While I was at QUIP a few weeks back a woman asked the youth editorial board if we had Quaker patron saints. I’m not sure if that’s the actual phrase she put it in, but it works. I’ve added the non- just so we all know that, of course, there are no Quaker saints! But still, who is, or are, your patron Quaker saints?
By this I mean at least one of two things (but you can add more):
- A Quaker you find to be important in your spiritual development and Christian formation.
- A Quaker who is theologically profound for your thinking
Yes, of course, I have mixed motives here. I’ve been thinking about this question for my own good as well. In academia there is often a focus on a few key persons who you develop your own theories, and ideas around. I’ve got a handful of people outside the Quaker tradition I go to in a pinch, but I got to thinking who are the Quakers I turn to for theological help?
Part of the problem is that we don’t have a lot of “big time” theologians in the tradition; something we’ve talked about before. This is to say, theological texts aren’t necessarily readily available, and are in limited order (we have an unlimited amount of journals, spirituality, etc), but I’m also not saying they aren’t there. In some ways, this “problem” could in fact be an answer, it helps narrow the field of choices. It also is good cause to dig deeper. Quakers all know there’s plenty of theological writing to go around for a tradition that doesn’t purposefully set out cultivate theologians, and so I think there’s hope of finding a couple key thinkers who I theologically (as well as personally and spiritually) connect with. One main question I have is are there early Friends who are an undiscovered resource for our contemporary questions?
While I am on the lookout for new voices to engage with I also realize there have been a number of very important Quaker theologians who have already helped to carve my path:
- Robert Barclay
- Elton Trueblood
- Pink Dandelion
- Everett Cattell
- Douglas Gwyn
- John Punshon
As I write these out I realize they’re all men, but my search is not over, I hope to diversify my repertoire a bit more! Anyways, how about you?
29 responses to “Who’s Your Patron Quaker (non)Saint?”
I would have to say that the most important Quaker in my spiritual journey has been John Woolman.
Hi Journal has been a great inspiration for me. He is an icon for me of earnest and gracious struggle for integrity.
My choice would be T. Canby Jones, retired professor of religion & philosophy at Wilmington College in Ohio. A great lover of the Bible, Quaker faith and practice, and George Fox. He combined, for me, intellectual rigor with vibrant faith. By turns he could look like an Old Testament prophet or a sprite from Shakespeare.
@Harry – Yes, John Woolman is definitely a wonderful example and hero of the Quaker faith.
@Brent – Thanks for the comment. I’ve only read a little of T. Canby Jones, but he does seem like he is a powerhouse when it comes to a Quaker intellect. When I was at Woodbrooke last year I was looking through a bibliography of his work and I was astounded.
I’m interested in getting a picture of what a sprite looks like…
One of the problems is that much Quaker theology is done in a practical rather than an academic way. Thomas Kelly and John Woolman’s theology is all tied up in writings about how to live your life. George Fox’s reflections on the nature of God are not systematic.
Some women I might suggest are Hannah Whitall Smith, Caroline Stephen, Margery Post Abbott, Carole Dale Spencer and Daphne Hampson. But even there, you’ll have to sift through some of it to extract the theology.
Very true, and one of the strengths for sure of Quaker authors. I’ve got Spencer’s book on my list for a class I’m doing in July, I can’t wait to read it. I’ll look into the others.
Another source of Quaker theology (albeit somewhat quirky) are the novels of Haven Kimmel. Haven is a graduate of Earlham School of Religion and a NYTimes bestselling author. Her novel “The Solace of Leaving Early” has some interesting takes on a Quaker’s view of process theology as lived out in a fictional midwest town. I once heard her call it “process theology for the trailer court set.”
@Brent – thanks for the tip. Never heard of this, but I’m going to get it.
The first Friends who come to mind as particularly encouraging to me are:
Margaret Fell Fox
I have been influenced and helped by their writings, their lives, or both.
There are other Friends, still living, whom I consider sources of inspiration as well. That being said, my main Source, and Source of all my sources, is Jesus Christ.
John Woolman and Lucretia Mott, who both let their lives speak.
As far as modern folks go, I have found Brent Bill’s books have added greatly to my own Quaker practice.
Margaret Fell’s writings as compiled in “A Sincere and Constant Love” by Terry Wallace (my copy is falling apart from use) and then all the women’s writings in “Hidden in Plain Sight” should be part of your stack of readings. The latter includes a significant portion of Elizabeth Bathurst’s theology.
I also find Isaac Penington a rich resource both for inspiration, advice and theological insight. Rosemary Moore and Mel Keiser recently put out a lovely volume giving access to more of Penington’s thought — although it is just excerpts rather than long passages. I actually use much more the volumes of reprinted Penington put out by Quaker Heritage Press. And I use Penn’s “No Cross, No Crown” and other works some, but not as much as I might expect.
