Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
In distinction to many other expressions of Christianity, and many other religions as well, Quakerism is non-creedal; that is, we don't have a particular set of belief-statements that one must accept in order to be a Quaker. This is confusing for some newcomers, liberating for others. But even for the latter group, the time comes when you begin to wonder: is there any more spiritual substance to Quakerism than 'practise unprogrammed worship, and believe whatever you want'?
I submit that it's not in the realm of beliefs that we should look for Quaker unity, but in the realm of how we live. We don't have a detailed behavioural code, like Jewish or Islamic law. Rather, we have our Testimonies. 'Testimonies' is one of those terms that have a particular usage among Quakers. By 'Testimonies', we mean things like Peace, Truth, Equality. To the modern ear, these sound like what might be called 'values' or 'goals' to aspire to in one's life. So why do we call them 'Testimonies'? Well, 'testimony' is the act of speaking of one's experience. For Quakers, this speaking is not so much verbal as 'letting your life speak', as George Fox put it. And the relevant experience is one of a direct inward encounter, through worship, with God, Christ, the Spirit, or if you prefer more inclusive modern language, 'Whatever', or post-modern 'What-ever'. And this experience shows us that this Spirit (or Whatever), is a Spirit of Peace, Truth, Equality, and so on, and our lives are transformed to reflect this character. It's basically the same idea as what the apostle Paul referred to as 'the fruit of the Holy Spirit', in the epistle to the Galatians 5:22-23, listed there as 'love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' That is, these are attributes that will appear in your life as you attend to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That's why thinking of these as mere 'goals' to 'aspire to' is putting the cart before the horse. They are not goals, they are consequences of a deeper transformation. Or that's the traditional Quaker view, as I understand it.
But if we have this list from Galatians, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, why isn't that sufficient for Quakers? Early Friends certainly read the New Testament avidly, and considered themselves Christians. Why then do we have our own special Testimonies? The answer is partly historical. The Testimonies emerged out of specific behaviours that early Quakers were led to adopt in late seventeenth century England, in contrast with mainstream religion and customs of that period. For example, Quakers refused to swear oaths of any sort, partly because Jesus said not to (Matt 5:34); but more generally, because the concept of an oath suggests that it's not so bad to lie as long as you're not under oath. And from this reasoning emerged the broader Quaker Testimony of Truth, or Integrity. Similarly, early Quakers were led to shun ostentatious fashions in clothing and from this emerged the Simplicity Testimony.
So what are the Quaker Testimonies then? There are various lists of words I can quote you. Among unprogrammed Friends in North America, they are standardly given as Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship (SPICES). In Britain, the acronym STEP is more widely used (Simplicity, Truth, Equality, Peace). But the problem is that these Testimonies all shade into each other. As Quaker writer Mark Burch says, “If you would have peace in the world, live simply; if you would live with integrity, live simply; if you would be a good steward of the environment, live simply.” And I think you could say the same for any pair of Testimonies. If you want community, live peaceably, and vice-versa. Any one Testimony, once you start to explore it in any depth, implicitly contains all the others. It's just not possible to draw clear boundaries between these several Testimonies; and therefore there can never be a definitive list of them. The lists are mere words; more important than the words is the direction they're all pointing in. I'll come back to this 'direction' below.
But first, I'd like to consider another reason why the Quaker Testimonies are distinct from Paul's Fruit of the Holy Spirit -- 'love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' Perhaps this is down to my ignorance of the original Greek, but Paul's list strikes me as a set of purely personal, individual qualities, some of them quite vague, even bland. The Quaker Testimonies, on the other hand, seem to have a radical social dimension: they are necessarily put into practice within a community, transforming not just individuals but the community itself, which in turn works to transform the broader society. Transform it in what direction? Towards what Quakers have called Gospel Order, and Right Relationship: a society characterized by Simplicity, Truth, Equality, and Peace, what Jesus called the Kingdom of Heaven. And as an aside, from my reading the Gospels, Jesus was not talking primarily about an afterlife: his focus was “thy kingdom come on earth, as it is in heaven'. And it is the project of working together, under the guidance of the Spirit, to build this Kingdom that unifies us as Friends. This is the Quaker Way.
