Thursday, 2 June 2016

Friends and Truth

Photo: Lee Taylor
As Quakers, we often seem to struggle with the idea of truth. It has become common for Friends to substitute the expression ‘my truth’ or ‘our truths’ instead of ‘the truth’. This reflects the huge influence of relativist ideas on the wider culture, which have led many Friends to reject the validity of any claims to religious truth.

Anyone who has studied social sciences, philosophy or literature in the last thirty years will have been taught the postmodernist orthodoxy that we cannot speak about objective truth. There are only ‘truth-claims’ that are justified according to the culturally-relative standards of certain audiences in certain contexts. We cannot say anything about ‘truth’ as such, only the particular 'truths' contained within specific cultural stories. Even the claims of modern astronomy and physics are no more true than medieval ideas about the nature of the universe. They are just different stories, justified according to culturally-relative criteria, and useful for particular culturally-specific purposes.

In his consistently fascinating blog, the Quaker theologian Ben Wood has recently attempted to build a bridge between traditional Quaker spirituality and the postmodernist ideas of some non-theist writers, by arguing that the Quaker way does not depend on claiming the truth of its stories about God. According to this view, it is not the truth of our words and actions that are important, but simply their consistency with our shared narratives:

"The knowledge-terrain changes from matters of ‘objective truth’ to the more complex arena of narrative consistency. The question is not, what can I say is ‘out there’? Rather, the issue is, what can I say which is consistent with the stories I hold dear?"
(Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without metaphysics)
"According to this account, how do we know when we are speaking and acting coherently as Quakers? We know because our speech and consequent action are consistent with our story of ‘peace’, ‘truth’ and ‘love’." 
(Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without metaphysics Part 2)
I find Ben's approach appealing and convincing in many ways; particularly his argument that Quakers should not try to justify our faith on the basis of philosophical theories of knowledge that are alien to our tradition. Instead, it is our shared language and stories, which are open to interpretation in a wide range of ways, that sustain a common tradition of Quaker practice. I also agree that it is the fruits of our practice in the lives we lead that are the final criteria of the authenticity of our faith.

But does this mean that truth is irrelevant to the Quaker way? Truth has played an important role in our tradition -‘Friends of the Truth’ was one of the earliest names adopted by the Quaker movement. It is difficult to imagine that Friends such as James Nayler and Mary Dyer, who were killed for proclaiming the Quaker message, would have been prepared to die purely for the sake of ‘narrative consistency’. They believed that their lives and actions testified to the truth of the nature and purposes of God, and this belief was central to the Quaker story that they inhabited:

"My life not availeth me in comparison to the liberty of the truth."
(Mary Dyer, 1660)
According to the Quaker tradition itself, truth is not a matter of abstract philosophical argument. It is the conformity of our words, actions and lives to the reality of God. This does not rely on any particular theory about the precise nature of the relationship between statements and reality, about which there are many flavours of philosophical opinion. But it does require a belief in a real world, apart from the stories we tell ourselves, for our words and actions to conform to.

To claim that there is something called ‘truth’ does not imply that the Quaker way is the only true story about the world, or that it includes the whole truth about reality. But the possibility of truthfulness does imply that our statements and actions can, to a greater or lesser extent, be in a right relationship to the world as it is. This relationship may always and inevitably be partial, because of the apparently infinite subtlety and complexity of the world. But a conviction of the possibility of truth is internal to the Quaker story. It cannot be jettisoned and replaced with an ‘ironic’, fictional reading of our religious tradition without rejecting something that is essential to Quaker faith and practice.

None of us can ever lay claim to possession of absolute truth, which will always be beyond any of our stories about it. But it is meaningful to aim at a greater rather than a lesser degree of truthfulness, of conformity between our lives and the order of the world. The test of that truthfulness does not lie in philosophical arguments, but in the degree to which our lives faithfully reflect the peace, justice and compassion of God.


  1. Hi Craig,
    Have you read "Befriending Truth: Quaker Perspectives", edited by the Canadian philosopher and Friend, Jeff Dudiak? It's published by FAHE (2015). If you haven't seen it, check it out. If you have any difficulty in getting it, get back to me and I'll ask Jeff to send you a copy.

    1. I haven't read it, but will look out for it, thanks.

  2. Thanks for this Craig. I too found Ben's posts riveting, and your response is a great addition to the discussion. I think one of the gifts the martyrs of our tradition give to us is how serious the work we're engaged in is. We need to get away from truth as a privately held belief to truth as a way of living. There are lots of lies being told out there that need challenging!

  3. Thank you for addressing this topic. Truth for the Friends was God's self-communication received, not ontological reflection and construction. Lewis Benson begins his essay "Friends and the Truth" by comparing others' term for Friends' faith (Quakerism) with the word they themselves used: "Truth." Benson then goes on to define Fox's understanding of the word.

