Editor’s Note: Could a return to the traditional discipline of preparing collective answers to specific queries cure the present ills of the Religious Society of Friends? Douglas Gwyn explores that question here. He sets it within a framework of four ways of seeking and enacting Truth and their interaction in Quaker practice: for individuals, monthly and yearly meetings.
This essay explores Quaker practice in its dynamic aspect. That is to say, what are the processes by which Friends seek to be faithful to truth? Minimal reference will be made here to particular practices of Friends, their origins, theological motivations, or historical development. Certainly, the content of Quaker faith and practice is important. Indeed, just as practice is implicit in the content of faith, so faith inheres with concrete practices. But what follows is a formal, structural analysis. Here, form is content, structure is theology, and process testifies to its final cause.
We will consider Quaker practice in four constituent aspects: personal practice; the life of the monthly meeting; the yearly meeting; and informal networks of concern among Friends.
Part I treats individual practice as the struggle to embrace and embody the Quaker testimonies.
Part II examines the life of the meeting as more than the sum total of individual practices. Indeed, the whole is actually prior to its parts. By “prior” I mean not simply that the meeting existed temporally prior to its participants (that in most cases it was there before they became involved). More profoundly, the meeting is prior to its individual members ontologically: that is, the whole exerts decisive shaping power upon the personal experience of its participants. The Religious Society of Friends is a force-field that defines the nature of each Friend’s experience, understanding, and practice.
Part III examines the practice of the yearly meeting in the classical period of Quakerism (the 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain and North America), when answering the queries was a major focus of yearly meeting time and energy. Since the latter 19th century, the queries have become rhetorical questions in mainstream Quaker practice. Individuals and meetings today are invited to reflect upon the questions without answering them. That shift has short-circuited the wider processes of Quaker discernment and service to truth. For better and for worse, we are today in a much more experimental phase.
Therefore, Part IV considers new practices among Friends that emerge primarily through various impromptu networks of concern. These networks are a very creative force in contemporary Quaker practice. But as we shall see, the currently limited use of the queries perpetually stunts these vital forces of renewal in the Quaker enactment of truth.
This essay’s analysis features spatial representation of the dynamics of Quaker practice. It adapts the ‘semiotic square’ introduced by the French structuralist A. J. Greimas (1987). The square, as developed here, lays out Quaker faithfulness as an interplay between four constituent aspects of truth. It combines four different philosophical accounts of truth. No one of them provides an adequate definition of truth, or a sufficient method of verification. But together, they form an overall hermeneutic (a framework of interpretation) of truth and how it is sought.
To state it another way, I do not present this model as a solution to, or definition of, truth. Rather, I suggest it as a heuristic of truth (that is, a demonstrational model that offers a kind of clarity). I began to use this approach in the final chapter and Conclusion to Seekers Found (2000) as an attempt to show how diverse Seekers came together as ‘Friends of Truth’, a unified Quaker movement with a powerful, coherent witness.
Thus, in each part of this essay, these four competing philosophical accounts of truth serve as the four corners of an interactive square, a schematic of Quaker practice. The four corners may be viewed (synchronically) as a static structure of Quaker practice. But we will treat them (diachronically) as a dynamic flow of search and service to truth. Thus, four theories of truth become four ‘moments of truth’ in an ongoing Quaker conversation that I hope readers recognize as ‘true’ to their experience.
That is not to say that the ‘moments’ of truth sketched here will appear familiar as temporal sequences or durations in personal and group experience. The formal analysis offered here is more akin to an apocalyptic sense of time. In apocalyptic perspective, the deep structures of human experience are revealed from the perspective of eternity (the Greek apokalypto, “to reveal,” literally means to take away the veil).
The quotidian flow of life at ground level turns inside-out in this perspective. For example, in the Letter to the Romans, Paul lays bare the lived experience of Jew and Gentile alike through the “revelation” (apokalypsis) of the righteousness of God through Jesus Christ (Romans 1:16-17). Or again, the sequential visions of the Book of Revelation expose the structure of the mortal conflict between the early Church and the Roman Empire, and reveal the ultimate nature and destiny of the universe. Revelation’s structure guided early Friends in their critique of English Church and society in the 17th century (see my, The Apocalypse of the Word, 1987, for a full exposition of the apocalyptic coherence of George Fox’s thought). This essay attempts to reframe that apocalyptic consciousness in structuralist terms.
Some Friends may feel alienated by an interpretation that challenges their usual understanding of their experience. But there are important reasons for attempting this approach. Modern ideologies of the self and of personal experience trap us in a frame of reality that has lost much of its liberating power. We urgently need fresh vantage points on our dilemmas (just as in Revelation, John is taken up from the temporal realm to receive his visions). Perhaps both apocalyptic literature and structural analysis can be seen as “alienation effects” in the sense that Bertold Brecht (1964, pp. 191-193) understood theater. That is, they offer a story or discourse that disorients us from reality as we know it, allowing us to experience ourselves and our world with new eyes. Hopefully, our passage through successive “boxes” will land readers back in the “Kansas” of daily Quaker practice with fresh understanding. I know it has renewed my own vision.
Before we move on, I will briefly sketch the four philosophical accounts of truth that comprise the corners of our square at each stage of analysis. They are as follows:
CORRESPONDENCE: Aristotle: “It is by the facts of the case, by their being or not being so, that a statement is called true or false.” Bertrand Russell: “Truth consists in some form of correspondence between belief and fact.” This is the standard, “commonsense” idea of truth. Problems: What are facts? What is it for a belief to correspond to a fact? What assumptions and expectations inspire us to experience certain data as corresponding to certain beliefs?
COHERENCE: A belief is true if it is part of an entire system of truths that is consistent and harmonious. The perception of a fact is really a judgment, based on a whole stock of judgments. Coherence is strongly related to questions of meaning, and tends to be emphasized by the great rationalist system-builders, like Spinoza, Leibnitz and Hegel. Mathematics has affinities in this direction, since it is not related to objects of experience, but proceeds by logical deductions from accepted axioms. Example: a statement about something being blue is related to an entire spectrum of colors to which it has likeness and difference (Brand Blanshard).
OPERATIONAL: For every proposition there is some specific procedure for verifying its truth or falsehood. This is a fundamentally different form of verification, emphasizing methods, processes over a static body of accepted beliefs. (However, the methods chosen are based upon deductions made from accepted beliefs.) Operational approaches tend toward empirical, logical-positivist definitions of truth. Hence, they typically avoid metaphysical concepts as untestable – at least meaningless, if not false. Problems: truth is equated with provability; the link between knowability and truth is overstated. Statements can be true but impossible to prove.
PRAGMATIC: William James: true assumptions are those provoking actions with desirable results. As with operational approaches, the emphasis is on action. But here the focus is on ends rather than means. This criterion is pervasive and commonsensical, like correspondence. Problems: the link between truth and utility is debatable. True beliefs tend to foster success. But true beliefs can also lead to disaster, just as false ones may lead to success.
