Reflections on the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. Part 2 – Being honest about the stories we tell

Here’s part two of a series of posts reflecting on the book of Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore LectureOpen for transformation: being Quaker’. You can find part one here.

A sentiment I have often heard is that Quakers don’t do, or need, theology. It’s true that you don’t need a degree in theology to be a Quaker, and academic learning doesn’t make you a better Quaker, but we are wrong if we think theology redundant. We need good theology, because there’s a lot of bad theology out there. I believe that theology in its simplest form is the story we tell as a religious community, about our beginnings, how we got here and where we’re going.

Here are three stories that all claim the name Quaker:

The apocalyptic story

Once there was a man called George Fox who believed that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’. For the early Friends, the light they discovered was the same as the Jesus they read about in the Scriptures. They were experiencing the parousia – the Second Coming of Christ. They found the events of the Book of Revelation (apocalypse) occurring amongst them in the here and now. Because Christ had returned, they didn’t need paid priests, sermons and outward sacraments like water baptism, as these were only interim measures anyway.

The Protestant story

Once there was a man called George Fox who believed that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’. His Quaker descendants wondered what this meant, as the world had not been transformed in to the Kingdom of God. Had the Second Coming really happened? If not, it made sense to once again adopt interim practices such as programmed worship and paid pastors. Quakerism became one Christian denomination among many, waiting for the Second Coming.

The mystical story

Once there was a man called George Fox who believed that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself’. George spoke as he did because of the culture he was born into. The word ‘Christ’ refers to a mystical experience that transcends the historical person of Jesus, who himself only spoke as he did because of his Jewish culture. The light that enlightens the world is human reason. Because of this, Quakerism can be a community made up of many stories, as no one story can fully capture the mystical experience George Fox spoke about.

The mystical story is associated with the American Quaker Rufus Jones and is the story that dominates British Quakerism today. The Protestant story is the dominant story amongst Quakers worldwide. The apocalyptic story is the one generally recognised by Quaker scholars as the original story told by early Friends.

So what’s the problem? The multi-story character of mystical/Liberal Quakerism is very attractive – it is why I initially started attending Quaker meetings. Isn’t unity in our diversity something to be celebrated?

Loss of a shared story

Firstly, many stories create a Quakerism with an identity problem. According to Ben, we inhabit a Quakerism where ‘belief is both plural and marginal, and many Friends have been alarmed by the prospect of doctrinal and organisational fragmentation’. We have lost a sense of a shared Quaker story (hence having to ask the question ‘What does it mean to be a Quaker?’) and not everyone is happy out it. We find ourselves in a position where the only thing we can be sure about is that we’re not sure about anything, what Ben calls the ‘absolute perhaps’. We know how we should behave within Quaker processes but can’t collectively agree on why we do what we do. With no shared story, our identity is held within our behavioural creed – to question it is to threaten the only thing that unifies us. I have experienced negative reactions at the suggestion of having singing at the beginning of meeting for worship. Ben gives an example of a Friend was asked to tone down the physical aspects of his ministry. Your theology won’t make you a Quaker heretic, but your behaviour in meeting certainly could! What would happen if someone started praying in tongues?!

We have a problem with ‘finders’

Secondly, many stories prohibit any one story from being the right one. Ben writes that ‘our Meetings are not havens of like-theology. They are not even necessarily centres of tolerance.’ What happens when a ‘seeker’ becomes a ‘finder’? What happens when someone stumbles on Truth that they’re convinced isn’t just true for them, but true for everyone and everything? What happens when someone embraces the apocalyptic story of the early Friends? In my own experience, finding leads to isolation. Ben writes that ‘for all those who feel they have been marginalised for their Christian ministry or for their non-theism, it may not be the content of the message that has proved problematic, but the certainty of it. Those who are clear and resolute on any particular doctrinal position may find themselves in tension with the wider group.’

Does our story have integrity?

