Mary: Forgotten Woman and Cosmic Queen

When I watched Terminator (1984) for the first-time last year, I was struck by the relative flatness of the character of Sarah Connor. Sure, she’s brave, resourceful and possesses some good lines (for a woman in a 1980s sci-fi), but she’s never interesting. Her sole reason for existing is to bare the future saviour of the world, John Connor. That’s it. She has no choice; everything is already decided by men she never even met. The value of Sarah’s existence hinges bluntly on her fertility. This is precisely how many Protestants (particularly evangelicals) treat the Virgin Mary. So frightened are they of the spectre of ‘Catholic idolatry’, they turn Mary into a passive object of divine providence. Here God is rendered another agent, in a long line of masters, who subject the bodies of women and girls to their will. This reading places Mary in a sorrowful lineage of women silenced by the official chronicles of civilization. In the authorised line of heroes and gods, from Assyria to Egypt, from Greece to Rome, of what account is a Palestinian woman, with a child of dubious birth? In the grand cycles of ancient (literally patriarchal) myth, such persons are merely the waste of cultural life, labouring invisibly to maintain civilization, with little rest or reward. For ancient women, this process of silencing was expressed through a prescriptive all-embracing mode of motherhood, which narrowed their material and mental horizons. As Simone de Beauvoir observes in The Second Sex:

[Ancient] Motherhood relegates woman to a sedentary existence; it is natural for her to stay at home while men hunt, fish, and go to war…. Domestic work, as it is taking shape, is also their lot: they weave rugs and blankets; they shape pottery. And they are often in charge of barter; commerce is in their hands. The life of the clan is thus maintained and extended through them; children, herds, harvests, tools, and the whole prosperity of the group of which they are the soul depend on their work and their magic virtues. Such strength inspires in men a respect mingled with fear, reflected in their worship. It is in women that the whole of foreign Nature is concentrated. (pp. 103-4)

True, the latter possibilities of sacred power could be utilized by select groups of elite women (priestesses and poets), yet for the majority, female lives were swaddled in the heavy veils of obscurity and demanding seclusion. The public and leisured voice of someone like Sappho is a rarity in the ancient world, and even her voice only comes down to us in a series of fragments. Mary is also a fragment in the records of civilization, but her voice, while seemingly thin, breaks the spell of female hiddenness in decisive ways. Instead of being a mere tool for divine power in a male world, Mary discovers her agency through the grace of God. In her moment of decision before Gabriel, her life breaks out of gendered privacy and into the risks and riches of the public sphere. She is not merely a secret servant of the Divine Life, but a prophet that declares God’s activity in the world. Hear what she says in Luke’s account:

“For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Lk. 1:48-50)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/0a/Vladimirskaya.jpgThrough God’s promise, Mary’s privation is dispelled, and the public history of Israel is hers. Like Jacob, David and Solomon what she has affirmed will be remembered. But what has she accepted? The gift God bears Mary is motherhood, but it is not the motherhood of the confined and silenced, but motherhood as a totally public, self-chosen vocation. Mary’s future child is not the property of the clan but belongs to the decision she alone makes with God. No external rule of the father can intrude on what she seeks to accomplish with grace.  This is the deep symbolic meaning behind Mary’s virginity. In ancient myth ‘the virgin’ (parthenos) is much more than the pre-sexual woman. Virginity denotes an existential independence from the bounds of sex, marriage, and subordination to a husband. This was the case of the Greek goddesses Athena and Artemis; whose virginity was understood as the armour against the intrusions and indignities of male force and sexuality. As Marianne Katoppo suggests, Mary’s virginity is not a sexual or reproductive status, but refers to ‘a woman who does not lead a “derived” life (as “daughter/wife/mother”..)..a woman who matures to wholeness in herself as a complete person, and who is open for others. Through this maturing process, she is fertile, she gives life to God’ (Compassionate And Free, p. 21).

Whatever else she may be, Mary is not Sarah Connor (a mere womb for the future). Mary’s ‘yes’ to God gives her a status independent from her community, her father, even from the possible demands of the future. Mary is no longer a passive object of her biology or social role, but an initiator of spiritual activity. This is her part at the wedding at Canna. Her son is unsure of his footing and seeks to remain in the safety of the private sphere (“Oh Woman, what has this to do with me? My hour has not yet come”) but her urging propels him into his public ministry. The water becomes wine, because she urges her son to act. Like her declaration before Gabriel that propels her into the history of Israel, she bids her son to make the same journey: “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and it revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (Jn. 2:11). By acting as a motor of prophetic action, Mary stands for the new relation between women and men in God’s future, one in which self-chosen commitment stands higher than the law of the clan, blood, or the iron bars of gendered segregation. It is for this reason that Catholic and Orthodox traditions offer her many an exalted designation: Queen of Heaven,  Queen of patriarchs, Queen of prophets, Tower of David. Each title conveys the obliteration of the oppressive roles of the past, towards a radically open future. Far from the Mary ‘meek and mild’ of sanitised Christmas cards, the Mary that unfolds in the long history of Christian prayer and liturgy is a force of great power, a lightning bolt that pierces the earth. Her choice shatters all before it, forcing the new to come into being. It is this beautiful but terrible personage that appears in the apocalyptic vision of John:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron sceptre.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God. (Rev. 12:1-6).

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/e/e9/Saint_Mary_of_Lukawiec-Saint_Mary_of_Tartakow.jpgHere Mary is regal, authoritative, holding the twelve tribes of Israel in the orbit of her crown. She is pursued by the ancient Babylonian symbol of cosmic chaos, but God is her mighty shield. Her Queenship is bound up with the sovereignty of heaven. She stands between the night and the morning of God’s designs, more potent, more sacred than any poet or priestess. Mary’s outward life may be clothed in humbleness and hardship, but on the planes of the spirit her prayers are weapons against darkness, while her tears cause the spiritual hierarchies to quake and quiver. Everything that she accomplishes on earth (unseen by most) has its majestic analogue in Eternity. It’s Paul who asks: “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:3). Mary is the first to take up this authority, cosmic as it is earthly. Yet, as the vision of Revelations suggests, Mary is more than a New Woman, she heralds a decisive turning point in the history of the world. When the Patristic authors looked at the figure of Mary, they saw the fulfillment of the ambiguous words of Genesis 3:15:  “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” As far back as Justin Martyr this passage has been  interpreted as the protoevangelium, the first proclamation of the saving Gospel of Christ. Just as sin was said to have come into the world through Eve, so the estrangement between nature and God is ended in the life of Mary. It is from this symbolic scaffolding that Catholics today affirm the doctrine of the immaculate conception (that Mary was born without sin). If Christ is fully human and fully divine (as orthodoxy insists) they reasoned that Mary must have been already fully human (a life fully rapped up in the perfection of God) from her birth.

Image result for mary gate of dawnYet, ever since the Reformation, most Protestants have been disturbed by this way of reading Mary’s story. By making Mary sinless prior to the coming of Christ, such a formulation appears to put the mother on par with her son. How could this ordinary woman be immune from sin? Doesn’t that contradict Paul’s insistence that we have all been ensnared by sin? Such a reaction (in its understandable desire to protect the uniqueness of Jesus) nonetheless exacts a form of violence on the narrative structure of the Gospel. It tries to elevate Jesus by silencing Mary, yet if we wish to hear the Gospel in its fullness, we should be unreserved in assigning Mary centrality. Without Mary’s faithfulness, without a life already prepared for God, the spring could never have dawned. Without Mary’s willingness to be summoned, we would still be huddling in the spiritual wastes of winter. One cannot separate the rooted humanity of Jesus from his mother, whose own life was already full of grace and truth before his conception. Yet Mary is much more than a foreshadowing of the image of Christ. As a woman who gives her life and materiality over to God, Mary stands in the place of the Anima mundi (world-soul) of the Medieval alchemists. Mary is the personification of the creation greeting God as a lover greets a beloved. Her ‘yes’ is the moment when time and eternity meet and mingle. Without her intention, her love, her faithfulness, nothing could have been accomplished. As Nikolaevich Bulgakov has expressed it:

Mary is not merely the instrument, but the direct positive condition of the Incarnation, its human aspect. Christ could not have been incarnate by some mechanical process, violating human nature. It was necessary for that nature itself to say for itself, by the mouth of the most pure human being: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word.” (The Orthodox Church, p. 116)

Thus, in Mary’s life is enacted the intentional mystic marriage of heaven and earth. In this mode, Mary is the chaperon to all those who seek to be born in God’s new creation. When Jesus tells John from the cross “Here is your mother” (Jn. 19:27) he reveals Mary’s relation to all the children of the new creation. Mary is the Queen of the saints, because she is the guiding star of all God’s children, the continuing manna of God’s fellowship. Whenever we pray with Mary, remember her, speak with her, we are reminded that as Christians we are summoned to a larger life. We live accompanied by a cloud of witness, as we seek to give birth to Christ in ourselves. On this journey, Mary is the prototype for all our sorrows and hopes, and the tutor who can steady our steps. Yet, so unnerved are some Christians of this cosmic vision, that they would rather place Mary behind closed doors, leave her in silence and diminishment. But reducing Mary to a mere pawn of destiny or a ‘walking-womb’ does not enhance the uniqueness of Jesus or the ‘rightness’ of our Christology. It merely flattens the Gospel, preventing us from seeing that in God’s love everything is transfigured, including the lives of once silenced women. Acknowledging the full wonders of God in Mary is not idolatry, but the proper affirmation of the Gospel. To say that in God’s Kingdom Mary will be silent no more, a cosmic Queen enthroned, is to affirm Jesus’ teaching: ‘the last will be first, and the first will be last’ (Matt 20:16). To deny Mary’s cosmic significance is to deny the extravagant love God wishes to pour on us, as saints in training. We shouldn’t fear speaking lavishly about Mary (too much), for in such praise, we touch the power and joy of God.

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Some Notes on Grimond and Arendt: Brexit, the Consumer Society and the Rebirth of Politics

Consumerism and Political Malaise

One of the lost treasures of political autobiography is that of Jo Grimond, leader of Britain’s Liberal Party, from  1956 to 1967 (and again briefly in 1976). While Grimond never achieved high office, he was a first-rate intellectual, with a hinterland spanning art, literature and history. Unlike his contemporaries Harold Wilson and Edward Heath, he was not by temperament a political fixer or party-manager. He was rather a deep thinker, who possessed an uncanny capacity to look beyond immediate political crises, and ask deep questions about the structure, direction and point of politics. In an age when public questions had become colonized by a breed of bland Keynesian technocrats, he thought of politics in unfashionably grand terms. He was not afraid to talk about the ideals of civilization, the threats of barbarism, or the horrors of crass materialism.  He found in the ideals of the ancient Greeks (if not always in their practice) a compelling fable which allowed him to diagnose many contemporary ailments. At its best, he thought the Athenian conception of the polis (rooted in citizenship, participation and responsibility) provided a dynamic model for contemporary liberal democratic politics. In the final chapter of his memoirs he sounded a surprisingly grim note:

We have succumbed to the idol of ‘more’. Technical and economic determinism, blind to human values, now decides where we must go. Science and machinery, we are told, under the bureaucracies will conjure up more and more of everything. Our role is to sit up and beg, being content with whatever [is] thrown us. The Christian and Greek teachings which although seldom followed point towards the right way, are now derided.  The Greeks taught the delight of self-expression, play, creation, art. They treated human communities as heirs of past triumphs and guardians of the future. They and their Christian successors hoped that we might by adding to its legacy leave the world a better place.[1]

Image result for Jo grimondBut against this august Greek-Christian sensibility, Grimond detects a rising coarsening of Western societies, driven by an instrumental attitude to people and the world. We create ever more ingenious mechanisms for piling up riches, but we have no attention to the quality of politics, the state of our friendships, or the vibrancy of our public ideals. As Grimond laments: ‘We see now a cult of barbarism, with airlines ticketed out with the most expensive planes available, in the burning up of energy, in the scramble for new gadgets, and the trampling down of non-conformity. Human beings are discounted.’[2]  There is something in this litany of pessimism which recalls the past destruction of civilizations. In the age of Pericles, Athens felt itself to be the centre of the world. Its art, riches, and culture spoke of an untouchable greatness. Yet, as Thucydides chronicles in his History of the Peloponnesian War, there was a cankerous worm at the heart of the Athenian polis. Sumptuousness bred arrogance, security bred recklessness, learning bred foolishness. In this spirit of Thucydidean pity Grimond tells his readers living in a latter-day Athens:

Looking around London it is uglier, dirtier, more expensively and more incompetently run than it was ten years ago. Many of the people in the Underground railway look like refugees from a prison camp. The standard of life may be statistically rising but it is difficult to discern greater well-being in either the homes or faces of most people. A certain mulish worry seems a prevalent expression. Yet their avowed inability, in spite of the vast armoury of tools now at their disposal, to conduct affairs economically or competently does not prevent our governors from essaying constant interference in our lives when it suits them.[3]

What shall we make of such a dire portrait? Almost immediately after writing, Grimond’s mournful assessment took on a peculiar strangeness, pushing against a dominant story of progress and prosperity. After 1989, Western politicians heaved a collective sigh of relief. The Soviet Union had disintegrated, Germany had been reunified, and the Western economies were beginning to recover from the cycle of stops and shocks which had characterised their sluggish performance since the mid-1970s. Britain, after the shock-doctrine of Thatcherism was beginning to settle into something like an ideological consensus. John Major, the moderate Tory, was the perfect representative of a country grown weary of ideological crusades and hard economic medicine. Yet, Grimond sensed, against the shallow instincts of many political commentators, that the malaise and contradiction that sat beneath this new shiny consumer society was deeper than any realized. In the midst of Britain’s present Brexit chaos, it might be time to admit that the doom-saying of Grimond possesses some profound truths. We are one of the richest countries in the world, surrounded daily with technological marvels, but the country feels anxious, shabby, spent of purpose, and sick with both insecurity and the shallow prosperity of the few. Brexit is not just a technical question of being part of a political and trading bloc. It always was an existential question about political meaning. What are our lives together for? Where are we going? How do we navigate a world where most of us feel practically helpless to effect change? Can the country be better than this? This is precisely why the cynical Brexiteer cry of ‘take back control’ spoke to many. In our rapidly changing world an increasing number of people feel scared, anchorless, without a sense of home, and with little sense of a future. What tools should we use to understand the state of decay we appear to be in? How do we translate Grimond’s talk of Greek ideals into a diagnosis for our own times? What needs fixing so we avoid something akin to a Thucydidean collapse? To answer these questions, I propose to read Grimond’s sorrowful petition of decay through the work of Hannah Arendt. Like Grimond, Arendt was a student of the Greeks. Confronted with the alienation and technological horrors of the twentieth-century, Arendt sought a rebirth of old ideals. She desired the best of the old Greek city, purged of its slavery and thirst for domination. At a time when our island feels like its inexorably sinking into a sea of sorrow and memory, Arendt shows us a lifeboat, just as Grimond spells out the character of the storm.

