Liberal Quakers Need More “Theological Diversity.” What could possibly go wrong?

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 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.

My back yard.

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.”

Bishop Alma White was the founder and head of the Pillar of Fire Church, which was a full-throated backer of the KKK in the 1920s to 1940s. Her headquarters was in Zarephath New Jersey, about an hour northeast of
Philadelphia, near Princeton.  In this 1925 book, she pronounced 

the KKK as equivalent to 
the Second Coming of Christ.
Was this “diverse theology”?
The KKK sure claimed it was, and it had millions of followers then; and while the organization has withered, its spirit is very much alive today. After all, it was crosses they burned, as a sign of judgment, not six-pointed stars or crescents. 

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 Business School 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.

12 thoughts on “Liberal Quakers Need More “Theological Diversity.” What could possibly go wrong?”

  1. so interesting…used to be Quaker (Ann Arbor meeting, Pendle Hill 1965), then unaffiliated with anything except work and family for a few decades, now ten years a Unitarian, and see the same tendencies in the UUA that you’re describing here. We all so want to be good and useful and valued and listened to, and it’s so difficult…

  2. I was recently called a servant of the anti-Christ by a liberal Friend for refusing to boycott Chick-Fil-A!

  3. I find that many, if not nearly all, liberal Quaker meetings south of DC and northern Virginia are actually spiritually diverse; but there is also a gentle humility within Friends in those meetings regarding one’s own spiritual leaning. There is a sense of seeking the Light, and acceptance of others’ spiritual insights as they each use language that is meaningful to them – based on their particular religious or secular background.

    There seems to be unconditional love at play in these southern liberal Quaker meetings and it is powerful.

    For example, during the 40 minute adult spiritual sharing each Sunday at my meeting, all types of spiritual diversity is evident, with Friends showing genuine interest in each other’s viewpoints. I think there is an underlying understanding that all these viewpoints among us are mere “notions” (as the early Quakers so aptly called them). We seem to have a uniting understanding that the core truth behind all of these “notions” is Love and Light for our world, and therefore there is no need to make judgements over chosen words.

    At our liberal Quaker meeting for worship there is vocal ministry during the worship hour that is sprinkled with different spiritual jargon, varied references to the world’s “holy” books, and different labels for the divine. It is quite a beautiful experience to participate in these meetings for worship as Friends exercise their spiritual muscle to look past the words being used to find the eternal essence of the messages and the holiness within the speakers who are being used by the Spirit as messengers to us.

    Such a diverse environment within the meeting provides Friends hope for a world that desperately needs to grasp the joy to be found in diversity.

  4. Friend Howard speaks my experience in SAYMA Meetings.

    We unite on praxis: we ask, we listen, we are led, we take action.

    Our name, our conceptualization of that which leads is probably as diverse as the number of us present in the room. Likely greater in fact, as a number of us (self included) have more than one perspective that fits us at a given moment.

    We’re good with people exploring issues from their perspectives on the numinous. It’s not like we don’t have a representation of their experience in our experience to which we can relate.

    Are for the racism self-knowledge type of social change: Lakey delineates 4 kinds of social change agents in his new book, How We Win. As he points out, a) we need all types, b) we need to respect the types that are not our type, and c) we need to engage effectively in whatever type of change agent toward which we are drawn.

  5. Hi Chuck, you know of course how much shit you are going to get for this post, Thanks for it. I have had a lifetime of experience with those who would police my language, my big mouth. I have either been too stupid or too stubborn or to damn ornery to change my big mouth much with the notable exception of the the “N” word which I take to be in respect for those who insisted in the face of violence and evil, would not be used. That said I will tell you that that is the only instance I know of where the people who want me to talk pretty, put their bodies and hearts and money and souls on the line for it. Qweer, faggot, bitch, etc. etc. etc…… I remember no fights about language beyond the gawdawful debates on things like LGBTQ baloney. I must say as a birthright Quaker that there is simply too much talk, hard to say that to you, but you are a professional talker/writer an exception that proves the rule, so you get some slack with me for attempts at getting to the complicated truths of these issues. A gaddmn boring fact checker. Most everyone is just talking though their goddamned asses while the world needs us to be out there fixing it. To anyone out there reading this who might be offended—impeach the motherfucker. Eat the rich. Stop the goddamn war ma-fucking-chine. Shut the fuck up and try to connect with the honest truth that we are losing our souls and our environment and our children and —we can shut up and do the next indicated thing—– that needs to be done rather than talk it to the point where any decent person will just go on home. Remember about silence and waiting? Is shutting up for on damn hour a week so goddamn traumatizing that we have to babble all the rest of the time or write a facebook rant every day. What the fuck? Are you waiting to help those who you know are suffering? God damn, I’m ranting. I will shut up. But I will show up too.I’m speaking to my own lacks here too . But at least I fuckin know it. Show up. Grow up. Shut up and dance.

    Ben Schultz
    The Desert Tower
    See you at the Border Fence on Saturday.

