Douglas Gwyn and the Convergent-Covenant

Just came across these two quotes from Quaker historical-theologian Douglas Gwyn’s book “The Covenant Crucified,” and it got me thinking about some of the work I did in a previous project I’d never written about:

Given its biblical frame of reference, the religious Right retains a more explicit covenantal self-awareness.  But because the biblical code is metaphorical, not analytical, the religious Right (indeed, all biblically based groups) often struggles over how to live a biblically faithful life in our present social grid, how to address a modern, scientific, and technological society using this code.  Under these conditions, fundamentalist groups shift decisively toward the purity/pollution code of covenant consciousness.  Here, questions of private morality, sexuality, family relations, and devotion to church life are foreground, and wider, structural dimensions of covenant faith – a just and peaceful society (the gift/debt code) – recede into the background.

Douglas Gwyn, Covenant Crucified, 366

For Gwyn, the “Religious Right is puritanical??? because moral standards “become fetishes, detached from evolving patterns of life,” and operates out of a desire to reinstate Christendom, often at whatever cost. While the left holds onto contraction philosophy, over against the early Quaker and biblical notion of covenant, which ultimately, “reduces covenant faith to constitutional rights” (367).

Both sides of the Friends contingent struggle to retain the early Quaker covenantal commitment because of their lack of social/historical vision which was rooted in a biblical eschatology, as he says:

“In both the liberal and evangelical trajectory, many traditional Quaker concerns — pacifism, word for justice, prison reform, women’s rights, race relations, Native American concerns, political reform and others–found new forms for relevant action.  But, lacking an integrative social and historical vision, these became disjoined impulses of witness and reform.  They lacked the sense of peoplehood that had made early Friends church strong social catalysts.  As our study has shown, covenant community is a key mediating element between individual  experience and the social whole??? (352).

One thing I like so much about Gwyn’s work in Covenant is that it is not strictly a historical look at Friends, rather it is an extended argument about what has been lost (or given up) and what must be regained if the Friends hope to overcome our current crises. I see Gwyn’s argument here as not only historical, but forward looking, offering the church something we can build on.

Gwyn and the Covergent-Covenant

Gwyn argues for innovation within the Friends tradition, arguing for what he names the unameable “X-Covenent.” X for Gwyn only operates as a placeholder, awaiting linguistic innovation. X in the past would have taken on something similar to “light” yet light has been too co-opted to use for this innovative movement (371). In a paper I wrote last year for Pink Dandelion, I argued that the ‘X’ should be replaced by our ‘convergent’ or conservative-emerging sensibility. What Gywn calls for in his last chapter, is what convergent Friends are calling for, yet Gwyn’s account of the covenant lays a deeper context to our work that we’ve yet to grapple with. His historical-theological account of covenant as: “Faithful, promise-keeping relationship–is the hidden, binding force in society…Covenant may infuse many different forms of social interaction.  Friendship disregards religious, ethnic, economic, national, and all other boundaries.  It subverts idolatrous concentrations of power and authority??? (1).

If we couple these two concepts together, and build off a convergent-covenant I think we may have a far richer account of the argument we’re trying to make, with the historical resources we need to make it. Building off his work in the last chapter of Covenant I offer four features to this convergent-covenant I think we need to see arise as key features to this conversation:

1. The convergent-covenant As The Form of the Virtues: Covenant can be understood in terms of the form of the virtues, it is what holds everything together.  Covenant has a teleological ordering implicit in it, as Gwyn says,“experiential knowledge of the Gospels of Jesus by the covenant of light to full consciousness and intentionality??? (259).  This intentionality in the covenant with God, or “Gospel liberty,??? is implicit within  the Quaker virtues of silence, charity, peace, and humility.  These virtues are reducible into a neat list of liberal values, but understood in terms of virtues as consequence of our covenant in Christ.  It will be a theology that moves, one that has legs and is based on the MacIntyrean notion of practice. ((..Any coherent and complex form of socially established cooperative human activity through which goods internal to that form of activity are realized in the course of trying to achieve those standards of excellence [virtues] which are appropriate to, and partially     definitive of, that form of activity, with the result that human powers to achieve excellence, and human conceptions of the ends and goods involved, are systematically     extended??? (MacIntyre 1984:187). )) This is a theology that can only be understood in terms of how the community embodies its faith and engages the world around it.

