On Authority, A New Apologia

For 350 years, Friends have struggled more than most religious denominations with the issue of authority. Without a rule-giving priesthood and with unregimented degrees of allegiance to Scripture as well as testimonies that are offered rather than mandated, Friends don’t have a unified worldview.

Friends have found some enduring definitional authority in Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity, first published in 1676. He wonderfully explained many of the practices of Quakerism: refusal to take oaths, rejection of baptism, ministry of all Friends, and avoidance of “vain customs and habits.” He also honored Scripture, but in his Theses Theologicae, he wrote of a role for Scripture that was disturbing to the religious establishment of the time: “[The Scriptures] are only a declaration of the fountain and not the fountain itself, [and] therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge … [but] … may be esteemed a secondary rule, subordinate to the Spirit.”

The Quaker separations of the 1820s were ultimately about the source of authority for Friends: the Orthodox side held that Scripture was the true source of authority; the Hicksites agreed with their namesake Elias Hicks that “man is enabled to attribute to God his due only from sensible and self-evident experience” and that “the effect produced by the book called the Scriptures appears, from a comparative view, to have been the cause of fourfold more harm than good to Christendom.”

This ferment within the Religious Society of Friends was part of the larger revolution that today we call the Enlightenment, which held up reason and experience as a source of knowledge and—more importantly—a source of morality. Hicks’s message about “sensible and self-evident experience” echoed sentiments that gathered followers, strength, and endurance during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

When I first encountered Friends testimonies forty years ago, they felt familiar. That’s not surprising, because I’m a child of the Enlightenment, and the testimonies are in many ways statements of important Enlightenment principles put into a religious verbiage: the value and worth of the individual, the equality of all people, the value of cooperation and community, and—in the words of Immanuel Kant—the freedom to use one’s own intelligence.

But familiarity and comfort with the principles of the Enlightenment, and their Quaker manifestation in our testimonies, still leaves me unsatisfied. If I reject biblical authority, then why should I grant the words of Immanuel Kant any more credibility? I want my ethical and moral life to be based on something more than either the opinions of others, or ancient stories.

Please don’t think me a cynic who rejects anyone’s insights but my own. I take inspiration from many sources: Voltaire, Henry Cadbury, John Rawls, Woody Guthrie, and Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy, to name a very few. I am inspired but not commanded by these exemplars. I use some of their teachings, tweak and change a few, and simply reject others. I unite with the suggestion of my favorite teacher Walt Whitman, who urges us to “re-examine all you have been told at church or school or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” I’m unable and unwilling to build an enduring moral system on the opinions of others; I need more.

This issue is much more than a philosopher’s academic thought game. It is important, at least to me, to understand the ultimate source of moral codes, and to understand whether this source somehow transcends individual or cultural expectations. This is an ancient topic that has challenged philosophers for centuries. Plato tells of a discussion between Socrates and Euthyphro, a Greek nobleman. When Euthyphro argues that the gods determine what is holy, Socrates wonders if the gods’ assertion is all that is needed to define something as holy, or if the gods approve of something because it is otherwise holy. Either way we still don’t know why something is holy.

This is the heart of my dilemma: I want to know why something is holy. To use a more contemporary vernacular, I want to know why an action or mindset is moral, decent, or rightly ordered. If Socrates was unsure of this, well, so am I. It would serve all of us, I believe, to find an authoritative and universal grounding for our testimonies. This search for authority has led me to consider what I might glean from the insights offered by modern scientific inquiry.

As science emerged from philosophy and theology to become a discrete set of disciplines, a new way of knowledge based in science became, and has continued to be, a pivotal leitmotif in our culture. Many of the culture wars that afflict us today are, in one form or another, a legacy of the emergence of science as a counterpoint to faith as a way of knowledge.

But what, if anything, can science tell us about morality? David Hume’s thoughts about this have become a touchstone, commonly known as Hume’s Law; it posits that moral conclusions cannot be derived from factual premises, i.e., an “is” cannot lead to an “ought.”

