Somehow, starting off, I feel the need to articulate what I think Quakerism’s “function” is in the world. I think the need is first for myself, and second for anyone who happens to read this — as a word of explanation (or warning) about where I’m coming from.
Of course, the bottom line answer is, “That’s God’s problem,” and there are days in which I can take refuge in that. At other times, however, I want to be able to say more, because it helps me figure something out, and perhaps in particular to interrogate myself about my own faithfulness. I also think that the answer to this question can affect how a meeting lives its life, helps form its members, takes risks or undertakes advocacy.
My title lays out some caricatures.
Caricature A. The first, “world domination,” refers to the belief that is attributed to the first Friends, that “all the world should turn Quaker,” and that this was the inevitable outcome of the movement of God’s power emerging in the north of England in the mid 1600s. I think that (though one can find almost anything in early Quaker writing), a more truthful version of this is: (i) Christ is at work now, as ever, the divine life flowing freely to all who receive it; (ii) Christ is revealing afresh what it means to worship in spirit and in truth, to be baptized with fire and the Holy Spirit; (iii) we are called to discover and live the consequences of this, and to testify to it, and (iv) to combat whatever is contrary to that life, whether it is personal self-delusion, institutionalized evil or error, or elements of culture & convention. I have to say, I am pretty much ok with these points.
They were also fairly sure that everyone (Christian and non) should hear this news, and that God’s work would inevitably and eventually bring all together, with Christ reigning in every heart, and the ways of humankind conformed to this life, evidencing the prophetic virtues of justice, peace, truth, right use of “the creatures,” etc. But this didn’t actually mean that they expected all the world to turn Quaker (or at least not yet) — just think of two famous quotations, from Penington: For this is the true ground of love and unity, not that a man walks and talks just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and in that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in proper way and place of subjection to that. (Works 1:386, though he adds the “yet” a few lines later), or even more expansively, Penn (in Fruits of Solitude #519): The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion; and when death has taken off the mask they will know one another, though the divers liveries they wear here makes them strangers. (Penn seems to have had no fingers crossed.)
Caricature B. The evidence of Quaker history is that not everyone will turn Quaker, and (despite the mot that Quakerism is everybody’s second choice for religion) it doesn’t seem as though most of the world has been tempted to do so. Some have concluded from this that Quakerism should see itself as a niche community. John W. Graham wrote in the 1925 Swarthmore Lecture, that in places touched by Truth’s Publishers by 1700, pretty much everybody for whom Quakerism was appealing had been found and gathered in, and we should recognize that we have something that may be admired by more people than adopt it. A variant of this is to see Quakerism as an “order” within the Church, with a particular role to play, analogous to orders within Catholicism: just as not all Catholics are called to become Benedictines (say), neither are all Christians (not to mention everybody else) called to be Quaker (or at least not yet!), and we should be faithful to our calling, trusting that the truth of it will eventually be seen and incorporated into the life of the Church at large (Here is a fairly recent statement along these lines, more fully argued than I have here!)
My take (maybe caricature C). I am agnostic about the universal success of Quakerism or its principles in whatever form. I think that the principles (i-iv) I attributed to early Friends above require me to accept that I don’t know how it will all turn out, because it’s God’s work, not mine. Therefore, though the “Quakerism as a Christian order” can be useful rhetorically, it carries implications of boundaries and limits that I am not sure are warranted; and I don’t find it helpful in my own discernment (maybe through some lack of imagination on my part).
What does make sense to me, and what I discover I’ve been thinking all along, is that Quakerism is a probe, a test-bed, or experimental garden plot, whose purpose is to understand something like, “What can we say about living a human life in harmony with the Gospel, and avowedly under the present guidance of the Light?”
This is both more freeing and more constraining (or rigorous) than might appear: constraining because Christ works in me, and in the rest of God’s children, so that I am bound by the laws of love to God and neighbor; and also because I am bound as one member into a body sharing a common life (branches of one vine with a common root). It’s freeing because I (like everyone else) must, within that frame seek to understand how to see and live the consequences of this binding, and in my learning and experimentation, I can reach for evidence and guidance from scripture, nature, history, and any evidence of God’s work anywhere at any time —testing the evidence out for its resonance with what has been established about Gospel life so far. And I contribute to the universal experiment — and test my own conclusions – by telling what I’ve found, hearing what others can say, and inviting God or any person to test words against the life that’s lived.