2. The convergent-covenant as Friendship: It can be said that X-Covenant, or the convergent-covenant, is an innovative way to consider Friendship in Postmodernity.  In fact, I argue that a fully fleshed-out form of “friendship??? and covenant can be understood as interrelated in an irreducible way.  In the opening of Pink Dandelion’s Why Making Friends With God May Not Be The Best Idea, Dandelion writes:

…Friendship is the most subversive form of relationship.  Potentially freed of institutionalised roles and responsibilities, structural dependencies, and indeed restraint from outside of any kind, friendship can fit its own dynamic creativity and potential. It is an unchecked and uncheckable source of energy, affirmation, empathy, and its fruits need to fit no regulated codes or patters.  Friendship can be as indeterminate and as diverse as we choose.  It is temporally free too, growing and diminishing as as best suits those involved.  It sits outside all the ways society tries to ties us down…

Given this, it would seem that being friends with God May be the most subversive form of radical spiritual intimacy.  Friendship in this instance could remove the believer from all the codes of church life, of Christian history and dogma, and allow the human-divine relationship a completely new lease of life (Dandelion, Woodbrooke Journal, 2005 no17:3).

This radical view of friendship is not only directed toward God, but also toward one another in friendships that are have a directedness about them, rooted within common projects and small groups networking together to share life and practice faith.

3. The convergent-covenant as a Community of Apprentices: Within the convergent-covenant Quakers must appeal to discipleship as a way of apprentice-making.  To be Quakers requires a specific set of qualities and/or dispositions (virtues) that are gained through the practicing of faith in various forms.  Becoming a Christian, whether in its Catholic, Anabaptist, Methodist or Quaker form, is similar to becoming an apprentice in some other field. It is in subverting the anti-covenant of the Enlightenment that we not only recognize the necessity of being in community, but being in a particular kind of covenant community rooted in a specific tradition. This is the position of the convergent-covenant of Friends.  This community has always recognized a “will to power??? within humanity, and has developed a set of practices that seek to undermine that will to power.  That being said, the convergent-communities need to stress practices that have shaped their tradition and create apprentices who embody those “virtues” and practices.

4. The convergent-covenant as a Community of Interpreters: Within the convergent-covenant any attempt to reduce the tradition down to simplistic terms, fetishize particular eras of history or force upon it foreign agendas and theological notions that do not arise out of the understanding of covenant and the experience of the community as a whole must be held in suspicion.  Authority in this view is dispersed, but in a corporate holistic way.  Attempts to build a foundationalist authority in the Enlightenment meta-narrative of science or modernity’s individualism  (and notion of freedom) must be rejected as anti-covenant and against our understanding of Friendship with God.  Rather as a community of interpreters those within this convergent-covenant must balance community, tradition, the experience of the Spirit and the biblical narrative in such a way that all interpret one another simultaneously through the community joining together in covenant and embodying their tradition’s virtues and practices in fresh ways.  This post-foundationalist account of Quakerism, is based on a relationship to one another that allows God to work through every aspect of life (rejecting the bracketing of God to the sacred sphere within modernity), and does not try to force a reduced version of spiritual authority upon the covenant.  This form of holistic authority for the community needs to remain irreducible, and understand that the only way to interpret the Quaker narrative properly is by first becoming apprentices within the tradition.  Truth or authority are only achievable from within a narrative framework and the convergent-covenant will not attempt to appeal to a standard outside it’s narrative so as not to fall back into Enlightenment foundationalism.

4 responses to “Douglas Gwyn and the Convergent-Covenant”

  1. It’s ironic to see the word “covenant” (which despite having acquired a pseudospiritual flavor is actually a highly legalistic way to define a relationship)… being used to mean relating to God as a member of a community… from within a social world in which the word “community” has become almost meaningless.

