“Wrestling With Our Faith Tradition”* A Review

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Since the death of Bill Taber in 2005, Lloyd Lee Wilson has become the representative figure of Conservative Quakerism in the U.S., and perhaps more widely. He is a member and former Clerk of North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative), and his plain dress and traditional “thee” and “thou” address, among other items, make visible his commitment to this path. He has also been a traveling minister for that body, and this is his second volume of essays, a collection of addresses given on various occasions over the past decade, under the guidance of and with the approval of that body.

The book presents an opportunity to examine and assess his recent reading of this strand of Friends spirituality. Given his growing prominence, such an assessment is overdue.

Wilson speaks often in these talks of the “classic Quaker tradition,” (pp. 16, 25, 164ff) which he professes to follow, and defines as having three elements: an “apophatic” or via negativa approach to God; the believer’s direct relationship with Christ; and the centrality of the meeting community in settling, framing, and guiding an individual’s religious path within it.

What accounts for the appeal of this formulation? The very term “classic tradition” is part of it: the phrase brings to mind something time-tested, enduring, stable, reliable. Such features are evoked by “classical” music; classic clothing (black is basic); even “Classic” Coca Cola.

But what makes this “classic” Quakerism? After all, he explains, it is “not the Quakerism of George Fox or Elizabeth Hooten, who preached the original version, but it is the current manifestation of that vision.” (P. !6) He adds that in this new version, “some rough edges have been smoothed over the centuries, and some new insights have been incorporated in an incremental process of continuing revelation.”(Ibid.) Unfortunately, if one wonders what those “rough edges were,” and which were the “new insights” that have been vouchsafed, there is not much in the way of direct answers here.

In one sense, such a lack of specifics is to be expected: this is not a formal theological treatise, but a mixed bag of talks given on various occasions. Yet the questions lingered nonetheless, at least for this reader, and answers emerged only by a close reading, sometimes between the lines.

In seeking to understand the basis of his perspective, several elements emerged: Wilson’s religious views have been influenced not only by the venerable worthies of the Quaker and Conservative traditions, who are quoted sparingly here, but also by a range of more modern and varied non-Quaker figures, some of whom recur quite often: biblical scholar Walter Wink (p. 118), Catholic retreat leader Richard Rohr (p. 50), radical Latin American thinker Paolo Freire (p. 157), other unnamed liberation theologians (p. 153), activist Ched Myers (p. 44), the Wesleyan quadrilateral, narrative theology (p. 57f), and even the odd Buddhist (p. 228).

By tracking and classifying these quotes and allusions, it became clear that his “Classic tradition” in Wilson’s hands is a melding of Fox and Barclay with ideas and motifs from several other traditions, not all of which otherwise fit easily together. In one sense this is fine: any literate American today who is interested in religion is likely to encounter a wide range of spiritual writers and thinkers.

But turnabout is fair play. Wilson’s book shows the influence of various strains of recent thinking. But there is not much mastery of any of these ideas shown here, and this superficiality becomes a problem when, as repeatedly happens, he derides “eclectic and syncretic spiritualities” (p. 39, 131) or a “salad bar approach” to religion,” (p. 217) by which is clearly meant most of liberal Quakerism.

However, one person’s passing acquaintance with Rohr, Myers, Wink and Buddhist chestnuts is another person’s “salad bar.” Wilson is entitled to the ideas which have moved and shaped him. But finishing the book, one thing was clear: these pages represent “classic” Quakerism only because he says so, and the dismissive judgments on other varieties tossed off in it were unwarranted and unsupported. Indeed, there are numerous elements of Wilson;’s version which are not only novel, but highly debatable – in fact, call out to be challenged. Here is a sampling:

Biblical interpretation: One chapter reprises a week-long Bible study series Wilson gave at New York Yearly Meeting. In it he highlighted passages that described the “big story” (p. 182) of liberation theology that he considered to be the heart of Scripture. On Thursday, his theme was saying no to idolatry, and the passage chosen was first Kings 18, which describes the struggle between the prophet Elijah and the priests of Baal.

