March 5, 2008

More about individualism and the corporate nature of Quakerism

NOTE: A slightly different version of these remarks first appeared as a comment in response to the post about individualism on the Friends of Color blog.
I appreciate this dialogue and the many points that Friends have lifted up and have been wrestling with. Thanks, Tania, for opening up a complex topic.

It's true that modern Friends are quick to quote George Fox and consider the relationship between God and the individual:
I heard a voice which said, "There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition": and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.
It's also true that we affirm that God can speak directly to any of us, individually, at any time, if we but lay aside our personal ambitions and listen.

George Fox also writes:
Christ has come to teach his people himself.
Where modern Liberal Friends have put emphasis on the individual, other Friends remind us to consider that Christ is teaching us-as-a-people, not us as distinct individuals.

(See Lloyd Lee Wilson's essay "Wrestling with Our Faith Tradition" in his collected writings of the same name or online here, beginning on page 3.)

But there is more to Quakerism than just the belief that God can speak to any of us at any time. I would say that we do an injustice to our faith tradition when we lift up this element above any others.

Perhaps by coincidence but perhaps not, the worship group has begun reading Lloyd Lee's Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, and I've just reread a long section that speaks to the "gestalt" of Quakerism (Chapter 2). In that section, Lloyd Lee echoes some of the concern I'm wanting to express:
The faith community as an entity and the individuals who make up the faith community nourish and nurture each other in vital ways... There is a communion with God which takes place in the context of the faith community that can not be replicated in solitude...

There are a number of significant implications of this understanding of Quakerism as a community gestalt; perhaps the most important derives from the fact that a gestalt can not be separated into its component parts without losing its identity. --pp. 20-22; emphasis mine
To me, these words very much speak to the perception that Quakerism focuses on the individual and therefore is an individualistic faith. Not so!

In fact, the importance of maintaining the corporate nature of our faith is stressed to some extent by George Fox, when he exhorts Friends in his 23rd epistle to "keep [our] meetings":
Friends-- Fear not the powers of darkness, but keep your meetings, and meet in that which keeps you over them; and in the power of God ye will have unity.

And dwell in love and unity one with another, and know one another in the power of an endless life, which doth not change...
(emphasis mine)
So I would say that there is an equally strong and relevant place for the corporate body, for worshiping together and not just for keeping the wild ones in check.

It's just that many of us have forgotten about the corporate nature of our faith, or we've downplayed it, or we think we understand it but we really don't, or we begin to scratch the surface of it and wonder how to learn more about it and experience it more fully.

The Quaker gestalt and the corporate nature of Quakerism extends beyond participating in Meeting for Worship and beyond attending Meeting for Worship with attention to Business. It helps point the way for how we interact with one another when we are away from the meetinghouse, when we are laboring with one another in committee work, when we are giving ourselves over to the Light so that we might ourselves be made low and return to the Service to which we are called.

In my case, it's taken me years to begin to grasp the slippery nature of our corporate faith. Also, I find I need to surround myself from time to time with Friends who value this part of our faith: it reminds me that there are multiple dimensions to Quakerism and it brings into balance, to some extent, the two elements of the Quaker gestalt that are most visible to me: the corporate and the individual.

I've mentioned elsewhere the creative tension between the individual and the community, between receiving and testing a leading on our own and bringing that leading to the gathered body (e.g. a clearness committee) for additional testing and discernment.

The trick is that our meetings, as a whole, must be willing to engage in the labor of understanding just how far to tilt the scales, whether it be toward the individual and each of our preferences, beliefs, and practices... or toward the corporate body and our accepted manner of joining together, not only in worship but also in other parts of our active community life.


ADDITIONAL POSTS from The Good Raised Up that continue exploring the corporate nature of Quakerism include:
The slippery nature of a corporate faith
The Great Jigsaw Puzzle
Report about Iowa Conservative's 2006 Midyear Meeting
Understanding what God wants


Anonymous said...


Thanks so much for this post.

I've been working for about a month on the third and final part of my "Am I a nontheist...?" series on The Empty Path (Spoiler: I'm not).

Your piece has conked me on the head with a needed reminder and shown me where my writer's block is.

I've been leaving out that the struggle and growth I describe in those essays does not happen without the community within which I grow.

(See But not alone.)

You quote Lloyd Lee Wilson:

"There is a communion with God which takes place in the context of the faith community that can not be replicated in solitude..."

What I might add is that communion with God must take place in the context of the whole community, not only in the faith community.

Meeting feeds us, yet my quest recently has been to find ways of witnessing to my faith and practice beyond Meeting and across faiths.

