January 4, 2009

The Limits of History, IV

In a comment on my earlier piece, Zach Alexander asks:

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?

Partly, the tension comes from the time between the posts, but mostly I think I've failed to be clear again. There are two separate aspects to the question of history and Quakerism:

  • How important is history - the stories we tell - to Quakerism?

  • What kind of historical practice do we apply to those stories?

My first and third posts were supposed to be about the first question - yes, history is important, critical to who "Quakers" are. In a creedless religion, we are the stories we tell. (Thanks to Will T for helping me polish that phrasing with an earlier comment.)

Because of this, I am, of course, deeply concerned about what might be described as Quaker amnesia - people arguing, as I think you have, that one piece or another is at the heart of what's valuable about Quakerism, and the rest is just... whatever. Yes, it's tempting - but wrong. Without the larger context, a small list of "key pieces" is doomed to be misleading (about Quakerism) at best.

The second post and some of the third post were more about the second question.

Here, I'm taking a position that should make academic historians uncomfortable. I don't think applying the usual rules for academic history to the stories of Quakerism is particularly useful for Quakerism. Yes, it's valuable for historians, and First Among Friends in particular is eye-opening - but not quite right.

I'm also less and less surprised by the 'tampering' with Fox's Journal and his works generally. Early Quaker writings weren't meant to be objective journalism or verbatim archives. We have to accept that they were written for the express purpose of evangelizing their readers, of telling a story their writers found compelling. I don't think it's all that different from how we look at the Bible, except with fewer translation issues. Believers see it one way, academics and other interested outsiders often see it another way.

At this point, I'm comfortable with the idea that these early Quaker documents simply are different, and communicate different things, depending on who you are. Not merely "who you are" as an individual, but "who you are" as a community. In an earlier age, I'm guessing Quakers would have thought of it as inside the hedge vs. outside the hedge, but since the hedge has come down, the lines are blurrier.

How can we make this work? My best advice would be to supplement whatever secondary Quaker history we want to read with the primary documents, or things close to the originals. And I have some ideas on making the originals easier to get to.... we'll see.

Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

Carole Dale Spencer manages, in Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, to describe early Quakerism as a largely coherent whole whose later schisms reflect emphasis on some components and the loss of others. While it's definitely an academic book, it is still a compelling read, and I hope this story will be told widely in more accessible forms over the years to come.

Before continuing with the review, I should note that Spencer plays to practically every bias and opinion I hold regarding Quakerism up through about the 1840s, and frequently thereafter. It's strange to me to be reading interpretive Quaker history, especially history that looks beyond the first generation, and not be spending a fair amount of time arguing with the author in my head. I find her telling of the early Quakers compelling, as well as her case for the Quietists as something better than a terrible decline. While I'm not as convinced by her doubts about Elias Hicks personally, her overall take on Hicksites makes sense to me, as do her doubts about how close Joseph John Gurney was to the heart of Quakerism. I think she's correct that John Wilbur was, as he claimed, much closer.

Where I start having doubts is in the second half of the 19th century, when the Holiness Movement per se comes through. There's a conversation worth having about forms of Quaker worship, hinted at here, but not really explored. I return pretty easily though, in her discussion of the 20th century, and overall I'm kind of dazed to agree with so much of a single telling of Quaker history, especially at this level of depth.

I suspect some potential readers will bounce off the word "Holiness", thinking that this is a plea for revival meetings. They shouldn't. Spencer's use of holiness certainly includes revival meetings (including, I think, the earliest Quaker gatherings), but it's a much richer use than that. Her use of holiness derives from the early Christian fathers, a group whose thought (as she points out) regularly parallels that of early Quakers. She emphasizes eight aspects, which she sees as integrated in early Quaker thought:

  • Scripture
  • Eschatology
  • Conversion
  • Charisma (Spirit)
  • Evangelism
  • Mysticism
  • Suffering
  • Perfection

Obviously, not all of those aspects resonate with all Quakers today, and the details of many of them changed over the course of 350 years, sometimes repeatedly. I remember being blown away by Apocalypse of the Word, largely because it was startling to me that eschatology was central to early Quakers. Talking about "perfection" seems to instantly raise alarms, whether with Quakers or with, well, practically anyone, but Spencer weaves it tightly into the story.

