Quaker Universalist Conversations

Are blogs Quakerly? And how do they help Universalism?

By Anthony Manousos

Are blogs and social networking Quakerly, and if so, why? This is a question which practitioners of most religions probably don’t bother asking, but Quakers like to question everything, so I felt it might be helpful to explain why I think blogging is a quintessential Quaker form. Second, I would like to address the question: what is the purpose of our Quaker universalist blog?

First, blogging and social networks are Quakerly because they are essentially online journals or diaries, recording thoughts and insights that come from daily experience. Journals, or spiritual autobiographies, were and continue to be a distinctively Quaker genre because Quakerism is based on religious experience, not dogma or creeds.  As Howard Brinton once observed, for Quakers,  biography and autobiography often take the place of theology.

Like Quaker meetings for worship, social networks are open and interactive. Anyone can take part and share a message. This can be scary to those who like to be in control, but our Quaker process is based on radical trust in the goodness of each human being. Social networks are likewise based on the belief that the benefits of openness outweigh the risks (such as being hacked, or having one’s privacy invaded—problems which will be addressed later).

Second, social networks are egalitarian. Facebook and blogs are free. Anyone can take part, even someone who doesn’t own a computer. To start a blog, all you have to do is go to a public library, sign up at a free site like wordpress or blogger, and voila! you’re a blogger! What other means of communication better embodies our Quaker testimony on equality?

Third, blogging is public, and open to everyone. Theoretically, Quaker magazines are available to everyone, but the vast majority of readers are doubtless Quakers. Social networks are much more inclusive. They are like the market places where early Friends used to go to share their message, often at great risk, since the message of Quakerism was often seen as subversive and threatening to the powers-that-be.

During a recent meeting, several Friends explained  that they avoid Facebook and blogging because of security risks from hackers and identity thieves. These risks are real, but relatively minor compared to the risks faced by early Friends, such as the Valiant Sixty. Early Friends who spoke out in the market place were beaten, arrested, and thrown into dungeons where many lost their lives. Such persecution didn’t daunt early Friends, however; it may have even helped the movement to grow. If Quakerism is going to continue as a spiritual movement, we must be public and we must take risks.

Finally, blogs  and social networks are Quakerly because they help build community. Because social networks are interactive, they help people stay in touch who are separated geographically. They bring various social circles together in radically new ways we are just beginning to understand. For instance, we have learned that social networks can even help bring about social revolutions, as we have seen recently in the Middle East.

Social networks are not panaceas of course. They are not a replacement for but a supplement to face-to-face interaction. But they have become an essential part of modern life. To make a difference in today’s world, Friends need to understand and use social networks effectively.

The purpose of the Quaker Universalist blog is to connect Friends interested in Universalism and in interfaith cooperation.  Ours is an open forum where Friends can share their insights and experiences with others. We hope that over time, we can help build a new interfaith religious community that embodies our Quaker belief in the universality of the Light.

Please feel free to contact me at interfaithquaker.org if you have a posting you’d like included on this blog.  And please feel free to comment on our posts. We value your thoughts and ideas!

I would like to end today’s reflection on blogging with my review of Liz Oppenheimer’s excellent book on Quaker blogging—a “must-read” for anyone interested in this topic.

Writing Cheerfully on the Web: A Quaker Blog Reader. Edited by Elizabeth A. Oppenheimer. 2009. pp. 273. $19.95. For those who prefer books to the internet, this is an excellent intro to Quaker blogging (for those totally unfamiliar with the internet: a blog is a web journal, a personal op ed, similar to a column in a newspaper). This compendium is also useful for those who haven’t had time to keep up with Quaker blogs and are curious about what’s been happening in the Quaker blogosphere over the past few years. The voices of Quaker bloggers like Liz Oppenheimer, Martin Kelley, Peggy Parson, Peterson Toscano et al carry a vibrancy and freshness that is sometimes lacking in the more carefully vetted print versions of Quakerism. Blogs tend to be short, personal, and pithy, and sometimes irreverent. Take the opening of Peterson Toscano’s essay on ministry called the “M Word”: “No, this is not a reference to a TV show about meterosexual men. The M word as in Ministry.” A great way for a stand up comic to talk about discovering that comedy can be a form of ministry. The section on “Convergent Friends” helps clarify this much discussed term describing an internet-inspired “movement” of Conservative and liberal Friends who have been meeting virtually and face-to-face to have dialogue and build connections. Ranters, pagans, non-theists, and Christ-centered Friends of all flavors share their stories in real time via blogs. Like Spirit Rising, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the vitality and diversity of contemporary Quakerism.


