Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Quaker Paradox

Phew. This blog suddenly had a bunch of comment traffic. Odd, isn't it, that the Quakers have more to say than the map geeks. A silent people indeed.

Mark Wutka raised a comment on my last post:
I understand that you don't want to think of yourself as bigoted, but I think you should take another look at the phrase "small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians".
I responded
About my snide comment about "small-minded, homophobic, hate-filled, cling-to-guns-and-bibles, fire-and-brimstone Christians." Guilty as charged. I am bigoted against the Rev Phelps' followers, and against people who teach Hell as a way to persuade [kids] to sign on with the church, or who believe that killing an infidel is the way to heaven. Yup. May they know peace and love, and please keep them out of my family's life as much as possible.
To which Mark responded:
Does it not strike you as at least ironic that you can be so unabashedly bigoted against a particular religious group when you are so committed to theological diversity? At what point do theological differences outweigh the commitment to diversity?
My answer is, Yep. I called it the Quaker Paradox in high school, though it isn't really a paradox, but a quandary: how do you live up to an ideal of tolerating, even embracing theological diversity, when some of those you are tolerating are, in fact explicitly out to get you. Snake handlers aside, how do we deal with Reverend Phelpses? Around the time I joined, Twin Cities Meeting asked someone not to return after she made some extremely heartfelt but (to many present) hurtful and even threatening statements in meeting about homosexuality. How do we feel about pre-Columbian Aztec theology? Are we bigoted if we oppose live human sacrifice. Obviously this is an extreme example, but it does bring practice right smack up against theory.

In theory, I like to think of myself as not bigoted, but, yes, there are degrees of spiritual familiarity. Liberal Methodists, sure, I can have an extremely civilized conversation with. Mel Gibson's brand of Catholic, a harder stretch. The Taliban? Honestly no, I would not try to stretch.

The point I think needs to be made is that theology has flesh and blood consequences. If we ask ourselves and each other to live out our theological understandings, then we should expect no less of those whose theology includes heavy doses of fear and loathing. And this can in fact threaten us. Probably not as quickly as we believe it will, and probably not as much as we fear it does, but that doesn't mean there is no threat. And so we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to invite in that sort of ideology (he says as if there is a good sort and a bad sort and the bad sort is easily identifiable by its green skin and habit of saying "I'll get you my pretty!"). Are each of us actually ready to be a Mary Dyer?

I'm not. Sorry.


Mark Wutka said...

Tolerance does not mean that you have to agree with other people, but it does mean that you have to be civil towards them and not call them names. It also doesn't mean that you aren't allowed to voice your disagreement - but remember the difference between attacking ideas and attacking people. It's also not so nice to pick the most extreme example as a representative of a group (i.e. Fred Phelps). Incidentally, another thing that struck me as ironic here was the reference to green skin and "I'll get you, my pretty", given that my experience of many FGC Friends, is that they would be more welcoming of a witch than an evangelical Christian.

Is your concept of "theological diversity" not really a tolerance of different theological views, but a desire to be around people who don't consider theology important, or don't think it is important at a community level?

I am glad you brought up Mary Dyer, for two reasons. First, it is in the context of being inwardly changed. From the beginning, Quakerism has had the idea that we are changed by the Light Within, and that when we have difficulties, we should "wait in the Light". You aren't ready to be a Mary Dyer, yes. But are you at least willing to be changed into one? Do you trust that if you are led to put your life on the line that the Spirit within you will give you the courage? I'm sure that at some point in her life, Mary Dyer wasn't ready to be a Mary Dyer.

The other point about Mary Dyer has to do with dealing with the Fred Phelpses of the world. I am reasonably sure that Mary's approach, like other early Friends, would be to speak to Fred "in the power of God" - a spirit-led prophetic witness intended towards "that of God" in Fred, hoping to turn Fred towards that Light within himself so that he might turn from his wicked ways. If this idea conflicts with your understanding of Quakerism, it might be beneficial to ask why.

With love,

natcase said...

