Two Theories of Change and Liberal Friends

Over in the NYTimes colum­nist David Brooks talks about Two The­o­ries of Change. He’s talk­ing about mod­ern Amer­i­can pol­i­tics but it seems rel­e­vant to Friends. Here’s his sum­ma­ry of a new paper by Yuval Lev­in of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago:


[Thomas] Paine believed that soci­eties exist in an “eter­nal now.” That some­thing has exist­ed for ages tells us noth­ing about its val­ue. The past is dead and the liv­ing should use their pow­ers of analy­sis to sweep away exist­ing arrange­ments when nec­es­sary, and begin the world anew. He even sug­gest­ed that laws should expire after 30 years so each new gen­er­a­tion could begin again

[Edmund] Burke, a par­tic­i­pant in the British Enlight­en­ment, had a dif­fer­ent vision of change. He believed that each gen­er­a­tion is a small part of a long chain of his­to­ry. We serve as trustees for the wis­dom of the ages and are oblig­ed to pass it down, a lit­tle improved, to our descen­dents. That wis­dom fills the gaps in our own rea­son, as age-old insti­tu­tions implic­it­ly con­tain more wis­dom than any indi­vid­u­al could have.

For Brooks, the Paine fol­l­low­ers are Tea Par­ty activists who think it’s fine to “sweep away 100 years of his­to­ry and return gov­ern­ment to its prein­dus­tri­al role.” 

But for Friends, espe­cial­ly Lib­er­al Friends, this touch­es on the nature of “Con­tin­u­al Rev­e­la­tion” that has been at the cen­ter of much of our delib­er­a­tions for about a hun­dred years now. Are we in an “eter­nal now,” ready to rein­vent lib­er­al Quak­erism every thir­ty years and only will­ing to read old Friends to pull quotes out of con­text? Or are we tin­ker­ers of tra­di­tion, trustees keep­ing the parts oiled for the next gen­er­a­tion? 
I can think of par­tic­u­lar Friends who fol­low Paine’s con­tin­u­al rev­o­lu­tion mod­el and oth­ers who fol­low Burke’s long chain mod­el. Some­how both feel lim­it­ed. To sub­scribe strong­ly to either is a kind of fun­da­men­tal­ism. We are in an eter­nal now (Christ has come to teach the peo­ple him­self) but we have 350 of expe­ri­ences and tech­niques that have taught us how to be ready to act in that now. Insist­ing on both seems impor­tant.

Blogging for the Kingdom

Warn­ing: this is a blog post about blog­ging.

It’s always fas­ci­nat­ing to watch the ebb and flow of my blog­ging. Quak­er­ran­ter, my “main” blog has been remark­ably qui­et. I’m still up to my eye­balls with blog­ging in gen­er­al: post­ing things to Quak­erQuak­er, giv­ing help­ful com­ments and tips, help­ing oth­ers set up blogs as part of my con­sult­ing busi­ness. My Tum­blr blog and Face­book and Twit­ter feeds all con­tin­ue to be rel­a­tive­ly active. But most of the­se is me giv­ing voice to oth­ers. For two decades now, I’ve zigzagged between writer and pub­lish­er; late­ly I’ve been focused on the lat­ter.

When I start­ed blog­ging about Quak­er issues sev­en years ago, I was a low-level cler­i­cal employ­ee at an Quak­er orga­ni­za­tion. It was clear I was going nowhere career-wise, which gave me a cer­tain free­dom. More impor­tant­ly, blogs were a near­ly invis­i­ble medi­um, read by a self-selected group that also want­ed to talk open­ly and hon­est­ly about issues. I start­ed writ­ing about issues in among lib­er­al Friends and about missed out­reach oppor­tu­ni­ties. A lot of what I said was spot on and in hind­sight, the archives give me plen­ty of “told you so” cred­i­bil­i­ty. But where’s the joy in being right about what hasn’t worked?

