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Friends and Doctrines

“Quakers don’t have creeds.”

I don’t recall hearing this said more than once or twice in the Friends meetings I’ve physically attended over the course of the past thirty-five years. But I’ve encountered it often on line, in Usenet conversations and on Quaker blogs.

I’ve encountered some Net-active Friends who repeat it over and over whenever anyone (not necessarily me) writes about the beliefs we Friends have historically held in common, the beliefs that have made Quakerism what it is today. It’s obviously important to them.

Some Friends seem to have misconstrued what creeds are, concluding that since we don’t have creeds, we also don’t have doctrines, catechisms, dogmas or confessions of faith.

Yes, we don’t have creeds. But no, we do have doctrines, dogmas, and confessions of faith. We once even had a catechism.

Permit me to explain —


The Value of Names


The five terms we need to be concerned with here — creeds, doctrines, catechisms, dogmas, and confessions of faith — are terms that have been enormously important in the evolution of Christian thinking, and also in the evolution of Western thinking generally, even outside the formal limits of Christianity.

They’ve been important because they describe ways of thinking, and of organizing ourselves, that humans do without even being conscious of it. By naming these ways of thinking and ways of behaving, calling them “doctrinal” and “dogmatic” and “credal”, we give ourselves a way of bringing them fully into consciousness, and talking deliberately about what it is we do. This helps us think about ways in which what we are doing could be improved.

Actually, I think this is rather similar to the way that naming a problem, and bringing it to full consciousness, can help two people mend a troubled relationship: “You know, dear, I’ve noticed that when we don’t agree about something, instead of talking it through, we both avoid the matter altogether, so that the problem keeps festering. Have you noticed this, too?”

In just this way, Christian groups, and to a lesser extent secular groups, have found it helpful to be able to say things like, “You know, I think X has become something of a dogma amongst us, and it shouldn’t be,” or “You know, I think we really need a clear doctrine about such-and-such.”

Thus the value of learning about doctrines, catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith, and creeds, has to do with the ways in which thinking and talking about such things can help our communities endure in bad times, flourish in good ones, and pass on the best of what they have to new generations.

It also has to do with the ways in thinking and talking about such things can help us simply to understand ourselves.

Who are we, Friends? What are we doing? And what are we accomplishing, if anything? Bringing our doctrines, dogmas, etc., to consciousness, helps us get a grip on some answers.

As time permits, I hope I will have an opportunity to talk with you, my readers, about catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith and creeds. But in this essay I think we need to begin at the beginning. I invite you to join me in looking at Friends from the perspective of the ways we have shaped our doctrines — and our doctrines, in turn, have shaped us.


What Doctrines Are


The word “doctrine” simply means “teaching”, or “a body of teachings”. A faith community’s doctrines are simply those things its members teach one another, and their children, their newcomers — and themselves! — by way of keeping their faith community alive.

We speak of these things as “doctrines” if we wish to break them out item-by-item, and as “doctrine” if we wish to emphasize the fact that the items link together as an integrated whole.

The purpose of doctrine, or doctrines, is two-fold: to convey the ideas that define and shape the community’s religion, and to nourish religious life and worship.

That first purpose, conveying ideas, is pretty intellectual. When it’s done right, it’s enormously helpful in clarifying areas where seekers are having difficulties.

But the second purpose — nourishing — can also give rise to doctrines that are poetic, suggestive, allusive, creative, intellectually hard to pin down, and likely to crop up in daily life at the oddest moments. Parables, for example, serve doctrinal purposes: Christ himself used them that way. When done right, they bring doctrines to life in beautiful ways.

Thus, for example, the doctrine of willing self-sacrifice can be taught intellectually, but it is also taught poetically and allusively, by stories such as that of Abraham and Isaac, that of Francis of Assisi renouncing his birthright, and that of the Quaker martyrs in Boston.

Such stories, in some contexts, can be a good deal easier to listen to, talk about, struggle with, and grow from. And they have this way of popping up in one’s thoughts — oh, as for example, when one is struggling with one’s teen-age son and his confession of misbehavior, and suddenly, as one is struggling with the temptation to bully the poor kid into submission to what is right, one thinks of Abraham and Isaac, and how Abraham was all ready to sacrifice Isaac to the God of righteousness, and the God of righteousness Himself said, No, don’t do it, and one suddenly realizes that bullying is not what it’s about —

Doctrines don’t have to be rigid, set in stone. Some faith communities, like the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention, devote a great deal of energy to nailing down details of their doctrine in written form. But other faith communities are happy to leave things relatively fluid.

In the more traditional parts of the unprogrammed Quaker world, there are doctrines that have never been formally recorded, but that elders take pains to transmit orally and by example. This makes for considerable fluidity, since doctrines that lose their value can be quietly forgotten, and new doctrines evolve as needed without a lot of fuss. But this approach maintains fluidity without depriving the community of any of the real richness of its tradition. For this reason, it’s a very healthy set-up.

On the other hand, while doctrines don’t have to be rigid, they do need to exist. Doctrine plays an essential part in helping a seeker understand and evaluate the reasons for being part of a particular community — as, in liberal Quakerism, the doctrine that every person has some measure of the Light, or in evangelical Quakerism, the doctrine that the Holy Spirit that descended at the Pentecost is still here with us today.

Moreover, communities cannot function as communities without doctrines to guide them! It’s doctrine that teaches a community what to do when it gathers together. It’s doctrine that tells it how to make decisions, how to settle disputes, and how to keep the peace. It’s doctrine that tells it which priorities outrank which other priorities — as, in most Quaker communities, the priority of love outranks the priority of being correct. It’s doctrine that tells it what things are out-and-out wrong — for example, making a pass at your neighbor’s spouse.

We humans know much of this intuitively, so that when we come into a community where such doctrines are not clear, we clutch at whatever guidelines we can find — books of Faith and Practice, Quakerism 101 packets, whatever will serve.

But then there are those — particularly in places where Quaker doctrines are not clear, such as relatively young meetings and meetings with a high proportion of transient members — who, confusing creeds with doctrines, say that we Quakers don’t have doctrines. This is a mistake. It’s not just that (as we’ve already seen) no community can get along without doctrines, not even Friends. It’s also that Friends have always been quite forthright about the fact that they do have doctrines.

Volumes IV, V, and VI of George Fox’s collected Works are entitled Doctrinal Books. The subtitle of Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity describes it as “Being a Full Explanation and Vindication of their Principles and Doctrines”.

The writings of prominent Friends early and modern are shot through with references to doctrines both Christian and Quaker, as in this lovely example from George Fox’s letter “To the King of France”:

You should have overcome evil with good … you should love enemies, let them be heretics, or whatsoever you call them, this is the doctrine of Christ; you should receive strangers, you should not imprison them….

Or this pointed one, from liberal Friend Howard Brinton’s 1952 masterwork, Friends for 300 years:

The Quaker doctrine of equality does not mean equality of ability, economic resources or social status. It means equality of respect and the resulting absence of all words and behavior based on class, racial or social distinctions.

Brinton, as it happens, wrote essays titled “Quaker Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” and “The Quaker Doctrine of Inward Peace”.


Basic Christian Doctrine


But so far I’ve spoken of doctrine only from the outside — describing how its shape and activity fit into a larger picture. I suspect I should also say something about its inside — what it contains.

Let me begin, then, by speaking of what “doctrine” has historically contained for Christians.

Let’s bear in mind that Christianity is not fundamentally a tribal religion, but a revealed one. In other words, it’s not a religion that a community worked out together, like classical Greek paganism or modern Hinduism. It’s certainly been shaped by the community that has kept it alive, but at bottom it’s quite specifically the revelation imparted by a single individual, Jesus Christ.

