Words in Time: Essays and Addresses by Douglas Gwyn

Pendle Hill Issues Roundtable
May 17-19, 1996

Sense and Sensibilities:
Quaker Bispirituality Today

Doug Gwyn

In 1978 I participated in an archeological project at Caesarea Maritima in Palestine. We dug through two thousand years of history, from modern Moslem layers down to Crusader, down to pre-Crusader Moslem, down to Byzantine, down to the original city built by Herod the Great near the time of Jesus’ birth. We saw that over the course of successive conquests, destructions, and rebuildings, each new dominant order had made extensive reuse of the original stones first quarried to build Herod’s showplace city. Indeed, even in our own excavation work, we used these same stones, scattered on the surface, to pave a path, making it easier to push wheelbarrows full of sand.

The ancient lands of the Bible are full of graphic lessons in history — not always the ones that guides to “the Holy Land” offer tourists. What I saw there seems a good parable for religious and cultural history in general, and Quaker history in particular. From the original building of the Quaker movement in the seventeenth century, the forces of time and culture have worn and torn down the original structures, requiring extensive reworking. Until the nineteenth century, this was mostly a matter of repair and reenforcement of original structures (though these conservative measures altered the originals more than was often realized). But by the early nineteenth century, with radical polarizations taking place among Friends, major fissures appeared, right down our Quaker foundations, especially here in America. Enormous cultural forces bearing their weight upon our Religious Society both required and inspired major rebuildings.

I speak, of course, of the evangelical renewal of the nineteenth century and the liberal renewal of this century. Both movements have reused the original building blocks of our Quaker founders, as well as extraneous materials. Both have created new structures and put them to uses rather different from those of the first Friends. These evangelical and liberal revisions have often been anathema to one another, just as the Crusader fortress at Caesarea was anathema to the conquered Moslems, and just as the mosque that was built in the middle of the conquered fortress was to the Crusaders. And I am certain both would have chagrined Herod the Great, seeing his original stones used thus.

Culture Wars

Of course, we Friends do not inhabit that “bloody, patriarchal world of the Bible.” We do not conquer and rule over other peoples — not even other Quakers. However, in the current American “culture wars,” we orthodox and progressive Quakers wage conflict in our own understated ways (usually genteel acts of loving passive aggression). This conflict is waged not only between our evangelical and liberal traditions, but within them as well. In the case of cultural struggle, it is the fear of symbolic conquest by the opposition that often elicits our worst behavior. Having spent considerable time among Friends in both major streams, I am often struck by the way each portrays itself as part of the “righteous remnant” of true faith. Evangelical Friends see themselves among the Christian holdouts against rampant secular humanism. Liberal Friends feel besieged by the juggernaut of the Religious Right. But most of all, I find many of our intra-Quaker conflicts — for example, those regarding issues of homosexuality — to be the clash of incommensurate sensibilities. We talk right past each other, not really understanding one another’s outlook.

I will try to illustrate briefly these differences in sensibility. For example, progressive Friends are offended by walls, impermeable boundaries. We are often scandalized at the orthodox desire to “close the circle” of Quaker faith and practice, to protect something by excluding something else. In contrast, orthodoxy (especially its evangelical version) is given to a “contagion” sensibility, in which a sense of moral and theological “purity” must be defined and protected at all costs. Nothing disturbs this sensibility more than open-ended questions about our sexual lives. Open-ended affirmations are even more disturbing. I was in Southwest Yearly Meeting during the final phases of its withdrawal from Friends United Meeting, from 1991 to 1993. I know this sensibility first-hand. The rhetoric of purity was often striking to me.

