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In this post I’m going to get rather theological. Hopefully in a clear and understandable way. I recently wrote an essay for my theology MA, exploring the modern Western theological movement known as postliberalism. I’d like to have a go at explaining it in a less technical way, whilst also reflecting on what it might have to say to liberal Quakers. This 40 year old movement is mainly associated with the academic theologians George Lindbeck, Hans Frei and Stanley Hauerwas, and has proved so influential that it permeates the thinking of popular theologians such as Nadia Bolz-Weber, Brian McLaren and Shane Claiborne. It turns out I’ve been breathing the air of postliberalism for quite some time – New Monasticism could be thought of as a postliberal off-shoot.
Already this might sound quite heavy, but I’m going to try and explain it as plainly as I can.
What is liberalism?
Before getting to postliberalism (meaning after liberalism), it’s worth spending time on what we mean by liberalism. I suspect most of us use it when talking about politics or social attitudes. Modern British Quakers are sometimes described as liberal Quakers.
In theological terms, liberalism is a Western Protestant movement beginning in the 19th Century, having its roots in the thinking of German theologian, Friedrich Schleiermacher, sometimes called the ‘Father of modern liberal theology.’
Liberal theology is concerned with taking the discoveries of science and philosophy – what might be called ‘extra-theological sources‘ – and reforming and re-shaping Christian theology in the light of these discoveries.
Liberal theology is also concerned with universals, particularly universal religious experience. This is the idea that religious experience is common to all people, across all cultures. It sees this as:
- the source of religious truth – (we know something is religiously true if it conforms to our inward religious experience),
- the heart of religious practice – (the ceremony and rituals are merely ‘window dressing’) – and
- the basis of ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue – (all religions are essentially the same, as they all have this universal religious experience at their core).
What is postliberalism?
One of postliberalism’s important features is its criticism of the liberal idea of universal religious experience. Postliberalism raises the following objections:
- Quite simply, it is impossible to prove that there is a universal religious experience that all people share across all religious traditions.
- As a basis of religious truth, it appears to make truth relative. If things are only true because they chime with our inner experience, what happens when two people have different inner experiences? If one thing is ‘true’ for one person, and differently ‘true’ for another, is it meaningful to speak of truth at all? And how do we know we can trust our inner experiences anyway?
- Postliberalism also suggests that universal religious experience is not at the heart of religious practice, because discoveries in anthropology and sociology suggest that it is religious practice that shapes religious experience. The words we say, the images we use, the stories we tell, the ceremonies we perform and the songs we sing – these shape the religious experience that we have. Different religious traditions produce different religious experiences.
- Therefore, we can’t make universal religious experience the basis of ecumenical dialogue. Not only do all religions look different in their manner of worship (and therefore the religious experience that occurs) but religions differ in their understanding of ‘salvation’. Their goals, their destinations, are different. Postliberalism says our basis for inter-religious dialogue should not be ‘how are you like me?’, rather there should be a true recognition of difference. Postliberalism questions the idea of the ‘anonymous Christian’ (Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner’s reasoning for how good non-Christians might be saved), saying ‘how do we know that Christians aren’t ‘anonymous Buddhists’? Postliberalism asks ‘how can we make peace with each other, without erasing our differences?’
Because of this rejection of universal experience, postliberalism focuses on religious specificity – the things that make a particular religious tradition what it is. Therefore, for Christianity, there’s an increased focus on the Bible. Rather than seeing scripture through the lens of ‘extra-theological sources’ such as philosophy and science, there is a focus on seeing the world through the lens of scripture. There is also a focus on how religious language shapes our experience, and how religion itself is like a language. To join a particular religious tradition is to learn its particular language, and be shaped and transformed by it.
So what challenge does postliberalism present to liberal Quakers? I would say my description of theological liberalism ticks many Quaker boxes. This isn’t surprising, as the roots of liberal Quakerism are in Rufus Jones (1863-1948), who himself was indebted to both Schleiermacher and William James (1842-1910) and his The Varieties of Religious Experience).
