July 2, 2012

Experiencing odor

Once upon a time the world was full of fragrance, and fragrance was valued. The powerful had their rose gardens and their personal perfumers, while the poor made do with easier flowers and the scents of the world.

Not all smells were equally wonderful, as everyone acknowledged, but the roles of sewage, vomits, and skunks were treated as philosophical discussions complicated by the challenges of the widely-recognized use of musk in perfume and the gentler smells of pastures and barns.

The Perfumers' Guild had great power, dispensing fragrance to all once a week while their most devoted adherents gathered to focus exclusively on producing the strongest and best smells.

There were a few people who said they couldn't smell the difference, but no one trusted them. There were also a few very sad people who were surrounded by wonderful fragrances but couldn't detect them, and suffered through a strange life of hiding their nasal dysfunction.

And, of course, there were a few people who overdosed, losing themselves completely in the fragrances and leaving behind the concerns of the world. There were heresies - the Cult of the Free Odor, which claimed that all the world had a smell, and that all the world should enjoy smells.

Over time, the abuses of the Perfumers' Guild and even dissension among the Perfumers over how best to approach the difficult subject of 'fragrance' grew doubts among the people. Those who hadn't had a great sense of smell came out and said so. Allergies were no longer a subject of scorn, and many even turned to habits - notably tobacco - that dulled their sense of smell.

Smells were difficult to explain. Opponents leaped on the common challenges of explaining exactly what a smell was like to another person, on subtleties that different people, even experts, might interpret differently. Sides formed, with different groups accusing each other of misinterpreting the meaning or even the value of smell.

Centuries of warfare, whole populations moving on the basis of fragrance, and what seemed like infinite argument finally subsided. There were still perfumers, still people gardening to produce their own fragrances and even essential oils, and a large group of people who considered fragrances useful medicinally.

There were still tensions, though. The "live and let live" attitudes were hard to maintain when proposals for adding congestants and histamines to public water supplies came up. Burning incense in public schools leds to lawsuits, and a series of broken bottles of essential oils across several cities led to riots.

My parents' families were fond of fragrance, but I grew up in a house that was free of it. We tried to preserve the best of what we'd learned, but without the constant smells and accompanying bells.

I, of course, found my way back into the rose garden. A quiet rose garden, but one full of fragrance I found difficult to explain to my family and friends.

April 29, 2012

A path away from Passivism, better not taken

I was surprised, about a decade ago, to find someone who proclaimed himself a Christian and a Biblical Literalist (his capital letters) - but who didn't think the Sermon on the Mount applied to him.

He'd been talking on a political forum about how the best thing to do to pacifists was punch them in the face, wait for them to get up, ask them if they were still pacifists, and if they said yes, punch them in the face again, then repeat. Yes. That was his gentle version.

I asked him how it squared with his proclaimed faith and the Sermon on the Mount that's generally front and center in Christian conversation, and he said, no, no, the Sermon on the Mount is "kingdom teaching". It's a nice idea now, but only tells you what the kingdom to come will look like. In the meantime, it doesn't apply to Christians.

I was puzzled, but over the next few years later I found more discussion of this approach, which seems to come from the dispensationalist interpretation of the Scofield Reference Bible. If you take the notes to the Sermon on the Mount in that Bible literally, you can reach that conclusion, exempting yourself from considering the Sermon on the Mount (and its parallels, and many other similar passages) obligatory.

The notes (which are now out of copyright) read:

Having announced the kingdom of heaven as "at hand," the King, in Mat 5.-7., declares the principles of the kingdom. The Sermon on the Mount has a twofold application:

  1. literally to the kingdom. In this sense it gives the divine constitution for the righteous government of the earth. Whenever the kingdom of heaven is established on earth it will be according to that constitution, which may be regarded as an explanation of the word "righteousness" as used by the prophets in describing the kingdom (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 Isaiah 11:5 ; 32:1 ; Daniel 9:24

    In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is pure law, and transfers the offence from the overt act to the motive. Matthew 5:21 Matthew 5:22 Matthew 5:27 Matthew 5:28 . Here lies the deeper reason why the Jews rejected the kingdom. They had reduced "righteousness" to mere ceremonialism, and the Old Testament idea of the kingdom to a mere affair of outward splendour and power. They were never rebuked for expecting a visible and powerful kingdom, but the words of the prophets should have prepared them to expect also that only the poor in spirit and the meek could share in it (e.g.) Isaiah 11:4 . The seventy-second Psalm, which was universally received by them as a description of the kingdom, was full of this.

    For these reasons, the Sermon on the Mount in its primary application gives neither the privilege nor the duty of the Church. These are found in the Epistles. Under the law of the kingdom, for example, no one may hope for forgiveness who has not first forgiven. Matthew 6:12 Matthew 6:14 Matthew 6:15 . Under grace the Christian is exhorted to forgive because he is already forgiven. Ephesians 4:30-32 .

  2. But there is a beautiful moral application to the Christian. It always remains true that the poor in spirit, rather than the proud, are blessed, and those who mourn because of their sins, and who are meek in the consciousness of them, will hunger and thirst after righteousness, and hungering, will be filled. The merciful are "blessed," the pure in heart do "see God." These principles fundamentally reappear in the teaching of the Epistles.

(line breaks and emphasis added)

Though this certainly strikes many of the components of the earlier description of the Passivist conversation, it has many other consequences. (American premillenial dispensationalists did, for a long time, find other reasons to stay out of activism beyond what they considered strictly religious, but returned as a force in the political world over the past several decades.)

I've never found Scofield's reading of the Bible to be anything close to literal or even to resemble plausible. I can't propose this approach as an acceptable path away from Passivism.

April 28, 2012

A Recipe for Christian Passivism

I've spent a lot of the last few years contemplating the difference between "pacifism" and what I call "passivism" - sometimes dismissively, sometimes appreciatively.

Passivism comes from a plausible reading of the New Testament. It gets used on defense:

"I don't do X because I'm imperfect and it's God's to change."

It also gets used on offense:

"You shouldn't do X because it's God's to change and who do think you are you imperfect person, you hypocrite."

It can bring arguments to a sudden end, as people who've deployed it for offense have frequently also used it for defense, and find criticism of this point personally, well, offensive.

How do you get here? It's not difficult to proof-text, even just from the Sermon on the Mount. Citations are from Matthew, in the King James Version. (I cite the KJV because it's a translation whose creators' biases run largely against my own.) I've bolded verses I've personally heard deployed to criticize other people or to justify inaction.

Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.(5:5)

Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. (5:7)

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. (5:9)

Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.

Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: (5:11-12)

I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing. (5:22-26)

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.

And whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain.

Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so?

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.(5:38-48)

Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? (6:25)

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.

Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. (6:34-35)

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. (7:1-5)

That's a large part of the Sermon on the Mount, much of which repeats in the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 17-49). Matthew 22:31 provides the oft-quoted "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."

It's not just Jesus' statements, but what he does. He regularly dines with the unjust (tax collectors, or publicans as the KJV calls them), bringing salvation to the house of Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-9) and following up with a parable (19:12-27) about how "unto every one which hath shall be given; and from him that hath not, even that he hath shall be taken away from him." (Luke 19:26).

Jesus heals the servant of a centurion, "a man under authority, having soldiers under me" (Matthew 8:9) and says of him, "I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel" (Matthew 8:10). He defends the woman who took "an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head", in a feisty conversation with his disciples:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper,

There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat.

But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste?

For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor.

When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.

For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always.

For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial.

Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.

Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests...

See where questioning Jesus about wasted wealth takes you?

When one of the disciples cuts off the ear of a servant of the high priest, come to take Jesus to his trial and crucifixion, Jesus immediately heals him. (Luke 22:50-51).

In Acts 8:26-40, Philip baptizes the Ethiopian, "an eunuch of great authority... who had the charge of all her treasure" without ever stopping to question that authority.

Paul has similar moments. Perhaps the most startling today is Colossians 3:22, "slaves, obey your masters," which the KJV broadens a bit to servants:

Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God;

The Letter to Titus reinforces that:

Exhort servants to be obedient unto their own masters, and to please them well in all things; not answering again;

Not purloining, but shewing all good fidelity; that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things. (Titus 2:9-10)

Another piece from Paul, Romans 13:1-7, is a classic text often used to argue that Christians should obey the civil authority regardless of what it does:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:

For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.

For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God's ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.

Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

There are others, but this list is, I think, most of the foundation.

After reading all this, can you still imagine daring to interfere with the workings of the world? (Yes, that's next.)

November 1, 2011

Are we, Quakers, ready?

The first place I encountered Quakers as more than obscure historical figures was in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I read it while looking for a college, and somehow wound up at a (culturally) Quaker college - which of course planted many more seeds that took me here.

The world Atwood describes is harsh, and Quakers play a role somewhat like their earlier Underground Railroad work - though with more severe penalties. A few excerpts illustrate her telling:

"Five members of the heretical sect of Quakers have been arrested," he says, smiling blandly, "and more arrests are anticipated."

Two of the Quakers appear onscreen, a man and a woman. They look terrified, but they're trying to preserve some dignity in front of the camera. The man has a large dark mark on his forehead; the woman's veil has been torn off, and her hair falls in strands over her face. Both of them are about fifty. (Section 14).

Why would Quakers be so dangerous? Well, they help people. The wrong people.

I also believe that they didn't catch him or catch up with him after all, that he made it... found his way to a nearby farmhouse, was allowed in, with suspicion at first, but then when they understood who he was, they were friendly, not the sort who would turn him in, perhaps they were Quakers, they will smuggle him inland... (Section 18)


"I chose them because they were a married couple, and those were safer than anyone single and especially anyone gay. Also I remembered the designation beside their name. Q, it said, which meant Quaker. We had the religious denominations marked...

"So these people let me in right away.... as soon as I was inside the door, I took off the headgear and told them who I was. They could have phoned the police or whatever, I know I was taking a chance... Anyway, they didn't. They gave me some clothes, a dress of hers, and burned the Aunt's outfit and the pass in their furnace; they knew that had to be done right away. They didn't like having me there, that much was clear, it made them very nervous. They had two little kids, both under seven. I could see their point.

"... Then the woman made me a sandwich and a cup of coffee and the man said he'd take me to another house. They hadn't risked phoning.

"The other house was Quakers too, and they were pay dirt, because they were a station on the Underground Femaleroad. After the first man left, they said they'd try to get me out of the country...." (Section 38)

Quakerism clearly isn't centered on smuggling people, and even as I watch various conflicts today I wouldn't claim this country resembles Atwood's Republic of Gilead.

Are we ready, though, to help those in need?


(Reading Atwood's The Year of the Flood, with a sort of Quaker-like group that sings Anglican-ish hymns, reminded me of her earlier Quaker discussion.)

January 4, 2009

Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism

Carole Dale Spencer manages, in Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, to describe early Quakerism as a largely coherent whole whose later schisms reflect emphasis on some components and the loss of others. While it's definitely an academic book, it is still a compelling read, and I hope this story will be told widely in more accessible forms over the years to come.

Before continuing with the review, I should note that Spencer plays to practically every bias and opinion I hold regarding Quakerism up through about the 1840s, and frequently thereafter. It's strange to me to be reading interpretive Quaker history, especially history that looks beyond the first generation, and not be spending a fair amount of time arguing with the author in my head. I find her telling of the early Quakers compelling, as well as her case for the Quietists as something better than a terrible decline. While I'm not as convinced by her doubts about Elias Hicks personally, her overall take on Hicksites makes sense to me, as do her doubts about how close Joseph John Gurney was to the heart of Quakerism. I think she's correct that John Wilbur was, as he claimed, much closer.

Where I start having doubts is in the second half of the 19th century, when the Holiness Movement per se comes through. There's a conversation worth having about forms of Quaker worship, hinted at here, but not really explored. I return pretty easily though, in her discussion of the 20th century, and overall I'm kind of dazed to agree with so much of a single telling of Quaker history, especially at this level of depth.

I suspect some potential readers will bounce off the word "Holiness", thinking that this is a plea for revival meetings. They shouldn't. Spencer's use of holiness certainly includes revival meetings (including, I think, the earliest Quaker gatherings), but it's a much richer use than that. Her use of holiness derives from the early Christian fathers, a group whose thought (as she points out) regularly parallels that of early Quakers. She emphasizes eight aspects, which she sees as integrated in early Quaker thought:

  • Scripture
  • Eschatology
  • Conversion
  • Charisma (Spirit)
  • Evangelism
  • Mysticism
  • Suffering
  • Perfection

Obviously, not all of those aspects resonate with all Quakers today, and the details of many of them changed over the course of 350 years, sometimes repeatedly. I remember being blown away by Apocalypse of the Word, largely because it was startling to me that eschatology was central to early Quakers. Talking about "perfection" seems to instantly raise alarms, whether with Quakers or with, well, practically anyone, but Spencer weaves it tightly into the story.

I'll be writing more about the book for a while to come - there are lots and lots of pieces worth pursuing, even pieces I hope someone will take up and turn into complete books of their own.

Yes, it's written academically, and can be very dense, but the content is excellent. My one real complaint (and maybe this is only my copy) is that the type seems excessively light. It's all there, but reading it seems trickier than it should be. The price ($41) isn't cheap, but fortunately it's not as astronomical as some academic publishing.

I can't recommend it as light reading, but if you're up for a detailed and valuably opinionated journey through Quaker history, it's an excellent telling.

(It's also worth noting that the latest issue of Quaker Religious Thought, #110, includes reviews by Stephen Angell, Margery Post Abbott, and Jim Le Shana, with replies from Spencer.)

December 31, 2008

Theology as Autobiography, Biography, and Hagiography

The title of this post is taken from the title of section 1.3 of Carole Dale Spencer's Holiness: The Soul of Quakerism, and I think it gets to some of why I'm concerned about the willingness to throw over Quaker history in favor of our own reductions.

She's writing in the context of methodology, how her book is going to proceed, but along the way she presents a very clear statement about how Quakerism explained itself over the centuries:

In early Quakerism theology was experiential and mystical (cogito Dei experimentalis), therefore developed and formulated most effectively as autobiography. Autobiography was supplemented by biography and then sanctified by hagiography....

Along with the Bible, hagiography and its related literature (rather than doctrinal treatises) have been the primary textual means by which the Christian faith has been transferred through generations. After the Bible, the lives of saints, their journals or spiritual diaries, and their devotional manuals have been the most formative influences in the teaching of holiness.....

More important than doctrinal formulation, and essential because Quakers were theoretically non-creedal, was the actual depiction of lives through which readers could understand and measure themselves through the model of earlier saints....

The most common form of teaching and Quakers' main reading material were the journals of its saints, George Fox's Journal being the prototype (Wright, 1932). These journals were written to describe and define a life of holiness and to teach by example. (4-5)

Arriving in an unprogrammed Quaker meeting with no sense of history (as I did twenty years ago), one can pick up the form easily enough, even the worshipful goal of that form. Testimonies are readily explained - the SPICE acronym may be a cliche, but for beginners it's readily comprehensible. And beyond that, there's the Inner Light, right? No creeds, so anything else?

Well, yes. The ahistorical version of Quakerism does have some popularity, but there's a lot more in all those dusty journals. The status of those journals - as tutorials for religious belief and not simply as verbatim history - also goes a long way toward explaining why Quakers treated their history in ways that make contemporary historians shake their heads.

I wonder, though, whether this approach to transmitting religious experience can hold up - is holding up - in the current state of the world. This isn't a uniquely current problem, as I think John Wilbur faced similar challenges in his battles with the Gurneyite Orthodox. It seems, though, that the way we read (and the amount we read, and so on) keeps changing.

Handing a copy of George Fox's Journal (or even The Quaker Reader to new attenders probably isn't the best way to introduce them to the religion. Quakerism 101 classes at least provide a general overview, and hopefully encourage people to read and explore more deeply.

I worry that in many ways Quakerism - especially unprogrammed Quakerism - makes sense only in the context of a deeply literate society. The lack of liturgy and adornment means that there isn't a constant story told each Sunday, and creedlessness (and more or less lack of a catechism) leaves us needing to study Quaker experience. Studying Quaker experience is a long slow process. This makes it hard for newcomers and for people without the time to dedicate to that study, and can also make religion feel like homework.

I don't see any easy way around this, at least for those who see Quakerism as more than the simplified form and testimonies I described above. We'll have to take the hard road, and convince others that it's worthwhile.

September 24, 2008

Obama hung in effigy? Where?

I am so depressed to see that this happened at George Fox University of all places.

