Quakerism and Science

By Calvin W. Schwabe

Pendle Hill, 1999 | PHP 343 | US ISSN 0031-4250

Reviewed by Merle Harton, Jr.

There is much to like about this provocative pamphlet. As both a Quaker and a research scientist in overlapping fields of biomedical science, Schwabe brings to this little study not merely excellent credentials, but also many years of thoughtful reflection on the methodologies of Quaker worship and scientific discovery. The interesting result is an aggressive argument for the pragmatic benefits of a Quaker-like meditative approach to problem-solving in science.

Alas, there is also in this pamphlet much that will be abhorrent to Quaker Christians. I have never liked any treatment of Quaker worship and faith that would turn us into a religious sect, but that is precisely what happens when the Quaker approach becomes another "ism." It actually turns the Quaker into a little bastard—we know his lineage through one parent, but still we keep probing him for traits of another. If Schwabe means by "Quakerism" the special gathered worship form we enjoy in unprogrammed worship and sometimes as a part of programmed church worship, we can forgive him the urge to make our heritage another "ism." But this is not all that he means by it. He wants to go further and locate the source of revelation during the gathered worship firmly in the human unconscious. As a result, he deconstructs our tradition's primitive beginnings and turns George Fox's challenge—"what canst thou say?"—from a defiant question about Christ's spiritual, pedagogical role into a simple question about human testimony. Out of silent worship then comes not prophecy but insight, mere revelations about the human condition, something ever more secular than divine. This is what Quakerism, as an "ism," is to Schwabe. Quakerism is both a rebellion against Scripture ("preformed creeds," a "static body of secondhand testimonies," or "ancient books") and another journey along a never-ending road to subjective, experiential insights.

Schwabe is most successful when proposing a positive program for fixing scientists' frequent impasses in discovery through use of the gathered meeting. His reflective, autobiographical style allows his readers to delight in his many scientific findings (including his exciting discovery of the anatomical origin for the Egyptian religious symbol and hieroglyph ankh), and also to share his joy as a long-time Friend. It is only when he starts speaking the language of theology that he ends up remaking all Quakers into pagans and their worship into an eager form of humanism.

Copyright © 1999 by Merle Harton, Jr.

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