In contemporary British Quakerism I encounter a strong belief in universal religious experience which transcends religious tradition, and the idea that Quaker worship represents a stripping away of ‘window dressing’ to get to this core experience. Sometimes I come across the idea that Quakerism itself heralds a ‘universal’ religion – what I’d call Quaker exceptionalism. The idea that ‘George Fox only spoke in Christian terms because of the culture he was born into’ is a product of this thinking (as if Fox can be understood apart from his Christianity, or Jesus from his Judaism for that matter!), as is the idea that there are people out there who are Quakers without knowing it.
A postliberal approach provides a check on Quaker exceptionalism, and draws our attention to the specificity of the Quaker tradition. Quaker worship is not a blank canvas or empty container, but a form of worship that shapes the experience we have within it. Becoming a Quaker involves learning to ‘speak Quaker’, which in turn involves learning the tradition and its stories. From a postliberal perspective, attempts to make Quakerism more ‘universal’ – such as weeding out specific Quaker language or placing copies of the ‘World Religions Bible’ on meeting house tables – are misguided. A robust and vital Quakerism is one that has a healthy relationship with its own tradition, and does not seek to cast it off.
Some words from the wise Nadia Bolz-Weber to finish:
I think it’s interesting people dismiss the being “spiritual but not religious” thing. My business card for the church says, “We’re religious but not spiritual.” That yearning that people have is for something that’s more than 20 minutes old. I think people want to be connected to something that’s more than a whim… Since the age of progress, new is better, right? Now we go, “Wait a minute — that’s not always true.” When new is always better, we’re not tethered to anything. I think I see a longing in people to be tethered to something, and I like to say that you have to be really deeply rooted in tradition in order to innovate with integrity.
Note: The term postliberalism was coined in George Lindbeck’s book The Nature of Doctrine (1984).
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. [Luke 12:2-3]
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” [Rev 6:12-17]
Greenbelt, is a festival of arts, justice and faith that takes place at Boughton House near Kettering in the Midlands of England. It’s become almost an annual pilgrimage for me, and this year, helped by the glorious weather, it has refreshed and inspired me in unexpected ways.
One of the highlights of the festival was a talk by Teresa Forcades i Vila, a Benedictine nun from Catalonia, Spain. She spoke without notes, for about 45 minutes, quoting Hannah Arendt, Thomas Aquinas, Simone Weil, and a host of other philosophers and theologians, addressing the political climate in Europe today. I can’t sum up the content of her talk in one blog post, but I would like to focus on one particular point she made, that central to the work of the 21st century church will be the figure of Mary, the Mother of God.
Quakers, Catholics, Mary and Me
For a British Quaker, this might sound just too Catholic. In the 17th Century, the Puritans despised Catholics and Quakers alike, often accusing Quakers of being Jesuits in disguise, but that didn’t mean the first Quakers had any sense of solidarity with their Catholic sisters and brothers. A strong anti-Catholic streak runs through early Quaker writings, and it’s not unusual to come across a subtle anti-Catholic sentiment amongst contemporary British Quakers. As an atheist, then Quaker teenager, I was virulently anti-Catholic, associating it with excess and superstition.
My encounters with Catholics since then (both living and dead) have altered that view dramatically. Roman Catholicism, like any institution, has its problems, blind spots and systemic evil, but in reading the writings of Dorothy Day, and meeting the nuns working with refugees and asylum seekers in Birmingham, I’ve witnessed hearts that beat for justice far stronger than my own.
I think I’m also more open to Mary as a result. I find her a fascinating and enigmatic figure. She is a young women who has angelic visions and submits completely to God. She makes fiery prophetic pronouncements. She gives birth in squalor, and becomes a refugee fleeing state violence. She struggles to understand her son’s prophetic witness, but is there at the foot of the cross as he dies. She lives to see his resurrection, and the birth of the church. In the book of Revelation she is portrayed as ‘a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars’.
