20 Years of “Quaker Theology” — An Overview & Review

Twenty years and 32 issues ago, the Editors of a new, independent  journal called Quaker Theology asked “What is theology, and why should Friends be interested in it?” 

Good questions. Our answers in the first 32 issues are all online here, freely available  in searchable form. The 20th anniversary issue, #33, is now ready at Amazon, and will be on the web soon. One such answer about theology I offered to many Quaker groups, mostly quite liberal, when talking about peace work. I spoke of the “military industrial complex” and the ongoing drive for world hegemony it supported.

That was hardly news. But Friends often asked (rightly) why it was like that, why the USA needed so many wars?

Yes, good questions. In reply, I opened a small Bible and read the first six verses of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans — which talked about how we all must obey “the powers that be,” because they were “ordained” by God to “bear the sword” and “execute God’s wrath” on “evildoers” — and how we were all supposed to bow to them, pay for the wars, and/or kill in them.

“That’s why,” I said. “Many people believe the US is supposed to be God’s “authority” and “bear the sword” against those they are told are “evildoers” in the world.

I closed the book and looked up. Blank faces, many mouths hung open. 

I asked who knew of this passage.

Almost no one, especially the liberal-raised young, were familiar with it, or its sourcebook.

That’s a theology. And this theology, known or unknown, is a major force behind much of what is roiling our social and politics culture today. Understanding this and responding in informed ways is part of self- and group-defense. That was part of our 1999 editorial response to the opening query about “Why theology”? 

It was current then; it was imminent when I gave the bulk of my talks about peace; and it is immediate now.

But we also insisted there were positive reasons to write, read and talk about theology, which we defined as 

“the ongoing work of self-examination and definition which any living faith community faces. This ever-unfinished work is at the center of Quaker Theology’s efforts; indeed, it provides us with our working definition of theology, which is: disciplined reflection and continuing conversation about individual and communal religious experience. It seems to us that such disciplined reflection is part of our religious duty. After all, in Matthew 22:37, Jesus includes in the first Great Commandment the imperative to love the Lord “with all your mind”; we think Friends today could do better at following this call.”

These positive reasons for theology are also still relevant, if seemingly sidelined by the rush of current events. It’s often been a struggle to make room for it, but we’ve worked at it.

Among the concrete efforts to pursue positive exploration has been to maintain a space for “narrative theology,” in which individual Friends tell their religious stories, or at least part of them. We have published ten of these, which recount, among others:

— the making of a Quaker atheist (QT #1);

— a heritage of nature mysticism and folk magic (QT #9);

— the testament of a gay Quaker Christian (QT #14);

— a French Quaker’s journey from psychological warfare to Quaker nonviolence (QT #16);

— and a son of Appalachia returns to his family’s mountain roots, and begins to confront the personal impact of industrial image done to the land  (QT #29).

There is rich material for theological reflection and discussion in each of these.

A related category of personal theology has come from what I call the Divergent Friends: Quakers who have thought deeply about theological issues, and acted on their convictions, but are not academics or members of conventional theological guilds. Many are not remembered as theologians at all, or “activists” either, but a closer look discloses new depths and resources. 

One of my abiding favorites here is Lucretia Mott. Known rightly for her activism for women’s rights and against slavery (plus several other social reforms), we showed in QT #10 that she was also a seminal figure in challenging evangelical orthodoxy & structures among Friends, and gave voice and shape to the liberal stream in ways that have endured for 140 years since her death, and are still evident.

Milton Mayer (1908-1986)

Others we profiled included Milton Mayer, a mid-20th century maverick (QT #8 & #30-#31), who was one of the finest writers of his time. He saw deeply into the hidden growth of tyranny in Nazi Germany, and made clear how tyranny’s roots, under other names, were taking hold in postwar American society. He was a prophet of resistance whose best work is startlingly relevant three generations later. 

Jim Corbett (QT #30-#31) was an equally singular thinker-organizer, who emerged from the vast borderland desert of southern Arizona to become the catalyst of the 1980s Sanctuary movement. He also left a rich, idiosyncratic book, Goatwalking, as a classic testament. 

And not least was Friend Peg Morton of Eugene, Oregon Meeting in QT #28. After taking charge of long career of social witness, when faced with a failing body, she again took conscious, positive charge of the end of her life, a process she shared with her meeting. 

None of these three was a credentialed “Quaker theologian.” But all did important theology. There are numerous others in the 3000-plus pages we have published. Furthermore, some of the best “theology” in them was presented by non-theists, such as George Amoss Jr. (QT #1) and British Friend David Boulton (QT #13 & #14 ).

Theology is about more than persons, though; it also deals with  ideas. And while theological notions are often arcane and tedious, some can be startling, even shocking. At least several times in this effort they have shocked this editor.

More on some of these shocks in the next post. . . .

3 thoughts on “20 Years of “Quaker Theology” — An Overview & Review”

  1. Thanks for this, Chuck. Many of my Quaker and non-Quaker friends are aghast at my interest in and love of theology. But this latest account from you is a perfect explanation of why I enjoy exploring the subject so much. It is fascinating to me the importance of what is the Divine, how do we relate to it, what do we do about our various understandings of these questions? My last term at Earlham School of Religion, in a Comprehensive Theology course, we were all required to write a credo, a personal belief statement, and told to keep referring back to it over the years. If the credo we wrote then still reflects our current belief system over the years, we are probably badly stuck. We should expect and be encouraged by our developing and changing theological understandings. I had the it to open my credo with the old folk tale of the blind people and the elephant. I wrote that it is a shame that we can’t listen to other’s experience of the Divine as enlarging our own concepts rather than quarreling with folks whose view is different, and trying to prove that there is only ONE viewpoint/doctrine that is true. Over thirty years later, I still believe that, most of the rest of what I thought was true then has shifted or fallen away. But I’m still experiencing and learning new aspects of the journey of faith, and it’s never boring. Thank you for your companioning me along the way. Mickey E.

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