Quaker Theology in Brief

Owning Our Theology

“Quaker theology” is sometimes said to be an oxymoron. But the belief that we have no theology is naïve. At least in our cultural context, to be involved in religion or spirituality is to hold a theology. To insist that one doesn’t is, therefore, to convey an unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own belief system qua belief system. Implicit in that is resistance to examining one’s world-view contextually and critically; ironically, such resistance is reminiscent of the rigid religion we thought we’d left behind. And of course denial does not alter reality.

The reality is that, although we’re not all theologians, we all do theology: each of us, even if not a theist of any sort, has ideas about what the word “God” means. And we each know what we accept and reject with regard to theistic belief. To believe in1 a God — or “Spirit,” “Light,” “Source,” “Ultimate Reality,” “the Absolute,” “the Divine,” “the Infinite,” etc. — is to affirm that a particular set of mental formations accurately represents the nature of reality; not to believe is to doubt or deny that given concepts convey correct information. Those ideas and non/beliefs are our theo-logy, our God-reasoning.

In flight from owning our theology, we may seek refuge in what has been called experientialism, the belief that individuals may obtain meaningful but ineffable Truth directly through nonverbal, or “pure,” experience.2 But “Truth,” too, is a mental formation, and a capitalized, sacralized one at that: it is already an interpretive concept. Even if “pure experience” exists, it cannot remain pure, devoid of interpretation, if it is to have meaning. Consequently, as a future essay will argue in detail, the notion of religious/spiritual experience that is wholly beyond language appears to be absurd.3 Further, a doctrine that truth is a matter of purely subjective revelation ignores the influence of culture — of the other — on our psyches and is akin to solipsism if not psychosis.4 We do better, with respect to honesty and clarity, to confess our “sin of theology”5 and commit to the work of enunciating and struggling with it. To that end, I will offer here a succinct theological foundation statement for present-day Quakerism, a statement that respects the nature and power of the faith of our founders while being informed by contemporary thought.

A Faithful Contemporary Foundation

Primitive Quakerism constituted a radical simplification of Christian religion; it was hyperfocused on the power for/of living righteously. To bring that vision into the 21st century requires no elaboration but, on the contrary, invites further simplification: mythic scriptural elements that carried the message can be (not discarded but) bracketed as we focus on the message’s existential core. Setting aside, too, the more modern, norm-limned self-caricature that produces “the testimony of simplicity” and other focal displacements,6 we find that Quakerism can be, so to speak, simplicity itself. A foundational Quaker theology for today needs but four brief points.

  1. “God” signifies “love” — in biblical Greek, agapē.7
  2. “Love/agapē” signifies behavior, empathetic encounter with and response to the actual other in her actual need.8
  3. Each of us has, here and now, a degree (“measure”) of the power of agapē.
  4. That agapē-power will shape our lives if we allow it to do so — if, that is, we commit ourselves to it, discern how we are impeding it, and get out of its way.

The essential Quaker message is, then, not only simple but also practical: commit yourself to God/love as that which moves you to respond justly and generously to the other, even at cost to you, and then pay attention to that love’s movement in your heart and allow it to guide and empower you; anything else is distraction and therefore anti-religion, anti-spirituality. In keeping with that, the first Friends announced the end of religion-as-we-know-it, emphatically including the end of teachers, techniques, and speculations. Their theology, like the biblical exegesis supporting it, served their belief that God-who-is-love had come to guide his people himself: it was a sign directing human beings to the motive power of agapē within. In our contemporary distillation of their theology, we follow in that spirit.

Faith and Practice

Because Quaker theology points directly to the working of agapē in the heart, there should be no question of translating theory into action. As the apostle James reminds us, faith and practice cannot be separated. To be a believer, said George Fox, is to be — actually, not forensically — “passed from death [i.e., sinfulness, or living harmfully] to life [i.e., righteousness, or living justly].” The apostle John (recalling the story of Cain and Abel) says, “And we are aware that we have passed out of death into life because we love our brothers; whoever is not loving their brother is remaining in death.”9 In traditional terms, “believers,” those who put their faith in God-who-is-agapē‘s guidance and power, enter into the divine life of love, become “partakers of the divine nature,” as they are made just through that faith: love is their resurrection and their life.10 In contemporary terms, it is through faith, commitment to agapē as supreme value and trust in its continuing guidance, that we are saved from the darkness of destructive narcissism. A properly Quaker theology simply points to the possibility and nature of such faith.

Quaker theology is realized in the fidelity of individual Friends to the continuing influence of agapē, in the fidelity of the community gathered in that love, and in the responsive work of agapē in the world. Always, this faith-and-practice is one. And always, because of that oneness, it is simple, simplicity itself — as are our lives when we embrace it.


