What is Quaker Process, Actually?
Quaker Process is a simple and difficult approach to spirituality wherein we cultivate practical wisdom in relationship, setting aside the ego so we may transform ourselves, our communities and the wider world. This practical wisdom, through discernment, informs our ethical choices, especially with regard to the appropriate uses of power and authority. Quaker Process defines a path on which we are ceaselessly re-discovering insight towards an ever more complete practice of justice and the good life.
Quaker Process is not a series of practices or decision-making procedures. It is not a set of norms, cultural attitudes or behavioral expectations. All of these things may emerge as a result of engaging in Quaker Process. The thing itself is profound, fundamental and often unelaborated or misunderstood. This essay attempts briefly to provide philosophical and theological groundwork to explain what Quaker Process actually is. There are three sections, which, when taken together, form a post-modern view, culminating in Quaker continuing revelation.
However, I illuminate the same primary colors, as it were, that have formed the foundations of the Quaker Way from its inception. I merely hope to give Quakerism a set of refreshed descriptors in order to push against some who would erroneously reduce it to particular practices, like business meeting, or particular principles, like the SPICES, and thereby obscure the transformative potential of our venerable faith tradition, putting it in danger of vacuous meaninglessness.
Practical Wisdom as Quaker Process
We begin with the idea that Quaker Process defines a certain necessary approach to belief and practice. Instead of defining a set of metaphysical beliefs and practices, per se, Quaker Process asserts the terms of engagement with them. Benjamin Dandelion calls this orthocredence, which is neither orthopraxy nor orthodoxy, but a synthesis of these more typical types of religiosity. This produces our first conundrum as to how a religion can include metaphysical ideas, while not requiring them.
Some theologians argue that preconceived notions pertaining to the nature of things, which are often precursors to metaphysics, tempt one to force the world into a precise reflection of these notions. Such strict correspondence constrains violently what is known and unknown about ourselves and the universe. Kevin Hector, a contemporary theologian, writes that, “we see this sort of violence at its most graphic when … [persons] of color [are] allowed to ‘show up’ only insofar as [they] fit within one’s prior conception of femininity, blackness, and so on, and when [their] attempts to transcend these conception boundaries are met with implicit or explicit resistance.”
In response to this violent potential, the same theologians set themselves down a different terrain. Particularly regarding the nature of God, they askew ontology and metaphysics altogether. They create distance between Godself and ourselves. Or they chalk God up to, “the great mystery of life,” the knowledge of which is attainable only through deep mystical experience. They become, in Hector’s words, “apophatic anti-metaphysics,” intent upon preventing the violence of constraints by imposing a tyranny of structurelessness, borrowing a phrase from Jo Freeman, or by supposing falsely the emptiness of secularism, as Saba Mahmoud critiques.
All theology, theory, ethic, or observation (no matter its degree of specificity, precision, or scientificity) is deliverable only within a set of preconceived notions that constrain us—constrain subjectivity and action. We need not be concerned about constraints in and of themselves, but with constraints that claim to have a permanent place or to be all-encompassing (perhaps hegemonic). Therefore, preconceived notions also need never be metaphysical, static or even consistent to suffice in whatever purpose. A metaphysical framework (or anti-metaphysical one) should never be a prerequisite for a sound set of principles or practices, nor should a story about the nature of things be required to produce wisdom. As Rorty would put it, intrinsic nature is a useless idea, the pursuit of which typically sends us down quite the rabbit hole.
Kevin Hector’s theories help to illuminate how we might talk about God and make other theological, philosophical or ethical assertions in ways that avoid grounding such talk in any particular metaphysical framework, including anti-metaphysical apophatic frames. He proposes we think of God partly in terms of, “the Spirit of Christ,” which, “enters into ordinary discursive practices in order to appropriate human concepts, to judge and fulfill their meaning,” and thereby to enable speaking of and referring to God. The particular form of this proposal is difficult to extend into the Quaker Way. The Quaker Way presupposes some things, but it does not consistently adhere to certain notions regarding the Spirit of Christ.
For what Hector calls the Spirit of Christ, we find more useful language in Judith Butler, who uses the term, “unthought known,” after Christopher Bollas or, simply, the unconscious—the part of ourselves, which persistently alludes our conscious awareness. The periodic desire to understand fully one’s unconscious thereby to gain greater awareness of oneself, argues Butler, is impossible because the unconscious is a product of this very movement into oneself, to observe and to narrativize oneself. In other words, a central conundrum of being alive is that we cannot know what led to our becoming aware of ourselves. This conundrum emerges through the development of the unconscious. Butler writes:
To understand the unconscious…is to understand what cannot belong, properly speaking, to me, precisely because it defies the rhetoric of belonging, is a way of being dispossessed through the address of the other from the start…The other is, from the start, too much for me, enigmatic, inscrutable. This ‘too-much-ness’ must be handled and contained for something called an ‘I’ to emerge in its separateness. The unconscious is not a topos into which this ‘too-much-ness’ is deposited. It is rather formed as a psychic requirement of survival and individuation, as a way of managing—and failing to manage—that excess and thus as the persistent and opaque life of that excess itself.