Mary the God-Bearer
Mariology is the study of Mary, as Christology is the study of Christ. Like any branch of theology, Mariology has its own terminology and complicated metaphysical debates. One such debate resulted in Mary being given the title Theotokos – meaning ‘God-bearer’. The term is used in the Eastern Church, and in Eastern iconography Mary is often represented as the unburnt bush encountered by Moses. Like the bush, Mary contained God but was not consumed.
At Greenbelt, Sr Teresa explained how the relationship between God and Mary is the relationship that God wishes to have with us all. God cannot impose Her will on us from the outside. God will never enact martial law, and rule us in an authoritarian manner. That would make God a tyrant. God can only enter our individual and communal lives through our own freely given cooperation. God could only become enfleshed in Jesus because Mary freely said ‘Yes’.
Sr Teresa commented that, in Catholicism, the metaphor of being ‘channels of grace’ is often used. This reminded me of a oft-quoted passage from Quaker Faith and Practice about us being ‘God’s plumbers‘. But Sr Teresa feels these metaphors of being some sort of vessel or conduit do not fully communicate what it means to live an incarnational life. Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly wrote that ‘We cannot look upon the face of God and live, live as our old selves’. A channel is not transformed by what passes through it.
Sr Teresa suggests that, rather than just being passive plumbing, our calling is more visceral, bloody, painful and joyful. In Mary we see what we too are invited to become: God-bearers. We are called to a spiritual conception, pregnancy, labour and birth, to enflesh God in the world and be irrevocably changed by the experience.
A Quaker Mariology
The early Quakers knew all about being filled with God without being consumed. They took Paul at his word that ‘It is not I who live, but Christ who lives in me.’ This sense of Christ coming to birth in them has been called ‘celestial inhabitation.’ For early Quaker leader James Nayler, Jesus was enfleshed in him to the extent that he couldn’t tell where he ended and Christ began.
These were controversial claims that brought great persecution, and later generations of Quakers toned down such language, but in the Quaker tradition we have the bold claim that Christ is present amongst us, and that God works Her purposes thorough our weak and mortal bodies. This theology has been famously expressed in ‘The presence in the midst’, a painting of a Quaker meeting with a spiritual Jesus leading the worship.
I propose that we add another image to our visual theology, the image of Mary as Theotokos. Mary offers a model of Quaker discipleship – faithful, prayerful and open to the leadings of God. She captures the best of the Quaker tradition: She demonstrates the non-coercive workings of the Divine; in a patriarchal world she is a strong, prophetic women, a champion of the poor and downtrodden whilst herself a refugee. Like James Nayler, she knows that a life with God is not a life without grief, that bearing God leads to pain as well as glory. Also, as a man I have the opportunity to be challenged by female religious imagery.
I believe the God that is Love invites us to be God-bearers, to enflesh the Word in the world. Can we say with Mary: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word’?
The George Gorman Lecture is given at the Yearly Meeting Gatherings of Quakers in Britain by a younger Friend. Tim Gee delivered the 2017 Gorman Lecture – ‘Movement Building from Stillness’ – on Wednesday 2 August.
I would like to congratulate Tim on his excellent, engaging and thought provoking lecture. He presented hard truths in a loving and generous spirit. He covers the intimate connection between faith, our Quaker structures and activism; how we can work with others for change; the right marriage of power and love; making our meetings truly inclusive; the challenges of being privileged people in the 21st century and the dangers of relying too heavily on our past status as a marginalised group. I’m really grateful for his words. If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend you check it out.
There is one point Tim made that I would like to work with, as a footnote to his lecture. I have been minded to write about this particular topic before, and now seems an excellent opportunity.
