Quakers and money

May 28, 2016 § 15 Comments

Just a little more than a hundred years ago, Quaker meetings were full of business people, and for a long time, Friends were one of the wealthiest communities in England. Many of us did pretty well here in the colonies, too. We really understood money then—we knew how to make it, we knew how to use it, and we were not ashamed of it, at least not in a way that made us weird about it, like we are now.

Today, at least in the liberal Quaker meetings I’m familiar with in the US, we are almost notoriously dysfunctional when it comes to money. Meetings often have a “faith-based” rather than reality-based attitude toward their budgets. Meeting finances are often anything but transparent. Meetings are often reticent to ask for money, or even to talk about it. Quaker institutions and Quaker meetings at all levels of organization are struggling for their lives financially. And Friends who own their own businesses or who work in or for corporations often find themselves being harassed, even though they often are very generous with their talents and treasure—liberal Quakers often have a prejudice against business people. Why? Why this 180-degree shift in culture?

One of the primary reasons I started writing my history of Quakers and Capitalism was to find an answer to this question. A few days ago, I returned to this question and a host of possible answers came to mind. They are just conjecture, but I am ready to share them and see what my readers think. Here are some possible reasons for why a movement of often-wealthy (sometimes exceedingly wealthy) business people became a movement of people who are uneasy with money and the people who make it:

