Friday, 1 May 2015

The Happy Seeker

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."
(Journal, 1647).

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?


  1. I appreciate this essay very much. The rhetoric of seeking and transformation seems to be so dominant among Friends' writing currently that I felt a deep relief reading your acknowledgement that there are those of us who have a different sense. I am concerned that this rhetoric may have become so strong as to be making an idol of transformation, without recognising how much this echoes the constant valorisation of progress and disruption in capitalist society.

    1. Agreed, Spark. I'm probably being unfair to Philip Rack, but in the light of what's happened since the fateful year 1979, I can't help thinking as I read his passage of the hipster businessman (or woman) who is 'ahead of the curve', who is surfing the waves of 'creative destruction' in the globalised economy, and who can thrive in this environment because they are confident, healthy and secure, emotionally and financially.

      But what of the people who are poor, marginal and oppressed, insecure and struggling against temptations? They are often drawn to being 'twice-born'. Rack's image of the rock to stand on suggests the Psalms, such as Psalm 18 and especially Psalm 62, in which God is a saving rock in the midst of persecution and suffering, or of the lines from the spiritual which paraphrase them: "My God is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm."

      Is the dominance of 'happy seeker' spirituality among liberal Friends one reason why they struggle to attract members beyond the professional middle classes?


    2. Those are beautiful lines. I am much more moved to focus on whether I am present in community to make my Meeting a rock in a weary land, than on whether I am personally open to transformation.

      My Meeting is rural and predominantly lower middle class, and aging. It has a large proportion of decades-long steady attenders who carry many of the responsibilities, and who have never moved toward Membership largely out of humility, and perhaps also an uncertainty over what they have personally experienced counts as convincement. To my mind they are true Quakers.

  2. Thankyou Craig and thankyou Friends who have commented. This is extremely interesting and challenging.I have always loved that Philip Rack passage but these observations are very helpful to me. I suspect I mainly love it for its poetic quality. On the whole I think I feel I am on a rock (no sense whatsoever, of going anywhere else but Quakers) even though its rather a strange kind of rock... maybe we need another visual image to work here. A sturdy solid boat? Though I am essentially a typical ex professional middle class type person. I do agree that to attract a more diverse group of attenders/members, less seeking and more finding is probably a good notion!

  3. Very interesting article. I'm not sure I do recognise the distinction between twice-borns and happy seekers. In the past I have always read the Philip Rack passage as more of a description of a community made up of people in different places on their spiritual journeys rather than as a description of two factions. There are times when we all feel spiritually cold or undirected and the message is to bear with and uphold those members of the community who are weathering the storm.

    Two things strike me, the first is that seeking and finding are not mutually exclusive. We work with the truth we have in order to have more revealed to us. 'Live up to the light thou hast, and more will be granted thee' QFP 26.04. Perhaps there is an overemphasis on seeking and we forget to mention what we have already found?
    The second is that the stead-fast 'rock' faith described in the passage takes a very, very, very long time to develop. What may appear to some as a superficial 'happy seeker' mentality could be the beginnings something with more depth - where else can you start? So for me, it is less about being a seeker or a twice-born and more about using our Quaker 'findings' to empower people to nurture their own faith.

    1. Hi Ellen,
      This is a very helpful way to think of the journey - we all have to start where we are, and to support each other along the way.
      In Friendship,

  4. This is a very interesting article and I think does describe something about Quakers and people with an interest in a spiritual life. However I mostly need to object to the description of Buddhist groups (second to last paragraph) which seems to be very poorly researched and biased. The well established Buddhist orders and groups that I know are all active in the world, supporting people, running activist groups around ecological issues and promoting service as a valuable part of a spiritual life. For me Buddhism is the very best way to deepen a spiritual practice, it has clear maps of the inner worlds to navigate and brilliant teachers who have walked these paths ahead of their students. For those who do want more than seeking, who do look for the Truth, Buddhism offers clearly defined methods of moving closer to that. Its a shame that this has not been recognised here and a more balanced view presented. Adrienne

    1. Yes I agree that the sentence about Buddhism is a bit thoughtless, which is a shame. But perhaps it is also a bit unfair on characterizing all evangelicals as dogmatic and orthodox. Evangelical Baptist leader Steve Chalke is definitely more towards the "happy seeker" end has has posted a number of interesting talks "Chalke Talks" on the web for the 500th anniversary of Luther's 95 theses. Chalke intends to give 95 such talks, one a week, but is at around the mid 30s at present. They are definitely worth listening to. He still regards himself as an "evangelical" - though there are, it has to be said, many evangelicals who call him a "heretic". The latter are those who (to slightly alter the quote from QFP): "have a strong sense of right and wrong for themselves personally AND for everyone else"!

      BTW are you the Adrienne I know from Abingdon LM?


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)