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?

December 19, 2007

Limits of the union

Immediately after describing deification, Ware adds two key clarifications. The first distinction makes clear that the Orthodox view of deification does not create many gods with equal standing to God:

The idea of deification must always be understood in the light of the distinction between God's essence and His energies. Union with God means union with the divine energies, not the divine essence: the Orthodox Church, while speaking of deification and union, rejects all forms of pantheism. (232)

This distinction is not one I've found in Fox's writings, though I've only begun to look for it specifically. Perhaps, though, this distinction is one that had never particularly been emphasized in the British Isles, or dismissed as a purely scholarly theological matter. Ware explains the distinction - and what it means for our ability to approach God - earlier in the chapter:

(1) God is absolutely transcendent. 'No single thing of all that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature or nearness to it.' (Gregory Palamas) This absolute transcendence Orthodoxy safeguards by its emphatic use of the 'way of negation', of 'apophatic' theology. Positive or 'cataphatic' theology - the 'way of affirmation' must always be balanced and corrected by the employment of negative language. Our positive statements about God - that He is good, wise, just, and so on - are true as far as they go, yet they cannot adequately describe the inner nature of the deity...

(2) God, although absolutely transcendent, is not cut off from the world which He has made. God is above and outside His creation, yet He also exists within it. As a much used Orthodox prayer put it, God is 'everywhere present and filling all things'. Orthodoxy therefore distinguishes between God's essence and His energies, thus safeguarding both divine transcendence and divine immanence: God's essence remains unapproachable, but His energies come down to us. God's energies, which are God himself, permeate all His creation, and we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light. Truly our God is a God who hides Himself, yet he is also a God who acts - the God of History, intervening directly in concrete situations. (208-9, emphasis in original)

God is here with us, we can partake of God's energies, and even become divine - but we cannot encounter God's essence directly. Christ's incarnation, of course, was a coming of God's essence to his creation, and that is why the faith is Christian specifically. This perspective, however, while recognizing that God is around us, available to us, capable of deifying us, also keeps us separate from God, partaking of the divine nature and becoming divine without becoming God.

Ware's next paragraph on deification provides more description of the limits this creates:

Closely related to this is another point of equal importance. The mystical union between God and humans is a true union, yet in this union Creator and creature do not become fused into a single being. Unlike the eastern religions which teach that humans are swallowed up in the deity, Orthodox mystical theology has always insisted that we humans, however closely linked to God, retain our full person integrity. The human person, when deified, remains distinct (though not separate) from God.

The mystery of the Trinity is a mystery of unity in diversity, and those who express the Trinity in themselves do not sacrifice their personal characteristics. When St. Maximus wrote 'God and those who are worthy of God have one and the same energy,' he did not means that the saints lose their free will, but that when deified they voluntarily and in love conform their will to the will of God. Nor does the human person, when 'it becomes god', cease to be human: 'We remain creatures while becoming god by grace, as Christ remained God when becoming man by the Incarnation.' The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a 'created god', a god by grace or by status. (232)

This seems to me to fill a gap in early Quaker conversations - taking the Trinity, which Quakers acknowledged, though briefly, as a foundation for explaining that the boundaries between God and humans is blurred, while also using it as a line. We can't join the Trinity ourselves, but we can partake in the joining of humans and the divine that Christ's incarnation demonstrates. It also fits well with the Biblical references Fox used.

To put it to a harder test, though, did early Quakers share that rough understanding, especially the boundary between the divinity that we can achieve and the divinity of God and Christ?

It may seem pretty clear to us today that George Fox and James Nayler remained humans, however tightly bonded to God they may have been, but it seems to have been unclear to their followers. At the same time, though, their actions in retrospect suggest that even if Fox and Nayler weren't certain of their distinct position as individuals in the period from 1652 to 1656, they were certainly very aware of it afterwards. Douglas Gwyn explores Nayler's testimony and that of his followers after they had re-enacted Christ's entry into Jerusalem in Naylor's entry into Bristol:

In his interrogations at Bristol and before Parliament, Nayler made it clear that he did not confuse the indwelling Christ with his own creaturely person. He explained that he had performed the sign by God's leading, which he could not refuse. As for the exalted language applied to him in the procession, he stated,

I do abhor that any honors due God should be given to me as I am a creature, but it pleased the Lord to set me up as a sign of the coming of the righteous one.... I was commanded by the power of the Lord to suffer it to be done to the outward man as a sign, but I abhor any honor as a creature.

