Seeds of Silence: Essays in Quaker Spirituality and Philosophical Theology

By R. Melvin Keiser. Christian Alternative Books, 2021. 320 pages. $22.95/paperback; $11.99/eBook.

I was delighted when I was asked to review this book, as I felt I personally needed to refresh my own commitment to the Quaker path. I felt the book came at the right time. The subtitle, however, gave me pause; after all, “philosophical theology” is not a phrase that quickens the heart of many Friends. Then I read some of the recommendations for the book. I was told that the book was accessible and would become a classic. So reading the book was like undertaking a recommended but challenging journey. But then I found that the route taken by this guide was by no means straightforward: it was a whole series of paths. Seeds of Silence is a collection of essays, talks, and papers describing Quaker spirituality as an inward journey through silence into a relationship with the Divine. The journey is not to be defined but to be experienced and then expressed by metaphors that arise out of the lived experience itself. As a series of essays written at different times and talks given in different places but on related themes, there are overlapping passages and repeated references. I kept wondering whether there was an inherent order to the essays, and not being able to discover what the order was, I was rather nonplused at times. I did not find the text completely accessible: some sentences I had to read three times before beginning to understand them.

And yet, this book is a treasure trove. I kept underlining phrases and whole passages that I found extremely illuminating. Keiser begins: “I have been seeking throughout my life to make sense of my and our existence in this world of ours.” To which I can only respond “amen.” This exploration of spirituality and philosophical theology is no mere academic pursuit but an attempt to find depth and meaning. It is an investigation into how we might have life and life in abundance. Time and time again, Keiser quotes George Fox (and Mary and Isaac Penington and Robert Barclay) in their insistence on a deep encounter with the Divine, not through an exercise of reason but from an existential relationship, an allowing oneself to be touched by, to feel, and to taste the Spirit. He talks of the metaphoric matrix of Quakerism, words being bearers of divine reality, expressing, in Fox’s words, “the hidden unity in the Eternal Being.” He uses the term “theopoetic” to describe this creative speaking of the language of encounter. He emphasizes the particular Quaker use of the words “truth” and “life”: “Reality is known through the feel of it in the depths of inwardness.” Truth is about authenticity of experience, as opposed to much conventional theology, which he sees as an external, rational enterprise that attempts to mirror scientific truth. In this he considers Robert Barclay’s and René Descartes’s use of doubt—contrasting faith with philosophical certainty—to exculpate Barclay from certain Quaker criticisms about the influence of systematic theology on his writings. Barclay himself stresses his coming to Friends through worship, not through argument.

Out of this encounter in silence, claims Keiser, emerge words and actions. Quaker theology is “philosophical,” “historical,” and “socially transformative.” He criticizes Liberal Friends as somehow avoiding the conversation about the spiritual roots of social action. Likewise, he worries that Evangelical Friends may sometimes have lost the socially transformative consequences of their faith. For some the language of religion is metaphorical and expansive; for others it is restrictive and literal. His explorations of the metaphorical nature of the word “Christ” would be a challenge both to the increasing number of non-Christians among Friends and to the Evangelicals who might take a more literal, historical approach.

There is much else in this book I could recommend, but what stood out for me was the passage in the middle of the book (and which I would have wanted to be near the beginning) on meeting for worship. Whether this book will be a classic or not, I do not know, but this passage on worship might well end up in the faith and practice of several yearly meetings. It contains the following words:

While our modern culture treats silence as a vacuum, an emptiness, the absence of sound, Friends experience it as a fullness: a richness of inchoate tacit connectedness with reality (natural, human, and divine) and a well of potentiality—of insight and action, and of new ways to relate to self, world, and God.

The journey into this collection was not always easy but well worth taking.

Harvey Gillman was for 18 years outreach secretary for Britain Yearly Meeting. He has written on the Quaker movement, spirituality, mysticism, and language, and led workshops and spoken widely on these themes. His latest work is Epiphanies: Poems of Liberation, Exile, and Confinement.

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