  • Liberal economics replaces evangelical economics. Around the turn of the 20th century, David Lloyd George and the new Liberal Party in Great Britain openly credited the Quaker Seebohm Rowntree, brother of the key liberal Friend John Wilhelm Rowntree, with the foundational insight that poverty and other social ills were structural, not character-based, as the dominant political economics of the 19th century had claimed. Until about the middle of the twentieth century, political economics had two schools, both born around 1800—a liberal school born from the pens of Adam Smith and David Ricardo (who married a Quaker), and an evangelical school born from the pens of Thomas Malthus and Thomas Chalmers, both evangelical ministers. Evangelical economics dominated public policy throughout the 19th century, at least in Britain. That ended with Seebohm Rowntree. Rowntree’s book Poverty: A Town Life proved scientifically (using the first widely discussed statistical sociological survey in history) that poor people were not poor because of their character—drinking, gambling, sex (too many children), and other forms of wantonness—but rather, they mostly did have jobs and worked hard; they just weren’t being paid enough. This book—this idea—that poverty was structural gave birth to the Liberal Party in Great Britain and to the British welfare state. Liberal Quakerism, in the UK, at least, was joined at the hip with the belief that capitalism needed curbs on its behavior and the only gorilla in the room that was big enough to enforce those curbs and pick up the slack was the government.
  • The Great Depression. The Great Depression dealt a body-blow to evangelical political economic theory. “Evangelical” economics would not get back up on its feet until Ronald Reagan resurrected it. Herbert Hoover was an evangelical Friend and he brought an evangelical Quaker worldview to his thinking about the Great Depression—self-reliance, appeals to private people and organizations for philanthropy and to companies for ethical response to the crisis, and a reluctance to get the government involved. It was an abject failure. The New Deal was the liberal economic school at work and the welfare state came to America. Roosevelt even employed the concept and the very formula that Rowntree had developed for the “poverty line”—a measure of the cost of basic human needs as the basic metric for social welfare.
  • The death of the “Protestant ethic”. Most people think that Max Weber had Puritans in mind when he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and this is partially true; but he talks about Quakers quite a bit, too, and we actually fit the mold better than the Puritans did. We weren’t Calvinist, so we didn’t see material success as a signifier of our election, but that is just a footnote in the story. The core of the Protestant ethic story is seeing one’s work in the world as a religious vocation, a calling (we would say leading) from God. This makes doing good imperative and doing well okay. This was the “spirit of capitalism”, and it drove Quaker business for two hundred years., until limited liability laws passed in both England and America in the 1890s led to the issue of public shares and the gradual dissolution of the great dynastic Quaker family businesses. By at least the end of the first world war, the spirit of capitalism was Mammon, not the Protestant ethic. Maybe before then. A lot of Quakers thought so already when London Yearly Meeting charged its Committee on War and the Social Order to investigate the Great War’s causes, in 1915. The report that the Committee returned in 1918 confirmed their suspicions—capitalism was partly to blame for the Great War and thus so were capitalists.
  • The theology of experience replaces the theology of atonement—and unleashes individualism. When Rufus Jones recast Quakerism as a mystical religion around the turn of the 20th century, and the liberal movement in Quakerism embraced the new “scientific” tools for Bible study at the same time, religious experience became the goal of (liberal) Quakerism and religious authority began to shift away from the Bible. Both threads had always been there; the past atonement of Christ on the cross was virtually irrelevant to early Friends, though they would never had said so—they were experiencing the living Christ directly and right now; salvation was happening within them in “real time”, making the event on the cross a kind of prefiguring, rather than the defining event in salvation history. And the Bible was a necessary source of relgious authority, but secondary to the experience of the Light. Throughout the 19th century, evangelicalism had driven this thread of direct experience partly underground, except to some extent in American Hicksite and Wilburite circles, but liberal Quakerism revived it. However, the emphasis on personal experience also undermined the authority of the meeting and gradually empowered the individual liberal Friend to do as he or she pleases. This feeling of entitlement is now one of the gods of liberal Quakerism.
  • The Vietnam War and the Sixties. Beginning in the 1960s, a wave of convincement brought a generation of people into the movement who were either social activists or ‘60s mystics, or both. I am part of that generation. We distrusted authority. Many of us had either fled or abandoned our original religious roots as either oppressive or spiritually empty, or both; we were post-Christian. A lot of us had also abandoned self discipline for a while; that had been fun for us, in ways even valuable, but it left us a bit self-indulgent. Many of us had picked up an anti-money prejudice in the 60s that we seem to have retained to some degree, even though most of us ended up in the middle class. After all, a lot of us had degrees and we were the last generation to benefit from higher education en masse without going broke in the process. We remember $0.29 gasoline and $150 apartment rents—the good life was sort of handed to us. Finally, we had built our spiritual lives around whatever we had picked up on our journeys, and, when we became convinced as Quakers, we grafted that onto a Quaker framework that was already becoming increasingly pliable, increasingly defined by values rather than content. And we didn’t really value money, even though we enjoyed it.
  • (Radically) declining wealth base. There are three paths to wealth: creating a successful business, landing one of those rare very high-paying jobs, and inheritance. The first and last have been the foundation of Quaker wealth for centuries. But nowadays, many, many Friends are somewhere in the middle class, with decent but not high-paying paying jobs, if they are lucky, with pensions and enough saved to maybe keep them in comfort as they live into their 80s and 90s, if they are really lucky. Maybe there will be a little left over for the kids when we die. However, for twenty years or more, our middle class status has been steadily eroding, as college, health care, and nursing home costs have skyrocketed. There just isn’t the wealth base left to maintain our meetings the way our forebears did, and we are less likely to leave big bequests. As an example: the Friends who supplied two-thirds of the capital funds that renovated New York Yearly Meeting’s youth retreat center a few years ago died—in just three or four years’ time! Two-thirds of a significant wealth base in the yearly meeting died in a handful of years! The wealth base that made the budgets of yesteryear possible is dying off.
  • Mixed marriages. I suspect that, over the past century, more and more convinced Friends have joined the movement without their spouses. When you have to divide your charitable contributions in half, or at least negotiate with a partner about it, chances are good that your meeting will get less than it would have if you had joined as a couple or if you were single.
  • Meaningless membership. I would add the fact that there’s really no reason to even make the minimal commitment to a meeting of becoming a member. What do you get out of it? The privilege of serving on Ministry and Worship Committee? We no longer treat membership as a covenant in which the member and the meeting have clear, mutual responsibilities for support. Oh, the member has responsibilities, financial support among them. But what skin does the meeting have in this game? All we seem to feel we need to provide is a space in which to hold meeting for worship every Sunday morning and a sense of community. We often don’t offer religious education to even our children, let alone the adults. We don’t offer programs or other support for the individual spiritual life, beyond meeting for worship. We often are rather less than effective at pastoral care, even worse at material care. Why join? And, if you’re only a partially-committed attender, why not give as a partially-committed attender?
  • Consumer culture religion. In a mass consumer economy, we pay for the things we want, and we seek the lowest price. This cultural ethos has invaded religious life, just as it has penetrated every other aspect of modern life. Most Friends come to meeting for something; they are less likely to consider what they come to meeting with. What do they come for? At the least, I think they come for an hour of peace and psychological refreshment and a sense of community. We often give them that. But what is it worth? Can it be had at a bargain? Could they get it elsewhere more cheaply? Probably not. But if they could, they just might leave. At least we have a corner on the collective silent worship market.

