by Kenneth Boulding

It is no accident that an organization or a society is called a “body,” for the metaphor is unusually accurate. Biological bodies are created and eventually destroyed by an extraordinary assemblage of genetic information and instructions which begins in our fertilized egg and is replicated in our cells throughout life. This genetic structure has a two or three billion year history. Parts of it have been replicated since the very beginnings of life. Parts of it go back to the mutation that produced oxygen-using cells, sex, vertebrate skeletons, mammalian reproductive apparatus, and increasingly complex brains. Each human being has a three billion year history.

A society like the Society of Friends similarly has a genetic structure in the minds of its members, elements of which go back to the very origins of the human race and others which go back to Moses, Jesus, St. Paul, Luther, Cranmer, the English Puritans, George Fox, John Woolman, Rufus Jones, and even John Wesley and Karl Marx. The genetic structure of a social body is essentially its “message,” what it has to say that organizes it, creates its vision of the world and its moral order. Sometimes in social bodies as in biological bodies genetic structures are recessive, they are overshadowed by more powerful messages, but they continue to be transmitted into documents, into histories, in human memories, and sometimes they emerge again when the message which they carry is more appropriate.

The Society of Friends originated as a mutation out of English Puritanism in the messages of George Fox, James Nayler, William Penn, and other “founders.” Like all mutations, this was a modification of an existing structure. Most of the old structure remains unchanged. George Fox’s message is a good ninety percent that of the Puritans, especially of the Baptists. It is Christian, biblical, and involves the restoration of what is perceived as an earlier form of spiritual life, “primitive Christianity revived.” We could almost think of this as a recessive spiritual gene breaking out again when the time is ripe. It is, however, more than that. No restoration ever really restores; it always has elements of genuine novelty, and in many ways George Fox’s spiritual mutation had quite large elements that were new, not only religiously, but in terms of community, ethical standards, and human behavior. In some ways the early Quaker was more different from the Baptist than the Baptist was from the Episcopalian or even the Catholic. The Baptist still “pleaded for sin,” in the words of George Fox. Life in Pilgrim’s Progress is a journey to perfection to come. George Fox had the audacity to want it now. There is no record so far as I know that George Fox ever met John Bunyan. One would love to know what they would have made of each other!

The call to perfection

What was the Quaker message? In a sense it was a call to a certain kind of perfection, a New Testament ethic, the love of enemies, rejoicing through suffering, a profound unwillingness to use threat even for supposedly good purposes, a passion for veracity even in minute particulars of language, a sense of the “Lord’s power” that “rises over all” but still remains profoundly mysterious-an uncertain visitation of grace, not under human control to be turned on and off at will, but also responsive to human need. This cautious perfectionism did not fall into the trap of the early church in Jerusalem of communal living and the abandonment of property which led to Ananias and Sapphira, and of fear replacing love. It did develop a strong sense of economic community within the meeting, which at least was able to look after its own members as an extended family. It was suspicious of power and of politics, though there was William Penn and Quaker government in Pennsylvania for at least two or three generations until final abandonment of politics in 1756 under the threat of war.

Elements of George Fox’s message became recessive in the eighteenth century. The Society of Friends closed in on itself, and became a distinctive, self-contained, well organized subculture, producing spirits of great beauty and power like John Woolman and Thomas Story. We must not exaggerate the “quietism” of the eighteenth century. The great Quaker ministers were far from quiet. But it was the Wesleys, not Fox, who spoke to the condition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They, too, were tinged with perfectionism, but this did not extend to the unpaid ministry and the intensely communal religious organization, which perhaps kept the Society of Friends to a relatively small niche, spreading only by transmission through the family, not very much by conversion from outside.

In the nineteenth century, two different mutants of the Christian message came into the Society of Friends, partly from outside, partly as internal mutations. One was the evangelical stream, coming mainly out of Methodism, and the other, what might be called a “universalistic” approach to religion, as represented by Elias Hicks and the Hicksite controversy. Elias Hicks’ universalism was still very Christian, but it drew on that part of the original Quaker message which stressed the immediacy of the Christian experience, as reflected in the famous quotation, “Christ said this and the Apostles said that, but what canst thou say?”

