THE FUTURE OF THE QUAKER VISION

Lewis Benson 

Source: Seek Find Share: Study Volume Number Two for the Fourth World Conference of Friends, 1967. Greensboro, NC, U.S.A.: Guilford College, 1967. Copyright (c) 1967 by FriendsWorld Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas. Reprinted with Permission. 

This Document is on The Quaker Writings Home Page.


In recent years we have seen institutional Christianity engaged in a mass attack on the problem of its scatteredness. But it became obvious that closing ranks and pooling resource was not enough. The movement toward unity would have to be matched by a movement for renewal. So far it is pietism alone that has furnished the strategy for ecumenical renewal. 

Over against the essential conservatism of the ecumenical movement there has risen a vigorous revolutionary force in Christianity. These revolutionists believe that the worship-centered parish church will be replaced by new forms of Christian sociation that will be discontinuous with traditional forms. The traditional churches, they claim, have been cultivating a sacral society that has lost touch with the common life and there is much to support their claim. They see the modern technological metropolis - the secular city - as the place where the purpose of God for man and society will be realized. They no longer see the meaning of history as proceeding from the free acts of God and the free response of man to God's acts. History, they say, is a process. It is a process in which the religious factor in culture has shrunk from beings its greatest component to its smallest. Even where institutions of religion thrive they no longer perform an important function in civilization and do not determine its character. the vital role once played by religious institutions has been gradually transferred to secular institutions. Along side this secularizing process there has arisen another process - the tremendous increase in man's power over his environment by technological means. This has produced a civilization dominated by the technological factor. Technological civilization moves inexorably toward total urbanization and its crowning achievement is the technological metropolis - technopolis. Starting with the conception of history as process, these religious revolutionists maintain that God no longer intends to work through the religiously integrated community but henceforth will make himself felt in the secular community.

Today, for the first time in history, man feels that there is no unsolvable technological problems. He believe that he can know and control everything. This is interpreted to mean that now, at last, man has dominion over all things. These radicals interpret Bonhoeffer's cryptic phrase "man has come of age" to mean that man's destiny is now in his own hands and that it must be worked out by technological means in the framework of technopolis. 

According to these radicals the wave of the future is not only hostile to traditional religion but to the God of traditional religion. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who gave our ancestors a sense of being a meaningful part of a meaningful universe - is dead. 

There an be little question but this is the most radical movement on the religious scene. But this kind of radicalism can, by its headlong extremism, lose touch with the true radicalism of the gospel. This was the case with the extremists of Fox's day - the Ranters and Fifth Monarchy Men. 

If, then, the pietistic strategy of renewal in the ecumenical movement could be likened to Fabian socialism we might compare the "death of God" movement to the Anarchists of two generations ago. Like the anarchists in the early days of Socialism the "death of God" people have no comprehensive theory of revolution or any means of reaching one. They have abandoned the prophetic conception that history is a drama created by a series of related free acts of God and man's free response to these acts and have substituted a conception of history as process. They have abandoned the conception of the spiritually integrated redemptive society as the means God has chosen to save his world and have substituted the conception of the secular city. They have abandoned the conception that all things in God's creation must be ordered by God's wisdom to God's glory and have substituted the conception that the responsibility for ordering the world has passed from God's hands to man's. Theirs is a genuinely revolutionary movement but their gains are outweighed by their losses. They do not furnish us with means to build for the future on unshakable foundations. 

By contrast with the extremism of the "death of God" movement and the conservatism of the ecumenical renewal, the Quaker vision offers a viable revolutionary conception and program. Unlike the "death of God" ideology, it does not abandon the prophetic conception of history or the role of the called-out community in God's redemptive work or the need for God's wisdom in ordering God's creation. And unlike the conservative ecumenists it does not see the called-out community as partly a human institution and partly a spiritually integrated fellowship. It does not accept the pietist strategy of infusing the institution with spiritual warmth, power and close fellowship by means of pietistic techniques. It makes the stupendous claim that God through Christ has made possible the formation of a redemptive community that is generically different from all human institutions. This means that the Quaker revolution takes as its starting point a position that is radically different from all puritan, pietistic, or reformist positions. Seen in its true light, it is not complementary or contributory in its conceptions but is instead comprehensive, universal, and revolutionary. A new beginning was made in the 17th century which was not simply an extension of puritan reformism. This new beginning, if we could but repossess it and reapply it, is the answer to the stalemate of the ecumenists and the dead end of the extremists. 

At present the weight of opinion in the Society of Friends favours the view that Quakerism is essentially a species of puritan reformism. This view has come largely to replace the view that Quakerism is a species of mysticism. both these views find in necessary to dismiss as illusion the belief of early Quakers that a vision had been committed to them that was comprehensive, universal, and revolutionary. 

It does not seem to me that the question of the future of Quakerism is a question of vital importance if the vision of early Friends was not a true vision and if the new beginning that they made was the result of their misunderstanding of the divine intention. But if it was a true vision and just as comprehensive, universal, and revolutionary as they claimed it to be, then it is a resource that deserves much more careful study than it has yet received. 

Whether members of the Society of Friends will be the first to avail themselves of this resource is problematical. Several factors may prevent or delay the recovery of the Quaker vision by Quakers. for half a century Quakers have been told that the early Quakers had an inflated view of the importance of their movement and that it was not in fact the momentous event that they thought it was. As a consequence Quakers have been looking for the key to renewal outside their own tradition rather than within it. Another factor is the widespread notion that whatever was great in the early Quaker vision was dependant on the circumstances of time and place and that no vision that was relevant in the 17th century can possibly be relevant today. 

The Quaker vision once inspired hope in men and can do so again. But the recovery of the Quaker vision will not come in the ordinary course of events as a result of business-as-usual gradualism. Renewal in the prophetic tradition does not come by an easy evolutionary process, but begins with an experience of the judgment of God which evokes a response of repentance and a resolution to turn and face in a new direction. 

On his mount of vision Fox saw people as thick as motes in the sun who would in time be brought home to the Lord. Time has not brought us closer to the realization of this vision but rather to a state of confusion about where "home" is. We hear voices on every side proclaiming that home is the "secular city" or that home is the reunited and renewed institutional church. 

For many neither "the secular city" of the radicals nor the "great church of the future" of the ecumenists can ever be home. For these the great vision that belongs to the Quaker ethos must be proclaimed anew. If we fail to make the Quaker vision a live option in this age, we may find that we have lost not only a great inheritance but have failed to make the impact on the present and future which it is our unique mission to do.