The Sociology of Collective Religious Experience

November 4, 2017 § 5 Comments

Jesus, the Christ, and I—Part 9

In a previous post, written quite awhile ago now, I gave the first of four reasons why I think we should name our collective religious experience as the spirit of Christ. That was a negative reason: that the more diverse theologically and the more uncomfortable we have become with our traditional Christian identity, the more diluted our worship has become.

I have more to say about this, about whether our worship really has become more shallow and how theological diversity might have that effect, but it’s not seasoned enough yet. In this post, I want to explore the sociology of our collective religious experience. For collective religious experience is intensely social even while it is ineffably transcendental.

By “collective religious experience”, I mean the gathered meeting, primarily, plus those instances of profound vocal ministry that brings a meeting into divine communion, and the other extraordinary psychic experiences that arise in the practice of the Quaker way. I believe that coherence in our collective understanding, a shared framework for understanding and a shared vocabulary—or lack of it—has a real effect on the quality of our worship.

The group dynamics and psychology of a religious community act both as “drivers” behind its experience and as part of the discernment by which the community seeks to understand the experience that it does have.

The chain of our tradition is long and the links are strong. In Christian scripture, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit (in several places in the gospel of John) and to be present whenever two or three are gathered (Matthew 18). Then, according to the testimony of our forbears, the promise was fulfilled in the experience of the early Friends, beginning 1600 years after those promises and continuing as revelation for another three centuries and more of our history as a people of God. Jesus’ promise and fulfillment established a foundation of faith upon which many Friends have built their religious lives. That faith, and its fulfillment in continuing revelation, fosters what we now call continuing revelation.

But our tradition does not just encourage our collective religious experience; it also explains it. It gives us a framework for understanding our experience and for talking about it, amongst ourselves, to our children, to newcomers. For more than 300 years we have said that we were gathered together in Christ. In fact, the tradition gave us our very identity: “You are my friends, if you do whatsoever I command you.  . . I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard of the Father I have made known unto you.” (John 14:14, 15)

Or it used to explain our experience. Until sometime around the middle of the twentieth century.  Now, we in the liberal tradition don’t really have an explanation. And I suspect we don’t have the support for such experience that the tradition used to give us, either.

Nothing illustrates how the tradition comes into play after collective transcendental experience more powerfully than the resurrection experiences recounted in Christian scripture, of which there are ten or so accounts, depending on how many stories you consider accounts of the same appearance by different evangelists.

In all but two of the resurrection stories, the people to whom the risen Christ appears do not recognize him or they have their doubts about what’s going on. Some cases are extremely challenging. How, for instance, could Mary Magdelene, Jesus’s closest disciple, fail to recognize him in the garden until he says her name (John’s gospel)? How could those two fellows on the road to Emmaus walk with Jesus himself for several hours while talking to him about his own crucifixion and the rumors of his appearances, and still only recognize him after they have arrived at their destination and broken bread together?

The answer is in the breaking of bread, that is, in the communal meal inaugurated at the Last Supper. We know that this meal was the central practice of Jesus’ movement. Jesus’s followers would gather at someone’s house, share a meal, hear catechetical teaching, pray and worship together, and distribute food and resources to the poor among them (Acts 2:42).

Here’s my point: Some of Jesus’ followers were having visions of Jesus after his death, but the meaning of those visions had to be worked out collectively over time, and this took place in the context of the “daily bread”, the daily meal.  Put another way, Jesus did not come to these friends and disciples with his name tag on. It wasn’t obvious what they were experiencing. They had to discern together what was happening to them.

The resurrection experiences of the disciples are directly pertinent to my suggestion that we name the spirit of Christ as the center of our gathering. Even at the very roots of our religious tradition, doubt and confusion prevailed, and community discernment was needed to arrive at a conclusion.

Likewise, in our gathered meetings today, it is not immediately apparent what is going on; it is only obvious that something is going on. In the past, our collective discernment has concluded that we were being gathered in the spirit of Christ.