But I am also rooted enough in the pastoral tradition of Friends to share some of the discomfort evangelicals feel at liberal Quaker rhetoric. The twentieth-century liberal revision of Quaker faith and practice of course does not attempt to conquer the bastions of the nineteenth-century evangelical revision. But liberal Friends have regularly claimed to supersede all previous Quakerisms. This rhetoric is inherent to the ideology of progress. And in the logic of “culture war,” such language is the language of conquest, a conquest of history and moral authority. To be told by a smiling liberal Friend that our theological and moral distinctions don’t matter any more, that we’re really all the same, or that Carl Jung has made everything perfectly clear, is offensive to evangelical Friends — and I would include myself here. It amounts to paving over a world that still makes sense to some of us, making “liberal use” of the same stones of Quaker tradition evangelicals have constructed, or construed, very differently. This only makes evangelicals want to build the walls even higher — walls too high to be paved over.

The predominant progressive sensibility is one of extension, a desire to break down barriers, create an evenness and equality, an equivalence and exchange among all peoples, religions, and cultures. However benign the motives of this program, it strikes preliberal religious sensibilities, from evangelical to Native American, as the pillaging of an entire cultural terrain. Hence, the clash of incommensurate sensibilities between evangelical and liberal Friends. These two sensibilities are in fact interwoven through the entire biblical tradition. In the Torah, commandments regarding family ethics and cultic purity stand alongside those requiring compassion to the widow, orphan, and sojourner. They can be identified within the Quaker tradition as well. Family values and radical social critique inform one other in Quaker writings from Fox to Woolman and beyond. Actually, both sensibilities exist within liberal and evangelical Quaker streams, but purity dominates the evangelical outlook while extension dominates the liberal.

The culture wars are far from over. But I do see some encouraging countertrends. In that regard, a watershed event for me was the Western Gathering of Friends, held in Portland, Oregon in 1992. Friends in the West are as far polarized as one can find anywhere. And unfortunately, evangelical Friends were poorly represented, despite considerable efforts to have balanced numbers at the gathering. But among the two hundred or so brave enough to show up for this “close encounter” with “alien” Quakers, there was a real effort to come to terms. The quality of most of the interaction was extraordinary. It seemed as if we had moved beyond an exercise in “tolerance,” or even “understanding;” we attempted actually to validate and celebrate one another. I have seen this changing mood at a number of FWCC regional events and here at Pendle Hill as well. But the Western Gathering especially helped define for me the emergence of a postmodern Quakerism.

I will not attempt any adequate definition of postmodernism here, but the relevant feature for our concern is the sense that progress, modernization, has conquered all — even itself. Over the past century, the ideology of modernism has celebrated the “New” in its triumph over the traditional in all realms of life, driven by liberal education and by scientific and technical advancement. By mid-twentieth century, however, some crowning moments of modernity profoundly altered the meaning of the New. Two familiar examples, one pessimistic and one optimistic, illustrate the case. The specter of nuclear holocaust showed us that the breathless pace of advancement could advance us right on to extinction. At the same time, the pictures of Earth sent back from the moon allowed us to see ourselves as never before in our totality and ultimate unity. To be sure, advancements continue, and the New, like your Visa Card, is “everywhere you want to be.” But when the New has gone everywhere, superseded everything, it becomes like wallpaper — it disappears in a certain sense, allowing us to see ourselves again, but in a new way. We enter the postmodern world, the multicultural situation, in which evangelicals and liberals, Quakers and Moslems, homosexuals and heterosexuals, have become neighbors within something larger than all of us. We simply have to come to terms.

Paul and the Apostolic Council

Oh, I forgot to mention earlier that somewhere down at the bottom layer of those ruins at Caesarea, at the old Roman level, must be the place the apostle Paul was kept under arrest for two years, before his case was remanded to the Emperor and he was sent on to Rome, eventually to be martyred. He had been arrested in Jerusalem on questionable charges. You see, Paul arrived in Jerusalem with a rather extravagant amount of money he had collected from Gentile churches in Greece and Asia Minor. The money was a love offering to the poor, struggling Jewish Christians in Judea. The presence of Paul, by this time a highly controversial figure, created great turmoil in Jerusalem.

