Liberal Quakerism: ‘Profession’ without ‘Possession’?
May 23, 2011 § 13 Comments
I’ve been reading Towards Tragedy/Reclaiming Hope: Literature, Theology and Sociology in Conversation, by Pink Dandelion, Douglas Gwyn, Rachel Muers, Brian Phillips, and Richard E. Sturm (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Hampshire, England and Burlington, Vermont; 2004). It’s a sometimes fascinating book that uses tragedy as a lens through which to view history—British history, especially, and Quaker history, in particular—and as a touchstone for evaluating contemporary (Quaker) culture and its trajectory into the future. It follows a more or less chronological scheme, with chapters on The Ancient Origin and Sense of Tragedy (Sturm), The Early Quaker Lamb’s War: Secularization and the Death of Tragedy (Gwyn), Apocalypse Without Tears: Hubris and Folly Among Late Victorian and Edwardian British Friends (Phillips), The Loss of Hope: England and its Establishment in the Twentieth Century (Dandelion), The Loss of Providence (Dandelion), New Voices, New Hopes? (Muers), and several Postscripts.
The book’s literary and somewhat abstract premise keeps it from appealing to many Quaker readers, I suspect, and every once in a while, I was glad that I had studied and read Greek tragedy somewhat. (If you haven’t, don’t let that stop you from reading Towards Tragedy, though—it won’t keep you from getting a lot out it.) The authors also make broad generalizations about the meaning and the ‘spirit’ of the periods they examine, without much rigorous historical detail or argument. I think and write this way myself—I have filled my own history of Quakers and Capitalism with similar schematic characterizations—so I didn’t mind. But we all have to watch the tendency to draw conclusions rather glibly, only to discover that we had not accounted for historical forces we didn’t know about or understood only superficially.
That said, in these authors’ hands, I found that new light did pass through this lens of tragedy, that it revealed much that is, if not unique in Quaker studies, at least fresh with valuable insight into who we are and how we got here. (“We” is mostly British Quakerism, but many of these insights apply just as well to liberal Quakerism in America.) I want to raise a couple of passages up for broader discussion among Friends. The first comes from Doug Gwyn’s Postscript (page 127-128):
[However,] given that Quaker spirituality took shape within the context of a deep reflection and personal immersion in the drama of the gospels, there is a Christoform quality to the deeper structures of Quaker faith and practice that has been too long ignored and outright denied. Liberal Quakerism has drifted over the twentieth century into a belief that it can take some of the central metaphors of Quaker language – key terms such as ‘light’, ‘seed’, ‘that of God in everyone’ – and strip them of their framing in the gospel and overall biblical framework of salvation history without losing any of their earlier potency. What has emerged from this process is a Quaker faith and practice that maintains a ‘profession’ in words of a reality no longer in ‘possession’ – the very hypocrisy that early Friends denounced so strongly in the Puritan culture of their day. It is only by continuing to use the sham of right-wing, fundamentalist Christianity as their rhetorical foil that Liberal Friends manage to maintain their own parody of Quaker faith and practice. By chronically trading in caricatures of ‘Christianity’, Liberal Quakerism has become a caricature of itself. This cannot last. And when it collapses, it will be no tragedy.
The tragedy is the present condition, when one confronts it and enters into its painful reality in the light of Christ. By ‘in the light of Christ’ I mean both the inward, revealing presence of Christ within and the ‘in light of’ the gospel narrative of Jesus’ own life, suffering, death and resurrection. There is no authentic Quaker epistemology of ‘the light within’ without its attendant hermeneutic of Scripture. Without the latter’s framing, the former knows anything, everything, nothing. Without the gospel, the reflexive self of postmodernity shrinks from suffering as a lethal blow to self-esteem and human dignity. And without the larger biblical saga of God’s providential designs in history, there is very little that Friends will corporately discern as their calling to do together in a world of suffering, violence and injustice. (emphases are Gwyn’s)
[epistemology: the study of the nature and grounds of knowledge—what we can know and how we know it—especially as regards the limits and validity of our knowledge;
hermeneutic: a way of interpreting texts, especially the Bible]
I think what Doug is saying is that, by abandoning the original Christian and biblical framework for our tradition while continuing to use the vocabulary, we end up talking jive. And we violate the testimony of integrity: our outward expression has no meaningful connection to an inward truth. I would say that the distortion and hypocrisy go down to the core of Quaker spirituality, passing through three layers of self-deception (by the way, I consider myself a post-Christian, liberal Quaker, so I’m talking about myself here, not just about some ‘other’ Friends):
- First, we use words to say things that they weren’t meant to say, disconnecting them from their original meaning and context. The modern use of the phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is the quintessential example.
- More deeply, we still think we know what we’re saying and we blithely assume in our ignorance that we are right. We often (usually?) don’t know what Fox meant by ‘that of God’, for example; we don’t know that the modern ‘divine spark’ meaning comes from Rufus Jones barely a hundred years ago, and we assume that our meaning (whatever that is) is, in fact, Quaker tradition going way back, and furthermore, that it’s the foundation for the peace testimony and just about everything else, to boot; which it isn’t.
- Finally, at the very heart of this empty and misrepresented shell, we do not know the truth of what we say experimentally. We have not experienced the light, at least not ‘the light’ that Fox and Fell and Howgill and Woolman experienced. We have no knowledge of the ‘seed’. We have no direct experience of ‘that of God’ in others, or ourselves, for that matter. We have the profession without the possession. (In fact, we’ve made a fetish out of not knowing, of perpetually seeking as the only authentic spiritual path, teaching ourselves to actually suspect and fear those who profess to know—Doug’s fundamentalist foil at work.)
I’m not so sure about this last point. I bet a lot of my readers will protest that they have experienced ‘the light’, even if it did not have Christ’s nametag on its chest, even if it did not illuminate their sins, ‘convincing’ (convicting) them into repentance and new Life in Christ. Who are you to say I have not experienced ‘that of God’ in everyone, you might be saying?
What remains, however, is that no one has come forward with a new ‘profession’ of what these words—the content of our tradition—mean now in this post-Christian, post-biblical age. If we have the ‘possession’—if we possess a new truth—then where is the new explanation of the old words? More to the point, if we possess a new truth—one without Jesus and the gospel at its roots—then why use the old words at all? Where are the new ones?
Vocal ministry offers a good case study. We actually do have a ‘new’ language for vocal ministry: ‘speaking in meeting’. We no longer think of ‘speaking in meeting’ as speaking on God’s behalf, at the prompting of Christ within us. If fact, we’d get pretty nervous if someone claimed to be speaking God’s will. So where does a ‘message’ come from? What authority does it have? How does the meeting provide for the eldership of ‘speaking in meeting’ and of the speakers, themselves, if we do not know where their calling comes from or what authority their ‘messages’ should have? Is there anymore even such a thing as a calling to vocal ministry?
What is the new framework, the new epistemology and hermeneutic—the new way to explain what we know and how we know it and where our knowledge comes from?
The silence is deafening. We do not know.