An Alien in a Liberal-Liberal Land?

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.

14 thoughts on “An Alien in a Liberal-Liberal Land?

  1. I’ve talked with other people who describe themselves as postmodern and they often say things like “”Truth’ is a matter of more or less idiosyncratic personal experience” and I am baffled at why anyone would say that and never seem to be able to get an explanation. If all you mean is that the evidence we have for whether or not something is true is ultimately a matter of experience, then that’s just a restatement of good old-fashioned empiricism. Anyway, I’m baffled. What do you mean?

  2. I may have misled you by presupposing the context of the July 10 post. (I’m learning the process here.) I’m not arguing for that definition of “Truth,” which I think of as modern (thus the empirical aspect) rather than postmodern; I was describing what I hear and read from “liberal-Liberal” Friends, the group among which I sit uneasily. The notion of a capital-T “Truth” doesn’t make sense to me. When primitive Quakers said “truth,” they often were referring to an internal power and condition that corresponded to what their reading of scripture offered as the most spiritually important element in human life, and that — with the caveat that that reading of scripture as a whole is as arbitrary as another — may be as far as I’m able to go.

  3. So you meant that liberal Quakers are the ones who are dubious of the concept of truth and want to substitute some kind of relativized notion in its place (“true for me”)? Am I now understanding you?

    I think that the notion of truth that early Friends had was simple correspondance. “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only if that is where the cat really is. I think that this is the ordinary concept of truth that the vast majority of people then and now have. Early Friends, and some modern Friends as well, also sometimes speak of Truth (with a capital “T”) to refer to God as a source of truth. This isn’t a separate concept of truth but rather just another name for God–not really any new concept at all. Anyway that’s how it seems to be.

    The internal power and condition that early Friends (and many modern Friends) refer to is believed to be identical to God (“Truth”). It’s not identical to “truth.” That power is a source of truth not truth itself. (Just to be clear, I’m speaking for myself here.)

  4. It seems to me that, in the religious sphere, “truth” equals “true for me” for “liberal-Liberal Quakerism.” I’ve been watching that doctrine become dominant since I began associating with liberal Friends in 1975. So you and I seem to be close to mutual understanding there.

    I don’t think I can agree, though, that the first Friends had only a simple correspondence theory of truth. I think that primitive Quakerism is what we might call a language game, and that the word “truth,” like other words in that language game, has a peculiar meaning derived from the peculiar Quaker scriptural hermeneutic. In his epistles, Fox frequently refers to John 4:23-24 about worship “in spirit and in truth.” See, for example, — one of many places where, at least as I read him, he uses the term “truth” in close connection with “the power of God.”

    I haven’t found that Fox makes a difference between capital-T “Truth” and “truth,” but please direct me to the text if you know of specific places. Still simplifying greatly, my take on “truth” for Fox is that its primary meaning is likely to be “the power of God,” because, in primitive Quaker thought, living in (“knowing”) that power is how human beings experience (“know”) God directly.

    That’s not to say that the word had no other meanings for the Friends, or that it was not also used to indicate correspondence. But in Quaker religious discourse, I think it usually had a peculiar meaning into which the phrase “the power of God” gives us a good insight.

  5. Most 17th century writers weren’t highly consistent in matters of spelling and modern editors usually feel free to change spelling, grammar and capitalisations freely, so there’s probably not much to be found by trying to carefully track whether truth is capitalized or not. This is a minor point anyway.

    I looked at your passage and agree that truth is used “in close connection” with “the power of God.” but I don’t see that the connection is identity. It seems more likely to me that Fox and others thought that God was a source of true beliefs (Christ has come to teach his people) and that he was also powerful enough to change people. The use of truth in Fox seems to me mostly to be the ordinary sense but that at times it is somewhat obscured by the rhetorical embellishments he uses. After all these people wrote voluminously in a context of intense religious debate.

    My own sense is that a “true for me” relativized concept of truth is not really the norm among liberal Quakers but that it does creep in here and there among the more fuzzy-headed. Thinking that the evidence one has for any belief are ultimately dependent on personal experience is not the same as thinking that truth itself is a matter of personal experience. Empiricism isn’t fuzzy-headed; relativism is.

    Of course you have more experience with liberal Friends and I need to acknowledge that. I’m just judging from the evidence I’ve got.

  6. Well, I would say that the crucial question is what Christ teaches. I’m being playfully serious here, or seriously playful, in pointing out that there’s a truth in the very words of the phrase “Christ has come to teach his people himself”: himself is precisely what he teaches. And he teaches not by imparting knowledge about himself, which even demons can get from scriptures, but by imparting his own life. Friends lived in the new covenant, in which everyone knows God in her heart where the law is “written” — God and law being nothing other, in human experience, than the power of love. I suggest that the teaching and the changing are one.

