Tom Louderback, Louisville Friends Meeting, Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, Friends General Conference, USA

“What is the role of the Society of Friends, this tiny body of less than two hundred thousand people, in this great process stretching from creation to doomsday?” That profound question was posed by economist, philosopher, poet and Quaker Kenneth E. Boulding on January 5, 1964 during the James Backhouse Lecture series of the Australia Yearly Meeting 50 years ago. Later that same year, his lecture was published as Pendle Hill Pamphlet #136, entitled “The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism.”

Boulding was deeply interested in this question partly because his life’s work was founded on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Early in his career, his research in economics had sought similarities and connections between the social sciences and the natural sciences, particularly biology. His first book proposed “A Reconstruction of Economics.” Boulding’s research was groundbreaking as it turned out. A new scientific discipline developed a few years later out of this kind of inter-disciplinary research – Systems Science. Boulding is widely regarded as one of its founders. 

Systems Science holds that everything we find in our diverse and complex universe is subject to some type of organisation based on independent concepts and principles. Individually, everything around us is essentially a complex whole formed of related parts. These individual parts are, in turn, parts to higher level bodies or entities. That’s what the word “system” means in this scientific field. It’s not about electronic computers. Studies in Systems Science typically search for similarities, interactions, and connections among different kinds of things in nature. These studies examine everything, animate and inanimate, from atomic particles, to living organisms, to organisations created by living organisms, to stellar galaxies. But, most of the time they concentrate on more practical studies of the things we see around us, such as human beings and economic systems.

Kenneth Boulding

Kenneth Boulding
1910 – 1993

The new discipline grew out the great transformative scientific theories of the 19th and 20th centuries, among them Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. In Darwin’s time, the word “evolution” referred to the progressive unfolding of embryonic structures like flower buds. The word implied that there was a progression of biological actions taking place in nature over time. Darwin was especially interested in how molecular changes, or mutations, occurred by inheritance and by adaptions to events in the environment. He saw evolution as a gradual step-by-step process of change. Organisms change not so much by rejecting old characteristics but by improving them; by adding new on top of old. Thus adaption is a critical survival skill.

By the 20th Century, a philosophy of organism had begun to develop in biology and the other life sciences that drew from observations of spontaneity in all fields of science. Nature is seen as alive and all things within it containing organising principles. The new view of evolution is not deterministic as the original concept of evolution had seemed.

Speaking on The Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism in 1964, Boulding identified several fundamental characteristics which he traced to the development of Quakerism in the 1600s. The Quakers of that time were said to be persistent, sometimes stubborn, honest and practical minded. Whether accurate or not, these traits appear to be reflected in the Quaker approach to theology. The first fundamental characteristic Boulding saw in early Quakerism was perfectionism. Historically, Quakers have believed that perfection is a realistic goal in life. Some have termed this goal “salvation by character.” Other denominations are sometimes criticised for over-emphasizing salvation in Heaven. The early Quakers wanted to bring that goal into the here and now. Their refusal to participate in war is one to example of their commitment to perfection, Boulding points out.
Another characteristic Boulding saw in Quakerism was experimentalism. First-hand experience is said by Quakers to be the most authentic source of religion. This means that perfection cannot be accomplished just by studying and praying. You have to “practice what you preach” as the cliché goes. There was a sense among early Quakers that perfection and progress towards perfection happens by building new on top of old foundations. Old ideas are not rejected so much as they are improved by our actual experiences. This perception came to them about two hundred years before Darwin developed evolution. In that sense, Darwin himself was apparently building on an older idea. Today we know this as evolutionary change, as contrasted with revolutionary change. The first kind of change is thought to be peaceable while the second kind seems too often to resort to violence.

Boulding quote 1The third fundamental characteristic was a devotion to continuing revelation obtained by waiting worship, tempered by consensus, and put into practice. Early Quakers set about developing practices and organisations intended to transform knowledge, whether revealed, discerned, or learned, into actions which would further the aims of knowledge. For example, Quaker organisations typically write down their principles and practices and update them periodically. These charters were originally termed “books of discipline”, but in more recent times they are usually called “books of faith and practice.” Boulding adds, “It seems to have been the genius of George Fox himself however that created the Meeting for Business and or the organisation of the society into monthly, quarterly, and yearly meetings. This gave it an apparatus, as it were, a body, capable of maintaining itself and of mobilising the scattered resources of individuals into a common purpose.”
Boulding saw these Quaker characteristics reflected in modern scientific methodology as hypothesis, experimentation, and the development of scientific theory. He believed the relationship between Quakerism and science was symbiotic, each drawing insights from other. More traditional denominations did not attempt to interact with science until the 20th century, he noted.

Nowadays, some believe that science and technology will eventually swallow up religion. They regard religion as a remnant of a pre-scientific era. They have no need of such “superstitions.” Boulding disagreed with that idea. He counters that many of those who would reject religion soon find themselves devising “quasi-religion out of some odds and ends of 19th Century social science.”

He continues, “I believe that the rules of reality testing which apply to ordinary experience apply alike to the religious experience of mankind and that a reality underlying this experience must be postulated, just as we postulate a reality underlying our carefully learned experience of the senses.”

Boulding eventually authored almost four dozen books, over 800 articles, and three volumes of poetry. Since 1990, the International Studies Association has granted the annual Kenneth E. Boulding Award in his honour.

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