Quakers and the theological dinner party

2016 has seen my blogging rate slow considerably. Apologies dear reader! When I started the blog I worked a 3-day week (those were the days!) and now I have a full time job. Since October, the blogging time I had left over after domestic duties has now been taken up with a rather intense three year project – I’ve started a part-time, distance masters degree in Systematic and Philosophical Theology. My life is now well and truly full.

Quakers and theology

This feels like quite an admission to make as a Quaker. In my experience, theology is not the most welcome of words amongst Friends. Quaker responses to theology appear to range from ‘what is it?’ to ‘we don’t need it’ to ‘theology is a Bad Thing’. To be fair, theology has always had a bad press amongst Friends. Margaret Benefiel offers five reasons why Early Quakers where suspicious of theology:[1]

  1. It was a distraction from real spiritual experience
  2. ‘The available theologies were the production of corrupt, faction-ridden, politically-influenced church councils’
  3. Theology is used as a tool of oppression and to enforce conformity
  4. Academic theology is obscure and obfuscates the truth
  5. Theological speculation creates sceptics

I agree with all of these points – I think… I’ve definitely seen bad theology used harmfully, and read some very wordy and confusing academic articles. So why would I get involved in this theology thing? I can put it best by saying my 15 years with Friends have left me theologically underfed, or have made me hungry for something more than Friends seem to be able to give me. I’m so excited to be getting my teeth into it. I recently wrote on Facebook:

‘…I’ve read several pages of Augustine’s ‘Confessions’ and I’m entranced! He talks about a creation infused with God like a sponge infused with seawater; he interprets his spiritual journey through scripture; he talks about looking within and seeing a transcendent Light greater than all natural lights, and he has a very positive view of the goodness of creation. What, Augustine, a Quaker?! Favourite bit so far is when God says to Augustine – ‘I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.’ Is that a hint of theosis I detect Gus?’

As well as the joy of discovering the inspiring thoughts of past thinkers, questions are being thrown up here and there. I’m discovering that liberal Quakers’ emphasis on spiritual experience has its roots in Rufus Jones, William James and 19th century German Protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Over the last century, Schleiermacher has been roundly challenged by theologians like Karl Barth. I want to ask how we make sense of our religious understanding in the light of this conversation? And Barth seems to have some quite Quakery things to say about revelation… I feel like a ‘seeker’ again.

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Augustine’s hummus is gross but he makes a mean trifle

The theological dinner party

I find it very helpful to think of the tradition of theology as a conversation between the living and the dead. Quaker theologian Rachel Muers writes of Quaker theology as a Meeting for Worship across time, listening for what truth needs to be heard in each voice from the past. I like this image very much. I’m also drawn to the picture of theology as a dinner party, as adding food always makes things better. I posited on Facebook that:

‘When Quakers say “we don’t need theology”, we think we’re throwing off oppressive chains, whereas actually we’re leaving a vibrant dinner party in favour of eating our sandwiches in the car and talking to ourselves.’

Friend Rhiannon countered:

‘To be fair to the Quakers hanging out in the car, some people at the dinner party say things like “Everyone should eat meat because humans were made to eat meat!” and “Gluten intolerance is just a fashion, we shouldn’t provide gluten-free products because it’s just giving in to liberal society!” and eating your own sandwiches is much safer if less vibrant.’

Talking this analogy through with Rhiannon, we thought that if the dinner party is an intimidating place to be, we need to develop some theological resilience. We need to formulate a plan to get back in to the dinner party. This may initially involve some volunteers sneaking back in and bringing back Tupperware full of carrot sticks. Really tasty carrot sticks with some sort of tempting dip.

Theological resilience will help us to articulate why some things need to be rejected and rethought – ‘Oh, so it was Calvin’s potato salad that gave us all food poisoning!’ – and calls us to listen again to voices we may have previously dismissed – ‘Augustine’s hummus may be gross, but he makes a mean trifle.’ Real listening means being open to challenge – ‘Are the sandwiches we thought were made by George Fox actually made by Schleiermacher? And have they gone stale?’ – as well as realising that Quakers have an important voice to add to the exciting hubbub of theological debate – ‘Seriously guys, you *have* to try James Nayler’s incarnational theology… er, I mean his broccoli quiche’. The dinner party will carry on with or without us, and I want to join in.

[Friend Ben has written a great blog post on similar themes.]

[1] Charles Eugene Fager, ed., New Voices, New Light : Papers from the Quaker Theology Roundtable (Wallingford, Pennsylvania: The Issues Program of Pendle Hill, 1995).

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4 thoughts on “Quakers and the theological dinner party

  1. I like the idea of Quaker theology as a Meeting for Worship across time, and I agree with you that Augustine is well worth attending to. Indeed, Quakers previously have known this. For example, Edmund Harvey prefaces his 1921 Swarthmore Lecture ‘The Long Pilgrimage’ with a couple of paragraphs from De Civitate Dei. (Yes, being white, middle class and educated I’m going to use the Latin). Augustine also had a very deep understanding of what it is to be a religious practitioner and to commune with God (to use theist language). One of his prayers includes the phrase ‘O God, speak so that I may hear’. That is a beautiful way to express the practice of prayerful contemplation.

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