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?