Friends Testimonies and Ecological Understanding

Keith Helmuth

The Evolutionary Heritage of Quakerism
The Religious Society of Friends introduced into the Christian tradition a change in consciousness about spiritual life that has had profound consequences. When George Fox came down from Pendle Hill and announced that “Christ has come to teach his people himself,” he shifted the emphasis of spiritual life from a focus on personal security to the process of ongoing learning.

The process of learning that became central to Quaker spiritual life was called “continuing revelation.” Among Friends, continuing revelation found its focus in a sense of “right relationship,” which has permeated the entire ethical horizon of spiritual development since that time.

This shift in guidance from a fixed theological formula to an open horizon of ongoing learning is now characteristic of many religious communities We see it on every hand. For example, on a recent visit to the animals in the live crèche of the United Church of Christ at 4th and Race Streets in Philadelphia, we saw a banner in the door yard that quoted old time radio comedienne , Gracie Allen: “Don’t put a period where God puts a comma.” Below these words of theological wisdom, even larger lettering proclaimed, “God is still speaking!” This shift was launched into the Christian tradition in great part by Quakerism.

It is no accident that Quakers have been pioneers in education and in the fields of human development. Nor is it surprising that many Friends have been attracted to the sciences and that scientists have been attracted to Quakerism. We may wonder why so much modern social analysis, so many programs of experiential learning, so many problem-solving processes, and so many programs of contemporary social action that have no direct link to Friends sound like they come right out of Quakerism. In a real sense they do. If we study the shift in Western culture from a set worldview to an evolutionary perspective, from the certainty of eternal knowledge to an open horizon of learning, it is not difficult to see that the innovation in spiritual life that Friends launched is one of the primary sources of this change.

The cultural world of 17th-century England was certainly primed in a variety of ways for this shift, but its articulation in Quakerism and its advance within Quakerism’s enduring social form is an especially notable factor. Quaker economist and social scientist, Kenneth Boulding, called this factor “the evolutionary potential of Quakerism.” His classic 1965 lecture under this title looks mostly to the future, but the concept applies with equal cogency to Quakerism’s past. The evolutionary potential of Quakerism has been a major factor in the unfolding of the human development, human solidarity, and human rights movements.

Quakers and the Ecological Shift

Another shift of similar magnitude is now underway, a shift that flows from the same learning ethos and now surrounds right relationship in the social domain with right relationship in the ecology of human adaptation. While corporate witness of the Religious Society of Friends has not been at the forefront of this shift the spiritual ethos of continuing revelation and right relationship pioneered by Quakerism is part of the underlying warp on which the weaving of a new and ecologically sound way of living is being created. Add to this the fact that many Friends have been professionally and personally active in this movement, and the Quaker contribution is even more evident.

Nonetheless, it is important to ask whether Quakerism, has an institutional voice that can help advance the ecological shift. Although Quakerism today is not likely to contribute another innovation comparable to its evolutionary ethos of continuing revelation, it does have an overarching moral commitment to equity and environmental justice that is urgently needed in ecological understanding and the promotion of ecologically sound behavior. Quakerism’s voice can be appropriately focused on building the momentum of the ecological shift in a way that will equitably serve all human communities and the whole commonwealth of life.

Advancing the Evolutionary Potential of Quakerism

Is it possible that something like a corporate Quaker voice on the human-Earth relationship may be in gestation? One way of approaching this question is to look at Friends testimonies in the light of ecological understanding. Although I had been thinking about Friends testimonies in this way for a long time, it was Phil Emmi of Salt Lake City Monthly Meeting who prompted me into action. During deliberations on this ecological shift at one of the first meetings of Quaker Institute for the Future, Phil said with emphasis, “We need Quaker testimonies for the organic world.” I thought, yes; as savvy as we may be about greening our way of life, the question of a fully rounded and deeply assimilated ecological understanding often remains unexplored. Extended into the ecological worldview, Friends testimonies offer an excellent opportunity to explore the concepts, relationships, and behaviors that flow from a human-Earth relationship centered in the integrity of Creation.

