March 7, 2008

Orthodox deification in depth - and Quakerism

I wrote a lot here over the holidays about parallels between early Quakers and Orthodox deification ideas, but I've been quiet for a while. Why? Well, Angelika got me the incredibly rich The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, Norman Russell's dense but powerful survey of the development of Orthodox views.

It's not easy reading - there's just too much going on. While Russell provides a lot of background on theological and philosophical issues contributing to the story, it's simply a lot to take in. Russell's own perspective as author is sometime a bit confusing as well, as he sounds relieved (to me) when he discusses deification as a metaphor rather than reality, but also sounds very excited when he reaches the conclusion, discussing deification in the work of Maximus the Confessor and very briefly in Gregory Palamas. Given the contentious nature of the subject, however, that doesn't seem particularly troubling.

Over the course of reading, it became pretty clear that while there are parallels between Orthodox thought and Quaker thought, there are also strong divergences. The main practical barrier is, I think, the Orthodox emphasis on the sacraments - baptism and the eucharist especially - as critical means toward connecting with Christ and with God. Quakerism's non-sacramental approach would simply be a non-starter for most of this theology.

I do think that, while the Orthodox writers and Russell would probably disagree, Quakers could consider convincement parallel to baptism, and gathered meeting parallel to the eucharist. However, I'm not sure how far that can be pushed without breaking.

The other major barrier is that the Orthodox approach depends strongly on a very well-developed Christology, a Christology honed by years of contention with Arians, Gnostics, Nestorians, Monophysites, Muslims, and many others. These writers are either part of the conversation which led to the development of the Trinity or building on that conversation explicitly. Quakers, on the other hand, didn't spend a huge amount of effort in this space, and their contemporaries often accused them of confusing God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

As those two pieces are pretty much the foundation of Orthodox thought on the subject, there are limits to the parallels that can be drawn. However, it does seem clear that these writers and early Quakers drew on similar verses in similar ways, and I'll use some quotes from Russell to suggest paths worth exploring in Quakerism.

I'll start with something Russell says about an earlier writer on the subject:

Gross... denied that deification was an importation from Hellenism, claiming instead that it was a biblical idea in Greek dress, the equivalent of the Western doctrine of sanctifying grace... he saw the doctrine of deification fundamentally as the re-expression by the Greek Fathers in the language of their own culture of two themes already present in the New Testament, namely, the Pauline teaching on mystical incorporation into Christ, and the Johannine idea of the incarnate Logos as the source of divine life. (5-6)

This story strikes me as one with deep parallels to the early Quaker experience. Yes, even the early Quakers were much later, and responding in some ways against the existing Christianity of their day. (In that, though, they're not too different from the Greek fathers, who were often also writing in opposition.) The early Quakers' quest for "Primitive Christianity Revived" is in some ways similar to the Orthodox avoidance of innovation. Fox and other Quakers practically breathed the language of the Bible and spoke it back out, constantly seeking inspiration from Scripture and finding in it a promise of further inspiration from the Light.

There's an open question of whether Orthodox or Quaker beliefs come directly from the Bible, something that Russell asks:

Did Paul have an idea of deification? He uses various expressions for participatory union - 'in Christ', 'with Christ', 'Christ in us', 'sons of God', and so on, but does not isolate 'participation' for special consideration. Moreover, these expressions are images. 'Deification' as a technical term only emerged later when Paul's metaphorical images were re-expressed in conceptual language. The same may be said with regard to the Johannine writings, which reveal an approach to participatory union with Christ not unlike that of Paul. (11)

My reading, as I've said before, is that the New Testament lights up in a very different way when I read it now, seeing many more connections between humans and God (and Christ, and the Holy Spirit) than I'd seen previously. God remains unknowable, transcendent - but at the same time can be approached, transforming us.

The first few chapters of the book are excellent reading for anyone approaching these questions, whether or not they are interested in the Orthodox formulation specifically. The section on deification and the Greeks has some fine moments, my favorite of which is Roman Emperor Vespasian's deathbed quote, "'Vae, puto deus fio' ('Oh dear, I think I'm becoming a god')". The section on Judaism has a fascinating look at Enochic Judaism, a branch best known for the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also accessible through 1 Enoch and the canonical letter of Jude.

The section on early Christianity is fascinating, starting with Paul and then looking at Jewish and Johannine Christianity. While Paul seems less and less popular a figure these days, the language of participation he uses throughout his letters (and which the pseudo-Pauline letters emulate) is a central discussion of Christ's transformation of the believer. The section on Jewish Christianity focuses on Hebrews, a book I was surprised to find George Fox used regularly in his writings. Johannine Christianity came with a story I hadn't realized, though perhaps one that adds flavor to the description of John as "the Quaker Gospel":

The pre-Gospel community had strong Palestinian connections rooted in the eyewitness testimony of the Beloved Disciple. The Gospel was written in about 90 CE, when the community had been expelled from the synagogues (John 9:22), the 'Jews' were its opponents, and 'the world' stood for those who preferred darkness to light.