As sketched here, each of these theories has strengths and weaknesses. Taken together as a hermeneutic of truth-seeking, however, they counter-balance and strengthen one another. This approach demands that we treat truth as a matter of both thought and action, in a process that continues to evolve in time. Grammatically, note that while ‘correspondence’ and ‘coherence’ are nouns, ‘operational’ and ‘pragmatic’ are adjectives. The first pair deals with defining what the truth is. The second pair deals with the ways we define truth through action.
To state it differently, correspondence and coherence constantly interact and modify one another in our experience as point of reference and frame of reference. In our semiotic square, they appear in diagonal relationship. They are crossed by the other diagonal pairing, operational and pragmatic considerations of truth: that is, the constant interaction between means and ends. An adequate model of faithfulness to truth must place both of these oppositions into a larger interactive framework. Hence, the square.
This exploration reminds us that truth is always a matter of both knowing and doing. Truth is ultimately faith. We are truthful as we are faithful, both to our best understandings of reality (or leadings of the Spirit) and to one another. Truth is a living, dynamic reality with which/whom we live in dynamic relationship through time. Truth as we know it is always situated in (and delimited by) particular religious traditions, social conditions, and historical periods. But that doesn’t make it any less true. It simply reminds us that faithfulness to truth begins and ends with humility.
Part I: The Testimonies and Individual Quaker Practice
Early Friends did not write about “testimonies” as such, but “testimony.” The whole of their worship and practices were intended to testify to the truth. All the same, from the beginning, there were very specific behaviors early Friends considered to be integral to their testimony. These included the well known plainness of dress and speech, refusal to swear oaths, pay tithes, or participate in military conflict. But all these behaviors sprang from Quaker worship as their prime testimony to Christ’s direct ministry among them. A good, representative listing of these very specific behaviors may be found in a 1668 epistle by George Fox to Friends (1831, vol. 7, pp. 328-30). The early sense of testimony was also strongly evangelical in nature: one’s life and words should communicate truth and reach to the divine witness/light in each person. Through even a chance encounter, one’s living testimony might turn a stranger to the light and initiate a process of personal transformation.
By the early 18th century, Quaker behaviors had become highly codified. They became less evangelical signifiers than the markers of a “peculiar people” set off from the world’s vain religions and customs. Uniform standards of testimony cultivated a “hedge” around Friends. While this withdrawn, sectarian profile of classical Quakerism is unattractive to most Friends today, it must be appreciated that it preserved a set of countercultural beliefs and practices that could not have flourished in the Anglo-American mainstream of that period. Later, in the 19th century, when more favorable cultural conditions prevailed, Quaker countercultural norms re-entered the mainstream and Friends engaged in reform politics.
The emergence from seclusion began as Friends on both sides of the Atlantic increasingly allied themselves with evangelicals in social activism. That mainstreaming impetus had profound effects upon Quaker testimony. From the middle to latter 19th century, various yearly meetings, in different ways and at different rates, abandoned the codified behaviors that had defined Quaker testimony. First evangelical and then liberal Quaker renewals sought to reverse the legalistic tendency that had crept into the testimonies during the Quietist period. Thus began a period of experimentation and reframing of Quaker testimony, in a search to define the essential qualities of testimony and give them fresh expression for changing times.
The process of distillation found its most succinct articulation in Howard Brinton’s formulation (1952, pp. 119-34) of four essential Quaker testimonies: community, equality, simplicity, and harmony. By that time, the traditional, idiosyncratic forms of Quaker testimony had been entirely laid aside, replaced by a set of more generalized Quaker values, ideals. Brinton identified well the major tendencies, or “aspect[s] of the Quaker code of behavior.” These generalized principles have the advantage of resisting legalistic codification. They may be adapted by Friends today in creative and original ways, to fit changing social circumstances and novel crises of conscience.
However, they may also float indefinitely in the ether of idealism. They may be contemplated with pleasure without actual enactment in life. Moreover, practice may be so individualized that the corporate aspect of testimony is largely forgotten. Consequently, a “peculiar people” may become an assortment of rather peculiar individuals. Without a shared ‘language’ of signifiers, testimonies lose their communicative power. And the signified truth becomes even more obscure. (We will return to this dilemma in Part III, in regard to the use – and non-use – of the queries).
In any case, variations on Brinton’s classic formulation have continued into the 21st century as the standard Quaker understanding of the testimonies. Currently, one commonly encounters a list of five: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality (offering the helpful mnemonic, S.P.I.C.E.). Owing both to the merits of Brinton’s formula and to its widespread use among Friends, I will adopt his tetrad here, slightly revised as peace, simplicity, community/equality, and integrity. But rather than be content with a sheer list, a little pantheon of ‘Quaker values’, let us investigate how these four testimonies form an integrative whole. A renewed sense of singular testimony is crucial to renewing a prophetic sense of Quaker vocation in the world.
Because a yearly meeting gives the testimonies their normative formulation (see Part III), they really are a matter of corporate identity and practice. But we will treat them here within the framework of individual practice, since we grapple with them primarily in our individual lives, even if they are corporately defined.
This schematic (or semiotic square) of the testimonies in Quaker practice, is followed by a narrative explication.
“Semiotic Square” No. 1 – Testimonies
We begin with peace, at the upper-left corner of the square. Quaker worship at its best offers a sublime sense of peace. It may be a deep calm or an energizing infusion of the Spirit. Either is a sense of peace. There may be an accompanying sense of becoming simple, of oneness with the community of worshippers, or of personal integration. All the testimonies are really one, interpenetrating whole. But all Quaker practice begins with worship, and peace is both its way and its end. As such, peace is the initiating ‘moment’ of truth. George Fox wrote in 1653 that “the first step of peace is to stand still in the light (which discovers things contrary to it) for the power and strength to stand against that nature which the light discovers” (1831, vol. 4, p. 17).
Of course, the peace testimony is not limited to the experience of worship. But it begins with worship, and continually returns to worship and the personal spiritual practice of stillness. This is the moment of correspondence, where personal experience confirms, corresponds to, one’s quest for personal peace, one’s hope for world peace, or the Bible’s promises of God’s kingdom on earth. Perhaps one came to Friends after reading about Quakers and peace, and found it confirmed in Quaker worship. The experience of peace in Quaker spiritual practice not only confirms a personal hope for peace; it also establishes a place to stand in the world for peace. For some, this leads to a strong, active witness for peace. For others, it simply becomes the peaceful basis for living and pursuing other good ends in the world.
Much more could be said about peace, but we must move on. Our primary focus is the overall dynamic of the testimonies. We will return to peace briefly at the end of this sequence, when we complete the square.
The movement from peace to simplicity is a passage through negative space. The peace of Quaker worship or private ‘waiting upon the Lord’ necessarily leads to a critical reassessment of one’s life. What fits with this peace? What does not? What must be strengthened? What must be abandoned? What gathers and sustains my strength? What scatters and dissipates it, filling my life with conflict, troubling my spirit? And what of my hope for the world? What in my life sows the seeds of peace? What contributes to the causes of war?
