Truth And The Golden Age

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Awhile back I was studying at a well-stocked Quaker library, doing some writing for my dissertation. As I looked through the shelves I began to notice something, the overwhelming majority of the books I could find were books about the history of Quakerism, biographies of Quakers long past, journals, and pamphlets of Quaker ancestors, genealogies, and spirituality books written largely by people dead and gone. I stood in the aisle between bookshelves and wondered, “Is Quakerism already dead?” Why is there such an emphasis on the past and so little theology being written in dialogue with the questions and challenges of today?

One approach to recapturing “truth” within faith traditions is what we could call the “golden age” approach. I have witnessed this within my own tradition, but I know it happens elsewhere. The idea is that the truth embedded within one’s tradition was the most-pure at the very beginning of that tradition’s history. Every subsequent change or adaptation that following generations make pale in comparison. They are at best a simulacrum of the original vision. One way this is evident is all of the writings and conferences based around topics such as: “the original vision of ________” or “the future of the ________ church.” While I certainly see a need for these kinds of conversations, I think they betray a sense of failure embedded within how we view ourselves in relationship to our tradition: we have already lost the original vision, we are currently not taking into account thinking about the future, etc.

Another way I see evidence of an idealized time is how we talk about our history. For instance, when I bring up the various splits and breaks within our denomination, the room goes cold. “Look at us! Look at what we’ve done! We’re no better than anybody else.” Translation: because we have splits and breaks – i.e. differing interpretations of the original vision – we have therefore lost the original vision. We have failed.

One final way I see idea of “truth as the golden age” approach is to reject the value and importance of the tradition altogether. We see this with the obsession with newness, innovation, fresh starts, current data, consultants, etc. Again, I am not opposed to these things necessarily, but when they are used as a replacement for a deep understanding and apprenticing to our particular community’s narrative and tradition, then we are trading one “golden age” for another.

This “Let’s Make Quakerism Great Again” mentality says something about how we understand truth and what it means to possess it. What I have argued above points to what might be a subconscious attitude about truth: there is a discontinuity between past, present and future in regards to truth, rather than seeing it as evolutionary, in process, always changing and shifting, embedded within communities, etc.

I think this approach to truth is a lot like the Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner, a constant pursual with the hopes of never actually catching its object of desire. In other words, while we idealize the past and our forefathers and mothers, I find it peculiar that we are not all doing exactly the kinds of things that they did: memorizing the bible, speaking in a certain very plain English way, wearing certain clothes, writing tract after tract about our theological commitments to Jesus, the Bible, God, etc. In other words, if we really thought that there was a golden age within our tradition, why are we not more fully acting it out?

In his book, The Divine Magician, Peter Rollins sheds insight on this question. Rollins points out that we tend to think there is a sacred object in retrieving x. In the case under examination, early Quakerism. If we only had the fervor of the early Friends, Quakerism in America might experience a renewal, or better yet revival. Meetings would be full. Yearly Meeting’s budgets would be met. We’d stop feuding and splitting. But this is all a distraction from dealing with today’s realities. The sacred object of a purer, more unified, Golden-age Quakerism is impossible to find and achieve. There was no such thing. It’s like Trump’s slogan to “Make America Great Again.” The truth is that for many in this country, America has never been great, while at the same time it is also true that America was previously great for some – mostly white, land-owning men. Since there has been settlers, America has never been great for Native Americans. It has never been Great for Africans who were enslaved and brought to this country, nor has it been great for their ancestors. It has never been great for millions of poor folks, immigrants…

In a similar way, I think that a “Make Quakerism Great Again,” approach is not going to get us to renewal. Within just a few years of the movement, there were divisions between George Fox and others such as John Perrott. In only short time more, James Nayler was tortured by the British Government over charges of blasphemy, this all went back to strong disagreements and ill-feelings between Nayler and Fox. We all know that many early Friends enslaved Africans in the “new world.” Our earliest abolitionists, such as Woolman and Benezet, were on the very margins of the Quaker world. Woolman didn’t even live to see the time when Quakers renounced slavery. Many of our schools – primary and secondary – suffered from late-stage integration. Instead of being the trailblazers in this regard, many Quaker Schools were led by Quakers who supported “separate but equal.” There were Quakers who participated in really harmful boarding school practices with Native Americans. Quakers have a terrible history around supporting marriage rights for people and for a long time excommunicated folks who didn’t marry “in the family.” And we could continue, think about the situation of John Wilbur and John Gurney, where Wilbur would literally follow Gurney every place he went to preach in the US and denounce everything he said after he said it. We could talk about other theological disagreements, and how about Quakers more so than many other Christian traditions so quickly and so wholesale gave up on either their Christian theological language and practice or their particular tradition and its practices.

