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.



§ 8 Responses to Joys of the Quaker Way—Quaker Theology

  • Today as a Quaker I draw my experiences and the mistakes I have made with it from the Trinity. I believe as God is genderless and without form, as our human race began with Adam and Eve that it may or may not be the result of this that we form ego, social skills and genuine testimony. That quakers though non secterian are not passive aggressive waging futile wars in the name of love and peace. As my wants and needs have changed, and somehow have gotten smaller with less of a need to prove myself, yet with more of a reason to affirm my self appointed skills in adaptation, I believe today that as Quakers never turn anyone away. It is the miracle of Chist, or the miracle of Adonai that binds us together with the harmony of heaven and the angels. Simply meaning that no matter how euphoric we become by our ability to act intelligently. The mistakes we may be making may have everything to do with pride. Yet as a child of God I believe that as my faith increases so does my conviction that God is not an empty space, but a fulfillment of the scriptures from which we receive every blessing.

  • treegestalt says:

    I’m increasingly inclined to think/feel that while everything starts from the spiritual realm, the Spirit intentionally embodies itself in the intellectual, emotional and physical elements of its creation.
    Some people easily rest with the spiritual element somehow apart; other people naturally tend to connect with it through its embodiments in other modes of existence.

    We have this practice together which was prescribed for experiencing the spiritual-alone; but few of us are well enough aware of that element to carry such a form of consciousness out beyond the Meeting hour itself. For people unable to conceive of the Spirit as a reality, that practice may be restfully harmless, but remains arid.
    Practicing dead silence with the Silent Unitarians is deadening to anyone else.

    Could our practice become incorporated into some more varied way of being ‘church’, including mind and emotions and physicality as ways the Spirit can self-express and be glorified through us?
    I’ve been reading Zalman Schachter-Shalomi lately, wondering… What might a Hasidic Christianity look like?

  • Joyce Holwerda says:

    Hi Steven,
    You might be interested to hear on the Canadian Yearly Meeting website ( 5 presentations made by Ben Pink Dandelion which were given at our Yearly Meeting in 2013. Those who attended spoke highly of him as well.

  • Keith Saylor says:

    “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.”

    I am one of those who knows, through immediate experience of Christ’s presence, eternal life (consciousness sustained in Presence upon the expiration of the body and during temporal existance). This is not a belief system based abstract intellectual constructs. It is not that creeds are a “personal matter” it is that there is no need for creeds to support religious life because, in living Presence itself, reflections about the Life have little value. Why sit around thinking about the Life when you are living the Life directly. Also, there is not an issue of community authority when Presence itself, is the authority. Presence is the anchor of consciousness and informer of conscience; rather than outward intellectual forms or institutional or communal structures.

    “These negative feelings toward theology …”

    Many of us, in the Presence itself, are not so much negative toward theology as positive toward the Life itself and wish to highlight a faith in a conscious anchored in and a conscience informed by the unmediated and direct experience of the inward Light as an alternative to an intellectualized faith.

    “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.”

    This misrepresents many who know eternal life through the Christ’s inward illumination and, through the power of that illumination, no longer have faith in outward intellectual structures to anchor identity and inform conscience.

    It is not that an intellectualized faith is inferior, it is that, Life in Christ’s immediate presence in all things and circumstances of daily being, is a life different from a faith in outward intellectual constructs and belief systems (institutionalized faith). For many of us focused on the Life itself, an intellectualized and institutionalIzed faith, is a distraction or dims the Life itself by overshadowing direct experience with outward constructs.

    Keith F. Saylor

    • Patricia Dallmann says:

      “It is not that an intellectualized faith is inferior, it is that, Life in Christ’s immediate presence in all things and circumstances of daily being, is a life different from a faith in outward intellectual constructs and belief systems (institutionalized faith).”

      I think that there’s a difference between doing theology and having “a faith in outward intellectual constructs and belief systems (institutionalized faith).” One can value theology – both creating it and reading others’ ideas – without placing one’s faith in ideas, i.e. one can value theology but have one’s faith in Christ immediate presence alone.

      In the Gospels, John the Baptist symbolizes the human who recognizes Christ’s excellent glory as beyond any human capacity, including intellectual. Yet, John is valued and seen in conjunction with Christ.

      He [John] was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of the Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world (Jn. 1:8-9).

      John is not that Light, but is sent (authorized) to bear witness to the Light. When a person knows the Light/Presence he is sent to present the intellectual testimony that we call theology–even though it is intellectual and therefore not the Light itself. That which comes after is preferred before, of course, and whose shoe’s latchet the intellectual affirmation is not worthy to unloose.

      The world needs to hear what the intellect that knows its place has to report. First Friends had their meetings among themselves in which they preached the gospel (the power of God), but they also had the intellectual debates in the marketplaces.

      • I want to get deeper into the role of theology and, especially, of the theologian, some time in the future. And this will mostly be from my own experience.

        I think these roles are quite different for Friends than for other faith communities, because we aren’t bound by or elaborating on a creed, we know from experience that G*d’s revelation continues with us as with previous generations, and we don’t have religious professionals.

        Our role—my role—is to listen for, and to raise up for discernment, emerging revelation; to try to craft good questions; to seek to recover, revitalize, and adapt our tradition; to give voice to prophecy, when prompted by the Holy Spirit; and to teach. I think I could keep magnifying this list, but . . .

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