Hi Anthony: this would actually be more useful if you put in links. That way, rather than just inform people that there are bloggers and books, you could actually give them an easy way to see them directly. It would also be nice if you gave a "hattip" credit to sources. A number of the reprints here seem to overlap with the QuakerQuaker.org universalism feed. That collection is the result of hundreds of hours a year of reading and sifting through blogs. It's a real service to the Friends community but it's a little crazy from a publishing standpoint: our main work is sending people to other sites. QuakerQuaker would be financially much better off if we focused on in-site content or simply reblogged things found elsewhere, but it's better for the RSOF if we build up the larger social media ecosystem and send people to the original source. If you are finding things through QuakerQuaker, then saying you benefit from that by putting a "found via QuakerQuaker" link is a nice way of giving props to that work. And the piece itself looks great. I'm sure a lot of people will be interested in what you have to say about this, so I'm featuring it on the QuakerQuaker.org feed now.
Dear Martin, Thanks for your feedback. I'm just getting the knack of blogging and appreciate your "eldering" and expert advice. And I will definitely give more credit to quakerquaker.org since I think you are doing an outstanding job of being the "hub" for this growing constellation of Quaker blogs. I plan to write a response to the query, "Is Universalism heresy?" and when I do, I will tip my Greek sailor to quakerquaker.org, even though hat honors are not Quakerly. Keep up the great work, Friend! Shirley Dodson and I were just talking about how impressed we are with your ministry.
I've been following Quaker blogs for a few months now. I attended my first friends meeting and am seeking more information. It is a good place to get an idea of idea of the diversity and ideas.
When I read the question in your title, what jumped to mind was your first point--that blogs are just a continuation of our tradition of journaling. I had never heard that Brinton quote, but it rings true (though perhaps a future blogging topic could be the danger of avoiding theology).
Anthony, I'm glad you raised this question. I am reminded of a section in Woolman's journal in which he thinks out loud about the progress of new technologies: “In the woods we lay under some disadvantage. . . [“no fire-works,” “the mosquitoes being plenty and the ground damp”] "Thus lying in the wilderness and looking at the stars, I was led to contemplate the condition of our first parents when they were sent forth from the garden, and considered that they had no house, no tools for business, no garments but what their Creator gave them, no vessels for use, not any fire to cook roots or herbs. But the Almighty, though they had been disobedient, was a father to them; way opened in process of time for all the conveniences of life. And he who by the gracious influence of his spirit illuminated their understanding and showed them what was acceptable to him and tended to their felicity as intelligent creatures, did also provide means for their happy living in this world as they attended to the manifestations of his wisdom. “To provide things relative to our outward living in the way of true wisdom is good, and the gift of improving in things useful is a good gift, and comes from the Father of Lights. Many have had this gift and from age to age there have been improvements of this kind made in the world. But some, not keeping to the pure gift, have in the creaturely cunning and self-exaltation sought out many inventions, which inventions of men, as distinct from that uprightness in which man was created, as in the first motion it was evil so the effects of it have been, and are, evil. That at this day it is as necessary for us constantly to attend on the heavenly gift to be qualified to use rightly the good things in this life amidst great improvements, as it was for our first parents, when they were without any improvements, without any friend or father but God only.” (Journal, Moulton; p. 72) "Creaturely cunning and self-exaltation" says it all, I think. Blogs were practically invented for the purpose of self-exaltation and certainly they constantly present the temptation to toot your own horn. But they do all the good things you've cited, too. One thing, though. You say "our Quaker process is based on radical trust in the goodness of each human being," and I read our history and tradition differently. The practices we now call "Quaker process" were based on the experience of direct, unmediated relationship with God, both as individuals and as a community. (And by "God" I mean the Mystery Reality behind our religious experience, whatever that experience is.) I know that Universalists have abandoned the divine source for Quaker faith and practice and relocated that source in the individual, so your post faithfully represents the Universalist leading on this matter. Maybe it even represents the way most liberal Friends think. But I think the testimony of integrity requires that we represent the wider Quaker tradition, and especially its historical roots, more carefully, so that we narrow such statements from a broad restatement of our tradition to a statement of a new leading that's being tested in the lives of some Friends. I personally think that universalist Friends have more work to do in testing your leading. Quaker universalism seems to abandon virtually all of our tradition, replacing our traditional language and revising our "theology" by, for