Things have changed over the years. One is that I’ve resigned myself to those missed oppor­tu­ni­ties. Lots of Quak­er mon­ey and human­ly activ­i­ty is going into projects that don’t have God as a cen­ter. No amount of rant­i­ng is going to dis­suade good peo­ple from putting their faith into one more staff reor­ga­ni­za­tion, mis­sion rewrite or clev­er program.It’s a dis­trac­tion to spend much time wor­ry­ing about them.

But the biggest change is that my heart is square­ly with God. I’m most inter­est­ed in shar­ing Jesus’s good news. I’m not a cheer­lead­er for any par­tic­u­lar human insti­tu­tion, no mat­ter how noble its inten­tions. When I talk about the good news, it’s in the con­text of 350 years of Friends’ under­stand­ing of it. But I’m well aware that there’s lots of peo­ple in our meet­ing­hous­es that don’t under­stand it this way any­more. And also aware that the seek­er want­i­ng to pur­sue the Quak­er way might find it more close­ly mod­eled in alter­na­tive Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties. There are peo­ple all over lis­ten­ing for God and I see many attempts at rein­vent­ing Quak­erism hap­pen­ing among non-Friends.

I know this obser­va­tion excites some peo­ple to indig­na­tion, but so be it: I’m trust­ing God on this one. I’m not sure why He’sgiven us a world why the com­mu­ni­ties we bring togeth­er to wor­ship Him keep get­ting dis­tract­ed, but that’s what we’ve got (and it’s what we’ve had for a long time). Every per­son of faith of every gen­er­a­tion has to remem­ber, re-experience and revive the mes­sage. That hap­pens in church build­ings, on street cor­ners, in liv­ing rooms, lunch lines and nowa­days on blogs and inter­net forums.We can’t get too hung up on all the ways the mes­sage is get­ting blocked. And we can’t get hung up by insist­ing on only one chan­nel of shar­ing that mes­sage. We must share the good news and trust that God will show us how to man­i­fest this in our world: his king­dom come and will be done on earth.

But what would this look like?

When I first start­ed blog­ging there weren’t a lot of Quak­er blogs and I spent a lot more time read­ing oth­er reli­gious blogs. This was back before the emer­gent church move­ment became a wholly-owned sub­sidiary of Zon­der­van and wasn’t dom­i­nat­ed by hype artists (sor­ry, a lot of big names set off my slime-o-meter the­se days). There are still great blog­gers out there talk­ing about faith and read­ers want­i­ng to engage in this dis­cus­sion. I’ve been intrigued by the his­tor­i­cal exam­ple of Thomas Clark­son, the Angli­can who wrote about Friends from a non-Quaker per­spec­tive using non-Quaker lan­guage. And some­times I geek out and explain some Quak­er point on a Quak­er blog and get thanked by the author, who often is an expe­ri­enced Friend who had nev­er been pre­sent­ed with a clas­sic Quak­er expla­na­tion on the point in ques­tion. My track­ing log shows seek­ers con­tin­ue to be fas­ci­nat­ed and drawn to us for our tra­di­tion­al tes­ti­monies, espe­cial­ly plain­ness.

I’ve put togeth­er top­ic lists and plans before but it’s a bit of work, may­be too much to put on top of what I do with Quak­erQuak­er (plus work, plus fam­i­ly). There’s also ques­tions about where to blog and whether to sim­pli­fy my blog­ging life a bit by com­bin­ing some of my blogs but that’s more logis­tics rather than vision.

Inter­est­ing stuff I’m read­ing that’s mak­ing me think about this:

Movement for a New Society and the Old New Monastics

Robin wrote a lit­tle about the New Monas­tic move­ment in a plug for the Pendle Hill work­shop I’m doing with Wess Daniels this Fall. 

