The Core Quaker Theology: Is There Such a Thing?

Chuck Fager
Adapted from a presentation at
Amawalk Meeting, New York, 8th Mo 14, 2004

When I hear or read of questions about such things as “normative Quakerism,” or “authentic Quakerism” or “traditional Quakerism,” it usually means one of two things: either a person or group feels very much confused and at sea, and is honestly looking for some certainty to cling to, some rock to stand on; or it often means that some person or group is looking for a club, with which either to beat other people into submission or to drive them away as interlopers and heretics.

There’s been plenty of both efforts in Quaker history: confusion and witchhunts. So make no mistake: these are loaded questions. And they can be dangerous ones.

I’m hoping that the request to talk about the “Core Quaker Theology,” which is what I’ve been asked to do here, is an expression of the first of these conditions, confusion rather than a lead-in to a purge. And if I may offer you a word of caution, it is that a Meeting can start out seeking to dispel confusion, and end up in the middle of a witchhunt that nobody thought they wanted. I’m not a friend to purges and witchhunts, having been purged myself at least once in my nearly forty-year Quaker journey, and having had to bob and weave to dodge at least one other effort.

Confusion about Quaker theology is more understandable, and indeed I think it may well be part of that “core.” But as this suggests, if ambiguity is at the core, then theological confusion, at least a bit of it, may be something to learn to live with rather than a flaw to be banished.

And indeed, when I reflect on the task of identifying the “core” of Quaker theology, there are deep ambiguities there which go back to the beginning, and even before that.

Let me take one: the dichotomy, or as I would prefer, the dialectic between Christian particularism versus what we may call “universalism.” Should being Quaker mean we must be Christian? Or is it enough to mind the light, from whatever source we see it shining, be that Wicca, Zen, or, as in my case most of each summer, the spirituality of baseball. (Of course, I’m referring here to the authentic, orthodox baseball spirituality, which requires the true believer above all to despise the Yankees. I understand there may be some non-believers among my readers. But I’m a tolerant person.)

When it comes to universalism versus Christian particularism, there are plenty of quotes from early Friends to be cited on either side; and our premier early theologian, Robert Barclay, can be legitimately quoted on both of them. I’ve often done that myself.

But does this mean that Barclay or the other Quaker worthies were inconsistent or sloppy thinkers? Not necessarily, at least to my mind. That’s because this duality, this tension, didn’t start with them – not at all. As I read the Christian tradition, this tension goes back 1600 years before Fox to none other than Jesus Christ himself, at least as portrayed in the gospels.

In these gospels Jesus is quoted as saying both, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no man comes to the father but by me,” and, in Matthew 25, describing the last judgement, to be conducted by him, where the sheep and the goats are separated, but by a set of criteria that has nothing, nothing whatever to do with belief in himself or Christianity; indeed, both sheep and goats are clearly drawn from a wide range of religious cultures.

Reading these passages, I sometimes react like a peevish book reviewer and want to say, “Well, Jesus – so which is it? Do I have to believe in you or not? Why didn’t you – or at least your gospel writers – get the story straight here???”

So the fact of tensions, ambiguity and even confusion in “core theology or convictions” is not a new datum in religions out of the Christian stream, and in this respect Quakerism has been no different. But along with confusion, I also want to suggest that an additional fact of history can’t be separated from this concern. That is, theologies take shape in history, as a continuing stream of events and reflection. And in this stream, almost everything changes over time, and so it has been with theologies, including Quaker theologies.

That is, I want to raise questions about the notion of a “core” Quaker theology as a metaphor. It suggests that Quaker thought is like an apple, which at the center has a few seeds that are its heart and hope for the future. Or perhaps it’s imagined to be like the core layers of a tree trunk, sometimes bending with strong winds but nonetheless standing resilient and steady at the center while the years add layers of history around the edges.

These are strong, comforting images. But I want to suggest that Quakerism may not be like that. Or at least, not like the tree trunk. The seeds, perhaps. That’s because the seeds can carry not only continuity, but change.

Anyway, that’s how it’s been with religions, and Christianity and Quakerism in particular. Some of these changes were what we could call “technical.” For instance, take the matter of texts. Biblical texts were transmitted for many centuries by being hand-copied on thick pieces of sheepskin vellum. These copies lasted long enough so that when a new copy had to be made, the previous copyist was long since dead and not around to clear up any ambiguities. Thus any mistakes or additions to the text would be passed on as if they were original. And so among the many ancient copies of these texts, no two of them are the same, and among the thousands of variations, some of them are quite significant.