Now, Paul had collected all this money and made this trip to Jerusalem, which he knew was dangerous, for reasons that were compelling to him. About ten years before, the last time he was in Jerusalem, he had bound himself to a covenant. There was a meeting of Church leaders, which biblical scholars refer to as the Apostolic Council, or Jerusalem Council, in the year 48 or 49, nearly twenty years after Jesus’ death, and some fourteen years after Paul had been converted on the road to Damascus. Paul had spent most of those fourteen years in Damascus and Antioch, where large Christian congregations comprised of both Jews and Gentiles thrived. The Jewish Christians of these congregations took what we might call a “liberal” attitude toward the Torah. Most of them had grown up in the cosmopolitan Greco-Roman culture outside Palestine. Some of them chose a strict practice of Torah regulations at home; but they did not hesitate to eat and socialize nonkosher with their Gentile Christian friends. And they certainly did not feel that their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ needed to become Jewish. It was Christ’s death on the cross (and their baptism into his death and new life) that saved and united them, nothing else. So their sense of Christ’s free gift to all humanity aroused a sensibility of extension and equality. It did not negate their Jewish identity, or their sensibility of kosher purity, but stood alongside it.

This novel situation in Antioch raised concern in the mother Church at Jerusalem, where apostles such as James the brother of Jesus, Peter, and John still lived. They had known the Lord in the flesh. They knew him to be the Messiah, the fulfillment of centuries of Jewish hope. They understood the Church as the true Israel, God’s people restored to their original purity. They were purified by baptism. But did their baptism replace their circumcision, or did it confirm it? Was the Church a fundamentally new ecclesia of God, or was it the ecclesiola of God, within the ongoing ecclesia of Israel? The Jerusalem Church was divided on that question. Within the Jewish realm of Jerusalem, the question was fairly abstract. But news of developments in Antioch and elsewhere concretized the question, and posed a Christian identity crisis. New Testament scholar Hans Conzelmann summarizes the dilemma: there in Antioch were Gentile Christians operating with no intention of being circumcized or practicing a kosher lifestyle; was this a case of sheer neglect and laxity on the part of the Jewish Christians that had first converted them?

I hope the relevance of this sudden detour into the New Testament is clear. Orthodox Friends have accused progressive Friends of a similar laxity. Many unprogrammed meetings have evolved into congregations where few accept Christ as Savior, and where homosexuals are affirmed, clearly at variance with Christian and Quaker tradition. I recall Lewis Benson telling me of his protracted debate with Douglas Steere over the issue of meetings accepting new members without a commitment to Christ. At that time, many years ago, Douglas argued (according to Lewis) that if new members were not already Christian, the Christian majority and tradition of the meeting would soon win them over. Well, Lewis concluded that subsequent history had surely proven Douglas wrong. Lewis and Douglas didn’t get along very well. God help me! I loved them both. Are liberal Quakers slack? Or are evangelical Quakers bigoted? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither.

Back to Jerusalem. Paul and some other representatives from Antioch travelled to Jerusalem to meet with the apostles there and sort out their differences. According to Paul’s description in Galatians 2, this Apostolic Council agreed on three points: first, the Jerusalem apostles gave full recognition to Paul and to the Gentile churches he was founding and serving; second, there was an agreement to work on different fronts, with Peter heading the Jewish mission and Paul heading the Gentile mission; and third, Paul would make a collection of funds from Gentile congregations in the prosperous Greco-Roman cities to aid the poor Jewish Christians around Jerusalem. Paul hints that some participants tried to add some stipulations that he strongly resisted and which James, Peter, and John ultimately did not demand.

