Joys of the Quaker Way—Quaker Theology
December 12, 2014 § 8 Comments
I know Friends who dislike or distrust “theology”. Many Friends feel that theology only tends to divide us. Very many Friends define their Quakerism in terms of values and practice rather than beliefs or religious “content”. Many Friends believe that our insistence on direct personal experience as the foundation of faith and our historical refusal to have a creed means that beliefs don’t matter much, or, more accurately, that beliefs are a personal matter over which the community has no authority. Many Friends feel that the belief in that of God in everyone plus the testimonies pretty much sums up our theology.
These negative feelings toward theology sometimes translate into a kind of quiet, passive persecution of theologians. Some Friends seem to feel that “intellectualizing” our faith damages it somehow, and that certainly, “intellectualizing” is an inferior expression of faith to that of the witness activist or the mystic, that Friends like me are too much in our heads. Some Friends seem to feel that the life of the mind is somehow not integral to the life of the spirit. I know these things experientially, since I am a Quaker theologian myself and I have occasionally suffered this kind of prejudice.
But I get such joy from the life of the mind. And Quaker theology in particular gives me sublime pleasure. I love reading and learning and thinking and teaching and talking about Quaker tradition and the dynamics of Quaker community life. Likewise for the Bible.
And I love Quaker theologians.
I am in awe of the extraordinary mind of George Fox, even though I sometimes do not quite get what he’s saying, and I know that I miss many of his biblical references, and I don’t share his foundation in the gospel of salvation in Jesus. But his way of thinking about religion is unique in all my experience. Trying to follow his way of thinking does something to my own mind; it forges neural pathways that change the way that I think. The effect reminds me of what it was like reading the radical feminist “theologian” Mary Daly’s book Pure Lust, in which she invents scores of new words and uses new forms of syntax in order to overthrow the dominion of patriarchy in her readers’ consciousness. Except that Fox’s the language seems to come directly out of his own mind as an expression of native genius, whereas Mary Daly deliberately created her new language.
And I love the rest of them, too, those early Friends whom I’ve read. Pennington, in particular, is a wonderful writer with a genius for expressing the mystical dimension of early Quaker experience in a way that’s much more accessible than Fox’s.
But most of all, I love the Quaker theologians alive today. We live in a third golden age of Quaker theology. Not since those first two generations, of Pennington and Howgill and Fox and Fell and Naylor, and of Penn and Barclay; not since the Friends who launched the liberal Quaker movement at the turn of the 20th century, Rufus Jones, John Wilhelm Rowntree, Seebohm Rowntree, and others—have Friends followed the Light into the truth with such searching perception and clear articulation as do some of the people writing today—or just yesterday, because I must include Lewis Benson and Bill Taber, who have passed on.
The five that have influenced me the most are John Punshon, Douglas Gwyn, Ben Pink Dandelion, Lloyd Lee Wilson, and Bill Taber. Everything these Friends have written is worth reading.
John Punshon. Punshon’s Portrait In Grey is, of course, the indispensable accessible history of Quakerism. But the little pamphlet Letter to a Universalist is, in my opinion absolute must-read for every Quaker, especially every Friend in the liberal tradition. I would give it to every applicant for membership. And then there’s Encounter with Silence, Alternative Christianity, and Testimony and Tradition.
Douglas Gwyn. I am right now almost finished with Doug Gwyn’s latest book, A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation. This book expresses Quaker faith and practice in a truly fresh and powerful way. And he seeks to ground Quaker faith and practice in a testimony for earthcare—no, that’s not quite right: he seeks to describe how Quaker faith and practice and a sustainable life both grow integrally together out of a grounding in communion with God.
