Friends and theology and geek pick-up hotspots

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.

  • You know me, a long-time kvetch­er about our col­lec­tive short­falls. But I think an impor­tant ele­ment of the Quak­er path is to stay in there and wres­tle with the imper­fect group of peo­ple that we’ve been giv­en – includ­ing of course our own self.
    “Inner spir­i­tu­al­i­ty” might sound like some kind of per­son­al indul­gence, but a true effort to devel­op it is entire­ly prop­er; one needs to con­nect to that “true source of our dai­ly bread” as a foun­da­tion for those larg­er works you find more impressive.

  • The­ol­o­giz­ing isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly a community-builder. The process of peo­ple work­ing out their own indi­vid­ual the­olo­gies tends to cre­ate peo­ple who are each kin­da wrapped up in their own pri­vate under­stand­ings, and who there­fore don’t con­nect with one anoth­er near­ly as well as they might.
    Bar­clay escaped that trap because he was not pre­sent­ing his own the­ol­o­gy but, rather, map­ping out the the­ol­o­gy of the Soci­ety of Friends as he had found them. He was drawn into uni­ty with Friends by the process of map­ping their theology.
    And mod­ern schol­ar­ly the­olo­gians escape that trap inso­far as they stick to pro­duc­ing the­ol­o­gy, not as a per­son­al asser­tion of truth, but as an activ­i­ty with­in the schol­ar­ly com­mu­ni­ty. In this wise their the­ol­o­giz­ing builds com­mu­ni­ty between them and the schol­ars they are col­lab­o­rat­ing with. But it doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly build com­mu­ni­ty between them and the local grass­roots church where they wor­ship. And once they pro­duce the­ol­o­gy as a per­son­al asser­tion of truth, they start iso­lat­ing them­selves even from the schol­ar­ly community.
    Quak­erism is very much a cor­po­rate endeav­or, and I think that’s why we Friends are wary of indi­vid­ual the­ol­o­giz­ing. It’s not that we are anti-intellectual. Par­tic­u­lar­ly in the unpro­grammed sphere, our meet­ings teem with shame­less intel­lec­tu­als, and the work­shops at year­ly meet­ings and retreats are often full of shame­less intel­lec­tu­al­iz­ing. But we don’t want to empha­size things that divide us. We want to find our way back togeth­er, back to com­mu­ni­ty, out of the fal­l­en­ness of the world. And so we do our intel­lec­tu­al­iz­ing with a light touch, and don’t cling too hard to the the­o­log­i­cal ideas we come up with in those work­shops and retreats.
    Is the gap between Friends ideals and prac­tices unbridge­able? Maybe so; your wife Julie may be on to some­thing impor­tant there. But I think it’s a mis­take to think that Friends ideals are what Quak­erism is about.
    It seems to me that an ide­al is a prod­uct of our own human men­tal process­es, which we attempt to use to extri­cate our­selves from some mea­sure of the wrong­ness of the world. Which is about as much as to say: an ide­al is a human-made idol that we look to to save us. Would you disagree?
    The pur­pose of Quak­erism — or, at least, of tra­di­tion­al Quak­erism; I don’t think I prop­er­ly under­stand any oth­er kind — is to walk in the Light, i.e. to act with con­stant atten­tion to, and obe­di­ence to, the inward Guide, Christ him­self. And at least in my own expe­ri­ence, fol­low­ing that Guide turns out to be some­thing quite dif­fer­ent from fol­low­ing one’s ideals. There are repeat­ed moments when our ideals pull us to do or say some­thing and the Guide responds: wait a moment, if you act that way you will hurt some­one, or you will neglect somebody’s real needs.
    I under­stand your sense of alien­ation from for­mal Quak­er bod­ies, Mar­tin. But do you have an ordi­nary local Quak­er com­mu­ni­ty you can feel part of, some­place where you can love and care for oth­er mem­bers and be loved and cared for by them in return? That’s what it’s all about, I think.

