Why Can’t Quakers Be More Like Hindus? Or, Why Can’t Quakers Be More Like Quakers?

Quakers and Religious Diversity

Recently at Woodbrooke, I was having an interesting conversation with a Friend who was convinced she had found the answer to the Theist/Non-Theist tension in our Meetings. She suggested: ‘why can’t Quakers be more like Hindus?’ As it turned out, what lay behind this question was the contention that the great virtue of Hinduism (that sprawling bundle of religious, philosophical and cultural identities)  was its conceptual elasticity.  Many modern Hindus have no difficulty in holding to the label of ‘Hindu’ while expressing their religious or philosophical commitments in a diversity of ways. Perhaps our Friend was thinking of this intriguing verse from the Gita:

Those who worship the demigods will take birth among the demigods; those who worship ghosts and spirits will take birth among such beings; those who worship ancestors go to the ancestors; and those who worship Me will live with Me. (Bhagavad Gita, 9: 25).

As this quotation suggests, there is a place for a plurality of worship in the religious life, and space for manifold objects of devotion.  There is the implied eschatological hope at the very heart of the Gita that all the diverse modes of spiritual stirring will eventually be encompassed in the never-dying love of the One. With this conception in the background, our Friend’s question already suggests an answer. Unlike the gentle metaphysical reassurance of the Gita, there is something deficient within Quakerism which makes it prickly when confronted by radical diversity. To put it another way, it could be argued that our Quaker story is unhelpfully determined to hold out for a simplistic plot line when the modern spiritual story is multilayered. Why do some Friends insist (so the liberal Quaker criticism goes) on still using Christian language when we have Buddhists, non-theists, Hindus and Muslims in membership? Why have something as authoritarian as a shared vocabulary? Shouldn’t people be left to it?

In this post, I want to interrogate some of these issues by seeking to overturn some of the assumptions forwarded by the original questioner. I want to suggest that Quakers already have a perfectly adequate theological vocabulary for reflecting on radical diversity and that we don’t need to look for models from elsewhere.  Moreover,  I want to claim that the more we dig down into the roots of Quaker attitudes towards diversity, the more we can intelligibly call ourselves followers of the Way (those foregrounded by the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth). Granted such a claim runs against a tide of feeling which runs deep in the Society today.  Many now come to Meeting with the impression that the reason why Liberal Quakerism is ‘liberal’ is because it has deviated from historic Christianity. Yet as I shall seek to show, the ‘liberal’ character of modern British Quakerism; its diversity, its inclusivity and attentiveness to ‘new light’, is not a deviation, but a renewed expression of George Fox’s provocative Christian revelation that Jesus ‘had come to teach the people Himself’. And if we want to live faithfully in a diverse world, we can make no better start than understanding the resources at the heart of our own Quaker path.

The New Supersessionism

One of the most pervasive forms of supersessionism (replacement theology) in Britain Yearly Meeting today is not the belief that Christians have replaced Jews as the practitioners of a superior religion- rather it is the belief that we have transcended some narrow and ill-informed creature called Paleo-Quakerism. While George Fox, Mary Pennington and William Penn did the best they could with a limited set of spiritual materials (so the modernist interpretation runs) we contemporary Friends now understand the full challenge and benefits of religious diversity. We understand, as our ancestors did not, that we share the planet with many old and venerable spiritual traditions. And in a globalized world, we enlightened religious liberals are willing to throw away some elements of our Christian past to achieve greater fellowship. We are in this sense, not confined by the burden of a parochial or outdated story. As the Quaker Universalist Tony Philpott vividly expresses this view:

The freedom to believe what I wish…enables me to use whatever model of the self is appropriate. I am not constrained by the Christian model of ‘sinful man’ or an atheist models of monism and materialism. As with many of my beliefs I can have a Universalist and syncretic view of the self (Tony Philpott, From Christian to Quaker, p. 241).

According to this view, the early Christian grammar of Quakerism is culturally incidental rather than theologically decisive or revelatory: ‘(Quaker Faith and Practice) does contain much ‘God’ language because the Society of Friends grew up in the 17th century in a highly Christian country and that was the language used at the time’ (p. 241). In a similar vein to Tony, another Universalist Jean F. Edwards suggests, ‘Increasingly I have come to see Quaker faith as closer to the ‘perennial philosophy’ than it is to orthodox Christianity. By the perennial philosophy I mean ‘the ancient philosophy of mysticism’ (as Howard Brinton calls it) discovered again and again in all religions, though with different forms and names’ (in Universalism and Spirituality, ed. Quaker University Group, p. 138). The implication of both authors is that we now have a more sophisticated view of the religious landscape and Christianity is a bar to a fuller spirituality. For Tony the refusal of this Christian past is in places as drastic as the non-theism of David Boulton. For instance he notes,  ‘I am discouraged that many continue to use the word ‘God’  and this to me leads to confusion and misunderstanding’ (From Christian to Quaker, p. 2 43). Here, the apparent narrowness of Christianity is the chief problem that modern cosmopolitan Quakerism must overcome.

