Karl Barth: The Word of God and the Problem of Culture (Part 2)

The Apologetic Task of Theology: The Dialogue of Known and Unknown

Do we need Karl Barth's help with ethics? | PsephizoIn the previous post Karl Barth: The Word of God and the Problem of Culture (Part 1), I outlined both Barth’s objections to Liberal Theology, and his corresponding emphasis on the supremacy of the Word of God, (as communicated through Scripture). In this post I want to offer a tentative critique of this stance, that tips the balance back towards the earlier generosity of theological Liberalism. Let us begin by dissecting the consequences of the Barthian disinclination to dialogue with culture. In our age, when Christianity is again being used to bolster rhetorics of ethnic distinctiveness, the humanitarian and the cosmopolitan liberal may find an unexpected friend in Barth. In his shattering insistence on divine otherness, Christianity is taken out of the realms of society and state altogether. The revelation of Jesus Christ is not an appendage to any worldly powers but sits in judgement over and against the fashions and obsessions of the age. No government, party, or political programme can ever personify or speak for the Word of God. This proposition was confirmed for Barth by the second great catastrophe of his lifetime, the rise of Adolf Hitler. In the Nazi attempt to incorporate the German Churches into a politics of racial destiny, Barth saw the logical outcome of a theological method that prioritised culture over the radical judgement of revelation. Whatever retrieving Christianity means, it cannot entail the expansion of nations, or the sanctification of national myth. But Barth’s insistence on the radical rupture represented by Jesus Christ comes with an epistemic cost. Barth’s insistence on the negative otherness of the Gospel renders Christianity an island to itself, approachable only through its own claims. Yet, by treating the Gospel as a transcendental criterion, Barth ignores the fundamentally dialogical nature of Christ’s revelation. Any sense of the Word of God coming from above, must be balanced by Scripture’s own acknowledgement that culture (the matter of precisely who is being addressed) is central to what is understood. This is true, even if the interlocutor is hostile or baffled by what is communicated. The notion that the content of knowledge is the work of the communicator and the hearer is given vivid expression in Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Reflecting on the mimetic quality present in meaningful conversation, Proust’s narrator observes:

A powerful idea communicates some of its strength to him who challenges it. Being itself a part of the riches of the universal Mind, it makes its way into, grafts itself upon the mind of him whom it is employed to refute, slips in among the ideas already there, with the help of which, gains a little ground, he completes and corrects it; so that the final utterance is always to some extent the work of both parties to a discussion. It is ideas which are not, properly speaking, ideas at all, to ideas which, founded upon nothing, can find no support, no kindred spirit among the ideas of the adversary, that he, grappling with something which is not there, can find no word to say in answer.[1]

Paul In AthensPaul preaching in the Areopagus | Works of Art | RA Collection ...

In Luke’s account of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-31), Proust’s account of communication is richly demonstrated by the motif of ‘the unknown god’. This shadowy presence is intended to draw the hearers into the thought-world of the Gospel. In his speech, Paul draws his listeners into the realm they know in order to subvert their knowledge. First Paul speaks in the accent of the Stoic poet Aratus: ‘For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill’ (17:28-9). Here Luke shows, Paul using the Stoic conception of the transcendent Fatherhood of God as a ‘hook’, to draw his audience into the strange kerygma of Jesus Christ: “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead”’ (NIV 17:30). In this mode, the Gospel is not displaced by culture, rather it is a necessary ingredient to its final articulation. Thus, Luke via Paul introduces us to a third way between Gospel supremacy and cultural co-option. The proclamation of Christ is not an indisputable axiom which proves itself. It finds proof ‘to hand’, not by descending from some place of unintelligibility, but by making strange the world the hearer already knows. For his part, Barth insists that far from being an example of cultural-specific apologetics, Paul’s preaching to the Athenians is roundly dialectical.[2] Instead of mixing Jesus Christ with ‘the Greek, or other ideas about God’[3], Barth thinks Paul stresses the need for repentance and a turning to Jesus Christ. Barth completes his reading by suggesting that we must judge Paul’s intention by judging its results. During a podium discussion in 1962 at the University of Chicago, Barth observed:

This story has often been used by Christian and other theologians as an example of good apologetics; but if then, Paul was an apologist, there in Athens, he was a failure, because they laughed at him. When they heard him speak of Christ risen, then they walked away, saying as we may say this very evening, “Let us here something another day” [cf.Acts 17:32], perhaps tomorrow.[4]

But this interpretation of Paul’s proclamation on Mars Hill fundamentally distorts the text. So eager is Barth to distance himself from the cultural hospitality of Liberal Theology that he overlooks the structure of Luke’s narrative. Firstly Paul’s preaching is not a failure. While his appeal to ‘the unknown god’ fails to convince his Stoic and Epicurean observers, we are told: ‘Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others’, (17:34). This suggests precisely what Barth denies, that Paul’s address is an apologetic one. Convincement was the aim, in the case of some present, the definite result. But the incident reveals something else. There is no proclamation without an audience. To be ‘heard’, the essence of what is proclaimed must attend to cultural reality. No narration proceeds as it were from the clouds, nor is a proclamation understood any other way than from the world at hand. If Paul is not concerned with the cultural world of his hearers, why does he begin his proclamation with the cultic life of Athens? This points to a second deficiency of Barth’s account. The New Testament record of the evangelical endeavour does not presuppose anything akin to telepathy or some hidden precognitive sympathy to convey a timeless message. Scriptures assumes two categories of communication only, symbolic acts and explanatory speech. Since there can be no such thing as a private language and the communication of symbols assumes shared knowledge, the Gospel can never be other than a cultural event. As Schleiermacher observed on this question of proclamation: ‘The whole work of the Redeemer Himself was conditioned by the communicability of His self-consciousness by means of speech, and similarly Christianity has always and everywhere spread itself solely by preaching.’[5] However, to acknowledge that the Gospel exists within the structure of language, (a form of historical memory), as Schleiermacher does, is not a defeat for its timelessness. To treat the Gospel’s temporality as a distortion, is to confuse its form with its significance. When Paul says: ‘I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some’ (1 Cor 9:22), he is not arguing that the Crucified Christ is a mere cultural artefact among others, but as an evangelist, he knows that communication rests upon the thought-world of those listening. It is on this basis that we can rescue something of the analogia entis which Barth had rejected. As Paul Tillich expressed this retrieval:

If the knowledge of revelation is called “analogous” this certainly refers to the classical doctrine of analogia entis between the finite and the infinite. Without such an analogy nothing could be said about God. But the analogia entis is in no way able to create a natural theology. It is not a method for discovering the truth about God; it is the sense analogia entis, like “religious symbol”, points to the necessity of using material from finite reality in order to give content to the cognitive function in revelation. This necessity, however, does not diminish the cognitive value of revelatory knowledge.[6]

