Saturday, May 26, 2007

15th Street Meeting's Seven Week Course on Barclay's Apology

A while ago, I used this blog to post this announcement that Fifteenth Street Meeting was offering a course on Robert Barclay's "An Apology for the True Christian Divinity as the Same is Held Forth and Preached by the People Called in Scorn Quakers." In a comment on that post I said that "I do intend to post about how it goes, and in fact I intend even before the course to throw some of my own questions about Barclay out to the blogosphere in order to get others' perspectives." As it turned out, I did not post about how it went and did not throw my questions about Barclay out to the blogosphere to get others' perspectives. Another reality, also alluded to in that comment, intervened. Namely "...everyone, including me, will be balancing Barclay with busy work lives, family lives, and social lives (including our lives as Quakers with all our worship meetings, business meetings, and committee meetings). A big part of my "preparation" for this coursae has been trying to discern whether I was up to the expenditure of time and energy." Nevertheless, the course did take place, and it was - at least in my own biased eyes - a huge success.

We met from 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. on Thursdays (April 12th, April 19th, April 26th, May 3rd, May 10th, May 17th and May 24th.) Attendance varied from 8 to 14, with some participants having to miss one or another session because of other commitments, but most sessions had at least 10 present. Those who came included two or three of the "usual suspects" (Friends already known to have a strong interest in early Quaker writings and/or in a Christocentric view of Quakerism), but many others came out of a less predictable curiosity. (The "usual suspects", I hasten to add, were extremely helpful, highly engaged with the text, and always ready with insightful comments). One man who made a good contribution came because he had seen a poster about the class and was curious. He is not himself a Friend, though he works for our Friends' school here as a security officer.

One Friend who I thought would be interested did not come because he thought my use of the Quaker Heritage Press edition of Barclay's Apology was somehow a slight of Dean Freiday, who prepared Barclay's Apology in Modern English. This disappointed me, as I think he could have added a lot. In fact, we wasted none of our limited time in critiqueing Freiday or anyone else, but concentrated on Barclay himself. If anything, our struggles with Barclay's syntax and sentence structure tended to increase my respect for the labors Freiday must have undergone to render as much of this as he did into "modern English". As it was, each of us in the course had to be our own Dean Freiday. In our own labor to understand, we may have avoided some of the errors that Larry Kuenning attributes to Freiday here, and we may have committed some of our own. But I remain glad that we engaged with Barclay's own translation of his original Latin prose. That way, the impressions we came away with were only first-generation-imperfect. That is, each of us has our own mental copy (however imperfect) of what Barclay meant to say, and not our own mental copy of Dean Freiday's interpreatation of what Barclay meant to say.

The schedule I laid out in the original announcement did not hold up. We spent more time than anticipated on the prefatory address to Charles the second, which I felt helped establish Barclay's historical context, on my own introductory overview of the 15 propositions, and on Propositions I and II.

As a result, we split the third session between "Concerning the Scriptures" and "Concerning the Condition of Man in the Fall" and by the end of the fourth class we had only gone as far as Propositions V and VI ("Concerning the Universal Redemption by Christ and also the Spiritual and Saving Light, wherewith every man is enlightened"). We therefore, very reluctantly, skipped over propositions VII, VIII and IX (dealing with "justification", "perfection", and "perseverance" respectively), in order to have enough time for a good discussion of the propositions on ministry, worship, baptism, communion, the limitations on the state's power over conscience, and the final proposition (on "Salutations and Recreations") where we met many familiar Quaker "testimonies", including the testimony againt war, in an unfamiliar context.

For some of these classes I asked the participants (if they felt so inclined) to come in with their own paraphrases of the propositions to be discussed that day. This generally provided a good starting point for discussion. In some cases, I distributed some excerpts from the chapter that had captured my attention and we discussed those. Often, participants came with particular passages in mind that were either especially edifying or especially troubling and we would discuss those. Throughout, I tried to maintain the stance that it was worth understanding what Barclay was saying whether or not we agree with him, that we are under no obligation to accept his judgement, but that we will be poorer as a Society of Friends if we don't understand something of where he fits into our tradition.

Frankly, there were some weeks when my own busy-ness at work or events in my personal life crowded out the time I had hoped to spend preparing for the class, so I had to "wing it" more than I had intended and to rely much more on the fact that the other participants had been reading and thinking that week, even if I had not. As far as I could tell, the class went just as well in those weeks as in the others, which is both reassuring and humbling. I suppose it did help that at least I was pretty familiar with Barclay already, having read him many many times.