To become aware of myself, I must fabricate a chasm within me, such that a dyadic relationship takes hold between me as myself and me as the other. A certain kind of overwhelm emerges in the instant that I fabricate this chasm and become aware of myself. I fear losing this awareness. For, losing awareness of oneself is akin to death—akin to annihilation. This fear is maintained and protected by ego (more on this later). I become dispossessed from myself as a, “psychic requirement of survival and individuation.” The formation of my unconscious is the result. My unconscious is the part of me that doesn’t know who I am or even that I exist. My unconscious is me as the other, the perennially mysterious, unpredictable other. As I strive to learn more about it, I confront essential truths about life and death, which start me on a path toward further insight into who I am, where I belong, and what I am supposed to do while I still know that I am alive.
This idea of the existence and function of the unconscious drawn from Judith Butler better establishes the possibility of God-talk for liberal Quakerism, outside of the metaphysics vs. anti-metaphysics debate, than Hector’s notion of the movement of the Spirit of Christ. Hector relies on the notion that the, “Spirit implicit in Christ’s own normative assessments was passed along from person to person.” Following the operations of mutual recognition developed in his account of language, Hector establishes the possibility of passing on the essential ethical tenants of Jesus’s teachings so that, “one answers to God by answering to one’s peers, [and] one’s invocation of God need not be thought to lift one’s claims above the fray of reason-giving, critique, and so on.” Within the psycho-analytical frame centered on the unconscious, the “Spirit of Christ” becomes a metaphor for the unconscious, and for the ethical and moral exploration one conducts through certain self-work, charting the boundlessness of one’s relationship with oneself.
Butler characterizes the therapeutic relationship as that which mediates this exploration of oneself. Yet this exploration is actually mediated in all our relationships, be they with therapists, clients, dogs, friends, lovers, etc. This is a keystone point. One is only able to develop a narrative of oneself (albeit incomplete) and to use insights thereby generated as tools for making ever more ethical decisions in relationship.
Quaker Process is the development of practical wisdom, or phronesis, through community and relationship. One answers to God (or God’s functional equivalent) by answering to one’s peers wherein we are therefore required to give an account of ourselves, to proffer, “reason-giving, critique and so on.” Our blind spots ceaselessly persist, but, maybe together, we can bridge enough gaps to approximate that elusive thing called “the good life”.
Let Go Your Ego and be Transformed, Like Jesus Did
Setting aside the ego is an essential element of Quaker Process and phronesis. The ego maintains our fear of death, our need to survive, and thus the chasm between our conscious and unconscious being. To develop an ever more coherent narrative of ourselves, we must spelunk, as it were, the depths of our unconscious to recover those things we’ve forcefully forgotten as survival tools, which our egos resist. We have to let go the need to survive and lose ourselves thereby to gain further insights into our beings as tools for making ever more ethical choices. The life and death of Jesus of Nazareth teaches this.
The sheer mundanity of Jesus’ death, from the perspective of the Romans who killed him and the loss of those who loved him, makes for the sort of scene one might find in a good independent film. To me, Jesus’ story and how it ends is comparable to the likes of Donnie Darko. Donnie is a sad, irrelevant dude who sacrifices himself for others at a time when hardly anyone else is watching, and we are the cult following. To get nailed to the cross was a regular process; it was a thing the Romans did to people all the time. Making the cross the symbol of your religion would be like making the electric chair, the needle, or the night stick the symbol of one today. Even more remarkable, a petty criminal is the central Christian figure. Christian imagery begins utterly with the mundane, the profane, and also the inconsequential.
Politically, Jesus was nailed to the cross for attempting to make changes that would never come. In fact, the Roman empire appropriated his figure and used it to maintain the sort of order he was trying to disrupt. For the Romans, the crucifixion became an artifice, perched upon a myth about magical powers proffered through Jesus’ death to save us from our spiritual brokenness that the Church coopted in order to fasten us to its steeple for millennia.
Yet, I don’t think this is what we should glean from the crucifixion, because it’s not what Jesus’ example teaches. Jesus did not teach to a magically realized shift from the profane to the sacred through his death, requiring nothing from us but submission to authority, to dogma and orthodoxy (repentance). A couple of Bible verses spring to mind, like John 15:12-13:
This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
And 1 John 3:16:
We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.