The divided Johannine community portrayed in the Epistles belongs to a third stage. There were now two groups who were interpreting the christology and ethics of the Gospel differently. The secessionists drew on the Fourth Gospel's high christology, with its emphasis on the pre-existence of God's son. They were convinced they were sinless and already enjoyed intimacy with God.

As a corrective, the author of 1 John stresses the need for ethical behavior and for following the teaching of the earthly Jesus. His pessimistic remark that the world is paying heed to his opponents (1 John 4:5) suggests that the secessionists were enjoying greater success.

Finally the Johannine community was dissolved. The secessionists moved in the direction of Gnosticism, taking the Fourth Gospel with them, while the remainder was absorbed into the Great Church.... With the corrective of 1 John, the Gospel was accepted early into the canon of the New Testament... (87-8)

The secessionists sound much like the Ranters early Quakers opposed, though the charges leveled against them also echo the charges leveled against Quakers.

Other early Christians developed these ideas in ways that connect to other aspects of Quakerism:

In both Justin [Martyr] and Irenaeus becoming a 'god' is a way of expressing a realized and internalized eschatology. Participation in immortality and incorruption is not postponed to the eschaton but attained in principle as a result of the believer's incorporation into Christ through baptism. (113)

It's not a simple match for Fox's "Christ is come to teach his people himself," but it's not that far a leap from it. (Now I need to re-read Apocalypse of the Word again!)

One final point I'd like to make before leaving Russell hinges on the basic question of the Incarnation: why did Christ come? That basic question gets thousands of variations in answer, but in this context there are some interesting options:

We see Irenaeus moving towards the tantum-quantum or 'exchange' formula, namely, that the Son of God 'became what we are in order to make us what he is himself. (106)

The 'exchange' formula has its roots in Pauline thinking: though Christ was rich, 'yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich' (2 Cor 8:9; cf Phil 2:6-8). The 'exchange' signifies precisely that: an exchange of properties, not the establishment of an identity of essence. He who was Son of God by nature became a man in order to make us sons by adoption (AH 3. 19. 1). Our sonship by adoption, which is effected by baptism, endows us with one supreme property in particular: the Son's immortality and incorruption.

There is nothing automatic, however, about our progress towards incorruption and immortality. It depends on our moral behaviour and on our participation in the sacraments, which together attain the divine likeness, morality being linked with the freedom and the sacraments with the life of the divine likeness.... (108-9)

Irenaeus... holds that God himself has intervened directly in human life through the Incarnation in order to bring the created realm into a close relationship with the divine. The sons of the Most High who are 'gods' are those who have received the grace of adoption. This is then used by Irenaeus to support the reality of the Incarnation. If Christ had not really become human, there could be no true baptism with its bestowal of incorruption and immortality. The inward renewal and transformation of the Christian was only possible if the Incarnation was real....

The notion if not the language of participation... is fundamental to him. For Irenaeus, created things are fundamentally inferior to the Creator. But in Christ the created is united with the uncreated, and we in turn are related to the uncreated through Christ. The Incarnation is part of a larger economy that enables us to participate in the divine attributes of immortality and incorruption and attain the telos which had been intended for Adam. (112-3)

There's a lot there to consider - and I think the early Quakers were asking these kinds of questions, much to their peers' discomfort. They may not have started with an intricate theological framework, but they came to similar places by reading the same Scripture and following slightly different paths.

I suspect that readers with an interest in deification per se will be vastly better served by reading Russell's works than my excerpts and thoughts, but at the same time I think I've only just started on a path that proved very fruitful for the founders of Quakerism.

(And no, I don't expect to convert to Orthodoxy, despite my enjoyment of their ideas. The overlaps are fascinating, but the difference are also very real.)

April 19, 2007

Early concerns about pacifism

I just came back from a conference in San Francisco, and in the Philadelphia airport I noticed The Christians and the Fall of Rome, an excerpt from Edward Gibbons' classic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon is a master at tearing apart ideas he doesn't like while politely saying that, for instance, he hopes the Pagan accusations of Christians editing their gospels aren't true, and it seems strange for the Romans not to have noticed an eclipse, and so on.

He reports on how Christian principles made them suspect to Romans, referencing the Quakers in a footnote:

The Christians were not less averse to the business than to the pleasures of this world. The defense of our persons and property they knew not how to reconcile with the patient doctrine which enjoined an unlimited forgiveness of past injuries, and commanded them to invite the repetition of fresh insults.

Their simplicity was offended by the use of oaths, by the pomp of magistracy, and by the active contention of public life, nor could their humane governance be convinced, that it was lawful on any occasion to shed the blood of our fellow-creatures, either by the sword of justice, or by that of war; even though their criminal or hostile attempts should threaten the peace and safety of the whole community.