 The Work Society and Its Discontents

Perhaps the best place to begin is to consider what Grimond calls the idol of more. By excavating the roots of modern consumerism, we might discover much of what is driving our increasingly fraught and fraying politics, not only in Britain, but in the post-industrial West more generally. How is it, that many contemporary British people are surrounded by relative safety and convenience and yet feel hateful, afraid, and disconnected from one another?  Today, Arendt is known primarily as the great theorist of totalitarianism, but this ignores her other substantial contributions to political thought. Of particular concern in Arendt’s work is the way in which liberal-democratic ideals of participation and citizenship, have given way to an apolitical purchaser society of toil and consumption. As Arendt observes in The Human Condition (1958):  ‘The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labour and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a labouring society.’[4]  In this valorisation of labour what does Arendt think has been lost? In her view, Capitalist worker-states have lost the capacity to think beyond the narrow confines of economic necessity, towards ‘the “beautiful,” that is, with things neither necessary nor merely useful….the life devoted to the matters of the polis, in which excellence produces beautiful deeds.’[5] Frenzied activities of production and consumption increasingly replace the seeking after virtuous modes of life, and the perfection of the political community. And while equality is proclaimed as the primary ideal in such a society, worker-equalitarianism is merely an expression of the conformist leveling required by the logic of consumerism.

Image result for Hannah arendt public domain imageOur sameness is increasingly a result, not of a sense of togetherness as citizens, but the outcome of economic standardisation. We walk down the same bleak streets, with the same clone shops, in increasingly identical homes. A longing for the betterment of the community, has been replaced by the acquisition of things. Yet, as widespread poor mental health testifies, this work-society is not meeting deep human needs. What are these needs? They are illustrated in two probing questions, ‘does my life matter?’ Am I making a difference to anything?’ Judging by the rise of what the anthropologist David Graeber has called bullshit jobs, a growing number of people say ‘no’ to both vital questions. In this pervasive state of anomie what is left to hold onto? Responses to such meaning-deprivation are various, but one reaction in particular preoccupied Arendt, namely the racial ideology of the far right. In the absence of strong local and civic identities, Arendt believed that people sought to inherit their way into belonging and mattering through an appeal to ethnic myths. This desire becomes violent and totalitarian when people are willing to escape meaninglessness at any price. The seed-bed of such a politics is according to Arendt, a condition of widespread loneliness. As Arendt notes in The Origins of Totalitarianism:

What makes loneliness so unbearable is the loss of one’s own self which can be realized in solitude but confirmed in its identity only by the trusting and trustworthy company of my equals. In this situation, man loses trust in himself as the partner of his thoughts and that elementary confidence in the world which is necessary to make experiences at all. Self and world, capacity for thought and experience are lost at the same time…..What prepares men for totalitarian domination in the non-totalitarian world is the fact that loneliness, once a borderline experience usually suffered in certain marginal conditions like old age, has become an everyday experience of the ever-growing masses of our century. The merciless process into which totalitarianism drives and organizes the masses looks like a suicidal escape from this reality.[6]

How does this speak to our own context? In the wasteland of austerity, a housing-shortage, stuttering pay, and insecure jobs, one can see Britain plummeting into rootlessness. While we have not yet sunk into totalitarian conditions, it may be justly asked whether we have any adequate defences against such forces when and if they arrive. Bluntly, we no-longer have the institutions to root us, and in the ruins, hatred and suspicion continues to grow. In the heated, sometimes poisonous debates concerning immigration, we are offered a glimpse of a possible future, one in which an atomised community of strangers turns on the helpless outsider to relieve its own loneliness. How did we get here? Fintan O’Toole, in his recent book Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, chronicles how the welfare state of 1945 gave the weary people who had lost an empire a noble and ennobling vision of caring for the sick, protecting the old, and educating the young. The mixed economy held the promise of a mighty compromise between Capital and labour, state-socialism and market discipline[7]. Yet, as post-war optimism mutated into economic pessimism in the late 70s and early 1980s, people felt increasingly cheated by this grand vision. As Grimond reflected on its shortfalls in 1978: ‘What is true is that collectivism has been the dominant strain in British (and indeed in Western) thinking for the last forty years or so. This has affected social services, as it has all sides of politics. State or bureaucratic socialism has won the day over varieties of Christian or democratic socialism such as syndicalism. Control of officials on behalf of the public has been largely accepted.’[8] Far from improving the public welfare, Grimond contended that the extension of officialdom had increased patronage, corruption, and the dependence of civil society and the private sector on state-handouts. Thatcherism, in its valorisation of Victorian values, attempted to correct this situation by insisting on self-reliance and civic responsibility. Yet in an era of mass-advertising, and the credit card, these ideals soon degenerated into crass consumerism, and the glorification of selfishness.

Image result for margaret thatcherAs Margret Thatcher later confided to her friend, the Labour MP Frank Field, she expected her party’s slashing of tax rates, to herald a new age of civil engagement and philanthropy—when (in High Tory fashion) the rich would once again, take care of the poor. The fact that this promised land of civic responsibility did not emerge bewildered her.[9] The rapid deindustrialisation of Britain in the 1980s did not herald a new Victorian age. The rich of the Home Counties prospered, while the rest of the country creaked and withered. Thatcher’s miscalculation was to make a significant contribution towards our present malaise. In the world after Thatcherism and New Labour, it is not entirely clear what holds this island together. In a country where shopping seems more central than citizenship, people can feel themselves to be profoundly alone, displacing their disconnection with an ever more bewildering profusion of consumer goods. For Arendt, such a state of affairs is always unsatisfactory, because it degrades the dignity of the individual person. It reduces the rights-bearing citizen to a passive creature of consumption, incapable of virtue, creativity or purpose. We could be so much more, but the apolitical domain of the shop-window invites us to divert our energies from the city to ourselves, from collective, to private concerns. As Arendt notes disdainfully:

In Greece….it was the ever-frustrated ambition of all tyrants to discourage the citizens from worrying about public affairs, from idling their time away in unproductive ago-reuein and politeuesthai, and to transform the agora into an assemblage of shops like the bazaars of oriental despotism. What characterized these market places, and later characterized the medieval cities’ trade and craft districts, was that the display of goods for sale was accompanied by a display of their production. “Conspicuous production” (if we may vary Veblen’s term) is, in fact, no less a trait of a society of producers than “conspicuous consumption” is a characteristic of a laborers’ society.[10]

Here we observe the deep material roots of our powerlessness. In advanced post-industrial societies, most of us are not the fulfiller of our own needs. We wait to be satisfied by corporations and government agencies. We do not feel any ownership over the world about us. We do not believe we have the capacity to perform any deeds that will endure or produce any beauty that will last. The impersonality of modern organisation renders us a passive cog in wheels we can neither control, nor comprehend. In such conditions of isolation, the banner of Brexit and the heroic nationalist myth becomes irresistible. In a polis that has become empty of politics, the flag becomes a talisman against the sense that we belong nowhere. But, in the end, this talisman, this flag, presents an ‘imaginary community’. It is a pleasant piece of poetry, a myth which is increasingly refuted by experience. It does not really meet people’s sense of meaninglessness, it only masks it. How does Arendt think we can escape from the existential senselessness of the work society? Looking back to ancient Athens, Arendt argues that the only cure is a society in which civil participation is felt to be the preserve of all citizens, not just elected officials or selected technocrats. This is the cure, she argues, not merely to public meaninglessness, but an answer to those demagogues who would take advantage of our fear and loneliness for their own political ends.

Re-Thinking the Polis: The Problem of Labour  

Since the very early days of her philosophical career, contemporaries found Arendt hard to characterise. Sometimes she sounded like a conservative. She relished in the aristocratic ideals of Athenian society and longed for some version of their return. Yet, she often sounded like a socialist, rallying against the alienations and indignities of a mechanised de-humanised society. At other times, Arendt sounded like an inveterate anarchist. In the human life stripped of dignity by crowds, mobs, and bureaucracies, she discerned the source of the many horrors of the 20th century. In truth, it seems Arendt thought all these streams were fruitful avenues through which to repair politics. What held these tendencies together was her contention that there was no long-term future for the consumer worker-state, whether Capitalist or Soviet. Politics must be rethought if modern human beings were to avoid futility and despair. As she wrote at the beginning of The Human Condition:

Closer at hand and perhaps equally decisive is another no less threatening event. This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate man- kind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.[11]

Underlying Arendt’s remarks is the important Classical distinction between ‘work’ and ‘labour’. For the philosophers (most prominently Aristotle) work is what we build a meaningful life around. Work refers to those acts which connect the present with the future, foster beauty and meaning for ourselves and others. Labour by contrast involves those needful activities that are required to keep one alive. They are not sources of meaning, but blunt expressions of biological need. It was Aristotle’s contention that the life of necessity was always lower in the scale of human goods to the life of work, because the latter allowed the individual freedom to care about his city and the people in it. A life of drudgery dedicated to the production of goods was for Aristotle incompatible with the political and outward-facing life of the citizen. The activity of the workman was the domain of the apolitical slave. As Aristotle expressed this idea in The Politics: ‘any task, craft, or branch of learning should be considered vulgar if it renders the body or mind of free people useless for the practices and activities of virtue. That is why the crafts that put the body in worse condition and work done for wages are called vulgar; for they debase the mind and deprive it of leisure.’ (337a10–11). Despite the welcome elimination of mass-slavery in modern cultures, Arendt believed that latter-day technological societies are nonetheless surprisingly grim because they have largely departed from the Greek separation between labour and work. Instead of giving human beings the opportunity to perfect themselves through politics, the pressures of contemporary money-making reduce the horizons of many people to a narrow range of concerns. Instead of seeking out a good life, modern people are so bombarded with prices, goods, and expenditures that these commercial matters begin to absorb all their attention.  Their minds become so fixated on the acquisition of material things that they cease to look for moral, aesthetic or intellectual satisfactions. As a consequence, the deep joys of human experience (friendship, connection, creativity, learning) are constantly being crowded out. As the cultural critic Walter Benjamin once summarized this predicament:

The freedom of conversation is being lost. If, earlier, it was a matter of course in conversation to take interest in one’s interlocutor, now this is replaced by an inquiry into the cost of his shoes or of his umbrella. Irresistibly intruding on any convivial exchange is the theme of the conditions of life, of money. What this theme involves is not so much the concerns and sorrows of individuals, in which they may be able to help one another, as the overall picture. It is as if one were trapped  in a theatre and had to follow the events on the stage, whether one wanted to or not- had to make them again and again, willing or unwilling, the subject of one’s thought and speech.[12]

Here Benjamin introduces us into a peculiarly modern form of impoverishment. The office worker may inhabit clean and well-regulated surroundings, but his daily activities consist in a series of meaningless tasks that trap his life in the drudgery of labour.[13] He is a colleague and co-worker, but he does no useful work (in the Greek sense). The demands of his workplace (e-mails, reports, and meetings) leave him without the time or energy to consider the community he is part of. His job actively isolates him from a sense of the ‘public’.  But as Arendt’s remarks signpost, automation holds out the distinct possibility of the restoration of meaningful work. Instead of giving our lives over to the rat-race of career-orientated consumption, we can again start thinking of society and politics as terrains for purpose, care, and connection. In a world where the factory (and office) is increasingly empty, politics can become something we do as leisure, not in-between work. In this renewed vision of the polis, we can care about our common choices, not as an anxious after-thought, but as a daily reality. In such a post-acquisition society, a thousand forms of social life could be given the space to flourish. In past centuries the majority laboured so the few could pursue their life-projects. Artists, priests, legislators and philosophers worked for lasting glory, while the majority toiled in hateful servitude. Now we are on the cusp of a world without paralysing need and senseless slog.

Of course, the municipal socialist and collectivist anarchist would be at home in such a future. Insofar as the money-society cloaks hopelessness and violence of all kinds, the end of worthless labour,  represents the deepest hopes of many a leftist utopia. Yet, we should not underestimate the extent to which such a vision responds to the deepest needs of the patriotic conservative. It was the philosopher Michael Oakeshott who argued that conservatism always prefers ‘the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.’[14]. Yet, there is nothing more utopian, nothing more obsessed with the unbounded and the distant, than our consumer-society?  In its constant fixation on future satisfaction, it depreciates the present, the actual and the concrete. How can any true love of country we born when our lives are marred by insecurity, anxiety, and greed? How can the cult of ‘more’ even come close to the love of place? Arendt’s return to old political ideals, offers a route of escape. In a society where labour is no-longer the defining activity of life, the patriot may rediscover is love of locality as an actual feeling, not an abstraction crystallised in a flag.

