Theology as Autobiography, Biography, and Hagiography
The title of this post is taken from the title of section 1.3 of Carole Dale Spencer's Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, and I think it gets to some of why I'm concerned about the willingness to throw over Quaker history in favor of our own reductions.
She's writing in the context of methodology, how her book is going to proceed, but along the way she presents a very clear statement about how Quakerism explained itself over the centuries:
In early Quakerism theology was experiential and mystical (cogito Dei experimentalis), therefore developed and formulated most effectively as autobiography. Autobiography was supplemented by biography and then sanctified by hagiography....
Along with the Bible, hagiography and its related literature (rather than doctrinal treatises) have been the primary textual means by which the Christian faith has been transferred through generations. After the Bible, the lives of saints, their journals or spiritual diaries, and their devotional manuals have been the most formative influences in the teaching of holiness.....
More important than doctrinal formulation, and essential because Quakers were theoretically non-creedal, was the actual depiction of lives through which readers could understand and measure themselves through the model of earlier saints....
The most common form of teaching and Quakers' main reading material were the journals of its saints, George Fox's Journal being the prototype (Wright, 1932). These journals were written to describe and define a life of holiness and to teach by example. (4-5)
Arriving in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting with no sense of history (as I did twenty years ago), one can pick up the form easily enough, even the worshipful goal of that form. Testimonies are readily explained - the SPICE acronym may be a cliche, but for beginners it's readily comprehensible. And beyond that, there's the Inner Light, right? No creeds, so anything else?
Well, yes. The ahistorical version of Quakerism does have some popularity, but there's a lot more in all those dusty journals. The status of those journals - as tutorials for religious belief and not simply as verbatim history - also goes a long way toward explaining why Quakers treated their history in ways that make contemporary historians shake their heads.
I wonder, though, whether this approach to transmitting religious experience can hold up - is holding up - in the current state of the world. This isn't a uniquely current problem, as I think John Wilbur faced similar challenges in his battles with the Gurneyite Orthodox. It seems, though, that the way we read (and the amount we read, and so on) keeps changing.
Handing a copy of George Fox's Journal (or even The Quaker Reader to new attenders probably isn't the best way to introduce them to the religion. Quakerism 101 classes at least provide a general overview, and hopefully encourage people to read and explore more deeply.
I worry that in many ways Quakerism - especially unprogrammed Quakerism - makes sense only in the context of a deeply literate society. The lack of liturgy and adornment means that there isn't a constant story told each Sunday, and creedlessness (and more or less lack of a catechism) leaves us needing to study Quaker experience. Studying Quaker experience is a long slow process. This makes it hard for newcomers and for people without the time to dedicate to that study, and can also make religion feel like homework.
I don't see any easy way around this, at least for those who see Quakerism as more than the simplified form and testimonies I described above. We'll have to take the hard road, and convince others that it's worthwhile.