Following is the first part of the introductory material for my Quaker Faith and Practice for the Twenty-first Century.
A page called “Faith & Practice Book,” which now appears as a tab in this site’s main menu, comprises a Table of Contents (TOC) in which new installments of the book will be hyperlinked as they are posted. As sections are completed, PDF versions for download will be posted on that page as well.
I. Introductory Material
1. About this Manual
A manual of Quaker faith and practice is a book used by a group of Quakers, members of the Religious Society of Friends, as a brief guide to Quaker life. Generally, a Faith and Practice is written and approved for use by a regional body called a Yearly Meeting. Sometimes, however, individuals or groups of Friends may desire a book that speaks more directly to their condition; this manual is offered to such Friends.
This book is intended primarily for use by Quakers in what is known as the liberal tradition. Liberal Friends, while accepting of broad theological diversity, tend to maintain some connection with early Quaker thought and to preserve the historic practices of silence-based, unprogrammed worship and free ministry. Today, liberal Quakers’ views range from traditional Christian theology to spirituality without belief in God. Many Faith and Practice books, however, were composed when the Society was more united in a traditionally Christian theological perspective. Revisions of those books have not always been able to reach the heart of that which still unites us as Quakers. It is hoped that this manual can serve as a resource for discussion and development of ways of expressing our faith that are true to both the original Quaker genius and contemporary experience. For that reason, the manual will focus on basics, encouraging Friends to elaborate the insights expressed here and their applications in various circumstances.
This manual uses a variety of brief excerpts from the writings of earlier Friends, particularly of the first generation, as well as passages from the Bible. One reason for that is that liberal Friends today continue to turn to early Friends and (if less often) to scripture for inspiration or to explain or justify a belief or practice. But the principal reason is that the founding Friends, as they tell us in their own writings, were led by scripture to a radically world-changing spiritual power.
If we wish to understand and share in that unique power, we must do our best to set aside our preconceptions and to allow those first Friends, and the scriptures that guided them, to speak to us across the centuries. But that is not to say that we must attempt to believe exactly as early Friends, or early Christians, did. Their writings, although conditioned by time and culture, reflect something much deeper and more self- and world-changing than a belief system: they point us to a dynamic spirit of just and peaceable relationship that is crucially important for our time.
In our postmodern era, which is characterized by distrust of all-encompassing myths and systems that profess to liberate but end up oppressing human beings, we are rightly suspicious of truth-claims, whether theistic or not. That does not mean that we deny the existence of truth, but that we recognize that truth is not absolute: we see that any way of understanding the world is conditioned and tentative. In these times, Quakerism, a voluntary way of relating rather than a creed-based, authoritative system, can have an important role. For what Quakers have meant by “Truth” is not an ideology but the spiritual wisdom and power that Friend John Woolman, known for his gentle but persistent work against slavery, called “universal love.” Quakerism calls us to go beyond our perceived limits, to allow our beliefs and presuppositions to be illuminated, questioned, and transcended by that love’s light. When thus enlightened, we are led to just and peaceable living and empowered for the sacrifices such a life entails. The primary purpose of this manual is to help Friends discover and live that wisdom and power.
After this introduction, a section called “The Life of the Spirit” presents the spiritual basis of Quaker faith and practice. That may be followed by a brief treatment of Quaker history. Although I originally planned to include additional sections, I have decided that these three sections will cover the material I am most interested in presenting.
Succinctness is a goal for all sections: it is my hope that the core material presented here will provide starting points for further exploration.