John Lampen is a British Friend who has written a lovely book on Jesus from the liberal perspective and Patricia Loring’s 2 volumes on “Listening Spirituality” sprinkle theology among the practice.
So much of modern Quaker writing about theology is historical or articles done by academics — Rosemary Moore, Hugh Barbour, or Elise Boulding’s sociological works — that it is hard to find much that really speaks to our theological condition today. Alternatively, much is oriented towards spiritiuality or practice — I often turn to Thomas Kelly, Michael Birkel and others.
I’ll be interested in seeing what else others come up with.
Now to answer your question in a totally different way — I found that Barclay and other theologians were virtually meaningless to me before I experienced the strong mystical opening which changed my life. In the months and years immediately after that experience, I did not turn to theologians, but to the Quaker journals. It was these accounts of God acting in people’s lives which did so much to make sense of my own life and to help shape my sense of calling as I moved forward. Then, and only then, did the theology start to make sense and help expand my vocabulary. Another author not mentioned yet in this area is Lloyd Lee Wilson (I’ve not duplicated Robin’s list — he is someone who constantly ties theology and practice in good Quaker fashion.
It is hard to pick out favorites among the early journal writers as so many were helpful. You’ll see selections from various ones scattered throughout my writings, but Mary Penington is one of the ones I keep returning to along with Margaret Fell and Rachel Hicks. Fox, Woolman and the other standards are certainly regular references as well.
Among modern writers, I find Elise Boulding’s book (which includes her experience of opening), One Small Plot of Heaven, to be rich. Another Friend you might well not have encountered is Adam Curle and his slim volume True Justice (he is a Buddhist -Quaker, so I don’t know if he will speak to you). Folks like these who are thoroughly engaged with the world and all its ills are ones who end up in my list of Quaker “saints” rather than the theologians. Douglas and Dorothy Steere are others who fall in this category. Parker Palmer is someone else who is high on my list — although he is on the edges of being Quaker, as is Walter Wink who is someone who at least attends meeting some and does wonderful theology explorations of peace and justice issues.
I hope Friends will find a new form of Journal writing which will suit who we are today and weaves teaching our theology in the midst of exploring what is is to be a Friend in the day-to-day struggles of life.
Thanks for the question. For me too theology is bound up with how we live our lives and Quaker journals are a rich source. So often it is voices from the past that speak to me now. I have spent many years trying to encourage British Friends not only to read these writings but to share their own spiritual journeys [with very little success!!]
My list is very long but here are a few names that spring to mind.
Priscilla Hannah Gurney
Sarah Tuke Grubb
and then in the present
Ben Pink Dandelion
Some names which have not come up yet but are important are Richard Foster, Thomas Kelly, Johan Maurer.
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And now for a very different type of answer. In New Testament terms, the saints are the believers – all of them. Some of the most important ones to Friends are often, and should be, Friends in meetings who are little known outside of the meeting.
Out here in Oregon I think of Jack Willcuts and Iola Steen.
I struggle with this question Wess.
Unitarian Minster Carl Scovel in his sermon says,
”The Present Theological State of Unitarian Universalism is institutionalized Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism, is the belief that each single person’s intuition of the divine (the ultimate, the holy, truth itself) precedes all cultural, societal and institutional forms of religion”.
He continue to says, ”Now if the UUA is institutionalized Transcendentalism, what holds local societies together in an association and what keeps members within a society? If I am correct, I think we supply a lack of theological consensus with the force of institutional forms a name, a logo, district and continental meetings, a powerful ministers association, national licensing procedures, the seven principles, and subtle, but at times very strong, pressures toward conformity”.
Personally, I think he could have wrote this sermon for
Lack of theological consensus with the force of institutional forms a name, (Quakers) district and continental meetings, (Yearly Meetings) a powerful ministers ( pastoral Friends) the seven principles,( Quaker testimonies)and subtle, but at times very strong, pressures toward conformity.
I will also add a nostalgia for Quaker Saints.
As Quaker of African Descent I struggle with many of these Quaker Saints including Saint George.In his Letter to the Governor of Barbados ( which holds creedal position
among many pastoral Friends )we find these words, Another slander which they have cast upon us is, ‘that we teach the negroes to rebel;’ a thing we utterly abhor in our hearts; the Lord knows it, who is the searcher of all hearts, and knows all things, and can testify for us, that this i s a most abominable untruth. For that which we have spoken to them is, ‘to exhort and admonish them to be sober, and to fear God; to love their masters and mistresses, and to be faithful and diligent in their masters’ service and business;
The absence of people of color voices in our Quaker history
and faith, I believe has contribute to the lack of diversity in
our Meetings today.
It is with a thankful heart that I look forward to the release of Donna McDaniel Vanessa Julye book
” Fit for Freedom not for Friendship”.
If I had to pick a Quaker saint it would beBayard Rustin.
