Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Quakers and the Postmodern Condition: “The Spirit Of Truth Among Friends”

Could it be that we Quakers are behind the times in how we understand truth?
Jeff Dudiak, Quaker and Associate Professors of Philosophy at King’s College in Edmonton, asked that question when he spoke last Thursday at ESR about Quakerism and the postmodern condition.
According to Dudiak, we Quakers suffer our current bitter divisions because we misconceive what truth is. Our problem, as in the wider culture, is adherence to a “withering modernism.”
Quakers of whatever stripe, be it evangelical or liberal, Dudiak says, view the world through an Enlightenment lens, believing that we can standJeff Dudiak presents at Common Meal back and “detach” from the world, observe it and draw conclusions that will lead to truth.  The individual is the knowing subject. The world is her object. This subject/object split is at the heart of the Enlightenment thinking that grips our society. Each of us thus erects a “buffered self” that observes the world from on high, as if we are not part of the world. It’s characteristic of our age, Dudiak says, that we stand back and view the world “as a picture.”
Two strands emerge from this Enlightenment worldview. Orthodox Friends believe they extract truth objectively or empirically, through Scripture and other historic witness or revelation. Liberal Friends, following the Romantic strain of modern thinking, believe they can find the truth within, through subjective personal experience or feeling. The commonality that links both groups is the belief in the power of the individual to reason or feel his or her way to truth.
Dudiak illustrates how each group understands George Fox’s revelation that “there is one, Jesus Christ who can speak to my condition.” The Orthodox  Quaker relies on the objective truth “out there” of Jesus Christ as validating Fox’s vision. Jesus Christ spoke to Fox’s condition because Jesus Christ is Truth. The Liberals, however, focus on the “my” condition in Fox’s statement, the subjective experience of truth that the individual can possess and that does not need to be verified because it is “true for her.”
Postmodernism questions this Enlightenment way of understanding. It’s impossible for a human being living in the world to stand objectively or subjectively “outside” that world as a neutral observer. Quaker truth, says Dudiak, is richer and thicker than what the Enlightenment has led us to believe.
Dudiak  speaks to a larger “spiritual” truth that is, in the Hebrew sense of the word Spirit, the breathJeff Dudiak presents at Common Meal that  brings life to nature and nature to life. This Spirit or Truth is nothing in itself but is that which animates every living thing. This truth has little to do with either facts or feelings. To be aligned with this Spirit (Truth) is to be truly alive and alight.
Thus, to live in Quaker truth is not to engage in the impossible project of discerning the objective reality about religion or to live in the realm of “what I personally believe” but to participate in an on-going objective process of creation that both precedes us and will follow us. 
Dudiak finds it heartbreaking that Quakers parrot the larger culture in their understanding of truth. He paints an alternative picture of truth as dynamic and relational. Truth means developing a conception of God that leads not to static fact but to life. Truth is troth—Quakers agreeing to be faithful one to another. Quakers can find unity around troth, which transcends the need for agreement. Dudiak sees marriage as the model for this Quaker unity. Partners in a marriage don’t expect to always agree, but do pledge to stay faithful and to love one another despite their disagreements. “In marriage,” he says, “the test of unity is not agreement, but hanging in there.”
Should Quaker unity be based on the ability to live in loving community with others, not ignoring disagreement but at the same time not making agreement the ground of unity? Dudiak also noted that Convergent Friends may be on this postmodern path already, choosing to ignore the disagreements that are ripping through Quakerism. Do you agree with this?

Diane Reynolds is a student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. She maintains a personal blog, Emerging Quaker.


  1. Diane Reynolds is on to something, this was a great post and it will take time for me to grasp it- if God wills it, I hope to be able to enter in to this truth-thy friend in Christ Jesus, paul

  2. "agreeing to remain faithful to one another" can describe the commitment of a healthy marriage or community, but it can also describe the commitment in a dysfunctional, destructive family. I see a need for a connection to some form of objective reality outside the community in order to separate the healthy from the destructive. I go with God as revealed in Jesus the Messiah.

