Growing Together in the Light

A place for Friends and others to explore Quakerism. A place where, in the Light that comes from God, we may all grow and where we may hope to find a unity that underlies our diversity of language.

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Location: Arlington, Massachusetts, United States

Raised a Friend, I am currently a member of Fresh Pond Meeting in Cambridge, Mass. I am also active in Salem Quarterly Meeting and in New England Yearly Meeting.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Some Light Housekeeping and a Proposition

First some housekeeping. I intend to proceed through Barclay's Apology talking about those parts that I find interesting or provocative. I realize that not everyone will know much about the book itself. So I have provided some links in the sidebar. One is to the 15 propositions. These are the theological points that Barclay addresses in his book. This will at least provide an overview of what is in the book. Secondly, I have provided a link to the Quaker Heritage Press page which contains the complete Apology. This is probably way more than you would want to read on line but it might be useful in small bits. This is the version my quotes will be taken from. The third link is to the Earlham School of Religion Digital Quaker Collection. This contains a number of works by Barclay and by many other Friends as well.

There was a very early Pendle Hill pamphlet entitled Barclay in Brief. I believe that it was after this came out, someone came out with “An Even Briefer Barclay” which was a very concise summation of the Apology in verse. If someone knows where I can find a copy of it please let me know.

Whenever I give a talk I encourage questions and this website is just like that. Feel free to use the comments section to ask for clarifications, or to ask about things you would like to know more about, or to say that you think I have something completely wrong.

Now on with Barclay. While Barclay's Apology may be the most systematic work on theology produced by early Friends, it is not comprehensive. Robert Barclay was primarily interested in addressing those areas in which Quaker views were in conflict with the views of other Christians in England. It provides us with a systematic view of what early Friends considered important. As such it provides a way of getting an understanding of Quaker concepts so that you can better understand what Fox and others were saying in sometimes much more colorful and symbolic language.

Concerning the true Foundation of Knowledge.

Seeing the height of all happiness is placed in the true knowledge of God, ("This is life eternal, to know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent,") the true and right understanding of this foundation and ground of knowledge, is that which is most necessary to be known and believed in the first place.

In other words, he is saying that, since happiness is based on the true knowledge of God, you must have a proper understanding from the beginning. He then makes almost no elaboration on this because he feels that this is self-evident and where there is no controversy he wants to be brief. But he does have something to say about this which I think we 21st Century Friends might do well to consider.

This is also abundantly proved by the experience of all such, as being secretly touched with the call of God's grace unto them, do apply themselves unto false teachers; where the remedy proves worse than the disease; because instead of knowing God, or the things relating to their salvation aright, they drink in wrong opinions of him; from which it is harder to be disentangled, than while the soul remains a blank, or tabula rasa. For they that conceit themselves wise, are worse to deal with than they that are sensible of their ignorance. Nor hath it been less the device of the devil, the great enemy of mankind, to persuade men into wrong notions of God, than to keep them altogether from acknowledging him; ... so that not from their denying any Deity, but from their mistakes and misapprehensions of it, hath proceeded all the idolatry and superstition of the world; yea, hence even atheism itself hath proceeded: for these many and various opinions of God and religion, being so much mixed with the guessings and uncertain judgments of men, have begotten in many the opinion that there is no God at all.

In my more curmudgeonly moments I might think that he was describing a modern Friends meeting. :^)

I think that this concern for proper beginnings stands in contrast to our difficulty in introducing new Friends to the basics of our faith. Quakerism is not difficult to write about or describe. The collected works of George Fox, after all, run to 8 volumes, James Naylor to four and Robert Barclay to three. When Fox came down from Pendle Hill and preached at Firbank Fell, he spoke for three hours. So I don't think that the problem is with the subject matter as much as it is with us.

First of all, we are socialized to not talk about religion. Religious conversation is actively discouraged in most social settings and our schools and workplaces are often aggressively secular. Secondly, even in our meetings we do not necessarily talk a lot about what we believe and we certainly are not used to making a short summary of our beliefs. When I first started giving talks on Quakerism, it was hard for me to make such a summary. It was even harder when I tried to do this in conversation with a newcomer after meeting. Partly this was my own natural shyness and partly it was that it made me very vulnerable to say words to the effect of “I believe that God speaks to each of us directly and I am trying to make listening to that voice the central part of my life on a daily basis.” Thirdly we are often exquisitely sensitive to not appear to be forcing our beliefs on anyone. And finally it is hard because Friends no longer have a common set of shared beliefs or a common language that lets us set out the essentials of Quakerism without a lot of caveats and disclaimers.

