(This is an extended version of an article, written for a Religious Society of Friends (Quaker) audience, published in the Sixth/Seventh Month issue of Friends Journal, where I use Moral Foundation Theory to analyze a conflict between Friends of differing branches.)
The conflicts between the branches of Friends are sometimes viewed as trivial, the schisms as shameful.(1) These conflicts, however, are expressions of real differences. They should not be ignored or dismissed; rather, they should be understood. If we were to recognize the different moral viewpoints, visions, and definitions of Quakerism held by Friends, we would have a useful perspective from which to understand this conflict.
While all the branches lay claim to the spiritual inheritance of our Quaker forebears, what they perceive is worth inheriting differs fundamentally.
In his book The Quakers: Very Short Introduction, Ben Pink Dandelion describes the different branches of Quakerism in this way: Evangelical Friends are those Friends who hold “Scripture as primary, which they sometimes balance with revelation”; while Conservative Friends hold “revelation as primary, but find it confirmed by Scripture”; and Liberal Friends hold “with experience alone.” In this article, I will uses Dandelion’s description as defining the three branches of Quakerism.(2)
DIFFERING MORAL VIEWPOINTS
A proposition current among moral psychologists is that moral decisions are not based on reason. Moral decisions, in fact, would be more accurately called moral instincts and are observed, in scientific testing, as being automatic and unconscious. Rather than saying we use reason to formulate our moral decisions, testing shows we formulate reasons to support our moral instincts. This proposition may sound impossible, or even repugnant.(3) Sound social science research has consistently found the moral instinct undermining attempts at using moral reasoning. Concepts such as motivated reasoning, confirmation bias offer a fascinating view of our moral judgment. It is no longer universally understood that the purpose of reason is to produce good decisions; it is now understood by some that the function of reason is to bolster our arguments and allow us to be more persuasive in support of decisions we have already made.(4)
Moral Foundation Theory, posited by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian Nosek in their article Liberals and Conservatives Rely on Different Sets of Moral Foundations published in 2009 in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, currently uses six foundations to define morality. This theory is put forward as a corrective to the more traditional view in the social sciences that morality is primarily concerned with just one moral foundation: care/harm. That traditional academic formulation of morality meant that the moral viewpoint of the majority of the world outside of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) societies, and even moral viewpoints of some within those societies, would be deemed functionally immoral.(5)
The continuing work of Haidt, et al. (yourmorals.org) shows that those with a liberal moral viewpoint focus their moral concern on three foundations:
While sharing a moral concern with liberals for these three foundations (though with differing emphases), those with a conservative moral viewpoint add three more:
Broadly speaking, Friends of the Liberal branch tend to hold a liberal moral viewpoint and Friends of the Evangelical and Conservative branches tend to hold conservative moral viewpoints.(6) These moral viewpoints align somewhat, but not perfectly, with political viewpoints. Differing moral viewpoints are a significant source of conflict both within and between branches. The following account of an incident within a Liberal Friends worship group illustrates the causal connection between differing moral viewpoints and conflict.
A Conservative-branch recorded minister and I felt led to attend a small, Liberal-branch worship group. During worship, this gospel minister felt led to offer regular, biblically based Christian ministry. After attending for about ten weeks, the visiting minister was asked at the rise of meeting to amend the Christian messages to more neutral language. Though the contents of the gospel minister’s messages were not hateful or obviously harmful, part of what would have made them unacceptable to offer, and acceptable to curtail, are some prevailing perceptions among Liberal Friends about Christianity.
Christianity is viewed by some Liberal Friends (1) as historically having caused harm, and (2) as continuing to cause harm. Furthermore,(3) Liberal Friends often believe that any distress felt by Friends when hearing Christian language is harm. Thus, Christianity can be seen to violate the care/harm foundation on many levels. Additionally, (4) some Liberal Friends view Christianity as having been and continuing to be oppressive (violating the liberty/oppression foundation) and so is seen as fundamentally immoral.
From this perspective, it can be a moral violation to give ministry using Christian ministry, particularly if anyone expresses discomfort in response to it. The Liberal Friends functionally invoked the care/harm foundation when they told the gospel minister, as a kind and caring person, would not want to continue offering ministry that was disturbing others. They clearly believed that by sharing the distress the messages were causing, the minister would desire to adjust the content.
The viewpoint of the gospel minister, on the other hand, was that it would be immoral to adjust a message that was Given. (1) It would be disobedient to God (violating the authority/subversion foundation), and (2) it would be unloving to withhold gospel ministry because sharing God’s message is the most loving thing to do (invoking the care/harm foundation). The gospel minister believed that the ministry offered could mean salvation for someone in the room, and therefore, the message is never to be tampered with by the messenger. The gospel minister knew that the messages would not be welcomed by all present, but was nonplussed that Friends would ask that Christian language be suppressed during a meeting for worship.