This agreement, this covenant, was much more than a compromise, an agreement to disagree. Paul’s radical sense of Christ won the day there in Jerusalem. According to Paul’s gospel, Christ’s death and resurrection had initiated a profoundly new age and order of affairs. Old distinctions like Jew and Greek continued to exist, but they stood alongside each other within a new, larger totality, life in Christ. As Conzelmann summarizes, this meant two things in view of the present debate: Gentile Christians were free in Christ not to become kosher; Jewish Christians were equally free to remain kosher, not merely as a matter of cultural preference, but as a calling. During his earthly ministry, Jesus had met all persons where they were. He accepted them as they were, but challenged them to be free. So now the gospel of Jesus Christ was breaking loose upon the world, meeting people in all kinds of places, conditions, and callings, challenging them to be free where they were. Thus, as Paul argued in his letters, in the radically new situation since Christ came, the point is not circumcision or uncircumcision, but being recreated in Christ (Gal. 6:15).

What, then, of Paul’s collection for the Church in Jerusalem? Were the apostles at Jerusalem bought off? Further, would a gift from the Gentile congregations imply their inferior status? Well, I cannot speak for all of them, but I believe Paul at least saw it from another level. He writes that he was quite anxious to make this collection anyway. This was not a quid pro quo transaction, a recognition of the Gentiles in return for financial aid to the Judeans. To Paul, this point of the agreement honored the paradoxical tension inherent to the new situation in Christ. It balanced the universality of salvation that united Jew and Gentile in Christ, with the historical particularity of who Jesus was, where he came from, the historic faith that he both embraced and reinterpreted. Everything in Paul’s letters is devoted to maintaining this creative tension.

Finally, the other point of the agreement was a recognition that incommensurate sensibilities would continue to exist between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Dividing up the mission field between Peter and Paul not only freed both to do what they did best. It recognized a bipolar quality in the Church: a Jewish Christian pole that defined the Church’s historical point of reference, growing out of Israel’s saga; and a Gentile Christian pole that defined the Church’s universal frame of reference, a new way of being that could unite all peoples, cultures, and identities in Christ. Of course, the Church even at that early point was not just bipolar but multipolar. Paul himself acknowledged this with the affirmation that in Christ there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28). Profound polarities of gender, religious culture, and economic class would continue to exist among Christians; but they would find a mysterious freedom and unity with one another in Christ.

Paul came away from Jerusalem hoping that a viable bipolar Christianity had been established. But, as he goes on to tell in Galatians, relations were soon strained. Peter visited the Church in Antioch shortly thereafter. At first, he ate with the Gentile Christians, just as Paul did. But when certain conservative leaders from Jerusalem arrived later, he withdrew into kosher table fellowship with them. Paul was livid. He confronted Peter, accusing him of breaching the Jerusalem agreement. Paul soon found himself standing alone among the apostles. Even his long-time coworker Barnabas succumbed to the spirit of segregation. Paul left Antioch for Greece, and the began the most creative phase of his apostolic ministry, increasingly at odds with the mother Church in Jerusalem, yet energetically faithful in his commitment to collecting funds for them. The tensions came to a head with his return trip to Jerusalem, his arrest and eventual removal to Rome. Well, Paul had been wanting to go to Rome for some time. Now he had his way paid….

The saga of Jews and Gentiles united in Christ continued to go downhill from there. If this is a lesson in history, it seems to be a pessimistic one. And if we are to draw parallels for evangelical and liberal Quakers today, the scenario does not appear promising. A bipolar ecclesiology does not seem to work, considering the continuing struggles in Friends United Meeting. A Quaker bispirituality is often suspect among evangelicals and liberals alike, just as bisexuality often suspect is among straights and gays alike. I myself have taken some hard knocks over the years as a “bispiritual Friend.” But one thing I have learned from figures like Jesus, Paul, and George Fox is that sometimes when you’re catching trouble from both sides, you may be onto something.

