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.


§ 5 Responses to Toward a Liberal Quaker theology—A Series

  • Steven,

    I greatly admire your courage in “trying to solve the problem instead of just complain about it,” and even though you may feel unlikely to succeed in formulating a “unified field theory of Quakerism,” I think that whatever you wind up giving us will be an improvement over what we have, which, in my view, is confusion in theory and chaos in practice. Already, in your Introduction, you’ve spelled things out with brilliant clarity. I do think that you’re unlikely to reach your goal, however, without either bringing back the Gospel of Jesus Christ in some form or other, or else denying that Gospel.

    By confusion in theory I mean that if our theology is limited to the belief that there is that of God in every person, then we’re utterly undone by the Bhagavad-Gita, which teaches that a righteous warrior may kill his enemies in battle with impunity, precisely because there is That of God in each of them. That of God, being eternal, changeless, and unaffected by pleasure or pain, suffers not at all when the body is slain. Where does that leave our famous Quaker peace testimony? Have we no other rock we can ground our ethics on?

    By chaos in practice I mean that I now find myself almost no longer able to tolerate eleven o’clock meeting for worship in the meeting I’ve called home for a quarter century. The ego-driven travelogues, philosophizings, witty observations and railings against the powerful began eighteen minutes into the hour on the Sunday called Easter, punctuated by occasional attempts to correct the flow of junk ministry that I found as jarring and out of place as the junk ministry itself. This could not happen if we had a single standard of what constitutes Spirit-led ministry and a shared understanding of Who the Holy Spirit is.

    I’d formerly thought that a little more adult religious education, a little more community-building efforts, a little more love and mutual forgiveness would be enough to get us back on track. I’m losing my hope that we can fix an unfixable situation by our own efforts alone. For one thing, there’s the unmentionable elephants in the room… and I don’t think that they happen to be in my meeting alone.

  • Tom Smith says:

    I wish you well. For over 30 years I have been asked by others and felt the urgings from within to tackle much the same thing. I entitled some courses I have taught and a “Quaker lecture” of about 20 years ago “Searching for Truth and Reality.” I have tried to frame my experience in terms of early Friends writings, the record in the Gospels, and the experiences of many other religious traditions. I even started, once upon a time, a blog I called “seeker Quaker.” However, the term seeker can be somewhat misleading since I am using it in the sense of a “scientific” search. Having spent most of my “professional” career as a science educator, I like Eddington’s, a Quaker scientist, comment that goes something like, in my translation, I know I don’t know all there is to know and am seeking to lean much more, but I am not “lukewarm” in what I believe from my personal discoveries that have been confirmed by others in their experience. (That to me is the way science works and, in my belief, is what “liberal” Quakerism is all about.)

  • Alison P. Nylund says:

    Thank you, Friend Steven. Your words popped up just when I needed them.

  • Howard says:

    Our liberal Quaker meeting has settled into a nice balance of spiritual unity with expectant waiting worship as our common “sacrament”. We are all keenly aware that we are experiencing a spiritual reality and presence that is beyond any words or labels to describe it. And yes, it is a personal presence and experience. For how can something that emanates from within not be personal?

    Friends in our meeting are generally comfortable during spoken messages to use spiritual language that is comfortable for them, with other Friends seeing beyond the words to the universality of the message. So some Friends use “God language”, some use Christian terminology. Whereas others speak in Eastern religious terms, or in Universalist/New Age phraseology.

    The same occurs during our adult RE session each Sunday before worship, whether we are discussing a passage from the Bible, the Tao de Ching, Buddhist texts, the Gospel of Thomas, or A Course in Miracles. We love each other enough to get beyond the words and concepts to reach the transforming power that early Friends and others have experienced for eons.

    What I love about our community of Friends is a recognition that the Spirit is much larger, holy, and loving than our human minds can comprehend, describe adequately, or label. And our attempt to do so is admirable; yet, still inadequate and likely misses the mark. We recognize that God (by any other name you might choose) comes into each of our hearts during those still moments of silence, when we have turned down our own egos to hear truth in our hearts. Then we may choose to put that truth into language that our human minds can grasp for translation into examples and actions, as we relate to others.

    I believe this is what early Christians did when they experienced the spiritual realities presented by Jesus. And I can’t imagine Jesus being anything but happy that Friends in our day are still being transformed by the Spirit – no matter what words they choose to describe this life altering experience, because it is the same experience by any other name.

    • Glenn says:

      Thank you Howard for taking the time and thought to the description of your Liberal Meeting. On good days that would be a good description of my meeting. I don’t understand why people need to be told what/how to believe. If I’m given a message, the only way I can interpret it is thru my own experience (that is assuming I heard it correct in the first place).

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