Quaker Theology #11 -- Spring-Summer 2005


The Core Quaker Theology: Is there Such a Thing?

Chuck Fager

Adapted from a presentation at

Amawalk Meeting, New York, 8th Mo 14, 2004

When I hear or read of questions about such things as "normative Quakerism," or "authentic Quakerism" or "traditional Quakerism," it usually means one of two things: either a person or group feels very much confused and at sea, and is honestly looking for some certainty to cling to, some rock to stand on; or it often means that some person or group is looking for a club, with which either to beat other people into submission or to drive them away as interlopers and heretics.

Thereís been plenty of both efforts in Quaker history: confusion and witchhunts. So make no mistake: these are loaded questions. And they can be dangerous ones.

Iím hoping that the request to talk about the "Core Quaker Theology," which is what Iíve been asked to do here, is an expression of the first of these conditions, confusion rather than a lead-in to a purge. And if I may offer you a word of caution, it is that a Meeting can start out seeking to dispel confusion, and end up in the middle of a witchhunt that nobody thought they wanted. Iím not a friend to purges and witchhunts, having been purged myself at least once in my nearly forty-year Quaker journey, and having had to bob and weave to dodge at least one other effort.

Confusion about Quaker theology is more understandable, and indeed I think it may well be part of that "core." But as this suggests, if ambiguity is at the core, then theological confusion, at least a bit of it, may be something to learn to live with rather than a flaw to be banished.

And indeed, when I reflect on the task of identifying the "core" of Quaker theology, there are deep ambiguities there which go back to the beginning, and even before that.

Let me take one: the dichotomy, or as I would prefer, the dialectic between Christian particularism versus what we may call "universalism." Should being Quaker mean we must be Christian? Or is it enough to mind the light, from whatever source we see it shining, be that Wicca, Zen, or, as in my case most of each summer, the spirituality of baseball. (Of course, Iím referring here to the authentic, orthodox baseball spirituality, which requires the true believer above all to despise the Yankees. I understand there may be some non-believers among my readers. But Iím a tolerant person.)

When it comes to universalism versus Christian particularism, there are plenty of quotes from early Friends to be cited on either side; and our premier early theologian, Robert Barclay, can be legitimately quoted on both of them. Iíve often done that myself.

But does this mean that Barclay or the other Quaker worthies were inconsistent or sloppy thinkers? Not necessarily, at least to my mind. Thatís because this duality, this tension, didnít start with them Ė not at all. As I read the Christian tradition, this tension goes back 1600 years before Fox to none other than Jesus Christ himself, at least as portrayed in the gospels.

In these gospels Jesus is quoted as saying both, "I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the father but by me," and, in Matthew 25, describing the last judgement, to be conducted by him, where the sheep and the goats are separated, but by a set of criteria that has nothing, nothing whatever to do with belief in himself or Christianity; indeed, both sheep and goats are clearly drawn from a wide range of religious cultures.

Reading these passages, I sometimes react like a peevish book reviewer and want to say, "Well, Jesus Ė so which is it? Do I have to believe in you or not? Why didnít you Ė or at least your gospel writers Ė get the story straight here???"

So the fact of tensions, ambiguity and even confusion in "core theology or convictions" is not a new datum in religions out of the Christian stream, and in this respect Quakerism has been no different. But along with confusion, I also want to suggest that an additional fact of history canít be separated from this concern. That is, theologies take shape in history, as a continuing stream of events and reflection. And in this stream, almost everything changes over time, and so it has been with theologies, including Quaker theologies.

That is, I want to raise questions about the notion of a "core" Quaker theology as a metaphor. It suggests that Quaker thought is like an apple, which at the center has a few seeds that are its heart and hope for the future. Or perhaps itís imagined to be like the core layers of a tree trunk, sometimes bending with strong winds but nonetheless standing resilient and steady at the center while the years add layers of history around the edges.

These are strong, comforting images. But I want to suggest that Quakerism may not be like that. Or at least, not like the tree trunk. The seeds, perhaps. Thatís because the seeds can carry not only continuity, but change.

Anyway, thatís how itís been with religions, and Christianity and Quakerism in particular. Some of these changes were what we could call "technical." For instance, take the matter of texts. Biblical texts were transmitted for many centuries by being hand-copied on thick pieces of sheepskin vellum. These copies lasted long enough so that when a new copy had to be made, the previous copyist was long since dead and not around to clear up any ambiguities. Thus any mistakes or additions to the text would be passed on as if they were original. And so among the many ancient copies of these texts, no two of them are the same, and among the thousands of variations, some of them are quite significant.