In the twentieth century the Society of Friends, looked at as a social species, has included a wider and wider variety of individuals, ranging from the evangelicals with all night revival meetings; to the variegated pastoralism of the Friends United Meeting; to the “new meetings,” which developed mainly in university centers as a result of Rufus Jones and the work of the American Friends Service Committee, which have now largely absorbed the old style, more rural Hicksite meetings. Into this branch, especially as reflected in the American Friends Service Committee, there has come a stream of earnest, political left-wing, anti-war activists and Jungian Friends, who still find something meaningful and important in the unprogrammed meeting for worship. There is a slightly acid bite of truth in the remark of one Philadelphia Friend, that the only thing which binds Friends of this persuasion together in the “new meetings, ” and in some of the old ones too, is a common liturgical taste, that we all like the silent unprogrammed meeting. Friends who have other liturgical tastes, such as for singing hymns and listening to sermons and indulging in revival meetings have very little communication with the unprogrammed Friends, in spite of some attempts in the last few years to bring the two groups closer.

Diversity in unprogrammed meetings

The great diversity of people in unprogrammed meetings is by no means necessarily a liability. It creates a unique spiritual flavor of love without much unity, which could well be one of the most important messages of the Society of Friends. Indeed, love can create a fruitful diversity which may show no signs of being resolved into unity. From the point of view of the evolution of a better world society, love without unity may be an extremely important idea, for unity may well be impossible in the light of the enormous cultural diversity of the human race. We are all creatures of different heritage, not only biologically but also culturally.

In all this diversity, where do we detect an essential message, particularly a message for the future? The worldwide Society of Friends, which the Friends World Committee for Consultation symbolizes, is an historical composite of the products of a great diversity of missionary enterprises; missions to Puritan Protestants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; to nonChristians in great variety from Alaska to Japan to Kenya, or to dissident nominal Catholics of Mexico and Guatemala in the nineteenth century; and in the twentieth century to unchurched, dissident, largely middle class, white collar workers and intellectuals. The future of the Society of Friends of the twenty-first century perhaps depends on its discovery of a new “niche,” a new field for expansion among those to whose condition its message speaks. Is there still a “great people waiting to be gathered,” as George Fox thought on top of Pendle Hill? If so, who are they? What is the message that their condition needs? Can we catch this message ourselves and is there a condition among us to which it might speak?

It is our duty I think to explore as many answers to this question as we can, for there may be more than one answer to it. If there is something that the human race, or even a fraction of it, needs, which the Society of Friends can offer, then we are in gross dereliction of our duty if we fail to offer it from a lack of confidence in our own message or even from a not always reasonable fear of changing the cultures of others. One of the greatest dangers of universalism, indeed, is that because it quite rightly seeks the value of diversity and of different traditions and cultures, it is sometimes blind to the pathologies of cultures and the need for change. Love does not imply a complete renunciation of criticism, though loving criticism is a skill that is not easy to learn.

An endless pilgrimage in search of truth

It is my own view that what Friends have to offer the world is an uneasy, enormously productive combination of love and veracity, the love that can only be sustained by the Lord’s power in the face of the desperate evil of the human heart and a veracity that comes from an endless pilgrimage in search of truth. To be veracious is not to tell lies, which does not necessarily imply not being in error. It is the utter abandonment of deceit in any form which lies at the very heart of the Quaker way of life. It is a very profound metaphor that one of the names of the devil is the father of lies. I am convinced that out of lies comes a great part of the evil of the world. It is an evil, furthermore, which can be unilaterally renounced by an individual, an act of will. Justice is a Holy Grail which we never find. Even love is a grace that we cannot always command. Veracity we always have in our power.

The ethic of veracity is very closely connected to the scientific ethic and it is no accident that Quakers made such a disproportionate contribution to the development of science. The one unforgiveable sin in the scientific community is deliberate falsification of results. The passion for veracity, the deep and endless curiosity about the nature of the real world, and the reliance on evidence rather than on threat as a means of changing people’s opinion, are the three great pillars of the scientific subculture. They are pillars also of the culture of Quakerism. What Quakerism adds to this is love and grace, which are only small parts of the scientific experience, as expressed in the desire for a nonexclusive community of concern, the questions that gave rise to the Peace Testimony, and the “sense of the Lord’s power,” inexplicable but conforming to orderly processes. This experience is overwhelmingly real to those who have felt it, though in the interest of veracity it must be said that this reality is a subjective reality, the objective reference of which is unknown; but this is so patterned and structured that it becomes impossible to dismiss it as illusion.

