Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Evolutionary Quakers

The Quaker way has changed profoundly over the last five decades. The liberal Quakerism that was developed by figures such as John Wilhelm Rowntree and Rufus Jones at the turn of the 20th Century was an explicitly Christian church, sharing much in common with other liberal Protestant denominations. By the beginning of the 21st Century, it had become something quite different - pluralist and hyper-diverse in belief, with explicit Christian language relegated to heavily-edited and frequently bowdlerised quotations from a small number of historic Quaker texts.

The large-scale movement of liberal Quakers away from an exclusively Christian worldview to embrace a wide diversity of spiritual and secular approaches is an accomplished fact, which has unfolded steadily over the last half century. It is easy to overlook the extent of this change by pointing to continuities in practice and organisation. But the meaning and lived experience of Quaker practices is hugely different according to the stories and images through which they are understood and interpreted. Quaker worship that is conceived as a space to recharge our spiritual batteries, to reflect on our values and to look for something good in everyone (as just one possible interpretation) is a very different practice to the outwardly identical behaviour that is understood as an act of surrender and devotion to a personal God, who is known through the judgements and leadings of the inward voice of Christ.

The steady migration of liberal Quakers away from the Christian story is usually interpreted in one of two ways. It is most often portrayed as a kind of progress - the outgrowing of a restrictive or limiting inheritance, and a development into a larger, freer and more inclusive outlook. Alternatively, some Quakers have criticised the growing secularisation and pluralism of liberal Quakers as leading to a more superficial, individualised ‘supermarket of ideas’ rather than a shared and transformative religious faith.

Is it possible to understand the transformation of the Quaker tradition other than through the concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘decline’?

All change involves loss. In this case, the loss of a shared culture; a common set of stories, images and a language for sharing our spiritual experiences. This has large consequences, because the stories and images that we use to interpret the world have a profound influence on the way that we experience and act in it. As our individual stories and images diverge, inevitably our experiences tend to have less in common as well, which contributes to a lack of mutual comprehension and erosion of the community’s ability to nourish and challenge its members through shared understandings of core Quaker practices.

At the same time, the expansion of the stories and symbolism in use by the Quaker community has been a significant benefit to many people, perhaps especially those for whom the Christian story, language and symbolism is impossible to accept, but who have found life-giving images and ideas in other traditions. Over recent decades our culture has experienced the explosion of monolithic narratives and the erosion of institutional claims to exclusive truth or virtue, helped along by continuing exposure of abuses of power by Church institutions of all kinds. As a result, the language and imagery of the Christian story has become toxic for large numbers of people. Many of those for whom Christian language has no resonance or positive associations at all have found the Quaker way to offer a path of spiritual nourishment, challenge and transformation, which would have been closed to them if it were still an exclusively Christian movement. In this context, it is futile to argue that the language of the Bible has an exclusive claim to validity and should be the sole authoritative resource for all Quakers.

Perhaps an alternative understanding of this transformation of the Quaker way, which avoids interpreting it as simply ‘progress’ or ‘decline’ might see it as an example of cultural evolution. In exactly the same way that other cultural forms, such as language or music, change and diversify over time, religious traditions are constantly being transformed, generating new meanings and frequently branching into different sects or denominations.

It is unfortunately common to misunderstand the concept of evolution as a kind of progress. In biology, evolution does not progress towards any goal, and does not aim at any overall improvement or superiority of one species over another. Natural selection simply works towards the best possible adaptation of organisms to their current environment (which includes the other organisms that inhabit it). It does not inevitably tend towards producing anything higher or better; instead, there is a constant and aimless drifting of genetic information, as species are gradually transformed in response to the random pressures of their environment.

By a very similar process, cultural forms are also subject to evolutionary pressures and are transformed in similar ways. All contemporary languages have evolved from a much smaller number of historical ancestors. They are all being transformed through random processes, such as drifts in the meanings and pronunciation of words, as well as the creation of new languages among isolated groups of language users (by the same process that creates new species of organisms).

Just as it would be ridiculous to claim that English is ‘superior’ to German, or that Afrikaans is ‘more advanced’ than Dutch, just because they have evolved from common ancestor-languages, it is equally false to see any kind of evolutionary change as evidence of progress. The misleading expression ‘more evolved’, which is often used to suggest superiority, is actually quite meaningless.

With this caveat, it might be possible to see the changes in the Quaker way as a normal example of cultural evolution, by which a religious tradition is continuously adapting to the evolutionary pressures of its social environment, including the needs and motivations of the people who make up the Quaker community at a given time. Contemporary liberal Quakerism has changed and diversified in modern times, in response to the growing secularism and pluralism of its cultural environment. At the same time, it has diverged from other branches of the Quaker family, with which it shares a fairly recent common ancestry, as well other branches of the Christian church, from which it started to diverge in the mid-17th Century.