[Footnote: The same patient principles have been revived since the Reformation by the Socinians, the modern Anabaptists, and the Quakers. Barclay, the apologist of the Quakers, has protected his brethren, by the authority of the primitive Christians.]

It was acknowledged, that, under a less perfect law, the powers of the Jewish constitution had been exercised, with the approbation of Heaven, by inspired prophets and by annointed kings. The Christians felt and confessed that such institutions might be necessary for the present system of the world, and they cheerfully submitted to the authority of their Pagan governors. But while they inculcated the maxims of passive obedience, they refused to take any active part in the civil administration or the military defence of the empire. Some indulgence might perhaps be allowed to those persons who, before their conversion, were already engaged in such violent and sanguinary occupations; but it was impossible that the Christians, without renouncing a more sacred duty, could assume the character of soldiers, of magistrates, or of princes.

This indolent, or even criminal disregard to the public welfare, exposed them to the contempt and reproaches of the Pagans, who very frequently asked, what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

To this insulting question the Christian apologists returned obscure and ambiguous answers, as they were unwilling to reveal the secret cause of their security; the expectation that, before the conversion of mankind was accomplished, war, government, the Roman Empire, and the world itself, would be no more.

It may be observed, that, in this instance likewise, the situation of the first Christians coincided very happily with their religious scruples, and that their aversion to an active life contributed rather to excuse them from the service, than to exclude them from the honours, of the state and army. (49-50, paragraph breaks added)

Gibbon, in giving his readers a glimpse of the Romans' perception of the Christians, seems to present his own disapproval as well. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see both common objections to pacifism voiced here in combination with a claim that beliefs in the end of the world coming soon can lead to pacifism. It's interesting to see eschatology raised explicity as a reason for practice.

I also wonder what his more warlike Christian readers would have thought of it - do they share the Roman scorn for these early Christians, or do they question their own beliefs? There's a lot going on here.

There's also one slip:

what must be the fate of the empire, attacked on every side by the barbarians, if all mankind should adopt the pusillanimous sentiments of the new sect?

Of course, if everyone adopted these sentiments, the barbarians would also be beating their swords into plowshares. Unless, of course - and the Romans could well have done this - the "mankind" referred to here is only about "Roman mankind."

The problem isn't what happens when everyone adopts these sentiments. Rather, it's what happens when some adopt these sentiments and others don't, choosing to take advantage of the those who choose peace.

April 15, 2007

It's the end of the world as we know it

After the introduction, the first 'real' chapter in Apocalypse of the Word is a 20-page introduction to the strange world of England in the 1640s and 1650s. It relies fairly heavily on historian Christopher Hill's many works, which I enjoy tremendously, but it's hard to capture just how wrenching those decades were.


  • Years of bad harvests, with famine throughout the land.

  • Eleven years when the king refused to call Parliament into session, bottling up frustrations ever more powerful.

  • Continuous religious conflict and persecution between the state church and its many opponents.

  • A constant trickle of radical (often Anabaptist) religious ideas coming in from the continent.

  • An emerging but hardly stable middle(ish) class that didn't fit well into a world of nobles and not-nobles.

  • Troubles in Ireland and Scotland, with their own religious and social issues.

  • Enclosures and drainage programs that threw poor people off the land, leaving them to survive as well as they could.

That's just the buildup - the explosions of the 1640s were devastating:

  • Open warfare between Parliament (finally called into session) and the King's forces, with armies moving across the country.

  • The sudden development of a new kind of army (the New Model Army), with ranks assigned by performance rather than social status.

  • Freedom of the press that let radical ideas accumulated for years reach much larger audiences.

  • An agreement with the Scots that might have turned all of England Presbyterian - except that there was enough resistance to halt it.

  • Ministers travelling with and generally radicalizing the Army.

  • A Parliament that doesn't really want to pay the Army, leading to all kinds of standoffs and uncertainty.

  • The creation of "agitators" representing the military ranks promoting a "Leveller" agenda.

  • Ever-shifting alliances between Parliamentary factions, the generals, the lower ranks of the Army, and sometimes the King.

  • The execution of the King.

The regicide, the execution of Charles I on authority given by the House of Commons, was a moment in history whose importance is hard to explain many revolutions later. The social, military, and religious powers that had held England together were destroyed or in flight; anything could happen next.

In this swirling chaos, people lost their familiar moorings. Reading Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down or Gwyn's Seekers Found, it's clear that people had good reason for thinking the world was coming to an end: the recognizable world was indeed coming to an end.

While the King's Cavaliers despaired, much of England hoped for a Parliament of Saints, a hope that took a long time to go away. The late 1640s saw a huge buildup of milennial hopes - that King Charles would be replaced by King Jesus - that weren't fulfilled. Instead, Protestants spent years tearing each other apart, while some Protestants moved ever further into doubt. Anglicans became Presbyterians, then joined Independent churches, then became Baptists, and some of those churches 'shattered' to leave their members looking, searching, waiting:

The state of radical Puritanism by 1652 is best defined by a group known as the Seekers. The Seeker phenomenon was not a sect - in fact, it defined itself in opposition to sects by stressing more what it had not found than what it had found. It was made up of thousands who had fitfully passed from one movement to another, finding a fleeting satisfaction, but no lasting peace or unity.