Whatever you think of of Quaker history, or how you want to phrase the metaphor, I'm sure George Fox is spinning rapidly in his grave right now.

(No, I don't think this means GFU is a bad place - it's just pretty startling.)

April 18, 2008

The Limits of History, II

Quaker history also presents a challenge to all of its modern tellers. Like the early Christians, early Quakers laid down their history after the initial flames had cooled, and re-told the stories in ways that reflected their comunity. We can't, however, see or hear what the early Christians were working with, while the early Quakers' original writings and edits of those writings are readily available to anyone who wants to take a look.

As John Nickalls put it in the Preface to his edition of the Journal of George Fox:

Thomas Ellwood worked on the instructions of the Second-day Morning Meeting, a committee of the Society of Friends in London, and in accord with the desire of Fox that his life and writings should be published. The Journal which Ellwood prepared was a composite work, presenting a continuous account of Fox's life in the form of an autobiography, in a more uniform, more polished, and more cautious style in many places than the various [manuscripts] which have been mentioned.

Some passages he considerably abbreviated. Ellwood worked with more freedom than would to-day be approved, putting passages into autobiographical form from other sources, but he was an able and a careful editor. He also adapted or omitted many of Fox's own vigorous phrases, his picturesque details his apparent overvaluation of praise, claims to psychic powers, and matter thought liable to cause political or theological protest, besides doubtful or unverifiable statements. (xxxix-xl)

It's hard to imagine a description like that appended to one of the Gospels, after all. (It would of course be interesting if they noted striking miracles out.) Knowing that Fox went through his letters and struck out language addressed to him that he thought was too exalted doesn't help the historical picture either.

Emphasizing the priorities set by professional history, though, doesn't particularly meet the needs of either religion or storytelling. A detailed, but deliberately scholarly biography of George Fox exists, generally free of hagiography. It attempts "to rescue Fox from poorly grounded, usually uncritical, and theologically oriented works." Although I cite it regularly, and strongly recommend reading it, it always feels to me like it's missing something, the spark that makes Fox compelling to his peers. Sure, Fox has (or borrows) some good ideas, and builds a following. But why exactly were people so convinced, so willing to follow that message into the prisons and to death?

Somehow, it's not there, despite the excellent research, despite the helpful footnotes. I don't think that lack is Larry Ingle's fault - it's just not really compatible with the approach of the book. (His earlier Quakers in Conflict has it easier with these problems, as the conflict built into the story brings its own fascination.)

It's possible, though, to reach a balance, if not necessarily one that will make professional historians cheer. I think, for instance, that William Braithwaite managed that in his early twentieth-century history, which had much of the same scholarly apparatus but was still told from a deliberately Quaker perspective, a Quaker talking mostly to other Quakers looking back on a shared history.

More recently, I think Doug Gwyn generally gets it right. He got scolded a bit by Larry Ingle for Apocalypse of the Word's reaching for a "Quaker Holy Grail" and mixing up opinions from different periods of Fox's life. Gwyn's later work more carefully follows a timeline, but it still keeps the excitement and the willingness to challenge its readers that his first book offered.

History written by humans is never going to be "objective", somehow written from a genuinely outsider stance with clean access to everything that happened. Not all of the information survives, and even the information that does survive will be filtered, arranged, assembled, polished, and transformed into a story rather than a collection of parts.

There are a lot of different stories we can tell about the early Quakers. I worry that a lot of what passes for Quaker history in conversation is more like Quaker sound-bites, brief tales told to illustrate particular points. I'd like to see more attention given to the complete stories. We need to remember, though, that Quaker history is part of Quakerism, and not very usefully separable from that religious context. It is, of course, a part of many things, as Christopher Hill reminds us in his work on the 17th century, but I can't imagine insisting on a clean separation between the light that created Quakerism and the light that today still illuminates it.

Like the early Christians, the early Quakers weren't simply documenting facts, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it. We need to consider that change when we read Quaker history.

April 5, 2008

The Limits of History, I

Way back when, I wrote a couple of pieces on Albert Schweitzer, promising to write more about how his The Quest of the Historical Jesus related to early Quaker history and its relevance for today.

Like many of my promises here, I never got around to writing that. Nonetheless, it raised a set of questions that keep echoing in my head, especially as I gear up to write more about Seekers Found.

Unable to focus on just one book, though, I re-opened The Hauerwas Reader, a collection of Stanley Hauerwas' work that was so powerful that at one point I looked around, amazed that airport security had let me carry it on to a plane. And what did I find?

It is not my intention to settle to what extent we can know "the real Jesus." I am quite content to assume that the Jesus we have in Scripture is the Jesus of the early church. Even more important, I want to maintain that it cannot or should not be otherwise, since the very demands Jesus placed on his followers means he cannot be known abstracted from the disciples' response.

The historical fact that we learn who Jesus is only as he is reflected through the eyes of his followers, a fact that has driven many to despair because it seems that they cannot know the real Jesus, is in fact a theological necessity. For the "real Jesus" did not come to leave us unchanged, but rather to transform us to be worthy members of the community of the new age.

It is a startling fact, so obvious that its significance is missed time and time again, that when the early Christians first began to witness the significance of Jesus for their lives they necessarily resorted to a telling of his life.

Their "Christology" did not consist first in claims about Jesus' ontological status, though such claims were made; their Christology was not limited to assessing the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection, though certainly these were attributed great significance; rather, their "Christology," if it can be called that, showed the story of Jesus as absolutely essential for depicting the kind of kingdom that they now though possible through his life, death, and resurrection.

Therefore, though Jesus did not call attention to himself, the early Christians rightly saw that what Jesus came to proclaim, the kingdom of God as a present and future reality, could be grasped only by recognizing how Jesus exemplified in his life the standards of that kingdom.

But the situation is even more complex. The form of the Gospels as stories of a life are meant not only to display that life, but to train us to situate our lives in relation to that life. For it was assumed by the churches that gave us the Gospels that we cannot know who Jesus is and what he stands for without learning to be his followers. Hence the ironic form of Mark, which begins by announcing to the reader this is the "good news about Jesus, the annointed one, the son of God," but in depicting the disciples shows how difficult it is to understand the significance of that news.

You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life. His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of kingdom Jesus brings. In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged. Only by learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of messiah this Jesus is. (118-9, paragraph breaks added, originally from The Peaceable Kingdom.)

Theologically, this is a powerful statement, but seen from a modern historical perspective, it's earth-shattering. Historians have given up on most of their dreams of purely objective history, but this telling moves well beyond practices that acknowledge bias to what many would argue is sheer propaganda.

But can the story really be told in any other way, by people who believe it? I have to agree with Hauerwas that the authors of the Gospels weren't writing Christological treatises, but telling a story they believed would change - should change - those who heard it.

I think that dynamic, on a smaller scale, may also be operating in the narratives of early Quakerism, though there is more explicit "Christology" of various kinds there. Some people find the stories life-changing, and tell them in ways meant to change the listener, while others reject that style of story-telling all together. As with Christianity broadly, they may even reject the foundations of the story itself, while enjoying the cultural and spiritual benefits they believe it helped to create.

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 28, 2007

Sanctification, deification, and Quakers old and new

The responses to my last piece on deification make me think that it's time to back up a bit, and look at how and why I came to be telling this story. It's been a long journey, and the individual pieces lack some of the background that makes the story as a whole fit together.

I first started writing about gradual sanctification - as distinct from salvation followed by sanctification - last August, citing this from Thomas Hamm:

For generations, Friends had embraced a view of the nature of religious life that was peculiar to them. In this vision, all people possessed a certain divine seed or Light. Obedience to this Light and to other revelations from God, through Scripture and directly, nurtured it and caused it to grow. As it grew, it gradually sanctified the believer. Ultimately, it would bring the believer to a state of holiness that justified and fitted him or her for heaven. Thus in Quaker eyes, justification and sanctification were inseparable and gradual.

But Gurney, like many contemporary non-Quaker evangelicals, argued that Friends had this wrong.... Justification, or salvation, came through a simple act of faith, believing in the efficacy of the Atoning Blood of Christ shed on the Cross. Thus it could come instantaneously. Sanctification followed as a second experience, also the fruit of faith, but gradually, probably lifelong after conversion. (56)

The Quaker gradualist view seems closer to the Orthodox views I've been discussing, even before we get to the question of deification or sanctification. Right after posting that piece on sanctification, though, I posted this lengthy piece of Romans 8:

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
3 For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh:
4 That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
5 For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.
6 For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.
8 So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.
10 And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
11 But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.

