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)

Related image

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 closet 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 in 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, priesthoods or the obviously holy, but where there is pain, death, and distortion among people whom the powerful and the 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. Roman centurion who discovers faith in this mysterious Lord is but one life the hidden God of the margins encompasses. Where the Holy One is most denied by reason or social boundaries, there he resides in glory. When one loses faith (in loneliness, in violence, in despair) there the Messiah is crucified again for the one who cries and all the forsaken.  That is the absurd God of the Nativity, discovered when hope is lost, discerned midst absence. Centuries of Christendom has made most forget about this Hidden Messiah, in favour of public expansionist faith, replete with spires missionaries, bejewelled altars and songs of spiritual victory. Christians have proclaimed the triumph of Christ without attending to what such triumph means: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first” (Matthew 19:30).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Four main lessons from Quaker Yearly Meeting Gathering at Warwick

Bath Quaker Meeting

Beverley Goddard writes:

I had been at the Yearly Meeting Gathering (YMG) at Warwick University for a few days before I received an email from The Editor asking if I could report back to Bath Local Meeting on my thoughts and experiences at YMG. Not usually lost for words, I was daunted by this simple request: how could I describe everything I was learning and feeling for other people to read?

As the week went on, and especially after I’d returned home and had time to reflect, I realised there were four main things that I had taken away from my exciting, challenging, and exhausting week at YMG:

There’s a big Quaker world out there:  there were 1,400 Quakers at YMG this year, and I felt a real sense of being part of a much bigger Quaker community beyond local and area meeting. This was both through the warm…

View original post 491 more words

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

The Meaning of the Secular

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

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

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

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

Telling a Sacred Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Not Anti-reality, But Holistic Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  35.

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  32.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[22] Hildegard Book of Divine Works, ibid

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

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

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

[26] Hildegard, Scivias, p. 128

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

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

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

Jesus the Epicurean: or Why the Personal really is Political

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Political Theology Today 13th November, 2014

The Logic of Gift: Some Notes on Recovering a Radical Quakerism

The Hollowness of the Feast

Sometimes it is difficult to fully appreciate how radical early Quakers were. Consider the following. In a touching scene from George Fox’s Journal, the Quaker founder recalls his deep distress at the way in which his society celebrated the Nativity of Christ. As Fox recounts:

When the time called Christmas came, while others were feasting and sporting themselves I looked out poor widows from house to house, and gave them some money. When I was invited to marriages (as I sometimes was), I went to none; but the next day, or soon after, I would go and visit them, and if they were poor I gave them some money; for I had wherewith both to keep myself from being chargeable to others and to administer something to the necessities of those who were in need.[1]

Image result for Christmas stuart englandOn the surface, this episode is illustrative of a simple moral lesson about the hollowness of Christmas, which many (even in the rich West) can doubtless identify with. While a swathe of the community feasts in warmth and plenty, there are many who sit alone, cold, poor, and hungry. Who will make the feast of Christmas known to them? But when we dig into the sacred meaning of Christmas in 17th century England, we can detect in Fox’s actions something far more countercultural than mere festive charity. When Fox was a boy, Christmas was not merely a celebration of the Incarnation, it was a reaffirmation of another kind of sacred body (that of the monarch). It was a time when the political order would reveal afresh the religious justifications of its existence. At the heart of this sacred order was the Eucharist. Just as the priest received the veracity of the wine and host from Christ, so the faithful received the grace of Christ from the priest, so that they might pass this grace onto others (through penance and good works). In this network of giving, the King (as a representative of Christ on earth), was understood as the supreme political giver, providing order and stability through his favour and leadership. His supreme gift was his dedication to the service of the people. At Christmas this civic theology of kingship was on full display, as the court lavished gifts on subjects, while the king recieved gifts in return.