I'll be writing more about the book for a while to come - there are lots and lots of pieces worth pursuing, even pieces I hope someone will take up and turn into complete books of their own.

Yes, it's written academically, and can be very dense, but the content is excellent. My one real complaint (and maybe this is only my copy) is that the type seems excessively light. It's all there, but reading it seems trickier than it should be. The price ($41) isn't cheap, but fortunately it's not as astronomical as some academic publishing.

I can't recommend it as light reading, but if you're up for a detailed and valuably opinionated journey through Quaker history, it's an excellent telling.

(It's also worth noting that the latest issue of Quaker Religious Thought, #110, includes reviews by Stephen Angell, Margery Post Abbott, and Jim Le Shana, with replies from Spencer.)

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.

April 18, 2008

The Limits of History, II

Quaker history also presents a challenge to all of its modern tellers. Like the early Christians, early Quakers laid down their history after the initial flames had cooled, and re-told the stories in ways that reflected their comunity. We can't, however, see or hear what the early Christians were working with, while the early Quakers' original writings and edits of those writings are readily available to anyone who wants to take a look.

As John Nickalls put it in the Preface to his edition of the Journal of George Fox:

Thomas Ellwood worked on the instructions of the Second-day Morning Meeting, a committee of the Society of Friends in London, and in accord with the desire of Fox that his life and writings should be published. The Journal which Ellwood prepared was a composite work, presenting a continuous account of Fox's life in the form of an autobiography, in a more uniform, more polished, and more cautious style in many places than the various [manuscripts] which have been mentioned.

Some passages he considerably abbreviated. Ellwood worked with more freedom than would to-day be approved, putting passages into autobiographical form from other sources, but he was an able and a careful editor. He also adapted or omitted many of Fox's own vigorous phrases, his picturesque details his apparent overvaluation of praise, claims to psychic powers, and matter thought liable to cause political or theological protest, besides doubtful or unverifiable statements. (xxxix-xl)

It's hard to imagine a description like that appended to one of the Gospels, after all. (It would of course be interesting if they noted striking miracles out.) Knowing that Fox went through his letters and struck out language addressed to him that he thought was too exalted doesn't help the historical picture either.

Emphasizing the priorities set by professional history, though, doesn't particularly meet the needs of either religion or storytelling. A detailed, but deliberately scholarly biography of George Fox exists, generally free of hagiography. It attempts "to rescue Fox from poorly grounded, usually uncritical, and theologically oriented works." Although I cite it regularly, and strongly recommend reading it, it always feels to me like it's missing something, the spark that makes Fox compelling to his peers. Sure, Fox has (or borrows) some good ideas, and builds a following. But why exactly were people so convinced, so willing to follow that message into the prisons and to death?

Somehow, it's not there, despite the excellent research, despite the helpful footnotes. I don't think that lack is Larry Ingle's fault - it's just not really compatible with the approach of the book. (His earlier Quakers in Conflict has it easier with these problems, as the conflict built into the story brings its own fascination.)

It's possible, though, to reach a balance, if not necessarily one that will make professional historians cheer. I think, for instance, that William Braithwaite managed that in his early twentieth-century history, which had much of the same scholarly apparatus but was still told from a deliberately Quaker perspective, a Quaker talking mostly to other Quakers looking back on a shared history.

More recently, I think Doug Gwyn generally gets it right. He got scolded a bit by Larry Ingle for Apocalypse of the Word's reaching for a "Quaker Holy Grail" and mixing up opinions from different periods of Fox's life. Gwyn's later work more carefully follows a timeline, but it still keeps the excitement and the willingness to challenge its readers that his first book offered.