By their books shall ye know them…
Tim ends his lecture with a number of suggestions, one of which is that – in order to emphasise our openness to new Light, and to show that everyone is welcome at a Quaker meeting – every meeting would consider having a ‘World Religions Bible‘ on the table during worship. This book is a collection of religious writings from a variety of traditions rendered in modern english. I’d not come across it before, and at first glance it seems a very cool book. I thoroughly support the study of other faiths and their scriptures, and anything that encourages religious literacy and respect for other traditions gets my ‘hope so’. It also looks like a great resource for personal devotional practice.
Our lack of overt religious symbols can make it easy to see Quakerism as a blank canvas, a sort of religious ‘neutral-zone’. However, although we don’t have candle sticks or stained glass, our way of worship still communicates important aspects of the Quaker story, of Quaker theology. The plainness of our worship space reflects the inward simplicity we seek in order to hear the ‘still small voice’. Our seating arrangement communicates the equal worth of all present. The books we choose to put on the table communicate something about the corporate identity of Quakerism. Quaker Faith & Practice communicates the collected experience of British Quakerism, and the Bible speaks of our rootedness in (and continuing dialogue with) the Christian tradition.
Tim suggests that by adding ‘A World Religions Bible’ to the table this would emphasise our commitment to be open to ‘new light’ from whatever source it comes and show that everyone is welcome. I agree with the sentiment, but disagree with the method. I suggest that:
- being religiously specific and welcoming to all are not mutually exclusive (e.g. you can be Jewish and welcome Christians into your worship without putting a copy of the Christian Bible next to the Torah), and
- to place non-Christian texts on our table is problematic for several reasons. (And just to be clear, none of those reasons is ‘non-Christians are wrong/not as good’ etc. – I stand by the Quaker understanding of the Spirit being poured out on all.)
I think the first point probably deserves a whole blog post to itself – and Friend Ben has written brilliantly about this already – so I’m going to focus on the second point.
Why might placing non-Christian religious texts on the meeting table be problematic?
Does it erase difference?: Having a variety of religious texts (either separately or as a compilation) together on a table may be making claims about the compatibility of these texts that is not true. Different religions may have things in common, but they also make different claims. Such an approach may fail to honour the distinctiveness of each tradition. The suggestion that ‘all religions are the same really’ may even work against an authentic religious literacy. Religious scripture is not just defined by the words on the page, but in how it is used. For some Muslims, the Quran must be kept physically separate from other books in the house. In Judaism, the Torah has a very special role within worship and is treated in many ways like a person. The Christian Old Testament and the Jewish Hebrew Bible contain the same texts, but they are arranged differently and perform very different functions in each tradition. Perhaps a better approach would be for a meeting to engage in real, face-to-face inter-faith dialogue, rather than make a gesture that presents too simplistic a view of world faiths.
Is it cultural misappropriation?: Some Christian churches choose to practice a passover seder on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). I’ve recently become persuaded that this is an example of cultural misappropriation. The passover meal doesn’t belong to Christians. We don’t have the right to perform it. Christians already have their own wonderful Maundy Thursday ritual – communal foot washing. This has led me to ask ‘what scriptures belong to Quakers?’ A Western, postmodern, consumerist (and usually white) approach is to say ‘if I can pay for it, it’s mine!’ With this attitude we can fill our homes with Native American dream catchers and Buddhist prayer bowls, wear bindis on our foreheads and build a sweat lodge in our back gardens. But do these things really belong to us? There are many individual Quakers in Britain who authentically draw on non-Christian sources in their religious lives, but for Quakers as a corporate body the only scriptures that belong to us are the Old and New Testaments. We cannot lay claim to any others. Before we place other religious texts on our table, we need to discern our right to do so.
