A Basic Theology for Friends

“A Basic Theology for Friends,” which is an adaptation of the essay “Quaker Theology in Brief,” is the concluding part of Section I of my work in progress, Quaker Faith & Practice for the 21st Century. (The first drafts of Sections I and II are now complete and are available in PDF here.)
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I. Introduction (cont.)

2. A Basic Theology for Friends

The Heart of Quaker Thought
In this early part of the 21st century, Quakers’ belief systems range from biblical monotheism to panentheism to ways of thinking that are not theistic. But Friends tend to agree that there was something uniquely real and powerful, something that remains fundamental for us, in the lives of the first Quakers. Indeed, it is evident that early Friends were animated by a spiritual “life and power” that overturned society’s normal values, replacing them not simply with alternative values but with the “universal love” (as Friend John Woolman would put it) that was evident in the life and ministry of Jesus. Life in that Christ-spirit (whether or not we think of that spirit as a supernatural entity) is the locus of our unity-in-diversity and the heart of our faith and practice. We need, therefore, to specify that particular spirit, of all the spirits to which human beings might give themselves, when we point to the source and center of our lives as Friends.

To that end, this manual offers the following 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
The Quaker movement constituted a radical simplification of Christian religion: it was hyperfocused on discerning and living in the spiritual power that produces lives of justice, mercy, and peace. To bring that vision into the 21st century requires no elaboration but, on the contrary, invites further simplification. The vision has been transmitted through scripture, many elements of which are seen as mythical by some Friends today: such elements may be (not discarded, for the message is embedded in them, but) bracketed as we focus on the vision’s existential core. Setting aside, too, more recently incorporated elements such as lists of values or “testimonies” and ideologies ranging from American evangelicalism to New Age mysticism, we find that Quakerism is, at heart, quite simple. Today, a foundational Quaker theology — upon which various conceptual structures might rest — needs but four brief points.

  1. “God” signifies love — in biblical Greek, agapē.1
  2. Agapē” signifies behavior, empathetic encounter with and response to the actual other in her actual need.2
  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: put your faith in, and commit yourself to, God/agapē 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 knowledge 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 this contemporary distillation of their theology, we follow in that spirit.

Faith and Practice
Because the core of 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) wrote, “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.”3 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.4 In contemporary terms, it is through a particular form of 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.

Our core 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, as we will see in detail in the next section of this book, 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.

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NOTES

[1] 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….”

[2] 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.

[3] On the unity of 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.

[4] “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). The final biblical 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….”

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