The Liberal Friends decided, ultimately, that the gospel minister had to be “true to him/herself,” (invoking the liberty/oppression foundation). This conclusion was unsatisfactory to the gospel minister: it showed no indication that they understood the gospel minister’s perspective.
TRAGIC VERSUS UTOPIAN VISION
In the account given above, the validity of the ministry, for Liberal Friends, was assessed by the results of the ministry, that is, how the message impacted those present. Conversely, for the Conservative Friend, the validity of the ministry was found in the process, that is, how the message was faithfully delivered. In each case, an underlying vision of Quaker faith presupposed the different evaluation of the gospel ministry.
“A vision is our sense of how the world works,” writes Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions (p. 14). In the preceding account, two different visions were present. Examining each of the visions, each undergirding a particular moral viewpoint, gives us insight into the conflict that arose between the Liberal Friends and the Conservative minister. The vision most associated with Liberal Friends is one that is described as a utopian vision in the book The Blank Slate. Author Steven Pinker describes the utopian vision in this way:
human nature changes with social circumstances, so traditional institutions have no inherent value… . Traditions are the dead hand of the past, the attempt to rule from the grave. (Pinker, p.288)
Conversely, the tragic vision, most associated with Conservative and Evangelical Friends, is described by Pinker in this way:
human nature has not changed. Traditions such as religion, the family, social customs, sexual mores, … are a distillation of time-tested techniques that let us work around the shortcomings of human nature. (Pinker, p. 288)
As an expression of their Utopian Vision, Liberal Quakers emphasize “new Light,” while Conservative Quakers express their tragic vision by emphasizing “the Everlasting Gospel.”(7)
A weakness of Friends with the tragic vision (most associated with Conservative and Evangelical Friends, but present everywhere) is that they sometimes see no need to engage in discussion with Friends who don’t “get” it. Friends with the tragic vision are unlikely to sit down at the table for discussion during conflicts, as they don’t see much point—either someone agrees with their point of view or they don’t and talking about it won’t change anyone’s opinions.
A weakness of Friends with the utopian vision (most associated with Liberal Friends, but present everywhere) is to tend to believe that anyone who is reasonable, intelligent and good would come to the same conclusions as they have come to. And if anyone has not, then that person must lack either reasonableness, intelligence, or goodness. Friends with the utopian vision are eager to sit down at the table, as they are sure that other Friends really must be reasonable, intelligent and good, and therefore a discussion will allow them to hear things that will bring them over to the reasonable, intelligent and good side.(8)
Differing definitions of Quakerism create a significant challenge for inter-branch communication. Some Friends may be only vaguely aware of their own precise definition of Quakerism, but they may be perfectly clear that the other branches really aren’t Quaker. Both the Liberal and Evangelical branches have followed a path toward creating a more comfortable place in the Quaker world for seekers. Liberal Friends have developed a Quakerism with more intellectual comfort for seekers; Evangelical Friends have developed a Quakerism with a more comfortable outward practice for seekers. Conservative Friends have preferred tradition to progress, and have been suspicious of comfort in either faith or practice.
Liberal Quakerism, according to Dandelion, was created as “an explicit reaction to both Quietist and Evangelical Quakerism and was constructed on four main ideas”:
Further, Dandelion offers this analysis:
Liberal Quakerism is now bounded … by a particular approach to theologizing, what I have termed ‘the absolute perhaps.’ The ideas of progressivism and of being open to new Light have become translated into the notion that the group cannot know truth, except personally, partially, or provisionally. Thus Liberal Quakerism is not just about the possibility of seeking, it is about the certainty of never finding. Liberal Friends can seek anywhere they are sure they will not find. (Dandelion, p. 80)
Liberal Friends, says Dandelion, are defined by the communal experience of silent worship and concurrence with “the absolute perhaps” theologically. Their personal identity as Quakers is central to their faith. This strong identification with Quakerism can cause a possessiveness that is sometimes expressed as an active opposition to definitions of Quakerism that differ from the Liberal definition. Defining Quakerism in a way that excludes anyone can deeply trouble Liberal Friends.
For Conservatives, both the traditional faith (Quaker-Christianity) and the practice of waiting worship under the headship of Christ define Quakerism. They identify as Quakers first, Christians second.
For Evangelical Friends, doctrine is central and Christian belief is primary. They consider themselves Christians first and Quakers second.