The Truth in Untruth

Barth’s refusal to sufficiently interrogate these cultural dynamics of proclamation leads him invariably into a corresponding blunder, the connection of human culture with radical error, and error with the forces that ultimately oppose the Gospel. But Scripture possesses a much more nuanced account of error than Barth’s dialectical theology allows. Even where culture appears to block a fully coherent rendition of the Gospel, such misunderstanding can itself reveal the deep structures to which the Gospel must attend.  This hidden dimension, of truth in untruth, is lucidly observed in the evangelical mission of Paul and Barnabas as recounted in Acts. After healing a man of lameness, the apostles are confronted with an adulated crowd:

 When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they lifted up their voices in the Lycaonian language: “The gods have come down to us in human form!” Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates, hoping to offer a sacrifice along with the crowds. But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul found out about this, they tore their clothes and rushed into the crowd, shouting, Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them’ (NIV 14:11-14).

Let us note where the crowd is in the wrong and where they are in the right. Paul and Barnabas do not face a crowd of materialists but encounter a culture that already expects the divine to heal the afflicted. By dubbing Paul and Barnabas Zeus and Hermes, the spectators had in mind the ancient stories of divine epiphany, of gods garbed in the form of strangers to test the hospitality of a city. Here the Greek cosmos dovetails with the Jewish world of Paul and Barnabas, of the angelic vitiation to Abraham, and by degrees, the risen Son of God who takes on the aspect of dilapidated stranger. Here one clearly sees the double aspect of revelation. The lightning bolt of Christ illuminates the darkness of error, but it will not burn away those structures of imagination and perception that nurture its clarity. The crowds’ misidentification of Paul and Barnabas both confirms a world they already comprehend, but unwittingly draws them into the experience of an unknown god.

The risen Jesus is both a departure and an echo of what has already been mythically glimpsed. The Gospel comes to potency when what is known and unknown, time-bound, and timeless meet. Given the dialogical structure of the evangelical task, what is left of Barth’s thesis of cultural capture? The social imprisonment of the Gospel is indeed a perennial reality, equally illustrated in Barth’s own life, and our present anxieties concerning Christian identity. It is all too easy for Christianity to be flattened into a cause, a system, or a political stance, instead of a portal which unveils God in Jesus Christ. What is most valuable in Barth’s account is the sense that Christianity, to possess substance must intrude on our sense of the world. However, the weakness of Barth’s account of revelation is in its very transcendence. Like the Zen practitioner who seeks a sudden flash of enlightenment, for Barth there is no slow approach to the reality of Christ,  no gradations of appreciation that might keep elements of our old selves intact. To confront the radical Other of Christ Jesus, is to be shattered on the wheel of salvation. Newness comes as a disorienting stranger, un-anchoring human lives from a false centre. If ‘religion’ is the source of idolatry, Christ is the breaking of idols, by setting human life on a fresh course.  Nonetheless, this description leaves unexamined the dialogical dimensions of proclamation. As much as Scripture speaks of a Lord who breaks open our culture-bound personalities, it also affirms a God who has fallen in love with time. The Father of Jesus speaks from the centre of people’s lives, as they are. What they might be, he leaves to the process, the contingency of a given encounter. One thinks of the Roman centurion commended by Jesus for his faith, (Matt 8:5–13; Lk 7:1–10). Christ does not demand that the man gives up his old cultural life, (one assumes of Roman paganism), nor his profession of soldiery, nonetheless his old life, scared by the falsehoods of the world, shines with an instant recognition of Jesus’ power. Remaining in his old life, does not prevent the New Life of Christ being responded to. Indeed, Jesus tells his hearers: “I tell you; I have not found such great faith even in Israel” (NIV Lk. 7:9).

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This incident, as with the others, should impress upon us one inescapable fact, one that Barth himself concedes. Revelation sets the rhythm of the world, but it also ‘swims’ in the tides of history. It is soaked in the affairs of things. For all of Barth’s insistence on the alien quality of divine activity, he cannot wholly ignore the human field in which God self-disclosure takes place (the ‘divine content in a human form‘[7]). As Barth reflects on this ‘given’ context in Church Dogmatics: ’[Revelation]…does not reach us in a neutral state but rather in an act which stands in a quite definite, relationship to it as the coming-to-us of truth. It reaches us namely as religious people, that is, it reaches us in the midst of that attempt to know God from our own point of view.’[8] Barth’s acknowledgement that revelation always meets us in, and through, our human situation, provides us with a valuable means of repairing Barth’s excessive disavowal of the human element in the sphere of divine action.  If revelation must always exist in co-relation with the human world, (as something revealed for a time-bound other), the problem of Christian captivity must be rethought. Revelation is obscured not by culture per se, but when the human domain of the known refuses to meet the unknown, when what is grasped attempts to place itself in the position of the un-grasped. When Christianity ceases to be a boundless gift, but a quantifiable given, then cultural capture complete. The task of theological then is not to eschew or ward off culture, but to clasp hold of cultural currents that enable us to speak the Gospel faithfully and vividly. Yet, Barth’s theological method offers us a sharp note of caution. Each cultural artefact, humanly selected, carries the risk that we proclaim our presuppositions and ignore the Gospel. In fixating on what we think we know in advance; God’s revelation can be discarded in the name of cherished preconceptions. As Barth muses on this problem:

We are most certainly…to try to know and define and evaluate man and his religion as it were in advance by itself- in another existence than as belonging to Christ, in another realm than his kingdom, in another relation than ‘under him’- in order then, taking it seriously in this autonomous form, to bring it into relationship with God’s revelation. For by so doing we would have been saying from the outset that Jesus Christ is not his Lord…and that he does not belong to Jesus Christ. [9]

If we seek to speak of culture, religion, or humanity before conceding the ground to revelation, we will, thinks Barth, be ‘speaking about…a postulate or an idea. What one is then really and truly talking about is not revelation but rather what came before; man and his religion, about which he already knew so much’.[10] How should we respond to such a formulation? Barth is surely right about what is wrong, but wrong about what is right. By insisting on the otherness of revelation, Barth justifiably builds a wall between the world-shattering power of revelation, and those who would clothe Christianity in the garments of culture, making the Gospel a mere adjunct to purely human ends. But these stern fortifications, seemingly so needful, do not protect their landscape, they scar it. Inherent in Barth’s theological dialectic is the fallacy of totality, either we accept in whole or reject in whole. Culture is always the domain of co-option, which must be resisted entire by those who hold fast to revelation. While the New Testament does declare a stark choice between the old world and the new, sin or repentance, it does so to humans, with all their histories, partial perceptions, and intuitions. The dynamic of sin and redemption does not warrant the identification of sin with  what lies outside the orbit of Christ’s self-disclosure. The refusal of any straightforwardly dualistic reading of Church and world is mandated by Christ himself on account of his ministry among the ordinary, as observed by Adolf von Harnack. Christ addresses us through the natural and material conditions of his audience, his parables the distillation of divine truth in everyday apparel.  What is known before hand, is the basis for truth yet grasped. If revelation is the use of the known by the unknown, we must revisit Barth’s decision of 1914.