Well, these ideas just came flying out of my head as I wrote. What are my readers’ experiences? Why do we harass our business people? Why do we give so little? Why have Quaker meetings and institutions been cutting back on their budgets and yet still feel like they’re headed for the shoals? Why are we weird about money, when we used to be so good with it? Have I missed anything? Have I gone too far?

I would love to hear from you.

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On Clearness Committees for Membership

March 27, 2012 § 17 Comments

A note to my readers:

I’ve been away from this blog for quite some time while I focused on other writing. But I’m back. I still may not post as often as I used to because I’m still really engaged with these other projects, but I have a little more time these days and I do expect to post every few days or so. Thanks to those of you who have continued to check in now and then.   ~ Steven

Now, on membership:

Some of the articles in the April issue of Friends Journal on membership got me thinking again about the central role that the faith and especially the practice of membership play in driving and directing the trends of change in the Quaker tradition. As a community we are whom we admit into membership and we become what these Friends want from their religious life. (Of course, this is true only so far as most of our members come to us through convincement rather than by being born to us through ‘birthright.’ And we also should acknowledge the significant contributions of our attenders in this regard, who often make up a sizable portion of our meetings and often stay attenders for a long time rather than applying for membership. As a result, they end up becoming ersatz members, reflecting and reinforcing the fact that we have become very unclear (and apparently unattractive) about what membership means, what it offers and what it entails—we have given them no good reason to become members.)

Over time the influx of new Friends has brought to us many of the trends and issues that preoccupy our attention. Christ-centered versus universalist, confessional faith versus a faith defined as seeking, nontheism, Quaker ‘paganism’ and forms of women’s spirituality, abortion and other gender issues, concerns about homosexuality, same sex marriage and sexuality in general, intolerance of each other’s beliefs, the apparent dilution of spiritual vitality in many of our meetings—all these have their roots to some degree in the minds and emotions and expectations of the people we have admitted to membership.

My own experience serves as a good example. When I first joined Friends, I applied to a meeting in which I already had very close friends and they were very happy to have me. My clearness committee was anything but perfunctory, however; we all took the process very seriously, and I came with baggage that really needed to be dealt with. I was hostile to Christianity and the Bible (though I had been a zealous member of my Lutheran church as a youth and dove with relish into Bible study during confirmation class) and I told my committee so. They saw this as no impediment and soon I was a member.

Soon I was harassing Friends who brought us Christian and biblical vocal ministry. I objected to Bible lessons in First-day School. I expressed my hostility. No one eldered me. Years passed. Then I went to Pendle Hill intending to begin research for a book on earth stewardship that involved intense Bible study. This study rekindled my love for the Bible and, in short time, this renewed enthusiasm overwhelmed my hostility. I’ve never stopped studying scripture since and have been writing two books that amount to biblical eco-theology. I still am not a Christian by any of the definitions that I use, but I have learned respect for my tradition. So my meeting got lucky—I changed on my own.

But I might not have. I could have continued to hurt people and damage our fellowship. I could have continued to quench the spirit in other Friends and damage my meeting’s worship. I could have continued to reinforce the liberal shift away from our traditional Christian and biblical roots. This troubles me.

The doorway to all this damage and all the trends I’ve mentioned is the clearness process for membership and the attitudes and the expectations we bring to it. Because of my own experience, I have felt for some time a call to a ministry focused on recovering our traditions and on taking greater responsibility for the direction our movement is taking. That means taking a close look at how we approach membership.

Here’s what I think my clearness committee should have done in my case: Accept my application, certainly. I am not talking about excluding people by applying some kind of creed. But I wish they had probed my woundedness enough to anticipate more clearly my possible behavior and its consequences. Then, most importantly, I wish they had asked (really, I mean required) that I labor with them to overcome my negativity. I wish that they had reminded me that my behavior affects real people and put me on notice that the meeting would protect its fellowship and its worship—that I would be held accountable for my behavior. I would like to believe that I would have snapped to right then and there if they had made this request/demand.

