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December 31, 2008

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.

December 29, 2008

The Limits of History, III

[Finally continuing from this post and this post.]

I frequently find that many Quakers aren't particularly interested in what the early Quakers did or said - it's "ancient history," trapped in understandings we've moved beyond. Quakers are hardly unique in this, of course - many religious groups are having a difficult time justifying their beliefs in a skeptical, rationalist, forward-looking society.

I was reading an old issue of Popular Woodworking the other day, and came across this in the letters section:

The choice of the methodology depends on the project and the skills and desires of the individual, and is intrinsic to the satisfaction of working with wood. Some methods may be "better" than others and reading about them gives me options. Criticism of methodology should focus on end results, not tradition. (August 2006, 10.)

I need to be doing more woodworking, but one thing I enjoy about woodworking is that it manages to inform everything I do. Politics, cooking, editing, writing - even religion. Substitute "spiritual experience" for "working with wood", and you're right in the middle of a long set of controversies about Quakerism's relationship to its history.

After all, what does it matter, say, what George Fox thought of the Book of Revelation? I mean, come on, really - a 17th century guy who'd basically drowned himself in the Bible, talking in images that come from the most outlandish piece of that whole ancient work? How can that possibly apply to what I want to do today?

I haven't heard anyone ask exactly that, but I've heard and read much similar. Mostly from people I respect, at that.

There are definitely people fascinated by Quaker history, and I'm very glad about that. I know people who are deeply upset that George Fox's original Book of Miracles disappeared somewhere between writing and publishing, and people who regularly cite and discuss the "Valiant Sixty" and their efforts to bring Quakerism from the North of England to the South and beyond.

(If it's not obvious, I'm one of those fascinated people).

On the other hand, there's a regular undercurrent in Quakerism - not unique to Quakerism, but probably strengthened by the general idea of being non-creedal, encouraging individuals to find their own deep connection to the Light. People don't want to be 'bound by the past', finding the stories of the past to be themselves a creed to avoid. Of course, the early Quakers gave us cause to suspect many of those stories, which doesn't improve the case for the importance of history.

Zach Alexander, one of my favorite Quaker bloggers - someone who's spent time digging into Quaker history and even set up Quakerpedia, tried to demolish the case for the importance of past Quaker beliefs a while back:

What is essential to Quakerism is best summed up in the opening sentence of Britain Yearly Meeting’s Advices and Queries - Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts.

This is the essential core of Quakerism for two reasons. Normatively speaking, it’s the most valuable pearl of wisdom they have to offer the world. And descriptively speaking, it’s arguably where the characteristic Quaker experience starts. Everything else is just interpretation of that experience (theology) or elaboration of its effects (the testimonies).

And everything else comes second. There’s no reason to assume their interpretations of their experience are the best ones, or that their discernment of those inward leadings is inerrantly true for all people at all times. Everything is open to revision based on these promptings, for us, today....

And when we realize that Christianity, like all religions, is basically false - Jesus, if he existed, was simply an extraordinary human - our relationship with Quakerism reaches a crossroads.

We can see early Friends (and Christians) as simply deluded, and let them fall into the dustbin of history. I don’t think we should do that. More charitably, we can instead see them as humans who had extraordinary experiences that are valuable for us today, worthy of study and sometimes even emulation, but couched in unacceptably superstitious terms and concepts - the only ones available in their pre-modern society. (A naturalistic/nontheistic view of the world was barely conceivable back then, and the few pioneers in that department often did not lead very moral lives, and were therefore not at all attractive to Friends.)

For many, such a re-interpretation seems so drastic that you can’t call this post-religious Quakerism “Quakerism” anymore. So be it. If “Quaker-inspired” beliefs are more truthful than “Quaker” ones, so much the worse for Quakerism - focusing on what is most “Quaker” then becomes a form of idolatry. We should always (as was suggested at the “Food for Fire” workshop last year) be willing to give up the form we call “Quakerism” if it conflicts with how we are led.

