The White Rabbit of Quaker Theology

Detail from Arthur Rackham’s illustration for a 1907 edition of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. Via Wikimedia

I’m a theologian, having been trained in Christian theology. I’ve served as a minister in Christian churches, and have a doctorate in academic theology. I am also a convinced Quaker. These are just a few of the many elements which make up my theological “hermeneutic”: a fancy word which basically means my perspective, my context, my biases, and the ground which I am rooted in. This ground will inexorably shape how I view the world, and how I respond to the world I see and experience.

My training and my experience have confirmed two inescapable facts: (1) no human is freed from context, and (2) no human will ever be able to truly look “objectively” on any aspect of the world. We all come from somewhere, and will forever be shaped by those roots. In other words, we all have a “past,” and we will never be able to escape or deny our history.

This applies as much to communities as to individuals. Our communities, just as much as ourselves, will always bear the marks and scars of the contexts which have shaped them. This, of course, also applies to Quakerism. Everything I know, everything I have ever experienced, points to this ineluctable conclusion: Quakerism is Christian at its root. I am not saying that Quakerism is Christian; allow me to explain what I mean with two illustrations: one biographical, one enological.

Travels in Christianity

I still distinctly remember the heady mix of euphoria, fear—and a sneaking suspicion that I was betraying everything that was fundamentally important to me—which accompanied my first visit to an Episcopal church. I was 19, and as I made the trek across the campus of the University of Texas at Austin to the Episcopal Chaplaincy (or Canterbury, as it was known 20 years ago), I was filled to the brim with a sense of impending doom. I knew that once I’d crossed over to the Anglicans I’d never be fully Roman Catholic ever again, and I very well might lose the one constant home I’d ever known.

I wasn’t concerned with my everlasting soul and its fate. I was raised in a distinctly dual-denomination household; while my father, my brother, and myself were all firmly in the warm bosom of the Roman Catholicism and its sacraments, my mother was a devout United Methodist. We attended both churches on a regular basis, pinballing back and forth between congregations on Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, and…well, whenever anything was happening at either congregation. When I say that I grew up in the church, I’m not being metaphorical: my family was at some church building in some capacity most days of the week and most of the weekend. When my father’s job moved us yet again, we’d immediately locate two church buildings to settle into, at times finding our church home before we found an actual house to live in. My theology as a child was a bizarre mix of Roman Catholic liturgy and United Methodist social justice. I was a committed altar boy who never failed to ask the priests every Sunday why girls couldn’t serve on the altar as well. I saw no reason why I couldn’t hold both traditions in a rather productive tension, and I often “corrected” Roman Catholic theology with some Wesleyan insight.

Despite my obvious debt to the Protestant Reformation, however, I felt bound to Roman Catholicism as I entered young adulthood and when I could, conceivably, have made whatever choice about my denominational affiliation that struck my fancy. When my rather-disappointed mother asked why I attended the Roman Catholic chaplaincy as opposed to the United Methodist one, she betrayed her secret hope that she had been sowing seeds of doubt which would come to full fruit in the rich soil of college life. In a sense, her efforts were quite successful, yet in a rather unexpected way. I had been unable to let Methodism go, yet neither could I ignore the fact that I was marked, forever, by Roman Catholicism. I belonged to both and could no more leave one than leave the other.

In an ironically Anglican move, I compromised: I found a denomination with Protestant theology and Catholic liturgy, and for a time, I felt as if I was truly home. My fears that day in Canterbury were unfounded: my home wasn’t simply one denomination: it was the experience of belonging to a community who cared both for God and for me, whose care for one drove their care for the other. Therefore, when I found myself in a shockingly humorous echo the first time I visited a Quaker meeting several years later—filled to the brim again with doom and euphoria and a feeling of true belonging—I knew that I’d be ok.

This is narrative theology, where a person seeks to use narrative—whether personal or fictional—to relate some core truth about the Divine, through the actions of the Divine in the world and human response to those actions. It should be exceedingly familiar to Quakers, because it’s fundamental to both our theology and identity. Whenever we refer to the experience of Quakers, whether they be the early Friends, or even use our own experience to craft our ministry in meeting for worship, we are engaging in narrative theology.

Wine-Dark Theology

A dear friend of mine is a winemaker, and once tried to explain to me why wine is such a unique substance. He began with this blindingly obvious, yet still earth-shattering, statement: fundamentally, no matter how much meaning (and thus, price) anyone applies to wine, it is simply an agricultural product made out of a series of chemical interactions between grapes, water, yeast, and time. Anyone who leaves a bunch of grapes sitting in a closed vat for a long enough time can make wine. The process of fermentation, when left on its own, will work its own wonders without any complex tweaking. The grapes are inveterate sponges of their environment: they will take in every element of their surroundings, including the tiniest differences in climate, soil composition, or water quality. Basically, the grape will taste however it’s going to taste.

What separates fermenting grapes from the art of winemaking is the recognition on the part of the winemakers that their role is to make a series of seemingly minor choices seeking to influence the grape in both its growth and fermentation. The art of winemaking lies more with guiding the grape gradually and gently, in an effort to influence the grape to move closer to the winemaker’s vision.