Thirdly, how do we connect our contemporary Quaker story with the original one? We need George Fox – he’s a central character in our Quaker story. So we quote George Fox, but we do so selectively, and often inaccurately. Do we ‘proof-text’ Fox and early Friends, reading into their words our contemporary Quaker story when it isn’t really there? The a-historical, mystical story misrepresents Fox in many ways. Our forms, such as silent worship, are based on an early Quaker understanding of the Second Coming. We’ve collectively lost that understanding, so how do we make sense of the forms?

Am I worrying too much?

A reader of my previous post asked:

‘I am wondering, Mark, as someone who, unlike you, is entirely Jesus-less but apart from that agrees with every word you write above, whether you worry about the future of our religious society (or wonder about your place in it) too much? It is possible to relate to god/spirit, waiting for divine guidance, living our corporate insights, together, in the world…without necessarily subscribing (exclusively, or wholly, or at all) to the Christian narrative. It strikes me that this is the ‘renewal’ that many of us seek. Not throwing out all the established ways of being Quaker, but honestly and imaginatively engaging with the fact that not that many among us (and very very few in wider society – potential Quakers, a lot of them) base our faith any longer on what was the accepted theological understanding when Quakerism first arose. I have no problem with your position. Do you think ‘straightforward Christians’ like you will eventually feel alienated and leave? I think that would be a great loss. Unity in diversity seems very much the way forward to me.’

I don’t worry about the future of the Religious Society. Ben sums it up nicely: ‘Our faithfulness in the end is not dependent on the security of Quakerism as a denomination. We are not here to save Quakerism, but to nurture our spiritual life as Quakers’. Neither do I believe that God can only be related to solely within the Christian church. Early friends were adamant that the spirit had been pored out on all flesh, which meant non-Christians too. I do however think that everyone is a potential Quaker – a Quakerism that isn’t for everyone isn’t for anyone as far as I can see.

Quakers need to understand that there are Friends on the margins of the Society who don’t subscribe to the dominant story, and that it’s a painful place to be. Saying ‘can’t we all just get along?’ isn’t a solution. Let’s be honest that (behavioural) unity in (theological) diversity only appeals to those who like theological diversity. In waiting worship, I’m waiting to hear the voice of the Risen Christ. To say that Jesus rising from the dead is a relative truth – that it’s only true for me – is tantamount to saying that it doesn’t matter whether he rose from the dead or not.

I’m not going to leave the Society, although I did leave a local meeting after being told that if I believed Jesus rose from the dead I shouldn’t be a Quaker. Anyway, there’s too much to do! I’m not sure I’m a ‘straightforward Christian’, as my understanding of Christianity is specifically Quaker. I’m not asking everyone to agree with me, I’m just asking for honest discussion about our current predicament. We need to be honest about the stories we’re telling, that some are better than others, and that they have consequences. We need to get better at telling the story we’ve inherited.

I’ll leave the last words to Ben – ‘The challenge is that for too long we have presented Quakerism, not in terms of “This is who we are, you are welcome to come along”, but rather as “Hallo, who are you and what would you like Quakerism to be for you?”’

The mystical, Protestant and apocalyptic versions of Quakerism are described in Doug Gwyn’s book ‘Apocalypse of the Word’ which I highly recommend.

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11 thoughts on “Reflections on the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. Part 2 – Being honest about the stories we tell

  1. Your essay is thoughtful, well written and very interesting. I sense from what you have written that you are a British Friend. I am a Christian, and many liberal Friends would consider me hopelessly orthodox–not really fit to be a Quaker at all! Sorry about that! I am, first and foremost, a Christian. My attachment to Friends is based on what I have experienced in meetings for worship; this is the heart of my Quaker faith. I would admit that I am also attached to some of the “forms” of traditional Quakerism.

    I gave up long ago on the idea of all Friends subscribing to a common narrative. I don’t think it’s going to happen, at least not any time soon. Feeling the necessity of such unity seems to lead to resentment of others who don’t share one’s theology.

