As my experience of Quaker Faith and Practice has deepened I have become steadily more attracted to the period of Quietism; its teachings, its way of life.  At the same time I have become gradually more estranged by contemporary Quaker Faith and Practice both liberal and evangelical.  I plan to put up a few posts expressing why I think contemporary Quaker Faith and Practice has lost more than it has gained.  From a certain perspective, I view these posts as a kind of ‘Critique of Pure Activism’, because I think the activist perspective and activist commitments have overwhelmed and displaced other aspects of Quaker Faith and Practice that I have come to value.

By ‘Pure Activism’ I mean the view that the primary purpose of Quakers today is to discover the nature of their commitments in the political sphere and then to work to alter the world in accordance with those commitments.  From the perspective of ‘pure activism’ engagement with the world takes precedence.  From the perspective of ‘pure activism’ all Quaker practices, such as silent prayer or worship, weekly Meetings (in either the unprogrammed or programmed style), are subordinated to the ultimate goal of engaged activism.  That is to say, from the perspective of pure activism the reason to engage in silent worship is to gain clarity as to how best to apply one’s energies in the political sphere.  This is what pure activism means by discovering your ‘leading’.  In this way all the specifics of Quaker Faith and Practice are subordinated to political purposes.

The first comment I would like to make regarding this current situation is that it is not unique or unusual.  Most of American religion is at this time swept up by a focus on politics.  I have mentioned this before in other posts, but I think it needs emphasizing.  I say this because the impression I get is that Quaker activists think of their activism as distinctive, as particularly Quaker in nature.  I don’t see it that way.  From my perspective, the perspective of a convinced Friend, Quaker activism resembles in every way activism in general.  I don’t see anything distinctive about it.  Just as Quakers have their lobbies they support, and legislation they advocate for, so also the Christian right has their lobbies they support, and legislation they advocate for.  It is all of a piece.  It is all a single obsession across the entire political and religious spectrum with the political sphere.

The activist perspective has come to dominate modern Quaker Faith and Practice, just as it has come to dominate the entire religious sphere of American culture.  Quaker magazines are full of articles about the latest political issues of the moment and Quaker blogs are often devoted to the same.  Because of this, it may come as a surprise to many modern Quakers (it came as a surprise to me, though a pleasant surprise) that this was not the view held by the Quaker community for a large part of its history.  Living a peaceful life that was somewhat separate from the world was the ideal.  Significant Quaker ministers, such as Elias Hicks, argued against Quakers joining with other groups to achieve political ends because such alliances would erode the coherence of the Quaker community.  This kind of reasoning would hold no ground today among the activists who now dominate.

The alternative to an activist stance is holding a contemplative view.  From a contemplative view the central practices of the Quaker tradition, such as silent prayer, inspired speaking, and communal commitments, serve the function of keeping members focused on God, His Presence, His Love, and his Eternal Grace.  From the contemplative’s perspective, this dwelling in the divine is the leading, the purpose, and the function of Quaker Faith and Practice. 

It is my view that the contemplative perspective is the only way that leads to true peace.  It is my view that the activist perspective cannot do so.  Here is why: setting up lobbies, advocating for legislation, those types of activities teach that the way to get what one wants is through political means.  But what one is teaching is a means, not an end.  And it makes complete sense that those one disagrees with will use the same means to achieve their own, sometimes contrary, ends.  And thus there will always be rancor, political dealing, and the seeds for conflict in the field that activism tills.

In contrast, the contemplative withdraws from the field of conflict altogether, refrains from tilling the field of rancor.  From my perspective, this is the way to true peace and reconciliation for all people.  And, I believe, this was the way that traditional Quaker Faith and Practice was rooted in, but which has now been almost lost.



Views: 468

Comment by Christopher Hatton on 8th mo. 5, 2014 at 12:42am
Dear Jim,

You bring up some good points, that I agree with. After reading some of the writings of Daniel O Synder / Thomas Merton, and having a couple of clearness meetings myself I know that I am not called to do everything / burn myself out / outrun my guide. My ego likes to be involved, make me feel I am doing something good, but I like the other meaning of "EGO"(Edging Out God). I know this to be the work of the deceiver / tempter / the fallen powers. It seeks to distract us, wear us out!

I do not believe we are called to be "passive" members of our peace church (time-out to discern / contemplate / re-centre is different). I agree this pure spirit-led activism /being active, includes
- the prayerful support of / helping others seek clearness,
- help provide a loving spiritually strong community for those "getting their hands dirty" to come back to.
- A spiritually alive home to recharge the batteries!

We all have been given some spiritual gifts, some of us just do not yet know what they are or have enough Friends around them to identify and nurture/nourish those gifts.
Comment by Bill Samuel on 8th mo. 5, 2014 at 9:34pm

Well, Quakers have gone back and forth on the question of involvement in the political sphere, and different groups have sometimes been in very different places on it.

But are contemplation and activism really an either/or proposition? God cares about the world. Jesus preached that our lives would speak in the world if we were changed. Without the contemplative part, our activism is noise and chatter. We need to be centered when we engage the world. But the contemplative part is not just about feeling nice and peaceful ourselves. It should unite ourselves with the love of Christ which reaches out to every creature. In uniting with Christ, we unite with all that Christ cares for.

William Penn said, "True godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables them to live better in it and excites their endeavors to mend it." The "true godliness" there is the contemplative part which we too often short circuit.