Here’s my work­ing the­o­ry: I think Lib­er­al Friends have a good claim to invent­ing the “new monas­tic” move­ment thir­ty years ago in the form of Move­ment for a New Soci­ety, a net­work of peace and anti-nuclear activists based in Philadel­phia that cod­i­fied a kind of “sec­u­lar Quak­er” decision-making process and trained thou­sands of peo­ple from around the world in a kind of engaged drop-out lifestyle that fea­tured low-cost com­mu­nal liv­ing arrange­ments in poor neigh­bor­hoods with part-time jobs that gave them flex­i­bil­i­ty to work as full-time com­mu­ni­ty activists. There are few activist cam­paigns in the 1970s and 1980s that weren’t touched by the MNS style and a less-ideological, more lived-in MNS cul­ture sur­vives today in bor­der­line neigh­bor­hoods in Philadel­phia and oth­er cities. The high-profile new monas­tics rarely seem to give any props to Quak­ers or MNS, but I’d be will­ing to bet if you sat in on any of their meet­ings the process would be much more inspired by MNS than Robert’s Rules of Order or any fif­teen cen­tu­ry monas­tic rule that might be cit­ed.

For a decade I lived in West Philly in what I called “the ruins of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety.” The for­mal struc­ture of MNS had dis­band­ed but many of its insti­tu­tions car­ried on in a kind of lived-in way. I worked at the remain­ing pub­lish­ing house, New Soci­ety Pub­lish­ers, lived in a land-trusted West Philly coop house, and was fed from the old neigh­bor­hood food coop and occa­sion­al­ly dropped in or helped out with Train­ing for Change, a revived train­ing cen­ter start­ed by MNS-co-founder (and Cen­tral Philadel­phia Meeting-member) George Lakey It was a tight neigh­bor­hood, with strong cross-connections, and it was able to absorb relat­ed move­ments with dif­fer­ent styles (e.g., a strong anar­chist scene that grew in the late 1980s). I don’t think it’s coin­ci­dence that some of the Philly emer­gent church projects start­ed in West Philly and is strong in the neigh­bor­hoods that have become the new ersatz West Philly as the actu­al neigh­bor­hood has gen­tri­fied.

So some ques­tions I’ll be wrestling with over the next six months and will bring to Pendle Hill:

  • Why haven’t more of us in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends adopt­ed this engaged lifestyle?
  • Why haven’t we been good at artic­u­lat­ing it all this time?
  • Why did the for­mal struc­ture of the Quaker-ish “new monas­ti­cism” not sur­vive the 1980s?
  • Why don’t we have any younger lead­ers of the Quak­er monas­ti­cism? Why do we need oth­ers to remind us of our own recent tra­di­tion?
  • In what ways are some Friends (and some fel­low trav­el­ers) still liv­ing out the “Old New Monas­tic” expe­ri­ence, just with­out the hype and with­out the buzz?

It’s entire­ly pos­si­ble that the “new monas­ti­cism” isn’t sus­tain­able. At the very least Friends’ expe­ri­ences with it should be stud­ied to see what hap­pened. Is West Philly what the new monas­ti­cism looks like thir­ty years lat­er? The biggest dif­fer­ences between now and the hey­day of the Move­ment for a New Soci­ety is 1) the Internet’s abil­i­ty to orga­nize and stay in touch in com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent ways; and 2) the pow­er of the major Evan­gel­i­cal pub­lish­ing hous­es that are hyp­ing the new kids.

I’ll be look­ing at myself as well. After ten years, I felt I need­ed a change. I’m now in the “real world” – semi sub­ur­ban free­stand­ing house, nuclear fam­i­ly. The old new West Philly monas­ti­cism, like the “new monas­ti­cism” seems opti­mized for hip twenty-something sub­ur­ban kids who roman­ti­cized the grit­ty city. Peo­ple of oth­er demo­graph­ics often fit in, but still it was nev­er very scal­able and for many not very sus­tain­able. How do we bring the­se con­cerns out to a world where there are sub­urbs, fam­i­lies, etc?

RELATED READING: I first wrote about the sim­i­lar­i­ty between MNS and the Philadel­phia “New Monas­tic” move­ment six years ago in Peace and Twenty-Somethings, where I argued that Pendle Hill should take a seri­ous look at this new move­ment.

