Meaning in Historical Existence:Modern and Quaker Perspectives
What meaning is there in historical existence and how do we understand it? How do the study of history and the living of spirituality relate? Is there, or should there be, a distinctive approach to the study of history by Quakers?
Jeffrey Dudiak in his address to the Friends Historical Association, "The Meaning of 'Quaker History'" (Quaker History, 106.1 [Spring 2017]: 1-21), raises these issues by focusing on the difference, as he sees it, between a modern approach to history and a Quaker approach. A modern approach presents facts; a Quaker approach should explore the meaning in those facts. Facts are accessible to reason used by anyone. Meaning in the facts Dudiak thinks Quakers should get at involves the reality of the inward lived experience of whomever is being studied. The modern approach aspires to an objectivity of what happened detached from the historian's own inwardness, and disregarding the inwardness in the object of study. A Quaker approach aspires to an understanding of the meaning of what happened by participating in the historical agents' inward experience through being aware of this dimension of inwardness in one's own experience, and how it connects, or doesn't, with the experience of the object of study. The modern approach wants to present the truth without any personal bias distorting it. The Quaker approach recognizes that truth can only be reached through a personal grasp that invariably comes from within a particular perspective that is background to all knowing. One way Dudiak puts what he wants is that Quaker historians should look not merely at what happened but why?
The example Dudiak gives of a Quaker approach to history is of George Fox, the Younger, finding the meaning of God acting in history in his contemporary events of the Protectorate and Restoration. Dudiak says that Fox "demonstrates to the king how, external appearances notwithstanding, current events were in fact the very arena of God's actions and purposes—something that the Quakers, by means of their exposure and attentiveness to the Light of Christ, were in a unique position to understand . . . [which] was available to anyone [End Page 62] and everyone . . ." (3).
Responses to Dudiak's address by modern historians, who are Quaker, reject using God as a causal agent in historical explanations. Larry Ingle in "One Historian's Reflections on Philosopher Jeffrey Dudiak's Search for the 'Meaning of Quaker History'" and J. William Frost in "Revealed Truth and Quaker History" (Quaker History, 106.1 [Spring 2017]: 22-24 and 25-27) both say talk of God acting in history belongs in Quaker meeting for worship not in historical explanations.
Dudiak provides context for their critique. In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophers realized that adhering to Reason could transcend the bloody conflicts between Protestants and Catholics. They used critical reason to unhinge facts from ideology, religious belief structures that involved superstition and adherence to traditional dogma, which were at the root of the violent conflict. God acting in history is an idea drawn from scripture and church tradition which Reason shows is not factual and is therefore to be discarded in historical work. Facts and ideas (as interpretations of experience), are put in opposition. Personal experience and theology are therefore excluded from historical explanations.
How then do the person doing history and the person participating in silent meeting for worship connect, especially if it is the same person? Frost provides a clue how to understand this conflict. He refers to H. Richard Niebuhr's distinction between "outer history" and "inner history" in The Meaning of Revelation, one of the great theological books of the twentieth century. He refers to Niebuhr's example of the "difference between saying the U.S. was founded 87 years ago and 'our forefathers brought forth a new nation conceived in liberty . . .'" (25). This distinction between inner and outer, fundamental to early Friends' writings, Niebuhr encountered in his serious study of seventeenth-century Friends in his first post-conversion book The Kingdom of God in America (and as well in his reading of nineteenth-century Lutheran Sören Kierkegaard). He recast this distinction into the language of history pressing to its limits the Kantian dualism between pure (outer) and practical (inner) reason.
How then do inner and outer history relate? Niebuhr suggests several ways in which inner and outer interact (see "Relations of Internal and External History," The Meaning of Revelation, 81-90). External views can, and should, be internalized, so the outer is integrated into the inner view. An example of this is that the painful fact that some Quakers were slave-holders [End Page 63] needs to be accepted as part of the historical description of Friends and embraced therefore as part of our Quaker identity. Niebuhr goes on: what truth we know in our inner history can be an impulsion towards doing external history, to look for what we know to be true in our experience in the experience of others. Recognizing our own inner history makes us aware of our own limited perspective in all knowing and that the reality studied as outer history is richer than it can grasp. Finally, Niebuhr says that all inner history is embodied in external history; inner history is not some transcendental realm separate from what is happening in the world.
