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  • Meaning in Historical Existence:Modern and Quaker Perspectives
  • R. Melvin Keiser (bio)

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...


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pp. 62-72
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