Tuesday, 7 August 2012

On being a Quaker and Quakerism

'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.


Paul Hunt said...

It's interesting how very similar words can carry very different meanings and connotations. E.g. an ideology is one thing, as an outlook or a set of connected beliefs. I am quite comfortable with Quakerism being an ideology, although I prefer 'a way.' But 'ideologue' suggests rigidity or fanaticism - not so good. I'm not sure if by 'idealist' you mean someone who adheres to Plato's philosophy of ideas, or (the more usual modern sense) someone with an optimistic (or over-optimistic) view of life. Paul Hunt

Gordon Ferguson said...

Paul, I study philosophy, so I mean 'idealist' in the sense started by Plato and reaching it's zenith in Hegel. The idealist considers reality to be problematic and therefore gives primacy to thought and thought processes. Idealists are not necessarily fanatical, but can easily become so when they give so much precedence to the idea in thought that they are prepared to remodel the world and people in it in terms of their idea.
My thesis in the post is that Quakers are often unwitting idealists because they accept the prevailing western understanding of knowledge which defines us in terms of our thoughts, whereas George Fox wanted us to test everything experimentally through actual practice in our lives, and the truth emerges from action, not thought. This makes Fox (like me) a pragmatist or a realist in the modern sense. This then leads me on to posit that practical skill is more important than mere clear thinking. We can have very clear thought indeed about unicorns with absolutely no necessity for unicorns to actually exist.