Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
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.