Ask A Quaker: Liberal vs. Conservative

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By Paul Blankenship

It seems there are liberal and conservative wings in most Christian denominations, is there a big difference between Quaker silent meeting theology and evangelical Friends theology?

Another excellent question.

Let me say first: a proper answer would take at least a few shelves in the wonderful Foley Library at Gonzaga. The real and imagined differences between liberal and conservative Quakers stem from complex historical, social, and theological forces.

And let me say second: though there is considerable diversity in the Quaker tradition, there is usually a shared belief among Friends that there is “that of God in everyone” and that being a Quaker means something very practical, concrete, and immediate: living a life of joyful friendship and humble service with God and the world.

In our highly polarized time, where we may be especially tempted to fear and even hate difference, it is critical that we remember and appreciate what we all have in common.

And I will say third: one major difference between conservative and liberal wings of Quakerism boils down to where people experience the presence of God.

Conservative Quakers are more likely to experience the presence of God in Christian Scripture and the broader Christian tradition itself. They light their divine wick, one could say, with the sacred stuff of Christianity.

Liberal Quakers, on the other hand, are more likely to experience the presence of God outside of Christian Scripture and even outside of the Christian tradition itself. Their divine wick is fanned into flame by winds from outside of more traditionally Christian ways of thinking and praying and acting. A general anthropological point: so much of who we become and imagine ourselves to be stems from where we find that which is most sacred to us. I hope that helps.

About Paul Blankenship

Paul Houston Blankenship is an interim pastor at Spokane Friends and a PhD candidate at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He has taught theology and religious studies at Seattle University, Fordham University, and UC Berkeley. Paul's dissertation, Soul Suffering, is an ethnographic study about the spiritual lives of people living on the streets of Seattle.

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