The Return of the Agora

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/55/Union_Flag_and_St_Georges_Cross.jpgHow do we get to such a society? For his part, Jo Grimond believed that Arendt’s world of empty factories was an already-present reality in the post-war world. Heavy industry was dying, while new professional workers enjoyed unparalleled levels of leisure-time. Harold Wilson’s ‘white-hot heat of technology’ was felling all before it. Reflecting on Britain’s economic position in 1978, Grimond noted ‘at the time of writing we are bedevilled by what is optimistically considered a temporary lack of work, we may have to resign ourselves to a higher level of unemployment than was once thought necessary.’[15] Not all was doom and gloom, however. In the ashes of the workers-state Grimond believed that ‘socialism without a state’ might yet spring up to replace it. Echoing the politics of Robert Owen, Grimond argued for a pluralist political settlement capable of replacing the monolithic forces of the state and corporate enterprise. People would find renewed purpose, not through the agitation of their desires, but through the possibility of participation in the life of the community. Through a network of local institutions, co-operatives and unions, Grimond saw a way to break with the crass materialism and political apathy of the modern world. Yet, as Grimond was at pains to point out, his liberal syndicalism was not the workers-state of conspicuous consumption reborn. Any effort expended in the new state of plenty should not be an end in itself, but as a means to ‘play, self-expression, dancing, enjoyment, and tolerance.’[16] Underpinning Grimond’s post-labour society was the right of every citizen to be paid a minimum income.[17] Such a scheme would not only protect people against poverty[18] but expand the range of voluntary activity. Not only would such citizens have a greater opportunity to care for the needy but would be freer to devote themselves to activities that would enrich community life, including art and the maintenance of local amenities like libraries, theatres, and ad hoc forms of community education. Noting the modern rise in self-employment, Grimond reflects optimistically: ‘Self-employment must include, indeed largely consist of, work for the community. We must involve far more people in the building of their own community.’[19] Cities, once designed for the requirements of industrial workers, could finally be refashioned to accommodate a greater range of pastimes and pleasurable pursuits.[20] After centuries of indignity, Grimond believed that the West could again find its centre of gravity in the agora, and its promise of a life of beauty and significance. In the possibility of vacant offices and museum factories, Grimond discerned the contours of a richer life within our grasp.

What have such grand plans got to do with Brexit? I contend that one cannot deal with the anger unleashed by the 2016 referendum without addressing the root causes of that anger. Such rage clusters around the question of European Union membership but leaving the EU will not defuse that anger unless followed by fundamental political reform. People are angry because they feel homeless, bereft of meaning, and without anchor in a rapidly changing world. Unless we rise to the challenge of our present conditions, the multiplying contradictions of our age will swallow us whole. Such a task appears politically urgent in Britain as our system of government grinds to a halt. Yet, such a task is needed in all the post-industrial economies. The factories continue to empty, the amount of necessary labour keeps shrinking, and yet, we continue to sustain the worker-state, dimly aware of the misery we are in. As David Graeber puts it:

Rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.[21]

There must be a better world than this. Both Grimond and Arendt articulate a resolute refusal to be diverted from the possibility of a larger, fuller life. No facsimile of politics should ever be accepted for the real thing. Either the polis is based on participation or there is no polis. Either we find ways of enhancing beauty and meaning, or we will sink into greed, violence and loneliness. Citizenship must mean more than a flag and a passport but personify an invitation into a shared project of civic betterment. Crafting this invitation is the great existential challenge of this century.

[1] Jo Grimond, Memoires, (London, Heiman, 1979), p. 294-5

[2] Grimond, Memoires, (London, Heiman, 1979), p. 295

[3] Grimond, Memoires, p. 293

[4] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958: 1998), p. 4-5

[5] Arendt, The Human Condition, (London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958: 1998), p. 13

[6] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (London: Penguin, 1951: 2017), p. 626-7

[7] Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, (London: Apollo, 2018), p. 19

[8] [8] Jo Grimond, The Common Welfare, (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1978), p. 70

[9] Frank Field, ‘What would Thatcher do today about . . . the rich’, first published in The Times, (18 April 2013), http://www.frankfield.co.uk/latest-news/news.aspx?p=102514 (Accessed 23 Mar. 19)

[10] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 160

[11] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 4.

[12] Walter Benjamin, One-Way Street, trans. Peter Demetz, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 37

[13] Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 317

[14] Michael Oakeshott, ‘On Being Conservative’, in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991), pp. 408-9

[15] Grimond, The Common Welfare, (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1978), p. 49-9

[16] Grimond, The Common Welfare, (London: Maurice Temple Smith, 1978), p. 139

[17] Grimond, The Common Welfare, p. 42

[18] An excellent summary of Jo Grimond’s Basic Income scheme can be found in The Parliamentary Debates (Hansard).: House of Lords official report, Volume 465, p. 290-291

[19] Grimond, The Common Welfare, p. 147

[20] Grimond, The Common Welfare, p. 147

[21] David Graeber, ‘On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs: A Work Rant’, in Strike!, https://strikemag.org/bullshit-jobs/ [Accessed March 25, 2019]

Reflections on Liberal Quakerism and the Need for Roots

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British Quakers in Worship.

British Liberal Quakerism appears to be in a state of radical transition between a complex past and an uncertain future. Yet, it is at least arguable, that the future is so uncertain precisely because Liberal Friends exist in a state of increasing unease about their past. ‘God’, ‘Christianity’ and ‘Christ’ seem to act as uncomfortable presences within the Society at large, like a cluster of disturbing ghosts stalking some old corridor rattling their chains. As a consequence, our Society no longer assumes a straightforward identification with the life and teachings of Jesus.  This is of course a completely understandable development. The matrix in which British Friends operate is a pluralistic and secular one. And since our faith is not isolated from our lives of work, family and leisure, this is having a great impact on our Meetings. People now come to us from diverse backgrounds and cultures seeking succour from us as a spiritual community. Many have fled from authoritarian or hierarchical expressions of Christian church and theology. Others have come from different faith-traditions; Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan, seeking shelter and sustenance. For such folk, Jesus is probably the last person they want to talk about. He is a symbol of all they have run away from; suffocating dogma, unflinching moralising, and institutional naval-gazing. Such seekers may come to meeting with the impression that the reason why Liberal Quakerism is ‘liberal’ is because it has deviated from historic Christianity. Yet, I would argue that the ‘liberal’ character of modern British Quakerism; its diversity, its inclusivity, is not a deviation, but an echo of George Fox’s provocative Christian revelation that Jesus ‘had come to teach the people Himself’.

How so? British Quakers are a gathering place for many paths because we are fundamentally nourished by a story and a heritage, which calls for the unity of the world, and the unity of creation. Yet, this call is not grounded in some generic ‘John Lennon-like humanism‘ but has a particular shape. It subsists, not in grand utopian plans, much less the dismissal of heaven, but in peace, humility, and the renunciation of power. It is a faith with a face, the face of Christ. A brief survey of the early writings of Friends illustrates that the picture of Jesus they most cherished, was undoubtedly the one provided by John’s Gospel. The Fourth Gospel, in its majestic mysticism, gave the first generation of Quakers a rich vocabulary to describe their inward experiences. John’s Christ was (according to the Gospel’s epic prologue) a pre-existent manifestation of God’s innermost creativity. John’s testament makes the startling claim that the founder of Christianity was nothing less than the absolute humanisation of the energy which had brought the cosmos into being, a force, which John refers to as the Logos (λόγος). Yet, the Logos as John understood it, was not his innovation alone, but was first systematised by the Stoic philosophers and their intellectual contemporaries. A cardinal doctrine of Classical Stoicism was a belief in something akin to a’ divine fire’ which animated and ordered the whole of creation. In a self-conscious imitation of this Stoic imagery, yet drawing upon the Hebrew scriptures, John depicts Jesus as that primordial ‘light’, which ‘shines in the darkness’, (Jn.1:3). This metaphor not only calls to mind a gentler adaptation of the Stoic ‘divine fire’ but is also clearly an echo of God’s first act of creation in Genesis, ‘And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light’ (NIV Gen.1:3). To be called to faith by the Logos, was to be inducted into a cosmic drama of redemption and grace.

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Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane

In this vein, for early Friends, ‘being a Christian‘, was more than simply assenting to theological abstracts. To live as a ‘Friend of the Truth’ was to experience directly the claim that God loves the universe perpetually in Christ. In this respect, ‘Quaker’ Christianity is more than a theory or philosophy of things, but a practical relationship with a living person. To walk with Jesus of Nazareth meant to live with the same mantle upon one’s shoulders, to teach, to heal, and to restore. A God of action brought others to Himself through action. According to this Quaker/Christian logic, we cannot live by Creeds alone. We cannot be a Christian by virtue of some shared technical vocabulary or outward set of rituals, but only by the inward experience of the Living Presence. Consequently, ‘living in Christ’ is an ongoing process of listening, knowing, and, acting. It cannot be set in stone (or text) any more than a whole life can be encompassed by a single photograph. As Jesus comforts his disciples: ‘I still have much to tell you, but you cannot yet bear to hear it. However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak what He hears, and He will declare to you what is to come’ (NIV Jn.16:12-13). These are the roots which nourish the ‘true vine’ (NIV Jn.15:5), ever-growing, ever-sheltering. Yet, this plant needs to be protected from other appealing competitors in the Quaker garden. Indeed, if we fail to protect our tree of shelter, we will endanger the invitation of radical welcome at the very heart of our meetings. Some pessimists within the British Quaker fold fear that this has happened already. By obscuring this distinctive form of Christianity, some Friends fear a lacklustre Quaker future, one shorn of a deep rooted and shared spirituality. In this regard, Ben Pink Dandelion’s Swarthmore Lecture Open for transformation: Being Quaker (2014) bears careful re-reading.

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio

But why should we worry? Surely if people come to Meeting and continue to ‘get something out of it’, what exactly is the problem?’ What’s wrong with Meeting as therapy, self-help, or whatever else people want it to be? The problem is that such models exchange the depth of Quaker discipline for something alien to its spiritual ethos. Consider the thorny issues of belonging and diversity. There is a counterfeit liberalism which says that the radical acceptance offered by the Quaker/Christian story can be reduced to bland tolerance, or managed pluralism, which co-exists, but never seems to love. While such a formula seems cursorily attractive (who wants their toes stepped on?), such a community is unlikely to have deep and long-lasting spiritual experiences. Much of our contemporary culture conditions us to want comfortable feel-good bubbles, not the messiness that long-term commitment entails. But, without journeying together in good times and bad, our Meeting may offer us many ‘spiritual highs’, but few sustained insights. Are we satisfied by that prospect? This is where the language of Quaker Christianity could be of help in strengthening our Quaker discipline more generally. British Quakers rarely talk about the Cross today, but perhaps we should. For in the midst of this loaded, often distressing symbol, is the promise that within brokenness, pain, and, suffering, new spiritual life waits for us. In this cruciform model, we are not called to the New Age therapeutic tropes of positive adjustment or ‘making our own reality’, but to the hard truth that God is with us, even when we feel low or abandoned, or (shock horror), when we don’t want God . If we understand our spiritual life in this way, Meeting no-longer becomes a space to service ‘my immediate spiritual needs’, but a place where my wounded self can be uncovered for deep healing. This is a challenge for all of us, and we need our Quaker community to be there when we struggle to come to terms with the demands of the spiritual life.

What else might be getting in our way? To apply William Penn’s phrase, if Liberal Quakerism often lacks ‘a cross’, it also frequently lacks a ‘crown’. Alongside the promise of Meeting as a cheerful, non-confrontational bubble, there is the equally alluring suggestion that Quakerism needs no guiding story, no ultimate goal, to govern its voyage. Yet, if we are being asked to work on ‘pure experience’ or ‘what just feels right’, how are we to know what to value in this raw, unmediated reality? How do we know what to keep and what to reject? What are our pointers? What are our tools?  Jesus used the image of the treasure hidden in the field to signify what the search for the Kingdom of God might be like (Matt. 13:44-46). Does contemporary British Quakerism have the resources (the metal-detector)  to effectively conduct the search? Liberal Quakerism’s favourite metaphor for the spiritual life is the journey. But where are we going? And do we have the right provisions for the trip? To answer these questions, we need a map and the right food to nourish us along the way. But which map to choose? Shall we have thin gruel or a hearty broth? That depends how long we think we’re going to be away, and whether we think any food will be provided when (and if) we get there. The answers to these difficult questions are hidden in plain sight. The story, the logic, that should govern us as a pilgrim people, is to be found in the fundamental vocabulary we use as Quakers. “Testimony” (Jn. 1:7-8), “the Light” (Jn.1:7-8), Peace (Phil. 4:7: Rom. 16:20: Heb. 13:20-21), all point us back to the ‘living waters‘ which once made its home among us in the life of Jesus (Jn.1:14). We should acknowledge, in order to keep our Quakerism whole, that our practice and language, derive from deep Christian roots. And with that acknowledgement, we should delve anew into this inheritance, seeking if we can, to make this legacy live for us in the present moment.