  • @Forrest: I agree with what you say. There’s noth­ing wrong with inner spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. But I think I agree with Frost that mod­ern “FGC style” Friends have become unnec­es­sar­i­ly anti-intellectual and cut off from spir­i­tu­al thought. By and large we’re igno­rant of con­tem­po­rary trends in Chris­t­ian thought, by and large we’ve stopped read­ing the Bible or Bar­clay or Quak­er Jour­nals, by and large we have trou­ble talk­ing to one anoth­er about our deep­est spir­i­tu­al open­ings. We look sole­ly to our own expe­ri­ence, as if any kind of social inter­ac­tion (past or present) would some­how dilute the puri­ty of our exe­ri­ence. The­ol­o­gy – how we process our expe­ri­ences into an under­stand­ing of God, the world, and the role of the church – hap­pens whether we want it to or not. There’s more to say about this but words aren’t com­ing so I’ll stop here.
    @Marshall: got to watch my lan­guage with you. Okay, replace “ide­al” with “gospel order.” Both Julie and I are quite hap­py in the messi­ness and iron­ic incon­sis­ten­cies of liv­ing, breath­ing com­mu­ni­ties – just look where I worked for the last eight years! Just look at the blo­goso­phere. Hey, just look at her fam­i­ly (kid­ding Julie!). Yes, I have a nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to want to live clos­er to an ide­al – God’s ide­al – but ain’t that the point? And isn’t there a role for Friends who stand on the cross­roads and point the way back home?
    I have been deeply involved in a num­ber of Quak­er com­mu­ni­ties, local, pro­fes­sion­al, asso­ci­a­tion­al (I’m think­ing young adult Friends) and vir­tu­al. In my cur­rent moment in life a bizarre part time work sched­ule and com­pli­cat­ed First Day morn­ing child­care arrange­ments are keep­ing me from as active par­tic­i­pa­tion in a local meet­ing as I would like but this should be tem­porar­i­ly (Lord, I hope this cur­rent sched­ule is temporary!).
    My warn­ing for Friends to “not to tie this vision too close­ly with any exist­ing insti­tu­tion” is borne of many years observ­ing humans some­times be afraid to chal­lenge their com­mu­ni­ties when need­ed. This can be done lov­ing­ly and in a healthy com­mu­ni­ty this is appre­ci­at­ed. I was prob­a­bly think­ing of Fox’s obser­va­tion that his search for world­ly answers to his spir­i­tu­al ques­tions failed pre­cise­ly because he had to learn that “even Christ Jesus” was the source he need­ed to turn to.

  • Hi, Mar­tin.
    I unite with an impor­tant point For­rest made “But I think an impor­tant ele­ment of the Quak­er path is to stay in there and wres­tle with the imper­fect group of peo­ple that we’ve been giv­en — includ­ing of course our own self.” Although you respond­ed to Forrest’s com­ment, I don’t think you respond­ed to this part of it. If I read what For­rest is say­ing cor­rect­ly, he’s gen­tly chal­leng­ing the wis­dom of let­ting your­self get “…pret­ty detached from for­mal Quak­er bod­ies” as you put it.
    I too, am pret­ty detached from the “for­mal Quak­er bod­ies” that seem to get most often men­tioned in the Quak­er blo­gos­phere: FUM, FGC, FWCC, AFSC, etc. But for me a strong ongo­ing rela­tion­ship to my local Friends Meet­ing (in my case that’s 15th Street Meet­ing in New York) is an essen­tial dimen­sion of my spir­i­tu­al life. It’s hard for me to imag­ine what it would be to call myself a Quak­er with­out that connection.
    From this per­spec­tive I often see the sup­posed “big issues” of Quak­er poli­ty in quite dif­fer­ent terms than those being wide­ly dis­cussed. For exam­ple, I am much less exer­cised about how my Year­ly Meet­ing relates to FUM and FGC than how my unpro­grammed month­ly meet­ing relates to the pas­toral meet­ing that also wor­ships in our building.
    In the local Meet­ing Friends with dif­fer­ent the­olo­gies and dif­fer­ent con­cep­tions of wit­ness can get to know each oth­er on a per­son­al lev­el. Then when they do dis­cuss dif­fer­ences it can be done (not that it always is, but it can be) with a greater degree of mutu­al trust and under­stand­ing than when Friends at a con­fer­ence adopt posi­tion papers or decide on policies.
    I don’t find my local meet­ing to be over­whelm­ing­ly “anti-intellectual”, though that strain does exist. Many Friends come to us with a lot of intel­lec­tu­al sophis­ti­ca­tion devel­oped inde­pen­dent­ly of Quak­erism per se. This can be com­bined with a rather shal­low knowl­edge of Quak­er his­to­ry and tra­di­tion, but that can be cured with study and dis­cus­sion — an activ­i­ty that Friends in the local meet­ing seem to value.
    One val­ue of par­tic­i­pa­tion in the local meet­ing is its ten­den­cy over time to under­mine per­son­al self-righteousness. It’s hard for me to climb on my high horse in the com­pa­ny of Friends who have seen me fall off its back before.
    So, bot­tom line, If you are say­ing here that you no longer attend a Quak­er Meet­ing reg­u­lar­ly, I rather think it would be a good thing both for the lucky meet­ing and for you if you could reconnect.
    But there I go, on that high horse again… Pro­ceed as led.
     — - Rich

  • @Rich: I under­stand My Good Wife Julie emailed back when your com­ment came in. I think you now under­stand that its only very prac­ti­cal work-related activ­i­ty that’s been tak­ing up my Sun­day morn­ings for the last few months and keep­ing me from reg­u­lar atten­dance at Mid­dle­town Meet­ing which I think of as “my” meet­ing now even though I haven’t (yet) trans­fered mem­ber­ship. I too hope this sit­u­a­tion changes soon and I get my Sun­day morn­ings back!

