Reviewed by Chel Avery
“What sustains sustainability?” Mark Helpsmeet(1) has proposed this question as an alternative title for Doug Gwyn’s deep examination of Quaker life and sustainability. How do Quaker thought and Quaker practice provide a firm foundation for individuals and communities that are trying to live in harmony with creation and with prophetic attention to the world’s problems?
In agreeing to write a review, I warned Quaker Theology that I am in no way an uninterested party. I was closely involved in the production of this book as former staff of QuakerPress, and I always thought it was a very good manuscript. However it was during my third reading, while writing study questions for meetings, that I was struck with the exciting recognition that I think this is the most important non-introductory Quaker overview title to come by in a good long time.
This is the book I want us to be talking about, not in the big forums, but in small groups in our meetings, exploring what it can help us understand when we choose how to conduct our communities and live our lives today, and for considering what it means to be Quaker in these times. Accolades aside, what is this book? Not what you would probably expect.
It is an examination of sustainability that only very briefly discusses the environment. Author Doug Gwyn assumes his readers need no further education or persuasion about the importance to our lives of the ecological crisis. Except in Steve Chase’s stirring Foreword, “Answering the Kabarak Call,” the book mostly does not address the politics, activism, or alternative technologies of sustainability. It addresses instead the spiritual and community lives of those of us who would live faithfully in covenant relationship with the earth, God, and one another.
It offers not specific recommendations, but a list of tensions, between which we must continually seek to find balance. Gwyn’s illustration for the components of faithful Quaker life resembles a wheel in which opposing spokes represent principles that work in relation to each other, informing and limiting one another—axes along which we need to seek the sweet spot for our own times. One such axis, for example, is the dynamic between a value for peaceful relationships and a value for social action, which is often confrontational. In an interview about the book, Gwyn addresses that relationship:
Peace and conflict are actually integral to each other and keep modifying one another so that we keep returning to the still center where we feel that peace, but that very sense of peace causes us to look at our own lives or look at society with new eyes and feel ourselves led to change our lives or to work for change in society . . . to be true to the light we are given. (2)
Similarly, equality stands in relationship to community; leadership shares an axis with group decision making; and (using distinctions apparent in the writings of early Friends) Light answers Seed.
It is a broad book that goes deceptively deep. Though written in the voice of a scholar, this work makes its greatest contribution, I believe, not to Quaker scholarly discourse, but in its potential service as a challenging but very meaningful and discussable way for “everyday” practicing Quakers to deepen our consideration of what we want our lives as Quakers to mean.
If I could change one thing about this book, it would be to make it a lighter read by doubling its length, to slow down the reader’s thought process. That is not to say it is difficult, but it is closely packed, grounded in Quaker history and the writings of earlier generations of Friends as well as more recent material. To read it lightly is to miss much of what it offers. A sample [from p. 40, in the chapter on personal integrity and discernment]:
Integrity is wholeness. To live an integral life is to “mind the oneness,” as Fox urges. Early Quakers called themselves “Friends of Truth.” The Hebrew word for truth, amun, literally means “solid,” “consistent.” To befriend the truth is to become consistent in word and deed with the truth we receive from the light in our consciences. Truth is more fundamentally participational than propositional. We live into the truth most of all through our actions.
Aside from its connection to the theme of sustainability, this book holds place, I believe, as a valuable brief overview of Quakerism in its historical and contemporary entirety, seen from a fresh perspective. Much of its content will not be new to the well-read Quaker, but the structure of that content, and the questions raised by the author’s deeply thoughtful consideration of the dynamic between the parts and the whole of our faith, are well worth grappling with.
A Few Selected Quotes from A Sustainable Life:
“Friends have traditionally insisted that our true, sustainable spiritual resource for personal and social renewal comes from an unmediated source within ourselves. Early Friends called true spiritual knowledge “immediate,” but they didn’t mean that it comes right away, like results from a Google search. It comes through a regular practice of waiting. That waiting begins as an impatient, toe-tapping waiting for something to happen, perhaps for God to answer our questions and needs. But over time, through some mysterious combination of persistence and surrender, patience develops. We learn to wait upon the Lord, the Presence, the Truth–in readiness to learn, to be transformed, to serve. That is the Copernican revolution that begins a sustainable life.” (p. 1)
“Equality and community are two threads in the seamless garment of Quaker testimony. They continually cross in the warp and weft of faithful lives. Their relationship is dialogical, not in the sense of being opposites, but in the way they continue to qualify one another. If an emphasis on equality by itself is prone to resentment and contention, an emphasis on community without equality easily lapses into sentimentality.” (p. 71)
“If peace was the dominant theme of Quaker testimony in the twentieth century, the interaction between personal simplicity and work for a sustainable human society on earth will focus much of our imagination and energies in this century. It has to. Anything less will amount to nihilism and massive destruction–a path we have traveled disastrously far already. Without the personal practice of simplicity, concern for sustainability becomes doctrinaire, ‘words without life,’ as early Friends would say. Conversely, without the global vision of a sustainable future, the personal practice of simplicity can easily become more a matter of style than substance.” (p. 129)
(1) Northern Spirit Radio interview with Doug Gwyn, 4/19/2015. See: http://northernspiritradio.org/episode/sustainable-life.
*Douglas Gwyn. QuakerPress, 2014. 178 pp. $14.95 paperback; $6.50 digital download from quaker-books.org Discussion questions for groups: pdf download, free at same site.