I am not asking for a union of the Quaker and the scientific ethic. This would be like asking for a genetic union of the honey bee and the elephant, but nevertheless there is a large intersection of these two sets, particularly in terms of veracity, the renunciation of threat, and the testing of error. Without a deep allegiance to these ethical principles neither science nor Quakerism will survive, and neither truth nor betterment will prosper. For the Society of Friends this requires some hard rethinking of its own message and its own testimonies in light of the needs of the modern world and of the century to come. There are several areas to which we must give attention. The first is the testimony for veracity. Here both the evangelistic and “Service Committee” Friends need a deep examination of their consciences. Are we using unveracious rhetorical devices as the search for persuasiveness erodes our own veracity? An important aspect of this is what I have called the “veracity of the outward,” particularly in the use of historical data and statistics. We need to have a very careful testimony about the use of numbers, for these easily mislead. The use of special and unrepresentative cases, also, we must scrutinize with the greatest of care. We must develop an ethic of sampling, judging our statements by the extent to which they are representative of the totality of reality and not only of a part of it. There must be a willingness also to accept the results of testing, to recognize error once we have found it, and not to weave our personal identities so strongly into particular views of the world that we cannot afford to sacrifice them when they are shown to be wrong.

A second area is that of discrimination, about which Friends are rightly concerned. Paradoxically enough, discrimination as an evil is a result of a failure to discriminate, in the good sense of the term as used in the phrase, “a discriminating taste.” The evil of discrimination is that we treat different people as if they were alike and like people as if they were different. This does not involve the proposition that all people are alike-for they are not. We rightly struggle against stereotypes, which means treating different people as if they were alike. This is what produce~ racism, sexism, ageism, to which we should add “richism,” “poorism,” “businessism,” “politicianism,” “bureaucratism,” “classism.” This ties into our testimony for veracity, as a testimony against cant of all kinds, whether religious, conservative or radical. Easy phrases, popular denunciations, the right words to produce a head nodding agreement out of a failure to think, are all suspect.

The Peace Testimony

Another area of rethinking must be the Peace Testimony. We have assumed far too easily that this is only a testimony against violence. It is much more than that. It is a testimony against threat as a means of conformity and it arose out of an experience of grace; that is, the “Lord’s power.” The assumption that nonviolence is an adequate expression of the Quaker peace testimony seems to me unfounded, for nonviolence also involves the use of threat, and though it is much less subject to pathologies than the use of violence, it has its own pathologies. Under some circumstances, it can be just as destructive of human welfare as can violence. The prospect indeed of small, highly disciplined, and wellorganized groups disrupting society by nonviolence in the interest of their illusions of human welfare is not to be taken lightly. It is striking that the scientific ethic involves a taboo on the use of threat far more drastic than that proposed by the advocates of nonviolence. This is something that we must rethink. We have assumed too easily that all we needed to do to save the world is to substitute nonviolence for violence. The problem may be much more complex than that. This is not to affirm either that society can operate without some kind of legitimated threat; otherwise it is hard to make provision for public goods. All government rests on threat; otherwise we get the “tragedy of the commons.” Another problem to which we need to apply our minds and hearts is the nature of the limits of human capability and the circumstances under which these limits can be transcended. Are there limits to love as well as limits to growth?

There are many other areas that need to be explored. In the next generation indeed a large intellectual and spiritual task is required of the Society of Friends if it is to f~lfill the promise of its history and its message. We are 1ll prepared to accomplish this task. Many of us do not see it as necessary. We are content with the old formulas and the old language, and there is very little sense even among young Friends as to the desperate ne~~ssity to equip ourselves intellectually as well as spmtually for a very large task, the task of reinterpreting the message of the Society of Friends to those who will need it in the next 100 years.

This article was published in the October 1, 1979 issue of Friends Journal.

Kenneth E. Boulding  (1910-93) was at that time Distinguished Professor of Economics and a program director of the Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado. He was the author of twenty-five books, a president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of Boulder (CO) Meeting.