That’s the challenge of Ben Pink Dandelion’s 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. Pink Dandelion believes that the Society of Friends is sick, having been infected by modern secularism and individualism. To return to health, the Society needs to re-form, i.e., go back to the basic principles of Quakerism.
Pink Dandelion doesn’t mean that Quakers should abandon the Twenty-first century for the Seventeenth, but he does identify four cardinal principles upon which traditional Quakerism rests. Quakers 1) encounter the Divine directly, 2) use systems of discernment to interpret such encounters, 3) facilitate Divine encounters through silent worship, and 4) lead a particular kind of life grounded in these spiritual experiences.
In modern, liberal Quakerism number one is problematic since there are many liberal Quakers who don’t believe in God at all. There can be no encounter with something that doesn’t exist. For these Friends, number three—silent worship—becomes silent meditation. There is nothing to be worshiped.
Number two—systems of discernment—depends on a collective process in which the individual can rely on others for guidance. Certainly, there are still clearness committees and minutes of the entire meeting relating to an individual concern, but Quakerism has become progressively privatized. According to Pink Dandelion, most Quakers do not expect religion to follow them home after First Day Meeting. They do not really feel accountable to the meeting. No elders will show up at their homes to see whether they are leading a Quaker life. These Friends make their own decisions without interference from their co-religionists. Unfortunately, this kind of individualized religion vitiates the traditional process of discernment.
Number four is also problematic. In a privatized Quakerism, one may pick and choose among the many Testimonies in a Yearly Meeting’s Book of Discipline. And even individual testimonies are subject to interpretation. For example, Friends are usually advised to lead a simple life, but perhaps owning a Cadillac is simple if it leads to the peace of mind Quakers are supposed to have. And as regards drugs and intoxicating substances, aren’t there good drugs and bad drugs? Don’t some drugs in fact lead to personal integration if taken in moderation? And anyway, what’s wrong with a couple of beers after work or a joint just before bedtime?
In his defense of traditional, conservative Quakerism, Pink Dandelion muses, “Maybe we’ve too much said we love you and what is it you’d like us to be for you rather than saying we love you and this is who we are, and you’re welcome to join if that works for you.”
What is my opinion of Ben Pink Dandelion’s lecture? Well, I agree. However, the divide BPD sees between conservative and liberal Quakerism is a divide that splits my own personality. Part of me is a skeptical, modern materialist; part of me is a somewhat traditional Christian. The Christian part is dominant, but I do feel considerable sympathy for skeptics and non-theists who are drawn to the Society of Friends. Of course, ours is The Religious Society of Friends. Ben Pink Dandelion and I* want to keep the religious basis of Quakerism while welcoming all Seekers after Truth.
BPD ends his lecture on a positive note. He advises us to “inhabit” the four cardinal principles of Quakerism. If we do so, he says, we will be transformed and become agents of transformation for others. For a YouTube video of his Swarthmore lecture, click HERE. For the lecture in book form, click HERE.
*I’m not actually a member of any meeting at the present time.
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