Here’s the crux—the cross, really—of what I’m saying: I am proposing that our meetings consider membership as a commitment to covenant, a mutually binding agreement, an agreement in which, as applicants, one of the things we are asking for is help with our spiritual development through both nurture and loving correction if we “step through the traces”; a willingness to actively engage each other in the sacred work of discipleship, by which I mean the individual and corporate discipline that leads to greater faithfulness. For its part, the meeting would promise to nurture each member’s spiritual life and to lovingly but confidently labor with members when they threaten either the meeting’s worship or its fellowship. For this kind of eldering is, truly, a form of spiritual nurture.

Most meetings will resist this. ‘Discipline’ is a four-letter word among us now. Many of us have found our home here as refugees fleeing hurtful intrusion into our lives by a religious institution. The last thing such Friends want is similar intrusion from their meeting. Our liberality, our self-identification as a “do it yourself religion,” our desire to be nice, our position as a haven for these refugees, all these cultural traits make Quaker meetings very reluctant to build a meaningful culture of eldership. And our desire to welcome good people into our (dwindling) fold makes us loathe to do anything in the membership process that might scare applicants off. I would have welcomed this kind of engagement myself; I have always felt covenant was essential to my spiritual life. But, yes, some applicants would be scared off and many others would become wary; and rightfully so.

So we should at least probe our applicants deeply enough to find out what they want from us in terms of spiritual nurture, including eldering—how far are they willing to let us go? Just raising the question will be useful. Meanwhile, meetings need to examine themselves to see whether they are clear to provide such nurture and eldering. Clearness for membership is a two way process of discernment: are we clear to accept the applicant as a member, and are we clear as a meeting that we can answer their spiritual needs? Very often, our applicants won’t really know what they want. If we are going to help them find out, then we need to know what we want as a meeting, and who we are.

If we do not clarify what we want from our members, if we do not consider the consequences of inattention and reticence in our clearness committees, then we relinquish any chance of discerning the future of our tradition, of furthering our tradition rather than gradually and thoughtlessly abandoning it over time. We relinquish any chance of choosing the course of our history and we thus relegate our fate to arbitrary forces that are mostly invisible to us until we reap the consequences. Bereft of a vital culture of eldership, such a rudderless ship will inevitably founder on the shoals of the world’s values.

Most important, by not asking for more from our members, we fail them in their search for spiritual fulfillment. Presumably, this is one of the reasons people join, that they believe the Quaker community will give them the environment they need to enrich their inner lives. They hope to find God among us, whatever that might mean to them. They join—and then we often leave them to their own resources after all.

Finally, as sociological studies of religious communities have repeatedly shown, asking more from your members actually attracts people and grows membership. A community that really knows what it is about shines like a light on a hill. A wishy-washy community with no clear definition or boundaries hopes that people will somehow find their way to its doors by their own perseverance in navigating the world’s spiritual labyrinths.

So this new approach to membership requires that our meetings search themselves more deeply to discern what, in fact, they are about. What do we have to offer new members besides opportunities to serve on committees, community with good people, and an hour a week of relatively peaceful silence and heartfelt sharing? How can we offer them experience of the Divine in ways that nurture their souls?

I am trying here to define the mission of a Quaker meeting and the meaning of Quaker membership. Our mission is to serve as God’s agents in furthering our members’ spiritual lives. Membership is entering that covenant, the mutual agreement that working together to nurture each other in the Spirit is what we are all about.

Is Quakerism in Decline?

August 25, 2011 § 14 Comments

Along with budget documents, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting released at this year’s annual sessions a sheet outlining membership statistics for the past twenty years. Declining membership is one of the factors driving PYM’s current financial crisis. I want to look at these figures in some detail in future posts, but for me they raise a bunch of questions I want to look at first:

  • Is Quakerism in decline?
  • What do we (what do I) mean by “decline”?
  • What factors would we consider to be reliable indicators of decline?

Declining membership is the most obvious indicator and I think it’s worthwhile to try to understand its patterns and especially its causes. Hence the posts that will follow analyzing PYM’s data. But I would like to propose some other indicators and ask my readers to add theirs. I would also like to hear comments on these indicators from members of yearly meetings besides the two I have some knowledge of—PYM and New York Yearly Meeting: Are other yearly meetings in basically the same condition as these two East Coast yearly meetings? Are there noticeable differences between FGC and FUM and Conservative yearly meetings (also Britain Yearly Meeting) in their experience of these indicators? I would like to start a worldwide project of self-evaluation using roughly the same set of parameters to determine whether Quakerism is in decline and, if so, perhaps why.

