A Language for the Inward Landscape (review)

Department: 
A Language for the Inward Landscape: Spiritual Wisdom from the Quaker Movement
Written by Bryan Drayton and William Taber
Reviewed by Emily Garrison and Rocky Garrison

E.L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Reading A Language for the Inward Landscape was a similar self-actualizing experience. Like a coastal sailor navigating through a fog, the reader discovers more about their journey as they take it. The fog lifts, the sailor sees a familiar landmark. By taking a compass bearing on this landmark, the sailor has a better idea of their location: the bearing defines a line and the boat is somewhere on this line. There is a feeling of safety with this bit of clarity. The fog may return, but the sailor proceeds, a bit more confident in their journey.

Bill Taber ministered in a wide range of Quaker settings – conservative, liberal, and pastoral – until his death in 2005. Brian Drayton was his student and friend, and is a teacher and recorded Quaker minister in his own right. Brian began writing this book two years after Taber’s death, based on their many discussions as well as 150 pages of notes, memos, file cards, and outlines from Bill’s library. As Brian describes the process, he wrote the manuscript based on Bill’s outlines and on the content of talks that Bill gave during workshops.

The authors shared a “. . . conviction that the resources of classic Quaker practice have much to offer for the nourishment of today’s inquiring souls” (p. 8), and this book quotes liberally from those classic texts. It is organized around core terms and concepts Friends have used to communicate their spiritual experiences for centuries, such as “wait,” “light,” “seed,” and “the inward work of Christ.”

Quakers emerged in seventeenth-century England from a larger group of dissenting Christians known collectively as Seekers. It was a time of great spiritual hunger. The Church of England was breaking away from the Catholic Church and many spiritual paths were being explored. A key founder of the Quakers, George Fox, had a revelation of a direct experience of Christ without the aid of an organized ministry. Based on this revelation, waiting became a central spiritual practice for Fox,  “. . . thought of as a total, though relaxed, focus, or as a way of being completely present . . . a state of being alertly present, ready to respond to any request or direction” (p. 18). Fox’s revelation continued to unfold through his lifetime, illuminating him by “light” and transforming him. These words, “waiting” and “light,” are central to Quaker spirituality. Drayton and Taber explore ways in which the terms have “. . . acquired modern meanings or overtones that differ in important respects from . . . traditional understanding” (p. 25).

Other Seekers appreciated Fox’s insights and this practice of waiting, just as many Friends feel comfortable and at home when they attend their first meeting. These early Friends continued the waiting practice and sharing their experiences with one another, developing trust in each person’s experience. The authors quote Isaac Penington’s response to the question “But hath not this Saviour a name?” Says Penington, “It were better for thee to learn his name by feeling his virtue and power in thy heart, than by rote” (p. 26). As Friends shared these experiences one with another, various operations or characteristic experiences of light emerged: light as illumination, light as truth-revealer, light as comforter, and light as the source of unity.

Any Friend or meeting that is planning to put together an “Introduction to Quakerism” course – or is considering a rewrite of their current curriculum – is strongly encouraged to review this book for inclusion. It is an excellent introduction to the ways early Quakers experienced the world and their encounters with the divine.  ~~~

 – Emiliy Garrison and Rocky Garrison are from Bridge City Meeting in Portland, OR (NPYM).