Unlike the Ranters, the Seekers still diligently searched for the path of true righteousness. They denied not only the state church in its episcopal and Presybterian orders, but also the hireling ministry and its sacraments. They began to meet in silence, praying aloud or witnessing as moved by the Spirit.

Though the spiritual life of the Seekers was rich, and many of their leaders were extremely gifted, they felt that they had come to the end of a long and painful road of false gatherings. Together they would wait in patience, "Expecting a further Manifestation." (19-20, paragraph breaks added)

Those Seekers, were, of course, the audience readiest to receive George Fox's message.

Before looking at how Gwyn sees Fox himself catalyzing those Seekers to create Quakers, I'd like to pause for a moment to consider the phenomenon of "Seeking" today. I visited San Francisco Friends' Meeting this morning, which has explicit "Seeker's Packets" in its library for prospective Quakers. I think it's a good idea, but it left me thinking about a fundamental change in our religious outlook.

It's hard to imagine groups of Seekers gathering in America today, to "wait in patience" while supporting each other. Instead, we seem to have shifted to an approach where those not bonded to a particular church either worship (or don't) privately, or attend a church but stay on its edges without diving into religious commitments. I wonder if this is different because current Seekers seem produced by slow erosion rather than radical shifts across the entire culture.

The more I think about it, the more I am impressed by (if not personally interested in) Zach's call to create a place where spiritual practice is taken seriously but without boundaries. I feel that my own seeking is becoming arriving, but looking back I wonder how different it could have been working in community.

April 12, 2007

Present parousia

While Apocalypse of the Word is a rare non-fiction book, one with suspense built into it, it's not because Douglas Gwyn keeps the ending a surprise. After talking a bit about the problem of the parousia, Christ's return, that is always to come soon in the New Testament but for which we still wait, Gwyn argues that Fox's preaching changes the entire shape of such discussion:

In preaching Christ's return as a presently unfolding reality, Fox recovers the consistent eschatology of the New Testament faith, shattering the perceived problem of a "delay" or "non-occurrence" of the parousia. He does this as he witnesses to the second advent of Christ in the same terms that the gospels use to witness to the first advent. The problem in both cases is with the expectation and perception of the people, together with the vested interests of human authority. The "messianic secret", the scandal that Jesus was not recognized as Messiah by the Jews, is relived in the drama of Christian disbelief in his return and his present power to save from sin, rather than in sin. In his first advent, Christ was revealed in a carpenter's son from Nazareth; in his second advent, he is revealed in a universally bestowed light. In both cases, his commonness is a stumbling block to the pious. (xxii)

This casts the Puritans more or less in the position of the Jews of the New Testament, whose beliefs about the coming Messiah didn't mesh with what they saw. (For more on those Jews' point of view, I strongly recommend Why the Jews Rejected Jesus. In this context, it might lead to more sympathy for Fox's Puritan opponents.) This telling makes me think I need to reread a lot of Fox's challenges to the Puritans; while I saw the parallel Fox draws, this adds layers of meaning to it.

Meanwhile, this return to "the consistent eschatology of the New Testament faith" combines the "Primitive Christianity Revived" story with the Second Coming story, making it easier to see how this approach includes much more of the New Testament than Revelation. As later generations took a less eschatological approach, they might well find different messages in the same statements. This combination makes it easier to read a lot of Fox's statements in a de-eschatologized way.

Fox's use of revelation also changes the way we look at that word, bringing it back to its original meaning in Greek:

Fox's preaching that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" therefore connects the hope of the parousia with the question of Christian knowledge. In other words, apocalypse and revelation are reunited in the basic sense of the Greek word apokalupsis as it is used in the New Testament. For example, the Apocalypse of John is the revelation of the end given him by Christ. Apocalypse as revelation itself leads us to conclude that Christian apocalyptic is most basically a matter of present experience, rather than speculation upon the future, as scholars have often assumed. (xxii)

This is a theme Gwyn will repeat throughout the book, structuring chapters around particular 'apocalypses', revelations Fox reported and preached. At the same time, he ties that preaching to Fox's distinctive eschatology and specifically (at times) to Revelation.