As we all know, the history of Jewish-Christian relations during the long tenure of Christendom ranged from unfortunate to horrendous. It was only in the modern era, with the decline of Christian hegemony and the rise of the liberal Enlightenment, that we begin to see an improvement. Liberalism and its new atmosphere of secularity provided a third realm, a liberated zone, in which an honest dialogue between Jews and Christians could start. Obviously, this has not always worked out. The unparalleled abomination of the Nazi holocaust proved that the modern, post-Christian world is still a dangerous place, and that Christianity has no monopoly on anti-Semitism. But in general, the liberal Enlightenment provided a realm for dialogue and mutual respect between Christians and Jews much as the realm Paul called “being in Christ” opened a new space for Jews and Greco-Roman pagans to unite in the ancient world.

In my recent research among Seeker and earliest Quaker writings in England of the 1640s and ’50s, I have found several writers who prophesied the coming of that new era. They wrote of three ages of salvation history: the age of the Law, played out in the saga of ancient Israel; the age of the Gospel, played out in the history of the Church up through the Reformation; and the age of the Spirit, just beginning to dawn. They understood this new age in Christian terms, but they saw it moving in new, universalist dimensions the Church had lost. Some of them, particularly Quakers, called for a lifting of the ban against Jews in England. An interesting sidelight of this movement is the Quaker-Jewish dialogue in Amsterdam during the 1650s, which probably involved the young Jewish philosopher-to-be, Baruch Spinoza. From discussing the Light with Quakers in the 1650s, Spinoza went on to become one of the great, formative thinkers of the liberal Enlightenment.

I believe that the new and still largely “undiscovered country” of postmodernity offers another historical novum, a new opportunity, bearing upon our conflicts among Friends today. As I suggested earlier, we have entered a new situation; we are starting to sense a different way of being in the world. Everything from fundamentalism to multiculturalism is an attempt to deal with this new situation — one that none of us truly understands. At the Conclusion of The Covenant Crucified, I tried to describe the postmodern situation, and to portray the new ways in which people of diverse traditions and sensibilities are trying to be covenantally faithful to God and to one another. I characterized these experiments under the rubric of “X-Covenant,” because we really do not know yet what we are groping our way into.

But the point for our present concern is this: postmodernism is postliberalism. Of course, postliberalism does not mean that liberalism is dead anymore than postchristianity spells the end of the Church. It means, however, that we are now free in some historically new sense to be together, to respect each other’s callings — Christian or universalist, homosexual or heterosexual — and find complementary ways to coexist. Surely, we will continue to challenge one another; of course, we must continue a critical but loving dialogue. But we do not have to despair of one another. In fact, our salvation inextricably relates us to one another.

Quaker Bispiritual Ecclesiology

This is Quaker bispirituality. Most of us will continue to live as evangelicals or liberals, and as straights or gays. For mysterious reasons, some of us will move in both realms. But covenant faithfulness requires that we learn to respect and welcome the sensibility that is alien to us. So the question remains: what kind of collection are liberal Friends going to take up for evangelical Friends? I don’t think evangelicals need the money. But what gift might be given, to honor the continuing biblical faith that is, after all, the historical rootage of our Quaker tradition? I think that many liberal Friends are already making that gesture of good will, by showing a genuine interest and regard toward Quaker evangelicals, by reading the Bible again, by visiting Friends churches to listen and learn. These are acts of good faith. Whatever fruits they bear or do not bear in the future, acts of good faith are never wasted.

For evangelical and other orthodox Friends, the challenge is different. Many will resist the idea that we live in a new age that puts Christians together with other religions, and heterosexuals together with homosexuals on an equal basis. They will insist that the salvation preached by Paul is the only salvation. Well, it is and it isn’t. Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. The Word of the Lord endures forever. But its syntax changes. We learn this from Paul himself, particularly from his tortured, convoluted rhetoric in Romans 9-11. There, he confesses his anguish at the growing gap between Israel and the Church, his two communities of faith. Nevertheless, he affirms that because of Israel’s apostasy, God chose to include other peoples in the great work of salvation. They are wild olive branches “grafted” into the cultivated tree of God’s people, replacing branches lost from the original. But Paul cannot simply write off his fellow Jews who were not converted to Christ. He desperately grasps at the hope that these diverging streams will someday reconverge or complement one another.