    Again, to understand Fox we need to step into his hermeneutic — i.e., to read scripture in the same spirit in which he read it — and recognize his peculiar use of words. When one reads the remnants of debates between primitive Quakers and non-Quakers, one sees that the debaters often talk past each other because Fox and other Friends use the standard vocabulary to convey (or not? — see Matt. 13:10-16) nonstandard meanings — and never explicitly say that they’re doing so, because of course they believe that their way of using those words has been revealed to them as the correct way scripture is to be read, and that those who are in the Spirit will understand.

  7. Thanks for the post and perspective. I’m not a post-modernist; I find the vocabulary and approach consistently gives me a headache. But putting that aside, I don’t find the combination of a loose, or ill-defined, set of beliefs along with a fairly strict form of practice to be paradoxical. Let me offer some parallels. If two people are gardeners they may have different, even contradictory, views about the meaning of gardening. X might consider gardening a form of nature worship, while Y might consider it a form of prayer to the Creator. If they actually have discussions about the meaning of gardening they might strongly disagree. But they share a commitment to watering, pruning, fertilizing, etc. There are many examples like this. Think of the martial arts as another example.

    Moving to the religious sphere, not every religion requires doctrinal agreement. Shinto is a good example of a religion that simply ignores that aspect of religion, yet remains a powerful influence in its culture as a set of practices.

    I bring this up because I share with you a commitment to the textual focus of the Quaker tradition; I read and contemplate the Bible daily. But where I think we might diverge is that I wouldn’t say that those who do not do so are in some way transgressing Quaker practice.

    Best wishes,


  8. Thanks for your comments, Jim. I hope I haven’t given you a headache. 😉

    I don’t think I wanted to say that liberal Quakerism is, as you put it, “transgressing Quaker practice” — which is an interesting phrase in context of the discussion, giving primacy as it does to behavior and so perhaps falling into the “liberal-Liberal” paradigm. In any case, Quaker beliefs and practices are undeniably diverse, and I don’t know of a standard by which such a judgment could be made. We’re all Friends here; online discussion over many years has helped teach me that. But there are Friends like me who don’t fit well in any of the major contemporary Quaker paradigms, and it seems that often we are Friends who take our inspiration from the early texts.

    It seems to me that religious interpretations of gardening or martial arts (although legend credits Bodhidharma with creation of Shaolin Monastery’s kungfu) are added on, not intrinsic, to the activity itself: gardening, for example, needs no such interpretation to be gardening. A text like Fox’s Journal, however, tells us that Quakerism began not as a practical activity like gardening or fighting but as a metanarrative, a specific, text-based, text-suffused, teleological way of thinking and feeling. Thus its “theory” was prior, not subsequent, to the practices, which grew from the theory. Before Quakers could decide to worship in silence, for example, they needed the belief that they must fulfill the scriptural requirement to “worship in spirit and in truth,” they needed their peculiar understanding of the term “truth” (see comments above), and they needed the history of failed forms of worship as well as of silent worship by groups that preceded and surrounded them. The form of Quaker worship came from and made sense within the primitive Quaker biblical metanarrative. Ask us liberal Quakers today for a theory of Quaker worship, or even for a consistent account of what happens or what we do during worship, and you’re likely to receive a wide variety of answers, some not very coherent and few that would meet the original definition of worship. Something crucial has been lost.

    Again, I’m not saying that we have violated a sacrosanct practice or principle and therefore should not be called Quakers. I would regret giving that impression. We’re in this together, even if we have different views about what “this” is. As a member of this community, I perceive that what we have lost is nothing less than the most precious treasure that the primitive tradition offered; namely, the self- and world-transforming “life and power” that the original metanarrative harbored. One reason I feel that loss so keenly is because “the life and power” is the principal thing I need in my religious faith and practice: like the first Friends, I see little point in a religion of forms (even if I do enjoy a good “cosmic ballet,” as Thomas Merton called the Tridentine Mass, now and then). So what I want to do is not so much to complain about our situation as to help change it, to help make the heart of the original Quaker experience more widely understood and accessible.

  9. Thank you for this post- quite interesting. Could you please provide very brief definitions for both “liberals” in your description of liberal-Liberal Friends so that I am reading this in the appropriate context?