Is it a form of escapism?: I believe that cultural misappropriation in the West springs in part from shame at our own cultural roots. For all its achievements, we can’t ignore the fact that Britain is built on foundation stones of colonialism, racism, slavery, oppression and empire. The temptation to shake off this heritage is strong – to reject Christianity and the Bible as a Western instrument of oppression and ally ourselves with the innocent ‘other’. If we fill our table with a multitude of religious texts, are we trying to escape our own history? Having privilege allows us to benefit from being European/white etc., but distance ourselves from these roots when it suits us. This desire to escape can be heard in John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, which naively suggests that if we could just cast off the trappings of religion and culture, we’d all be able to get along. As much as we may wish to, we cannot escape into a non-existent ‘universal religion’, into an illusory postmodern freedom from history. We have to face and reconcile ourselves with our own inheritance.
In Frances E. Kendall’s book on white privilege, she writes of the need to ‘re-member’. As a white woman there are parts of herself she tried forget. In ignoring her own white privilege, by distancing herself from her white Southern family, she had cut off a part of herself. The only way to heal her own racism was to re-attach the amputated limb – to re-member. This re-membering is painful, but necessary if we are to authentically work towards right relationship between all peoples.
As Quakers, we cannot examine our own privilege whilst we think of ourselves as somehow the vanguard of a ‘universal religion’ that encompasses all faiths. To seek new Light does not mean a continues journey away from Christianity. Whether we see it as a glorious heritage or as unsavoury baggage, we can’t escape our Christian roots. We have to re-member our own scriptures, as painful as that might be.
In this years George Gorman Lecture, we have an excellent example in Friend Tim. He speaks of his excitement at reading the Gospels with fresh eyes. He speaks of Jesus’ turning of the tables, and the sermon on the mount in ways that communicate the Spirit’s calling to British Quakers in 2017. He is re-membering scripture for us!
The stories are old and difficult, but they are our stories, and if we take the time to get to know them they will have startlingly new messages for us. The river of the Spirit continues to flow strongly through them. As Dorothy discovered on returning from Oz, our heart’s desire can still be found in our own back yard. New light can be found in old stories.
Finding doctrines that work
Doctrine is one of those words that you might not associate with liberal Quakerism. We might look at doctrinal debates of the past – such as whether the Son is of the same substance as the Father, or of a similar substance (the 4th Century Arian controversy), or whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, or from the Father and the Son (the 11th Century filioque controversy) – and conclude that doctrine (from a Quaker point of view) is about obscure, abstract and divisive word games that have no real bearing on our day-to-day lives. This is part of the long tradition of Quaker-suspicion of theology.
I don’t believe we can write off doctrine altogether. In its broadest sense, doctrine is about what is taught and transmitted within a religious community, a crystallisation of a group’s religious understanding. In this sense, Quaker Faith and Practice could be considered a doctrinal text. In the first Advice and Query we find a doctrinal statement that the ‘promptings of love and truth in [our] hearts… [are] the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life.’
One thing that makes for a good doctrine is that it proves a useful tool for making sense of the world we live in and experience. Good doctrine works.
An early and highly influential formal statement of Quaker doctrine can be found in Robert Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678). These are not dry, abstract theories, but a vivid web of images and concepts that made sense of the first Quakers’ experience. These were doctrines that worked. Barclay pays a lot of attention to discrediting predestination (the belief that only some are saved) and imputed original sin (the belief that we inherit the guilt of Adam and Eve from birth). These beliefs were jettisoned because they didn’t work. They resulted in a state of religious anxiety and despair. The doctrines that replaced them – that we were not born guilty, salvation was possible for all, and a perfect relationship with God was possible before death – worked because they corresponded to the early Quaker experience of hope, liberation and intimate communion with the Spirit of Christ.
I recently wrote about a theology of evil that Quakers might find useful, and this has got me thinking about how we might find a useful way to talk about sin. I wrote last year how churches less versed in the language of sin might find it harder to address their own faults, particularly in relation to issues around privilege. Do we have a doctrine of sin available to us that could prove a helpful tool? I decided to start with Barclay and see what he had to say. I’ll give an outline of Barclay’s view of sin and salvation (soteriology in theological jargon) and then show how it might be useful in examining issues of privilege, using white privilege as an example.