Now, however, the bathwater, the deep and rich tradition in which we have been steeped for three hundred and fifty years, has been thrown out the window. Is it any wonder that we now we look around and find that the baby is gone, also, that we wonder why we so seldom experience the gathered meeting?

Now, doubt, confusion, and most egregiously, disinterest dominate our collective (lack of) discernment about what is happening in the gathered meeting. When it happens, the worship has a center or we wouldn’t be gathered, but we have no way to articulate what that center is. We have no framework, no vocabulary with which to speak to each other, or to our children, or to newcomers about what we have experienced. As a result, we don’t speak about it much. Furthermore, we have no context, no cohesive religious ecosystem for nurturing the experience.

Now, as I’ve said in earlier posts, I myself have no direct experience of Jesus Christ at the center of the gathered meeting. In this I am like a lot of Friends in the liberal tradition. But I am not really talking about Jesus Christ as conventional Christianity understands him, that is, as a spiritual entity who was the Jesus of Christian scripture, who was crucified, dead, and buried and rose again according to the creed. I am speaking of the spirit of Christ—that mysterious experience of awakening, joy, comfort, and renewal that the two men on the road to Emmaus experienced—after they had been taught who had come into their midst.

My name for that spirit in which we are gathered in our collective religious experience as Friends is the spirit of Christ. For me, the relation of that spirit to the man who walked the roads of Galilee is a matter for speculation rather than one of direct revelation. And that’s enough for me, though I love the study, thought, and imagination that such speculation requires.

For me, the spirit of Christ is more than just a placeholder for whatever might be going on in our collective religious experience, though it is that. It is another link, made of faith, in the chain of our tradition, one that I refuse to break simply because I am still on the road to Emmaus and have not yet broken bread with Jesus as the Christ.

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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?

Quakers & Capitalism — Transition: Seebohm Rowntree and the Awakening of ‘Liberal’ Economic Consciousness

June 15, 2011 § 4 Comments

The second major transition in Quaker economic culture caused a dramatic shift away from the double-culture period of the 1700s and 1800s, in which Friends had withdrawn from the world around them in virtually every sphere of human activity but one—industry, commerce and the practical arts and sciences. In these areas, they played a truly significant role. Beginning around 1895, however, external forces combined with trends within Quakerism to draw (or even force) Friends out of their shell and reawaken them to responsibility for the wider social order.

In historical moments like these, key individuals often serve as a bridge into the new culture and its ethos. These Friends respond to the changes going on around them with new sensibilities. They speak and act and live in ways that lead the rest of the Society in a new direction. In this second major transition period, a number of extraordinary individuals shine out in this regard: Rufus Jones and John Wilhelm Rowntree are perhaps the best known. Less well known but equally important, at least in his influence on Quaker economic history, is Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree.

The external forces to which he responded include the plight of the industrial poor, whose conditions remained awful, in spite of efforts throughout the 19th century to deal with the problem: the New Poor Laws of the 1830s in England, the rise of organized philanthropic giving, and attempts at reform by individual business owners, in which Friends often led the way. By 1895, these efforts at reducing poverty and helping the poor were no longer new, but something else was: the emergence of what we now call the social sciences: psychology, sociology, and the discipline of economics itself. In the field of sociology, especially, brilliant new thinkers published groundbreaking work during this period of intense social change.

Karl Marx is sometimes called the true father of sociology, though Auguste Comte and Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes independently coined the term in the 1830s, and Herbert Spencer pushed the science along in the 1870s and 1880s, but it was Emile Durkheim who laid the foundation for the discipline as a science and set up the first sociology department in a university in 1895. Max Weber (1864-1920) began writing prolifically in the late 1880s about social policy and began work on his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1904. Weber was keenly interested in economics throughout his career. But it was a man named Charles Booth (1840-1916) who inspired Seebohm Rowntree.

Booth conducted the first scientific sociological statistical study in history, ultimately interviewing thousands of households of the poor in London, beginning in the East End. He published the first fruit of his research in 1889 and went on to publish a total of 17 volumes through 1903. He invented the concept of the ‘poverty line’ and proved that 35% of Londoners lived in abject poverty and that the vast majority of them worked. Here was scientific proof that the poor were poor, not because of their moral character, as had been assumed for centuries, but because they did not earn enough in their work. Poverty resulted, not from moral failure but from systemic failure. They may have had too many children; they may have spent some money on drink, gambling and other vices or diversions, but the real problem was that they didn’t have enough money in the first place.

