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):
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
May 12, 2011 § Leave a comment
In this series on Quakers & Capitalism, I have divided Quaker economic history into three major periods separated by times of transition that lasted roughly a generation, during which external forces have combined with internal trends within Quakerism to completely transform the community’s culture and its economic life. During the first transition, from roughly 1661 to 1695, the persecutions combined with the establishment of gospel order to turn the movement away from its radical apocalyptic engagement with the social, political and religious institutions of the day into a culture that was paradoxically dualistic: quietist and peculiar, insular and withdrawn from virtually every area of social converse—but one: Quakers were intensely engaged in the worlds of industry, commerce and the practical arts and sciences. They entered this transition as mostly independent farmers and small trades people. They emerged as a people almost wholly engaged in commerce, poised to literally change the world, after all, by ushering in an all-new system for creating wealth—industrial capitalism. Not quite single-handedly, but not far from it, either.
The double-culture period lasted two hundred years, though 19th century evangelicalism weakened the intense dualism that had marked the 18th century, drawing Friends out of their isolation to a degree and helping to inspire paternalistic philanthropic attempts to ameliorate the suffering of the poor.
The first transition period had rather clearly defined boundaries, marked by the passage of new legislation designed to crush the dissenting sects, beginning in 1661, and by their repeal, concluding fairly decisively in 1695, and by George Fox’s efforts to establish gospel order among Friends upon his release from prison in 1661 and by his death in 1691. The second transition period is a little less clearly defined. I have chosen 1895 as the starting point and 1920 as the end.
Externally, 1895 saw the passage in Great Britain of the final legislation legalizing the limited liability corporation. This new technology would completely transform, not just capitalism, but Quakerism, as well.
Other forces emerged about the same time that created a fertile environment for dramatic change within the Society:
- the origins of the what would soon become the Labour Party in Great Britain;
- the rise in America of Progressivism as an alternative response to industrialization besides the conservatism and socialism and anarchism of the day;
- the rise in America of Pentecostalism, often dated to 1901, and of the Social Gospel movement, which had a relationship with the Progressive Party much like today’s Christian right does with the Republican party; and
- the articulation for the first time of Catholic social teaching, beginning with Pope Leo III’s encyclical, Rerum Novarum, in 1891.
All of these movements were to a degree responses to the downside of industrial capitalism, whose awesome wealth-generating capacity had outgrown society’s ability to control its excesses and its ability to protect its victims.
Then came the Great War, a cataclysm that, in Europe, anyway, would reroute virtually all social energies, decimate an entire generation of men, and transform the zeitgeist of the West.
The war also brought to a climax a new zeitgeist in Quakerism that had begun in 1895 in Britain, with the Manchester Conference, and in 1887 in America, with the Richmond Conference. The conferences marked a turning point in the course of evangelicalism among Friends and, for many Friends, a decisive move toward liberalism. Friends General Conference formed in 1900, Three Years Meeting (later Friends United Meeting) formed in 1902. In 1893, Rufus Jones became the editor of Friends’ Review (later, The American Friend), and began a lifelong effort to reunite divided Friends and modernize Quakerism. In 1897, Jones met John Wilhelm Rowntree, a kindred spirit who had played a major role in the Manchester Conference and the summer school movement that came out of it. A generation of young very gifted Friends began leading Quakers into the modern era and toward a level engagement with the world around them that had not existed since the 1650s.
Then, again for the first time in 250 years, Friends faced persecution for their faith, for conscientious objection to the war. After more than a decade of liberalization and increasing involvement with social problems and institutions, this experience finally closed the door on Quaker withdrawal from the world. The American Friends Service Committee was born in 1917. In 1918, London Yearly Meeting heard and discussed the report of its Committee on War and the Social Order, charged with analyzing the causes of the war and proposing responses. The resulting Eight Principles of a Just Social Order became a major theme of the first Friends World Conference, held in London in 1920.
In the meantime, Quaker economics also entered a new era. In a future post, we’ll start examining this major transition in our economic history with a look at Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree and his landmark book, Poverty: A Study in Town Life.
November 15, 2010 § 21 Comments
I said in the post that opened this thread on ‘that of God in every person’ that I had discovered new light on Fox’s meaning of the phrase when looking for the source in Rufus Jones’s work for the modern mystical meaning of a divine spark, or some quality of the divine that humans share. I was then already reading but had not yet finished Lewis Benson’s wonderful essay in Quaker Religious Thought (QRT) entitled “’That of God in Every Man’ – What Did George Fox Mean By It?” (Volume XII, Number 2, Spring 1970). Benson (1906 – 1986) was a life-long student of Fox’s work, the inspiration for the New Foundation Fellowship, and a “champion of a forgotten faith”—the Quakerism of George Fox and early Friends. In addition to his own books, he created a massively thorough concordance of Fox’s works that is an indispensible tool for later students of our prophet founder. Pendle Hill’s library has a copy.
