In Search of Religious Radicalism

By Charley Earp

1. The Radicalization of a Preacher’s Kid

A Long Strange Trip

At the very core of my being, I have undergone an earth-shaking religious transition in the past few years. Less than nine years ago, I was a passionately committed Bible-believing Christian. Not that I was a conventional evangelical by any stretch of the imagination. I had cultivated a “radical” social vision embracing pacifism and communalism that set me apart from, say, the Christian Coalition. I had intentionally selected my church-community for its perceived support of such unconventional convictions. However, a conflict was building within myself between the traditional structure of my religious thought and the non-traditional character of my social values.

My religious beliefs were strongly influenced by my father, a Pentecostal preacher. We interpreted the Bible entirely literally and embraced the normal doctrines of evangelical denominations. Pentecostalism also imprints a powerful emotional orientation upon its adherents. However, the impact of the counterculture of the 1960s and early ‘70s set in motion the conflict between tradition and radicalism that was to drive my life’s journey for over a decade. The resolution of this conflict culminated with my leaving a church-community where I had lived for over eleven years and joining a very different kind of progressive faith community.

Born to Be Radical?

One of the earliest memories of this conflict played out when I was around five years old. This was around 1968 and I was conscious of the events on the news like the presidential election and the Vietnam War. I told my father one day that I wanted to grow up and become president and stop all the wars. My father led me through a series of “what-ifs” that were designed to show me that a world without war was not possible. At the time, I accepted his arguments with disappointment.

This childish pacifism resurfaced when I was nine years old and my family moved to Chicago. As a new kid from a small town and even a bit of a sissy, I was the object of repeated bullying. I believed that Jesus had said to turn the other cheek and so I did not fight back. My father again argued with me about what was wrong about this. He even enlisted another visiting preacher in this attempt to drive out my foolish ideas. I stood firm and for one of the first times, I trusted my own judgment over my father’s.

This pacifism persisted into high school and college. I eventually discovered some Christian pacifist magazines and many books that enriched my commitment to the belief that one day all swords would be beaten into plowshares.

Christian Communist?

In my teens, around 1978, a radical belief in communal living emerged under the influence of a Christian Rock group, Resurrection Band, which was based in a community, Jesus People USA, in Chicago. They had come straight out of the “Jesus Movement” among the hippie and drug culture. Communal living was based on the biblical story of the first Christian church in the book of Acts. In chapter 4:32 it reads: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

I talked about joining such a commune with many friends during my teens and in college this became a primary demarcation between most of my schoolmates and myself. I attended a Pentecostal college for one semester and expected that 1960s radicalism would still be alive in a conservative Christian college in 1982. But to the contrary, colleges such as this, in fact, midwifed the Reagan revolution. My radical ideas were viewed with alarm by many of my schoolmates and teachers. It was a rude awakening to learn that this select group of Pentecostal believers, leaders, and future leaders did not share and were in fact opposed to my counter-cultural values.

One person who was sympathetic to my values was Teresa, whom I would marry within the next year. I completed that semester knowing three things for sure: I would never return to that campus, I would marry Teresa, and I would devote my life to the cause of religious radicalism.

In 1985, I began a correspondence with a pastor at a community in Evanston, Illinois called Reba Place Church (RPC). RPC was a Mennonite Church that had been founded in 1957 as a fellowship of disciples who shared possessions in common.

God The “Patriarch”?

For years before my arrival, Reba Place Church had been undergoing internal conflict over the issue of women’s leadership which led me to some of the most radical doubts about Christianity to date. As a child, I remember asking my parents if boys were better than girls and being surprised when they insisted that they were equals. However, as I got older, I learned about Bible passages that said the husband was the head of the wife and that women were not permitted to teach or hold authority.

At Reba Place, egalitarian members were challenging this conservative interpretation of the Bible. Four elders, who were all men, pastored RPC. Three of them believed in male headship in family and church. The majority of the church membership in 1986 affirmed women’s equality and fitness for the office of elder. Since the church was governed by consensus, a majority could not change a major church policy, so the existing structure was left in place.