The crucifixion was actually about love and about suffering, love’s bedfellow. Sacrifice of who and what we love leads to transformation through suffering. Rex Ambler, after George Fox, calls this, “dying to ourselves.” So do John (3:3-7), Matthew (16:24-25), Mark (8:34-35), Luke (14:27), and Paul (Romans 6:4-8; Galatians 2:20). Love, suffering and sacrifice are required to change even the smallest things. But we do not sacrifice anything particularly laudable for anything particularly magnificent. Transformation is difficult, dirty, and anti-climactic.
If to set aside the ego is to die to oneself, then, using Butler’s terms, to set aside the ego requires a journey. We must leave behind the stability of the “I” established in the fabricated chasm of our beings. We must go spelunking, as it were, within the unthought known of the unconscious self. As it turns out, in the spiritual transformation I am citing here, the thing we sacrifice and thereby suffer is ultimately love for oneself. It is attachment to an idea of oneself that we have fabricated in order to survive, to make sense of an enigmatic world.
In this, we require accompaniment, because the journey is difficult and unceasing, and because, as Butler asserts, the self can never be characterized comprehensively. We are simply incapable of knowing or even coming to terms fully with our actions, given the various normative demands that cohere the social world. We therefore profoundly require relationship in order to realize fully our ethical responsibilities. Butler asserts that, “we must recognize that ethics requires us to risk ourselves precisely at moments of unknowingness, when…our willingness to become undone in relation to others constitutes our chance of becoming human.” The story of Jesus of Nazareth is one of the more perfect examples of what this risk involves. Jesus emerges from within the various overlapping demands made upon him and the relationships he forges in response. His death is a metaphor for the profound vulnerability required for spiritual transformation, which is also paradoxical. For, becoming undone, it seems, allows us to bridge the fabricated chasm we construct between ourselves as ourselves and ourselves as the other. So we are resurrected not because of our desire to continue on living, but because of the other who demands it.
From within unknowingness, uncertainty, and death, relationship creates, sustains and defines us. Relationship also produces demands upon us, which constitute the operation of power and responsibility. Ethics, then, as personal responsibility in the contexts of practical wisdom primarily concern, in relationship, the proper or just operation of power. In Quaker Process, the determination of the proper or just operation of power (through love) is called discernment.
Discernment, Power and Justice
If we depend upon relationship with others in order to know ourselves, then a question regarding autonomy and freedom arises. What does it mean to be free if we also assert that we are never unbound from the other? To answer this question, we need to elaborate the operation of power in relationships. Specifically, we need to clarify equitable power dynamics—sometimes called “power-with” or “co-creative” mindsets—in relating with “the other” to achieve autonomy. Paul Ricoeur once wrote that, “the very idea of others bifurcates into two opposing directions, corresponding to two figures of the master: one, the dominator, facing the slave; the other, the master of justice, facing the disciple.” In this, I recall Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Please Master” wherein the shared, multilayered interplay of power enacted sexually is given and taken in dynamic turns. Lines such as, “please master can I have your thighs bare to my eyes,” or, “please master, please look into my eyes, / please master order me down to the floor,” indicate the various positions the narrator takes in relation to his lover of being director or directed. Sex more easily, perhaps, exemplifies what all relationships involve, which is that we are at times giving orders and at other times following them. Simultaneously, “the directed” teaches the director how to direct.
In sex, justice is a matter of learning how to cause pleasure for one’s interlocutor(s) and then causing it. In other activities, it is a matter of learning in what ways to proffer insight (pursue a line of inquiry, achieve a collective goal, etc.) that best meet with the idiosyncratic dispositions of the particular humans engaged. The aimed-for type of power is one wherein engagement is shared (co-created) but this is far from meaning that there are no masters. Indeed, when the master of justice faces her disciple, she does so knowing that this general notion “justice” is not really taught but enacted within the particularities of the relationship between herself and that of her disciple, which includes a dynamic and reciprocal interplay of power. What does this look like?
If I choose to pay attention, I can see your love, beauty, kindness, and pain. Fundamentally, my task is to realize that these things are my things. Your suffering is my suffering. Your demands are inescapable for no other reason than because without them I am nothing. I therefore love you more profoundly, more viscerally than I can ever fully know. This is the sort of love about which Martin Luther King Jr. speaks, of agape, but one which is grounded in the actual experience of connection with others. The sort of agape of which I speak is not highly intellectual; it is known spiritually and experientially. Discernment is the element of Quaker Process whereby I aim to sink into this visceral awareness of agape love such that I am capable of co-creation with you. Often times, this sinking into visceral love is only possible through paradox and tragedy.
