Human Nature: A Modern Quaker View
This short article was published in The Friend on 4th May 2018.
Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. Mark 10:18 (NRSV)
If someone asked you to explain the Quaker view of human nature, how would you respond? In my experience, we tend to say something like, ‘Quakers don’t really do sin, we prefer to see the good in people’. However, over the centuries, Quaker testimony has been an attempt to offer a divinely inspired response to aspects of human behaviour and culture that are corrupting, unjust, and destructive. This includes violence and war, the desire to amass wealth and power at the expense of others, various forms of deceit and dishonesty, and inequitable social relations based on class, gender, ethnicity, health and sexuality. So, while we tend to affirm an optimistic view of human nature, our testimony seems to communicate something a little different.
Reflecting on this apparent contradiction, I consulted the Advices and Queries to see what light they might cast on the issue. Somewhat surprisingly, the Advices and Queries never speak of the fundamental goodness of humanity. Although one section, number twenty-two, affirms the essential worth of every person by asserting that ‘each one of us is unique, precious, a child of God’, most of the advice given addresses the potential dangers and limitations associated with the human condition. We are told that the Light ‘shows us our darkness’, and we hear how Robert Barclay, in worship, found ‘the evil weakening in me’. We are counselled to face up to unpalatable truths about our shortcomings, and the importance of trying to ‘avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language’. Over and over again, we are cautioned about the reality of human frailty, and the temptations lurking within human culture, whether this is to do with the seeds of violent conflict within us, prejudiced attitudes towards those who are not like us, the pressure to lower our standards of integrity in order to fit in, the dangers associated with gambling, alcohol and drugs, and the potentially destructive power we have over other creatures and the rest of the natural world. All in all, this doesn’t paint a particularly rosy picture of human nature.
Thankfully, this is only part of the story. Although the Advices and Queries draw our attention to the darker aspects of the human condition, they also point us to the remedy. We read that the leadings of God ‘brings us to new life’ and that, in worship, Robert Barclay felt ‘the good raised up’ in him. The Advices and Queries describe the nature of God in terms of unconditional love, compassion and forgiveness, and assure us that we can participate in these divine virtues. God is good, and if we are attentive and faithful, the Spirit of Christ can live through us. We are therefore called to live ‘in the virtue of that life and power that takes away the occasion of all wars’, hatred, cruelty, oppression and destructiveness. So, we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’, frail and easily led, and the potential channels through which God’s love, compassion and forgiveness are poured out on all creation.