‘I’m religious, not spiritual’: Postliberalism for Quakers

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.

Postliberal Quakerism?

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).

27 thoughts on “‘I’m religious, not spiritual’: Postliberalism for Quakers”

  1. Thanks so much for this piece, Mark. Reading this helps me understand why, despite having only ever been a member of liberal meetings, I have never felt like I was a Liberal Friend. I believe that the hunger for God is universal but the experience of God varies widely and in important ways.

    I wonder, do you have any additional insight on what people may mean when they say, “All religions are saying the same thing”? I have always felt that idea to be disrespectful of each religion’s peculiarities and of the weightiness of the religious search of a sincere seeker or convert, but I’ve heard this sentiment from intelligent people I like and respect. I’ve always just assumed that they had never seriously studied other religions, but that can’t be universally true. What am I missing?

    1. Thanks Adria! I think the idea of religions being the same goes all the way back to the aftermath of the European Wars of Religion, where you get philosophers like Kant trying to come up with some sort of ‘universal reason’ that transcends religious division, as a way of preventing further religious violence. It’s true that some religions share certain maxims, but they also differ in how they understand human nature, the nature of God etc. which are all big questions that can’t be ignored. So I think the idea that ‘all religions are the same’ stems from a noble sentiment, but is a cheap and unsuccessful way to true peace.

  2. Thankyou. I feel I’m getting a handle at last on what all these terms mean!

    My own experience tells me that the universal is the source from which all humanity springs. Something way deeper than our surface religious practices and any theological explanations we might try to make. It is by noting what happens when I have attended worship in other traditions that I’ve come to this conclusion. Waiting faithfully in the manner of Friends, alongside a different form of liturgy, I have several times reached a point of recognition that, by our very different routes, we have arrived at the same place – dark, velvety, gathered. I think it must be what Fox meant by “that which is eternal”. That place where we seek to know each other, where all souls meet and from which we all spring.

    So, to speak plainly, I believe a woolly, one size fits all approach is counterproductive and dishonest. We should each do our own tradition and do it well. And we need to be unafraid to plunge to a deeper level.

    1. Thanks Eleanor. And as God is always bigger than our ideas about God, there will always be deeper and deeper levels to plunge to! ‘Further in and farther up’ is they say in Narnia.

    1. Thanks Gerard. Not sure I can do justice to your question in a short reply. Is there a distinctive postliberal approach to the kingdom of God?
      Lindbeck seems to suggest that a liberal approach to the kingdom of God is to ‘start with experience, with an account of the present, and then adjust their vision of the kingdom of God accordingly, while postliberals are in principle committed to doing the reverse… Postliberalism is methodologically committed to neither traditionalism nor progressivism, but its resistance to current fashions, to making present experience revelatory, may often result in conservative stances.’ ‘The Nature of Doctrine’ p.112.
      Stanley Hauerwas writes ‘The kingdom is not simply some cipher that we can fill in with our ideas of what a good society ought to look like. Nor is it merely a way of reemphasising the eternal sovereignty of God, though this is certainly part of what the proclamation of the kingdom entails. Rather the proclamation of the coming kingdom of God, its presence, and its future coming is a claim about *how* God rules and the establishment of that rule through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Thus the Gospels portray Jesus not only offering the possibility of achieving what were heretofore thought to be impossible ethical ideals. He actually proclaims and embodies a way of life that God has made possible here and now.’ ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ pp.82-3

  3. I’d like to understand what you mean by Quaker exceptionalism. Penn and Barclay – and probably Fox too – believed that the Light was available to all. They were definitely proclaiming a universal religion, as indeed were Jesus and St Paul. Quaker exceptionalism, to me, is the opposite of that claim – it means Quakers are a ‘peculiar’ people whose rules and testimonies apply only to themselves i.e. exceptionalism=exclusivity.

    It’s possible to overdo the point about learning to ‘speak Quaker’. I agree there are traditions and narratives attaching to the Society – but the main tradition is that of silent worship. Silence is a universal language, as Edmund Harvey pointed out in his ‘Silence and Worship: a study in Quaker experience (London: Swarthmore press 1913/1925).