However, Booth’s The Life and Labour of the People of London was inaccessible, too huge and too dense to reach any but the most interested intellectuals. Among the intelligentsia, it sparked intense debate. Were these problems confined to the capital, or were the provinces beset with similar conditions? Put another way, was capitalism the problem, or was it London? Seebohm Rowntree set out to answer this question by applying Booth’s new statistical, sociological methods to his own home town of York, where only two employers controlled most of the economy: the railroad and his own family’s chocolate business.

Rowntree surveyed 11,560 families, representing 46,754 of York’s population of 75,812, roughly 60% of the city. He defined two classes of poverty: “primary poverty,” affecting people who lacked the financial resources to provide for themselves even the basic essentials—10% of the total; and “secondary poverty,” in which earnings would suffice for basics, except for “other expenditures, either useful or wasteful”—18%. In other words, close to one third of York’s population was poor. More importantly, half of the people living in primary poverty had regular jobs!

Like Booth, Rowntree concluded that poverty resulted, not from bad character (though gambling, drink and other bad habits were often aggravating the problem), but from low wages. The traditional Quaker virtues that had helped to make Quakers so successful, like prudence and thrift, simplicity and moderation, and Puritan abandonment of the world’s pleasures, would help these people hardly at all. And philanthropy could hardly touch their condition, let alone change it. Poverty and its ills were inherent in the character of capitalism itself, not in the character of its workers. The poor were victims, not causes, of their suffering. And paternalistic attempts to solve the problem by morally elevating the poor were ill conceived and failed to address the causes of the problem.

Rowntree’s book had a tremendous impact. It was well organized, well written, it was short and accessible, and it struck a chord. It spoke to the liberal-scientific worldview that was emerging at the time and it resonated with other reformist forces at work in English and American society. Other well-received books and Parliamentary reports had sparked a lively debate about poverty and social reform in society and in the press. The suffragette movement was on the rise and so was labor and socialism and, in America, Progressivism. Reaction to the labor movement was becoming violent; the police riots against strikers in Chicago’s Haymarket Square had taken place in 1896. The troubles in Ireland, too, had people wondering where society was going. The book became a bestseller.

Someone recommended it to Winston Churchill, then a young Conservative Member of Parliament, who couldn’t get it out of his consciousness, calling it “a book which has fairly made my hair stand on end.” He wrote and spoke about it repeatedly and reviewed it for a military journal. It ignited both his moral conscience and his creative imagination and redirected his political career. Ultimately, he joined the Liberal government that formed in 1906.

In 1908, Churchill became President of the Board of Trade and Lloyd George became Chancellor. The two men joined forces to bring sweeping reforms to the political economy and Rowntree’s book, and Rowntree himself, figured prominently in their work. George, who had been an MP since 1890, had risen from humble beginnings himself and devoted his whole career to alleviating poverty. George and Rowntree became friends and George would brandish Poverty as he spoke to large crowds all over Great Britain campaigning for the New Liberalism that he, Churchill and others had inaugurated in 1906. Though their People’s Budget and the social legislation it funded provoked a short-lived constitutional crisis in the House of Lords, in 1911 Parliament passed the National Insurance Act, providing for state-funded insurance for unemployment, sickness and old age. The modern welfare state had been born and Poverty: A Study in Town Life had provided much of the prevailing argument for radical systemic change, with its clear exposition, demonstrable evidence and straightforward, scientific approach.

The book inspired more such studies in other regions of the country. It heavily influenced Churchill’s own 1909 publication, Liberalism and the Social Problem. Rowntree was named to a government committee to study land, land tax and housing issues. The committee applied Rowntree’s methodology to these problems in the years 1912-1914. Thus Rowntree became an expert on land reform and this remained an abiding concern throughout his life. He championed the creation of garden cities, in particular, in order to diversify the agricultural system and relieve some of the pressures threatening both the health of workers and the dwindling rural areas. Beginning in England in 1910 and soon spreading to the U.S., the garden city movement favored relatively low-density planned communities with lots of open space, including, usually, a green belt encircling the housing and areas with flexible zoning that could support local industry and commerce. He also came to believe that the labor movement was an essential part of economic reform.

