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Ellen’s Review Corner: Radicalizing Spirit

Radicalizing Spirit: The Challenge of Contemporary Quakerism

This month, Brian Drayton, who travels among Friends with a concern for those led to ministry and spiritual nurture, sits in Ellen’s Corner to review Radicalizing Spirit, and ask: “Can Friends dare to trust the Spirit, trust it radically, to be at work in all kinds of people drawn to worship with us—evangelical, liberal, Conservative, and all the hyphenated varieties that have arisen in recent decades, as people have been drawn (led!) to join with us?” 


Sometimes, a little arithmetic helps focus the mind. Taking 1652 as the beginning of Quakerism, we had 175 years of mostly (organizational) unity, until 1827.  Since then, we've had 189 years of Quaker evolution expressed in and through division— though the divisions had roots, some of which reach back to the earliest strata of the movement. Indeed, the forces that disrupt unity are so omnipresent in human associations that the nature of unity, the ways to find it, the things that disrupt it, the paths to recovering it, have all been part of Quaker ministry and pastoral counsel since first we were gathered as a people.  In some sense, almost any Quaker pronouncement, prayer, meditation, or research study touches and is touched by the centuries of inward and outward motions that have resulted in our present condition.


Jeff Dudiak, Quaker and philosopher, has written before about the nature and meaning of Quaker diversity, especially theological diversity.  His present book took shape as a series of five lectures delivered to Canadian Yearly Meeting in 2012, and begins frankly with the statement "I operate under a concern for Friends.  We Quakers, despite a persistent emphasis on unity....are a divided people."


In these lectures Dudiak seeks to "…provide a theoretical framework in terms of which Friends from across the theological spectrum might find themselves in both more intentional and more vibrant community...with their co-religionists of other Quaker branches." A major axis of difference, of course, is Quakerism's current relation to Christianity (the historical roots are indisputable).   It is his hope that the path he suggests may help Friends find their way to greater faithfulness to the leadings of the Spirit  "…in whom we trust when our mutual antagonisms are superseded by a spirit of mutual listening and mutual subjection—despite our differences—one to another."


He explores this question from several angles. Dudiak's first lectures lay out a challenging parallel between Jesus' relationship with Judaism, and Quakerism's relationship with Christianity. The key word here is "fulfill."  Just as the prophets did, Jesus criticized Judaism in order to challenge it to a path towards greater faithfulness—"radicalizing" it so that it could fulfill the potential of its amazing covenant with God.  In a similar way, early Friends fiercely criticized Christianity as they knew it, in order to open the path to a fuller realization of the call to live as Children of the Light, guided by the risen Christ.


Their "radicalizing" of the Gospel message, freeing it from cultural and institutional baggage, opened for us, their spiritual descendants, a broad space in which to explore how to embody faithfulness in practice, and even in doctrine.  And here the parallel with early Christianity perhaps can provide us with resources for dealing both with the diversity of Quakerisms we have inherited, and the diversity of ways that modern people are "doing Quakerism."  Henry Cadbury, in his Swarthmore lecture (1957) Quakerism and early Christianity, pointed out the dilemma that the Jewish elders of Jerusalem had when confronted with new Christians who had not come in by the door of Judaism, but from various cultures and cults of Asia Minor, the Levant, and Greece.  How to reconcile the Christian Way as it had been known up until then, with the evidence of the Spirit's work in those of different spiritual formation?


The evidence that mattered in 1st century Jerusalem was the perceived working of the Holy Spirit in the "Other," the people who were from outside the tradition and context within Jesus lived and taught.  Jesus had pointed the way:  "Just as for Jesus, fidelity to the law meant that the law needed to be opened up, driven beyond itself, so for early Quakers, fidelity to the Spirit of Christ meant that Christianity needed to be opened up, driven beyond itself."


Can Friends dare to trust the Spirit, trust it radically,  to be at work in all kinds of people drawn to worship with us—evangelical, liberal, Conservative, and all the hyphenated varieties that have arisen in recent decades, as people have been drawn (led!) to join with us? 


Dudiak challenges us from this point of view to see all the varieties of Quakerism, not as exclusive alternatives, "brands" to which we give our loyalty, but as parts of a whole, complementary expressions of the original impulse, explorations within the space of possible Quakerisms that the early Quaker prophets made available. In a passage I particularly like, Dudiak puts it more plainly yet:  "Just as Jesus's relationship to the law is an expression of the law that puts the law at risk, so Quakerism is an expression of Christianity, but one in which Christianity itself is put at risk." [emphasis in the original]


Our calling then is not to some vague, tolerant ecumenism, but a real dialectical relationship, undertaken intentionally and in a sense as a necessary part of our discipline, the enactment of all "Quakerisms." There is something here that is akin to what Douglas Gwyn has called "Quaker bispirtuality" (on the analogy of  being bilingual).   This view of all our  Quakerisms then enables us to talk in concrete terms about how our diversity gives us resources for faithfulness—and for understanding unity in a new way,  not as repair, but as creation, undertaken in a radicalizing spirit that "understands that innovation is both the fruit of groundedness and a perpetual challenge to it. "   


I appreciate Jeff Dudiak's earnest and searching concern, and the accessible language in which he writes.  Meeting study groups in all branches of Friends would benefit from working through it together, aided by the questions for discussion that are provided for each chapter. Such study is itself an enactment of the "dialectic" that Dudiak advocates.



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