Richer Reading of Christian Quakerism

But is Christianity (some grand mono-narrative) really the problem?  I’m simply not convinced. I think that contemporary Universalistic aversion to Christianity among British Friends has more to do with the intolerant churches from which many Quakers have fled than it does with how Christianity has been understood by the Society in the past.  In the case of Tony, he is up front about this fact. Yet the danger of starting a conversation about Christianity and the Quaker Way from a place of hurt is that we stop talking about the Christianity expressed in Quaker Faith and Practice and start talking about ‘other Christianities’ which may or maybe not resemble the Quaker tradition. That is not to say that we should romanticize some normative ‘Christian past’. George Fox’s Quakerism was sectarian and parochial for sure.  Some of the anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiment of early Quaker polemics is distressingly prejudiced to our modern ears. The same can be said for Quaker attempts at evangelizing native peoples.

Yet, having said all that, the spirituality of early Friends possessed a firmly universalistic shape. Friends believed that the Light they experienced (then saw confirmed in Jewish and Christian Scriptures) was a universal power ‘[the] true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world’ (John 1.9).  While this spirit was manifested with supreme force in the life, death and rising of Christ, these events simply confirmed the work the Spirit had already undertaken in diverse human cultures. Thus for most early Friends, the story of Christianity was never about the negation of every other human story, but about illuminating the depth of other stories; giving them nobility in the Eternal life of God. As Robert Barclay wrote vividly in his Apology:

God, who out of his infinite love sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into the world, who tasted death for every man, hath given to every man, whether Jew or Gentile, Turk or Scythian, Indian or Barbarian, of whatsoever nation, country, or place, a certain day or time of visitation; during which day or time it is possible for them to be saved, and to partake of the fruit of Christ’s death….for this end God hath communicated and given unto every man a measure of the Light of his own Son, a measure of grace, or a measure of the Spirit, which the Scripture expresses by several names, as sometimes of “the seed of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:18-19); the “Light that makes all things manifest” (Eph. 5:13); the “Word of God” (Rom. 10:17); or “manifestation of the Spirit given to profit withal” (1 Cor. 12:7); “a talent” (Matt. 25:15); “a little leaven” (Matt. 13:33); “the Gospel preached in every creature” (Col. 1:23).

This claim had radical implications for early Friends. Firstly, the worth of non-Christian religious devotion could no-longer be instantly dismissed. Indeed, to believe in Christ in the early Quaker mold, meant that one believed that the Son worked inwardly and invisibly even within those who did not know, or denied the outward work of Christ.  This atmosphere of religious generosity caused William Penn to later conclude: ‘The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers’ (QF&P 27.01). Does this mean that the specificity of the Christian story no-longer matters? This question is answered by the second implication of Barclay’s radical commitment to the Inward Teacher. To say that the ‘light’ works in all people does not negate the Christian story because this principle of inner prompting is not some generalized metaphysical force (or some perennial philosophy). Instead it is expressed in a person, Jesus. If one wished to going deeper into the story that one was part of already, one needed Jesus of Nazareth.

The Charge of Exclusivism and the Power of Naming

It is at this point that many a modern liberal Friend inhales slowly and get a pot of herbal tea on the go to steady their nerves. Because let’s face it, this kind of claim sounds pretty scandalous. Did the centrality of Christ in the early Quaker message mean that pre-Christian and non-Christian religions were mere pantomime shows waiting for the real thing to arrive? No. In his marvelous The Pure Principle: Quakers and Other Faith Traditions, the Buddhist and Quaker Jim Pym draws our attention to a fascinating phenomenon among contemporary Friends; the multiple naming of the divine presence experienced in Meeting (for more on this phenomenon see the work of my good friend Rhiannon Grant).  As Pym summarizes its contours:

For some Friends, the language of say, the Upanishads or the Tao Theh Ching express their feelings about God and their experiences in silence, far more than is possible using traditional words….Language changes and many of the words and phrases used in the ordinary vocabulary would not be recognizable Friends and vice versa. (Pym, The Pure Principle, p. 55-56).

In this way Friends may use many words for God: Atma, Christ, Buddha-nature, Spirit, Light or even just Love. Yet as Pymn rightly notes, this ability of Friends to adopt multiple and varying modes of religious speech isn’t just the product of a laid-back modern liberalism, but has older Christian roots, ‘the experiences they (early Friends) had, though firmly Christian, brought about the use of a language greater and more inclusive than could be found in the Christian theological tradition’ (Pym, The Pure Principle, p. 23.).  A beautiful pre-modern example of such inclusive divine naming can be found in William Penn’s Fruits of Solitude (advice he offers to his children). He ends the discourse by saying:

That blessed principle, the Eternal Word… is Pythagoras’s real light and salt of ages; Anaxagoras’s divine mind; Socrates’s good spirit; Timaeus’s unbegotten principle and author of all light; Hieron’s God in man; Plato’s eternal, ineffable and perfect principle of truth; Zeno’s maker and father of all; and Plotin’s root of the soul….

