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]