    1. Thanks Mark. By ‘Quaker exceptionalism’ I mean the idea that Quakerism is superior to (or purer than) other religious traditions because it has supposedly shed the cultural/liturgical/narrative trappings that ‘clog up’ the worship of other faiths.

      In regards to silence as a universal language, I take the postmodern approach of being skeptical of all claims to universality, and so disagree with you on that point.

      1. We had an exchange a while ago in which you criticised me for saying that Quakerism isn’t for everyone but now you reject universalism. I would say that theologically and in principle Quakerism is indeed for everyone because, as the early Quakers taught, the Light of Christ is available to all. However, I recognise sociologically and realistically that Quakerism is always likely to be a minority interest.

        Postmodernism, post-liberalism etc are essentially terms from the parlour game which is academic theology. It’s a game that gives me a guilty pleasure and I have to ration myself.

      2. Hi Mark. As I’ve said to Timothy, I think I was rash in saying I reject all claims to universality. I believe that God’s saving power is universal in scope and availability, I’m just wary of making claims to universality in terms of human experience and belief. I agree with you that Quakerism is for everyone, and although I don’t think everyone needs to be a Quaker, I think we should examine why British Quakerism appears to have a narrow appeal and attempt to widen it if we can.
        I’m not sure how to take your comment about ‘the palour game which is academic theology’.

  4. “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?”

    Yet you also say that you are sceptical of all claims to universality (except, it seems, the [universal?] claim that no such claims are true). So why is relativism a problem for you?

    And doesn’t postliberalism also make truth relative? If truth is just a function of our different traditions, then what happens when two people come from different traditions? In Christianity, Jesus is the Son of God; in Islam, Jesus is a Prophet. Is this like saying that in soccer it’s a foul if you pick up the ball, but in rugby it’s a legitimate move in the game?

    1. Thanks Timothy. I think I may have been rash in saying I’m skeptical to all claims of universality. Reflecting on it, I don’t believe that ‘silence is a universal language’ as I don’t see how silence can be a language or one that is universally understood. If I’m going to make any claims of universality, I believe that God’s saving work is universal (both in that it’s universally available and includes everyone and everything), but I’m wary of making statements about human religious practice or experience in terms of universality.
      Relativism (in the sense of truth being totally arbitrary) is a problem for me because I just don’t think it makes sense. I think that some things are true (like the inherent goodness of creation) and others false.
      Regarding truth, Lindbeck uses the example of a crusader crying ‘Christ is Lord’ whilst cleaving the skull of an ‘infidel’. Is the crusaders statement true? Lindbeck would say no, as the crusader’s actions falsify that statement. ‘Christ is Lord’ can only be proclaimed truthfully within a broader context of the faithful life of the community. This is truth as ‘performative’. This position isn’t without it’s difficulties! You’re sports example is very apt – Lindbeck uses the example of driving on the left or the right. One is only ‘true’ depending on the context. I don’t think I fully grasp it all myself, but as Lindbeck wrote this initially as a way to have respectful ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, I find it very helpful to approach people of other faiths with a sense of curiosity about their own ‘grammar’, rather than with an assumption that we’re all seeking the same thing.

  5. Thanks Mark for these very interesting comments.

    Like you, I find it hard to make sense of the claim that silence is a universal language. What silence means will depend on cultural context.
    Ilgar is an Indigenous language of northern Australia, with few surviving speakers. A linguist says this, about one of those speakers: “[He] never talks [Ilgar] to his own sisters, both of whom do speak Ilgar, because of a strict taboo on conversation between opposite-sex siblings. This leaves him in the odd position of talking his mother-tongue to people who don’t speak it, and not talking it with the couple of people who do”.
    Consider the silence that obtains between these Ilgar-speaking siblings. What does that silence mean to the siblings themselves? What does it mean to the linguist who studies their language? And what would be the meaning of a comparable silence as between siblings growing up in modern Britain?