Great article/sermon Carl Scovel
Beyond Channing and Church
Carl Scovel Boston, Massachusetts
The Present Theological State of Unitarian Universalism If I understand UU-ism correctly, it is institutionalized Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism, you may recall, is the belief that each single person’s intuition of the divine (the ultimate, the holy, truth itself) precedes all cultural, societal and institutional forms of religion. That is, the person alone, before and beyond all communities and institutions, knows the basic truth which he or she needs to live by, and that all traditions, teachings, doctrines and counsels of religious communities are important only as guides, supports and challenges, but not as final authorities. The Transcendentalist theologian is Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his great quote comes from the 1838 Divinity School Address: “Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Spirit, cast behind you all conformity and acquaint men (and women) at first hand with Divinity.” The UUA embodies this sentiment. The first of its seven principles is the inherent worth and dignity of every person,??? and the first named source of authority in the seven principles is direct experience.??? Time and again our members tell us that they joined our churches because UUism affirmed their freedom to believe what they individually valued. UUs embody the American intuition that the person is the first order of reality, that community is a secondary order created by a social contract made between individuals. This is what sociologist Robert Bellah calls ontological individualism.??? Even the new interest in spirituality in this country and in the UUA is an individual quest in which one chooses from a wide array of physical and mental practices and philosophies. Beneath this new interest is an aversion to community and tradition, evident in the oft-repeated phrase, “I want spirituality not religion.” We see this also in the frequent hostility to Christianity, Judaism and any tradition which appears as if it might define the worship of a congregation. It’s OK to sample, but next Sunday let’s have something different. Now if the UUA is institutionalized Transcendentalism, what holds local societies together in an association and what keeps members within a society? If I am correct, I think we supply a lack of theological consensus with the force of institutional forms a name, a logo, district and continental meetings, a powerful ministers association, national licensing procedures, the seven principles, and subtle, but at times very strong, pressures toward conformity. For supposedly-unique churches, there is a fairly predictable Sunday liturgy inherited from the Protestant preaching service. There are common worship practices, such as lighting the chalice, joys and concerns, flower communion, water communion, a common hymnal which serves as a de facto prayerbook, and “Spirit of Life,” which has become a distinctive chant. UU sermons – to my ear – also have a surprising consistency in content, though considerable variety in expression. These forms hold UUs together and define them. UUs have, I think, become that which Emerson left, Parker ignored and Channing dreaded – a denomination. They are institutionalized Transcendentalism. This is clearly not a problem for the great majority of UU clergy and members. This is what supports them, what they enjoy, what they see as the fruition of their history. Others find something substantial missing. Many leave and some hang on. In either case, it behooves us to ask how UU-ism evolved into its current state. II. The Historical Path to the Present Unitarianism began as an unnamed and undefined reaction against the determinism, pessimism and judgmentalism of traditional New England theology. When Congregational ministers began to question these themes, their conservative colleagues refused to exchange pulpits with them or take part in their ordinations. Within local churches liberal and conservative members began to argue over the their pastor’s beliefs. In 1819 the members of The First Parish of Dedham took their differences to a state court which awarded the building, grounds and monies to the more liberal parish organization, leaving the conservative members to found a new church. In that same year (1819) William Ellery Channing defined and named the new movement in a sermon, entitled “Unitarian Christianity,” which he preached at Jared Sparks’s ordination in Baltimore. In this sermon he rejected four premises: 1. God’s existence as Trinity (as defined at the Council of Nicea in 325 AD) 2. God’s right to absolute judgment over human salvation. 3. The doctrine of Christ’s two natures, human and divine (as defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD) 4. The doctrine of salvation by Christ’s vicarious atonement as defined by Anselm. In contrast, Channing affirmed five propositions which he said characterized the new movement among the Congregational churches: 1. The simple unity of God 2. The absolute morality of God 3. The simple unity, namely the humanity, of Jesus 4. The moral and spiritual leadership of Jesus 5. Human salvation by moral and spiritual character. And how do we know these to be true? Because, said Channing: 1. We find them confirmed in scripture if we read scripture with the eyes of reason, and 2. We find them confirmed in our own God-given sense of morality. For example, Channing described God as “infinitely good, kind, benevolent,??? for “we respect nothing but excellence whether in heaven or on earth. We venerate not the loftiness of God’s throne, but the equity and justice with which it is established.” (p. 70) In other words, we believe in God because God represents the highest good which we can conceive. Again, Jesus “was sent to effect a moral and spiritual deliverance.” (P. 74) “We regard him as Saviour, chiefly as he is the light, physician and guide of the dark, diseased and wandering mind.” (p.79) Now when I read Channing’s indictments of the old theology, I heartily assent. And when I read his affirmations, I assent but less heartily. Why? Not