Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics

51xT3g+JGoL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_By Rachel Muers. SCM Press, 2015. 192 pages. $56/paperback or eBook.

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Testimony is an exploration of the source, character, and implications of Quaker testimony by a Friend engaged in ecumenical dialogue with theologians from a wide spectrum of Christian traditions. It is not a survey of the varieties of testimony that have been recognized by Friends as representative of their many leadings, though refusal of oaths, rejection of violence, marriage, and environmental concerns are given attention in the course of the development of more fundamental themes. Rachel Muers writes with more than one audience in mind: her partners in ecumenical dialogue, her academic colleagues in theological ethics, and her fellow Quakers. She employs a writing style readily accessible to all three audiences, and takes care to address questions each audience might have.

Many theologians find Friends puzzling. We don’t fit nicely into the usual theological categories, though we share kinship with many. The way we read the Bible seems idiosyncratic. Our theology appears rather vague and weak, hard to place. This book is designed to unsettle the ground which gives rise to expectations that confuse our dialogue partners and often ourselves. Her hope, and mine, is that this approach will open space for more meaningful dialogue and more careful listening—all around.

In what follows, I offer glimpses of some of the threads that run through the book and both tie it together and demonstrate the author’s thesis that Quaker testimony is fundamental for Friends, however strong our tendency to focus on its manifestation in various “testimonies.”

The author explains how Quakers sought guidance in interpreting the Bible from the Holy Spirit rather than from tradition and/or textual analysis and that they consequently un-settled settled communities of biblical interpretation. She sees the function of Quaker testimony to be “speaking and doing God’s truth.” She understands William Penn’s call for “primitive Christianity revived” to be a summons to “new or restored life—in the Spirit from which the apostolic church lived.”

She argues that Quaker testimony, in word and deed, is prophetic. It is no accident that Quaker testimony appears to be negative (refusal of oaths, commitment to nonviolence, rejection of class-based honors, and so on). One of the threads running through the book is the importance within Quaker testimony of the emphasis on denial, refusal, and/or rejection of systemic privilege of some groups over others. In the case of both oaths and the refusal to engage in combat, the practices preceded the explanations, and this pattern has continued. Friends have felt a stop and acted upon it, often without being sure why it was, exactly, that a practice was so objectionable, let alone being able to offer a positive substitute that would serve the function that the customary practice served. The point, after all, was not to save the system by supplying a replacement for oaths or war, slavery or class. Neither was it to offer a fully worked out alternative to the system, but to live faithfully, guided by the Light/Christ/the Seed.

Because the Spirit works with us in our particular context rather than on the level of abstract principle, the open-endedness of the double negative of Quaker testimony is a virtue rather than a weakness. Muers uses her notion of the double negative to characterize testimony that denies, rejects, or refuses practices and/or understandings that are themselves untrue to life in the Spirit. Denial of an untruth (a double negative) is not the same thing as affirming a particular truth. It would be a great error to pre-judge what the Spirit might lead us to do in the future to address a systemic departure from the more abundant life toward which the Light draws us.

Testimony as Friends have understood it, Muers argues, is experimental in the old sense of arising from experience and in the more familiar sense of a risky endeavor whose outcomes are not fully known. It is risky in multiple ways, as the lives of Mary Dyer and James Nayler show. The book includes interesting discussions of both. We forget the experimental character of testimony at our peril, for if we transform testimony into rigid code (as was done, arguably, regarding plain dress), we lose the creative and unsettling character of prophetic testimony. It becomes a peculiarity without prophetic force.

I celebrated particularly her resurrection of “speaking truth to power” as it was developed in the 1955 American Friends Service Committee pamphlet of that name, and her linking it with “answering that of God in everyone.” Both expressions are so familiar to Friends that we tend to forget what they originally meant, if indeed we ever knew. Muers illuminates both expressions in connecting them and ties both, implicitly, to Nayler’s testimony regarding the Spirit that “takes its kingdom with entreaty, not with contention.”

Readers of Friends Journal should take note of the introduction, wherein Muers acknowledges our diversity—including diversity of worship practices. She writes out of her own experience in Britain Yearly Meeting, and so of unprogrammed waiting worship. Similarly, she acknowledges the great theological diversity among Friends, but speaks out of her own experience as a Christian. These and other cautions are an important part of her message: we need to be open in our dialogues with one another about background considerations that shape our perspectives, and not pretend that our insights and understandings are unaffected by our own experiences.

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