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):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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§ 13 Responses to Liberal Quakerism: ‘Profession’ without ‘Possession’?

  • hans52 says:

    I embraced Quakerism years ago, felt lead to it by Jesus, and identified (and still do) as a Christian. Imagine my first contact with friends at a liberal New England meeting! No one ever spoke of Jesus or Scripture. I met nice people who identified as Friends, but who didn’t know, for example, who George Fox was! The sole focus of the meeting seemed – to me – to be the social implications of the Gospels. When people did rise to speak, their words sounded more like political statements than words grounded in promptings of the Spirit.

    Aside from the form of worship, I felt like I was with Unitarians; it was okay to believe anything and everything. One could be a Buddhist-Quaker, an atheist Quaker, believe in God as “real” or in God as “symbol”. I felt connected to these (really nice) folk only in the broadest of ways. I did not feel like I was experiencing the Quakerism of three centuries past, the first hand accounts of which are what drew me to it in the first place.

  • Jim says:

    Friend Steve:

    The ability to detach a practice from its original context is something that I have observed in modern western spirituality in general. I have found it personally helpful to place what is observed here in the Quaker tradition into that larger context.

    For many years I practiced Buddhism and there is a similar discussion going on in western Buddhist circles. I’ll use Zen as an example. Some western Zen practitioners have completely jettisoned the Buddhist context of Zen practice, retaining only the actual meditation. This has raised the question of how important the context is. Will Zen in the west be Zen Buddhism, or soemthing different? Right now in the west there are Christian Ministers, Catholic Priests, and Jewish Rabbis who assert that they are teaching Zen.

    I think this resembles the point being raised in your post. If the Quaker tradition is defined as a set of practices, then those practices can be removed from their original context. Like the Catholic Priest who asserts he is teaching Zen, a non-Christian Quaker can assert that they are ‘practicing’ in the Quaker tradition.

    However, just as the term ‘enlightenment’ has a contextual meaning that exists within a Buddhist framework, so also terms like the ‘light within’ have a specifically Christian context. If the context is removed does it have the same meaning? Hard to say.

    Best wishes,


  • Stephen McKernon says:

    I am intrigued by this posting and Doug Gwyn’s views. As always, language can be problematic but here’s my best attempt at comment.

    I think a ‘founder paradox’ makes the discussion of profession/ possession more complex than it seems.

    If there’s a ‘right’ Quakerism, then it makes sense to look to its founders for a formal definition of rightness (such a authoritative language) and to reject historical evolutions as poor copies. We have moved a long way from Fox’s views (or the views of the ‘original’ Quakers). So it follows we should want to re-build the house according to the original plan.

    On the other hand, if the founder’s message was direct spiritual discovery, self-responsibility and ongoing social action, then it makes sense to value founders’ initial plans as the foundations of a larger, longer construction project, not as the finished work in itself. It then also makes sense to re-interpret and re-apply so as to continue in the spirit of Quakerism (as we re-interpret it for our times).

    So yes, an original Quakerism evolved new versions and offshoots over time, and these can now seem like dilutions of the original. But they also (paradoxically) prevent us returning to the original ‘as an original’.

    This paradox is clearest when we try to define the ‘original’ original. What dates make the start and end of the original? What versions are in and what ones are out? How do we decide what’s authoritative? On what authority do we decide?

    To put this another way, it’s difficult to be authoritative while also deciding what to treat as authoritative. To do this, we (paradoxically) have to accept that something more recent than the ‘original’ is at work.

    And yes, some Quakerisms suggest distinctly un-christian and open-ended spiritual experiences, and these can make us wonder how far Quakerism can possibly stretch before its identity collapses. But these (paradoxically, again) prevent us from defining Quakerism by its forms – its deity or its spiritual language (for example).

    The crux here is that it’s difficult to decide what Quakerism is if we’re not even sure of our language (which may be why we end up talking about what we are talking about, as is the case here!).

    There is an even more difficult paradox at the heart of Quakerism: the primacy of a collective, silent search for spiritual insight (or in-sound, or in-feel if any of these fits better).

    Do the words we use to describe these silent, collective spiritual insights matter? Can there be ‘right’ spiritual words or ‘right’ interpretations for what they mean?

    Perhaps we need an epistemology/ hermeneutic oriented to silence, to a knowledge derived from collective, silent searches for meaning, and to ongoing, evolving communication about these meanings (as we are here).

    There are epistemologies/ hermeneutics that do this, but they too might take us away from what sits comfortably within the ‘original’ Quaker world view.

    • forrest curo says:

      The “deity” of Quaker practice… is supposed to be “the One that’s really there,” no matter whose religion that does or doesn’t look like. From that standpoint, something called “Christianity” could go, without loss, if God were simply speaking to us in new ways.

      The fact… that many Quakers are not finding God, not particularly seeking, not considering it a problem– merely “our” problem if we insist they’ve missed the gist– takes this way beyond questions of normative human ‘authority’ among us.

  • Bowen Alpern says:

    The test of a message is not, and should never have been, is it spoken “with authority”, but does it “speak to the condition of” the “auditory” or some part of it. I try to speak with as little authority as possible.