How does this transformation work? Speaking from my own experience, I have felt particularly “called” by the Testimony of Simplicity – with the understanding, as noted previously, that this is really not separable from the other Testimonies; and in particular, Simplicity, for me, has everything to do with care for the earth. I used to think that environmental degradation was a problem that the government and other big institutions had to address; but as long as I held the right political beliefs, I had no personal responsibility for the problem. It did not occur to me that I was criticizing corporations and government for their environmentally destructive actions, while at the same time my lifestyle was completely dependent on these institutions continuing to do all these bad things. Then I watched a documentary called The End of Suburbia, which addresses the catastrophic unsustainability of North American consumerism; and I understood that I had to change how I live, radically. Shortly thereafter, I found the Quakers, first in England and then back here in Canada, who deeply affirmed me in the environmental concern I felt.
As I learned more about sustainability, I began to feel I was trying to operate in two separate worlds:
on the one hand, the world of academia, in which I worked, intertwined as it is with the existing economy and social hierarchy, where notions of success began to seem increasingly hollow to me, and
on the other hand, the alternative world I wanted to help build, characterized by relocalized economies operating on socially just and environmentally sustainable principles.
I lived with this tension for a number of years. A Friend from Canadian Yearly Meeting suggested I take a Permaculture Design course, which I did, which in turn gave me more concrete, exciting ideas about what this alternative world might look like, and how I could start building it here and now. I had a serious decision to make: should I leave a safe, comfortable career in academia, to try to find some new career in the area of permaculture design?
Fortunately, as a Quaker facing a major life decision, I had at my disposal an extremely powerful tool: I could ask for a 'clearness committee', a few other Friends, to help me explore the issues – not to tell me what to do, but to ask me questions, to labour with me in discerning what the Spirit would have me do. For the Testimony of Community tells me that I don't have to face this sort of scary decision alone: that I can and should count on the support of Friends to help me find the way. Shortly after my clearness committee meeting, the university offered a generous severance payment to professors who retired early, and that made my decision even easier. I'm still figuring out the next steps in my career. I don't feel I have the practical gardening knowledge yet to launch my own permaculture design business, so I'm taking an organic gardening course, and in the meantime I'm working at a locally-owned organic grocery store to supplement my pension, and I volunteer as a board member of the Edmonton Permaculture Guild.
I can't tell you now what exactly I'm going to be doing with my life in 5 years' time. But for now, I have felt a leading of the Spirit, out of a spiritually unrewarding career, into something that savours of the Testimony of Simplicity; and I've followed that leading. That's a good feeling. As Quakers say, I am easy in that decision. And looking farther out, I am constantly navigating towards the pole-star, as it were, of a new society, in accord with the Testimony of Simplicity, with Gospel Order, as I understand it, which I find quite thrilling:
where large, wasteful, monoculture factories and farms and extractive industries are obsolete, while sustainable cottage-industries, permaculture gardens, and workers' cooperatives run rampant,
where economic decisions are localized to communities and bioregions, and these empowered democratic communities become vibrant cultural hubs, wherein conflicts are worked through cooperatively and restoratively, without resort to institutions of violence,
where the technology is appropriate to the human scale, without requiring large inputs of energy and non-renewable resources, nor generating large amounts of waste; where (if I may paraphrase Isaiah) the nations shall beat their cars into bicycles, and their plastic packaging into rainwater catchment systems, neither shall they learn war any more.
As Quakers, we aren't all led to become permaculture designers. Some are able to help transform society through other sorts of work. Others do it more through their volunteer activities, or in unstructured friendships, or through prayer. Some may be struggling for clarity on what they *are* led to do. But if we are each faithful to the leading of the Spirit, we are all, I believe, working in unity, towards the realization of the same Kingdom, multi-faceted though it may be. Some of those facets, important ones, I believe, are expressed by the Quaker Testimonies. If you're working towards that Kingdom, it really doesn't matter what theology you subscribe to, or don't subscribe to. As Jeff Dudiak observes in his new book Radicalizing Spirit (and I paraphrase), we are all, in effect, praying together inwardly, and in the life we live: 'Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven'.