I can already sense the twitches of acute unease among Friends who feel that what is being proposed here is nothing short of a ‘return to Christian orthodoxy’. But this is not the case. This is not a call for theological purity, or conformity of belief. Liberal Friends drink from many wells, and let that liberality continue. Let us never forget that Wisdom comes from many quarters. Indeed, as the Gospel reminds us: “I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd” (NIV Jn.10:16). What is being asked for in talk of roots is a recovery of the things that can give our individual spiritual journeys coherence. Instead of restricting us, this sense of a shared direction will aid us in deepening our love and care for one another. We may find riches within Zen practice, the call of wild nature, or the rhythms of Jewish prayer. The point is not to cast away our past (or the Wisdom which lies beyond Christianity), but to view our lives through the lens of a larger story, a core, a centre, which keeps us going when other wells run dry along the path. Speaking for myself, the shape of my spiritual biography has been deeply enriched by contemporary earth-based spiritualities, either indigenous traditions, or re-imagined constructions. Sitting on my bookshelf alongside Quaker Faith and Practice, one can find Graham Harvey, Emma Restall Orr, and Starhawk. Nonetheless, because I am a walker in the Quaker Way, anything that I bring from outside is not about me and ‘my insights’ or identity, but should exist in the service, and for the benefit of the Quaker community. As Paul puts it in Ephesians: ‘Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen’ (4:29). This is the key point. Every wanderer needs a home. Let’s be at home as Quakers, in the Quaker house, with all its treasures, memories, and, amenities. We can bring much-needed supplies in, but only if it supports the ongoing flourishing of the whole Quaker household. We do not have the spiritual luxury of bringing food in, then labelling it (in the manner of shared student houses everywhere), “mine”. We must therefore select and sift our insights with care, because we will be held accountable for what we choose in the long-run. The question always needs to be asked: Does my spiritual walk build others up? Does it communicate grace? Or is my walk really about egoistically asserting myself?

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Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane

If putting the roots back into Liberal Quakerism means falling in love with our primary language again, it also means contesting the many phoney gods and Christianities, that get in the way of this new, deeper life. Take the issue of divine judgement. For Quaker Christianity, there has never been a competition between the God of love and the God of justice. The God at the heart of the Quaker Way (so wrestled over in recent years), is not a loving Father one moment and a concentration camp guard the next (as in barbarised Calvinism). Nor is the God of our worship the blasé grandfather, who sees his permissive attitude as a sign of care. The unruly God at the heart of Quaker language is a raging fire (Hebr. 12:29), the ‘crucible for silver and the furnace for gold’ (Prov. 17:3). The Spirit tests us, propels us, and sometimes, confronts us. Yet, the object of all this heat and the strain is not to torture beloved creatures, but to purify the metal of our hearts. The motive for this process is love, and the end point of this process is a deeper love still.  This is the grand alchemy at the heart of Quaker Meeting for Worship. Here, in the waiting silence, judgement and love find their proper synthesis. When confronted with alternative religious images (God, the abuser, God the hateful Father, God the absentee grandparent), Friends in possession of a shared story will be able to refute unequivocally such insubstantial spectres. We will be able to say: “Because we know who we are, we know what belongs to us, and what belongs to another”. The Spirit in our worship together is neither spiteful nor transcendentally negligent, but the One revealed to us in the healing of the broken, the comfort of the Beatitudes, and in the suffering at Gethsemane. Nowhere are the fruits of a shared story more beneficial than when we come to the thorny topic of salvation. In recent decades British Quakers have got out of the habit of speaking of a God who ‘saves’ (in understandable reaction to the language of ‘fire and brimstone’). Yet, by rejecting salvation-talk outright, Liberal Quakerism is beginning to lose Quaker Christianity’s distinctive theological language of salvation, which owes nothing to the televangelists, and everything to the early Quaker vision of Jesus. Instead of a binary God who consigns non-believers to hell, and believers to heaven, Friends like William Penn, returned to the Gospel of John to retrieve an eternal Christ, who exists in the hearts of all, Christian or non-Christian. As Elizabeth Gray Vining summarises this embracing stance:

The Light was universal. The Eternal Christ visited the hearts of men before the historical Christ lived and died in Palestine. It was in this assertion of the universality of the Light that early Friends differed most from Protestants of their day and aroused the greatest antagonism. Perhaps Penn went further than many other Friends in asserting that in all ages men had had enough of the Holy Spirit for their salvation, although he never wavered in his belief that the Light was Christ and that Quakerism was a Christian movement. (William Penn: mystic, as reflected in his writings p. 12)

Just pause for a moment and consider how radical, how breath-taking, such a claim is. Central to the structure of the original Quaker revelation was the proclamation that hell and evil had been vanquished by the love of God, through Jesus (Matt. 6:17-19). As Fox expresses this reality in the famous conversion episode from his Journal: ‘I saw, also, that there was an ocean of darkness and death; but an infinite ocean of light and love, which flowed over the ocean of darkness. In that also I saw the infinite love of God, and I had great openings (QF&P 19:19.03). To be a Quaker in this mould, meant to affirm the universal salvation of all creatures, through in the outward work of Jesus, and the Inward light that bore his name and identity. Doubtless, these are uncomfortable images for those who have felt abused and hurt by pop theologies and fundamentalisms of all kinds. But these are our images as Friends. They belong to our primary language, bound to our very way of seeing the world as Quakers. To let go of them would be to let go parts of ourselves. We should not censor or discard them in the name of ‘liberalism’ just because other Christians have misused them. The answer to theological abuse is not the jettisoning of the Christian tradition. Rather, it is learning anew to speak Christian in Quaker terms. In this act of reclaiming a deep healing can be found, not only for those who have been hurt by this language, but for those whom the words of Christian faith often feel repetitive and stale. Let’s possess our language again, rather than leave it to fundamentalist theologies. Christianity is more than condemnatory ‘Churchianity’, and the Quaker Way proves it. This is our Good News. Let’s share it.

The Resurrection and the Mind of God

The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. […] we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. […] For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (1 Corinthians 15.35).

In the book of Ecclesiastes, the Sage tells us that when death comes ‘the dust returns to the ground it came from and the spirit returns to God who gave it’ (12:7) after which ‘the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten (Ecclesiastes 9:5 NIV). Like the sage, an increasing number of us no longer believe in any existence after death. Although the reasons for this modern scepticism vary, most who are led to deny the afterlife do so due to the seemingly irrefutable connection between the brain and the personality. Neuroscientists have long observed the dramatic changes in the personality when the brain become subject to damage or disease. It is logical to assume that once the brain ceases to function, ‘the self’ also ceases to exist. For some this is a deeply shocking claim. If we are just our bodies, does that mean death is the end? Are we just machines devoid of ‘spirit? Probably, but I don’t think that necessarily means what most people take it to mean. Being at base a materialist doesn’t disqualify one from believing in a ‘soul’ but one must undertake some radical redefinition to make it work philosophically. Radical how? We need to move from the notion of the soul as a vital force (or a ‘ghost in the machine’) to a model that takes the physical mechanics of identity seriously. I call this latter model the recollection hypothesis.

According to this theory, the ‘soul’ is the name for a process of observation and recollection which is undertaken in the Mind of God. This contrasts with much of traditional Christian doctrine which insists that soul (anima) is an eternal quality, bestowed on otherwise mortal bodies. But the recollection hypothesis is not without some theological basis. My suggested  redefinition emerges from strong theological intuitions concerning what God must be like. The God of Scripture is not just the Creator, he is the One who sees, listens, and knows. He hears the cry of his creatures (Jer. 29:12, Ps. 102:17), even down to the hairs on their heads (Matt. 10:30). Thus, God is the Great Observer, experiencing the temporal world through us (as well as the butterfly, the skylark, the cedar tree, and a million other things) knowing this world better than any other single observer. I suppose one could put this intuition more dogmatically by saying that one should take God’s omniscience and omnipresence philosophically seriously when thinking about the soul.  In this vein one could define the ‘soul’ as the sum of God’s intimate knowledge of living beings, encompassing not merely their physical progressions but also their subjective joys and pains. When our biological processes (including our subjectivity) ceases at death, God’s presence as observer, means that all we are, and have been, does not perish, despite the end of a working brain. It is not that the body contains anything ‘special’ or ‘eternal’ on its own; rather our ‘soul’ comes from God’s experience of us as a sort of mental event or memory, and our ‘salvation’ (to use a problematic word) is the act of God retrieving us from what we might equate with a hard-drive on a computer.

So, is that all we become, just shadowy programmes running in ‘God’s mainframe’? Not necessarily. Such a definition of the soul does not exclude the notions of an afterlife (at least as understood within the Christian tradition). If God’ is capable of knowing us better than we know ourselves, it would be simple for such a One to recollect the location of particles which made up the person who was ‘me’ when I was twenty-five, thirty-five or forty-five (at any second of the day or night, on any birthday, any Christmas, any past event at all). It would be just as easy for such a God to summon the old ash-tree I played under as a child, recreate the beautiful bumble bee which once settled on my ten-year-old finger, or replay a wonderful sunny day in Cambridgeshire in 1996. God could as it were lift any piece of information from a life (although we must wonder whether time has the same meaning to God) into an eternal present, to continue the story in another direction. If God is indeed the Observer of observers, Resurrection could be given to anyone or anything (from a human being to a velociraptor) allowing existence and experience to continue beyond conventional ideas of time. Perhaps Eternity  can be defined as God’s continual revisiting of mental events; manifesting as worlds and lives restored from what is from some perspectives, the past. This introduces a pleasing deviation into the normative grammar of Christian thought. From Augustine to Aquinas possession of soul-status meant inclusion in a family of rational beings which is the exclusive soteriological concern of Christ. It is to this group of soul-bearers that he directs both his love through his earthly ministry and his Church. According to this account, those bereft of soul-status are neither the concern of Christ nor of his disciples. At best these shady entities can be left alone; at worst they are ripe for exploitation. This precarious theological position has been the ethical position of non-human animals. Yet, in the recollection model, only beings are included, because all beings are seen and all beings are known by the divine viewer. Thus, the description offered does not merely take categories like omniscience seriously, it also brings to the fore the cosmic dimension of the Gospel in which ‘God may be all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:28). Yet, if Scripture is right, this is probably more than God doing an action replay. When the Bible speaks of Eternity, it is not a perpetually zero-point (caught in heavenly aspic) but a dynamic process. Revelation describes this as a universe praising God:

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: 7the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. 8And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, ‘Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.’  9And whenever the living creatures give glory and honour and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives for ever and ever, 10the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing, 11 ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things,  and by your will they existed and were created.’  (Revelation 4:6-11)

This suggests that ‘the us’ in the metaphysical conversation continues the story. If God indeed ‘wipes away tears’, comforts and loves us in the hereafter, perhaps particular parts of our lives are selected (moments of delight, fulfillment and safety) to be re-explored in a life beyond life. And for those taken almost instantly from temporality, there is still the possibility for the story to continue. It is certainly true that given what I have sketched, such a life, no matter how short, is never lost to God. The phrase ‘being with God’ takes on a special resonance if we adopt this perspective of divine recollection. For myself, I find it hard to think in terms of spiritual presences floating about in the ether. I prefer to think of ‘souls’ as perfect recollections which can be brought to life at any time by God’s decision. Of course, such a model is not without its own philosophical problems. If there is no ‘soul’ (no fixed bastion of ‘self’) how is it that this event called resurrection brings about the continuance of a living personality, consistent with expectations of a personal afterlife? Given that death severs the causal connection between our identity just before our demise and the resurrected body after-death, how can this reconstituted ‘person’ be the same as the one that died at some point in the past? Even if God used most of our remains to accomplish such ‘restoration’ how could such a ‘resurrected self’ be the same person who died in the hospital bed? Surely, it would simply be a replica of a person that died, not the person themselves?  Or would it? Wouldn’t a ‘you’ with the same story, still be you? Regardless of the precise answers we adopt to these questions, the ‘how’ of the ‘perishable’ clothing ‘itself with the imperishable’ remains a tough theological nut to crack. On the other side of this argument we have the accumulated assertion of near-death-experiences, testimony of ghostly apparitions, and other assorted paranormal phenomena. Maybe I should leave that discussion for another post! In the end, all that Christians can really say is that there is no ontological break in God when it comes to the self. In death as in life, God upholds and sustains our identity. We know this primarily, not through philosophy or neurology, but from the empty tomb, which is the ultimate repudiation of death.

