Book Review - 'Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics' by Rachel Muers (2015, SCM Press)
This book review first appeared in The Friend on 19 May 2017.
“The task of testimony is the task of speaking and doing God’s truth, of coming to the light and walking in the light…” (p.45)
In her book, Rachel Muers offers a fascinating and important exploration of Quaker testimony. Although the writing is academic in style, it is eminently readable and offers a rich feast to any Friends willing to make the effort to engage with it. To begin with, Muers proposes five essential characteristics of testimony. She states that it is an individual and collective response to God’s leadings; something shared, sustained, communicated and developed over time; located in everyday life; action that seeks to communicate, challenge and transform things within a particular context; and ‘experiential’ knowledge that is tested by the community and always open to revision.
Testimony defines who we are - Muers suggests that testimony has always been important in defining Quaker identity and forming Quaker community. However, she points out that the modern practice of describing testimony in terms of ‘lists’ (e.g. peace, equality, simplicity and truth) is a relatively recent innovation, emerging during the twentieth century.
"At its best, Quaker thinking about testimony calls members of this community to read their past as a preparation for discerning their present and future calling.” (p.26)
It is a Response to Divine Encounter - Testimony emerges as a response to our encounter with God. It is our answer to the guidance of God within us. In this sense, it can be viewed as ‘action and speech at the cutting edge of revelation’. This assumes that our direct experience of God will result in visibly changed patterns of life. We will be called to do God’s truth.
“In my experiments in interpreting and representing Quaker testimony, I attempt to connect it – as others have done – with its ‘ground and spring’ in the encounter with God.” (P.20)
It interrupts and refuses - For Muers, the work of ‘doing the truth’ opposes the lies that conceal, suppress or silence the complexity of life. Thus, testimony has often taken the form of a double negative – a denial of a lie. The publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex in 1963, for example, sought to deny the lies prevalent at the time that defined what was and what was not ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’ expressions of human sexuality.
“I propose that Quakers’ negative testimony is in fact a double negative. It is a negation of the ‘no’, a refusal of destruction, a denial of a lie. It is sustained enacted opposition, case by case’…to some power or structure of thought that claims to shape and uphold the world but in fact destroys it” (p.58)
It opens up new possibilities - Negative testimony leads to positive testimony. When we deny or refuse something, we don’t know exactly where this will lead. Our resistance interrupts established norms and assumptions and makes space for new possibilities to emerge. In this sense, testimony looks forward in an open-ended way. A testimony ‘against’ something leads us to actions that express the hope for positive change, creating a space in which alternatives develop. The publication of Towards a Quaker View of Sex in 1963 instigated a process that culminated in the corporate affirmation of same-sex marriage in 2009.
“…Quakers’ sustained practices of refusal – negative testimony – give rise to new forms of practice, to ‘holy experiments’…the experiment with ‘life otherwise’ within this world – the ‘here and now’ as the place where the presence, guidance and power of God are encountered.” (p.81)
It chooses God’s way rather than the ways of the world - Historically, testimony has prompted Quakers to set themselves against any power structure or pattern of life that denies or obscures divine truth. Muers tells us that testimony tends to function at points of conflict between God’s truth and the dominant untruths of the world. At its best, therefore, testimony is a refusal to sacrifice truth to power. The Quaker refusal of the oath, for example, illustrates the conflict between the truth of God and the falsehood of the world.
“Oaths are a symptom – perhaps the core symptom - of a problem, masquerading as the cure for the problem” (p.113).
It wins by persuasion and provokes a response - Muers makes clear that testimony relies on the response of others. The fact that it is freely offered for people to interpret reflects a preference for persuasion over coercion. Testimony is made visible through lives that ‘speak’. It presents itself to the world and seeks to provoke a response from those who see and hear it.
“…testimony is nonviolent self-involving communication that ‘wins’ by persuasion, that is, by offering itself to be interpreted and misinterpreted.” (p.103)
It is inherently risky - Because it relies on the response of others for its reception and interpretation, Muers argues that testimony is inherently risky and uncertain. Good testimony is likely to look odd and threatening to those who hear and witness it. Therefore, we have to accept that it may be misunderstood and rejected and that we might simply get it wrong. In any event, the impact of our testimony will rarely be immediately apparent.
It reveals complexity - Quaker testimony tends to undercut simplistic understandings of how the world works, revealing the complexity of life. It may do this by showing how small-scale untruths are connected to ‘bigger lies’. For example, the refusal to engage in small-scale haggling is linked to broader concerns about unjust global economic practices. As a diagnosis of the way the world currently works, testimony requires us to continually face up to challenging moral dilemmas and decisions. This will have the effect of complicating our lives.
It is specific and situated - Muers suggests that, in practice, testimony is always specific and situated. It must be worked out in particular circumstances and cannot be fully predicted or understood in advance. The witness of our Quaker forebears provides indicators but cannot, in itself, determine our responses to current circumstances.
“…effective and faithful testimony is a matter of case-by-case judgements, none of which start from nowhere, but rather few of which are fully determined by precedent.” (p.191)
It is open to all - Finally, Muers argues that what shapes the universal aspect of Quaker testimony is the conviction that every person is enlightened by the divine light of Christ. If we all have access to the Spirit then we can all respond to the testimony of others by turning to the light within ourselves. This is what George Fox meant when he exhorted Friends to ‘let your lives preach’ and answer ‘that of God in everyone’.
“…the commitment to experiential engagement with ‘that of God in everyone’ allowed a way of speaking truth that, while it addressed and challenged ‘power’, did not simply repeat the dominant account of power or the expected ways of winning a rhetorical power game” (p.205).
As a resource to help Friends deepen their understanding of testimony, this book is invaluable and comes highly recommended. Priced at £35, it may be too expensive for many to purchase individually. However, it would be a worthwhile addition to any Quaker meeting library.