In conclusion, Niebuhr acknowledges, however, that his "two-aspect theory of history," while affirming "intimate relations of subjective and objective truth," does not resolve the problem of a dualistic split between them. It is only in his final book, The Responsible Self, that he resolves it, but not in the language of history but of responsiveness in the relatedness of our being. The outer is underlain by, and emergent from, the unconscious relatedness we exist within as selves and knowers.
Niebuhr's solution is consonant with, and I think influenced by, the thought of Michael Polanyi, whom Niebuhr was reading and teaching in his last years. Polanyi was a physical chemist turned philosopher of science and epistemology. His Gifford Lectures, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-critical Philosophy, argue that all knowing, including all scientific knowing, is personal, because all explicit knowing emerges from a creative integrative activity in an unconscious tacit grasp of reality. How he would say this in terms of historical study is that historians immerse themselves in an event they want to understand, tacitly indwelling the various aspects of the event and following clues to how the parts fit together in an explicit pattern.
Niebuhr's thought is also consonant with the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (whom he was becoming aware of at the end of his life), who in his Phenomenology of Perception uses the metaphor of figure and background to understand both our perceiving and knowing. We always focus on a figure against a background, within a context, of which we are prereflectively (not explicitly) aware. We inhabit the background unconsciously from which we draw out the figure into visibility. We thus always view historical events against a particular background that provides a certain perspective on the reality.
Niebuhr at the end of his life and these two philosophers in their mature thought are all affirming an experiential base which underlies and [End Page 64] enables all knowing. They point a way to combine outer and inner history. Dudiak says that this combining existed among early Friends but has been lost over our three hundred and fifty year history to a one-sided modern approach looking only at the outward facts. It would help if Dudiak could provide a brief history of who these modern historians are who have lost a Quaker lens? I think of two recent outstanding historians among Quakers who explore the inward experience of early Friends as well as the outer events. Both Howard Brinton and Hugh Barbour get at the inward experience (the why) as well as the facts (the what) of early Quaker development.
I am surprised towards the end of his address that Dudiak says that this sharp distinction between objective and subjective rendering of history is "undertaken for heuristic purposes," and "is foreign to the integrated spirituality of Quakerism itself" (14). What he suggests immediately after this confession is that the subjective and objective are held together by what he calls "the story" and its truth. The story for Quakers that continues through the changes from Protectorate to Restoration of monarchy is that "the Kingdom was 'come and coming'" (15). He says early Friends thought that the establishment of a republic under Cromwell would be the mechanism for this coming but under the Restoration had to adjust to the facts that the republic would not be recovered as the means. He writes:
As the experience of being in the "end time," with its promise of the immediate return of Christ as king, gave way to that of being in the "mean time," where this promise was put on hold, and Friends had to settle into a arrangement of rightly waiting, there was no immediate abandonment of the conviction that the Kingdom was "come and coming," even if the mechanism of this would, over the next century, increasingly come to be seen as a holy communion built in isolation from (rather than as a conquering of) the impure world(15).
Dudiak is here making several outer historical claims. He is referring to what modern historians have substantiated as a shift from the original public efforts to transform British society to Quietism at the end of the seventeenth and into the eighteenth century where they withdrew into themselves to lick their wounds, the persecutions having stopped in 1689, and to raise up the next generation of Quakers educated about their own identity.
He interprets the beginning and subsequent shift in traditional Christian [End Page 65] apocalyptic terms. As with the early church so with the beginnings of Quakerism, he says, it was believed that Christ would come again in a literal, physical, outward event, that would be the end of history. When this did not happen, a shift occurred in both early Christianity and early Quakerism from living in the "end time" to living in the "mean time," waiting expectantly for the event of Christ's coming to happen in the future.
