Friends and the Understanding of Reason and Equality

[That] man, as he is a rational creature, hath reason as a natural faculty of his soul, by which he can discern things that are rational, we deny not; for this is a property natural and essential to him, by which he can know and learn many arts and sciences, beyond what any other animal can do by the mere animal principle. Neither do we deny but by this rational principle man may apprehend in his brain, and in the notion, a knowledge of God and spiritual things; yet that not being the right organ, it cannot profit him towards salvation, but rather hindereth; and indeed the great cause of the apostasy hath been, that man hath sought to fathom the things of God in and by this natural and rational principle, and to build up a religion in it, neglecting and overlooking this principle and the seed of God in the heart; so that herein, in the most universal and catholick sense, hath Anti-Christ in every man set up himself.

Robert Barclay, Apology for the True Christian Divinity, 1676

We are just emerging from a period in which the rationalism of the Enlightenment dominated Anglo-U.S. academic and popular culture, a period that began in the 18th century and greatly influenced the founding documents of the United States. The Enlightenment had an inflated view of reason—so much so that the word was often written "Reason." Indeed, "Reason" largely replaced "God" in the vocabulary of Enlightenment rationalism.

Quaker theologian Robert Barclay (1648-1690) presciently argued against the destructive effect that overconfidence in reason could have on faith. Enlightenment rationalists assumed that Reason itself could, among other things, tell us what ethics is all about. They disagreed, however, about whether Reason told us that ethics is about restricting one’s actions in return for others similarly restricting theirs (Thomas Hobbes and contractarians), doing one’s duty (Immanuel Kant and deontologists), or achieving the greatest good for the greatest number (John Stewart Mill and utilitarians). Now we are entering a period marked by an increasing preoccupation with power (in the sense of dominance, rather than capability) and the trendiness of brain science. Together these tendencies create an enthusiasm for techniques used to influence emotions—whether to sell soap or political positions—that threaten respect for rational argument and deemphasize critical thinking in higher education.

What guidance does Friends thought offer Quakers and especially Quaker educators and institutions in these confusing times? The situation is worsened by the propensity of U.S. Quakers to confuse Quaker thought with the Enlightenment assumptions of Thomas Jefferson, especially ideas in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Most people in the United States learn these doctrines as schoolchildren and then treat them as common sense. This propensity explains the tendency of U.S. Quakers to list "equality" as a one-word abbreviation for a Friends testimony. As Friend Lloyd Lee Wilson reminds us in The Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, testimonies are the outward evidence of a transformed life, not fundamental principles or doctrines, but even he represents Friends as committed to "equality." Webster’s dictionaries define "equal" as "the same measure, quantity, or number as another."

Other popular one-word abbreviations for Friends’ testimonies make similarly misleading compromises with popular culture. For example, "simplicity," unlike its predecessor term "plainness," is readily misconstrued as the technological or economic value akin to efficiency—but that is a topic for another article.

Among modern U.S. Friends, the term "equality" is most often used to refer to the witness that the Light of Christ exists in everyone and that each person can heed it. One set of Friends First-day school curricular materials suggests, however, that "equality" designates Fox’s leading and practice (adopted by other 17th-century Friends) to refrain from paying "hat honor" or using titles. Although the tipping of hats has fallen out of style in the larger society, and it is not clear whether Quakers avoid using titles these days, early Friends did reject social hierarchies as inconsistent with Gospel Order.

Rejection of hierarchy need not, however, drive us to regard all people as the same. Rather than either hierarchy or equality, we might again recognize a diversity of gifts as were recognized in the practices of both original Friends and those of the Quietist period. The terms "equal" and "equality" (like other Enlightenment notions) are notably absent from the writings of early Friends. "Equal" and "equality" occur occasionally in the King James or "authorized" version of the Bible, but primarily in denial that any are equal to God; nowhere does the Bible state that people are equal to one another.

In "Woman Learning in Silence" (1657), George Fox does say, "For the Light is the same in the male and in the female." Fox would have had clearly in mind Paul’s emphasis (in his first letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12) on "one and the selfsame Spirit" that is manifest in a diversity of gifts. Furthermore, as the famous abolitionist and sometime Quaker Angelina Grimké (1805-1879), noted, Friends (in her day) regardless of their claims about people’s spiritual endowment, made no claim to political and social equality for any women.

Furthermore, early Friends explicitly recognized that people differed in the "measure" of the Light in each.

Except where it means equality before the law (and so has force in decisions about Constitutionality), equality in the U.S. today functions primarily as an ideal of social equality to which lip service is given. As the 2008 documentary film Bigger, Stronger, Faster by Christopher Bell, about the use of anabolic steroids, tellingly argues, a key value in contemporary competitive U.S. culture is to avoid being a loser. The myth of "equality" contradicts that value but leaves the assumptions of competition unchallenged. Gospel Order rejects the win-lose model and shows us our part in the abundant life.

Hierarchal assumptions are evident in many community meetings in the prejudices displayed toward others who disagree with members’ political positions. It also works within Quaker meetings, understood as social organizations in the identification of some members as "owners" and ultimate authorities in those meetings. Within a faithful meeting (in which God is the ultimate authority), recognizing the diversity of gifts is the basis for a reasonable division of labor that need not lead to hierarchy any more than it does in a functional family.