    On the wider question of “post liberalism”, I think the points you make in your original post and in the comments are interesting and important. I have a lot of sympathy for the position you’ve described as “liberal”: so I’m interested to read a searching and careful critique of that position. From a Quaker-wide point of view, there are signs of a “turn to tradition” within British Quakerism, sometimes presented explicitly as a critique of liberal Quakerism. I think that in different ways Rachel Muers, Ben Pink Dandelion, Craig Barnett, and yourself, are examples of this. I learn a lot from all of you, and I’ve got a lot more to learn.

    Academic theology can be a parlour game, but it can be much more. Sometimes there can be a trajectory from academic theology to martyrdom (Bonhoeffer).

    1. Perhaps rather than ‘silence’ being a universal language I should have said ‘stillness’, as the practice of contemplation is found across many cultures whereas silence is just the absence of talking and can have all sorts of anthropological significance, as you say.

      I take your point that academic theology can have an impact in the real world. Martin Luther King’s personalism guided his political action, to give another example.

      I think the problem with liberal religion as defined – that it starts with experience – is that all religions come with some cultural and historical baggage so there can never be a purely experiential religion. If there is a ‘turn to tradition’ amongst British Quakers then, as liberal Quakerism dates back to the Manchester Conference of 1895 then a turn to tradition could be a turn to liberalism! So is the difference between a post-liberal Quaker and a liberal Quaker that the former is someone like me, who is researching a leading Quaker of the first half of the C20, while the latter is someone who is still into the Quaker-Buddhist connection, which has been an widespread interest since the 1960’s?

      1. Thanks Mark. One of the difficulties with applying post-liberal insights to modern British Quakerism is that, for Lindbeck , Frei and Hauerwas, a turn to tradition means re-engaging with scripture, something that I don’t think is possible for British Friends collectively. So this question of what a ‘turn to tradition’ might look like for British Quakers is an elusive one!

  6. We are all born human beings and then are uniquely shaped by our experiences as we grow up. The underlying foundation of our beings is not changed it is the rest that is shaped by our experience. Thus I am quite comfortable with the thought of a universal spirituality in all of us grounded in our underlying foundations.

    1. Thanks for your comment. A postliberal approach would be to ask what this ‘underlying foundation’ is and how we know about it. It would then go on to say that each religious tradition has its own account of what it means to be a human being.

  7. Of course there is an underlying foundation shared by human beings. Nobody seriously doubts this.
    There are lots of different ways in which we could talk about this “underlying foundation”. Here’s one.
    Each religious tradition has its own account of what it is to be human – and expresses that account in language, and in stories.
    This shows us that one thing that human beings have in common is that they are language users, and that they use language (among other things) to tell stories.
    Part of the “underlying foundation” is the universal human capacity to tell stories in language. The content of the stories varies from place to place.
    How do I know about this underlying foundation? I use a falsificationalist methodology (Popper). Show me an example of a human society that doesn’t use language, or that doesn’t tell stories, and I will modify my claim.
    Wittgenstein says somewhere that if a lion could speak then we couldn’t understand it – because humans and lions don’t share what he calls a “form of life”.
    But don’t we all accept that in principle any competent speaker of any human language is capable of learning any other human language?
    So not only do we all speak language – we are all in principle capable of learning one another’s language. We share enough of a “form of life” with all humans (unlike, says W, the case of humans and lions). The Tower of Babel wasn’t universal.

    1. Thanks for this Timothy. The example you give of language as an underlying foundation of human capacity is a really good one for this discussion. I agree with you! So other examples are that all human cultures have a place for music making, as well as rituals around food and personal hygiene. To say ‘music making is a universal human behaviour’ is different to saying ‘music is a universal language’. The former is undeniable, the latter is much more difficult to maintain. Firstly, music isn’t a language as it has no syntax. At best it is language-like. Secondly, and more importantly for our discussion, musical *experience* is not cross cultural. What one culture recognises as music may not be thought of as such by another culture (e.g. the Islamic call to prayer may sound musical to non-muslims, but is not regarded as music within Islamic culture). There are languages that do not have an equivalent word to our ‘music’. Some languages have a word for what we call ‘music’ that also includes dancing. Musical behaviour (as we would recognise it) is universal. Musical experience is not. And I agree, we are capable of learning another language, but dwelling within another language will change our experience of the world. There are concepts and experiences which have no words in English. In the recent (and excellent) sci-fi film ‘Arrival’ a linguist learns an alien language system, causing her to experience reality in a vastly different way. This is the postliberal view of language and religion. Yes, what we would recognise as religious behaviour is universal, but there is no common, universal religious experience, because our religious practice shapes our religious experience.