  3. The trouble with the example... It seems to bypass any view that would connect "true for me" with "truly there."

    Yes, it deplores the separation... but I would rather get down to the obvious (Naive? Dear me!) interpretation: that there exists one spiritual reality containing Jesus as Fox's inspiration and Fox as Jesus' devotee.

  4. Thinking about this further:

    "Dudiak illustrates how each group understands George Fox’s revelation that 'there is one, Jesus Christ who can speak to my condition.' The Orthodox Quaker relies on the objective truth 'out there' of Jesus Christ as validating Fox’s vision. Jesus Christ spoke to Fox’s condition because Jesus Christ is Truth. The Liberals, however, focus on the 'my' condition in Fox’s statement, the subjective experience of truth that the individual can possess and that does not need to be verified because it is 'true for her.' "

    To claim that these are two "legitimate" views of the situation... is simply to deny (covertly, in advance) all unity to the universe. The "Liberal" position stated here (and I _am_ a liberal Friend, despite utterly rejecting the absurdities of 'Liberal Friendism'!) is that "true for her" is all that we're going to get; that "true as in 'actual state of things'" doesn't matter because no such thing is even conceivably available.

    The fact that perception is veiled (by our means of perception!) and subject to error... is no proof that "There's nothing to perceive and you can't see it anyway!" We can't even have this discussion without an objective reality to have it in-- even if each and every one of us experiences and understands that reality, and the discussion, differently! (If you want to imagine us all, each in our private box, imagining the discussion according to our personal insanities-- then you still need posit a place to store the boxes. & while you're doing that, I'm going out, like James Thurber, to see where I can purchase 'a box to hide in.' Bye!)

  5. If we are to live together unequally yoked is it then in hope of the wife saving the husband or the husband saving the wife?

  6. Whenever these type of questions arise I always am able to draw myself back from confusion by remembering a quote from Dom Alered Graham:

    "I am more interested in the religion of Jesus, than the religion about Jesus"

  7. As a convinced friend for 25 years, born into a family of the enlightenment and educated into the objectification of modernism, decades before discovering the Quaker world,I experienced American Quakerism in each branch finding truth expressed in each but often excluding one another. I agree with Dudiak's view of Quakerism and how it reflects culture, good and bad, and how we identify truth. It is particularly noticeable when reading blogs originating in the UK. The newest generations seek certainty in a quantum world. It is the same disconnect we see in conservative politics in the United States. To find truth we must listen to the spirit, but to each other, and if a person us unable to process what is heard by most listeners, perhaps we should listen more to their desperation and love them anyway. What we say is not truth, what we do is not truth, what we are is not truth, truth is not limited to out there or in here, truth is graceful, unselfish, uncritical and amazingly metamorphic.

  8. Jeff and I are both Quaker-philosophers and we disagree about truth. I believe that truth is a relationship between words or thoughts and reality. I think that holding to this concept of truth is necessary and important. I think that characterizing a belief in objective truth as one that attributes to the observer either infallibility or perfect neutrality strawmans this traditional idea. It is true that some writers adopt a rhetorical stance that slides from "I believe that there is objective truth" to "So whatever I believe is known with certainty." When an abuse like this occurs it should be pointed out and corrected, but it is no part of the view that truth is objective.

  9. Thanks for the post. It's good to see Friends grappling with that. It often seems that we have a long way to go.

    When the smoke clears, the "objective truth" people and the "true for me" people look pretty much the same, especially given that the various camps of "objective truth" people disagree vehemently on what that truth actually is. It all comes down to subjective decisions, if even that explicit, and I suspect that we all know that, if only subliminally.

    In religion and spirituality, any claims to objective knowledge or "empirical experience" are subjectivity in sheep's clothing. That recognition is part of the postmodern present into which all of us Friends, with much dragging of feet and clinging to crumbling edifices of thought, are being pulled. It does seem that Convergent Friends, along with some others, are a sign of hope in this regard.

    Thanks, too, for introducing me to Jeff Dudiak. I hope to read more of his thinking.