Editor’s Introduction, #29

    There’s some good news in American Quakerdom this fall: North Carolina Yearly Meeting (FUM), whose travails we have been following for two years, has decided not to split, and the two-year effort to purge its handful of “liberal” meetings has been given up. Instead, as our report here shows, it will undertake to “reorganize” in an as-yet unspecified way, but along lines which will give room to the factions which have difficulty with other perspectives, but without pushing anyone out of the group.

    This process is not yet underway as we go to press, and it will be intriguing to watch. So while NCYM’s decision could well be a landmark, our coverage of NCYM is not thereby concluded.

    From another sector of Friends we also have what we believe is an important piece, by liberal Friend Jacob Stone. He raises the curtain on a well-established phenomenon in this constituency, yet one that is hardly ever remarked on, except in passing: the pervasive influence of pop psychology and the morphing of “spirituality” (also previously known as “religion”) into a kind of therapy equivalent.

    Evangelical Friends have their own versions of this; but Stone is more familiar with liberal Quakers, and that’s where he takes us.  And, Friends, it’s a jungle out there. (Just kidding! Really it’s the Elysian Fields; it’s a “safe space”; the Tunnel to Transformation; the Home of true Healing, the Bower of Breathful Bliss, etc.)  In any case, under the capacious umbrella of Friends General Conference, on the verdant lawns of Pendle Hill, or Friendly spaces subject to their influence, it’s well-nigh inescapable.

    Stone draws back from passing any judgments about this condition. This editor is not so reluctant.  I’ve been troubled more than once by what I’ve seen and heard in such settings. For one thing, much of this stuff makes at least a stab at being scientific. But a great deal is just not. Beyond my own experience and observation, I’m persuaded by the careful analysis of available research as of about 2013 by Monica Pignotti, PhD & Bruce A. Thyer, PhD, LCSW, BCBA-D, both from the College of Social Work, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. In the book, Science & Pseudo-science in Clinical Psychology, they write in “New Age & Related Novel Unsupported Therapies in Mental Health Practice”:

    “Currently, conventional science has yet to validate the core principles of New Age psychotherapies – the idea that that thoughts can influence one’s external environment, the existence of subtle energies and fields–or of meridians, acupressure points, chakras, auras, or of the ability of some psychotherapists to reliably detect these constructs.”

    It is rare that the books, training workshops, CDs, or DVDs advertising training in these treatments, or offering them to the public . . . include a disclaimer along the lines of ‘The treatment being promoted lacks an adequate scientific evidence that it is an effective therapy. It is offered solely on the basis of the psychologist’s clinical judgment, intuition, and personal beliefs.’”

Further, as Pignoti and Thyer add, some of these techniques and associated paraphernalia have also proved to be downright dangerous:

    “Recall the confident assertion of one mental health professional who claimed, ‘I am a sensitive observer, and my conclusion is that a vast majority of my patients get better as opposed to worse after treatment.’ This professional was a psychiatrist who provided crude lobotomies on the brains of persons with mental illness during the 1950s . . . . It is now evident that prefrontal lobotomies are an ineffective treatment for persons with mental illness and in many instances are seriously injurious . . . . Offering a New Age or NUST (Novel Unsupported Therapy) to a client, when the psychologist is aware that the proffered treatment lacks credible scientific evidence of its effectiveness, and when other psychosocial or medical interventions with a stronger evidentiary foundation exist, raises troubling ethical questions.” (pp. 204f)

    Long after lobotomies were discredited, there were all the variations on repressed recovered memories of trauma and abuse, which wreaked havoc far and wide, producing false prosecutions, breaking up families and making many clients worse off. As an eminent Harvard Psychology professor, Richard J. McNally, put it in a brief for one of the many lawsuits involving these “techniques”:

    “The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for ‘recovered memory therapy’ – the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era.”

    But lay all this aside. What troubles me most is the extent to which this yeasty, faddish mishmash of “novel unsupported (by scientific research) therapies” has progressively absorbed and often seems to essentially displace religion in many Quaker settings: you know, the actual experience and evolution of an existing faith community, plus the people, saints and villains, who shaped it. This also includes theology (even for non-theists), scriptures, the study and grappling therewith, not to mention actual (rather than legendary/mythical) relationships to other religions.

    Our hope is that Jacob Stone’s beginning glimpse of all this can stimulate more re-examination and candid discussion among liberal Friends about this situation.

    Speaking of history and overdue re-examinations, Quaker historian H. Larry Ingle brings back to light a now-forgotten incident which was pivotal in the shaping of American public and political culture  in the early Cold War, and what is still called McCarthyism. But he isn’t doing this simply to rehearse somebody else’s story, but rather to retrieve an episode in which Quakers, and Friendly fellow-travelers, were integrally involved. It centers on the trial of Alger Hiss, a rising Washington insider who had been very involved with key Quaker groups in Philadelphia. In 1948 Hiss was accused of being a Communist spy, by Whittaker Chambers, a previously obscure writer for TIME Magazine. Hiss wound up in jail, and Chambers then published a massively best-selling memoir, Witness, which described not only his own Communist spy past, and the Hiss trial, but also his convincement and entry into the Society of Friends.

    In the tumultuous aftermath of this case, how did the Philadelphia Quaker establishment of Philadelphia deal with these revelations and with Chambers, who had brought them to light? Well, turn to Ingle’s article to find out; the answer is important and disturbing.

    And then for a more directly personal human story, we have a narrative theology piece by Ken Bradstock, tracing his religious evolution from rock-ribbed fundamentalist Christianity into the Marines, the Sheriff’s office, and after more turns, to Quakerism, and then more. It’s been two years since we published a comparable narrative essay, and it’s good to be able to add this to our series.

    Two book reviews wrap up this packed issue. Our Life Is Love, is a new overview of what author Marcelle Martin considers the key elements of Quaker religious development. Then there’s a very different story, Quiet Heroes, which brings back from obscurity a very telling episode from World War Two: the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans in what were essentially domestic concentration camps. The author is a descendant of internees, yet he wrote this book less to tell that sad and outrageous story, than as a tribute to the group that did more at the time to minister to the prisoners and advocate for their release than any oher white outsiders: Friends.

                                      – Chuck Fager

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