    Friendship gets by on tacit rules, rules which don’t get legislated because behavior that would significantly violate them simply doesn’t happen. That doesn’t mean that friends don’t offend each other, but that their continuing devotion is more important than any particular conflict that arises.

    The relation between people and God, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is considerably different. The national leaders liked to think they had an ongoing deal with God, as the neighboring tribes also had “covenants” with their gods; the nature of such deals was very much like what we would call “a contract.” One party agrees to do __ and to not do __, in exchange for the other party agreeing to similar (but not necessarily symettrical) conditions. God, evidently, agrees to this, but knows the people will violate his rules (They ARE people, after all!) and continues to love them anyway.

    A friendship like this would not survive; this is more of a familial relationship! One doesn’t contract with one’s parents for one’s care–and even marriage, though certain agreements are entailed by it, is less a matter of MAKING an agreement than of ratifying a condition which has come to exist… So God is shown as being parental, while the leaders of his people keep trying to put things on a more businesslike footing: plagues of toad ONLY IF we misbehave in such & such a way; we want to know what’s okay and what isn’t, Boss… while they keep on violating the spirit of the relationship God wants to have with them.

    Early Friends were drawn together by a sense that God was making something of them, “gathering a people” as Fox described it, or “forming a movement” as we might see it today. Contemporary Friends–at least those I’ve seen–don’t seem to have this kind of focus, but rather “This is a nice little church that teaches peace and doesn’t preach at us much.” If that’s what Gwyn is saying we’ve lost, yes, that seems to be long gone.

    But most of what one can ‘talk about’ and study about a religious movement–is entirely beside the point. It puts one in a position very much like one of those Israelite kings, wanting to know should we ally with the Egyptians or the Babylonians (Who’s got the most chariots?) while that “impractical” issue: How well do we know God?–is the only one that matters in the long haul. We aren’t interested in Biblical history because of their organizational successes.

  2. Wess

    Thank you for this – I’m looking forward to hearing more.

    I think I get the gist of what you’re saying, but that’s because I’ve read fairly widely in MacIntyre (and Yoder and Hauerwas – but not Gwyn – but your post makes me want to read “The Covenant Crucified”). And also because of my experience of Christian communities with roots in Catholicism, which is less compromised by Enlightenment modernity than either liberal or evangelical Protestantism, Quakers included.

    This traditionalist way of thinking (telos-tradition-practice-character-virtues &c.) is very alien to most people raised in the modern, liberal, individualist world, which means most people in the USA and UK for a start. So if we are going to convey these ideas to others we need to find a way of presenting them that they can grasp. Which means finding examples of traditions and their practices that have survived into our modern world without looking too quaint (as many craft traditions probably do) for modern people to make sense of.

    The obvious place for Quakers to start is with the Quaker tradition itself – with the practice of meeting as a community to discern the motions of the Spirit and then act on them, with the Testimonies understood as a witness to the truth thus discerned. But I can see that this will look like authoritarian groupthink to the many Friends and attenders who are ‘refugees’ from authoritarian churches or have simply drunk very deeply from the liberal-individualist spring. Or who have non-theist convictions that preclude any concept of a spiritual reality beyond the purely human.

    How do you think Gwyn’s concept of the Covenant relates to John Punshon’s understanding of the Cross (in “Testimony & Tradition”) as being central to traditional Quaker thought and practice? He quotes a Yearly Meeting Epistle from 1700 that talks of “the offence of the cross” to describe the humiliation endured by those who struggle with themselves to follow divine leadings towards a life that runs counter to the demands of worldly society. There seems to me to be a parallel here with J H Yoder’s understanding (in “The Politics of Jesus”) of the way of the cross as the path of social nonconformity. Now there’s a challenge to post-Christian Quakerism!

    Grace & Peace


  3. Wess,

    I loved The Covenant Crucified, and I totally see how the X-Covenant can be named as the Convergent-Covenant.

    Our monthly meeting is living out quite a bit of the questions of what it means to be a faith community, where are our edges, what is our core. I’m hopeful that this line of thinking you’ve presented can present some feedback into that conversation.

    And I wish you Godspeed for your presentation at FAHE!

    Chris M.