Less than six years later, the majority had shrunk to a minority as egalitarian members left the church and more conservative members were attracted to the church. Meanwhile, I had spent a lot of time reading feminist books and articles trying to think my way through the issue. While I was sympathetic to feminism, those biblical passages still held some authority simply by being in the canon. In time, I became a convinced egalitarian, and tried to reinterpret those biblical passages. This compromise didn’t last and eventually my perception of a gender bias in the Bible was a key factor in my eventual departure from the Christian faith.

Totally Radical!

I returned to college in 1989, and I became almost obsessed with constructing a comprehensive theology of radical politics. In a final paper for a course on political power, I outlined seven kinds of social movements and struggles: economic, peace-building, democra-tization, gender, anti-racist, ecological, and religious. I argued that these movements were ultimately compatible components of an integrated radical strategy for social transformation. Due to financial circum-stances I was unable to stay in college and complete my degree in philosophy.

With this new appreciation for radical ideas of all kinds, I discovered secular organizations that shared my passion for a radical transformation of society. Much of Reba Place Church, though there were notable exceptions, offered muted social protest and did not think it was conducive to church growth to make activism a central value of its religious calling. Chicago had a thriving network and subculture of secular radicalism that began to look more and more attractive.

Emotional Liberation

In joining RPC, I had hoped that I was stepping into a thriving counter-culture. The reality fell only somewhat short of my expectations, and I regard these years as among the most fruitful ones of my life to this point. The ministry I received while participating in that community resulted in extraordinary breakthroughs in my emotional stability and self-understanding.

The most substantive of these breakthroughs was being cured of depression. Beginning in my late teens, I began to be troubled by prolonged periods of hopelessness and emotional paralysis. Reba Place had some very capable counselors who helped me access and heal the emotional sources of my depression. I also received vital help from psychoactive medications like Prozac.

The Domino Theory

Addressing my emotional problems enabled me to focus more of my energies on the seesaw-like tension between radicalism and Christian teachings. At one point radicalism was dominant in my thinking, at others the force of tradition tried to lull me back into religious escapism. I felt an urgent need to broaden my life experience and devote real energy to developing an integrated understanding of both politics and religion.

It was with this motivation that I returned to college. I concentrated my classes in political theory and philosophy in an attempt to get a thorough grounding in radical ideas. I was exposed to Marxism, feminism, post-modernism, and other sources of new thinking. It was a few years before all this culminated in my decision to leave Reba Place.

I could liken that final transition to watching dominoes fall over, knocking each other down one by one. The first domino was the idea of creationism. I had been raised to believe that God had created the entire universe in a period of six twenty-four hour days, around 6,000 years ago. This did not jive with scientific evidence that the universe was actually billions of years old. My rejection of creationism signaled a new appreciation for scientific method.

The second domino was biblical inerrancy. My embrace of evolution had led to a problem in interpreting Genesis 1. There were two ways to resolve this, one by “symbolic” interpretation. The “days” of Genesis 1 were not 24 hours long, but rather periods of time or eras. The other was to conclude that this passage was a poetic folk-tale told by early Hebrews around campfires as they wandered the Promised Land. After much struggle, I chose the latter position. There seemed to me to be no way to reconcile the known facts of science with the sequence of events in Genesis 1.

A simple example is that in Genesis, God creates plant life on the third day, but doesn’t create the sun until the fourth day. Plants cannot live for an entire evolutionary age without a sun.

The next domino to fall was my belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I have always believed in miracles and to some extent still do. In my life I had significant experiences with faith healing, which still convince me that there is something extraordinary in the power of prayer. However, I have seen too many cases where even the most sincere prayers did not work. It seemed that there were natural limits to the miracle-working power of God. A bodily resurrection seemed to be beyond what I was beginning to believe were those natural limits.

This led quickly to the final domino, my idea of God Him/Herself. If Nature set limits to God’s miracle-working power, perhaps God wasn’t all-powerful, as I had believed. I came to this realization in what can be described as a mystical experience. One day during a moment of physical fatigue, brought on by an illness, I had a strange sensation of a face hovering just inches from me. I thought this must be God. However, the face began to melt and I had the sensation that I, too, was melting. The divine image and I were melting into each other and into nothingness. This experience was something like nirvana mixed with a bit of mystic union.