Moreover, one chapter in A Sustainable Life has transformed my personal spiritual life, in a perfect example of how theology and the life of the mind are integral to faith, values, and community life, at least for me. This was a corrective experience for me, a bit of eldering through written ministry. I don’t think I can express it yet in a way that would be concise enough to fit well into this entry, so that will have to wait. But we all have known those moments when you read a passage in a book and something just clicks and you lean back and close your eyes and see the world or your own life in an all new way, for which you are so grateful. Doug Gwyn has done that for me more than once.
Then there’s his Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (1624-1691), which has completely transformed Quaker thought in the modern period about our origins. Not since Rufus Jones a century ago have we had such a significant contribution to our understanding of ourselves, and, along with Lewis Benson’s work, Apocalypse of the Word is actually a much-needed partial corrective to the direction Rufus Jones and his contemporaries launched us on.
Gwyn’s The Covenant Crucified: Quakers and the Rise of Capitalism could not have been more important to my own writing on Quakers and capitalism, and, once again, it is both a groundbreaking work of history and an important contribution to our understanding of ourselves as a movement.
Ben Pink Dandelion. After reading some essays by Ben Pink Dandelion in a collection with Doug Gwyn and Timothy Peat (Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming), I stumbled upon A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers: The Silent Revolution, which is Dandelion’s sociology doctoral thesis. It’s dense. It has a whole chapter just on methodology. It’s an academic work organized as a thesis with sections given numbers to the third digit; for example: 3.4.1. Vocal Ministry: A Case Study of Attitudes to Belief and Practice. And it’s really expensive. Oy.
But it’s brilliant. This book has been so important to me. I came away understanding how Quaker community works in an all new way. But my feelings go deeper than that. It ignited in me a deep passion for our strengths and a prophetic call to minister to our weaknesses. The truths Dandelion unveils in this book have become an integral part of my own religious calling. I only wish it were more accessible. One day, I plan to condense the insights of this book into entries in this blog, hoping that he finds my presentation faithful to his work.
I just finished reading Dandelion’s 2014 Swarthmore Lecture, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker. This is the most insightful book on the condition of contemporary Quakerism (or liberal Quakerism, at least) that I have ever read. For decades, this man has been holding Quakerism up to the Light and in the light of modern social science, and this book feels like the culmination of all that insight. As seems always to be the case with any such analysis, the analysis is deeper than the solutions. But that’s because solutions are so hard to conceive, let alone implement successfully. Healing and renewing religious community is really, really hard; only G*d can do it, really.
But G*d has only G*d’s prophets to work with. And Dandelion is one of them. I think this book is a major contribution to whatever renewal we will undergo in our own time. It gave me great joy to read this book
Dandelion’s other works are also very good, though some are, like A Sociological Analysis, a bit academic.
Lloyd Lee Wilson. Lloyd Lee Wilson’s Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order brought us back to an aspect of our tradition that we were about to lose, I think. Though “aspect’ is too weak a word—core would be more like it. What a brilliant work of written ministry this book is! What joy it gave me to learn this material and to fold it into my own Quaker faith and practice.
William Taber. Finally, no one has influenced my understanding and love of the Quaker way more than Bill Taber. I was a resident at Pendle Hill for two terms while he was the Quakerism teacher there (Doug Gwyn was also on the faculty then) and I count those months as one of the greatest blessings of my life. Everything William Taber has written is deep, indispensable reading.
And there are others, of course. Patricia Loring, Sandra Cronk, Rosemary Moore, Howard Brinton, Wilmer Cooper, Alistair Heron, Alan Kolp . . . And my fellow bloggers out there in Quaker cyberspace.
Great religious literature is very often written in response to a crisis in a religious community.’s life For instance, besides the obvious examples of the Hebrew prophets, many of the books in the front of the Hebrew scriptures were put together during the Israelites’ captivity in Babylon and sought to minister to the doubt and despair of the Exiles.
We live in a time of crisis ourselves. And in our own time, a lot of deep spirits with fine minds are responding with wonderful written ministry. What gifts they bring—truly significant contributions to the advance of Quaker culture, and in fact, to the world’s religious literature more broadly.