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" »

May 19, 2006

Private vices, public goods?

I've always wondered how it was that Christians take capitalist economics so calmly or even eagerly embrace it. It's not just conflict with the Sermon on the Mount, but more a general worldliness. Consumerism in particular seems to distribute avarice to everyone while claiming it serves a public good.

Tillich had some comment on this in A History of Christian Thought, which I noticed a while ago and had to hunt down again this morning:

If we have a society of economic exchange that is dependent on selling and buying, it happens that human desires must be aroused to make such selling and buying possible. Thus an antipuritan principle developed in the midst of the Enlightenment and bourgeois discipline. If everyone should work and no one should buy and use the products of industry, there would soon be no work to do and the whole system would collapse.

Therefore it is not only good but essential to arouse in people the desire for goods. This resulted in the introduction of the pleasure principle as a dynamic into bourgeois society in opposition to the original Calvinistic and early bourgeois principle of work with its ascetic character. To put it in a formula, one can say that private vices are public goods. (353)

This echoed in my head when I stumbled onto "The Serious People's Reasoning and Speech with the World's Teachers and Professors", one of the works collected in Volume I of the Doctrinal Books in Fox's Works. (It's available online from Earlham.) Fox seems in part to be addressing 17th century proponents of trickle-down economics, who would suggest that their vices in fact support people who would otherwise be poor:

The priests and professors, and the world's table talk, is "...the Quakers, like a company of fools and novices, cry against us, and say we are all daubed about and dressed with pride: how must the poor live if we must not wear their lace? and gold and silver, and ribands on our backs?"

"Ay, but," saith the serious people, "are not thou burthened with all this garb upon thy back, and this vanity?... and if you say how should the poor live if you do not wear that; give them all that money which you bestow upon all that gorgeous attire, and needless things, to nourish them, that they may live without making vanities, and needless things, and costly attire for you, and through that you will live, and they will live both..."

The priests and professors of the world say, "These fools, these Quakers, cannot endure to see us with two or three rings upon our fingers, nor jewels in our ears, nor bracelets about our necks... how should poor people live if we should not wear them?"

Say the serious people, "All your gold rings, your cuffs, your great band-strings, your lace, your jewels, your bracelets, your gorgeous apparel, and attire, turn it all into money, and give it to the poor to buy them bread, and I will warrant you, that they and you will have all enough, and there will be no want amongst you, for you are always wanting..."

The teachers and professors of the world say, "The Quakers are offended at us, because our women have a dressing come down to the middle of their backs, and a great pair of cuffs upon their hands, and how must the poor people live if they should not do so?"

"The makers of these things," say the serious people, "let them make plain things, and do you wear plain things, and that money which you lay out on these costly things, give you to them; for who are you like in the scriptures? you are not like the christians, for what service is there is your wearing a bunch of ribands at your women's back?..." (194-197)

The main target of this piece is vanity, but Fox repeatedly destroys the claim that such vanities help the poor, arguing that while there is a place for the making and exchange of plain goods, the notion that luxury goods support the poor is repugnant.

(This also fits well with Fox's 1659 call for the houses of power to be given over to the poor.)

Quakers have a long history of profitable interactions with capitalism, even as captains of industry, but it's hard to reconcile the notion that private vices are public goods with "answering that of God in every man". And should be.

May 15, 2006

So why would people persecute Quakers, anyway?

I'm almost done with Paul Tillich's A History of Christian Thought, and had an unexpected encounter with Quakerism in a discussion of Friedrich Schleiermacher, an 18th- and 19th-century theologian:

The first radical and fundamental apologetic statement made by Schleiermacher is the following. The unity with God, participation in him, is not a matter of immortal life after death; it is not a matter of accepting a heavenly lawgiver; instead it is a matter of present participation in eternal life.

This is decisive. Here he follows the fourth Gospel. The classical German philosophers called this the true Gospel, not because they thought this Gospel contained, historically speaking, reliable reports about Jesus—very soon they learned this was not the case at all—but because the Gospel of John came closest to expressing principles which could overcome the conflict between rationalist and supernaturalism. This idea that eternal life is here and now, and not a continuation of life after death, is one of the main points they stressed. It is participation before time, in time, and after time, and that also means beyond time.