Before I move into the main body of the book, there's one more paragraph in the preface I'd like to highlight, as it suggests something of where this approach leads, and how it differs from Puritan and other traditionally Protestant perspectives:

Justification and sanctification become one continuous work of God in Fox's preaching that "Jesus Christ is come to teach his people himself." There is neither a retreat to metaphysics nor a resort to the interim ethic and government of the institutional church. Christ is come by his Spirit to judge, to empower, to war against Satan, and to rule among his people. The kingdom of God is revealed concretely on earth now. Fox comes to these conclusions without falling into the trap of spiritual enthusiasm or privatism. Unlike Paul's opponents at Corinth and Philippi, Fox by no means underestimates the problem of sin, but witnesses to the greater power of the risen Lord to save and gather his people. The cross relentlessly maintains its central position in Fox's writings. (xxi-xxii)

I've written a bit about the earlier Quaker position on justification (and later rejection of that position by the Gurneyite Orthodox), but hadn't thought deeply about where it came from, though I did test it against Romans 8. This piece (which I had read before I wrote all that, but apparently forgotten) fits that space of the Quaker puzzle neatly. It explains a divergence from other Protestants well.

As I noted before, there's still a dramatic tension in Gwyn's book. How much explanatory power does this perspective have? The preface is promising, the thesis interesting, but the bulk of the book will fill it out.

April 9, 2007

Negativity around the Apocalypse

Yes, that's a strange title. However, there a couple of questions I'd like to clear away before getting deeper into the core of Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word. One involves a set of historical views Gwyn is trying to move past, while the other is a criticism of Gwyn's book from a fellow historian of Quakerism.

First, Gwyn's concerns. While it is clear throughout that he values the work others have done in researching and interpreting Quakerism, there are two primary streams of Quaker history he would like to escape: the mystical interpretation of Rufus Jones, and the Protestant interpretation of Geoffrey Nuttall, Hugh Barbour, and others. In my other Quaker history readings, it seems that Jones is out of favor anyway, while the Protestant interpretation is more or less dominant, but Gwyn seeks a different path:

Jones' sense of the universal is tied to an understanding of human reason as a divine, saving faculty. But we shall see repeatedly in this study that Fox understands the light as inward but fundamentally alien to human nature. Far from being optimistic about human capacity, Fox sees our nature as utterly dark; human reason may be creative, but it is ultimately unable to save. When we understand this, we see that the early Quaker conflict with Puritanism was hardly the chance collision of two different thought-worlds Jones imagined, but a struggle within the same world....

The philosophical liberalism of Rufus Jones' mystical interpretation of Quakerism therefore contains the same problem that the liberal theological interpretation of the New Testament created. It ignores the structural integrity of the message itself, finding a "buried treasure" at the core which, in fact, has been projected there by the investigator. There is too much in Fox's writings that Jones had to ignore in order to reach his conclusions. Fox's approach may perhaps be accurately called mystical, but not by the definition Jones gave to that word.... (xv-xvi)

The contributions of Nuttall and Barbour have provided a much-needed corrective to the liberal assumptions of Rufus Jones' mystical reading of Fox. Far from being incidental to Quakerism, the language early Friends used can be seen as partaking in an evolving theological debate, as research into the Puritanism of the day has shown....

Nevertheless, historical analysis can easily fall prey to the problem of reductionism; themes shared by different movements may be emphasized at the expense of their originality.... as we have already suggested with regard to Nuttall's work, the Protestant interpretation views early Quakerism too much through a Reformation theological framework; the Christian experience unfolds within the context of Christ's return, instead of scripture's record...

The Protestant interpretation of early Quakerism has dominated Church historical scholarship in recent decades. Yet while it corrected Jones' view of Quakerism operating in an alien thought world, it has overdrawn its image of the Quaker-Puritan debate as a filial squabble within Protestantism. (xviii-xix)

Gwyn doesn't say it explicitly, but it seems that both of these readings reflect efforts to make 1650s Quakerism more palatable to particular kinds of audiences at the times these writers were working. The mystical approach was aimed both at Quakers and at a particular group of religious scholars at the time Jones was writing, and the Protestant approach made Quakerism seem more reasonable to scholars of the Reformation and the English Reformation in particular. I don't think that's a particularly surprising problem, as it affects all retellings of the past, but it tends to leave tales of the past eroded by the needs of the present.

In my next installment, I'll look at the alternative vision Gwyn presents in his efforts to go beyond these two approaches.

Finally, one last caution before I go further. H. Larry Ingle complains in George Fox's Legacy of the dangers of looking at early Quaker work without careful attention to when things were written:

Moreover, as in the other traditions, there are different emphases at different times, meaning that over time there is a lack of consistency. I might add that this evolution in the Quaker message demands that those seeking to understand it can hardly avoid a historical approach, lest they distort their findings. (68)

[footnote] The most recent example of this tendency was Douglas Gwyn in his revised doctoral dissertation, Apocalypse of the Word: The Life and Message of George Fox (Richmond, Ind: Friends United Press, 1986.) See my earlier criticism of Gwyn's method in "On the Folly of Seeking the Quaker Holy Grail," Quaker Religious Thought 25 (May 1991), 17-29. Let it be noted that in his later works Gwyn has successfully moved away from what was an ahistorical approach. (78)

Curious, I ordered the QRT back issue - $4 seems like a wise investment before I proceed into explaining a book that supposedly has major flaws - and I don't think Ingle's case is particularly damaging. If Apocalypse of the Word had been written as a historical work, then yes, it might be devastating - but it's much more a theological work written about someone who thought long ago. Yes, Gwyn mixes 1650s Fox with 1680s Fox, and there's a case that can be made that they're different perspectives - but not so different that they aren't worth considering together.