Hence the challenge I have given myself of finding language which is not religion-specific in order to talk about religious truth.

In any event, thanks again.

Bless├ęd Be,

RichardM said...

Its a truism that we live in the postmodern age. What this means is that we are coming to see the limitations of the Enlightenment worldview that essentially took over the Western mind in the 18th century. A big part of the Enlightenment was its attempt to give more freedom and power to the individual at the expense of larger entities like the state, or the church or local communities. Modern liberal theology has been strongly influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment. In the postmodern age we are coming to see that the stress on the individual should not be taken to extremes and that some kind of counterbalancing must take place. So more and more people are becoming aware of the need for community and accountability. While this is in some respects a new phenomena it is also very old. Quakerism arose before the Enlightenment and was never a child of the Enlightenment. In fact I think it represents a contrast and a challenge to the Enlightenment and that maybe, just maybe, in the postmodern age our time has finally come. We Quakers have something to offer that is not only distinctly different from the secular ideals of the Enlightenment but is also a way of living and relating to the world and to each other that has been tried and tested for centuries albeit on the very small scale of the size of our communities.

Quakerism's past is the world's future.

Liz Opp said...

Michael -

Nice to see you here again. I just took a quick look at your blog, The Empty Path, and I hope you'll be able to update it soon with another thoughtful post. I also hope you'll give us the links to your other two posts in the "Am I a nontheist...?" series.

Richard M -

Nice to see you here, too, and thanks for adding a bit of historical context, connecting Quakers, the Enlightenment, and postmodernism. Since I'm not a history buff, I need others to share the bits and pieces that connect the dots in ways I don't know about or understand.

I hope you are well.


RichardM said...


Sorry if I sounded like a college professor, after all I am one. I'm very well thank you. I haven't been blogging much on QuakerQuaker lately because I've been doing some blogging with my fellow Quaker philosophers over on a blog we set up after we met at this summer's FAHE meetings. Also I've been quite happily busy with other things I feel led to do. (I think it's important to mention the "happily" busy as many people complain about being busy because they feel that what is occupying their time is a burden. I feel the things that are keeping me busy these days are a blessing. Maybe when things slow down a bit I'm blog about it some on my site.

Thanks for asking.

Liz Opp said...

RichardM - Glad to know you are happy, busy, and still blogging, even if the blogging is taking place primarily among FAHE Friends!

I have had times in my own life when I felt I could say I was both busy and happy, so I am glad for you in that regard. I trust that if more words and writings are needed from you in the wider Quaker blogosphere, Way will open again for your contributions in that regard.

And who knows? I am keeping alert to the possibility that I might attend NCYM(C) sessions this summer, if God wills it, so I might see you there!


RichardM said...


That would be really nice. I'm on the program committee for Yearly Meeting again and it looks very exciting. By all means do come if you can.

Anonymous said...

I am glad to see so much thought going into the corporate nature of the Quaker experience. There really is no replacement for corporate worship, and I am glad that you took the time to speak to this.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Danny -

Thanks for taking the time to comment. I see you've written quite a bit yourself about individualism on your own blog. I'd be curious how you made your way to The Good Raised Up, and I hope to read your posts more thoroughly in upcoming days.


gen1pic said...

As usual, Liz, I find yours to be the only voice asking some truly important questions. (Wonder why that is?)

Just over the past few days I've been writing something which just happens to answer your question with another question. (And I would not be surprised to learn that mine is the only voice asking the following question.)

"Thus the problems of ministry in the Twentyfirst Century constitute not only lighting a light, but also fashioning a suitable lampstand and reaching dark corners [Matthew 5:15] — the places in our homes which are currently illuminated only by the harsh, artificial glimmer of television. Given all that, in this electrified wasteland, there are nevertheless valued voices for sanity. Over the violent dim, we can discern not only the voices of civic leaders, educators, professional people, and scientists, but also the voices of people of faith. How do they “break through the clutter” long enough to be heard? I am not prepared to answer the question I have raised; instead, I propose that we find the answer together. Somewhere in the metaphor of the high lampstand there must be a way for a community to raise up its light so that it can be seen above the hateful, mesmerizing flicker. Should we really be so impressed by John F. Kennedy's old vision, in which citizens ask only what they can do for the nation and never what it can do for them? Does this sound more like the American prospect or Maoist China? Isn't that a false choice—a betrayal of the concept of a nation? Isn't nationality a reciprocal relation? More to the point, are faith communities likewise called to join their members to the same extent that members join communities?"