My final conclusion? That Barclay is still relevant, and that Friends willing to read him carefully will find the effort worthwhile. When 17th century Latinized English gets in the way, it helps to read carefully and for readers to compare notes with each other on what he seems to be saying. Looking up the scriptural passages he quotes can also help. His views on some things (like "The condition of Man in the Fall") will seem completely surprising to some. His views on others (like "the Spiritual and Saving Light") will seem familiar yet somehow different than some of us at least in the more liberal meetings expected. In places Barclay's academic style is off-putting and discouraging for most readers. In other places, such as the propositions on worship and on ministry, his words still have power to inspire.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

The "I Told You So" Department

Even though this blog was meant to be concerned, among other things, with "Social Justice and Quakerism" I haven't posted very often on directly "political" matters. I have perhaps been overly-concerned that I would confuse my personal left-leaning political philosophy with the spiritual message of Quakerism that I think is fundamentally non-partisan.
One exception was this post opposing the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general of the United States from January 2005. Recent events have only served to reinforce my conviction at that time. In fact, I deeply suspect that a connection will emerge between the question of justifying torture (which was what exercised me in 2005) and the current scandals about the firing of U.S. attorneys. We'll see.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Review of Chuck Fager's "Without Apology"

The following review has been resting on my hard drive for at least a couple of years. I have not published it before as I was intending to look more deeply into assertions I make about Hannah Barnard and Joel Bean, in order to increase my assurance what I said is actually true. In the meantime, I did show the review to some Friends here in New York, and one mentioned it during a recent session of our course about Robert Barclay's Apology. I looked it over, found that it still says some things I think worth saying, and decided to post it here. As always, comments are welcome.

Chuck Fager’s Without Apology

Reviewed by Rich Accetta-Evans


Chuck Fager’s book Without Apology: The Heroes, the Heritage and the Hope of Liberal Quakerism is available from the Kimo Press of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. I recommend it as a very good read, both for those who recognize themselves as “liberal Quakers” as the book defines this term and for Friends like myself who emphatically do not. One does not have to endorse its conclusions to recognize that this book, like many of Fager’s previous writings, exhibits both a love of the Quaker movement, and a refreshing willingness to view it critically. He is also a good storyteller and is able to give us a sympathetic understanding even of people whose views he rejects. Chapter 8, which recounts some of the troubles of our own Yearly Meeting, includes remarkable accounts of conversations between the author and two quite different people: the evangelical pastor Dan Whitley, of Clintondale Friends Church, and the feminist Quaker Carolyn Mallison.

Liberal Quakerism (however defined) has certainly taken its lumps from various quarters over the years. There is, after all, a glaring contrast between the radical but flamboyantly Christian rhetoric of Quakerism’s heroic early period and the bland theological equivocations of Friends’ bodies that see themselves as “liberal” today. So much so that liberal Quakerism has come to seem to many outsiders (and to many thoughtful Quakers themselves) like a movement that is losing touch with its historical memory and its spiritual roots. Chuck Fager wants to remedy this by demonstrating a connection between liberal Quaker faith and certain strands of thought and action that have been present among Friends since the days of George Fox. More than that, he wants to show that in some respects liberal Quakerism can claim to be the most faithful embodiment of what was always best in Quakerism. His story has not only liberal heroes but orthodox and evangelical villains (the Conservative or Wilburite branch of Quakerism is almost entirely ignored, however). By giving a voice to these ideas, Friend Fager’s book may initiate a dialogue that is long overdue and thereby assist other Quakers in understanding what makes their liberal cousins tick.

None of this is to say, however, that Without Apology is or ought to be the last word on these subjects. The very clarity of its assumptions and arguments will make it easier for some readers to articulate what seems to be wrong with them. Here are some of my own critiques:

There are at least some Friends, who might like to identify ourselves as Liberals, too, but who are excluded by the “inclusive” definition of the term that Chuck Fager offers (more on this definition below). We value the peace testimony, we prefer to worship without pastors or ordained human leaders, we embrace critical studies of the Bible and scientific theories of human origin, we believe in social and economic justice, in gender equality, and in the civil rights of homosexuals. We rejoice in the separation of Church and State. We advocate tolerance by the state toward people of all religions and toward people who reject religion. But we believe these things in the name of our living Lord and Teacher, Jesus Christ, and we find in Him the central reason that we are Quakers. It is this last point that makes us not-Liberal according to all too many of our Friends, and now according to Chuck Fager as well (though he does at least concede that it is OK for us to be Quakers.)

There is a mismatch of some kind between the book’s two kinds of definition for what he means by “Liberal Quakerism”. His “institutional” definition is that

“it primarily includes a network of yearly meetings in North America and Britain. Many of the North American Yearly Meetings are associated with Friends General Conference; several others…are unaffiliated.”

Although he does not list the Yearly Meetings he is talking about, it seems clear to anyone who knows the territory that they include Pacific Yearly Meeting, Britain Yearly Meeting, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, New England Yearly Meeting, and our own New York Yearly Meeting. This seems pretty much in line with what we would expect. Most Friends would certainly list these as “liberal” Friends’ bodies, while they would acknowledge that the membership is diverse. Chuck Fager’s “theological” definition of liberal Quakerism, however, contains terms that would be very controversial among Friends in these bodies – even, if not especially, among those who self-identify as liberals.