 

 

 

For the Love of Stories: Imagining Quakerism Beyond Belief

That Infamous Guardian Article

A few days before Britain Yearly Meeting 2018, a comment piece appeared in Britain’s Guardian newspaper with the mischievous title, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God” (May 4, 2018). The piece’s author Simon Jenkins praised British Friends for their refreshing take on spiritual matters:

The Quakers are clearly on to something. At their annual get-together this weekend they are reportedly thinking of dropping God from their “guidance to meetings”. The reason, said one of them, is because the term “makes some Quakers feel uncomfortable”. Atheists, according to a Birmingham University academic, comprise a rising 14% of professed Quakers, while a full 43% felt “unable to profess a belief in God”. They come to meetings for fellowship, rather than for higher guidance.[1]

Instead of taking refuge in the metaphysical consolations, Jenkins sees Quakers as a group of honest therapeutics, committed to ‘expressing doubts, fears and joys amid a company of “friends”, who respond only with their private silence.’[2] Suffice to say, Jenkins interpretation of contemporary British Quakerism generated a forceful response from the Guardian’s letter pages, with one Friend remarking, ‘discomfort with “God language” is not the same thing as the abandonment of a spiritual life. Even non-theist Quakers have a spiritual life, and certainly don’t come to meetings just for fellowship.’[3] Another Friend remarked, ‘While there is certainly a spectrum of beliefs among Quakers, including those who call themselves “non-theists”, the question is more to do with how Friends think of God than of his absence.’[4] While these responses are clearly meant to reassure the reader that British Quakerism has not become a form of secular therapy, the acknowledgement of discomfort with theological language and the existence of a ‘spectrum of beliefs’ is indicative of an unruly complexity in the identity of British Quakers which defies simple definition. Yet, such spiritual intricacy is not simply perplexing to outsiders like journalists but is becoming increasingly perplexing to Friends themselves. As Keith Redfern expresses the existential challenge of our present condition:

The current climate is one of questioning and self-examination in an effort to find the right way forward. Before we can do this however, we have to be sure that we know who we are. Although British Quakers maybe clear individually as to their stage on a spiritual journey, as a religious community it seems that we are still seeking unity regarding our overall spiritual position.[5]

Such diversity becomes vividly apparent when Friends are asked to explain what they are doing in Meetings for Business. Is the Meeting’s practice of discernment dependent upon some conception of Divine Guidance, a form of consensus decision-making or the unconscious wisdom of the group? If the first option than the decision arrived may possess a significance far beyond those gathered in Worship. If the latter options, the decision a Meeting might reach is merely the product of circumstance.  As Redfern notes pessimistically of this divergence of understanding:

We are a Religious Society, in direct descent from those of the 17th century who realised that it is possible to have a direct communication with God; that we are not alone in our decision making, but that the Spirit is constantly on hand to guide and advise. If we insist on going it alone in our Quaker business, we may never find unity in anything and risk pulling our Yearly Meeting asunder.[6]

One does not have to wholly agree with Redfern’s conclusion to see the fundamental issue he is driving at. If radical diversity is the new reality of 21st century British Quakerism, the question rightly persists, what, if anything, unites its miscellaneous strands? Does the Spirit evoked in the process of Quaker discernment even have an identifiable character to which diverse Quakers can assent? On initial inspection, it appears that Universalist, Christian and Non-theist Friends live in separate religious silos, each generating their own expression of Quaker spirituality. While Meeting for Worship may bring such Friends together in physical terms, their visions of Quaker life and Worship are radically different. Yet this rather polarised view of the present situation is overly hasty, since it ignores the striking similarities between diverse perspectives. Such similarities rest on the common philosophical terrain of ‘belief’. In the theistic version of this account, something called ‘Quaker theism’ is the key ingredient for binding Friends together into a unified whole. As Derek Guiton starkly puts the problem:

The Society today is criss-crossed with divisions and it appears that we now have no alternative but to ‘celebrate’ the diversity that, far from being a strength it is ritually affirmed to be, is in danger of destroying the unity which Friends have always regarded to be there, despite differences in their outward lives. Theists, non-Theists, atheists, Christians, pagans, Universalists, humanists, Friends who welcome this diversity, Friends who regret it, we sit in the same room and share the same silence.[7]

The answer to such discordance according to Guiton is the adoption of a broad-based theological position that ‘unites Friends in the essentials’[8]–an ‘area of acceptable belief’[9] which is ‘theistic without being Trinitarian’[10] and rooted in a ‘rich vein of mystical Christianity.’[11] Here we see the common assumption that belief always comes first in the religious life. Actions are said to spring from such belief.  The concern behind Guiton’s formulation is that the intense debates over Quakerism’s future are the result of substantial deviation at the level of core belief, which inevitably causes a rupture in the fabric of the community. What about folk we might call modelist Friends? While it is true that the notion of core belief is less important to Quakers of this disposition, the centrality of belief remains the same. What such Friends claim is that there should be maximum freedom of belief in the context of a supportive community. As the Universalist Quaker Tony Philpott summarises this attitude: ‘The freedom to believe what I wish…enables me to use whatever model of the self is appropriate; I am not constrained by the Christian model of ‘the sinful man’ or an atheist model of monism and materialism. As with many of my beliefs I can have a universalist and syncretic view of the self.’[12] The non-theist David Boulton broadly concurs, arguing:

The theological diversity that has increasingly marked liberal Friends throughout the world over the last 120 years is the result of our growing discernment that unity is not dependent on someone’s notion of doctrinal orthodoxy. That’s a liberating experience – and a humbling one! It has freed us up to think and rethink everything, to challenge ourselves and each other. There’s nothing incoherent about accepting that we don’t know it all, about living the questions rather than insisting that we have all the answers. It means recognising that Quakers are still seekers on a continuing journey, not finders at the end of the road. There’s no going back.[13]

In the latter account, Quakerism is a protective umbrella under which a variety of beliefs can be grown and fostered. Such Friends want diversity, but like their theist counterparts, never stop talking about belief. Thus, despite all appearances, we can see that the common ground between modelist and theistic camps is the centrality of belief in understanding the nature of religious community. Yet such tacit agreement is, I suggest, the root of the tensions and unease we have observed in Meetings.  The crucial mistake made by the positions surveyed above is that all camps assume that the most significant elements of religious identity revolve around maintenance of ‘belief’. This gives the misleading impression that if only we could find the right hypothesis, the right settlement, the right form of words, all discord would vanish. Yet, attempts so far in this direction have been fruitless. The attempt to listen and include every shade of opinion has only magnified the sense of fracture in our Meetings. Why is this? Because Quakerism, like any other religious community, does not remain cohesive because of belief.  Something much deeper draws religious communities together; the notion of a shared story.

Deconstructing the Terrain of Belief: Durkheim and Douglas

In 1912, the French Sociologist Emile Durkheim published his seminal work, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. The study’s compelling attempts to categorise the essential structure and function of ‘religion’ across human culture still provides a compelling framework for contemporary social theorists and anthropologists. What is perhaps less appreciated is the extent to which this text provides a snapshot of the ways in which the Western secular intelligentsia viewed religious phenomena at the beginning of the last century. A central element of Durkheim’s picture was the view that religious communities sprung primarily from beliefs about the status of holy and ordinary things. If we want to understand religious institutions and practices, it follows that we must first understand the claims which animate them. As Durkheim summarises this position: ‘[a] religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.’[14] According to this account, religious communities are ‘bound together by their common beliefs’[15] externally expressed through shared rites. While Durkheim understood that in most cases religious life consists of a diversity of ceremonies, taboos, and symbols, such structures are always derivative from an initial faith.[16]

Image result for Emile durkheim It is this Durkheimian model of religious life which explicitly structures contemporary debates over Quaker identity. Yet, ever since Durkheim articulated this theory of religious origins, there has always been a sense that something was missing from this overly belief-driven account of religion. In the rising tide of modern secularism, the only things Durkheim could see that were distinctive about the religious was their tendency to say religious things and performed sacred rites. Yet such a description of religiosity ignores other things which keep people in religious communities. The great disciple of Durkheim, the anthropologist Mary Douglas drew out some of the limitations of her mentor’s approach in her 1971 study Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. At the centre of the book is the claim that religious belief should not be reduced to primary beliefs and their derivative manifestations. While Douglas thought it true that rituals were often sustained by beliefs, it was equally true that the content of beliefs were often sustained by the symbols contained and encoded in ritual practices.  As Douglas notes of the dynamics of the Catholic Eucharist:

The condensation of symbols in the Eucharist is staggering in its range and depth. The white circle of bread encompasses symbolically the cosmos, the whole history of the Church and more, since it goes from the bread offering of Melchisidech, to Calvary and the Mass. It unites the body of each worshipper to the body of the faithful. In this compass it expresses themes of atonement, nourishment, and renewal.[17]

In this vein, when we observe the Mass, we are neither seeing a straightforward manifestation of ritual through belief or belief through ritual, but a set of symbols which operate prior to either ritual or belief. This is a hidden structure, made up of words, images and assumptions, which allows a group to structure their experience into a coherent vision of the world, which Douglas called a ‘cosmology’. Summarising the concept, Douglas suggests:

We should try to think of cosmology as a set of categories that are in use. It is like lenses which bring into focus and make bearable the manifold challenge of experience. It is not a hard carapace which the tortoise has to carry for ever, but something very flexible and easily disjointed. Spare parts can be fitted and adjustments made without much trouble. Occasionally a major overhaul is necessary to bring the obsolete set of views into focus with new times and new company. This is conversion.[18]

So, the question for contemporary British Quakers is not, ‘what do we believe’? But, rather, ‘what are the foundational words, images and stories that bind us together’? In Douglas’ terms, we should ask, what is our cosmology? While such a carapace cannot be easily described (just as it would be hard for a fish to describe water), we can begin the process of articulation by being attentive to the words and symbols in our Quaker tradition. This process (as Douglas’ own comments imply) is not about pickling Quaker identity into any permanent configuration but is about starting with the rich bed of resources which are implicit in the Quaker way of seeing, speaking, and relating. Think of these distinctive markers of Quaker identity (our words for God and social action, for instance) as miniature maps, which induct us into a particular interpretation of the world. Living out this interpretation is more important than a series of abstract questions about God. A satisfactory vision of God is never going to come about by adopting some over-arching theory or belief. But a deep coherence may arise if we become attentive to the language and stories Quakerism uses to illustrate (perhaps we should say picture) what God is for us. This process has many dimensions, but the most crucial one it seems to me, is about recovering a sense that our words and stories come from somewhere and have the capacity to lead us somewhere else. It is about saying, ‘I am a Quaker because this shared story calls to the very depth of my life—it fits the pieces of experience together, it shapes, it heals, it clarifies’.

The Challenge of This ApproachImage result for Margaret fell

Viewing our present Quaker condition from this cosmological point of view can be challenging for a great many Friends occupying different places on the so-called spectrum, not least because it challenges the language of both belief and or belief-diversity as central to Quakerism. For non-theist and Universalist Friends, this perspective may seem troubling because it implies a robust recovery of some shared Quaker story. Might that exclude some people and alienate others? Not necessarily, although it might generate some hard questions which in turn force us to say what we are. Let’s be clear what it is we are talking about here. Make no bones about it, a shared story requires a shared language and that language, is, for the most part, Christian. So many of our fundamental words and images are emergent properties from the New Testament story. The Quaker story cannot be fully appreciated without this context. This is not in itself excluding of Universalist or non-theist Quakers, but it should raise thorny questions for those Friends who may be actively hostile to the centrality of Christian stories or language within Quakerism. What then binds such Friends to the lives of other Friends and to the Quaker tale? What is the centre of their shared Quaker life? Does the following Advice still speak to such Friends?

Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ. Are you open to the healing power of God’s love? Cherish that of God within you, so that this love may grow in you and guide you. Let your worship and your daily life enrich each other. Treasure your experience of God, however it comes to you. Remember that Christianity is not a notion but a way. (1.02)

If such words leave some Friends cold or troubled, what might be getting in the way of working with such language? Baggage, intellectual scruples, past pain, our Meetings? But again, let’s be clear what is being talked about. The importance of Christianity argued for here, should not imply adopting a rigid set of beliefs (the historicity of the Resurrection, the Ascension, or the virgin birth) for surely then we are into the barren world of notions. What good would a creed or theology do us unless we were able to live in its words, and swim in its possibilities? This has always been central to the Quaker call. Think of Margret Fell and her earth-shattering experience in Ulverston Church in 1652:

  You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’ This opened me so that it cut me to the heart; and then I saw clearly, we were all wrong. So, I sat me down in my pew again, and cried bitterly. And I cried in my spirit to the Lord, ‘We are all thieves, we are all thieves, we have taken the Scriptures in words and know nothing of them in ourselves’… I saw it was the truth, and I could not deny it; and I did as the apostle saith, I ‘received the truth in the love of it’. And it was opened to me so clear that I had never a tittle in my heart against it; but I desired the Lord that I might be kept in it, and then I desired no greater portion. (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19.07)

Interestingly, Fell or Fox don’t say ditch the story (they use the language of the Scriptures), but neither do they say merely copy the story. Quakerism is not some hollow re-enactment fundamentalism. They say live the story, love it, embrace it. Let your manner of life follow from this. In this highly practical mode, the religious life isn’t primarily about believing things (if by belief we mean assenting intellectually to this or that proposition or statement). It isn’t even about protecting belief, so we don’t step on people’s toes. It is about letting the symbols of the shared story into one’s life, trusting that they will deliver their ‘fruit’, in meaning, in purpose, in depth. Belief of all kinds might follow later from this kind of narrative assent, but that isn’t the most important thing about the concept of a shared Quaker story. What matters the most is the ability of Friends to see and hear one another in ways which are rooted and shared. We must get beyond personal models and get into the habit of sitting under a more expansive canopy. This is a far richer starting-point than the one offered by some belief-focused Quaker Theists, or indeed some self-identified Non-Theists. It is not ‘theism’ or belief pluralism we need but a fresh and lively appreciation of the narratives that help us ‘be Quaker’. This is about Quaker literacy and not Quaker literalism. To non-theists and universalists, I would say, don’t simply dismiss, translate, or minimize the Christian stories and words that sit behind our Book of Discipline. Sit with them, test them, speak them, pull them apart, but don’t ignore them. Let them impinge your imagination, your heart, your thoughts. Let them work their alchemy in you, generating new ways of seeing and knowing.  To self-identified Quaker Theists, I would say, don’t reduce Quakerism to ‘transcendence’ or the defense of God- language. Realize that we are invited into a whole cosmology, a living way of knowing and experiencing. We cannot argue away difference, but we can find unity if we sit on the same symbolic ground. If British Quakerism is to be more than a storehouse of competing beliefs, or a therapeutic group on a Sunday morning, we must get beyond belief and start telling the Quaker story together.

[1] Simon Jenkins, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God”, May 4th 2018, The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/04/quakers-dropping-god

[2] Jenkins, “The Quakers are right. We don’t need God”, May 4th 2018, The Guardianhttps://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/may/04/quakers-dropping-god

[3] Letters: ‘Debate on ‘God language’ doesn’t mean all Quakers are losing faith’, 7 May 2018, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/07/debate-on-god-language-doesnt-mean-all-quakers-are-losing-faith

[4] ‘Debate on ‘God language’ doesn’t mean all Quakers are losing faith’, 7 May 2018, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/may/07/debate-on-god-language-doesnt-mean-all-quakers-are-losing-faith

[5] Kevin Redfern, ‘Doing Our Quaker Business’, in Searching the Depths: Essays in Search of Quaker Identity, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), p. 77.

[6] Redfern, ‘Doing Our Quaker Business’, in Searching the Depths: Essays in Search of Quaker Identity, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1998), p. 83.

[7] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, p. 2.

[8] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, p. 15.

