Liberal Quakerism increasingly identifies itself with a small subset of Quaker vocabulary and practices, all loosely defined if at all. The Quaker metanarrative context which gave our vocabulary and practice meaning is ignored or intentionally rejected rather than faithfully developed, as if our selected slogans (“spirit,” “light,” “continuing revelation,” etc.) and practices (silent “worship,” consensus decision-making, etc.) could have meaning in themselves, outside of any contextual framework. But in reality they can’t exist in autonomous isolation; nothing can. In reality, when removed from their matrix they are assimilated into a dominant cultural metanarrative.
For, as minds like Derrida — and vital religious traditions as well — remind us, context is everything. Words out of context would become meaningless, so when ripped from their web they quietly take on new, unexamined meanings. Practices out of context would become empty forms, so they tend to do the same. But we liberal Quakers turn a blind eye to that inevitable process. Consequently, we no longer know what we’re talking about or why we do what we do, and we no longer acknowledge or even see that darkness in our psyches which uses our willful ignorance (and misappropriation of phrases like “that of God”) as cover. And we’re fiercely proud and protective of that ignorance, which we have substituted for the faith in “faith and practice.” As a result, we are increasingly spiritually vitiated, morally compromised, intellectually impoverished, and outreach-impaired. We are a plant without roots, withering in the success of our determination to do without them.
Our root-text, the explicit Quaker religious worldview in which our practices had their identity and function, has effectively been cut off, but selected practices are continued, justified by a few ambiguous words and phrases pulled from the text, and made central and definitive. We have reached the low-water mark of defining ourselves not as people who share a beautiful and powerful metanarrative, a religious worldview finding expression in spiritually transformative disciplines and practices, but as people who perform together certain practices that have no real grounding in anything other than personal preference and liberal values. Consequently, the practices no longer function as disciplines of critical self-knowledge and self-transcendence; on the contrary, we use them as vehicles of self, for reinforcement, celebration, and expression of naively self-centered modernistic individuality. Liberal Quakerism, instead of functioning as a critically questioning corrective for self and society, has become an agent of the modern liberal identity and culture. We who refuse the name “church” have become in practice a tiny, ultra-liberal church, an organization based on forms and insupportable doctrines that furthers the aims of a powerful segment of society.
True, we differ somewhat in that we emphasize practices, keeping our doctrines to a minimum. But in doing so, we simply sever our practices from their intellectual foundations and make them available as vessels for the modernist liberal paradigm. Defecting from our beginnings as a people who rejected forms — which, again, are never really empty — we have become the community of forms par excellence. Abandoning the deeply transforming existential and spiritual, context-derived meaning that once gave life to our practices, we continue in the forms for comfort, companionship, and a feeling of being “spiritual.” Meanwhile, we continue also to despoil the planet, hoard resources, and enjoy all the benefits, including protection by a huge and aggressive military establishment, of the oppressor class to which we pretend not to belong — even as we affirm our “testimonies” of simplicity and peacefulness. We simply make ourselves feel better, and better than others, by spiritual pretense. But outside of our Quaker mini-culture, our pretense is increasingly transparent, and our testimonies are increasingly, and justifiably, seen as hypocrisy.
We assert, for example, that we want the military disbanded, as if we’re really desirous of living with no protection against the appalling violence and poverty in which much of the world lives now while we sip lattes behind the lines.* We project our guilt onto the powerful bodies, such as corporations and governments, our true selves writ large, that satisfy our cravings for security, comfort, pleasure, and power, and then we come together on Sundays to feel good about ourselves for our pretense of spirit-led protest — although we can’t say what “spirit” means, in part because we reject any “limiting” definitions. We are now moving into the position which apostate Christianity occupied for the first Quakers: we have the forms and (some of) the words, including the word “spirit,” but we do not actually know the spirit — or the spirit we know is not the spirit that created and animated the Quaker movement. We, along with some other Friends from whom we imagine we differ greatly, are becoming the present-day Antichrist, the Antiquaker.
Although Friends originally were united in a common metanarrative, and while other subsets of Quakerism continue to be so, ultimately we are held together not even by our common use of words and practices, which mean different things if anything to different liberal Friends, but by the reactive belief that to come together in such a manner, unmoored from a Quaker metanarrative that would question, challenge, and change first self and then society, is a salutary, even ideal, thing to do. Ignorant of the irony, we insist that the word “Quaker” stand for this vacuous, status-quo-perpetuating middle- and upper-class inversion of what was once a revolutionary faith and practice. And yet, although we reject the claims of historic Quakerism when they challenge our prejudices or lifestyles, we do not hesitate to appeal to any elements, apostate or not, of Quaker history that we might use as justification of what we are and do.
And that is today’s report, from one liberal Friend, on the dark side of liberal Quakerism.
At best, what I have described is only a transitional condition, a correctable misstep in our journey through the modern to the postmodern world. At worst, it is evidence of the impending death of liberal Quakerism as a Quaker movement — a death that some liberal Friends actively seek. Although hope is sometimes battered by sounds of victory celebrations coming from within as well as without our community, I continue to hope that it is the former. And I am encouraged by the hunger for a deeper and deeply-transforming spiritual life, and the desire to raise the treasure of our torpedoed tradition, that many liberal Friends and worship-attenders continue to express. The light, though beaten down and covered over, still shines in the darkness.
*Driving to meeting one day around twenty years ago, I heard a news report about debate in Japan’s Parliament on Japan’s constitutional prohibition of a military establishment. (Japan has a self-defense force but lacks a military establishment and has constitutionally rejected war and war potential.) One member argued that Japan was not truly pacifist but simply a hypocritical freeloader that relies on others, such as the United States, to do the military dirty work that keeps it secure. “What are we,” he asked, “a bunch of nouveaux-riches Quakers?”
[For related posts, see the “Liberal Quakerism” category.]