My instincts tell me we are in decline in a number of ways, but going over PYM’s membership statistics made me wonder why I felt that way and whether there was real evidence for such a subjective feeling. Was it possible to get past personal anecdotal impressions to a more rigorous conclusion? So I’m hoping we can use the blogosphere to begin answering these questions.

Here’s my list of indicators:

  1. Membership—what are the trends and patterns?
  2. Financial support—what are the trends and patterns?
  3. Gathered meetings—how many meetings are experiencing gathered meetings and how often? (I would leave the definition of ‘gathered meeting’ up to the meeting or the commentator, rather than try to define it myself for others.) I believe this is the most important indicator we have.
  4. Seasoned Friends—how many monthly meetings have Friends whose knowledge of Quakerism is deep enough to teach it either in an adult RE program, or to recognize when the meeting is acting in ignorance of our traditions?
  5. Quaker ministers—how many meetings have members whose work, either among Friends or in the world, has either been formally recorded or is generally recognized in the meeting and/or supported by the meeting in some way?

Got any more?

‘Experiment with Light’ — a spiritual movement in British Quakerism

May 2, 2011 § 16 Comments

In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, Helen Meads has a chapter on a spiritual movement among British Friends that I found intriguing and surprising (“’Experiment with Light’: Radical Spiritual Wing of British Quakerism”, pages 217-232). Surprising because I’d never heard of it, intriguing because I thought it might really appeal to a lot of American liberal Friends. Experiment with Light has a website, www.experiment-with-light.org.uk, and I offer links to some other resources below.

Experiment with Light is a structured format for experiencing the Light and for sharing that experience with others in small groups that Rex Ambler started in 1996. The process is based on Ambler’s analysis of early Friends’ writings, in which he felt he had identified common steps in their experience of the Light and specifically, on a meditation process described in one of George Fox’s early publications (1653; see book description below). ‘Experimenters’ meet in ‘Light Groups’ for forty minutes of guided meditation, the meditation consisting of six steps interspersed with periods of silence, usually guided by a tape or CD recording (there’s also an online streaming version), but sometimes read aloud. There seem to be several versions of meditations to choose from: Meditation on the individual, Meditation on the world, and two Fox-based versions. After the meditation, there follows a period of silence for personal reflection and then a period of sharing. As with worship sharing, participants keep the sharing of others confidential.

Meads says that many Experimenters report having quite profound and often life-changing experiences during these sessions, that, for many, it deepens their spiritual lives in an ongoing way, both in meeting for worship and in their daily practice. It also creates strong bonds between the participants in a Light Group, and a sense of wider community with participants in other Light Groups.

According to Meads, Experiment with Light has also generated some tension within meetings. Friends sometimes turn to these Light Groups because of frustration with the lack of spiritual depth in their meeting or their meeting for worship, an attitude that their Light Group experience often reinforces—or awakens, if they had not felt that way before. Most Light Groups have been organized outside the formal structures of their meetings and the strong sense of spiritual sharing within the Light Group seems also to sometimes reinforce a sense of distance from the meeting.

For their part, meetings sometimes have resisted or resented the formation of Light Groups and often do not understand the impulse to start such a group or what goes on in them. While sharing your experience within the Light Group is an integral part of the Experiment with Light process, Experimenters often find it difficult to share their experiences outside the Light Group and meet with difficulties when they do, so the Experimenters and their group can seem secretive and opaque to outsiders, according to Meads. Furthermore, non-Experimenters have sometimes felt an implicit criticism in the Experimenters’ enthusiasm for their Groups and their experience and in the Experimenters’ conviction that what they are doing and experiencing is true or core Quakerism. The movement has chosen not to become a Listed Informal Group of Britain Yearly Meeting and usually organizes outside the formal structures of local meetings (only two Light Groups have done so, out of roughly one hundred formed so far), so there’s no formal way for meetings to engage with their local Light Group and, often, no sense of responsibility for them.