Mark, thanks for pushing on this. My wife and I just spent a good hour or so past when she wanted to sleep talking it through, and I want to run where I ended up past her before I post tomorrow.

natcase said...

The more I sit with this, the deeper it goes. I will post sometime, not going to nail down a time.

Mark Wutka said...

I really appreciate your willingness to sit with these things, and I am happy that you have been having fruitful conversations with your wife about it. I find myself sitting with a lot of the things said here, including the things I have said.
With love,

James Riemermann said...

Nat, of course, will respond for himself, but in the spirit of conversation I will offer my thoughts. Mark writes:
Is your concept of "theological diversity" not really a tolerance of different theological views, but a desire to be around people who don't consider theology important, or don't think it is important at a community level?

I myself certainly do not consider theology to be unimportant. I think there is good theology, bad theology, and "angels dancing on a pin" theology that is probably harmless because it doesn't touch our world in any significant way. What I do consider unimportant is *agreement* on theology, particularly within liberal Quakerism, which has much more meaningful non-theological points of unity. Actually, maybe "unimportant" doesn't quite get it. Agreement on theology is impossible, and spending too much energy seeking it is positively harmful.

In fact, I think agreement on theology in other churches, despite putting on a good show through creeds and standing and speaking together from the Bible, etc.,is largely an illusion. Catholic and Protestants are likely as diverse as Quakers, or nearly so. They're just a lot more quiet about it, for many reasons but perhaps mainly because their clergy and laity are not the same.

I would agree, Mark, that name calling is generally not useful and never friendly.

Zach Alexander said...

As usual, I greatly appreciate both the tone and content of your comments, and I'm going wait for Nat to respond to the main points. But on a side note, I want to gently suggest that you may have had a rare lapse of consideration in your remark about FGC Friends.

(Either by conflating modern-day, meek-and-mild neo-Pagans with Wicked Witch of the West-type cartoon witches, or suggesting that FGC Friends would really welcome the latter over an evangelical – I'm not sure which one you meant.)


Mark Wutka said...

You are right, I definitely should have been more considerate. I did not mean to equate neo-Pagans with the Wicked Witch, I was taking advantage of the shared use of the word "witch", and it was very insensitive of me. I don't think that FGC Friends would be more welcoming of the Wicked Witch.

I think one difference between some modern Friends and other churches is that the other churches don't try to change their theology to try to include everything their members believe. For liberal Quakers, perhaps the primary thing isn't believing a particular set of ideas, but agreeing on a particular set of practices. I've heard QUF state it as "orthopraxis" instead of "orthodoxy". But, I think there is still some general shared understanding required even for Quaker orthopraxis. For example, there is a discernable difference in speaking from the Spirit vs. just saying whatever is on your mind. How do we convey that difference? (And if you don't believe there is, what do you say to Friends who, from experience, do?) The same is true with business meeting - how do we convey the difference between unity and consensus? If you continually soften the descriptions, is there a point at which it isn't really Quakerism any more?

With love,

The Conservative Pagan said...

As a Pagan lurking I find this whole discussion interesting. I grew up in PA, come from Amish ancestry. learned a great deal about Quakers, knew quite a few wonderful ones. I am currently a Pagan Naturalist... which Pagans generally agree there is a "divine spark" with in all people (aka light of god) so to me it is very interesting.

Zach Alexander said...

Thanks, Mark.

If I can respond to what you said to James, I completely agree – there *is* a difference between speaking from what you call the Spirit and just speaking from one's everyday mind, and there *is* a difference between Quaker business and consensus. And it *is* more difficult to maintain those vital differences in the absence of a common language for them. And I don't think non-Christian and especially non-theist Friends have yet assembled a coherent re-description of those differences that we might use to preserve them – a Friends for 300 Years written in a naturalist idiom, if you will. But we should.

Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Dear Nat,

If you keep roiling these particular waters, I may have to subscribe to your blog! The conversation is important.