But in addition to these technical, or even accidental changes, there is also what the scientists call evolution to consider. That is, over the generations of a species, every so often there are mutations, changes in its DNA. These changes over time move from apes to humans or from lizards to birds, and so forth. The same goes for those seeds in the core of the apple: every so often, those apple seeds turn out to produce something different – granny smith to braeburn, but also occasionally to some new kind of plant altogether.

I believe a similar pattern applies to religion. Both in the Bible and at various points in later Jewish and Christian history, there have been thinkers and seers who were “mutations.” They looked at the sacred texts and rites and institutions, and saw something different from what had been seen earlier, and said so, and over time their new visions were accepted.

Many of the Hebrew prophets were like that: their faith community was a different animal once their messages and reinterpretations of tradition had been assimilated into it. Certainly that’s how the early Hebrew Christians saw Jesus. And it’s also how most church historians regard George Fox, whether they like him or not: a creative mutation within the Christian stream of religious life.

Again, the examples of this are legion, and not always consistent with each other. The early Hebrews thought sure their God was attached to a particular piece of land and a specific temple; but when that land was lost, new seers and prophets delivered mutant messages that said No, our God is not bound to buildings made with hands, and the Jews and Judaism survived.

Likewise, the first generation or two of Christians seem to have been pretty clear that Jesus was returning very soon – after all, he is quoted in the gospels no less than five times as saying he’d be back before all those who were listening to him had died. But then when this return was apparently “delayed,” new seers and apostles came up with explanations that helped later Christians keep going.

A similar process of major change is also observable in early, formative Quakerism. The major historians of this initial period can now distinguish not one but several phases in this saga:

– The early surge, in the midst of a revolution, a massive religious-political-social upheaval, in which Friends thought they were bound to sweep the world and convert everyone to what they were sure was the reconstituted “true church” which would establish Christ’s kingdom on earth.

– Then there was the shock of reaction after the revolution failed, leading to decades of persecution and a reorientation and reorganization of the movement simply to survive.

– And after that, once survival was finally assured, came a shift toward a process of becoming respectable, and ultimately even esteemed by the very Establishment that had formerly scorned and repressed the Society.

It is a conceit of many historians and religious thinkers, including many Friends, that such evolution constitutes “progress,” an identifiable, if uneven, process of improvement toward perfection. That is not my purpose in using the term here; evolution can backslide, just as an individual can.

I can look back, for instance, to the late nineteenth century, at the witness of Lucretia Mott against war, and her faith that “modern” warfare was becoming so destructive it had to be on the way out. It then becomes clear that the many changes in the intervening 124 years since her death have not constituted progress in this area at all, but mostly just the reverse. Again, there could be many other examples: nowadays even the Pope does not claim that the launching of the Inquisition was a sign of medieval Christian progress.

Instead, many scholars nowadays speak of such evolutionary processes as “trajectories,” and that’s the term I prefer to use here. One reason is that it reminds me of one of the favorite moments in baseball, the long fly ball. Depending on the trajectory, it could be a home run, an extra bases hit, a foul ball, or an easy out. And its course can be affected not only by the hitter’s power and swing, but by the breeze, the humidity, and who knows what else. So the crack of the bat brings not only excitement but – if only briefly – suspense.

There’s also a biblical basis for this usage, from the Gospel of John, where Jesus speaks of the spirit as being like the wind, that we hear the sound of it, but we don’t know where it’s coming from or where it’s going. Religious trajectories are subject to those winds too. You can think of them as elements of the “core” if you like, but elements in motion – motion through time and space, motion through our minds and experience, motion from being pushed and nudged by the wind of the spirit. And more important, this motion is not incidental – it’s part of the essence of the elements. Quakerism isn’t and never was a static thing. It moves and is moved.

So here I want to point to not one, but a number of “trajectories” in Quaker history and thought, some of which parallel and overlap, but all of which are distinguishable, at least for our purposes here. They’re the best ways I can think of to approach this matter of a “core” to Quaker thought.

I’ve already suggested the partial shape of one of these trajectories, namely that of the social position of the Society of Friends in British and American society: starting as despised Outsiders, moving through toleration to being accepted, even cherished, if eccentric, Insiders. In England, for instance, the Society of Friends is one of the select bodies that has been given the corporate privilege of directly addressing the monarch on various important occasions.