Over ensuing centuries, the same problem of apostasy has recurred. Bad faith in the Church, in all its branches, has led God to graft other peoples into the olive tree of divine purpose in the world. Some are coming by conversion to Christ. But, owing to the multicultural situation we now experience, other forms of covenantal bonding are also important. Today, God wills to work through the dialogue and cooperation between many peoples of many faiths and nonfaiths, and between people following different paths of faithful love. I believe this, and I see it happening in many seemingly unrelated experiments around us.

Typological Interpretation of Scripture

As a hermeneutic of Scripture, this amounts to a typological interpretation of the New Testament much the same as Paul and other first Christians read the Old Testament typologically. In other words, Israel’s exodus from Egypt was a historic salvation event for ancient Hebrews in their own right; but it also prefigured salvation in Christ. Likewise, the Apostolic Council of the first century was a historic peace covenant between Jewish and Gentile Christians in their own right, but it can also prefigure the faithful community emerging between Christians and others at the end of the twentieth century. Some will complain that this understanding supersedes Christ. I answer that it is a matter of learning to recognize Christ anew.

As an eccesiology, this multipolar formation will offend people on both sides. Orthodox Friends will insist upon an unambiguous and exclusive Christian identity. And many progressive Friends will shrug and ask why they need those “fundamentalists” anyway. But these debates are all prefigured in Paul’s letters. In Galatia, they wanted to drag Christ back within the neat boundaries of the Torah. In Corinth, they were ready to drag Christ off to the mystery cults. Undoubtedly, many early Christians did go off in these directions. But those like Paul, who held the tension of these powerful opposing forces, forged their way on to something truly powerful and transforming. Today, we face the same challenges. Many days, I feel utterly overwhelmed and want to give up. It may indeed prove futile in the end, just as Paul’s hope for a Jewish and Gentile Church proved. But any other path is futile from the start.


Finally, I have said little about issues of homosexuality, and I have not brought the Quaker peace testimony into this discussion at all. I have little to add to the current conversations on either issue. But anyone with the eyes to see can discern the moral authority and leadership emerging from gay and lesbian Friends today. I affirm current efforts in many meetings to recognize and honor the covenantal relationships of same-sex couples. I am discouraged to see impasses among Friends on these matters. One help might be for concerned Friends to learn from and ally with Jewish and Christian networks working on these issues. They go by various names. The United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ have a network called Open and Affirming Congregations. The Roman Catholic Church has the Integrity movement; lesbian and gay Presbyterians call theirs More Light. Friends could share our experiences and learn from what others are doing. We would have nothing to lose but our sense of superiority.

It is hard for us today to imagine what an astonishing thing it was in the first century to say that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. Each of those pairings confronted relations that were normally defined by inequality and enmity. I can think of no better pairing to add to that canon today than “neither straight nor gay.”

As for our peace testimony, I will simply repeat what I have said at the Western Gathering and elsewhere. The differences that divide Friends today may seem like innocuous distractions, compared to much of the violence in the world today. But so much of the civil strife in America and abroad today arises from problems of incommensurate sensibilities similar to those Friends experience. Yes, we need to be out there in the world, doing what we can for peace. But the efforts we make at reconciliation among ourselves are of a piece with the peace we wage elsewhere. As Jesse Jackson preached to the Democratic National Convention in 1988, we all have a patch to bring and sew into the multicultural quilt of peace and justice. I do not believe these patches are “pieces of the truth,” as some Friends have put it. It is more as Paul (or someone following him) wrote in Ephesians 3:10: the Church embodies the “manifold wisdom of God” (KJV — or “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” in the NRSV), the many faces of Sophia, on earth as it is in heaven.