I think it's important not to have any hidden agendas in a conversation like this. So let me begin by saying that I am a Conservative Friend, not merely by affiliation but by convincement. As such, I am deeply skeptical of claims made by either the right or the left, to the effect that their modern views actually represent Quakerism.

In particular, "theological diversity" was not a value I heard advanced by more than a minority of liberal Friends until after the 1970s. It definitely is not compatible with the Quakerism of any branch of Friends but the liberal branch, or of any era of Quakerism prior to World War I. Those of us who are not liberal, and those Friends who lived before WWI, are/were not advocates of theological diversity precisely because we/they had/have a Gospel to proclaim and to convey. That Gospel, and its proclamation and conveyance, is the reason why Quakerism was founded. Moreover, that Gospel is the logic that shaped how the Society of Friends was originally structured, and shaped, too, all the work — even AFSC- and overseas-hospital-related work — that Quakerism did until quite recently.

It seems to me that the reason that you have trouble coping with Fred Phelps and his ilk may be that they do not live within that Gospel. For that Gospel does not teach what they proclaim or what they do, and the things they proclaim and do, that it does not teach, are also the things that offend you. I wonder whether you will agree with me on this point; I would be very interested to know.

I also think the reason that you struggle with the quote-Quaker-Paradox-unquote is that it is truly not Quaker at all. The idea of "tolerance" is a relatively recent confusion imported into the liberal Quaker world from secular democratic liberalism. Before the idea of "tolerance" was imported, there was no such paradox in Quakerism, and there is still no such paradox outside the liberal community. George Fox would never have felt obliged to tolerate the theological position of Phelps and his ilk (and Fox knew Phelps's ilk very well; the seventeenth century was full of such folk, and they persecuted Friends with vigor). Indeed, Fox did not tolerate their position at all; he denounced it loudly and in plain language, and so did all the other early Friends, holding up the Phelps-types' position for comparison against the recorded teachings of Christ.

The early Friends also, quite happily, and apparently unlike Friend Mark Wutka, picked the most extreme example as a representative of a group — i.e. the Pope as a representative of Catholicism, or such-and-such a local persecuting judge as a representative of the local forces they found themselves arrayed against. They did not feel obliged to be "nice" when "nice" conflicted with the imperatives of the Gospel.

You ask, "Are we bigoted if we oppose live human sacrifice." I can point you, if you like, to passages where early Friends said they were opposed to the polygamy of the Turks, and blamed that polygamy on the Turks' lack of clarity about religion. The early Friends would certainly not have defended human sacrifice while condemning polygamy.

The early Friends, and traditional Friends, were committed not to tolerance but to Truth. That does not mean they were intolerant. Truth, as Friends have historically understood it, is neither tolerant nor intolerant; it simply is. It upholds people of diverse views — even views we may have trouble dealing with, the views of militant Muslims, pagans, evangelical Christians — in any matter where they do what is righteous, even when you and I don't like to admit that they have done righteousness; and contrariwise, it condemns even the people you and I like most in any matter where they have departed from righteousness. The fact that so many Friends have abandoned a focus on Truth for a focus on tolerance is, in my opinion, a very great loss.

All the best,
Marshall Massey

James Riemermann said...

Mark, I agree there is something distinctive, if subtle and elusive, about knowing when a message is to be shared in worship, and how we come to decisions in meeting for business. I'm not sure the way you describe the difference, or for that matter the way Friends traditionally describe the difference, is particularly helpful in making that distinction.

First, speaking from the spirit, if by that one means delivering a message literally from God, is by no means a particularly clear way of describing the process of discernment. Whether one is a theist or a nontheist, messages in worship do not come with labels attached "from God" or "from my mind," though a tiny percentage of people may think they have found such a label. It's all interpretation, and interpretation is carried out by the mind. Myself, I think they all come from different aspects of my mind, conscious and unconscious, so I'm discerning from a whole array of qualities, mostly intangiblee. The vast majority of "whatever is on my mind" is clearly inappropriate as ministry; the closer it comes to feeling right, the more difficult the discernment becomes. Occasionally I feel a "click" in my mind and I think, oh, shit, here we go again, and before the meeting's over I've given a message. Often afterwards I wish I hadn't spoken, but I'm not sure if that means I was wrong to speak, or if it's just plain old anxiety and self-consciousness.