Because Friends testimonies have been expressed in various ways over time, they are a rich groundwork for reflection. I often think of Quakerism as a greenhouse attached to the cathedral of Christendom. Working as directly in the Light as possible, Friends have kept the beds of Quaker tradition rich with the humus of experience, nurturing various seeds of understanding into testimony and action. The testimonies are like sturdy plants taken out into the garden of the world and planted, hopefully to yield a good crop. The organic metaphor comes full circle in my tending of the testimonies here, and I hope this bit of “gardening” will help advance the evolutionary potential of Quakerism.

Friends Testimonies and Ecological Understanding: An Outline

The following outline offers some key words and phrases typically associated with Friends testimonies, along with additional reflections. Following each section on the testimony is a second section in italics that gives a companion concept from the language of social ecology, along with additional reflection that characterizes the testimony in the context of ecological understanding. These companion concepts do not replace or detract from the original testimony, but expand the testimony to encompass the ecological worldview. To the five testimonies of Simplicity, Peace, Equality, Integrity, and Community, a sixth has been added: Service. This last testimony is generally understood as implicit in the other testimonies, but here, it is useful to give it distinct articulation.

Simplicity is often regarded as the testimony most directly related to an ecologically sound way of life. We think of simplicity as including a functional approach to the arrangements of life and work: non-acquisitive, frugal, unadorned, spiritually centered, and attentive to direct experiences and relationships.

Simplicity, in large part, is about focusing on relationships and processes that are fundamental to a well-balanced life. In practice this is can be a fairly complex way of living, but attentiveness to the discipline of basic relationships and life maintenance processes creates a sense of wholeness that connects with Simplicity at a fully rounded and deeply satisfying level.

The ecological corollary for Simplicity is Subsidiarity. This means the anchoring of life and livelihood in local and regional communities. It means the production, use, and recycling of goods and services within local and regional economies. It requires attentiveness to decision making and problem solving on issues of public interest at the local level. It is true, of course, that some activities and problem situations require being addressed at national, international, and global levels. But the more of our life that can be centered in local and regional ecosystems, the more resilient and well-balanced our personal activities, our household arrangements, and our communities will be. (“Subsidiarity” may be an unfamiliar term, but it is of increasing importance for understanding and articulating the ecological worldview. In general, it refers to bringing personal, community, and civic activities into direct relationship with the resources and processes that provide access to the means of life and life development.)

The Peace Testimony is probably best seen as a process, as a continual unfolding and reconfiguration of relationships that nurture and enhance the well-being of the soul and of souls in community. Like happiness, Peace emerges from right relationships. Right relationships manifest in both personal life and in larger social forms, and so, too, does Peace. We think about the domain of Peace as including nonviolent living, conflict prevention, conflict resolution, relationship building, and reduction and elimination of the causes of conflict, violence, and war.

The ecological corollary for the Peace Testimony may be thought of as the practice of an ecologically sound Human-Earth Relationship. Here, too, we see both a personal and a larger social process. At the personal and household level we can, to a certain extent, end—or at least greatly reduce—our participation in the “conquest of Nature.” However, the wider peace of a “mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship”—a concept first advanced by eco-theologian Thomas Berry—can only emerge when the social process of economic activity is reformulated around life-value enhancement. For example, a society that placed the well-being of all children at the top of its priorities, that systematically promoted the organic enrichment of food producing soils, and that worked for the retention and restoration of forests and wetlands (among many other such programs of social and ecological value) would be moving from the warlike relationship with the Earth that now often drives economic activity to a right relationship in which a sense of peace with Earth emerges. Within this context we would be developing ways of life and means of livelihood that do not violate ecosystem resilience and integrity, or depend on violent and exploitative control of resources. We would be aiming for a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship within a context of right sharing of resources.