Elizabeth Stirredge was a young, melancholy Seeker in Bristol when Quakers first arrived there in 1654. She felt threatened by their plainness of speech and dress. But their preaching “pierced my heart” and began to make a separation between light and darkness in her life. It took some months before she was fully settled in the peace of Quaker worship. Then she was able to adopt the simple speech, dress, and lifestyle she had earlier found troubling (see Gwyn 2000, pp. 254-56).
We, of course, are swamped by consumer choices and recreational options early Friends never imagined. Furthermore, our time is easily fragmented by competing demands and worthy concerns. But as one is convinced of the truth by a living experience of peace, no renunciation is too great a price to pay in nurturing that peace. The movement from peace to simplicity is understood in traditional Quaker terms as “taking up the daily cross” to the “vain fashions and customs” around us. It may also be called a movement of liberation from an over-elaborate life. It is a movement toward a sustainable life and a sustainable world. Personal simplification frees up time and resources to serve others, to work for justice, to help in preserving God’s creation. Indeed, any personal transformation that does not lead on to advocacy is not a testimony. Conversely, advocacy without personal transformation becomes empty, doctrinaire – “profession without possession,” in early Quaker parlance.
Simplicity creates coherence in one’s testimony to truth. It pares away the incongruities and clutter that render life (and one’s mind) incoherent. Still, such coherence can be gained only through grounding in the experience of peace. The latter is the constantly renewed point of reference that defines the emerging frame of reference. Likewise, as the frame of reference becomes more simple, coherent (more “single to the Lord,” as Friends traditionally framed it), it refines the corresponding experience of peace, making it more clear, acute, pure, sustained.
But that interaction also intimates a second dialectical pairing. That is, as point and frame of reference define and qualify each other, so process and product come more clearly into view. The moment of simplicity ascends to the joy of community.
Equality. We arrive at the operational moment of truth, the communal processes by which one joins with others in the search for truth, seeking God’s will in shared circumstances. Of course, there are communal dimensions to the experience of peace and the simplification of life from the outset. But the communal becomes decisive here. Quaker processes of collective discernment are based upon the conviction of “that of God,” or the light of Christ, in each person. In terms of the operational theory of truth, our methods of investigation must be appropriate to our belief in, and experience of, the light in every one.
Our ability to practice communal discernment together is grounded in the practice of simplicity in mind and heart. For example, intellectually, one may hold a variety of religious or philosophical views that are personally meaningful. But they may not be useful to the group’s shared search for the truth. For example, George Fox apparently had personal interests in esoteric philosophy (see Nuttall 1947). Although he occasionally conversed with individuals on these interests, they do not appear in his writings, which are single-mindedly devoted to the spiritual health and progress of the Quaker movement.
Similarly, one learns to forbear from offering insights or opinions in the meeting for business that may confuse, distract, or create unhelpful conflict. Meanwhile, simplicity of heart also nurtures community. It is a purity of heart that wills one thing: service to the truth and the good of all. Such simplicity requires plain-speaking, sometimes in bluntness, but always in love.
The testimony of community has equality as its mode, because it is premised upon the light in each person’s conscience as our collective means to truth. The field of collective truth-seeking must be level. Nevertheless, particular gifts, abilities, and callings emerge within the community. The light that empowers all will thrust certain ones into certain roles of service and leadership. This is an inevitable corollary of community. It is sometimes misunderstood and criticized as creeping hierarchy in Quakerism. But it is better understood as heterarchy, a distribution of roles and leadership within an egalitarian framework. To resist leadership in principle is not simple but simplistic.
The communal ethic of Quaker worship, ministry, and decision-making is supplemented in various ways by a community of material resources. The pooling of finances for meetinghouse maintenance, material aid to needy members when needed, shared housing and meals where possible: these are a few ways the meeting functions as a material as well as spiritual community. In decades to come, as the isolating affluence of the middle classes erodes, Friends may find themselves both forced and inspired to practice material community in new ways.
Perhaps no Friend has articulated the testimony of community more succinctly than Isaac Penington, who wrote in 1667, “Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and becoming one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying for one another, and helping one another up with a tender hand” (Britain Yearly Meeting 1995, 10:01).
Friends typically enact community most fully through participation in the life of the local meeting. But it typically extends into other associations, both formal and informal. A Friend may work to advance consensus decision-making (usually on a secular basis) in businesses, neighborhood associations, co-ops, community action groups, etc. In wider realms of social and political participation, where scales of organization or geography make community impossible, Friends may still advocate and practice human equality, insist upon full, universal human rights, and work to end discrimination based upon race, gender, sexual orientation, religious preference, etc.
Early Friends were pioneers in the struggle for equality first of all because they wanted to establish Christ’s sovereignty in human conscience. Universal equality, opportunity, and rights of participation are foundational to the formation of communities that can gather, discern, and do God’s will in society. Again, equality is the mode of community. But community is the fulfillment of equality. Although Friends today typically hold theological convictions very different from those of early Friends, the structural logic and social implications of Quaker practice remain much the same.
The nurture of individuals through the processes of community worship, decision-making, and mutual care equips women and men to live and work in the wider society with greater integrity. This is another “downward” movement in our model, a descent through uncertainty, doubt, and fear of potential rejection, even persecution. Again, the Quaker language of the daily cross has traditionally described this movement. In early Quakerism, the newly convinced early Friend made a courageous venture of faith just leaving the house and walking down the street. For example, Quaker egalitarian codes of plain speech and manners could spark serious trouble with a social superior or an employer. A Friend’s refusal to doff his hat to a judge or to swear an oath might lead to an indefinite jail sentence.
Today, a convinced Friend undertakes no specific behavioral codes or demands. But if one seeks to live with integrity, one is frequently challenged by situations requiring evaluation, negotiation and resistance. The choices made will either advance or diminish one’s fuller integration into truth.
As seen in the case of simplicity, the integration of life requires an abandonment of actions and habits that do not fit into the emerging pattern of truth in one’s life. Again, this is a path of liberation; but freedom is in part a passage through negativity, a renunciation of what holds one back from authentic life. The inward aspect of integrity is one’s progressive integration into the life of the local meeting, as a faithful, functioning member of the whole. Outwardly, it is the creative and experimental, but challenging quest to live and model integrity in all areas of life.
Integrity constitutes the pragmatic moment of truth. The emphasis here is on outcomes more than on processes of action. The testimony of integrity is appropriately concerned with the success and/or competence of individual endeavors. Quaker achievements over the centuries in business, science, technology, education, service, etc. are ample evidence of the pragmatic concern among Friends. But integrity concerns the effects of action not only upon the object of action or the institutional field of action, but upon the actor as well. Integrity is a subtle calculus requiring systemic thought, a consideration of the connections between personal action and the largest realms of political economy and ecological balance.
Clearly, there are limits to how far and how clearly our minds can reach in such calculations. And there are moments of urgency when larger considerations may not be possible. It is therefore important to remember that integrity forms from the center of one’s being. It is established, and nurtured through a steady practice of prayer, meditation, and corporate worship. So in a moment of crisis, the disciplined spirit may be able to choose right action even without time to reflect.
