Love, judgment, and the “inner critic”, pt. 2b: Syncretism, dilution, and the drawbacks of cultural appropriation
06/09/2018 § 2 Comments
In previous posts in this series, I did some preliminary work by way of detours into the nature of heresy and the patch work out of which we make our spiritual stories. This patchwork, I think, is inevitable for the individual who comes into any spiritual tradition, Quaker or otherwise. What is not inevitable is that the tradition in which one arrives (let us call it the host tradition), in providing spiritual hospitality to the seeker from elsewhere (let us call it the source), must ipso facto incorporate the teachings, practices, or world view of the source. If a primary value is universal acceptance, then of course the host community will hereafter also acknowledge the values of the sources from which its new adherents comes. I merely point out that this a choice (to the extent or in the ways that a cultural change is a choice).
For example, I was raised an Episcopalian, and went to Catholic schools, where I was influenced by a few of the many streams of Catholic spirituality. I was led to Quakerism — “convinced of the Truth,” as we used to say. Now, there are parts of me that continue to feel nourished by my Anglo-Catholic roots. My periodic use of the daily office, my awareness of the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, my readings in monastic spiriruality and the Christian humanism of Erasmus — these are indelible parts of my practice and my inner life. Should, therefore, my meeting or Yearly Meeting in accepting me also accept the Nicene Creed, the practice of the hours, or the use of outward sacraments? It would never have occurred to me to ask. They are part of my personal history, but they are not compatible with the Quaker charism. I have to make my own peace with them.
Others have grappled more eloquently than I with the “hyphenated Quaker experience” — As one example, I recommend Liz Oppenheim’s reflections,”Living with a hyphenated identity,” from some years ago (along with the links and discussions that appertain thereto).
On the other hand, suppose the host tradition — let’s say, just to pick something at random, Quakerism — takes the path of (essentially) universal acceptance. At that point, Quakerism becomes a syncretic religion, assembled from various elements chosen from the Spiritual Marketplace, and added to Quakerism by new people accepted into membership — when the individual assemblages of ideas and practices that I bring are explicitly accepted during my membership process, the meeting is thereby declaring that what I bring is now also part of the Quaker testimony, so that when we try to explain what Quakerism is, we must somehow reflect in our account these new elements. Thus, Quakerism is redefined, at least locally, and often without recognizing that the redefinition has taken place.
At first blush, such a process might be celebrated as a process of enrichment: Quakerism version 1 turns into Quakerism v2, now new and better because it has bells or outward sacraments or what-have-you. But note that this kind of change is not just a matter of simple addition, because elements drawn from various other traditions are themselves embedded deeply in some culture, and so they are clothed round with meanings and nuances that are implicitly adopted along with the idea or practice that has been explicitly imported. These additional nuances and meanings have their own implications that may not be recognized at first, or ever. On the other hand, the adopted practice or idea as carried out in our imaginary Quakerism v2, separated from its original context, may be in fact an echo or shadow of the practice as experienced in its culture (or practice, or religion) of origin.
One of the best statements of this problem can be found in the writings of the “Diamond Approach,” the body of spiritual teaching that Christine Wolff draws insights from in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet that I am reflecting on. The Diamond Approach is a syncretistic body of teachings and practices, drawing from multiple traditions of East and West (enneagrams and Freud, for example). Yet the teachers of the Diamond Approach explain that each tradition has its own “logos,” which I might paraphrase as “worldview or narrative” about human nature and related matters, and warn that in assembling things from disparate traditions, you may be getting more (or less) than you imagine:
when we engage any particular practice, we engage the entire logos of that teaching. Because so many teachings are readily available these days, many of us borrow practices from different traditions and do them on our own outside the context of that tradition. But practices contain and express the logos of their teaching, so when they are done outside of that context, they lack the holding, support, and guidance of the larger field of the teaching.