So this idea that we might retrieve some perfect time of Quakerism is to fetishize our history as a “sacred object,” that in turn does not actually exist and is not actually achievable in our world given the many challenges we face both as Quakers and as human beings in the twenty-first century. This model of retrieval of the sacred object is what keeps us from realizing that we have what we need now. What would it look like instead to value the past, learn from it, but stop idealizing it and embrace who we are now and the challenges, questions that we must lean into? That the Kingdom of God is not ahead of us in some elusive way, but rather it is among us. And our work, as it has always been, is to be listening to the Spirit of God in our midst and discerning and acting on that in community. For Quakers, truth has always had an immediate and present quality to it.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

12 thoughts on “Truth And The Golden Age”

  1. To some extent, I bristled, because I’m a history nerd, and so I enjoy reading Quaker history and comparing to now, and I *do* think there’s a lot we can learn from our past. But of course, you’re right it wasn’t all sunshine and daisies. I want to learn all I can about Friends’ practices over time, so we can cherry pick the best and build something stronger.

    In some ways, I think Friends’ history has been a lot of swinging from one extreme to another. “We are Christians, and the only legitimate ones at that!” “Eh, Christianity? I don’t know about that.” “We are called to holiness and perfection, and we believe the Inward Light of Christ will show us our faults that we might come closer to that holiness.” “We don’t do rules, and you can believe anything as long as you share our values (testimonies).”

    It’s enough to give you whip lash, like we blew right past the happy medium. (I’m remembering Fran Taber’s circle chart of Quaker theology, reproduced on page 147 in Pink Dandelion’s Introduction to Quakerism).

    1. MacKenzie, I appreciate what you’re saying here and agree. I too not only like history/tradition but think it is deeply important for thinking about “where do we go from here?” Tradition is the raw material of our Quaker communities, the more in touch we are with it the more grounded and creative we out to be in how we draw on it and use it in our discernment. Part of my problem is that it gets idealized so much that we refuse to adapt it, reinterpret it or make it useful in today’s world in meaningful ways. Thus, a very high place of history can actually lead, in my view, to becoming less and less useful over the long haul. It’s like the fancy China that many used to get for wedding gifts and would then never be used from that point forward. I do not want folks to think that to value Quaker tradition is to treat it like China tucked away in a hutch somewhere.

      1. Over on Reddit, Dave Hanson mentioned learning history as a uniting force between the branches, and I think that’s important too. I’ve noticed in BYM, where we had the H/O schism but not the G/W one, people don’t necessarily know the G/W one happened. They know there were 2 BYMs, thus there must have only been one schism before. Erm, nope. And that means the existence of Conservative (Wilburite) Friends is a surprise when i mention it. I’ve explained to many Friends online and off that actually, no, Evangelical Friends aren’t an aberration “because Quakers don’t proselytize.” Early Friends did a hell of a lot of proselytizing.

        I forget where I first saw it, but the line I tend to give about the branches is “each decided to emphasize a different aspect of Friends’ tradition, and we all lost something.” And that can certainly sound Golden Age-y, but I mean it as a reason why we need to cross pollinate and find out what we’re missing that the others have.

        Of course, given OYM’s demographics problem, they could be a perfect example of what you’re saying about how holding too tightly to the past is a path away from growth.

        1. I love this. Great insight, McKenzie. I think you’re right about how history plays out differently in the different contexts.

  2. And what if we could return to our “Golden Age”? Then we would be what Quakers were called to be in 1660 (or whenever). Our task is to try to become what Spirit is calling us to be in the present. The past is meaningful for providing inspiration, common reference points, wisdom to draw on, but it should not be our model for ourselves in present time.

  3. I’ve gained a certain comfort reading the longer works of some of the old ministers. Samuel Bownas’s description of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s disfunctionality circa 1700 feels spot on. Many of the issues we lift up, bemoan, or grieve over are the same ones more passionate Friends have always wrestled with. The Golden Ages were just as messy and frustrating and lacking in signposts as ours. This could be depressing but I’ve chosen to take it as comfort. There was no Golden Age/This is the Golden Age. We drink from the same well. Let us find nourishment.

    1. I think it was Arthur David Olson who said when he first moved into Baltimore YM, he was concerned at the age distribution in the YM. It looked like we weren’t long for this world.
      Now he sees the same age distribution he saw 30+ years ago. It’s not that there aren’t young people. It’s just that retired people have more time to serve! Continuity.

      1. Yes, well, I’ve heard that sentiment in Philadelphia and think it’s a cop-out. Whenever there’s a demographic group missing, there’s a reason it’s missing. And I’m saying that as someone who’s watched my yearly meeting be unwelcoming to certain voices for… 30 years.

        1. Ok yeah, it can be. The point was just that “oh no everybody was born before 1940” turned into “oh no everybody was born before 1970.” The 1940-1970 crew eventually caught up. And given what’s going on in your YM right now, I am appropriately chastised.

          Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture included pointing out that 43 is the average age when Brits start attending meeting, and also only 65 of ~500 meetings have First Day School, and hey, those might just be related. Gotta wait for the kids to grow up before you can check out the Quakers.

          There’s also “where are you looking?” Because the demographics at annual sessions (come, take a week off of work and pay $500 to stay 100 miles from home and either an extra $300 for your kid or hire a live-in babysitter for the week) versus at interim meeting (or “committee day” I heard Kathleen call it for NEYM) versus serving on committees versus serving in more ad-hoc roles…these are all probably pretty different. If you’re in college or you have young kids, then “hey, can you help me with this thing next week?” is more likely to be up your alley than “hey, can you make a 3 year commitment to coming to committee meetings every month with tasks assigned in between?”

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