[9] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[10] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[11] Guiton, A Man That Looks Through Glass, ibid

[12] Tony Philpott, From Christian to Quaker: A Spiritual Journey from Evangelical Christian to Universalist Quaker, (Winchester: Quaker Universalist Group Publishing, 2013), p. 240

[13] David Boulton. ‘Diversity’, in The Friend, 9 April 2010, https://thefriend.org/article/letters-9-april-2010 [Accessed 18 May 2018]

[14] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carlos Cossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 46

[15] Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Carlos Cossman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 42

[16] ‘Sue Stedman Jones, ‘The Concept of Belief in Elementary Forms’, in On Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of Religious Life, ed. N.J. Allen, W.S.F. Pickering, W. Watts Miller, (London: Routledge, 1998), p. 53

[17] Mary Douglas, Natural Symbol Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology, (London: Routledge, 1971), p. 49-50

[18] Douglas, Natural Symbols, p.158

The Secret of Jesus: Against Imperialist Christianity

“A miracle,” says one, “would strengthen my faith.” He says so when he does not see one. Reasons, seen from afar, appear to limit our view; but when they are reached, we begin to see beyond. (Pascal, Pensées)

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Luke and Matthew’s accounts of Jesus’ birth are in many ways documents of ‘glory’. In the Nativity we see the beauty and exhilaration of the Good News in Brief.  In the declaration of the angels to the shepherds we are encouraged to see plainly the revelation of God among the lowliest. And in the star and the Magi, we see an ancient priesthood brought firmly into the orbit of Israel. The world, (implies Luke and Matthew) has come under a new mode of rule, a King in the mould of David, who will bring down ‘rulers from their thrones and lift ‘up the humble’ (Luke 1:52). But the danger latent in the Nativity’s stirring moments is that the tribal minded flatten these statements into an imperialist claim that the Church has the right to reshape societies and souls in its own image. In this vein, the coming of Jesus is about the vindication of the ‘Christian community’ and the condemnation of the world’s perverted ignorance. Here, the good news of Jesus becomes a guarded position for ‘us only’ and not the treasure of the creation or of God’s people Israel. The Gospel becomes little more than a battering-ram against external ‘others’ who are still in captivity. The Church alone benefits from the Messiah. Only the Church can make his work known. As comfortable as such an imperialist reading appears to be, it actively endangers the deep secret of the Gospel.

Image result for Jesus messianic secretOf what does this secret consist? In the earliest of the Synoptics, Jesus the healing preacher and Messiah, never works like the angels before the Shepherds. There is no heavenly light, no celestial visitations, no star blazing heralding the fulfilment of prophecy. There is only a man working in obscurity. Few recognised who he was and those who did were often told by Jesus not to reveal his identity.  He even silences a demon that threatens to bring the full meaning of his work to light of day (Mark 1:23-24). His  disciples remained baffled throughout his ministry.  Even when signs of the old prophets are reproduced in flashing moments of Nativity-like clarity, his followers are left wondering, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41). In a beautifully enigmatic scene, we are told that:

“Jesus and his disciples went on to the villages around Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about him.”

Jesus and his disciples were in a peculiarly ambiguous position.  They visibly healed, but they were invisible to much of the wider world. They served but they were hidden in plain sight. Their teacher laboured for the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom always broke out in patches, in lives healed, in persons restored. What Mark offers us not some triumphant march of a spiritual revolution, but many fragmentary episodes of wonder which are frequently obscured by obstinate observers who refuse to acknowledge what is happening in front of them.  People shrugged but at the same time ‘the news about Him went out everywhere into all the surrounding district of Galilee’ (Mark 1:28). The God in these encounters has no need for the trappings of visible glory, but works patiently at the margins, often unseen and unappreciated by the majority. But why would God behave in this mysterious way? Paul in his early musings on this point comes to a deeply frustrating conclusion; God’s glory is found in places that the world regards as the least glorious. The will of God is given its full expression not merely in Jesus the secret healer, but Jesus, the publicly humiliated criminal. The cross is the symbol of the frightening contradiction under which God desires to operate. As Paul reflects:

“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach[a] to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men”. (1 Corinthians 1: 20:25).

Image result for Jesus messianic secretIf the perpetual temptation for the Church is that it uses the flashes of glory in the Nativity to declare a project of expansion, Paul provides a swift rejoinder. When a secret Messiah becomes the totem of public and self-aggrandizing Christianity it has denied the Cross. If the Church ceases to respect the secret worker and the marginal it has committed Peter’s denial afresh: “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” (Luke 22:54-62). To protect us from repudiation, we should read the Nativity, not just through Paul but through the Messianic secrecy of Mark. A baby of dubious parentage is born under cruel conditions and forced into obscurity and exile. He is the representative not merely of a given political climate, but of the generational suffering of his people, Israel. By surviving the murderous machinations of Herod, the Messiah comes into solidarity with all survivors and victims, in the past and to come. The slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:16–18) may not be a historical event, but it is an existential reflection on the eternal location of the Messiah. God’s servant is not in palaces, among priesthoods or with the obviously holy, but where there is pain, death, and distortion among people whom the powerful and the outwardly holy do not regard as worthy of consideration.

In this respect the Hidden Messiah reminds us of the beautiful and dangerous paradox of the Gospel. When the world at large encounters defeat, it is likely to fall into resolute unbelief or the most corrosive pessimism. People will say, “Look, nothing is coming to save us” or “See, the poor get poorer and the rich get richer, nothing ever changes”. But such sentiments speak more about people’s preferred modus operandi of liberation than it does the deep structure of the world. People subconsciously desire a moment of sheer Deus ex machina, when all that has gone before will be washed away. In such a scheme there is no time for a God of the margins, or the suffering patient One who works in the shadows. The servant who waits to be seen is a weak phantom, lacking the lure of earthly breakers of chains. Such people dismiss the homeless child as the Messiah because it does not accord with their inflexible vision of Messianic leadership. As a questioner in John complains: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). But for one who worships in the light of the Cross, there can be no space for such  chauvinism. For the presence of God is found in His hiddenness. As Pascal vividly observes in his Pensées:

“Instead of complaining that God has hidden Himself, you will give Him thanks for having revealed so much of Himself; and you will also give Him thanks for not having revealed Himself to haughty sages, unworthy to know so holy as God. Two kinds of persons know Him: those who have a humble heart, and who love lowliness, whatever kind of intellect they may have, high or low; and those who have sufficient understanding to see the truth, whatever opposition they may have to it.”

The point of the Gospel is precisely this: God is longing and lover, a whisper, a whisperer, the power in the heart of powerlessness, life hidden in death. The One who works in Jesus is never where we expect him to be. He is not among confirmed believers, but perceived outsiders. The Roman centurion who discovers faith in this mysterious Lord is but one life the hidden God of the margins encompasses. Where the Holy One is most denied by reason or social boundaries, there he resides in glory. When one loses faith (in loneliness, in violence, in despair) there the Messiah is crucified again for the one who cries and all the forsaken.  That is the absurd God of the Nativity, discovered when hope is lost, discerned midst absence. Centuries of Christendom has made most forget about this Hidden Messiah, in favour of public expansionist faith, replete with spires missionaries, bejewelled altars and songs of spiritual victory. Christians have proclaimed the triumph of Christ without attending to what such triumph means: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30).

Body Theology: Or Why Only Eucharistic Action Makes Us True to Ourselves

This post starts with a big claim: Good political theology involves doing body theology. To reflect on the theological significance of a polity means reflecting on what makes up a political community; not merely a priori individuals, but needful bodies, in need of care, love and shelter. Politics at its most human concerns the transfer of resources in relation to these frail vessels of blood and bone. The deep question of political order is: which bodies are to be included? And which excluded? Yet in our modern age we are in danger in forgetting this fundamental reality. We are becoming increasingly obsessed with politics as a series of technological fixes to structural problems, rather than politics as relation. We start believing that we don’t need each other; that in some strange way individual human intellects can find ways of guaranteeing individual salvation; through the disembodied world of the internet or in perpetual design and re-design of our identity (as so prevalent among the post-modernists).

Related imageModern state-craft is increasingly driven by abstract measures like economic productivity and quarterly GDP, without considering for a moment the actual conditions in which people live. Politics is stuck in a Platonic realm of Ideas where bodies are left behind. We start believing that somehow, we can live apart from nature and one another; seeking ever more spectacular modes of control over environment; so much so that we begin to forget the bonds of physicality and sentiment which tie us together. What happens when selves are cut off from the deeper commitments of all-embracing love and justice for God-given bodies that Christian theology presupposes? Two compelling manifestos against this body-less cult of the technical and abstract are found in Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  At the heart of both texts, we find examples of what happens when the human polis becomes trapped by transgressive Promethean fantasies. Both protagonists are potent symbols of the pursuit of power without responsibility and knowledge without morality. Marlowe’s Faustus revels in magical arts delighting in the prospect of making ‘men live eternally, or being dead, raise them to life again’ or being ‘on earth as Jove is in the sky’ while Frankenstein seeks through the pages of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus the perfection of the human condition.  Looking back over his tragic life Frankenstein defines his supreme obsession:

     Wealth was an inferior object, but what glory would attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death! Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors. [CH 2.]

Image result for doctor faustus marloweWhat is so dangerous about these passions is the way in which they defy any suggestion of relation. In Faustus and Frankenstein human beings are set free from obligation, reciprocity and need for empathy, and instead embark on the complete mastery of world and self. Emblematic of this denial of duty and empathy is the rejection of the integrity of the living, breathing body. It is by and through an appreciation of our body, our feelings, and our senses that we learn to appreciate others. In the pain and pleasure of our own bodies we begin to recognise the pleasure and pain of others. In our own finitude we see our need for others to complete us. The finite body is never self-sufficient but is always reaching out for sustenance and companionship. It is no surprise therefore that both Faustus and Frankenstein, in projects stained with megalomania, find relational embodiment distasteful. More important than reciprocity or love are the promulgation of abstract ideas of power and control. It is significant that when Faustus signs the deed to his body and soul one of the clauses reads, ‘that Faustus may be spirit in form and substance’. Later, when the demon Mephistopheles confronts Faustus with the spiritual consequences of his bargain with Lucifer, on losing his body he exclaims ‘but what of that?’  Yet, in Marlowe’s tale it is the act of giving up his body which ultimately damns Faustus to eternal perdition. According to Thomist Theology (with which Marlowe seemed familiar) a spirit without a body is nothing but a demon and by its lack of embodiment is unable to repent. Bodies are not merely vessels which carry the soul; the body is that creature which entices the spirit towards its final rest in God. By making a pact with Satan, Faustus denies the saving potential of the body, to his eternal cost.

Frankenstein’s denial of the body takes the form of what the Feminist Mary Daly has described in terms of a necrophilia fantasy.  Frankenstein’s monster, made from the disjointed parts of corpses, turns the human body into an object for Frankenstein’s intellectual pleasures. The body is not a source of relationship, but merely a means to an end of consolidating power. As Daly notes, ’The insane desire for power, the madness of boundary violation is the mark of necrophiliacs, who sense the lack of soul/spirit/life-loving principle with themselves and therefore try to invade and kill all spirit, substituting conglomerates of corpses’. In the passivity of the corpse, Daly sees Frankenstein’s lust for control satisfied, replacing his need for relationship and vulnerability. Yet, Frankenstein’s denial of the centrality of relationships in the creation, but also in the abandonment of the creature comes back to haunt him. Left alone and estranged from human society it becomes hateful and decides to take revenge on Frankenstein by murdering both his brother and his wife. To Shelley, as with Marlowe, to deny one’s own finitude is to bring tragedy upon oneself. To refuse to accept the inevitability of the human condition, marred in death and limitation is to court disaster.

Image result for sacred hospitalityHow can we get beyond this deadening quest for power? The answer is in our practice as Christians. The ecclesia begins its deliberation on the meaning of the human, not through an appeal to a technology of perfection and invulnerability, but by taking seriously the lessons we learn in the acts of giving and receiving hospitality. At the core of such acts Christians discern that humans are fundamentally needful creatures, in need of care, consideration, and company. Our bodies cry out for tenderness and relation, our faces call for recognition. This logic of gift (embodied by Eucharistic sharing) exaggerates these bodily realities by stripping us of all our masks, pretensions, and defence mechanisms. What matters at the table of fellowship is not our status, nor our resistance to failure, but our longing for consideration and affirmation. Our presence at the table is not dependent upon our ability to stand immune from the vicissitudes of life, but based on our ability to receive, to meet to understand. For Quakers the embryo of such an embodied politics begins with our worship together. By opening ourselves to the possibility of being powerless in the boundless presence of the Inward Light, we are offered a mirror which attends to our true condition.  We are not meant to live apart (struggling for some private paradise) but seek a deep solidarity with each frail person. We live most faithfully (most humanly) when the cry of another shatters our illusions of control and stability. This is the deep meaning of the Query: “Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ”. To be ordered thus, is to live in the shadow of the bodily One who suffers alongside, never from above. To be shaped by such a Spirit is to become vulnerable in the service of others.

Are You Secular? Some Reflections on the Theology of Hildegard of Bingen

The Meaning of the Secular

There has been much debate in the UK press recently about the meaning and future of the ‘secular’ but such discussions have often produced more heat than light, particularly for some religious communities who feel ever more threatened by a changing culture. A large part of this anxiety is generated by thorny questions concerning what ‘the secular’ is and how do we know if we’re really part of it.  Is it simply about widespread disbelief in God (or a Higher Power) or something more? And how is this non/belief linked to the ideology known as ‘secularism’? Some reactive religious communities continue to believe that if only they can define and ‘unmask’ the secular, they can affectively police the commitment of their members, sealing fragile souls inside a pious bubble, protected from a hostile world. But as I go on to suggest, it is not that simple. There might be paths beyond the secular, but these tracks may not lie where people think they do. Being ‘religious’ in a secular context might require a great act of imagination both strange and wonderful. Just insisting on some list of dry traditional values may not be enough. In this post, I want to consider what ‘the secular’ might be by looking closely at the thought of the Medieval mystic, physician, and musician, Hildegard of Bingen (1098 –1179). By filtering her richly complex theology through the work of philosopher Charles Taylor, I want to shed some fresh light on what is or isn’t secular. I want to suggest that full secularity is not merely about one’s nonalignment to religious beliefs or practices, but the rejection of a symbolic and analogical approach to the world.

