Some of the earlier parts of Adrian's post were very thought provoking on just what one means by "liberal". To push our thoughts a little more, I notice that in Chuck Fager's book Without Apology he quotes from Isaiah 32 verse 8: "But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall stand". In the margin of my Companion Bible it notes synonyms for this word in Hebrew are: "noble, freehearted, freehanded". In some ways this seems to touch on a significant part of being liberal, i.e. a freeheartedness in living, acceptance of others AND a willingness to "devise" ways of acting on this liberal spirit. Liberal, unprogrammed Friends have helped me immensely at just this point: how to passionately embrace what I personally believe while at the very same time making room for others who disagree strongly with my 'free heart'. I have too often tended to tribalize my faith perspective. With the help of my Meeting, I hope to keep learning! Mike

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Hi Mike,

Nice to hear that Friends have energy to continue this discussion which has proven to be not easy.
I'd like to add a question to your comments:
To what extent are Liberal Friends capable of extending their characteristical openness towards accepting the "unliberal" (e.g. Friends who hold the opinion that Quakerism should contain God or christian symbolism in order to be called Quakerism)? Or are there limits to our acceptance and openness? And if so, what are they and how do they manifest?

In Light
Thanks, Pieter (or Pieter-Jan) for your reply and question. I suspect that the only way I could answer it is in the context of our monthly Meeting at Sunrise (the only Missouri meeting in SCYM!). That is, any brief written response to it tends to be formulaic. In actual practice, it seems that our openess develops as a process. Howard Brinton's oversimplification, "Quakerism is primarily a method, just as science is primarily a method", has really proved to be true in our Sunrise Meeting. It is a relief and a joy to celebrate with these Friends. Due to my immersion in conservative Anabaptism for years, my spiritual framework is framed by biblical references. But, after MfW yesterday, I enjoyed hearing a Friend describe recent shamanistic retreats and practices. For me to personally affirm Jesus' way need not exclude anyone...even if their theistic/nontheistic thoughts seem different from mine.
Hello, Adrian. You wrote: I wonder what the meaning of liberal was in that time and context? as I am sure it will have been at least subtly different to our understanding. Yes, it is interesting to see how the semantic range of words have expanded or been reduced over the centuries. In the case of "liberal", it seems to have retained much of its breadth and power until relatively recent times, at least in North American settings. Because of these recent negative usages, it is probably better, in a current Bible translation, to use "noble" or "free hearted" or other synonyms. But, the word is still such a powerful concept and it seems a shame to let negative forces win this linguistic battle! Thanks again, Mike
I think that one of the things which distinguishes the Liberal Quaker tradition is that it is capacious regarding belief, but fairly strict regarding practice. Pink Dandelion speaks to this and regards it as a paradox; but I don't find it paradoxical. It is only paradoxical if one regards belief as the defining characteristic of religion; but there are many religions that don't work that way. A comparison might be helpful: someone who practices tea ceremony (which, in Japan, is regarded as a spiritual practice) is not interrogated regarding their beliefs. But the tea ceremony itself is strict as to form. There are many examples like this, and using these kinds of comparisons Liberal Quakerism makes sense.
I think the retreat from belief to practice is a signature characteristic of liberal Quakerism, just as Dandelion described it in his book on the sociology of Quaker belief. Though a liberal Friend myself, I think this is a big mistake. It strips out all the content of our tradition. I would like to think that, for Friends, belief is not actually the defining characteristic of religion. Rather, it is experience: "what canst thou say?" The question isn't what do you believe, but what have you experienced? For instance, the one thing liberal quakers seem comfortable saying about belief is that we believe in that of God in everyone, even though they usually mean by that something completely anithetical to what George Fox meant. But ask them what that means, and the answer tends to be a little vague. But to my point about experience, how do you experience "that of God" in everyone? Fox had a clear answer to that question, but most liberal Friends have never even thought about it. When they do, the answers, in my experience, tend toward vague generalizations, rather than vivid first-hand accounts. They sound like descriptions of what Friends would like to experience, if only they could have a real mystical experience. So here's my question: what have you experienced and how has that defined what being a "liberal Quaker" means in your case?
Hi Jim,

I've appreciated much you have shared, especially about Buddhism. But as for "practice" in the sense of form being central in the Society of Friends (like the form in the Japanese tea ceremony) I would have to strongly disagree.

