The First Month 2019 issue of Friends Journal includes an article by Friend Adria Gulizia, “Greater Racial Diversity Requires Greater Theological Diversity.”
At one level, I very much empathize with Adria Gulizia’s concern for what I would call “theological inclusiveness.” The widespread ignorance, apathy & avoidance of theology/Bible in “liberal” meetings I have known have become personally very burdensome.
Yet there is another side to this story, one not easy to see from the Philadelphia orbit. But if one actually steps out of that enclosed space, some very different aspects that appear.
To summarize: outside the “Phillysphere” and the Northeast, five U.S. yearly meetings have split apart in the last 20 years, with one of the five, 320 years old, blowing up/melting down & disappearing completely. Where I live, in the Pretty Deep South, the fallout, like debris from a plane that exploded in midair, is still falling around us.
And what was the cause of this fivefold schism? Well, one could point the finger in several directions, but in the foreground of all five was that which Gulizia’s piece calls for, namely: “theological diversity.”
I know some of this from direct experience. Many were the interrogations such “diversity” produced, not of me but my whole meeting:
Start with the Bible: Did we have the right view of it? And the true notion of its authority?
Next, were we “Christ-centered”? No, they meant, not that way, but this way, really, truly? Or enough? And with the authentic formulation? Oh, and had we adopted (& enforced) the correct church authority structure?
And lots more. (In our area, the ordeal went on for three-plus years. And truly, there’s nothing quite like being called a tool of the Anti-Christ by someone who really means it.)
I’ve written about most of these splits, and helped investigate the others (links on request); and lived through a grueling one. One summary observation stands out: “theological diversity” is like fire. Carefully monitored & controlled it can be useful. But if it gets loose, and it easily may, it can burn the place down. And the science of such “control” lags far behind that of say, LP gas. (An illustrative & [to me] shocking case of a “heresy trial” for a devoted North Carolina Quaker pastor is described in this post, with links to background materials.)
The world of Philly Quakerdom in this period was shaped by a much longer history: their big historic split came in 1827, yielding Orthodox & Hicksite branches, almost 200 yers ago. By all accounts the schism was awful, involving way too much flammable theological diversity. The trauma lasted for two or three generations.
But then finally the grandchildren (or was it great-grandchildren?) of the competing clans began to forget what it had all been about. By the 1920s, many of the Orthodox had followed Rufus Jones into what he called “mysticism,” which seemed more & more to resemble what the Hicksites were coming to. (Or at least, what many thought they were coming to.) Eventually weighty Friends from the two streams began talking to each other, and considering coming back together, after almost 130 years of division.
Soon the parties got “engaged”. Both were dedicated to a new union, and believed it was right, God’s will.
But it required compromise; like many second marriages, there was some romance to this, but also a carefully-drawn, no-nonsense prenup. I haven’t seen a complete copy, but it’s clear that a key provision dealt with how to keep theology from igniting again. And the chosen method was analogous to a previous era’s parenting style: theology, like potentially unruly children, should be seen, but not heard.
In 1936, Jane Rushmore, one of the mostly-forgotten giants among Philly Friends in those years, anticipated this approach in her small book, Testimonies & Practice of the [Philadelphia liberal] Society of Friends:
“We have many clear rational thinkers,” she affirmed, “and we rejoice in their contribution, which mainly is that the way any of us think about theological or metaphysical matters is non-essential.”
Many beneficiaries of this reunion soon took Jane Rushmore’s point a crucial step further: they developed the comforting conviction, that soon became almost a dogma, that “Quakers” (i.e., Philly Quakers and their organizational kin in Friends General Conference) were now so enlightened that they had actually left theology/Bible and “all that” behind. After all, if what we think about all this is “non-essential,” maybe we need not think about it at all. We, more and more believed, no longer quarrel over theology or the Bible because we have, thankfully, outgrown them, as the beautiful Monarch butterfly sheds a once necessary, but now confining chrysalis shell.
It is all too easy now, almost 75 years later, to chafe at this bargain, to mock it and nibble at it like termites. (I have gnawed my share.) The whole edifice seems (and often is) bland, parochial, boring. Worse yet – – the cardinal sin — its population has been shrinking.