Terrence L. Johnson, writing about W.E.B. Dubois, asks, “What happens if we imagine persons as free, equal, and encumbered by inescapable histories? May we include subjugation and suffering as working vocabularies within our public reason, which in turn would inform our notions of political freedoms?” It seems to me that, if we are necessarily bound to each other, the suffering, tragedy and subjugation of my fellow Americans of color, for example, are also my suffering, tragedy and subjugation. We are encumbered by inescapable histories with which we must grapple together. Johnson argues that as long as we marginalize a tragic sense of life from our ethical work, we are bound to imagine a flawed version of freedom and justice. Tragedy is what binds us to each other, even as we resist and fall apart. Tragedy refuses, “to contribute a ‘solution’ to the conflicts made insoluble by fiction,” and imposes upon us the reality of paradox, of the situationally contingent and often inconsistent choices we must make to compensate for utter and utmost contradiction. In the face of the soul-crushing and demonstratively evil foundations upon which Western societies are built, how, in fact, can we do anything other than construct for ourselves an ethical approach mirroring that of Dubois, of which Johnson writes in depth? It is called Tragic Soul Life. As a white man, I have been socialized into hyper-individualism so extensively that, indeed, I am capable of severe ignorance to tragedy. For as long as my ignorance goes on, the present day social arrangements, which continue to keep people of color unfree do also go on. And as long as someone is unfree, so am I.
Therefore, freedom exists only within relationship and community, and not outside of it. Freedom is produced by justice enacted reciprocally, such that “the golden rule” cedes itself to what some have called “the platinum rule,” which is to treat others how they want to be treated. As we set aside the ego and engage in power-with (rather than power over) we discover true freedom, which is only possible when power is acknowledged and expressed dynamically. We are, in a word, each other’s masters. It would be accurate to assert that the realization of equitable and just communities requires formal masters of justice equipped to discipline us in the art of enacted, agape love. It would also be accurate to assert that we are all called at times into service as masters of justice and at other times as disciples of justice. Tomorrow, who will be your masters of justice? Who will be your disciples?
In the final analysis, power is enacted through the systematic, structured as well as situationally negotiated demands that we make of each other. Jeffrey Stout writes about power in this way and so does Irving Goffman. This is to say nothing about the many ways in which power can come to be enacted oppressively or repressively, when it operates outside of agape love. Precisely to avoid this, as Jo Freeman discusses, power requires explicit delimitation and formalization through discernment, through agape love. This formalization, however, should take broad, systematic forms not easily deconstructed in a given situation. It should also take highly structured and apparent forms, as well as situationally specific and ephemeral forms. It goes by many names, and therefore requires deep analysis and vigilant, continual elaboration.
This is how we come upon the assertions made at the beginning of this essay. Quaker Process is not a series of practices and norms. These things emerge as a result of engaging in Quaker Process, through discernment and practical wisdom achieved collectively.
Continuing Revelation: An Ending and a Beginning
Over three centuries, Quakers have gathered a massive amount of practices and norms meant to aid us in our collective phronesis and discernment. The gathered practices and norms are, indeed, particular arrangements of power, which we have agreed are the expression of our spiritual discoveries. Sense our discoveries are never ending, so too will our practices and norms change along with our principles and beliefs.
It is here where orthocredence embraces an alternative operation of practices, norms, principles and beliefs. We do not adhere to any set of practices as definitional for our faith (orthopraxy) nor do we adhere to a particular set of principles (orthodoxy). We do acknowledge that practices and principles have their place. We need them for our functioning. However, as new insights emerge through phronesis, practice, norms, principles or beliefs require continuing adjustment. Then when we adjust one, its change influences the others to change. Consider the following diagram:
As discernment reveals new insight (and feedback), principles are revised, and their corresponding practice adjusted. This then is integrated into our discernment where we, among other things, welcome feedback from peers, engage in mutual accountability, sink into agape love, and spelunk the depths of our unconscious (or experience movement of the Spirit). Then we further revise our principles, and so on and so forth. The cycle of continuing revelation ends up looking much more like a spiral, for, with each turning of the circle, a new path is drawn.
It might be said that we have a collection of principles (like the SPICES) and practices (like our business process) that serve us well. Yet over the last twenty years, our principles have evolved, and many people have come forth to critique our practices. For myself, I have critiqued the institution of membership, arguing for a radical transformation of it. I have also called for our concept of “unity” to be re-defined—and offered a new definition. As a participant in the Religious Society of Friends, I am engaging in the process I’ve just described wherein principles and practices change through discernment in a cycle of continuing revelation.