  10. Hystery, the term is from Dandelion’s book, very few pages of which are available on line, so this attempt is subject to revision after I receive the book next week. Very briefly, my interpretation is that “Liberal Quakerism” was a form of liberal Christianity, whereas “liberal-Liberal Quakerism” is not. This is from The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion by Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins: “[B]y 1900, Quakerism had been re-visioned by its younger adherents as part of liberal Christianity. It was also redesigned as again distinctively Quaker: Experience was primary. Liberal Friends did not want to return to the earlier days and they envisioned a Quakerism relevant to the age, open to new ideas, and one which held to the idea of progressive revelation, that God necessarily revealed more over time.” So liberal Quakerism continued to operate within some form of the Christian metanarrative. I think that Dandelion uses the term “liberal-Liberal Quakerism” to refer to what developed from that: “For liberal-Liberal Quakerism,” he writes on p. 134 of An Introduction to Quakerism, “theology has become a story…, God an option.” Further, “Liberal-Liberal Quakerism is one in which belief is pluralised, privatised, but also marginalised: it is not seen as important.”

  11. Dear George:

    Thank you for your response. One aspect that I have found helpful is becoming more aware of the social context in which the Quaker tradition emerged. As people are aware, England in the 1600’s was a tumultuous society with a lot of creative religious experiments and investigation. But there is another side to this. All of this investigation took place within a single spiritual narrative: that of Christianity. English society had no counter-narrative to the Christian tradition. There wasn’t even a Jewish community in England at that time (unlike, for example, Paris or Vienna). So even though there is much original and creative thought occuring, it all takes place within a context that never faces a basic critique.

    The situation today is different. Where I live there are Buddhist Temples, Yoga Centers, Hindu groups, neo-pagans, New Agers, etc. This kind of plurality of spiritualities is not something that the original Quakers had to face; their assumption is that of Christianity and that’s an assumption they shared with everyone, including their opponents. It seems to me that one of the great strengths of Liberal Quakerism is that it has the tools to deal with this plurality of spiritualities, that is to say Liberal Quakerism knows how to speak to a variety of spiritual traditions in terms that those traditions find accessible. I’m not convinced that the resources of the original Quakers offer that.

    My background is, I think, typical. Raised in a secular family, attracted for many years to Buddhism, I found the Liberal Quaker tradition highly attractive and accessible. I suspect this is true for many who come from a non-Christian background.

    Thanks again,


  12. Good point, Jim. Of course, Fox was aware of the Jewish tradition and knew its canonical scriptures very well. He was also aware of Islam, although I don’t suppose that he had much accurate information about it. In addition, there was quite a diversity of spiritualities available under the “Christian” umbrella, ranging from the many forms in England to European ideas from people like Jacob Boehme (Behmen, to early Friends), who died in the year Fox was born. (I believe that Rufus Jones has traced the influence of continental mysticism.) “Christianity” comprised many incompatible and competing systems. Further, Fox records in his journal that he once experienced a “temptation” to accept atheistic materialism, entertaining the possibility that “there was no God, but that all things come by nature” (Journal, p. 83 in the 1831 Works). So there were options, but they were not nearly as many or as accessible as those we have today.

  13. “Christ has come to teach his people himself”: himself is precisely what he teaches. And he teaches not by imparting knowledge about himself, which even demons can get from scriptures, but by imparting his own life. Friends lived in the new covenant, in which everyone knows God in her heart where the law is “written” — God and law being nothing other, in human experience, than the power of love. I suggest that the teaching and the changing are one.

    I love what you wrote above. Thank you for it. Unless I am reading you wrong, this idea that the Teacher and the Power, Truth, etc…of said Teacher cannot be separated…ie the Teacher is the complete embodiment of Love and therefore when He (I use this term as a “Christ-centered” believer) resides in us, the “teaching” is the transformative power of that embodiment, working and changing us from within. This is a gorgeous picture, and a way to think of it.
    In Kabbalah (which predates the Old Testament, but wholly influences it)…the idea of duality is spoken of as something that we have to overcome in this world to become more spiritual (closer to the divine, theosis, whatever particular “change” term we would like to use and is found in all traditions). When I think of this idea of the teaching and the changing (or the Teacher embodied in our Inner Lives and the change it produces in us), it makes me think that this is part of the process of overcoming duality, and instead unifying One. Our spirits, bodies and communities all being “changed” and unified because the Great Inner Teacher has taken up residence in us in Power and Love.
    Even when we seem divided in the details, maybe going to the Teacher in sincerity and openness will remove our blinders to see unity where otherwise we thought there was none.
    Maybe unrelated to your original post, but this is what that one comment you wrote made me think about.

  14. Thanks for your comment, weedragon. I like your elucidation: it’s helpful to me, and it’s beautifully expressed. As a Facebook discussion (!) made me realize recently, I’m not sure how to interpret the word “duality” when I see it in religious contexts. I’m thinking that I should read it as something like “divisiveness” in your comment: is that close?

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