As I said, I am surprised that I have not heard of this movement; I’m not sure whether I’m just less well-informed than I thought I was or that the lines of communication between British and American Friends are just less efficient than I thought. Also, I’m surprised that no Light Groups seem to have formed in the U.S., especially since the basic resources are easily available online. Finally, I wonder whether liberal American Quaker meetings will provide fertile soil for Experiment with Light, and if Light Groups migrate here, will this cause problems in the US as it has in the UK? Do any of my readers have first hand experience with Experiment with Light? I would like to better understand this movement and its impact on British Quakerism and on local meetings in BYM, and to know of its progress in the U.S., if any Light Groups have formed here already.

If you are interested in knowing more, here are some resources:

Experiment with Light website: http://www.experiment-with-light.org.uk/.

Books about Experiment with Light:

Seeing, Hearing, Knowing: reflections on Experiment with Light, John Lampen editor. Chapters on “the origins of Experiment with Light, the experiences of some Light Groups, reflections on questions and difficulties that have arisen, and chapters linking the practice to worship, prayer, discernment, the psychology of ‘Focusing’, political action, and possible future developments.” Available from the Quaker Center Bookshop in England, £ 7. Quotes are from the Quaker Center blurb on the book.

Light to live by: an exploration in Quaker spirituality, by Rex Ambler. An explication of Experiment with Light, describing Ambler’s personal story behind the work and discussing the specific source in a 1653 publication of George Fox where Ambler claims to have found a clearly described meditation process. This book is available from FGC bookstore ($11.00), where it’s listed as a “Bestseller”, along with a couple of other books by Ambler: http://www.quakerbooks.org/RexAmbler.

The Question of Christianity

April 27, 2011 § 12 Comments

A digest and commentary on a sociological study of the question in Britain by Kate Mellor

I have been reading The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion edited by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, a collection of essays that seek to provide a sociological profile of British Quakerism with often quite personal reflections on the sociology of religion in general and the role of sociology and sociologists among Friends in particular. This is a fascinating book with some important and often surprising insights into liberal Quakerism, at least as it’s practiced by British Friends.

It’s often said and assumed, I think, that British Quakerism is farther down the trajectory toward universalism and liberalism than even liberal Quakerism in America. I’ve not spent enough time there to be able to comment on that from personal experience, but the modest amount of British Quaker books I’ve read suggest that this might be true. I have found the work of Ben Pink Dandelion (1) and Alastair Heron (2) especially valuable in understanding British Quakerism.

I want to digest several of the chapters in this book in later posts, to give American Friends, especially, easier access to its content, and I want to start with Kate Mellor’s startling essay on whether British Friends are Christian (pages 70-87). Two previous sociological surveys addressed this question, the first by Dandelion in 1996, and then by Rosie Rutherford in 2003. Each seemed to conclude that British Quakerism had lost its Christian identity and this seemed to confirm the anecdotal evidence of contributions to The Friend over the past several decades and, especially, the conclusion of Alastair Heron in his 1995 book, Quakers in History: a century of change 1895-1995. Mellor’s results, however, contradict the findings of Dandelion and Rutherford rather dramatically, in some ways. And yet, it seems to me that the accepted characterization of liberal Quakerism (at least in the UK) as post-Christian still holds.

Mellor conducted her survey in three stages in 2005 and 2006. She began with 80 members and attenders of Poole Meeting, then sent her questionnaire to the other Preparative Meetings in the Bournemouth and Swanage Monthly Meeting (a Preparative Meeting is one of several meetings that meet for worship weekly but send their business up to a Monthly Meeting), and then to 1006 Friends in the Yearly Meeting. I’ve made a pdf file of her table of responses to her questionnaire.

Mellor finds that 90% of British Friends believe in God, 80% consider themselves Christian, 97% find Jesus’ ethical teachings meaningful, 91% find his spiritual teachings meaningful, and 91% use his teachings or example to guide their own lives. In Dandelion’s study, 50.7% answered that they “would describe” themselves as Christian from among a set of options; in Rutherford’s sample, 45.5% answered that they “think of themselves as Christian”. The difference, Mellor proposes, is the way in which the question was posed; in particular, she allowed respondents to define “Christian” however they liked, whereas Dandelion and Rutherford used their own definitions. Dandelion used belief in Jesus as unique to define Christian, and this definition was not disclosed to his participants.