Besides which–here the conundrum takes center stage — it may “work” for those who are indifferent to “theology” or “scripture”; but it does not work for (i. e., include) those whose explorations convince them that theology (especially theirs) is indeed important, or “essential,” even shaping action. And those who feel this way seem to be increasing in numbers, or at least are becoming more vocal about it.
Nevertheless, I am not so inclined as I once was to scoff about this compromise/conundrum, which is really a paradox. This reunion, despite its too-familiar imperfections, is still one of the signal achievements of 360 years of American Quakerdom. And much as I have benefitted from studying, discussing & debating theology, I have seen more than enough of its destructive potential at work in my time among Friends, to be hesitant about calls for turning it loose again in Phillyworld, without considerable care & caution.
Nor am I the first to think such thoughts. In 1969, while still considered by some to be a “radical young Friend,” I attended the sessions of New England Yearly Meeting. New England had blazed the trail to Quaker reunion: elbowing ahead of the Philly Friends, it became the prototype, by being stitched together in 1945, from no less than four disparate, autonomous Quaker groups. The New England nuptials even had the personal blessing of Rufus Jones (a New Englander who had spent his career in Philly), then nearing the end of his life. By 1969 the reconstituted body was into its second decade, and for two of its constituent groups, their third century.
Then here came I, a shavetail divinity student, eager to talk and debate theology, which I was just beginning to learn, with all & sundry. I asked about setting up a discussion group to tackle — I don’t recall now, maybe something about the Bible, or the divinity of Christ.
The answer was no. As I persisted and asked why, an elder Friend pulled me aside to explain, quietly (& quite unsatisfactorily to me), that, “We’ve pretty well decided here that it’s better if we just don’t talk about some things.”
Unsatisfactory indeed. Pusillanimous, I thought. Milquetoast. Oatmeal.
I mean, my generation was working to stop the Vietnam War, abolish poverty, and end racial segregation (yes we were, even if no one now believes it); why couldn’t we take on the Bible & christology too, for Pete’s sake?
But that was then. This, five yearly meeting schisms later, is now. And I am less & less sure anymore about how much “theological diversity” Philly Quakerdom (or New England, for that matter) could safely take on. The Friendly infrastructure in and around the Delaware Valley can appear massive & timeless. But is it as solid as it looks? Indeed, it has shattered before; that in New England did too. Could it happen again? (Full disclosure: I think so.)
I hope Friend Gulizia can see this. She says she came to Friends from a Baptist church. Here in our region (500 miles and several light years from Philly), Baptist churches are everywhere. Further, they come in numerous denominations, with other thousands of them “independent.” And from all I gather, one of the major internal sports of Baptists is instigating church splits, with “diverse theologies” among the major incendiary devices.
If the reunion’s compromise-conundrum has run its course (I’m not sure of that, but let’s suppose), then what can replace it? And how? An “Undoing Theological Ignorance program”? A consultant-led theological survey/assessment? Or some unofficial effort? What if it turns out that the urge for “diverse theologies” does not attract much interest? (Or more ominously, what if it does?)
Further, what does all this have to do with racial diversity in the Philly domain? I’m not sure: Gulizia’s assertion that more theological diversity will produce more racial diversity is intriguing, but pure hypothesis.
Maybe it could work. Is there a yearly meeting where it has? If so, please enlighten me. In 53 years among Friends, I haven’t seen or heard of one. But perhaps I missed it; I’ve only visited thirteen YMs.
What I have seen is several where it proved to be a double-edged sword. And when I review how much agony Philadelphia YM has been putting itself through over “racism” in the past few years, and consider it from a theological angle, it presents an alarming parallel as well as a disheartening spectacle.
It’s disheartening when I recall that this is the group that, despite being born amid American racism, has yet produced memorable activists against that system for well over three hundred years: from a vocal Germantown handful in 1688 to Bayard Rustin working closely with Dr. King, and too many others to name.
Another way I think about is this: If an expert were to draw up a list of the top 100 institutional enemies of people of color in Pennsylvania in 2019, who would be on it? The prison system? Many schools? Redlining banks? Too many cops? (Fill in the blanks.) There are many. Yet I’m confident that Philadelphia YM, with all its flaws, would not even make the list. I mean, come on.
