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.