Friday, January 10, 2014

A Profile of the Quakers

From the December 2010 E-Block.


A reader requested some time ago that we do a profile of the Quakers (or, Society of Friends). Because this is a simple profile, I considered it sufficient to secure a single resource by a Quaker publisher that was clearly intended to serve as an introduction to Quaker beliefs: Wilmer Cooper’s A Living Faith. Cooper is an excellent introductory resource for understanding Quakerism and I recommend it for anyone wanting further information. For the present, we now offer a basic summary and critique.

The reader may have been interested to know whether Quakerism is within the pale of orthodoxy. The answer is that it is. They may also have wished to know if the Quakers harbored any problematic notions. The answer is that they do – but nothing that one will not find elsewhere within the pale of orthodoxy. In fact, we will see that objections could be made to certain Quaker beliefs that are no different than might be made to beliefs held by certain charismatic figures, or to certain members of the house church movement. There is nothing radical to report about Quakerism, to that extent.

There is also a particular caveat to be made. As Cooper indicates, Quakers have not been conscientious about formulating their beliefs into creedal statements. There are also varying branches of Quakerism with differing emphases; there are (naturally) liberal and conservative branches as well. Thus the caveat would be familiar: To not apply what is reported here to each and every Quaker one meets. Actually, given their lack of creedalism, the caveat is more applicable than it might be in other cases.

The Epistemic Train Wreck, Again

The first issue we will discuss is the largest one, and one that affects other Quaker beliefs as well. It is not something new to readers, but something that we have discussed with relation to many others, ranging from Joyce Meyer to Mormons to John Bevere: Quakers, as Cooper puts it, “emphasize the primacy of our faith as inwardly experienced” [xii] and, “beliefs testify to our inner experience of the Spirit working in our lives.”[xv-xvi] Early Quakers who lived in the “Age of Reason” and “believed in the following of the Spirit were prone to distrust this new mode of rational self-sufficiency.” [4] As a result, rational arguments for God’s existence are considered unable to prove God exists; instead, “God must be experienced spiritually within” [34] and only this offers suitable verification of God’s existence.

In Quaker worship, a practice of “silent waiting” may be followed in which the believer waits on God to provide inspiration. This experience can be variously labeled, but Cooper indicates that “The Light of Christ Within” is a principle title. [16] It is said to offer a “dynamic personal connection” [19] between God and the believer. Silence was used more frequently in earlier Quaker history (Cooper notes periods of silence 1-2 hours long [97]) but more recently variety in expression and worship has become more the norm.

We have already noted with reference to others (Meyer, Bevere, Mormons, etc) the epistemic shortfalls of such a system, and need not repeat them in detail. In summary, though, we have here a system in which there is simply no objective means to discern the voice of God from the voice of imagination. Like Meyer, Cooper does allude to the Bible as a possible guide, but as we have noted, this merely eliminates some possible messages as being from God and will not serve sufficiently as a thorough spiritual gatekeeping device. In some cases, however, the Bible is relegated to a secondary authority behind the Light Within [27-9]: As Cooper puts it, “the Holy Spirit must be invoked as their true interpreter” [27]. But what happens when, as happens with Mormonism, the objective data rules out the reputed “true” interpretation the Spirit allegedly provides? Inevitably, some rationale is invented such as “this is a new application of the text the Spirit gave me” which is designed to avoid admitting the less comfortable option that the Spirit didn’t inspire the interpretation in the first place.

Cooper even acknowledges this shortfall, and notes that some Quakers have fallen into what is called “ranterism” [26] – an undisciplined individualism, apparently including, delivering uninspired messages thought to be inspired. Speaking also of the governing of certain Quaker meetings, it is said, “It was claimed that such meetings for worship were held under the direction of the Holy Spirit, although one may suspect that sometimes enthusiastic Quaker preachers abused this practice.” [9-10]