because of what he says but because of what he does not say. I hear nothing of God’s mystery, God’s dynamism, God’s judgment, God’s creativity and our own distance from that all-perfect source and being. I hear nothing of a Christ who was judge, rebel and embodiment of holiness. No, in his place Channing speaks of “the mild precepts” of Jesus. Mild, my eye! Are we reading the same Bible? I hear nothing from Channing of our human capacity for evil, indifference, greed, self-centeredness and corruption, which has destroyed the lives and happiness of millions throughout history and in this century, and which now threatens our existence as a species. My experience and observation is that it takes more than mild precepts, education and good will to correct the evil which threatens us from within as from without. In the words of a Trappist preacher, “Sins are not water soluble.” But furthermore I do not hear Channing telling us that we need the church as the imperfect bearer of God’s revelation. I do not hear him telling us of tradition as the medium for God’s disclosure, nor of the collective faith once given to the saints and renewed in us if we receive it. No, in Channing religion is essentially a matter between the reasonable individual and a benevolent deity with Jesus as teacher and guide. I am saying that the seeds of the dissolution of Unitarian Christianity were sown in its initial definition and defense. For, when the conflict arose between the first Transcendentalists and the Unitarian Christians, the latterChanning, Andrews Norton and Henry Waretried to defend Christianity on the basis of reasonreason, that is, as they understood it. Christianity, they claimed, was both true and unique because Christ had empirically proved his authority through his power to work miracles. But the Transcendentalists, armed with American pragmatism and Enlightenment skepticism, tore that argument to shreds, and Unitarian Christianity was left with only its dubious claims to a superior morality. In 1838, less than twenty years after Channing’s Baltimore sermon, Ralph Waldo Emerson addressed the senior class in the chape
l of Harvard Divinity School and challenged the authority of Christian faith with these words: “The word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, … is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.” Where then is truth, he asked? In the soul, the individual soul which, as the prophet Jesus taught, is the law to itself. Emerson concluded, “We have contrasted the Church with the Soul. In the soul, then, let the redemption be sought.” Nowhere do we see this debate more clearly focused than in the differences over Holy Communion. Emerson left his ministry at Second Church because the congregation would not agree to drop communion. Theodore Parker never even held communion at the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society. Of the rite he said, “The Lord’s Supper … is a heathenish rite and means very little, I think. Let all who will come into a parlor and have a social and religious meeting, and eat bread (wine if you like), or curds and cream baked apples if you will, and have a conversation, free and cheerful, on moral questions … only let all be rational and real.” (Atlantic Monthly October 1860, p.451) You see, Parker and Emerson were challenging not just Christian ritual and teaching, but tradition itself in any form, and in time the later Transcendentalists, the Free Religious Association and the American humanists took up their cause. Indeed, by the 1930’s generations of Unitarian Christians had already substituted intuition for revelation, reason for ritual and the individual soul for the church. When I entered seminary almost fifty years ago, the crosses had come down in most New England meetinghouses, Holy Communion was a sparsely-attended annual event in the few churches that still held it, the Lord’s Prayer and the reading of the Bible had been dropped, and many assumed that in time most Christians and theists would simply disappear. At the time of merger in 1961 we stepped out of our Unitarian and Universalist heritages to create institutionalized Transcendentalism. The Unitarians set aside the unity of God for the free and responsible search for truth. The Universalists set aside God’s all-embracing love for inclusivism, an ideal which one can live with insofar as one does not see how one has failed to live it. For the UUAs first few years the UU logo was two intersecting circles, representing the two traditions. Then that unitive symbol was set aside for the flaming chalice, taken from the UU Service Committee, as one more act of Unitarian exclusion of the Universalist component. We rebaptized Channing, Emerson, Parker, Hosea Ballou, Henry Whitney Bellows, James Freeman Clarke and all the fathers and mothers of our faith as “Unitarian Universalists” in a vain attempt, I think, to show that we are their fulfillment. Anyone who knows history, and thus Emersons anti-institutionalism, Parker’s solo career, Channing’s refusal of the first AUA presidency and his disappointment at its founding, will also know that we are not what they had in mind. For, we have almost lost our institutional interest in history. Our whole understanding of how we evolved into what we are was defined by Earl Morse Wilbur, who wrote a detailed, minutely-documented and, I believe, flawed, account of Unitarianism as essentially anti-Trinitarianism. Wilbur told our story as the familiar pilgrimage from Trinitarian dogma to enlightenment, concluding with (and in the words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up) a new trinity, namely: freedom, reason and tolerance. These were the Unitarian watchwords when I entered seminary in 1954. At least Wilbur had a passion for history. Now we have to require our seminarians to read Unitarian and Universalist history, and that means we have essentially lost our sense of its importance. That too is part of our legacy from Emerson. III. The UU Christian Misdirection When I began to attend meetings of the Unitarian Christian Fellowship in Boston (and they were only in Boston in those days), it was clear that