Almost a month ago, I quoted F. S. C. Northrop in a post on modern liberal Quakerism.” (I use “modern” to refer to the Enlightenment-influenced worldview that was undermined by the events of the twentieth century.) Northrop wrote that “the truly important thing” for the modern person is either material “substances” 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.(1)
I went on to point out that the subjectivism (“truth = what’s true for me”) of contemporary liberal Quakerism remains tethered to the modernist paradigm. But I didn’t explain why I thought so. I want to write a little about that now.
We liberal Quakers talk about “that of God,” Spirit, and Light as if we agree on the meanings of those terms. If asked to define them, however, those of us who can answer at all tend to take refuge in fuzzy God- (or non-God-) talk: “the divine,” “the Spirit of God,” “a spark of the divine in each of us.” If asked to define our defining terms (i.e., “God,” “the divine”), we get even fuzzier, and our subjectivism becomes apparent: a typical response begins with, “For me, ….” We began speaking about something we hold in common — belief in Spirit, the Light, that of God — but within seconds we’re talking about individual notions, because what we hold in common has very little content.
What has happened to us?
We’ve forgotten narrative. We’ve forgotten that a society, especially a religious society, is a community of a narrative. And we’ve forgotten that, as Jacques Derrida said, there “there is nothing outside context.”(2)
In their proper context, Spirit, Light, and that of God are characters in a narrative. Within the narrative they have well-defined characteristics and roles. They have life. And they have evocative power. Ripped from that narrative, they become vague metaphysical notions that stir no one: Northrop’s “blank, purely spiritual, intrinsically unemotional, introspectively given mental substance.” On that blank canvas, each of us paints a more or less impressionistic picture of what they mean for me — a process that may take care of “me” but does not “answer that of God” in the other to whom we speak.
But that modern, individualistic avoidance of “indebtedness to the other”(3) seems to be what many of us want, although we may resemble a certain egghead.
Alice: I don’t know what you mean by ‘that of God in every one.’
Quaker: Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant ‘people are basically good.
Alice: But ‘that of God in every one’ doesn’t mean ‘people are basically good.
Quaker: When I use a phrase, it means just what I choose it to mean — for me. You may choose to use it in some other way.
Characters in a narrative, indeed.
(1) F. S. C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West. New York, Macmillan, 1964. Page 92.
(2) Quoted in James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2006. Page 52.
(3) From Frans van Peperstraten, “Displacement or composition? Lyotard and Nancy on the trait d’union between Judaism and Christianity.” Int J Philos Relig (2009) 65:29–46. Available here under Open Access. Describing Lyotard’s views, van Peperstraten says, “Modernity, … according to Lyotard, no longer requires any dispossession [of self]. Christianity means that man becomes ‘taken into possession by’ … an alterity, whereas modernity holds that one can be freed from all indebtedness to the other ….”
[For related posts, see the “Liberal Quakerism” category.]