Here the sages of pagan antiquity are not bad, mad or dangerous to know- they lived by and for the same Spirit that Friends saw in the face of Christ. And importantly, they serve Penn as a legitimate way of naming that which he knows and loves in worship. By invoking their names Penn suggests that Plato, Socrates and the rest, are included in the history of the God of Israel, the Abba of Jesus. Why might Penn have believed this? Because he not only believed in the universality of the Light but the daring proclamation that Jesus had died for everyone. Such a debt to the images and nuances of Scripture allowed Early Friends to break down the barriers between philosophies and faiths.  They did not develop such dialogical skills just because they were ‘nice people’, but because they were conscientious readers of the universal potentialities of the New Testament. As Pym makes the point, this open interpretation of Christianity ‘has led Friends to have an attitude towards other faiths, philosophies and practices, which, while remaining true to their own revelation, includes an openness to learn other ways of finding and expressing the same truth’ (Pym, The Pure Principle, pp. 23-4).

Christianity, far from being a barrier to dialogue and inclusion, can be understood as a major part of the reason contemporary British Quakers think and talk the way they do. Like the believer of the Gita, Quaker Christianity, from its inception, possessed the sense that diversity could lead to Divine Oneness. In this way, I do not think Quakers need to be more like Hindus, (if by ‘Hindu’ one means the ability to find beauty in radical difference) because our own particular Quaker language is quite capable of doing the job. Yet, there is a proviso here, one which makes this inclusive language coherent: that is its particular Christ-shaped nature. Our Testimonies are the shape they are because of an encounter with the Spirit found in Abraham, Jacob and Jesus. Our worship is the shape it is because of a desire to stand in the Eternal Now with a particular God; a God who loves us and seeks to know us. Our Meetings for Business are the shape they are because of the assumption of our Quaker ancestors that what Jesus calls ‘the Kingdom’ is in our midst (Luke 17:21).  We accept difference because that is part of the Good News of Jesus (as Friends have understood it).

Quaker Inclusiveness and Secular Inclusiveness

But maybe I’m overstating my case. Why am I getting all het up about the Christian story as the source for Quaker inclusiveness? Surely there are plenty of Friends (and whole meetings) that function perfectly well and inclusively without the Christian God or Jesus? Aren’t we just being descent people when we include each other? In an attempt to put words around this post-Christian model of Quakerism, Richard Barnes suggests:

Our Society is no-longer simply another Christian denomination with Christ at its centre. No longer do we believe that other religions revolve around us and our religion, but that our religion is only one among many revolving around a Universal Centre. The Judeo-Christian tradition remains a major, but not the only source of spiritual guidance (Universalism and Spirituality, p. 107).

There is much truth here. Friends are and never have been like any other Christian denomination. Our receptivity to plurality has served us well over the centuries. Yet for my money it misses two vital issues. Firstly, it mistakenly assumes that now Quakers are in a pluralistic context, we can’t find Christian reasons to include ‘the other’. Secondly, it assumes that the reasons that Quakers ‘include’ are the same as non-Quaker culture. I suggest that this isn’t true, and unless we root ourselves back in a Christian theological grammar (a grammar which for Quakers admits radical diversity) then we will lose what is distinctly Quaker.

Let’s look at the gulf that divides Quaker from non-Quaker models of inclusion. When secular liberals talk about inclusion and diversity, they tend to do so not because they have any universal ideal of ‘goodness’ in mind, but simply adopt inclusivity as a means of avoiding conflict and violence (see someone like John Rawls). Indeed, one could say that such avoidance is the prime liberal ideal.  The primary social issue (spiritual issues are for the most part off the liberal radar) is to prevent people stepping on each other’s toes. Once this liberal politics is mapped onto our Quaker Way, it reduces our faith to a meagre creature that is all about a series of ‘spiritual options’ (Theism, Non-Theism, Univeralist, Christ-centred) without the sense of a shared vocabulary or trust.  This is the logical outgrowth of a social ethic which worries about how people can be most effectively left alone.

In this hyper-liberal state, Quakerism becomes a balkanized and fragmented version of what the Sociologist Paul Healas calls ‘self religion’; a series of therapeutic approaches centred on the maintenance and perfection of the self- its desires and preferences. Meeting for Worship may become self-help or Meditation and the Testimonies pearls of wisdom to be modified or discarded if they no-longer help the individual with their spiritual journey. In this latter-day mode, Quakerism becomes a pleasant umbrella under which individuals can pursue their own spiritual projects, rather than pursuing a project together. This rather wissened creature (some might charitably still call this Quakerism) should be contrasted with a Quaker Way that can draw liberally from a Christian theological grammar. Here inclusiveness means more than ‘not stepping on another’s toes’. It means being involved in an enterprise sustained by something more than personal freedom or the lure of Philpott’s ‘syncretic self’. It means giving one’s priorities over to something which will not let us go until we are transformed; something abiding, loving and eternal. Here inclusion is the mark of a divine presence that wants us included rather than involving our choice to ‘be something’ . The invitation is wonderfully expressed by the prophet Isaiah:

Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” The law will go out from Zion, the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:3).