When allowed to define ‘Christian’ in their own terms, a very healthy majority of British Friends said they were. On the other hand, almost exactly the same percentage (79% versus 80%) said they did not believe in the Atonement. 66% did not generally use the title Christ, 58% did not believe Jesus was or is the Son of God, 54% claimed to be Universalist, and, perhaps most astoundingly, 82% claimed to be Agnostic and 89% followed some other faith. At the same time, 74% said Fox’s famous declaration that “There is one, even Jesus Christ, who can speak to they condition” ‘rang true for them’ and 79% would describe Quakerism as a Christian faith.

This is really a mixed—I would say even contradictory—picture. It’s fair to say that British Friends self-identity as Christian, but they have radically redefined what that means. They seem unwilling to let go of their Christian tradition while they have at the same time largely abandoned that tradition as it has traditionally defined itself.

To my mind, a set of very crucial questions are missing from her study, and from the others, too—questions about religious experience as opposed to belief. I might phrase them this way: Have you experienced Jesus Christ as a meaningful or transformative presence in your life? Is Jesus Christ the center of your religious life? Do you conduct your religious life in the context of relationship with Jesus? Have your formative religious or spiritual experiences taken place in the context of Christian (or for that matter, Quaker) tradition?

The Christianity of British Friends, as revealed in Mellor’s study, seems to me to be a matter of positive feeling for Jesus’ teachings and a desire for continuity of tradition and identity at the surface. But the fact that almost 90% follow some other faith seems to suggest that very few British Friends actually practice Christianity as their religion.

I would love to see a similar study conducted among American Friends that included questions about experience, in addition to questions about belief.

(1)          A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers: the silent revolution, 1996; The Creation of Quaker Theory: insider perspectives, 2004; The Liturgies of Quakerism, 2005.

(2)          Caring, Conviction and Commitment: dilemmas of Quaker membership today, 1992; Quakers in Britain: a century of change 1895-1995, 1995.

Being ‘relevant’ and the sociology of religion — and Quakerism

April 7, 2011 § 8 Comments

I have just finished reading Norman Gottwald’s massive, groundbreaking sociological analysis of the religion and culture of early Israel (that is, before the monarchy), The Tribes of Yahweh. The breadth of his scholarship is awesome, the depth of his insight truly remarkable. The book expands and deepens George Mendenhall’s thesis in The Tenth Generation that early, pre-monarchic Israel emerged as a liberation movement sparked by the Exodus community but burning to full flame among various marginalized, subservient communities within the statist, hierarchical social structure of ancient Canaan under Egyptian imperial domination—that Yahwism was a liberation movement catalyzed by a uniquely egalitarian religious impulse to create a uniquely egalitarian social system in the midst of oppressive hierarchical societies. Its priests were peers of the people, not lords, and the practice of the religion strengthened social cooperation and sharing rather than siphoning wealth from lower classes, as did the religions of the rest of ancient Palestine and Mesopotamia. That the tribes of Yahweh were united in a confederation of peers without the economic colonization or hierarchical domination that characterized the societies around them. And that, for two hundred years, this amazing movement held its own against the imperialist forces from whom they had successfully extricated themselves.

This thesis of revolution from within rather than the traditional understanding of ancient Israel as an invasion from the desert has not completely won the day, but Gottwald has successfully deconstructed the facile assumptions that supported the old model and the debate continues (The Tribes of Yahweh was written in 1979). The real contribution of the book however (according to him, anyway), is its sociological analysis of biblical religion, the thorough way in which it connects religion to society, recognizing that religious symbols and practice are completely interdependent with the social systems in which they are embedded and with the processes of social change that they help to shape and by which they are themselves influenced. In fact, Gottwald goes farther than that: he claims that religion is purely a product of social system forces. The book challenges the notion that revelation or transcendental, “supernatural” experience play any role in the formation of religion. In a sense, he’s saying that Yahweh as a god is unique because Israel was unique, rather than the other way round, which has been the premise of biblical theology in the past.

I disagree with him. I’ve had transcendental, “supernatural” experiences myself, and been in communities, including among Friends, where these experiences have helped to shape the social structure and dynamics. So I know he’s wrong in his absolutist claim that social forces alone  produce religions, not the other way around. I guess he hasn’t had such experiences. But he is right in that biblical theology has idealized religious phenomena and treated religion as somehow above and beyond the social systems in which it is embedded, and ignored the truly interactive character of religion and social dynamics.