the founding members felt they’d been betrayed and that humanists had “taken over” the denomination with the connivance or consent of the AUA president Frederick May Eliot, himself an ardent theist. But I found their own form of Christianity ambiguous. The early members of the Christian Fellowship believed that they believed in the teachings of Jesus, not the teachings about Jesus, but while they were good people, good citizens, good church members, I wasn’t sure that their lives reflected the teachings of Jesus any more than other Christians, or even non-Christians. In seminary as I learned more about the transition into Transcendentalism, I was struck with three things: 1. First, the Unitarian Christians were really preaching an Emersonian version of Christianity, that is that they too believed that religion was first of all a transaction between God and the person. Jesus, the Bible and the church were all invaluable guides in this transaction but when push came to shove it was God and the soul, as the bard of Concord had proclaimed in 1838. 2. The transition from Emersonian Christianity to institutionalized Transcendentalism was relatively easy. A few theists and Christians objected, and some even left for other churches, but even supposedly-conservative New England churches dropped Christian symbols, texts and practices without losing many members. Indeed, most congregations embraced with enthusiasm the Beacon church school curriculum, the new hymnal, Sunday readings from science and philosophy, and young ministers preached a tradition-less religion. Most Unitarians found the change not only painless, but positive. 3. History has shown that the liberal Christianity of William Ellery Channing and Andrews Norton was no match for the Transcendentalism of Emerson, Parker and the Free Religious Association. Indeed, Unitarian Christianity had already given away the essentials and thus prepared the way. Let me put my point this way: If Jesus is a human teacher of divine truths, why should we not listen to others whom we deem to be teachers of divine truth? If the scriptures are a book of divine wisdom, why should we not study other books of divine wisdom? If Christianity is only one religion among others, whose only superiority lies in the reports of Christ’s miracles, then why should we not learn from other religions? Indeed, fifty years ago the proponents of the new Unitarianism, later to become Unitarian Universalism, were not so much denying Christian truth as to claim that they were “more than Christian.” They believed their thinking included more truth than Christianity, indeed, that it included all the essentials in all religions. Donald Harrington at the UUA merger ceremony held in Symphony Hall proclaimed that we were a new faith, and the world was waiting to hear our gospel. These reflections have led me to reconsider two doctrines which Unitarians, Universalists and Unitarian Universalists have long since set aside: 1. the Trinity and 2. the two-fold nature of Christ. I realize that you may scarcely believe your ears, as I say this. These doctrines have lain for centuries beyond the pale of acceptable discourse within our ranks, but I too am searching for the truth in, I hope, a free and responsible??? way, so I hope you will hear me out. I’ll take the Trinity first. I said that Earl Morse Wilbur defined Unitarianism as anti-Trinitarianism. (We are incidentally not the only Unitarians. Doukhabors, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, United Pentecostals, Quakers and not a few Baptists worship God undivided as to person.) An understanding of God, such as Channing’s, as a pure moral spirit with the best qualities of a humane, dedicated citizen is in the long run a limited class-based view of God. Channing’s biographer, David Edgell, says, “His function was to translate and make available to a dominant middle class culture a synthesis of ideas … which helped to solidify and express American social and religious liberalism.” (Page 229, William Ellery Channing, Beacon Press, 1955) (Again, “He reflected the intellectual cross-currents that swirled about him.” (p.23
3) This God, who had to earn the respect of Channing’s generation in order to be credible, was kindly and benevolent to a generation on its way up the socio-economic ladder. Although I prefer such a God to the capricious deity of late Congregationalism, such a God does not meet me in the world where I livea world of genocide, a world where one generation of victims become oppressors of the next, a world of power and privilege run amok, conflicting isms, danger at every turn, unforgivable wealth and abject poverty, death and affluence living side by side. I do not find in Channing’s God the righteous word of the prophets or the voice of the Nazarene who claims God’s kingdom was coming – ready or not. I find in this God no mystery, no judgment, and therefore – for me – no hope. And yet I do not blame Channing. He was a child of his time, as I am of mine, and if I am ever noticed, I will probably be judged more wanting in my time than he in his. Although I cannot accept the Nicean definition of God as tri-personed, I believe that God defined primarily as spirit, eventually floats into the upper stratosphere, that if God is not somehow incarnate in this world and in our lives in all His, or Her, or Its, inherent power, many-facedness and mystery, then God becomes an abstraction and inevitably lesser gods take up His place. Let me put it this way. Trinitarian thinking is necessary to counter a monistic definition of God as unmoved and unmoving. Trinitarian thinking says that there are distinctions and dynamism within God, and without this kind of understanding we lose relationship to and interest in God. Small wonder that humanism became more attractive than Unitarian Christianity. I recall a formidable threat from a humanist colleague early in my ministry: If you Christians dont come up with something more interesting, well just yawn you out of the denomination.??? Alright. Let’s look at the second point: the two natures of Christ. This was defined at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, namely