The progressive integration of life, while sometimes challenging and stripping, also yields sublime fruits of wholeness. Here we ascend and return to peace, not only as the confirming experience of meeting for worship, but as the maturing process of attunement to truth. One finds an equilibrative sense of balance, harmony. This is the larger sense of peace encompassed by the Hebrew word shalom. More than the absence of conflict, shalom can abide in the midst of acute conflict. This is the peace that George Fox experienced while being attacked for his testimony by an angry mob at Ulverston in 1652. After being beaten nearly unconscious, he stood back up and said to them, “’strike again, here is my arms and my head and my cheeks’. … I was in the love of God to them all that had persecuted me” (1952, pp. 127-128).
Hence, the maturing moment of peace can endure severe conflict – even generate it – in nonviolent witness against war, injustice, false authority, etc. But the individual must keep close to the wellsprings of peace, through regular worship and daily spiritual practice. There, the circuit of testimony to truth is renewed, leading on again to new levels of simplicity, community, and integrity. These aspects of truth continue to inform and qualify one another – or rather, be informed and qualified by the transcendent, mysterious truth that abides at the center. Our attunement to truth is our atonement, our reconciliation to the One calling us into “the hidden unity of the eternal being” (Fox 1952, p. 28).
Jesus exhorts, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
“Perfection” is of course as difficult a question today as “truth”. But the Greek word, teleios, may be translated variously as perfect, or mature, whole, complete, one. Jesus calls us to become one as God is one. The integration of life through daily practice of the testimonies is a path of becoming more perfectly who we are. We become more completely the persons God made us to be.
As noted in the Introduction, this sequence of testimonies, of moments of truth, is not the way individuals are likely to experience their growth. What we have followed instead is the implicit structure of our experience.
Part II: Collective Quaker Practice
As observed in our Introduction, the collective practice of the Quaker meeting is primary, even though we have begun with individual practice. The meeting is not simply the aggregate of individual Friends. We are not Friends without the meeting. The meeting forms the life of its members even more than they constitute the meeting. Modern subjectivity tends to block our perception of this truth. In the “religiously integrated group,” Howard Brinton (1934, p. 20) observed, the unity we seek together raises the personal freedom and creativity of each member to a higher level.
In the square below, note that the structure of the meeting’s search and service to truth is a mirror-image of the structure we saw in individual practice. That is, coherence and correspondence reverse positions, as do operational and pragmatic considerations. This structure reveals schematically that collective practice is the obverse of individual practice, “the other side of the same coin,” so to speak. As such, it places the meaning of the testimonies in a radically different perspective.
“Semiotic Square” No. 2 – The Monthly Meeting
The meeting’s service to truth begins and ends with its regimens of worship and business. While the individual’s experience of worship is a matter of correspondence, the meeting’s practice of worship is operational. The right holding of meetings for worship and for business is foundational to the meeting’s reason for being. Quaker processes of waiting upon the Lord in silence, speaking by the leading of the Spirit, clerkship, seeking unity in decision-making, etc. are the methods appropriate to establishing truth, as Friends understand it. Of course, “as Friends understand it” implies coherence, a framework of tradition that arises later in this scheme, only in the fourth moment. But that fourth moment informs and leads back to this first.
Besides good order in worship and meetings for business, clearness committees are organized under the care of the meeting. Appropriate methods of inquiry are crucial to such ad hoc committees’ work with individuals making important decisions regarding career and education, or with couples contemplating marriage, for example. Such methods are suggested in Patricia Loring’s Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Spiritual Discernment (1992), for example.
The first moment, defined by operational means of knowing and doing truth, leads on to the second moment, the pragmatic concern for ends, outcomes. Here we consider the institutional arrangements of the meeting, such as finances, meeting space, insurance, etc. Also included are programs the meeting undertakes, such as education, community service, conflict mediation, counseling, etc. All these arrangements and programs issue from decisions made by the monthly meeting for business. In each case, desirable results are a key criterion. Do the physical arrangements of the meeting serve its spiritual needs? If there are staff, are they adequately paid? Are programs serving their intended purposes? Is the meeting remaining viable through these provisions? Such pragmatic questions bring the meeting to important, evaluative moments of truth.
Meanwhile, the meeting appropriately remains concerned with individuals and couples who have made decisions with the help of clearness committees. What fruit have those decisions borne? Indeed, the meeting is appropriately concerned for the lives of all its participants. Hence, the work of oversight, response to the practical problems encountered by Friends, finds its center of gravity in this pragmatic phase of meeting life.
The traditional query, “How does truth prosper among you?” is an eminently practical question, raising matters that range from meetinghouse repairs to programs to pastoral care to social witness. Statistics, balance-sheets, and basic problem-solving are part of these considerations. Of course, pragmatic concerns remain in dialogue with operational parameters: what solutions to these problems are within the bounds of good order/process and our testimonies of peace, simplicity, community/equality, and integrity?
Through participation in worship and the life of the meeting, each individual consciously and unconsciously reflects upon the collective experience. That contemplative, evaluative process raises the meeting’s dynamic to its third moment, that of correspondence (testing beliefs according to concrete experience). Each one must ask, what have I learned from these developments? Have I grown and been strengthened by these experiences? Or have I been hurt, alienated by them? Do the meeting’s actions correlate with Quaker practice, as I understand it? Is this the Quakerism that drew me to Friends? Are we living up to our tradition? Or alternatively, are we reshaping the tradition for new times? Most of all, are these Friends my Friends? Are we acting in good faith toward one another, and to the truth we hold sacred together? These are crucial questions for each participant to consider deeply, if the life of the meeting is to remain vital.
Without such soul-searching, individuals may lose not only connection but conviction. Quaker “convincement” is not an intellectual assent to a set of propositions. It is a living sense of the truth, expressed in part by “true” statements, but more deeply known as Friends remain “true” to their own experience, speaking and acting faithfully with one another. Convincement is thus conviction, a spiritual clarity to be conscientiously maintained. Unmindfulness and resentment sow the seeds of estrangement and conflict.
Quaker group practices that enact this third moment of truth include worship-sharing and threshing sessions.
Worship-sharing requires smaller groups. It features the free expression of personal feelings, experiences, and convictions on a given concern or topic, in the context of quiet, reflective listening. The prohibition against questioning or commenting upon one another’s sharing forestalls criticism and group evaluation. The exercise is valuable for helping the group hear the range of experience and belief in its midst.
The threshing session is often utilized by the meeting as a whole, to air feelings, opinions, or concerns on a question. Often, it is employed as a first step in a larger process of decision-making. As such, it points toward the fourth moment of truth, but forestalls seeking unity on any given position or decision. The purpose here is to “thresh” a question by means of a thorough airing. The experience helps participants to separate the “kernel” of real concern from the “chaff” of personal interests, fears, resentments, etc. The process also helps the meeting hear itself, to gain a better sense of the whole. The experience hopefully informs each member’s future interaction with others, and the contribution each makes in a subsequent meeting for business, when the group seeks unity on the matter in question.