    This basic conversational relationship between man and his creator is what Fox means by truth. Truth does not consist of particular propositions or a system of propositions. It is rather a dialogic relationship with God. When this dialogic relationship is broken man ceases to fulfill the purpose and destiny that God intended for him. This is the fall of man--the failure to hear and obey the creator. This is what Fox calls "the fall from the truth."

    Likewise stressing the need for an encounter, theologian Emil Brunner describes the effects of that which Friends called "convincement of the truth":

    He who speaks to man and deals with him is He who gives man a new being, no other Creator than He who in the beginning "calls into being that which is not." In the gracious bestowal of this word of love He reveals Himself as the God who in His love created man and destined him for fellowship with Himself. The man who hears the verdict of justification really as the Word of God knows now who God is in His inmost nature and who man is in the sight of God and what he will be through the consummation of that which was begun by the Spirit in faith. He knows now the incredible, never to be foreseen truth, that in God's sight he is identical with the "Son in whom God is well pleased" through whose self-bestowing love he has been given this new status.

    It was the mission of Friends to make visible to all this "incredible, never to be foreseen truth" through ministry of the Word that reconciles to God. Perhaps even for those who have not seen, nor heard, there is an inkling of awareness that first Friends discovered the truth that when proclaimed has the power--then and now--to reach to the witness of God within.

    1. Thank you for this, Pat, which adds a much richer dimension to my account of truth.

    2. Thank you, Pat, for your entry. Fox and the first Friends interchanged frequently, viz: Light = Truth = Christ = the Seed = Love. All of these in various ways and at various times meant Jesus and, again in various ways but at all times the Kingdom of God. In most Friends' works, especially in the formative 15 years and well beyond that too, the Kingdom is central (because it was central to Jesus and the Jesus -followers, i.e. it was biblical unlike, say, the trinity). See my "The Early Quakers and the 'Kingdom of God'"

    3. Thank you, Craig and Gerard. Unlike the other terms that you listed, Gerard, the "Kingdom of God" connotes a sovereign being and will that is distinct from our own, and to which we must respond through obedience in faith. Jesus's placement of the reference to the Kingdom in the Lord's Prayer underscores the primacy of this claim upon us.

      What the first Friends found and proclaimed was incalculably important, and I look forward to reading your book about them. My new website, Abiding Quaker, ( now has a few essays posted. If you visit, you'll see that my approach is not that of a scholar but a minister of the gospel.

  4. In a discussion recently with some Unitarian friends the question 'what is truth?' came up, and I found myself saying, 'Truth is not a thing, it's a place' - adding mentally (since explaining George Fox would have distracted us) 'the place George Fox found "to stand in", a place to speak and live from.' Perhaps the same place Luther found when he said 'hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders' - though naturally, like all of us, Luther was not always infallible about discerning the best thing to do thereafter.
    I'm not saying the philosophical bridge building is irrelevant - it certainly is not - but my gut feeling is that the satisfactory answer to what truth is lies in another arena.
    Thanks as always, Craig, for your words. - Kersti

    1. Thanks for this Kersti - 'a place to speak and live from' is a very fruitful and challenging perspective.

  5. Friend Craig,

    This speaks to me.

    Rex Ambler touches on this same theme, I think, in The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery (2013):

    "If...we remain still and silent, the ego quietens down, and we can see the truth of the matter, irrespective of how it might affect us personally. And as we open ourselves to the truth, whatever it may be, we find that we are being enabled to see.... As we do, we become aware simultaneously of a source of insight and understanding within us that is quite different from our normal, conscious self.

    "This is what we call 'Spirit.' It is not tangible or observable, and it can't be thought about directly, it's so deep and mysterious. But we know it's there because of what it does to us, and with us and through us....

    "Spirit is not a supernatural force that goes against the grain of our nature. It is not irrational feeling or magical manipulation. It is our own deep nature, so that when we get in touch with it we experience it as something entirely natural." (67-68)


  6. We need to look at what Jesus said - that He is the Truth. It is very hard for us to get our human minds around that, so the tendency is to ignore it for all practical purposes (even if we quote it frequently). This is not a propositional view of truth. It is an embodied view, much harder to nail down in our minds. It is more heart-oriented. I think certainly there are strong elements of the embodied view in early Quakerism, but what is key is where we stand.

    1. Agreed. All the gymnastics we exercise in avoiding the Truth-Jesus Christ-will only serve to have a detrimental effect to the life of the Religious Society of Friends.

  7. I'm coming towards the view that our teachings and so forth, even the inconsistent ones, have objective truth in a religious sense - just so do most others (and I wouldn't like to pick which ones). The fact that they seem contradictory is an artefact of our inability to comprehend. In the landscape of the spirit, multiple seemingly contradictory things can be true at once.

    Like a Quantum wavefunction that never collapses.

  8. When I began reading George Fox I took him at this word--that which I could understand, for I had no religious or biblical background. I understood what he meant when he said "The knowledge of thee in the spirit is life, but that knowledge which is fleshly works death. And while there is this knowledge in the flesh, deceit and self-will conform to anything, and will say, 'Yes, yes' to that it doth not know[.]" because I had before said, yes, yes to that which I didn't know (P 10, Journal Of George Fox) and knew the quickening of my spirit when I encountered truth.

