Owning Our Theology
“Quaker theology” is sometimes said to be an oxymoron. But the belief that we have no theology is naïve. At least in our cultural context, to be involved in religion or spirituality is to hold a theology. To insist that one doesn’t is, therefore, to convey an unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own belief system qua belief system. Implicit in that is resistance to examining one’s world-view contextually and critically; ironically, such resistance is reminiscent of the rigid religion we thought we’d left behind. And of course denial does not alter reality.
The reality is that, although we’re not all theologians, we all do theology: each of us, even if not a theist of any sort, has ideas about what the word “God” means. And we each know what we accept and reject with regard to theistic belief. To believe in1 a God — or “Spirit,” “Light,” “Source,” “Ultimate Reality,” “the Absolute,” “the Divine,” “the Infinite,” etc. — is to affirm that a particular set of mental formations accurately represents the nature of reality; not to believe is to doubt or deny that given concepts convey correct information. Those ideas and non/beliefs are our theo-logy, our God-reasoning.
In flight from owning our theology, we may seek refuge in what has been called experientialism, the belief that individuals may obtain meaningful but ineffable Truth directly through nonverbal, or “pure,” experience.2 But “Truth,” too, is a mental formation, and a capitalized, sacralized one at that: it is already an interpretive concept. Even if “pure experience” exists, it cannot remain pure, devoid of interpretation, if it is to have meaning. Consequently, as a future essay will argue in detail, the notion of religious/spiritual experience that is wholly beyond language appears to be absurd.3 Further, a doctrine that truth is a matter of purely subjective revelation ignores the influence of culture — of the other – on our psyches and is akin to solipsism if not psychosis. We do better, with respect to honesty and clarity, to confess our “sin of theology”4 and commit to the work of enunciating and struggling with it. To that end, I will offer here a succinct theological foundation statement for present-day Quakerism, a statement that respects the nature and power of the faith of our founders while being informed by contemporary thought.
A Faithful Contemporary Foundation
Primitive Quakerism constituted a radical simplification of Christian religion; it was hyperfocused on the power for/of living righteously. To bring that vision into the 21st century requires no elaboration but, on the contrary, invites further simplification: mythic scriptural elements that carried the message can be (not discarded but) bracketed as we focus on the message’s existential core. Setting aside, too, the more modern, norm-limned self-caricature that produces “the testimony of simplicity” and other focal displacements,5 we find that Quakerism can be, so to speak, simplicity itself. A foundational Quaker theology for today needs but four brief points.
- “God” signifies “love” — in biblical Greek, agape.6
- “Love/agape” signifies behavior, empathetic encounter with and response to the actual other in her actual need.7
- Each of us has, here and now, a degree (“measure”) of the power of agape.
- That agape-power will shape our lives if we allow it to do so — if, that is, we commit ourselves to it, discern how we are impeding it, and get out of its way.
The essential Quaker message is, then, not only simple but also practical: commit yourself to God/love as that which moves you to respond justly and generously to the other, even at cost to you, and then pay attention to that love’s movement in your heart and allow it to guide and empower you; anything else is distraction and therefore anti-religion, anti-spirituality. In keeping with that, the first Friends announced the end of religion-as-we-know-it, emphatically including the end of teachers, techniques, and speculations. Their theology, like the biblical exegesis supporting it, served their belief that God-who-is-love had come to guide his people himself: it was but a sign directing human beings to the motive power of agape within. In our contemporary distillation of their theology, we follow in that spirit.
Faith and Practice
Because Quaker theology points directly to the working of agape in the heart, there should be no question of translating theory into action. As the apostle James reminds us, faith and practice cannot be separated. To be a believer, said George Fox, is to be — actually, not forensically — “passed from death [i.e., sinfulness, or living harmfully] to life [i.e., righteousness, or living justly].” The apostle John (recalling the story of Cain and Abel) says, “And we are aware that we have passed out of death into life because we love our brothers; whoever is not loving their brother is remaining in death.”8 In traditional terms, “believers,” those who put their faith in God-who-is-agape‘s guidance and power, enter into the divine life of love, become “partakers of the divine nature,” as they are made just through that faith: love is their resurrection and their life.9 In contemporary terms, it is through faith, commitment to agape as supreme value and trust in its continuing guidance, that we are saved from the darkness of destructive narcissism. A properly Quaker theology simply points to the possibility and nature of such faith.
