I’m coming to the end of a six-week block of study leave – I have twelve to take throughout 2019, and I took three weeks in March and will take three more in October, so this is a significant part of the whole. I’ve been working on my next book for the Brill Research Perspectives in Quaker Studies series – the last one was British Quakers and Religious Language, a middle stage between my PhD thesis and my Quaker Quicks book, Telling the Truth about God. This one is currently called Theology from Listening: an overview of liberal Quaker theology in the long twentieth century. It looks at Quaker documents which have embedded theology – a selection of books of discipline and books of faith and practice, samples of material by individuals and small groups, and work by Quakers with academic training in theology – to form an impression of the core theology of liberal Quakers.
The main argument of the book is that there is such a thing – Quakers do have theology, and while it might not be systemic, it’s clearly recognisable and fairly consistent – and that although it changed through the twentieth century (I use the phrase ‘long twentieth century’ because liberal Quakerism started a little before 1900 and I’m including some examples from after 2000), the changes were slow and did not affect all the core claims. Yes, I include nontheism in that assessment. And evangelical or Christocentric movements within liberal Quakerism – my definition of liberal Yearly Meetings is a broad one, based on history and practice rather than theology. That both prevents my argument from being circular (if I assessed the theological content of material I’d only chosen for specific theological features, I wouldn’t show anything at all except that I can read), and means that my stock of source material includes items which make a lot of liberal Quakers raise their eyebrows and ask whether that’s really liberal. Well, yes, and if I can include it and still show that there are core theological ideas shared between all this material, I’m really saying something.
No, I’m not going to share with you what those core theological ideas actually are! Mainly not yet, because I’m still writing and I might change my mind or want to rephrase some of them. And a little bit because I have to sell books. 🙂 (I do know almost nobody can afford Brill books, and have already put in a proposal to Christian Alternative to write a Quaker Quicks book based on this material – even if they accept and I get on as fast as possible, it won’t have a publication date before 2021, though.)
What I do want to talk about in the process I’m using in writing. The method I’m adopting needs to give a very wide sweep – liberal Quakerism is a broad movement, historically, geographically, and in terms of material: liberal Quakers love to write books and magazine articles and journals and blogs and make videos and podcasts and all kinds of stuff. It also needs to give context to examples, so that the changes over time and between different cultural contexts can be tracked, and pay close attention to what might apparently be small variations. And when I talk about those small variations, it’s not enough to describe them, I need to give evidence of them. So what I’m doing is taking examples – lots of them, it feels like, but actually only a very small percentage of the possible examples – and working them through in detail, with context and a close reading of the parts which seem to me to be most significant. That’s the part which makes me most anxious. Although I think carefully about what’s significant, try to explain why, and give full references so a reader can look it up for themself and see they agree, basically most readers just have to trust me that I’m choosing the parts which are important to focus my discussion.
The advantage of this method once I get into it is that it does give both depth, via the detailed work on examples, and breadth, via a series of comparisons which I can build as I work through a series of examples in a chapter. It wouldn’t work for every topic, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for others, but it does provide good evidence for the kind of argument I’m trying to construct. It lets me look in detail at a specific writer and their theological ideas within the context in which they’re working – so, for example, today I’ve been writing about Rufus Jones and his book Social Law in the Spiritual World. I can take the time to tell the reader a bit about Jones and to describe the overall argument he is making in his book – I’m not just dropping in a quotation to support some wider point and hoping that the reader knows who is he and what he thinks, risking something being misunderstood because it was too far out of its original context – before digging into some of the specific things he says and comparing them with the work of other, later liberal Quaker writers. If you do know who Jones is, it won’t be a surprise that many of the ideas which appear in later liberal Quaker writers are also in Jones, since he was one of the most influential early liberal Quaker writers. But by dealing just with the one book, and not trying to include all of his writing or compare him in detail with many contemporaries, I’m able to look at his specific claims and how he puts himself into the broader picture by referencing psychologists and other scholars active at the time.
I also enjoy it. I like the business of writing anyway – research and reading, taking notes, shaping material into arguments, looking for the thread which will structure my book, and then actually writing it – and I’ve been having a good time on my study leave. I’m going to miss it when I go back into the office on Monday, and I’ll have to give myself a firm pep-talk about how I also enjoy teaching, working with colleagues, having meetings, and all that stuff!