Book Review: ‘Seeking Paradise’ by Stephen Lingwood

(Disclaimer: Stephen is a personal friend, and gifted me a copy of his book, although this review is unsolicited.)

Quakers in Britain are in decline, numerically speaking at least, and we don’t quite know what to do about it. Is numerical decline even a problem? We’re not sure! We don’t want to push our faith onto others. We want to avoid anything that smacks of evangelism, speaking of ‘outreach’ instead. Since we hold a universalist theology – in that the Light is accessible to all, no matter what their religious tradition – there’s very little impetus for us to evangelise anyway. But we also can’t shake our desire to grow, to share the treasures of the Quaker tradition with others and be part of a living, thriving faith community. In our conversations about Quaker ‘outreach’ we often find ourselves pulled in these two directions and going nowhere at all.

Quakers who want to find a way out of this impasse will find the new book by Stephen Lingwood – Seeking Paradise: A Unitarian Mission for Our Times – a helpful and thought-provoking read. Lingwood is a Unitarian Minister, engaging in pioneer ministry in Cardiff, and his insights spring from his practical experience of growing faith community from the ground up. Although this book is addressed primarily to the Unitarian community, the similarities between Unitarians and British Quakers are such that much of what Lingwood suggests is directly applicable to Quakerism.

There are important differences between the two traditions. The first Quakers were neither Unitarian (they saw speculation on the doctrine of the Trinity as a distraction, but they still used Trinitarian language, and affirmed the divinity of Jesus) nor Universalist (they believed that God’s light was available to all, but they did not believe that all would necessarily be saved). However we do share a historic concern for the revival of ‘primitive Christianity’, and since Quakers came under the influence of Liberal Protestantism the similarities have vastly increased. Like Quakers, British Unitarians are a small and declining religious group that fears for its extinction, wants to grow but can’t quite articulate why, and can’t understand why it isn’t more popular:

If there is any kind of philosophy behind contemporary Unitarian thinking on church growth, it is a kind of liberal optimism. There is a sense that on a number of issues, such as gay rights, and broad tolerance of other religions, Unitarians are more in line with general British culture than is mainstream Christianity. So the argument goes that “lots of people would come to us if only they knew about us, if only we were better at getting the message out”. This is asserted more often than argued, and whether or not it is actually true is a question that deserves some attention.[1]

Exactly the same could be said about British Friends.

There’s much in the book for Quakers to get their teeth into, but in this review I’m going to draw out three particular threads: the challenges of being a pluralistic community, how we talk about provisionality, and the need to offer a vision of salvation.

The problems with pluralism

Unitarians and Quakers in Britain are pluralistic. They are theologically diverse communities, with members drawing on religious traditions in addition to Christianity. This is a relatively recent development, with Quakers moving towards pluralism from the 1960s onwards. Lingwood could be describing Quakers when he writes: ‘There has been a gradual shift away from Christian language and practice and into a post-modern liberalism that has been characterised (some would say unfairly) as “you can believe anything you want”.’[2]

Pluralism might be seen as advantageous to church growth. We might think that room for theological diversity means room for a greater diversity people. But Lingwood suggests that talk of theological diversity might obscure the reality:

Internal Unitarian pluralism is actually something of an illusion… The diversity of Unitarianism is generally across a particular defined spectrum from liberal religious humanist to liberal Christian to a liberal eclecticism embracing all religions… It is not particularly clear why theological diversity is somehow “better” than diversity of class, age, and race. Again, on that score Unitarians are considerably less diverse than other denominations.[3]

So maybe pluralism isn’t that advantageous at all. It also presents a significant challenge to our understanding of community. In a pluralistic culture, Quakerism can be seen as blank canvas onto which we transpose our own individual beliefs. The silent, plain nature of Quaker worship might even invite such an interpretation. Quakerism becomes an empty container for us to fill with whatever we like. But such an attitude undermines our efforts to grow as a community:

Unitarians say, “Come to our community, where you can think for yourself, rather than be bothered by a community that tells you what to think.” But if community and tradition are impediments to “thinking for yourself”, then would not the best thing be to stay away from all communities? Would it not be better to be alone?[4]

But like Quakerism, Unitarianism is not an empty container. It is not content-less: ‘When I use the word “Unitarian”, I am not referring to a “blank space” in which anything can be slotted, but to a particular historical tradition with its own set of stories and practices.’[5] Rather than presenting Unitarianism as a blank canvas, Lingwood argues for a Unitarianism rooted in tradition. This doesn’t mean being stuck in the past, or pining for ‘the good old days’. It means being part of a shared conversation over time. As well as being a community of people, we’re a community of shared ideas, symbols and language. This is a vital aspect of Quaker discernment. When we seek to be led forward by the Spirit, we don’t start from scratch. We take the witness of others, including our Quaker ancestors into account. We discern from within a ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Heb. 12:1). We reflect on how the Spirit has guided us in the past, to help us recognise the workings of the Spirit in the present. Lingwood writes glowingly about Quaker discernment as a significant corporate spiritual practice that Unitarians could learn from. A key principle of Quaker discernment is that we can rarely find the right way forward alone. The leadings of the Spirit are best discerned in community. When we invite others into our community, we’re inviting them to take part in this shared conversation.

The limits of provisionality

Lingwood rightly states that the existence of bad or harmful evangelism doesn’t mean evangelism is inherently wrong.  Ethical evangelism is possible, when it is based on open, honest dialogue from and within community. Liberal evangelism should be done ‘non-coercively, honestly, hopefully, and within a commitment to justice and community. But above all we should do evangelism conversationally.’[6] We meet God in this kind of dialogue, something that makes instinctive sense to the ‘listening spirituality’ of Quakerism. I won’t detail Lingwood’s descriptions of nurturing, inviting and pioneering dialogue here, only to say that Quakers will find them very useful.

As part of this attitude of openness, Lingwood stresses the importance of provisionality, meaning free enquiry, ongoing revelation, and an openness to new truth. I agree that provisionality is an important ingredient of liberal religion, but I think it can be overstated. Lingwood writes: ‘in order to be entirely honest, mission theology has to admit that it might be radically wrong and need to radically change. “Think it possible that you may be mistaken” say the Quakers.’[7] I often hear this much repeated axiom among Friends to imply that there is little, if anything we can say with confidence. I also occasionally encounter an attitude that claiming anything with certainty negates all provisionality. It is assumed that, as a Christian, I have no room for questions or mystery, and I’ve closed myself off to new discoveries. But we don’t have to choose between complete knowing on the one hand, and complete unknowing on the other. There is a middle way! We can hold knowing and unknowing, certainty and provisionality, in tension. Both are important. Lingwood makes a distinction between Truth and Salvation, but I’m not sure they can be separated. One of the great insights of Liberation theology is that they are the same thing – any theological truth-claim that does not further the cause of liberation (salvation) is heresy. Theologian James Cone states this when he says: ‘For in the Christian story, truth is not an object but is the project of freedom made possible by the presence of God in the midst of the people. Only stories that invite an openness to other human stories are true.’[8]

Salvation as seeking paradise

Another way of asking ‘Why become a Quaker?’ might be to say ‘What’s the Quaker good news?’ Evangelism (as much as we may be suspicious of the word) is about announcing good news. Here Lingwood diagnoses an important problem. In a pluralistic community, where do you put your faith? You can’t you collectively put your faith in God if you can’t agree on God’s existence. Lingwood suggests that in such a situation, the focus of faith shifts to the community itself, rather than what transcends the community:

We point to the church, rather than the faith. The message is generally “We’re really good”, rather than “Here’s a faith that will transform you and the world”. In crude terms we could say that the mainstream Christian church says “Jesus is great”, the Buddhists say “The dharma of the Buddha is great”, Muslims say “Allah is great”, but Unitarians say “Unitarians are great”. Can you see the difference?[9]