And so its basic doctrine is not about how a community can function as a community. Its basic doctrine is about the revelation imparted by Christ; the doctrine describes what that revelation was and what it means.

Thus the basic doctrine of Christianity is a package of information about Christ’s life, teaching, death, resurrection, and rôle as Savior — the things which, when you get down to it, are what set Christianity apart from other religions and from the world. It’s not much more than a simple proclamation of this news — in Greek, the word for such a proclamation is kerygma, and the basic doctrine of Christianity is often referred to as the kerygma. In English, of course, we call it the “gospel”, or “the message of the gospel”. But I’ll stick to kerygma here, because it might help us avoid some of the popular meanings of “gospel” that don’t really fit what I’m trying to say.

This kerygma, then, is given heavy emphasis in Christianity, not just because it’s what sets Christianity apart, but also because it’s hard to believe, and easily distorted. (As Paul observed, it’s “foolishness to the Greeks”.) The history of Christianity can be seen as a continuing struggle to understand, preserve and transmit the foolish story of Christ’s life, teaching, death and resurrection, in the face of all the pressures of sweet reasonability, misunderstanding, forgetfulness, mythologizing, acculturation, and just plain entropy.

O reader, you may not believe the Church has succeeded in this struggle. You may believe that the picture the Church presents is not a true picture of what happened. If that’s how you see it, that’s okay. I have some suspicions trending that way myself, particularly when I’m in one of my sourer moods.

But it’s not my purpose here to affirm or deny the question of whether the Church has succeeded or not. What I’m saying is simply that this has been what the Church has understood its task to be.


Doctrine for the Needs of Christian Community


Earlier in this essay I pointed out that communities need particular sorts of doctrines in order to function as communities.

There’s plenty of room in Christianity for secondary doctrines — doctrines that go beyond the basic kerygma — to serve such purposes. There’s a general understanding, though, that the doctrines that perform this task for the Christian community (the Church) must be doctrines that follow naturally from the words and deeds of Christ and the apostles.

Christ, of course, stressed love, reconciliation and servanthood very heavily in his teaching — pure, common-sense basics for any community anywhere.

The apostles, especially Paul, did a good job of working out most of the other primary doctrines that a Christian community needs, such as the guidance of conscience and the indispensability of righteousness. All these doctrines have official doctrinal status in one form or another.

In addition, the early Church evolved activities of baptism, worship, preaching, hospitality to traveling ministers, the common meal, systematic charity to the sick and weak and poor, and a coördinating leadership, that served as means of drawing the community together. And so there also arose doctrines encouraging each of these things, although some of them (like the common meal) have since evolved away from their original forms almost beyond recognition.

Different parts of the Church today have developed the further implications of Christ’s teachings in markedly different directions. But that’s fine. It’s generally understood that there is room for such variation in the Christian world.


The Basic Doctrine of Early Quakerism


Turning then from the Christian world at large to the Quaker world in small, the first thing we need to recognize is that, when Quakerism broke off from the larger Christian world and became a separate sect, it did so because its idea of the kerygma to be proclaimed had come to differ, quite markedly, from the idea held by the Church as a whole.

The Church as a whole made the centerpiece of its kerygma, the message of the historical Christ. The Quaker movement arose in a place where everyone had already heard that message, so that it was no longer news. But the Quaker movement proclaimed a message of the living Holy Spirit and of Christ livingly present in our midst in this present hour. This — at least in that time and place — was something very new, and very much needed. And this became Quakerism’s own central kerygma and doctrine.

Nothing, in my personal opinion, in all of Quakerism today, is more widely misunderstood by Friends themselves, than this central kerygma and doctrine of early Friends.

Liberal Friends tend to forget that the new kerygma and doctrine of Friends was not detached from the old. Quakerism was never meant to be detached from the story of the historical Jesus Christ and his salvific rôle in the Universe. It was never meant to be simply about observational truth, or about the innate worth of each human being.

Friends clearly understood — not only in their first generation, but in every generation afterward, at least down through World War II — that the outbreak of the Spirit among them was a belated fulfillment of Christ’s missionary work, and a validation of what the first Christians had clearly said about the historic Christ’s pivotal rôle in the world.

The early Friends saw themselves as part of the same story as the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and saw their own lives and experiences as being a part of the fulfillment of the promises that Christ made at the Last Supper in the gospel of John. It is very significant in this regard that they took their name for themselves — “Friends” — directly from the fifteenth chapter of John.

Later Friends gradually lost the first Friends’ keen sense of real unity with the first apostles, but they kept a weaker sense of continuity.

Thus the central doctrine of Quakerism was originally not just a premise about the Holy Spirit and the living Christ, but also a story about the workings of that Spirit and that living Christ through history — a story that just naturally contained the whole kerygma of Christianity. The central doctrine of Christianity dwelt — and still dwells — within the central doctrine of Quakerism as water dwells within a wave. This is something liberal Friends tend to forget.

Pastoral and evangelical Friends, on the other hand, tend to forget that the new kerygma and doctrine of Friends was different from the old. Its purpose was never simply to uphold the normative beliefs of Christendom. Its purpose, as the early Friends repeatedly said, was far more radical — to “overturn, overturn, overturn” the whole fallen world.


The Basic Doctrine of Liberal Quakerism


The Quaker movement came to its first dividing point at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The new spirit of scientific rationalism was at work in the educated Western world, and Friends, being historically more open than most Christians to the idea of learning from the natural world, were readily infected.

Hugh Barbour and J. William Frost, Quaker historians, tell us that the split began in Ireland, with a Quaker elder, Abraham Shackleton. In 1797, as clerk of his local monthly meeting of ministers and elders, Shackleton openly refused to apply the word “Holy” to the Bible; he also expressed doubts as to whether God had commanded the Old Testament wars. His co-religionists were horrified, and in 1801, they disowned him — deprived him of membership in the Society of Friends.

The controversy came to North America soon after. Hannah Barnard, a recorded minister from New York, traveled to England in 1797, and later to Ireland. She was republican, egalitarian, and in sympathy with the French Revolution; and by the time of her trip to Ireland, she was ready to challenge not only the rightness of the Old Testament wars but also the story of the Virgin Birth. In a nutshell, she — like Shackleton — had imbibed the new spirit of rationalism and was applying it critically to the givens of her religion. London Yearly Meeting sent her home in disgrace, and she was disowned by her meeting in 1802.

Nonetheless, within twenty years, the spirit Shackleton and Barnard had embraced had become widespread among Friends throughout much of North America.

Friends imbued with the new spirit were rationalists because they turned common-sense reasoning as a critical tool upon the Christian revelation. They were widely regarded as rebellious, even as revolutionaries, by their opponents, not only because they dared contradict their elders, and even outshouted them in disputes, but also because many of them were, like Hannah Barnard, sympathetic to the ideals of the French Revolution and the cause of the common man. They found a good spokesperson in Elias Hicks, coalesced into a movement, separated from the Orthodox Friends in the late 1820s, and were known as “Hicksites” thenceforth.

The spirit of rational skepticism, which Hicksism had coalesced around, is innately corrosive to traditional doctrine. Nonetheless, due to the conservatism of Quaker religious culture, it took a long time for the basic doctrine of liberal (Hicksite) Quakerism to evolve away from that of the first Friends. The process didn’t really pick up steam until the 1890s.

Eventually, though —

  • The Holy Spirit lost its rootedness in the Book of Acts, and became for an increasing number of liberal Friends the simple light of social conscience and reason.

  • The word “Truth” gradually ceased to mean faithfulness and the message of the Christian Holy Spirit speaking through Friends, and came increasingly to mean honesty and factual accuracy instead.