The failure of Liberal Theology was not the use of bourgeois culture, but the abuse of such usage. The issue is not the dominance of this or that worldview in the interpretation of the kerugma, but rather establishing a principle of evaluation, which allows us to ascertain with reasonable clarity what will aid the articulation of the Gospel. The New Testament offers such an axiom in Christ’s pragmatic observation that: ‘By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit’ (Matt 7:16-20). Put hermeneutically, we may express this apt principle of selection as follows: If a given cultural matrix renders the Gospel powerfully strange, if it wakes Christian conviction from the slumbers of familiarity and confirmation, it can be said to serve the Gospel. Such a judgement is implicit in Paul’s encounter with the Athenians on Mars Hill. Luke thinks it worth distinguishing the Stoics and Epicureans from the crowd, because he wishes to identify the character of those who will not respond to the Gospel. They are system-builders and materialists, to which Jesus appears as just another strange god. Yet, there are others who do and can respond; they are orientated to respond. The word that is received falls on ground capable of receiving it. And since that soil is cultural, we are invited to distinguish between cultures hospitable or inhospitable to the task of proclamation.  In this vein, we may justly talk about an orientation of reception, which precede any revelatory moment.

Transformation: The Sad Sin, Of A Great TheologianAn identification of these orientations, as Luke-Acts does by pinpointing the spirit of the Athenians philosophers, is admitted in the New Testament more generally, as the distinction between those who follower and those who do not, those who respond, and those who pass by. Thus, any proclamation is invited, not merely to displace ‘religion’, but to evaluate what precedes it. Any Evangelist must know on what ground she preaches and consider how her words will be heard. However, if the Gospel is not the condemnation of culture, what does it mean for the Gospel to be heeded? Its first dimension is grasped subjectively. A worldview, concept, or symbol, we be said to possess evangelical potency if it shakes us out of our habitual patterns of thought, leaving the path clear for radical newness to break into our lives. By making the familiar strange, the human self can be orientated towards the supreme strangeness of Jesus Christ. The Gospel becomes alive for us when it takes on the character of a question. When we are propelled by the question, into a world that we could not have presupposed.  In the second place, the Gospel becomes a lens to perceive outward happenings. One’s collective and personal history is at once understood through the life, death, and Resurrection of Christ. Events take on the depth of parable. Here culture does not do the work of revelation, nor can it be said to possess an autonomous status compared to the activity beyond revelation. What is prior does not signify precedence. Divine knowledge is merely bound to the life of the listener, the one who can know. We must not be lulled by Barth’s rejection of apologetics into the impression that such a theological evaluation of human culture is a novel practice. What is being recovered in this post is what the early Church defined as praeparatio evangelica. When the faith of Christ washed up on the shores of Greece, it was asked: Where was the Creator of the world in the lives of those who did not yet believe’? How could a God of saving love be absent, even from states of error? The answer is that he was there all along, working through the thoughts and culture of those who did not yet believe.

[1] Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way. Within a Budding Grove. The Guermantes Way, Volume 1, (New York: Random House, 1941), p. 428

[2] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p.176

[3] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 176

[4] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 176

[5] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, p. 77

[6] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology: Volume 1., (London: The University of the Chicago Press, 1951), p. 131

[7] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 35

[8] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 57

[9] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, pp. 50-1

[10] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 51

Karl Barth: The Word of God and the Problem of Culture (Part 1)

Karl Barth and the Liberal Reaction

Adolf Harnack.jpg

During the course of lockdown I have been reading the work of the 20th century theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968), and found myself, (like many previous commentators), drowning in observations. The following discussion is an attempt to place the insights of my recent reading into some kind of order for the benefit of a curious reader. Over the next two posts, I intend to outline Barth’s theological approach to secular culture and identify some of the conceptual weaknesses of the Barthian stance. While acknowledging that Barth shifted his theological emphasis several times over a long theological career, I want to identify the consistent threads of Barth’s work after his break with Liberal Theology in the early 1920s. I hope such a discussion will be useful, either for those who are unfamiliar with Barth, or seek the rudiments of a considered critique of his work. To begin this conversation, let us outline Barth’s historical context. Mentored by the great liberal theologians of his generation, including Adolf von Harnack, Barth had imbibed the cultural optimism of the world before the great catastrophe of 1914. For the theologians of this fateful generation, the heights of bourgeois culture (Goethe’s Faust  or Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion)[1] were gleaming mirrors reflecting God’s presence. Culture ranked alongside the Cathedral as a terrain of worship. In this generous mould, the glorious achievements of modern poets and philosophers became but another fruitful idiom through which the truths of the Gospel could be proclaimed. Spinoza, Novalis, Coleridge and Schlegel were all possible aids in the task of theological persuasion. Behind this assemblage of cultural luminaries was the outworking of the German Romantic spirit, with its stress on the exaltation of feeling and the unity of the self with nature. It was Friedrich Schleiermacher who had united theology and Romanticism in his definition of God as ‘the feeling of absolute dependence.’[2]

For Schleiermacher, Christianity was not primarily about a system of creeds or prescribed ordinances, but discernible existentially, in the response of each believer. In this vein, dogmas were not really concerned with quantifying the structure of natural or supernatural objects. Rather, they were spurs to the religious emotions’[3]. Every theological formulation concerning Christ, redemption and the Church, ‘give an impulse towards the awakening of a fuller self-consciousness and towards the winning of a total impression of Christ; and only from this will faith proceed’.[4]  Thus, in all cases, religious life sprang from the depths of human subjectivity, not from a venerable record of past spiritual events. Insofar as culture was also nurtured by this same imaginative faculty, Christianity was aided by and in creative kinship with, the insights of verse, music, and drama. Humanism too, in its insistence on human dignity and moral progress reflected the ethic of Christ. These trajectories culminated in the radical secularisation of Jesus and his message. Indeed, for the exponents of nineteenth-century Liberal Theology, temporality was the central fact of the Gospel’s proclamation. Von Harnack, in his survey of the New Testament, dismissed any suggestion that Christ was a transcendent liberator, the purveyor of an exoteric doctrine. The Jesus of the Gospels, the Saviour that taught in the villages in and around Galilee had not sought a life separate from the affairs of the world. He was rooted deep in the culture of his time. As von Harnack reflected:

When he (Jesus) finds to his joy, people with a firm faith he leaves them in the calling and the position in which they were. We do not hear of him telling them to sell all and follow him. Apparently he thinks it possible, nay fitting, that they should live unto their belief. His circle of disciples is not exhausted by the few he summoned directly to follow him. He finds God’s children everywhere; to discover them in their obscurity and to be allowed to speak to them some word of strength is his highest pleasure.[5]

As war approached however, this Liberal Christ was marshalled in defence of the bourgeois culture that had created him. Just as the quest for the historical Jesus had yielded pale reflections of the inquirers’ own hearts, Liberal Protestantism had no life outside its national milieu. At one moment it could valorise the work of the German trade unionists and social reformers, the next, insist on German national destiny. Christ’s secularity had led to the Church’s inability to speak out against the preoccupations of political power. As Barth recounted:

One day in early August 1914 stands out in my personal memory as a black day. Ninety-three German intellectuals impressed public opinion by their proclamation in support of the war policy of Wilhelm II and his counsellors. Among these intellectuals I discovered to my horror almost all of my theological teachers whom I had greatly venerated. In despair over what this indicated about the signs of the time I suddenly realised that I could not any longer follow either their ethics or dogmatics or their understanding of the Bible and of history. For me at least, 19th century theology no longer held any future.[6]

The Judgement of God

The suspense of the liberal future for Barth heralded the destruction of a whole thought-world. In this moment of supreme betrayal came crashing down a servile theology that had seen itself as the handmaiden of culture. Instead of declaring Christ’s radical message of repentance against a sinful world, Liberal Theology had attempted to baptise it. It was the Apostle Paul who had declared: ‘The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom. 1:18). For Barth, this was the rallying cry for a new theological turn that would free Christianity from the standards of the world. Barth was clear that there can be no commonality or kinship between the works of God and the works of human culture. As Barth observed in his commentary on Romans:

There is no magnificent temporality of this world which can justify men before God. There is no arrangement of affairs or deportment of behaviour, no disposition of mind or depth of feeling, no intuition or understanding, which is, by its own virtue, pleasing to God. Men are men, and they belong  to the world of men; that which is born from the flesh is flesh.  Every concrete and tangible thing belongs within the order of time. Everything which emerges in men and which owes its form and expansion to them is always and everywhere and as such, ungodly and unclean. The kingdom of men is, without exception, never the Kingdom of God…[7]

Revelation of God in Christ does not come as a confirmation or a recollection, but a radical rupture with all that is known already. Paul condemnation of those who have ‘exchanged the truth about God for a lie…served created things rather than the Creator’, (NIV Rom. 1:25) is a denunciation of those who have become enslaved to cumulative human ideas and intuitions, in contrast to history-defying event of God’s self-disclosure. To proclaim the Lordship of Christ was to declare ‘the dissolution of history in history, the destruction of the structure of events within their known structure, the end of time in the order of time.’[8] The  implications of this radical dissolution of history in Jesus Christ could not be clearer for Barth. The revelation of God ‘neither emerges from what we know, nor is it a development of it. Compared with our ‘something’ it is and remains always-nothing.’[9]  Here negativity signifies the absolute otherness of God. When revelation enters the confines of time, it displays itself as unlike anything created. The radical strangeness of God means that no activity of God can be said to be co-dependent with ordinary facts. For Barth there is no Thomistic ‘spiritual energy residing in nature; no cosmic force in this earth’.[10] All theological tasks that attempt to ground themselves in some priori store of ‘natural knowledge’ are liable to become captive to human notions and historical fashions, throwing aside the content of revelation. There can be illumination outside the Gospel, no human knowledge able to augment the Word of God.

The Word of God and  Culture

Barth Studies | The School of Divinity, History and Philosophy ...

This position of Barth’s was later summarised as: Belief cannot argue with unbelief: it can only preach to it.[11] For Barth, this stance had profound implications for any serious talk of Christian recovery in Western society. Any discussion of a general revival of Christianity must return to the original revelation of Christ, as revealed in Scripture. There can be no sense in which Christianity can be condensed into some set of cultural, institutional, or intellectual arrangements. It must stand apart from the world. Yet, throughout his life, Barth wrestled with a thorny contradiction bestowed by Scripture itself. While Barth denied the theological significance of both nature and culture, by necessity, he affirmed the God of Scripture, who worked in nature and history. Reflecting on this activity in his old age, Barth observed:

I must oppose the notion of a God who is only in the Eucharist and within the walls of the church, a God who is imprisoned so to speak. Christianity would then be the prison of God. This is not so. God rules the whole world, the whole of our existence, not only when we go to church and partake of the Eucharist. Always we are being asked what is the will of God. We have to listen to the Word of God, which we hear in the Scriptures and in the church, but we have to listen to the same Word when we live outside the walls of the church, if we are to live not only in an act of piety, but also in our daily work and politics.[12]

In opening the route to dialogue between the Church and the world, Barth’s path was inevitably narrow. While Barth sternly rejected the Scholastic notion of a directed analogy between the structure of the world and the nature of God (an analogia entis[13]) he posited the existence of an analogia relationis. Since God’s grace works in the life of human beings, certain facets of this world will come to resemble the gifts of God. The acts of a graceful God will in turn become reflected n the lives of creatures ‘who are destined to be grateful to God’[14]. This ‘common history between God and man’[15] (of giver and recipient), means that moments in time, not sacred or God-given in themselves, can take on a parabolic character. Just as Jesus’ parables illustrated life under the rule of the Father, moments in ordinary time can be potent illustrations of the Word of God. Barth includes the love between self and neighbour and the relationship between husband and wife as potent symbols of God’s intention made manifest in human structures, (a disclosure revealed by Scripture).[16] But as Barth insists, an analogy cannot reveal the original unless we know something of that original, namely through the revelation of Jesus Christ.[17] No prior culture, no human myth, can make sense of the Gospel.  Indeed, for Barth, strictly speaking, Christian proclamation is not a ‘religion’ (some set of cultural and cultic formations), but the address of the Word of God to human beings, that calls individuals from their religious affiliations. As Barth elucidates this position in The Church Dogmatics:

Revelation does not hook-up with the already operative religion of man but rather contradicts it just as religion previously contradicted revelation; revelation sublimates religion just as religion previously sublimates revelation. In the same way, faith cannot hook up with false faith-sublimate it- as faithlessness, as an act of contradiction.[18]

If human religion is pure contradiction for Barth, there can be no question that ‘religion can be true as such, in and of itself’.[19] The only true religion, indeed the only true culture, is the one that has given up its own self-sufficiency. Only the culture that conforms to the negating otherness of God is justified and sanctified.[20] Barth’s only answer to the civic religion of cultural Christianity is the insistence that true religion ‘is a creature of grace[21]. Only a culture which stops striving for itself and its preconceptions can communicate revelation. Any mode of religious life which has itself as its prime preoccupation has sunken into that world of human religion, that crowded cultural sphere of which expresses, ‘the neglect of Christ that begins right at the point where one no-longer allows him to be the one and all, the secret dissatisfaction with his lordship and consolation.’[22]  The cultural Christianity of the late modern West, its emptying cathedrals, the crosses rapped in flags is the eating up of revelation by religion, that creeping idolatry of human stirring, that empties out the Christ of faith.