  8. And Mark, a question specifically for you. You say:
    “I believe that God’s saving work is universal (both in that it’s universally available and includes everyone and everything)”.
    How do you know this? Why doesn’t this give an “underlying foundation” to all human life?

    1. Thanks for the question Timothy. I inhabit the Christian tradition, and the Jesus story makes sense of my experience of the world. I believe the Jesus story is about a God whose saving work is universal, and I believe that the Jesus story is the underlying foundation of the cosmos.

  9. Sorry, when I said “The Tower of Babel wasn’t universal” what I mean was “wasn’t irreversible”.

  10. Maybe, as Wittgenstein said, if a lion could speak then we couldn’t understand it – but if it showed fear we’d certainly understand (as in the story of Androcles). What is fundamental is not language but emotion, and it is emotion that underlies religion: fear, awe, gratitude, love etc. It’s what we humans share with each other (and with the animals, certainly the higher ones).

    Societies with any degree of intellectual sophistication get to examining their spiritual and religious beliefs and practices – hence the scriptures of the Abrahamic religions, which are their societies’ attempts to record individual and collective experience. It follows that, as Mark says, relativism won’t do. The correct response to difference is the post-liberal one (as I understand it) of being respectful and inquisitive about other religions but not embracing them. This is spiritual enriching, because it develops emotional intelligence as well as factual knowledge, and it’s politically and socially stabilsing as it teaches people to live with diversity.

  11. Mark has been very generous in replying to my comments, and I am hesitant to come back once more. But I think he’s discussing some important issues.
    Liberalism v post liberalism sounds like an academic debate (a parlour game, said one of the comments here). And don’t we have enough labels already in the Society of Friends? We’ve already got Christian v Universalist and Theist v Non-theist; do we want to add Liberal v Postliberal also?
    What I would like to do is to state, as clearly and simply as I can, what seem to me to be the attractions of each position.
    Liberalism, among British Quakers, goes back to the Manchester Conference in 1895. It was barely a generation or two after Quakerism in this country emerged from behind its “hedge” of plain dress and strong pressures against marrying out.
    Here are, it seems to me, the three great strengths of the liberal impulse. First: we don’t just want to fence ourselves off from the world, we want to learn from it. Secondly: we want to serve the world, not just our own group. And thirdly: we want to speak to the world in language that it can understand, not in an in-group language that will only be understood by insiders.
    Fast-forward to the early 21st century. Now there is a different set of anxieties. Quakers worry that the unique insights of the Society are being diluted, that we are a chaos or a wilderness of individualism, that we are more like a secular friendly society than a Religious Society of Friends. And so there is a counter-movement: to rediscover what is unique and particular in the traditions of the Society. I think Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore lecture was an important part of this.
    Mark is drawing on academic theology, and using “post liberalism” as a way of talking about this 21st century impulse.

    So, here are two f/Friendly thoughts about all this.
    One is part of our recovery of tradition could be about re-learning what the original “liberal” impulse was all about. (Not liberalism or post liberalism but paleoliberalism? But let’s not invent any more labels).
    And a second thought: can we keep hold of the three good and positive liberal impulses, as I’ve tried to summarise them above? But can we also treat the post liberal impulse as a useful corrective to the darker, less positive side of liberalism?

    1. Just to say thank Timothy for your respectful and stimulating engagement with this post. I think there’s a lot to talk about here, but I’ll leave it for future posts. I think something on the inside/outside nature of ‘Quaker-speak’ has potential!

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