  • The very word “Friend” fell gradually out of fashion, most members in the liberal Quaker world disliking the Biblical reference and preferring to speak of themselves and each other as “Quakers”.

Because liberal Friends do tend to form their own individual opinions about everything, there is some debate as to whether liberal Quakerism has any unifying doctrine at all. (I’ll come back to this point later in this essay.) But I personally think it does.

I would submit that, at this point, the kerygma of liberal Quakerism has now become one of the “Inner Light” (a.k.a. “that of God in every one”) as a light of consciousness, intelligence, and capacity for love that makes each human in some sense holy. Not only do most liberal Friends seem to believe in this doctrine, but their yearly meetings and other institutions affirm it, in one way or another, fairly regularly. Liberal Friends are even mildly evangelical about it.

The existence of any God beyond this Light is in sufficient dispute that I think it can no longer be regarded as a corporate doctrine. The truthfulness and relevance of the original Christian kerygma is also in dispute, and so can no longer be truthfully regarded as the water within the wave. There are still many deeply Christian liberal Friends, but for liberal Quakerism as a whole, Christianity is now more an optional thing.

And thus, while retaining much of the outward form of the original Quakerism, modern liberal Quakerism is in truth a much altered religion. Yet it still has doctrine, taught in Quakerism 101, in First-day School, in the pages of Friends Journal, in books such as Friends for 350 years, and in its various Books of Faith and Practice. And this doctrine includes at least a memory of the doctrine with which Quakerism began.


The Basic Doctrine of Pastoral and Evangelical Quakerism


Pastoral and evangelical Quakerism, too, arose from the infecting of the Quaker world by a spirit from outside.

But in the case of pastoral and evangelical Quakerism, the infecting agent was the spirit of evangelical Protestantism, and of the Holiness movement in particular. The infection was fueled by a reaction against the quietism of Friends in the eighteenth century, which had come to seem too arid and lifeless to support a vital religion.

George Fox and Robert Barclay had taught that each believer should silence his own will, so that the Holy Spirit could work through him. Nineteenth-century Orthodox (i.e., non-Hicksite) Friends became frustrated with the effort and patience this quietism required, and with the length of time one might have to wait for satisfyingly obvious results.

In place of quietism, these Orthodox Friends were drawn to the evangelical doctrine of substitutionary atonement — the idea that Christ did all the necessary work by dying for us on the cross, so that no further human work was needed except to give one’s allegiance. And they found the central idea of the Holiness revival, the idea that one might become sanctified instantaneously by the “baptism of the Holy Spirit”, to be just enormously appealing.

These influences tended to pull Orthodox Quaker doctrine back toward a standard-issue Protestant model. The kerygma of the life, death, resurrection, and saving rôle of the historic Jesus Christ returned to the forefront, displacing the kerygma of the early Friends as the center of Orthodox Friends preaching.

From the beginning, Orthodox Friends laid more emphasis on the teaching of doctrine than Hicksites did. The reasons were tied to the reasons why the Orthodox had rejected the Hicksites: they saw the teaching of good doctrine as essential to salvation. So they instituted First-day (Sunday) schools, and funded the publishing of doctrinal materials, well in advance of the Hicksites. They also placed a renewed emphasis on doctrinal instruction in sermons, and on the correct doctrinal training of ministers.

Orthodox yearly meetings began elaborating the doctrinal sections of their books of discipline, inserting details that matched the teachings of other Protestant churches — as Ohio Yearly Meeting (Orthodox) did, for example, in 1876. The 1891 Discipline of Western Yearly Meeting declared that “no one should be recorded as a minister whose doctrinal views are not clearly in accord with the Affirmative of the Questions” which the Discipline listed regarding God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

And the ultimate upshot of this drift back toward a mainstream Protestant kerygma was — quite predictably — the rise of a new missionary impulse that sent Orthodox Quaker missionaries out to India, China, Madagascar, Mexico, Jamaica, Alaska, Kenya, Bolivia, and Guatemala, to proclaim the old-fashioned gospel of mainstream Protestantism afresh.

Of course, the Holy Spirit and the living Christ remain important in pastoral and evangelical Quaker doctrine. But as in the liberal Quaker world, albeit to a lesser extent, their rôle, and the way they are understood, changed and diminished from what it had been in early Quakerism.

In modern pastoral and evangelical Quakerism, neither the Spirit nor the living Christ is now allowed to lead a Friend in ways that appear to contradict the teachings laid out in the Bible and in traditional Protestantism. This is a marked change from early Quaker times, when the Spirit was allowed to override Biblical statements on water baptism, church hierarchy, and slavery.

But this firm pastoral and evangelical commitment to the fixed teachings of the Bible has become very important, in recent years, in debates about universalism and homosexuality.


The Basic Doctrine of Conservative Quakerism


The third major branch of Quakerism — the Conservative branch — took more than half a century to separate from the rest of the Quaker world and find its own identity.

The original separation was one within the Orthodox ranks, dividing the Gurneyites (who evolved into modern pastoral and evangelical Friends) from the Wilburites, during the 1840s and 1850s. Further separations caused some of the remaining Gurneyites to withdraw from the rest into separate meetings in the 1870s and again in the early twentieth century.

The Gurneyites who had withdrawn in these latter separations gradually joined with the Wilburites to become “Conservative Friends”.

The original impulse of the Conservatives was to conserve both the form and the doctrine of original Quakerism. In practice, this didn’t turn out quite as planned.

The first generations of Conservatives were so concerned with conserving the whole of Quakerism that they made something of a fetish of conserving every possible detail — with the result that the focus of their religion became quite different from the evangelical focus of the first Friends.

They still preached the Spirit and the Christ amongst themselves, but they were not so filled with it that crowds gathered to learn what was going on. They sent few, if any, apostles out into the world.

Their struggles to conserve the details turned their attention so inward, so much upon themselves, that they largely ceased for a very long time to regard their kerygma as a kerygma — that is, as news for the proclaiming.

Conservative Friends were also influenced, rather like the pastoral Friends although to a lesser degree, by evangelical Protestant thinking: for a time, they exalted the idea of exact faithfulness to the Bible even more than the pastoral Friends did. There is still a very strong strain of this way of thinking within Ohio Yearly Meeting (Conservative).

The basic doctrine of Conservative Friends probably remained closer to the original basic Quaker doctrine than the basic doctrine of either the liberals or the pastorals. It remained a doctrine depending almost entirely on the Holy Spirit and the living Christ, without much reference either to atonement or to the “Inner Light” of reason.

But the simple fact that Conservative doctrine largely lost its flavor of kerygma was no small change. This elevated the community-conserving part of Quaker doctrine, while allowing the fire of the prophets to fade into the background.


Doctrine for the Needs of Quaker Community


With Friends, as with other branches of Christianity, secondary doctrines have emerged as branches from the central doctrine of the faith.

Chief among these are the doctrines concerning the testimonies. These doctrines are not the testimonies themselves, although many modern Friends do not understand the difference.

In general usage, “testimony” is what a witness gives in a case before the law: it’s anecdotal evidence that might help settle an unanswered question. For example, a witness might testify (provide testimony) that a man accused of a serious crime was in his house as a guest that night, and so could not have committed the crime in question.

Testimony is thus retrospective: it describes what has happened in the past, rather than prescribing for the future.

And traditionally, the testimonies of Quakerism were understood in just this way. A Quaker testimony was something that Friends could provide to the world at large, and also to the Judge seated in their hearts, by way of evidence of the difference that their faith and practice had made in their lives so far.