The same criticism turned against all mediators between God and man. The principle of identity and all mysticism were always very dangerous for the hierarchical systems, for priestly mediation between God and man. This was the case both in Catholicism and Protestantism. The Protestant Churches were just as hostile as the Roman Church was to the mystical groups, to the Quakers, for example, in whom the principle of identity was affirmed in some way. They were suspicious of mysticism because it offered men the possibility of immediate unity with the divine apart from the mediation of the church.

So Schleiermacher reacted against priests and authorities; they were not necessary, because everybody is called to become a priest and to be filled with the divine Spirit. From this point of view, you can understand the resistance of the church against all spirit-movements, against the movements in which the individual is immediate to God, and driven by the Spirit himself. You can also understand the reason for the subjection of the Spirit, wherever it appears, to the letter of the Bible. The Reformers who originally fought against the Roman Church in the power of the Spirit soon had great difficulties of their own in the struggle against the spirit-movements of the Reformation period. It is a good thing that there were countries like Great Britain, the Netherlands, and America to which these representatives could flee from the severe persecutions of both the Roman and Reformation Churches. (396)

Of course, Great Britain and Massachusetts both persecuted Quakers for much of the 17th century, and Quakers were viewed with suspicion for a long while by many more traditional Protestants and Catholics. In general, though, I think Tillich (or perhaps Schleiermacher) makes some clear points here which echo the early Quaker experience directly. This is why George Fox wanted to call people out of steeplehouses, and why he was (along with many others) beaten and imprisoned for it.

May 6, 2006

Rational, mystical, or both?

Earlier, I noted Paul Tillich's views on Quakerism losing its mystical edge. Later in A History of Christian Thought, Tillich looks at that issue again in a somewhat more positive light:

Rationalism and mysticism do not stand in contradiction to each other, as is so often thought. Both in Greek and modern culture rationalism is the daughter of mysticism. Rationalism developed out of the mystical experience of the "inner light" or "inner truth" in every human being. Reason emerged within us out of mystical experience, namely, the experience of the diving presence within us.

This can be seen most clearly in the Quaker movement. Quakerism in George Fox's time was an ecstatic, mystical movement, as were most of the radical movements of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Already in the second generation of Quakerism there developed a moral rationality from which have come the great moral principles of modern Quaker activities. There never was the feeling on the part of Quakers that their rational, pacifist, and in certain respects very bourgeois morality stood in conflict with their mystical experience of intuition. Therefore, it is useful to study the development of Quakerism in order to understand the relationship betwen mystical and rational inwardness. Both of them exist within our subjectivity.

The opposite of a theology of inwardness is the classical theology of the Reformers, namely, the theology of the Word of God which comes to us from the outside, stands over against us and judges us, so that we have to accept it on the authority of the revelatory experiences of the prophets and apostles. (315)

Earlier I worried that Tillich was suggesting that mysticism burns out and all that is left is rationality. Here he seems to be suggesting that the two can co-exist. For myself, I think they have to co-exist, and one without the other is too weak to stand against the claims of those who insist purely on authority.

May 5, 2006

Spirit and Scripture

I posted recently on early Quaker perspectives on Scripture. Here, for contrast, is Paul Tillich's description of the orthodox Protestant perspective:

What was the doctrine of the Bible in Orthodoxy? The Bible is attested in a threefold way:

  1. by external criteria, such as age, miracles, prophecy, martyrs, etc.;

  2. by internal criteria, such as style, sublime ideas, moral sanctity;

  3. by the testimony of the Holy Spirit

This testimony, however, gets another meaning. No longer does it have the Pauline meaning that we are the children of God ("The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God." Romans 8:16). Instead it became the testimony that the doctrines of the Holy Spirit are true and inspired by the Spirit. In place of the immediacy of the Spirit in the relationship of God and man, the Spirit witnesses to the authenticity of the Bible insofar as it is a document of the divine Spirit.

The difference is that if the Spirit tells you that you are children of God, this is an immediate experience, and there is no law involved in it at all. But if the Spirit testifies that the Bible contains true doctrines, the whole thing is brought out of the person-to-person relationship into an objective legal relationship. This is exactly what Orthodoxy did.

