Street says:

    Joffan, to be fair, we all have that attitude. When I began studying energy issues in 1995, I didn’t want climate change to be as important as scientists were saying because too much was demanded of me: reducing my own GHG footprint, teaching others about a topic that had not yet become important to the public, and just changing a mind settled in its ways.

    Pam, there are scientists and then there are scientists. Some only publish ideas that have been peer reviewed, others are more flexible. Some in the public consider anyone who writes for an organization with scientist in the title to be a scientist: eg, Union of Concerned Scientists, others include people like me who teach high school physics. I’ve been called a scientist several times because I refer to scientific studies. Friends and other members of the public consider different groups of scientists as reliable. We are far from agreement.

    Experiential — people with a solid understanding of physics have experiential understanding of physics, though sometimes just in their field. After I taught waves for a while, modern physics became a little less mysterious as I gained experiential understanding of an important concept. Experiential knowledge can come from physically working with the universe. It can come from experience in policy, not the neo-con model (“We make our own reality”) but from explaining to and listening to the response of people trained in policy, economics, science, engineering, utility management, and so on.

    Friends, any ideas on how to facilitate discussions of this topic? If climate change and other topics are important to us, if we are to be useful to the Earth and her people, we will benefit from learning what is true, what is important. Then we can ask: what is mine to do?

  4. forrest curo says:

    If you want to follow some of the science–and some cogent criticisms of the “science”-for-sale that has often been featured in the name of “skepticism” for the purpose of generating an imaginary “controversy” about global warming, is a good one… ranging from journalism to technical points that stretch (& sometimes strain) my comprehension. At least I consider this an honest site, maintained by some of the people doing the actual work of finding out what’s happening, how rapidly, and why.

    Scientific American dips into the issues from time to time, generally favoring solutions I’d expect to appeal to their advertisers–but not, I’d presume, cheating on factual matters.

    And on the spiritual side of the issue–Haven’t we “earned” a catastrophe? Is it the “wrath” of God we need to fear most, or should we fear God’s mercy for those people who suffer the worst effects of maintaining our normal “way of life”? I’m not going to deny that many people are no doubt happy in conditions that we ourselves would consider “intolerable.” But I’ve wondered for some very long time: How long are we permitted to tolerate them?

  5. When past generations of Friends spoke of Truth, of bearing witness to Truth, etc., what they meant by “Truth” was not simply factual accuracy. “Truth” also, and more importantly, meant fidelity — the noun form of the idea that “true” expresses when we speak of being “true” to one another, of a “true lover”, of an arrow “flying true”, etc.

    Specifically, when spelled (or spoken) with a capital “T”, “Truth” meant fidelity to God, fidelity to the power of God that falls on gatherings of the faithful, fidelity to the mission of Christ (i.e., to the path of the cross), fidelity to the two Great Commandments (“love the Lord your God…”, and “thy neighbor as thyself”), and fidelity to the Gospel (the “Good Message” or “Good Sending”) generally.

    So Truth, for Friends, has not, historically, meant just factual accuracy; it also signifies that Path or Pattern of communication (by words and deeds both) that leads to Life.

    This means to me, among other things, that Truth means skewing our emphasis, when we recount the facts, in a life-favoring, life-giving way, instead of in a deadening way. Let me illustrate what I mean by that:

    When we speak of the passion of Christ, we are to emphasize those truths in the story that reveal how we ourselves can practice and find life — rather than emphasizing quibbles about what actually happen that only bore and confuse, or emphasizing compromises we “must” make with unpleasant and destructive “reality”, or emphasizing worldly ambitions and vain schemes that cloud the honest message of the cross. That is what early Friends did: they emphasized the real spiritual message of the passion, and left the quibbles, the compromises, and the worldly delusions entirely out of their message. And that is what a faithfulness to Truth means, as I understand it: it involves something much larger than just recounting facts.

    And the same thing in the environmental realm: when we speak of the passion of an Earth under siege, an Earth imperilled by greenhouse gases and oceanic pollution and habitat destruction and the extinction of species, we emphasize those truths in the story that reveal who we ourselves can practice and find life, rather than emphasizing quibbles that only bore and confuse, or emphasizing compromises we “must” make with unpleasant and destructive “reality”, or emphasizing Tower-of-Babel follies and Rube Goldberg schemes for evading environmental necessities.

    I trust no human source of facts absolutely, because all humans (including myself, of course) have a track record of falling short of Truth. If I may quote the Bible on this point: “Most men will proclaim each his own goodness, / But who can find a faithful man?” (Proverbs 20:6); and “Do not put your trust …/ in a son of man, in whom there is no help. His spirit departs, he returns to his earth; / In that very day his plans perish.” (Ps 146:4).