Regarding making decisions in meeting for business, again, I don't think the theistic or traditional explanations are all that helpful. You can say we're trying to discern the will of God, but even if that's true, we have to interpret what we hear using our minds. Whether we describe it as consensus or unity or sense of the meeting or whatever, I think a naturalistic description is easier for *anyone* to understand and follow, whatever their theological beliefs. My rough take is, we are laboring together to find the best answer we can find with the knowledge we have. Not best for us as individuals, not best for us as a meeting, not best for Americans, or human beings, but best in the broadest possible sense, for living beings in the world.

I also have a question for you, Mark. If "the other churches don't try to change their theology to try to include everything their members believe," what do you think it means for a church to have a theology? Is it not what the people of the church believe, but what the leaders of the church say they're supposed to believe? Is it what a certain percentage of the membership believe? Theology is often expressed as a collective thing, but it really isn't, by definition it can't be. Theology is ideas, notions, expressed in words, and institutions don't have ideas--people do. I think liberal Quakerism, unlike the other churches you speak of, has intuited this absurdity at the heart of credalism, and rejected it. Quakers have done theology, but there is no one Quaker theology.

Mark Wutka said...

Marshall is right in that early Friends weren't "nice" in their proclaiming of the Truth. I'm not sure if the idea of taking the most extreme example, as I had referred to here, is very truthful. In the case of the Pope, he represents the authority in the Catholic Church, I don't think he is really an extreme example. Taking a local judge persecuting Quakers as an example of all those persecuting Quakers is likewise legitimate, and not really extreme. What I was objecting to was taking someone like Fred Phelps and ascribing his ideas to evangelical Christians as a whole, and I do not think he is an accurate representation of them.

James, you asked "If 'the other churches don't try to change their theology to try to include everything their members believe,' what do you think it means for a church to have a theology? Is it not what the people of the church believe, but what the leaders of the church say they're supposed to believe? Is it what a certain percentage of the membership believe?"

I think it acts as something of an anchor, or a road sign saying "This is where we think we should be going", and yes, people stray off the path. It becomes much more difficult for people to help each other along their spiritual path if they are going in different directions and have very little shared understanding.

While I agree that institutions themselves don't have ideas, I think you and I disagree on what a Friends meeting is actually trying to discern, and where the ideas come from.

You also said I think liberal Quakerism, unlike the other churches you speak of, has intuited this absurdity at the heart of credalism, and rejected it. I think liberal Quakers are guilty of credalism when they say something like "we don't believe in war because we believe there is that of God in every person". That has become a creed - and does not speak at all to any kind of experience.

With love,

natcase said...

I don't think Fred Phelps represents more than a tiny minority of humans, Christians or evangelicals, though he sure would like to represent more. Like John Brown 150 years ago, he has masked a violent and hate-filled sense of the universe behind a theology of righteousness.

It is that masking that is the problem. And it is representing. Two phrases from all these responses jumped off the screen at me: (1) Marshall saying "I am deeply skeptical of claims made by either the right or the left, to the effect that their modern views actually represent Quakerism."

I think there is a problem in "representing Quakerism," and it's tying people up in knots like it has in schisming and reschisming for 200 years.

I'm totally with Marshall when later on you write "Truth, as Friends have historically understood it, is neither tolerant nor intolerant; it simply is." That view has been carried on largely over the last 400 years not by religions but by science. Now if you see the rest of my blog, I have a lot of problems with what Science as an institution does, but on reflection it's not that different from my qualms with Quakerism as an institution.

If we can try to detangle the imperfect understandings of truth that each of us come to and that sometimes we are able to agree to at a meeting-wide level, from our need to congregate around an idea as a social phenomenon, we will have done a good thing.

(2) Mark said "For example, there is a discernable difference in speaking from the Spirit vs. just saying whatever is on your mind. How do we convey that difference?"