But what did the Rowntrees do about the subject of Seebohm’s book, poverty in the city of York and Rowntree’s own family business? Poverty encouraged Seebohm’s father, Joseph Rowntree, to build new rental housing, what we would call today low- and moderate-income housing. Despite his efforts to provide acceptable accommodations at the lowest possible cost, however, these apartments remained beyond the means of the very poor, the people for whom he’d intended them. According to James Walvin (The Quakers: Money & Morals), the welfare services provided by the company represented 0.8% of gross selling price in 1908. Joseph Rowntree kept improving the company’s benefits, adding profit sharing, better sick pay, paid vacations, and convalescent facilities. But the basic problem remained: wages.

Rowntree laborers were paid by the piece. Joseph Rowntree set up a process for wage review every three months and he monitored wages. If someone fell below the ‘poverty line’ that his son’s book had so popularized that he often is credited with its invention, rather than Booth, the company moved the worker to different work or encouraged them to work harder. Those who couldn’t make it were dismissed or encouraged to find another job. Departments were evaluated according to the percentage of employees that were making more than the minimum wage. Meanwhile, although Seebohm Rowntree agreed with labor unions in principle, in practice, he resisted them in his own plants. Quaker paternalism was not dead yet.

Nevertheless, in both his book and his long and distinguished career in public service, Seebohm Rowntree helped lead Friends through the transition into the twentieth century and its liberal engagement with social problems. By ‘liberal’ I mean an optimistic faith in the ability of society (meaning, mostly, government, but also civil society) to change things by studying them, proposing solutions, developing programs, and creating institutions for implementing the programs. Rowntree came to believe in state regulation of aspects of the economy “to over-ride the immediate interests of the employer by imposing on him (sic) obligations which are to the advantage of the nation rather than his (sic) own.” This was a fundamental break from the double-culture compromise forged in the persecutions of the first transition period, that Friends would leave the state and the foundations of the social order alone, as long as they were left alone in turn. Under the leadership of Seebohm Rowntree and other young reform-minded Friends, Quaker religion once again became a public, and not just a private, affair.

Poverty: A Study of Town Life launched Rowntree on an exceedingly prolific writing career; Amazon lists 26 books. Poverty itself is available from Google Books for free as a download here. And here’s a link to a bibliography of Rowntree’s writings, to give you a sense of the range of his interests. Four main themes dominate his work: He returned again and again to the problem of unemployment and he wrote several books on housing. He wrote about the Christian and the Quaker responses to social problems. And he wrote several books trying to humanize business and industrial relations. He also applied for a patent in chocolate manufacturing.

This extraordinary man deserves our thankful remembrance for the following landmark achievements:

