The Heroes, the Heritage, and the Hope of Liberal Quakerism
By Chuck Fager
A Friends meeting hosted an interfaith conference. During a break, the meeting’s Clerk fell to talking with a priest, a rabbi and an imam about the nature of God.
Despite everyone’s good intentions, they soon began to argue: God was a trinity, contended the priest; oh no, the imam retorted, Allah is One; the rabbi nodded at this, but insisted the Most High was truly revealed only in the Torah, not the Quran. And so it went, growing more heated with every exchange.
The Clerk sat mostly silent, wringing her hands and trying to remember the main points of the Alternatives to Violence workshop she’d attended the previous month.
The argument was interrupted by a sudden thunderclap that shook the building and rattled an open window. As the four believers trembled in awe, a piece of paper blew through the window and floated to the table in front of them.
The Clerk cautiously picked it up and looked it over. “It’s a message,” she said, and began to read:
“‘My children,”’ it began, “‘why do you wrangle over words? My glory and mystery surpass all your human imaginings, and I love each of you equally. Now cease your senseless quarrels, and get on about my work in your wonderful, needful world.”’
The abashed clerics bowed their heads in prayer.
After a moment, the Clerk cleared her throat.
“Um,” she added quietly, “It’s signed, “‘Thy Friend, God.”’
Liberal Quakerism is in a paradoxical situation today.
On the one hand, the inclusive approach to Christianity and other religions that it embodies, and of which it was a seminal advocate, has spread imperceptibly into many parts of larger Christian churches; even the pope makes Quakerly noises now and again.
On the other hand, our whole culture is currently straining to cope with a resurgence of particularist and exclusivist religion, both Christian and others. The motto of these militant movements is that of the triumphalist Roman Church: “Extra ecclesiam, nullus salus”–outside this church there is no salvation! Moreover, an enormous anti-liberal propaganda apparatus is at work nonstop today, insisting that anything to which the term “liberal” can be attached is the cause of every personal and social evil one can imagine.
Despite this barrage, I am unwilling to give up the term, for reasons that are perhaps equal parts historical, doctrinal and personal. Some of these reasons should become clear as we go along.
As we shall soon see, the anti-liberal propaganda barrage has its echoes among Friends, and these polemics can’t be ignored here. Still, my primary goal is to make a positive case, specifically:
That today’s liberal Quakerism is a legitimate and vital religious movement, one which has a distinguished past, a vigorous, growing present, and a promising future.
Put in theological terms, my thesis is that liberal Quakerism is an authentic and vibrant part of the people of God known as the Religious Society of Friends. We have many failings, but God is not finished with us yet–far from it. The Spirit is active here, we are still being called to renewal and witness, and many of us, in various places and various ways, are responding.
Without Apology is meant as a call to (nonviolent) arms to liberal Friends, our fellow travelers, and those seekers who are considering joining our pilgrimage.
To liberal Friends I say: let us answer our calling, think together about what it means in our time, and stand up for it in the face of adversity and opposition. Let us continue on the remarkable 350-year spiritual journey of the Religious Society of Friends.
We can do it. Indeed, we are doing it.
We can do it better.
One way to do it better is to understand more clearly some of the guiding ideas of our movement, and their roots in our Quaker and Christian heritage. These pages are meant to contribute to that process. With this understanding, I believe we will find that liberal Quakerism can face a new century and a new millennium without fear, and without apology.
To seekers, my plea is–read these pages, weigh them in light of your own spiritual pilgrimage.
Then consider this query:
Will you walk with us?
Who and What Am I Talking About?
As used here, the term “liberal Quakerism” has both institutional and theological meanings. Institutionally, it primarily includes a network of yearly meetings in North America and Britain. Many of the American yearly meetings are associated with Friends General Conference; several others, along with some smaller groupings, are unaffiliated. There is a scattering of similar groups elsewhere in the world.
Not all these groups would claim the “liberal” label. For instance, the term carries very different connotations in England than it typically does in the U.S. We’re still two nations divided by a common language. Unmistakably the perspective here is very much an American one; but I hope British Friends can make the needed translations.
We will also speak often here about evangelical Friends. This group includes principally the four American yearly meetings that belong to Evangelical Friends International, plus like-minded contingents in other yearly meetings.
These terms are distinct enough to be usable, but are necessarily less than rigorous. And to quote an evangelical we will hear from again, Stephen Main,
“both of these words have a lot of negative emotion. Please do not fall into the trap of applying too many assumptions in either group. I wish I knew of better words, but these two are by far the most commonly used and in their limited way probably are the most accurate.” (PH, p. 11)
Theologically, I define Liberal Quakerism as:
An ongoing effort to make visible a particular portion of the true Church, by means of the specific traditions and disciplines of the Religious Society of Friends. This very idea of manifesting the true Church is, we believe, rooted in the early Quakers’ unique and inclusive understanding of the Society’s Christian background and origins. The key Quaker disciplines by which this part of the Church is constituted are: silence-based, unprogrammed worship; a free ministry led by the spirit; decision-making by the worshipful sense of the meeting; church structures kept to a spartan, decentralized minimum; cultivation of the inward life of both individual and the group; a preference for unfolding experience of truth, or “continuing revelation,” over creeds and doctrinal systems; and devotion to the historic but evolving Quaker testimonies, especially peace, simplicity and equality.