12 Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh.
13 For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.
14 For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God.
15 For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father.
16 The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God:
17 And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.
18 For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.
19 For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.

20 For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope,
21 Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
22 For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
23 And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body.
24 For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for?
25 But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.
26 Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
27 And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.
28 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

I've bolded the text where it seems to clearly point to humans becoming one with the spirit, "children of God", "joint-heirs with Christ" - language that people read regularly but don't necessarily take literally. (Update: I forgot to add a link to a collection of similar citations from the New Testament.)

Early Quakers did, I think, take these sections very literally. (Given that much of Fox's prose is an extended selection and repetition of King James Bible quotes, assembled to emphasize particular themes, it's not surprising.) Calling themselves "Children of Light", Quakers were regularly accused by their contemporaries of confusing themselves with God, and it seems clear (from both Larry Ingle's writing and Richard Bailey's), that it wasn't just James Nayler receiving Christ-like tribute from his followers:

For example, much of Thomas Holme's exalted language toward Fox has been so severely edited (and literally ripped from the record) that it cannot now be recovered. This occurred when Fox personally tampered with letters now contained in the Swarthmore Manuscripts. He made deletions with broad ink strokes and made corrections indisputably in his own hand. He struck out extravagant phrases of adoration and substituted more moderate ones. In places where whole patches were torn from the record (probably at a later date by Margaret Fell), the jagged edges still revealing the broad ink crossings out. (New Light, 113)

My current best guess is that George Fox's message that "Christ is come to teach his people himself" was not just apocalyptic, but about the nature of salvation: Christ comes not just as a visitor, but as a permanent and growing part of us. This message cuts through the despair of Puritans questioning whether or not they were elected by a distant God, energizes groups of people who were drifting in mystical directions anyway, and describes a partnership between God and humans that fits well with the often titanic internal struggles of those coming to be with God.

While it's hard - perhaps impossible - to prove conclusively (or at least to the satisfaction of historians) that this was the core message of early Quakerism, the fire that fueled its stupendous rise and its followers' willingness to suffer persecution, it can explain a lot. It certainly explains the regular accusations by the persecutors that the Quakers blurred the boundaries between God and humans, it explains why the Inner Light is something much more powerful than mere human conscience, and it explains why, even after early Quakers toned themselves down, they still found themselves in a theological position very different from most of the Protestant world.

Eventually I think I'll have to go look at the original manuscripts. Larry Ingle reported that he had to cut the pages on a huge number of previously unread pamphlets, and it seems clear that even the censored correspondence can teach about when and where these dangerous sentiments were uttered. I'm also very curious to see what Quaker Heritage Press has in its Works of James Nayler, as they're attempting to be more complete than earlier editions. (They seem to have found only a little censorship, though some may be connected to these questions.)

Finally, there's an important question that I haven't previously attempted to answer. Why does this matter? It's an interesting football for historians, but does it have immediate relevance for modern Quakerism?

The "Inner Light" has remained at the heart of most varieties of Quakerism, and its transforming power is the story we tell. Even though the Light is found inside of us, though, many descriptions still hold it merely as a guide to something distant. Even though the Light is a guide to something more than us, many descriptions hold it merely as a part of us. The deification story, despite the overwhelming name, manages to bring both of those stories together. The Light is inside of us, a connection to God that is itself divine, uniting us with God.

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.

August 21, 2007

Inner Dark

(I started writing this in April, but somehow ground to a stall, even though the ideas keep swirling. I don't think the ideas here are complete, but they're shareable, perhaps ingredients on which someone else can build.)

Theologically, Quakers are probably best known for their idea of Inner Light (or Inward Light), unmediated (though not necessarily easy!) contact with God, Christ, the Holy Spirit. The Light is Quakerism's positive message, a saving grace that heals, leads, improves, and grants the strength to achieve what might otherwise seem impossible.

At the same time, this Inner Light isn't the same as us. The Inner Light is not our personality or our desires and passions. We find it inside, but it isn't a part of us. For early Quakers, it was a help that might allow us to escape the evils in ourselves, as George Fox wrote in his Journal:

The Lord doth show unto a man his thoughts, and discovereth all the secret workings in man. A man may be brought to see all his evil thoughts and running mind and vain imaginations, and may strive to keep them down, and to keep his mind in, but cannot overcome them nor keep his mind within the Lord.

Now in this state and condition, submit to the spirit of the Lord, that shows them, and that will bring them to wait upon the Lord, and he that hath discovered them will destroy them.

Therefore stand in the faith of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the author of the true faith, and mind him; for he will discover the root of lusts, and evil thoughts, and vain imaginations, and how they are begotten, conceived, and bred, and then how they are brought forth, and how every evil member doth work. He will discover every principle from its own nature and root.

Continue reading "Inner Dark" »

May 3, 2007

God as (not) government

Angelika (my fiancée, aka Presbyterian Girlfriend) and I were talking yesterday about the demanding views people have about God. For example:

  • If God is so great and loving, why doesn't He fix all the poverty and suffering in the world?

  • If God is so understanding, why does He set up all of these difficult rules that humans can't obey?

  • God encourages us to be humble while demanding sacrifice and praise for himself. Who is this crazy egotist?

All of these seem like good questions - if we're thinking of God as an all-knowing all-powerful ruler: a very strong government. These questions assume that God's morality is our morality, that God's reason is our reason.

I used to ask all of these questions when I was on the outside of religion looking in, wondering how it was possible for people to give up their expectations of what was right and just in order to accomodate a powerful God who didn't seem to do much for His followers.

On top of that, a lot of what the Christian right pushes seems to encourage these kinds of questions. Insisting that the Ten Commandments appear everywhere possible that someone might make government decisions does tend to conflate government and religion, for example.

From the inside looking out, none of these questions quite make sense. God isn't a fascist regime or a democracy, a monarchy or an oligarchy. God is God, accessible but not comprehensible. Looking at these questions again, it seems that they might better be asked:

  • Why did God grant humans the privilege of making our own choices with or without help? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? And how can I encourage others to make better choices?

  • How can I learn from God to live a better life?

  • How could someone have a relationship with God and not want to worship?

Those are still difficult questions, but very very different.

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.

February 24, 2007

Under the Banner of Heaven

What does a Jon Krakauer book that combines Mormon history with a true-crime murder story have to do with Quakerism?

Joseph Smith (the founder of Mormonism) and George Fox were very different people, though both were convinced that God spoke to them, leading them in a better direction. Fox argued that revelation from God was possible for everyone who sought it, while Smith was more cautious, arguing that continuing revelation from God was restricted to a much smaller group of prophets. Krakauer describes how this reflected a change from the earliest doctrine:

In the beginning, Joseph Smith had emphasized the importance of personal revelations for everyone. Denigrating the established churches of the day, which were far more inclined to filter the word of God through institutional hierarchies, he instructed Mormons to seek direct "impressions from the Lord," which should guide them in every aspect of their lives.... With everyone receiving revelations, the prophet stood to lose control of his followers.

Joseph acted fast to resolve this dilemma by announcing in 1830 - the same year the Mormon Church was incorporated - that God had given him another revelation: "No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jr." But the genie was already out of the bottle. Joseph had taught and encouraged his Saints to receive personal revelations, and the concept proved to be immediately popular. (78-9)

Smith himself claimed divine origins for the Book of Mormon, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints also records ongoing revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants book, which includes revelations to Smith and to his successors as Mormon leaders. The most controversial of the official revelations endorsed polygamy, something the official Church has long since rejected.

