A Day Trip to AAR to Have Theological Discussions on Quakerism

I had the chance to have a little road trip and drive down on Friday to San Diego and go to AAR (American Academy of Religion). I went down because of the Quaker theological discussion group that met from 4-10pm. I had a really great time meeting tons of new faces and Quaker scholars I’ve heard about (and often read) but haven’t met. I was really pleased to meet Paul Anderson, Corey Beals, Carole Spencer and Robert Gonzalez, among others. Oh, and it was really fun seeing Margery Post Abbott again as well. There were two sessions for the night. The first was called “A Quaker Sacramentology,” and while all the papers that were read we really interesting and put together well, they seemed to mainly present classic Quaker arguments for why historically we have the particular perspectives on the Sacraments we hold. But, to be honest, I found the criticisms more interesting and exciting then the papers themselves and would really like to see some of these criticisms fleshed out better (something I’ve attempted to begin in my Quaker Life article, “Sacramental Living, Redemptive Practices and Convergent Friends,” March/April 2007.)

I think David Johns, professor at Earlham School of Religion, offered some very important claims challenging classic Quaker sacramentology. One of the main areas of his critique was over the over-spiritualization of the sacraments. The problems with this include: a) it is rooted in a unrelenting Platonistic dualism that reflects Descartes’ own culture more than our own, b) it doesn’t take into account the rise in physicalism and the overwhelming challenges to these dualistic notions, c) the idea of revelation as being “unmediated” is something that is both philosophically and theologically rooted in an antiquated epistemology. A further complication, in my own mind, is the increasing importance for communities of faith to allow creativity and art into its worship and create space for “redemptive practices” both during worship and within the world.

The second portion of the evening turned to reviewing Carole Spencer’s new book, Holiness:The Soul of Quakerism. Spencer, a professor at Geroge Fox and associate pastor at Reedwood Friends, did her dissertation on Quaker history and this is the book version of that work. According to everyone reviewing the book and other Quaker scholars such as Pink Dandelion and John Punshon, this is an absolute must-read book if you are interested in re-thinking Quaker history. Spencer approaches Quaker history with “Holiness” as an interpretive grid for understanding what constitutes Quakerism. The nine aspects she sees in authentic Quakerism are: scripture, eschatology, conversion, evangelicalism, charisma, suffering, mysticism and perfection. I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve read some of her articles and I appreciate the perspective she presents in the book; it’s certainly something I will be using in my own scholarship and trying to build on.

Overall the meeting was a lot of fun, very stimulating and it was great meeting Quakers who are in the academic world.


5 responses to “A Day Trip to AAR to Have Theological Discussions on Quakerism”

  1. I don’t know anything about Quaker sacramentology, but this line stood out to me: “the rise in physicalism and the overwhelming challenges to these dualistic notions.”

    I’m curious what he meant, since reductive physicalism is not in vogue, but some kind of emergentism or property dualism (David Chalmers), or even functionalism is–if we’re talking philosophy of mind. How would that impact talk of sacraments? Do you need to have an immaterial “soul” for them to work?

  2. @CK – thanks for the comment. I had to actually look over the text again to make sure, since when I wrote this I didn’t have the text and was just paraphrasing. I have to be honest, he doesn’t ever refer to ‘physicalism’ – that was me reading back into the response. He does bring up quite often the problem with Platonic dualism that separates out the spiritual from the physical. He does say: “[The Quaker] Apocalyptic response to a world in crisis coupled with an entrenched Platonist metaphysic resulted in a religious movement dismissive of physicality, suspicious of creation, and largely hostile to beauty, the arts, creativity, recreation, and the imagination.”

    That almost seems more dramatic than my own re-interpretation – but that statement not only made me excited but got my brain juices flowing.

    Onto why I read it the way, I did it largely because I have been influenced by Nancey Murphy’s “non-reductive physicalism,” which I adhere to philosophically and theologically. This has implications for sacraments insofar as we understand them to have practical, physical application in the ‘here and now.’ The breaking of bread and the drinking of wine are physical practices that tie acts to memories (I realize I am walking all over a variety of sacramental theologies but this is my general reading of them for argument’s sake). If we have a Platonistic view of sacraments that gets spiritualized, and then in the Quaker case, ultimately down played then there are no practices left that tie our acts to the biblical narrative, and thus discipleship and community formation become a huge problem (as they have) or at leas this is what I think. In other words, if – as the evidence seems to suggest more and more – that there is no immaterial soul then what do we do about the idea that for Quakers sacraments are purely spiritual? This is a big ‘if,’ but I am explaining where the question comes from. I don’t have this all worked out in my head to be quite honest, but you can see where this is headed I am sure.

    For me sacraments then are redemptive practices that are tied to the biblical narrative (memories) that shape and re-shape the community as it is guided by the Holy Spirit. Or maybe sacraments are our moments of Spirit-inspired creativity through embodied acts that create space for the biblical memory to be announced and re-lived. In either case, this is a working definition for me as I try to think postmodernly about a) Quaker sacraments, b) non-reductive physicalism and c) the church’s mission and communal formation in our global context.

    I think that the core Quaker understanding of sacraments can still be maintained, namely that Christendom and the nation-state cannot control who can and who cannot worship. And that ultimately, our interaction with God is not reducible to one outward event, rather God can be communed with through a multitude of ways. Further, the importance is ‘that’ we gather in the name of Christ, not ‘how.’ The thing they misunderstood, in my line of thinking, is that there is no way to commune with God but through these redemptive practices, events, meetings, creative expressions, prayers, etc. I am all too skeptical of the idea that I could have some kind of mental/spiritual event, where I my spirit is enlightened, or have an “unmediated” experience with the living Christ but through the avenues we’ve been already given. I am sure this is blasphemous to someone, and its late and I’m not thinking clearly any longer so I will stop. I may want to re-think how I phrased that last part but I’d rather toss it out there and then re-work it if it makes no sense.

  3. Wess,
    Thanks for the clarification. Nancey Murphy is someone whose articles I’ve read (not her books, so I only have a passing understanding). That kind of response is precisely what I was thinking about. I appreciate the fuller exposition of the context–it’s really interesting!