    However, there are those who visibly seem inclined to uncover, and repeat, facts and ideas that mirror the problems honestly and point the way to possible solutions, and those I count as Truth-friendly people. And then there are those who quibble to cloud the issue, or deaden the spirit with hopelessness, or obsess on unreliable scams and foolish ambitions — and those I am inclined to listen to much more warily.

  6. Who do I trust? Why do I trust who I trust?

    One important factor to me in judging news sources is personal experience that can “calibrate” a source. In the 1980’s I was deeply involved in Central American issues through the Sanctuary Movement. During that time I visited Nicaragua, read a large number of newsletters from long-termers with Witness for Peace, and had extended contact with refugees and heard many stories about their personal experiences. I was struck by the high degree of resonance with direct experience I found in some sources (Mother Jones, The Nation, Pacifica news, etc.) and the striking disonance with direct experience I found in other, “widely respected” sources (LA Times–certain writers especially, State Department pronouncements, etc.). My experience with believability in this area where I knew a great many facts on the ground influenced my reading of reporting elsewhere in the world (Middle East, Haiti, etc.).

    In matters of science one often has to rely on authorities to a large extent, but I don’t think scientists are incorruptible. The Space Shuttle Columbia was launched against the advice of low-level engineers who knew the issues up close and personal. The science of Tobacco was exceedingly slow in seeing the light of day and required heroism of whistle blowers for it to get out. The fundamental conservation laws of physics (conservation of energy, conservation of momentum, conservation of angular momentum, etc.) are remarkable crap detectors which can be applied often with minimal knowledge of the fine details. Thus, for me, a study that showed that the energy to pulverize the concrete in the World Trade Center exceeded the gravitational potential energy of the buildings (by a large factor) is very persuasive in convincing me that external energy sources (explosives) were used, regardless of the pronouncements of “experts” who consider such “speculations” beneath their dignity. [Karen and I disagree on this point, but we agree on global warming, which we also agree is a far bigger issue.]

  7. Karen Street says:

    Quite a few responses, much thanks for your contributions. I’ll reply to some of what has been added and look forward to more comments, more discernment.

    Many differences in the perceptions of Friends posting show that Friends do not have a common view of what information is to be trusted.

    The original name for Quakers was The Religious Society of the Friends of Truth, now we call ourselves the Religious Society of Friends. Friends often describe Truth as unchanging. But Friends changed slowly and painfully as slavery was considered. From the time that Woolman first pushed Friends on owning slaves, people were born and died of old age in slavery. Friends never did reach unity on how to respond to a society where slavery was legal.

    It is the process of seeking, rather than the actual understanding, which appears to be called Truth. From Friends General Conference:

    Like the scientific method, Quaker faith and practice rely upon experience as a guide. We come to know truth experientially. The search for truth is more important to us than the maintenance of beliefs, and so we try to remain open to new approaches to the truth. As the insights of others can provide new approaches to the truth, Friends bring our personal revelations to our communities for discernment and “clearness.”

    Many Friends feel that God calls us on to respond to the warnings of scientists on climate change. A weak response means more deaths, and more conflict. But why scientists, and which, and do all Friends agree?

    For me, it isn’t specific scientists who represent Truth so much as the scientific community, with its fidelity to experiential understanding, and to discernment. Scientists have an advantage over many groups aiming for discernment–the universe is there to correct mistakes. Sometime or other, mistakes in models will show up. Scientists often reserve the term science for cases that can be tested, and reject string theory as unscientific if experiments cannot confirm or deny the model, if there is no testability. This does not denigrate questions which cannot be answered this way.

    I see scientists as a group of people who so love birds, for example, that they devote their lives to studying birds, and now see what they love at risk. I hear the Voice of God in their writings, whether it is communicating highly technical material for a specialized community, or more readable explanations for the public. Others do not.

    Not everything any one person says is true. Consider Einstein, who so well articulated understandings of modern physics, but then rejected quantum. Nor is everything the scientific community says true. The predictions of climatologists and others are changing rapidly, not just adding details, but the details themselves.

    Yet other Friends disagree, and will chose individual scientists as their sources. Even more common, at least among unprogrammed Friends, is a belief that Truth can be found in environmental groups such as Union of Concerned Scientists. Some assume that the name of the organization indicates UCS speaks for scientists, but more commonly, I believe, many believe that environmental groups speak for God.

    David in his response accepts much of what the science community says, but still rejects some. Many of us pick and choose. When is this justified, and when is it not? Or is it never justified?

    Marshall also discusses choosing a Path that leads to Life, and avoiding compromises. This is a discussion I believe I have heard from Friends, though Marshall leaves out some of the details that would let me know. Certainly, these kinds of arguments come up frequently in discussions of nuclear power and trasngenic crops. These phrases confuse perhaps the majority of Friends, or are rejected, yet many see them as important. (Friends do not have majority rules. We use a process called unity.)

    One example: we make compromises everyday in our lives. Most Friends drive, and the majority of Friends fly. Why is nuclear power particularly a compromise?

