A Convergent Model of Renewal: Remixing the Quaker Tradition in a Participatory Culture

514vMYIyQaL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By C. Wess Daniels. Pickwick Publications, 2015. 223 pages. $27/paperback; $9.99/eBook.

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Quakerism, most agree, is in need of renewal. There are many possible paths to this goal, however. C. Wess Daniels in this book works to construct and argue for a model of Quakerism that draws from recent thinking about community and culture. This is programmatic theology, written by an evangelical participant in the movement called “Convergent Quakerism,” to which many reading this review will feel some affinity.

Moreover, it is an essay in “contextual theology,” and Daniels says, “Quakers have done little to recognize or engage contextual theology today.” What is contextual theology? I quote here from a blog called theo|digital (theodigital.com):

One common definition of theology is simply, “faith seeking understanding.” . . . [O]ne thing that strikes us if we start to read theological literature is that it can sound very different depending on when and where it was written. . . . Because the settings change, the questions change. And because the questions change, our theology changes. . . . [T]he theological answers we come up with today might be helpful for us, yet possibly don’t answer the questions for all time.

This is not a new realization; in the sixteenth century, Erasmus was making the same point about the growth of doctrine from the Patristic Age to his own modern times. It does not seem to me that Friends have neglected this understanding. Indeed, some areas of Quakerdom have embraced contextual theology to such an extent that even hallowed statements like the peace testimony (“The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it,” from George Fox’s 1661 declaration) represent a theology no longer understood. A reasonable approach for a community trying to think about its renewal, however, is to consider carefully its context, and design a response to meet the times. This Daniels seeks to do, with reference to a “missiological” perspective, in which the witnessing church undertakes a necessary, if risky, dialogue with the culture and the times.

Daniels sees tradition as necessary for renewal. Here he draws on the theories of Alasdair MacIntyre, who sees tradition as a narrative which helps people articulate and understand their own stories. Traditions do this by means of what Daniels calls “embodied community,” though I could not help feeling that his argument would be more compelling and natural if he spoke of community as embodied tradition. In any case, the community is the medium through which values (“virtues” in his parlance) are negotiated and translated into community life.

Community practices are essential tools for both expressing and propagating these community norms. Community also has resources for identifying and resolving differences of understanding—provided a shared value is unity, I would add. Tradition has been used repeatedly in Quaker history as a resource for the renewal or transformation of our self-understanding; Daniels makes brief references to the work of Rufus Jones, in one context, and Everett Cattell, in quite a different one, as examples of this use of tradition as resource. His analysis might have been more compelling if he had explored these examples in more detail, but the interested reader can find plenty of relevant debate in places like Quaker Religious Thought (the publication of the Quaker Theological Discussion Group), or Quaker Theology (quakertheology.org).

The final resource that Daniels sees for renewal is the “participatory culture” we now find ourselves in. Here, he draws on a line of thinking rooted in studies of contemporary mass culture. In this way of thinking, something new and powerful has emerged within the web-haunted world, as people become no longer just consumers of culture, but contributors to it. Many voices, many intelligences, many perspectives can then be heard, with great potential for community building, “remixing,” collaborative problem solving, and rapid (dare I say nimble?) responses to context and opportunity. This is a line of thinking that I encounter every day in education policy documents, blogs, and conferences. Questions can be raised about the claims of the “new,” and the potential of it, but there is no doubt that the contemporary culture thinks in terms of networks and media, and we are likely to think of ourselves as embedded in such webs.

Daniels then tests his model by analyzing the creative period of early Quakers; this application seemed something of a stretch. However, he then applies it to an experiment in Convergent Quakerism: the Freedom Friends Church in Salem, Ore. Here we see his model in action, and the account is made more vivid because he draws on evidence about the design intentions of the founding members, who definitely seem to have searched, under the guidance of the Spirit, for practices or structures with potential to forward the prophetic, servant community they were led to realize.

They have experimented with a range of modes of worship, settling on a “lightly pastoral” model in which leadership in worship, as in other matters, is broadly shared, and participation is seen as a path of growth. Stories of people’s spiritual paths, including their “convincement narratives,” are regularly shared as evidence of God’s work in individual lives. The meeting is seen as a vessel for healing, and this is part of its welcome to newcomers: “From holding ‘healing circles’ to supporting one another in recovery and sitting with those at risk for suicide, they embody the healing ministry of Jesus . . . there are people in this meeting who might literally be dead if it were not for this meeting.” The open engagement with each other’s lives is itself a spiritual training ground, and a window into the Holy Spirit as it can work powerfully every day.

This book is not for everyone. It must be said that the style is very academic, reflecting the book’s origin as Daniels’s dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, and its concern for theory building of a kind now mainstream in social sciences. In theology, I tend to prefer it when authors express themselves less in terms of other people’s ideas, but Daniels’s approach will be stimulating and challenging to some readers, especially those who are seeking to think through their own models of renewal.

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