that in the one person of Christ there were two natures: unconfused, indivisible, unchangeable and inseparable. Now what does this mean for us? Why should we even be discussing matters like this, long since dismissed by our colleagues? Why is the teaching about the two natures of Christ important? Let’s try to understand what those bishops at Chalcedon were trying to do. I think they were trying to preserve an understanding of Jesus as God’s presence to humanity and God’s power for humanity, who were caught in a swamp of personal and collective sins and evil. Christ, in order to save us, had to be both part of us and more than us. To be savior, Christ had to be both of God and of humanity, both without compromising either, thus the delicate and essential balance between his humanity and divinity. If we emphasizes Christs divinity to the exclusion of his humanity, we get a divine being who has nothing to do with us, as Channing so aptly said. But if we emphasize his humanity to the exclusion of his divinity, we get another great teacher or prophet. This I think was the Unitarian error. Eventually Jesus became a great teacher and prophet; but in time we discovered other teachers and prophets, some of whom seemed more relevant, accessible, contemporary than Jesus. And then even Jesus the teacher and prophet became irrelevant. To be a Christian is to trust that Christ is and has what we need in order to live Gods will and find our way through this world. There is no substitute for this act of faith, as Paul, Augustine, Luther, Theresa of Avila and Dorothy Day knew. Without this risk, one ends up following ones own preferences, and that is a life without chart or direction. We see how hard it is to trust in the popular search for what is called the historical Jesus. Robert Funk and the members of the Jesus seminar, Marcus Borg, John Crossan and others, are attempting to construct a model of a historical Jesus based on archaeological and historical findings, contemporaneous documents and critical analysis of the gospels. The aim of this enterprise is to discover a Jesus whom seeking Christians can intellectually believe in. Some of you have read and studied their writing. I believe that this effort fails on two counts. First, on the historical. From my reading of 19th century and current literature of this sort, including works by Funk, Borg and Crossan, and from my understanding of the gospels, I simply do not see how the historical data we have on Jesus can yield what a critical historian would call even a likely guess. The gospel writers were writing a proclamation, not history or biography, and I don’t see how massaging the existing texts can produce even historical probability. Schweitzer in his doctoral thesis in theology, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, laid this effort to rest when he said, “The Jesus of history emerges from his own time and advances toward us, but then he passes us by and returns to his own time there to remain.” We can never find enough evidence to give us even a semi-credible picture of the historical Jesus. When a jury after watching a video of the Los Angeles police arresting Rodney King split on whether or not the police were brutal in their treatment of him, I wonder what kind of data will give us certainty? Secondly, history is not the issue. Certainty does not lie in historical data, even if we had the data. Empirical evidence does not increase our faith. In fact, the quest for historical certainty distracts us from the essential task of trusting Jesus. The earthly life of Jesus, the fact and facts of his existence, is the seed dropped into the earth of human experience, but it is not the full flowering plant, nor is it the church, the weathering of history, the fertilization given by saints, martyrs, scholars and servants these all together create the plant of religion and the harvest of faith. But to receive the harvest, to know the meaning of Jesus requires a giving of one’s mind, one’s heart, one’s will in an act of surrender, always without sufficient evidence and data. This leap of faith, as Kierkegaard knew so well, is the essential act of becoming a Christian. There simply is no substitute. IV. My Own Response Given this situation, what are the Christian and the theist to do? I find that I cannot prescribe for another, since my own path has been so often and remains unclear. After 42 years in parish ministry, reflecting on my own experience and observing churches today as I see them, realizing the variety of viewpoints and experiences among my UU friends, parishioners and colleagues, I find the parish church both essential and inadequate. That is why I titled this “Beyond Channing and Church.” As a Christian, I live out of the church. If God is my source, the church is my conduit. I must worship with my fellows. I must read and reflect on the wisdom of my predecessors and contemporaries. I must be upheld by their faith. The Christ in my heart is often weaker than the Christ in the heart of my brother and sister; I need their Christ to strengthen mine. Indeed, I am a Christian because I believe that what we believe is greater and more true than what I believe. But while I believe that the church is essential, it cannot do my work for me. In his last talk, Thomas Merton told his audience of monks and nuns that their orders, their monastic houses, and even their traditions were not sufficient. “From now on,” said Merton, “it’s every man (and woman) for himself.” I think I know what that means. Being a dedicated, loyal church member is not enough. Having the right opinions about Jesus is not enough. Being a UU or Methodist or Catholic or Orthodox, is not enough because, although the church is the essential conduit and celebrant of faith, it is not the agent for completing God’s work. That is our work. In a godless culture and in a dangerous world, it’s every one for themself, and the work of achieving our own salvation is also the act of working for the salvation of others. There is no distinction between self-interest and altruism at this point. Therefore, as a Christian my task is to try to