Whether liberation is indeed the “big story” of the Bible is one arguable point – I would hope it’s part of it, but I suspect there’s considerably more to that in scripture, including much that does not fit with such a view. (What about, I Peter 2:18, “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.” Liberation?)

But leave my notions aside. In our last issue (QT #12), there was another major essay, by Keith Helmuth, which likewise attempted to nail down the “master narrative” emerging from the Bible, citing his own favored theologians.

Helmuth’s piece (analyzed in more detail elsewhere in the current issue), found at the heart of these texts, not liberation, but rather a catastrophic drive to impose personal will (interpreted as God’s will) on the earth and humanity, regardless of the cost to both. More striking still, Helmuth’s key piece of textual evidence for his melancholy thesis was this very same passage from First Kings, where Elijah faces the prophets of Baal – and slaughters them all.

Well, this difference could be no more than “he said”/ “he said.” But I must say, for Wilson to lean thus heavily on a story which has a massacre as its denouement is very troubling to me as a Quaker student of the Bible, and naming it part of the template for the “classical Quaker tradition” simply does not wash. One might have thought that dependence on such blood-soaked tales would have been part of the “rough edges” rubbed off it by now. In short, there is much more to be said and wrestled with about the Bible than we are presented with here.

Then there is peace witness: Wilson devoted many hours to peace work in Norfolk, Virginia, creating a short-lived project there to provide Conscientious Objector counseling to soldiers and sailors with doubts about the rightness of their involvement with the war machine. He has walked his talk.

Yet as manager of another such Quaker GI counseling project, I must beg to differ with much of the rendition of the peace testimony which he claims as the warrant for that work and Quaker witness generally. For one thing, Wilson’s peace testimony is resolutely individualistic, even privatized: it begins, and largely ends, with individual conversion, and speaks only to other individuals in hopes of assisting their conversion: “By the grace of God,” he declares, “I have been freed from bondage to the lusts and desires which the epistle of James says are at the heart of wars and conflicts . . . lives that embody this new life in the Holy Spirit are the strongest possible peace witness . . . .” (P. 49)

Let me speak carefully here: Wilson is right about the importance of grace and inward change to move individuals away from the spirit of war; I unite with that sentiment.

But it is emphatically not enough. Individual spiritual change is not all there is to peacemaking or overcoming war. The insufficiency here surprises me, because it is sharply at variance with both the Bible, and with one of the teachers Wilson cites frequently, Walter Wink – not to mention hard experience.

What this interpretation leaves out is any awareness or understanding of the role of “principalities and powers” which are Walter Wink’s main theme. These are the supra-individual forces that dominate our society and keep the wheels of the war machine turning ever faster – while sucking up the souls and bodies of hundreds of thousands of otherwise good people into their engines of destruction. As the Bible itself emphasizes, private, one-on-one piety is no match for these powers; indeed, by itself such isolated witness radically misses the necessity of even being aware of them, never mind finding an adequate response.

At one point, Wilson makes a brief bow toward Wink’s view (p. 90), but does not flesh it out, and gives no guidance as to what that might mean. The focus of these pages remains overwhelmingly individualized and privatized, capped by superficial put-downs of “anti-war” work, as turning its practitioners into “what they fight against.” (p. 50, 187)

These comments require closer attention. It would be one thing if what was meant here is simply, “different strokes for different folks,” (or as Scripture says, “a diversity of gifts”). Not everyone is called to the barricades, or to the board rooms. And it would be another thing if the message were that there are moral hazards in activism, as in any other sphere of activity.

But the clear implication here is otherwise, and more sweeping. It is that speaking and acting assertively against, say, torture will turn us into torturers.

To which a restrained response would be: Baloney! Such a grossly exaggerated asymmetry would be insulting if one took it seriously. There might be a nugget of useful advice somewhere here, but such platitudes are pernicious and deserve to be called out. Did fifty years of anti-slavery activism make Lucretia Mott a slaveholder? Give me a break.