Unfortunately, aside from admitting the possibility of fraud, Cooper at least seems no more concerned with the problem of discernment here than anyone else has been. This may not be as much of a problem for Quakers as it is for say a Meyer, since the tone of Quakerism indicates that even messages wrongly ascribed to divinity will not be as likely to contain anything radical or unspiritual (eg, “God wants me to buy a new Lexus”). Nevertheless, the nature of the issue is such that Quakers should be concerned, and certainly more concerned than Cooper’s mild caveats indicate. Nor is any better rational support provided for the notion (though we would no doubt be told – circularly – that it confirms itself); appeal is made to John 1:9 as a primary supporting text [16] (“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”) but this is extremely non-specific in terms of the nature and extent of the enlightenment, and must be strained to support the Quaker practice. It is good that Cooper encourages “[r]esponsible discernment of the Spirit” [26], even declaring it “imperative,” but he falls short in explaining how that discernment is to be enacted.

Again, a caveat should be noted that individual Quakers may differ widely in how they rate the relative importance of this “Light Within” to other sources of verification. But it may be said that the more dependence is placed on the Light Within, the more troubling the epistemology becomes.

In Other Respects

This critique has only covered potential difficulties. There are many places where Cooper’s indications show Quakers to be perfectly orthodox, though perhaps imprecise or sloppy in expression. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, has in the past been expressed in such a way that Quakers supposed that the doctrine “was extra-biblical and would violate the unity of the Godhead.” [48] But Cooper’s explanation of the Trinity is more or less the same as would be held by any informed Trinitarian. Doctrines of salvation are well within orthodox parameters, and Cooper even explains it in terms of the Semitic Totality concept (though not using those exact words [244] ). The doctrine of perfection – the possibility of being fully obedient to the commands of Christ in this life [83-4] – may cause some discomfiture, but can be seen as no more than an expression of Jesus’ statement to be perfect as God the Father is perfect.

There is some discussion with respect to whether the Light Within is able to provide saving grace to all men [64-5] and to what extent exposure to the precise message of the Gospel is necessary. In this the Quakers simply reflect a broader discussion going on in other Christian circles, and are not unique.

An interesting point is that an early Quaker, William Penn, and others, claimed that Quakerism was a revival of primitive New Testament Christianity. One Quaker, George Fox, even went so far as to say that Christianity had been apostate since the time of Constantine. [90] Cooper does not relate any more specifics on this, but as we have noted, this is a frequent charge that has been made by parties both orthodox (house churches) and not (JWs, Mormons) – and more often than not, it is frequently overstated, and what is “restored” inevitably resembles not so much the early church as it does a Western interpretation of it. Quakerism has not escaped this difficulty, as their emphasis on individualism and on the Light Within reflect modern thinking much more than it would ancient collectivist/stratified social concerns.

The emphasis on the individual has also caused a bit of a seesaw effect in terms of how Quakers enact church discipline and/or expression, causing debate between “those who advocated complete freedom of the Spirit and those who felt the need for order and discipline.” [104] Such a dialectic is hardly a unique Quaker phenomenon, of course; it can be found in just about any body of any sort where rules are part of the picture.

One practice that might make Southern Baptists quake is the rejection of the practice of water baptism under the rationale that it has been replaced by baptism in the Holy Spirit. [116] The rationales for rejecting the texts on this subject are very poor: For example, Matthew 28:19 is essentially dismissed as an interpolation or else explained away as maybe being baptism in the Spirit, along with other verses that refer to baptism. There may be a better case available from some Quaker apologist, but Cooper’s case is insufficient for rejection of the practice.

The other major issue that might cause some consternation is the well-known Quaker inclination towards pacifism. Here again, Cooper’s case is far from thorough, and merely appeals to a few of the same verses used by other pacifist apologists like Yoder. [136] Again, perhaps some other Quaker expositor can make a better case, but having evaluated Yoder’s work in a prior E-Block article (March, 2010) I have my doubts.

Finally, early Quakers had some disdain for education, especially formal Biblical/religious education, under the premise that the Light Within was a sufficient teacher. [179f] But this attitude was abandoned very early as well, and Quakers now even have their own colleges and universities.

In sum: There's nothing wrong with these nice people...that isn't shared by some others within the pale of orthodoxy. Feel free to stop by and make some Friends.

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