Barclay on sin, justification and perfection
Barclay presents us with the image of two seeds, which we all have within us:
- First there is the seed of God which God has placed within all people, the law that God has written on our hearts. [It is not a ‘piece of God’, for God cannot be divided, nor is it a natural capacity we have. It is that through which God works upon us inwardly. It is not our reason, nor is it our conscience, for these cannot by themselves lead us into Truth. Only when they are purified and illuminated by the Light can they be reliable guides.]
- Then there is the seed of the serpent, which we have inherited from Adam. This is our weakness of will, and our inability to do good by our own strength. We inherit Adam’s weakness but not his guilt. We become bound to this seed when we make the choice Adam made. [Barclay writes of this seed being ‘natural’, but if we consider that only what God has created is ‘natural’, then the seed of the serpent must be ‘unnatural’ as it is not an intended part of the creation.]
We need to be liberated from the seed of the serpent, and united with the seed of God. We cannot do this ourselves. Indeed, we may be blind to our own bondage.
This process of liberation begins when the seed of God calls us to submit to it, to allow it to grow in us. This call is to share in the spiritual, inward crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, so that Christ may live and bear fruit in us. This inward call is the true preaching of the Gospel.
We do not choose the moment when this occurs – we must wait for the ‘day of the Lord’ or ‘day of visitation’, but once we are presented with that choice we can submit to the Light, or reject it.
If we reject it, then our hearts may be hardened to the extent that we can no longer submit to the Light:
…So every man, during the day of his visitation, is shined upon by the sun of righteousness, and capable of being influenced by it, so as to send forth good fruit, and a good savour, and to be melted by it; but when he hath sinned out his day, then the same sun hardeneth him, as it doth the clay, and makes his wickedness more to appear and putrefy, and send forth an evil savour.
Our liberation from the seed of the serpent is made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in history. However, knowledge of this outward history, of the historical crucifixion and resurrection, is not required in order to experience the inward, spiritual crucifixion and resurrection necessary in order to become united to the seed of God. You can know the mystery without knowing the history.
When we submit to the Light, to the seed of God, we experience a spiritual birth and Christ is formed in us.
This work of liberation is twofold– it involves what Christ did for us in the historical crucifixion (redemption), and what Christ does in us through our spiritual crucifixion (sanctification). The first makes the second possible. Christ’s work ‘roots out the evil seed’, releasing us from slavery and clearing the way for the fruit of Christ to grow in us. And importantly, you can’t partake of the first without partaking of the second. Redemption is evidenced in a transformed life. This is no ‘cheap grace’ where you claim salvation but do not change. Redemption (being in right relationship with God) and sanctification (a holy, transformed way of living) are inseparable. Being justified means living a just life.
Once justified, we become a conduit for the good works of the Spirit. We cannot claim these good works as our own.
We enter into a state of perfection. Here perfection is not static, but refers to a perfection of relationship. It is a restored relationship of obedience to God as in the Garden of Eden before the Fall. Importantly there is always room to grow in goodness: ‘a child hath a perfect body as well as a man, though it daily grow more and more.’
It’s possible to turn away from this perfect relationship if we choose. Therefore living in perfection requires hard work and perseverance.
White privilege – the seed of the serpent?
From my reading on the subject, it feels like the process of a white person coming to terms with their white privilege maps on quite well to the process of salvation Barclay describes. It could possibly be applied to other types of privilege as well. Maybe this is one way in which Barclay’s soteriological doctrine can work for 21st Century Friends. [For a quick intro to white privilege, see this buzzfeed article and the above video of ‘the doll test‘.]
Inheriting the seed of the serpent: We inherit white privilege through being born into a society that privileges people with white skin, which some call a system of white supremacy. Importantly, we shouldn’t feel guilty about this. We don’t inherit the guilt of our predecessors. However, we do inherit the privileges that come with our whiteness, and the many unconscious behaviours we have which maintain that privilege. We are blind to our own privilege until we encounter what it is like to walk in less privileged shoes. This is not something we can do by ourselves, we need to truly listen and open ourselves up to the experience of others.