This is not the place to lay out an alternative biblical/Quaker peace witness scenario in detail; suffice to say that I have made several efforts in this direction elsewhere. (Cf. my A Quaker Declaration of War.) But one other point does need to be explored: Wilson’s text includes a detailed analysis of the 1660 letter from George Fox and others to King Charles II, which is cited by many as a “classic” statement of the Quaker peace testimony. (pp. 92-103)

But something is missing from his exposition: it fails to note the Declaration’s passages which include explicit legitimization of warmaking by “the authorities,” in this case the king. (P. 95, 97) These introduce a major element of ambiguity into a declaration which is presented, by Wilson as by many others, as unambiguously pacifist.

Not so. The ambivalence in the 1660 Letter was not simply theoretical, but runs through early Quaker history like a red thread. Wilson’s contention that “classic Quakerism” as expressed in the 1660 Letter was unambiguously opposed to participation in warmaking is just plain false. I have elucidated these ambiguities in the record elsewhere, as have scholars like Meredith Baldwin Weddle. (Cf. her excellent Walking In the Way of Peace, Oxford 2001.)

Finally for now, as to Quaker polity. Wilson makes much of the communal nature of “classic Quakerism,” both as a central aspect of its spirituality, and as an antidote for what he sees as the excessive individualism in our culture.

Again, I could agree in part; but here too, the lack of historical context undercuts the value of his commentary. In Quaker history, the patterns of communal oversight and group discernment have not only been a guide; they were also found by many Friends, over many years, to have become a burden and a form of hierarchical, top-down oppression, both social and religious. (Cf. “Lucretia Mott; Liberal Quaker Theologian,” in Quaker Theology #10.)

Much of the sad history of Quaker separations revolves around this fact, that large numbers of Quakers, after many years of patient struggle, rose up to throw off the shackles of what had become to them ecclesiastical tyranny. (Cf. H. Larry Ingle, Quakers In Conflict, U. Of Tennessee 1986.) The outcome, particularly in the liberal stream, has been a very different polity than that of his “classical tradition,” one that is resolutely congregational, with much space for individual initiative and leading.

This history is not widely known among the liberal Friends who embrace its outcome, but it has been laid out clearly enough by the scholars in the field, so there is no reason to think that Wilson is unaware of it. Yet nowhere in his book could I find any forthright discussion of this evolution-by-struggle, or of what can be learned from it, or how his “classic” recipe proposes to avoid repeating these abuses.

In my view this lack of context is a serious shortcoming. In its place, what we get are numerous barely-concealed jabs at liberal Quakerism, via frequent rebukes of unbridled individualism, fulsome praise of the glories of communal discernment and oversight, plus scornful dismissals of “salad bar” spiritualities, other than his. None of this inspires confidence that wider acceptance of his brand of “tradition” would avoid sowing similar seeds of divisiveness.

Nor is there reassurance in the numerous remarks here, made in passing, trashing much of liberal Quakerism, again without any responsible exposition or justification: he summarily dismisses those Friends who do not identify as Christian (p. 15), who engage in antiwar activism (p. 113, 187), explore native spirituality (p. 33), or question the efforts to restore much of the old top-down communal ethos (p. 46).

Wilson is entitled to his views on all these matters. But many of them, if teased out and brought into the light of day, look less “classic” than narrow, ill-informed, tendentious, and writ large, a recipe for trouble.

They cry out to be expressed clearly and debated fully, so interested Friends can make a more seasoned judgment of them and their implications. And the first judgments to be offered here are that the “Classic” label is misapplied, and to suggest that this version of Quakerism still has considerable and important “rough edges” to be smoothed out in order to be of much real service to the wider circle of Friends.

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*Wrestling With Our Faith Tradition: Collected Public Witness, 1995-2004. Lloyd Lee Wilson. Quaker Press of FGC, 231 pages, paperback $18.95.

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