Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
Interpreting Our Past – Part 3
The Logic of Withdrawal
The period of Quietism is marked by a sense of withdrawal from the social sphere. This should not be exaggerated as Quakers did continue to be involved in various political causes and concerns, notably the abolition of slavery. Still, relatively speaking, Quakers in the period of Quietism became more inward, more contemplative, and less engaged with the specifically political.
I’m not a very learned Quaker historian, but there seem to be two factors which encouraged this relative withdrawal. The first was the passage of the acts of toleration in England which removed the worst of the legal threats to Quakers in England. These were passed in 1689. It is true that Quakers were still barred from various professions and higher education, but the threat of mass imprisonment and the most overt types of persecution had come to an end.
The second, which happened some decades later, was the withdrawal of Quakers from the legislature in Pennsylvania, and other colonial governments. This happened due to Quaker concerns with how political involvement would make it difficult, or impossible, to live their lives in accordance with their religious principles.
I believe there is a parallel in Christian history that applies to the inward turning of the period of Quaker Quietism. I am referring to the period of the Desert Fathers, which took place after the Christian Church was freed from persecution when Constantine granted Christianity legitimacy. The parallel here is intriguing: the lifting of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire lead to a flight to the desert among some Christians who sought to retain the primitive and devout nature of early Christian practice. In a similar way, the inward turning of Quaker Quietism happened after the persecutions of the Quaker people in England were lifted and a Quaker presence was tolerated.
There are other similarities. Both the Quietists and the Desert Fathers developed a concern with ascetic behaviors and practices. Though the specifics of these practices differ, I sense a common, unifying focus in each case. The worldly is to be avoided because it is corrupting. Quakers eschewed music, games, alcohol, dancing, novels, fashionable clothing, etc., because they wanted to maintain an inward focus on the Divine. The ascetic nature of Quaker Discipline at that time functioned as a kind of lens to keep that focus.
In a similar way, the Desert Fathers rejected worldly involvements and physically withdrew into the desert so that they could retain their focus on the Divine.
There are differences between the two groups. The most obvious is that the Desert Fathers practiced celibacy as part of their program of renunciation. In contrast, the Quaker Quietists were family-centered. This is a significant difference, yet I don’t think this difference should be overemphasized. There is an underlying ‘logic of withdrawal’ from the world which, when one compares the two movements, is surprisingly congruent.
What is that logic? I would like to suggest a possible mode of interpretation for understanding this impulse to withdraw from worldly concerns. If one understands that the purpose of religion is to awaken to that which is eternal, if one understands the presence of Eternity as the primary focus of faith and practice, then the logic of withdrawal makes sense. It makes sense because nothing in this world is eternal; everything that we perceive will pass away. There are psalms that speak to this. And the Book of Ecclesiastes is also, in part, an extended meditation on the ‘vanity’ of the world. ‘Vanity’ in the sense that nothing we will do in the world will, ultimately, last.
If one thinks of God as having characteristics that one can contemplate, and that contemplating these characteristics brings us closer to God, a primary characteristic of God is His eternity. God is eternal. Yet nothing in this world is eternal, and because of this to draw closer to God requires us to turn away from the things of the world and to turn to the presence of eternity.
I would like to suggest that the inward light that Quakers speak of is the presence of eternity in the ephemeral individual. That is to say the inward light is the grace of this eternal Presence freely given to the passing shadow known as human life. And it is this Presence which gives our lives meaning and worth.
I believe that both the Desert Fathers and the Quaker Quietists share this underlying understanding. As it says in Chapter 1 of ‘A Guide to True Peace’,
“We must retire from all outward objects, and silence all the desires and wandering imaginations of the mind that in this profound silence of the whole soul, we may hearken to the ineffable voice of the Divine Teacher.”
This is a view that the Desert Fathers would have readily understood. This is a view that the Desert Fathers would have accepted and advocated. And it is a view and perspective which, I feel, is at the heart of what it means to be a Quaker.