[1] Ian Bradley, Grace, Order, Openness and Diversity: Reclaiming Liberal Theology (London: Continuum, Publishing, 2010), p. 12

[2] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016),  p. 17

[3] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016),  p. 81

[4] Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, p. 76

[5] Adolf von Harnack, ‘Ascrticism, in What is Christianity?, trans. Thomas Bailey Saunders, (London: Williams & Northgate,  1901), p. 82

[6] Karl Barth, The Humanity of God, (Westminster John Knox Press: 1960, p. 14

[7] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 56

[8] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 103

[9] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 102

[10] Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, p. 103

[11] A phrase attributed to  Karl Barth, see Hugo Anthony Meynell, Redirecting Philosophy: Reflections on the Nature of Knowledge from Plato to Lonergan, (London: University of Toronto Press, 1998), p. 125

[12] Karl Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, ed. Eberhard Busch, (Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), p. 73

[13] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 200

[14] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 201

[15] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 215

[16] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 215

[17] Barth, Barth in Conversation, Volume 1, 1959-1962, p. 216

[18] Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, trans. Garrett Green, (London: T&T Clark, 2006), p. 59

[19] Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, trans. Garrett Green, (London: T&T Clark, 2006), p.85

[20] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 85

[21] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p. 85

[22] Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God and the Sublimination of Religion, p.48

Spiritual Practice with Jesus & Mary Oliver

One of the perennial dangers of the phrase ‘spiritual practice’ is the assumption that in order to be ‘spiritual’, an activity has to be complicated, rarefied, or otherwise transcendental, to qualify.  Such presumed exoticism either confuses the seeker with the thousand colours of religious therapeutics, or else renders an already nervous inquirer deeply depressed about the state of their soul. People in this latter camp are liable to mutter: ‘But I haven’t got time’, ‘I lack the discipline’, or more commonly, ‘I wouldn’t know where to begin’. But these reactions all assume a weighty complexity, which, when one looks at the most sublime spiritual teachers, is neither essential, nor helpful. One doesn’t have to undertake grand pilgrimages, find a special place ‘to feel spiritual’, or adopt any special postures. In the final analysis, even the Quaker Meeting House is a device, a contrivance for Worship. It has no inherent significance in itself. What matters is our openness to the Spirit, in the world, and one another. ‘Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ’ (QF&P 1.02), exhorts Advices and Queries. But what is the character of this ‘ordering spirit’? What does a life refracted through its personality look like? Advices and Queries itself gives us a clue with its question: ‘Are you following Jesus’ example of love in action?’ (QF&P 1.02). If Jesus is the model we should have in mind, what do the Gospels tell us about him? What kind of practical action did he favour? Principally, Christlike action begins, not with an esoteric notion of spiritual practice, but with attentiveness. The shape of Jesus heart was coloured by the fields and villages of his home. He spoke in the accent of its joys and intimate tragedies, its little happenings, and its considerable scarcities. He was present for feasts and mourning. He saw weddings and dyings, bright faith, and dark despair. He was soaked in every deep structure of the human experience, not by transcending his time and place, but by sinking down into it. Begin at home, he seems to say. You cannot find love and grace through novelty or travel. Only stillness and rootedness will do.

Mary Oliver, Who Believed Poetry 'Mustn't Be Fancy,' Dies At 83 : NPRThis reading of Christ’s spiritual practice can be gleaned from the character of his Parables. Jesus’ stories were littered with the daily things of his world; the birds, the grain upon the threshing floor, the baking of bread, and the making of wine. His sense of the Spirit was always universal, encompassing Jew, Roman, Samaritan and Greek, but his attention never strayed from the sphere of ordinary experience. Yet, in our world of twenty-four-hour news and twenty-four-hour advertising, Jesus’ simple posture of ‘just being present’ feels as alien to us as the arcane rituals of Tantric Yoga. Our minds are constantly diverted, scattered, and propelled. The notion of the future is so large in our society, (locked into the very structure of the media, economics, and politics), it is sometimes difficult to ‘centre down’, and just look about us, unmediated by opinions, commentary, or in our own time, fear. Often we need a voice or personality to interrupt our habitual, disjointed flow.  Recently, I’ve found such a force of pause in the work of the American poet Mary Oliver, (1935 –2019). She is of course famous the literary world over for her beautiful poem  ‘Wild Geese’, containing the evocative lines:

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/the world offers itself to your imagination, /calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting/over and over announcing your place/in the family of things.

In many ways these sentences express the purpose of Oliver’s poetry, to root us in the world, even if we feel isolated and alone. Oliver accomplishes this rich mode of belonging, not through a tidy system of beliefs or platitudes, but an ongoing process of observation, listening, and questioning. Centuries of dogma have caused many to think of Jesus as an espouser of systematic answers to life’s mysteries. But this is not how Jesus taught at all. Instead of handing down thoughts fully formed, he would play with diverse images, tell stories, illustrate with little acts. In short, he used the material of the ordinary world to help his followers into its depths. His end was not a system, but a posture of worship and a kindling of reverence. When he ate with his friends that was worship. When he healed the sick, that was worship. When he loved and sorrowed, there was worship also. How his followers responded to the world was more important to Christ than what they could grandly say about it. Thus, he did not close down questions. He invited them. This is similarly Oliver’s method of poetic inquiry. Everything in Oliver is a new opportunity to go deeper into the beauty and complexity of things. By stopping to look and listen, to learn a kind of sacred ‘being there’, one discovers the indispensable ground of deep prayer. For, as we Friends know, prayer is impossible without listening. One Oliver poem keeps on gently haunting me, ‘The Summer Day’. In it, I find an expression of the holy questioning and holy attention that lies at the heart of Christ-shaped spiritual practice.

Who made the world?/Who made the swan, and the black bear?/Who made the grasshopper?/This grasshopper, I mean-/the one who has flung herself out of the grass,/the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,/who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-/who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes./Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face./Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away./I don’t know exactly what a prayer is./I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down/into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,/how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,/which is what I have been doing all day./Tell me, what else should I have done?/Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?/Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?