This evolutionary change towards a pluralist and post-Christian movement is not straightforwardly better or worse. It has certainly been a useful adaptation for enabling many people to find a home in a spiritually welcoming community, while at the same time producing a loss of shared religious experience and language. But the only real test for any cultural form or species subject to natural selection is how well it fits its environment, which determines its ability to survive and reproduce itself.

In the biological world, the preferences and satisfaction of individual organisms are irrelevant to the survival of the species. In cultural evolution, the needs of human beings are part of the environment that shapes the survival and transmission of cultural forms such as religious traditions. In this sense, the environment of the Quaker way includes all of the current social, cultural and economic factors that affect it, and the preferences and assumptions that the culture tends to produce in current and potential Friends. But the ‘environment’ also includes the enduring and deep-seated needs of the human beings that the tradition needs to retain and attract in order to reproduce itself.

If, as seems undeniable, the current form of the Quaker way is on a gradual but steady path towards extinction through failure to renew its numbers, perhaps this is evidence of a lack of ‘fit’ with the underlying reality of human beings’ need and desire for profound experiences of spiritual reality. In this case, perhaps the path towards renewal is not by returning to the cultural forms that were well-adapted to the society and culture of a previous Christian culture. Neither is it necessarily to be even more conformed to contemporary culture, if that means failing to meet the deep and compelling spiritual needs that are ignored or denied by a purely secular society. Instead, the renewal of the Quaker way may depend on a new ‘mutation’ in its language, imagery and concepts, that enables it to answer the deepest human needs in a way that fits their experience and the reality of our society, now and in the future.


  1. For many of the reasons you touch on continuing as we were was not really an option, adapting to our changing environment and society has been happening over many centuries. Maybe we can be curious about where it will lead.

  2. Surely Quakerism as it is right now can answer that of God in everyone. I feel that we as a "movement" are very in touch with each other and therefore are changing as culture changes, even tho' we may not be aware of it. There is an unchangeable core to Quakerism but, as Craig says, maybe the language has to change so that society as a whole can understand and embrace it. Society is certainly crying out for Quakerism without knowing it now.

  3. Excellent - clear and dispassionate. I hope we can find that new language that will help us to adapt to the current environment. There is a huge need, and we could be a part of an answer to that need.
    To contribute an extra anecdotal point, recently I have talked to a number of Quakers who also have a long-term and serious Buddhist practice. They all have said that there is something they find in Quaker ways, that is lacking in Buddhism(and vice-versa of course!) One has even said that he sees a combining of Quaker ways and Buddhist ones as the only way that either can survive and thrive in the UK.
    On another note, does the recent book 'God, Words and Us' further the work of evolving our Way?

    1. Thanks for this Susie. I'd definitely recommend 'God, Words and Us' as an important contribution to the conversation about the future of the Quaker way. It probably has more to offer in helping to clear away some of the unhelpful and confusing obstacles to that conversation, but also contains some intriguing hints of possible future directions, which I may return to in a future post.
      In Friendship,

  4. This is a great analysis of the cultural evolution of the Quaker way. But it rests on an assumption that Christian Friends do not share, that there isn't a God involved; that religion is just culture.

    Now maybe it's true that this religion—liberal Quakerism—is just culture. Certainly it would be impossible to identify any distinct Spirit behind its experience, let alone its evolution. But real spiritual renewal would, I think, depend on communion with the Spirit behind our experience, not more successful adaptation to the demands of the environment and the needs of the people in its ecosystem.

    So what Spirit IS behind, or within, our experience of the gathered meeting? And where, if anywhere, is it leading us? Those are the questions that matter to me.

    I'm inclined to call it the spirit of the Christ, as a matter of faith, since that has been our testimony for centuries. But it's clear that that spirit is not coming to us with his name tag on. He (sic) also doesn't seem to be doing much for the Christ-centered meetings, either: they confess his name, but are they any more directed or gathered? Are they growing rather than declining?

    The Christ whom Christian Friends confess "is not changeable", even though he does seem to change in the accounts we get from the gospels. John's Christ has very little in common with Mark's, for instance. Did God create a world through the Word/Logos/Christ that EVOLVES as its primary historical/developmental engine, whilst the Christ/Logos himself/itself DOES NOT EVOLVE?

    I think the Christ-spirit DOES evolve, as the spirit of evolution itself, in a sense. Maybe this reflects my love of Teilhard de Chardin, who first conceived this idea. Certainly it's just speculation. But for me it provides a framework for an evolving Quakerism that does not utterly cut itself off from its roots.

    On the other hand, it does cut itself off from the traditional framework of salvation from sin in Christ that animated early Friends and, for that matter, John Wilhelm Rowntree and Rufus Jones. But that legacy framework not only doesn't work for many of us anymore, it is also just a framework, a theology. It is not the spirit of Christ itself. I am trying to turn toward that Spirit I experience as the Light within me and as that in which we are gathered collectively in the covered meeting for worship, not toward a framework, however venerable.