Certainly, the meeting doesn’t need to find unity and make decisions on everything. Many questions can and do remain unresolved. A diversity of viewpoints and practices is healthy to the community. Often it is enough simply to hear and be sensitive to the range of convictions that exists in the group on a given concern. Participants learn from one another in this way. Indeed, the entire life of the meeting provides a variety of “teachable moments” among members and attenders.
Deepening acquaintance “in the things that are eternal” (to use a traditional Quaker phrase) fosters shared frameworks of understanding in the meeting. Some Friends maintain that Quakerism is really a process with no essential content, a religion of experience without particular beliefs. But that is a naïve impression of both process and experience. As emphasized earlier, theological and other convictions necessarily inhere (consciously or not) to group practices. And all experience is perceived within certain frameworks of understanding and expectation. It is important, however, to recognize that these understandings have always been diverse among Friends (even during more orthodox periods) and that they are in a constant process of elaboration and revision, in both individuals and groups.
So we come to our fourth moment of truth, the meeting’s search for new coherence in light of the reflective processes of individuals and groups. This moment begins to transpire in the work of committees, the adult education programs of the meeting, informal conversations, etc. The meeting’s sense of identity, its relationship to larger Quaker bodies, its participation in traditions of Quaker faith and practice: these present a prevailing sense of meeting coherence. But that coherence is in constant dialogue with the input and impact of new experience.
To restate, the “new light” of fresh experience in the meeting interacts with the meeting’s shared sense of identity/ meaning/purpose. The meeting must neither become a slave to tradition, nor embrace uncritically every new idea. Generally speaking, authentic new light will confirm a great spiritual tradition, without necessarily conforming to it. This is a fine line to discern. It requires the meeting’s most faithful inquiry and dialogue.
Here, the “weight” of experience becomes crucial. So-called “weighty Friends” in the meeting include those officially appointed as elders or perhaps recorded ministers. But others in the meeting may “weigh in” more helpfully and decisively on some questions. Leadership in the meeting, both formal and informal, is not a matter of dominating discussions or bending others to one’s will. Rather, it usually takes shape in the comment, well considered and rightly timed, that helps precipitate a sense of clarity and coherence in the group. Such a comment does not squelch or belittle opposing views but places them in helpful perspective. It suggests a frame of reference that the group begins to recognize as decisive in the matter. Points of reference will still vary. There is no need for uniformity, or even a desire for it. On-going discernment and activity in the meeting will benefit from a multiplicity of reference points.
But some degree of shared framing is crucial to the continued vitality and fruitfulness of the group. And leadership is needed, both to name the coherence of a possible resolution, and to work within the meeting to build unity and reconcile conflicts. So much of the work of clerks, elders, and unofficial leaders in the meeting is done between meetings, listening to members, hearing differences, and seeking a way forward.
We are already rounding the corner back toward the first moment of truth, the operational moment, in which the right holding of meetings is the central consideration. But in truth, we do not return to the same place. It is the same moment raised to another level, sedimented by further experience, practice, reflection, etc. Over time, one notices that vocal ministry in meeting for worship articulates an evolving coherence, both individual and shared. Or it may voice continuing questions, sometimes painfully unresolved. But even the questions evolve over time, if they remain productive questions.
The meeting for business draws all these processes together, to seek and define a new coherence in the group, as it is constellating in various sectors of the meeting. The clerk of the meeting invites and elicits the group’s collective wisdom. Along the way, the clerk makes interventions that begin to define the emerging sense of the meeting. Others contribute to that process of articulation. There is a necessary quiet and solemnity to this process. This is not only a matter of appropriate awe before the Presence at work in the meeting. Quaker business process may be aptly compared to a card game in which each player is very careful with her/his affect, words, and actions. Each participant holds certain “cards” – information, perspectives, experiences – which must be “played” appropriately and only at the right moment. The action is collaborative, not competitive. The meeting as a whole gains – or loses – according to the adeptness and integrity with which each participant plays or holds his/her “cards”.
Much more might be written about this and all the moments in the meeting’s service to truth. Many Friends have written insightfully and in more detail on Quaker practice. The aim of this particular essay is only to suggest the systemic whole, the way in which each moment of truth qualifies the others in a continuous movement of the Spirit of truth. As noted in Part I on the testimonies and individual practice, I do not mean to imply that the meeting experiences these moments as a sequence of temporal events. Rather, we are sketching the deeper structure that undergirds events as they are experienced in time. Perhaps enough has been said of the dynamics of meeting life that we may now proceed to the next level of Quaker practice. Here it becomes crucial to differentiate two complementary conversations: the official conversation of the yearly meeting, and the unofficial ones that take place through impromptu networks, generating from emergent concerns among Friends.
Part III: The Yearly Meeting
Over the course of Quaker history, yearly meetings have waxed and waned in their authority to bind constituent meetings into a unity of faith and practice. That authority probably peaked at the end of the 18th century and has slowly diminished since, for better and worse. But even today, the yearly meeting serves as the bearer of normative understandings of Quaker faith and practice, usually published in the yearly meeting’s book of discipline. Other normative statements may be found in yearly meeting minutes, which may or may not be published. Of particular concern in this essay are the advices and queries. The yearly meeting formulates these as normative understandings of the Quaker testimonies.
Below is our third semiotic square, charting the progress of truth at the yearly meeting level.
“Semiotic Square” No. 3 – The Yearly Meeting
Practicing Friends will quickly notice that the yearly meeting practice mapped above does not describe current practice. Friends no longer answer the queries, except in the Conservative yearly meetings of North America. Elsewhere, the queries are used simply for personal reflection. If read aloud in meeting for worship, vocal ministry may ensue in response. Or occasionally a meeting may organize worship-sharing groups focusing on a certain query. But reports of actual individual and meeting observance of the testimonies are no longer made to the monthly meeting, quarterly meeting and yearly meeting for evaluation.
Most Friends today are happy not to have ministers and elders visiting in their homes and asking invasive, uncomfortable questions about their lives. But we will see that non-response to the queries renders the yearly meeting’s service to truth incomplete, a short-circuited process and a source of increasing incoherence among Friends today. We will find things both to celebrate and to grieve about this state of affairs. Further reflection will come later in our analysis. But first let us narrate the classical model above, as we have done with the preceding squares. I will narrate in the present tense, even though this level of Quaker practice is incomplete among most Friends today. I cannot report on Conservative yearly meeting practice today, as I am not sufficiently informed.
Coherence is the initiating moment of truth in the classical model. As previously noted, the yearly meeting is the holder of Quaker tradition, the articulator of existing Quaker understandings of the testimonies, in the form of advices and queries. These are not static but have been emended and elaborated over time, as Quaker practice confronts novel circumstances and embraces fresh leadings. Each year, constituent meetings are responsible to hear the queries, reflect upon them, and respond in specific terms of actual lived practice, both individual and corporate.
This moves yearly meeting practice to its second moment, correspondence: are yearly meeting convictions borne out by our actual practice and life experience? Here, the collective weight of tradition falls upon individuals and meetings, who are invited to take stock of their lives. Through reflection upon the advices and queries, I hold my life up against normative Quaker patterns. It is possible for new personal experiences and practices to arise and challenge these corporate norms (some classic examples will be noted below). But in traditional practice, Friends are challenged to consider whether they may come further into unity with Friends past and present.