Unfortunately, Nayler's own clarity did not speak for the thoughts and motives of those who had led him through the performance. Indeed, the testimony of his followers indicated real confusion between the sign and the person of James Nayler. The Strangers viewed Nayler as the "Prince of Peace." Dorcas Erbury testified that Nayler was "the only begotten Son of God," and that she "knew no other Jesus" and "no other Saviour." She also claimed that Nayler had raised her from the dead. Martha Simmonds was less blatant; she testified to "the seed born in him" but later added that "when the new life should be born in James Nayler, then he will be Jesus." (Douglas Gwyn, The Covenant Crucified, 167-8)

The testimony presented in the Quakerpedia entry on Nayler conveys rather less of a sense of separation, but his later writings seem to make clear that he no longer sees himself as Christ, if he ever did.

In Fox's case, it's somewhat more complicated. He never had a moment like Nayler's entry into Bristol, though his statements in other trials leave the question open. Again, though, his later actions suggest that whatever his position in 1652 to 1656, he could not in the end accept the many accolades of his followers, including phrases like "the first and the last", which he personally crossed out, with Margaret Fell likely removing more. His Journal, written from the later perspective, leaves us asking just how far he went.

It's hard to know just how much of early Quaker belief was lost in the aftermath of the Nayler trial and the continuing challenge of surviving in a Protestant world that was largely hostile to claims of direct inspiration. I do think, however, that there are still powerful echoes, a transforming (even deifying) Inner Light rather than a merely informing one.

In future posts, I'll take a look at how this perspective can suggest different meanings in early Quaker writings, and examine the Bible itself in this light.

October 3, 2006

Nayler's shift

I've written a few times of James Nayler's blasphemy trial being a moment - along with the Restoration of the Stuart kings - that led to changes from early Quakerism. I hadn't noticed, however, a passage in Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down that describes that change within James Nayler himself after his conviction and punishment:

Nayler himself in the depth of his humiliation rejected the support of 'many wild spirits, Ranters and such like', who refused to accept the hostile verdict of Friends. You have belied the Lord, Nayler told these Ranters in 1659, and said that 'sin and righteousness is all one to God', whom many Ranters openly deny. Their 'light answers' and 'mockings' 'have made heavy the burden of the meek and lowly, against whom you have sported.'

Nayler's experience, and still more his repentance, helped to restore a sense of sin to the Quaker movement. Nayler had believed that it was possible for a man to achieve Christ's perfection and perform Christ's works: his entry into Bristol was made in that spirit. But after his terrible punishment he was convinced that he had been in error, that 'the motions of sin did still work from the old ground and root'. So he rebuked his Ranter defenders:

do not say, All things are lawful, all things are pure, etc.; and so sit down and say you are redeemed and have right to all; but first pass through all things, one after another, as the light learneth you; and with a true measure see if you be from under the power of any. When you have proved this throughout all things, and found your freedom, then you may say, All things are lawful, and know what is expedient, and what edifies yourselves and others and the rest to reign over, without bondage thereto.

Nayler had the right to say that, arrived at through his great suffering and shame. ('I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship there with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth.') But those phrases, 'what is expedient', 'what edifies', closed the door on much that had been courageous and life-giving to the Quaker movement. (251-2)

Hill goes on to talk about the changes in the larger movement after Nayler, but it seems worthwhile to me to pause for a moment and think about Nayler's reflections on his own historic arc, from seeking and acting out perfection to a more doubtful position.

'With a true measure see if you be from under the power of any' is a difficult challenge, one easier to test for an individual among a group.

(Hill's book is unfortunately out of print but still available through libraries and used bookstores. Fortunately, Quaker Heritage Press is halfway through publishing a collection of Nayler's works.)