NOTES for Quaker Theology in Brief

[1] “Believe” is polysemous, so the phrase “believe in” has multiple possible meanings. It can indicate that I accept the facticity of something; for example, that I believe in a god in the sense of accepting that the god exists. It can indicate trust, as in, “I know that you’ll come through for me; I believe in you.” It can indicate that I approve of something, as in, “I believe in the separation of church and state.” Tellingly, “believe” can also indicate uncertainty, as in, “I believe that her sister’s name is Mary, but I’ll have to check.” In this post, I am using the phrase “believe in” primarily in the first sense, but I recognize that multiple senses of “believe” may be present in a person’s thinking about God.

[2] Experientialism has become de facto doctrine in some liberal Quaker circles, supporting an individualistic religion which meshes well with the contemporary consumerist mindset, at least in the U.S.A. For an example of that approach, see the 2012 draft Faith and Practice of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, pp. 19-21: “Certainly, each of us is encouraged to follow our individual spiritual path. […] Your Truth informs my own, and I am not constrained to accept your Truth as my own, but I am encouraged to listen to your testimony, to discern the value of your approach and how it affects my own path.” (The capitalization is in the original.) Not surprisingly, the book offers an impoverished understanding of Quaker community and worship as a “safe … environment” for “individualistic search,” for speaking about our own experiences, and for patiently listening to others speak about theirs in hopes of getting something for ourselves (see p. 24) — a safe environment, one might fear, for self-indulgence and grasping under the guise of spirituality.

[3] Fuller discussion of ideas such as “pure experience” must await future essays. For now, I simply note that to feel that an experience is religious, spiritual, or mystical involves ascribing that quality or meaning to it. Such ascription, even if done subconsciously, is interpretation, shaped by culture and language. (Acknowledging those facts, by the way, we can stand aside from the seemingly endless debate over whether “pure experience” is even possible.) For an excellent introduction to critical thinking about, and application of attribution/ascription theory to, the idea of religious experience, see Religious Experience Reconsidered by Ann Taves.

[4] “Impairment of reality testing [– an ego function that enables one to differentiate between external reality and an inner imaginative world –] is indicative of a disturbance in ego functioning that may lead to psychosis,” which is is characterized by inability “to distinguish personal subjective experience from the reality of the external world.” (Source: articles on reality testing and psychosis at http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com).

[5] That felicitous phrase was recently used by a Friend when quitting, apparently in frustration at the group’s negativity, an online Quaker theology discussion group.

[6] When Quakerism is defined, as it sometimes is by liberal Friends, in terms of shared practices and values, then it has devolved — exaltation of subjective experience notwithstanding — into a religion of externals and of law. Becoming thereby the very opposite of what it was while claiming to be the same, it now qualifies for the epithet “Anti-Quakerism.”

[7] See the letters of John; e.g., 1 Jn. 4:8b: ho theos agapē estin. On love as the nature of God, see Isaac Penington’s “Concerning Love.” That doctrine is taught as well by traditional Christian writers such as Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in his On the Trinity  that “Love … is of God and is God….”

[8] That divine love means beneficial action for the other, even the enemy, is amply documented in the Christian scriptures; see, for example, Matthew 5:38-48. Note that this is where traditional Quakerism — unlike the cult of the individual and his personal “Truth” — may break free of solipsism and linguistic regression as well: agapē is not simply an inner feeling or a linguistic signified which becomes yet another signifier in a circle; it is empathetic action in the world, arising responsively in interpersonal encounter.

[9] On faith and works, see James 2. On what makes a “true believer,” see the Journal of George Fox, page 6 in the Penney edition. The quotation from John is 1 Jn. 3:14.

[10] “Partakers of the divine nature” is from 2 Peter 1:4. In the Quaker version of salvation by faith, when we trust in the Light, the guiding and empowering work of the spirit of Christ in the heart, we are incorporated into Christ here and now, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21), for “now the justice/righteousness of God apart from the law has been made to appear … through Jesus Christ’s faith into all and upon all the ones having faith, for there is no distinction” (Romans 3:21-22). My final reference in the paragraph is to John 11:25, in which Christ the divine Logos, the visible form of God-who-is-love into whom believers are incorporated, says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he were dead, shall live….”

15 thoughts on “Quaker Theology in Brief

  1. George, you are right that we seem again to be moving on parallel tracks. I haven’t had a chance to read and respond to your comment on my blog on this topic, so this is just a comment on yours. As usual, I find your authoritative and somewhat technical tone both exhilarating and a bit off-putting—I feel a temptation to adopt a similar voice. But the substance of what you’re saying is exciting.

