By Chuck Fager.
In good Quaker fashion, we begin with queries: What is theology, and why should Friends be interested in it?
Early Friends were often loudly skeptical about theology, which George Fox referred to scornfully as “windy notions.” Their critique had at least five major points:
- Intellectualizing about religion takes people away from experiencing God and the Spirit, and letting these change their lives, which is what they really need to do;
- The official theologies of various churches were the products of corrupt, faction-ridden, politically influenced church councils.
- Theological formulas were/are regularly used as instruments of oppression.
- Academic theology wraps its work in technical, in-group jargon, and thus hides God’s truth from ordinary people.
- Theological speculation is more likely to promote pride and lead to skepticism than to promote humility and faith.
There is some (we think, much) cogency to this critique, which we hope to keep before us as we go forward. But its downside for Friends has been to promote an attitude of anti-intellectualism in such matters which has not served us well. Too many of us have let this critique of theology become an excuse for remaining studiously ignorant about it.
If staying ignorant of theology meant we could thereby be free of it, that would be one thing. But it doesn’t. Early Friends found this out soon enough: despite their misgivings, they were obliged to write their own theologies, if only to combat the myths and untruths being spread about their movement. Barclay’s classic The Apology for the True Christian Divinity is the prime example of this theology as self-defense.
This posture is less relevant today, when Friends are not much subject to persecution. But there is another form of theology as self-defense which is more timely: as a means of identifying and addressing the influence of silly or downright pernicious ideas among us. These are more like air or water pollution, often not easy to identify, but very real.
Fortunately, there are positive as well as negative reasons to do theology. Among them is simply the ongoing work of self- examination and definition which any living faith community faces. This ever-unfinished work is at the center of Quaker Theology’s efforts; indeed, it provides us with our working definition of theology, which is: disciplined reflection and continuing conversation about individual and communal religious experience. It seems to us that such disciplined reflection is part of our religious duty. After all, in Matthew 22:37, Jesus includes in the first Great Commandment the imperative to love the Lord “with all your mind”; we think Friends today could do better at following this call.
Another important reason for Friends to do theology, in our view, is to prepare ourselves to take a fuller and more constructive part in the many opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue which are now available.
As we launch this journal, it is our observation that Friends are very much under-represented in these conversations. We think this is very unfortunate, for all parties concerned, but especially Friends. These conversations, especially if pursued in any depth, will inevitably involve much more than arcane explorations of obscure dogmas. Rather, they will soon enough touch on most of the issues we Friends put under the rubrics of Testimonies: Peace, Simplicity, Equality, and so forth. we expect all these and more to come up in our pages, as many already do in this initial issue.
However, in one respect these conversations partake of the character of a visit to another country: they speak a different language there, that of “theology.” We hope to minimize our explain such jargon here whenever possible; but it cannot be avoided entirely. And beyond its own vocabulary, theology has a tradition, or rather traditions, which we are called upon to become familiar with if we would be informed and serviceable sojourners in its territory. Not many Friends today are well-equipped for such journeys, and Quaker Theology hopes to do what we can to change that.
This is a big project, especially for a journal situated, as we are, in the unprogrammed branch of the Religious Society of Friends. The work will not be completed soon, if ever. We hope to pursue it not only via publications, but also in conferences and seminars, as way opens. The first of these latter is set for First Month 14-16, 2000 in State College, PA.
In this journal’s initial issue, we jump right into the work of expanding the horizon of Quaker theology as we know it, in several ways: by reexamining old shibboleths; comparing ourselves to another kind of faith community; seeing how Quakerism can be meaningful without God; and laboring over our response to a recent war.
In the opening essay, Melvin Endy challenges what has become something of a reigning orthodoxy among Quaker historians, that the Society originated as a specimen of Puritanism. This conception, which has been in the ascendancy since about 1950, has long seemed suspect to us on historical grounds alone, given the fierce, sustained, and often bloody hostility shown by the Puritan authorities to Quakerism. But it has also seemed dubious based on its own use among us: as a means for assimilating Quakerism into the neo-orthodox Protestant Mainline. This project has succeeded to some extent in some of the larger yearly meetings; but to the same extent, it has also failed, because it has left those Friends groups sharing the plight of the mainline churches, which are all now in deep crisis, rapidly losing members, direction and vitality.
Promoting such an identification thus has turned out to be not only a recipe for diminishment; it is also a version of Quakerism which George Fox and Robert Barclay would have vehemently rejected. They argued, rightly so in our view, that Quakerism, for all its Christian roots, was something very different from the churches around it. Endy can help us begin to recover a clearer sense of this difference. His essay was first published in 1973, but little noted at the time; we are happy to bring it back to Friends’ attention.
There are, of course, affinities between Quaker faith and practice and that of other traditions. But as Ann Riggs shows in our next essay, they are more likely to be found in unexpected places; she explores some of the striking parallels between Quaker spirituality and that of Roman Catholic religious orders. This “Quaker-Catholic connection” is one which would also have shocked Fox, but it has popped up repeatedly in our history nonetheless, and it deserves further attention.
The third essay presses toward another frontier. George Amoss, of Homewood Meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, candidly recounts his “spiritual journey” to an atheist Christianity in a Quaker context. He is not alone in his view, but this perspective is one that is rarely articulated; yet the depth of study that has gone into his pilgrimage is unusual, and worth attending to. His essay underlines the theological diversity of unprogrammed Quakerism today. This is a reality we intend to take as a given, approaching it both affirmatively and with discernment.
Finally in this issue, your Editor offers reflections on the difficulties for Quaker posed by the Kosovo War. He makes bold to include it in the conviction that “theology,” however abstruse it might sometimes seem, is ultimately about living the life of faith in the world. For Friends, this means the testimonies, and before long, they mean work for peace. That this work is often difficult and ambiguous is par for the course, and continuing grist for the mill of reflection.
This, then, is our first issue of Quaker Theology. We are already thinking about the next issue; but we also welcome responses, ideas, and submissions.