Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
I am beginning a discussion as a member of Northwest Yearly Meeting. This is a meeting that began in the 19th-century as a meeting heavily influenced by Wesleyan/Holiness revivalism. As time went by, that influence waned. When talking with senior members of NWYM, Wesleyan/Holiness revivalism probably stayed on too long.
I am sensing that, just as Wesleyan/Holiness remained too long, Evangelicalism is probably outstaying its usefulness. When I use the term "Evangelical", I mean the post-WWII, Billy Graham-ian, Wheaton/Fuller, response to modernity and fundamentalism.
In particular, I see Evangelicalism, as bringing in with it, a whole slew of baggage that is not particularly amenable with Quakerism. Graham came from North Carolinian Presbyterianism, and, naturally, his movement became top-heavy with figures from the Reformed side of Christianity. The only Arminian-minded figure that I can think of that was included within the Evangelical leadership was Dennis Kinlaw.
As Evangelicals engaged with modernism, they portrayed, very successfully, their doctrine as unquestionably biblical and orthodox. Anything which stood out as different or distinct from Evangelicalism became suspect. For Quakers influenced by Evangelicalism, the question became, "Which rightly speaks about authentic Christianity? Is it George Fox, William Penn, etc., or is it Chuck Swindoll, James Dobson, etc.,? Because Evangelicals were so successful at presenting themselves as orthodox, any Friend with an appreciation of orthodoxy would naturally focus on Evangelicals and not on Fox or Robert Barclay.
I see two problems with this. One is that Evangelicalism, with its Reformed roots, has a lower understanding of perfection or holy living than does Quakerism. As Evangelical Friends lost their connection with their own historical doctrine of holiness and adopted the one offered by Evangelicalism, it led to a much shallower sense and practice of sanctification.
A second problem has to do with our culture's movement from modernism to post-modernism. This is causing a great deal of consternation among Evangelicals because their whole raison d'etre has to do with engagement with modernism. If modernism is passing away, what will Evangelicals do? Their only option seems to be to perpetuate the modernist-fundamentalist-Evangelical debate.
I sometimes feel the need to distance myself from Evangelical ideas -- because I find the idea that 20th century English speakers have the right to establish Christian Orthodoxy offensive. I link to this, specifically, because it calls denying something within the Nicene Creed "Orthodox" -- this redefining of words bothers me.
Perhaps one day Evangelical friends will need to leave the National Association of Evangelicals in order to establish our connection with traditional Christianity.
Thanks for posting this discussion. Speaking as a liberal Friend in a Christian seminary (Andover-Newton), your explanation of the history was understandable and intriguing. I actually wrote a paper last term on the responses of some Evangelical theologians to post-modernism... Roger Olson, Clark Pinnock, Walter Truitt Anderson, and others; they liked it that modernism was passing away because (simplistically put) Christians wouldn't have to defend the truth of the Bible from modernism's rationalistic epistemology any more. They said that post-modernism was about communities defined and sustained by their stories, and that that understanding of truth fit well with the Bible, since the gospel is often proclaimed through stories. At least, that's what this beginning student got out of their articles. Wess Daniels, at Camas Friends Church in NorthWest, is also interested in postmodernism and a lot more knowledgeable about the Evangelical side.
But I'm curious whether you've seen Carole Spencer's book about the holiness tradition in Quakerism -- does her description of Friend's doctrine of holiness fit with your sense of it?
I've only read the first half of Spencer's book. I should say that I was a teaching assistant for Carole years ago.
Carole's book is extremely thorough and very good at identifying all the little tweeks that Quakers have put within their understandings of holiness. Because there have been so many "tweeks", it is kind of hard to nail down a definitive Friends doctrine of holiness. I have a very soft spot for Arthur O. Robert's presentation of "through flaming sword", as a purifying baptism. I think Spencer and Roberts disagree a bit about that, though.
I find myself facinated with this discussion. I became a convinced Friend some 30 years ago primarily because it is more important for me to listen to (and for) God than to talk with (or at) God. I am also unalterably egalitarian, and found the Quaker approach to action and interaction to be sensitive to issues of equality.
I have not however, been able to embrace the post-modernist approach to worship. I have no argument with the approach, but I fail to achieve contact with the One who 'speaks to my condition' when I try to worship among post-moderns. Then again ... I never quite made it to modern.
I am attracted to the dialectical approach used by post-modern seekers. I also admire the tolerance of diversity that I see among the post-moderns. But I seem unable to worship without the old hymns and structured studies that I grew up with.
I find the holier-than-thou certainty of some of my fellow 'evangelicals' at odds with the teachings of Jesus. But I do not find comfort or hope in the moral relativism that seems pervasive among the few post-moderns I am familiar with.
Will evangelicals and moderns be replaced by post-modernism? Run the numbers. I think you will find that attendance in churches that are strongly evangelical or clearly modernist is declining. A paucity of spiritual seekers is developing.
I do not characterize the decline in church attendance as disinterest. Rather, I see young people who find no satisfactory spiritual support, guidance or fulfillment in the spiritual practices of their elders. These future leaders still need spiritual support and guidance, whether they have recognized that or not. Unfortunately, they have rejected what exists without having an effective or edifying alternative.
Truly post-modernist gatherings are still developing a coherent ethos that worshippers can either embrace or reject. But attendance at post-modernist gatherings seems to be growing. My guess is that our currently disconnected progeny will respond to whatever promptings the Spirit provides to their generation. I see the developing post-modernist church as a hopeful harbinger of a generation that is responding to those promptings.
What does that mean for old folks like me? We will probably continue to find edifying fellowship within gatherings of like-minded worshippers -- until our numbers decline to some tipping point that forces the remnant to seek spiritual strength elsewhere. Then, whatever that future church looks like, it will become the accepted standard and dissenters will arise anew.
In the meantime, I have come to terms with the idea that an age of worship practices that I prefer is passing. I hope that those of us approaching our 'grey havens to sail for the undying shores' will provide whatever encouragement and support our successor stewards need so they can worship in accord with the spiritual guidance they are given.