Here unity is not a compromise, a negotiation or a personal preference, but part of a process of being called and taught. The Messianic promise involves us believing (trusting) that the God of Israel means it; that the Eternal desires the nations summoned as one family on the basis of worship. In the context of this Promise, we Friends should open our doors to Seekers, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Pagans, Jews and others, not just because we are ‘nice and accepting’, but because we believe in the reality and substance of such a promise. To put it more sharply, we are not ‘accepting’ because we have little in particular to say. Rather, we are profoundly accepting because we have a lot to say. We have a lot to say about the shape of the world, the human longing for equity and justice, and the unity of the human family. Yet we say all these things based on an economy of worship and not an ethos of rights. Yet, choppy waters await our Quaker Way when we cease to take the promise of divine inclusion seriously; when we metamorphose the promise into mere moral guidance, metaphor or optional poetry.  Here lies the insubstantial road of self-religion (one with plenty of freedom but no guiding promise). Let us pray and struggle with the promise but let’s not reject it. Let’s be hardy and determined like Jacob in his battle with the Angel. Let’s declare with Jacab our intention:”I will not let you go unless you bless me”  (Genesis 32:26).The next question is clear. Do Quakers dare to believe in the power of such a blessing?


9 thoughts on “Why Can’t Quakers Be More Like Hindus? Or, Why Can’t Quakers Be More Like Quakers?

  1. Yes! And Frederick Parker-Rhodes’ words are essential. “What is my religion?….what is forbidden me? to reject another’s love, to despise another’s wisdom, to blaspheme another’s God. And to what purpose? To help others, that we may enter the Commonwealth of Heaven together, each to find our Being in the Whole.” Penington too QF&P 27.13.

  2. Thank you, Ben. As we Friends say, ‘You speak my mind’. This piece resonates with my conclusions at the end of my “The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom’ of God'” (but in a more beautiful way), and certainly with my soon-to-be-published pastoral work “What Love Can Do” in which I write about the Kingdom which I call ‘The Way’. I believe The Way presents Friends with the inclusive language and practice they seek. I’m also challenged by the sort of inclusivity and ideas of diversity that the Anglican theologian, Keith Ward, writes about.

  3. Dear Ben,

    Further to my previous comment, I have taken the trouble to re-read your piece on diversity within our Religious Society. The last time I read it I was tired after a hectic Easter and missed something crucial. Returning to your article I found myself nodding a lot in agreement until I came to the last paragraph, the ‘crucial’ bit, where your argument falls apart.
    So I want to take back what I said because putting your thesis into practice means nothing actually changes within our Society even with the altered attitude of mind you advocate. ‘Unity in diversity’ within it is a mere slogan, an oxymoron in fact; there is no unity among us but a great deal of diversity and the confusion this breeds. That’s the reality.
    Accepting people of diverse faiths and none into the Society as members, as you propose, means further watering down its Quaker Christian values and orthopraxis. This may be desirable to some but it means continuing with an incoherent ‘theology’ (actually a mere ‘worldview’) that is perplexing to both its members and the general public. It means we continue to attract only tiny numbers of people. And it means we continue to accommodate to secular influences, thereby strengthening the humanist vision for the Society. Your proposal is well meant but naïve and ultimately destructive of the Quaker way.
    If you haven’t done so already, I invite you to read Janey O’Shea’s prophetic Backhouse Lecture (1992), the concluding chapter to my “The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God’”, professor Keith Ward’s understanding of diversity from an Anglican point of view from which we can learn a great deal—see his “Holding Fast to God” (London: SPCK, 1982), esp. p. 9 and “A Vision to Pursue: Beyond the Crisis in Christianity” (London: SCM Press, 1991), esp. p. 180—and, most pertinently, the relevant sections in “A Man that Looks on Glass”, the work by my brother and fellow Friend, Derek Guiton, which, going from a previous blog entry, you have largely misunderstood along with another blogger, Mark Frankel. Derek writes of our late Friend, Alistair Heron, who

    knew that his efforts to avoid ambiguity and equivocation would open him to accusations of dogmatism, for ambiguity, as he was well aware, is the lingua franca of modern Quakerism. It is the language of an over-stretched diversity. A diversity which was genuinely Spirit-led would (for that very reason) be a cause for celebration; but one that ‘just happens’ or results from accommodation to the pressures of secularity is simply a cop out. As I shall argue in Chapter 3 there are good reasons for thinking that the diversity we are being urged to celebrate today is mainly of this second type. It may have introduced a note of greater tolerance but also, by an interesting paradox, have opened us to a new dogmatism (“Looks on Glass”, p. v).