example, using "Quaker process" instead of "gospel order" or "speaking in meeting" instead of "vocal ministry", and by redefining meeting for worship as a process of consensus building between individuals who are speaking truth from the Light within them rather than as a group seeking the truth under the guidance of the holy spirit. Cut off from its roots, bereft of its vocabulary, emptied of its content, of the ideas, the intellectual framework that used to hold the tradition together—it's like Quakerism has had a stroke and lost its memory and identity. This offers a unique and exciting opportunity to start over and really build a new tradition, which the Fellowship has been at for a while now. I've not kept up with your literature in the past few years, I must admit, so maybe you're farther along than I think. But there are a zillion questions to be answered. If, for example, meeting for worship is a gathering of individuals who each bring their measure of the Light, what is happening in a gathered meeting? If it is not gathered by the Spirit (or, traditionally, Christ, of course), what causes the exhilarating psychic sense of sharing ineffable truth, of a "presence in the midst," of the transformative wheeling of the meeting out of discord and confusion into clarity and unity around a difficult decision? I could imagine talking about Jung, archetypes, the collective unconscious as one possible approach. What do universalists say? Even more to the point: Liberal and universalist Friends consistently ground the new leading about Quaker faith on the phrase "There is that of God in everyone." It's actually in the footer of your website. What does "that of" mean? What does "God" mean in this context? What does "that of God" mean? If you've abandoned "God," why use this phrase? Most Friends I've talked to about this have not thought about it much; they don't really have an answer. The answers they do give suggest that they do not know what Fox meant when he said it and they reflect a mutation of Quaker thinking that diverges considerably from historical tradition, one that is vaguely neo-gnostic, having to do with a divine spark. I'm not saying this new leading is wrong; just that it's untested and undeveloped and is way too thin a pillar to balance an entire tradition upon, especially one as rich and deep as ours. I guess what I'm saying is, do Quaker universalists have an emerging humanist 'theology' with which to articulate our experience?
I'm not quite sure what it means to call blogs or any other particular medium "Quakerly," but I will say that free and friendly conversation, online or in person, is a good thing and helps to build Quaker community. To what degree conversation on Quaker blogs is free and friendly, is an open question. Overall I think Quaker blogs have inspired some deep and important online conversations, and I basically support them. But there are some problems with the blog format distinct from, say, web forums or email lists (both of which have their own distinct problems). Blogs tend to be very personality driven. It is this person's blog, that person's blog, and the conversation that takes place in the comments is not on a level playing field. Comments tend to be from those whose views of Quakerism are compatible with the blogger. Disagreement happens, but too much of it is frowned upon--understandably, given that the typical blog belongs to someone. I was very happy to see this blog launched, mostly because I think the universalism of liberal Quakerism may be its very best feature, but also because this particular blog is clearly not intended to be a particular person's. I favor that approach, but I have personally found it hard to sustain. My hopes for nontheistfriends.org were that a wide variety of Friends, nontheists as well as sympathetic theists, would offer up guest posts and make it more a place for open conversation and less for me and a few others to expound. I don't think I quite succeeded in that goal. There is another aspect of Quaker blogging that troubles me, and it's a problem with content rather than the medium. A large percentage of the most visible and influential Quaker bloggers seem to be rather down on on the "liberal" in liberal Quakerism, down on the radical sort of universalism that the Quaker Universalist Fellowship represents. Better relations between liberal Quakers and the other branches is a fine goal, but all too often in practice I find it amounts to denigrating the very liberalism and radical universalism that I consider Quakerism's greatest quality. I could not be any other kind of Quaker.
From what I understand of Universalism, it is not good, nor is it the truth. What is Quaker Universalism and why do you connect a negetive, untruthful word to Quaker? Thats like saying Pagan Quakerism, it takes the name of Quaker and prostitutes it. I highly doubt George Fox would agree with how Quakerism has it's many "branches".
Hi I have not blogged here before but I find it fascinating reading and I see the the blog as an interactive extension of the journal and the pamphlet, though as has been noted there is a natural bias towards the articulate and prolific. It was ever thus. The only drawback may be the immediacy leads to a lowering of tone or content, but this is not inevitable. On a practical note, I have just assumed responsibility for the e-newsletter of the UK's Quaker Universalist Group. If anyone has any news they woud like included or to receive a copy (copies go out all over the globe, not just the UK) please let me know. In friendship, Rupert
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