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 stand 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 breath 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?