My review, not too long ago, of Chuck Fager's book Without Apology
, sparked a spirited discussion on this blog. At the time, I expressed interest in hearing from Chuck himself about his view of the issues raised. He has now provided the following thoughtful response, which I am pleased to present as a guest-post.
A Response to Rich Accetta- Evans’s Review of “Without Apology,” by Chuck Fager
Sixth Month 21, 2007
Friends, what goes around comes around. “Without Apology” was written in response to a particular set of trends and circumstances, and it looks to me like many of these trends are converging again. So the timing of Rich’s posting of his review reminds me of the old proverb about how there are no coincidences.
The last major outbreak of this fever, by my reckoning, was in 1990-1992, and centered on what became known as the “Realignment” idea. (“Realignment” for those who have not yet read the book, was a plan to “realign” the FUM-related yearly and monthly meetings by dividing them between the “true Christians” and the non-“true Christians,” with the latter being obliged to go elsewhere. Exactly how this division was to be accomplished, by whom, and by what standards, was never made entirely clear. This proposal, to put it mildly, was controversial; and I was, again to put it mildly, against it.)
“Without Apology” was written in the aftermath of the “realignment” struggle. All through that period, I kept wondering why liberal Friends were putting up with the unending barrage of attacks on their sanity, morality, and legitimacy which was a major aspect of that struggle (and which occurred outside it as well), without speaking up assertively on their own behalf.
Some reasons for this relative silence seemed depressingly clear: first was the cowardly habit of conflict-avoidance which is one of our least attractive features. And second, there’s the equally embarrassing mass ignorance of our tradition, both its history and convictions, that often hides behind the pretense that we have somehow evolved “beyond all that.” Yeah, right; like we’ve evolved beyond breathing. Too much liberal religion, and not only among Friends, boils down to wanting everyone to “be nice,” and for their church time to be a “safe space” and let everything else go hang.
– “A safe space”; now there’s a term which rankles. Sure, we want our children to be “safe” in First Day School. But that’s not the main thrust of this counsel. Yet where did this heretical notion come from, that religious life is supposed to be”safe”??
Not from the history of religion, that’s for sure. “Safe” like it was for Jesus? Or Fox? Joan of Arc? Tom Fox? Or so many others? There are very good reasons why the Bible says “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31) And why the first words that need to be said when humans encounter angels is, “Fear not.”
And certainly much of American Quakerism was not a “safe space” in those years, unless one resolutely closed one’s eyes, listened to one’s breath, and then slipped out if something troublesome emerged. That’s a relatively easy stance to maintain in Quaker silence; at least until someone opens their mouth.
I knew all that. But there was something else in play here: in the early 1990s, as far as I could see, liberal Quakerism in the U.S., and maybe in England too, had not produced any scholar or thinker ready to take on this task in an orderly, intellectually serious fashion. To the extent that anyone was thinking out loud about it at all, they/we were still leaning on Rufus Jones, dead almost fifty years, or Howard Brinton, dead nearly twenty years, to do it for us.
But while bowing to their eminence, it was clear to me that these worthies were of another time. Who would advocate for us now? Did anyone even think liberal Quakerism was worth speaking up for?
In looking for a response to these queries, mine was a name which did not occur to me. Not, that is, until it seemed clear that nobody else was likely to undertake the project. I did have a smattering of theological studies and a batch of Quaker journalism under my belt, but there was one qualification which tipped the balance: by God, I felt liberal Quakerism was worth speaking up for, warts and all. So I decided to have a go at it, and “Without Apology” was the result. And I note that, eleven years later, it still pretty much has the field of such advocacy to itself, for better or for worse.
The book seems to have struck a chord with many readers, selling out a number of small press runs, and evoking mostly favorable responses. One doesn’t get rich peddling books to Quakers, but "Without apology" has held its own, and orders continue to trickle in. Such that I prepared a Tenth Anniversary edition in 2006, and its first printing is close to sold out as well.
While working on the book, one thing I learned and re-learned was that, as the opening phrase above states, what goes around comes around. It turned out that “Realignment” was but one skirmish in what had been a century-long contest, many episodes of which had not been well-documented. So the work perforce took on a provisionally historical character, making initial forays into some of these musty corners of our collective attic. I knew then, and know better now, that there is much more to be explored.
