This is the third of a three-part series on whether or not Quakers can be “Publishers of Truth” today. In this series I want to talk about how I think early Quakers understood what it meant to be “publishers of truth” in earlier years (Part 1), just a couple challenges we face when it comes to a conversation about “truth” as Friends in 2017 (Part 2), and what it might look like for us to have a new the nursery of truth and be “Publishers of the pert near true” today (Part 3).*
For a quick recap, in the previous post, I suggested that those who consider themselves politically/theologically progressive can get caught in a cycle of thinking of truth as facts stripped of any emotion, narrative, or even joy. If this is anywhere near an accurate assessment then the next step is to invite you, my dear readers, to consider becoming people who utilize ethical and creative storytelling, humor and other similar methods, such as what Stephen Duncombe calls “Ethical Spectacles,” to subvert dominant narratives and to serve social justice. Telling the truth slant and or being purveyors of the “pert near true” (something that is so true that it doesn’t really matter whether it happened or not) is something that can and should be used in service for the good, just as Jesus himself exemplified.
In this final post, I want to suggest a few, very limited, ideas about what we might do to create a new kind of nursery of truth for today, where we could learn these practices together in community.
A New Nursery of Truth
How do we take all of this into account and really begin to re-envision a nursery of truth for today?
Are there ways in which we can respond to polarizations, speak into pluralistic spaces and be far more creative in our approach to truth?
If we are to be publishers of truth today (or the “pert near true” if you like), we need a nursery of truth that takes into account the many challenges we, and the people in our communities face in these times of racial injustice, religious bigotry, class struggle, and attacks on LGBTQ+ people. One that understands that any claims to truth must really be able to account for and be in solidarity with those most vulnerable.
How do we publish this truth, and more importantly live it, in ways that are effective and shape a new generation’s imagination and practice?
I go back to this old idea of the nursery of truth and see at least three things that we can do to respond:
We cannot be publishers of truth if we are not first communities of truth
I think that we must first be apprentices to truth and then we need to find ways to help make other apprentices to the truth. We will need courage to do this. We need to be able and willing to be uncomfortable, and we need to do our own work in order for this to happen. But we cannot publish truth if we do not know it, are not discerning it and are not trying to live it.
It reminds me of something I overheard at meeting once:
I love those new yard signs that sit outside some of my neighbors homes and say “Love and Tolerance Live Here.” This is what I find when I come to Quaker meeting. I just got one of those signs to put up in my yard, which I will do just as soon as College Basketball season is over.
A nursery of truth then is a place where we are truly invited to grow, our ideas are challenged, and where we are invested in the work of becoming apprentices of truth within communities of truth.
To me this is very much the nurturing part of what takes places at a nursery, it is about the integrity of the whole process from start to finish and how we tend to the nutrients in the soil so that all living things can grow.
Each community, each meeting, each church will need to figure out what ways the needs of the people are there, how to be open in discerning that truth together and what practices are needed to nurture apprentices to the truth.
We need should be clear about our center
In our nursery of truth, we have the Quaker tradition, a tradition that is deep and wide. And yet, we have often discarded the living tradition for dead practices, contemporary politics, and cultural influences that undermine the real prophetic, participatory and inclusive nature of our tradition.
In other words, Yearly Meetings and Monthly Meetings ought to be able to be clear about what their spiritual center is, where they draw life from, what it means to be obedient to that Life, and what it looks like as a community that is shaped by that center. If they are not able to do this, then part of the nursery, I would think, would be doing the work of moving in this direction. If we are focused primarily on tending to the Spiritual Center we will also have less need to protect and police our boundaries, of what is and isn’t Quaker, what behaviors and beliefs pass muster. There seems to be a lot of purity Quakerism floating around these days. I think this is because we’re less clear about our core, the center of our identity. Where we are less able to stand on our own two feet as people of faith, we become more enmeshed and reactive to others around us and how they make us look. When this happens, it is as though we have lost the content of who we are and so all we have left is the form and we must protect that form at all costs.