The second focus of Under the Banner of Heaven is a group of apostates from the main Mormon church, whose path, though they claim it was inspired by divine revelation, led them to murder. (I should note that Mormon critics of the book are appalled by Krakauer's linking the murders to Mormon history and also by his telling of that history.) They find their claims to divine inspiration through the work of Prophet Onias, who founds a School of the Prophets:

there was one aspect of Onias's School of the Prophets that set him apart from the leaders of other polygamist sects: he instructed his followers how to receive divine revelations. Indeed, teaching this sacred art - which had been widely practiced by Mormons in Joseph's day yet all but abandoned by the modern Church - was the school's main thrust. Onias intended to restore the gift of revelation by teaching twentieth-century Saints how to hear the "still small voice" of God, which, as Joseph explained in Section 85 of the Doctrine and Covenants, "whispereth through and pierceth all things, and often times it maketh my bones to quake." (85)

Onias taught a group of students about prophecy, but unfortunately a revelation came out as:

Thus Saith the lord unto My servants the Prophets. It is My will and commandment that ye remove the following individuals in order that My work might go forward. For they have truly become obstacles in My path and I will not allow My work to be stopped. First thy brother's wife Brenda and her baby, then Chloe Low, then Richard Stowe. And it is My will that they be removed in rapid succession and that an example be made of them in order that others might seen the fate of those who fight against the true Saints of God. And it is My will that this matter be taken care of as soon as possible and I will prepare a way for My instrument to be delivered and instructions be given unto my servant Todd. And it is My will that he show great care in his duties for I have raised him up and prepared him for this important work and is he not like unto My servant Porter Rockwell[?] And great blessing await if if he will do My Will, for I am the Lord thy God and have control over all things. Be still and know that I am with thee. Even so Amen. (165-6)

When Ron Lafferty showed his revelation to his brother Dan, Dan told him "Well, I can see why you're concerned, as well you should be... all I can say is make sure it's from God. You don't want to act on commandments that are not from God, but at the same time you don't want to offend God by refusing to do his work." (166)

When they presented this revelation to the other members of the School of the Prophets, everyone except the Laffertys and their brother voted it down, as not a real revelation. The Laffertys left the School and later carried out two of the 'removals'. They appear to still believe they were right.

Under the Banner of Heaven has much more detail on that terrible story, but for now I'd like to use this 'revelation' to examine some key safeguards Quakerism has maintained to avoid such situations.

A very basic safeguard is some key phrasing in the Declaration of 1660, which states unequivocally:

That the Spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil, and again to move unto it; and we certainly know, and testify to the world, that the Spirit of Christ, which leads us into all truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.

If later Quakers accept this statement, and receive a leading that counters it, they have at least to spend time contemplating whether their leading is true or whether the shared leading of the early Quakers is true. Even if they haven't read the Declaration, they'll likely have a sense that their leading conflicts with centuries of tradition. (Thanks to Zach for pointing out the language of the Declaration in a very different context.)

It's certainly possible for Quakers to breach that pacifist barrier, as the Free Quakers did. Pacifism provides a firewall, but it isn't the only test, and there are, of course, many possible things people might wrongly interpret as leadings that would cause harm short of violence.

While Quakerism broadly continues the quest for the Light, for direct contact between worshipper and worshipped, a community can better resolve true leadings from false than an individual. Meeting discipline is one aspect of this, and clearness committees are another. Quakers also shifted from early openness to all revelation to a more cautious model, but left the practice open to all, subject to consideration with other Quakers.

George Fox and other early Quakers were wise, I think, in that they left they left the core of their teaching intact: "Christ has come to teach his people himself," "that of God in them all" to speak to them and help them find the path. Revelation, leadings, and prophecy are available to everyone - but in a context that makes it very hard for leadings like Ron Lafferty's to come through. Quaker process may be notorious for its slowness, but the approach of a Quaker meeting requires participants to think about themselves, their role, and the object of the discussion in a different way than people voting. That holds true perhaps especially when they don't get what they want.

Is it possible that a 'renegade Quaker' will think they have received violent leadings, share them with others but reject their concerns, and act on the leadings? Certainly. It may have already happened. (Let me know in comments, please, though I hope not.) I suspect the odds of it happening are dramatically lowered, however, by the structures Quakers have built for testing revelations, for sharing them and figuring out where they come from and what they mean.

(It's also interesting to note that one church descended from early Mormonism, the Community of Christ, emphasizes peace and is non-liturgical. It also has continued prophecy and a Doctrine and Covenants updated by Presidents of the church in consultation with a review process by the World Conference of the church.)

December 10, 2006

Mythos and logos

I gave Karen Armstrong's A History of God a mixed review, but one of her messages, both there and in her later The Battle for God, strikes me as especially important as we try to figure out our (and the world's) relationships to God today: the importance of both mythos and logos:

Myth was regarded as primary; it was concerned with what was thought to be timeless and constant in our existence. Myth looked back to the origins of life, to the foundations of culture, and to the deepest levels of the human mind. Myth was not concerned with practical matters, but with meaning. Unless we find some significance in this world, we mortal men and women fall very easily into despair. The mythos of a society provided people with a context that made sense of their day-to-day lives; it directed their attention to the eternal and the universal. It was also rooted in what we would call the unconscious mind...

To ask whether the Exodus from Egypt took place exactly as recounted in the Bible or to demand historical and scientific evidence to prove that it is factually true is to mistake the purpose of this story. It is to confuse mythos with logos.

Logos was equally important. Logos was the rational, pragmatic, and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world. We may have lost the sense of mythos in the West today, but we are very familiar with logos, which is the basis of our society. Unlike myth, logos must relate exactly to facts and correspond to external realities if it is to be effective. It must work efficiently in the mundane world. We use this logical, discursive reasoning when we have to make things happen, get something done, or persuade other people to adopt a particular course of action. Logos is practical. Unlike myth, which looks back to the beginnings and to the foundations, logos forges ahead and tries to find something new: to elaborate on old insights, achieve a greater control over our environment, discover something fresh, and invent something novel. (The Battle for God, xv-xvii)

(Please note that at least from my perspective, this is a different use of logos than is used in the first chapter of the Book of John.)

I think it's fair to argue that American culture is utterly biased toward the logos. Even much of the mystical activity out there seems 'explained' by reference to literalist interpretations of the Bible, and the hardcore rationalists are on the attack again - perhaps provoked by what they see as the excesses of the religious, or perhaps attempting to get past problems of their own. People in need of a stronger title for their religious work often call it "scientific" or "literal", words that garner their strength from the logos, not the mythos.

Reading this gave me loud echoes of Chuck Fager's essay in George Fox's Legacy: Friends for 350 Years. He chronicles a mix of "the Psychic, the Mystic, and the Skeptic," and cites Jesse Herman Holmes, professor of philosophy at Swarthmore College and active liberal Friend:

Indeed, Holmes declared that liberal Quakerism is "able to offer a scientific age a genuinely scientific theology on which to base a genuinely Christian life. We have no occasion for pride in this... But we call our faith to the attention of many who are tired of superstitious observances and crude theologies - who long for an intelligent and intelligible religion."

In a similar vein, Fager points to Holmes' Letter to the Scientifically Minded, which Fager describes as "a thoroughly humanist manifesto, in which God was reduced to little more than a nice idea held by the right-thinking, highly-educated, middle-class white readers it was addressed to."

Fortunately that isn't the end of the story, and Fager talks about later thinkers - Howard Brinton, Hugh Barbour, Lewis Benson, and Henry Cadbury - who helped bring liberal Quakerism back from the simple rationalism it seemed headed toward in the 1920s, returning more mythos.

(Rufus Jones, often cast as the dangerous liberal, remember, was an Orthodox Quaker, who did relatively little with FGC. I'd be curious what he and Holmes thought about each other.)

What provoked all this rambling?

A week ago, there was an Intergenerational Meeting before the regular Ithaca Meeting for Worship. One of the exercises was breathing deeply - not just for additional oxygen or to establish a rhythm, but because the air we breathe is shared with everyone else, filled with spirit.

Whenever I breathe deeply, or think about breathing, I see the classic diagrams of the lungs: trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli, with blood vessels carrying oxygen-poor blood in and oxygen-rich blood out.

Thinking of this breathing as a different kind of exercise, however, changed the way I perceive my lungs. Rather than being a system for getting me oxygen, they're a system that connects me to the world, to other people, to all kinds of things beyond me. Instead of red alveoli and mucus, it seemed (and felt like) my lungs had a soft white glow.

I suspect some rationalist reading the last paragraph will be left giggling, wondering how anyone could fall for that kind of nonsense when it's all about oxygen and carbon dioxide, though maybe an environmentalist rationalist would have hung in there until I hit the soft glow.

If you're giggling, you're welcome to continue giggling, but you'll also get some of my (likely unwelcome) pity with that. It's hard - perhaps even impossible - to explain to a strict rationalist why rationalism is by its very nature incomplete. I'm grateful that Quakerism generally accepts the proof of that by experience rather than by theological calculation.

