Sunday, 7 January 2018

Quaker Business Method and Theological Diversity

A photograph of Swarthmoor Hall on a sunny day.
Swarthmoor Hall was a major centre in the early years of
Quakers as an organised movement.
In its origin, the idea behind the Quaker Business Method was very simple, if audacious – that by waiting in silence, with minds turned to both the problem at hand and to God, we could come to know God's will, that we might act based on it. Audacious or not, and whatever uncertainty anyone might express as to whether we truly acted based on divine guidance, we know from experience that it works. It may not work perfectly, and goodness knows not quickly, but done faithfully, it works – and has significant advantages over voting or consensus decision-making.
But we aren't in the early days of the Religious Society of Friends now. Across the liberal wing of the world family of Friends, and in parts of the conservative and pastoral sections as well, conventional Christianity, or any belief in a theistic God, is not a given. Some of those Friends who hold to a conventional, theistic view of God feel uncomfortable undertaking this solemn, religious exercise alongside those who openly do not believe in such a God. This is a situation that will need to be resolved, one way or another, in Britain Yearly Meeting – and I imagine there are similar situations in other liberal Yearly Meetings.
Logically, there are only a limited number of ways it could be resolved. Certainly, each of them will have a huge number of variations, but really, it comes down to two cases:
  1. We find a way that people become content living with the diversity of theological position.
  2. We get rid of our theological diversity.
It seems stark, doesn't it? But it's true – either we become content living together, or we stop living together – or the situation isn't resolved at all. The second option could be through schism, or by casting out all people on one “side”, or all people who can't get their head around the “sides” coexisting – or, theoretically, by somehow everyone ending up on the same “side”, all the theists (a term I use purely as a category – I realise it is rarely used as a self-identifying term) becoming non-theists, or vice versa; I don't think that last scenario is likely. The first option, on the other hand, will require hard work on the part of a lot of people, and an ability for people holding a wide range of positions to move away from entrenched ideas – both their own ideas of what worship and business method are, and their perceptions of people with different theological ideas and identities.
This is going to be a pretty long discussion, and I'm going to make the innovation, for this blog, of breaking it up into sections, as separate posts. In order to avoid overloading regular readers, I won't be posting them all at once, but expect to see them posted over several days.
In these posts, I will explore different ways of conceptualising the Quaker Business Method, from the traditional to the most extreme materialist. Every one of them is based on things that Quakers, some from elsewhere around the world, have told me – though not all of them are entirely attributable to any one Friend. We will start now with a deeper exploration of the traditional view of Quaker decision-making.

The Traditional View – “The Will Of God”

One of the essential principles, the most fundamental revelation underpinning other revelations, for early Friends was the bold claim that “Christ has come to teach his people himself”. That each of us could, with humility and discipline, open ourselves directly to the Christian God – whichever of that deity's guises they might refer to in any given situation, Father, Son or Holy Spirit. That all had a connection to that divine source, and indeed had something of God within them. This was part of the justification for many positions and practices of early Friends, from silent worship to the rejection of a separate, and particularly a paid, clergy. It also is the root and foundation of the idea of collective decision-making as practised by Quakers; we sit and wait, in the same manner as in Meeting for Worship, and some present will be moved by that Spirit to speak, and that will show us the way forward. For the early Friends, there is little evidence – possibly none – to suggest that anyone conceived of that spirit as anything but the Holy Spirit, that the Inner Light was anything but the Light of Christ. Some language they used for it was certainly not clearly related to any conventional Christian language of the time, or at least none that I know of (such as referring to it as “the Seed”) but all evidence suggests that there was an exclusively Christian conception of the nature of worship, of discernment, of the Light.
Now, we could get into quite the discussion as to why that might be so; was it inherent in the revelations of the early Friends, absolutely inextricably linked? Or was it a natural product of the time and place that Quakers arose, and the same revelations could have been made in other cultural and religious contexts? Well, that's a contentious question, and clearly linked to the question of the discomfort of some Friends to be worshipping, and more importantly discerning, with others of different views. It is not, however, relevant to this part of this discussion, so we will set it aside for now. Let us simply recognise that the earliest Friends were explicitly, implicitly and exclusively Christian in their view of the Spirit – even if that view did not align with that of other churches at the time.
And so, when they set down to make a decision, it was the God of Abraham that they waited on advice from, seeking lessons from Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit to bring it to them. It was not long before some Quakers were expressing some moderately universalist attitudes, with famous quotes from Mary Fisher and William Penn about the godliness of various non-Christians, and later John Woolman feeling a leading to learn the way of life, including the spiritual experience, of native North Americans. This did not alter the general feeling of Christianity at the heart of Quaker thought. Even the famous Hicksite schism in North America was not about setting aside Christianity, but rather the approach to be taken to it – despite what Hicks' detractors alleged.
The arrival of non-Christians among Quakers predated the open acceptance of non-theism, as far as I can tell, but that didn't conflict too much with the Quaker approach. While they may not believe in the divinity, or even existence of Christ, they were generally taken to believe in something that was sufficiently similar to allow for common practice, and as long as they put up with the Bible-based ministry they might run into in Meeting for Worship, that was okay – at least among some branches of the Society. The idea of discerning the will of God makes sense equally with or without Christ, and if you call that God by some other name and recognise some different prophets, still it is a God you are seeking the will of; it doesn't require a great deal of open-mindedness to consider the Abrahamic religions sufficiently compatible in this way, though some Friends, even in the liberal tradition, have been sufficiently closed-minded to refuse to do so. Nonetheless, it is clear that the logic, the conceptualisation of the Quaker Business Method is essentially the same whether your God is that of Christ, or of Moses, or of Mohammed – or of Guru Nanak, Bahá'u'lláh or Zarathustra, for that matter. All that need be added to any such theology is the idea that we can access guidance from the divine figure through silent worship.
There are flaws and risks, experience suggests, in this conception, as there are in every conception I have come across. My own experience, and discussions with other Friends, including those who subscribe to this very view, leads me to suspect that Friends with this conception are more likely to trust in divine guidance too much. Generations of experience suggest that discernment works best when we come to it equipped with all the relevant information – with hearts and minds prepared, as the saying goes. It also behoves us to apply our own skills and abilities, including our intellects, as long as we remember that discernment is not in itself a rational process. Yet those with a strong faith in a theistic deity that guides discernment sometimes fall into the trap of trusting it too much, feeling that preparation and analysis are optional, surplus to requirements. This can lead to discernment sessions that are, shall we say, somewhat frustrating.
Don't leap to the conclusion that I'm disapproving of this conception overall, however. I do not share it, though I understand it intellectually, but there is nothing to disapprove in it, spiritually or practically – we will see the flaws and perils of other conceptions as we discuss each of them in turn.
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