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January 25, 2008

More exalted language, to and from Fox

Last night, re-reading Douglas Gwyn's excellent Seekers Found, I found yet more "exalted language" about Fox and other early Quakers.

First, people writing to George Fox and Margaret Fell:

Dorothy Howgill (wife of Francis) wrote to Fox... She recalls Fox telling her that "a pure light was arising in me... yet I could not believe because I felt no such think... but now I know thou hast the anoynting of the Holy one and thou knowes all things... thou art my own heart and my soule lyes in thy bosom."

Exalted language like this was commonly directed by Friends toward those who had convinced them, and most of all toward George Fox and James Nayler. Shortly after her convicement, Fel and her children wrote to Fox as:

Our dear father in the Lord... We are your babes. Take pity on us, whom you have nursed up with the breasts of consolation... Oh, our dear nursing father, we hope you will not leave us comfortless, but will come again... My own dear heart... you know that we have received you into our hearts...

Mary Howgill addressed Fox as "Dear Life" in a 1656 letter. Such letters were also addressed to Fell. For example, John Audland wrote to Fell, exclaiming that she "inhabits eternity," finding her countenance "more bright than the sun." He went on to confess that his soul was refreshed by her and that by God's power he was "kept bold to declare the way of salvation." (240)

A few paragraphs later, Gwyn presents some of Fox's own claims. Some pieces of this story are familiar from the Journal and other letters, but Gwyn presents a letter (published earlier by Larry Ingle) that pushes the story a bit further.

Most disturbing to Puritan authorities were Fox's sporadic claims to be "the Son of God," which continued as late as 1661. This issue had arisen as early as his Derby arrest in 1650. During his interrogation, his claims to perfection led straight to his assertion of Christ's indwelling. Asked if he or his associates were themselves Christ, he answered "Nay, we are nothing, Christ is all." During a trial at Lancaster late in 1652, Fox was charged with claiming to be equal with God. He denied making such a claim, but countered that "he that sanctifieth and they that are sanctified are all of one in the Father and the Son and that ye are the sons of God. The Father and the Son are one, and we of his flesh and of his bone" (Heb. 2:11, Eph. 5:31). In 1653, Fox wrote a letter "to Margaret Fell and to every other friend who is raised to discerning." Apparently aiming to clarify his own words and speculations upon them, Fox did not back away from his earlier affirmations:

Accordinge to the spirit I am the sonne of God and according to the flesh I am the seed of Abraham which seed is Christ which seed is but one in all his saints.... Accordinge to the spirit I am the sonne of God before Abraham was... the same which doth descend, the same doth ascend and all the promises of God are yea come out of time from god, into time to that which is captivated in the earth in time, and to it the seed which is Christ, they are all yea and amen fetched up out of him, where there is noe time... and as many received the word, I say unto ye: yee are gods, as it is written in your law [John 10:34].... Now waite all to have these things fulfilled in ye, if it never be so little a measure waite in it, that ye may grow to a perfect man in Christ Jesus.

This passage is not terribly coherent. But it shows that Fox claimed sonship, though in a way that could be claimed by others who wait faithfully upon the Lord and grow into perfection in Christ. Those who had gone through the harrowing convincement process of death to the self had found a "measure" of freedom from captivity in earthly time and its realm of cause and effect. Thus, to be a child of God in the Spirit was to be "before Abraham was." To have Christ within was to be of Christ's flesh and bone, eating it and becoming the same substance with it. (241-2)

I'm guessing that such claims helped keep this letter from finding home in the Epistles that became part of Fox's Works.

This is strong reinforcement for the hypothesis that early Quakerism wasn't merely about following God, it was about uniting with God. The Inward Light, "Christ is come to teach his people himself", pointing toward union rather than reflection.

I wonder whether Fox himself ever abandoned that set of ideas, even if he did write much more cautiously after the 1650s, and edited earlier letters. I'm guessing that he didn't, though such a guess is hard to substantiate.

January 23, 2008

Tech turbulence

This blog suddenly turned from gray to green, and a lot of parts are missing. I'm upgrading it more thoroughly to Movable Type 4, and there will be strange bumps in the night for a while to come. It will eventually be gray again, and the links will return.

I also apologize for the Captchas, the weird little graphical number/letter things - I've been getting flooded with spam comments, sometimes a few hundred a day, that are getting past my usual spam filters. (Those are even more flooded, but don't seem to have made many false positives, at least.) Hopefully this will reduce the torrent to a trickle, and make it easier for me to participate in the conversation here.

January 7, 2008

A Guide to True Peace

or the Excellence of Inward and Spiritual Prayer is a small book Compiled Chiefly From the Writings of Fenelon, Mme. Guyon, and Molinos.