This is a modern outer historical claim of what early Quakers believed. The textual evidence I am aware of suggests that early Friends did not believe in the literal appearance of the risen Jesus. Rather they emphatically believed that the eternal Christ was present in all hearts as a Seed and that many were opening during the Protectorate to this indwelling presence and learning to live in this dimension of inwardness, the kingdom of God. Their hope was that this transformation would overtake all of Britain, which had some realism about it since by the 1680s one in a hundred in England were Quakers. While we can disagree about what early Friends believed, it is outer history in which we need to look at the evidence in what they said and did.
Similarly, it is an outer historical claim that Friends withdrew into themselves when the republic was replaced by monarchy. Again, I don't see the textual evidence that they reinterpreted the expectation from "now" to living in the "mean time." They continued, as they withdrew from the public arena, to believe that "Christ is come to teach his people himself "—in their hearts, in their individual and communal inwardness, while recognizing all of Britain in the Restoration was not going to dwell in this dimension of the kingdom come. Another outer historical claim: Friends became a "peculiar people," withdrawn from public activism, yet they were, as is evident, very much involved in the eighteenth-century world of business and science.
Making such outer historical claims elicits modern historical responses arguing from the evidence. More specifically, however, what is this story that has continued? Is the essence of Quakerism a story? To raise the question about the essence of Quakerism is to dive into the inward experience of Friends, into inner history. Here the historian's own inwardness comes into play. I think this is one thing Dudiak is recommending to modern Quaker historians: to descend into your own inwardness in order to be able to understand the inwardness in the object of historical study. Do I experience Quakerism as a way of being, and what is at its center? Do I find this dimension of inwardness and the same center in [End Page 66] what I am studying, or is it different?
When I enter into my own inwardness as a Quaker, I do not find a story at its center but an experiential depth of reality in which, when I open to it, dwell within, and act from it, (and here early Friends used many metaphors that are helpful to me) I am illumined about my condition by this reality as Light, transformed by it as Truth, guided by it as Spirit, comforted and shaken by it as Presence. Other Friends today looking within themselves and then looking at early Friends see liberal concerns acted on seeking peace and justice, or given the post-Reformation Christian language, see evangelical assertions of orthodox belief.
What we have entered into here, however, is no longer outer history by modern historians. We can argue about the center of Quakerism then and now but we have entered into theology, which can argue from textual evidence but is not modern history that focuses on the outer social, political, economic aspects of people and events. The truth modern historians argue about for the most part is not on this theological level, although the inward experience, as Niebuhr says, is embodied in this outer history, from which the inward-looking thinker can benefit. I think Brinton and Barbour both do argue for the inner experiential meaning in the outer aspects of Quaker history, so it has recently been done. They both give textual evidence for the center lying in the dimension of transformative experience, so claim this to be historically true. They also believe it to be truth in their own experience. That is not, however, part of their historical argument, although it could be of a theological argument.
While merely heuristic, I find Dudiak opposing inner and outer history provocative of my thinking. He says in conclusion that his model for doing Quaker history is Fox's approach to scripture, to read it in the spirit in which it was written. For Fox it meant living in the Holy Spirit in order to see the Spirit's meaning in the words. This would mean doing Quaker history with an awareness of the Spirit in me and discerning its presence in early Friends.
What I draw from this suggestion for Friends doing Quaker history to resolve Dudiak's heuristic opposition—with Niebuhr, Polanyi, and Merleau-Ponty in the background—is the following. One is for modern historians to acknowledge that objective history is from a perspective that grasps true aspects of reality but not all aspects of an historical event. An objective description, while avoiding personal bias in getting at the facts, is a personally creative act as committed to its certain methods against a [End Page 67] background framework of understanding with certain interests that direct one's attention. Other perspectives discover other aspects of historical truth.