Quaker theology is realized in the fidelity of individual Friends to the continuing influence of agape, in the fidelity of the community gathered in that love, and in the responsive work of agape in the world. Always, this faith-and-practice is one. And always, because of that oneness, it is simple, simplicity itself — as are our lives when we embrace it.
NOTES for Quaker Theology in Brief
 “Believe” is polysemous, so the phrase “believe in” has multiple possible meanings. It can indicate that I accept the facticity of something; for example, that I believe in a god in the sense of accepting that the god exists. It can indicate trust, as in, “I know that you’ll come through for me; I believe in you.” It can indicate that I approve of something, as in, “I believe in the separation of church and state.” Tellingly, “believe” can also indicate uncertainty, as in, “I believe that her sister’s name is Mary, but I’ll have to check.” In this post, I am using the phrase “believe in” primarily in the first sense, but I recognize that multiple senses of “believe” may be present in a person’s thinking about God.
 Experientialism has become de facto doctrine in the liberal Quaker milieu, supporting an individualistic religion which meshes well with the contemporary consumerist mindset, at least in the U.S.A. For an example of that approach, see the 2012 draft Faith and Practice of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, pp. 19-21: “Certainly, each of us is encouraged to follow our individual spiritual path. [...] Your Truth informs my own, and I am not constrained to accept your Truth as my own, but I am encouraged to listen to your testimony, to discern the value of your approach and how it affects my own path.” (The capitalization is in the original.) Not surprisingly, the book offers an impoverished understanding of Quaker community and worship as a “safe … environment” for “individualistic search,” for speaking about our own experiences, and for patiently listening to others speak about theirs in hopes of getting something for ourselves (see p. 24) — a safe environment, in other words, for narcissistic self-indulgence and grasping under the guise of spirituality.
 Fuller discussion of ideas such as “pure experience” must await future essays. For now, I simply note that to feel that an experience is religious, spiritual, or mystical involves ascribing that quality or meaning to it. Such ascription, even if done subconsciously, is interpretation, shaped by culture and language. (Acknowledging those facts, by the way, we can stand aside from the seemingly endless debate over whether “pure experience” is even possible.) For an excellent introduction to critical thinking about, and application of attribution/ascription theory to, the idea of religious experience, see Religious Experience Reconsidered by Ann Taves.
 That felicitous phrase was recently used by a Friend when quitting, apparently in frustration at the group’s negativity, an online Quaker theology discussion group.
 When Quakerism is defined, as it sometimes is by liberal Friends, in terms of shared practices and values, then it has devolved — exaltation of subjective experience notwithstanding — into a religion of externals and of law. Becoming thereby the very opposite of what it was while pretending to be the same, it now qualifies for the epithet “Anti-Quakerism.”
 See the letters of John; e.g., 1 Jn. 4:8b: ho theos agape estin. On love as the nature of God, see Isaac Penington’s “Concerning Love.” That doctrine is taught as well by traditional Christian writers such as Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in his On the Trinity that “Love … is of God and is God….”
 That divine love means beneficial action for the other, even the enemy, is amply documented in the Christian scriptures; see, for example, Matthew 5:38-48. Note that this is where traditional Quakerism — unlike the cult of the individual and his personal “Truth” — may break free of solipsism and linguistic regression as well: agape is not simply an inner feeling or a linguistic signified which becomes yet another signifier in a circle; it is empathetic action in the world, arising responsively in interpersonal encounter.
 On faith and works, see James 2. On what makes a “true believer,” see the Journal of George Fox, page 6 in the Penney edition. The quotation from John is 1 Jn. 3:14.
 “Partakers of the divine nature” is from 2 Peter 1:4. In the Quaker version of salvation by faith, when we trust in the Light, the guiding and empowering work of the spirit of Christ in the heart, we are incorporated into Christ here and now, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21), for “now the justice/righteousness of God apart from the law has been made to appear … through Jesus Christ’s faith into all and upon all the ones believing, for there is no distinction” (Romans 3:21-22). My final reference in the paragraph is to John 11:25, in which Christ the divine Logos, the visible form of God-who-is-love into whom believers are incorporated, says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he were dead, shall live….”