Image result for marcel mauss youngWhat kind of community (at least in theory) is being illustrated here? As the anthropologist, Marcel Mauss argues in his classic study The Gift, the earliest human societies were organised by an ethic of symbolically charged obligatory exchange of gifts. Today we tend to think of gifts as things we volantarily give to our nearest and dearest. Not in archaic societies, says Mauss. In ancient contexts, giving was frequently something one did in public as part of one’s expected civic duties. Thus, the ‘gifts’ circulated represent more than mere products to be utilised for personal use, but rich symbols of ‘social life’. By being drawn into networks of giving each member of the community felt themselves ‘enmeshed with one another…. that they are everything to one another.’[2]  This link between giving and identity is expressed in the ancient belief that ‘things sold still have a soul. They are still followed around by their former owner, and they follow him also’.[3]  When a subject was offering a gift to his king, it was not merely an act with a monetary value, but an expression of the faithfulness of the subject (his social value). Symbolically, something of the subject’s intent was left behind in the gift. Thus, according to this rationale, no transaction or acquisition was regarded as separate from the needs of the community. All acts of giving had the function of renewing the social order. To refuse to give (or take too much)[4] meant a magical repudiation of a tribal myth, an act which would rebound on the refuser. In such a system, all must give in order to maintain the stability of the community.  As Mauss observes: ‘Gifts to humans and to the gods…serve the purpose of buying peace between them both.’[5]

Such a moralising discourse of exchange contrasts roundly with what Mauss regards as the secular practice of legal economy. Here communal exchange is replaced by an ethically neutral price mechanism and the fluctuations of supply and demand. Any unpredictability or excess in this market arrangement is deferred, not to a sacred conception of god and tribe, but to the processes of law.  The logic of gift remains even in a Capitalistic economy , but it mostly recedes to the private sphere as philanthropy. It no-longer orders the imaginary and structures of society. As Mauss articulates the contrast: ‘[we] live in societies that draw a strict distinction…. between real rights and personal rights, things, and persons. Such a separation is basic: it constitutes the essential condition for a part of our system of property, transfer, and exchange.’[6] If the ethic of the gift economy assumed the enchanted merging of the self with others, modern economics involves the fostering of calculation and individual interest in the conduct of social life.

Quakers, Priests, and Spiritual Gifts

Image result for 17th century church of englandWhile contemporary theorists have rightly cautioned against taking Mauss’s analysis as a universal statement of ancient human culture, his approach does offer us some key insights into the radical nature of early Quakerism. If we read the above extract through the lenses of the theory of gift, we can understand Fox’s act as more than an expression of spiritual disillusionment over Christmas in 1647, but a coherent expression of his re-commitment to mutality in a society that had abandoned it. What Fox wanted, was peace between God and humanity through just exchange among and between God’s children. Yet, such concord was simply not possible while some were left out of this redemptive process of exchange.  His society might have parodied the sacred concord of God, but was simply not enacting it. True, the institutional churches of Fox’s day tried to offer the faithful selected windows into a sacred reality filled with grace, but didn’t want that reality to change things in real-time. Fox desired above all, to turn such a complacent religiosity on its head. Grace wasn’t just personal, it was political.

Evidence for the working out of such a commitment can be seen throughout the writings of early Friends.  Perhaps the most vivid example is discernible in the first-generation Quaker rejection of paid and rofessionalised priesthoods. While there is doubtless a strong Protestant pedigree to this position (Luther’s priesthood of all believers) there was also a deeper theological rationale bound up with restoring the ‘giftedness’ of grace.  As Fox notes in one epistle on this subject, ‘Christ said to his apostles, disciples, and ministers, when he sent them forth to preach the gospel, freely you have received, freely give’.[7]  In this regard Fox frequently connected the priests of his own time with these stern words of Christ thrown at the Pharisees:  “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew, 23:13). So, what does Fox want instead? While he tends to connect the anti-gift economy of the priests with the Law (‘tithes and offerings’) what Fox was in fact proposing was a return of the Torah’s gift’s economy where holy things are given, outside the demands of pure monetary exchange.  For Fox, those who dissent from this logic of gift are reframed as the heirs of Simon Magus, one who would have ‘bought’[8] the gift of grace rather than receive it thankfully (Acts 8:9-24). In the attempt to hoard power for himself, Simon violates the very nature of the Spirit which is mutal gift through the body of the Church. Once a person is given the free gift of the Spirit, Maussian logic dictates that it must then be given to others.

