Open to the Light’s Leading: Birkel’s Quaker Tradition

I went into Michael L. Birkel’s Silence and Witness: The Quaker Tradition with very little knowledge about Quakerism beyond half-remembered depictions in the Underground Railroad historical fiction I read in school as a kid1 and the odd tidbit I came across in comments sections.2 I knew they were pacifists and had been abolitionists and I knew a Quaker founded Pennsylvania as an experiment in committed religious freedom. And yet, even though I had very few expectations about the tradition, I found myself not just charmed but surprised throughout my reading of the book.

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Source: TCDavis at flic.kr/p/6evVft

One of the things that I did not expect was how much Quakerism resembled certain non-Christian religions. Especially early on in the book, Birkel’s description of Friends’3 spiritual experiences often used the word “the Light,” referring either to God or to God’s activity in the soul; nerd that I am, this reminded me of Warcraft’s Church of the Holy Light and the various non-theistic religious traditions it suggests. And Birkel himself notes the resemblance the Quaker practice of silent sitting (some groups of Friends sit in silence, or near-silence, during their worship services) has to Buddhist meditation: in both cases the ones sitting try to get past their egos and thoughts to something truer. In the end notes, however, he is careful to note that Buddhists meditating in groups are still in an important way meditating alone (one sitter achieving enlightenment does not improve the meditation of the others) while Quakers understand that they sit in silence together (when one Friend is especially able to reach the Light Within, a sense of peace and holiness pervades the whole assembly). Now that I’ve read the book it makes sense that not all Friends have been Christians, but that was another surprise for me.

More than the factual surprises and more than the clear exposition of Quaker history, worship, organization, and testimonies which alone would have made the book worthwhile, however, I especially appreciated Quakerism’s, and Birkel’s, emphasis on the difficulty involved in maintaining a tradition that is purposely open to change. One of the fundamental beliefs of Quakerism seems to be that revelation still occurs, especially on moral issues; one of the fundamental practices of Quakerism is clearing out one’s mind and approaching the Christ within so that one can receive a revelation, which the Friends call a “leading.” In this way Quakerism is extraordinarily Protestant (“Once reformed, always reforming”). So, for instance, Birkel writes the following:

The pendulum has swung back and forth in each chapter of Quaker history in an effort to avoid the extremes of anarchy and rigidity. There must be enough freedom so that the individual can be truly open to divine leadings because Friends hold that revelation is a continuing process, that God can lead people into new truths, especially in matters of ethics or morality. At the same time, there is a need for sufficient structure to preserve the tradition that has valued that freedom. (55)

Birkel admits that Quakerism has failed many times to maintain this dynamic:

It is a difficult balancing act to be the conservators of tradition, especially when that tradition itself has a commitment to be open to the revelation of new truth. Elders did not always walk this knife’s edge successfully. At times, as a body, elders became stodgy and stuffy, holding to the letter more than the Spirit who gives life. As a result, to be ‘eldered’ at times meant simply to be harshly criticised, to be upbraided for not adhering to the decorum of Quaker culture. (99)

And I appreciate the importance Birkel places on discernment. Although some people with experience in evangelical, charismatic, and related Christian groups might associate the word discernment with quackery or with exploitative church dynamics, in Quakerism group discernment seems to be an important restraint:

A community that emphasizes the present availability of divine guidance must take discernment seriously. […] Discernment offers tools to distinguish between an interior leading from God and an impulse whose origin is less worthy, such as a desire to feel important or look clever.

Friends practice communal discernment. Quakers have not established a code of rules for discernment, since they would suspect that such a code could straightjacket the Holy Spirit. Their historical practice of discernment suggests a number of tests for leadings. (55)

The remainder of the chapter describes these tests, which are roughly: a) does the person with the leading live out the leading, b) does the person with the leading continue to have it over time, c) is the leading consistent with Scripture, and d) is the leading consistent with other Friends’ leadings? The idea here is mostly a belief that God is consistent across time.

I appreciate the way in which Birkel and Friends are serious about the need for new truths, the need to test these new truths, and the benefits of a tradition which ensures those two needs are met. But, at the end of the day, I am always skeptical that the Friends’ leadings really are from God. Maybe this is a bias toward my experience of God—that of a beautiful, eldritch, intimate absence—or maybe this is a reaction to the sheer number of abusers, oppressors, and fools claiming to repeat God’s speech, or maybe this is a commitment (whether rational or exaggerated) to God’s transcendence and holiness, but I am unable to believe anyone who says that God speaks directly to their conscience.4 This was a problem for me throughout the book. (Indeed, I expect it will be a problem for me throughout this series.) If you’re like me, it might also be a problem for you.

Although I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Quakerism or who seems to need their understanding of Christianity expanded, it is not without stylistic faults. All of the books in the series that I have read so far are guilty of the same error, though perhaps predictably I found that of my own tradition less grievous: the authors all quote many and long beloved passages from their tradition’s texts, clearly expecting that the reader will also find them helpful, lovely, or at least intriguing. Much of the time these excerpts fall flat for me. Perhaps they rely on a certain familiarity with the tradition that I lack, or perhaps they are written for a different world than the ones I live in, or perhaps I am a cynic who is immediately distanced from passages presented without any critique at all. Regardless, I found this somewhat tiresome. And this is merely a quibble, but Birkel also tends to define jargon (leading, Ranterism, testimony) only after he has used it several times. Nonetheless I found it admirably lucid and well-organized and I do not think the average person would have too much trouble following it.

Unlike The Spirit of Worship, I found enough things in Silence and Witness interesting, distinct from its most central claims, that I will likely follow up with a few more posts.


  1. I cannot speak about other elementary schools in Canada, but the one I attended in rural Ontario assigned lots of historical fiction, mostly highlighting Canada’s hospitality to people of various cultures and occasionally acknowledging the racist atrocities the country committed. Really quite a lot of it, though, was of the same theme: “Things were bad in Europe and/or the USA, so people came to Canada, where things were hard but objectively and ethically better.”
  2. The fact that this is the kind of thing one would encounter in the comments sections I frequent probably says something about me: I have excellent taste in comments sections.
  3. A note on terminology: because the body of people who adhere to Quakerism is called the Religious Society of Friends, “Friend” is interchangeable with “Quaker.” “Quaker,” in fact, was used as a perjorative in certain times and places, so I’ve noticed that some people tend to prefer “Friend” when referring to practitioners of Quakerism, even though they would still use “Quaker” as an adjective (“a Quaker belief”). However, this does not seem to be a widespread concern. I suspect you can use which you prefer, though you may correct me if I’m wrong. I will be using “Friend.”
  4. I feel like I must apologize for linking to the Babylon Bee. Its satire of conservative evangelical churches is often affectionately accurate but, perhaps due a lack of familiarity, perhaps due to a fundamental difference in values, or perhaps due to the insider/outsider difference, its satire of progressive churches is rarely more than poor stereotype and lacks the charm and understanding of their more inward-looking parodies. I do not especially want to promote them. Nonetheless, this particular article delights me because I remember that milieu all too well.

Index of the Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series

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One thought on “Open to the Light’s Leading: Birkel’s Quaker Tradition

  1. Pingback: A Widespread Hunger: Traditions of Christian Spirituality Series Index | Accidental Shelf-Browsing

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