Liberal Quakerism: ‘Profession’ without ‘Possession’?

May 23, 2011 § 13 Comments

I’ve been reading Towards Tragedy/Reclaiming Hope: Literature, Theology and Sociology in Conversation, by Pink Dandelion, Douglas Gwyn, Rachel Muers, Brian Phillips, and Richard E. Sturm (Ashgate Publishing Limited, Hampshire, England and Burlington, Vermont; 2004). It’s a sometimes fascinating book that uses tragedy as a lens through which to view history—British history, especially, and Quaker history, in particular—and as a touchstone for evaluating contemporary (Quaker) culture and its trajectory into the future. It follows a more or less chronological scheme, with chapters on The Ancient Origin and Sense of Tragedy (Sturm), The Early Quaker Lamb’s War: Secularization and the Death of Tragedy (Gwyn), Apocalypse Without Tears: Hubris and Folly Among Late Victorian and Edwardian British Friends (Phillips), The Loss of Hope: England and its Establishment in the Twentieth Century (Dandelion), The Loss of Providence (Dandelion), New Voices, New Hopes? (Muers), and several Postscripts.

The book’s literary and somewhat abstract premise keeps it from appealing to many Quaker readers, I suspect, and every once in a while, I was glad that I had studied and read Greek tragedy somewhat. (If you haven’t, don’t let that stop you from reading Towards Tragedy, though—it won’t keep you from getting a lot out it.) The authors also make broad generalizations about the meaning and the ‘spirit’ of the periods they examine, without much rigorous historical detail or argument. I think and write this way myself—I have filled my own history of Quakers and Capitalism with similar schematic characterizations—so I didn’t mind. But we all have to watch the tendency to draw conclusions rather glibly, only to discover that we had not accounted for historical forces we didn’t know about or understood only superficially.

That said, in these authors’ hands, I found that new light did pass through this lens of tragedy, that it revealed much that is, if not unique in Quaker studies, at least fresh with valuable insight into who we are and how we got here. (“We” is mostly British Quakerism, but many of these insights apply just as well to liberal Quakerism in America.) I want to raise a couple of passages up for broader discussion among Friends. The first comes from Doug Gwyn’s Postscript (page 127-128):

[However,] given that Quaker spirituality took shape within the context of a deep reflection and personal immersion in the drama of the gospels, there is a Christoform quality to the deeper structures of Quaker faith and practice that has been too long ignored and outright denied. Liberal Quakerism has drifted over the twentieth century into a belief that it can take some of the central metaphors of Quaker language – key terms such as ‘light’, ‘seed’, ‘that of God in everyone’ – and strip them of their framing in the gospel and overall biblical framework of salvation history without losing any of their earlier potency. What has emerged from this process is a Quaker faith and practice that maintains a ‘profession’ in words of a reality no longer in ‘possession’ – the very hypocrisy that early Friends denounced so strongly in the Puritan culture of their day. It is only by continuing to use the sham of right-wing, fundamentalist Christianity as their rhetorical foil that Liberal Friends manage to maintain their own parody of Quaker faith and practice. By chronically trading in caricatures of ‘Christianity’, Liberal Quakerism has become a caricature of itself. This cannot last. And when it collapses, it will be no tragedy.

The tragedy is the present condition, when one confronts it and enters into its painful reality in the light of Christ. By ‘in the light of Christ’ I mean both the inward, revealing presence of Christ within and the ‘in light of’ the gospel narrative of Jesus’ own life, suffering, death and resurrection. There is no authentic Quaker epistemology of ‘the light within’ without its attendant hermeneutic of Scripture. Without the latter’s framing, the former knows anything, everything, nothing. Without the gospel, the reflexive self of postmodernity shrinks from suffering as a lethal blow to self-esteem and human dignity. And without the larger biblical saga of God’s providential designs in history, there is very little that Friends will corporately discern as their calling to do together in a world of suffering, violence and injustice. (emphases are Gwyn’s)

[epistemology: the study of the nature and grounds of knowledge—what we can know and how we know it—especially as regards the limits and validity of our knowledge;

hermeneutic: a way of interpreting texts, especially the Bible]

I think what Doug is saying is that, by abandoning the original Christian and biblical framework for our tradition while continuing to use the vocabulary, we end up talking jive.  And we violate the testimony of integrity: our outward expression has no meaningful connection to an inward truth. I would say that the distortion and hypocrisy go down to the core of Quaker spirituality, passing through three layers of self-deception (by the way, I consider myself a post-Christian, liberal Quaker, so I’m talking about myself here, not just about some ‘other’ Friends):

  1. First, we use words to say things that they weren’t meant to say, disconnecting them from their original meaning and context. The modern use of the phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is the quintessential example.
  2. More deeply, we still think we know what we’re saying and we blithely assume in our ignorance that we are right. We often (usually?) don’t know what Fox meant by ‘that of God’, for example; we don’t know that the modern ‘divine spark’ meaning comes from Rufus Jones barely a hundred years ago, and we assume that our meaning (whatever that is) is, in fact, Quaker tradition going way back, and furthermore, that it’s the foundation for the peace testimony and just about everything else, to boot; which it isn’t.
  3. Finally, at the very heart of this empty and misrepresented shell, we do not know the truth of what we say experimentally. We have not experienced the light, at least not ‘the light’ that Fox and Fell and Howgill and Woolman experienced. We have no knowledge of the ‘seed’. We have no direct experience of ‘that of God’ in others, or ourselves, for that matter. We have the profession without the possession. (In fact, we’ve made a fetish out of not knowing, of perpetually seeking as the only authentic spiritual path, teaching ourselves to actually suspect and fear those who profess to know—Doug’s fundamentalist foil at work.)

I’m not so sure about this last point. I bet a lot of my readers will protest that they have experienced ‘the light’, even if it did not have Christ’s nametag on its chest, even if it did not illuminate their sins, ‘convincing’ (convicting) them into repentance and new Life in Christ. Who are you to say I have not experienced ‘that of God’ in everyone, you might be saying?

What remains, however, is that no one has come forward with a new ‘profession’ of what these words—the content of our tradition—mean now in this post-Christian, post-biblical age. If we have the ‘possession’—if we possess a new truth—then where is the new explanation of the old words? More to the point, if we possess a new truth—one without Jesus and the gospel at its roots—then why use the old words at all? Where are the new ones?

Vocal ministry offers a good case study. We actually do have a ‘new’ language for vocal ministry: ‘speaking in meeting’. We no longer think of ‘speaking in meeting’ as speaking on God’s behalf, at the prompting of Christ within us. If fact, we’d get pretty nervous if someone claimed to be speaking God’s will. So where does a ‘message’ come from? What authority does it have? How does the meeting provide for the eldership of ‘speaking in meeting’ and of the speakers, themselves, if we do not know where their calling comes from or what authority their ‘messages’ should have? Is there anymore even such a thing as a calling to vocal ministry?

What is the new framework, the new epistemology and hermeneutic—the new way to explain what we know and how we know it and where our knowledge comes from?

The silence is deafening. We do not know.

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

May 2, 2011 § 15 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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