‘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).

william_blake_all_religions_a_are_one_victoria_and_albert_museum

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).

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6 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

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