Update: Hmmm... Slacktivist also just posted a new entry with a similar title, though different content. Coincidence, I guess.

November 26, 2006

Secret truths, accessible to those who seek

The tradition / scripture / spirit distinctions I wrote about earlier intersect with another basic division in religious writing: things that can be explained and understood and things that cannot.

In A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes briefly about Basil of Caesarea, and his discussion of matters more about the relationship with God than the relationships among humans:

Basil expressed [Aristotle's] insight in a Christian sense when he distingushed between dogma and kerygma. Both kinds of Christian teaching were essential to religion. Kerygma was the public teaching of the Church, based on the scriptures. Dogma, however, represented the deeper meaning of biblical truth, which could only be apprehended through religious experience and expressed in symbolic form. Besides the clear message of the Gospels, a secret or esoteric tradition had been handed down "in a mystery" from the apostles; this had been a "private and secret teaching,"

which our holy fathers have preserved in a silence that prevents anxiety and curiosity... so as to safeguard by this silence the sacred character of the mystery. The uninitiated are not permitted to behold these things: their meaning is not to be divulged by writing it down.

Behind the liturgical symbols and the lucid teachings of Jesus, there was a secret dogma which represented a more developed understanding of the faith.

A distinction between esoteric and exoteric truth will be extremely important in the history of God. It was not to be confined to Greek Christians, but Jews and Muslims would also develop an esoteric tradition. The idea of a "secret" doctrine was not to shut people out. Basil was not talking about an early form of Freemasonry. He was simply calling attention to the fact that not all religious truth was capable of being expressed and defined clearly and logically. Some religious insights had an inner resonance that could only be apprehended by each individual in his own time during what Plato had called theoria, contemplation. Since all religion was directed toward an ineffable reality that lay beyond normal concepts and categories, speech was limiting and confusing. If they did not "see" these truths with the eye of the spirit, people who were not yet very experienced could get quite the wrong idea.(114)

While Basil was writing about liturgy, and non-scriptural practices like making the sign of the cross, Quakers seem to have similar issues when describing exactly what happens during a Quaker meeting, how people feel led to speak, and what exactly it is that we're all waiting to experience. Putting it into words often confuses more than it communicates, even among those worshipping in the same room.

For all the simplicity of the form of Quaker worship, it retains the complexity and the same challenges as liturgical worship that come up any time someone asks "why?" While there are people who describe Meeting as simply a quiet time to think and reflect, worship is much more than thinking, with results that don't fit into the simple boxes we use to describe ordinary tasks.

(Armstrong's translation of Basil is slightly different from (a likely old) one I found online, De Spiritu Sanctu, on the unwritten laws of the church, which both extends the mystery to scripture and sounds more concerned about creating curiosity:

Moses was wise enough to know that contempt stretches to the trite and to the obvious, while a keen interest is naturally associated with the unusual and the unfamiliar. In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity. "Dogma" and "Kerygma" are two distinct things; the former is observed in silence; the latter is proclaimed to all the world. One form of this silence is the obscurity employed in Scripture, which makes the meaning of "dogmas" difficult to be understood for the very advantage of the reader.)

Armstrong then turns to Gregory of Nyssa, Basil's younger brother, for more explanation of these difficulties:

As Gregory of Nyssa said, every concept of God is a mere simulacrum, a false likeness, an idol; it could not reveal God himself. Christians must be like Abraham, who, in Gregory's version of his life, laid aside all ideas about God and took hold of a faith which was "unmixed and pure of any concept." In his Life of Moses, Gregory insisted that "the true vision and the knowledge of what we seek consists precisely in not seeing, in an awareness that our goal transcends all knowledge and is everywhere cut off from us by the darkness of incomprehensibility." We cannot "see" God intellectually, but if we let ourselves be enveloped in the cloud that descended from Mount Sinai, we will feel his presence. (115)

For many years I interpreted my inability to '"see" God intellectually' as a barrier to faith, a problem keeping me from integrating God with my life. In my readings I regarded philosophers' efforts to include God as a sign of weakness, a "Hail Mary pass" that couldn't save their work. As I read more and more about religion, and especially religious history, it became clearer and clearer that reading about religion wasn't actually going to bring me closer to God.

Fortunately, all that reading did lead me to realize that I was on the wrong path, and that I wouldn't find God in a book. Feeling God's presence isn't about reading and understanding words, but rather about being enveloped, coming together with God in ways I can't easily describe, and don't understand in the ways I understand anything else.

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.)

A stable definition of Quakerism

Just before I left for vacation, Marshall Massey gave me something to contemplate:

As I see it, the world surrounding Quakerism changed, from the time of the Puritan upheavals to the Toleration Act 1689, and what Quakers did had to change accordingly. But this did not mean that Quakerism itself changed.

It would be convenient to discuss Quakerism as something stable, something that can be described once and reliably repeated. It is possible to develop a definition of Quakerism that holds from the beginning of Fox's ministry to the end of his life, and perhaps even to the present. William Penn gave it a try in 1696 in Primitive Christianity Revived:

That which the people call'd Quakers lay down, as a Main Fundamental in Religion, is this, That God, through Christ, hath placed a Principle in every Man, to inform him of his Duty, and to enable him to do it; and that those that Live up to this Principle, are the People of God, and those that Live in Disobedience to it, are not God's People, whatever name they may bear, or Profession they may make of Religion. This is their Ancient, First, and Standing Testimony: With this they began, and this they bore, and do bear to the World. (Chapter 1)

Penn's definition does seem to hold from the origins of Quakerism, and holds for most Quakers today, though I'm sure there are exceptions. (Penn argued that his definition held from the origins of Christianity, a much broader conversation.)

That said, Penn's definition leaves out a tremendous collection of valuable aspects that are clearly Quaker as well, and includes many others. Penn's definition taken alone might well include many of the Spiritual Franciscans, the Familists, the Grindletonians, and a wide variety of other groups and individuals past and present.

It's possible to look for other definitions that define more of Quakerism, but as I'll write next time, many of Quakerism's distinctive features, including Meeting discipline and the Peace Testimony, developed after Quakerism had been around for a while. These affected more than "what Quakers did".

September 20, 2006

Early Quakers, Version III

The telling of Quaker history I presented yesterday, while maybe more interesting than "the early Quakers were great, but then..." story, is still a brilliance followed by decline story. I don't find that to be a fair appraisal.

While there was definitely a shift in Quaker views from the early enthusiasm to the developing sect, there's also a much larger perspective that needs to be considered, putting Quakerism into the context of Christian history, especially the Reformation that it was a late part of. Some of this reflects my earlier post on Tradition, Scripture, and Spirit, but it's worth considering how early Quakers achieved their unique synthesis.

So this version, which steps further back from the specifics of Quakerism, reads like:

Christianity in Western Europe had for centuries meant Catholicism, a single enormous Christian community that was organized around a strong Church. That Church mediated salvation for the many people under its care, managing their spiritual (and often other) parts of their lives. This large community included many strains of Christian thought, but the Church managed those strains, setting boundaries it deemed appropriate. The Church handled the processes leading to salvation, could grant exceptions, and dedicated parts of the community to a more holy lifestyle in order that these holy people could intercede for the rest.

As abuses of this system mounted, reformers shifted from wanting to remedy the abuses to questioning the entire system that had placed the human Church between people and their God. Luther, Calvin, and their many followers focused on a direct connection between the faith of the believer and his or her salvation by God's grace. Their churches were there to guide believers toward salvation, not to deliver holiness from cloistered groups or to manage sacraments that added up to salvation.

While the reformers described a very different approach to salvation, they weren't prepared to let go of the church's power and authority. Luther in particular held on to as much tradition as he could manage, but few (broadly successful) reformers were willing to discard the church as an organization, and replaced the authority of the hierarchy and tradition with the authority of Scripture. Luther and many of his fellow reformers were appalled by Anabaptists and others who took the call for reform more radically than most reformers, and Anabaptists remained outcasts even after the early violence settled.

England had had an especially slow reformation. Henry VIII cast off Rome, but largely so he could take control of the church's property and power. Succeeding monarchs oscillated between Catholic and Calvinist sympathies, though none of them went far enough for the English reformers to be happy until about 1688. Elizabeth I and James I fought to retain the powers of the hierarchy and the strength of central control, with the King James Version of the Bible a determined effort to rid the country of the Geneva Bible with its Calvinist commentary.