    Another: some say that we should choose non-technological solutions. Yet when we are sick, we often go for the solution that includes a pill. Some can maintain perfect health and die of old age through a combination of a healthy mind in a healthy body and impressive genes, but others not so lucky or faithful use antibiotics and chemotherapy to treat illness. Those of us who resort to technological solutions in medicine hope our solution has relatively few side effects, but compromise is still involved.

    Wind and solar make sense only to the extent that we can improve the technology, particularly solar, so why is technology OK if it’s wind or solar, but not nuclear? Friends who have this philosophy have failed to answer this in sessions where I have heard nuclear power discussed, to the frustration of the group.

    Friends generally do not become corporately involved in the details of choosing particular treatments, or setting earthquake standards for bridges. What differs in the discussion of nuclear power, transgenic crops, and other choices about our future?

    In my mind, there are two reasons why fighting for nuclear power is choosing Life. The first is that so many are fighting against it, including Friends. It is one thing for corporate discussions of Friends to avoid choosing among cancer treatments. It is another if groups of Friends, or many individual Friends, are campaigning against chemotherapy.

    Peer-reviewed scientific reports say that the consequences of climate change are already significant, that more change is inevitable, and that keeping total temperature change below 2 C or even lower is desirable. All peer-reviewed policy reports I have seen say that we will continue using coal, and that expanded use of nuclear power is needed even if our goal is to reduce the chances of a temperature change of more than 2.9 C to 50%. Most people who look at the scientific reports assume that no matter what, deaths and conflict will increase from climate change, and that if we fail to address climate change adequately, things could become really nasty.

    Second, I don’t see nuclear power as an enormous compromise. People do die from nuclear power. In the First World, these deaths have been dominated by construction accidents and boiler explosions, plus the several hundred miners who died before improved ventilation of mines started in 1959. But the number of deaths — and this includes waste now and into the future — is relatively small/kWh compared to all fossil fuels, hydropower, biopower (see the Pew Report Death, Disease and Dirty Power: Mortality and Health Damage Due to Air Pollution from Power Plants (pdf), even wind power. It seems to me that if we were to really avoid compromise, we would tackle the big numbers first: the harm done by driving and flying, including direct deaths due to accidents, deaths due to direct pollution such as particulates, and deaths due to indirect pollution such as climate change.

    Incredible numbers of lives can be saved by a vaccine (one polio vaccine infects 2 – 4 out of every million babies vaccinated), yet most of us don’t see vaccines as a compromise.

    For me, changing my mind about climate change, changing my mind about nuclear power, meant facing first that I had been wrong on not only these issues, but also any number of other issues. It meant shifting to listen to the voice of God more often, rather than staying with ideas that once gave me comfort. For me, the Integrity testimony was the lens through which I saw these actions.

    There is not yet unity among Friends. Let us continue to discuss.

  8. Karen Street says:

    A Friend without internet access asked me to add this: first the facts, then the Spirit.

    Another way to say it:
    What is true?
    What is important?
    What is mine to do?

  9. Linda says:

    You asked me for my thoughts on this, so I’ll do my best to say something coherent. My understanding of the Truth being referred to in “Religious Society of Friends of Truth” is a spiritual one: that we all are of God, we all can directly experience God. As science is concerned with the material world, it has nothing to do with this sort of truth.

    That doesn’t mean that I disbelieve scientists about the state of the material world, or think that God would be leading us to act contrary to that science. I agree that science can be an arena to do God’s work in the world, and that the scientific process is our best source of accurate information about the material world.

    I do think Integrity has bearing on how Friends conduct themselves with relationship to the environment and especially climate change, in that we should strive to live in accordance with our Testimonies. We can’t say we believe that all people are equal before God and continue to waste the world’s resources; We can’t say we believe in simplicity and center our lives on material comfort; We can’t say we’re for peace while we contribute to conditions that will make war inevitable.

    Our meetings should support us in transforming our lives and help us to come into deeper relationship to God.

  10. Karen Street says:

    Linda, thanks.

    The idea that we integrity does not focus on policy issues is an important thread in Friends’ beliefs.

    Friends reached unity in the late 18th century that Friends could not own slaves, and there was general agreement to help escaping slaves. That said, Friends never reached unity on how to address slave-owning in the US. Two Yearly Meetings (Farmington Quarter and Indiana) split over the issue.

    In a 1997 Call for Action, signed by more than 1,500 scientists from 63 countries, including 110 Nobel laureates and 60 US National Medal of Science winners and addressed to political, industrial, religious, and scientific leaders, we are asked to address policy issues.

    Maybe not in the kind of detail some Friends desire, but in understanding enough of policy recommendations to see whether we are on the right track.

    In Lighting the Way, the InterAcademy Council names public awareness as important in the majority of categories, and public funding as important in the rest.

    For some Friends, not all, integrity requires us to address policy issues, and sets guidelines on how we examine policy issues.