An example would be that Friends testified of how they had been led again and again by the Holy Spirit to refuse to take off their hats before people of supposedly “superior” class. This testimony became referred to as the testimony of “hat-honour”. It was retrospective: it described what Friends had generally done in the past, rather than prescribing for the future.

Originally, then, Friends’ testimonies bore witness to the essentials of their faith. The testimony of hat-honour bore witness to Friends’ faithfulness to the leadings of the Holy Spirit; the testimony against wars and fighting, and the testimony against tithes, bore witness to Friends’ faithfulness to teachings they had found in the Bible.

Friends were not “upholding the principle of equality” by refusing to take off their hats; they were not “upholding the principle of nonviolence” by refusing to take part in war. They were not, in fact, acting on abstract principle at all. They were simply being faithful to the Spirit and the historical Christ, and their actions “were a testimony” to this faithfulness.

This distinction is important because it shows us that early Quakerism was not a philosophical position. It was a discipleship.

But the thing is that, once you live in discipleship to the Holy Spirit and the historical Christ, obeying their strictures in all the matters where their strictures can be clearly discerned, this changes you. It changes your values, your attitudes, your emotional temperament.

And as a result, you start behaving differently in other matters as well. You not only refuse to doff your hat; you also learn compassion for the people you’ve insulted by refusing to take it off. You not only refuse to engage in fighting, but you start looking for better ways to settle your disputes.

Early Quakerism had been a movement under severe attack from the world. Its members were powerfully stimulated by persecution to apply the love they found in the Holy Spirit, and the teachings they found in the New Testament, to the meeting of one another’s material needs.

A wide variety of practices thus arose — practices of taking up collections for suffering witnesses in their midst, of sponsoring their widows, orphans, and poor, of subsidizing travel to knit their communities together, of marrying within their faith, and so forth.

As Quakerism entered its second generation, Friends began looking back at the ways in which Christ and the Holy Spirit had led them to act, and recorded these things systematically to document the testimonies and sufferings they had borne for Christ’s sake and the Spirit’s. In doing this, they began writing Quaker history.

But then they went a step further, and formed the expectation that their children, and new converts, would continue to uphold these same testimonies. They began preaching sermons, and writing minutes and memoirs and doctrinal texts, teaching the testimonies as imperatives.

Teaching the testimonies as imperatives, was in fact a way of answering the questions that I posed at the beginning of this essay: Who are we, Friends? What are we doing?

And we have already seen that every teaching is a doctrine! So this is where doctrines touching on the testimonies first emerged — very early in the history of our faith.

Hundreds of years have passed since then, of course, and experience has taught Friends that many of the testimonies — such as that against hat-honour, and that against “marrying out” — which earlier generations regarded as imperatives, really are not. In the late nineteenth century, Friends began simplifying their lists of testimonies, tossing out the ones that no longer seemed important, and reducing the remainder to short lists of principles such as “peace”, “equality”, and “simplicity”. This gradually restored to secondary doctrine the fluidity it had possessed in the first years of Quakerism, and that we see in it today.

But fluidity was not the same as total abolition. “Marrying out” may no longer be forbidden, but “marrying in” is still seen as a delightful development. (And why not?) “Not giving hat-honour” may no longer be required, but our modern doctrine of “speaking truth to power” expresses the same underlying spirit.

Thus the practices that hold Quakerism together as a path, the practices that hold Friends communities together, and the practices that make Friends recognizably Friends in the eyes of the world — all these are reflected in the doctrines of Quakerism. This is truly how far the doctrines of Quakerism extend.


So Do Liberal Friends Still Have Doctrines?


Now, in the liberal part of the Quaker world, because rational skepticism has done so much to corrode respect for doctrine, there are those who contend that their form of Quakerism is not doctrinal at all, but is rather a matter of right practice (“orthopraxy”) alone.

In more conventional terms, the first half of this assertion is tantamount to saying that even the doctrine of the “Inner Light” is not sufficiently accepted by everyone in the liberal Quaker world to be treated as basic. I touched on this issue earlier in this essay.

But the second half of this assertion amounts to a statement that the doctrine of the testimonies — the teaching that we should practice nonviolence, simplicity, etc. — now controls. What were originally patterns of evidence showing how the Spirit and Biblical discipleship changed people’s lives, have now become prescriptive principles, more or less divorced in many liberal Friends’ minds from the Holy Spirit and Bible that they once pointed to.

If this is so, liberal Quakerism has largely evolved from being a discipleship into being a philosophy in the old Greek and Roman sense of that term. And maybe this is so. I’m not presently convinced, but I’m open to the idea.

But even if this is the case, it’s still a situation in which there are doctrines concerning the testimonies. Liberal Quakerism can’t get by without doctrines, any more than any other religion can.

Note: The exploration of creeds and related phenomena
that begins in the essay above, is continued in a 
second essay here.                                           

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Reader Comments (54)

Thanks, Marshall, this is helpful to me. I'm grateful for your generosity in sharing your time and scholarship with all of us.

Sometime, if you haven't already, could you explain how this harmonizes with the aversion of early Friends to "notions"? I always thought of that as being the source of the "Quakers don't have creeds" statement. I feel a real difference between teachings like "bless those who curse you" or "don't gamble" and teachings like "there is that of God in everyone" or "for our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate", but it seems like those are all doctrines under your definition.

This part of your essay confuses me:
Moreover, communities cannot function as communities without doctrines to guide them! It’s doctrine that teaches a community what to do when it gathers together.

Maybe this is a collision of terminology, but I always understood the central radical insight of Friends to be that the unmediated experience of the Holy Spirit can gather and guide a community. Isn't there a big difference between

Christ -> doctrine -> community


Christ -> community

Feb 26, 2007 at 01:10PM | Unregistered CommenterWill Jennings

I enjoyed this article very much. So much, that I emailed my Meeting's entire google group with a link to it.

In one respect, my experience has been the reverse of yours: I don't encounter many people on-line who think things like "Quakers don't have creeds" means "Quakers don't have doctrines". Most of the Quaker bloggers, whatever their own views, seem to have picked up enough Quaker history to not fall in that trap. But at the grass roots level, both in my meeting and others, I do encounter such statements fairly frequently.

I am also not so sure that "rational skepticism" is behind the hostility to doctrine among all Liberal Friends. I find some liberal Friends who are perfectly willing to believe in all kinds of things that a rational skeptic would look at askance (some of them compatible with traditional Christianity and others perhaps not so compatible): healing prayer, "visualization", perceived communications from Friends or others who have died, astrology, reincarnation, etc. Usually these Friends have no interest in making these beliefs normative for others, which is why they are "liberal". The opposition to "doctrine" can even coexist with an opposition to "rational, scientific thinking". The common denominator being something like "I'll think whatever I want to think".

- - Rich Accetta-Evans

Feb 26, 2007 at 02:10PM | Unregistered CommenterRich Accetta-Evans

Thanks for this, Marshall. It helped clarify some confusions I had about doctrines versus creeds and I think I'll be better able to explain Quakerism now that I've read this.

Feb 26, 2007 at 04:13PM | Unregistered CommenterTania Harrison


I think the anti-creedal thing traces back the liberal/rationalist thing too. It is more of a liberal thing than a Quaker thing per se.

Liberalism/rationalism is delightfully ironic at times: such as the "doctrine" that Quakers don't have doctrines.

Feb 26, 2007 at 04:48PM | Unregistered CommenterDavid McKay


I can tell I'll need to settle in for a good long while to make my way through your entire essay! So I'm going to use a different approach for commenting, and simply comment as I go along.

Of course, the danger of that is, I might make a comment about something that you will address later in your essay, in which case if you reply to my comment, you might just point me to the appropriate section, rather than take the time to go through the same information all over again.