This moment of correspondence is facilitated by the meeting’s elders and ministers, who meet with individuals and families, to work through the queries together, seeking specific responses to questions of personal and family conduct. Here we are moving already to the third, operationalist moment, where truth is best reached and served by appropriate processes of investigation. Visits by elders and ministers produce specific responses to the queries, which are compiled and reported to the monthly meeting. Ministers and elders also lead in asking whether the meeting is enacting right order in its collective practice (the focus of our Part II above). Monthly meeting responses are then compiled in reports to the quarterly meeting. Compiled quarterly meeting reports finally go to the yearly meeting.
This kind of moral and spiritual inventory is consonant with Quakerism’s classical period, where small business was the dominant pattern of Quaker economic life. Moral and spiritual “stock” is thus taken for the entire yearly meeting. The old query, “how does truth prosper among you?” is not a rhetorical question. It is articulated in its many aspects by the queries and meeting responses to them. Well into the nineteenth century, for example, about half of London Yearly Meeting’s annual sessions were devoted to hearing and reflecting worshipfully upon the amassed responses to the queries.
The culmination of that operational moment leads on to the fourth moment of truth, the pragmatic moment. Responses to the queries give the yearly meeting’s ministers and elders (gathering in their separate meetings) a sense of the work to be done in the coming year. What areas of faith and practice need strengthening among Friends, through vocal ministry, teaching, visitation, and counsel? This moment is pragmatic in the sense that it asks, “what does truth require?” What actions will lead to the desirable results of greater fidelity to our testimonies?
Clearly, there is a strong conservative thrust at work in this process, even an astringent sense of group discipline, repellent to most of us today. But the integrity of this movement cannot be denied. The mutual amnesty from such accountability that we extend to one another in today’s Quaker practice has not always served our testimony to truth. David Maxwell (2001) makes a compelling case for a return to answering the queries. When we do not answer the queries, the testimonies may become mere euphemisms.
The case gains weight when we consider the role of answering the queries in some celebrated moments in Quaker history. For example, Friends today point proudly to the renunciation of slaveholding among American Friends in the latter 18th century. But that act of corporate repentance would not have been achieved without the active use of the queries and the role of ministers and elders in calling upon, listening to, and counseling Friends, and then compiling and reflecting upon their responses. It was that fourth, pragmatic, moment of yearly meeting practice that turned a mounting moral concern among Friends into a concerted will and a plan of action. The yearly meeting created new queries addressing issues of slaveholding, thereby completing the square in a new moment of corporate coherence. From there, another cycle of service to truth ensued, over several years, in which ministers and elders visited the homes of slaveholding Friends, pressing these queries with gentle perseverance. The process was painfully slow, but it succeeded in most cases in persuading slaveholders to manumit their servants. A simple policy of censure and disownment would have purified the yearly meeting much more quickly. But Friends would have been lost and – more significantly – they would more likely have retained their slaves.
Only when the process was advanced and most slaveholding Friends had been “convinced of the truth” in this matter, did yearly meetings have a definite testimony against slaveholding. Similar stories can be told of Friends in the classical period using the queries to advance the testimonies to address new moral dilemmas. (Maxwell 2001 also describes dealings with Quaker industrialists who had undertaken military contracts.)
The queries were disengaged from active response by most yearly meetings in the latter 19th century. As noted earlier, very specific codes of Quaker dress, speech, and lifestyle, which made Quakers identifiable to the casual observer, were dropped. Evangelical and liberal reforms hybridized Quaker faith and practice with extrinsic elements, moving Friends into the cultural mainstream. The highly idiosyncratic definition of “truth” that had evolved among Friends for their first 200 years gave way to more evangelical and liberal idioms.
There is much to be said in favor of these redefinitions. A closed system became an open-ended process of exploration and experimentation. For example, the evangelical stream in North America hybridized Quaker worship and ministry practices in dramatic ways. Meanwhile, liberal Friends have ventured further in revising Quaker faith in increasingly post-Christian directions. This is not the place to chart those changes. I will instead analyze the unfolding consequences of the short-circuited yearly meeting process, particularly in the liberal stream (where I anticipate that this essay will find most of its readership).
Part IV: Networks of Concern
Quaker networks of concern spring up in spontaneous ways and forms. Like the internet (where many of them find representation today), concerns form an infinitely expandable labyrinth of exploration and experimentation. We will consider just one specific case: the war-tax concern among North American Friends in the 1980s. I have chosen this particular one partly because of my personal experience. I began to practice war-tax resistance (WTR) in 1982 and had some involvement with the Friends Committee on War-Tax Concerns (FCWTC) in the latter 1980s. The Committee was self-initiated, but placed itself under the care of the American Section of the Friends World Committee for Consultation (FWCC). It drew together Friends from across North America and across the American Quaker spectrum: Evangelical Friends Alliance, Friends United Meeting, and Friends General Conference.
Sharp increases in US military spending during the Reagan Presidency prompted a new wave of Quakers and other conscientious objectors to begin resisting all or part of their federal income taxes (about half of which were used to pay for past wars, maintain present military capability, and prepare for future wars). Out of that ferment, the FCWTC formed, largely through the initiative of Wallace Collett, a Quaker businessman, philanthropist, and war-tax resister. The aim was to create a series of pamphlets, later collected together into a book, and a bureau of speakers available to speak on war-tax concerns to Friends groups and Quaker employers. War-tax resistance was not unprecedented in Quaker history. But the unprecedented numbers starting to practice it prompted the formation of a network for discernment and action. That network advanced an emerging conviction that the most relevant form of conscientious objection to war today (particularly in the absence of military conscription) is citizen resistance to military spending for increasingly technological armaments.
The FCWTC was not the only organized American Quaker response to the accelerating arms race, but it was the largest and most inclusive. Its published book, A Handbook on Military Taxes and Conscience (1988), offers helpful background on the formation of the group. Its contents also manifest this network’s faithful service to truth. Below is the schematic of that process, which I will proceed to narrate.
“Semiotic Square” No. 4 – The Shared Concern Network
In the case of a network of Friends gathering around a shared concern, the first moment of truth is pragmatic. In this case, paying taxes for war contradicts our peace testimony. Therefore, how can we resist paying for military expenditures and do it with integrity? Tax resistance is not tax evasion. It is done openly and honestly. Defining an effective outcome is not easy. Some resisters go to great lengths to keep the government from collecting. Others simply make the government collect resisted tax payments. But the pragmatic issue should focus primarily on the matter of witness (the true, communicative meaning of testimony, after all). The key question is: how can our resistance communicate effectively to government and public our belief that war is not God’s will, and that objectors have a right to a conscientious alternative to paying for it?