Here spiritual practice is held up by two indispensable pillars. Firstly, holy things are discovered in questions and not answers. Secondly, sacredness is sustained by ‘just being there’. Think of Jesus’ frequent posture in the Gospel of Matthew, his exhortation to ‘Look at the birds of the air’, or ‘consider the lilies’. We are being urged to stop abstracting, stop diverting, and hold the little shard of existence we occupy in the scope of our attention. Open the world up to tender inquisition, says this method, and you will grasp the richness of life, the spirit behind things, or in Jesus’ language, the expansive home belonging to the Father. As Jesus tells his skeptical hearers in Luke: “the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). Indeed, where else should we expect it to be? At Meeting? On a Sunday morning we’ve set aside? At a moment of sublime spiritual experience? No. In the ordinary things of life. The world is our Meeting House, and each person is potentially a door keeper. The worries and upheavals of life must always be glanced through this lens. The one who keeps this reality sufficiently in view will understand the truth of Jesus’ reassurance:

Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble. (Matt.6: 31-32).

Marianne Stokes Candlemas Day.jpgMost of us find it hard to live out this assurance with anything like sure-footed authenticity. Even without the immediate tremour of the pandemic, we live in a world of piling worries, that frequently sweep us along like the wind. The present situation of global quarantine and restriction has felt particularly disturbing because it has struck at the heart of the many social connections we use to dissipate our fears. A pronounced inwardness and physical distance, caused by necessity, has brought an intensification of anxiety, sorrow and restlessness for many. This sense of gloom has been compounded by widespread job-losses and the spectre of material hardship. Moreover we are daily confronted with the frailty and vulnerability of those close to us, and of course the reality of death. But the first lesson of Christ-like love is that we should not be discouraged by our situation. As Jesus gently suggests: ‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matt 7:20). Whatever we face, there is always the sanctuary of the heart. No matter how small the beginning, our honest attention will lead to fullness. Midst the clouds of uncertainty and fear, we can always discover the world anew. No moment of attention is wasted, no hurried minute of prayer is ever superfluous. The smallness of the faith required should also reassure us that we need not measure up to some high standard. We can be unsteady, inadequate in our commitment, wholly untested in the Alchemist’s workshop of contemplation. Our failings will never undo the progress we make. As Oliver tells us movingly in ‘Wild Geese’:

You do not have to be good./You do not have to walk on your knees/for a hundred miles through the desert repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body/love what it loves.

The message seems clear. Begin where you are. Love what is around you. Attend to every moment. Spiritual practice commences, not in the heights of mastery, not in a profusion of book wisdom, or any qualification busy human beings could dream up. It arises when we grasp hold of ordinary things with a thirst to find the Eternal. When we seek to find the bottomless meaning in every moment: in a spider’s web caught by the sun, in the face of another, the deep grey of the sky; there is the Kingdom. We need not leave home to be spiritually at home. We need not go far to be in the arms of love.

Some Notes on the Possibilities of Bear Theology

What is a ‘Bear’?

In the introduction of her book Queer God, (2003), Marcella Althaus-Reid offers us an intriguing practice for rendering religiously invisible lives theologically vivid. Making ‘gay bars’ the primary field of her reflection Althaus-Reid asks: ‘Where is the salsa in Contextual Theology?’[1]Seeded within Althaus-Reid’s question is a summary of a ‘fleshy’ hermeneutic, in which the lives and passions of Queer people are lovingly meshed into the tasks of theology. In Althaus-Reid’s interpretation of the theological task there should be no spiritual separation between the Queer Salsa bar and the church- no heart ‘torn between love and rosaries’[2]– but a singular life which shares in a kind of sacramental wholeness between ‘sexuality’ and ‘soul’. Recognising the theological dimension in the erotic and the sanctity in the queer, Althaus-Reid seeks to uncover ‘the theologians’ of the gay bar, recognising that: ‘Bodies in love add many theological insights to the quest for God and truth’[3]. In this spirit of reconciling Christian theology and ‘Queer bodies’, this post will attempt to scale down Althaus-Reid’s original project by seeking to engage theologically with a single segment of the Queer community; the Bear sub-culture. I suggest that Bear communities offer Christian theology valuable trajectories for reaffirming the centrality of the body in the life of the Church and resist the commodification of human life.  

Let’s begin by defining terms. What constitutes a Bear?  Stereotypically, he is a Queer man whose body, both symbolically, and spatially, stands out. He is frequently hairy, unkept, and fat. His clothes are chosen deliberately to be unpretentious. His presence, friskily and insistently, pushes against any asceticism that might restrict or sculpt his physicality. The Bear body, in all its bulk is a playful refusal of both athleticism and denial. As Peter Hennen has observed, Bear communities are rooted in an affirmation of ‘the wild’[4], ‘an erotization of the hairy male body’[5] and an emphasis upon ‘playful liberty.’[6]  At the core of these interlocking postures is an ‘ethic of care’[7] which encompasses larger, older, or otherwise unconventional bodies. Diverse images of masculinity may be included in this generous posture. The lumberjack, the trucker, the day labourer, are all possible subjects of erotic delight and models for self-affirmation. Underlying such images is an organizing myth of rustic life. By drawing on modes of rural simplicity and the restorative possibilities of the wild, Bears frequently valorise notions of the ‘natural man’. The act of simply being oneself is creatively borrowed from Radical currents of the Feminist tradition which have been highly critical, not only of Western’ society’s mainstream conceptions of ‘beauty’, but of its social consequences. As Les K. Wright notes,

Going “natural” is taken…directly from the feminist work of Andrea Dworkin, Mary Daly and others.  It is a transformative action on the part of the oppressed to reject being dominated by the beauty myth, to direct our anger against our oppressors and not ourselves…. In this sense, bears address the issue of class structures based on look-ism and fat discrimination. Heavy, unattractive people, are discriminated against in our society, which often has direct economic consequences- being forced to take lower-end jobs, being shunned professionally and socially, being dismissed as asexual or unworthy of intimate affection.[8]

By finding depth and affirmation in the bodies we have, rather than fretting over the bodies we would like to have, Bears attempt to model their conception of a just community, where are bodily lives are things to be loved and enjoy, rather than being a technical project.