History written by humans is never going to be "objective", somehow written from a genuinely outsider stance with clean access to everything that happened. Not all of the information survives, and even the information that does survive will be filtered, arranged, assembled, polished, and transformed into a story rather than a collection of parts.

There are a lot of different stories we can tell about the early Quakers. I worry that a lot of what passes for Quaker history in conversation is more like Quaker sound-bites, brief tales told to illustrate particular points. I'd like to see more attention given to the complete stories. We need to remember, though, that Quaker history is part of Quakerism, and not very usefully separable from that religious context. It is, of course, a part of many things, as Christopher Hill reminds us in his work on the 17th century, but I can't imagine insisting on a clean separation between the light that created Quakerism and the light that today still illuminates it.

Like the early Christians, the early Quakers weren't simply documenting facts, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it. We need to consider that change when we read Quaker history.

April 5, 2008

The Limits of History, I

Way back when, I wrote a couple of pieces on Albert Schweitzer, promising to write more about how his The Quest of the Historical Jesus related to early Quaker history and its relevance for today.

Like many of my promises here, I never got around to writing that. Nonetheless, it raised a set of questions that keep echoing in my head, especially as I gear up to write more about Seekers Found.

Unable to focus on just one book, though, I re-opened The Hauerwas Reader, a collection of Stanley Hauerwas' work that was so powerful that at one point I looked around, amazed that airport security had let me carry it on to a plane. And what did I find?

It is not my intention to settle to what extent we can know "the real Jesus." I am quite content to assume that the Jesus we have in Scripture is the Jesus of the early church. Even more important, I want to maintain that it cannot or should not be otherwise, since the very demands Jesus placed on his followers means he cannot be known abstracted from the disciples' response.

The historical fact that we learn who Jesus is only as he is reflected through the eyes of his followers, a fact that has driven many to despair because it seems that they cannot know the real Jesus, is in fact a theological necessity. For the "real Jesus" did not come to leave us unchanged, but rather to transform us to be worthy members of the community of the new age.

It is a startling fact, so obvious that its significance is missed time and time again, that when the early Christians first began to witness the significance of Jesus for their lives they necessarily resorted to a telling of his life.

Their "Christology" did not consist first in claims about Jesus' ontological status, though such claims were made; their Christology was not limited to assessing the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection, though certainly these were attributed great significance; rather, their "Christology," if it can be called that, showed the story of Jesus as absolutely essential for depicting the kind of kingdom that they now though possible through his life, death, and resurrection.

Therefore, though Jesus did not call attention to himself, the early Christians rightly saw that what Jesus came to proclaim, the kingdom of God as a present and future reality, could be grasped only by recognizing how Jesus exemplified in his life the standards of that kingdom.

But the situation is even more complex. The form of the Gospels as stories of a life are meant not only to display that life, but to train us to situate our lives in relation to that life. For it was assumed by the churches that gave us the Gospels that we cannot know who Jesus is and what he stands for without learning to be his followers. Hence the ironic form of Mark, which begins by announcing to the reader this is the "good news about Jesus, the annointed one, the son of God," but in depicting the disciples shows how difficult it is to understand the significance of that news.

You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life. His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of kingdom Jesus brings. In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged. Only by learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of messiah this Jesus is. (118-9, paragraph breaks added, originally from The Peaceable Kingdom.)

Theologically, this is a powerful statement, but seen from a modern historical perspective, it's earth-shattering. Historians have given up on most of their dreams of purely objective history, but this telling moves well beyond practices that acknowledge bias to what many would argue is sheer propaganda.

But can the story really be told in any other way, by people who believe it? I have to agree with Hauerwas that the authors of the Gospels weren't writing Christological treatises, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it.

I think that dynamic, on a smaller scale, may also be operating in the narratives of early Quakerism, though there is more explicit "Christology" of various kinds there. Some people find the stories life-changing, and tell them in ways meant to change the listener, while others reject that style of story-telling all together. As with Christianity broadly, they may even reject the foundations of the story itself, while enjoying the cultural and spiritual benefits they believe it helped to create.