Of course, I give myself permission to stop this experiment at any point, either to comment on the essay as a whole or to not comment any further, which is hard to imagine...

What a doctrine is
I like the description and function of doctrines that you provide here. For one thing, it jibes with the concern I carry, that if we don't find ways to convey our faith and make it explicit at least some of the time, we will lose or at least endanger some parts of our practice, because when we don't understand where our practice comes from--when we don't understand the root of our practice, then our faith is in danger of being distorted over time and ultimately lost.

(Of course, we must be careful not to get out of balance with putting too much emphasis on teaching and not enough emphasis on experiencing!)

I also find myself questioning if we as a faith community have given too much power to the concept of "doctrine"--that doctrines are something to be avoided and even repudiated; yet it seems that what you are advocating for is that Quaker doctrines are to be embraced and reiterated, not rejected. Indeed, one way to disarm the power that we have inappropriately given to the concept of "doctrine" is in fact to use that word more and more in a new (renewed) context, just as Liberal Friends have begun doing with the word "elder" and, in a much broader social context, just as the GLBT community has been doing with the word "queer."

When we take a harmful word and reclaim it for ourselves because of its positive associations, we heal our communities and strengthen our sense of identity.

And when we strengthen our sense of identity as Friends because we are reclaiming or making more explicit what our doctrines are, then we are in turn knitting our communities together by way of a shared faith and a shared practice, not by way of distinguishing who is qualified for membership and who is not (as in requiring a specific unchanging creedal statement of belief).

Basic Christian doctrine
I don't have much to comment here, but I did want to express the resonance I have with the idea that a doctrine is "a package of information" about a concept. I guess that's why I think of a doctrine as more of a construct and a creed as more of a statement (of belief).

I'll stop here for now and catch up with more of your post later.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

Feb 27, 2007 at 09:17AM | Unregistered CommenterLiz Opp

Marshall, you have done fine work with this post. You have created a framework for coherent dialogue on issues that must be addressed if the Society is to flourish.

When the conversation gets going I think we will have to carefully sort out the elements of the "rational skepticism" of which you speak. My current series of posts on the harmful effects of Enlightenment individualism is a contribution to that. The notion of orthopraxy will also have to be carefully looked at. I'm not sure what you think of it but I think it is a false substitute for doctrine.

Anyway, bravo.

Feb 27, 2007 at 11:02AM | Unregistered CommenterRichardM

Thank you very much for this post. I really appreciate the distinctions you have drawn and they seem pretty fair and accurate to me. I am looking forward to your posts on those other terms (hopefully).
With love,

Feb 27, 2007 at 03:54PM | Unregistered CommenterMark Wutka

Dear fFriend Marshall:
I think it is something of an error to lump all liberal Friends into a single movement. I grew up Hicksite, and in one sense, our sense of being open to a broad interpretation of Christianity, and a true reluctance to read one out of meeting for doctrinal differences ... made us a fertile nursery for what I refer to as New Age Quakerism and Non Theist Quakerism. But, for example, some New Age Friends, who are openly antagonistic to the teachings of Yeshua Ben Yoseph, are certainly not in the Hicksite Tradition. I have seen liberal Friends walk out of meeting when a Wilberite or Gurneyite message was being given. This is far from the intention of Hicks and the Hicksite movement, which, did not so much divide itself off from "orthodox" Friends, as we were read out of Meetings, i.e., the Orthodoxy divided itself off from incorporative Friends.

Hicks said of the gospels, "Nothing but this light is sufficient to produce the knowledge on which ... belief is founded ... by faithful attention to .. the light within, we come to know and believe the certainty of the excellent scripture doctrines; of the coming, life, righteous works, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our blessed pattern (from Elias Hicks, Quaker Liberal, by Bliss Forbush)

The wisdom in this weighing one's study of gospel is born out by the continuing scholarship on the community which developed the canonic gospels. As we grow to know more about the times of Jesus, through study of Hebrew and other contemporary texts, archeology (finding the body?) and modern literary forensics, we gain another measure to weigh the written word, making it less an idol of faith, and calling us to enter the process of weighing these words with our heads as well as our hearts, and (we are in complete agreement on this) our experience of God within. In this, I might say, history may contradict thy contention that Christianity is based solely on the teaching of one individual, Jesus. Osiris Attis and Dionysus were all three God|men, who were worshiped around the time of the Jesus movement, who died and descended into the underworld for three days to arise again. As the Jesus movement spread rapidly, it seems, their followers beliefs were likely incorporated into traditions that became the gospels, as Paul's Greek influence brought some decidedly non-Hebraic ideas into the Jesus story. What part of all this do we as Friends take as guidance depends on, often where we find our selves in the stream of American culture, as much as our waiting on the Lord, in silence.

So, I might say, I find an authentic root in Yeshua's ministry in my life as a Quaker. I believe that the openness of my Hicksite upbringing led me to read, study weigh, look within, and find that his message was that we must feed each other literally and figuratively. And, in that, the story of resurrection, stripped of myth, is the one, where his friends have been fishing, and are fed by a stranger, and say, with certainty, he has risen. Not that the body is reanimated, but that the spirit within us, to feed each other was not killed on the cross, therefore, we all become the risen spirit when we feed each other.

On eldership, I agree wholeheartedly. In my experience, many modern Friends lose the grounding of their faith when, in some meetings, they lose the formal respect of eldership. At each stage in life, we have different ways of knowing, not better or worse, but different. We need the active searching of the young minds among us, but we also need the grounding in history and experience of elders. I am not at all in unity with many in my meeting who reject formal recognition of elders as a part of our tradition.

I am not sure I agree with thee that liberal Friends reject the use of the word Friend in favor of Quaker. Rather, some reject the Religious society aspect. I don't, some do.

Oh, much more... I will read thy essay again and again, I agree, it is wonderful. But, my band is on the way over, and I must get ready...
Thine in frith and fFriendship

Feb 27, 2007 at 04:05PM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

Let me add my thanks and deep appreciation for this essay. I hope you find an opportunity to share it much more widely among Friends.

I was struck with your description of doctrine as capable of being taught intellectually, but also "poetically and allusively" which you illustrate with some stories. Which makes me wonder what is the relationship between doctrine and narrative? That is, what is the relationship between the story and the meaning of the story? What is the relationship between theology and doctrine?

Feb 27, 2007 at 04:19PM | Unregistered CommenterPaulL

Hello, friends all!

It's wonderful to receive such an outpouring of comments -- and such charitable, thoughtful, supportive comments at that.

There's so much thoughtfulness here, in fact, that it seems impossible to respond to all the issues you've brought up in a single reply. I won't even try. I will say that I feel very enriched by the good points you all have shared! But beyond that, I fear I must take your comments one at a time, as my schedule permits, and it may be quite some time before I can respond to them all.

Dear Will Jennings, since you were the first to post, I'll begin with you. I think you're right to bring up the question of how notions and doctrines are related. In the context of Quakerism, it's a fairly important matter.

It's clear that the first Friends rejected "notional" religion, and dismissed some traditional Christian doctrines -- for example, those involving the precise character of the three Persons of the Trinity -- as being "notional". It's equally clear that the first Friends had doctrines of their own, for they themselves said as much, repeatedly (as I noted in my essay). We must conclude, then, that the first Friends did not see all doctrines as notional.

Reading what the first Friends actually said about "notions" clears up the confusion. One can figure out that by "notions" they meant products of one's own mind, ideas grounded not on real experience or real revelation but only on one's own suppositions.