In the 1640s, this all came to a head in the English Civil War, and Charles I was executed by a Puritan parliament. Removing the king (and eventually replacing him with a Lord Protector) didn't take England along a clear path to a government of Saints, as many had hoped. Instead, it created a seething cauldron, a tremendous opening of divergent views and different practices. Anglicans became Presbyterians became Independents became Baptists became Seekers became...

Quakers. George Fox's message that "Christ has come to teach his people himself" completed the shift toward individual responsibility and away from a church that the reformers had started. It worked most powerfully with groups - Seekers, Ranters, "shattered Baptists" - who had already thrown off hope in institutions and their role in religion. Quakerism spoke powerfully to people who found ministers distant, who felt oppressed by tithes that forced them to support churches they couldn't in good faith attend, who knew that the old answers weren't working any more in this time of chaos.

Fox and his many supporters preached across the country, and were seen as a danger to both religious and civil order. Their message overthrew the many compromises reached by earlier reformers, challenging both doctrine and structure in the name of the Light, breaking that Light free of its limited use to validate Scripture. By rejecting the remaining "outward ordinances" of baptism and communion, and making them spiritual and inward, they removed the need for a formal church and its "hireling ministry" to administer them.

While these core views persisted for a few centuries with most Quakers, the costs of this approach became clear very early. Without a central authority or shared understanding of a writtten text (Scripture), pretty much anything could happen. Inspiration didn't strike everyone consistently, and power struggles ensued in disputes over whether particular views were inspired by the Light or were mere "Ranterism".

James Nayler's reenactment of Christ's entry into Jerusalem, staged in Bristol with himself as Christ, took early Quaker views of the relation of Christ and the believer to the breaking point. The many years of persecution required the group to hold together tightly, something that became more and more difficult as enthusiasts like John Perrot (who had gone to Rome to convert the Pope, after all!) insisted on a more individualist approach.

The genius of Quakerism lies not in its early enthusiasm, but rather in its having visited the brink of extreme religious individualism, gathering the fruits that lie there, and retreating to create a new system which encourages such gathering. The new system, meetings, supports its members in their communications with the Light, guiding the meeting to come together without establishing a formal creed and guidelines of right belief. Gathering as a group, and recognizing each other's varied capabilities for discernment helps everyone to distinguish what is the Light - which should be a shared, unified experience, even if individuals experience it differently - from false leadings and individual opinions.

Yes, Quakerism changed between 1656 and Fox's death, quite dramatically. Barclay and Penn reflect the later Quakerism more than the early Quakerism, the synthesis rather than the enthusiasm that led there. While I doubt Fox moderated his early beliefs substantially, he clearly changed his perspective on how to integrate them beyond the individual. He set up meeting structures designed both to nourish and contain the power of his core ideas, while managing to extract himself from their operation.

In this broader perspective, Quakerism completes the Reformation's stepping away from the power of the Church, more completely discarding traditional notions of the church and authority than other reformers. Rather than leading to complete anarchy, however, Quaker views on the importance of right discernment lead back into self-managing community.

That's probably too broad and sweeping, and certainly over-simplified, but it's a story that I think holds up pretty well, even when the synthesis breaks down and different branches of Quakerism emerge. The freedom Quakers gain from their direct individual connections to the Light lets them reconsider Christian doctrine in a way that isn't strictly Protestant or Catholic. This freedom is shared across a community, which reinforces both the possibilities of this approach and its boundaries.

The key word for me in all of this is discernment. Fox was renowned for his discernment, but a key question in making this work is our ability to discern the Light, to separate what it tells us from the many other voices leading us in other directions. Time and wisdom can help with discernment, but an active community sharing its strength can develop strength in discernment greater than that of its members. That seems to me to be at the heart of the Quaker approach to worship, respecting the contributions of its members but seeking for a whole much greater than the sum of the parts.

I'll have a lot more to say about this, but it feels right to have it out in summary form at least. (I doubt very much that I'm the first to say this, either.)

September 18, 2006

Early Quakers, Version I

Early Quaker history is rich enough for its tellers to find different things in it with every telling. Quakers did all kinds of things and left behind all kinds of writing, and it's not all perfectly cohesive.

As an experiment, I'm going to tell the story three times. I believe that all of these tellings are close enough to what happened to be properly 'historical', and none of them are so terribly far off the mark that they can be dismissed immediately. The stories they tell and the ways in which they would have us relate to the early Quakers' experience are quite different, however.

The first story is the story I've seen most frequently when a brief explanation of early Quakerism is needed, and it's usually the conclusion that shifts to match the teller's perspective.


In the 1640s and 1650s, amid the tumult of the English Civil War, a small group of dedicated religious seekers came together to listen to the Inward Light because "Christ has come to teach his people himself."

Their claims that this Light gave them direct communication with God and that this Light was to be held above Scripture or rituals like baptism and communion led to persecution. They were accused of quaking before God, hence the name Quaker, which was not intended to be flattering. Their persecution continued from the first meetings through the Restoration all the way up to the Act of Toleration passed during the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Despite the persecution, Quakers held together. Quakers died in jails and more went to take their place. Unlike other sects who met privately to avoid persecution, Quakers continued to meet openly, and made themselves obvious targets with their use of 'thee' and 'thou', their refusal to doff their hats to those of higher rank, and their plain attire.

While many Quaker leaders died in prison (or of plague, war, or the other troubles of the time), one of the strongest, George Fox, survived into the 1690s, writing his famous Journal and organizing the structure of meetings that continues to this day. Other notable Quakers included William Penn, who founded Pennsylvania as a haven for Quakers while writing regularly on Quakerism, and Robert Barclay, whose Apology is a classic statement of early Quaker belief.

After Fox's death, Quakerism settled down. It was no longer a movement claiming to reignite Christianity in general, but rather a sect that built walls against outside influence. Members prospered, but the energy of the sect declined, settling into a long quiet.

Familiar? I hope so, since this is the general story I heard for a long time before looking into early Quakerism more generally. Depending on the storyteller's perpective, the next parts of the story are usually about how later generations lost the thread because they:

  • Weren't Christian enough.

  • Spent too much time reading Scripture and not enough with individual Spirit.

  • Insisted that (or rejected that) the Light is reason or conscience.

  • Lacked the fire to continue spreading their message.

  • Weren't disciplined enough.

  • Focused too little on the life of the spirit rather than money or politics.

  • Lacked knowledge of their own history to know what the early Quakers had really said.

  • Were corrupted by outside influences, whether Catholic-derived Quietism or Wesleyan revivalism.

(Yes, I'm sure I've forgotten a few.)

As you've probably guessed, this isn't the way I think the story should be told. The next two versions will present less common - and likely more challenging - tellings, though there's still plenty of room to discuss which of these is right. None of them are wildly wrong.

August 28, 2006

George Fox's Legacy

Commenting on an earlier posting on New Light on George Fox, Martin Kelley suggested that I look into the more recent collection, George Fox's Legacy: Friends for 350 Years. The first was the result of a conference marking the 300th anniversary of Fox's death. The latter is the result of a conference marking 350 years since Quaker preaching took off.

While New Light on George Fox focused sharply on Fox himself and early Quakers, George Fox's Legacy explores the ways that Quakers have related to Fox. There are two excellent essays, one on Fox and Penn and another on Fox and Penington, that could probably have appeared in either volume, but overall the two collections are very complementary.

Running down the list of essays, here's a thumbnail sketch of my perspective on each:

George Fox and William Penn: Their Relationship and Their Roles within the Quaker Movement

Melvin Endy challenges the notion that William Penn took Quakerism in a very different direction than Fox had intended, exploring the relationship between Fox and Penn and concluding that differences are smaller than they are often described.

Liberal Friends (Re)Discover Fox

Chuck Fager looks at how far FGC Friends had drifted from Fox by the early 1900s and explores rising interest in Fox from the 1950s onward. There's some amazing stuff in here about what Quaker psychics reported Fox (and Jesse Holmes) as saying, as well as a general story that raises all kinds of questions about what it means to be a liberal Quaker.

"New Light on Old Ways": Gurneyites, Wilburites, and the Early Friends

Thomas Hamm, whose Transformation of American Quakerism I'll be visiting soon, examines the uses Orthodox Quakers made of early Friends' writings, especially the dwindling interest the Gurneyite wing had for them and the increasing interest of the Wilburites.