Secondly, to combine outer and inner history, involves descending into one's own inwardness to be able to discern what is going on in the inwardness of the objects of historical study. Recognizing how my own interests shape my outward action, I can be sensitive to what interests (the why) are motivating my historical agents because we really do not understand what the facts mean without understanding persons' and a historical period's interests.
As an example of discerning the inward spirit in an historical complex, consider Niebuhr's distinction between facts about America and the experience of America. Digging into my own orientation I can discern a spirit in which I live as an American that is the spirit of domination. Sensitive to this spirit I can interpret the facts of American history as an Anglo landgrab from Natives and a building of its wealth upon the free labor of enslaved Africans? Without looking into my own condition, infected as well by this spirit, I so easily stand in judgment of previous periods, while oblivious of my own blind use, or acquiescence to others use, of power to dominate. Revisionist modern historians might call such a landgrab a fact, but it is clearly an interpretation of, an idea-laden (ideological) take on, the fact of Euro-Americans' western expansion.
Thirdly, while you can challenge modern historians who are Quaker to reflect on the inward dimension of historical existence, that may not be their passion nor their tool set. So it is up to the Friend with the concern to act on it. Do the publicly verifiable factual history and embark on its inward meaning, being honest about the lens you are using.
To do inward history really involves a shift in the language historians use. Outer history is done in the third person. Events and people presented objectively, verifiable by other historians using rational arguments from public evidence, are approached in the third person as he, she, they, its. To go deeper into the inward meaning of events requires shifting to the first person. In the first person it is clear that the historian is personally involved and speaking from a certain perspective shaped by tacit commitments. In the third person such tacit commitments are hidden. To speak in the first person is to leave the apparent certainties of modern history to engage in the acknowledged uncertainties and ambiguities of experiential reflection. The attitude is different. In the [End Page 68] third person I am arguing what is the case, hoping to demonstrate I have it right, and you should succumb to my superior rationality because the way I have organized the facts is the way it really is. In the first person, I am sharing rather than arguing, asking the reader to reflect on their own inwardness to confirm what I say or provide new insight about it from which I can learn. This could be called theological history, although modern theology is usually done in the objective mode to establish objective truth. Quaker historians who are combining inner experiential and outer modern history would be doing this kind of personal theological history. Only the factual part of a theological historical argument can be verified by organizing publicly available evidence. The inward part can be communally confirmed by others who have the same experience and use the same lens. While confirmable as truth of existence, which matters to our very being in the world, it is not factual truth.
What then do we do with the idea of God acting in history? Frost applies the theological word Heilsgeschichte, which means salvation history, to Niebuhr's inner history. This mistaken application shows his lack of understanding of what Niebuhr means by inner history. Salvation history is presented by Christian theologians as the objective facts of God's action in history—creation, redemption, and consummation of the world. Making such truth claims as factual is what modern historians rightly reject using the tools of historical rationality because these claims are not publicly verifiable (that is, rationally accessible to anyone using reason). In the modern perspective these are unsubstantiated beliefs, which are merely subjective and do not carry the weight of truth that verifiable facts do.
Niebuhr says God acting in history is not evident in outer history. That is his way of saying God is excluded as a cause in modern history. Revelation is not a factual event. Had we been there when God spoke to Moses, we would not have heard anything. It was an experience in inner history. God works in our subjectivity. We experience things deep in our personal being; some interpret them as divine action in us. That is what early Friends were doing as they discovered themselves searched and guided by what they named, from the Gospel of John, as the Light. Discovering such reality in themselves, they looked to see it in the world around them. This is what George Fox, the Younger, was doing as he appealed to the newly restored Charles II to understand the inner meaning of what was visibly happening in outer history. Fox was urging [End Page 69] a particular religious interpretation of events that the King and others were interpreting only in social and political terms. It was a conflict of interpretations.