But that’s not the end of the story. While the privilege of addressing the crown remains on the books in Britain, both there and in the US, Friends in the twentieth and now twenty-first century are again becoming Outsiders, more often at odds with (and ignored by) their respective Establishments than aligned with them.

In this country this change is easy to trace by looking at the programs of Friends General Conference: As late as the 1950s, the speakers lineup for its major conferences included US Senators, Supreme Court justices, international diplomats, and even Martin Luther King. But the days when these gatherings could command figures of such public stature are long past, and unlikely to return.

The same is true of the Friends Committee on National Legislation: in my memory, its annual meeting regularly attracted a prominent member of Congress as a major speaker. That hasn’t happened in a long time either. (By the way, just for the record, I don’t lose much sleep over these losses of worldly “status.”)

So that’s one trajectory, and if it sounds merely social or political to you, I suggest you think again – one’s theology is definitely affected by one’s social position: Insiders see the world, and God, differently than outsiders. And I suspect that the impact of this change for Friends, which is still being worked out, will be important.

And here’s another trajectory to consider: that of group self-definition. In the beginning, Friends like William Penn and Barclay were quite clear that the Society of Friends was the true Church of Christ restored, brought back from the “wilderness” of priestly and papal oppression in which it had been wandering for at least a thousand years.

Another part of that image was that Friends were a gathered people – no, that’s not plain enough: Friends were a divinely-chosen people, the assembly of God’s very elect. And this sense of election and corporate specialness persisted for more than 200 years (and it still does in some ways even today).

Yet between 1850 and 1926, this self-understanding shifted dramatically, away from a corporate-centered to a very individualistic spirituality: then it was the group, God’s special people, which was the locus of divine initiative on earth; now it is me, and you, and the Inner Light in each of us, that is primary; the group is subordinate, or even irrelevant. (The same goes, by the way, for evangelical Friends: despite all the differences in our styles, salvation and holiness likewise come to them one person at a time.)

That is the second trajectory, of several that I want to describe, in an effort to grapple with the question of a “core” to Quaker theology.

Here are some of the others, which we have time only to sketch: Related to the matter of self-definition is one of governance: when Friends were self-consciously a “people,” they were also, to borrow a biblical image, like a flock of sheep, led and cared for by devoted shepherds, in the form of a defined hierarchy of ministers, elders and overseers.

The task of these shepherds was clear: to preserve the “Reputation of Truth,” that is the Society, against external threats and internal strayings. To this end there was also a clear ranking of meetings, from preparative up to monthly up to quarterly up to yearly. The Society of Friends was a top-down pyramid with definite rules and lines of authority and accountability. Such quaintly modern notions as individual self-expression or personal fulfillment, if they were thought of at all, were definitely of secondary, or tertiary importance.

Today that pyramid has been turned on its head: Friends’ polity is now unmistakably congregational, with monthly meetings at the top, and quarterly, yearly, and other structures their servant bodies rather than their masters. Some of the pastoral groups still retain vestiges of central authority, but it is under constant strain, and I doubt it will survive much longer. And rather than being shepherded, we Friends are occasionally exhorted but are pretty much on our own. “Like herding cats” is how I often hear harried clerks describe our business sessions; and I can meow and yowl with the best of them.

Or in another parallel case, take Quaker Christianity. The aspect of our Christianity with which we seem most out of touch is what early Friends called simply, “the cross.” As I understand it, for Fox and others the cross was much more important as a personal and social reality than some doctrine to argue about. Its meaning was simple: Christ had to face and absorb suffering in the course of his mission; and if we are his followers, we can expect the same. As he put it in Matthew 10:24: “The disciple is not above his master.” Convincement and conversion might make you happy and spirit-filled and joined to a special people. But it did not make you safe.

This is a formulation that is increasingly opaque to many in our therapeutic, continuous improvement, self-help culture. So many of us insist that our meetings are to be “safe spaces,” and our worship and ministry are aimed at making us whole; and one of our most frequent phrases in business sessions is, God help me, “Are Friends comfortable” with this or that.

Yet to the extent that the Society of Friends has been of real use in the world, as opposed to when it thinks it has been of service, a great deal of that “value” has been “added” not through comfort, or staying safe, but by means of unmerited suffering, as in the decades of persecution.