In this issue of QRT, Benson answers my quest for the source in Rufus Jones: he cites Jones’s “Introduction” to his abridged edition of Fox’s Journal, first published in 1903 (George Fox, An Autobiography, 1919 edition, pp. 28 & 29), as the earliest instance of the revived use of ‘that of God’. Jones reiterates this theme, Benson says, the next year in Social Law in the Spiritual World (p. 5). Here is Jones from this latter work, as quoted by Benson:
What was the Inner Light? The simplest answer is: The Inner Light is the doctrine that there is something Divine, ‘Something of God’ in the human soul.
Note that Jones has divorced the Inner Light from the Light of Christ and made it universal and ‘generic’, if you will, a generally mystical ‘something’ no longer associated with the particular presence of the unique Christ. Benson goes on to say:
As a consequence of statements like these, the phrase “that of God in every man” began to acquire a meaning for twentieth century Friends that it did not have for Fox. The new “interpretation” made “that of God in man” the central conception around which everything else in Quakerism revolves.
Between 1700 and 1900, Benson says, “‘that of God in every man’ [had] virtually disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary.” But after Jones and also A. Neave Brayshaw introduced this Neo-Platonist interpretation, a “torrent of promotional literature and other publications” flowed from the pens of the publicists and staff writers of the American Friends Service Committee spreading the doctrine throughout the Society of Friends. He goes on: “The elevation of “that of God in every man” to the status of root principle (emphasis his) has affected Quaker life in several areas, namely: the peace testimony, social testimonies, the meaning of membership, and missions.”
Lewis Benson was not happy about this. He writes:
We know that it is the policy of some Monthly Meetings to make belief in “that of God in every man,” which has been called “the Quaker’s creed,” a primary and essential condition of membership, whereas faith in Christ is regarded as a secondary and non-essential factor in examining prospective members. I maintain that this meaning and use of “that of God in every man” has no connection with its meaning and use in the writings of Fox. There is no such Christ-transcending principle in the thought of Fox.
Benson ends his essay thus:
There can be no full understanding of Fox and his message apart from a knowledge of what he meant by “that of God in every man.” However, when we jump to the conclusion that “that of God” is the central truth of the Quaker message, then we cut ourselves off from that which Fox made central; namely, the message about Jesus Christ and how he saves men. If we make “that of God in man” the basis of our peace testimony and other testimonies then they become an inference from a theory about the nature of man rather than a response to a divine command, and our witness loses its prophetic impact. While we are under the spell of the “that of God” theory we cannot make the witness for the distinctive interpretation of Christianity which is the special task for which we were called to be a people, and the inner life of our Society becomes confused and at war with itself. The irony of our present situation is that any plea to seek the unity that is received from Christ is bound to be regarded in some quarters as a breach of the truce between divergent opinions that we have come to regard as the highest measure of unity of which we are capable. This false peace must be broken before we can enjoy the unity in Christ which God intends for us.
Benson wrote this in 1970 (which perhaps helps us forgive his sexist language, which was nearly universal at the time). Since then the triumph of the “new interpretation” of the phrase over (liberal) Quaker life has only become more entrenched and the drift away from the Christ-centered message and mission of Friends that it enables and Benson describes has become more pronounced and less likely to be noticed, let alone questioned.
My own ministry concerning the phrase has focused on raising the questions: What do we mean when we use it? (What do you mean when you use it?) Is this meaning faithful to Friends’ traditions? If it isn’t, what then? More importantly, is it the Truth? When did we decide that it was the Truth, and how? Did we decide at all? If not, how shall we decide whether our ‘new’ meaning (it’s already a hundred years old) is the Truth, and when will we do it? Should we distill 350 years of rich tradition down to just this one phrase at all, whatever we mean by it? How shall we treat it going forward, when, for instance, we next revise our books of discipline or the text on our websites?
Some of these questions are rhetorical, of course. We never have ‘decided’ to abandon Fox’s meaning or early Friends’ mission, not in good gospel order, anyway, by which I mean with worship and prayer and spirit-led corporate discernment. We just drifted, unconscious of our path, ignorant of our past. And of course I feel that we should recover the full breadth of our tradition; we have so much more to say than that we believe that there is that of God in every person—assuming that ‘we’ do believe that.
So—what do we say? Well, more in later posts. . .