Christian revival among liberal Friends

There’s an inter­est­ing dis­cus­sion in the com­ments from my last post about “Con­ver­gent Friends and Ohio Con­ser­v­a­tives” and one of the more inter­est­ing comes from a com­menter named Diane. My reply to her got longer and longer and filled with more and more links till it makes more sense to make it its own post. First, Diane’s ques­tion:

I don’t know if I’m “con­ver­gent,” (prob­a­bly not) but I have been involved with the emerg­ing church for sev­er­al years and with Quak­erism for a decade. I also am aware of the house church move­ment, but my expe­ri­ence of it is that is is very tan­gen­tial­ly relat­ed to Quak­erism. I real­ly, real­ly hope and pray that Chris­tian revival is com­ing to lib­er­al Friends, but per­son­al­ly I have not seen that phe­nom­e­nom. Where do you see it most? Do you see it more as com­mit­ment to Christ or as more peo­ple being Christ curi­ous, to use Robin’s phrase?

As I wrote recent­ly I think con­ver­gence is more of a trend than an iden­ti­ty and I’m not sure whether it makes sense to fuss about who’s con­ver­gent or not. As with any ques­tion involv­ing lib­er­al Friends, whether there’s “Chris­tian revival” going on depends on what what you mean by the term. I think more lib­er­al Friends have become com­fort­able label­ing them­selves as Christ curi­ous; it has become more accept­able to iden­ti­fy as Chris­tian than it was a decade or two ago; a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of younger Friends are very recep­tive to Chris­tian mes­sages, the Bible and tra­di­tion­al Quak­er tes­ti­monies than they were.

The­se are indi­vid­u­al respons­es, how­ev­er. Turn­ing to col­lec­tive Quak­er bod­ies there are few if any beliefs or prac­tices left that lib­er­al Friends wouldn’t allow under the Quak­er ban­ner if they came wrapped in Quak­ere­se from a well-connected Friend; the social tes­ti­monies stand in as the uni­fy­ing agent; it’s still con­sid­ered an argu­ment stop­per to say that any prof­fered def­i­n­i­tion would exclude some­one.

I’d argue that lib­er­al Quak­erism is becom­ing ever more lib­er­al (and less dis­tinc­tive­ly Quak­er) at the same time that many of those in influ­ence are becom­ing more Chris­tian. It’s a very pro­scribed Chris­tian­i­ty: cod­ed, ten­ta­tive and most of all indi­vid­u­al­is­tic. It’s okay for a lib­er­al Friend to believe what­ev­er they want to believe as long as they don’t believe too much. Whether the qui­et influ­ence of the ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of conservative-friendly lead­er­ship is enough to hold a Quak­er cen­ter in the cen­trifuge that is lib­er­al Quak­erism is the $60,000 ques­tion. I think the lead­er­ship has an inflat­ed sense of its own influ­ence but I’m watch­ing the exper­i­ment. I wish it well but I’m skep­ti­cal and wor­ry that it’s built on sand.

Some of the Christ-curious lib­er­al Friends are form­ing small wor­ship groups and some of the­se are seek­ing out recog­ni­tion from Con­ser­v­a­tive bod­ies. It’s an aching­ly small move­ment but it shows a desire to be cor­po­rate­ly Quak­er and not just indi­vid­u­al­is­ti­cal­ly Quak­er. With the inter­net tra­di­tion­al Quak­er view­points are only a Google search away; sites like Bill Samuel’s “” and blogs like Mar­shall Massey’s are break­ing down stereo­types and doing a lot of invalu­able edu­cat­ing (and I could name a lot more). It’s pos­si­ble to imag­ine all this cook­ing down to a third wave of tra­di­tion­al­ist renewal. Ohio Year­ly Meeting-led ini­tia­tives like the Chris­tian Friends Con­fer­ence and All Con­ser­v­a­tive Gath­er­ings are steps in the right direc­tion but any real change is going to have to pull togeth­er mul­ti­ple trends, one of which might or might not be Con­ver­gence.

Our role in this future is not to be strate­gists play­ing Quak­er pol­i­tics but ser­vants ready to lay down our iden­ti­ties and pre­con­cep­tions to fol­low the prompt­ings of the Inward Christ into what­ev­er ter­ri­to­ry we’re called to:

From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his dis­ci­ples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suf­fer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day. Then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, say­ing, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee. But he turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offence unto me: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men. Then said Jesus unto his dis­ci­ples, If any man will come after me, let him deny him­self, and take up his cross, and fol­low me. Matthew 16:21 – 28.