But for however much or little it’s worth, in so doing we will have carried forward the spirit of Quakerism, better than that oxymoron “traditional Quakerism” ever could.

While I find little to agree with in his appraisal of "unacceptably superstitious terms and concepts - the only ones available in their pre-modern society," I do applaud his careful appraisal of Quaker history prior to rejecting most of the details of its content.

I'm not sure I can join Martin Kelley in declaring that "we're all Ranters now", but it seems that Quaker history's recording of the destination the early Friends found is no longer that interesting to a lot of people who'd prefer to simply keep seeking. (Or perhaps just worth two cheers.)

So why does it matter?

It matters because Quakers claim to be a community, with shared practices and beliefs. Communities always exist in a context - which is, generally speaking, their history. Deliberate amnesia is possible but difficult, and both it and accidental amnesia often leave echoes of the original for the occasional discoverer to use as a base for later exploration and revival of the past.

Even at the level of community, though, there are suggestions like these:

In other words, we don't want to try to serve the structure Quakers created more than 350 years ago. We want to rekindle the flames and devote ourselves again to the Fire. Then, when our attention is on the Fire, we can create whatever structure is appropriate based on our condition.

Isn't that what Quakerism is truly about - being attentive so that the Letter of the law doesn't kill the Spirit?

"We want to rekindle the flame" - but apparently do so by setting aside things that came with the flame, things created if not by then with the flame. (That piece is actually fairly gentle - it doesn't seem to propose rekindling the flame by burning all that came with it.)

Reducing Quakerism to its "essentials" is always tempting. After all, the early Quakers certainly embarked on a similar reduction process for Christianity, and why not just continue the core of what they started?

It's tempting, I know.

December 28, 2008

Penguins at the Manger

A few years ago, Angelika and I watched the Ithaca Monthly Meeting's Christmas pageant, put on by the children of the meeting. She was struck in particular by the penguin paying homage at the manger, a feature I'd never seen in a Christmas pageant before. It became a fun story about how Quakerism can be just a little different.

Sungiva got to play the baby Jesus in this year's pageant, and was generally well-received. No penguins, though! (The penguin is apparently a costume they have available, so maybe one day she'll be the penguin.)

Angelika added a penguin to our Christmas tree, as you can see here.

Penguin in our Christmas tree.
Penguin in our Christmas tree.

Penguins at mangers turn out to have mass-media precedents, too. I'd forgotten that in A Charlie Brown Christmas, one of the animals Lucy asks Snoopy (who's playing "all the animals") to be is a penguin.

And, of course, we really couldn't be the only ones. Here's a nativity penguin.

December 22, 2008

As one who had authority

I've been rereading David Klinghoffer's Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. It's a strange book, as his overarching purpose seems to be to illustrate the tensions between Judaism and Christianity to get them to unite against that other dangerous Jewish heresy, Islam. Follow that? I can't really, either.

In its details, however, it's a much more interesting book. It's not surprising to me that the New Testament rests loosely and often imprecisely on the Old. Its description of Messiah-hunting at the time of Christ reminds me all too much of the Life of Brian - not that Klinghoffer draws the connection. There is much here to challenge Christian faith, and I strongly recommend reading it to break down some common assumptions about how Christ's story fits (or doesn't) with the Old Testament stories to which New Testament writers strove to bind it.

From a Quaker perspective, there's a retelling of Jesus' story that's especially fascinating, because in many ways it seems to me to echo what happened with the Reformation in general and early Quaker history in particular. Klinghoffer writes, after reflecting on efforts to describe Jesus as a rabbi:

One naturally wonders what it was Jesus taught in those Galilean synagogues, starting in Nazareth, that the more they listened to him preach, the more the congregation became outraged...