I don't remember how exactly I found it, but I ordered this a couple of years ago and frequently carry it around with me. (It's a tiny book, and looks like it's available online as well.) Pendle Hill reprinted it in 1979, from a 1946 reprint they did with Harper & Row, and there's an introduction by Howard Brinton. It looks like the original was compiled around 1813, by a pair of Quakers, working from the materials of the Catholic Quietists.

Of the three, Molinos seems to be the most extreme, while Guyon and Fénelon are considered 'semiquietists'. I've written about Fénelon's letters before. (It's probably notable that Quietism was condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church in 1687, and still raises sparks in the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia.)

I'd be curious to hear if other people are reading this little book, and what they see in it. Diane Guenin-Lelle wrote an article on Quakers and Quietism that explains a lot of where this material came from as well.

The last chapter, "On Perfection, or the Union of the Soul with God", is what grabbed my attention again. When I'd first read it, it seemed too lofty a suggestion to make:

The most profitable and desirable state in this life is that of Christian perfection, which consists in the union of the soul with Infinite Purity, a union that includes in it all spiritual good; producing in us a freedom of spirit; which raises us above all the events and changes of this life, and which frees us from the tyranny of human fear; it gives an extraordinary power for the well performing of all actions, and acquitting ourselves well in our employments; a prudence truly Christian in all our undertakings; a peace and perfect tranquility in all conditions; and, in short, a continual victory over self love and our passions. (109)

And then this ties back to the discussion I've had lately around deification:

"Be ye perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect." The soul, remaining in its disorderly will, is imperfect; it becomes more perfect, in proportion as it approaches nearer to the Divine will. When a soul is advanced so far that it cannot in anything depart therefrom, it then becomes wholly perfect, united with, and is transformed into, the divine nature; and being thus purified and united to Infinite Purity, it finds a profound peace, and a sweet rest, which brings it to such a perfect union of love, that it is filled with joy. It conforms itself to the will of the great Original in all emergencies, and rejoiced in everything to do the divine good pleasure.

The Lord draws near to such a soul, and communicates inwardly to it. He fills it with himself because it is empty; clothes it with his light and his love, because it is naked; lifts it up, because it is low; and unites it with himself.

If you would enter into this heaven on earth, forget every care and every anxious thought, get out of yourself, that the love of God may live in your soul, so that you may be enabled to say with the apostle: "It is no longer I that live, but Christ who lives within me." How happy we would be if we could leave all for him, seek him only, breathe after him only; let only Him have our sighs. Oh, that we could but go on without interruption toward this blessed state! God call us to do so and come to him. He invites us to enter our inward center, where he will renew and change us, and show us a new and heavenly kingdom, full of joy, peace, content, and serenity. (114-6)

I think I'll be carrying this book around with me for a while.

January 2, 2008

Sacralize and secularize

I've been re-reading Douglas Gwyn's The Covenant Crucified. This morning I picked it up by accident at a page with lots to think about for anyone considering early Quaker history. In some ways it's a restatement of the thesis of the book, but it's placed in Gwyn's chapter on "The Quaker Revolution Revised, 1667-1675", so it feels more explicitly focused on change from the earliest days of Quakerism to the later period of consolidation.

The Protestant project begun by Luther, extended by Calvin, and made programmatic in Enland by radical Puritans was to sacralize all reality. The sanctified life was taken out of the monastery and extended to the social whole. That tendency reached its ultimate form in the Quaker revolution, with its rejection of the steeplehouse as "holy place," sabbaths and feast days as "holy times," and clergy as "holy men."

In this totalizing program, early Friends consolidated and furthered many Puritan themes. But they also confronted unjust and dishonest practices in the marketplace as the dark underside of the Puritan revolution's capitalist ethos, just as they countered the violent tactics and oppressive results of the Civil War with their nonviolent Lamb's War.

The decisive moment of the Quaker revolution was played out in Nayler's enactment of Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem. This enactment of total sacralization, the enthronement of Christ among the people, manifested the entire Protestant program in England. It both brought Protestantism to its fullest implications and moved into a new realm.

The government's brutal treatment of Nayler and its repression of Quakers, accompanied by the popular backlash against radicalism, signaled a dramatic, dialectical reversal: the movement to sacralize all life was inverted, becoming the movement to secularize all life.

In the English drama of the rise of capitalism, Nayler plays the prophetic role of the charismatic figure who mediates a profound shift in the culture... Typically, the "vanishing mediator" will be quickly exterminated, or otherwise will simply fade into obscurity as new institutions grow up to regularize the new order he or she has helped catalyze. While Nayler represents the immediate victim of the first type, Fox represents the second type, who survived to become irrelevant to the culture he helped create, even superfluous to the Society of Friends he founded. Certainly, neither figure saw himself as the prophet of secularism. On the contrary, both saw themselves as heralds of a new covenantal society challenging and eclipsing both Church and state. What finally developed, however, was a covenantal sect existing within a contracted saeculum (the Latin root of "secular," meaning "age," or "generation"), the "new age" of an unrepentant (and finally indifferent) generation.

