(or, Remembering Tomorrow’s Retro Quaker Future…)
I recently joined and introduced myself on the Nontheist Friends email list, and there’s been some interesting discussion on early Friends and the “Conservative leaning liberal” movement that is a major feature of the Quaker blogosphere.
First, a response to a question from James Riemermann, on why I felt strongly drawn towards traditional Quakerism for about a year, and then sharply returned to the “liberal liberal” fold, as I had said in my introduction. I’m not sure what I say is right, fair, or even consistent, which is part of why I post it here where a broader audience might read and respond.
Most of what motivated me in my “traditionalist” period was the feeling that earlier generations of Friends were, at least in some respects, more spiritually grounded and empowered than many modern liberal ones are.
I see nothing wrong with this concern in itself (in fact I still share it, which is why I am perennially interested in earlier Friends); it took some further developments to make it crystallize into a sort of Quaker neo-primitivism.
The main development was discovering, while studying the early Quakers at Oxford and on my own, a neglected, virtually forgotten aspect of Quaker experience that I think is an important key to understanding early Quaker spirituality: the Light as not just ethics, but also truth; not merely something that gives imperative, counterfactual commands which we should listen to and obey (being “led,” feeling a “call”), but also as what shows us our true condition, what “declares all things as they are” (Nayler). In addition to finding this intellectually compelling, once I started trying to experience the “Light” this way I had a number of profound experiences during meeting, which convinced me it was something significant.
So to make a long story short, I felt I had found “the Truth” about Quakerism, and by extension Christianity (an even bigger fish!), and from there it’s no surprise that I began to regard all modern Quakers, even those called Conservative, as woefully apostate. Over the next few months I made a few enemies in online liberal Quaker forums, and I daresay worried a few Friends at the Oxford meeting. I even, I am embarassed to say, seriously considered performing an old-time “sign” on the Cornmarket (the main market street) – not sure if it would’ve been preaching naked or with flaming coals on my head…
But at the same time, my natural critical temperament continued to eat away my confidence in the religious as supernatural. And my newly-created Quaker ideological fortress was unable to put up much resistance, because a Quakerism that emphasizes “learning to see what is really there” is quite compatible with a naturalist view of the world. (This is, incidentally, one reason I would commend this way of looking at Quakerism to nontheist Friends.) Six months later I was still wearing plain dress, but had stopped believing in the afterlife, and here I am a year later on the nontheist Friends email list. :-)
Which leaves me today in a paradoxical place: a nontheist liberal Friend with a keen interest in early Quakerism (as well as early Christianity) as an entirely human phenomenon. I certainly don’t think we must forever confine ourselves to doing variations on Fox, and I love much about modern Quakerism on its own terms. But I do still see modern Quakerism as “embers of the original Quaker flame” (Marcelle Martin), and in that sense I still have sympathies with this broader “Conservative-leaning” tendency.
Where I break with it is thinking the cure for what ails modern Quakerism has nothing to do with becoming more dogmatic, as many tradition-interested Friends appear to think. We are not a dogmatic religion; we are a practical, spiritual religion, and I don’t think anything will lead to “Quaker renewal” but greater attention to our practices and spiritual life.
Points of agreement?
Some lively discussion of the place of the Quaker past in the Quaker present has followed (which I won’t reprint here). I just sent the following email, asking if we’ve come to any kind of consensus:
Goodness – I agree with everyone! :-D
Seriously though, I’m not sure what I think about the finer points of this discussion myself, but I think we might be able agree on a few things:
- As James put it, the words and history of early Friends can serve as enriching resources for many modern Friends, but are in no way necessary for being a good Quaker.
- Simply as a matter of integrity, when anyone talks about Quaker history, we should let it be what it is, and not try to fashion it into a mythology (orthodox, liberal, etc.) to justify our own beliefs or party.
- It’s good for there to be Friends around (of whatever persuasion) who know enough of the actual history to respond when other Friends (of whatever persuasion) fall into this trap.
- It might even be good for there to be specifically liberal/radical Friends able to combat the “orthodox” Quaker story, which sometimes seems to be advanced for the purpose of excluding people – though this carries the risk of falling into fighting over “who gets Fox’s blessing,” which should be avoided.
How does that sound to everyone?
I look forward to reading people’s thoughts.