    In allowing Derek to speak for himself, reference may be made to his Chapter 3; it is well worth a very, very careful read. And do also read pp. 5-7 where he invokes the wisdom of Penington and addresses in particular “Quaker Faith & Practice” §27.13, the same passage to which Friend Beth Allen draws our attention in her comment to you. Unfortunately, as Derek points out, this well-known passage is often quoted out of context. Penington was more concerned with unity than difference and the acceptance of difference was ‘only a stage on the way to an even deeper unity which would eventually include the ‘outward’’ (“Looks on Glass”, p. 6). Derek makes reference to Melvin Keiser’s and Rosemary Moore’s fine work on Penington, “Knowing the Mystery of Life Within” (London: Quaker Books, 2005); see esp. p. 165.
    Here it is important to consider an additional aspect for Penington goes on to say, in concert with all Friends at the time, that ‘care must be had that nothing govern in the church of Christ, but the spirit of Christ’ (“Looks on Glass”, p. 6). It is essential for today’s Friends to understand that Penington was not referring here to the man Jesus but to the everlasting Christ, the Spirit, in Jesus, exactly the same Christ (Light, Spirit, Seed, Kingdom) who resides in ‘all people on the earth’, as his fellow Quakers used to say, ‘today as was yesterday’ (Fox, “Journal”, p. 375 and see his ‘Epistle 183’ (1659) in “Works”, p. 173; also Bishop, “Christ Jesus, the Same Today as Yesterday”,1655, passim).
    Of course, you might say this supports your view that inclusivity should be universal since the Christ or salvation does indeed extend to ‘all people on the earth’, such a position being, after all, the whole point of your article. However, Penington is saying that, in terms of ecclesiology, it was important that the Christ is acknowledged and its ‘Life and Power’ is given predominance—‘Mark how everything in the Kingdom, every spiritual thing, refers to [the] Christ, and centres in him’; see “Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Glanced At” (1663), p. 10. We may extend this by saying that within the Christ, as Keith Ward (1982) also outlines conclusively, there is total diversity. This diversity is given life and power, a tangibility so to speak, by the ‘historical’ Jesus (i.e. the Jesus of the sayings ‘Q’), the Gospel Jesus (which includes the nascent 1st century Jesus followers) and the cosmological Jesus of John’s Gospel, Luke-Acts and the politically vibrant Book of Revelation, and not the domesticated Jesus of mainline Churchianity with its 2,000 year neglect at its institutional level of the Kingdom-Way.
    Penington’s realisation means that as the Christ is free so, too, freedom is enabled in all of us. In more contemporary terms we may translate Penington thus: we inherently possess the wonder of the Christ Light, the ‘sweet, melting, tender nature of God’, who guides us if we allow it to do so; because of this, we will always have the freedom and joy (if we want it) of discerning ways forward in this same Christ Light or Spirit who does not dominate, dictate or bully. The Spirit’s love, being unconditional and unlimited flows up, as Penington put it, ‘through [the] seed of life into the creature, and of all things making the creature most like unto [It]self, both in nature and operation’ (“Some of the Mysteries”, pp. 9-10). Thus it is impossible for the Kingdom-Way to be exclusivist.
    At the same time, no amount of reference to the early Quakers to bolster the pseudo-universalism propounded by Friends like Tony Philpott can suffice. Modern Quaker pseudo-universalism (see Caldwell below) is a world away both in time and meaning from the early Quaker Christian universalism you highlight in your piece. This universalism was based solidly on a conflation of the Inward Light and the Kingdom of God. In fact, to the early Friends these were the very same thing. The Kingdom was their central focus because it was Jesus’ central focus; evidence for this is so patently obvious it’s a mystery why it wasn’t picked up long ago by Quaker and other historians. If it had been, we would all have been spared the skewed understanding of the first Friends by scholars like Alan Cole, Christopher Hill, Barry Reay and latterly David Boulton.
    Along with Rosemary Moore, they have simply failed to appreciate this, the essential tenor of early Quakerism. They have failed, in other words, to take such Friends as Francis Howgill seriously for nowhere in their works do we find Howgill’s seminal “Some of the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom Declared” (1658). This work (see esp. pp. 38-43) was so important to the first Friends that it was counted among Fox’s personal library, a good indication indeed. Moore in her “The Light in Their Consciences”, a good book in many ways but one which omits much—see my review in “The Friends Quarterly” 32, 5 (2001), pp. 232-6—devotes her chapter 5 to the ‘Kingdom’ but fails to delineate adequately the essential motivating factor of her subject matter. And she, too, missed Howgill’s work.
    The deliberate conflation of which I speak gave the early Quakers the kind of Absolute you spotted in the “Bhagavad-Gītā”, but with a big difference. As we have seen with Penington, their Absolute was the pre-existent, unchanging, universal and personal Light or Christ of compassion, a Reality embodied through the mission and message of Jesus who, as Penington wrote in “An Echo from the Great Deep” (1650, pp. 32-3), was the ‘garment’ of the Spirit, a position to which he steadfastly held throughout his life. Such a startlingly modern view—it pre-dated by 300 years similar conclusions by the US Jesus Seminar—was later reinforced in works by other early Friends like William Bayly in his “A Short Discovery” (1659, p. 4).
    This Christ, the Spirit, was their rallying Centre, the source of their unity and wholeness (i.e. their ‘salvation’). It gave rise to their Lamb’s War, a spiritual yet revolutionary and nonviolent orthopraxis with clear political manifestations; that the movement was nonviolent and political is demonstrated repeatedly by my “Early Quakers”—Hill and co., including David Boulton, simply get this wrong, as I’ve said, because the early Quakers’ total devotion and commitment unto death in living and spreading the Kingdom-Way naturally meant an unequivocal denunciation of ‘carnal’ weaponry. They couldn’t have made it clearer (see my “Early Quakers”, appendices 4a and 5). Cole and Hill have died, Reay has moved to different interests but David still flies the ragged flag of so-called early Quaker ‘non-pacifism’.
    Today, to rally under the banner of the Christ (note the definite article) is just as important if Friends desire unity and theological coherence out of which we can be ‘patterns and examples’ of love, community, truth, peace, justice, compassion, equality and simplicity. To leave all such Jesus-type (actually Sermon on the Mount-type) inspiration behind, as you say, is indeed folly but there are Friends, and many of them, who want to do just this. Mention ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ to these Friends and their toes curl. Say ‘God’ and all sorts of put-downs flow from their mouths—all done in subtle and polite ways of course. And Friends at the ‘grassroots’, and even more worrying, new Attenders, experience this frequently (which, I hope, is why we’re having this debate).
    Boulton and other non-theists are at the forefront of this endeavour. Instead, Quakers might think seriously of being at the forefront of evangelising (not proselytising) our Quaker understanding of ‘the Way’ (as I usually call it), the Way of Jesus (the Kingdom of God as found in Lk. 17: 20-21), that is to say, the Way of the Jesus outlined above in three images. George Amoss, a US Friend, writes:

    Early Quakerism was Christianity redeemed, and Christianity today stands again in need of redemption. The experience of the first Friends can be a beacon for us as we work today, as they did in their time, toward a revolution in contemporary religion.

    The Quaker way is not only dependent upon Jesus’ witness to the Kingdom-Way and its continuing revelation, but it needs this healthy dependence for its very survival. Without the Kingdom-Way, Quakerism would never have arisen in the first place (as we have seen); without it today there can be no Quaker way. What do we want of the future, then?—to be a rump of ageing, directionless members, a straggle of folk who are well-meaning but socially, politically, environmentally and spiritually irrelevant? That is where we are heading and, as Alastair Heron, Janey O’Shea, a whole string of Swarthmore lecturers as well as Derek have warned, perhaps sooner than we realise.
    Rather than promote a syncretism within the body of Friends—‘pseudo-universalism’ as US Friend Samuel Caldwell correctly calls it (see )—it would have been better for our Religious Society if John Linton (credited with founding Quaker ‘universalism’) and his followers had pursued a scholarly critique of mainline Christianity while acknowledging the great debt modern Quakerism owes to the advanced, revolutionary Christian universalism of Fox and Friends as the continuing foundation of our Religious Society. That’s how important Fox and the early Quakers remain. It is no exaggeration to say that they are standard-bearers still of a new and fresh way of looking at religion and Christianity in particular, a way that is as relevant today as it was in the 1650s. This is not to suggest that we merely copy them as if nothing had ever changed; not at all!, but their biblical hermeneusis does contain a vital, life-giving and enduring message, something which we would be foolish to ignore. You do make allusions to this fact.
    All this, of course, does not mean uniformity of thought and action among Friends; to suggest otherwise, as David Boulton claims I do (see “The Friend”, 9th April, 2010, p. 8), is an utter nonsense. Uniformity was bitterly opposed by the first Friends and we should squarely confront any hint of the same. The Kingdom-Way can never lead us into uniformity, nor does its unifying language betray such a desire. I will close with a few quotes from my upcoming book, “What Love Can Do”, the title being a play on a famous quote by William Penn:

    The symbiotic connection between wholeness and unity was brought home to me some years ago when I came across a series of stained-glass windows by a favourite artist of mine, Marc Chagall. Each window was a riot of vivid pastel colours and different shapes, all of which were self-contained. Yet they coalesced with coherence and beauty to form a whole window in full perspective. Among other things, the observation taught me that diverse and independent elements can happily come together under an absolute, in this case the windows themselves with their images of the Eternal. They also taught me that true unity among people does not mean uniformity of thought and behaviour. Such uniformity is at once undesirable and ultimately unenforceable. I realised that God is pregnant with infinite diversity, something that is true for the Way. Its diversity, happily subsumed under a Divine unity, as in the metaphor of Chagall’s windows, is life-giving and liberating. It is expressed One-derfully through us when we place ourselves under the sovereignty of Love, when we securely plant ourselves in the compassioning concordia of the Way.
    Divine healing and unity, including the diversity of the Way, move beyond notions of postmodernism and its relativism if only because there is nothing ‘post’ about the Absolute, the loving Presence, Abbā, who is at the heart of the Sermons of the Mount and Plain, the Beatitudes and the witness unto death not only of Jesus but also the many others before and after him. Such witnessing always rises atop the temporal world with its intellectual and cultural trends. At the same time, the Way flies the flag for the whole of life on Earth as well as ‘heaven’. Like heaven and earth, we too are all connected, we too are all related, and, both individually and through each other, born of the Absolute/Unity.

    Later, when discussing Divine Truth, I write:

    Finally, all that I have said so far presupposes Truth as an absolute. By ‘absolute’ I am not, of course, inferring a totalitarian, authoritarian and toxic Being or a system that welds us to so-called ‘certainties’, freezes us into a ‘perfect’ spiritual stasis. I mean something that is open and yet beautifully and eternally complete like the message in Chagall’s windows, something that cannot be deconstructed but which manifests itself in undeviating love for others, something that leaves no space for selfish gain. Like the Way, Truth is a path not a possession; no one has a monopoly on Truth or the Way.
    It is this Love and Truth, of which nothing can be higher, that frees us from all bondage and need to control. Jacques Derrida, who fathered the philosophy of ‘deconstruction’, once said that Justice cannot be deconstructed and relativised since it is a verifiable reality, universally acknowledged and tested over a considerable length of time. On the other hand, he says, the law needs continual deconstruction in order to be an effective harbinger of Justice; society and attitudes change over time and the law needs to reflect that change. Hence, the underlying (or overarching) principal of Justice cannot be relativised because chaos, even tyranny, may result. Similarly, Divine Love as an underlying or overarching principle cannot be relativised for it would no longer be recognised as Divine Love, a Love who is open and yet beautifully and eternally complete, whose Way of Truth is worthy of our discerning and obedience, worthy of our listening heart and trusting ‘Yes!’ [to the Spirit].