    I want to share four essentials (plus one) that I’ve been carrying around since I attended a consultation in Richmond, Indiana, on “What do we hold in common as Quaker treasure?”—basically, what are the common Quaker essentials. I think they match up pretty well with yours. Here’s what happened:

    Each participant was asked to write up answers to queries on what they felt were the Quaker essentials. Then in small groups we worked on creating a testimony that all of us in the group could affirm. On Saturday night in plenary, all the groups reported and then we all tried to arrive at a common sense of the meeting. This was the most gathered meeting of Friends I believe I ever attended (though I must add that I met a couple of Friends years later who had attended and who felt that the meeting had been possessed by Satan—literally; so there you are).

    While the groups reported I kept a running list of “beliefs” and began connecting the common statements. In the end, I found four things that all groups had agreed upon:

    That God calls each of us into a direct, unmediated relationship with God: “There is one, even Christ Jesus, who could speak to my condition.” “There is that of God in everyone.”

    That the meeting as a worshipping community is collectively also called to a direct, unmediated relationship with God: “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” Quaker process.

    Continuing revelation: passages from John 14 and 15, the origins of our name as the Religious Society of Friends, and from elsewhere in Christian scripture.

    That we are called to live our outward lives as testimonies to the truth that has been inwardly revealed to us: “Let your lives speak.” The testimonies.

    On Sunday morning, our clerk Jan Wood gave a sermon in our only programmed meeting for worship that unpacked how we had lived the commandment of love, and I added love (your agapē) to the original list of four essentials. Her message brought us back into the covered state we had enjoyed (most of us, anyway) the night before.

  2. Steven, thanks for your comments. Tone is an individual matter, I think, and at least partially related to topic; I trust you to adopt whatever feels appropriate here. I hope that the tone of my comments on your blog doesn’t put you off, but, again, I trust that you’ll read and consider. If you find qualities such as disappointment and even impatience there, please consider those as efforts at communication as well.

    I don’t know how I would feel about each of those points of agreement you’ve listed. For example, as the last section of this post indicates, I don’t find it useful to think in terms of putting principles into practice — but maybe that’s not what you have in mind when you mention testimonies. We’d need to go into detail about what each of the ideas seems to signify. Maybe we can do that sometime; I’m sure it would be helpful.

  3. Friend, what is the purpose of theology, as of love, if not putting particular principles(whether “agapē”, as opposed to other Greek/contemporary meanings for love, and “simplicity”) into practice? Augustine’s love and do what you will led to a lot of regretful( dare I say “un-Friend-ly”) associations in the 60’s while following your four principles(with or without Notes).

    • The fact that Augustine recognized the Johannine theology of the nature of God does not mean that he understood love and discipleship as a Quaker might many centuries later. Augustine’s “love and do what you will” is a principle, and it produced some ugly results (such as support for physical punishment of heretics) when he put it into practice in his own life. But love as presented in this post is neither license nor ideology but the binding of wounds of the stranger.

      I don’t know where you were in the ‘sixties, but where I was, we were quite explicit about rejecting the tradition of which Augustine was a most influential “father,” and those of us who knew of Augustine knew that he was no exponent of libertinism. But Augustine is a minor reference in an endnote here. Whether in the ‘sixties or now, no one could legitimately use this post’s definition of love, as empathetic addressing of the needs of the other, as a basis for a self-absorbed lifestyle. I wonder if you have been able to read the post without looking through lenses of worrisome associations. It may be helpful, too, to read previous posts on the topic (e.g., “Judged by Jesus”), in which the definition of love is more detailed: the current one is presented in that context.

  4. Regarding step 4: part of what you’re saying about getting out of the way sounds like the wu wei of Taoist teaching, and the other part involving commitment sounds like it involves a decision (once for all? repeated?) made by an act of will. How are the two elements, the commitment and the getting out of the way, balanced, and how would one know if balance has been attained? Or does one ever know?

    • I’ve learned to be quite cautious about attempts to syncretize traditions, Robert, but it’s an interesting question.

      In the approach I describe, the Quaker makes a commitment to allowing agapē to work in her and then learns to discern when she is blocking, interfering in, its workings. In order to do that, she must learn to “stand still” from her “own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations” (G. Fox). By doing so, she gets out of love’s way, because her own thoughts, desires, etc. are naturally unloving: that’s the traditional view, on which I’ll elaborate a little below.

      The Taoist notion of wu wei, or non-action, is a different animal, a child of a philosophy focused not on agapē but on Tao. In the Taoist doctrine, Tao is the way of nature. The human being, by what is called “non-acting,” acts in accord with it. If we want to add a Zen flavor, we might say that in wu wei the adept spontaneously acts according to his true nature. But in the Christian system (as we just saw in the first paragraph), agapē is not the way of nature: it is counter to the way of nature, which is the way of selfishness, of sin and death. Nor is agapē the true if hidden nature of the human being as such; as is noted in the post, it is the nature of God, into whom human beings may be reborn through the grace of faith. It is present in them, “unless they be reprobate,” but as something alien to their nature, as a seed which they, by nature, despise and crush. The Taoist may go with the flow, but the Quaker goes against it: she “stands still,” stopping the natural flow in order that agapē, rather than Tao, may move her.