Thus, for example, Anthony Pearson confessed, in a letter written in 1653, shortly after having met Margaret Fell and her household: "I have long professed to serve and worship the true God, and, as I thought ... attained to a high pitch in religion; but now, alas! I find my work will not abide the fire: my notions were swelling vanities without power or life: what it was to love enemies, to bless them that curse, to render good for evil, to use the world as using it not, to lay down life for the brethren, I never understood: what purity and perfection meant, I never tasted: all my religion was but the hearing of the ear, the believing and talking of a God and Christ in heaven or a place at a distance, I knew not where."

We can lift phrases directly out of that passage that summarize what Pearson, and the first Friends generally, meant by "notions": ideas "without power or life", ideas whose reality one "never tasted", ideas that were "but the hearing of the ear, the believing and talking".

George Fox wrote in his longest book, The Great Mistery of the Great Whore Unfolded (ca. 1658), "Notion is imagination...."

"Doctrine", on the other hand, as I noted in my essay, is a word that means "teaching" or "a body of teachings". (And incidentally, this is not "my" definition, but the standard definition. I'll be happy to cite sources if anyone wants me to.) And it should be clear that not all things taught are "imagination", "without power or life", "never tasted", "but the hearing of the ear".

Both individuals and groups are capable of teaching things that are grounded in physical observation, practical experience, historical research and reconstruction, or direct revelation -- for example, "the sun is a star" (physical observation), "what goes around, comes around" (practical experience), "George Fox lived in the seventeenth century" (historical research and reconstruction), and "I AM THAT I AM" (direct revelation). Early Friends had doctrines of all four kinds. And none of these four sorts of teachings are mere imagination, "without power or life", or need remain "never tasted", never personally validated by the seeker.

You write, "I feel a real difference between teachings like 'bless those who curse you' or 'don't gamble' and teachings like 'there is that of God in everyone' or 'for our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate', but it seems like those are all doctrines under your definition."

Yes, I agree, those are all doctrines under my definition. But remember, my definition is the standard one -- standard for the Christian Church, standard even for Friends. Remember the two quotations from Quaker writings I included in my essay above? In the first of the two, George Fox described "overcome evil with good ... love enemies ... receive strangers, not imprison them" as being "the doctrine of Christ". Aren't these things similar to "bless those who curse you" and "don't gamble"? And Fox himself called them "doctrine" -- which they indeed are, since they are teachings.

You write that you are confused by my statement that, "communities cannot function as communities without doctrines to guide them! It’s doctrine that teaches a community what to do when it gathers together." And you go on, "I always understood the central radical insight of Friends to be that the unmediated experience of the Holy Spirit can gather and guide a community. Isn't there a big difference between Christ -> doctrine -> community and Christ -> community?"

I'd answer by pointing out that if Christ/the Holy Spirit teaches a community, then that teaching, by definition, is Christ's/the Holy Spirit's doctrine. And in that case, which category would you put Christ's/the Holy Spirit's teaching into? -- Christ -> doctrine -> community, or Christ -> community? The distinction between these two categories begins to look like a distinction without a difference.

But let me go on and point out that the early Friends embraced some doctrines, regarding what to do when they gathered together, that were not revelations from Christ, but simple matters of practical experience -- for example, the doctrine that people must have fixed, regular times for worship. Friends came under criticism for this, from skeptics who observed that a humanly fixed time for worship did not seem consistent with a dependence on the leadings of the Spirit. But they replied that fixed times for worship were an "outward conveniency" -- an argument that grounded the practice in practical experience. (Thus Barclay, Apology, Prop. XI, §§3,17.) And they most definitely presented the requirement of fixed times for worship as a doctrine (i.e., a church teaching), as witness the very first item in the Advices from the Elders at Balby, and also the general letter from William Dewsbury to Friends dated 1668.

So doctrines needn't be notional, and Quakerism has historically had doctrines that are not such.

I hope this is a satisfactory response to your concerns. If I've given offense, I apologize, and will try to do better in the future.

Feb 27, 2007 at 04:37PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Dear Rich Accetta-Evans, I feel quite flattered that you liked my essay enough to recommend it to others -- I hope they liked it.

I don't think I was trying to say that rational skepticism is behind liberal Friends' hostility to doctrine. I'd say individualism is behind that hostility. But what I was trying to say is that rational skepticism corrodes traditional doctrine and respect for doctrine, rather as an acid corrodes metal.

By "rational skepticism", I mean that attitude that, when presented with a world-view different from its own, crosses its arms in front of its chest and says, "I don't believe it; prove it" -- to such a degree that much of the time available for learning the different world-view winds up being spent instead in a back-and-forth dispute.

Mispresentations and misunderstandings do get discredited in that way, and there are times when that's exactly what is needed. But if that's our habitual approach to other world-views, we may spend so much time bickering with the presenter that we never get to the deeper stuff. To get to the deeper stuff, we really have to put our skepticism on hold, shut up and listen -- and then struggle in good faith with what the presenter has said, long enough to see what she or he was actually talking about.

How will we find our way down the pitfall-strewn path to the point where we actually see the oneness of the unprepossessing-seeming Seed in our heart and conscience with the historical Christ, if we spend too much of our time questioning and debating the biblical accounts? How will we learn the value of the Quaker institution of overseers, if our habitual response to the topic is to challenge the good they have done in the past?

I'm not saying that such questions and challenges are totally wrong. Far from it! -- they're a very good thing, in their place. I'm just saying that there's a time for questions and challenges, and then there's a time to shut up, listen and learn. And I think history suggests that, whereas the orthodox side of Quakerism has tended to be weak on the willingness to question and challenge, the liberal side has tended to be weak on the listening and learning.

As to what you say about finding liberal friends who are comfortable with things like healing prayer, visualization, and astrology -- well, er, ah, I have to apologize for my lack of clarity in the original essay. That's really not what I meant when I used the word "liberal"!

By "liberal" I did not mean "every position held by everyone who joins a meeting in FGC or in the independent Beanite meetings in the West" -- I meant, rather, the philosophy that has guided the Hicksite and Beanite movements at their theological and political turning points.

Certainly there's always been room in Hicksite and Beanite meetings for other sorts of people besides the group whose position I am calling "liberal" -- from the pious, conservative old-fashioned-Hicksite farmers, to the New Age Wiccans and Buddhists. But somehow, neither old-fashioned Hicksite piety, nor the Buddhist doctrine of the Four Noble Truths, nor the Wiccan rituals, have had nearly the impact on the evolution of what I am calling liberal Quakerism, that rational skepticism has had.

Is it that the rational skeptics have been more assertive? -- that they tend to find it easier to advance to crucial positions in the Quaker world? -- that their objections get more respect? -- that their world-view is less likely to be marginalized? I don't exactly know, even though I've had plenty of chances to watch it happening in my own lifetime. I'd guess it's some combination of the above --

Does this clarify my thinking? Do you still disagree? I'd be quite interested in exploring the matter further, and in being shown where I have misunderstood.

Feb 28, 2007 at 07:21AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Hi Marshall:
Richard and I, as I think thee does know, are part of the same Meeting. I think, if I understand thy use of "Rational Skepticism" that it is the case that they are a very vocal minority, more assertive as thee says ... most Friends in our Meeting hear conservative Friends messages with an ear for the underlying truth, however, sometimes, some conservative Friends tend to seek to convert in a message, at which time some fFriends, to quote one life time fFriend of mine, "turn their brains off for a little while." But, a minority act in ways which are openly a block to the message.Some frown, groan, walk out, but most of us, myself included, have never even frowned during a message. There are messages, such as a call last week for all Quakers to back a conservative mayor for president, which was lost on me, but, I minded that I hear it through with openess, and not allow my feeling that it was inappropriate close my ears, or mind, or knit my brow. But, then again, our meeting has had some forty years of practice of trying to find unity in worship, as we are a Meeting which united a conservative and a Hicksite Meeting under on roof in the early 1960s.
This does not mean we are not without need to labor together, sometimes when liberals ask that a message be considered for the potential to divide through being preachy, conservatives take that as a call for censorship - which it is not, just a call, to all of us, to weigh the message against ego, or conservatives are put off by the images of God put forward in the messages of New Age fFriends.
But, those who are openly antagonistic, are few. I know sometimes I appear that way, when I beg fFriends to consider the process by which gospels became orthodox, and when I try to convey the hurt objectification of Jewish individuals and thought has caused ... but, I assure thee, that I am calling fFriends to look within, not to get in line.
Thine in frith and friendship
PS I voice much more controversies in writings and on line, then ever I would in meeting, as I consider much of our wrestling with theologies health ego, but ego has no place in being open to that still small voice within during meeting...

