March 18, 2007

Religious blogging panel, SXSW

I was at the SXSW conference for work, and there was a session, "Ghost in the Machine: Spirituality Online," that some readers of this blog might have enjoyed.

The panelists were:

I don't think I can summarize this at all well, so I'm publishing my lightly cleaned-up notes of the conversation. (They may not be perfect, and I didn't record it, so can't go back to check.)

Continue reading "Religious blogging panel, SXSW" »

January 28, 2007

History and us

A lot of religious writing describes how overemphasis on history is a sign of trouble. Some of this is because of the dangers of, say, churches taking too much pride in their past accomplishments, and (perhaps) neglecting the present. Another component is Protestantism's distrust for tradition, perhaps lingering echoes of the break with Catholicism.

Quakerism has a complicated relationship with its history. That history is itself complicated, with incredible early inspirational fire, a period of relative calm few historians seem to defend, and then a variety of schisms. There is deliberately no central creed Quakers subscribe to. Historic documents sometimes fill that gap, often pulled, like biblical proof-texts, out of their original historical and textual contexts.

There is a bigger problem, however: Quakerism is a religion based on experience, an experience many people don't think they've had. What does contact with the Light accomplish? How have Quakers been changed by their faith? What might make a skeptic think that there's something different going on in Meeting for Worship than a very quiet meeting of a Society for Ethical Culture chapter?

Frequently, the easiest way to answer these questions is to point to past Quaker experience. Not just what people say they've found or felt, but what they've done and how it connects to their account of what they've found or felt. Early Quakers' perseverance under persecution, dying for their cause while feeling they were working for the Lord, is one example. John Woolman's combination of Quietist faith and his ministry against slavery is another, as is Elizabeth Gurney Fry's work on prison reform, the efforts of conscientious objectors, and the work of Quakers up to the present, including Tom Fox.

This rich past informs our present, promising more than an hour of peaceful contemplation at Meeting. Different branches of Quakerism emphasize different aspects of that rich past, and there is certainly more than enough material for them to find parallel but different tellings of the same story.

There's still a pull, though, toward the idea that Quakerism's past should not determine its present. Early Quakers felt that Christianity, itself a break with the Jewish telling of the past, had accumulated its own problems from which Quakers were freeing themselves. Arguments over the degree to which Quakerism should be Christian (Evangelical, Trinitarian, Unitarian, or...) or not seem to explode especially well over which aspects of the history are relevant to modern Quakerism and which should be left as of value only to their participants.

Some of that, as in other churches, be about thinking positive, avoiding issues that might not be such fun to discuss, or which might break an important argument. Some of that may be because the issues involved make us doubt our predecessors, forcing us to sift through perhaps unsightly past context. And some of that comes from the concern that Quaker history, while fascinating and inspiring, shouldn't be used to limit the possibilities of Quakerism might become.

Personally, I find reading Quaker history to be inspiring even when - maybe especially when - I find Quakers behaving in ways that might not live up to the perfection we hope of our predecessors. We can remember that like us, they were humans grappling with the Light, with the challenge of building relationships where we ourselves are in this world outwardly while communing inwardly with a holiness transcending our humanity. Powerful inspiration leads to deep questioning and uncertainty, and often to amazing deeds performed not simply because of personal conviction but because of humility - this is what has to be done, not just what I think is right.

Quaker history is not an appropriate stick to use against people who claim the name "Quaker" while breaking with the past, in whatever direction. I do think, however, that reading Quaker history with a mind open to the possibilities of finding the experiences of the past once again in the present can lead to new (yet old) opportunities. We live in times where we're taught to doubt claims of experience beyond the five senses, or claims that can't be proven in the laboratory or the marketplace. Looking to the past may help us reclaim what many of us have lost.

July 23, 2006

Sharing listening

Looking back over my posts, nearly all of them are citations. I've heard or read something, and want to share it, make it more available to people. I go through periods of listening and periods of writing, and right now - despite all the writing - I'm in a listening phase. I'm travelling, so I'm reading much more than usual (and having Powell's City of Books nearby is reinforcing that).