  • Groundbreaking work—understanding poverty. Poverty is the second attempt in history to use a sociological survey (and statistical analysis) to understand a social problem (poverty) and to shape a meaningful policy response.
  • Defining the “poverty line”. Rowntree is widely credited for inventing the idea of the “poverty line,” an income level below which a person or a family can no longer provide for the basics of food, clothing and shelter. I believe, however, that again we can thank Charles Booth for this innovation. However, Rowntree put it on the map and I believe he revised Booth’s calculations to make them reflect reality a little more accurately, though most economists today agree that it still needs to be redefined. The current formula for the poverty line (at least in America) comes originally from an American economist from the Roosevelt administration named Mollie Orshansky, who based her own work on Rowntree’s. The idea really caught on with the War on Poverty in the 1960s. Once a ‘scientific’ way to define poverty had been established, Rowntree (and before him Booth) came to a revolutionary and truly startling conclusion:
  • Groundbreaking conclusion—the poor are poor through no fault of their own. Rowntree’s research proved that poverty was not primarily the result of personal moral failing, but was rather a systemic, structural problem endemic in the capitalist system itself. It proved that the vast majority of the poor actually worked, worked hard, too hard; they just didn’t make enough money to survive—their wages were too low. It was not indolence, drink, gambling, sex (too many kids), and general wantonness that had cast them into poverty, as most people believed until then, though these factors often made things worse. The real problem for the poor was not at its root moral; it was structural—it was low wages. The poor wanted to work, they did, in fact work. It just wasn’t enough to lift them up out of poverty.
  • Groundbreaking paradigm—social science and technocratic solutions. This helped to usher in the modern social scientific approach to understanding and treating social problems. Poverty showed that scientific methods yielded results that you could not arrive at using moral philosophy, and it helped to pinpoint where and what the problems really were. This did not put an end to moralizing, as we well know. Conservatives, especially, have continued to cite moral failure as the cause of social ills up to the present day. Now, however, they must also downplay, discredit, bypass and obstruct scientific arguments that clearly point to structural evils in the system. Rowntree’s book ushered in an age of warring paradigms in social policy. One of them was rooted in 19th century evangelical theology and the political economics it had nurtured, focused on individuals, their choices and their ‘freedom’ from government intervention. The other paradigm was rooted in science and focused on communities, on systemic causes and solutions to social problems, and on the roles that only government was in a position to play in addressing these issues.
  • Groundbreaking policy—the birth of the welfare system. The book led directly to the modern welfare state in England and, by extension, everywhere else in Europe and North America.
  • The end of the ‘double culture’ period and the reengagement of Quakers. Seebohm Rowntree was part of the generation of modernist Friends that remade Quaker culture around the turn of the 20th century. They included his cousin John Wilhelm Rowntree, Rufus Jones and a number of others who had been energized by the Richmond Conference in 1887 and the Manchester Conference in 1895. They were the internal force for change within the Society of Friends that met the external forces that helped shape what I call the second great transition period in Quaker history, moving us from the double culture of religious and social withdrawal, on the one hand, combined paradoxically, on the other hand, with energetic engagement with the worlds of business, industry and commerce. They pulled us out of our isolation and insulation until both our feet were planted in the modern world.
  • Quakers discover capitalism as a system. Seebohm Rowntree’s landmark book and methods opened Quaker eyes to capitalism as a system. Until then, Quaker testimonial life had regarded the ‘social order’ as a matter for individual attention; that is, on the one hand, as a matter for the discipline of personal behavior, of “right walking” over the world, while on the other hand, individual Friends and Friends’ meetings had focused their efforts to address social ills like poverty on individuals. Recall Elizabeth Fry’s work in Newgate Prison raising up the educational and moral levels of inmates. With Poverty, Friends became aware for the first time of structural evil, of the way that systems caused suffering. This new awareness took a long time mature. It got major reinforcement, at least in the UK, during the Great War, when London Yearly Meeting convened a Committee on War and the Social Order and approved the Eight Principles of a Just Social Order in the 1918 sessions of London Yearly Meeting, which I’ve discussed in an earlier post. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1960s that systemic thinking really began to shape Quaker testimonies in any meaningful way: Right Sharing of World Resources addressed global trade policy; AFSC turned increasingly from service to the suffering toward advocacy on behalf of the oppressed; and the War in Vietnam vividly illuminated the power and role of the “military industrial complex” in our economic life. The war also brought Marxism back to life; Marx and Engels had understood that capitalism as a system oppressed the working class way back in the middle of the 19th century. But Quakers never really warmed to Marxism, even though Das Kapital mentioned their own John Bellers by name, and even though a small, very active group of socialist Friends did emerge in the same period in which Rowntree was doing his work late in the 1800s.

For all these monumental contributions to the cause of a more just and compassionate political economy, Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree is one of my heroes. He also is one of the unsung heroes in the history of Friends. And so I have become one of his modern champions.

Note: On Tuesday, December 21, American Public Media’s daily financial news radio magazine Marketplace featured a piece on Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree (1871-1954). It’s not a bad introduction to this extraordinary man. Here is the link.

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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