Feb 28, 2007 at 12:25PM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

Hi again, Marshall.
I don't any longer see an inconsistency between what you and I were saying about "rational skepticism" and its relationship to the distrust of doctrine among some Friends.

I'm still looking forward to what you may have to say about "catechisms, dogmas, confessions of faith and creeds". The term "dogma" carries a negative connotation in my mind, but not a clear idea of what it might mean.

I'm not sure how much I should say in response to Lorcan's comment here. I did not hear the message he heard that called for Friends to back a "conservative mayor" for President. I think that took place in the 9:30 meeting for worship that I usually don't attend. It does not sound at all typical of messages that would normally occur at 15th Street, but it doesn't sound completely unprecedented either. I have no idea whether the speaker was a long-time Friend, a new-comer, or a casual visitor. If the "conservative mayor" in question was Rudolf Giuliani then the Friend who spoke may be the only attender I've met who would even consider such a notion. If it was Michael Bloomberg, I'm a tad less suprised, and not quite sure that he really is "conservative" by most people's definitions. In either case, I would try - like Lorcan - not to "close my ears", but I would also feel that the Ministry and Worship Committee could properly seek an opportunity to meet with the person who delivered this message and probe his or her understanding of what ministry in meeting is supposed to be. I guess it's part of my "doctrine" that a political endorsement could in theory be but would only very rarely be the kind of thing that God would urge a Friend to deliver as ministry in Meeting.

Lorcan describes some occasional controversies and upsets here from his point of view. I think some of his observations are accurate, some are less so (at least as I see them), and some seem to be referring to events I'm not familiar with. For example, I cannot think of any instance when "... liberals ask that a message be considered for the potential to divide through being preachy, conservatives take that as a call for censorship". If Lorcan and I need to clarify our mutual perceptions here, we should probably do it back home in New York, rather than on your blog. Sometimes after Lorcan describes events in this way I have to go to him to find out who the "liberals" and "conservatives" were that he is describing.

By the way, I believe Paul L may have a picture of Lorcan and I standing arm-in-arm in the 15th Street Meetinghouse. It amused me, as he took it, to reflect that the self-described "liberal" half of the picture (Lorcan) was wearing an immaculate and well-pressed collarless shirt, plain coat, and broadbrimmed black hat, while the purported Conservative (me) was sporting a bushy beard and extremely casual (bordering on messy) attire. God may have a sense of humor.

- - Rich

Feb 28, 2007 at 09:53PM | Unregistered CommenterRich Accetta-Evans

Dear friends all --

Tania, David and Mark, I will simply say thank you for your kind words. It's a privilege to have you as readers.

Liz, I was hoping you'd post the remainder of your comments before I got to the first part of them! But since you have not, let me start by saying I'm very pleased to learn that we see eye-to-eye on so many crucial points.

I'm not actually advocating "that Quaker doctrines ... be embraced and reiterated, not rejected." I'm advocating that they be recognized for what they are – doctrines – and brought to full consciousness. Recognizing that they are doctrines, and considering their effect on us as doctrines, is helpful to the development of our Society. But some of those doctrines — e.g. the FUM/Richmond Declaration doctrine that scripture is the highest authority, from which there is no appeal, and the FGC doctrine of inclusivity — strike me personally as wrong-headed. So I'm not offering my blanket approval to every Quaker doctrine in existence.

Nor would I expect others to do so. And I expect that there will be a diversity of views amongst us, in regard to which doctrines are truly desirable and which are not.

Also, I don't personally think "doctrine" is a harmful word, by any means. In fact, I was startled to find that others think of it as such. Live and learn —

Richard M., I thank you for your praise. It would be nice if this essay does prove helpful as a framework for dialogue — but who knows? I agree that there is an interrelationship between the rational skepticism that shaped liberal Quakerism and the phenomenon of the Enlightenment.

Lorcan, I appreciate your words of concern. I hope my response yesterday to Rich Accetta-Evans clarified some of the matters under discussion!

I don't think I ever "conten[ded] that Christianity is based solely on the teaching of one individual, Jesus." What I wrote was that "the basic doctrine of Christianity is a package of information about Christ’s life, teaching, death, resurrection, and rôle as Savior". My term "basic doctrine" does not imply exclusivity, the way your phrase "based solely" appears to do.

I also did not say "that liberal Friends reject the use of the word Friend in favor of Quaker." I wrote that "the ... word 'Friend' fell gradually out of fashion, most members in the liberal Quaker world disliking the Biblical reference and preferring to speak of themselves and each other as 'Quakers'". "Falling out of fashion" is a different sort of process from outright "rejection". I stand by my observation in the form in which I put it, because I find it easy to see both the preference for "Quaker", and the discomfort with the Biblical reference, when I listen to the self-descriptions of liberal Friends, and when I read their writings on line attentively. But I see no sign of outright rejection of the term "Friend".

Paul, your further questions are wonderful, but I fear they're beyond the scope of this present discussion. Can we take a rain check on them?

I'll address later comments in a later response —

Thanks again to everyone. It's really good to see Friends thinking and talking about this matter.

Mar 1, 2007 at 07:06AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Hello, Marshall:

I understand the difference thee poses, however, I think that in looking at the idea that say, Hinduism is a tribal faith, an amalgam of myths coming together, and Christianity is not, thought the development period of Hinduism might be many more centuries, at first glance, I think it is safe to say that the creation of the life of Jesus also spans centuries before Yeshua's birth. So, just as elements of the myth of Osiris is woven into this one life, and elements of Germanic pagan tradition or woven in ... there is a broad tribal tradition which flows from the incorporative nature of the early Jesus movement.

There is Phariseean commentary on the value of the Diaspora, in breaking down the role of nationalism in Hebraic thought, creating the basis for the questioning of nationalism as being part of the first dawning of the concepts of international brotherhood. (See the Pharisees by Louis Finkelstein 1966 Jewish Publication Society, Vol. II page 443 - The Ideals of Peace and Human Equality During the Exile) In much the same way, Christianity is a product of the expulsion of Judeo Christians, as well as the use of the fact of a Roman empire as a vehicle for the rapid spread of Christian ideals, as well as, to some extent, a loss of certainty of what was completely original Christianity, and what is incorporated in the rapid spread and incorporation.

I must smile when Richard refers to an irony that my dress is conservative, as though we Hicksites are not conservative. The liberality of our faith is one form of conservatism. The Phariseean tradition which is the philosophical root of Christianity, much more than is the Saduceean tradition, held, at the time of Yeshua, that two people can be completely at odds, and both be right, the idea that things that contradict do not prove each other wrong. This is completely against the Saduceean ideal, but is the core of liberalism (Yeshua was a rather liberal fellow) so in holding to a several thousand year liberal tradition, well, we are pretty conservative, I'd say!

