A Friend on the nontheist Friends e-mail discussion list at some point challenged us to seriously study early Quaker history, and not just dip into it, “to develop our knowledge of and insights into the origins and development of the tradition or movement we have committed to.” Good advice, no question. And yet I felt compelled to offer a counterpoint, which I repost here with some changes:
I am one of those who has only dipped into Quaker history, dipped far less deeply than many Friends in my own meeting, immeasurably less deeply than most of the Friends on this list. Even with my modest reading I can easily see huge flaws in the argument for orthodoxy based on Quaker history. The greatest flaw, perhaps, is that there is no significant period in history where Friends were united in an orthodoxy, unless one considers the mere name of Christianity to be orthodoxy. And that view hardly holds up when one considers that the early Friends were enthusiastically rejecting the nominal Christianity of their time.
It’s good to know these things, and we are very fortunate to some have Friends among us who study that history deeply and broadly, particularly to have such Friends in the unapologetically universalist strain of Quakerism which is my home. Without these historically grounded Friends, we would certainly forget the best and the worst in our tradition, and make the same mistakes again and again, and lose the gold. (Actually, we probably will make some of these mistakes anyway, but maybe not as badly as we would otherwise.)
But I wouldn’t describe what I have committed to as primarily, or even substantially, a tradition or a movement. First and foremost I have committed to a community, and secondarily to a way of being together in community. That way is certainly traditional in some sense, but the better part of it by far is experimental/experiential rather than traditional. I suppose another way of saying this is, the best part of the tradition is the experimental part. A tradition of mistrusting tradition.
In the end we absolutely must rely on our flawed intuitions, though we also test those intuitions against each other, and against reality. History does not tell us what to do. It never has and it never will. We have to feel our way through, straining to distinguish between what is life-giving and what is life-denying.
We depend on the diversity of gifts and temperaments in our community, and our personal styles and tastes in learning and literature is one part of that diversity. Myself, I read some Quaker history, and have enlightening conversations with Friends I trust who read far more, but the focus in my reading is not primarily historical or Quakerly. I read far more fiction and poetry, mostly because it excites me, but also because it steeps me in the cussed, complex, contradictory nature of being human in the world, which is my primary interest in life. Being who I am, I think I bring more value to my community from that sort of focus, than I would if I read a lot of Quaker history.
Fact is, when I read early Quaker writers, and even moreso when I read esteemed non-Quaker Christian writers, I often find myself violently disagreeing with what they write, and not only in the sense of not accepting their theological assumptions as objective truths. A great deal of Christian writing strikes me as anti-life, anti-energy, anti-world, always wanting to move to a plane of existence other than the one we actually live in. I can often see a thread of profound truth lurking underneath the surface, but not nearly as potent as the truth I find, say, in Kafka or Dostoevsky or Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth or Cormac McCarthy–writers who are thoroughly drenched in the world we live in. (If I knew the name of the writer of Job, I would add it.)
So, I’ll pick up a Pendle Hill pamphlet now and then if it catches my eye, but I don’t think I will seek to become thoroughly grounded in Quaker history, and I’m not going to fret about it. My meeting house has many rooms.