An Apologetic for a Quaker Theology | Do We Need It (or want it)?

This is a response to a comment I received yesterday about Quaker theology.  The comment was good enough that I decided to write a post about it, because I know that many people have the same questions and challenges it brought up.  Theology should be done in a way that is not only sensible (in terms of its sources and clarity) but also sensible in terms of its practicality.  In other words, as one of my professors used to say, “if your theology doesn’t work, it’s bad theology.”  This post tries to set forth why the pursuit of theology can and should be something we support.  I’ve yet to really address an apology for why the Friends Church need Quaker theologians (something I am challenged on fairly constantly), and so this is my first attempt of many to come.  The post is written as a response to the comment and not as a typical post

Thanks for your honesty and challenge to my experience here.  I appreciate all of what you say, but the last part suggesting this could all be a waste of time did throw me a little.  Maybe you read the uncertainty in my writings about what I am doing and if so you’re right to suggest it “might well be” a waste of time.

George Fox

But honestly, this could be said about anything we do where we put ourselves on the line.  I am sure people like: Galileo, George Fox, Robert Barcly, John Woolman, Elizabeth Fry, Dorothy Day, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr, John Howard Yoder, Bob Dylan, etc, were all in danger of wasting their time, and probably told so as well.  Not that I think I am any of those people, but I do look up to them because they were (or are) not satisfied with the state of their society and/or church and set out to do something about it.  These people blurred the lines and challenged the status quo of their times.

A Faith in Danger

I think that faith ultimately is always in danger of just being seen as, or turning out to be, a waste of time.  That’s the nature of faith.  Faith that is efficient, safe and purely rational is not really faith is it?  At least not faith like Jesus’ – which is ultimately who I am interested in following.

So I heed your warnings, and understand that yes I am in danger of looking back and seeing that I would have been better off collecting change on the street corners of hollywood instead of living at Woodbrooke and studying Quaker theology, or worse yet doing a dissertation on it.  However, at this point, I choose to trust that this is my lot and that it’s a step in the direction I have been led.  I still honestly believe I’m doing what God wants me to do (though I often question all that it involves).  I want to be a part of the tradition that is seeking to turn this ship around (or build a new one out of the old material).  I’m not interested in helping to patch holes anymore.

But the rest of what you say I definitely hear loud and clear.  I think liberalism at its best seeks to cross boundaries, and actively pursue justice in the world but at its worst is completely stripped of what makes it distinctive, in modernity language looses its meaning, we see an obsession with individualized authority, there is the continued desire for a lowest common denominator religion, and one of the worst possible thing someone could say to us is that “you’re making me feel excluded.”  I’ve recently been called an intolerant liberal, and appreciated the irony.  I can only imagine how the list of some of my hero’s above answered the people who told them they were being exclusive.

Can Theology Save?

You’re right theology won’t save British Friends, but I do believe that it could save the Friends tradition.  In fact, I think that’s a lot of why Quakerism is dying; there have been so few people given the right to actually think about, and challenge, the tradition’s beliefs and practices in a thoughtful, educated way.  I have been disheartened a number of times by Friends from all over, who I have met and who have suggested to me that they don’t need the likes of me, or how silly it is to study something like “Quaker” theology (Of course, Quakers aren’t special in their disdain for theology, that’s the normal stance of the Enlightenment).  This coming from one of the smallest Christian denominations in the world, and one that has so few theologians and philosophers to its name.


Our negative reaction to theology seems to me to be similar to me telling my doctor who has diagnosed me with Asthma, after I tell her that I haven’t been able to breathe for the last year and experience all this wheezing, that she’s wrong and I don’t need a doctor to tell me how to take care of myself because no one in my family (who, consequently in this story, has all but died away) ever went to a doctor.

I would like to learn why there is such a reticence toward theology from Quakers, I know the old arguments about the Light being most important, but we also believe God works through all things and that all of life is sacramental.  So why can’t God work through theology?  Why no nurture all of life as sacramental and actually allow for that kind of engagement?  I think our reticence goes much deeper, but I honestly don’t know what it is.  I think there are different reasons for different parts of the tradition, but it’s something I think we should try and work through.

The point is that theology won’t save us, and your assessment is spot on especially the part about there being an overall rejection of Christianity.  With no common language, no common telos, no common virtues or practices we will not be able to progress.  The saving is really up to God, and the people within the tradition to make serious decisions about whether they want to change or not.  This is reason for hope in this, we are a resilient bunch of people and, I believe, truly desire what God wants.  But theology is one of the, very essential, missing pieces from our church’s tradition.  Theology is to the church, what doctors are to medicine, or teachers to education, but maybe the problem is that we don’t know we’re a church any longer?

But it’s not too late to try something different and experiment, we all know that Quakerism has been in decline for a really long time.  And that there’s only been a few people who have diagnosed the tradition, and tried to move it forward in theological terms.   People like John Punshon, Elton Trueblood, and Rufus Jones are some of few Quakers to do this kind of work and for this they are heros of mine.

I hope you’ll continue to read and dialogue, and I hope that while you’re right about the bleak nature of what’s going on, maybe together we can find some hope left for the Society of Friends.  My hope is that we can all come to a place where we not only see ourselves as a part of the church, but become active again in sharing the good news with the world.

Recent articles on Quaker theology

Towards a Post-Foundationalist Quaker Theology
Orthodoxy as an Event: Questions About Quaker Orthodoxy
Loving Ourselves to Death

[Credit for images: George Fox and Stethoscope]

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