We will come back to this definition in Chapter Five. For now, I’ll only add that liberal Friends are also the heirs and successors of a group of distinguished writers and thinkers including, in the first half of the twentieth century, Rufus Jones, Henry Cadbury, Howard Brinton, Douglas Steere, and Thomas Kelly. Synthesizing their work with more recent influences among us since their passing is in my view a very important task for liberal Quakers, and one that has barely begun. This essay can be seen as a preliminary, unsystematic move toward such a synthesis.
There’s more than a little chutzpah involved in attempting to tread the path so well blazed by Jones, Brinton and the others. Still, it seems to me that a review and update of liberal Quaker convictions and identity is long overdue. Thus, while only too conscious of my limitations in the fields of theology and church history, I’m borne up in making the attempt by a remark of G.K. Chesterton, who wrote brilliantly in his day on many subjects of which he was less than a master: “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.”
In that spirit, here’s hoping this outburst will stimulate Friends more qualified and discerning to take up this task and do it better. If so, I will be first in line to read and cheer their achievements.
Where I’m Coming From
There are four influences which have strongly shaped these pages.
First, I was raised a Catholic, of the pre-Vatican II variety: Latin mass, fish on Friday, nuns who looked like nuns, the “Index of Forbidden Books”; and hanging over everything, continuing echoes of the declaration, “Rome has spoken; the case is finished.”
I don’t miss this Catholicism, which is largely gone along with my youth. But when I read people such as Patrick Buchanan rhapsodizing about the version of America he thinks liberals stole from him, I recognize what he’s talking about, and have some inkling why he’s so nostalgic.
But, reading him, I also remember why I don’t miss it. (Buchanan, 1988)
Nevertheless, Rome did leave lasting marks on me, some of which are in evidence here.
One of them is the abiding conviction that religion is important, a matter of life and death.
Quakers have their share of martyrs; but Catholicism has a cult of martyrdom that was passed down with rosaries and holy cards as something we should almost be expecting.
Another is that while we–you and me–are weak, the spirit that sustains the church, as an authentic faith community (we called it grace) is strong; the church outlasted the Roman Empire’s persecutions, and then the empire itself; not to mention communism, and all sorts of other trials. It has even survived, mirabile dictu, its own seemingly bottomless capacity for corruption.
I have the same sense of sustaining sense about Quakerism. Wilmer Cooper, the first Dean of the Earlham School of Religion, expressed my sense well:
“Those of us close to the center of the Quaker movement probably believe, as I do, that the invisible hand of God is at work in the Society of Friends. Certainly human contriving has not kept it going.” (Cooper, p.4).
Quakers one by one are merely human; but as a faith community, our small Society adds up to more than the sum of its parts, because the Spirit still wills it–as Cooper says, “for purposes we may not wholly comprehend.” (Ibid.)
Next is the conviction that the renewal and preservation of such an authentic faith community, while ultimately the work of the spirit, is also inescapably a concrete and ongoing task for us, its living members. “Sanctum est Ecclesia, adhuc reformatione egere semper is the Latin: The church is holy, yet always in need of reformation.
A final Roman legacy is the clear lesson of history that the work of renewal, more often than not, comes to us in the form of struggle, spiritual and empirical, a depth of struggle for which military metaphors (including our Quaker “Lamb’s War”) are common and often appropriate.
A very different influence is the work of Jacques Ellul, a French Reformed theologian and sociologist. Ellul argued in many books that the most crucial, and often most difficult, task for an authentic faith community was above all to be itself. This was not a call to isolation, but rather to identity and integrity. Ellul insisted that the only real influence and “power” a church has, both internally and out in “the world,” is that which grows out of manifesting the spirit or revelation which called it into being.
That is, when a church is most truly itself, that is the point at which it is most empowered to make its best contribution to the world. Conversely, when a church compromises or abandons its own mission and identity for that of some other group or power, no matter how seemingly worthy, along with its uniqueness it loses the potential to make the specific contribution for which it was created. In biblical terms, such a group has become “conformed”, as the Apostle Paul put it (Romans 12:2) to the movements and powers of “the world.”
Ellul forcefully maintained that such worldly powers–especially governments and the would-be governments that are revolutionary groups–were almost always up to no good, and “conformity” to them would lead a church sooner or later into apostasy, manipulation, and disaster. I think he was right.
Ellul cites many examples of Christian churches becoming captives of various worldly powers, from ancient Roman emperors to modern capitalist and communist dictators. But he also pointed out, in one of his most compelling insights, that in our time, among the kind of churches I have been associated with, such corruption was most likely to come in a different and more subtle form. He called it “conformity to tomorrow.”