Note that in the four schematics we have seen, a different moment of truth arises as the initiating moment. On the individual level of this concern, the initiating moment might come with a pang of conscience about paying taxes for war. It would arise with the fourth moment of individual practice (the testimony of integrity – see Part I). In that case, the individual is led into a new cycle of faithfulness to truth, engaging the moments of peace, simplicity, community/equality, in the struggle to discern the right path of resistance. But here we contemplate the matter on a different level: the collective practice of an informal network discerning a path of action or ministry among Friends, under the weight of a shared concern. In the case of the FCWTC, its end-product, the Handbook, documents the experience, study, and counsel compiled by the network under its concern. It amounts almost to a “Faith & Practice” book, within the purview of this particular concern. Our four moments of truth can be seen laid out in the book’s chapters and appendices.
Coming together through a shared pragmatic concern, the network moves to the second, operational, moment of truth. The network pools experience and wisdom regarding appropriate means of discernment for those considering war-tax resistance. The Handbook’s Appendix A provides questions for reflection, study, and group discussion. In addition, Appendix C offers a collection of commonly asked questions about WTR. Another, smaller publication on WTR provides a more fully developed operational component. Peace & Taxes…God & Country (1990), published by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, offers counsel to local meetings in forming clearness committees for individual Friends making decisions regarding WTR. It suggests questions for clearness committee members to pose to the “focus person” (the one under the concern) as well as advice to the focus person.
This leads on to the third moment of truth, correspondence: the decisive experience of conviction. The Handbook offers a chapter by Alan Eccleston reflecting upon “spiritual leadings and rational decisions,” followed by a chapter by John A. Sullivan compiling stories of individuals as they began to move into active WTR. The book offers this counsel and experience to help readers define their own clarity (or lack of it) in their particular circumstances.
Within a given religious tradition, the fourth moment of truth follows: how does this apparent leading/conviction fit with the overall framework of our faith and practice? This moment of coherence encompasses both time (the perspective of Quaker history) and space (wider circles of Friends and others). Here the broad spectrum of input to the FCWTC’s work emerges as its greatest strength. The Handbook features a chapter on the Bible and WTR by Evangelical Friends Ralph Beebe and John Lamoreau, a chapter on WTR in Quaker history by Haverford College Quaker historian Edwin Bronner, a sampling of WTR statements by contemporary Quaker groups, edited by Linda Coffin, and a selection of current Christian and Jewish statements on WTR, edited by J. E. McNeil.
Movement through these four moments provides the framework by which we return to the pragmatic moment, ready to engage with practical questions about federal tax law. An experienced WTR lawyer, Peter Goldberger, supplies a chapter on various legal options and consequences. David Bassett adds a chapter on the Peace Tax Fund bill in Congress, as a long-term solution to the dilemmas faced by tax-resisting conscientious objectors to war.
The FCWTC’s work is an outstanding example of an informal network organizing around a shared concern to carry out a fully realized program of discernment, both for concerned individuals and for wider consideration among Friends. Nevertheless, that creative ferment among American Friends in the 1980s has stalled in more recent years. I have no data on the subject, but my impression is that WTR is less widely practiced among American Friends today than it was 20 years ago – notwithstanding sustained high rates of US military expenditure. Hence, the FCWTC experience also illustrates the fact that even a well developed concern among Friends finds no way forward beyond a certain point. A key factor is the lack of yearly meeting mechanisms to press such concerns upon Friends more widely. Would the slaveholding concern among Friends in the latter eighteenth century have similarly stalled if yearly meetings had not given the concern “traction” through the use of queries, literally brought home to Friends by visiting ministers and elders?
Concluding Reflections: Enacting Truth in a Capitalist Society
This essay has examined the Quaker enactment of truth, articulated on four levels. The dynamics of each level, and the interaction of levels, have not been sufficiently theorized before. In particular, unofficial networks of concern, the locus of much creative energy among Friends today, have received little or no theoretical attention. This analysis has led to the suggestion that, with the lapse in answering the queries, the prophetic and socially transformative impetus arising from networks of concern tends to stall.
Certainly, not every emerging concern among Friends needs to find official expression in the advices and queries of yearly meetings. But some of them surely should. In Britain Yearly Meeting, for example, there is considerable concern for a clearly defined testimony regarding our relationship to the earth. Two Advices & Queries (#41 and #42) bearing on this concern have been added to BRYM’s current Quaker Faith& Practice (1995). But there is no mechanism for answering them, nor is there any agreement on what answers would suggest truth’s prosperity among Friends.
Hence, any emerging testimony regarding the earth risks becoming a pious platitude, “words without life,” as early Friends characterized the untruth of doctrinaire Christianity. Without some attempt to “complete the square” of truth’s enactment, Quaker faith and practice will continue to float in open-ended speculation and experimentation.
It might be useful to place this dilemma in larger socio-historical perspective, relating Quaker practice with the development of Anglo-American capitalist society.
The classical period of Quaker practice developed within the socio-economic context of the early phases of Anglo-American capitalist expansion, dominated by the Dutch and British cycles of capital accumulation (for background, see Arrighi 1994). The Religious Society of Friends was a people comprised primarily of shopkeepers, artisans, trades-people, and small farmers, with a sprinkling of bankers, industrialists, doctors, and scientists. The meticulous compilation of answers to the queries was a system of moral accounting, a spiritual inventory consonant with the business lives of Friends. It was a religious practice embedded in the commercial revolution.
Hence, answering the queries was both an expression of capitalist society and a corporate resistance to capitalism’s more corrosive social effects. As innovators in business, science, and technology, Friends were admired (and feared), both for their competitive acumen and their corporate renunciation of (some but by no means all) unjust patterns of production and consumption. Quaker moral accounting shaped a people at variance with the exploitative economics and violent politics of the Atlantic culture. The Quaker exodus from the ranks of the American slaveholding classes and their advocacy for their Native American neighbors are two hallmarks of their prophetic stance.
But prophetic witness comes at a cost. Over the latter half of the eighteenth century, the tightening of discipline through aggressive use of the queries led to a major decline in American Quaker numbers and influence, as Jack Marietta (2007) has shown. By the early nineteenth century, Friends were concerned to reverse their declining numbers and marginalization. Orthodox and evangelical reformers sought to renew Quaker faith and practice by hybridizing it with the energetic spirituality and social reform impetus of the Methodist movement. Friends slowly emerged from sectarian seclusion and joined their evangelical cohorts in various efforts to rechurch demoralized working classes and frontier settlers, renew biblical literacy, and address various social blights of an industrial society.
As Friends mainstreamed themselves with other religious groups, they began dismantling their peculiarly Quaker codes of conduct. Without these traditional standards of faithfulness to truth, the queries became unanswerable, rhetorical. More could be said on that important transition, but since this essay is written primarily for a liberal Quaker readership, we will quickly move on to the liberal renewal.
The liberal reform of Anglo-American Quakerism took shape in the latter 19th century, within a changing capitalist framework. The British cycle of accumulation was shifting in emphasis from manufacture and trade to finance and speculation. That economic shift seems to have influenced corresponding shifts in the religious life of Friends and other groups. As the queries were dropped from active use as a form of accountability, the testimonies floated more freely, open to more speculative reflection and individual application. Meanwhile, as British Friends gained their first access to universities, and as American Quakers founded their own colleges of higher learning grew, academic disciplines offered multiple framings to traditional Quaker understandings. Thus, liberal reformers among Friends were enthusiastic to update Quaker faith and practice with the findings of modern psychology, social sciences, evolutionary theory, “higher criticism” of the Bible, etc. Liberal Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic engaged in more open inquiry and experimentation.