"Universal Man", an illumination from a 13th-century copy of Hildegard von Bingen's Liber Divinorum Operum ("Book of Divine Works", c. 1165).Let’s start with some basic (contested) definitions. What divides the modern secular West from its religious past? According to the influential analysis of the philosopher Charles Taylor, the gulf between premodern and modern culture necessarily hinges upon questions of meaning. Under secular conditions, meaning is regarded as the product of agents, who impose their perspective onto an otherwise neutral cosmos. What we encounter in this world by way of ‘meaning’ is not an act of discovery but rather, an act of interpretation. We might very well believe in sacred things in an otherwise secular world, but we must make a conscious choice to do so. Life under secularity, does not invite the notion of meaning as inherent. The fact that we can imagine a world without God (even if we believe in Him) reveals our fundamental state of modern disenchantment.[1] What has changed? Taylor believes that modernity has eclipsed a sacred vision of life and nature in which God is not only believed in, but is also ‘inescapable’.[2] In a sacred cosmos ‘meanings are not in the mind[3]’ but are inherent in the structure of the world in the form of ‘charged’ objects, places, and persons. As Taylor notes:

[In] the enchanted world, charged things have a causal power which matches their incorporated meaning…. Once meanings are not exclusively in the mind, once we can fall under the spell, enter the zone of exogenous meaning, then we think of this meaning as including us, or perhaps penetrating us. We are in as it were a kind of space defined by this influence. The meaning can no longer be placed simply within; but nor can it located exclusively without.’[4]

Thus, in the enchanted world of Christendom, it was entirely rational to affirm the actions of spirits, the intercession of saints and the power of relics since subjectivity was not confined to human agents.[5] What are the distinctive features of an enchanted paradigm? A useful way into this question is to consider George Lindbeck’s ‘cultural-linguistic’ treatment of religious life. A key insight in Lindbeck’s analysis is the claim that what Taylor calls enchantment, is underlined by a shared narrative. The immersion in an enchanted world is made possible by the participation of communities in a common story which structure the way they speak and act. This narrative structure to life is underlined by Taylor’s claim that meaning is not just in the mind, but is constantly leaking out into the world.  In this model, our stories intersect with events, just as events intersect with stories.

Telling a Sacred Story

How is this approach to experience linked to Hildegard of Bingen? Such a narrative-centred cast of mind is vividly illustrated in Hildegard’s De Operatione Dei where space and time are understood as providential conduits, through which God’s intent is communicated. In one particularly revealing discussion of the order of the seasons, Hildegard notes:

When the sun rises high in the sky in summer, this fire carries out God’s vengeance by the fire-causing lightning; when the sun descends in winter, the judgement fire indicates condemnation and punishment by ice, cold and hail. For every sin, will be punished according to its nature, by fire, cold and other afflictions.[6]

Here the elements are rendered as actors in a coherent narrative-whole, repeating and recalling God’s past judgements recorded in Scripture. The same reasoning prevails in Hildegard’s attitudes towards the diversity of created life. In a world where meaning is inherent and not imposed, the birds of the air are symbols of thought[7], lions represent the judgement of God[8], while the serpent signifies the faculty of deception and cunning[9]. Working alongside this semiotic/psychological reading of nature, we find a complimentary tendency in Hildegard’s writings to interpret natural events through the lens of Scripture. Mary is frequently interpreted the dawn, giving birth to the sun (Christ)[10] while the seven planets of classical astronomy are made to ‘signify the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit,’[11]. Yet if the created order served as a mirror of Scripture, the Biblical narrative was also understood as a mirror to itself, with texts continually pointing beyond themselves to other images in the canon. Thus, when Hildegard reads of Aaron’s staff[12] (Ex. 7:17) and Abraham’s ram (Gen. 22:13) she sees a foreshadowing of the power and obedience of the Virgin Mary.[13] What does this semiotic method tell about the deep structure of Hildegard’s worldview? Crucially, we learn that the Biblical narrative is not treated as a linear time-bound text, but an abiding reality which beckons the worshipper into a timeless present. The sense that all things are in the orbit of an ever-existent Biblical narrative, is pertinently illustrated by Hildegard’s belief in the healing power of precious and semi-precious stones. In locating the basis of their healing properties Hildegard is careful to ground her explanation in the Bible’s narration of the devil and his fate. As she recounts in her medical treatise Patrologia Latina:

Every stone contains fire and moisture. The devil abhors, detests, and disdains precious stones. That is because he remembers that their beauty was manifest on him before he fell from the glory God had given him, and because some precious stones are engendered from fire, in which he receives his punishment. By the will of God, the devil was vanquished by the fire into which he fell, just as he is vanquished by the fire of the Holy Spirit when human beings are snatched from his jaws by the first breath of the Holy Spirit.[14]

Accordingly, when these instruments of divine fire are applied to the problems of human sickness, the devil flees[15] the patient and his spirits are subdued.[16] In the narrative origin of such beliefs, we see the full import of Taylor’s interpretation of the enchanted premodern. In a rich fusion of text and symbolic correspondence, Hildegard inducts the reader into a world where meaning migrates from the mind to outward signs and back again, transforming outward experience into a reflection of transcendent meaning. In turn, medicine becomes a narrative inspired act, which attempts to trace the influence of spiritual, infernal, planetary, and astrological influences on the life of the patient.  At the centre of these interlocking forces is the human body, which in its structure, expresses the earth’s affinity with these powers. In this respect, says Hildegard:

[Both] of them- sun and moon- then serve humankind in accord with the divine order, bringing us either health or illness according to the mix of atmosphere and aura …. If the moon is waxing, the brain and blood of human beings are also increased. If the moon is waning, the substances of the blood and brain in human beings also diminish.[17]

Hildegard von Bingen.jpgYet such astrological vision of medicine is never a declaration of fatalism for the Catholic Hildegard, but an expression of the hermetic principle supera et infera eadem sunt (as above so below). Here medicine is concerned not merely with physical health (much less predicting the future) but the restoration of various kinds of social and sacred balance.  Thus, as the anthropologist W. H. R. Rivers helpfully observes in his now famous study Medicine, Magic, and Religion, in many tribal societies disease was regarded as the result of an ‘infraction of totemic ordinances’[18] while cure was sort by the restoration of social relationship, through the confession of the malevolent party[19] or else through ‘curative rites connected with taboos.’[20] Pre-modern pre-secular Western medicine in this sense was a technology not only concerned with the causation between disease and cure, but touched upon the restoration of numerous hidden relations in the world and the body (one’s ancestors, one’s community, and one’s inner character). In agreement with this symbolic logic, when sins darken the human soul, says Hildegard, this state finds outward expression in the disappearing moon ‘at its waning.’[21] Likewise, when human beings persevere in righteousness, this is made externally manifest in the light of the sun.[22]  In this way, Hildegard sees humanity as possessed with the special task of disclosing the rule of God to his creatures, a link between earth and heaven. The same human being who is confirmed and blessed through the enactment of the Eucharist is meant to set as co-judge with God, sitting in the vacated place of fallen angels. Yet because of humanity’s primordial act of sin (which Hildegard identified with a blackening sickness[23]) people run after the lure of the magic arts. Instead of acting in partnership with God, our fallen species seek to imitate the devil by using creation for selfish own ends.[24]  Sin in this context is about a refusal of human beings to treat the creation humbly as a tutor of the self, but rather treat it as a means to and end, devoid of holy intent.

  Not Anti-reality, But Holistic Reality

What does this scheme tell us about the contrast between the sacred and secular? In her rich description of Adam and Eve before the fall, Hildegard tells us that all the elements of creation existed in a state of equanimity, serving human interests.[25]  When the primordial couple were expelled from Paradise, the art of medicine continued to provide a portal to this original state of harmony.  Unlike the disordered hubris of the sorcerer, the art of the physician is modelled God’s desire for a redeemed creation.[26] While magic relies on the destruction of preordained relationships, medicine is concerned with their restoration. To use modern philosophical jargon we might say that the sacred vision of Hildegard is holistic/ecological, while the vision of the magician is positively Baconian. Yet by employing such an oppositional rubric, one should not suppose that straightforwardly casual explanations are entirely absent from the enchanted world of Hildegard’s physic. As Rivers reminds us, many magical and religious practices encode accounts of physical causation[27], just as otherwise non-magical practices can take on a religious or magical significance.[28]  For her part, Hildegard is attentive to matters of organic function as her fascination with the workings of the heart and liver aptly demonstrate.[29]  Enchantment in this sense does not imply what the sceptical modern might regard as an anti-reality principle (the refusal to accept obvious causation) rather it concerns the imaginative apparatus through all causation should be understood.

Hildegard did not refuse obvious causes and effects in favour of purely arcane reasoning. The stance suggested by her enchanted medicine is altogether subtler. The position being reached for is that matters of structure and function are inherently bound up with subjectivity, with experiences and judgements of spiritual status. ‘Sin’ is bound to illness not because of an abject refusal to accept that the human organism has a structure which obeys certain regular laws , but rather because such an organism cannot be fully understood without the Church’s sacred story. A modern parallel can be seen in example of a Reiki therapist, who, while acknowledging the effectiveness of antiviral drugs and MRI machines believes that there is more to health than a simple mechanistic account allows.

In this way, we might say that secularity emerges not when we cease to tell the story, but when we separate matters of structure and function from that story. Thus, a religious congregation can be justly called functionally secular if the majority of the congregants are pure followers of sacred words/stories, but have no expectation that these stories will manifest in real-time (only in the deepest recesses of the soul). Such a stripped down personalised Protestant religiosity (whether it in fact calls itself Catholic or Protestant) has stripped religious symbols of active power, contracting out their real-world functions to medicine, private prayer or professional psychology.  This religiously inspired state of decay is probably most advanced in heavily policed congregations where believers are taught to dismiss dreams, visions, premonitions, healing and the low-level telepathy of prayer, as ‘New Age nonsense’. Here such intense fundamentalism obscures a deep spiritual hollowness, as key religious claims about experience are separated from the real quandaries and deep needs of human life. For humans to stay religious our longings for the holy must in turn  generate answers to the perennial issues of life and death. Once they cease to do this, the religious faculty becomes something of a vestigial organ. The symbolic forms remain, but the key to incorporating them into life has been lost. The great irony in this context is that the New Age astrologer or healer (condemned as sinful by committed purists) has a better intuitive grasp of what matters in the sacred life because s/he is able to see the invisible in the visible, unlike his religious yet highly secular detractors.

Is there any way back into this sacred view of life? If Taylor is right, there is no way of putting this secular consciousness back in the bottle, even if we wanted to. Our very awareness of the possibility of a completely godless world means that the spell of the premodern is forever broken. We can’t simply wish our way into the world of  Hildegard, no matter how much we say “I believe”. But for those who seek new depth in their religious traditions, there may be a way to enter the postsecular- a realm in which we discover the hidden linkages between stories and selves, symbols, and souls. This is the lynch-pin of Jung’s Analytical psychology, but it is also at the heart of Charismatic and Pentecostal movements that attempt to see their religious worlds through the activity of the Spirit, communicated in their holy stories. Once we break the embargo on linking our inner and outward worlds (Jung’s famed notion of synchronicity) we can begin to capture our sense of the sacred in a world made secular. But for many this process is only a vague possibility in a societies which are becoming increasingly alienated from holy ways of seeing. If this blog post is even half right, the danger for religious traditions in the modern world is not sacred forms being swamped by militant anti-belief, but rather, the prospect that in the very near future, the symbols and assumptions that tie together once influential religious narratives (particularly in the West) will become increasingly unintelligible or fragmented. What effect this will have on the course of our civilization, if left uncorrected, is anyone’s guess.

[1] Taylor, A Secular Age, (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 12.

[2] Taylor, A Secular Age, (London: Harvard University Press, 2007), p.  13.

[3] Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 35

[4] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  35.

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  32.

[6] Hildegard of Bingen, Book of Divine Works with Letters and Songs, ed. Matthew Fox, (Santa Fe, Bear & Company, 1987), p. 27.

[7] Hildegard of Bingen, Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, trans. Priscila Throop, (Rochester, Healing Arts Press, 1998), p.137

[8] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works), p.

[9] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works, p. 37

[10] See Rebeca L.R. Garber, ‘‘Where is the Body?’ Images of Eve and Mary in the Scivias’, in Hildegard of Bingen: A Book of Essays, ed. Maud Burnett McInerney, (New York: Farland, 1998), p. 120

[11] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works, p. 48

[12] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works, p. 20

[13] Hildegard, Book of Divine Works, ibid.

[14] Hildegard Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, trans. Priscila Throop, (Rochester, Healing Arts Press, 1998), p. 137

[15] Hildegard Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, p. 148

[16] Hildegard Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica, p. 149

[17]  Hildegard, Book of Divine Works p. 47

[18] W.H.R Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, (London: Routledge, 1924: 2001), p. 37

[19] Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, p. 36

[20] Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, p. 35.