    What I find troubling in your blog post (especially because it so well captures contemporary Quaker mentality) is an outward adherence to worldly thoughts and beliefs--be they Christian, secular, or other. Few Quakers seem to have comprehended or experienced the Gospel that Fox, Penington, Barclay, etc., preached. People either are stuck on Fox or quasi-pantheism. Few Quakers seem to embrace Jesus as their Teacher, their inward teacher, who teaches them the ways of God; whose light shows them their sins and how they were without Christ; whose light allows them to hear and see Jesus Christ literally.

    They say they believe in the supernatural but discount its reality, as if it belongs to an ancient time. Truth is grasped as an outward thing rather than something inward whose depths Christ opens to us as we draw nearer to him. All these things and more George Fox speaks of again and again and again, exhorting us to know them, to experience them for ourselves.

    How can you say none of us can ever lay claim to possession of absolute truth when you just made the claim? If I were the source of truth I would lay claim to it and you would be the recipient of it. Since I nor you nor any created being is the source of truth, we're all recipients of it, if we choose to receive it. This George Fox told us because he knew it experientially, as did Mary Dyer, Isaac Penington, Robert Barclay, and I, myself, know it experientially.

    The order of the world is Satan's. People conform to it (as you have demonstrated) unless and until through Jesus they die to it and are reborn in the Spirit. If you understand this world to be all there is, no wonder truth eludes you. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). He is the substance of all things. Satan is the great deceiver. He has had the mind of many peoples for hundreds of years believing the material world is sufficient to explain everything. It's in that belief that most all Quakers, Christians, secularists, atheists, and others have imprisoned themselves.

  9. There is more to truth than factuality -- but there is factuality in a realm in which the physical order of things is merely a subset. Factuality in that realm is the criterion of truth. We can't test such factuality by whether or not we appear to be leading saintly lives (if that was what you intended to say?) but we can know the reality of God's power, wisdom, and love because God shares our desire that we know 'Him'.

    Jesus has been a powerful and effective embodiment of God's intention for our enlightenment to be realized; but we are all limited embodiments of God; so the light within us is not darkness despite the inadequacies of our local perception of it...

    There are multiple 'orders' by which the world is governed, some of them indeed far from a spirit of truth, love, or wisdom... but these are not the true power at work in it. We may only see 'The Kingdom' breaking through like a weed coming up through a sidewalk... but that, however inconspicuous, is the power that governs and over-rides even the darkness.

  10. I don't buy into "post modernist orthodoxy". I find the statement "Even the claims of modern astronomy and physics are no more true than medieval ideas about the nature of the universe" near to absurd and self-evidently untrue if one stops to think about it.

    The reason I say that is that modern science rests on the basis of testing any "truth" that is put forward as such. Indeed nothing is accepted as true until its been thoroughly examined from all angles, prodded, tested, and thought about. Mediaeval ideas were tested.....and found wanting....and thus rejected for better ones. Ideas accepted as "scientifically true" have been through the fire (this is what makes the claims of climate change deniers so pitiful). Science can allow us to communicate around the world in an instance, send people to the moon, cure some diseases....I hardly need go on.

    Truths of this sort are based on "what works". And when they are found to not work in some particular circumstance they are then refined. That is exactly what happened to Newtonian mechanics, when Einstein came along with his relativity. Newton's "truth" had been fine for centuries (and remains fine for the vast majority of earth based situations), but with the advent of space travel (for instance) it has been found that the more accurate truth of relativity is an essential.

    Does that mean that objective truth is available to us if we apply our science hard enough and long enough? I don't think so. But what we do have is truth that is pretty good. Its certainly good enough to be very useful, and enhance human life to a degree unimaginable in past centuries. I suspect there is an objective, absolute truth out there somewhere, but its impossible for subjective humans to access it completely. All we can do is to get a close approximation to it. Or as St Paul put it, "we see through a glass darkly". But the fact remains we do see - to some degree.

    That's all fine, you may say, but what use is science when it comes to truth about God? Or about spirit? Or about consciousness? Or [fill in your own impossible subject area]?

    I find that Ken Wilber has an interesting take on this problem in his book "The Marriage of Sense and Soul". He talks about "narrow science" which limits acceptable evidence for establishing truth to that which comes from our physical senses, hearing, seeing, etc. He contrasts that with a "broad science" which accepts input from a variety of sources, including other states of consciousness which includes meditators and from other spiritual practices. In this vein, I would cite examples such the research done by Dr Penny Sartori on near death experiences. That includes not just recording what people say they experienced, but also asking questions like "could the drugs they were on account for these experiences?" She also cross-checks information obtained from claimed "out of body experiences" with what was actually happening at the time.

    Now we may not be able to answer questions about whether God exists, and if so, who is he/she, any time soon. But many other useful areas are open to us to examine and validate....and I would suggest much of Quaker "truth" comes under that banner.


"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)