Real like the Daisies or Real like I Love You?

Essays in Radical Quakerism by David Boulton. Dales Historical Monographs, Hobsons Farm, Dent Cumbria, England LA10 5RF in association with Quaker Universalist Group, 7 Barewell Close, St. Marychurch, Torquay, Devon TQ1 4PB 2002, pp124. £7.50 plus £1 p&p. ISBN 0 9511578X. Reviewed by Frank Bonner, a member of Sea of Faith and a Quaker.

Imagine the scene. An Anglican priest is talking to his friend, an industrial chemist, who happens also to be a Hindu. They are sharing beliefs and in particular, exploring the Hindu scientist’s view of the god Ganesh, the one with a human body and an elephant’s nose. The Anglican priest asked his friend if he truly believed in this “outlandish deity”. ‘Yes’ he replied, ‘I accord to Ganesh every divine attribute—except that of existence.’ It is typical of the challenge to my understanding found in most of the pieces in this collection. David Boulton begins by sharing his way of understanding the aspects of reality explored in the essay which gave the book its title. As he builds a foundation for “nonrealism” he summarises the ‘long historical tradition which has located “God” or “the divine” within rather than beyond humanity’. I found this both stimulating and enjoyable. Stimulating for the sweep of scholarship he packs into 13 pages; enjoyable because his final essay in part 1 had my partner running asking what was wrong, as I hooted with laughter. Read the book and find the places which tickle you, but as a hint, the H-word and the F-word will do for starters. The other seven pieces in Part 1 are a diverse exploration of the same theme, showing a breadth of scholarship economically laid out.

David Boulton uses the world view established in Part 1 to underpin his historical essays on Gerrard Winstanley and Quakers’ military connections, showing how the boisterous nature of the revolution in the 1640s gave Winstanley and other precursors of Quakers the opportunity to forge their radical views. He lists the strands that contributed to the present Quaker organisation, thus explaining how Fox’s following won, in the struggles of the 1650s. He acknowledges the need Fox saw to provide an organisation that would survive, but avoids any judgement of this part of the struggle. Instead he concentrates on Winstanley’s radical views, written during the turbulent times he helped to create and convinced me of the debt owed to Winstanley by Fox and thus also by present Quakers. The military basis for the current Quaker Peace Testimony will be almost heretical to some Quakers I know, but I am grateful to Boulton for bringing this somewhat overlooked aspect of the Society’s history to our attention. In both these pieces I was reminded of the inevitable selection or revisionism which has taken place, as Quakers became more “respectable”. Fox’s revolutionary demands for common ownership of land do not appear in the incomplete “Complete Works”! Nor was Edward Burrough’s radical address to the Army included in that Quaker’s collected writing. It is inevitable, I suppose, that the stronger person or party is enabled to promulgate their truth as The Truth. But how could things be otherwise? Fox pursued his aims with vigour and he won. Thus the Religious Society of Friends exists today. But in just 124 pages we have a magnificently succinct introduction to the complexities of the Cromwellian revolution.

If you’re not convinced that within these few pages you can find a post-modern attitude to religion, with an intellectual toolkit for your own use, try using the Ten Suggestions with your SoF group, or over a meal. As David Boulton says, ‘If you don’t want to be a do-it-yourself thinker, go back to the Ten Commandments.’

Consider a housefly. The magnificent way it stabilises its flight and avoids your swipe with a newspaper. Think of the multiple lenses of its eyes, enabling them to assemble a myriad of images to make a coherent whole, all in a body the size of your fingernail. All through this brief book the author is doing the same, taking a range of views on the language-based nature of our existence and synthesising a rounded, useable world view. He provides the necessarily frequent challenges to my own limited understanding of our word-built reality. Now all I have to do is convince the Quakers in my local Meeting that we could enjoy sharing views on David Boulton’s writings.