In my assessment, Friends today, especially in FGC-affiliated meetings, often follow secular society in focusing on politics and political power to the neglect of Truth. Even within our meetings, we often accept methods of manipulation to achieve goals of our own choosing, ignoring the fact that manipulation is no more able than violence to answer that of God in others. I do not argue against the importance of recognizing what, following Eleanor Roosevelt, we now call "human rights," especially the liberty of conscience/freedom of religion for which Penn so consistently argued. I argue only that we need not displace our spiritual concerns with secular political ones.

In the chart below, in summary, is the contrast I see between the practices, goals, and expectations we receive from original Friends and those of contemporary secular, individualist culture.

Original Friends Contemporary Secular Culture
Testimonies (fruits of the Spirit) Abstract principles
Freedom from self Freedom from domination by others
Discernment of God’s will What reason "dictates"
Living in the presence; holiness Attaining power/position
Gifts/talents are for the community Gifts/talents give the individual a competitive advantage, and, therefore, they occasion envy
Coming to Unity in the Spirit Taking a vote or coming to consensus
(the operation of group politics)
Answering that of God in others Respecting others’ "dignity" (that is, don’t interfere with them)

Friends’ commitment to Truth could lead us safely between the Scylla of the overconfidence in Reason and the Charybdis of unreasonable manipulation and emotionalism and guide us to a reasonable embrace of diversity.

The theme of the 2010 Friends General Conference Gathering in Bowling Green, Ohio, was "Accepting Gifts of the Spirit." As Maggie Edmonson, leader of the Bible half hours at the Gathering, explained on the subject of spiritual gifts, the gifts of the Spirit we are challenged to accept are not all the same, but jointly would make us a more faithful body able to live the abundant life.

In the introductory quotation for this article, Barclay maintained that reason has a place in helping us to learn "many arts and sciences," but when we use it to build up speculative doctrines or construct creeds, we only set up false gods. Subsequent generations of Quakers spoke of "the Reasoner," who is often manifest in our quibbling with God, as another term for Satan. Barclay called the professing Christians who did so "apostates." Given the original Friends view that other Christian bodies were espousing a corrupt version of Christianity, it may not be surprising that not only Anglicans and Roman Catholics but even dissenters such as Baptists were often eager to abuse Quakers or throw them into prison.

Despite the lifelong emphasis of Quaker preacher Elias Hicks (1748- 1830) on the experience of the indwelling Light of Christ, he is often accused of having conceded too much (in his later years, after 1820) to rationalism, because he wrote that, along with testing "by the light of our own consciences," another test for Truth must be "the reasons of things." George Fox also sometimes wrote as though conscience were the Light of Christ. Barclay diagnosed the role of culture in the formation of conscience, however, and distinguished it from the Light. To illustrate his point, Barclay gives an example of a "Turk" who would feel guilty about drinking any alcohol, but not about having multiple wives or concubines; it is not evident, however, that in testing for reasonableness Hicks went much beyond Barclay. Careful reasoning is necessary for any argument, and Hicks’ test may guard against intellectual laziness. Recommending a test for reasonableness does not begin to approach the inflated view of reason found in the U.S. Declaration of Independence to the effect that it renders certain truths "self-evident."

In his sermons, Hicks did not content himself with disavowing theological doctrines, such as the Trinity, that the institutional Church constructed after the period of "primitive Christianity," and that early Friends sought to emulate. In contrast to Barclay, Hicks sought to reason about the Divine in his arguments against theological doctrines, and made use of the metaphysics of his culture and time to do so. In this way he illustrates the inevitable flaw in theological/ atheological arguments: They tell us about the arguer’s social context rather than about the Divine.

I think Barclay has it exactly right about the scope and limits of reason. Reason properly helps us to learn how to do much, including construct logical arguments, as the original Friends regularly did. Nonetheless, reason should be recognized as a merely human faculty that cannot reveal the Divine.

One of the distinctive characteristics in previous times of Friends child-rearing practices was reasoning with children about their behavior. Giving reasons is a hallmark of respectful persuasion, as contrasted with manipulations and other forms of coercion.

I recommend that we be suspicious of the rationalist assumption that equality of persons and the like are self-evident, but equally cautious of mindless tolerance—the uncritical acceptance of a whole range of notions just to show acceptance of the person who puts them forward.

Friends are committed to veracity and plain speaking. To discover and speak the truth about the things of ordinary human concern does require the exercise of reason. For example, we seek well-reasoned diagnoses of our own and loved ones’ illnesses, car trouble, crop failure, or plumbing leaks. Modern secular culture often cedes such decisions to professional experts, but it takes hardheaded reasoning to know when we need a professional expert and which sort of expert to consult.

"Critical reasoning" gets considerable lip service, although in my experience, the general application of critical reasoning is all too rare—even among scholars of institutions of higher education. I think we often settle for taking sides in the culture wars instead of modeling the ability to deal with intellectual and moral complexity and thinking through moral responsibilities.

We Friends would do well to sharpen our reasoning skills to help us reflect on the assumptions of our culture. We need to be prepared for a lifetime of discernment and the "abundant life" in a deepening relationship with God. I remain hopeful that Friends will step up to that calling and not settle either for reinforcing the assumptions of secular culture or for jettisoning critical reasoning.

Caroline Whitbeck

Caroline Whitbeck, a member of Northampton (Mass.) Meeting, was trained as an analytical philosopher and is a professor emerita of Ethics at Case Western Reserve University.