I have heard some people propose that Quakerism is really based on orthopraxy, right practice, rather than orthodoxy, or right belief. The truth of the matter is that the meetings I have attended have often not done a good job of teaching either. We don't provide the basics of Quaker belief and we don't do much about teaching about what it means to live as a Quaker either. We may give some guidance on how to center down in meeting but often people are left to their own devices. How much do we talk about daily spiritual practice or how to live a life of scrupulous honesty or what does it mean on a daily basis to live in the life and power that takes away the occasion for all war?

We comfort ourselves by saying that Quakerism should be caught and not taught. As a result newcomers to Quakerism are often left to figure things out for themselves. We might think that we are leaving them to be taught directly by God but what may happen is that they end up making sense of things using whatever frameworks and understandings they brought with them. As a result they may not come to understand what is unique about Quakerism. Is it any wonder that in matters of basic understanding of doctrine that we are a cacophony not a consensus and certainly not a sense of the meeting?

I do not mean to imply that we should have a creed or statement of belief but that we need to find a core understanding of Quakerism that we at least agree to wrestle with to be able to continue as a religious community. After all if “the spirit of Christ, by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it...” is true in regard to our peace testimony might it also be true in other areas of our belief?


Blogger Lorcan said...

Hello fFriend!

I left a wee hello on thy opening post, and just added thy blog to my links.

All the best
thine in the light

May 20, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

There was or maybe still is a tract written in verse and called "Briefer Barclay". It was by William Bacon Evans and was published by the Friends Tract Association. I believe it must be what you remembered as "An Even Briefer Barclay". It is listed as an item for sale at this website, but I'm not sure the information is current. It is also said to be included in an anthology of Evans' work called Brief Essays and Further Rhymes, which is advertised at this website

Rich Accetta-Evans (Brooklyn Quaker)

May 20, 2006 12:33 PM  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I want to throw in a small observation that surprised me when I first noticed it, and that you may want to comment on at some point in your consideration of the Apology. The observation is this: the peace testimony or testimony against war, which one might have thought was one of the most conspicuous facts about Friends, is nowhere mentioned in the 15 propositions. It is mentioned in the Apology itself, I believe in the discussion of Proposition 15, where war is more or less lumped together with saying "you" instead of "thou", doffing one's hat to people of rank, and other forms of "vain conversation". Puts things in an unfamiliar perspective to say the least!
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

May 20, 2006 12:44 PM  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I hope I'm not getting annoying by posting 3 comments on the same post, without waiting for others' responses. The first two comments were more or less related to your "housekeeping" info, but this one is about the substanc of your post, which I think is excellent.

I share your concern that "we need to find a core understanding of Quakerism that we at least agree to wrestle with to be able to continue as a religious community." and I have been addressing that question in my own way, on and off, over on the Brooklyn Quaker blog. However, I am also sensitive to a comment I read in an article by Chuck Fager: "When I hear or read of questions about such things as "normative Quakerism," or "authentic Quakerism" or "traditional Quakerism," it usually means one of two things: either a person or group feels very much confused and at sea, and is honestly looking for some certainty to cling to, some rock to stand on; or it often means that some person or group is looking for a club, with which either to beat other people into submission or to drive them away as interlopers and heretics."
I think what you are trying to do on this blog is very important as a way of responding to questions from the lost, confused, or simply seeking (i.e. most of us). But I think that's hard to do without raising a suspicion in some that you are threatening to shame or exclude someone. I wish you the best in navigating those rapids.
- - Rich

May 20, 2006 1:08 PM  
Blogger Will T said...

Hello Lorcan and thanks for the link.

Thank you for the information on the Briefer Barclay. As for the peace testimony, it is the very last thing that Barclay discusses in Proposition 15. Dean Freiday sums up that proposition as "Vain and Empty Customs." Barclay discusses it after plain speech and plain dress and games and other things. I have also been struck by te relative importance of the peace testimony to Barclay and to modern Friends.

As for your final comment, I struggle with how to present material that I feel passionately about without having it feel like a club. I do want this, and the entire Society of Friends, to be an inclusive place. After all they have put up with me for all these years. But thank you for the comment because it has prompted me to think more about it. I may end up posting an article about this but it will take a little time.

Blessings to all.

May 21, 2006 4:20 PM  

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