Much of what we’ve published in the journal Quaker Theology has been about people, mostly Quakers, past and present. This may be unusual in theological journals, but Quakerism is very much a lived religion, embodied in people, their witness, and their thought.
[The first 32 issues of Quaker Theology are all online here [www.quakertheology.org], available to all in searchable form. The 20th Anniversaryissue, #33, is now ready at Amazon (https://tinyurl.com/y26gmlbj ), and will be on the web soon. ]
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. Many of these shocks came from reading and reviewing books. (It does help if a theologian is something of a book nerd.)
For instance, the most acute critique of the reigning ideology of permanent war that has possessed America’s rulers since at least 2001came to my desk not from a liberal or left-winger, but from their polar opposite, a strict evangelical-fundamentalist and libertarian named Laurence M. Vance.
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?
For ten summers, 1984-1994, I led workshops on “The Basics of Bible Study” for the Friends General Conference Gatherings. They were lively and well-attended, highly rated on evaluations.
Putting my thoughts together for it, I produced a handbook. The title was “A Respondent Spark,”which was taken from a quote from Robert Barclay’s early Quaker theological treatise, “The Apology for the True Christian Divinity”:
“In the Scriptures God has deemed it proper to give us a looking glass in which we can see the conditions and experiences of ancient believers. There we find that our experience is analogous to theirs….
This is the great work of the Scriptures, and their usefulness to us. They find a respondent spark in us, and in that way we discern the stamp of God’s ways and his Spirit upon them. We know this from inward acquaintance we have with the same Spirit and his work in our hearts….
Nevertheless, because they are only a declaration of the fountain and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate, primary rule of faith and manners. Yet…they are and may be esteemed a secondary rule…for… according to the Scriptures the Spirit is the first and principal Leader.” [Emphasis added
I’ve had some requests to see this handbook, and have resurrected it from my hard drive as a PDF. It is located here, and can be freely downloaded.
I’m conscious of its limitations: I’m not a trained Bible scholar; and the text is several laps behind recent biblical scholarship. Even so, there are some ideas in it which may be of continuing relevance.
Certainly the sections in it introducing the work of literalist biblical interpretations, and some of the nefarious ways these ideas were then being put to work in our society and politics are not obsolete. Some of the names are different, but the key issues are much the same.
For that matter, some of the names are much the same too: I wrote about Jerry Falwell’s so-called “Moral Majority” and its [mis]use of the Bible. There’s still a Jerry Falwell at work today, but his view of the Bible as a political battering ram is not much different from that of his late father. And then there’s Franklin Graham; lord help us.
Still the book was not and is not about politics, except incidentally and when it’s unavoidable. (Alas, there was too much of that unavoidable stuff going around these days; and in these days too; sorry.).The book’s main goal was to answer a query:
Is This the Book For You?
This brief handbook is for certain kinds of people:
First, people who don’t know much about the bible, but think they would like to.
Second, it is for people who are independent-minded, and prefer to form their own judgments rather than simply accept the pronouncements of a traditional authority, no matter how venerable.
Third, it is for those who have a high tolerance for ambiguity because, as we shall see, one thing the Bible doesn’t offer is easy, automatic, simple answers.
This book is also for people who want a practical approach. There is, of course, much more to this subject than could possibly fit into these few pages; but it is my hope that when you have finished it, and become familiar with the tools it describes, you will be able to pick up the Bible, begin to make sense of what you read, know where to get more information about it, and not be afraid of following your leadings about its meaning wherever they may lead.
Beyond the personal benefits it offers, the ability to find your way around in the Bible is of particular value these days, when groups who claim to have the exclusive, true understanding of Scripture are running around attempting to impose their understanding on everyone else, or else.
I happen to think that these groups are mostly wrong, especially about what the Bible means. But I don’t think their efforts can be effectively blunted except by people prepared to meet them on their own ground, that is on the basis of knowing something about what the Bible says and how to figure out what the text means.
So if you’re wondering about Bible study, give it a whirl. Did I mention that it’s a FREE download? No registering, no information sought, no facial recognition, and I won’t sell your data. (Some web prowlers might come and snatch it; but can’t help that.)
If you’re interested, check it out, and I welcome feedback.
Except for how it turned out, I hate almost everything about this report:
A mass school shooting was foiled on Thursday, December 13; that’s the good part.
But the first thing I hate about it is not in the news, but in myself: when I began checking the evening headlines yesterday, a thought came:
Isn’t it about time for another big mass shooting? How long has it been—? Let’s see . . . the Pittsburgh synagogue, hmm. Oh yeah, late October: 11 dead, six wounded. . . . Seven weeks ago; right? So . . . another one is about due . . .”
Yes, I thought that, unbidden, and I hate that I thought it. A premonition? I don’t think so. It’s just that after these past few years, it does feel like there’s some sort of gruesome rhythm to such events.
The new ABnormal.
