Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I write this short bit in preparation for the anthology of social scientific and theological reflections about what may be termed “Liberal Quakerism” that I will explore on my blog: http://theliberalquaker.wordpress.com/ Others have a different term for Liberal Quakerism—ones either less or more encompassing. So I hold the term lightly, and I use it merely as a flexible marker.
The nebulous character of the term, “Liberal Quakerism,” is an indication for the topic I want quickly to explore. Before attempting to answer the question “What is Liberal Quakerism?” or the question, “What would a Liberal Quaker look like?” or “What is Liberal Quaker lived religion?” I want to ask: “What do Liberal Quakers believe?” I actually want to ask a much more specific question: How do we resolve the problem concerning the role and importance of the Testimonies in Liberal Quakerism?
For many years, I have vacillated between two different perspectives on the Testimonies. At its extremity, the first perspective asserts that the Testimonies are the core of the Liberal Quaker faith. The Testimonies allow a basic shared understanding of the foundational principles by which one generally operates if she is to call herself a Quaker, and if she is to count herself a member of Quaker community. The second perspective, at its extremity, asserts that the Testimonies are the result of prayer, discernment and worship. This prayer and discernment is often equated with the search for divine truth and/or the will of God. This search generated the Testimonies, so the story goes, and the Testimonies are of secondary importance to the search itself. The Testimonies retain a less important status, and are said to be undergirded by three more important, more central belief claims. These belief claims are: there is that of God in everyone, everyone has an unmediated relationship with God, and we need carefully to listen and search for the experience of God’s leadings in prayer, discernment and worship.
A problem emerges, however, at the point when we discover a Liberal Quaker who does not believe in God or who does not believe that God has a will that can be in any way “discerned.” To solve the problem we might simply argue that this person is not actually a Quaker. I would say this method is less a resolution and more avoidance, denial, aversion, etc. Another way to solve this problem is to advise this person to take up the alternate view, which places priority directly onto the Testimonies. Yet I’m not so interested in doing this, because it ultimately leads to vertigo as a result of my aforementioned vacillating. The other way of solving the problem that I’d like to explore involves attempting to redefine the process through which one goes about “discerning the will of God,” in a way such that the Testimonies and the other three belief claims can stand together in a system of basic Quaker theology. This would allow for me finally to sleep at night because I’ll have stopped experiencing the sort of vertigo that comes from mixing two seemingly contradictory things into one faith tradition.
Instead of calling this operation, “the search for the will of God,” we’ll have to re-term it. Yet, we’ll have to do more than call it something else; we also need to characterize it differently. We are not searching for God’s will really, and even if that’s what we wanted to call this operation, it’s not what we are actually doing. So Thomas Kelly and Rufus Jones had a more mystical understanding of God’s presence on Earth and in our everyday lives. God, rather than being anything in particular, like a big bearded white man in the sky, is noted by a set of experiences. These experiences are ordered in terms of a search: for what to do, for right and wrong, for love, for religious experiences, for meaning and purpose, for divine intervention, etc. The search itself can be characterized by a variety of goals, but the search is not as important as our experience of it.
Imagine you are walking in a forest in search of elephants. I, for one, would love to interact with an elephant before I die, so I’ll use this example (but one could employ countless others). So, imagine you are walking in a forest in search of elephants. The forest is obviously more like a jungle, because as far as I know elephants don’t really live in places that have forests; they live in places that have jungles. So imagine that you are walking in a jungle in search of elephants. Basically, you really want to interact with an elephant before you die. So there are clues as to where they might be. Soon you find a big footprint. Thereafter you realize that the elephants were not in the jungle at all; they were in an adjacent desert because (obviously) they are really too big to spend significant amounts of time among trees, especially if the trees are densely populated as they would be in a jungle (or a forest). So then you exit the jungle and begin a second search in the hot desert. Ah! The search may go on for some time to come, or it may end with a sighting. With hope at your side, you eventually find an elephant. You have an interaction with it—maybe you say, “Hello, elephant,” and then maybe you pretend to hear it respond with, “Hello, Zac.” So your search is done.
What is important about the search for the elephants? Well there are countless important things about the search for the elephants. The most important thing for this short piece is the actual experience of the search. Each new clue along the way produces immeasurable excitement and certainty about where you are headed. Perhaps in addition to finding the big footprint, you discover huge sections of torn leaves, matted-down vegetation and bent tree-trunks. Certainly, these are clues as to where the elephants are, where they have been, and where they are headed. Then you find the footprint, and then more footprints all headed out of the jungle. To the dessert you go! What is the quality of experience in the frustration of not yet discovering the elephants, and in discovering them? What have you learned? Who have you become now that you interacted with an elephant? These sets of experiences and whatever existential knowing we can glean from them are in sum worth noting as indications of the experience of the divine. The search for the will of God becomes more the search for experiences of the divine or even simply for divine experiences. And the three undergirding principles on the other side of the spectrum become: there is the possibility of divine experience with everyone, everyone can experience the divine, and the experience of the divine can be sought after using tools like worship, social action and committees.
Such is the character if this operation I am attempting redefine. We are searching for God, but God is just a word we have for a thing a lot bigger and a lot less describable than perhaps we’d care to admit at most points during the day. Are the elephants a metaphor for God? No, more like God is a metaphor for the Elephants. Everything we have to describe God is makeshift, and everything we think we know about God is makeshift. Everything we know about where God has been, where God is and where God is going is ephemeral. At some point, we might even discover footprints that are headed right back into the jungle/forest. What!?! I thought elephants couldn't live inside forests!
Arguably, Quakers from the original times even knew that whatever they thought they knew about God could at some point turn out to be mere ignorant conjecture. That’s a discussion for another day. The point is that if we understand this premise to undergird the testimonies and the three belief claims at the other end of the spectrum, then we can call the operation previously named “the search for the will of God,” something more like, “the search for the unknowable, unnamable divine experience." Unfortunately the divine experience is one of those, “you-don’t-know-it-until-you-see-it,” sort of things. And in the context of the search, whatever we posit to help us discover the divine experience is ephemeral. So, in one sense the Testimonies are indeed diminished in importance because they are ephemeral. In another sense the Testimonies are more important than anything because, as of now, they are the closest things we have to discovering the divine experience. That isn’t quite true either, however, because we also have the Bible, the Koran, the Sutras, the Tao, etc., to help us out when we’re stuck.
The Testimonies are pieces of a toolkit and collections of clues about where and how we might discover the divine. The divine perhaps resides in simple and environmentally sustainable life-styles, peaceful and honest relations, life-affirming communities, and equitable societies. These Testimonies are the result of 350 years of searching, and so they represent a great deal of cumulative wisdom. There is more wisdom to come, which may add to the Testimonies or subtract from them. So we hold them lightly, acknowledging that the Testimonies are not static, nor are they everything that Liberal Quakerism represents. They are yet important for Liberal Quakers today, who also hold dear the search for that unknowable divine experience and keep a toolkit that extends well beyond the Testimonies just in case our elephant footprints suddenly head right back into the jungle-forest.
To the elephants!
 The Testimonies are somewhat controversial, but are the easiest way to codify what Liberal Quakers believe. Especially for Liberal Quakers who don’t put a lot of stock in the existence of God or in the divinity of Jesus, the Testimonies are the benchmark of greatest importance. The Peace Testimony remains the most significant. There are others, five others, and they are situated not unlike vowels in the English language: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and sometimes Stewardship. An easy acronym is often conjured as a pneumonic device: “SPICES.”