Bear Spirituality: Bodies and Idols

What might be the spiritual and theological significance of such postures? In his collection of autobiographical essays Binding the God (2010), Jeff Mann offers his readers a series of intriguing glimpses of the rich theological threads which anchor him within the American Bear Community. Reverent yet heterodox, Mann invites us to experience with him his personal folk religion of the Appalachian landscape which blends contemporary Wiccan practice[9] with a deeply Emersonian Christianity; a fusion which allows Mann to see Spirit as ever-present ‘flickering just beneath the surface of things.’[10]  Finding the blood of Christ in the red-bud of the Judas tree[11]  and divine beauty in a masculine bar-tender[12], Mann continually blurs the erotic and sacramental, to the effect of imbuing his experience with a kind of theological inclusiveness, which makes all of life (including erotic experience) vocational. In this fusion of the sacred and mundane Jesus is transformed into a sexualised man-god, who appears for Mann in the midst of lovemaking, blasphemously yet joyfully, combining his love of BDSM and rugged male beauty. Such a theological stance reflects the Bear community with which Mann travels. Bears are gay and bisexual men who are formed by the conviction that their bodies (whether hairy, overweight, elderly or bulky) should no-longer be subject to a homoerotic gaze which demeans and polices them. In counterbalance to a commercial cult of youthfulness and slimness, Bears seek to reclaim what Mann calls playfully ‘the Holy Trinity of Beards, Body Hair and Bulky Brawn’[13] with an accompanying idealization of food, rough sex and the joyful rooted-ness of (particularly North American) working-class life.

Such a way of seeing has radical implications for how Bears view the world, and how theology might be done in the context of Beardom. When Paul embarked on his journeys through Italy, Greece, and Asia Minor, the cities he encountered were brimming with a decidedly boisterous religiosity. Alongside the many exotic cults worshipped in private homes and smaller shrines, Paul would have witnessed the worship of numerous tutelary deities. These supernatural guardians were thought to foster opulence, preserve the city from invasion, and avert famine. A preeminent cult at the time of Paul’s visit to Thessalonica were the enigmatic Cabeiri[14], while Aphrodite[15] and Artemis[16] served as divine patrons of Roman Corinth and Ephesus respectively. Yet, as many reflective spectators realised, these cults were more than mere municipal talismans. The images of the gods, in imagination and marble, were production-points for forms of what Benedict Anderson has called ‘imagined community’. Much as a modern flag is intended to produce fellow-feeling in those who otherwise may feel themselves strangers, participation in civil cults attempted to impose forms of sacred-symbolic fraternity on potentially alienated urban spaces. In his keen excavation of the implicit symbolism which organized the structure of the ancient Greek polis, Henri Lefebvre observes:

The citizen and city-dweller, representational space and the representation of space, though they did not coincide, were harmonious and congruent. A unity was achieved here between the order of the world, the order of the city, and the order of the house- between the three levels of segments constituted by physical space, political space, (the city along with its domains), and urban space (i.e. within the city proper). This unity was not a simple or a homogeneous one, but rather a unity of composition and of proportion, a unity embracing and presupposing differences and hierarchy…. And time, the rhythm of days and feasts, accorded with the organisation of space- with household altars, with centres of collective activity, with the boule in the agora (a free and open citizens’ assembly), with temples and with stadia.[17]

Here, Lefebvre presents us with the beguiling image of the cityscape as a cosmos in miniature. Within its walls, the intermingling of public space and sacred rites constitute this world’s abiding regularities. In the artificial spaces of temple and agora (where nature is manifestly absent) custom takes on the status of natural law. In such a context, worship serves as a tacit act of submission to the ordered logics of the city, of which the gods are guarantors. For Paul, this mythic framework was nothing but a deception. The gods (daimones) at the centre of the urban micro-cosmos, were not merely the empty idols of Isaiah, but malevolent beings, intent on initiating human beings into pervasive modes of false worship. The cosmology of the pagan city was false because it excluded the God of Abraham and Jesus.  The crucified Jesus did not represent a god of confining brick and marble, but a wild nomadic God. While the city was based on containment, control, and conquest, the god of Christ freely gave and freely loved. The city did not affirm him, indeed, it put him to death. For the earliest Christians, the Power and Image of God was not rooted in mighty public buildings, the amassing of wealth, or the mechanisms of control, but a body that lived, embraced, and suffered. To belong to such a god made one profoundly estranged from the expectations of the city. To follow the Crucified One, was in a sense, to become savage and uncivilized.  This is doubtless why early Christians were accused of cannibalism. A people with such a tenuous link to the rule of the city, could not be other than savage beasts. To live outside the micro-cosmos was to be conceived of as a force of chaos. Paul in his own way, was affirming the possibilities of the wild.

This sense of Christians living outside the control of the city draws attention to a fascinating parallel. Despite the fact that Bears predominately live in highly urban areas, their imaginative appeals to a rustic existence allows them to develop a mode of estrangement, not dissimilar to that of early Christians. Bears, like Paul, can be in the city, but not of the city. What idols does the Bear perceive in the modern cityscape? The false gods are many, from the shallowness of gym culture, to commercial norms of gay male beauty. People sacrifice much to these ideals, crafting and sculpting their bodies in accord with the strictures of a demanding cult. In this economy of fleshly idolatry, embodied life is not a gift, but a product to be consumed. The body is not imbibed with any special aura, except its marketability in the flow of Sexual Capital. The suggestion that bodies in their unconfigured state, in fatness, in age, in frailty,  possess deep dignity, is as incomprehensible to the gods of the latter-day city (with its glossy billboards of bodily perfection), as Paul’s declaration to educated Greeks that God’s son had been crucified. In such a culture, the consuming body is glorified, but bodily imperfections are disowned. As the anthropologist Mark Graham has observed: ‘The cultural messages that bombard us daily are equally contradictory. Turn on the television and you are told to indulge yourself with fatty foods one minute and to diet and stay slim the next.’[18]

The rising medical and media panic concerning an ‘obesity epidemic’ coupled with the increasing number of people being diagnosed with eating-disorders is deeply illustrative of a Western culture torn between food as a source of pleasure and food as a source of guilt. Consequently we live in a society of increasing bodily surveillance; where the size, youthfulness, and shape of our bodies is a matter of constant medical, moral and psychological anxiety. Fat is commonly associated with excess, sloth, and a lack of self-control and thus is frequently deemed a sign of personal failure. This is reinforced by a dieting industry which demands physical perfection, from both men and women. Our micro-cosmos is one of constant body refusal and indulgence, cycles punctuated by muddled guilt and tentative desiring. The idols of contemporary consumer capitalism possess a capriciousness and unthinking cruelty that match the Olympians of old. This should draw us towards an important theological realization. Despite the contemporary turn towards an explicit reveling in ‘the flesh’ through cinema, magazines and the internet, our culture falls easily into destructive dualistic practices of self-hating. The language of the diet-book- ‘the battle of the bulge’ and ‘the quest for the perfect body’ denote the experience of a consciousness at war with the body.  The contemporary turn towards the surveillance of the body is not an affirmative, but profoundly negating move. The culture of beauty does not see the body as friend, but principally as the chief obstacle in the way of the pleasure-seeking calculating mind. This is Oscar Wilde’s great theological insight in his short story The Fisherman and his Soul. Destructive acts do not of themselves come from ‘sins of the flesh’ but from the longings of the distorted soul. How can such a culture hear the declaration of the Word ‘become flesh’ with any seriousness, when the flesh is treated with such contempt? In the midst of such a culture, Bears provide rich templates for gay and bisexual men, but also others, who seek ways of theologically reinvesting their bodies.