Yet are Philadelphians able to learn from this heritage, take encouragement from its strengths, chastening from facing the weaknesses, and renew its momentum with energy and resolve?
It does not seem so. To hear some talk, in Friends Journal & elsewhere, some see PYM near the top of the region’s racial enemies list. It could almost be the reincarnation of the KKK-centered Pillar of Fire Church of Zarephath, New Jersey (Now there was some theological diversity, with national reach in its heyday!).
PYM of late has been bedeviled by outbreaks of vice-signaling, with fierce call-out/shaming sessions, self-flagellations and public competition over who can claim the deepest racism & most loudly lament their “privilege.”
Even William Penn has been nearly run out of the body he basically founded. It all brings to mind the counsel of Paul in the letter to the Galatian Christians, (5:15)”But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.”
Also, if the KKK analogy seems far-fetched, it is not. During the Klan’s 1920s resurgence, many Quakers joined it, and there were even Quaker Klan leaders.
But no, Liberal Quakerdom is not like that. And given the increasingly desperate plight of our larger society in these very tough years, much of this sounds to me, at this distance, like sheer self-indulgence, and a self-derailing turn away from putting their hands to the many available plows and getting down to work. I wonder: is it that the world outside is too frightening, so some displace anxiety and anger onto more familiar faces, putting them (us) in the crosshairs? It is a well-worn jibe at liberal groups that they so readily form circular firing squads. Does that now apply even to an officially pacifist one?
Moreover, this clamor often sounds and even looks like theology in disguise: is racism — excuse me, ANTI-racism — becoming a new gospel?
(I’m not the first to notice this. Here’s the testimony of Frances Lee, a troubled young activist, who was raised a hard-core evangelical, and sees too many disturbing parallels in his current activist environment.)
“When I was a Christian, all I could think about was being good, and proving to my parents and my spiritual leaders that I was on the right path to God. All the while, I was getting messages that I would never be good enough. Perfection was an impossible destination.
A decade later, I feel compelled to do the same things as an activist. I self-police what I say in leftist spaces. I stopped commenting on social media with questions or pushback because I am afraid of being called out. I am always ready to apologize for anything I do that a community member deems wrong, oppressive, or inappropriate — no questions asked.
I use these protective strategies because these communities have become a home, and I can’t afford to lose them.
Activists are some of the judgiest people I’ve ever met, myself included. We work hard to expose injustice and oppression in the world. But among us, grace and forgiveness are hard to come by. It is a terrible thing to fear my own community members, and know they’re probably just as afraid of me. . . .”
In its current Quaker “discourse,” racism is now our original sin (at least among whites), and it’s neo-Calvinist in character: universal (among whites), predestined since the first statutes were drafted in colonial Virginia, and leaving them (us) mired in a pit of total depravity. (You say liberal Quakers don’t believe in all that? Listen, and think again.)
But with enough expensive seminars and assessments, one can publicly repent, learn & repeat litanies of new terminology, and get saved; at least til the next revival meeting, or shocking “incident.” (And never mind that when Harvard did a study of such “diversity” programs, evidence for their effectiveness was scarce, uneven and mixed. And if one googles outside the box, there are distinguished African-American thinkers who are not fans. Ah, but that way lies heresy.)
And then, here comes another familiar theological story line: the heresy hunt. Alarm sirens wail; the border patrol fans out — heretics and doubters have been spotted, wolves are among the flock. They must be flushed out; isolated and banished, at any cost. Something that sounded and looked an awful lot like this was attempted in PYM just a year or so ago.
The episode also was very much like some of the clashes in the five shattered YMs. It left a strange aroma in the air, acrid, like smoke. Was it the odor of a “diverse” theology beginning to smolder? If so, then the distance between Philly and the other five shattered yearly meetings has begun to shrink.
Could this new “theological diversity” increase PYM’s racial; diversity? Or could it upend PYM’s 75 years of internal peace? Is Philly Quakerworld teetering toward the edge of catastrophe, that same one the other five tumbled over? Flames have already been glimpsed in PYM meetings here and there.
So, by all means, study and discuss theology, Friends. But look away at least briefly from Philadelphia to consider recent history beyond its constricted horizon. And be careful what you wish for.
Be careful; you may get it.