Quaker Theology -- Issue #17


Reviews

Margery Post Abbott. To Be Broken and Tender: A Quaker Theology for Today. Western Friend/Friends Bulletin Corporation, 2010. 260 pages, including a study guide. $20.

Reviewed by Stephen W. Angell

Margery Post Abbott has been a very productive and useful writer in the area of Quaker spirituality over recent years. I have particularly enjoyed the book that she co-edited with Peggy Senger Parsons, Walk Worthy of Your Calling: Quakers and the Traveling Ministry (Friends United Press, 2004), which presents first-hand accounts of experiences of traveling ministry by more than twenty very geographically diverse Friends.

This latest book will be similarly inspiring and useful. It is a rich arrangement that provides enlightening information from a number of different angles. When one thinks of theological treatises, one thinks of rather dry reading, but this is not such. Abbott keeps her writing lively in a number of different ways. Often the text is broken up with “sidebar” boxes, which present clear summaries of important material for Quaker theology – for example, “A recipe for life in the City of God” (Abbott’s own summary of the Epistle of James, 108-109). The chapters are short, and one or more can be read easily at a sitting. If you’re like me, you’ll probably want to read it in short chunks, because there is a lot to chew on.

The main text combines Abbott’s summary of Quaker theology and spirituality with something more akin to what one would expect in a Quaker journal, as she shares generously from her own personal experiences so that one can see how she arrived at the conclusions she presents to us. She has led a rich life. Her intense involvement in Quaker ecumenical discussions (liberal and evangelical Quaker women in the Pacific Northwest have a deep and long-running dialogue, for example) lends a breadth and depth to her understanding of Quaker theology.

She relates her strong concern for peacemaking with her visits to Palestinians on the West Bank. She has worshiped deeply with many varieties of Friends, but she also practices yoga, and her book draws on what she has learned from both Christian and non-Christian varieties of spirituality. Some of this may seem startling to those who are used to drawing theology from writers with a more detached writing style like Robert Barclay in his Apology, but even a Barclay could write movingly of the convincement that he experienced when he “came into the silent assemblies of God’s people” where he “found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up.” Abbott, like Barclay, has a powerful personal testimony to share.

Much of what Abbott has to share is drawn from a very traditional Quaker spirituality of the kind one encounters in a John Woolman or a Samuel Bownas. Her opening sections on “Waiting and Attending” and on “Encountering the Seed” may be familiar to contemporary liberal Friends, but her succeeding sections on “Taking Up the Cross,” “Retirement,” and “To Be Broken and Tender” draw on aspects of Quaker mysticism that will probably be less familiar to many of her readers. The title speaks of her humility and openness, but also as the necessary prelude to much positive spiritual growth. Thus, brokenness is meant to speak about that “which needs to be fixed,” but also of that “which is the precursor to wholeness,” (166) as broken ground is necessary to successful planting of many flowers, fruit trees, and vegetables.

The theology that she witnesses to is complex enough that it eludes easy summary. While this is a book in which all Quakers will find much of value, it is also the kind of liberal, or progressive, Quaker theology that regular readers of this periodical will easily recognize. She honors the deep roots of Quaker theology in a Christian spirituality, but she also finds much of value in other spiritual traditions. She is very interested in the mystical tradition, and she is a strong witness to peacemaking as an active part of a vital religious faith. Her statements seem to me to be accurate, truthful, and thoughtful representations of our Quaker tradition; I did not find anything in her book that I strongly disagreed with, or that I felt sure that did not belong. I do heartily recommend reading this book, and I will be recommending it to my students at the Earlham School of Religion.

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