    Too much?

  6. Ben, Wow! You remind me of my life growing up in NYC as a refugee moving from one neighborhood to another. Lots of words with fire but after a while it is like hearing folks in the South, where I have lived for 40 + years say “Yes, Maam” or “Yes, Sir!”

    Imagine, dear Friends, that you were raised as an Orthodox Jew and then was left to spend the summer at the age of 6 with you twin bro at a a home of a spinster who was part of the Hasidim community in Williamsburg. That was were I was introduced to Jewish Mysticism. Wow! What a trip across the universe I went on. Learned “experientially” that we are ALL (everything) CONNECTED!

    Later on in life I found myself looking for a religious community that didn’t believe that violence was the answer. Not just “No War!”, but “No Violence!” I found Quakers after many tries and was even willing to learn the Christian “Language” so that I could understand what these “Quiet” people were saying when they managed to say something.

    I have found a home in SAYMA (Hi Hank!) and Atlanta. One reason I believe we are “spiritually diverse” is that there is NOWHERE ELSE TO GO! There is no other liberal meeting within 100 miles. (Chattanooga is over 2 hrs away, even by Interstate). The Appalachian Mountain terrain make travelling a long journey for most. One cannot “visit” other Friends without REALLY, REALLY wanting to get there.

    And once you get there there is almost extacy in the air. I am so happy to find other who are even close to my own journey. So, I suggest to Friends everywhere that whatever soapbox one thinks they are one, when all else fails and nobody seems to understand what you are saying or doing or being . . .


    The Spirit doesn’t give a darn what YOU or I Believe! Why argue with others when THEY are YOU and YOU are THEY?
    Do so before you wake up to the fact that I/we are all part of the 3 stooges or many ALL 3 of THEM!

    Is “RIGHT ORDER” worth splitting up over? I find that shaming people for being “OUT OF ORDER” gets them to leave. ( Note; My experience is that shaming is a form or bullying that Quakers are pretty good at employing.)

    I am blessed to have many Friends as friends. Yet it is often one friend per Monthly Meeting! And even One per Yearly Meeting.

  7. Quakers are called to listen inwardly to be guided toward the right path to follow in life: a life that is spiritually rich and does no harm to others. Lberal meetings no longer try very hard to bring others into the Quaker fold, so it may be that Quakers are destined to be small in numbers or even disappear. Silent meditation in our noisy world does not seem to appeal to many. Perhaps the role Quakerism has played in the world up to now is no longer needed in this day and age. If unprogrammed Quakerism still has a role to play, I do not know how meetings can make themselves appealing to a larger audience.

    1. SAYMA Outreach and Fort Myers Monthly Meeting (SEYM) are both tackling the issue of the quiet sameness that you raise. As more than a couple of longtime Friends have noted to me, “if all the postgraduate degrees walked out of most of our meetings, there would be few people left.” That’s OK with some Friends, as they are led. It’s not OK with me, as I am led. I grew up with working class folks, almost exclusively. Their open hearts and exuberant spirits would make for a rich Quakerism. And with the demise of traditional ritual-based religions, there is a need (so say the pollsters). We would I think need to adjust our quiet worship, not to the traditional church ways, but in creative ways that meet these folks where they are while doing what we do: ask to be led, listen, allow ourselves to be led, and take action.

  8. How bout a start of caring for all our meeting kids which would include making sure they have a good start in life as a meeting priority instead of the weird standing off we have with our kids where they have to make it all happen for themselves. I know of no meeting that makes a habit of making sure the kids are alright. I certainly feel that there was no corporate help for me from my meeting, just a smile of encouragement and sorrow for my failings. There is of course, sad church ladies( of both sexes) who try to do bible studies.

  9. In my medium sized Meeting, we’ve got Muslim, Hindus, Jews, Christians, followers of Jesus who are not Christian, Sabbatarians, atheists, agnostics (two varieties – regular agnostics and “Quaker agnostics”), apatheists (perhaps the most numerous of the subgroups), pagans, rational polytheists (that’s me), folks with Buddhist and Native American orientations. We live, learn, and play together. The last major “theological” discussion I can remember was in 1998. I suspect that if someone in the Meeting advertised a group to discuss theology, three people would show – the person who called the meeting, and two who wouldn’t want him/her to feel bad. We’ve had Bible study groups, Koran study groups, Parker Palmer study groups.

    I imagine we could have more “theological diversity”, but it would be pretty difficult.

    We suffer from “privilege complex”. Yes, many of us have privilege – and we have a habit of making believe we don’t have Black. Hispanic, and Native American members and attenders of our Meeting when we talk about it – making them doubly invisible. We have repeated Racism 101 multiple times. We set up a committee to look at “institutional racism” (NOT this breastbeating stuff) some three years ago, and never make it past square one. Outside Quaker organizations compete to give us the next wonderful Racism 101, but when it comes to institutional racism, never hear about it.

    Still, I read Adria’s article, and it seems like it comes from a foreign land.

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