To me the answer is, I transalate. Despite what you may have gathered here, I am not against the results of theist understandings. I absolutely recognize people have come to some deep deep stuff thinking in terms of God as a person, as Creator, as Father, as Lord. I want to understand better what is going on, but I just don't believe in a person-based God. Maybe I'm wrong, maybe I'm right, but my best sense of things is no.

So I translate.

That's how I discern in myself. I try to get the best sense of what is there, in terms of Truth. Honestly, words don't do me a lot of good here, though I do tend to talk a lot. I try to listen to the universe. I try to hear grace. I try to discern "Is this something I'm figuring out for myself, or is it something I'm trying to hear for everyone here?"

david myers said...

This is fascinating. Don't stop now.

Mitch said...

Ok, so you want to talk about Mary Dyer in the context of homophobia.

OK, then, here's the REAl scoop.

natcase said...


Well, actually I was discussing Mary Dyer in the context of pushing faith so far as to risk martyrdom, in the face of hatemongers (the category of hatemongers in this day and age being heavily populated by homophobes).

The link you provide is interesting--provocative even--but it's not the same discussion (I don't think) we've been having here. Or am I missing something?

Marshall Massey said...

Hi, Nat,

I appreciate your kind words in your last comment. Nonetheless, there is one point I feel needs to be clarified.

You quoted me where I wrote, "Truth, as Friends have historically understood it, is neither tolerant nor intolerant; it simply is." You then commented, "That view has been carried on largely over the last 400 years not by religions but by science."

I understand why you might say such a thing, but actually, you are misreading what I wrote. For the sentence you quoted comes from a paragraph in which I consistently used "Truth" with a capital "T", and this was to signify that I was not useing the word in the sense of factual accuracy, but in the sense in which it was normally used by early Friends, and continued to be used by traditional Friends of later generations, when they spoke of being "Friends of Truth", "Publishers of Truth", and the like.

Back in the days of the first Friends, "factual accuracy" was not yet the dominant meaning of the word "truth". Let me quote two older meanings from the Oxford English Dictionary that had greater currency in those days:

1) "The character of being, or disposition to be, true to a person, principle, cause, etc.; faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty, constancy, steadfast allegiance."

2) "Disposition to speak or act truly or without deceit; truthfulness, veracity, sincerity; ... sometimes in wider sense: Honesty, uprightness, righteousness, virtue, integrity."

It may be easier to grasp these meanings if I illustrate.

The first of these meanings uses "true" in the sense of an arrow "flying true", i.e. faithfully, to the target at which the archer aimed, or a lover "being true", i.e. faithful, to his beloved. For Friends to be "Friends of Truth" in this sense was for them to be "Friends of Faithfulness", friends of faithfulness to Christ and the Gospel as the churches in apostasy were not, and friends of faithfulness to the Inward Guide which the worldly around them were not obeying very well.

The second meaning uses "true" in the sense of "true witness", i.e. honest reporter of what happened, or "true parent", i.e. parent who does what is really right for the child. "Friends of Truth" in this sense meant "Friends of Doing the Right Thing, the Thing that the Relationship Really Needs, In Every Circumstance".

Neither of these senses of "Truth" are senses in which fans of science speak of "truth". Even today, they are more the province of religion.

You go on to speak of "imperfect understandings of truth". Such things are inevitable if we're speaking of factual accuracy, because accurate perception and accurate articulation are very difficult things in relation to messy real-world phenomena. In terms of faithfulness, though, or of doing what a relationship really needs, accurate perception and articulation are often easier. We may faithfully follow the teachings of the Inward Guide even when we're not sure what's going on; the Guide may, in fact, instruct us to wait until we know more, and we can agree that we are being faithful in doing so. Or we may do what a relationship requires even when we don't fully know what the other person is going through, simply by caring, listening, giving hugs, or providing food and shelter if need be.

If it's not too much, let me ask that you go back and re-read the final paragraph of my previous comment, where I talk about "Truth", with this understanding in mind. I believe you will find that I was saying something different from what you thought.

