"A Quaker's View" first appeared in 1990, as a column in the WHF newsletter. Articles from that column are now available online (though some have been lost).

Nothing here is meant to be the last word in Quaker Orthodoxy. It is, after all, "A Quaker's View."


Hello Friends and friends of Friends! I am your host, Pendle Hill, and this is A Quaker's View. In this column, I'd like to take a Quaker's view of postmodernism.

Personally, I don't like the word, "postmodernism." It sounds rather pretentious and its meaning is far from self-evident. I feel like I need to apologize whenever I use it. Despite these reservations, I find myself using the word more often these days.

At its core, postmodernism examines the way we human beings connect with the world around us.

Of course, most people give very little thought to how they connect to the universe. We're too busy with the practical concerns of everyday life: we raise our children, we water the lawn, we drive to work. We do what needs to be done.

But how did we come to the conclusion that all of these activities (and those like them) are truly what "needs to be done?" At other periods of history and in different places around the globe, people have come to some very different conclusions.

For example, our modern view of childhood was "invented" in the 18th Century. The people of ancient Sparta or medieval London had a very different concept of childhood. Consequently, their behavior toward children was also very different than ours.

Whether we consider it or not, our way of looking at the world has a profound influence on how we live. Carefully reflecting on our world view helps us to live in a more mindful way.

Although this language may seem unfamiliar, Friends have plenty of experience with the practice of self reflection. John Woolman, for example, pondered the "seeds of war" in our possessions. Throughout our history, Quakers have taken a distinctive view of wealth, violence, slavery, leadership, mental illness -- and a diverse list of other matters. Because we have looked at these matters differently, we have often behaved differently from society at large or from Christians in general.

I think our Quaker habit of self examination and our willingness to cut against the grain of society give Friends a significant connection to the aims of postmodernism. We have a long tradition of reflecting on our connection to the world around us.

Postmodernism also strives to identify the "modern" world view. There is general agreement that a modern way of connecting to the world at large revolves around "objective" science, individualism, consumerism and handful of other related "isms."

Postmodernist thinkers insist that our "modern" way of viewing the world is becoming bankrupt. It's not necessarily that everything about the modern world is "bad." Like medieval cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts, some artifacts of the modern world will be held as treasures. Antibiotics and women's suffrage were good ideas. On the other hand, 20th Century experiments with nuclear weapons and eugenics have left a less desirable legacy.

Although we may continue to regard the products of modernity as a mixed bag, society is moving away from the world view which gave rise to these products. Back to those medieval cathedrals, few who admire them today embrace (or even understand) the scholastic world view of the late middle ages.

Because postmodern thinkers anticipate a new world view eclipsing the present one, these philosophers also get to dream about the future. In a postmodern world, what will families look like? Will we still divide ourselves into nations? What will churches look like? How will people use the Bible?

Once again, I think our heritage as Friends resonates with post-modern thought. As Quakers, we've already learned that outward forms have a limited cultural context. In the 19th Century, we learned that our gray clothing and peculiar speech were no longer communicating our values of simplicity and equality to the people around us. Back then, we changed our forms to better serve our values.

The tools of postmodern thought may give us a helpful lever for changing those forms once again.