Towards a Post-Foundationalist Quaker Theology: Slavoj Zizek, Quietism and Pink Dandelion

Accepting the whole of a tradition and not just the parts

I found Slavoj Zizek’s opening to his book The Fragile Absolute, to be instructive for a present day study of Quaker theology.  He begins by presenting the challenge of two choices: How is a Marxist to counter all the various “thoughts” of the post-modern era?  “The obvious answer seems to be not only ferociously to attach these tendencies, but mercilessly to denounce the remainders of the religious legacy of Marxism itself (Zizek, 2000:1).”  But the other choice, not so obvious, is to in fact “fully endorse what one is accused of (Zizek, 2000:2).” In other words the second choice is a complete reversal of the first option.  Christianity and Marxism are directly connected, they ought to fight on the same side.   The atheist Zizek argues, “…the authentic Christian legacy is much to precious to be left to the fundamentalists and freaks (2).”

Zizek concludes by discussing one similarity between Christians and Marxists, a number of both “believers” fetishize the early “authentic” followers and against those who “institutionalized” it (Saint Paul, Lenin).  This is the “yes to Christ, not to Saint Paul” campaign, and it is the same as those who are the “humanist Marxists” and deny Lenin as a role within the Marxist tradition.  “In both cases, one should insist that such a “deference of the authentic” is the most perfidious mode of its betrayal: there is no Christ outside Saint Paul,” just as there is no ‘authentic Marx’ without Lenin (Zizek 2000:2).

Zizek’s point is instructive for Quakers for two reasons: first for its overall sociological understanding of how a tradition is formed, it is very MacIntyrean in the the sense that he recognizes for any movement to continue to have effect within the world it must become organized and create structures to hold it together.  Secondly, in the same way the Friends cannot overvalue Jesus without Paul (think developed eschatology and theological assertions), so too Quakers must guard against the fethisizing of the 1640-1660’s.  In other words, There is no Quaker-ism without Barclay, Pennington, Woolman, and the Quietists. Neither is pure Quakerism without the other, and to have Quaker theology in the present age is to move beyond an understanding of the “golden age” and push forward into the developing of Quaker thought for our time.

Quietism is the period that follows our “golden age” and is often villianized in the process, it is the Paul and the Lenin in the analogy above.  Quietism is in large part a working out of the early theology in a way that made the tradition more sustainable and defendable to the changing culture.  It took radical ideas and situtated those ideas within the 18th century.  It was also informed by the more sectarian leaning aspects of Quakerism, which was influenced most directly by Barclay’s apology (Dandelion 2007:53).  Quaker sociologist Pink Dandelion argues that Quakers have always been sectarian to a point but there is an earlier shift from seeking the purity of the world towards a focus on group purity.  This is in part because Barclay’s Apology makes no mention of the second coming, an essential hermeneutic for early Friends.  Equally pervasive are the cultural trends of the Enlightenment and Continental Quietism, as Rufus Jones pointed out, which was influenced by the words of Molinos, Fenelon, and Guyon (Dandelion 2007: 59).  As an example, Fenelon argued for “five degrees of ‘purity’ or ‘disinterestedness’ in the human love of God…(Routledge, 2000:282).”  These are some of the influences that led toward an even more sectarian Quakerism, where the hedge raised high and the people turned inward.

The need for Quaker theory and faith-informed theology

Dandelion has pointed out the four major categories for understanding and interpreting the early Quaker movement, all of which have their helpful points and their drawbacks.  These four views are the metaphysical as represented by Carole Spencer and others, the concern here is on the more spiritual, mystical elements of Quakerism; the mainline view includes Hugh Barbour, John Punshon and Thomas Hamm, all of which see Quakerism as arising out of Puritanism in one way or another often as a radical Christian-counter movement to Puritan thought (Rufus Jones could be seen as in between these two camps); the metatemporal which includes Gwyn, Moore and Dandelion and understands Quakerism within an eschatological framework and sees the early Quakers as understanding and living out a realized escathology; and finally Gay Pilgrims sociological focus on group dynamics and the alternative ordering of space and (possibly time) (Dandelion, et al 2004, 232).  The strength of these views is that they are all correct from their own standpoints, each represents a internally coherent account of Quakerism.  They are particularly instructive in offering a lens from which to get at the various actions and theology that arose in the first period of Quakerism and follows.

However, the weakness of these views is that there appears to be little metanarrative offered or discussed.  A metanarrative that not only contains the best parts of these lenses, but also points backwards to the Jesus-Paul Christian tradition and as well as forward toward some kind of overall Quaker theological program, a trajectory from which the tradition can follow.  Dandelion suggests this as a dialogical (open dialogue with the culture)  and longitudinal (the whole of the narrative) approach.  I think Punshon comes close in his Swarthmore lecture (1990) attempting offering some kind of theological program for today but possibly even closer in his essay title “The End of (Quaker) History? (Dandelion 2004)”

Quaker theologian John Punshon says,

Today, we all need to consider the mystical, Puritan, materialist and revisionist pictures of the origins of our Society [those four I mention above but labeled differently].  Also available to us is the early Quaker interpretation of Church history as one of apostasy and restitution, or what one could envisage as an evangelical Quaker understanding of history and our place in it as a continuous series of religious relapses and revivals.  Each of these theories can relate us to the Christian (or other) grand narrative in a different way.  But, ultimately, it is our choice of connection which determines the view of our history that we adopt. (Dandelion 2004:39).

A (Provisional) Convergent Friends Theological Program?

In other words then, what is needed is a new post-modern Quaker “theological program.”   This program wouldn’t build itself upon one theory but a multiplicity of theories for understanding and interpreting our tradition, it wouldn’t pick a golden age and fetishize it but would rather re-write history in a way to account for the whole tradition.  This “program” if we can call it that needs to include post-foundationalist methodologies as exemplified by peace church theologians such as Nancey Murphy, James McClendon, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas.  In other words, it needs to engage in a wider dialogue with the rest of the church and the world; in this way it’s to be less sectarian and “less Quaker.” Thirdly, we would stress that our tradition, and the Christian narrative of which it’s located, holds within it key insights for the post-modern age and that could be a heavy-weight contender within a world of increasing plurality and relativity.  In this way the program would reflect a more Quaker vision.  We would engage the culture as missionaries, and think of ourselves as cross-cultural agents.  Not in order to make relevant our tradition in the way Rufus Jones and others did (who inadvertently open the door to “liberl-Liberal Quakerism” (Dandelion 2007: 129-138 esp. 133) but rather to translate and learn the language of the culture in order to (re)write our history and theology in a way that transforms us, our communities of faith and the world around us.  Finally, this work must keep in mind that it is always and only provisional, that it’s answers are only to be seen as “the best account so far.” and in this way we must hold in tension faith and reason.  Then,we might be able to call this a convergent Friends theological program.

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