Ingle's other complaint about Gwyn's approach seems to be that Gwyn dove deeply into Fox's Works, which are an edited subset of his actual writings, and didn't spend much time with other primary or secondary sources. Again, in a strictly historical setting, this would be a huge problem; in a theological setting, completeness is rarely a virtue.

Ingle also complains that Fox was not a theologian, and attempts to make him into one run counter to his message:

But at least we can avoid turning a person into a theologian whose thinking and writing was erratic and inconsistent, so "off the top of his head", that his greatest legacy may well have been his considered refusal to follow the gleam of a nonexistent holy grail.

While I didn't find Ingle's objections convincing, I'll certainly consider Ingle's kinds of concerns as I encounter them. While I share Ingle's sense that Quakerism itself changed over time, Fox's own views and their motivations seem to me to have changed less than those of the people around him, and while he was certainly not perfectly consistent, his inconsistencies do seem to gravitate in particular directions.

When I finish with Apocalypse of the Word, I'll also look at Heaven on Earth: Quakers and the Second Coming, where Gwyn restates (and simplifies) much of his core thesis but does so in a way that's more precise about timeline.

April 5, 2007

Looking to the Alpha and the Omega

I first read Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word a couple of years ago, and it dramatically deepened my interest in early Quakerism. I've been very cautious in writing about it, however. It's not an easy book to excerpt without losing critical context and meaning, and even the title can be read in multiple meanings, which resolve over the course of the book. (Is Apocalypse the end of the world, or revelation? Is the Word "In the beginning was the Word", or scripture, or something else?)

Gwyn's book was a surprise to me, because up until I found it I was much more accustomed to thinking of Quakerism as Primitive Christianity Revived, to use William Penn's classic title. Quakers (at least in my experience) often described themselves as going back to the beginnings of Christianity, when the message was clear but hadn't been codified into hierarchies and scriptures. George Fox was difficult to understand in this context, as he doesn't seem like, well, a church historian. Fox's classic message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" sounds somewhat like a return to those early days when Christ taught in person, but also raises all the questions inherent in discussions of the second coming.

Gwyn focuses squarely on the eschatological aspects of Fox's writings, finding motivation there for Quaker beliefs and practices. At the same time, however, he differentiates them from other approaches to the same issues - approaches I think may have made Quakers less eager to acknowledge the importance of these angles on early Quakerism:

The key issue... which will dominate my investigation will be that of eschatology - the belief in end-times, the return of Christ, the coming of the kingdom of God. End-time language and expectation shaped and gave a particular energy to the socio-political struggles of both Puritans and Quakers.

In the case of Puritanism, this line of thought tended to be mainly a speculative, political ideology, based on apocalyptic books of the BIble, such as Daniel and Revelation. Texts were employed in order to identify certain political figures with the antichrist, to calculate the end of the world, or to make messianic claims for political agendas. Such speculation mobilized great political and military energies.

On the other hand, Quaker preaching, while sharing some of these characteristics, will be seen to lay primary emphasis on apocalypse in its literal sense of revelation. Geo-political speculation gave way to a knowledge of Christ's return in personal experience. This approach created much less political ideology... yet it generated a movement with dynamic social and economic reordering and a powerful political witness that far outdistanced the Puritan efforts. What we find in Fox's preaching are the same hopes shared by his Puritan contemporaries, yet a new basis for these hopes in a radically personal spirituality. It is an experience of apocalypse like that described in John 3:19 - "And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world...." (3)

It seems that Fox captured the spiritual side of earlier eschatology without getting trapped in the challenges of setting dates for the end of the world. Fox's eschatology isn't speculation about the future - it's present eschatology, and Christ is here, with us, now.

I'll have a lot more to say about this book, though I don't plan to go through it page by page. I'm certainly not going to explain it any better than Gwyn already does. Still, I hope to bring forward some pieces that raise questions worth exploring, and see where they lead. This book already had a profound influence on my experience and views of Quakerism, and has been a quiet undercurrent in the writing of this weblog.

Next, I'll be looking at some criticisms of this book and its eschatological perspective. Was this Fox's view consistently? Which other early Quakers shared it? How necessary is it to an understanding of Quakerism then and today? (I don't promise answers on that last one.)

March 30, 2007

The importance of apocalypse

Whenever someone brings up Revelation, and starts telling it as a story tied to the present, I tend to worry. I've seen too many TV preachers forecasting the end-times, read too many of Fred Clark's reviews of Left Behind, and marveled at things like the Millerites announcing that the world would end on October 22, 1844.