For Evangelical Quakers, the Liberal tendency away from theology, their marginalization of belief and its plural nature, appears to counter the very basis of Quaker faith. For Liberals, the Evangelical tendency to see the form of worship as a pragmatic consequence of faith, rather than its core, has a similar effect. (Dandelion, p. 121)
The progressivism of Liberal Friends can appear to be a sort of Liberal Quaker manifest destiny: they are the future of Quakerism, while those Friends clinging to Christ are the dead past of Quakerism that will be sloughed off. Meanwhile, some Liberal Friends experience the firm Christian witness of Conservative and Evangelical Friends as condemnatory, that Liberal Friends will be consigned to hell in the afterlife and, perhaps even worse from the perspective of some Liberal Friends, are not true Quakers.
In concluding A Very Short Introduction to Quakerism, Dandelion goes on to offer a foundational definition of Quakerism that lists traditional distinctives all three branches continue to share. He seems to suggest that because we hold these distinctives in common, we can embrace each other as Friends. For me, his formulation evoked Gertrude Stein’s “there is no there there.” While it might functionally describe what we all share as Friends, this least-common-denominator route included so little that I found important to my life as a Friend that it did not seem to be a way forward.(9)
UNIQUE WITNESS OF EACH BRANCH
Considering the differences in the three branches of Quakerism, I see that there is more than one coherent way to understand the Quaker faith. And by understanding my place within Quakerism, I now feel strengthened. Each branch’s vision and viewpoint has its strengths and weaknesses, and they offer a strange sort of balance with other Friends. I am more aware of the greater good that is served by each branch that could not be accomplished by either of the others.
Liberal Friends offer a safe place for those who are uncomfortable with traditional Christian language and forms. They actively claim the social justice witness and societal reform they see in historical Quakerism and pursue those aims energetically. Friends in this tradition see a great deal of work that needs to be done in the world to bring about peace, justice and environmental balance, and enjoy ministry that speaks to those concerns. They seek to support one another in living their Quaker faith in the world. Their ministry, at its best, is based on personal experience that offers insights into living a life in which their Quaker ideals are pursued with integrity.
Conservative Friends have substantially preserved the traditional faith and practice of Friends, with the Everlasting Gospel at its heart. Still finding their unity in Christ, they seek the fruition within themselves of the historical Quaker project of bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. They perceive Quakerism as a faith and practice worth preserving essentially intact; they believe the spiritual insights of founding Friends are as vital today as they were yesterday, and will be tomorrow. Friends in this tradition describe powerful spiritual experience of the Living Word, Jesus Christ, and often feel led to offer ministry that speaks to those experiences, using the Bible as a guide and reference. Their ministry, at its best, powerfully speaks to the condition of those present and brings about authentic spiritual transformation: a faithful life in Christ.(10)
Evangelical Friends are able to speak to those who seek more in their Christian walk than the silence and staid ministry of traditional Quaker meetings, having set aside the special forms and language of Quakerism in an effort to reach as many potential Christians as possible. They have considerable interest in social justice but ground that in a clear, biblically based Christian doctrine. They speak the name of Jesus Christ with authentic joy, actively seek to support one another’s calls to faithfulness, and eagerly strive in their mission to bring their Christian witness to the world. Friends in this tradition also describe powerful spiritual experience of Jesus Christ present in their lives, ardently study the Bible, and seek to be obedient and faithful Christian disciples. Their ministry, at its best, shows Friends how to live into their Christian faith with love.
A CAUTION ABOUT SUPERIORITY
My closing caution to Friends is a word from the Lord given to me several years ago as I began my exploration of the fundamentals of the conflicts between Friends: “In thy sense of superiority is thy condemnation.”
In my dealings with others, I have been reminded that real superiority is only to be found in God, because human brokenness is universal. More broadly, this Word reminds me that each branch of Quakerism has its strengths and weaknesses, and each might do well to attend to the timber in its own eye. We’re all caught in the “moral force field” of our group and tend not to notice our moral foundations until one has been violated. In those situations, we can be unaware that a conflict between moral violation is at the core of our anger and distress.(11)
An ever-present temptation is to have contempt for those who have a differing viewpoint or vision. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says that
contempt [is] a moral emotion that gives feelings of moral superiority while asking nothing in return. With contempt you don’t need to right the wrong (as with anger) or flee the scene (as with fear or disgust). And best of all, contempt is made to share. Stories about the moral failings of others are among the most common kinds of gossip, … and they offer a ready way for people to show that they share a common moral orientation. Tell an acquaintance a cynical story that ends with both of you smirking and shaking your heads and voila, you’ve got a bond. (p. 60)
Haidt continues, “Well, stop smirking. One of the most universal pieces of advice from across cultures and eras is that we are all hypocrites, and in our condemnation of others’ hypocrisy we only compound our own.”