(A History of Christian Thought, 280, paragraph breaks added.)

I suspect that the largest distinctions between Quakerism and the surrounding Puritanism of its early days stem from that difference. Fox clearly saw the Spirit saying more about the Bible than just "YES". Even today, that difference continues, in my mind, to be a distinguishing feature of Quakerism as much as its practice of silent worship or its lack of formal sacraments.

May 1, 2006

The Inner Light, before Quakerism

As I continued through Paul Tillich's A History of Christian Thought, I ran into this passage during a discussion of thirteenth-century theology:

[The Franciscans said that] All knowledge is in some way rooted in the knowledge of the divine within us. There is a point of identity in our soul, and this point precedes every special act of knowledge. Or, we could say that every act of knowledge—about animals, plants, bodies, astronomy, mathematics—is implicitly religious. A mathematical proposition as well as a medical discovery is religious becuase it is possible only in the power of these ultimate principles which are the uncreated divine light in the human soul.

This is the famous doctrine of the inner light, which was also used by the sectarian movements and by all the mystics during the Middle Ages and the Reformation period, and which in the last analysis underlies even the rationalism of the Enlightenment. The rationalists were all philosophers of the inner light, even though this light later on became cut off from its divine ground. (185)

Tillich goes on to oppose this view to Thomas Aquinas, but it also echoes Tillich's earlier comments about the rationality that follows ecstatic movement. If the experience of that light as something explicitly divine is lost, it's relatively easy to move directly into a rationalist view.

For myself, I've always felt that rationalism was broken, missing key pieces to ground itself. The most I've been willing to let pure rationality do is establish probabilities, which are highly useful but deliberately limited. I've doubted for years that 'knowledge' is something we humans compose out of knowable facts. On reading this section of Tillich's history, I can see both why I've felt that way and why I find Quakerism so amenable. I'm drawn to that light and doubtful when I don't think the light is present. The 'divine ground' seems necessary to me, however hard hyper-rationalists try to keep it out.

April 22, 2006

Fixing the Spirit

I've been reading Paul Tillich's A History of Christian Thought. I'm not reading it to learn about Quakerism specifically, but every now and then Quakerism comes up. It's not always flattering, but it's certainly provocative. Take, for example, this passage from page 40:

The Montanists believed that they represented the period of the Paraclete [Holy Spirit], following the periods of the Father and the Son. The sectarian revolutionary movements in the church have generally made the same claim; they represent the age of the Spirit.

It happens, however, that when the attempt is made to fix the content of what the Spirit teaches, the result is extreme poverty. This happened, for example, to the Quakers after their initial ecstatic period. When the content is fixed it turns out that there is nothing new, or what is new is more or less some form of rational moralism. This happened to George Fox and his followers, and to all ecstatic sects. In the second generation, they become rational, moralistic, and legalistic; the ecstatic element disappears; not much remains that is creative compared to the classical period of apostolic Christianity.

Some of that isn't very friendly, or Friendly, yet there is some degree of truth to it, if not "extreme poverty". Quakerism has certainly changed since its earliest proclamations during the years of the English Civil War and the Restoration. Frederick Tolles' Meetinghouse and Countinghouse documents declining fervor in Philadelphia as Friends became more wrapped up in the world, though many returned to a more religious focus as they retreated from public life.

There are certainly people who gratefully view Quakerism as rational religion they can embrace despite their lack of interest in religious ecstasy, and who embrace silent meeting as a place of shared meditation more than worship.

And yet... there's definitely more still going on, and many Quakers who take the ecstatic side, the connection to the Spirit, very seriously, and not as a historic relic given only to the founders. Perhaps Quakers' general refusal to create easily documented and understood creeds - thereby not "fixing the content" - is part of why that aspect survives. Recent years have seen more interest in the ecstatic side of Fox and other early Quakers, especially as more complete versions of Fox's Journal have emerged to replace the somewhat rationalized version released by Fox's successors.

While I don't find Tillich's description adequate to describe the reasons I find Quakerism so compelling, it certainly provides a conversation starter that many Quakers may want to contemplate as a query, not an answer.