“Theologically”, he says, “I define Liberal Quakerism as: An ongoing effort to make visible a particular portion of the true Church, by means of the specific traditions and disciplines of the Religious Society of Friends. This very idea of manifesting the true Church is, we believe, rooted in the early Quakers’ unique and inclusive understanding of the Society’s Christian background and origins…”

This is not the whole definition, and much that I have omitted is important to the book’s overall argument. But in this passage, it seems to me, Chuck Fager’s familiarity with Quaker tradition has put him out of step with the rank-and-file Quaker liberal for whom he would like to speak. The very term “church”, much less “True church” is almost a taboo among many liberal Friends, so it would seem to me like a bit of a stretch to include it in a definition of who they are. Indeed, I think it will come as a shock to many of them to find that George Fox, Margaret Fell and the Valiant Sixty thought of themselves as part of a Church at all, though they emphatically and certainly did.

Notwithstanding that his very use of the term “true Church” may well mystify his fellow liberals, it will hardly endear him to students of what the term “Church” meant to early Friends. Fager leans heavily on certain ideas found in Robert Barclay’s “Apology”, which is a work of Quaker theology written by a contemporary of George Fox in the 17th century and widely used by Quakers to explain their faith to others throughout the 18th and 19th centuries and even into the 20th. Fager appreciates and enjoys the irony of basing a book called “Without Apology” on another one called “Apology”, but it seems to me that he is not really clear about the gulf between Barclay’s views and his own.

Starting with some things that Barclay actually said and believed, Chuck Fager extrapolates from them and draws his own conclusions. The reader not previously familiar with Barclay may have a hard time discerning where Barclay’s actual teachings leave off and Fager’s begin. A full discussion of this topic would not easily fit within this brief review, but the gist of it is this: Barclay taught that Christ’s spirit is alive and active within every human being and that those who “have become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts” are thereby included in the true and invisible Church whether or not they have ever even heard of Jesus’ earthly ministry, teaching, crucifixion and resurrection. This much is true. The conclusion Chuck Fager extrapolates is that the Society of Friends should try to make this invisible church visible by embracing people as members without regard to whether they are Christians, and thus to be as inclusive on Earth as God presumably will be in Heaven.

Barclay himself rejected such a position, though to see that he did you will have to read his “Apology” for yourself, rather than rely on Chuck Fager’s selective quotations. For Barclay, the visible church (as distinct from the subtle and invisible church which he also talked about) was simply the community that openly and explicitly experienced, worshiped, listened to and obeyed the living Christ. Moreover, it was also quite simply the body that has since come to be known as the Religious Society of Friends. He, like other Quakers of his time, believed that a major problem with most Christian denominations was that they were too inclusive, allowing membership to people who professed belief in Christ but did not actually trust him, listen to his living voice, or obey him. I know of no Quaker in Barclay’s generation or for decades thereafter who argued that either meetings or other churches should include non-Christians as members. When Friends welcomed newcomers to join their meetings, they did so on the basis that these newcomers had heard the Quaker message about Christ, had been “convinced” by it and intended to live by it. It would be vain, of course, to argue that something has to be true if Barclay or Fox believed it. But it seems quite unfair to implicitly invoke their authority in supporting views that they rejected.

The orthodox and evangelical villains of Fager’s history lesson are in some ways straw men and straw women: not that they are not real people, but that they are far easier to knock down rhetorically than other representatives of Christian Quakerism he might have chosen. In some cases they are not even the best exponents of evangelical and orthodox Quakerism itself (why no discussion of T. Canby Jones, for example, or John Punshon, or Richard Foster, or Thomas Kelly?) But more to the point, for me, is that the evangelical and orthodox movements themselves are far from the only representatives of Christian Quakerism. I would have liked to read a serious treatment of the lives and ideas of contemporary Friends like Bill Taber from the Conservative tradition, Licia and Larry Kuenning of the independent Glenside Meeting, and Lewis Benson, John McCandless, Chris Stern and the whole New Foundation movement. These are Friends whose Christian vision is informed by authentic Quaker tradition, far less diluted by protestant fundamentalism than those whom Chuck Fager wants to take on in debate.

The “liberal heroes” whose stories are told in this book include many Friends who were not in fact “liberals” at all under the definition which the author has offered, though clearly they were liberal in the broader sense of being open-minded, generous, and loving – in the sense, that is, that any genuine follower of Jesus would hope to be. The kind of liberal Quakerism, which Chuck Fager is advocating, however, (the kind which says the Society of Friends should not be explicitly Christian) did not arise in these Friends’ lifetimes and there is no reason to think that they would have embraced it if it had.