What Jesus rejected was the oral Torah that explains the written Torah. Essential to rabbinic Judaism, this concept of an oral Torah recognizes the Pentateuch as a cryptic document, a coded text. It posits that the Bible's first five books were revealed to Moses along with a key to unlock the code. Jesus derides this orally transmitted interpretation on matters including the details of Sabbath observance (no carrying objects in a public space, no harvesting produce or use of healing salves except to save a life), praying with a quorum, burying the dead, refraining from bathing and annointing on fast days like Yom Kippuer, donating a yearly half-shekel to the Temple, and hand washing before eating bread.

Stated laundry-list fashion, such commandments from the oral tradition may seem like trivialities. But from the constellation of such discrete teachings there emerges the gorgeous pointillist masterpiece of Torah - not merely "the Torah", the finite text of the Pentateuch that the Christian founder accepted, but the infinite tradition of Judaism as a whole, reflecting God's mind as applied to human affairs. (55-56)

Klinghoffer walks through the "laundry list" in detail, examining how the oral tradition expanded on the written word and how Jesus challenged each of these items. He also examines - and dismisses - some ways later scholars have tried to soften the conflict. Given the central question of why his hearers were outraged by Jesus' statements, I have to think he's on to something. The deeper parallels with Quakerism, though, emerge after this consideration:

For Jesus, oral Torah was a man-made accretion without transcendent authority. He tells a group of Pharisees, "So, for the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God," citing Isaiah, "In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men." [Matthew 15:7, 9] Elsewhere, "Woe to you lawyers also! For you load men with burdens hard to bear." [Luke 11:46]

This explains why he felt it was appropriate to teach solely on his own authority, rather than by citing previous sages, which is how the rabbis taught: "And when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as one of their scribes." [Matthew 7:28-9]

There could be only one reason for this: Jesus did not see himself as a link in the chain of tradition. This was a repudiation of the very heart of rabbinic faith. Without tradition, either the cryptic text of the Pentateuch was locked forever, its true meaning indiscernible, or it was open to all to guess as their intellect or whim directed them - a free-for-all of scriptural interpretation where the Torah means whatever the reader wants it to mean. (58-9, paragraph break added)

This dispute over tradition was echoed centuries later when the Reformation separated a large group of Christians from the oral apostolic tradition that had been central in Catholicism (and Orthodoxy). Protestants re-focused on the written text of the Bible, elevating Scripture to new heights. It was echoed again on a smaller scale by Quakers who rejected many of the conclusions those Protestants had reached, either for their continued reliance on old tradition or for their lack of strictly biblical support.

Quakerism seemed to its opponents to lose valuable connections with past interpretation and to risk total anarchy, with everyone interpreting the Bible however they wanted - potentially, with everyone "as one who had authority".

Klinghoffer even notes a geographic and personal dynamic that Quakers would echo:

A phenomenally charismatic person, Jesus mocked the Jewish establishment of his day and was adulated by a following from Galilee, the region where he conducted his brief ministry, famous in this period (says Professor Geza Vermes) for the ignorance of the local populace. Knowing no better, loathing Pharisees as their own teacher did, they thought Jesus had Judaism all figured out. (59)

George Fox was certainly charismatic, and his ministry blossomed in the north of England, a part of the country that Puritans frequently despaired over. He and his followers certainly took advantage of northern resentments (including those toward lawyers) as they built the movement that would become Quakerism before moving south. James Nayler may even fit the story better, coming from the north and entering Bristol in a re-enactment of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, finding himself immediately condemned and his movement imperiled for posing a danger to the state.

The Nayler story makes me wonder how self-aware the Quakers were of these echoes, something I need to research more deeply. I did run into a paper questioning Fox's and Nayler's rhetoric about Jews and Pharisees (as well as the song "Lord of the Dance") which points out (in note 30) that "there is little evidence in [Nayler's] writings that he understood that Pharisees were a sect of first-century Judaism", which seems especially strange.

Still, if the Quakers had been as successful in their missionary endeavors as they had hoped, perhaps one day an Anglican holdout would have penned Why the Anglicans Rejected Quakerism - with a very similar message.