A book I recently read, Sources of the Self, The Making of Modern Identity by philosopher Charles Taylor, maps some of the paths which have led to contemporary understandings of identity as realised throughout the Western world. Over-arching themes of reason and of feeling dominated this history, both of which indicate the pivotal turn to inwardness which has typified the constructions of Western identities.
In reading this work I ‘listened’ to some of the ways that the identities of Friends may have been shaped.
In contemporary Western cultures we largely build identities on constructs of the individual, and those freedoms and pleasures we desire so to flourish. The Society of Friends has not been immune to the larger cultural frameworks in and by which the larger society has developed.
I am led to ask ‘upon what grounds are Friends to be understood?’
Friends may have long been regarded as a ‘peculiar people’. Does this translate to a peculiar identity or are we so thoroughly Western that what has shaped the broader culture and its frameworks largely shapes and defines us too?
I answer to these questions with both ‘yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ in that we have been greatly influenced by successive waves of broader understandings of notions of the human being, reason, world, thought and feeling. And ‘no’, (and it is this I want to focus upon), in that there are actual foundational charisms to being part of the Society of Friends which paradoxically define by stripping us of definition.
Practices and encounters which enable us to fall through the cracks of the obsessive need to name, identify and classify are at the heart of being Quaker.
I suggest that this elusiveness is the result of coming-to-be within the flux and fluidity of relationships, that the Society of Friends is inherently about relationship.
I will now turn to two aspects of this.
The terms Friend and Quaker, perhaps now so commonplace to our hearing that we no longer listen to them, have been largely shaped by the broader society’s need to classify and order. These nouns have been used by others to label us, and by us to identify ourselves.They are a hedge, as are all identities, but in this case not intended to obscure but to reveal, to let us be seen by the gaze of a broader culture that needs to label and demarcate so to see.
And in that seeing in fact obscuring.
Our language assists this by being a ready to hand tool for naming. We let ourselves be defined by nouns, and we use nouns to name ourselves. But if we need to define ourselves, shouldn’t we be verbs? Beyond all language and its use to pin life under the harsh and needle-like gaze of reason’s misuse, is the foundational fact that we are called to the dynamism of relationship, called to Friend.
The Gospel of John is an important text for those that Quake and Friend. Verse 12 of chapter 15 gives us the commandment to love, not in an abstract way, because all of the previous verses of this chapter, and much of the Gospel itself, ground the commandment within that relationship of love between the Johannine Jesus and his Father. An abiding relationship in which others who love, come to be friends [Jn15:14-15]. This is not a static relationship between finite identities, rather this love springs into being insofar as we are actively participating in that eternal relationship to which we are invited, and to which we invite others.
This is friendship as eternal response and participation, too large for the limitations of identities to hold or comprehend.
According to Fox’s autobiography, it was magistrate Bennet ‘who was the first to call us Quakers, because I bade them tremble at the word of the Lord’. Whether or not we still visibly quake, we are still moved by the inner Light. Our worship together is a gathered, collective response. We come-to-be in relationship, especially in that space of Silence in which the Light searches our deepest recesses. Silence comes within the forest of language and discourse as a welcome, liberating, sunlit clearing that exposes the limits of naming.
Despite the emphasis of contemporary Western culture upon identity and the trivialisation and commodification of friendship in such social media as Facebook, and in advertising and the like, Friending is not something we initiate, control, and end at will. So too if our worship be a Friending of Spirit, it is not something we initiate and control at our whim. The twentieth century’s Sandra Cronk (1942-2000), as spiritual heir to Samuel Bowman (1676-1753) pointedly reminds us – in perfect continuity with our participatory relationship as Friend – that it is not ‘we’ who allow God to enter our domain. It is God that invites us (Cronk 1991)! So too as Quaker,it is not God that enters our presence, but we, in that sacred infinity of Silence, who come into the presence of God having relinquished our usual clutter of small identities and excuses.
We who identify as Quakers, we who together participate in a relationship known as Friendship, are involved, at heart, in a relationship without identity; a relationship in which we come-to-know through unknowing the categories of static definition which we use (or used) to construct our rigid selves,fixing us and others in place. We responding to invitation and embrace in which we are realised anew within relationship with that unknown we call God. From there we invite others to Friend
Sandra Cronk (1991)Dark Night Journey: Inward Re-patterning Toward a Life centred in God, Wallingford, Pennsylvania: Pendle Hill, 1991. pp.47-49.
George Fox (1694) George Fox: An Autobiography, Street Corner Society, Available from http://www.strecorsoc.org/gfox/title.html
Charles Taylor (1989) Sources of the Self, The Making of Modern Identity, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.