  • Mar­shall Massey

    Hal­lo, Martin!
    Okay, let’s replace “ideals” with “Gospel Order”. If we do that, it no longer makes sense to me to say that “Friends ideals [in the sense of “Gospel Order”] and prac­tices were unbridgable”. “Gospel Order” sim­ply means “the prac­tices explic­it­ly taught by Christ and the Holy Spir­it in the Bible” — prac­tices such as those laid out in Matthew 18:15 – 17, and the more dif­fi­cult ones laid out in the Ser­mon on the Mount — and those prac­tices are quite obvi­ous­ly doable. And the “bridge” here is sim­ply to do them — and Julie, or you, or I, or any­one else who wants, can do them when­ev­er she or he pleas­es, with­out wait­ing on the month­ly meet­ing either to give her/him per­mis­sion or to do them itself first.
    And yes, oh I do agree, there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to our con­di­tion. And yes, a church of fal­li­ble human beings can­not sub­sti­tute for Christ Jesus in that capac­i­ty. But that isn’t the real pur­pose of the church in any case, now, is it?
    Christ brought the church into exis­tence, back when he was walk­ing the earth, not as a sub­sti­tute for him — a place where each of us can find what her or his heart is hun­ger­ing for, already pre­pared and wait­ing to be con­sumed — but rather, as a body of dis­ci­ples, a place where we as dis­ci­ples can prac­tice that dis­ci­pline that he him­self called us to prac­tice, and where those around us who are our fel­low dis­ci­ples will under­stand and sup­port and respond to what we are doing with some small mea­sure of comprehension.
    So in answer to your ques­tion — “Yes, I have a nat­ur­al ten­den­cy to want to live clos­er to an ide­al — God’s ide­al — but ain’t that the point?” — I’d say, yes, you’re absolute­ly right, the point is to live clos­er to that ide­al. But I’d add that we live clos­er to that ide­al by we our­selves prac­tic­ing that ide­al: by our­selves doing those Gospel Order prac­tices one choice at a time. That’s the only pos­si­ble way to bring that ide­al into exis­tence. The ide­al is not the sort of thing that we can just go and pick up a serv­ing of in some church or meet­ing somewhere.
    Reproach­ing the Quak­er church for not liv­ing up to our ideals, seems to me to be kin­da like reproach­ing the stove in the kitchen for not being edi­ble. The stove is not sup­posed to be edi­ble. It’s sup­posed to be a place where we bring edi­ble things into exis­tence by our own col­lec­tive labor, fol­low­ing the meth­ods we have been taught for doing so.
    The virtue of the Quak­er church, a.k.a. the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, as dis­tin­guished from (say) the Roman Catholic Church, is not that the Quak­er church hands us a bet­ter meal; it’s that the Quak­er church pro­vides us with a bet­ter struc­ture for prac­tic­ing, our own selves, the cook­ing skills that our Lord com­mand­ed us to prac­tice. In the Quak­er church it is eas­i­er for us to focus on being bap­tized with fire not water; it is eas­i­er for us to focus on wor­ship not on the moun­tain nor in the tem­ple but in Spir­it and in Truth; it is eas­i­er for us to prac­tice call­ing no man Rab­bi, in an orga­ni­za­tion where we do not have lead­ers as the Gen­tiles have, who lord it over them; it is eas­i­er for us to prac­tice Gospel dis­ci­plines like integri­ty and peace, because those we are among keep remind­ing us over and over of the impor­tance of doing so.
    So in a nut­shell, it still seems to me that your crit­i­cism, and Julie’s, of the RSoF, holds some very impor­tant truth, and yet miss­es the point.
     — Or am I miss­ing the point? (Some­times I am very obtuse.)

  • Julie DeMarchi Heiland

    Dear Mar­shall,
    I’m not sure where I (Julie) come into the con­ver­sa­tion or the sto­ry here, so I’m not even going to try to scratch the sur­face of my expe­ri­ences in and opin­ions of Quak­erism, what­ev­er they may be. But with regard to the kitchen stove, at least it works. With­out say­ing much else, I think if you’re pre­sum­ing that I once thought a Quak­er meet­ing some­thing oth­er than it is (the food rather than the cook­er), you’re wrong. I am not that eas­i­ly con­fused. Also, I of course don’t agree that “we bring edi­ble things into exis­tence by our own col­lec­tive labor.” There is but one God, the Lord Jesus Christ and He alone is our Food. As for what­ev­er “crit­i­cisms” *I* have of the RSOF, since I haven’t spo­ken any of them nor have I had any con­ver­sa­tions with you, I think it’s jump­ing the gun for you to assume they “miss the point.” I don’t think Martin’s miss the point either. Con­tin­u­al patron­iz­ing dis­mis­sive­ness is one of the many (though not the main) rea­sons I no longer find myself among Quakers.
    In Charity,