A New Genesis

With this new set of religious understandings, I no longer had enough orthodoxy to remain a member in good standing in Reba Place Church. I began to seek out a new community. The two that appealed to me most were the Unitarian-Universalists and the liberal branch of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). Both denominations had embraced modern ideas over the past hundred years. Since Quakers were pacifists and I still remained one, I attended there first.

Two things solidified my decision to join Quakers: my son found a new best friend the first Sunday we attended and the meeting was hosting a workshop on healing prayer a few weeks later. This meant to me that I was still in touch with important components of my past, while remaining free to pursue my new path, wherever it might lead.

2. Deconstructing My Radical Spirituality

Conflicts Seeking Resolution

Looking back at my religious journey, there seems to be a few dominant conflicts. Among these are: traditional doctrines versus freedom to explore new possibilities, rationality versus emotionalism, social versus religious values, and experience versus authority. Resolving these conflicts in various ways resulted in a cumulative reorientation in my religious philosophy to a consistently radical or, more precisely, a consistently progressive perspective.

At stake in this reorientation was a total reevaluation of my religious heritage and experience. Although I cannot now call myself a Christian, I still owe a huge debt to that tradition. Although I have learned that there are many non-Christian pacifists, I first became one under the influence of the Bible, and my personal study of Christian pacifist writings still form a solid body of thought and inspiration from which I still draw strength. In the end, however, that debt was insufficient to justify the persistent conflict I experienced between my social values and my religious loyalty.

Social vs. Religious Values

One of the persistent tensions I felt as I explored radical ideas was the church/world dichotomy that seems prevalent in many Christian churches. “The World”, meaning all non-Christians, was at most, a target of evangelism and service, but never genuinely accepted as co-workers in social struggles. Christian radicals tended to view themselves as a sort of vanguard party like the Communists. We knew how to liberate society because we had a divine revelation and incarnate messiah to lead the revolution.

In Marxism, I encountered the most formidable challenge to this Christian exclusivism. Rather than seeing human liberation in terms of personal faith and church community, it pointed to the historic struggle of the laboring classes against their own oppression as the bearer of humankind’s future. I began to question whether I should place less emphasis on religious belief and more on ethical or social considerations in determining the focus of my personal direction.

The Church/World dichotomy not only worked in the present as a barrier to cooperation across religious lines, but it also imposed limitations on the future. Pentecostals are raised to believe in the Second Coming of Jesus in which all the true believers will be resurrected, Jesus will return bodily to the city of Jerusalem and establish a 1,000-year reign as King of the entire world. Christian theology tends to view the Second Coming as a time of judgment on non-Christians, meaning those who have not made a conscious faith commitment to Jesus.

My involvement with, and reading of social philosophy by, non-Christians lead me to a conflicted relationship with non-Chris-tians. On the one hand, I considered many of them my betters in matters of social activism. On the other hand, I considered them to be eternally lost and destined for hell. For example, I believed that I could work with them to abolish warfare and militarism, but when Jesus came back, non-Christian pacifists would have to face damnation, while some of the same militarists I was opposing would be forgiven their sins and given eternal life.

Once I abandoned a literal belief in the final judgment and hell, it was much simpler to embrace non-Christians as worthy collaborators in struggles to end social injustices. The challenge that remained was whether or not I had enough religious values remaining to support meaningful participation in and contributions to a religious community.

Can Religion and Social Radicalism Be Integrated?

However much I wanted to embrace my wholly secular radical companions, I found that I still craved religious community. Many of them seemed to find a satisfying life inhabiting the subcultures of Marxists, anarchists, and other radical movements. While I no longer believed in conventional Christianity, I could not entirely lay down the religious orientation that I had lived with my entire life. Rather than swinging to an atheistic antithesis of religion, I was driven to examine from a new perspective what sort of religious life was possible beyond Christianity or traditional religion.

This meant exploring at a fundamental level the meaning of religion. What do I find still valuable in religious community? How do I define authentic religion in a way that does not reduce it social activism?