I am far more likely to hear someone in Quaker worship praise Quakerism than praise God. In my work with newcomers to Friends, I regularly hear people say they don’t feel good enough to be a Quaker. Why would people join a community that makes them feel morally inferior? What happens to our faith in Quakerism when Quakers are revealed to be imperfect, or morally dubious? To this Lingwood states: ‘The only way to grow the denomination is to have faith in something other than the denomination.’[10] This also means coming to terms with our own brokenness. Quakers are not very good at talking about sin and evil, but we need to try harder if we want to speak honestly about ourselves: ‘There is an urgent need for a Unitarian anthropology that recognises the ambiguous nature of human nature and the often tragic reality of the human condition.’[11]

So Lingwood points to the need for a coherent understanding of salvation within Unitarianism. Put simply, what is the goal of Unitarianism beyond making more Unitarians? Lingwood describes salvation as human flourishing, and the faith to work for it. He explores several symbols of salvation – the ‘Kin-dom of God’, the ‘Beloved Community’ and paradise. He describes paradise as intimate friendship with God through prayer and worship, and experiencing God’s presence in this world. It involves a passionate love for creation. It marries activism and mysticism, where we ‘pray as though everything depended on God, and work as though everything depended on us.’[12] The book’s most powerful chapter – ‘Faith in paradise’ – contains a moving manifesto for Unitarian mission:

Why should we desire the growth of our liberal denomination? Because the world is suffering from alienation and injustice and Empire. People are alienated from the Earth, from their own bodies, from their neighbours, and from God… In such a world we must grow to offer a vision of paradise, a vision of the radical imagination that introduces people to the reality of their oneness with all and a vision of how the world could be. We must show how this is possible by being an outpost of paradise, by concretely demonstrating how paradise can be a reality in this world and in our congregations. We must replace the world’s imagination of Empire with an imagination of paradise. We want to recruit people to this mission because of the great needs of the world.’[13]

I encourage any Friend with an interest in growing the Quaker community and sharing the discoveries of Quakerism to engage with this book, especially if, like me, you are thrilled by the question: What would it mean for our Quaker meetings to become ‘outposts of paradise’?

[1] Stephen Lingwood, Seeking Paradise: A Unitarian Mission for Our Times. (London: The Lindsey Press, 2020), 24.

[2] Lingwood, 24.

[3] Lingwood, 62.

[4] Lingwood, 39.

[5] Lingwood, 64.

[6] Lingwood, 109.

[7] Lingwood, 36.

[8] James H. Cone, God of the Oppressed, Rev. ed (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1997), 114.

[9] Lingwood, Seek Paradise, 60.

[10] Lingwood, 133.

[11] Lingwood, 49–50.

[12] Lingwood, 134.

[13] Lingwood, 93.

[Featured image photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash]

3 thoughts on “Book Review: ‘Seeking Paradise’ by Stephen Lingwood”

  1. Thanks for sharing this book Mark. As a member of a fading meeting with serious conversations on the near horizon we are often on the horns of this problem. A Friend is very insistent on the “why don’t people come given all the people who are looking for something like us” and this might be the start of a more constructive reply than “we are trying” and “beats me”

    I recognise the issue of people feeling “not good enough” to join with Quakers. For me the opportunity comes perhaps from the potential for a Quaker community to help us to be our better selves and live good lives. Something about connection to people and to something bigger

    1. Thanks for reading Alan. I think what you say about Quaker community helping us to live better lives is crucial. I long for a community of people that supports each other in discipleship, and recognizes that we just can’t live the lives we need to by ourselves, but there’s an individualistic current within Quakerism that often works against that.

  2. Intriguing for me to read. I began as a Unitarian but my unasked for mystical encounters introduced me to Christ and I was no longer a good fit for them. At least on the West Coast of the US you can be a pagan before you can be a Christian in the Unitarian church. Then a Quaker for years. Now as a Catholic I find I still am not an exact fit, but there is definitely more room in the tradition for the Christian contemplative mystic, and on the East Coast the Quakers are not typically Christian.

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