For other uses, see Light (disambiguation)

Even though my last post was a five min­ute quick­ie, it gen­er­at­ed a num­ber of com­ments. One ques­tion that came up was how aware indi­vid­u­al Friends are about the speci­fic Quak­er mean­ings of some of the com­mon Eng­lish words we use — ”Light,” “Spir­it,” etc.(dis­am­bigua­tion in Wiki-speak). Mar­shall Massey expressed sad­ness that the terms were used uncom­pre­hend­ing­ly and I sug­gest­ed that some Friends know­ing­ly con­fuse the gener­ic and speci­fic mean­ings. Mar­shall replied that if this were so it might be a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence based on geog­ra­phy.

If it’s a cul­tur­al dif­fer­ence, I sus­pect it’s less geo­graph­ic than func­tion­al. I was speak­ing of the class of pro­fes­sion­al Friends (heavy in my parts) who pur­pose­ful­ly obscure their lan­guage. We’re very good at talk­ing in a way that sounds Quak­er to those who do know our speci­fic lan­guage but that sounds gener­i­cal­ly spir­i­tu­al to those who don’t. Some­times this obscu­ran­tism is used by peo­ple who are repelled by tra­di­tion­al Quak­erism but want to advance their ideas in the Reli­gious Soci­ety of Friends, but more often (and more dan­ger­ous­ly) it’s used by Friends who know and love what we are but are loathe to say any­thing that might sound con­tro­ver­sial.

I’ve told the sto­ry before of a Friend and friend who said that every­time he uses the word com­mu­ni­ty he’s mean­ing the body of Christ. New­com­ers hear­ing him and read­ing his arti­cles could be for­given for think­ing that com­mu­ni­ty is our reason-for-being, indeed: what we wor­ship. The prob­lem is that ten years lat­er, they’ll have signed up and built up an iden­ti­ty as a Friend and will get all offend­ed when some­one sug­gests that this com­mu­ni­ty they know and love is real­ly the body of Christ.

Lib­er­al Friends in the pub­lic eye need to be more hon­est in their con­ver­sa­tion about the Bib­li­cal and Chris­tian roots of our reli­gious fel­low­ship. That will scare off poten­tial mem­bers who have been scarred by the acts of those who have false­ly claimed Christ. I’m sor­ry about that and we need to be as gen­tle and hum­ble about this as we can. But hope­ful­ly they’ll see the fruits of the true spir­it in our open­ness, our warmth and our giv­ing and will real­ize that Chris­tian fel­low­ship is not about tel­e­van­ge­lists and Pres­i­den­tial hyp­ocrites. May­be they’ll even­tu­al­ly join or may­be not, but if they do at least they won’t be sur­prised by our iden­ti­ty. Before some­one com­ments back, I’m not say­ing that Chris­tian­i­ty needs to be a test for indi­vid­u­al mem­ber­ship but new mem­bers should know that every­thing from our name (“Friends of Christ“) on down are root­ed in that tra­di­tion and that that for­mal mem­ber­ship does not include veto pow­er over our pub­lic iden­ti­ty.

There is room out there for spiritual-but-not-religious com­mu­ni­ties that aren’t built around a col­lec­tive wor­ship of God, don’t wor­ry about any par­tic­u­lar tra­di­tion and focus their energies and group iden­ti­ty on lib­er­al social caus­es. But I guess part of what I won­der is why this doesn’t col­lect under the UUA ban­ner, whose Prin­ci­ples and Pur­pos­es state­ment is already much more syn­cretis­tic and post-religious than even the most lib­er­al year­ly meet­ing. Evolv­ing into the “oth­er UUA” would mean aban­don­ing most of the valu­able spir­i­tu­al wis­dom we have as a peo­ple.