All the best,

natcase said...


That makes a whole lot of sense. Also fodder for much of the rest of this blog. I will digest and (if it's OK with you) repost much of your comment as a separate blog entry. While there is clearly a distinction between the meaning of Truth as early Friends understood it, and verifiable Fact as science understands it, I think there is a philosophical tie between them; I think there is a more than coincidental similarity between the "plain style" of scientific discourse that emerged in the 17th century and "plain dress" and "plain speech" in Friends and anabaptist and Puritan and Calvinist groups. These are of course outward show in both cases, but they are also efforts to "strip away" distracting decoration and piffle in order get at something true.

Need to ponder more (and apparently do some research). But thank you, that was very useful indeed.

Marshall Massey said...

Nat, I'm fine with you reposting much of it as a separate ("guest") blog entry. My only condition, and I always make it, is that you not attribute any words or statements to me that I didn't actually write.

Yes, there's a philosophical tie, though I don't see any etymological evidence that it runs through plainness. The nature of the connection is easier to see if we simply note that a "true" statement in the factual-accuracy sense is also one that is "true" (faithful) to the evidence and that fulfils the requirements of our relationship to the thing described (is righteous in that regard). The changing meaning of truth, therefore, reflects a shift of emphasis from relational obligations to others, to an impersonal obligation to be accurate.

The OED indicates that the factual-accuracy meaning of "truth" began to emerge in the late sixteenth century, around the same time that translators and reformers were struggling to produce more accurate translations and understandings of the Bible. But the specific examples the OED cites, from before the Restoration, can still equally be read as "truth" in the sense of honesty, i.e. faithfulness to the receiver of the message. The oldest unambiguous use of "truth" in the sense of factual accuracy in the OED dates to 1669, and is clearly a scientific usage:

1669 STURMY Mariner's Mag. v.i.2 This Instrument will come to the Truth, as well as a Needle of greater charge.

From there we can see the usage spread outward to philosophy, industry, etc.

So what we're talking about is a shift in meaning that mirrors the general course of the Enlightenment: the depersonalization of society as it became more populous, of the cosmos as scientific thinking became more established, and of people's ideas of justice as the logic of Roman law became better known.

All good wishes,

James Riemermann said...


I've long been troubled by the way upper-case "Truth" in conversations about religion is often confounded with the more mundane sense of truth as "that which is the case." I appreciate your calling attention to this. But you seem to leap from the origins of specific English word "truth" in something closer to "faithful", to a suggestion that the whole concept of accuracy as used in science emerged in the Enlightenment. I think this is not, um, true. The use of "veritas" to mean "that which is the case" goes back to Aristotle and probably much farther. And 'tis certainly true that Shakespeare used "true" it in the sense of accuracy well before 1669.

Any sentence beginning along the lines of "It is true that..." is talking about accuracy. Another way of seeing this is "faithful to reality," which just might be how the transition from the word's earliest usage took place.

Also, I am finding other, far less established sources than the OED( tracking the use of truth in English to mean "consistent with fact" going back to the year 1205. Perhaps this source is all wet, but my first sense would be that he consulted the OED to write this entry. Do you see any usages in the OED that might reflect this? I really ought to have an OED, but they're so expensive.

natcase said...

I am copying Marshall and James' comments to a new post and comment. Please continue discussions of truth there.

Chris M. said...

I happened to be reading Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine when I read this post originally, and didn't have a chance to comment 'til now. This goes back to your original Quaker paradox:

"It is too easy to assert that those with whom we disagree are not just wrong but tyrannical, fascist, genocidal. but it is also true that certain ideologies are a danger to the public and need to be identified as such. THese are the closed, fundamentalist doctrines that cannot coexist with other belief systems; their followers deplore diversity and demand an absolute free hand to implement their perfect system. The world as it is must be erased to make way for their purist invention."

It's not a Quaker viewpoint, but as a contemporary Quaker, I resonate with that statement.