Comment by Forrest Curo on 8th mo. 6, 2014 at 12:46pm

People striving to relieve human suffering is a sign of God's influence at work.

People imagining that any change in law or policy can make a lasting and significant difference -- That shows us still suffering under an illusion. People may still have valid leadings to pursue such changes, but that belongs under the category: 'palliative care for a terminal patient.' It doesn't necessarily imply 'rancor' towards anyone, not even towards people clearly contributing to the cruelty of the system.

Ultimately, it's a futile exercise... but so is feeding the hungry; we know we'll only want to eat again tomorrow -- and that's no reason not to do so today.

The ongoing breakdown of all the human systems people depend on in lieu of knowing God... is causing tremendous suffering, which we are supposed to mitigate as we can -- and personal 'peace' without that is a false peace.

How to be truly "God's hands" -- not hands with a twitch, trying to guess what their Brain would like them to do -- but coordinated within God's motion...

Comment by Jim Wilson on 8th mo. 6, 2014 at 7:14pm

Thanks, Friends, for the responses.  The theme I am picking up is that activism and contemplation are not opposites and that I may have overstated the differences.  I can understand that feeling.  And perhaps I did make it sound like an either/or; but at times it does feel that way to me in the sense that activists in the RSoF seem to be strong in their push to enlist people in an activist agenda. 

Christopher mentioned Thomas Merton and I think he is a good example of someone who had a primarily contemplative view.  On the even of WW II he joined a monatic order.  Was that the right decision?  Was it the moral thing to do?  I get the feeling that activists would regard Merton's decision as at best a cop-out.  My own feeling is that it was the right thing and the world benefited greatly from that decision. 

Thanks again,


Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 8th mo. 7, 2014 at 11:01am

Jim, I agree with you that contemplative pursuit of a living knowledge of God should be (and once was) the Quaker priority. There've always been alternative goals in religions, but activism and creating community are what seem to pre-occupy those in present-day Quaker meetings.

Jesus clearly, concisely identifies our true priority when he says: "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." Even these close ties of love and duty are placed in a secondary position to our primary relationship with God. The statement implies that all other duties and affections, such as social activism and community relationships, should likewise not usurp our first obligation. If we get that right, all else will follow. If we fail to find that, not all the king's horses and all the king's men can put together a reasonable facsimile.

Comment by Bill Samuel on 9th mo. 1, 2014 at 9:07am

I think a contemporary example of a way that is contemplative and meshes that with activism without the contemplative being subordinated to the action is Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM and the Center for Action and Contemplation. The Franciscans at their best have a sensibility which is quite close to Quakers at their best.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 9th mo. 3, 2014 at 4:39pm

Bill:  I think the point you make about the similarities between Franciscans and Quakers is a fruitful one.  It would be interesting to examine the two approaches (maybe by comparing Fox and Francis).

Jeff:  My sense about Merton is that his views on the relationship between the contemplative and active life went through a number of phases.  Some believe that at the end of his life he was preparing to move into a more withdrawn phase (his interest in the Carthusians was strong).  It is difficult to come to a general conclusion; it kind of depends on which phase of his life you are focusing on and quoting from.  But as an example of someone who withdrew at a socially critical moment (the beginning of W.W. II), it seems to me that Merton offers people a good example of someone who chose contemplation over active engagement at that point in his life.  And that kind of decision is one that, I think, activists would have difficulty comprehending; I just don't think there is room in the activist mindset to embrace that kind of choice.  I could be wrong about that, but my experience is that activists are pretty contemptuous of those who opt for a contemplative life.

Your point about early Quakers having the view that they were bringing the kingdom of God to earth is a good one.  I look at it this way: I sense a range of views regarding the Quaker mission in the world among early Quakers.  At one end you have Penn who wanted to set up a Quaker State.  At the other end you have Barclay and his 'Apology'.  There is nothing in the apology about activism.  Barclay does touch on the frictions that Quaker customs, such as non-swearing, will generate.  But there is nothing in Barclay about activism as we understand it today.  Barclay's emphasis is on the inner light, turning inward. 

My view is that when Quakers realized that their campaign for an ideal society, as in Pennsylvania, had failed, that there followed a maturing of the Quaker body.  In other words, I view the withdrawal of the period of Quietism as a step forward, a growth in the soul of the Quaker body.  The re-emergence of Quaker activism in modernity represents, to my mind, a circling back to Penn's view and a kind of falling back to a less mature way of looking at Quaker commitments and presence. 


Comment by Jim Wilson on 9th mo. 4, 2014 at 11:44am

Jeff: That is a great quote.  I have not seen it before.  It strikes me as wise and balanced.

I feel a need to clarify my feeling about the activist/contemplative divide.  I'm not against activism; there were times in my life when I was strongly politically engaged.  What I'm suggesting is that the Quaker tradition should not be defined as a type of activism.  This is part of what I meant by 'pure activism'; which is the view that all of Quaker practice needs to be justified in activist terms. 

We live in an ideological age, an age which comprehends everything in terms of political categories.  My feeling is that the Quaker activists do not even guess that there is another way of looking at the world, that a non-ideological approach, a non-political approach, is viable.  My view is that the contemplative approach to Quaker Faith and Practice offers an alternative to this kind of political framing, an alternative which is deeply rooted in the Quaker past.



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