As Quakers, we often pride ourselves on being 'seekers', who are continually "open to new light, from whatever source it may come" (Advices & Queries 7).
Historically, the Quaker movement grew out of groups of people known as 'Seekers'. They had become disillusioned with all the religious factions of their time, and began meeting together in silent waiting on God for a new revelation. When George Fox came to them, these Seekers discovered the insight that they had been waiting for, and the dynamic young Quaker movement was born. That discovery, proclaimed by Fox and other early Friends, was that the source of spiritual guidance and power, the 'Inward Christ', 'Light' or 'Seed', is within each one of us, and can be found simply by attending and submitting to it.
Fox enabled these groups of Seekers to give up searching outside themselves for new ideas or revelations, and to discover the source of insight and power within their own experience. This was what the early Quaker Francis Howgill called the 'narrow search' – discovering the truth within, through the action of the Inward Light upon the heart and mind:
"Early Friends rejected speculations upon new dispensations, new paradigms just around the corner. Such notions kept the mind searching in the outward mode, looking here and there for the latest thing. The light that was in each person was the same light that had shone in every age. The point was to stand still and deal with what the light revealed then and there."
(Douglas Gwyn, Words in Time – Essays and Addresses, 1997)
In the light of this, it is interesting that so many contemporary Friends want to return to being a movement of Seekers, and seem content to remain in the seeking mode forever. Douglas Gwyn describes these Friends as 'happy seekers'; those who are content to continue seeking new ideas and revelations, and do not even want to become 'finders'. This approach finds eloquent expression in this popular passage from Quaker faith & practice (20.06):
"Some among us have a clear sense of what is right and wrong – for themselves personally if not for everyone else. They have a reassuring certitude and steadiness which can serve as a reference point by which others may navigate. There are others who live in a state of uncertainty, constantly re-thinking their responses to changing circumstances, trying to hold onto what seems fundamental but impelled to reinterpret, often even unsure where lies the boundary between the fundamental and the interpretation…
Please be patient, those of you who have found a rock to stand on, with those of us who haven’t and with those of us who are not even looking for one. We live on the wave’s edge, where sea, sand and sky are all mixed up together: we are tossed head over heels in the surf, catching only occasional glimpses of any fixed horizon. Some of us stay there from choice because it is exciting and it feels like the right place to be."
(Philip Rack, 1979)
This passage highlights a distinction between two very different spiritual temperaments. The happy seeker's focus is on inclusivity, openness and celebrating diverse paths and perspectives. This sensibility rejects the prospect of ever finding 'a rock to stand on', and is content to stay 'on the wave's edge', without looking for any definitive truth beyond their own changing experience.
There are others whose spirituality finds expression in images of rootedness and depth, and who are drawn to religious traditions that require discipline, commitment and even sacrifice. They are seekers after truth, and they are serious about finding it, in order to be transformed by it. This is the kind of person that William James (in The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902) calls the 'twice-born'. They are often, either by temperament or experience, driven by an urgent soul-need to overcome meaninglessness and despair. James describes them as "sick souls, who must be twice-born in order to be happy" (ibid). This is the condition described by George Fox in this famous autobiographical passage:
"As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy."
Both the 'happy seeker' and the 'twice-born' approaches have their own validity, as well as their pathologies. The 'twice-born' are notoriously liable to lapse into dogmatism. They may assume that their discoveries are the only valid path for everyone, becoming dismissive and intolerant of those whose temperaments and experiences are very different. The 'happy seeker' may be a short step from superficiality. The sampling of diverse spiritualities can become an excuse for never taking any tradition seriously enough to practice its disciplines; never allowing themselves to be formed by a reality greater than their own ego. People with these opposing sensibilities are notoriously uncomprehending and critical of each other, but some also move between these approaches in both directions, in both healthy and harmful ways.
The early Quaker movement was composed largely of the 'twice-born'; of seekers who had become finders:
"They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them."
(William Penn, 1694, Quaker faith & practice 19.48)
The membership of Britain Yearly Meeting today, by contrast, leans strongly toward the 'happy seeker' sensibility. Friends continually assure each other that 'we are seekers rather than finders'. The happy seekers' virtues of inclusivity and openness are well-publicised, and we frequently congratulate ourselves on them. But if we allow ourselves to become a community that has no place for finding, or even for seeking with a serious intent to find, then we will become an exclusive club; open to happy seekers only.
How many people with an urgent soul-need attend a Quaker meeting for a while, but go away unsatisfied? We often reassure ourselves that these potential Quakers are 'not in tune with Friends' way of doing things' and 'would be happier elsewhere'; but where else can they go? There are few religious communities in Britain where someone on a serious religious search can find the support they need from experienced practitioners, especially if they cannot accept the dogmatic orthodoxies of evangelical churches, or the social disengagement of most Buddhist groups. These twice-born almost-Friends are a serious loss to the Quaker movement. As well as failing to nurture them, we are missing out on the much-needed gifts of passion and commitment, and the connection with the well-springs of Quaker spirituality, that they could have brought to our meetings.
Do you recognise this distinction between twice-born and happy seekers in your own experience? What are the special gifts and insights that your own approach to spirituality has to offer to our communities and our witness in the world?