    1. I am a non-Christian Quaker, though I don't deny the experience of Christian Friends - merely view it as one experience among many. However, the question of "unvarying spirit" comes up enough that I've thought through my answer to it.

      The Spirit, or God, or Christ, may be unvarying and eternal and constant, but the world isn't. This is why continuing revelation is necessary; what was an adequate-for-the-time-and-place leading or commandment or revelation cannot continue to be appropriate and adequate as times and places (and people) change. As a society (in the wider sense), we become able to handle more. Conditions in the world mean that the ideal pattern of behaviour changes.

      Thus, evolving society and revelation, and evolving spiritual experience, need not contradict the idea of an eternal and unchanging Spirit.

      Just a thought.

    2. "So what Spirit IS behind, or within, our experience of the gathered meeting? And where, if anywhere, is it leading us?" Yes, this is surely the most vital question for us to discern as Quaker communities.
      I would rather not have given the impression that I assume 'there isn't a God involved'. I do assume that all religious societies and institutions are human creations - God doesn't build churches or meeting houses. But the deep human need for God is the reason that religious societies exist - to provide a vehicle for encounter with the Inward Christ, and those that fail to do this are in trouble.
      The 'eternal and unvarying' idea doesn't seem to me to have much to do with Christianity. It is simply Platonism, which was early taken up as a dominant theme in Christian theology, with more harmful than helpful results in my opinion.
      In Friendship,

    3. For an excellent discussion of spiritual pluralism versus the idea of one unvarying spiritual reality, see Jorge N. Ferrer's _Revisiting Transpersonal Theory_.

    4. Cfraig, you write:
      "The 'eternal and unvarying' idea doesn't seem to me to have much to do with Christianity. It is simply Platonism, which was early taken up as a dominant theme in Christian theology, with more harmful than helpful results in my opinion."

      Could you explain why (mine's a genuine inquiry), in your opinion, the "Platonism' you mentioned presents a problem. Is it something to do with Hellenistic other-worldiness?

    5. Hi Gerard,
      Basically, yes. I see the idea that 'there is another world that is more real than this one' as a generally harmful influence in western thought and culture, as it has tended to devalue the real world of history, people and the natural world, in favour of an other-worldly supernatural realm.
      In Friendship,

  5. From Brian Holley

    Firstly, I'm not sure that it's true that evolution does not progress toward any goal. After all, you say, Craig, that, "Natural selection simply works towards the best possible adaptation of organisms to their current environment . . ." That sounds like a goal of sorts to me. I prefer to think of evolution as stochastic; that is both random and purposeful. Many biological functions have to begin their development before they are needed. The function of the ductus arterios in babies, for instance. As I understand it, before birth this function enables blood to bi-pass the baby’s lungs. Until the moment of birth the baby’s blood has been oxygenated by its mother because its own lungs have been full of liquid. At the moment of birth the ductus arterios shuts down and is subsequently absorbed into the body. This enables oxygen to get into the blood stream through the baby's lungs in the normal way. The timing of this event is critical. Too soon or too late and the baby will suffocate.
    Surely this function had to be in place very early in the evolution of the human being and technically, it had to be functional before it was needed. Clearly, it exists for a very specific purpose – to enable the baby to live in the womb. As soon as birth is triggered it stops operating and dies. How could any of this be purely accidental or random?

    What is observable is that there is an enabling toward life going on consistently in all living things. As Robert Pirsig asks, while the laws of thermodynamics demand things should all wind down, why does life keep winding up?

    I see a widespread trend toward a less knowledge-based understanding of spiritual things and more experience-based one. I meet Buddhists, Sufis, Bahais, Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists and pagans who all share my own experience of stillness in silence that is the core of the Quaker way. Fox's amazing revelation was that this was a primary experience, not one which arose from belief in doctrine. The experience in silence (it needs no label or explanation. Once you've had it you know what it is.) is all that is needed for the transformation of life into one exhibiting peace, love and joy. Fox put it in a Christian context and that was OK until the context was lost. Having lost the context, many lost the experience, and that is the situation we need to be addressing today. We cannot think our way into that spacious experience of stillness nor achieve it by dint of effort, we have to learn to allow ourselves to notice the inner stillness or, as Fox put it, "die to the knowledge, die to the understanding, die to the wisdom". The best all our words can do is prepare the way for that experience by enabling us to put aside all that hinders it.

    Brian Holley

    1. Hi Brian,
      "Having lost the context, many lost the experience, and that is the situation we need to be addressing today." This is excellently put, and I am with you completely on the primacy of experience. Although I do believe that the stories and images that we use also help to shape our experiences.
      "Robert Pirsig asks, while the laws of thermodynamics demand things should all wind down, why does life keep winding up?" As he should know, entropy is only staved off on Earth because of the constant input of additional energy in the form of sunlight. Cut that off, and life would wind down pretty quickly.
      In Friendship,


"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)