I anticipate further change, as it would seem a natural part of our faith, and also because I have looked into the eyes of my suffering Friends of color, Queer Friends, and Trans* Friends, and seen their need for change. I have felt the yearning cry of young adult and elderly Friends who need different types of access to membership and Quaker community. I have known the profound sense of solidarity, belonging, purpose and identity of a gathered meeting for worship in places that go unrecognized as “official” parts of the institutions that hold themselves as the care takers of our Faith. I have seen Friends on all sides of prevailing controversies flinging at each other words like, “this isn’t seasoned,” and, “that isn’t in alignment with process.” They carry attachments to things that are not the essential being of our faith tradition. So I offer this piece of dense writing as a groundwork for a renewed Religious Society of Friends, which reaches back into the same roots for new kinds of growth, blossom and beauty. I offer this not merely so that our Quaker institutions may find new life, not at all for this reason, but to ensure there remains a people who are gathered solely for the purpose of transforming themselves and the world.
Ambler, Rex. The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery. Winchester, UK: Christian Alternative Books, 2013.
Butler, Judith. Giving an Account of Oneself. New York: Fordham University Press, 2005.
Coogan, Michael D., Marc Z. Brettler, Carol A. Newsom, and Pheme Perkins, eds. The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version. 3 Revised. Oxford University Press, USA, 2007.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd Edition. Vintage, 1995.
———. The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Freeman, Jo. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” JoFreeman.com, September 30, 2016. http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm.
Ginsberg, Allen. Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947 to 1995. New York: HarperCollins, 1996.
Goffman, Erving. “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction.” In Interaction Ritual – Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior, 1st Pantheon Books ed. Pantheon, 1982.
Hector, Kevin. Theology Without Metaphysics: God, Language and the Spirit of Recognition (Current Issues in Theology, No. 8). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
Johnson, Terrence. Tragic Soul-Life: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Moral Crisis Facing American Democracy (Imagining the Americas). Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA, 2012.
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Strength to Love. Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1981.
Mahmoud, Saba. “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation.” Public Culture 18, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 323.
Pink Dandelion, Benjamin. “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-Culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps.’” In The Quaker Condition: The Sociology of a Liberal Religion, edited by Benjamin Pink Dandelion and Peter Collins, 22–37. Newcastle [England]: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Translated by Kathleen Blamey. University Of Chicago Press, 1995.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
Stout, Jeffrey. Democracy and Tradition. Princeton University Press, 2005.
“The Movement for Black Lives.” Platform, October 2, 2016. https://policy.m4bl.org/platform/.
 SPICES are a common acronym to describe what is called Quaker testimony, or particular principles that generally characterize the insights upon which we’ve arrived over the centuries. The SPICES stand for simplicity, peace & social justice, integrity, community, equality & equity, and stewardship & sustainability.
 Pink Dandelion, “The Creation of Coherence: The ‘Quaker Double-Culture’ and the ‘Absolute Perhaps,’” 23.
 Notions pertaining to the nature of things are usually called ontological notions.
 Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 11.
 Ibid., 28.
 Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”
 Mahmoud, “Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire,” 326.
 Anti-metaphysical is still metaphysical; it is a metaphysics of non-metaphysics.
 Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 8–9.
 Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.
 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 54–58.
 After Heidegger, this is an expression of Ricoeur’s appresentation of the self Oneself as Another, 333..
 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 54.
 Although, in all likelihood, Butler would disagree with my interpretation of her writing here.
 Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.
 Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 352. Phronesis is an originally Aristotelian concept.
 Hector, Theology Without Metaphysics, 39.
 Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version.
 Ambler, The Quaker Way: A Rediscovery, 23.
 Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Augmented Third Edition, New Revised Standard Version.
 Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself, 51, 66, 72.
 Ibid., 136.
 Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 276.
 Ginsberg, Allen Ginsberg: Selected Poems 1947 to 1995, 202.
 King, Strength to Love, 50.
 Johnson, Tragic Soul-Life, 158.
 Ibid., 160.
 Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, 247.
 Johnson, Tragic Soul-Life, 70–71.
 “The Movement for Black Lives.”
 Stout, Democracy and Tradition, 272.
 Goffman, “On Face-Work: An Analysis of Ritual Elements in Social Interaction.”
 Foucault, The Birth of the Clinic; Foucault, Discipline & Punish.
 Freeman, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”
 To ask one’s sex partner, for example, “what they are ‘into,’” just before engaging in sex acts is situationally and possibly ephemerally to formalize the power that necessarily emerges in the sexual intercourse.