I was groping towards an evolving philosophy of integral – religious and social – transformation. This new radical orientation would be world affirming, socially progressive, and religiously experimental. In it, worldliness and spirituality would join hands in triumphing over violence and injustice to embrace an integrated journey of compassion and freedom. It will take life in terms of experience and reflective thought, rather than by forcing that experience into traditional constraints that are no longer relevant.

3. Conceiving Religious Radicalism

In order to develop a new synthesis of religious and social radicalism, I found it necessary to answer three questions: what is religion, what is radicalism, and how can they be synthesized? The goal is not merely a theoretical or theological system, but a dynamic vision of how religious communities and social movements can become mutually interrelated.

Obstacles to such a vision include the present state of movements for social change and the persistent strength of conservative religious values. In the 1960s, it seemed that a new dynamic movement appeared every few years and that they built on one another towards a unified transformation of society. A significant number of these movements were religiously based. The conservative retrenchment that occurred in the ‘70s and ‘80s effectively overwhelmed the optimism of these movements and they fell into disarray. Although it is important to recognize that much of this conservatism was the product of economic interests (West, 1988), it is also important to emphasize the role that groups like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition played in mobilizing grassroots conservatism.

The persistence of conservatism in religion is an obstacle that has led many radical thinkers, such as Karl Marx, to severely criticize religion for its support for repressive social institutions (Marx, 1844).

One of the most comprehensive responses to the Marxist criticism of religious conservatism is found in the philosophy of John Macmurray, a Scottish religious philosopher who lived from 1891-1976. It should be remarked here that John Macmurray became a Quaker a few years after retiring from academia. Early in his career, he had decided that Christianity was so deformed that no denomination was fulfilling what he saw as the rightful development of Christianity. He was later to believe that Quakerism came the closest to the vision he’d elaborated, but with some reservations.

His central contention is that religious conservatism must give way to an experimental and progressive orientation, but it would remain a religious orientation. Developing this contention involved an analysis of the nature of religion, its formations and deformations throughout history, and the shape of a revolutionary reconstruction of the religious dimension of human life.

What is Religion?

According to Macmurray, religion is the primary form of human community and reflection (Macmurray, 1957). In pre-modern societies, religion contains all the cultural, intellectual, and moral achievements of a society (p. 20). In Medieval Europe this unity was manifested in the Roman Catholic Church with its influence in politics, academia, and ethical standards. In more primitive societies, religion as a concept does not exist, rather, there is an unreflective social unity that contains myths, laws, and rituals that govern all aspects of the common life of the people.

This unity has its roots in the personal nature of human life. According to Macmurray, a human person is a unity of feelings, thoughts, and relationships (1936, pp. 13-31). Humans are at once emotional, analytical, and relational. We are driven by our feelings, guided by our thoughts, and integrated with others in families, communities, and societies.

This personal unity has tended to become fragmented in Western civilization as modern society has become more complex and secularized. Humans have advanced the sciences and arts to extraordinary heights, but our relational lives are often fraught with pain, repression, and immaturity (1935, p.140ff). Macmurray maintains that this immaturity is at the root of most modern crises and that it is a deformation of the field of human experience at its widest and most personal, the lived quality of personal relationships.

This field was traditionally the province of religion, but the religious quality of relationships has become dominated by other, less comprehensive and adequate domains, such as politics or economics. When intellectualism comes to dominate the relational field, the result is a dualism in which we view other persons as objects rather than as whole persons. When emotionality comes to dominate, the result is a selfishness that reduces other persons to sources for personal satisfaction rather than holistic relationship.

Macmurray argues that the history of Western Europe exhibits this pattern of religious dualism on a larger scale. He main-tains this is the result of a historical conflation of Roman imperialism, Grecian culture, and Jewish (Judeo-Christian) religion (Macmurray, 1932). He maintains that Judaism, and potentially Christianity, perceives society and human liberation through a consistently religious frame of reference (p 45). The founding event of Judaism, the exodus from Egyptian slavery and the formation of a tribal confed-eration rather than an empire, is the crucial exemplar of this liberatory potential of Judaic religion. Christianity’s founding was a call to re-conceive this liberatory trajectory in terms of the whole world, including gentiles. The argument is not that Judaism or Christ-ianity are relationally mature, but that religion as the unity of human experience is more adequate to the task of unifying and liberating human communities and societies than a purely impersonal politics.