There does seem to be at least one universal moral proposition, though, and maybe it can overturn—or least challenge—the absolute intent of Hume’s Law. It is a commonplace that every culture has some version of the ethic of reciprocity. Christians know it as the Golden Rule, from Matthew 7:1; Confucius taught that one should “Never impose on people what you would not choose for yourself”; in Egypt’s Middle Kingdom the guideline was “Do to the doer to cause that he do thus to you.” I find the elegance and simplicity of Rabbi Hillel’s message to be particularly moving: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; this is the whole Torah; all the rest is commentary.”

Why should I believe that the Law of Reciprocity is any more authoritative than any other moral guideline? I have found some hints about this in the field of game theory, which is the study of strategic decision making. One aspect of game theory studies the outcomes of cooperation and noncooperation, and has clearly demonstrated that the greatest benefit to all players comes from cooperation; it is the best way to survive and thrive. In essence, we all do better when we cooperate with each other; conversely, efforts to dominate and control prove to be less enduring and less useful than cooperative approaches.

In the past 150 years, evolutionary theory has become the linchpin of our understanding of our origins and nature, both physical and psychological. Just as our physical bodies have emerged from more primitive forms, our moral sense has also emerged as a way to survive and thrive. Charles Darwin recognized this when he wrote in The Descent of Man:

Each man would soon learn that if he aided his fellow-men, he would commonly receive aid in return. From this low motive he might acquire the habit of aiding his fellows; and the habit of performing benevolent actions certainly strengthens the feeling of sympathy which gives the first impulse to benevolent actions. Habits, moreover, followed during many generations probably tend to be inherited.

Here at last is a basis for the ethic of reciprocity that has some authority for me, an authority based on reason and experience. It is something within us that seems to be the bedrock of the ethic of reciprocity, the principles of the Enlightenment, and Friends testimonies.

But we have also evolved to be selfish, aggressive, violent, and vengeful. It’s a survival mechanism, fully understandable when viewed through this evolutionary lens. Those who are outside our kinship system or our nest or our community might be seen as a threat, and evoke hostile responses. We’ve sometimes been able to move beyond crude and atavistic methods of aggression or defense, but it is in all of us. We’ve evolved that way, as inexorably as we’ve evolved to be empathic. I love Aldous Huxley’s challenge to live decently and overcome those primitive leadings toward vengeance and violence:

The choice is always ours. Then let me choose
The longest art, the hard Promethean way
Cherishingly to tend and feed and fan
That inward fire, whose small precarious flame,
Kindled or quenched creates
The noble or the ignoble men we are,
The worlds we live in and the very fates,
Our bright or muddy star.

So what does this have to do with my religious life? If our moral sense is a biological artifact, why affiliate with any religious group, and why the Religious Society of Friends? I believe that if Quakerism is to be relevant today and in the future, it must emphasize itself as a moral system that transcends theological divisions and encourages us all to define and live a universal morality. Our testimonies can be seen as useful codifications and commentaries of our most basic and profound moral essence, a template for rightly ordered living that has been growing in us for uncounted millennia.

One way to view this effort at rightly ordered living is to consider who we have included in our village, family, or nest. Friends can be proud of our long history of inviting others to be part of our community, and leading the wider society to extend these invitations more broadly: women, children, ethnic and racial minorities, those with differences of gender and sexual preference, non-Christians, pagans, universalists, nontheists; all have been invited into our village, our family, our nest. Our peace and social justice efforts have always had a universal quality, carried out for the most part without regard to politics, religion, or nationality. We can be proud of the ways that we’ve been guided by our testimonies; by extension we can be proud that our testimonies reflect the best part of our primeval evolutionary heritage and represent universal truths.

And as for my connection to Friends testimonies and practices, I know now why I unite with them. They are our own articulation of, and guidebook to, this ancient imperative of mutual love and support. They bind me to Quakerism and have helped me to be a better person.

Jacob Stone

Jacob Stone is a member of Doylestown (Pa.) Meeting.  He and his wife, Gretta, have been Friends in residence at Chena Ridge Meeting in Fairbanks, Alas., and were directors of the Ben Lomond Quaker Center in California. They are longtime Friends General Conference Couple Enrichment leaders, and are about to be Friends in residence at Pendle Hill in Wallingford, Pa.

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