Modern Liberal Quakerism

During the twentieth century, major branches of Quakerism continued to move ever farther from the biblically-based metanarrative that had been the Quaker movement’s foundation. The liberal branch was remarkable for its increasingly thorough rejection of Christian language, and for its casting about for replacements. A sect in search of a story, liberal Quakerism has flirted with a variety of myths, from spiritualism to panentheism, while standing on a minimalist foundation: the doctrine that each person’s sincerely held beliefs, if based on “experience” or “experimental knowledge” (hazily defined, if at all), constitute the ultimate truth for that individual — “what is true for me,” “the truth as I see it.” (See, for example, Baltimore Yearly Meeting’s proposed queries on integrity.) That sort of individualistic, subjectivist ideology is very far from — and lacks the deconstructive and transformative power of — the original, shared Quaker story and experience. And yet it does not quite reach the postmodern consciousness, nor does it attain the “paralogy” of postmodern discourse.

Sixty years ago, F.S.C. Northrop characterized “the modern Anglo-American man” as follows: “The really important thing [for the modern individual] is either the material substances with which the businessman … concerns himself during the … week; or the blank, purely spiritual, intrinsically unemotional, introspectively given mental substance with which … he communes on the Sabbath. … Thus the Quaker, sitting in silence without a professional preacher in his unadorned meetinghouse, most directly, completely, and perfectly exemplifies the religion of [the] modern Cartesian and Lockean man” (The Meeting of East and West, p. 92). In many respects, we haven’t changed since then. Yet we tend to think of ourselves as postmodern, as having rejected metanarratives to rely solely on subjective experience — not seeing that our subjectivism remains tethered to the modern paradigm.

As history pushes us into the postmodern world, we liberal Friends wait warily for way to open. How can we find meaningful unity in faith and practice when we can no longer accept the religious metanarrative that embodied them, and when we find ourselves, intellectually and emotionally, with one foot in the modern age and one in the postmodern?

[Follow-up post: Antiquaker: Further Reflections on the Dark Side of Liberal Quakerism]

One thought on “Modern Liberal Quakerism

  1. Tripped over these two posts on post-modern liberal-Liberal Quakerism and must stop to drop an observation, even 3 1/2 years post original posting. To wit:
    I think some of us Friends are not stuck between modern and post-modern, but between early modern and industrial revolution (the Luddites) or between Acadian ideal and modern. [or vice versa?] But wherever we’re stuck by standing on the minimalist head of a pin that we are in unity about these days, the etiology of the problem is the Nile: De Nial is a great river and as long as we are so blind as those who refuse to see we shall drift sadly down among the ruins.
    . I’m not so willing as you are to worry about meta-narrative and the ability to deconstruct as anchors [wings?] for intellectual or spiritual high-flying, And i think many do experience the Truth (the power in the message even if they do not use the traditional words of the Logos) in the living it out. It is neither the belief nor the action in conformity that save us, it is the experience of the One, which comes to us thru works or thru mystical experience or thru study or thru others’ love and example, which enlightens our way. This is how the Christ comes to teach us her/himself (Christ is no more M or F than God – only Jesus’s name is masculine), just as s/he did in 1650.
    . But the meta-narrative is there: a person born in innocence enters the world in joy and curiosity, the ‘world’ [we no longer use the word but the concept –an alternative from the Manichaeistic pantheon of Satans –is still alive, as the System, the Military, the Transnational GMO Gun-pushing juggernaut destroying The Environment, the TV-Madison Ave, the ignorant or selfish or sell-outs…] twists and confuses them, love is lost, light is hidden; BUT a remnant [viz. “Diaspora, Jewish” and Messianic hopes] found at a Quaker Meeting, supports enlightenment, social responsibility, redemptive action, and thus… happily ever after in a marriage (with the person of the sex of one’s orientation) that somehow has sufficient material riches to drive a dual-powered car and travel the world BEFORE retirement. BTW: their children will outshine the YUPPies’, their music will be the coolest, their clothes will be from Goodwill but artistic, and they will blog for 3 hrs. every day and still have time to feed the homeless, grow carbon reducing garden and all-natural foods, and meditate — at least for 15 minutes still left when they race late into Meeting… smart phone still buzzing to tell them EVERYthing. NB: there is only one metaphysical being mentioned herein, because to suggest a [positive] supreme being might be taken as God and that term is (a) sexist or (b) hierarchical or (c) offensive to someone raised in a fundamentalist cult or (d) too theistic or………. Nor are we in unity about sin/mistakes, redemption, holiness outside of broadview sunsets on pure mountain peaks, life before/after death, prayer, writings of any tradition, political parties, the cross (Golgotha or taking up one’s own), discipleship (altho trying many minor gurus is acceptable), fellowship (and definitely not community if it involves spending time with those X, sharing feelings or spiritual insights or –God forfend! conundrums, or review, discernment, judgement about acceptability, even utility) and absolutely never under any circumstances must anyone ever be permitted to experience discomfort or challenge. That might cause them to question.

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