Being Called to the Table: Food, Fat, and Worship

The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” (Matt 11:19).

If we do not belong to the idol of the gym, the diet book, or the plastic surgeons’ knife, where do we belong? We belong to a God of bodies, a Father who affirms the completeness of divine revelation in flesh. By being drawn into the Messianic community of Jesus, all bodies become part of His body, thin, fat, young, old. To bolster such bodily inclusivity, Bears have traditionally engaged in a type of bodily literacy. The heft, hair, or muscle of a Bear’s body is not merely desirable but signifies an affirmation of life. The first visibly organised Bear groups crystallised at the height of the AIDs pandemic in the United States. In this context, a gay man who remained heavy signified his continuing health. Thus, early Bears understood their bodies as sites of resistance, not merely to fatal disease, but to life-denying logic. Their fat was a sign, not of excess, but of hope. How might the decidedly bodily hope experienced by Bears, help us break free of body-hating culture? Reading the Bible as a Bear may be a novel task, but rich resources are there for us to find. In contrast to the pangs of guilt that surround our culture’s dualistic attitudes to weight and food, the religious world of the Hebrew Bible (the literarily and symbolic landscape of which Jesus’ was part) was structured by consecrated cycles of eating and feasting, which mediated both Israelite conceptions of holiness and ethics.

Mirrored in these acts of consumption was the notion that divine blessing is expressed through signs of ‘abundance’.  Fat animals were a sign of ‘beauty’ and blessing (Gen 41:2), while faithful Israelites could be assured of being ‘satisfied’ (Deut 11:8-17) by living off ‘the fat of the land’ (Gen 45:18). The ‘fat body’, far from being a universal object of disgust, could be a thing of erotic beauty. We find this view expressed strongly in the Song of Songs where the female lover has a navel like a ‘rounded goblet’ (7:2) with breasts like ‘two fawns’ (4:5) leading Athalya Brenner to conclude that the woman of the Song is ‘far from slim.’[19]  If ‘fat’ can be erotic, it can also be morally positive. Inverting our contemporary association between fatness and greed, Hebrew Wisdom Literature frequently treats ‘becoming fat’ as a reward for generosity (Prov 11:25, 13:4) while Isaiah connects ‘fatness’ with strength (Is. 10:27).  This tradition continues in the Greek Scriptures, where Jesus is criticised as a glutton by his opponents (Matt 11:19). While such a judgement was doubtless mean-spirited, it expressed an important dimension of Jesus’ character. Apart from healing, so much of his ministry was concerned with table-fellowship. As the inaugurator of God’s kingdom, he declares the eternal feast begun on earth. The modern phenomenon of Christian dieting programmes appears highly dubious when compared with the gusto of Christ’s eating and drinking.

Those uncomfortable with the theology of the body being sketched here are liable to remind us of Paul’s admonishment towards those ‘whose god is their belly’ (Phil 3:19). But this is not generally true of Bears. The admonishment would be better directed at those who focus incessantly on what they eat, or do not eat, out of fear that their belly might protrude or expand. Such a person has allowed their life to be crowded with their belly and its dangers to such an extent, that they have left room for little else. Fat as obsession is its own special kind of idolatry. Bears, in all their shapes and sizes, have left space for care and hospitality.  Bears are not merely symbolised by their girth and hair, but the table, with food waiting to be shared. In the Bear affirmation of life, there is room for an explicitly Incarnational ethic of tenderness. The God of the Nomads is not like the gods of the city, who try to control everything from behind walls. There are no gyms or diet books in the wilderness frequented by the God of Israel. The God who raises bodies from the dead, does not regard them as sculptured statues, but fleshy, breathing, feeding, things: “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” (Luke 20:38). Such a God desires love not slimness, generosity, not bodily perfection. The God of the Resurrection doesn’t mind if his people are fat. All he desires his that they are just and hospitable, that their joy does not dispossess others.

[1]Marcella Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 1

[2] Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, (London: Routledge, 2003), ibid

[3] Althaus-Reid, The Queer God, p. 2.

[4] Peter Hennen, Faeries, Bears and Leather: Men in Community Queering Masculinity, (London: The University of Chicago, 2008), p. 101

[5] Hennen, Faeries, Bears and Leathermen: Men in Community Queering Masculinity, (London: The University of Chicago, 2008), p.

[6] Hennen, Faeries, Bears and Leathermen, p. 98

[7] Hennen, Faeries, Bears and Leathermen, p. 98

[8] Les Wright, ‘Theoretical Bears’, in The Bear Book: Readings in the History and Evolution of a Gay Male Subculture, ed. Les Wright, (London: Hawworth Press, 1997), p. 13

[9]  Jeff Mann, ‘Beards, Body Hair and Brawn: Reflections of a Masculine Bear’, Binding The God: Ursine Essays From the Mountain South, (New London: Bear Bones Books, 2010), p. 20

[10] Mann, ‘Till the Ductile Anchor Hold’, Binding The God: Ursine Essays From the Mountain South, (New London: Bear Bones Books, 2010), p. 67

[11] Mann, ‘Till the Ductile Anchor Hold’, Binding The God: Ursine Essays From the Mountain South, (New London: Bear Bones Books, 2010), p.70

[12] Mann, ‘Valhalla in the Redwoods’, p. 32

[13] Mann, ‘Beards, Body Hair and Brawn: Reflections of a Masculine Bear’, p. 11

[14] Charles A. Wanamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1990), p.5

[15] Cavan W. Concannon, “When You Were Gentiles”: Specters of Ethnicity in Roman Corinth and Paul’s Corinthian Correspondence, (London: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 94

[16] See Rick Strelan, Paul, Artemis, and the Jews in Ephesus, (New York: Walter de Gruyer, 1996), pp. 75-79.

[17] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1974: 1991), p. 247

[18] Mark Graham, ‘Chaos’, in Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, ed. Don Kulik & Ann Meneley (Penguin: New York, 2005), p. 183

[19] Athalya Brenner, ‘Come back, come back, Shulammite’, A feminist companion to the Song of Songs, ed.  Athalya Brenner, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), p. 247

 

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.

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).