I've come to think, however, that I've been wrong in writing off millenarianism as strange and destructive, and especially wrong in thinking it inherently conservative. The more I've learned about Quakerism, and more broadly about Christianity, the more that final book of the Bible seems critical.

Theologian Paul Tillich, in his A History of Christian Thought, draws some connections between the Spiritual Franciscans of the 14th century, their fondness for Joachim of Floris [Fiore]'s Revelation-fueled visions of a new age, Quakers, and the rationalists who followed:

It is entirely wrong to place the rationalism of the Enlightenment in contradiction to pietistic mysticism.. It is popular nonsense that reason and mysticism are the two great opposites. Historically, Pietism and the Enlightenment both fought against Orthodoxy.

The subjectivity of Pietism, or the doctrine of the "inner light" in Quakerism and other ecstatic movements, has the character of immediacy or autonomy against the authority of the church. To put it more sharply, modern rational autonomy is a child of the mystical autonomy of the doctrine of the inner light.

The doctrine of the inner light is very old; we have it in the Franciscan theology of the Middle Ages, in some of the radical sects (especially the later Franciscans), in many sects of the Reformation period, in the transition from spiritualism to rationalism, from the belief in the Spirit as the autonomous guide of every individual to the rational guidance which everybody has by his autonomous reason.

From another historical perspective, the third stage of Joachim of Floris, the stage of the Holy Spirit, is behind the idea among the bourgeoisie of the Enlightenment that they have reached the third stage, the age of reason, in which every individual is taught directly. They go back to the prophecy of Joel, in which every maid or servant is taught directly by the Holy Spirit, and no one is dependent on anybody else for the Spirit.

Thus we can say that rationalism is not opposed to mysticism, if by mysticism we mean the presence of the Spirit in the depths of the human soul. Rationalism is the child of mysticism, and both of them are opposed to authoritarian Orthodoxy. (286-7, paragraph breaks added)

I'll connect this back to Quakerism in some posts to come on Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word, but first I'd like to explore Joachim of Floris and the worlds Umberto Eco presented in The Name of the Rose.

So, to get started, what does Joachim of Floris sound like? Here's a sample from Apocalyptic Spirituality, in full detailing-the-end mode:

Then the commander of the army will be Gog, the final Antichrist. God will judge him and his army by fire and brimstone poured down from heaven. The devil who led men astray to do all these evil deeds will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the Beast and the False Prophet are (Apoc. 20:9-10). The Beast and the False Prophet (that is, the eleventh king mentioned in Daniel, along with his army) and the Seventh King written of above along with his group of false prophets are next thrown into the lake of fire. At the end Gog and his army will be judged; after them the devil and Gog himself will be cast into the lake of fire where the Beast and the False Prophet already are.

Continue reading "The importance of apocalypse" »

November 19, 2006

Last times

I enjoy the Slacktivist blog tremendously, as Fred Clark manages to look at the world and Christianity through a sympathetic but often bewildered perspective. One of his regular features is a page-by-page review of Left Behind, the first book of the 12-volume series. The comments frequently raise as many questions as the stories, and I was especially interested in a comment by "Reverend Ref" on the latest Left Behind installment:

The lectionary for this coming Sunday is concerned with the end times, desolating sacrilege and antichrist; you know, all that Bad Stuff in General that Fred mentioned in his post.

As I'm basically saying in my sermon, there is a major problem with looking at these apocalyptic readings and trying to determine just when those last days are supposed to occur. The problem is this: THESE ARE the last days, not some future date arrived at by mathematical gyrations more complicated than what is needed to hold the Copernican system together.

Referring back to Acts 2, it was at Pentecost that God poured out the Holy Spirit on the apostles and they spoke in other languages proclaiming the word of God. Peter, quoting Joel, says: In the last days it will be, declares God, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh ...

We are the heirs of that event. God's Spirit has been poured out upon us, and is being poured out upon us. The "last days" have been here for almost 2000 years.

Pentecost was a long long time ago, but that passage was key to early Quakers' understanding of what they were doing, even as their millenarianism faded. Its claim that "your sons and your daughters shall prophesy" is important for its including both genders. Claims like Scofield's that the Sermon on the Mount applies only to God's eventual kingdom rather than to the here and now seem to me to fall in the face of this, and Quakers' insistence on applying Christ's teachings rather more strongly than their fellows considered wise likely also derives from this perspective.

(Douglas Gwyn's Apocalypse of the Word argues along somewhat similar lines. I need to take a closer look at early Quaker writings to see how this notion played through their work, but it does feel to me like it resonates with William Penn's discussion of dispensations in his opening to George Fox's Journal.)