The ‘Day of the Lord’: The moment when ‘the lights are turned on’ may be a traumatic experience, and may fill us with distressing, complex emotions. Realising our part in an oppressive system can be incredibly painful. It is something we may never be ‘ready’ for. If we refuse to listen to the experiences of the other, if we refuse to examine our own privileges, the opportunity to see things from another point of view may pass. As with Pharaoh, the more privilege we have, and the tighter our hold is on our privilege, the harder our hearts may become.
The history and the mystery: We can know about white privilege in a factual way, but this is also tough emotional work. It is heart-work as well as head-work. The history of Jesus is of a man seemingly crushed by a system of oppressive violence, but we may remain unchanged by it unless we know that mystery inwardly. Having said that, knowing the history of white supremacy is of vital importance if we are to truly see how deep this goes. Maybe this is were we diverge from Barclay and the map falters – we need to know the history even if we don’t know the mystery!
A process of perfection: Once this work of examining our privilege begins, it is an ongoing process of liberation and transformation. Once you start to see systemic oppression, you can’t un-see it. We don’t do this work to ‘help others’ or in order to see ourselves as ‘good people’. This is first and foremost about our own transformation. This is about entering into a continuing relationship of open, honest listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through the voices of the oppressed ‘other’, a relationship that requires continuous tenderness, pain and humility. Then we can use our privilege to dismantle the very system that gave it to us in the first place, casting our unearned crowns at the feet of Jesus in all humility.
This is just one attempt at finding the doctrinal resources within our Quaker tradition to help us talk about privilege. I’m sure there are many other ways of approaching the issue. For a fuller account of white privilege, read Understanding White Privilege: Creating Pathways to Authentic Relationships Across Race by Frances E. Kendall (Routledge, 2013).
1. Is Quakerism like Marmite?
I believe that Quakerism is for everyone. Apparently this is a controversial thing to say amongst British Quakers, so I’d like to have a go at explaining what I mean by this, and why I believe it’s important.
I suspect that what most people mean when they say that ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ is that not everyone likes sitting in silence. But I don’t believe that Quakerism is about sitting in silence. When I hear ‘Quakerism isn’t for everybody’ I hear the following:
- ‘non-violent living – well you can take it or leave it..’
- ‘living a life of obedience to the promptings of love and truth? I’d say it’s pretty optional…’
- ‘growing into my most authentic self within a loving, supportive community just isn’t to everyone’s taste…’
- ‘working towards a world overflowing with peace and justice? That’s not everyone’s cup of tea…’
To put it another way, I think that to say ‘Quakerism isn’t for everybody’ is to treat Quakerism like Marmite. It’s to say that Quakerism not only has a particular flavour, but it is completely defined by that flavour. I don’t think Quakerism is about the surface level of taste, but the deeper level of nutrition. The important thing about Marmite in terms of our health as human beings is that it contains B12, a really important vitamin. Within this food analogy, to say that Quakerism isn’t for everyone is like saying ‘not everyone needs a healthy diet’.
Earlier generations of Quakers distinguished between the ‘shadow’ and the ‘substance’. The shadow was an outward symbol, the substance was the inner spiritual reality. They saw the bread and wine of communion as shadows of the more real substance: inward communion with God. I believe that by treating Quakerism like Marmite, we are concerning ourselves more with the surface detail of how we do things, rather than the deeper invisible dimension of what Quakerism is about.
When we focus on the substance, the deeper, nutritional value of Quakerism, we can say that ‘Quakerism is for everyone’ as well as saying ‘not everyone has to be a Quaker’. B12 is for everyone, but if you can get it without eating Marmite then that’s great too!
