Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism
I’m trying to remember where I first heard of this book, and I can’t recall. I do know that I asked for it for Christmas in 2008, and thanks to my beloved Chris M., it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since, waiting for me to finish it.
I finally did it, because Spencer is coming to Quaker Heritage Day in Berkeley next week. It’s a tough read, if you’re not used to the academic style, but it gets easier near the end. And I’m really, really glad I read it.
A lot of the book is Spencer running through a series of individuals through Quaker history and showing how they are or are not exemplars of Quaker holiness. There’s more than 20 of them over 350 years, so if you want to know who they all are, read the book. Some of the history doesn’t agree with what I’ve learned – but then I only know what others have said about most of them. I agree with her interpretations of the ones I’ve read first hand: Hannah Whitall Smith and Richard Foster and Thomas Kelly. Elias Hicks, Joseph John Gurney and John Wilbur, these are three I’d like to read more of. (I’ve got the new version of Hicks’ Journal, which I understand addresses some of her criticisms.) I wouldn’t call myself a Beanite Friend, partly because I think that sounds silly, partly because I don’t think of myself as a follower of a particular Quaker ancestor, and partly because I don’t know enough of Joel Bean’s actual work to have a valid opinion. More and more I think I should read his work myself.
But I’m less interested in the historical aspects than in my own affinity for the key elements of Quaker holiness. I think this could be a key to what holds convergent Friends together in my mind. Or maybe it’s just the key to my own spiritual journey.
I think it’s important to separate the current iteration of non-Quaker holiness movements from what Spencer and I are talking about. Apparently, Quakers have always had a slightly different definition of holiness from the religious mainstream. Meaning we don’t have to equate holiness with American rightwing politics and religious fundamentalists. Actually quite the opposite, in some cases.
Spencer teases out eight separate elements of traditional Quaker holiness. I’ll list them here, because I’m copying them from the book: Scripture, Eschatology, Conversion, Evangelism, Charisma, Suffering, Mysticism, Perfection.
Spencer also explains how these elements relate to evangelical concepts like justification and sanctification, but I can’t keep them straight. Frankly, I think that Conversion and Evangelism are two parts of the same thing, and that Suffering and Perfection are another inseparable pair. And if you’ve got an hour or two, I’d be happy to sit down and explain why I think so and discuss it with you. I could use the help in working it all out in my own head. But for the purposes of this book review, let me just encourage you to read Spencer’s explanations of what each means.
Personally, I can only manage to keep three aspects in my head, in part because I think they are all inter-related and they all cycle around to each other.
1) Perfection, meaning holy obedience, spiritual growth, acting like Jesus, living up to the Light we’ve been given, actually doing what we know is right
2) Mysticism – listening to God, hearing Christ Jesus speak to my condition, cultivating and holding close to the intimate relationship with God
3) Witness, which in my mind includes spreading the word, sharing the Good News, working to improve the world, teaching and healing like Jesus.
The desire for holy perfection and faithful witness, the understanding of their meaning, and the strength to accomplish them come from our mystical relationship with God. I think that when Friends have kept close to that guide, then we have avoided falling into the rigid and rulebound forms of religion. I think that scripture is a tool to be used with our mystical interpretation. The Bible may not be perfect, but it’s the best description of Jesus’s teaching and actions that we’ve got.
I have three examples of how perfection and witness are related, but none of them comes from Spencer’s book so don’t blame her if they don’t speak to you. One is that we know that having a low flow showerhead isn’t going to save the world, but it helps to have your own house in order before you try to change farmers’ wasteful irrigation practices. Second, you can’t effectively protest factory working conditions while wearing clothes made in sweatshops. Third, people are more likely to listen to you tell them how Jesus is a blessing in your life if you are a blessing to your family and friends.
Now I know that these aren’t strict rules, and it’s not true that we can’t say anything about the wrongs of the world until we’re free from all our sins. But we have to be actively examining our own lives for the seeds of war and continually doing something about our own lives as we go along. And then we can speak with Truth and Power. Part of this is the confidence that comes with not feeling like a hypocrite and the recognition from one’s opponent that one is walking the walk. But I truly think there is something divinely inspired that makes a person a better advocate who has removed the beam from her own eye without getting bogged down in that process. Jesus offers us some good examples of looking at rules, and acting with love, even if, on occasion, that contradicts a generally useful rule. (Like healing on the Sabbath, for example.)
I think Spencer is right that our various forms of worship are culturally and temporally specific, not divinely mandated. What’s important is that our worship enables us to achieve communion with God – to hear God speaking to us. Hours and hours of silence seem intensely important to me, and absolutely fruitless to others. I’m willing to accept that other people experience God in other ways. (I don’t believe this is divided along lines of race, class or geography, but I know that what we’re used to makes a big difference.)
What is missing from this book is the growing holiness movement among unprogrammed Friends in the last ten to twenty years. That’s probably because we don’t call it that usually. But I think that Lloyd Lee Wilson’s book, Essays on a Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, fits all of Spencer’s criteria for Quaker holiness. I think some (not all) of our Quaker environmentalists are actually part of a holiness movement. In my local world, I think that the reason that Chris Moore-Backman’s and Carl Magruder’s ministries are so attractive to some and so off-putting to others is because they are actually preaching Quaker holiness. They’re just not using that word.
And then there’s me. Not that I am such a stellar example of Christian perfection. But I want to affirm that I’m really trying, on all these points. I’m just now understanding that this Quaker holiness is what calls to me in the Friends that I would call convergent. Do you feel the same way?
In all the branches of Friends, in all eras, there have been examples of Quaker holiness, real people who have touched the lives of the people around them, even if they didn’t publish any books or start any new movements bearing their names. Think about who you know that you admire as a Quaker. In what ways do they exemplify Quaker holiness? In what ways do they contradict my theory? You don’t have to name them here on this blog, but I’m really curious whether this idea resonates with other Friends or not.
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