By the time the book was finished, I figured that one of these years, the struggle would erupt again. The gray spectre of “realignment” would likely rise from its coffin, in a new guise, brandishing new (and behind them, old) issues.
And so, in 2007, it has. Much is familiar about the current appearance of the ghoul, not least that it seems to hover most over what remains of a much-enfeebled FUM. I won’t repeat here the thoughts about this current conflict posted on my blog, www.afriendlyletter.org . That posting also includes a number of links to other reports on the developing situation.
Rather, I’ll only note here that for Friends wanting to get “up to speed” on this latest dispute that “Without Apology,” whatever its shortcomings, is probably the main available piece of background reading. (Though here I must also add a plug for my more recent collection, “Shaggy Locks & Birkenstocks,” which includes a number of more recent pieces which fill in some important gaps in the earlier tome.)
As to Rich’s comments on “Without Apology” itself, I’m grateful for his many kind and respectful words about it, and the friendly spirit in which even the criticisms were offered. As to the latter, two points seem to me worth addressing briefly.
First, Rich’s complaints turn largely, as such critiques usually do, on Barclay. Rich feels I have misused Barclay’s thinking about the church in service to my effort to legitimate a “universalist” agenda.
Here the response is simple: in my view, I have not misused Barclay, because Barclay is not consistent. When it comes to the church, he speaks, not to put too fine a point on it, with forked tongue, or pen. In his “Apology,” the “true invisible church” is indeed not limited to professing Christians. He said that explicitly, meant it, and I quoted him on it accurately. This “true invisible church” idea is basic to the ecclesiology – the concept of the church – advanced in my book.
But as Rich and others have also pointed out, Barclay also states that in a particular Christian church, everybody ought to be Christian, according to the specific definition of Christian the particular church adheres to. He said that too, meant it, and he has been quoted on that point accurately by Rich and various others.
I noted this in the book, and quoted a fine piece by the late Francis Hall, who knew Barclay backward and forward, and concluded that “Barclay makes no attempt whatsoever,” he admits, “to resolve the difficulties presented by these two sets of beliefs, both of which he fully holds....It is clear that Barclay did not succeed in truly synthesizing these two elements of his faith, but the problem is a profoundly difficult one for the Christian theologian.” (My page 31)
I believe Hall had it exactly right; Barclay is on both sides of this issue, so it's just as fair to me to pick one side of it as it is for Rich to choose another. Thus I meet complaints like the one Rich raises mainly with a shrug. To say a Christian church should be Christian is a tautology. It begs the questions of what “Christian” means, and what kind of church the Society of Friends or its meetings can or should be. My book argued that liberal Quakerism attempts to manifest the “true invisible church” part of barclay; I argued further that this wider approach preceded Barclay, and could be traced all the way back to the words of Jesus.
Rich and some others evidently want the Society to stay within the “particular church” schema. To me that’s an option, not a mandate. Moreover, in my experience there are lots of Christian-identified Friends who are content with the “true invisible” model, so I’m persuaded that it is not inherently oppressive to them. To be sure, there are recurring cases of what my book called “christophobia,” but I am on record there as being opposed to this, and won’t belabor the point again here.
The other main complaint Rich raises is the suggestion that I made “straw men” out of some of the people my book challenges, and failed to do justice to the “Christian” identity of several historical figures claimed there as pioneers of modern liberal Quakerdom, such as John Greenleaf Whittier, Hannah Barnard, and Joel & Hannah Bean.
He also wishes I had paid detailed attention to a list of ten or so other notable twentieth century Friends of special interest to him. As to all these other Friends – I agree they are interesting; but Rich, give me a break – if I’d taken them all on, I’d still be writing it! (Maybe a Quaker in Brooklyn could write the book about them . . . ?)
For the ones I did consider, I’m not sure Rich gives me sufficient credit. The living persons described and quoted were major players in the events the book reports, and I have cited chapter and verse in all instances. This research has not been shown to be erroneous in any of these cases. So I don’t find a lot of straw sticking out of these sketches.
As for the dead, I plead more nuance than Rich allows. For instance, of course Whittier was a “Christian,” Rich – and I said so (cf. Page 52). But I also described him as being part of an evolution of that concept, both in Quakerism and broader Protestant circles, an evolution which flows directly into modern liberal Quakerdom.