This emphasis on the cross is hardly a Quaker exclusive. Yet in our time, as far as I can see, it is mainly gay and lesbian Friends who have most come to understand this abiding paradox of faith, because they have had to live (and die) through and try to redeem the AIDS epidemic. Some of the most powerful Quaker ministry of our time has emerged from this crucible; and I guarantee you it was not “comfortable” stuff.

For myself, I learned about it not from Friends at all, but from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in my early days as an activist in the Deep South. “Unearned suffering is redemptive,” he preached to us; but this phrase made no sense to me until I saw it lived out in the churches and streets and jails there, and even took a few minor licks myself. It too was hardly “comfortable”; but in the old Quaker phrase, I was “much favored.”

Another piece of this Quaker Christian trajectory is that in my view it has always had an unmistakable and ineradicable universalist character. That is, Friends were tilted toward the inclusive “sheep and goats” sayings of Jesus more than to the exclusive “I am the Way” sayings. Now we have many who are universalist with perhaps a dash of Christianity, rather like a dollop of hot sauce in the soup, and not a few who would need to have the gospel sheep and goats story explained to them to know what I was talking about.

Which leads us to another trajectory, the place and use of the Bible among us. It has gone from serving as our lingua franca, providing the basic vocabulary and imagery of our discourse, to being a largely unknown document, almost a terra incognita. Moreover, this Bible, as mediated to Friends by such as Barclay, was understood through a more or less clear set of key religious interpretations.

Now we have a plethora of religious interpretations, either with no Bible, or with a whole shelf full, bearing other names like A Course In Miracles, the newest tome on Jungian-feminist-pagan psychology, the latest environmental apocalypse, or pronouncements from that most reliable of our contemporary spokespersons for the divine, National Public Radio.

Like some others, I often lament our general ignorance of the Bible – the old one, I mean. At the most mundane level, the people running our militarized society justify their course based on it, and biblical illiterates (like most of us) are not even players in such discussions, whether we realize it or not.

But there are some upsides to this condition: for one thing, when Friends do rediscover the Bible, they tend to do so with new eyes; and such new seeing is an urgent task of our theological and spiritual life together today. So to me it seems that in this regard we mostly have nowhere to go but up.

And there is another positive aspect as well: few Friends in the time of Barclay had even heard of the Koran, much less read it. (Perhaps that’s why Barclay could refer to Muslims as “Turks,” when even then that faith encompassed many other ethnic and national groups). Ditto for the formative sacred texts of other major world religions. But now we know, even if many in America still like to pretend otherwise, that religion, the experience of, and writing and ritual about, the sacred, is a pluriform, varied phenomenon, as real in its other manifestations for other peoples, as ours has been to us.

And this knowledge in my view is of the fatal, bite-of- the-apple kind: or to repeat our evolutionary image, it is mutational – once our eyes are truly opened about it, I don’t think there is any going back. The way Barclay saw the Bible was intimately related to how he saw the world; our worldview is perhaps not better, but it is ineluctably and radically different. So what was good enough for Barclay cannot be good enough for us, at least not entirely.

It may be, as has often been alleged, that the liberal Quaker acquaintance with other world religions is largely of a superficial sort, another variety of our insatiable, rich country consumerism, and perhaps this is so. Nevertheless, it is another place to start, and anyway there are exceptions.

So there we have the trajectories that I think have the most to do with the question of what, if anything, the “core” Quaker theology might be: We are a people that is not much of a people anymore, decentralized, mainly on our own, steeped in our larger culture yet more or less out of favor with our rulers, unfamiliar with our Jesus, his cross and our own Bible, and barely smattered with knowledge of other faiths.

It is easy enough to look at a catalog like this and see in it only a story of sorry decline – devolution, not evolution, regress rather than progress. And I have heard many such loud laments, so many that I’ve coined a term for them: Handbasket Theology – as in “going to hell in a . . . .”

But I don’t think much of Handbasket Theology. I don’t think much of it for two reasons:

First, my study and experience with other Christian or once-Christian bodies, past and present, persuades me that if we Quakers are in a mess today, and we surely are, so is everybody else. In which case, there’s simply no escape; being in a mess is the common condition today. Further, I don’t think there’s really much to be gained by trading in our mess for someone else’s. (For instance, how many Friends would really feel better if, instead of Quaker theological confusion, we had the Catholics’ huge priestly pedophilia cross to bear? Not me, at any rate; math is not my strong point, but I can still count that as a blessing!)

