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What Do Quakers Believe? AND Telling the Truth about God

What Do Quakers Believe? By Geoffrey Durham. Christian Alternative Books (Quaker Quicks), 2019. 88 pages. $10.95/paperback; $5.99/eBook.

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Telling the Truth about God. By Rhiannon Grant. Christian Alternative Books (Quaker Quicks), 2019. 88 pages. $10.95/paperback; $5.99/eBook.

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These two clearly and concisely written books are excellent aids for the “gateway” task facing Friends of a Liberal persuasion. This task is to provide a welcome into a spiritual community, a welcome that makes no demands or prerequisites. What Do Quakers Believe? is aimed at the casual inquirer. Durham begins by dismissing some common myths about Friends, then goes on to describe shared principles and convictions that build a way of life. Each chapter includes short summary statements in boldface, pithy and helpful, including basic beliefs, characteristics of unprogrammed meeting for worship, and Friends’ way of life. Durham carefully eschews Quaker jargon, so that testimonies are “action points” that Friends “attempt to put into practice every day.” These “keynotes of the Quaker way” are equality, truth, simplicity, peace, and sustainability.

Excellent as this is for introducing seekers to our Quaker ways, does it matter what might be left out? For example, is anything lost when the testimony to which our lives witness is described as an “action point”?

Durham nods to the Bible and other holy books used by individuals as seen fit, along with journals by George Fox and John Woolman. He names books of Faith and Practice as the “main sources of inspiration” for Friends, recommending that you should read the one written by and for your local region.

He describes how meetings for business function. He states that every term of service is three years, renewable once, regardless of how well one might do the job. Rotating nurtures the skills of everyone, he explains. This is an excellent process for a secular organization; do our meetings understand that the Spirit bestows gifts where she will and it behooves the meeting to find and enable them to be rightly used?

The final chapter quotes from eight contemporary Quakers, and this is the high point of the book. Each in their own way describes experiences of something within and beyond oneself that transforms. Durham concludes: “Quakers don’t believe what they like,” but rather they “believe what they must” as a result of their experience.

Telling the Truth about God by Rhiannon Grant is written to help meetings deal with the animosity and individualism that can result when there is no common language or theological understanding. Grant resists “any proposal that Quakers should put a theological boundary around our community,” even the gentlest suggestion that “one ought to … be open to or accept the possibility of this or that.” When each Friend rejects different words and their associated theologies, the community is prevented from degenerating into individualism only if it is “united in the practice of unprogrammed worship.” She does not describe what is going on in this practice of mostly silent sitting; she does not address: What is worship? What is the object of the worship? How does it unite us? Grant explains that, since we need words for “discussion groups, leaflet writing, and outreach,” there are ways to use them constructively. Words can help a meeting community appreciate rather than despise or fear the theological differences that so often exist. What seems to be missing from this list is that words are the way we communicate our own deep spiritual experiences with one another thereby creating a spiritual community—although this becomes a little clearer later.

Grant offers “three responses which seem to lead to positive outcomes.” The first suggestion is for each person to actively listen, especially when words for the Divine are used that you do not like. Acknowledge you are upset so that you can share your experience that led to this reaction. Consider carefully the context: are the words used in meeting for worship or a discussion? Is it the usual pattern for the speaker or a quotation? Then she suggests, “Active listening, and where appropriate speaking out using [y]our own preferred language, is a way to bring a balance to the community’s wider patterns of language use.”

Grant’s second suggestion has to do with telling—and hearing—stories. These include the larger Christian and Quaker stories as well as our personal stories. When we know the historical and cultural context of words and of the Friends who used and use them, it becomes possible to hear what they mean to the speaker, even when they do not carry those meanings for the listener.

The third suggestion is for the community to either invent new terms or repurpose old ones to fit meanings that need to be expressed. The result for British (and Friends General Conference) Friends has been to favor ambiguity so a word can hold a wide variety of meanings and thereby be acceptable to most Quakers. An example is taking the early Quaker use of “the Spirit,” “Holy Spirit,” “Spirit of Christ,” and so on to become lowercase “spirit,” which can be interpreted to mean almost anything the listener feels is acceptable.

For the many Liberal meetings struggling with covert or overt conflicts around language and the theologies those words are associated with, Grant’s book will be quite helpful. For those looking for simplified ways of describing what Liberal, unprogrammed Quakers are about, Durham’s book will be very useful. Together they offer good tools for accomplishing the “gateway” Quaker task.

There is more beyond the gateway—especially as we face drastic changes due to climate disruption and the political, economic, and social upheavals likely to result. When those who have come in through the gateway are ready, are sensing a hunger, a yearning for something more, Quakerism has a great deal to offer. The example of early Friends beckons us. They understood the necessity of obedience to the loving guidance that they experienced as the Light/God/Inward Teacher/Christ Within. We are called to surrender—not to conform to the dominant culture but to be transformed by the renewal of our minds—so that we may discern and follow God’s will (Romans 12:2).

For a single meeting to both address the gateway and offer more requires a comfort with paradox and a willingness to embrace creative tension. It suggests an acceptance of the fact that all the words we choose to describe that which is within and beyond are metaphors—inadequate symbols to express the inexpressible. It is probably only possible when there is a great deal of love, patience, and forbearance among members of a meeting.

Marty Grundy, a member of Wellesley (Mass.) Meeting, has struggled to help Friends enlarge their vocabulary and remember that when each speaks the language of the heart, the burden of translation is on the hearer.

Posted in: March 2020 Book Reviews, Quaker Book Reviews, Unnamed Quaker Creeds

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