    On the other hand, I could not in good faith belong to a meeting that is not explicitly and committedly Christian! Anything else would not satisfy.

    Thanks again for your thought-provoking essay. By the way, have you sought other Christian Friends?

    1. Thanks William. I have sought, and found other Christian Friends, and we are currently having conversations about how we might support each other. I do not feel called to leave Britain Yearly Meeting, although I do feel called to live in intentional community, which I would hope to be of the Quaker-Christian variety. Sunday morning church of any tradition is not for me.

  2. I think this is a very complicated problem. At the core is the need for unity (John 17). I believe that if there is unity at the monthly meeting level God can use that meeting for His purposes even if that unity is centered on a non-theist Quakerism. God doesn’t need us to believe in Him to talk to us. He doesn’t even care if we think we are talking to ourselves. The problem is disunity at that level because it hinders communicating what we are being called as a body to do. If a meeting can allow its members to express what they receive out of silent/expectant worship without putting up a wall because Jesus is mentioned or non-theism is proclaimed then that meeting can discern what action they are being called to. My limited experience is that some meetings are not capable of that and some members have to leave to find a monthly meeting where they can be in unity with those attending that meeting and at the same time contribute to the unity of the meeting they left by the simple act of their departure. Tolerance is not the same as unity and tolerance is not the same as acceptance. Once people understand that they are on the same page as another they will realize it doesn’t matter where they were taught to read. They will understand that the other is comprehending the same call/leading as they are and they will respect that person’s ability to do so.

  3. An advantage of multiple stories is that these may all be conveying different aspects of God’s story, in which we haven’t yet grasped our role. That is, from early on, Friends had a sense that we were collectively called to have a place in the redemption of the world — but to realize what that redemption should look like, what we need to do and/or become to best serve that intention… (lately I’m even wondering whether God will pull humanity and the planet back from destruction, or will need to resurrect them…) is more than simply agreeing on certain ideas or values or actions. [There are questions that can only be answered by becoming someone else, as with answers you could give a child but not have them understood until he’d grown up.]

    The fact, for example, that we’re currently swamped by outright atheists and people inclined to unconscious atheism (ie holding theistic beliefs but in habitual practice relying on human means rather than divine guidance and assistance) — is a reflection of the fact that this is what the larger society is like, that we’re needing to welcome and empathize with people in that condition because that is the spiritual condition of our civilization, of the people we encounter outside of Meeting, to a large extent of our selves.

    But the fact that we overall can’t quite see that there is a “God’s story” we fit into, that instead we see the problem as a choice of human stories… Perhaps we can muddle through on that kind of basis — Perhaps God is simply telling us something like, “Okay, I’d like the Friends to keep holding that low b-flat, a little bit softer now…” God will find the people and groups needed for the divine redemption project, and if we no longer qualify it will simply be assigned to someone else doing things differently… but that certainly would feel like the waste of a wonderful tradition!

    1. Oh, tree! Thank you beyond measure for: “Perhaps God is simply telling us something like, ‘Okay, I’d like the Friends to keep holding that low b-flat, a little bit softer now…'”

      I can’t tell you how deeply that speaks to me.

  4. Your essay clearly describes different theologies among Quakers and the resulting consequences within meetings. Thank you for it. There’ve always been hurdles to receiving Christ; Scriptures and early Friends writings can alert us to many of them. But the mystical theology you outline so well is a new aberration in our history, and there’s little spelled out in historical writing to assist us in addressing it. Beneath the exterior trappings of Liberalism, however, there can only be the same error that has beguiled us all from the start.

  5. Excellent insights about contemporary Quakerism–in all its branches.

    I still remember vividly our monthly meeting not wanting to give more than 10-15 minutes for open worship for fear that something unorderly would happen! Yes, they were afraid of “someone started praying in tongues.”

    If it’s okay, I am going to repost your fine analysis to my website too.

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