Equality is perhaps the most difficult of the testimonies since it is obvious that real differences occur between abilities at the personal level and between endowments at the social and geographic level. If we are tempted to question the Testimony on Equality because it seems to cut across the grain of seemingly natural arrangements, we should remember that evolution can be seen working in a variety of different, and even inconsistent, ways. The world of natural processes seems, at times, to encompass a kind of cross-grained conversation. For example, competition and cooperation are both natural processes but produce very different results. In the realm of social and economic life, competition tends to produce inequality and cooperation tends to produce equality. But if we study this matter closely, it is not hard to see that competition is secondary to cooperation. Competition can only function in a useful way where there is an underlying and on going platform of cooperation. Total competition, heedless of the social context, destroys both human and ecological integrity.

The emergence of human social development within Earth’s story is a prime example of the cooperative dynamic at the core of evolutionary process. As human societies have played out their development within this context, the question of moral evolution has emerged into full view. It now seems clear we can choose various paths of social behavior within our evolutionary scenario. We can, for example, choose to exploit competitive behavior. Or we can choose to foster and draw out cooperative behavior, advancing this potential of moral evolution and bringing it ever more fully into practical realization. For example, Norway, through a variety of cooperative means, has chosen to eliminate poverty, and this was done before the benefit of North Sea oil revenue. Other jurisdictions—the United States, for example—have chosen to retain a social ecology and political economy that locks a significant number of people into the structural violence of poverty and life development deprivation.

Some people in Norway have more wealth than others, but nobody lives in poverty or is without access to the full range of social and cultural benefits. This helps us look at equality in a different way: here, we find the ethic of equity. In a practical working sense, equity can mean a fair share, a valued status, the prospect of a fulfilling and productive life. The Testimony of Equality thus opens into recognition and respect (in contrast to marginalization and devaluation). It looks for and helps to manifest human dignity. It holds human solidarity as its moral compass. It aims at equitable access to the means of life and life development resources.

The ecological corollary for the Testimony on Equality can be seen in the new metaphor, Ecological Footprint. Ecological footprint research and analysis is now a well-developed exercise and educative tool which calculates the resource draw required by various life styles. In this application, I am drawing on the metaphorical power of the concept to lift up the moral issue of ecological equity. This concept provides a clear orientation toward a more equitable sharing of life space, and the more equitable distribution of life maintenance and life development resources. It guides us to a new kind of moral ecology and makes us citizens of the biosphere. It leads us to a better sense of a shared world. It brings habitat and biodiversity restoration and preservation into focus as a significant spiritual calling. In the classic Quaker phrase, we are now talking about “right sharing of world resources” within the whole community of life.

 Integrity is perhaps the most easily understood of Friends testimonies. Some folks see it as a kind of linchpin testimony, the presence of which vitalizes and validates all the other testimonies. At the first level it encompasses truthfulness and ethical consistency. In a widening perspective it includes devotion to right relationship, valuing direct experience in the formation of knowledge and judgment, and a commitment to accurate information.

The corollary for integrity is Ecologically Sound Adaptation. This means ways of life and means of livelihood that are congruent with the resilience and functional integrity of the biotic environment. It means working in concert with ecosystem enhancement and resilience. It means recognizing the ecological worldview and the integrity of Creation as the essential operating platform for advancing the great work of justice and peace.

Community is such a basic phenomenon of human experience that we may wonder how it came to be a distinct Quaker testimony. Originally in human social development most forms of livelihood and religion were embedded first in kinship clans and later in neighborhood communities From the earliest days of the Christian era in Western Civilization neighborhood communities were spiritually unified under the canopy of the Roman Catholic religion. The Protestant Reformation, as well as the subsequent Radical Reformation of which Quakerism was a late expression, fractured and fragmented the spiritual communities of Europe. The subsequent Industrial Revolution uprooted many forms of livelihood from neighborhood communities, and community life slipped into still further decline. In areas of England where considerable numbers of persons were drawn to Quakerism and where persecution by civil authorities attempted to stop the movement, community solidarity became an expression of faith. In North America, where Quaker settlements were clustered, old ways of community association were often initially maintained. But with the ascendancy of the commercial-industrial economy this has all changed. Community, instead of being a natural “commons” on which we can rely, has become something we have to work to maintain and redevelop where it has been lost.