From the beginning and through the great movements that have sprung out of in Quaker worship (such as anti-slavery), I don't think it has been the repetition of "forms" which have transformed Friends and then humanity. On the contrary, "practice" often was what hindered dynamic Quakerism. The Society focused on forms sometimes hindering the guidance of the Light. Why did it take Woolman, guided by the Spirit of God, so long to convince Friends to apply their testimony of equality to the horrid evil of slavery? Why was Levi Coffin pushed out of the Friends? Why did Lucretia Mott leave her meeting in frustration?

I don't think "practice" is any safer than "belief." But both are dangerous. What is needed is whole hearted worship and love of God and the transforming experience of God's Light applied to all human actions.

Thanks Adrian, that was very clear.
Regarding LGBT issues: It sometimes still seems that they are amongst the most contentious and divisive questions for Friends, and I would dare to say for organized Christianity as a whole.
I deeply regret this. I personally think this is simply a misguided obsession with fake ethics.

Last month, Jim, my wife and I were part of the Missouri Valley Friends Conf in northeast Kansas. Having a blogger, Real Live Preacher, there was a lot of fun. The topic you touched on here "Pink Dandelion speaks to this and regards it as a paradox; but I don't find it paradoxical". was something I mentioned in conversation with him: how vital (and even uniform) much of our practice is...though our beliefs seem to allow for quite a bit more diversity. During clearness committee discussions as part of my becoming a member, there were many more questions and thoughts along the lines of experience and practice (and our 'historic testimonies') than on creedal beliefs. I appreciated Stephen's complementary thoughts to yours in the next post, but I think that I want to answer his question separately. [I will say that I don't look at the unwillingness to be doctrinally precise as "a retreat from belief".] At any rate, I really do think that, if "Quakerism is method", then our practice of worship (and other practices) remains very key to who we are. One example: The Evangelical Friends in this area of southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas have almost become generic evangelicals after having adopted clericalism and programmed worship. Their practice (and theology) seems to have moved in the direction strong support of the military and our various wars. Thanks again for your thoughs... Mike
Hi, Steven. At the conclusion of your post, you asked:

So here's my question: what have you experienced and how has that defined what being a "liberal Quaker" means in your case?

Great question!

This was a strong impetus for both my wife and me in our coming back repeatedly as attenders to MfW at Sunrise: the powerful experience of the 'Spirit of God' coming upon us in the silence; of feeling the power of love moving within us. I think that you are absolutely right on this point: to be liberal is to be very open, not only to all manner of interesting thoughts and philosophies and various ways of understanding truth, but also to our Guide! We should be among the most open to continuing revelation, in however we understand that process to work. Mike
Dear Steven:

I find that I am reluctant to talk at length about this kind of experience on the web. I don't have a problem discussing this with people person-to-person; but there's something about the atmosphere on the web which seems to engender contention. Nevertheless, I will say that about ten years ago I had the experience of perceiving the inner light, or presence of the eternal, in the people I was working with at that time. Ordinary people; no one special like a Saint or someone like that. This took me by surprise, but I found it unmistakable. I mean by the inner light the presence in people of the capacity for love, kindness, caring, compassion; even in those people where it might seem to be obliterated one can sense an ember of its presence. This experience was not interpretable in terms of my Buddhist background and studies and it sent me on a journey to attempt to comprehend this more clearly. This took a lot of years and I won't go into all the details. But it moved me from being a non-theist to being a theist; from someone who did not believe in a soul ("anatman") to someone who does believe in the soul.

My contact with the Liberal Quaker tradition affirmed that experience and was open enough in terms of vocabulary and doctrine that I could access this understanding even given my background. I have regularly found and felt that presence at Meeting for Worship in silence, in the form of this tradition.

I hope this is of some assistance.

Best wishes,


P.S. I don't agree that Liberal Quakers "retreat" from belief. I don't look at it that way. It is more like a cup that can hold a variety of nourishing and refreshing beverages. If one fills the cup with coffee I don't think that is a "retreat" from tea; it's just using the cup in another way and for another purpose. The same cup can later be used to serve tea, or milk. Just my take.
Strong's Hebrew Dictionary defines the KJV's term "liberal things" in this way:

From H5068; properly voluntary, that is, generous; hence, magnanimous; as noun, a grandee (sometimes a tyrant): - free, liberal (things), noble, prince, willing ([hearted]).
Thanks. That could make the name of this group The Generous and Noble Friends! Maybe we should try on those synonyms?


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