A Sustainable Life by Douglas Gwyn reviewed by Paul Niebanck
Doug Gwyn has established himself among Friends as a scholar, teacher, and writer of consequence. He has helped us through several decades to appreciate and vitalize our peculiar ways of being.
A Sustainable Life is Doug’s latest contribution. He wants us develop a clear awareness of the global crisis that is upon us. He also wants us to claim environmental sustainability as the framework for a fresh look at our faith and practice, for a fresh start in our lives as Friends.
Doug’s thoughts are organized by way of eight dyads, or conversational pairs. Examples of these are: light and seed, worship and ministry, equality and community, simplicity and sustainability. The dyads act as diameters of a circle, much like the face of a clock. The form suggests diversity, centeredness, and wholeness.
Doug’s method is to trace the history of Friends with reference to this diagram. We hear from George Fox and Margaret Fell, from Audrey Urry and Jonathan Dale. It is an interesting approach, and accompanying the voices of others, Doug’s own voice comes through boldly:
“Fear of accountability keeps our testimony locked in abstraction.
“[C]asual friendliness has come to substitute for plain-spoken directedness.
“Have we become too comfortable?
“[W]e need to query and lovingly challenge one another to take our devotion to a higher level.
“[The testimony of simplicity is] an aesthetic . . . that comes through clarity, economy of movement, and attention to detail.
“A renewed Quaker faith and practice can help the wider Christian church to reclaim its forgotten inheritance . . .
“Friends have a significant role to play in a convergence that still has no name.”
These are compelling insights, each deserving contemplation and response. Meanwhile, the book is not a smooth ride. The language is relatively thick. There is a good deal of repetition. The frequency of quotations can be distracting. My main difficulty is with the “sixteen energies along eight axes.” Readers are advised either to take the diagram with a grain of salt, or to build a diagram of their own.
While I was reading A Sustainable Life, I considered many obstacles on the path towards environmental sustainability. Perhaps the existing structures of influence and control are not fit to address the environmental crisis. Perhaps those who hold formal power have insufficient interest anyway. Perhaps the counterforce of public sentiment is not strong enough. Perhaps the crisis is simply too complex and too far advanced for us to handle.
However, I do know that it will take mature Quaker meetings to engage in this work in meaningful ways. And I know that we will need to enter this work right from where we are. We will need to seek truth, and learn how to be and what to do. It will be in our monthly meetings that we will find our response to Doug Gwyn. ~~~
Paul Niebanck is a member of South Seattle Friends Meeting (NPYM).