Reading Douglas Gwyn’s 2000 book, Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience, in light of America’s recent political campaigns has him looking downright prophetic. Even though he focuses most of his pages on the emerging Quaker movement in the turbulence of 17th century Britain, his opening chapter looks closely at the 1960s, when “crises of conscience rocked American institutions and authorities.” While the counterculture revolution spanned the political and economic scene, “Religious institutions and authorities were no exception. The postwar religious consensus, one of the strongest in American history, began to flounder.”
As regular readers of the Red Barn will recognize, he’s leading straight into some of my central concerns, especially as he attempts to make sense of the era’s impact over the subsequent years. I like his introduction of sociologist Steven Tipton, who “has argued that, in different ways, Americans continue trying to get ‘saved from the ’60s.’ For some, it is the search for final deliverance from the religious conformism of the early ’60s, which they found personally stifling and morally bankrupt. Meanwhile, others seek deliverance from the legacies of the ‘counterculture,’ from the moral chaos and personal confusion they found so disturbing in the late ’60s.”
Of course, it wasn’t just religion. “Tipton characterizes the countercultural revolt of the ’60s as a crisis of meaning and morality in the face of accelerating technological innovation and bureaucratic organization in American society.” Gwyn then goes on to examine a whole range of currents unleashed at the end of World War II and then transformed in the baby boom generation – way too much to encapsulate here.
Quite simply, these are matters that remain largely unresolved, especially for those of us who came of age during the upheaval and for our children and now, for many, our grandchildren. It remains a mixed bag of continuing portent.
As someone whose hippie openings led to living in a yoga ashram, or monastic community, which then pointed me on a journey to affiliating with the Society of Friends, or Quakers, I can see religion as both “saving” me from the ’60s and simultaneously enhancing its vision. And I am deeply concerned about the marginalization of religious discourse from general society – especially when it comes to the left.
Gwyn picks up on this track in his final chapter, especially as he looks at a touchy topic labeled truth. It was one I had been forced to face in examining the basic early Quaker metaphors of the Light and the Seed and, as it turned out, the Truth. My own efforts soon had me exploring ways to engage truth as a verb, but trying to find an appropriate visual image remained elusive, no matter how intriguing the options. Gwyn solves this quite eloquently:
By recognizing truth as a living, moving being, we may better remember that truth is a someone we must serve, not a static entity we can master. Hence, the four-part framework we have defined is not a “cage” designed to capture truth. Rather, it offers a guide to the dynamics of a faithful conversation of truth. By being accountable to one another in that conversation, we form communities accountable to truth.
That is, Gwyn turns to the life of Jesus. In doing so, he could have saved me a lot of effort! (We’ll likely get to his four-part framework in a future post.) He then turns to O.A. Piper, who
contrasts the truth witnessed in John’s gospel and letters with the static Platonic ideal. For Plato, truth always lies beyond words; its concrete expression will always be flawed. For John, truth is an active, creative, temporal reality; it moves from provisional to final expression. Therefore, Christ is not the essence of all truths. Rather, he reveals the goal for which the world is destined. The provisional expressions of truth given final expression in the incarnate Word include not only the revelation of Moses (e.g., John 6:3) but also the Greek philosophical traditions more implicitly evoked along the way. For John, truth has an eschatological character, since it unfolds in history, moving toward final expression. Through the life of Jesus, the Gospel of John portrays the struggle of truth against falsehood.
This approach to truth, as Gwyn observes, is hardly confined to religion. It is an ongoing conversation. Without it
we live in one another’s unexamined “shadow” of projected fears and secret desires. Too often, we “seek” mainly to avoid those we fear and loath.
And then, Gwyn’s words leap far ahead to events far in the future of when he wrote them:
Not only does our seeking become self-referential and esoteric, but our continued indulgence in stereotypical versions of the “others” fuels alienated, paranoid politics of mutual aversion that will only breed more trouble in the future.
Oh, my, have they! Even in 2000, he saw the two sides
are strongly polarized today. Orthodox traditionalists continue in a reflexive mode we might call fundamentalist universalism, an insistence that the traditionalist truths they have reclaimed (or never abandoned) have absolute, non-negotiable validity for people everywhere. Those who do not respond to those truths are written off as “lost.” … Meanwhile, liberal progressivists continue in an inversely reflexive mode we will term universalist fundamentalism, a Platonic insistence that truth remains beyond the language and spiritual devotion of any group. … Groups … claiming to know and impart truth in any definitive sense are by definition wrong. … Moreover, as we continue to discredit and neutralize one another, the ruling interests of the age will further consolidate their power over all of us. 
Both assume that the truth is some static entity. …
Turning to “your truth” as distinct from “my truth” won’t get us anywhere, by the way. We require some common ground where we can exchange what we value and envision, along with ways to pursue them.
As the presidential race headed toward the finish line, we heard many accusations and fears about Muslims thrown into the fray – in effect, a challenge from the fundamentalist universalism side regarding its defense of truth as it understood it. The universalist fundamentalist side still hasn’t heard the underlying challenge, at least not in any way I’ve yet heard.
There were all too many lies tossed about in the campaign season. We need to get back to speaking in truth. And that, for me, means the practice of religion, one way or another.