      So it seems to me that the Quaker’s “standing still in the light”, traditionally conceived, differs from the Taoist’s non-action. I can understand seeing some similarity in the mechanism, and, again, I think it’s an interesting perception. But I think that the two approaches differ fundamentally, even if technique may appear similar in some ways.

      That probably obviates the question of balance, but to clarify: it is not the idea or ideal of agapē to which the Friend is committed, but the actuality, its working in the heart. So there shouldn’t be any conflict, or need for balancing, between the Quaker’s commitment to love and her standing still from her “natural” inclinations: the latter is an expression of the former.

      I know that I haven’t been able to do justice to your question, but I hope that this offers a point of departure.

  5. Then what makes for the difference in what the Quaker finds in getting out of the way from what the Taoist finds is the commitment each undertakes when they start? Their different ends then are shaped by their different intents and motivations? Given the fact that their getting out of the way does not land them in the same place, there must be a high level of importance to the difference of that with which they are filling their getting out of the way.

  6. Good Afternoon George:

    I’m not convinced that Quakers engage in theology in the manner that you describe, or that it is inherent in Quaker Discourse even when such discourse is not explicitly theologica. I tend to think that the relationship of theology to religious experience is similar to the relationship between music theory and listening to music. Lots of people sing songs while walking, driving to work, gardening,etc., without engaging in music theory. I would like to suggest that it similarly possible to be engaged with, to experience, God and not be engaged with theology.

    Partly it depends on what one means by ‘theology’. I tend to gloss the word as ‘systematic theology’, like what one finds in Aquinas or Calvin. The only Quaker work I know of that falls into this kind of theology is Barclay’s ‘Apology’. On the other hand, if Journaling can be theology, then the concept broadens. I’d be interested in your take on the extent of the term as you are using it.

    Finally, I’m not convinced as to your view that ‘pure experience’ is impossible. Again, it depends on what one means by pure experience. I think human beings have a lot of non-conceptual experiences, but those may still be mediated by non-conceptual habits and tendencies. But, on the other hand, I do think it is possible to enter into a realm of mind where conceptualization is absent in the sense of having meaning centered on the conceptual understanding of the experience. This is a subtle and difficult area to discuss and I look forward to what you might have to say on this in further posts.


  7. Jim, the post considers theology in the very basic sense of what one thinks the word “God” means. When a Quaker uses the word “God” or a cognate, presumably the word has some meaning for her, points to some referent for her — otherwise, she is only pronouncing a nonsense syllable. To say that Quakers don’t engage in theology in that minimal but essential way is to assert, it seems to me, that when Quakers say “God” they don’t know what they mean — or they mean nothing. As fuzzy as Quaker thinking can be, I don’t think that’s the case.

    When speaking of experience, the opposite of “pure” is not “conceptualized” but “interpreted.” Explicit conceptualization appears to be a final stage in the process of interpretation. Like William James, I strongly suspect that adult, fully functional humans are unable to have completely uninterpreted experience (try seeing the world “directly,” as your eyes see it, without interpretation by the brain: can’t be done), but that’s not the point that was made in the post. Whether such experience is possible or not is not at issue here: the argument is that uninterpreted experience has — by definition — no meaning, and that “spiritual” experience is, therefore, interpreted experience.

    As always, thanks for your comments.

    • Bingo! As Whitehead wrote, “If you want a record of uninterpreted experience, you must ask a stone to record its autobiography.” I think we are very much headed the same direction.

  8. “Like James, I strongly suspect that adult, fully functional humans are unable to have completely uninterpreted experience…..” Yes; it would be the same as having no experience.

  9. I find a lot of your sentiments echo pieces of my own, though I have been trying to think of what it means to love. I’ve found some success — though I have not written about it to any significant degree — in conceiving of love as somehow related to what I call “being-with-others,” as opposed to other existentialist notions like “being-for-others.” While still in rough formulation, the notion is that love is relating yourself to others in a way which promotes their being in general. I do not mean to say that it promotes their pleasure or diminishes their suffering; rather, I mean the promotion of their fundamental being (perhaps their “dasein,” though I don’t fully understand what Heidegger means by the term).

    • Outside of my boyhood in the Catholic Church, Gerard, I have no experience with that. If it is restricted to what we sometimes refer to as taking people to the Inward Teacher and leaving them there (directing people to the Spirit’s direction, so to speak), then it would seem to be a good thing. If it goes beyond that, then I’d be wary. (I’m reminded of a cartoon in which Heraclitus laments that he directed people to listen not to him but to the Logos, but they didn’t listen to him: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/97)

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