  4. “The Eternal desires the nations summoned as one family on the basis of worship. In the context of this Promise, we Friends should open our doors to Seekers, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Pagans, Jews and others . . . We are not ‘accepting’ because we have little in particular to say. Rather, we are profoundly accepting because we have a lot to say.”

    Seekers? Why do they need to be on the list, since our doors have always been open to seekers? Pagans? Aren’t our doors already open to them too? Buddhists? Don’t we already have Buddhist members? Muslims are not specifically listed, but I suppose they come under ‘and others’ – as, I suppose, do atheists and humanists whom we also already accept. So what has changed? This ‘new’ policy isn’t going to help. It will not augment our membership to any significant extent, and if it did, the result would only be to further obscure our Christian roots.

    The Eternal desires from the standpoint of Eternity. I am not sure it follows that we should open our membership at this precise juncture to all and sundry (although we have done just that). It is true that from a Christian-universalist standpoint we have a lot to say, but there are fewer and fewer of us saying it, and fewer and fewer people are listening. Are we saying we have a lot to say to them, the Jews, the Sikhs? Or do we mean we have a lot to say because we have such a diversity of things to say, many of them completely contradictory but all held to be equally expressive of the true Quaker message (whatever each element in the general mix believes that to be)? The builders of Babel had a lot to say. And what does this predict about the future content of QF&P? Is it intended as a serious contribution to the revision process? Personally, I have no objection to worshipping with Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Sikhs. Their presence in the meeting might bring us all closer to God. It could be argued that we have more in common with them than with our own ‘radical religious humanists’. But why should they come to us simply because we open our doors? For the most part they appear to be very happy with their own faith arrangements.

    Much as I admire the Baha’i, I cannot feel that syncretism is the answer. Really to value one’s own or another’s faith is to respect its integrity, what it is that makes it unique and whole. It was a Hindu, Rabindranath Tagore, who wrote:

    The true universal finds its manifestation in the individuality which is true. Beauty is universal, and a rose reveals it because, as a rose, it is individually beautiful. By making a decoction of a rose, jasmine, and lotus, you do not get a realization of some larger beauty which is interfloral. The true universality is not breaking down the walls of one’s house, but the offering of hospitality to one’s guests and neighbours.

    Tagore does not intend that we shouldn’t learn from other faiths – or they from us. He was one of the earliest exponents of ‘intercultural dialogue’ and one of the first to use the phrase ‘unity in diversity’. But he understood those concepts in the deeper sense which he expresses here with such true wisdom and poetic force.

  5. Dear Guitons,
    Thanks warmly for these comments. I shall give them some reflection over the next few days. I find much wisdom in what you say Gerald: ‘Without the Kingdom-Way, Quakerism would never have arisen in the first place (as we have seen); without it today there can be no Quaker way.’ I agree with that and hope that insight was expressed in the above blog. If you felt it wasn’t, that’s a definite weakness on my part. That’s what I was trying to express with the term Jesus-shaped testimonies. On initial reading of your comments, I sense that the big issue is perhaps the way we three interpret the Quaker way of being ‘universalist’. My understanding (after much thinking, reading and praying) is that there is something fundamentally unruly about how the Quaker Way refuses some of the constraining categories that other Churches fall into.

    I would say the following about early Friends: They affirmed the Universality of the Light (‘every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God’). They affirmed that the divine worked in pre-Christian faiths and traditions. They even suggested that one could know the Light apart from Scripture (Indeed Fox says this). But at the same time, they maintained that the Light has an identity and a story: and that story and identity was found in Jesus of Nazareth. I think that makes our Quaker Way unruly because it affirms the universality of divine activity, but roots this universal in ‘the particular’ (the person of Jesus). And this really was the significant theme behind my post. I wanted to say that our particular Christian/Quaker story, far from being insular, actually grounds a particular plurality; a God that draws the nations to himself. So my desire to ‘open the doors’ is rooted in that perhaps ‘naive’ belief that, God will bring about unity in the human family: ‘People from many nations will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of Jacob’s God. There he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths.”

    So my point was that if we root back into our Christian grammar (not something that Tony would really want to do) then we have a coherent universalism and a reason to include (which goes beyond secular liberal models of choice). Would what I’m saying mean that nothing would change? I’m not sure about that. Some of the same people would still turn up, but we would be starting from a different narrative point (a point in the story which says, the world does have meaning, and all your differences are united in Covenant. I think it would support your significant insight Derek with which I also agree, ‘The true universality is not breaking down the walls of one’s house, but the offering of hospitality to one’s guests and neighbors’. Yes indeed.Saying why we’re hospitable is where I think we need to start. Are we inclusive because we don’t want to talk about the Truth, or are we inclusive because Truth drives us to care for each other? If we started there, I think our worship would be different, and I would argue, richer. Imagine if more us felt comfortable talking about God through the prism of this Jesus-shaped universalism? We would be able to talk about unity in difference convincingly to the world and one another.