The Search for Seventeenth-Century Authority During the Hicksite Reformation

H. Larry Ingle examines the interest Hicksites took in the early Quakers, and how their perspective biases toward the early Fox and his companions, rather than the later more conservative Fox.

Early Friends and the Renewal of British Quakerism, 1890-1920

Thomas Kennedy examines a subject I know little about, British Quakerism's shift from the evangelical toward a more liberal approach, and how the early writings of Friends factored into that.

Isaac Penington and the Authority of George Fox

Rosemary Moore writes a provocative piece following Isaac Penington's shift from support for a more open, individualist approach to the more centralized, communitarian approach that Fox created after the Restoration. Penington's own journey illustrates many of the splits that Ingle describes as inspiration for the Hicksite split. Moore's final question - "Pope George Fox?" - is a difficult one.

"Come in at the Door!" - How Foxian Metaphors of Salvation Speak to Evangelical Friends

Arthur Roberts does something different here. In some ways he demonstrates what others are describing here, by reading Fox and excerpting Fox with an eye to reinforcing his own evangelical perspective. It's an excellent telling, but in the end it doesn't convince me that Fox would have agreed with Roberts or show me the path from Fox's perspective to Roberts'.

Holiness: The Quaker Way of Perfection

Carole D. Spencer here writes an essay that I'll keep coming back to. I like the whole book, but Spencer does an amazing job of connecting early Quakerism with the later holiness movement (citing Hannah Whitall Smith as a key example). The article ranges from Smith to Fox to Catholic and Orthodox perspectives on holiness, integrating Quaker perspectives with a broader Christian framework.

Jerry Frost's introduction helps tie them together and point out where they differ. It's an amazing collection, well worth the $10 for anyone who'd like to explore the diverse perspectives Quakers have taken toward their origins.

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 25, 2006

Quakers, Ranters, and the present

Historian Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down looks at the chaos - political, economic, and religious - of the English Civil War, the period when Quakerism started in fiery proclamations. It's hard to imagine, in today's relatively settled yet relatively mobile society, how so much could explode so rapidly. It seems a time when the end of the world really did seem near. In talking about the peril of applying modern frameworks to the time, Hill writes:

From, say, 1645 to 1653, there was a great overturning, questioning, revaluing, of everything in England. Old institutions, old beliefs, old values came in question. Men moved easily from one critical group to another, and a Quaker of the early 1650s had far more in common with a Leveller, a Digger, or a Ranter than with a modern member of the Society of Friends. (14)

Ranters were both Fox's blessing, a ready source of converts, and his curse, as Quakers were often labeled Ranters by their opponents while their own meetings were disrupted by Ranters. The history of the movement from about 1660 (or even 1656) to 1690 is largely the effort to move away from these groups' influence.

Quakerism emerged in a period of utter tumult - as Hill suggests, The World Turned Upside Down. As Hill notes later, "there is [not] any great theological novelty in Fox's works of the 1650s, any more than in the Journal" (232). Quakerism's success - with ideas that had often previously been suppressed - was in finding strong leaders in a time of chaos, people who could both communicate their ideals and exemplify them. "Christ has come to teach his people himself" was an incredibly powerful message and a difficult one to deliver to an audience often seeking stability in Scripture during a period of chaos.

Quakerism in 1652 is a tremendous flame, burning across the countryside. 1659 is probably the peak of political radicalism for Quakerism as a movement. By 1690, those flames are cooling to embers, embers which have sustained Quakerism to the present, through a long list of additional shifts. (There was an amazing message at Bridge City Friends Meeting Sunday about flames and embers that I keep hearing repeat in my mind.)

In my own obsession with history, I'm amazed by those early flames. It's hard not to be mesmerized by the incredible talent and perseverance of the early Quakers. It's also hard not to notice how quickly Quakerism had to change, and how the talent and perserverance applied in those new contexts as well. It has continued to change for 350 years - and perhaps some modern Friends aren't as far from 1650s Ranterism as Christopher Hill suggests.

How would Quakers deal with another period like the one that formed it?

July 22, 2006

But it seems crazy...

In First Among Friends, Larry Ingle pointed to some comments by William James questioning George Fox's behavior. James first praises Quakerism, then looks at George Fox as psychopath, but near the end of the chapter comes around to suggest that we need to look at this from a perspective beyond just writing Fox off as a psychopath.

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life, exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and eccentric....

If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one than... George Fox. The Quaker religion which he founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gosel truth than men had ever known in England. So far as our Christian sects today are evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to the position which Fox and the early Quakers so long ago assumed. No one can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and capacity, Fox's mind was unsound. Every one who confronted him personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to county magistrates and jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet from the point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or détraqué of the deepest dye. His Journal abounds in entries of this sort:

"As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head and saw three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within a mile of Lichfield where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a fire in me. So I put off my shoes and left them with the shepherds; and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, 'Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield!'

Continue reading "But it seems crazy..." »

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.

June 25, 2006

Revelation old and new

I wrote earlier of the competition between Tradition, Scripture, and Spirit. The world George Fox inhabited had seen seen Scripture raised to new heights in England - mostly at the expense of the old Catholic (and Anglican) tradition, but also at the explicit expense of Spirit.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, made law by Parliament in 1648 as part of the Articles of Religion, led with a section on Scripture:

I. Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of His will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal Himself, and to declare that His will unto His Church; and afterwards for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which makes the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing His will unto His people being now ceased....

Continue reading "Revelation old and new" »

June 16, 2006

Tradition, Scripture, and Spirit

I've been reading a lot about the history of Christianity lately, and also following various threads in Quaker blogs and message boards about a number of tensions people see in Quakerism. The tensions in Quakerism echo those through Christian history: some folks are most interested in Tradition, some are most interested in Scripture, and others are most interested in Spirit. Most everyone values all three of those on some level, but the prioritization is often very different.

(Yes, this three-part division is abstract, though I still find it helpful.)

Looking back over the grand divisions of Christianity, and oversimplifying drastically, the Catholic and Orthodox approaches have explicitly valued Apostolic Tradition, though built on Scripture and with room for Spirit. In the Protestant Reformation the reformers catapulted Scripture to the top, then divided amongst themselves over how much Tradition to retain and what Scripture actually meant. Spirit is still present, though often the Word (per John 1 and elsewhere) seems to be treated as the Word of Scripture, and Spirit often primarily validates Scripture.

I see Quakerism as having followed the third path, emphasizing Spirit. Early Friends were steeped in Scripture, but more willing than the Anglicans or even the Puritans to jettison existing church Traditions. They did, of course, develop their own new Traditions quite quickly after throwing off the old.

None of these religious groups completely excludes Tradition, Scripture, or Spirit; it's more about which gets priority when. Quakerism, while it is likely best defined by the priority it gives the Spirit, still contains Tradition and Scripture.

Within Quakerism - surfacing in the Quaker messageboard and blogs I follow, more than in the Meeting I attend - people seem to be fighting over the proper relation of these three components. To over-generalize once again:

  • Some people see the Spirit, the Light, as the key feature of Quakerism, and the notion that the Light is Christ or is connected to Scripture is just unfortunate Tradition.

  • Some people see the Light as dimmed terribly when removed from the Scriptures, and some of those people add Tradition and doctrine from more other Protestant perspectives as well. (Some people also want to subtract existing Quaker Tradition.)

  • Some people value Quaker Tradition and practice, but have less interest in the possibilities the Light opens, while others see Tradition as a barrier to fruitful connection with the Spirit. (The latter seem better represented on blogs, and I doubt anyone is completely uninterested in the Light anyway.)

Personally, I see all three of these pieces working together, with the Spirit mediating Scripture and Tradition. I enjoy reading the early Quakers' works and watching them figure out how these three pieces fit together, and how to live by that. Their direct dealing with all of these tensions created a group that has survived three and a half centuries so far, despite the tremendous potential for splits and schisms that always seems to be created by humans' difficulties in discerning the Spirit.

Maybe it's just the nature of blogging and messageboards, but it feels like a lot of people despair about the current state of Quakerism, since it doesn't meet their expectations of what it should be. My own perspective is that it should - and can - be a lot of different things.

Balancing these three pieces in their myriad facets is never an easy thing, and as Quakerism in key ways abolished the laity, we all - as ministers - have to work through them, hopefully with guidance from the Light.