Quaker Faith & Practice for the 21st Century: IIa

This project is a work in progress. Whenever a significant update is made to an installment, the revision date will be posted at the top of the installment as well as in the Table of Contents. Following are the first two parts of the book’s second section, “The Life of the Spirit.” Dingbat-sm

II. The Life of the Spirit (Parts 1 & 2)

1. Introduction to Section II

This section presents an introduction to Quaker life. In order to provide context for Quaker concepts and to convey something of the unique spiritual power of the first Friends, each part includes excerpts from early Quaker writings or the scriptures that inspired them. When reading those excerpts, you are encouraged to suspend your preconceptions and open yourself to unexpected levels of meaning. To thus “feel where the words come from” (as a native American said in his own language after hearing Quaker John Woolman speak in English) is to encounter the hearts and souls of the writers. In that way, you may allow the texts to communicate their spiritual depth across centuries and cultures. In order to facilitate that process, we begin with discussion of a Quaker approach to reading religious writings.

2. The Bible and Historic Quaker Writings

And the scriptures, which [are] writings, outward writings, with paper and ink, are not … infallible, nor are they divine, but human, and [people] get a human knowledge from them; and so writings with paper and ink are not infallible, nor is the scripture the ground of faith, but [the living] Christ [is the ground], who was before the scripture was written; this the scripture tells you, and that God is divine; and the scriptures are the words of God, which Christ, the [W]ord, ends, who is the author of the faith.  (George Fox, 1659)

Founders of the Quaker movement had encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible, but they interpreted it in a very untraditional way. For them, the scriptures were useful primarily as pointers to events within the human heart. The source of spiritual revelation was not the Bible but Christ the living “Word” who, scripture had taught them, is the power and wisdom of divine love abiding within us. Inspired by the Word, the Bible could be correctly interpreted only by someone living in that same power and wisdom. Therefore, scripture could not, any more than could a church hierarchy, be the ultimate moral authority: that authority could only be the Christ-spirit working in the faithful person’s heart.

Following in that tradition, Quakers today can cherish both the Bible and the writings of early Friends as pointers to the dynamic reality of divine love within. Friends are reminded that those works should be read in their proper contexts and without bias. Meetings (congregations) are encouraged to explore our biblical and Quaker literary heritage together, helping each other to engage with the texts both critically and receptively. To reclaim and share our tradition’s treasures in that way is to continue the powerful work begun by our spiritual ancestors.

And because we do not with the misty ministers of the mere letter own the bare external text of scripture entire in every tittle, but say it hath suffered much loss of more than vowels, single letters, and single lines also, yea, even of whole epistles and prophecies of inspired men, the copies of which are not by the clergy canonized nor by the Bible-sellers bound up, and specially because we do not [acknowledge] the said alterable and much altered outward text, but [rather] the holy truth and inward light and spirit to be the Word of God, which is living [and] the true touchstone, therefore they cry out against us. Yet the scriptures are owned by us in their due place, and the letter is acknowledged by us full as much as it is by itself, to have been written by men moved of God’s Spirit, and to be useful, profitable, serviceable, etc., to be read and heeded.  (Samuel Fisher, 1660)

2 thoughts on “Quaker Faith & Practice for the 21st Century: IIa

  1. Why does thee start with Scripture? That makes sense in a creedal, Bible-based church, but in the Religious Society of Friends, much less so. But do get that great quote of Barclay’s in here.
    I would say, Let’s start with the Encounter with the Divine: can/does everyone experience it? [Quakers traditionally said all could and many more do than realize it. Nowadays Quakers are doubtful, and many deny it — including Evangelicals.] How to do so is the purpose of all Quaker tradition starting with our roots as Seekers. The Still, Small Voice, (not the Hairy Thunderer) and the peaceful Light that takes its kingdom with entreaty come here as our conception of the One we are dealing with. I start my Quaker “elevator speech” with the first traditional advice/query: Be Mindful, dear Friends, of the promptings of Love and Truth in your hearts, they are motions of the Holy Spirit…etc. Have you ever felt yourself moved by love or truth?

    • Quaker concepts such as the divine; the still, small voice; the light; and the promptings of love and truth in the heart are biblical images that can take on alien meanings from the dominant culture when divorced from their context. So we begin where the Quaker movement began, with the Christian scriptures and how, when read with a Quaker hermeneutic, they lead to a Quaker understanding of those concepts. It seems to me that even if you want to speak only about an “Encounter with the Divine” you must first establish what you mean by that; otherwise, the communication is unbalanced toward the reader’s preconceptions.

      As for the Barclay (if we’re thinking of the same passage), we’ll get there in Section II-4.

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