In my July 10 post, I wrote about the individualism and subjectivism that I see at the heart of modern liberal Quakerism. Contemplating those qualities, we might rightly ask: if “Truth” is a matter of more or less idiosyncratic personal experience, then what, if anything, beyond agreement on such vaguely-defined “spiritual” individualism itself, brings us together as Quakers, unites us sufficiently to keep us together over time, and energizes us to maintain our infrastructure and, beyond that, to make our testimonies effective in the world?
As I began to write about that today, I suspected that I was attempting something that someone else had already done in a much more knowledgeable and complete way than I could. And I was right: a brief Google search led me to Pink Dandelion’s An Introduction to Quakerism on Google Books. Despite the missing pages (Google Books does not show all pages of many copyrighted works), I was able to see that Dandelion has done a thorough study and an incisive analysis. I have ordered the book, and I’ll probably want to discuss it further after I begin reading the hard copy. Already, after reading a few pages on line, I have a better understanding of the roots of the tensions between my own spiritual orientation and needs and the self-understanding and behavioral norms of the two Quaker meetings — but especially the historically Hicksite one — that I regularly attend.
From what I’ve read so far of Dandelion’s analysis, I think he would say, in response to the question with which I began this post, that what those he calls “liberal-Liberal” Quakers have is a paradoxical combination of subjectivism, including wide tolerance and even encouragement of difference with regard to belief, coupled with a set of forms and norms — the conduct of meetings for worship and business, perhaps the peace testimony (but not, in contrast to earlier Quakerism, “personal” morality) — from which little deviance is tolerated. Dandelion calls this our “double culture.” It follows from his analysis that “it is the behavioral creed, the way in which Quakers are religious, which acts as the social glue” (pp. 137-138, emphasis added), which holds us together in such community as we enjoy.
And that’s why, despite the nontheism and Buddhist practice that would seem classify me as belonging to that strain, I don’t fit well in the liberal-Liberal Quaker culture. That form of Quakerism, as Dandelion notes (p. 134), is “not tied to any text or tradition,” whereas I am very much committed to the specific textual tradition, albeit read in a postmodern way that tends to alienate Quakers who self-identify as Christians, of the Christian scriptures and the writings of leading primitive Quakers including George Fox, James Nayler, and (the somewhat later) Isaac Penington. As a consequence of that commitment, my religious and spiritual thinking, needs, and experience tend to differ significantly from those of many Friends in the meetings I attend. At times, that mismatch has inspired me to try, through speaking and writing, to open new, or new-old, possibilities in those communities; at other times, it has led me to withdraw, sometimes for long periods, from the fellowship of Friends.