Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
More on Discipline
In Part 3 I compared Quaker Discipline as found during the period of Quietism to other religious disciplines such as those used in monasticism and among the Amish. But there are other contexts where people follow a Discipline, or Rule. And I thought it might be fruitful to see how disciplines function in these other areas; perhaps that will shed light on the meaning of Discipline in a Quaker Quietist context.
Games are a simple example of Discipline, in the sense of rule-governed behavior. When people engage in games, such as chess or soccer, they are expected to follow the Rules of the Game. Violations of those rules incurs penalties of various types. If I am playing chess with someone and they move a piece the wrong way, I may think they are cheating, or that they simply do not know the rules, but they exhibit a need for instruction and correction in either case.
A second example of a discipline governed by rules is formal verse; that is to say poetry that has a specified structure. The sonnet is a good example. Poets who write formal verse surrender to the rules of that type of poem. To write a sonnet means writing in accordance with a pre-determined outline and following the precedents of the form found in sonnets written by previous poets.
Another example of rule-governed behavior is science. Although the rules governing science are more amorphous than the rules governing a game, the rules, or principles, are considered significant. The scientific method is used by scientists to gather evidence in an objective and repeatable manner. Inferences drawn from gathered evidence also have to follow standard rules of inference that are based on logic and mathematics. A scientist surrenders to these rules and abides by them. In a sense, surrendering to these rules and abiding by them is what makes a person a scientist. Scientists who violate these rules will suffer negative consequences. For example, if evidence is made up a scientist will lose the respect of colleagues and may lose their position. If inferences from evidence are done sloppily and contain errors, these will be corrected by others.
Codes of Conduct are found in many areas of life. Doctors, police, fire departments, lawyers, psychiatrists, are all bound by codes of conduct. Violations of these codes can have consequences which will vary depending on the severity of the violation.
My point in bringing up these examples is to show that a life lived in accordance with a Discipline, a Rule, a Code of Conduct, is not unusual or bizarre. Religious rules are a subset of this broad way of approaching life. I think it is helpful to see Quaker Discipline in this broader context. If Quakers have lost a sense of their way of life as a Discipline, that is to say a code of conduct that adherents are expected to abide by, how does that reflect on Quaker life? Is it really an advance, which is how both evangelicals and liberals frame it? Would it be an advance, for example, if scientists abandoned their discipline of the scientific method? Would it be an advance if Doctors decided to abandon the Hippocratic Oath?
Notice that all the disciplines, rules, and codes of conduct I refer to are voluntarily undertaken; they are not imposed by an outside agency of coercion. Why would someone voluntarily impose upon themselves these kinds of rules? I think one of the primary reasons is because we find such rule-bound experiences nourishing. I know that sounds paradoxical because rules, by definition, are restricting. But consider how it is possible to grow within the context of rule-bound behavior. For example, by following the rules of chess we find, over time, more and more about the game; our understanding becomes more wide ranging and at the same time more subtle. Scientists rely on the scientific method to establish their results and science has grown in its influence because of a willing surrender to its method, its discipline.
My feeling is that rules provide a means for focusing the mind. Without some kind of lens the mind drifts where it will in a kind of free-association random stream of consciousness. By adopting an objective rule-bound approach the mind acquires a lens that allows the mind to focus and gain some clarity beyond its own random chatter.
My feeling is that religious Disciplines like the Quaker Discipline of the period of Quietism, or the Rule of Benedict, or the Vinaya of monastic Buddhism, have a similar function. Such rules focus the mind on the transcendental, that which lies beyond surface appearances. Why is this necessary? It is necessary because surface appearances are attractive, enticing, and preoccupying; yet ultimately they are unsatisfying. Without a method for shifting my attention from surface appearances to that which is beyond those appearances, my experience of that reality which lies beyond appearances will, at best, be fleeting and circumstantial, as opposed to grounded and established.
Religious Disciplines are designed to remind me that there is an aspect to reality that is both prior to appearances and beyond appearances. In terms of the Quaker tradition, the Discipline serves as a means of maintaining a focus on that of God in the world and in all people. This presence is not obvious; many people today would, in fact, deny such a reality. This presence is subtle; it can easily slip away even after experiencing it. By following a Discipline, a Code of Conduct, conditions are set up for re-establishing the sense of the presence of the Light of Christ in myself, in others, in the world.
My feeling is that the loss of a Quaker Discipline makes it more difficult for ordinary people like myself, as opposed to Saints and Sages, to recall the reality of the light which shines upon all people. I could be wrong about that, of course; and I know that many modern Quakers will disagree with that assessment. But I have come to feel that the Quaker Quietists have something to teach us, something to offer us. And one of the things the Quaker Quietists have to offer is a disciplined way of life that is surrendered to, and focused on, the guidance of the light of love that is found, by grace, in all.