Because the importance of community is so deeply imprinted in human experience as “right relationship,” the forms of community are always resurgent where people gather and work in the unity of Spirit for the common good. Authentic community creates a bond of solidarity and lives out a pattern of cooperative reciprocity. It involves sharing our physical and spiritual commons. It provides for the ceremonial representation of social life—events that reflect and celebrate the significant aspects of the community.

Largely because Friends have had an enduring concern for “right relationships,” and because Quakers have a well-tended tradition of collaborative discernment in decision making, the soul of community has been kept alive, even though meetings have generally suffered the same geographic dispersion of bodies as other faith groups. Community thus becomes a special witness and a testimony of experience. This experience draws on the deepest and most engrained currents of human association, currents that may lift us into a sense of communion and divine presence, and may, as we head into increasingly darker times, help us weather a sea of troubles.

The ecological dimension of community can be found in the dynamic of Social Ecology. Although Western philosophy and religion have restricted the social domain to human relations, natural history and the rise of ecological science have given us a new perspective on the nature of biotic relationships and what may be considered social. Ecological and Earth sciences have shown us that the biosphere in which we are embedded is permeated with an intricacy and interdependence of relationships that are intensely social.

This should not be surprising. Human relationships did not arise in one domain and all other biospheric relationships in another. The key insight of social ecology is that all biospheric relationships have arisen together in a mutually interacting and generally reinforcing way. Since we now have both a historical and a global view of biospheric relationships, and of human emergence within this context, we have the ability to act on behalf of the social ecology of the whole community of life. The ethic of community guides us to create—in the now oft-repeated phrase—a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. We need life and work designs that are fully responsive to environmental processes. We can set our sights on mindful participation in restoring and maintaining our local and regional ecosystems. We can practice ecosystem reciprocity—responding to the circumstances of our local and regional environments in ways that serve the common good and lift both our human communities and all other associated communities of life into the resilience of physical and spiritual health.


Service is the way in which Friends testimonies come together in coherent expression. A high value on service is obviously not unique to Friends, but Friends characteristically do not put service in a compartment of practice. For many Friends, service is life and life is service. Without deep reflection we seem to know from daily life that we exist for other people and they for us; that at our best we are bonded together in service to the common good and human betterment. This orientation to life often finds expression in some form of human service work, or in the provision of useful goods and services. It can include the arts, public policy work, civic, and political engagement, and working for social justice, peace and economic security .

Stewardship is a corollary concept and practice that bridges the service orientation into the full ecological context in which we actually live and work. Once again, as for other corollaries of testimonies, we can see that stewardship means building a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship into our life and work: for example, ecosystem restoration, energy use conservation, transitioning from nonrenewable to renewable energy and materials, local production for local use, green building, environmental education, and ecological footprint reduction.

Why should all these economic and ecological concerns be seen as spiritual issues relating to Friends testimonies? The answer is pretty straightforward. Our spiritual traditions and our experience teach us that in right relationship we touch the fullness of human meaning and the presence of the Divine. In both an ordinary and in a deeply profound sense, economics and ecology are domains of relationship. Economics is the domain of relationship in which the moral content of our faith enters most fully into the service of the world. Ecology is the domain of relationship that places the human story in the fullness of its cosmic significance and, at the same time, provides a Spirit-filled orientation on how best to live on Earth. Economics and ecology are prime sites for the practice of right relationship, and thus give Friends Testimonies a renewed grounding and true home.

Keith Helmuth lives in Woodstock, New Brunswick. He is a member of New Brunswick Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers).. He is a founding member of the Board of Trustees of Quaker Institute for the Future. He serves as Board Secretary and as Coordinator of the Institute’s Circles of Discernment Program. He was the Canadian Quaker delegate to the World Council of Churches’ Convocation on Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Seoul, Korea in 1990.