Quakers Reading Mystics

By Michael Birkel. Brill, 2018. 124 pages. $81/paperback or eBook; $30/article. Simultaneously published as issue 1.2 (2018) of Quaker Studies.

The relationship of Quakerism to mysticism is a vexing question. The sense is certainly widespread that Quakerism is a kind of mysticism, and as such reaches to a level of reality in which doctrines and denominations lose their importance. Contemplatives share the same experience. The view of Quakerism as mysticism has been felt as liberating, as it enables a universal connection among all who seek and find the Ineffable One.

Yet many historians and theologians have rejected this genealogy, debating the definition of mysticism or bringing other historical evidence to bear on the origins of Quakerism. The debate goes on, but Michael Birkel’s little study lets you step aside from the battle of the books and learn much about the relation of Friends to mystics.

It is undeniably true that from the beginning of the movement, many Friends have found comfort, instruction, and spiritual companionship in the writings of non-Quaker mystics. This fact of personal experience is Birkel’s field of exploration. He describes several documented or possible pairings of a Quaker and a mystic, and reflects on how the Friends might have received and valued them. Because this is fundamentally about spiritual reading (a deeply personal experience that may or may not be traceable in the documentary record), the task Birkel has set himself—he calls it “an experiment in reading and reception”—has required “an informed and disciplined imagination,” and this makes it a delightful and challenging encounter with Birkel himself as well as the authors he discusses.

Birkel is a seasoned explorer of kinships and connections across theological boundaries; his recent studies have examined the influence of Kabbalah on early Friends, the similarities and differences between George Fox and Augustine of Hippo, the world of Jacob Boehme, and conversations about reading the Qur’an. He exhibits both a tenderness of spirit and a sharp critical mind as well as a very broad acquaintance with contemplative spiritualities, Quaker and otherwise.

The pairings Birkel has chosen are: Robert Barclay and John Cassian; Sarah Lynes Grubb and Madame Jeanne Guyon; Caroline Stephen and Johannes Tauler; Rufus Jones and Jacob Boehme; and Teresina Havens and Buddhist mysticism. In each case, we are given a brief biography and character sketch of the Quaker, and a parallel introduction to the non-Quaker mystic. Birkel explains the link between the two, and then analyzes and reflects upon what the Quaker saw (or may have seen) in the non-Quaker. The evidence for the Barclay–Cassian and Stephen–Tauler pairings is tenuous; each Quaker had the opportunity to read “their” mystic, and Birkel discerns resonances of word and idea that invite investigation but cannot ascertain the connection. The Quietist minister Sarah Lynes Grubb several times refers to Guyon’s writings, translated by Quakers into English (and kept in print by Friends down to our own times). Grubb understood from her own experience Guyon’s teachings about self-renunciation and living under the Cross, as well as Guyon’s example as another fearless woman in ministry.

Rufus Jones’s nuanced reading of Boehme is abundantly documented, and Birkel explores how he responded warmly to Boehme’s intense and untutored expression of inward experience, even as he brought his psychological and historical learning to bear in pointing out Boehme’s limitations as a spiritual guide.

Finally, Birkel studies Teresina Rowell Havens as Quaker and Buddhist, and her “unrelenting insistence that dialogue across religions not blur their differences in some vague concoction. . . . [She] treasured those differences and saw the honest recognition of them as a part of how religions can enrich one another.”

Birkel is alert to ways in which the Quaker reader construed, or even “Quakerized” the chosen mystic. On the one hand, there is Jones’s deep engagement with the baroque worldview of Boehme—we see Boehme as a “proto-Quaker”; of Boehme as “Rufite,” when Rufus seems to see in Boehme’s writings some of his own understanding and encounters with mystical experience. Then there is Boehme the liberal Protestant, and George Fox the Boehmenite. By contrast, Teresina Havens was very aware of the dangers of too-easy bridge-building between traditions; Birkel’s account of her Buddhist and Quaker Experiments with Truth shows how Havens lifts up places where the two traditions may have something to say to each other, yet resists the temptation to oversimplify or make facile connections.

Birkel’s words set the terms of the conversation:

It required a remarkable degree of spiritual hospitality for each of these Quaker writers to entertain the thought world of each of these non-Quaker writers. Even though the former ultimately felt a powerful affinity and even spiritual kinship with the innermost experiences of the latter, those experiences are related within a context of ritual and symbol that were quite foreign for a Quaker reader. It is in that spirit of hospitality that this work is written, and the reader is invited to consider the same.

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