I believe Friends can concede one small step to cross-branch peace that would be one large step for inter-branch communication: acknowledge that there are other branches by avoiding phrases such as, “Quakers believe …” When one really means “Liberal Quakers believe …” or “Evangelical Friends believe …” &etc. This distinction is omitted almost everywhere on the web and in the published writings of Friends. It might seem unnecessarily complicated and even a little embarrassing to have to admit to the divisions in Quakerism, but I believe integrity requires it of us.(12) And at least in America, aren’t we used to this? One might not know what the differences are between a Southern Baptist and an American Baptist, but one knows there are differences. Can we not, then, in the interest of peace and clarity, amend the proper branch designation in our writings and conversations?(13) We would thereby respect the other branches by acknowledging their existence and allowing for their inclusion in our formulations of worldwide Quakerism.
(1) It is usually Liberal branch Friends who are most troubled by the schisms and strongly desire a unified Quakerism. I perceive this to have a twofold source: (1) Liberal Friends primarily identify as Quakers in faith and practice, (2) their Utopian Vision (discussed later in this article) suggests to them that since we are all good, intelligent and reasonable people, we should all be able to get along. Their Utopian Vision also suggests, (3) that if we were being good Quakers, there would be no schism, and so the fact that we have divided shows that things went wrong, a result characteristic. I am less troubled by schism, as most of the Tragic Vision would be, because I concentrate on the process: were Friends being faithful to the Guidance they were given? If they were, then the divisions were the Lord’s will. Considering how much wider a net Quakerism casts with its variety, I am not prepared to entirely condemn the outcome, even as I am selfishly most glad that my particular branch still manages to exist.
(2) Dandelion also broke down the Evangelical branch into holiness, fundamentalist and modernist streams, but that level of refinement is beyond the scope of this article. (Dandelion, Nook-book edition, p. 119)
(3) I do not choose this word lightly. Repugnance is a sign of a moral violation, and it is entirely possible that the reader may experience this proposition as a moral violation. Recognizing this feeling when it arises is important information for anyone trying to understand their own and others’ moral viewpoints.
(4) Mercier and Sperber, Why Do Humans Reason; Haidt, The New Science of Morality, edge.org; Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 65, Dan Kahan, What is Motivated Reasoning and How Does it Work? http://www.scienceandreligiontoday.com/2011/05/04/what-is-motivated-reasoning-and-how-does-it-work/
(6) I think it is important for Friends to understand that members of the Conservative branch are not necessarily conservative politically in the same way that the Liberal branch seems predominantly liberal. I know a Conservative Tea Partier and a Conservative Occupier. With their unity in Christ, these political divisions become less important. I would feel comfortable saying that a simple majority of Friends in OYM are best described as political moderates, with individual peculiarities that make them hard to label as a group.
(7) The Everlasting Gospel is not code for Biblical literalism. It describes the sense that the Gospel that was available to and described by the first Christians, was available to and described by the first Friends, and is available to everyone today. “Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Heb 13:8
(8) I feel strongly that those of the Utopian Vision and those of the Tragic Vision must balance each other. We do not want a Quakerism where tradition can never be preserved and stability never valued, nor do we want a Quakerism where there is no attempt at innovation and no change is ever perceived as positive.
(9) I have repeatedly found in each of the branches I have visited the sense among some Friends that the other branches have “stolen” the Quakers or Friends who would be with “us” if they hadn’t been misled into thinking that other branch was really Quakerism. Considering the very different cultures, visions, moral viewpoints and traditions, that is not very likely.
(10) Conservatives have a traditional Quaker understanding of our relationship to God through Jesus Christ, our immediately present priest, prophet and king. They do not reject social justice concerns or evangelical action, but seek to confine those to the days and times the Lord is strengthening Friends to accomplish them, not to make them a primary independent goal.
(11) Jonathan Haidt, The Bright Future of Post-Partisan Social Psychology, edge.org
(12) It is a problem to define what yearly meeting is a member of what branch, or congregations/monthly meetings within yearly meetings. Is it yearly meeting “genealogy” or is it ideology? I have used the definitions I think are most useful in discussing the conflicts between Friends of differing ideologies, not as a way of positing some sort ideological purity, but to highlight core differences. It is not unusual for these differing viewpoints and visions to exist simultaneously within a yearly meeting, and that is a challenge I do not address here.
(13) I think most people seek ideological comfort because we are so tired of conflict, and without tighter social bonds to make it worth engaging with people of differing viewpoints, we mostly avoid it as much as we can. Friends are no different, and accusations of seeking ideological “purity” during schism might more helpfully described as seeking ideological rest. People just get tired of defending what is important to them and fighting for what is important to them. Peace is not a trivial thing to achieve across differing moral viewpoints. It feels like a zero-sum game, and no one wants to be the recipient of the zero.
We can’t rely on our emotional responses to moral conflict. We can’t rely on our reason to be reasonable or our sense to make sense. We cannot rely on ourselves in any way, but must wait upon the Guidance of Jesus Christ Within to show us our duty.