But in addition to these technical, or even accidental changes, there is also what the scientists call evolution to consider. That is, over the generations of a species, every so often there are mutations, changes in its DNA. These changes over time move from apes to humans or from lizards to birds, and so forth. The same goes for those seeds in the core of the apple: every so often, those apple seeds turn out to produce something different Ė granny smith to braeburn, but also occasionally to some new kind of plant altogether.

I believe a similar pattern applies to religion. Both in the Bible and at various points in later Jewish and Christian history, there have been thinkers and seers who were "mutations." They looked at the sacred texts and rites and institutions, and saw something different from what had been seen earlier, and said so, and over time their new visions were accepted.

Many of the Hebrew prophets were like that: their faith community was a different animal once their messages and reinterpretations of tradition had been assimilated into it. Certainly thatís how the early Hebrew Christians saw Jesus. And itís also how most church historians regard George Fox, whether they like him or not: a creative mutation within the Christian stream of religious life.

Again, the examples of this are legion, and not always consistent with each other. The early Hebrews thought sure their God was attached to a particular piece of land and a specific temple; but when that land was lost, new seers and prophets delivered mutant messages that said No, our God is not bound to buildings made with hands, and the Jews and Judaism survived.

Likewise, the first generation or two of Christians seem to have been pretty clear that Jesus was returning very soon Ė after all, he is quoted in the gospels no less than five times as saying heíd be back before all those who were listening to him had died. But then when this return was apparently "delayed," new seers and apostles came up with explanations that helped later Christians keep going.

A similar process of major change is also observable in early, formative Quakerism. The major historians of this initial period can now distinguish not one but several phases in this saga:

Ė The early surge, in the midst of a revolution, a massive religious-political-social upheaval, in which Friends thought they were bound to sweep the world and convert everyone to what they were sure was the reconstituted "true church" which would establish Christís kingdom on earth.

Ė Then there was the shock of reaction after the revolution failed, leading to decades of persecution and a reorientation and reorganization of the movement simply to survive.

Ė And after that, once survival was finally assured, came a shift toward a process of becoming respectable, and ultimately even esteemed by the very Establishment that had formerly scorned and repressed the Society.

It is a conceit of many historians and religious thinkers, including many Friends, that such evolution constitutes "progress," an identifiable, if uneven, process of improvement toward perfection. That is not my purpose in using the term here; evolution can backslide, just as an individual can.

I can look back, for instance, to the late nineteenth century, at the witness of Lucretia Mott against war, and her faith that "modern" warfare was becoming so destructive it had to be on the way out. It then becomes clear that the many changes in the intervening 124 years since her death have not constituted progress in this area at all, but mostly just the reverse. Again, there could be many other examples: nowadays even the Pope does not claim that the launching of the Inquisition was a sign of medieval Christian progress.

Instead, many scholars nowadays speak of such evolutionary processes as "trajectories," and thatís the term I prefer to use here. One reason is that it reminds me of one of the favorite moments in baseball, the long fly ball. Depending on the trajectory, it could be a home run, an extra bases hit, a foul ball, or an easy out. And its course can be affected not only by the hitterís power and swing, but by the breeze, the humidity, and who knows what else. So the crack of the bat brings not only excitement but Ė if only briefly Ė suspense.

Thereís also a biblical basis for this usage, from the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of the spirit as being like the wind, that we hear the sound of it, but we donít know where itís coming from or where itís going. Religious trajectories are subject to those winds too. You can think of them as elements of the "core" if you like, but elements in motion Ė motion through time and space, motion through our minds and experience, motion from being pushed and nudged by the wind of the spirit. And more important, this motion is not incidental Ė itís part of the essence of the elements. Quakerism isnít and never was a static thing. It moves and is moved.

So here I want to point to not one, but a number of "trajectories" in Quaker history and thought, some of which parallel and overlap, but all of which are distinguishable, at least for our purposes here. Theyíre the best ways I can think of to approach this matter of a "core" to Quaker thought.

Iíve already suggested the partial shape of one of these trajectories, namely that of the social position of the Society of Friends in British and American society: starting as despised Outsiders, moving through toleration to being accepted, even cherished, if eccentric, Insiders. In England, for instance, the Society of Friends is one of the select bodies that has been given the corporate privilege of directly addressing the monarch on various important occasions.

But thatís not the end of the story. While the privilege of addressing the crown remains on the books in Britain, both there and in the US, Friends in the twentieth and now twenty-first century are again becoming Outsiders, more often at odds with (and ignored by) their respective Establishments than aligned with them.

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