His description of this phenomenon bears quoting at some length.
“Conformity to tomorrow: …consists in a moderate opposition to the existing political power, together with the espousal of the ideas and doctrines of the most sensitive, the most visionary, the most appealing trend in society. This is a trend which, from the sociological point of view, is already dominant, and is the one which should normally be expected to win out….In this way, the political stand has the appearance of being independent, whereas in reality it is the expression of an avant-garde conformism.” (Ellul, 1972A, p. 123.)
“Avant-garde conformism.” I don’t know how this sounds to readers today, but it hit home with me when I first read it in 1973, and it still does. (Some of Ellul’s books are listed in the bibliography.)
The third influence is a Jewish writer, Arthur Waskow, and his book called Godwrestling. The title comes from chapter 32 of Genesis, the story of Jacob at the river Jabbok, where he wrestled an unidentified being all night. When dawn breaks and the being has not defeated him, Jacob is given a blessing in the form of a new name: Israel. In Hebrew, this name means “one who has wrestled God,” or “Godwrestler” for short.
This name is a key to the amazing and still-unfolding saga of Jewish history. Jacob’s sons became the Children of Israel, the children of the Godwrestler; the people of Israel; the nation of Israel; and even today there is the State of Israel. Godwrestlers all.
“Godwrestling” also provides, as Waskow explains, a key to understanding the course and diversity of the scriptures–the Hebrew scriptures initially, but the Christian scriptures as well. They are the record of, and the resource for, a set of faith communities that has fruitfully wrestled God for three thousand years, and counting.
Indeed, Waskow insists, that “every Shabbos morning, [his community] wrestles God.
Ourselves, and each other, and God. We do not simply accept the tradition, but we do not reject it either. We wrestle it: fighting it and making love to it at the same time. We try to touch it with our lives.” [Waskow, 1978, p.11; emphasis added.]
The declaration that “We do not simply accept the tradition, but we do not reject it either. We wrestle it…” can in a real sense be taken as the touchstone of this book. For this process of intense striving is central not only among Jews but in other communities as well, including Friends. It is often hard for us to admit, but as we shall see, Friends still wrestle with God, both within our own community, and between it and others.
Without Apology is such a wrestle. Waskow’s insight, hardly original in the vigorous Jewish tradition, has been one of the most important contributions to my own religious understanding of my Christian and Quaker background.
So there you have it. Three of my biases: Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish. I didn’t plan to be that conventionally ecumenical, and this is not my idea of balance: I wish I knew more about Islam, for instance.
One further, underlying influence cannot be slighted, though, because it is perhaps the most decisive, and it directly shapes my argument. It is the bias of experience: I am the very fortunate beneficiary of thirty years of rich and spiritually productive association with liberal Friends meetings, in Massachusetts, California, Virginia, and most recently Pennsylvania.
These meetings, although quite human and fallible in their own ways, have also been consistent vehicles of the spirit: they have seen me through thick and thin, sickness and health; they have brought me low when I got above myself, and inspired me when I was down. In short, I have been “saved” there, more than once, in the only spiritual sense of that term I understand.
I have watched these meetings “save” others too, and can’t hope to do justice to the quiet substance of their achievements. But this long experience undergirds my conviction that the liberal Quakerism they manifest is full of life and promise. It is a “saving faith.” This, along with gratitude, are what this book is principally meant to convey.
As influential as these meetings have been, along with other Quaker groups I have worked with and for, the notions and opinions expressed here are strictly mine, except where otherwise cited, and the responsibility for the interpretations is solely my own.
The Stories Behind this Story
“Narrative theology,” theology as stories and story-telling, is very fashionable today. It seems that for once I’m somewhat in fashion, because I’ve always told stories in my work.
Much of my argument here is built around stories. Most are drawn from nearly twenty years of reporting on Friends and studying our history. Quaker history, whether recent or ancient, is a gold mine of stories. The stories told here will attempt to make abstractions concrete, obscure points clear, and implications explicit. They will also attempt to keep you awake, and turning the pages.
In fact, we’ll begin with one such story, of a memorable week in a midwestern city. But first….
William Bacon Evans was one of the last plain Friends in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. Once, during World War Two, he drove a carload of Quaker conscientious objectors to pay a visit to a nearby county jail. The guard at the gate was surprised to see the large group, and the driver’s odd apparel. He asked where they were from.
Evans replied, approximately, that they had been through a weighty exercise at Quarterly Meeting, and added, “We’re traveling under concern, and would be grateful if thee would let us labor with thy inmates.”
“What’s that?” said the guard. “What did you say?”
Bacon Evans repeated his request, but the guard was just as confused the second time.
Noting his befuddlement, the old Friend smiled and said, “Ah, Friend, thee see, we are Quakers and we have a testimony for the plain speech.”
“Oh, yeah?” retorted the guard. “Well, Mr. Quaker, your speech will have to get a whole lot plainer if you expect me to understand it!”
Copyright © by Chuck Fager. All rights reserved.