    I do not know what early Friends meant when they used the term “speak to the condition of” someone. What I mean is that it tells the truth about the present in a way that opens up a new possibility for the future. I believe that this is what prophetic speech has always done and I assume the that this is what Friends strive for when they rise to speak in meeting.

  • forrest curo says:

    It’s hard to answer this adequately, short of an autobiography! God doesn’t necessarily appear in a Jesus-shaped package; neither can I imagine anyone in the US whose view of God hasn’t been powerfully influenced by Jesus (whether understood or misunderstood!) Many people rightly reject the distorted image they’ve been offered– but then they’re disinclined to wonder what an undistorted view might be.

    Not a “moralistic” Being– but people seem so determinedly moralistic that it may take the threat of an angry “God”– not to frighten them into being “good”, but rather to get them nolo contendere out of the Courtroom itself– where they should find themselves much happier, and better.

    Happier and better, despite the potential loss of a multitude of benevolent “Concerns.” (Is it wrong to be concerned about some prevalent wrong or misfortune?–No. But without God directing people in their responses, said responses become clumsy, inappropriate, faddish, compulsively repetitive, self-glorifying, futile.)

    The whole enterprise of knowing God at all– may need far more time and attention than most contemporary people are willing to devote to it, given the prevailing notions of God’s place in the world (‘outside it altogether’), importance (‘making people feel better’) and reality (‘none’). And yet the public interest in false religion, as Stephen Gaskin observed decades ago– is evidence of a powerful hunger for the reality, if only people could find and recognize it.

    The Bible– is full of holes (see ) And yet there’s essential wisdom there, perspectives we’ve rejected out of sheer arrogance more than anything else, the efforts of some pretty bright people to understand what God was doing with us, and why. If we throw it out– we have nothing in its place but the Myth of Progress and the actuality of self-deception, oppression, oncoming catastrophe. If we keep reading it– we find a book by people who (in many places) get God wrong!– but like Jacob, they kept wrestling with Life for their answers.

    I know God, no matter how incompletely– and know that such acquaintance is necessary to lasting happiness. But how to share that acquaintance, except through the words of a man many times tendentiously misquoted in that one, beautifully mixed-up book? Several religions falsely called “Christian” may be deservedly on their way out… but we still need to answer: What was that man doing here, what does God mean to tell us through this bewildering story?

    Until then… people’s chief concern about Messages… must continue to be, “Does this offend people? Might it disturb a newcomer?” And not: Does it offer an illuminating truth?

  • Bowen Alpern says:

    I think you are trying to have it both ways, Steve.

    How can we “profess what we don’t possess”, if we “make a fetish out of not knowing”? Couldn’t we be telling the truth of our experience of not possessing?

    Of course, we have not “experienced the light” as early Friends did. Early Friends understood themselves to be experiencing the Second Coming, Christ was rising in themselves AND IN THE WORLD. They expected the world to be transformed, not as part of some long grand historical process, but in their lifetimes. That expectation both impelled and empowered them to change their lives and to seek to change the lives of those around them. The Lamb’s war was simultaneously inward and outward, spiritual and political. (Dandelion and Gwyn know this. They wrote the book, Heaven on Earth, that convinced me.)

    No subsequent generation of Friends has had access to this experience. To try to explain this by pointing out that their uses of certain words and phrases were grounded in the Bible in ways that ours are not is just plain silly.

    Post-regicide England was fraught with material horror, political disappointment, and spiritual possibility like no other. The early Friends that inhabited it were able to experience life in a way that has not been available to later Friends.

    For one thing, we know what happened and they didn’t. We can only relate to the hope that animated their lives as false hope and thus without power. Unless we know what we are looking for, we don’t even see it in them.

  • Jenny Doughty says:

    I was interested by the part of this post that says “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. ”

    The meanings of words change with time; even language itself evolves. If George Fox had used the word ‘nice’, he would have meant something like ‘discriminating in a pedantic and nitpicking manner’, not ‘pleasant’. Another obvious and more recent example is the change in the use of the word ‘gay’. If we listen to recordings of speech made less than a century ago, they sound like communications from a totally different age.

    Why should our spiritual experiences be different, immune to such evolution? Our understanding of the gospel narratives has changed sharply with modern biblical scholarship. Most people understand that these narratives are not to be taken literally as a recording of history. Our understanding of how it is appropriate to treat people in the light of our faith has changed markedly over time, and that change has been led by people who listened to the heart of what their spiritual experiences told them rather than the letter of the Bible that told them slavery was acceptable and that homosexuality was not.

    We are not talking ‘jive’ (in itself an expression that will be meaningless to many young people) when we use words in a different sense from those in which people of earlier times used them. We speak the language of our own time. We can speak no other, and nor could they.

  • Tom Smith says:

    I had an experience in Meeting yesterday that was new to me after literally decades of being led to “speak in Meeting.” On Saturday the state legislature had passed a bill placing an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot for 2012 declaring that marriage was limited to “one man and one woman.” There are several homosexual couples, some with wonderful families, in the Meeting and many of them, as well as “straight” individuals from the Meeting, were present at the state Capitol to demonstrate for a no vote on the bill. The Meeting has had a relatively long history of support for same sex marriage. I individually have long agreed with this position, but am relatively new to the Meeting in question.

