Towards a Quaker Theology

I love my Quaker tradition. Most of all, I love our mysticism—how a direct experience of God is more important to us than ‘notions’ about God.

Yet, I worry that we have given up too much by giving up on theology.

I was bothered by this a great deal as we argued about homosexuality in Kenya, at the World Conference. Evangelical  Friends have a very clearly constructed idea of why homosexuality is wrong, and this idea is closely tied to their theology. The Bible is the inspired Word of God; we are meant to read the Bible for the “plain meaning” of the words; Paul says “man should not lie with man as he lies with woman; it is an abomination;” homosexuality is an abomination. Q.E.D.

In response to this, liberal Friends would typically say, “You’re wrong!” and offer an argument from experience.

I am extremely sympathetic to an argument from experience. After all, that’s how I personally came to believe that homosexual relationships are equally blessed by God. When the argument from experience is the only argument we use, though, I have the distinct feeling that we come across as unconvincing—and worse, rather arrogant.

From the perspective of an Evangelical Friend, this is saying that we are putting our own opinion above the revealed Word of God. Changing our perspective and looking at this in a context of race relations rather than theology, this might be taken as saying, “I'm a well-educated white person, and you, a less well-educated black person, are wrong because I say so.”

And honestly? Without a clear theology of what the Inward Light actually is, without an alternative Biblical hermeneutic on offer, without some kind of framework in which to place our religious experiences, I don't think we can effectively argue against that perception.

I read a lot of religious bloggers from different traditions than my own. Particularly, I love reading religious bloggers who are more conservative than I. It makes me think, widens my perspective, and exposes me to some very intellectually impressive scholarship. All that to say, I really enjoyed this post from Roger E. Olson (excerpted below), “What I admire about Calvinists.” (Olson himself is an Arminian.)

“I admire how MOST evangelical Calvinist churches teach theology/doctrine and how to integrate that into everyday spirituality and ordinary life. That kind of integration of theology/doctrine with practice is too rare in non-Calvinist churches . . . They [non-Calvinists] have picked up pieces of this and that (theologies) and pasted them together in ways that seem good to them without any real reflection on the outcome . . . They [Calvinists] always seem to have a ready answer to questions about practical matters such as preaching, praying, worshiping, witnessing, etc., and how those are affected by their Calvinism. . . .”

In the same way, Quakers need to be able to articulate our answers to practical questions such as how to discern whether or not to speak in unprogrammed Meeting for Worship, how to discern whether someone else was truly led during worship or whether they outran their guide (and how to deal with it if they did), how to lift up and nurture ministers, how to support leadings, what we mean when we talk about “holding someone in the light” (is that intercessory prayer?), how to defend same gender marriages, what support and advice to offer people going through difficult times (“my daughter is dying—where is God in this?”), and how those practices and beliefs are grounded in our Quakerism.

Personally, as a liberal Quaker and as a Christian (in my heart I'm a Conservative Friend in a liberal Yearly Meeting), my response to the homosexuality debate is roughly as follows: The Bible is not the Word of God; Christ, who is the Word of God, taught us that to love God and love our neighbor is the first commandment, on which hang all the other laws; we must always interpret the Bible by that commandment; if a verse in the Bible cannot be reconciled with the Love of Christ (which we experience internally as the Inward Light) then between the verse and Christ we must pick Christ.

I'm not saying that liberal Quakers everywhere must become Christian. What I am saying is that unless we engage more deeply in our traditions, and in some serious religious thought, we risk becoming unable to communicate with other faith traditions, with the religious seekers we want so much to welcome, and even with those who think differently in the wider family of Friends. We weaken our ability to be truly Quaker.