2. Marmite missiology
All of this impacts on Quaker missiology – or what British Quakers call ‘outreach’. Why would we want to spread the Quaker message if Quakerism isn’t for everyone? (Here the Marmite analogy falls into difficulty – why wouldn’t you want to spread Marmite everywhere, oh I remember, because it’s disgusting!)
If Quakerism isn’t for everyone, then how do we know who it’s for? What are the characteristics of those people suited to Quakerism? As I’ve written about before, what if these ‘Quaker characteristics’ have arisen, not from our spiritual experience, but from a culture dominated and shaped by the values of the white, middle class, intellectual and retired?
So we could just say that, although Quakerism isn’t for everyone, who Quakerism is for remains a mystery. Then we have the problem of knowing whether we’re doing too much or too little outreach. If our numbers are declining, perhaps that’s just because there are no longer that many people that Quakerism appeals to. If Quakerism isn’t for everyone, and we don’t know who it’s for, then saying ‘we don’t need to do outreach, they’ll find us when they’re ready’ makes a lot more sense. Why waste time and effort telling people about something that is probably not for them?
As long as we’re committed to Marmite Quakerism, doing outreach remains confused and directionless, and the cultural homogeny of British Quakerism will remain unchallenged.
3. Marmite teleology
So what is the direction of Quakerism? Where is it going? Nutrition isn’t an end in itself; we need it in order to grow towards maturity. Theologians suggest that liberal Quakers are now more concerned with processes (ways of doing things – such as discernment) than with a sense of a final destination. I don’t have a problem with Quaker processes, I think they’re one of the great Quaker gifts to the world, but Quaker processes don’t count for anything if we cannot conceive of the possibility that the Spirit might ask us to change or do things differently. A feature of Marmite Quakerism is that its identity, its brand, is highly vulnerable. Change the flavour too much and you no longer have Marmite, just brown goo. To tamper with what happens on a Sunday morning is a huge threat to Marmite Quaker identify, and so Marmite Quakerism is more concerned with acting out the steps of a process, than with where the process will lead us.
All of this relates to Quaker teleology. Teleology comes from the Greek word telos, which means end-point or goal. Teleology asks ‘where are we going? What’s the destination?’
One of the assumptions made about me by other Quakers is that, because I talk about my religious life with confidence, I must have no room for mystery. Just because I believe that Jesus rose from the dead doesn’t mean I know how it happened. Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I can describe God as I can describe what I had for lunch. It’s not a choice between ‘knowing everything’ and ‘knowing nothing’. There are lots of levels of ‘not knowing’.
So it is with teleology. The teleology of a murder mystery story is to find out ‘whodunit?’ The narrative of the story is driven by this quest to discover the murderer. We don’t know how Hercule Poirot will work it out, but we know that he will because he’s solved every other case before. My hope is in God, even though I don’t know what might happen to me in the next year, day or minute. I have confidence that Divine Love will accomplish all its purposes, even though I don’t know how it will come about. I base this hope on my own experience, the experience of my Quaker ancestors and the experiences recorded in Scripture. Hope is knowing the ending without knowing the rest of the book. ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen’ [Heb 11:1].
So teleology is about hope, knowing the destination without knowing the nature of the journey. If we are to journey to the New Jerusalem together, then we should expect travel to broaden our minds, we should expect to be changed. But a Marmite Quakerism that’s concerned with preserving its own distinctive flavour cannot change without becoming something completely different. It therefore also finds it difficult to account for previous developments in the Quaker tradition. So without history or future, without a teleology, and with a focus solely on preserving current shadows, this is a Quakerism that doesn’t corporately know why others should want it, or what sort of hope to offer a hope-starved world.
I doubt that there is a meeting in Britain where Marmite Quakerism is embraced fully, but I come across the signs of it too often for comfort. It’s a sentiment that needs challenging at every turn. When I hear ‘Quakerism isn’t for everyone’ it’s the sound of British Quakerism digging its own grave.