live as a disciple and live in fellowship with other would-be disciples. This is primarily not a matter of thinking right things about Jesus, or believing certain doctrines, or celebrating certain liturgies, and not celebrating others, or obeying certain authorities without question. It means knowing that if the rest of my life, however long it may be, is to have any significance for me or others, any validity, any integrity, I must live as one who is trying to be a disciple of Jesus, that is, as best I can, trying to live his teachings, love my fellows, learn from and help my fellow disciples, but above all trusting this one who in the words of Paul reflects to us God’s glory trusting his promises, trusting his pardon, trusting his power, trusting his peace, trusting his judgment, trusting his teachings and trusting the one who is uniquely both human and divine. For me, Christ’s command to love my fellows is also a command to stay in communication with and in relationship with the men, women and children of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship. It seems that God has called me to be here. As long as I am sustained and nourished by Christian thought, worship and experience that I need, I must attend to those who befriended me when I was a nonbeliever and who have been the context for my ministry for over four decades. I would gain nothing by trotting off to another denomination where I could doubtless find a place, but it would not be my place with my people. And even though the UU world at times drives me nuts, I’m sure at times I dismay my fellows. In other words, I choose to stand within both the community of Christian revelation and the community of Unitarian Universalist seekers and individualists. What does this mean for my non-Christian confreres and consoeurs? For those who are happy with mainline UU-ism, who believe in the enlightenment myth of our progress toward a more universal faith, in ontological individualism and in our being the fulfillment of our mothers and fathers in faith, I doubt that I have much to say. For those who feel that we have lost something, that our present stasis in membership and funding reflects some fundamental fault, that we lack depth and direction, I can only say that one must search indeed, but at some point one must make a non-rational commitment to some one, some faith, some revelation and ultimately some faith community, if one is to grow in depth. One must choose at some point to move beyond the limits of one’s own choice and stand within a community which is an arena of both instruction and exploration. For me to live, not in, but out of Christian community is to know the one of whom Schweitzer spoke in the last paragraph of his Quest for the Historical Jesus. He said (and I have added a few phrases to the last sentence): “He comes to us as one unknown as of old, by the lakeside he came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same words, ‘Follow thou me,’ and sets us to work at tasks which he must complete in our times. He commands, and those who obey, whether they be rich or poor, wise or simple, shall find his peace, and as an ineffable mystery they shall know in their own lives who he is.” And I would add, “Who they are, where they are and where they are going.” That at least is our partial experience and our hope as Christians.
Thank you all so much for adding your comments here, such wonderful remarks about Quakers that have influenced us! I was happy to see Isaac Pennington’s name pop up a couple times, as Samuel Bownas.’ I just picked up Pennington the other day, thinking, “I really need to work my way through these (four) volumes.” Marge, Gil (and any others) is there a good place to start, there is a lot of writing from this guy…
Robin M gave me a copy of Samuel Bownas a couple years back and I’m revisiting it as I prepare for my trip to England, I’m finding it very helpful for this stage in my life.
I haven’t read Brent’s latest book, but I’m taking it on my trip and plan to read it while traveling. I actually have some serious life discernment questions I’m going to be praying through while testing Brent’s book out on myself. I trust it will be a great guide.
Paul, I think you bring up a really good, yet sad, point. Diversity is something Quakers talk a lot about, and I’d say even hope for, but when it comes down to living it out, it’s much harder to put into practice. I think it’s much easier to have theological/philosophical diversity, those things can be easily hidden beneath silence and friendliness, but the kind of diversity your talking about isn’t so easily hidden! Nor should it be. I met Vanessa last year and she seems like a wonderful woman.
I also wanted to add that for me “theology” is only as good as the person who lives it. I see that in our world often faith as practice and faith as right belief are often separated, after all it’s much easier to have “right thoughts” and continue to live the way we’d like and that fits most comfortably with our own desires than it is to hold these two things in practice. When I look down this list of Quakers, I see a host of witnesses who were astute theologically, they knew their Scriptures, they understood the yearnings of their times, and they knew what it meant to actually be in fellowship with the living God. I love that the Quaker tradition has always stressed right living, this is something we share with our anabaptist brothers and sisters as well. They never set out to write grand theologies, but to follow the Spirit. It’s easy in our time to assume that you can only have one or the other, but when I think of theology, good theology, I think of it as coming from the people who really mean it, live it and know it and are able to reflect on it and articulate it in a way that helps others. I think this list is a great account of these tensions being held together.
In his sermon Carl Scovel says,
“For me, Christs command to love my fellows is also a command to stay in communication with and in relationship with the men, women and children of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship. It seems that God has called me to be here.”