The triumphalist notion that early Friends like Nayler and Fox helped created our modern society with its freedoms is a popular half-truth, ideologically impaired by liberal hindsight... one must give a fuller account of what lived and died in these Quaker figures and their initial movement.

Nayler's passion offers the most dramatic "moment of truth" in the Quaker revolution, but it is vulnerable to a romantic reduction of its meaning: "Poor James, another martyr to the system; mean old George, he never understood." Fox's longer, apostolic saga helped enable the movement's second, post-revolutionary phase. Thouse less tragic than Nayler, Fox is remarkable for his profound insights and continuity of faith in changing circumstances. Here, the temptation is to reduce Fox to the denominational hagiography of "Quaker lore": "Good old George, our founder; bad old James, he went astray." But Fox's outcome was far less his aim than his fate. (289-90. Paragraph breaks added; italics Gwyn's emphasis, bold emphasis added.)

There's a lot here, speaking both to the experience of early Friends and to later followers who find themselves stuck on the same fault lines early Quakers tried to overcome.

The idea that early Quakers tried to take Protestantism to its logical conclusion is, as I've noted before, appealing. In a very strong sense George Fox re-read the world around him - all of it, uncompromisingly - through the Bible. His intensely biblical foundation led him to direct inspiration, available to every individual in every context all the time. Nayler took the story of God's being everywhere, on the edge of breaking through, and enacted a sign of that breaking through - and triggered the reversal that Gwyn's book often mourns.

The secularization that Gwyn describes here is not "the war on Christmas" or the usual battles over Church and State we have in the United States, though it certainly leads to difficult compromises. It's the shift from seeing religion as everywhere, a vision of the world shared with God, to seeing religion as one piece of a larger picture. Religion becomes a private matter, shared with others of your own choosing.

It's often appealing to read early Quakers as if they were writing in the present, when this secularization is already completely normal. We can (and do) compartmentalize their message into one part of our lives. Quakers have also seemed to absorb the vocabulary of religious independence that William Penn and later Quakers used to free Quakers from the burden of persecution. I think, though, that Quakerism never completely accepted the shift that Gwyn talks about here. That may be the underlying reason that Quakers seem to have a harder time letting the world go the way of the world.

Can we take up the early Quakers' quest to "sacralize all reality"? Should we?

January 1, 2008

Some last qualifiers on Orthodox deification

Before I return to Quaker writers specifically, I'd like to note Timothy Ware's list of "six points... to prevent misinterpretation." These are just the opening sentences of paragraphs from pages 236-8 of The Orthodox Way.

First, deification is not something reserved for a few select initiates, but something intended for all alike. The Orthodox Church believes that it is is the normal goal for every Christian without exception....

Secondly, the fact that a person is being deified does not mean that she or he ceases to be conscious of sin. On the contrary, deification always presupposes a continued act of repentance....

In the third place, these is nothing esoteric or extraordinary about the methods which we must follow in order to be deified. If someone asks 'How can I become God?' the answer is very simple: go to church, receive the sacraments, regularly, pray to God 'in spirit and in truth', read the Gospels, follow the commandments....

Fourthly, deification is not a solitary but a 'social' process...

Fifthly, love of God and of our fellow humans must be practical. Orthodoxy rejects all forms of Quietism, all types of love which do not issue in action....

Finally, deification presupposes life in the Church, life in the sacraments. Theosis according to the likeness of the Trinity involves a common life, and it is only within the fellowship of the Church that this common life of coinherence can be properly realized. Church and sacraments are the means appointed by God whereby we may acquire the sanctifying Spirit and be transformed into the divine likeness. (236-8)

While I suspect that Quakers would read "Church" and "sacraments" very differently from the Orthodox, and I can imagine George Fox muttering about steeplehouses and their outwardness just thinking about it, there's a lot here shared in common - in my own words:

  • This is a path for everyone, not just a spiritual elite.

  • This path keeps its participants on a moral path, without the Ranting Fox and other early Quakers deplored. Repentance is always central.

  • There are no obscure techniques required.

  • People should share this path with others, not just wander by themselves.

  • Love leads to action.

As before, I strongly encourage visitors to this site to track down a copy of Ware's book and consider its message beyond what I'm able to excerpt here.

(I'm not sure what Ware's aside about Quietism is about, but I'm thinking more and more that the word has multiple meanings, not all of which apply to Quaker or even Catholic Quietism.)