This is metaphorical theology, where a person seeks to use metaphor—the device of winemaking—to relate some core truth about the Divine and explain the fundamentally inexplicable. This should also should be exceedingly familiar to Quakers. Since our first attempts to answer the question of “what canst thou say?,” Quakers have consistently turned to metaphors and have developed a lexicon from the agricultural and organic (Inner Seed), to the mystically Christian (Light of Christ), and even to universalist mystical language (Inner Light). The use of “Spirit” as a byword for Divine or even God, in certain quarters of Quakerism, follows this same process of creative theologizing. Yet, all of these terms stem from metaphorical language already present within the Judeo-Christian Scriptures themselves. Our continued dependence on metaphor in Quakerism is rooted at its core in Christianity and Christian hermeneutic, no matter where that language has moved to.

The Common Thread of Belonging

There is a common thread of “belonging” in the narratives of Friends. They generally include some iteration of this framework: “when I sat in worship/read the words of (insert weighty Friend here), I had an overpowering sense that I was home.” Some element of Quakerism snags onto something deep within. As they struggle to make sense of it—the more that the threads knitted together into the sweater of their personhood come undone—they find themselves free and shivering in the bracing wind of the realization that they cannot avoid: they are Quaker, at their root. The experience of engaging with the Light has transformed them fundamentally. They know that this is where they belong.

One never really ceases to “belong” to a former home, spiritual or otherwise. We always carry pieces of all of our homes along with us, even if those pieces are actually visceral rejections of a previous home.

Further Down the Rabbit Hole…

I find great value in the title of Damaris Parker-Rhodes’s 1977 Swarthmore Lecture, “Truth: A Path and Not a Possession.” The lecture is fabulous, of course, yet Parker-Rhodes achieves that most elusive thing for a writer: a title which both summarizes clearly and concisely the writing, while leaving space for curiosity to bloom. For Quakers, “truth” can never be possessed, in the sense that a person can never control the boundaries of what is “true.” Instead, we are all called to continuously seek truth. We are forever on a journey of discovery, following truth down some potentially surprising paths as it bounds along, always ahead while never really leaving us behind. Quakers have given this journey the moniker “continuing revelation,” yet that somewhat dry phrase leaves even my theologian’s precise heart cold. It fails to encapsulate the playfulness of God. I find much greater meaning in the metaphor of the Divine as a rabbit who is leaping ahead as my inner Alice chases behind, thrilled at what new adventures lay just around the corner.

I’d argue that any desire for a “true Quakerism” misses the point entirely, or at least fails to capture two essential points about Quakerism: it is experienced both individually and communally; and as an experienced reality, it is inherently metaphorical. This means that Quakerism continuously demands human engagement and dialogue with what is experienced, as well as with who experiences it.

This is, at root, the work of theology. Quakerism cannot avoid theology and the rejection of theology is itself a theological act. Quaker theology is thus all things that Quakerism is: experiential, metaphorical, narrative, individual, and communal. It is the sum total of all people in the community, stretching back through time. Quaker theology is thus, at root, Christian, for what we experience today in meeting for worship, the text of Faith and Practice, or even Quaker business practice, is inescapably shaped by all those strongly self-identified Christians who have experienced these instruments of Quaker life for centuries.

The twist at the end, however, is that while Quakerism is at root Christian, many other traditions have been grafted into our community over the years. These traditions use different metaphors for explaining the experience of the Divine, which might seem disturbing and challenging. Christian Quakers shouldn’t be afraid of this because expanding our understanding of the Divine is actually at the root of the Christian theological tradition. This work of expanding the meaning of the Divine to include other voices is a running theme in the Christian Scriptures, most especially the Book of Acts as well as the theology of Paul of Tarsus, arguably the first major Christian theologian. One example is Paul’s metaphor of the Body of Christ in First Corinthians 12, where Christ is itself both the unified body of all of humanity, while each human is also the unique and individual part of the Body. Humans are gathered as one community into the one Body, yet each individual plays their own role in enacting the will of God. This vision of individuated unity reflects the core Quaker theological tenet, which states that there is “that of God within everyone.” If God is within everyone, then everyone is within God.

Doing theology as a Quaker forces me to contend with what might be a troubling, yet also exciting realization: I can’t ignore that the Divine speaks through the diverse and multi-faceted experience of others, including potentially others whose roots and “belongings” speak to visions of the Divine which challenge my understanding of God. The Light is speaking through many of these experiences. While others can’t escape the root of Christianity, I also can’t escape all of the amazing places the White Rabbit has taken our community.

How far down the rabbit hole will Alice go? The Light only knows.

Christy Randazzo

Christy Randazzo is a convinced Friend and a member of Haddonfield (N.J.) Meeting. They still sometimes attend a local Episcopal church with their family because it's where their family is rooted. However, to be honest, it's also because incense and candles can be quite lovely sometimes!

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