I think there’s a need for the kind of strong lib­er­al Chris­tian­i­ty that Friends have prac­ticed for 350 years. There must be mil­lions of peo­ple parked on church bench­es every Sun­day morn­ing look­ing up at the pul­pit and think­ing to them­selves, “sure­ly this isn’t what Jesus was talk­ing about.” Look, we have Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians com­ing out again­st the war! And let’s face it, it’s only a mat­ter of time before “Emer­gent Chris­tians” real­ize how lame all that post-post can­dle wor­ship is and look for some­thing a lit­tle deep­er. The times are ripe for “Oppor­tu­ni­ties,” Friends. We have impor­tant knowl­edge to share about all this. It would be a shame if we kept qui­et.

Love is unconditional and accepts us for who we are

I tried to post this as a com­ment on “this piece by James Riemermann”: on the Non­the­ist Friends web­site but the site expe­ri­enced a tech­ni­cal dif­fi­cul­ty when I tried to sub­mit it (hope it’s back up soon!). James describes his post as a “rant” about “conservative-leaning lib­er­al Friends,” and one the­me that got picked up in the com­ments was how he and oth­ers felt exclud­ed by us (for that is a term I use to try to describe my spir­i­tu­al con­di­tion). Rather than loose the com­ment I’ll just post it here.
Hi James and every­one,
Well, I think I was one of the first of the Quak­er blog­gers to talk about conservative-leaning lib­er­al Quak­ers back in July 2003. I too am not sure it’s any­thing worth call­ing a “move­ment.”
I hear this feel­ing of being exclud­ed but I’m not sure where that’s com­ing from. When James had a real­ly won­der­ful, thought-provoking respon­se to my “We’re All Ranters Now” piece, I asked him if I could “reprint” the com­ment as its own guest piece. It got a lot of atten­tion, a lot of com­ments. I didn’t real­ize you were using non​the​ist​friends​.org as a blog the­se days but “Robin M”: of “What Canst Thou Say”: did and has added a link to your post from “”, which again is a val­i­da­tion that yours is an impor­tant voice (I can pret­ty much guar­an­tee that this is going to be one of the more fol­lowed links). You and every­one here are part of the fam­i­ly.
Yes, we have some dis­agree­ments. I don’t think Quak­erism is sim­ply made up of who­ev­er makes it into the meet­ing­house. I think we have a tra­di­tion that we’ve inherit­ed. This con­sists of prac­tices and val­ues and ways of look­ing at the world. Much of that tra­di­tion comes from the gospel of Jesus and the epistles between the ear­li­est Chris­tian com­mu­ni­ties. Much of what might feel like neu­tral Quak­er prac­tice is a clear echo of that tra­di­tion, and that echo is what I talk about that in my blogs. I think it’s good to know where we’re com­ing from. That doesn’t mean we’re stuck there and we adapt it as our rev­e­la­tion changes (this atti­tude is why I’m a lib­er­al Friend no mat­ter how much I talk about Christ). The­se blog con­ver­sa­tions are the ways we share our expe­ri­ences, min­is­ter to and com­fort one anoth­er.
That peo­ple hold dif­fer­ent reli­gious under­stand­ings and prac­tices isn’t in itself inher­ent­ly exclu­sion­ary. Diver­si­ty is good for us, right? There’s no one Quak­er cen­ter. There’s muli­ti­ple con­ver­sa­tions hap­pen­ing in mul­ti­ple lan­guages, much of it glo­ri­ous­ly over­lap­ping on the elec­tron­ic path­ways of the inter­net. That’s won­der­ful, it shows a great vital­i­ty. The reli­gious tra­di­tion that is Quak­erism is not dead, not moth­balled away in a liv­ing his­to­ry muse­um some­where. It’s alive, with its assump­tions and bound­aries con­stant­ly being revis­it­ed. That’s cool. If a par­tic­u­lar post feels too carp­ing, there’s always the “elder­ing of the back but­ton,” as I like to call it. Let’s try to hear each oth­er from where we are and to remain open to the min­istry from those who might appear to be com­ing from a dif­fer­ent place. Love is the first move­ment and love is uncon­di­tion­al and accepts us for who we are.
I bet­ter stop this before I get too mushy, with all this talk of love! See what I mean about being a lib­er­al Quak­er?
Your Friend, Mar­t­in