    This is what I mean by ‘having a lot to say’. By the same token some folk who worship with us might feel alienated and go elsewhere (saying you are loved and included by the God of Jacob and Jesus is bound to put some off!). Such a move would certainly be counter to the human/secular elements that we worry about. Am I saying this is all about an ‘altered attitude of mind’ as you suggest Gerald? Yes I think I am- in the sense that people have to dwell in the story of Jacob and Jesus themselves (no structures and/or formulas can bring folk into relation with the depth of the story). People have to be open to receive such depth. Is that a precarious situation for a community to be in? Yes. But is more honest than those communities that hide behind formulas and structures as a replacement for narrative depth. And if people are not accessing that depth, it is for ‘us’ (as people who care about the story) to explain. Of course it would easy to blame Tony, or David Boulton (or ‘pseudo-universalism’) but I wonder whether ‘we’ (those who are rooted in the story of Jacob and Jesus) have failed as story-tellers? Does any of that accord with your responses? I hope we continue this conversation, thanks again for your thoughts,
    In Light,

  6. I’ve written a whole book (“A Man that Looks on Glass”) arguing among other things that we need a minimal criterion or boundary line for membership, one I suggest that corresponds to Charles Taylor’s “open reading of immanence” – that is, not a creed or a belief but an attitude of mind, an attitude of openness to no more than the possibility of the transcendent, the possibility of God. That’s not asking much and can hardly be described as an ‘exclusivist’ position, although it would stem the inflow of hardline humanism. I also tried to show what the consequences for our Religious Society are likely to be if we have no such requirement and admit into membership those for whom such an attitude of openness is inconceivable. I am not speaking here of Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus who have their own understandings of God but of the kind of person who takes advantage of the generous welcome extended to them by sedulously promoting a secular spirituality with the aim of ultimately changing the nature of the Society. Above all I wanted to slow or halt the process of ‘accommodation’ by which each stage in the process prepares the way for the next stage – with the inevitable result of a continuing decline in the numbers professing belief in God (please re-read my Chapter 3). By constantly widening our admission criteria (most likely in response to non-spiritual considerations like falling numbers, ageing membership, and so on) I argue that we are moving further away from our Christian roots and drawing ever closer to the wastelands of secularism.

    Your response to this was to question my handling of the word ‘transcendent’, maintaining that to speak of it as I do requires one to engage with “an enormous philosophical infrastructure”, pitting one vast philosophical system against another in a way which is “alien to Quaker theology”. That is unfair and inaccurate, and it suggests you haven’t read my book with due care. The theme of transcendence and its frontal denial runs like a thread through the whole of Charles Taylor’s monumental work (“A Secular Age”) without any such point by point engagement, and the same is true of most modern writers on religion: Keith Ward, Alister McGrath, Karen Armstrong, John Polkinghorne, even someone like Rowan Williams who admittedly can be difficult. It is true, these are not Quakers, but of course that doesn’t mean we don’t read or appreciate them. In any case my aim is not to champion a particular philosophical system, thereby leaving myself open to a kind of “logical deconstruction”, but the far more limited one of showing there are alternatives to non-theist non-realism which are more convincing and actually more popular amongst academic philosophers. I don’t claim that non-realism is wrong (although it is my experience it is wrong); only that these alternatives are there and worth noting. My hope is that I will succeed in removing a few stumbling blocks from the path of genuine seekers.

    I suspect your main reason for critiquing my book in the way you do is that it doesn’t match your agenda for total inclusiveness. You want to keep the door open to all, including those who wish to replace what they have found with a completely different belief system of their own. I on the other hand want to propose a very minimal standard for admission to membership on the lines adumbrated above (which of course doesn’t exclude worshipping with us as Attenders or joining in our various forms of social action). Hospitality in the sense defined by Rabindranath Tagore (q.v.my previous post) doesn’t mean having no admission criteria at all, thus leaving oneself open to the kind of role reversal one would expect from a Pinter play where the guest ends up making the rules for the host. In fact, it means the opposite of that – it means giving without surrendering the capacity to give. As Tagore put it, “without breaking down the walls of one’s house”.

    God’s love is all-inclusive and unconditional. Simone Weil once said, “[God] loves not as I love, but just as an emerald is green. [God] is ‘I love thee’. And I myself, if I were in a state of perfection, I should love just as an emerald is green”. She aimed for absolute perfection and physically destroyed herself. We too have to aim for perfection; we must love those who don’t share our beliefs. But in aiming for perfection we shouldn’t lose touch with reality – which would make us ineffective and therefore less than perfect. Human love comes in different kinds, has conflicting objects and sometimes involves difficult choices; otherwise why should we have need of discernment and divine guidance? I have family members who are humanists and atheists and I love them to distraction, but I also love our Society and our tradition and I don’t wish to see our Christian roots permanently wither and die.

    Ben, I have read all your recent articles with care and interest and should like to thank you. I would now like to concentrate on other things, so would prefer not to continue with this conversation at this point. If any readers are interested in my views I refer them to my book, “A Man that Looks on Glass”, but would ask them to please read it through to the end before commenting.

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