For example, Friend Fager counts Hannah Barnard as a “foremother” of liberal Quakerism apparently because she was disowned in 1802 for denying the literal truth of certain passages of scripture: notably those in which God is presented as commanding Israel to wage wars. Although this position offended the evangelicals of her time, it was apparently based on her understanding of other passages of scripture – such as the commandment by Jesus that we should love our enemies and do good unto those that hate us. Nothing that Chuck Fager tells us about her supports his contention that she thought the Society of Friends should equivocate about the central importance of Jesus. Perhaps it is a hopeful sign that Christian faith has a future in liberal Quaker Meetings, if liberal Friends take inspiration from a woman who was as courageously loyal to Jesus’ teaching as Hannah Barnard seems to have been.

It may be that a subtext of this story is that just as Hannah Barnard is a ‘foremother’ of liberalism so her persecutors are forerunners of conservative or evangelical or otherwise “Christo-centric” Quakers of today. I would say, rather, that insofar as they were persecutors they were forerunners of the persecuting spirit wherever it appears – even when it appears in a “liberal” meeting that winces at “exclusive” Christian messages.

John Whittier, whom Fager acknowledges to have been part of the Orthodox wing of Quakerism, is nevertheless presented as a hero of liberalism because he spoke out against creedalism and in favor of the primacy of the Spirit over the letter as a guide to Truth. This, again, could be called a “liberal” attitude in the broadest sense, and some non-liberal Friends would no doubt dispute it. Yet Whittier was a Christian and I know of no evidence that he thought the Society of Friends should be anything other than a Christian body. Certainly there is no such evidence in this book.

Even Joel Bean, who Fager embraces as a liberal Friend is really not a liberal at all under Fager’s own definition, despite his important role in the history of the liberal Pacific Yearly Meeting. The book recounts how Bean was hounded out of Iowa Yearly Meeting by the Holiness Revival Quakers because of his adherence to more traditional quietist principles, and then hounded out of the meeting he fled to in California. It says that he then founded a new Meeting called the College Park Association of Friends. This Association’s Purpose, according to its own statement, was “To promote the interest of Christianity and morality and to disseminate religious and moral principles,” (italics added). Chuck Fager counts this as a “liberal” statement because of its relative brevity and simplicity. I’m afraid, however, that if Joel Bean were to form such an association among the Quakers of New York Yearly Meeting or Pacific Yearly Meeting today then someone would take him aside and elder him for his “exclusive language”.

Finally, I think that this book carries the weight of unrealistic and contradictory expectations for Quakerism. It wants us to retain a connection to the spiritual vitality and social radicalism of our ancestors, while rejecting as narrow and exclusive the faith and belief that nourished them. In a section of Chapter Four, the book gives us some terms to help us see “How Quakerism Is, and Isn’t Christian”. He tells us that Quakerism is “Christogenic”, “Christomorphic”, “Christogogic”, and “Christophilic”.

Notwithstanding that these quasi-Greek neologism sound ugly to the ear and look pretentious on the page, I found myself gathering enthusiasm when I first saw them. Apparently, I thought, Chuck is here acknowledging that Friends’ faith and practice were born in Christ, shaped by Christ, taught by Christ, and steeped in the love of Christ.

But no. For Chuck, “Christogenic” Quakerism is Quakerism that “emerged from the religious experience and cultural history of Christianity” - - quite a different thing than emerging from a direct experience of Christ himself. Likewise, “Christomorphic” Quakerism is called that because “its institutions and processes reflect explicit efforts to recreate and practice what Friends like William Penn regarded as ‘Primitive Christianity revived’”, and Quakerism is “Christagogic” in that it has “much that it can learn from Christianity, its founder, and its larger Biblical context”. But how and why will Friends who do not believe that Jesus is a living teacher want to keep their focus on the traditions that refer to him? 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?” Don’t we already see that some Friends find any ministry that refers “too much” to him as an imposition and even as unQuakerly?

Judging by “A Modest Postscript”, which appears in the stapled typescript version of this book, but not in an earlier bound edition, Chuck Fager himself is aware of this problem. “Our near-universal ignorance of our heritage-Quaker, Christian and biblical-is appalling” he writes.

In summary, if I were to coin a term for the kind of Quakerism that Chuck Fager calls “liberal” and “inclusive”, I think I would call it “inclusivist”. It is almost too new an ism to be recognized as one. By articulating its premises as well as he has, Chuck Fager has made it possible to learn from this ism, but also – I hope – to begin to move beyond it. The best alternative to this inclusivism is not necessarily its direct opposite, “exclusivism”. Rather, I would hope that the future lies with Friends who are less concerned with the boundaries of Quakerism (whether by erasing them or reinforcing them) and more concerned with strengthening its central core.

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