And secondly, I have traveled pretty widely among Quakers in North America, and my experience as one confused Friend amid other confused Friends, is that in the midst of all this seeming disarray, we are still a vital people. It seems clear to me that, amazingly and through no special virtue of our own, God is not done with us, and the signs of life are all around. Our trajectories are not complete; we’re still moving with, and against, that invisible, intrusive wind of the spirit. And this means, for one thing, that when we are ready to stop complaining and smell them, the Quaker roses are still there.

How are these trajectories moving currently? Responding to this question is like trying to predict the stock market, or the weather – or which baseball team can stop the Yankees this year. But here are some of my hopefully educated guesses:

I think many Friends are beginning to reconsider the idea of the Society as a gathered people. We can’t recreate the old versions of this, but maybe we can work toward a functional contemporary equivalent.

And I think there are among us some who are quietly moving beyond a consumerist approach to other world religions, to something deeper – which also means they’ll have to take their own Quaker Christian origins more seriously as well.

The matter of our return to Outsider status is more murky: I’m sure it’s happening; but by and large we are still safe within the middle and upper middle classes – or we think we are, anyway – and so I see too many still reflexively clinging to the illusion of significant participation that’s peddled by our mass media. In any case, of all our fabled Quaker testimonies, it is Simplicity, which I see pointing the way out of this particular mess, which is also the toughest one of all to understand and practice. It certainly is for me.

Another drawback of this outwardly comfortable position is that it still leaves too many of us pretty much strangers to the cross. And again, I speak here of the cross as an experience, not a doctrine. I see this issue particularly from my position up-close and personal with the US war machine. Friends, militarism is a consuming monster, a growing power that pervades and perverts our society in a thousand ways, most of which we have trained ourselves not to see.

If we ever begin to become more truly aware of this condition, our condition – watch out! There will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth, and suffering within and without. And this is but one of the ways in which our time could bring us to the cross, if and when we’re ready to face up to it; the environmental cost of the global waste economy is another.

These are my guesses about our major trajectories, and as the auto commercials say, your mileage may differ. What the “core theology” for this group, this people, is now, I think we are only beginning to discover and articulate. And we will not, I predict be able to articulate it fully, in anything like a creed. There have been efforts among Friends to do that, to banish the confusion once and for all – and in my view they have always ended in disaster. Yet that is not an excuse for not seeking it, and it does not justify concluding that there is no core, no “there” there. That is as unwarranted as concluding that the wind is not real because we can’t see it or pin it down. I urge you to resist the temptation to denial, which leads to despair.

This also moves me to warn you against another temptation: the urge to select one or two segments from the past of these various trajectories, deprive them of the essential element of motion, and privilege them as the norm, the authentic, the true Quakerism – the core. Such efforts, and I have seen several, usually end up looking a lot like mirrors, telling us more about the needs of those doing the selecting than anything else.

There is value in all, or at least most of these segments of the Quaker journey; we can even learn from the times, and they are not few, when Friends were most insufferably smug and self-important. Indeed, I often think such embarrassing periods offer the most important lessons for us today, because they can inject us with doses of humility, which we always desperately need..

But perhaps learning is not a strong enough word here. I am very much attached to a term called “god-wrestling,” which I learned from a Jewish writer named Arthur Waskow. It comes out of the 3nd chapter of Genesis, the story of when Jacob wrestled God all night and would not let go until God blessed him. The blessing was a change of name, from Jacob to Israel, which means the God-wrestler. That name is still archetypal in Hebrew life and thought; and I believe it applies as well to the Christian variant thereof, much as most Christians have sought to avoid or deny it.

And it applies as well to Friends. These varied and often parallel trajectories are not only matters of history to study – they are also matters to wrestle with, even points of struggle – and this includes the pleasing parts as well as the tough ones. (Wrestling, after all, is a sport as well as a way of fighting.) Part of the point of the story is that such struggle is not a sign of decline or death, but can be a sign of life, and part of the work of renewal.

If anything must be the “core” of Quaker theology, I commend this image to your consideration: wrestling with our tradition and experience as a people, and wrestling with what this can mean for us today and tomorrow. What we’re doing today is an example of this. Don’t worry about becoming too weary; you will also have time outs, periods of rest and blessed community in the process.

But wrestle we must, because we do not struggle alone, or only with each other. We are also struggling with the One who called us to be a people, and calls us still, and can still bless us, Friends, if we do not let go.

That at least, is at the core of my Quaker theology.

Thank you.

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