I am not sure thee will find many true Hicksites who object to the biblical root of the name Friends, but, I am often surprised at Friends, of every ilk, who object to the ideal that we are a community bound together by love. I have heard members of Ministry and Worship, in my Monthly Meeting, and Ministry and Counsel in my Quarterly meeting state that not only do they not hold to the doctrine of love in our society, but that they object to the term the beloved community. For those who root their membership in Christianity, I would hope they read Bonhoffer on the Sermon on the mount!!!

It would be lovely if one day, thee could spend a little time in New York, come to meeting a few times, and thee might be surprised at how rare it is that fFriends are out right antagonistic to the bible. There is a wide variety of opinion on how it should be read, and what role it plays, but most, I would say, believe it to be an inspired writing, which, like all the works of humanity, suffers from our lack of perfection in passing it down for centuries in various languages. What it means to be inspired also has a variety of interpretations.

Where does thee find liberal Friends objecting to being called Friends in large numbers? I must admit, I don't get out to the far west often. Is it more of a west coast thing? Maybe we can hear from liberal fFriends (or Quakers if they prefer) out that way!

Conservatively thine =)

in frith and fFriendship
PS I think Paul's question is also close to the difference between the Hicksite Traditions and some others in the RSOF. Early on, the Hicksite tradition was to say the telling of the story is simply human art, the meaning of the story is inspired, and in that the doctrines of Friends, for a Hicksite, attempt to transcend theology...by saying story, even true stories, are at best honest, and truth is what we move toward through them... but truth is not the story but the spirit which is described in the story...

Mar 1, 2007 at 10:29AM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

Lorcan and Rich, on further re-reading your latest messages, I don't think there's any need for a lengthy response from me. Three brief points, however:

(1) I might note that Lorcan's own comments on the relationship between what he calls "the creation of the life of Jesus" and the myths of Osiris, etc., are fair examples of the sort of thing I was thinking about when I referred to the rôle of rational skepticism in the shaping of liberal Quaker doctrine. I point this out, not as any sort of criticism of Lorcan, but because the example is so very apropos to our discussion.

(2) For the benefit of those unfamiliar with Quakerism, let me point out that what Lorcan was talking about, when he used the word "conservative" to describe Hicksite Friends, has little or nothing to do with what that same word "conservative" means in reference to capital-C Conservative Quakerism. Claiming that people are somehow "conservative" in consequence of being liberal seems to me to be a logical error, rather like the Orwellian assertions that "war is peace" and "freedom is slavery".

(3) Lorcan asks, "Where does thee find liberal Friends objecting to being called Friends in large numbers?" My answer is, I never said that there are liberal Friends "objecting to being called Friends". What I wrote was that "the ... word 'Friend' fell gradually out of fashion, most members in the liberal Quaker world disliking the Biblical reference and preferring to speak of themselves and each other as 'Quakers'". Having the name fall out of fashion is a bit different from having large numbers of people positively objecting to being called by the name.

Mar 1, 2007 at 06:54PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

No, dear fFriend, Yeshua was a Pharisee,and a liberal, and to be a liberal in a Christian society is to conserve the original intent of our dear teacher, when Saducees seek to claim this, his movement. If it is somehow to be in some way disturbingly rational to see that those who say that the element of myth in Jesus' life is sui generis of the same myth in other movements of his time, well I am at a loss to say we are a people dedicated to our testimony of truth. For those who seem to feel that it is syndical to believe that the teaching of this wonderful MAN is less important than to make him into a non-person, an image, a God, an object, even an object of veneration, well, I would have to deny my blood to do that, and if thee denies me, and my people our blood, well, that is for thy own journey into thy soul to judge what is syndical and what is truth. My truth became flesh at auschwitz, where more likely than not, the literal descendents of Yeshua Ben Yoseph were killed because they also were objectified. I don't see my sorrow or my rationalism as syndical. I see it as truth.
Thine in the light

Mar 1, 2007 at 10:03PM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

Spell check late at night cynical mixed with skeptical comes out syndical... Whoops... thee said skeptical, I remembered cynical... oh, never mind...

Mar 1, 2007 at 10:46PM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

Friend Lorcan, I did not say (or mean) "disturbingly rational". I did not say (or mean) "cynical". And I did not say (or mean) that it is either cynical or skeptical "to believe that the teaching of this wonderful MAN is less important than to make him into a non-person, an image, a God, an object, even an object of veneration."

And this makes the third time in twenty-four hours that I have had to post a response to you saying, "I did not say what you charge me with saying; I said something significantly different."

Who and what are you responding to here, Lorcan? For you are clearly not responding to me, or to what I actually say; you are merely making me a handy target.

Mar 2, 2007 at 06:32AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

Hi Marshall:
This is why face to face conferences of Friends are very handy, when we write, the background context is not often clear, so when thee says Liberal Friends "most members in the liberal Quaker world disliking the Biblical reference and preferring to speak of themselves and each other as 'Quakers'". - and we were together, and I would say, that is not my experience, here in New York, among many liberal Quakers ... and thee would explain where it has been thy experience that ... so we write back and forth, and sometimes the attempt at clearness sounds like controversy.
So, when thee uses the word skepticism to refer to our approach to bible history, and for most of us older Hicksites, we might, in conversation, describe to thee that as a child in a Hicksite Meeting, we were taught the bible as history, but as it was still close on the aftermath of the nazi era, the full implications of that time had not yet begun to be examined, Hannah Arendt was just beginning to write, the full philosophical implication of the objectification of Jews had not yet begun to be analyzed, nor had many of us read the non- canonic gospels in light of now easy access to early Greek translations and essays on the changes in the earliest texts ... so rather than being skeptical, which is not a Quaker approach to philosophy, we are open to new light from many sources, and that has made us rethink the meanings of much in the history of the bible, leading us to rethink the philosophical meanings of these stories. I believe most real Hicksites approach reading as Bertrand Russell advises, with an open mind, and then weighs the reading with ones own experience and other writing.
Also, as we, in conversation, would be able to cover more, with less time, thee might find, that many Hicksites feel that those who came to be called orthodox and conservative, divided themselves off from a unified mainstream Quakerism by branding certain fFriends as rational skeptics ... and that this is a rather American phenomenon. John, an English fFriend, a few weeks ago, was telling me that he is amazed that American Friends are so conscious of the theological differences. That, in his meeting, one Friend tends to proselytize in messages, and afterwards, over tea, might say... "Hmm, I did rather go on a bit, didn't I," and what we would call liberal Friends would laugh and say, "well, you rather did." That was also my experience of Irish and English Meetings, while here, the existence of liberal Friends in some meetings creates calls for separate meetings, or vice versa. The whole experience of schism is an American phenomenon in this. So, we Hicksites, who became named by our philosophical ancestors being read out of meetings, are left scratching our heads at terms like orthodox and conservative ... by English standards, those of us who remained open to diversity in Meetings, are the orthodox standard in the Religious Society of Friends.
Now, I must say, oddly enough, there is historic commentary that English Friends, in the 19th century, are sometimes blamed for the division in American Quakerism, and in fact, sent missionaries to "convert the Hicksites." Odd, when thee takes into account the fact that meetings were not divided in England, while liberal Quakerism grew and coexisted with other philosophies in English Meetings ... what the implications of this are, well, that takes some further light.
So ... what am I saying... I don't see myself, or many other Hicksites as skeptical, but rather open minded, open to new light as well as old ... and more, I think we should not worry about the laboring together in writing, but, it would also be good to get together to talk, as the process of writing takes longer to understand each other often. So, we should not get overly worried that is a lack of love in the process, rather, we should be assured that, though it takes longer, we will come to understanding eventually.

Thine in Friendship

Mar 2, 2007 at 07:25AM | Unregistered CommenterLorcan Otway

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