During the twentieth century, as the American cycle of capitalist accumulation eclipsed the British cycle, the dominance of bureaucratic forms of organization and management also affected Quaker practice. Larger yearly meetings (particularly London and Philadelphia) developed central offices staffed by faithful Friends who became managers and functionaries, carrying out Quaker work on behalf of Friends. The British and American Friends Service Committees progressively bureaucratized and professionalized Quaker social concern and action.
Quaker bureaucratization progressed simultaneously with the decline of quarterly meetings on both sides of the Atlantic. Those traditional mediatory bodies, set between monthly and yearly meetings, had not only played an important part in the compiling of answers to the queries. They had traditionally served as the organizational setting where a Friend under a particular concern might be released and supported to work under that concern, on behalf of Friends.
R. W. Tucker’s important but largely unnoticed essay, “Structural Incongruities in Quaker Service” (1971) first identified this key structural shift in Quaker social service and social action. Tucker’s essay was published as the American cycle of accumu-lation was, in its turn, shifting emphasis from manufacture and trade to finance and speculation. The signal moment of that transition was the abandonment of the gold standard for the US Dollar in favor of a free-floating system of currency trade (1974). This was also the moment of ascendancy for transnational corpo-rations in business, and the dawn of postmodernity as “the cultural logic of late capitalism,” to use Fredric Jameson’s phrase (1991).
The global economy engenders constantly shifting, multicultural perspectives that prove exhilarating to some and disturbingly disorienting to others. These responses play out in religious life. The reactionary faith and politics of the religious right and the free-flowing eclecticism of liberal religion are two sides of the same tradable currency.
For its part, liberal Quakerism today floats in a speculative ethos that may be post-Christian one moment, neo-Wilburite another, neo-pagan or nontheist the next. My purpose here is simply to note how this Quaker style manifests the cultural logic of this highly speculative period of global capitalism. Thus, current concerns among Friends compete for attention in a free-market atmosphere, particularly at major gatherings of Friends, such as Friends General Conference Gathering, or the residential sessions of Britain Yearly Meeting.
To be sure, liberal Quaker practice sustains a countercultural edge toward the dominant powers and institutions of the global capitalist regime, protesting and resisting its inequalities and military adventures. As Jameson (1991) notes, politics in postmodernity tend toward a micropolitics, based upon various forms of personal identity (ethnic, gendered, sexual, sectarian, etc.).
The weakness of micropolitics lies in the tendency to become self-referential, ephemeral, and reactionary. We have just noted the brief ascendancy of WTR among American Friends, as an example. Obliquely, countercultural Quaker practice in this global capitalist regime risks becoming a mirror-image of the dominant regime. Rather than answering it with transformative collective practice, we become a specialized case, an “alternative religion” within a globalized socio-economic operating system. The Quaker scene of ebbing and flowing concerns risks becoming little more than a spiritualized fringe market for speculation in alternative realities.
My aim in these observations is not to reduce Quaker faith and practice to an outworking of macro-economic forces. That would be crude materialism. But Friends tend too often to hold highly spiritualized notions about themselves. Our spiritual lives develop in conversation with the socio-economic world in which we live. As the market subsumes everything in our culture, including religious life, into its unified field, Quaker practice must take better account of its gravitational pull.
It is revealing that Friends today call themselves seekers as happily as they call themselves Quakers. Certainly, there are affinities between the experimental ethos of liberal Quakerism today and the Seeker scene in England of the 1640s, which preceded the Quaker movement (see Gwyn, 2000). But unless Friends are satisfied with a personalized mysticism and enclave politics, we must take seriously that the Seekers who became Quakers in the 1650s felt they had found (or been found by) something radically new and powerful. As Quakers, they became participants in a spiritual and social struggle with prophetic power and revolutionary impact. The early Quaker Lamb’s War combined many radical ideas and experiments from the previous decade. But whereas earlier groups fragmented or were successfully repressed, the Lamb’s War ignited a grassroots movement that presented a united front of conflict against a repressive national church and social forces of inequality.
Similarly, after a long, creative period of exploration and experimentation since the 1960s, Quaker practice could again become a focusing point for radical vision and witness. But such a turn would require that Friends again “grasp the nettle” of the queries. At least something comparable to the traditional answering of the queries is needed to “complete the square” by which Friends corporately befriend truth, by which Quaker practice might again become a functioning, evolving system, a disciplined inquiry into knowing and doing truth together.
I am by no means suggesting a return to the Quaker standards of the 19th century, which produced a highly idiosyncratic witness to truth that communicated less and less coherently to the surrounding culture. Friends had to abandon those specific standards for evaluating faithfulness to the testimonies. Conservative Friends have admirably retained their own evolving use of the queries. But liberal Friends cannot simply jump into that historic conversation with good effects, either for themselves or for Conservative Friends.
Instead, if Friends were to begin answering the queries of their own yearly meetings in their own ways, a richly creative process might well unfold. A broad-based, far-ranging exploration would be required to foster new processes of discernment and define adequate answers to the queries in today’s circumstances. Renewed practice might well remain more eclectic today than the uniform standards of the classical period. For example, Britain Yearly Meeting’s Faith in Action: Quaker Social Testimony (2000), is an impressive collection of personal statements and growing edges among British Friends at the dawn of the 21st century. The book is the product of a six-year project, Recovering Our Social Testimony (ROST), that sought a wide range of input from Yearly Meeting members and attenders. That kind of social and moral census-taking could serve as a first step toward greater accountability among Friends.
Jonathan Dale writes, “We clearly have much essential work to do. If testimony is to be fully rediscovered as a living power in our lives it must do so in our worshipping groups. We need to embrace both politics and life-styles, overcoming the specific fears and inhibitions which mark each of them.” He describes the “Life-style Group” that formed in his monthly meeting in the late 1990s, in response to the ROST process. He writes that the group avoided the pitfall of being yet another discussion group; it mostly worked by each group member sharing her or his experience of whatever theme had been chosen for the session. We were very aware of the potential for hurt and the need for sensitivity to the very different situations our group members faced. … Hence, rightly I believe, we did not try to produce a single model approach for all to follow. Nevertheless, if we listened intently to the contributions of each, we could not avoid being opened to the challenge of the sometimes more far-reaching and faithful responses that others in the group made in specific aspects of their lives. And several of us made some changes in how we lived as a result [Dale, 2002].
I do not pretend to know how a larger process of renewing the testimonies among Friends might develop. That would need to unfold step-by-step. But the kind of group Dale describes seems foundational to such a process.
The saying goes, “If you were accused of being a Quaker, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Who among us could be convicted, except by our subjective notions of Quakerism and tailored versions of the testimonies? More than personal pride is at stake in the answer to that question. In the widening moral vacuum of a market culture, a Religious Society of Friends that reclaims its prophetic role as “a peculiar people” will also renew its founding, revolutionary vocation.
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