A History That Doesn’t Aid Us

In reviewing some of my writing on philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in preparation for my exams I am reminded of the importance of writing (and re-writing) history. Much of our moral disagreements in today’s society stem from an inability to recognize where things “went wrong” historically. The tools of analysis, so says MacIntyre, were for the most part developed after the devastation to moral language and tradition had already occurred, so those tools themselves are unable to narrate the problem accurately.

While this may sound complicated, it’s not and it has some pretty important implications for all traditions, but I want to say something specifically about Quaker histories (and theories of origin). There are a good ten or more “theories” about how Quakers began, what gave them their rise, what the cultural and religious anxieties of the time were and how they filled the gap or offered critiques. My own “theory” of Quakerism as a participatory movement is itself an attempt to name this. I think that this work can be useful, but it is itself can be simply a modern gesture, a symptom of modernity’s desire to find a foundational truth upon which to build an objective understanding of one’s tradition.  This is seen most clearly in the accounts that argue for a singular view of Quaker origins. Any theory that is one-sided or aims at one theological conviction that can explain everything once and for all falls prey to this problem. I am dismayed by the great work that goes into early Quaker history and theology that always ends shortly where it begins – somewhere near the origin of the movement. I have talked in the past about the problem of historical accounts that drool all over “the golden years,” but to press this more any history that never moves into theology, that never begins to outline what this means for today, falls short of helping the church re-imagine who it is in today’s society where we are searching for footholds.

MacIntyre reminds us that the work we need to undertake are historical accounts that can narrate the rise, decline and fall of a tradition, narrate its ebbs and its flows, and see the continuity as well as the discontinuity throughout its entire history, not just the origins. As though we may somehow return to those earlier periods.

Historical/theological narrative accounts that can make sense of the whole ball of wax will be more helpful in the long run for making sense of what it means to call ourselves Quakers today. To focus on one golden period, while considering everything that follows from that a compromise or a failure (hello the so-called ‘Quietest’ period) disallows for any kind of innovation, evolution or remix of that tradition. That tradition has then perished only shortly after it began. It doesn’t seem that this on its own can aid us in our work today.

We need a history that can make sense of all that has happened within Quakerism up to this point (Spencer and Palmer). Re-writing history helps to coalesce the updated tradition to show how it is still a part of the older tradition, and in what ways. This history must give an account of how it overcame those issues and how it has accounted for the inadequacies of the older traditions. Through this process we find the continuities and core claims (or convictions) to truth of the tradition.