Wess Daniels posts about Quaker theology on his blog. I responded there but got to thinking of Swarthmore professor Jerry Frost’s 2000 Gathering talk about FGC Quakerism. Academic, theologically-minded Friends helped forge liberal Quakerism but their influenced wained after that first generation. Here’s a snippet:
“[T]he first generations of English and America Quaker liberals like Jones and Cadbury were all birthright and they wrote books as well as pamphlets. Before unification, PYM Orthodox and the other Orthodox meetings produced philosophers, theologians, and Bible scholars, but now the combined yearly meetings in FGC produce weighty Friends, social activists, and earnest seekers.”
“The liberals who created the FGC had a thirst for knowledge, for linking the best in religion with the best in science, for drawing upon both to make ethical judgments. Today by becoming anti-intellectual in religion when we are well-educated we have jettisoned the impulse that created FGC, reunited yearly meetings, redefined our role in wider society, and created the modern peace testimony. The kinds of energy we now devote to meditation techniques and inner spirituality needs to be spent on philosophy, science, and Christian religion.”
This talk was hugely influential to my wife Julie and myself. We had just met two days before and while I had developed an instant crush, Frost’s talk was the first time we sat next to one another. I realized that this might become something serious when we both laughed out loud at Jerry’s wry asides and theology jokes. We ended up walking around the campus late into the early hours talking talking talking.
But the talk wasn’t just the religion geek equivalent of a pick-up bar. We both responded to Frost’s call for a new generation of serious Quaker thinkers. Julie enrolled in a Religion PhD program, studying Quaker theology under Frost himself for a semester. I dove into historians like Thomas Hamm and modern thinkers like Lloyd Lee Wilson as a way to understand and articulate the implicit theology of “FGC Friends” and took independent initiatives to fill the gaps in FGC services, taking leadership in young adult program and co-leading workshops and interest groups.
Things didn’t turn out as we expected. I hesitate speaking for Julie but I think it’s fair enough to say that she came to the conclusion that Friends ideals and practices were unbridgable and she left Friends. I’ve documented my own setbacks and right now I’m pretty detached from formal Quaker bodies.
Maybe enough time hasn’t gone by yet. I’ve heard that the person sitting on Julie’s other side for that talk is now studying theology up in New England; another Friend who I suspect was nearby just started at Earlham School of Religion. I’ve called this the Lost Quaker Generation but at least some of its members have just been lying low. It’s hard to know whether any of these historically-informed Friends will ever help shape FGC popular culture in the way that Quaker academia influenced liberal Friends did before the 1970s.
Rereading Frost’s speech this afternoon it’s clear to see it as an important inspiration for QuakerQuaker. Parts of it act well as a good liberal Quaker vision for what the blogosphere has since taken to calling convergent Friends. I hope more people will stumble on Frost’s speech and be inspired, though I hope they will be careful not to tie this vision too closely with any existing institution and to remember the true source of that daily bread. Here’s a few more inspirational lines from Jerry:
We should remember that theology can provide a foundation for unity. We ought to be smart enough to realize that any formulation of what we believe or linking faith to modern thought is a secondary activity; to paraphrase Robert Barclay, words are description of the fountain and not the stream of living water. Those who created the FGC and reunited meetings knew the possibilities and dangers of theology, but they had a confidence that truth increased possibilities.