While communally verifiable by others who are similarly aware in their inwardness of such action, divine action is not publicly, empirically verifiable, which reason requires. No doubt one can be deluded about what one is finding in one's experience, which critical reason happily points out, and of which history is rank with examples. And one's whole community can be deluded. The European community was deluded at the beginning of the twentieth century using reason to set up a rational system of alliances that would protect them from violence, which when activated precipitated World War I. Similarly, the European community was deluded by the Ptolemaic explanation of the universe.
In any case, what is happening in inwardness is always being interpreted. So also is outer history interpretive. Both kinds of interpretation are grounded in our personal capacities, interests, methods of approach, and frameworks of understanding to which we are tacitly committed.
While seventeenth-century Friends were using Protestant biblical language to present their experience, they were developing an epistemology, theology, and spirituality divergent from the direction modern thought was taking. Whether scientific, historical, or theological, the direction of modernity was to embrace Cartesian dualism that separates and subordinates the subjective to the objective. Early Friends chose rather to hold the subjective and objective, the inner and outer, together as the outer emerges from and is grounded in the inner. They did this by speaking in the first person.
What this meant about God acting in history is that for early Friends God was real as they experienced God acting in their hearts and potentially in the hearts of all the historical actors. The modern dualism of objective and subjective was being put in place but was not yet set so that Friends would not have distinguished between outer and inner historical truth. From my perspective, inheriting this dualism, I would say that God for early Friends was not an objective Entity whose factuality could be argued for or against through reason appealing to empirical evidence or scripture. God was the Mystery they encountered in their own inward experience as they lived in the world which was a presence that illumined their condition and that of the world, transformed them from ego-dominated lives, and guided them into challenging the oppressive social hierarchy (religious and political) of their time and speaking to the inward [End Page 70] dimension of depth in those they met.
From my Quaker philosophical perspective I would say everyone was responding to underlying Mystery in their individual, political, economic lives and the structures they set up. George Fox the Younger was not writing history but addressing his contemporary situation as biblical prophets did, saying what was really happening (that means in the depths of experience) in his present situation. Modern historians may be iconoclastic but they are not inclined to be prophetic. Modern historians could reflect theologically on how historical events are a manifestation of some way of relating to Mystery (usually as defense and denial). This cannot happen, however, without letting go of their detached approach and opening to their own inwardness to become aware of how they relate to Mystery. In that light they can then explore how God was acting in history by exploring how the Protectorate and Restoration responded to Mystery in what they did and said.
This, however, is theological not modern history. So what is the problem with modern historians doing what they do, which is often invaluable in opening our eyes to aspects of reality of which we were not aware or intentionally overlooked and denied? The problem I think Dudiak is concerned about, is that the objective picture of modern historical writing, and of modern scientific thinking, can lead to a sense that the real context of our lives is meaningless or overwhelmingly oppressive as we identify only with the facts of our existence, rather than the richness of our experiential knowledge, as definitive of who we are. If only the objective is true, then we had better seek to satisfy our desires by creating meaning by controlling as much of our lives as we can. To control others leads into domination and violence. There is a greater richness in our historical existence than the factual account portrays. To open to the richness of our inward lives as a true part of reality can engender learning to live humbly with uncertainty, to feel and inhabit our relatedness with all of being, to trust our capacities of creativity to carry us further into truth in thought and action, and to make us aware of our limited perspective on reality—that is, to make us feel at home in the world.
What is the meaning of our historical existence is a burning issue today as everything seems to be commodified, the purpose of life seems to be to satisfy my desires and defend against the Other's restrictions on me, as we live in America which seeks to dominate the world militarily and economically as the latest and greatest empire of all time. How then do [End Page 71] we get at what is really true about our world and ourselves, what are the factual and personal realities we are living within? Why else engage in historical study but to know more of the breadth and depths of who we were, of the history from which we have come, and thus who we are? To engage our whole self and our whole world, outer and inner, will give us a fuller view of the reality, the truth, of our existence that can enrich and transform us. [End Page 72]
R. Melvin Keiser is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Guilford College.