[21] Hildegard Book of Divine Works, p. 103

[22] Hildegard Book of Divine Works, ibid

[23] Wighard Strehlow & Gottfried Hertzka, Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, trans. Karen Anderson Strehlow, (Rochester: Bear & Company, 1998), p.101

[24] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, trans. Columba Hart & Jane Bishop, (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 101

[25] Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, p. 86

[26] Hildegard, Scivias, p. 128

[27] Rivers uses the example of leech craft, which maybe compatible with certain religious conceptions, but in most cases, preserves definite ideas concerning both pathology and disease. See Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, p. 48

[28] Rivers, Medicine, Magic, and Religion, p. 101

[29] Wighard Strehlow & Gottfried Hertzka, Hildegard of Bingen’s Medicine, trans. Karen Anderson Strehlow, (Rochester: Bear & Company, 1998), pp. 65-68

Jesus the Epicurean: or Why the Personal really is Political

In his richly devotional book Writing in the Sand, the psychotherapist and former monk, Thomas Moore makes an intriguing hermeneutical suggestion. When we explore the ministry of Jesus and its contemporary implications, one fruitful exercise is to view his actions through the lens of the ancient philosophy of Epicureanism. At first glance, such a suggestion seems antithetical to any faithful rendering of the New Testament. After all, the Epicureans were the great materialists of antiquity. With their elegant exposition of Democritean atomism and their indifference to religion, early Christians cast Epicureans as the enemies of their energetic faith in the risen Christ. Yet, such condemnations often obscure the extent to which both early Christians and Epicureans shared a common set of social practices. Such resemblances make for a fruitful cross-reading. Returning to the Gospels, Moore notes: ‘Jesus has much in common with Epicurus….The Gospels are full of scenes where he is eating, cooking, serving food, arranging dinner, caring for his students and enjoying the company of those at the table.’ Just as Epicurus found satisfaction in ‘human pleasure ‘ and friendship, Moore suggests that ‘[to] be a student of Jesus is to pursue the pleasures that foster human warmth and community.’ The historical truth of this subjective observation can be gleaned from surviving texts.

Take the intimate fellowship both groups enjoyed. In cultures where food is expensive or scarce, the table becomes a political space. Who sits at the table and eats a meal expresses the kind of community to which one belongs. Expense or scarcity prompts difficult choices regarding time and labour, so the inclusion of one person over another was an expression of guiding social and economic priorities. This was true of first-century Judaism and it was also true of Epicurus and the Athens of the 3rd century BCE.  In the Jewish case, eating was infused with markers of belonging centred on ritual purity. For Athens, access to food and fellowship delineated forms of social status. The symposia (made famous by Plato’s dialogue) were just such occasions, which confirmed one’s membership of an aristocratic male culture. Yet, in both settings there were patterns of deep-seated inclusivity, which surfaced periodically in socially restrictive settings. The Torah mandated love of the foreigner, but it was the later the prophetic movement which affirmed that foreigners were permitted to keep the feasts of God. Likewise, Athenian religion possessed an inclusive streak, revolving around the consumption of sacrificial meat. At the civic festival known as the Panathenaia, all male citizens were permitted equal portions of the offering, regardless of social rank. This meant that a person of low standing could receive a piece of tender loin while the highest aristocrat could receive gristle. Thus, at the sacrificial meal, chance introduced the latent possibility (patriarchal) equality, even if this did not extend to the rest of life.

Given these precedents, we can see Jesus and Epicurus as creative users of their traditions, augmenting them in ways which extended hospitality in unexpected and sometimes radical ways. Their shared conception of table-fellowship gestured towards communities which embraced rich, poor, slave, free, insider and outsider. Both subcultures also included women among their number; a significant fact in the patrimonial cultures of Palestine and Athens. In both communities this emphasis upon personal amity produced remarkably similar results. In the first place, both groups possessed an egalitarian (although not necessarily non-hierarchical) ethos. This expectation of fellowship prompted members of these two communities to offer their resources for common use. Secondly, inclusion in these alternative cultures might mean giving up family attachments. Just as disciples of Jesus were encouraged to make a break with their domestic ties and daily occupations (Matt. 12:46-50: Lk. 14:26), it was expected that Epicurean disciples would leave their worldly responsibilities. Read in this context, table-fellowship served as an opportunity to form and supplement a new community-identity- one based upon love and learning.

What might our political theology be like if we take such a politics of intimacy as our starting-point? It seems to me that reading Christianity through an Epicurean lens aids us in resisting an obsession with ‘technique’ which is so pervasive in contemporary society. Our technological culture is so focused on structures, fixes and mechanisms that little consideration is given to matters of moral value. It is easy for political theologians to be caught up with collective solutions to social problems to the detriment of one’s personal motives and real-life relationships. In a yearning for justice, it might be tempting to think that the patterns of table-fellowship are quaint or sentimental additions to the radicalism of the Gospel. Wrong. Both Jesus and Epicurus show us that table-fellowship is not an addition or over-lay to the formation of community, but the substance of any polis worth living in (including the Church). The virtues of the table- intimacy, appreciation and joy- are the outward signs of an alternative politics being enacted. Such an experience is more transformative than the politics of technique, since it alters those who participate; forming them into different people. In this mould, politics is not about grand gestures, but rather concerned with moral learning; often undertaken, slowly, quietly, yet bravely.

If intimacy has the capacity to dispel a fixation with structures, it also impresses upon us the destructiveness of another aspect of the modern technological condition: anonymity. Our sprawling urban lives are carried on at such a scale of organisation that it is easy for individuals to become lost in the crowd. Metropolitan Christian communities seem to be at the sharp end of this. With a geographically scattered congregation, perhaps made up of a mix of students, mobile professors or over-worked parents, Churches are liable to become little more than spiritual motels or lay-bys. The frenzy of work, production and consumption reduces the possibility of forming a nucleus of friends, capable of upholding one another in love. In this context, the Eucharist is likely to be stripped of its communal character, the sharing of the sacrament becoming the equivalent of receiving food from a religious vending machine. The sacrament is distributed, but there is no meeting of the participants. They remain in a profound way separate from one another. Given these institutional conditions, theo-political reflection has an incentive to leave unexamined the small, the personal and intimate details of our lives (things which are increasingly fragmented in our society) and reflect upon the seeming solidity of large-scale political and social endeavours; speaking of society, the economy and class, even Christianity, yet scarcely considering the personal dimensions which form and inform these fields of human action and faith.

Image result for Jesus eating fishEven liberationist theologians (whose reflections most often spring from real-life encounter and struggle) can end up subordinating these personal stories to an impersonal narrative of class or economics. Thus, the Gospel, like the rest of society, tends to be caught in the trap of obscurity and generality; stripped of the intimacy so many crave. What is the solution? Seeing Jesus through Epicurean eyes suggests to us that the Church desperately needs to return to the kind of home-spun patterns of inclusion exemplified by the early Christians and the ancient Epicureans, if its politics is going to be transmitted and sustained in the midst of the crowd. Perhaps, the most radical thing the Church can do is to re-discover the integrity of the agape-meal as a ‘meal’, and not just an archaic ritual. In summarising the effect of an Epicurean vision of Jesus on our lives, Moore puts it this way: ‘That Jesus was an Epicurean contrasts with the tendency of some of his later followers to be only ascetic or puritan, denying the value of pleasure and desire. Indeed, the above description of walking in the shoes of this Jesus could transform the way people understand every word of the Gospel.’ For political theologians such a transformation could be particularly acute. By following the Gospel’s invitation of friendship and pleasure, means to root ourselves in a new understanding public life; one in which the personal really is political. In directing its energy towards providing spaces for meeting, friendship, sharing, the Church has the capacity to challenge both the forces of mechanism and anonymity. Of course our society doesn’t recognize such spaces as political (as many Greeks did not) because the notion of the political is too narrowly defined.  Yet if Christians want to be political as Jesus was political, they need to dispense with such narrowness and turn towards a more generous definition; one which includes the little dignities and hospitalities of life.

Originally published in Political Theology Today 13th November, 2014

The Gifts of the Quaker Way

Image result for Jesus icon public domain image

Some while ago, I started reading G.K. Chesterton’s apologetic classic The Catholic Church and Conversion (1927) and was amused and delighted to find a reference to Quakers nestled in its yellowing pages. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Chesterton is not particularly interested in Quaker life or theology on its own terms. Indeed, Quakerism is only mentioned, insofar as it serves to support Chesterton’s core claim; that Christian sects possess their vivacity and truth only insofar as they partake in the Catholic tradition. In this vein, Chesterton argues that:

It is not a question of comparing the merits and defects of the Quaker meeting-house set beside the Catholic Cathedral. It is the Quaker meeting house that is inside the Catholic Cathedral; it is the Catholic cathedral which covers everything like the vault of the Crystal Palace; and it is when we look up at the vast distant dome covering all the exhibits that we trace the Gothic roof and the pointed windows. In other words, Quakerism is but a temporary form of Quietism which has arisen technically outside the Church…..The principle of life in all these variations of Protestantism, insofar as it is not a principle of death, consists of what remained of Catholic Christendom; and to Catholic Christendom they have always returned to be recharged with vitality (The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 3, (San Francisco, 1990, p. 101).

A conservative reaction among Friends is to say that Chesterton’s cathedral is a pernicious illusion. For early Friends, the Roman Church was not much a deep and vital wellspring, but the seat and zero-point of a ‘night of apostasy’. Rather than Quakers existing within the cathedral of Christendom, George Fox saw Catholics and others, as outside the Kingdom. This exclusivist view had great traction for a community whose members suffered horrific persecution. Blighted by torture and imprisonment, it was easy for early Quakers to see themselves as a new Israel midst a latter-day Babylon. Yet, alongside this sectarian tone, early Friends also reflected a dazzling and radical generosity, rooted in the experimental doctrine of the Inward Light. As the first-generation Friend Isaac Penington argued, Quakers should look upon the various Churches of Christ with sympathy rather than derision:

The great error of the ages of apostasy hath been to set up an outward order and uniformity, and to make men’s consciences to bend thereto, either by arguments of wisdom, or by force; but the property of the true church government is to leave the conscience to its full liberty in the Lord, to preserve it single and entire for the Lord to exercise, and to seek unity in the Light and in the Spirit, walking sweetly and harmoniously together in the midst of different practices. Yea and thee that hath faith and can see beyond another yet can have it to himself, and not disturb his brother with it, but can descend and walk with him according to his measure; and if his brother have any burden upon him, he can lend him his shoulder, and bear part of his burden with him [Christian Faith and Practice, 222].

As Friends moved from the realms of social ostracism to the edges of mainstream society, Pennington’s charitable attitude became a significant thread in the life of the Religious Society of Friends. By the twentieth-century and the advent of ‘Liberal Quakerism’ increasing numbers of Friends understood themselves as part of an outward-looking expansive Christian family. While few of these Friends would have subscribed to Chesterton’s implication that they were really disgruntled Catholics, Chesterton’s suggestion that Quakerism exists within the body of the Church became mainstream opinion. If we can indeed observe a Gothic roof within the Meeting House, what role should Quakers perform for the Church as a whole?

An inkling of that role emerges when we consider Chesterton’s claim that Quakerism is ‘temporary’. While the charge of temporarily has a ring of the diminutive about it, I suggest it can be read in a more positive way. Temporarily does not mean insignificance or worthlessness. Rather it means contingency and dependence. As Friends we always seek the guidance of the Spirit in the midst of our lives, and from our earliest days have been acutely aware that we do not succeed by our own effort. This is the first service Quakers can offer Chesterton’s Christendom; that of reminding the Church that its structures, actions and proclamations can only transform the world if they come from a place of being ‘led’. The Church on its own has neither an automatic right to exist nor a right to be heard. The Church continues to exist by graceful invitation only.

A second service Quakers could perform for the diverse followers of Christ is derived from what Chesterton calls our ‘quietist’ way. What Quakers bring to the table is the recognition that the quality of our spiritual life depends a great deal upon the quality of society’s use of silence. In our culture there are many forms of injury and injustice that manifest themselves as silence. There is the silence of the broken, the abused, the ignored and forgotten. There is the silence which masks anger, evasion and powerlessness. There is the deep silence of negation and nihilism which refuses meaning, joy and fellowship. And there is the silence provoked by another’s refusal to listen. This is the state of hopelessness expressed so vividly in Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound of Silence‘:

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence.

Yet in our worship together, Friends offer the Church a window into an ordered stillness which is at root sacramental. In place of silence as negation, Friends take joy in a silence of listening, a silence of comfort, in short a silence of trust. This is the silence experienced by lovers who do not need to speak, and the silence of the mystic who knows that words are not enough to encompass that which sustains and enlivens her life. With these gifts in hand, Friends should encourage fellow Christians to resist the logo-centric allure of the 24/7 media, which revels noisy commentary but shuns genuine insight. It is better that the Church provides a nugget of spiritual nourishment every twenty years or so rather than tie itself in vacuous and irrelevant conversations for decades at a time.  The Quaker advice, ‘Attend to what love requires of you, which may not be great busyness’ is a call to the whole Church. In a world of seemingly intractable problems, the disciples of Jesus should not feel like they have to shoulder the troubles of the world alone. They should reach out to others- seeking solidarity and comfort as a means of achieving positive, if incremental change. Instead of worrying about ‘bums on seats’, social relevance, or the media spotlight, the ‘Body of Christ’ needs to concentrate on opening up and broadening out its priorities. We Quakers need to make sure we play a full part in this process. At times of great technological and cultural change it is all too tempting for Christians to become forces of reaction- more concerned about preserving time-honoured structures than proclaiming the perennial Good News of wholeness and healing. Yet such a ‘bunker-mentality’ needs to be firmly resisted. In times of upheaval, the Church needs to be more giving and more inclusive. For me, this is both the true meaning and task of ‘catholicity’- to be an open door, and a space of loving dialogue. And here again, we come back to the Quaker gift of silence. With moments of stillness and pause we allow ourselves to listen closely, to place ourselves in the shoes of others and develop those habits of mind which sustain peace and charity among different communities.