The last few paragraphs of his book discuss what this means for religion today. The prose is a bit dense, but that does not blunt his passion or his provocative challenge to be relevant. I kept thinking of modern Quakerism as I read it and decided to share it. I also kept thinking of Ben Pink Dandelion’s book A Sociological Analysis of the Theology of Quakers. Dandelion’s book is a PhD thesis and even more dense than Gottwald’s, but similarly groundbreaking. It’s also extremely expensive and not well known among American Friends. So I have always thought to try to offer in this blog a succinct digest of his conclusions. He’s made this easier by publishing his own summary as a chapter in The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, which he co-edited with Peter Collins. In fact, all the essays in this book deserve wider reading. It’s clear from reading Dandelion’s work and the essays in The Quaker Condition that the social forces around us are remaking modern liberal Quakerism in profound ways and that we need to understand these forces and our own trajectory if we want to remain ‘relevant.’ I want to explore these ideas in future posts. Meanwhile, here’s that quote from Gottwald:

Early Israelite Yahwism is an intriguing case study in the relation of religion to social change. In the short run, Yahwism seems to have been a socially “progressive” force, serving to reinforce the retribalizing endeavors of lower classes in Canaan. In the long run, however, as we examine the course of Yahwism through biblical times and on into Judaism and Christianity, it appears to have shifted more and more into a socially “reactionary” force, its progressive impetus draining off into sectarian sub-groups or drifting along in uncritical and poorly articulated moods and tendencies in the main social body, but only now and then, as in the prophetic movement, erupting with sustained critical power.

If my line of reasoning about the relation of biblical theology and biblical sociology is correct, the most important contribution of a sociological analysis of early Israel to contemporary religious thought and practice is to close the door firmly and irrevocably on the idealist and supernaturalist illusions still permeating and bedeviling our religious outlook. Yahweh and “his” people Israel must be demystified, deromanticized, dedogmatized and deidolized. Only as we carry through this sociological demythologization of Yahwistic faith, and of its Jewish and Christian derivatives, will those of us who have been formed and nurtured by those curiously ambiguous Jewish and Christian symbols be able to align heart and head, to combine theory and practice. Cogent symbols of historico-social transcendence for the future must illuminate, amid the supersession of social forms through time, the critical intersection between lawful social process and human freedom. It is at that intersection, more or less auspicious from moment to moment, where missed and realized opportunities continually emerge for ever larger numbers of us to struggle toward meeting our genuine human needs and actualizing our repressed human potentialities.

Symbol systems claiming to be based on “biblical faith” will be judged by whether they actually clarify the range and contours of exercisable freedom within the context of the unfolding social process. Symbol systems that blur the intersection of social process and human freedom—by talking fuzzy nonsense, by isolating us in our private souls, by positing “unseen” worlds to compensate for the actual world we fear to see, by conditioning us to compete for many small favors instead of cooperating for a few big gains, by cultivating mood and sentiment in place of vision and passion, by instilling resignation in the name of sweetness and sacrifice, by persuading us to accept the humanly unacceptable and to desist from changing what is manifestly changeable, by confirming our fixations to the past and our venturelessness toward the future, by decrying power while feasting on its benefits—all such symbol systems, however venerable and psychically convenient, are bad dreams to be awakened from, cloying relics to be cast away, cruel fetters to be struck off. They are, in a word, the Canaanite idols that Israel smashed when it smashed the Canaanite kings.

Increasingly we humans are thrown together in a process that both narrows and heightens our freedom. Transformation of our social relations and of our ideas are accelerating in tandem with the quickening pace of techno-environmental and techno-economic transformations. Our “higher” cultural accomplishments, religion among them, are swept along in the transformed and transforming social process. In this rapidly complexifying and maturing sociocultural transitional period, all forms of religious faith and practice that fail to grasp and to act upon their connection with and dependence upon the cultural-material evolution of humankind are doomed to irrationality and irrelevance, whatever diversionary consolation they offer at the moment. Forms of religion capable of grasping and acting on that connection and dependence have something to contribute to the next stages in the long struggle for human liberation; and in commitment to that project, they will have something to learn, or to relearn, from the social religion of liberated Israel.

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