He continues to say “I would gain nothing by trotting off to another denomination where I could doubtless find a place, but it would not be my place with my people. And even though the UU world at times drives me nuts, Im sure at times I dismay my fellows”
These words speak to heart of my experience with Quakers.
God has called me to be among Friends.
Trotting off to another denomination where I could doubtless find a place, but it would not be my place with my people.
And even though the Quaker world like the UU world for
Carl Scovel at times drives me nuts,
Im sure at times I dismay my fellows”
Christ is sovereign no matter what worldview we have, whether we are faithful or not, whether we acknowledge there is anything beyond human experience or not, and whether we work for or against justice. We are Christians, I believe, when we live and love in the power of that sovereignty. Christ need not be believed in to be joined. Perhaps Christ believes in us far more than many of us believe in him.
I was thinking on the way into the office about all these great posts and our (Quakers) lack of propositional/systematic theologians (ala’ RC Sproul in the Reformed tradition) and decided that it probably had to do in part with our understanding of faith as having much less to do with persuading the mind than winning the heart. For that, stories of experiences with God appeal to the soul with a winsomeness that the cold, hard facts of theological discourse seldom can acheive. I think that’s why our best books of faith and practice relate the experiences of Friends encounter with God and we’re weakest (though there are some exceptions, ie Barclay) when we go “linear.”
Brent, et al – To go along with this discussion on theology (from a free-church perspective) I just came across a wonderful article with one of my top 3 free-church thinkers James McClendon. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
We could also add to the primary theology journals, pamphlets, etc. It seems fairly clear that Quakers most often engaged in what McClendon calls “primary theology.” He was a professor of theology for 46 years, and helped to start the “narrative theology” movement in the 70’s, whereby theology is best understood and constructed by using narrative content.
You can read more about it here: http://www.thewitness.org/archive/dec2000/mcclendon.html
If you haven’t read any McClendon he’s seriously a wonderful and engaging read and is radical enough even for Quakers.
This is perhaps a bit controversial in the larger Quaker world, but Joseph John Gurney has acted as a steady guide for me in the process of understanding and practicing Quaker theology. His ecumenical spirit is refreshing and not contrived.
I have also recently read Brent’s newest book – it is a great read, practical, and yet gives deep streams of thought to pursue. I have been giving it to people/telling others about it in hopes that Quaker discernment can be more understood and more readily practiced.
Thank you, Brent!
Many of these Friends “speak my mind.”
I’ll reaffirm a few and throw in some new ones.
Barclay (both for his Apology, but also his Catechism and Confession of Faith)
C. Wess Daniels (I had too…)
@Michael: I can’t believe I approved this comment! haha…I’ve got one of Jack Wilcuts’ books and but haven’t gone through it yet, it looks good.
@Jamie Johnson: I’m hoping to read some Gurney this summer – is there one you like in particular?
Friends, I’m currently in the Library at woodbrooke and just had to post this book I came across, it’s called “A Book of Quaker Saints,” by L.V. Hodgkin, MacMillan and Co Limited, London: 1924 (and reprinted in 35 I think). Anyways, I haven’t read it, just skimmed the preface, but the cool thing is, it’s written for older children, they are stories about Quakers throughout the years to help teach kids about our history. I think it looks pretty cool and thought you might enjoy knowing about it. It seems like a great way to help share our fascinating and exciting history with kids.
Yes indeed Wess – Lucy Violet, favourite daughter of the Q historian Thomas Hodgkin. If you want to know a little more about her you can find a very short bio in Dear Friends and Sisters by G Skidmore which I think is in Woodbrooke Library.
Although dated Quaker Saints is really good story telling. We need someone to do something similar now – but UK Qs have been saying that for years and years!!
I am inundated with voices and perspectives…Quaker theology and theologians are still quite new to me, and I'm humbled to see the list of those who've come before, that you all hold in high esteem. My own theological training and experience has primarily been in Catholic theology (Merton, Aquainas, Augustine, etc lol) but the Quaker who got me started down this path was Rufus M. Jones. He looks alot like the colonel from KFC, but he was an early-mid 20th century mystic and Quaker thelogian…and he totally rocks my life. His writing is approachable, eloquent, moving, and well constructed. I adore him as though he were my own personal Quaker patron saint. I have, through him, only brushed the surface of this deep well of Quaker spirituatlity…but I hope others come to know Christ and the Quaker way through Rufus Jones. <3
Actually, the Unitarian Universalists have been as reluctant to come to terms with Emerson's sexual orientation as with his remark, "I am more of a Quaker than anything else." (Emerson's suppressed longing for fellow student Martin Gay is a fixed historical fact, beyond debate.)
Whitman said at one time, "I am a good deal of a Quaker," and in reference to Emerson: "We were like two Quakers together."
The great lesson in Whitman, for me, was that he was too much of "a good deal" of a Quaker to "be" a Quaker. After all my years of laboring with Friends, I take great comfort in his lonely example.