Then I glanced at the BBC News feed, and there it was:
As a journalist, I mostly have the “Quaker beat” to myself: Friends are a tiny sect, known mostly for being “quaint,” the inventors of oatmeal, riders in buggies, and extinct. (Never mind that the last three are not true; they’re still what we’re “known” for, by many in what the elders used to call “the world,” when such folk bother to think about us at all.) So when I report on Quaker stuff, it’s rare that I have to compete with “normal” reporters.
But sometimes I get scooped; and that happened again today, and in no less an outlet than the New York Times. (But hey, if you’re gonna get scooped, it might as well be by the best.)
And why would the Times bother with us? If you don’t already know, think for a minute: The Times’ base constituency is the affluent (and up) of the nation’s largest city. And what artifacts of Quakerism are such moneyed folk most likely to bump into? (Hint: nothing to do with oatmeal.) Continue reading Another “Quaker” School Makes Waves→
Human & Animal Hunting
From Bartram’s Travels, by William Bartram, 1791:
I AM sensible that the general opinion of philosophers, has distinguished the moral system of the brute creature from that of mankind, by an epithet whichimplies a mere mechanical impulse, which leads and impels them to necessary action without any premeditated design or contrivance, this we term instinct which faculty we suppose to be inferior to reason in man.
Friend William Bartram traveled, mainly alone, through much of the American southeast, between 1773 and 1777, looking for collecting, and drawing plants, wildlife, and the occasional Indian. His book based on these journeys was published in 1791. Here is another excerpt:
IT may be proper to observe, that I had now passed the utmost frontier of the white settlements on that border.
It was drawing on towards the close of day, the skies serene and calm, the air temperately cool, and gentle zephyrs breathing through the fragrant pines; the prospect around enchantingly varied and beautiful; endless green savannas, checquered with coppices of fragrant shrubs, filled the air with the richest perfume.
The gaily attired plants which enamelled the green had begun to imbibe the pearly dew of evening; nature seemed silent, and nothing appeared to ruffle the happy moments of evening contemplation: when, on a sudden, an Indian appeared crossing the path, at a considerable distance before me.Continue reading Dog Days Meditation: Bartram Faces a Murderer→
[It’s not easy to keep up with my fellow-traveler/Spirit Guide, Friend William Bartram. He just can’t stay on the beaten path. . . .]
But here he is again, talking about plants, and especially trees. And one kind of tree jumped out at me from his list, the Live Oak. That’s because I’ve seen and been captivated by some magnificent specimens thereof, in a cemetery in Alabama.
There’s lots of human history in that graveyard. But we’re gonna skip all that here, and just dwell on the chlorophyllic history. The place is only a few acres, but I think I could wander in it for hours, maybe days.]
Let’s review: In February of this year, officials at Friends Central School in Philadelphia abruptly canceled a speaking engagement by a Palestinian Quaker peace studies professor, then suspended and later fired the two teachers who had planned the visit. Much public controversy ensued.
In May, the two former teachers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging discrimination and retaliation by Friends Central.
Earlier posts on the Friends Central School controversy are:
Early last month, Friends Central’s attorneys filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, on the grounds that the two teachers had “failed to state a valid claim,” and that allowing the lawsuit to proceed would see the court become “entangled” in a religious dispute, which is prohibited by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
On July 31, the teachers’ attorney, Mark Schwartz, filed his response. Prosaically titled, “PLAINTIFFS’ MEMORANDUM OF LAW IN OPPOSITION TO DEFENDANTS’ MOTION TO DISMISS COMPLAINT,” it asserted that to the contrary, the teachers’ complaint did state valid claims, further that pursuing it would not require any impermissible meddling in religious doctrines, and that the motion to dismiss should be denied and the case be moved to its next phase, which is discovery of documents and other background, in preparation for a trial.Continue reading Friends Central School Lawsuit: The Fired Teachers Begin to Make Their Case→
Before this final camp story, a bit of background. Until 2015, Friends Music Camp gathered at the Olney Friends School, in Barnesville in eastern Ohio.
Barnesville is the Mecca, the (old) Jerusalem, the place of pilgrimage where all roads lead for the scattered survivors of the Conservative or Wilburite strain of quietist Quakerism. These are the Friends who “conserved,” or clung longest to the “peculiarities” of dress and speech, and worked hardest at maintaining traditional “plainness”. (NOT “Simplicity”; that’s a modern, much watered-down imitation.)
Olney’s spirit is embodied in both its main school building, which has a sturdy, handmade character, and a pervasive Quietist atmosphere at its end of Sandy Ridge; and then in the huge, echoing space of the Stillwater Meeting house, which reigns at the other end of a fetching sidewalk of red brick laid in herringbone pattern.
In its heyday, Stillwater could hold a couple thousand, and was often filled during “Yearly Meeting week” for its parent Ohio (Conservative) Yearly meeting, and where visiting ministers could (yes!) preach for an hour..