This portrayal of Whittier as a transitional figure I stand by, and could cite numerous other sources beyond those in the book, which I have explored since then, to reinforce it. It is enough, though, to simply quote a telling stanza, from his poem “Miriam”:
“And I made answer: Truth is one;
And in all lands beneath the sun,
Whoso hath eyes to see may see
The tokens of its unity.
No scroll of creed its fulness wraps,
We trace it not by school-boy maps,
Free as the sun and air it is
Of latitudes and boundaries.
In Vedic verse, in dull Koran,
Are messages of good to man....’”
As for Joel & Hannah Bean, Rich properly points out that they were not “liberal” Friends, and wanted nothing more than to be left alone in their Quietist Orthodoxy. Yet again, my book says this too (cf. Pages 55-57).
But history (and perhaps the Spirit?) had other plans for the Beans. They were pushed into their role as the foreparents of west Coast liberal Quakerism. And if, as Rich insists, some of their spiritual offspring in today’s polyglot Pacific Yearly Meeting might find the Beans’ later mentions of the “living Christ” problematic, that possibility hardly diminishes the Beans’ actual formative role there. Besides which, I am personally acquainted with some very seriously Christian Quakers in that body, who are nonetheless content with its mixed character.
Finally in this connection, a word about Hannah Barnard: Rich again alleges that I paint her as not being “Christian.” But I do no such thing. Instead, I properly describe her as a proto-Hicksite. She is less a transitional figure than a forerunner, or even a prophet, of the changes in the liberal direction that were to come. When Elias Hicks himself came and preached in her home town of Hudson New York twenty years after her disownment, he paid a personal call on Hannah, and according to her they parted in perfect agreement on matters of religion.
Rich then turns to my effort to sort out some of the persisting value of Christianity to Quakerism, even in my liberal and inclusive sense of it. He dislikes my neologisms: “Christogenic,” “Christomorphic,” and so on. Alas; I liked them, and more important, thought them useful. But his basic objection to the passages in which they appear is not aesthetic or based on a lack of euphony. Rather, he asks rhetorically,
“What relevance does the Christian content of Quakerism have, unless we continue to experience Jesus as neither a dead man of history nor a distant figure in Heaven, but as one who has “Come to teach his people himself?”
And here perhaps we come upon a point of substantive difference.
The “Christian content” remains relevant, Rich, because the plain fact is that there are LOTS of ways Jesus can be relevant and experienced in Quaker circles other than the notion of his being “a present teacher.” The “present teacher” formula is one particular approach, which works for some Friends. I respect it, but am unable to accept it as the only way to either think about Jesus or "experience” him and his possible meanings for our community.
Let me quote, in this connection, the section from “Without Apology” describing Quakerism as Christagogic:
“that is, it continues to have much that it can learn from Christianity, its founder, and its larger biblical context.
“This feature may well be the most important, because it seems to me closest to Jesus’ own method. I have argued in my book, Wisdom and Your Spiritual Journey, that Jesus acted above all like a teacher-sage in the mold of biblical Wisdom. Teaching, particularly by example, was what wisdom sages did; and learning was above all the proper response of wisdom’s pupils. Certainly Jesus’ teachings, as recorded in the Gospels, and particularly the parables, continue to repay reflection and study. Further, such study is consistent with the attitude of independence of dogmatic systems which is also a feature of both biblical wisdom and liberal Quaker faith.”
I cite this passage because this way of relating to Jesus has for many years been the most meaningful to me personally, and I must insist on its legitimacy as a path for such Christian and Quaker experience.
Yes, it differs significantly from other such approaches, such as mysticism, prophetism, or “present-teacher”-ism. So what? I didn't invent it; it's there in the Bible. I would also suggest to Rich that the track record of adherents of this approach meets Jesus’ own test in Matthew 7:16 (“by their fruits ye shall know them”) as well as the others, and caution against insisting on more than this.
As many yearly meetings face the new challenges to their legitimacy raised by the new round of difficulties, I hope that “Without Apology” could still be useful to many in orienting them to some of the background and issues involved. Again, I appreciate Rich’s taking the time to give it such close attention. I'll be interested to see what further comments readers might want to make.
Labels: Chuck Fager, Quaker culture, Quaker faith, Quaker Universalism, Quakerism and Christianity, Robert Barclay