Quaker Theology #13 Winter 2007

Wrestling With Our Faith Tradition: Collected Public Witness, 1995-2004. Lloyd Lee Wilson. Quaker Press of FGC, 231 pages, paperback $18.95.

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Since the death of Bill Taber in 2005, Lloyd Lee Wilson has become the representative figure of Conservative Quakerism in the U.S., and perhaps more widely. He is a member and former Clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and his plain dress and traditional "thee" and "thou" address, among other items, make visible his commitment to this path. He has also been a traveling minister for that body, and this is his second volume of essays, a collection of addresses given on various occasions over the past decade, under the guidance of and with the approval of that body.

The book presents an opportunity to examine and assess his recent reading of this strand of Friends spirituality. Given his growing prominence, such an assessment is overdue.

Wilson speaks often in these talks of the "classic Quaker tradition," (pp. 16, 25, 164ff) which he professes to follow, and defines as having three elements: an "apophatic" or via negativa approach to God; the believerís direct relationship with Christ; and the centrality of the meeting community in settling, framing, and guiding an individualís religious path within it.

What accounts for the appeal of this formulation? The very term "classic tradition" is part of it: the phrase brings to mind something time-tested, enduring, stable, reliable. Such features are evoked by "classical" music; classic clothing (black is basic); even "Classic" Coca Cola.

But what makes this "classic" Quakerism? After all, he explains, it is "not the Quakerism of George Fox or Elizabeth Hooten, who preached the original version, but it is the current manifestation of that vision." (P. !6) He adds that in this new version, "some rough edges have been smoothed over the centuries, and some new insights have been incorporated in an incremental process of continuing revelation."(Ibid.) Unfortunately, if one wonders what those "rough edges were," and which were the "new insights" that have been vouchsafed, there is not much in the way of direct answers here.

In one sense, such a lack of specifics is to be expected: this is not a formal theological treatise, but a mixed bag of talks given on various occasions. Yet the questions lingered nonetheless, at least for this reader, and answers emerged only by a close reading, sometimes between the lines.

In seeking to understand the basis of his perspective, several elements emerged: Wilsonís religious views have been influenced not only by the venerable worthies of the Quaker and Conservative traditions, who are quoted sparingly here, but also by a range of more modern and varied non-Quaker figures, some of whom recur quite often: biblical scholar Walter Wink (p. 118), Catholic retreat leader Richard Rohr (p. 50), radical Latin American thinker Paolo Freire (p. 157), other unnamed liberation theologians (p. 153), activist Ched Myers (p. 44), the Wesleyan quadrilateral, narrative theology (p. 57f), and even the odd Buddhist (p. 228).

By tracking and classifying these quotes and allusions, it became clear that his "Classic tradition" in Wilsonís hands is a melding of Fox and Barclay with ideas and motifs from several other traditions, not all of which otherwise fit easily together. In one sense this is fine: any literate American today who is interested in religion is likely to encounter a wide range of spiritual writers and thinkers.

But turnabout is fair play. Wilsonís book shows the influence of various strains of recent thinking. But there is not much mastery of any of these ideas shown here, and this superficiality becomes a problem when, as repeatedly happens, he derides "eclectic and syncretic spiritualities" (p. 39, 131) or a "salad bar approach" to religion," (p. 217) by which is clearly meant most of liberal Quakerism.

However, one personís passing acquaintance with Rohr, Myers, Wink and Buddhist chestnuts is another personís "salad bar." Wilson is entitled to the ideas which have moved and shaped him. But finishing the book, one thing was clear: these pages represent "classic" Quakerism only because he says so, and the dismissive judgments on other varieties tossed off in it were unwarranted and unsupported. Indeed, there are numerous elements of Wilson;ís version which are not only novel, but highly debatable Ė in fact, call out to be challenged. Here is a sampling:

Biblical interpretation: One chapter reprises a week-long Bible study series Wilson gave at New York Yearly Meeting. In it he highlighted passages that described the "big story" (p. 182) of liberation theology that he considered to be the heart of Scripture. On Thursday, his theme was saying no to idolatry, and the passage chosen was first Kings 18, which describes the struggle between the prophet Elijah and the priests of Baal.

Whether liberation is indeed the "big story" of the Bible is one arguable point Ė I would hope itís part of it, but I suspect thereís considerably more to that in scripture, including much that does not fit with such a view. (What about, I Peter 2:18, "Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh." Liberation?)

But leave my notions aside. In our last issue (QT #12), there was another major essay, by Keith Helmuth, which likewise attempted to nail down the "master narrative" emerging from the Bible, citing his own favored theologians.

Helmuthís piece (analyzed in more detail elsewhere in the current issue), found at the heart of these texts, not liberation, but rather a catastrophic drive to impose personal will (interpreted as Godís will) on the earth and humanity, regardless of the cost to both. More striking still, Helmuthís key piece of textual evidence for his melancholy thesis was this very same passage from First Kings, where Elijah faces the prophets of Baal Ė and slaughters them all.

Well, this difference could be no more than "he said"/ "he said." But I must say, for Wilson to lean thus heavily on a story which has a massacre as its denouement is very troubling to me as a Quaker student of the Bible, and naming it part of the template for the "classical Quaker tradition" simply does not wash. One might have thought that dependence on such blood-soaked tales would have been part of the "rough edges" rubbed off it by now. In short, there is much more to be said and wrestled with about the Bible than we are presented with here.

Then there is peace witness: Wilson devoted many hours to peace work in Norfolk, Virginia, creating a short-lived project there to provide Conscientious Objector counseling to soldiers and sailors with doubts about the rightness of their involvement with the war machine. He has walked his talk.

Yet as manager of another such Quaker GI counseling project, I must beg to differ with much of the rendition of the peace testimony which he claims as the warrant for that work and Quaker witness generally. For one thing, Wilsonís peace testimony is resolutely individualistic, even privatized: it begins, and largely ends, with individual conversion, and speaks only to other individuals in hopes of assisting their conversion: "By the grace of God," he declares, "I have been freed from bondage to the lusts and desires which the epistle of James says are at the heart of wars and conflicts . . . lives that embody this new life in the Holy Spirit are the strongest possible peace witness . . . ." (P. 49)

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