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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.


I appreciate your kind words, Simon.

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.

I think you know part of my vision for Quakerpedia is to make that context more accessible, to raise the level of debate/conversation by debunking our pet myths and making the facts and texts closer to hand.

(lost the italics on your second paragraph)

Reading the previous two posts in the series, I'd be interested to see how you tie them together. I see no contradiction, but a very mild tension – we should ease up on historical accuracy (I-II), but not too much (III). What is the middle ground?