I'm bouncing along a strange path of mostly but not always Quaker reading, finding all kinds of things along the way. I don't feel I have much - yet - to add to those findings, so I'm mostly posting them as I find them, and hoping to let whoever is crazy enough to be reading this find their own meeting.

I suspect that the key activity in Quakerism is listening. Listening to God, listening for the light's direction, listening to other people. The quiet at meeting helps us hear; what we say at meeting helps us share what we've heard.

Hopefully these posts make interesting listening. There are a lot more of them coming.

June 2, 2006

History, Quakerism, Christianity

Reading New Light on George Fox was a rather jarring experience, though since my background is in history, a not entirely surprising one. I didn't expect Fox or other early Quakers to be perfect saints, or Quakerism born at once, wholly formed. Still, there's always something unsettling about history done right, something that rarely fits with settled opinion.

Tonight I returned to my quest to finally finish Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (Since 1700), the last volume of Jaroslav Pelikan's The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, and found:

Like any good historian, the historian of the church and of Christian doctrine in any period had the responsibility to begin with the sources and to lead the reader back to the sources.

In the course of doing so, the historians of all the churches learned how questions that seemed to be purely historical could become doctrinally explosive and profoundly divisive. "The assembly in Moscow of ancient manuscripts from various places of Russia" in the seventeeth century might have seemed to an outside observer to be a harmless exercise in antiquarianism and what Orthodoxy called "ecclesiastical philology," but a nineteenth-century historian showed how it had become the occasion for the Russian schism or "Raskol"; the history of the liturgy was an indispensable part of the history of the church.

Even while one Roman Catholic historical theologian was seeking to reject as a slander the charge that the Catholic faith required "an assent to views and interpretations of Scripture which modern science and historical research have utterly discredited" and another was declaring the rejection of the sacrificial interpretation of the Mass by the Protestant Reformers to be a "stubborn denial" of the clear results of honest historical investigation, the debate over the doctrine of papal infallibility was about to involve yet another in researches whose conclusion it was that "to the adherents of the theory of infallibility the history of the ancient church for the first millenium must appear to be an insoluble riddle."

Such contradictions were taken by Protestants that honest historiography would necessarily clash with the authoritarian teachings of "the Roman church." For their part, Roman Catholics strove to rescue and rehabilitate history from its domination by "Germans and Protestants" and, because Protestants denied both the authority of tradition and the validity of doctrinal development, to insist that "to be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant." (236-7, additional paragraph breaks added.)

That's just the history of the church itself - the discussion hasn't yet reached the Bible. It's clear that history can be a problem for religion, and I think it's also clear that early Quakers were aware of this:

For example, much of Thomas Holme's exalted language toward Fox has been so severely edited (and literally ripped from the record) that it cannot now be recovered. This occurred when Fox personally tampered with letters now contained in the Swarthmore Manuscripts. He made deletions with broad ink strokes and made corrections indisputably in his own hand. He struck out extravagant phrases of adoration and substituted more moderate ones. In places where whole patches were torn from the record (probably at a later date by Margaret Fell), the jagged edges still revealing the broad ink crossings out. (New Light, 113)

When the founders were clearly aware of the functions of history, and take steps to manage it (the writing and editing of Fox's Journal among those steps), it can be especially dangerous to raise the cry of "back to the Founders". I'm enjoying reading Fox and exploring early Quakerism, but his valuable insights require much context.

I don't think history is incompatible with Quakerism or Christianity in the way, I'd say, for example, economics is, but it's definitely a complex relationship, one I hope to explore much further. I expect the Light will prove a necessary guide, not just a subject to research.

February 4, 2006


Perhaps it's strange to write about silence, but I have too many ideas rolling through my head now, flowing from my participation in Quaker Meeting and the reading I've been doing about Quakerism.

I'm hoping to use this space as a place to write about leadings and readings, including the writings of Quakers from George Fox to the present and the scriptures themselves. Perhaps I'll open it up to a broader audience at some point, but at least initially it'll be a place for me to put my thoughts and have them remembered outside the swirling ideas in my head.