    I assumed going to Meeting that there would be several “messages” regarding the issue during Meeting and I felt no intent to speak with a feeling that I would not speak. In this particular Meeting, I have spoken much less, 4-5 times since we have started attending about a year ago, than in most Meetings in the past. In fact there were several sharings about the experiences of the events of the day before. Some seemed to me to be “appropriate” expressions of deep feelings and concerns.

    I began to “sense” a “need” to “deepen” and “extend” the expressions. The “rapture” event of the previous day had also been on my mind. A “message” began to form in my mind about the “end times” with trials and tribulations and the need to deal with the concerns and issues of the day as if these were the “end times.” To me this was part of why early Friends were often identified as apocalyptic and were proclaimers of the “end times” themselves even to the point that they were sometimes accused of being part of the Fifth Monarchy movement. However, George Fox wrote a denial of that position nad spoke/wrote of no “second coming” since Christ was already present in “all of his offices.”

    As sometimes happens this “message” had not taken full form in my “mind” when I found myself on my feet saying (as close as my memory permits at this point) “These are the end times. George Fox and the early Friends were said to talk about being in the end times and were even accused of believing in the Fifth Monarchy which was the belief that the next King of England would be Christ returned. However, early Friends were much more concerned that Christ had already returned and was present. As Jesus said, take no thought for tomorrow, but let today’s troubles be sufficient. We need to rely on the Spirit to which we all have access.”

    From my previous process I had continued the “thought” to relate the difficulties of dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage to dealing with our day to day relationships with those who some might label “others” and those who are poor, sick, oppressed etc. and in so doing recognizing and bringing the “kingdom” on earth as we expressed Christ’s presence. However, for some unknown, to me, reason I felt almost literally pushed back down into my seat. I have in the past felt AFTER I sat down that maybe I had not spoken all that I had been given, or more frequently, that I had spoken more than had been given, but I had never felt “stopped” so suddenly or “incompletely.”

    I am trying to sort out my experiences here and found Steve’s posting as “speaking to my condition.” I will likely repost and continue the post on my own blog, but have felt “stopped” for a while in knowing what I am led to share.

    • forrest curo says:

      It sounds to me, that thee had the important message, delivered it, were set down before thee could attach it to a lesser matter, “lesser” in the sense that (despite its vital personal importance to people who are important to us) if we resolve what you were talking about, it’ll fall into place in that context (as for most of us, it has.)

  • God bless you, Steve, for this posting! It’s golden. I’ll only respond to the “case study” you raised at the end about “speaking in meeting,” or what is still known as “vocal ministry” among many of us.

    If (and only if) the Lord raised one up in meeting for worship to give such a message, one might say: “Only God, and Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit who speak for God, are authorized to speak in this meeting. If I am not raised up by God now to tell you so, then may God rebuke me for my presumption in a way that you will all see it, and recognize God as the author of that rebuke.”

    Such bold acts of witness might clear away some of the confusion and disunity in our liberal meetings about what constitutes an acceptable message. (I can’t help thinking of the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal in this context. I know that the Lord knows that I, and I’m sure many other Friends, would put our lives on the line to help sweep the defilements of ego out of the the meeting room’s air and restore Friends’ original understanding of what vocal ministry is.) In the meantime, until the Lord opens ministers’ mouths to speak effectively against junk ministry, and raises up elders to monitor outrunners of their Guide, the Lord knows who His faithful ones are, and hears their suffering. The Lord will raise us up when and as He thinks best.

    • forrest curo says:

      After a series of nonmessages at a recent meeting, I felt the weight of our Meeting’s Great Unsaid– as I often do– and once again, did not feel led to attempt (once again) to say it. I did find myself silently begging God: “Can’t we please do better than this!?” whereupon a new attender soon rose with something real to say, even ending with a brief prayer for blessing.

      I don’t think we need a witness against people rising to speak too readily in Meeting– in that if some people have something to speak, and these people are truly prompted, that is the needful thing, and an occasional “weed” matters little in comparison.

      • I agree, Forest. I think we have to assume that Friends speak because they are led to. I have had the experience of attending a meeting in which a man always came in late, noisily moved all the way across the meetingroom to sit down, then often rose very soon to say things I routinely found unedifying. Then one day, he did all this and then spoke directly to my condition that morning.

        I am no longer so much interested in judging individual messages or messengers, or even the general shallowness of vocal ministry in a meeting, though I’ve been sorely vexed in just this way in the past. I am more interested now in trying to finds ways to foster a culture that takes vocal ministry seriously and that takes real responsibility for our tradition. We’ve gutted the substance and left ourselves with shadows. Yet Friends still feel led to speak in meeting, to take up other forms of service.

        What’s happening here? Who are we serving? If we are no longer being gathered by Christ, then by whom or what are we being gathered? If it’s not the trinitarian Holy Spirit that Friend John speaks of that raised up Friend Tom and then pushed him down again, then who or what did?

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