Macmurray views the impersonal character of modern society as arising from the imperialism that Western civilization has inherited from Roman culture. He describes this culture as primarily administrative and impersonal. It needed a religion to buttress its political legitimacy and it first adopted Grecian mythology, then emperor worship, and finally enlisted the Christian churches as an instrument of the imperial order.

The break-up of the Roman Empire left the church in the position of sole unifying influence in the middle ages, but it had been so deformed by its alliance with imperialism that the original impulse of Judaism and Christianity towards social freedom and communal maturity had been effectively destroyed. What remained was a formal religious ritualism and intellectual theology that was egocentric and impersonal. While Protestantism made significant advances in restoring some the dynamism of primitive Christianity it tended to repeat the patterns of Roman Catholicism on smaller, national scales with relatively little maturation of its relational community (p. 45ff).

Macmurray calls for the development of mature religion that takes as its task the practical formation of a universal human community. This modern religion will be experimental and practical rather than dogmatic and emotional. It will continue to satisfy intellectual and emotional needs, but its center of gravity will be on human relationships in full communion (1935, p. 153).

What About Atheists?

Macmurray’s defining and elaboration of a progressive religious philosophy proceeded without reference to either God or atheism. This seems unusual to those of us in the Christian West for whom religion is inherently about God and therefore atheists have no religion.

However, even in casual conversation the word “religious” does not always refer to belief in God. One can speak of reading one’s favorite writer or playing one’s favorite game “religiously”. Contemporary theologians such as Paul Tillich or Henry Wieman have spoken about religion being more about one’s “ultimate concern” or “ultimate commitment” than about one’s beliefs in a divine being. Many atheists and humanists have formed religious fellowships such as the American Ethical Union, as well as participating in denominations such as the Unitarian Universalist Association.

If radicals are to develop a progressive religious philosophy it must be dedicated to the practical tasks of human community and only secondarily interested in defining religious doctrines. Although Macmurray himself was convinced of the personal existence of God, he did not consider the classical arguments to have much merit. He was convinced that such arguments arose from the dualistic mindset of medieval Christianity and had little relevance for advancing a progressive religious philosophy.

In sum, Macmurray’s claim has been that religion is an inter-personal synthesis of human rationality, emotionality, and relationality, integrated into the widest relational context, the creation of authentic, universal human community. Such a philosophy of religious community seems inherently compatible with the visions and goals of the progressive movements for social change and liberation. To test this claim calls for an examination of radicalism and social movements.

What is Radicalism?

Radical comes from the Latin word for “root” and is commonly used to describe movements that aim to remove the very roots of social problems. There have actually been many philosophies that have called for radical social change. It would be far beyond the limits of this paper to address all of them. Recall that earlier in this paper, it was mentioned that this writer had created a scheme that enumerated seven categories of social movements and struggles. A comparable attempt that we will examine actually reduces this number to four categories.

Liberating Theory (LT) was published in 1986 as the product of seven veteran activists of the social movements of the 1960s. In the context of the Reaganite era, LT offered a serious attempt to address the divisiveness that had overtaken radical politics. This divisiveness tended to force feminists, anti-racists, socialists, and anarchists into separate hostile camps with each one arguing that their social struggle was the primary site for real progress and radical change (Albert, et al. 1986, p. 6).

This divisiveness was actually nothing new. Over a century earlier, Karl Marx, after the formation of the Communist movement, ran into opposition from anarchists who argued that abolishing the State itself was prerequisite to abolishing capitalism. Marx contended that workers must seize the power of the State in order to abolish capitalism. In the context of the 1980s the dissent among radicals had evolved greater diversity than the 1870s.

LT addresses four primary theories of radical social change: Marxism, anarchism, radical feminism, and anti-racist nationalism. Each of these theories claims that only changes in the institutions that it opposes can form a basis for genuinely radical change. For Marxists, the primary impediment to social transformation is the existence of the capitalist economic system.