July 31, 2006

Like a river

I mentioned earlier that I was reading Albert Schweitzer's Quest of the Historical Jesus. I'll admit that some of the middle pages weren't quite as exciting as I'd hoped, though Schweitzer's prose is always amazing. He touches on a lot of subjects in Christianity's relationship with history that I think also apply directly to Quakerism's briefer relationship with history, often in ways that are strikingly parallel.

I'll have more to say about his central theme of the kingdom of God and how it may relate to Quakerism and Quaker history later. Right now, I'd like to share a metaphor in his conclusion. After he talking about the "moral consummation of all things" and how Christ "grasped the entire truth and immediacy of it," as well as how "our relationship to Jesus is ultimately of a mystical kind," he writes about the challenge of overcoming divides within Christianity:

Only thus does Jesus create a fellowship amongst us. He does not do so as a symbol, or anything of that sort. So long as we are of one will among ourselves and with him in putting the kingdom of God above all else, serving it with faith and hope, there is fellowship between him and us and with men of all races who have lived and still live guided by the same idea.

It is from this that we can also see how the liberal and conservative forms of religious thinking, which at the moment exist side by side, will meet and achieve unity. False compromises are useless. All concessions with which the liberal side may seek to approach the conservative view can only succeed in weakening it by producing obscurities and inconsistencies. The differences between them lie in the difference in their basic thought forms. Any attempt at reaching a superficial accomodation between them has absolutely no prospect.

It is the lack of elementary and living religious feeling which makes these differences so strongly apparent. Two thin streams wind alongside each other between the boulders and pebbles of a great river bed. Nothing is accomplished by trying to clear sections of the rock massed between them to allow them to flow together along the same course. But when the waters rise and overflow the rock, they meet of their own accord.

This is how the conservative and liberal forms of religion will meet, when desire and hope for the kingdom of God and fellowship with the spirit of Jesus again govern them as an elementary and mighty force, and bring their world-views and their religion so close that the differences in fundamental presuppositions, though still existing, sink, just as the boulders of the river bed are covered by the rising flood and at last are barely visible, gleaming through the depths of waters. (486-7)

The boulders are real, though I don't yet see the floodwaters. Perhaps they're on their way.

July 19, 2006

Spirit, truth, and history

The preface of Apocalypse of the Word reminded me of Albert Schweitzer's discussion of how the delay of Christ's return has affected the Christian church, and I went to read his classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus. I'm still enjoying the book, which manages to make discussions of theological history quite lively, but the 1950 introduction had a few things to say which I think apply to Quakerism's history, and not only to early Christianity:

The present situation compels faith to distinguish between the essence and the form of religious truth. The ideas through which it finds expression may change as time goes on, without destroying its essence. Its brightness is not dimmed by what happens to it. Changing seems to make the ideas more transparent as means whereby the truth is revealed....

It may come as a stumbling-block to our faith to find that it was not Jesus himself who gave its perfect spiritual form to the truth which he brought into the world, but that it received this in the course of time through the working of the Spirit. But this is something which we have to overcome. The old saying still holds. 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.' (Isa. 55.8-9)

Historical truth not only creates difficulties for faith; it also enriches it, by compelling it to examine the importance of the work of the Spirit of Jesus for its origin and continuance. The gospel of Jesus cannot simply be taken over; it must be appropriated in his Spirit. What the Bible really offers us is his Spirit, as we find it in him and in those who first came under its power. Every conviction of faith must be tested by him. Truth in the highest sense is what is in the Spirit of Jesus. (xliv-xlv)

I'm fascinated by early Quaker history, and think the early Quakers did amazing things while grappling with the difficulties created by their finding Spirit above Scripture or Tradition. While I find their work inspiring, I don't think Quakerism today is or should be the movement as it was in 1655 or 1685.

It seems to me that change has been more or less continuous, from the cooling down of the initial enthusiasm after the Restoration in 1660 through the 'quietist' period (more on that to come) through the splits and schisms of the 19th century and the many changes of the 20th century.

To take just one example, it's fascinating to me how both Hicksite and Orthodox Quakers seemed to firmly believe themselves to be the true heirs of George Fox and his fellow founders. The Hicksites went so far as to reissue Fox's Works (for which I'm grateful), claiming Fox's mantle in ways I'm not sure he'd support, while the Orthodox certainly made their own (also problematic) claims about that same mantle. I suspect, however, that the problem wasn't that one group or the other was no longer true to Quakerism: it was that each group was heading in a new direction. From my uncertain vantage point, Hicksites seemed to be more willing to entertain that the Light might provide diverse perspectives, while the Orthodox were shifting toward more emphasis overall on Scripture and less emphasis on the Light.

Schweitzer's emphasis on - and acceptance of - the process of change as a key aspect of religious development seems as important today as it did in 1950 when he wrote those words. However much we try to lock ourselves into a fixed perspective on the past and a fixed understanding of the world, those perspectives and understandings will shift. If we listen to the Light as we carry on, those shifts may take us to new spiritual horizons, revealing new insights in what came before.