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.