The disempowerment that capitalism imposes on workers and the poor is so pervasive that no other struggle has a hope of succeeding in radical change. For anarchists, the primary impediment to social transformation is the existence of hierarchies, most especially the State. If we were to simply abolish capitalism without abolishing the State, anarchists maintained that a new hierarchical economy would be created that mirrored the domination of the State. For radical feminists, the primary impediment to radical change was the existence of patriarchy and the domination by men of the major arenas of social life. Abolish capitalism or the State and radical feminists maintained that women’s position in society would still be subject to patriarchal domination. For anti-racist nationalism, the primary source of social oppression was cultural and racial. In a world divided by language and culture, if we abolished anything other than racism, millions would still be oppressed by racism.

LT criticized “monistic” theorizing, the view that one of these struggles was the key struggle that would make liberation in all other struggles possible. LT argued that each theory had a part of the truth. It was true that socialism couldn’t by itself end statism or patriarchy. However, it was also true that none of the other movements could achieve genuine liberation without participating in struggles outside their preferred domain of social struggle. Radical liberation, argued LT, required a “complementary holism” that would integrate all social struggles into an interdependent movement of visionary revolution (Albert, et al., p. 144).

One apparent weakness of LT is that it was open to the charge that its new theory of interdependent social struggles had left out crucial domains of liberation. Was there a place for religion, ecology, pacifism, or gay and lesbian liberation?

The answer of LT was that each of these struggles were actually part of the larger domains already identified. Pacifism was part of the political sphere addressed by anarchism. Sexuality belonged with gender in the sphere of “kinship.” By extension, though not explicitly stated in LT, ecological activism addresses economics in ways that transcend Marxism. Religion actually belonged to a larger social sphere called “community” that included racial and cultural aspects of society.

Contours of Religious Radicalism

The religious perspective that was elaborated earlier argued that dualistic religion had divided humans into fragmented creatures under the domination of an impersonal imperialistic regime inherited from Ancient Rome. LT makes a parallel argument against “monistic” theories. By arguing that one particular form of struggle for social liberation is the primary motor of social change, persons experiencing oppression are forced to subordinate their natural, holistic perception of multiple oppressions into a narrowed activism within only one domain. Monistic thinking has led Marxist organizations to insist that women and persons of color should devote themselves only to the class struggle to the exclusion of struggling against sexism or racism. Radical feminist organizations have also made similar claims against the capacity of men to fight sexism alongside women.

Monistic thinking is also pervasive in religious communities. For example, Christians are compelled to evangelize since only Christian faith can participate in the liberation of humankind. Muslims have often created repressive states, as have many Christians, in order to follow monistic policies. Atheism has been made the official philosophy of Communist nations predicated on similar logic. Religious radicalism repudiates all this in favor of holism and complementarity. Religious radicalism goes further and calls for ending the dualism that pervades political struggles. Marxism, feminism, nationalism, anarchism and other radical perspectives, when pressed to monistic conclusions, end up fragmenting their constituents. Under monism, an individual suppresses their sense of being a whole person in favor of a reductive sense of political identity.

The critique of monistic practice also challenges existing religious communities to transform themselves in ways that are compatible with radical social movements. A progressive religion will be egalitarian in its structure by practicing participatory democracy rather than hierarchical governance. Religious radicals must practice full racial, gender, and sexual inclusion in every facet of their common life. Religious radicalism will advocate economic justice and resist existing exploitation. Religious radicalism entails as well a rich vision of ecological wholeness and world peace.

Macmurtray’s Hope

John Macmurray remarked in one of his books that his vision of religious maturity would no doubt prompt many to protest that such a religion existed absolutely nowhere, and, could not exist in the real world (1936, p. 116). We cannot take this skepticism as final. Once upon a time, slavery existed with approval everywhere. Even in our own day, enormous advances in women’s equality have occurred. The inspiring examples of movements against racism and their significant victories offer testimony against such skepticism and cynicism.

It is true that we have no guarantee that the holistic and unified world of religious radicalism will ever be reality. The question that we must ask ourselves is whether we are ultimately committed to the best that humankind can achieve or are we content with massive exploitation, suffering, and violence? Once we have been inspired by a vision of global transformation, it is hard to ever rest comfortably in the face of the pain of the human condition.