Consider for instance a vine-grower, she does not spend a lot of time convincing people that these are vines and not peach trees. She knows what they are and she acts according to the needs of that species.
When we are constantly reacting to or adjusting our beliefs and practices without any longer term discernment, weighing things against the bigger picture and trajectory tradition, or because a few individuals don’t believe or don’t like something within the tradition, we fall into what might be called a spirograph mentality.
You set the pen down into the little plastic apparatus and as it goes around the wheel the pen moves in every different direction. There are certain gears you can use that lose any clear sense of anchor or center and there are gears which give all the movement and back and forth while actually reinforcing and strengthening the center.
In The Nursery Death is Part of the Process
And finally, one last piece for our new nursery of truth, after it is clear about who it is – what it is growing, and what it is doing – nurturing the soil and making apprentices, is that it is willing to prune and welcome death.
In the years immediately following the First World War, the Quakers worked in Poland distributing food and clothing. One of the workers who served a cluster of villages there became ill with typhus and in twenty-four hours he was dead. In this village there was only a Roman Catholic cemetery, and by canonical law it was quite impossible to bury one not of that confession in its consecrated ground. So they laid their cherished friend in a grave dug just outside the fence of the Roman Catholic cemetery. The ’next morning they discovered that in the night the villagers had moved the fence so that it embraced the grave. —Douglas Steere: Mutual irradiation, a Quaker view of ecumenism (Pendle Hill pamphlet, no. 175), 1971, p. 7.
The story about moving the fence out to include the grave is a great one. It especially has the making of a feel-good story that should be used in a talk.
So let’s look at this story in a few different ways:
There is a Liberal reading to this story, we are happy because it is about including everyone. “No one is excluded” is a liberal motto, unless of course by including “them” we would have to face into some of our own prejudices and isms. Then we may not actually be that interested.
The conservative reading is different. A conservative mind sees this as a concession that ends up watering down the whole group. It is a betrayal for what we stand for and if you have enough of these betrayals you lose your identity.
But there is a more radical reading, which is inspired by Peter Rollins’ book “The Divine Magician,” and it is that the power in this story is that the fence is not about religious inclusion or further heresy by some, but rather the fence was moved to welcome new experiences of death.
Within our community, we need to extend the fence to welcome a new kind of death. Death of the old structures that are dying. Death of our projections about who we think we really are. Death of the way that we have told our stories about Quakers in the past in ways that have not been honest or not amplified marginalized voices. Death to our Quaker sensibilities that keep us from working with other religious, and especially other Christian, groups. Death to purity theology and gatekeeping. Publishers of the pert near true can help us with this. They can help us see, as Jesus saw, that death never has the final word. They can also help us face the things we lack as a community and own up to them.
I wonder how much we are afraid to die, whether figuratively or literally, and how much this impacts how we think about Quakerism? To what extent do we love our ideas and history so much that we use these things to shield ourselves from any kind of challenge or change. Do we think we are that special?
The work of Quakers publishing truth in earlier times has been much more about pointing the finger outward, I cannot help but think that now much of the work of publishing truth should be aimed at exposing the lack within Quakerism and helping us come to terms with it so we can move beyond it and find new life. Or maybe it can help us come to terms with what it is that keeps us from embracing the new works of God in our midst now?
Vanessa’s Julye and Donna McDaniel’s book, Fit For Freedom Not for Friendship, is a good example of this kind of publishing truth for inward change. It exposes truths that show we have not always been who we say we are or who we want to be, our story is far more complicated than we often make it out to be. It is a book that makes us feel uncomfortable but confirms what many on the outside looking in have known for a long time. But we also shouldn’t just read it and give up because it’s too hard. We take what we learn there and we digest it, we make it a part of who we are and what we do so we can move through it, build on it, and become a stronger, more just community.
My hope is that this new Nursery of Truth can help us develop new counter-narratives within Quakerism, amplify new voices and experiences within our communities, and discern the Spirit as faithfully as we can. Walking cheerfully over the earth, publishing the pert near true wherever we go.