'Quakerism' in the normal sense of such words ending in '-ism', is an ideology – a way of thinking about the world and ourselves in it. It is something that can be read about in books, and taught in classrooms. But how do you go about teaching silence, no creeds and no dogmas? This is maybe why liberal Quakers get stuck saying that 'Quakerism' can only be 'caught not taught'.
It seems to me that most Quakers, like most white liberal westerners, are idealists first and Quakers second. In the same way that 19th century Quakers swallowed the prevailing religious ideology of evangelicalism and began to put scriptures ahead of personal revelation, so 20th century Quakers have swallowed prevailing secular idealism and put thinking ahead of action.
This can be seen in different approaches to the peace testimony. In the mind of the idealist, the peace testimony becomes pacifism, an ideal of Quakerism, but in the hands of the practitioner, the peace testimony is about enabling positive relationships in a complex and difficult world.
Being a Quaker is actually about possessing a set of skills to enable practical action in the world, especially in working out relationships in the world. Skills, unlike ideas, cannot be taught in classrooms. Consider a practical skill such as joinery. There is no such thing as 'Joinerism' that you might be able to get an MA in. Instead you serve an apprenticeship and are recognised by your peers and master joiners as being a 'Journeyman' – able to go from place to place practising your skills and commanding a day's wages for them.
Skills though, are not 'caught' – but they are taught in different ways, as the demands of a proper apprenticeship make manifestly clear. Richard Sennett in his book 'The Craftsman' suggests ways of teaching that avoid the rigidity of fixed rules and working practices – for us creeds and dogmas. He says that instruction must be expressive – 'show, don't tell'. Possible teaching tools, he suggests, are sympathetic illustration, narrative description and use of metaphor.
All demand an active relationship over an extended period. It is not enough to hand out a pamphlet or suggest a reading list – in fact these approaches can send the newcomer down entirely the wrong path, perhaps illustrated by confusion over trying to discover what Quakers believe, when what is needed is to discover how Quakers live – by practising it.
Perhaps this distinction between ideals and skills is most starkly seen in learning how Quakers make decisions – what we call discernment. In Leonard Joy's submission, from Pacific Yearly Meeting, to the Co-Intelligence Institute (http://www.co-intelligence.org/P-QuakerCI.html), he enumerates 19 practices essential to Quaker decision making. If we think in terms of the 'Quaker Business Method', then these 19 principles have to be learnt in the manner of a catechism, and we have become no different from other religions with their catechisms and prayer books.
Quaker discernment should be viewed as a set of skills, and Joy's 19 practices can then be seen as a 'tool-box', and we need to develop the skills to use the tools effectively. However, Richard Sennett makes the point that tools are not rigid devices only 'fit for purpose', but rather, for the craftsperson, a tool is a dynamic extension of their hands and bodies to enable effective work in varied and demanding situations.
If Quakers are to succeed in the 21st century, and not fall into another idealistic trap to follow Quietism, Evangelicalism and Liberalism, we must first realise that our way is about practice, about living and relating well in the world. Let your lives speak.
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