Toward a Liberal Quaker theology—A Series
April 1, 2013 § 5 Comments
For years, I have been complaining, in this blog and in my other writing, about the strong trend in Liberal Quakerism toward a post-Christian, post-traditional condition in which we have hollowed out our ancient and venerable heritage by ejecting much of its distinctive and extraordinary content. And not just the specific tenets of our “faith,” but “theology” and “beliefs” in general. Instead, we have defined ourselves in terms of experience and values and by our distinctive practice. Along the way, we also have abandoned not just Christian and biblical language in particular but what is often called “God language” more generally.
That’s the negative side of my complaint. The positive side is negative, as well. For we have not just abandoned; we have also failed to replace all this valuable tradition with anything substantive. We’ve allowed ourselves to be satisfied with just one remnant to stand in for the whole, and we have flipped the meaning of that remnant a hundred and eighty degrees from George Fox’s original intention. The single disfigured fragment upon which we now perch our entire 350 year-old tradition is the idea that there is that of God in everyone.
This is not just a language problem. It is a consciousness problem. We have moved away from a way of speaking, yes, and thus, away from a way of thinking. But more important, we have moved away from a way of being. Ultimately, this is a problem of experience.
Many of us simply have no experience of the things that the language we’ve inherited from our Quaker ancestors denotes and still implies. To speak for myself, at least, I just have not had any transformative experience that corresponds to that of early Friends, which was centered in Jesus Christ and all about sin and its conviction. I do have experience of what I am prepared to call the Light, but faithful traditionalists could challenge that call (rightly, I think) because my experience of the Light does not draw me back to Jesus as my savior.
This sort of disconnect between our experience and the language we use complicates talking about our Quakerism, to say the least. Some of us deal with the complications by blithely using the language of our heritage to say things that our ancestors never intended. Our elevation of the phrase “that of God” to the status of essential tenet of Quaker faith is a case in point. Some of us find it easier to simply avoid talking about our Quakerism and sometimes cover our tracks by lashing out at theologizing itself, making a creed of our non-credalism. Some of us (myself included) grope for a new way to talk that honors our tradition and yet makes room for the wide variety of religious and spiritual experience that Friends in the liberal tradition bring to our meeting life.
We have another related problem: many Liberal Friends are more comfortable thinking of their Quakerism as a spirituality than as a religion. Many Liberal Friends, I suspect, feel that a “religion” has a “God” and they just don’t have a relationship with “God” as God is usually understood—a a supreme being who created the universe, knows and cares about every one of us and about human history in general, and is the “Father” of Jesus Christ, his “Son”. Instead, without a common language that is based in shared religious experience, or at least on the shared text of the Bible, Liberal Friends have fallen back upon their own individual experience; they practice a personal spirituality and they call this arrangement Quakerism.
To accommodate this realignment away from religion and toward spirituality, we have recast the Religious Society of Friends as an open-source environment in which everyone is free to pursue her or his own individual spirituality. From a Religious Society of Friends defined originally in terms given us by the Bible (in which, for instance, we got the meaning of “Friends” from the gospel of John—chapters 14-15), we have become a Society of f/Friends without reference to religion and in which “Friends” carries a social meaning that is devoid of reference to obedience to Christ, as once was the case.
Well, I’ve spent more time than I wanted to outlining the problem, and many of my readers have heard this from me before. For years I’ve been complaining in this way. But for a while now, I have been feeling that it’s time I tried to solve the problem instead of just complain about it. So I’ve been seeking a solution.
I have been seeking a way to talk about Quakerism that honors this impulse to personal spirituality and our diverse experience on the one hand, while on the other hand expressing our shared spirituality and our common experience. I have been groping toward a new theology for Liberal Quakers, one that honors my own personal experience and the vast range of experience of other Liberal Friends and yet is faithful to the roots of our tradition in Christian experience and biblical language. I have been groping for a unified field theory of Quakerism that could speak with integrity to both my Christian Friends and my “universalist” Friends.
I think I am not likely to succeed. But I do feel led. And now, after years of meditating on the problem, my leading seems to be bearing some fruit. I am still groping, still experimenting with ways to express what I’m experiencing, but now I feel impelled to write.
The “methodology” came first: that I should work outward from experience, not downward from ideas, that I should start with my own experience, which is quite varied, but also with the experiences that I have shared with other Friends. Here, I am speaking specifically of the gathered meeting for worship, the one shared religious experience that transcends all labels and boundaries. I have tried to keep the meaning of the “religious words” I’m using concrete rather than abstract, and accessible and universal without being vague or all-inclusive. I have tried to test them against my own experience, and to use them in my writing and in my conversations with people to see whether they work in practice.
It’s a big, long-term project, so I’m going to have to break it up into sections that will fit in a blog. And I’m not even close to done exploring, so this blog approach will be piecemeal and a bit helter skelter rather than cleanly systematic. I fully expect to change my mind, to change course more than once along the way, and to be corrected by my readers. I expect to step through the traces now and again. But I have to start somewhere, so I’m going to see how this goes. In the next entry, I will start with some definitions—for:
- spiritual experience,
- spiritual practice,
- religion, and
- religious experience.