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Do Quaker Testimonies Have an Authentic Historical Dimension?

At first glance, this question may seem rather odd. Of course Quaker testimonies have a historical dimension. However, the inclusion of the word “authentic” summons up a realm of controversy in Quaker discourse. Apparently, some Friends find reason to deny that the contemporary articulation of Quaker testimonies is either historically or spiritually authentic.

During the spring and summer of 2009 I attended seven yearly meetings as well as four other Quaker events, including the Friends General Conference Gathering and the annual conference of Friends Association for Higher Education. On numerous occasions at various events I heard Friends take up a line of reasoning aimed at denying an authentic historical dimension to the testimonies as we now generally understand them. In some cases even a simple listing of the testimonies garnered a vigorous objection.

Friends who are having difficulty with the way Quaker testimonies are now commonly viewed and articulated employ two lines of reasoning. The first line observes that the testimonies as we now know them are the creation of modern liberal Quakerism and cannot be found in any codified way in the writings of the founders of the Religious Society of Friends. Apparently, this finding is seen by some Friends as a decisive decertification of the contemporary expression of Quaker testimonies, as if authentic Quaker experience and history more or less stopped soon after the founding period.

The second line of reasoning takes a different tack, and ends up with an even sharper denial of authenticity for what we commonly think of and list as Quaker testimonies. The folks who take this view assert that it is inauthentic to even talk in general about something called “the testimonies.” In their view, a “testimony” has no existence outside lived expression in the behavior of authentic Friends. Speaking and writing about Quaker testimonies is a kind of false representation.

This is a little like Lao Tzu’s position in the Tao Te Ching where he says about knowledge of Tao (The Way): “Those who speak don’t know. Those who know don’t speak.” Every religious tradition seems to have those who hope to make a contribution by being out on this kind of radical edge, but it sure is a dialogue‐stopper. In fact, isn’t Lao Tzu ensnared in his own dictum? If he “knows” whereof he speaks, shouldn’t he have remained silent? Buddhism later addressed this conundrum through the practice of holding up a flower accompanied by a mysterious smile—or sometimes, even more radically in Zen practice, with a swift and unexpected whack from the master’s stick.

Among those who take one or the other of these stances against the testimonies, I have observed a common characteristic—a strong aversion to the use of the term “Quakerism.” As I have listened to the objections offered, it has become clear to me that the attempt to eliminate the use of this expression is also connected to a passion for authenticity—the authenticity of the founding Friends on the one hand, and the authenticity of immediate lived witness on the other. This is quite understandable, and even admirable, except that both approaches to authentic—what can I say—“Quakerism” seem to fall a little shy of understanding what history is and how culture actually works.

To put it simply, history is not a mine to which we can retreat, dig out a few gems of understanding, and use them to devalue the significance of later parts of the story we happen to dislike. Digging into history in search of some essential truth is a little like peeling an onion. When we get to the center we realize it is the whole story that counts. Likewise, cultural tradition is not something we are free to jettison in favor of the moment‐by‐moment expression of lived, personal witness. As authentic as that may seem in the abstract, it is like trying to fly a kite without a tail.

Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding once observed that our greatest difficulty lies in the fact that “all experiences are of the past, but all our decisions are about the future.” This is just as true for a religious tradition as for a person. The accumulation of past experience is all we have to inform and guide us. Even in the realm of the spiritual we learn how to “listen” and receive revelation because we have a tradition that codifies experience into a structure of guidance.

Codification is a good thing. Memories are real possessions. Collective memories are like a garden in which we have both perennials and annuals. With careful tending, perennials go on from season to season. The lived expression of the annuals, the flowering and fruiting of new revelation, require a systematic approach to seed saving and a continual replenishment of the ancient soil. Gardeners come and go. The garden goes on more or less forever if well tended. The disciplines of gardening are helpfully codified, and it is only in their observance that the garden and the gardeners are enabled to make their seasonal contribution to life’s story, and keep intact the handing on of the past to the future.

If we take the position, as some do, that codification of the testimonies is a kind of apostasy, and all that is needed is a determined adherence to the “will of God,” as exemplified by early Friends, we not only discount all the learning of Friends since that time, but run the risk of atavistically embracing a particular stage of theological development. Our forebears were brilliant in the way they, and the whole radical reformation, broke out of a developmentally stifling religious culture. But development did not stop with that liberation. Spiritual learning rolled right on with various fits and starts, peaks and valleys, tragedy and further enlightenment. The codification of Quaker testimonies is clearly one of those peaks. This is widely recognized and appreciated beyond the Religious Society of Friends. It seems passing strange that the authenticity of this achievement should now come in for denial among some contemporary Friends.

In the same way, the rejection of “Quakerism” as a valid designation ignores the fact that there has always been something more among and around Quakers than a membership organization called the Religious Society of Friends. I can understand why Friends who are drawn to the “church” model of religious association would wish to shed “Quakerism,” but luckily, in my opinion, such wishing will not make it happen. Quakerism as a practice of attentive listening and collective discernment, and as a right relationship way of life, is a deep and broadly flowing movement within the general culture of human betterment. This is why there are frequent instances of people who suddenly feel at home among Friends and say, “I guess I have been a Quaker all along.”

In this respect Quakerism is like Buddhism: the cohort of practitioners is much wider than the sangha (core group). The aura of Quakerism is a historical reality. It is a real achievement of the tradition. This is what we are referring to when we note that Quakerism has had a history of influence in the world way out of proportion to its numbers. Quaker testimonies, both in the power of their generalized expression and in personal lived witness, have been on the frontline of this influence. Would we want it any other way?

Keith Helmuth is a member of New Brunswick Monthly Meeting (Canada) and a contributing author to Right Relationship: Building a Whole Earth Economy.

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