4. Progressive Quakerism and Beyond

In 2001, I formally joined the Religious Society of Friends (RSoF) seeking the sort of genuinely progressive religious community that I now envisioned. Leaving Reba Place had been a heart-breaking experience and there was no small trace of sadness, even as I whole-heartedly embraced my new religious community. My reasons for making this decision is my perception that Quakerism has taken collectively a similar direction to that which I took from Pentecostalism, through Reba Place, into modern religious radicalism.

This direction is most clearly perceived in some historical events of the 1850s in the RSoF. As recounted by Chuck Fager (2000), a group of over thirty Quaker abolitionists were expelled from the main body of Hicksite Quakers in Pennsylvania, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (PaYM). These dissidents had engaged in un-Quakerly “worldly agitation” in the service of the abolitionist cause. Although they were most immediately concerned with abolishing slavery, it is clear that their vision extended to a complete restructuring of the RSoF. To this end they formed a rival Quaker organization, The Progressive Yearly Meeting of Friends.

Although the ensuing struggle for the heart and soul of the RSoF is fascinating and rich in detail, the upshot is that American Quakerism has never been the same since. The change can be summed up in a radical shift from quietism and apoliticism to a fervently social egalitarian activism. Although this activism waxes and wanes with the political mood of the culture, it is still true that whenever social protest raises its voice in American affairs, Quakers are there making a substantial mark on the character of every social movement they join.

In my local meeting, there is a good amount of activism and social non-conformity. Quakers may not be the fire-breathing radicals of the ‘60’s New Left, but I have found that they usually champion causes in line with a progressive vision. I do find myself fairly predictably to the “left” of the mainstream of Quakerism. I would be churlish to attribute that fact to some greater sophistication on my part. It is just as likely to arise from some residue of the dogmatism of my youth.

One area of similarity that I find striking is the degree to which modern Quakers embrace an inclusive understanding of religious identity. Since 1978, a coherent movement called “universalism” has been making a persistent appeal for Quakers to include non-Christians of all varieties. It is not uncommon for Quakers to be agnostic, even atheistic. In my meeting we have had at least one active Jewish participant and one will hear references to Buddha or modern Buddhists like Thich Nhat Hanh as often as to Jesus Christ. At least one regular attender styles herself a Pagan Quaker. While some would view such diversity as crippling, I find that there is unity to be found at a practical and emotional level, which is far more satisfying than doctrinal unity.

In contrast again to my experience at Reba Place, Quakers undertake to govern themselves in a principled egalitarian manner. In many cases that means seeking consensus before decisions are made and carried out. Reba Place used a mixture of traditional pastoral headship with limited use of consensus. Quakers in the progressive tradition have never had pastors and consider the idea of concentrating spiritual authority in one person dangerous.

The open-endedness of Quaker practice is epitomized in our practice of waiting worship. There is no order of service or pre-determined speakers. We gather in silence at the beginning of our designated hour. The silence is usually allowed to grow in depth for most of the hour. If worship continues in silence for an hour, it is not considered to have been an empty experience. Each worshiper is invited to use the silence to grow in their communion with whatever they hold to be the sacred ground within themselves.

If someone is moved out of the silence to speak to the gathering, such messages are listened to as the spirit leads each worshiper. The discernment of a message’s value is done in the meeting silently. If a message prompts some worshiper to speak to the one who has given a message that is considered an opportunity for deepening mutual understanding.

To be radical is to “go to the root”. My religious orientation has been shaken and remade to its very core. Like any vision, it remains unfulfilled. To paraphrase A.J. Muste, founder of the religious pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation, being radical is as much about preventing the world from changing one’s values, as it about making those values real in the world. Without some small victories along the way, it would be almost impossible to continue seeking the global community of justice and peace.

Principal works cited:

  • Albert, Michael, et al. Liberating Theory. South End Press Collective. 1986
  • Fager, Chuck, “Beyond the Age of Amnesia: Charting the Course of 20th Century Liberal Quaker Theology,” Quaker Theology #3, Autumn 2000.
  • Macmurray, John. Freedom in the Modern World. 1935
  • Macmurray, John. Reason and Emotion. 1936.
  • Macmurray, John. The Self As Agent. 1957.

Leave a comment