To avoid this kind of attenuation or dilution, one would naturally need to delve deeply enough in the source tradition to understand the practice from the inside out, so to speak. Since one’s life is finite, there would appear to be the danger of a tradeoff between depth and breadth.
This is thus a special and interesting manifestation of the tension between individual and corporate life that has been present among Friends (and other religions, of course!) forever. In this case, the individual seeker arrives at Quakerism equipped with miscellaneous tools, habits of mind, and assumptions. These tend to form the frame within which we interpret Quakerism — in a sense, we are seeing what we need to see, or what we are inclined to see. We are not likely to know right away what it feels like to those who have been at home there before us.
It can take a while to get around to asking what might be there when we are not looking — what tradition we have actually joined ourselves to. Ideally, the meeting has resources to help address this question — most importantly, living voices (as well as books and tracts and curricula and committees and whatnot) who can help the newcomer with the narratives and practices that have formed the community they have discovered in their spiritual search, and given it the qualities that make it feel like an answer to their longing, a home in which to dwell, learn, and grow.
In generations past, some Friends were alert to this process by which individuals bring from other traditions innovations that sit uneasily with Quakerism as it was before they had arrived. During the great upheavals surrounding the ascendency of evangelicalism among Friends in the 19th century, conservatives like Sarah Grubb and Thomas Shillitoe warned that innovators like Joseph John Gurney were spreading a “linsey-woolsey garment” over the Society of Friends. As Grubb writes (in 1841 pg 430 in her Selected Letters):
Oh ! how tried my poor mind is, under a sense of a want amongst us of true discern ment ; and even in my very secluded allotment here, I think my inward eye sees a covering in our Society that is prohibited in the truth; a mixture as surely disapproved in the sight of the Great Head of the Church, as ever the forbidden linsey-woolsey garment was of old
(the reference is to Leviticus 19:19). The usage has an even longer heritage, however. Josiah Cole in his memorial to Richard Farnworth (Works, part 2, pg. 126) writes that in his last hours, Farnworth (who died in 1668)
spake very preciously unto Friends…testifying of the greatness of the love and power of God, of which he was made partaker, and which he then felt; and of the preciousness of the Truth, whichhe had with us born witness of; and exhorted them to faithfulness and steadfastness therein, and to singleness, that nothing might be suffered to creep in of another nature to intermix therewith, saying, No linsy-woolsy garment must be worn, etc. with much more to that effect.
Such Friends were on their guard, in their times, against any distraction or deviation from the fundamental Quaker task, which was to shape our lives — individually and corporately — in conformity with the experience that Christ is alive and at work for our guidance, comfort, and liberation; that we are called bring the whole of our lives under the ordering of this Spirit. As they lived in this calling, they were led to separate themselves from traditional Christian practices that they saw as human inventions that could be serviceable, but also could be distracting or misleading, and were further from the pure springs of life/living. The Quaker process then is one of radical reconstruction, in the light of this commitment.
God alone is sovereign Lord of conscience (to quote a phrase beloved of Presbyterians and Hicksites as well) . Each of us, pilgrims, brings with us things of value, inevitably. If the spiritual community, Quakerism version X, to which we come is alive, however, it will be both a refuge and a workshop of reconstruction — challenging, overturning, and transforming what we bring, under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ, by which we have been led, and is not changeable, though in every time and locale we may hear with different emphases, questions, and struggles.
In thinking of this work of reconstruction, which must be partly unconscious, and partly intentional, I recur to the image of “homeostasis in the body of Christ.” In the present case, the analogy is thus: Throughout our lives, our bodies are constantly drawing matter in from our environment, incorporating it into new tissue, and recycling old material. Few of the atoms that constituted us at birth, few of the cells, remain long in our bodies — yet (under good circumstances) we maintain physical integrity, and some continuity of personality and memory. across the years. This takes work! Some of it goes on in ways we are not aware of; some of it must engage our emotions, will, and thought — and much of it can’t happen except in the context of a community, whose integrity is held in its individuals and its memory, and serves to meet the challenges now and to come.