Yet this insistence on the logic of gift extended well beyond matters of Church government to include the shape of Quaker mission itself. When early Friends read Luke-Acts they saw the disciples exercising the power of Jesus (bestowed on them by the Holy Spirit) in ways which radically undercut the ecclesial structures of their own day. For the formal institutions of Medieval Christendom, the powers of the Spirit were always channelled via numerous forms of mediation, which in turn could be subject to supervision and policing. The Eucharist is a classic example of this process of domestication. To many ordinary people in pre-modern Europe, the Eucharist was a source of magic power, able to cure sickness, ward off bad luck and curse the sinner. There are stories of the Host striking those who had stole it blind. Thus, the Eucharist should only be taken sparingly under the guidance of the proper authorities, such was its power as a vortex of God’s edification and judgement. But this way of treating holy things sat uneasily with the story of Spirit-led action in the early Church. If God had offered his gifts freely to all through the Holy Spirit, why was a single class of priests said to control and exercise them? The first Friends concluded that the Spirit’s power could not be monopolised and that the old ‘magic’ of the Eucharist could now be exercised through their own bodies in mission or in worship. The breaking of the spiritual monopoly had several radical manifestations in the life of Fox and other early Friends, including the recovery of spiritual gifts thought by many contemporaries to be extinct among post-apostolic Christian world. Among Fox’s Spirit-led powers was the ability to read souls and detect witches. As Fox relates in his Journal:

And as I was sitting in a house full of people, declaring the word of life to them, I looked at a woman and discerned an unclean spirit in her. I was moved of the Lord to speak sharply to her; and told her, she was a witch. Upon hearing this, the woman went out of the room. Now since I was a stranger there, and I knew nothing of the woman outwardly, the people were amazed by my calling her a witch and told me afterwards that I had a made a great discovery because all the country believed she was a witch. The Lord had given me a spirit of discerning, by which I many times saw the states and conditions of people, and I could try their spirits.[9]

Alongside such psychic capabilities Fox was credited (and credited himself) with the divinely sanctioned ability to heal afflictions through the medium of touch[10], word, and prayerful intent[11] Such restorative power could even operate at distance if a patient’s distress was known to Fox (see the Gospel parallel in Matthew’s story of the Centurion’s servant). While Fox regarded his powers as direct revivals of Apostolic gifts, such an aptitude places the early Quaker leader in continuity with that class of English folk magicians known as the ‘cunning folk’. As well as providing medical services for their local community, cunning men and women were also reputed to be able to find witches.[12] Such a similarity of function was not lost on opponents of the early Quaker movement, who frequently denounced Fox as a sorcerer. Such were the consequences of the Quaker democratisation of the divine gifts of God.  It was easy to see why someone who exercised spiritual power outside the domains of conventional authority could be deemed a wizard or sorcerer.

Creation as Gift:  Nature and Economy

Image result for adam naming the beastsAny consideration of miraculous healing among Friends naturally leads us to consider Quaker attitudes of giftedness in relation to creation. For early Friends, other Christians did not err simply because they had hired priesthoods, or because they refused to believe that God’s spiritual gifts were offered to all. They were also in error because (like the rest of humanity) they had forgotten that the world was a gift of God. A key part of Fox’s mystical conversion experience in the 1640s was a recovery of this perception, something which had tangible results for shape of his faith. As Fox recounts,

The creation was open to me; and it was showed me, how all things had their names given them, according to their nature and virtue. I was at a stand in my mind, whether I should practise physic for the good of mankind, seeing the nature and virtues of the creatures were so opened to me by the Lord. But I was immediately taken up in spirit, to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam’s in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus, that should never fall.[13]

Being able to perceive spiritual evil and mend physical malady was thus intimately linked to recovering this mystic way of seeing the cosmos. Once one knew the name and virtue (property) of each created thing, one lived again like the namer of the animals (Adam) in peace with God and creation (Genesis 2:19). In this vein, Fox understood the healing arts (physic) to be a redemptive Gospel science which had its roots in the harmonious life of pre-fall humanity, a harmony early Friends sought to restore. As James Naylor expressed this vision in The Lamb’s War:

The Lamb’s quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: “For we war not with flesh and blood,” nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace.[14]

In seeking to liberate creation from the powers of evil Naylor and other Friends stood firmly against the new contractual theory of property which held that God’s promise of dominion in Genesis meant that the human desire to accumulate and own was right and natural (even if it dispossessed others). Much like John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government, Naylor felt that humanity’s authority over the world was derived ultimately from God and not brute force alone. This insistence on the givenness of creation thus had political implications for early Friends. Primarily it ruled out the kind of mercantile Capitalism Friends would later make their own. In the fiendish capacity of the new merchant economy for impoverishing people and the earth, Naylor observed a hubristic denial of the gift economy. As Naylor wrote in 1671:

[All] hearts are full of oppression, and all hands are full of violence, their houses are filled with oppression, their streets and markets abound with it, their courts, which should afford remedy against it, are wholly made up of iniquity and injustice, and the law of God is made altogether void, and truth is trodden under foot, and plainness is become odious to the proud, and deceit set on high, and the proud are counted happy, and the rich are exalted above the poor and look to be worshipped as God, which if any refuse a snare is laid, and bonds and imprisonment is appointed for them as not worthy to breathe in the air, and no law, equity, nor justice can be heard for their freedoms, and this is not done by an open enemy, for then it had not been so strange unto thee, but it is done by those who pretend to be against oppression; and for whom under that pretence thou hast adventured all that is dear unto thee to put power into their hands; and now thou criest to them for help but findest none that can deliver thee. Oh foolish people, when will ye learn wisdom? When will ye cease from man, who is vanity, and the sons of men who are become a lie?[15]

Instead of acknowledging oneself as part of the divine order (Mauss’s blending of self and community) the egoistic person attempts to separate himself from the world through violence and gain. So where does this analysis leave us and our Quakerism? Like the circularity of the gift economy itself, Naylor brings us to where we began, to the widows and the poor left out of the feast. To declare that God gives freely, involves more than removing paid priests, more than getting some spiritual highs (powers of vision and healing). It involves speaking out for justice in a society where things which were once common gifts are becoming increasingly privatised.  All other riches bestowed by God are subsets of being faithful to this call. As Paul reminds us: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Midst greed and avoidable scarcity, real needs cry to be met, needs which extend beyond personal rights and secular contracts. There is God’s covenant of justice which precedes our temporary deeds of power and ownership. In the 1640s the lure of privatisation involved the dispossession of the people from their land and the scourge of backbreaking poverty. Today the gifts of God are obscured by new clouds, the operation of international Capital and pervasive consumerism. For Friends seeking to renew their faith in a century of cynicism and insubstantial spirituality, one could find no better starting-point than returning to the early Quaker language of gift. In experiencing various layers of the Quaker understanding of giftedness, we are invited into a mission of healing bodies, souls, and in modern parlance whole ecosystems. And what is more, whenever we sit together in Worship, we renew this invitation and this radical mission.

[1] George Fox, A journal or historical account of the life, (London: W. & F.G. Cash, 1852), p. 52

[2] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, (London: Routledge, 1954: 2002), p. 43-4

[3] Mauss, The Gift: The form and reason for exchange in archaic societies, (London: Routledge, 1954: 2002), p. 84.

[4]  Mauss, The Gift, p. 90.

[5] Mauss, The Gift, p. 21-22

[6] Mauss, The Gift, p.90.

[7] George Fox, Gospel truth demonstrated, in a collection of doctrinal books, given forth by that faithful Minister of Christ George Fox, Vol. 111 (New York: Isaac Hopper, 1831), p. 476

[8] Fox, Gospel truth demonstrated, in a collection of doctrinal books, given forth by that faithful Minister of Christ George Fox, Vol. 111 (New York: Isaac Hopper, 1831), p. 476

[9] George Fox, A journal or historical account of the life, p. 204

[10] George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, vol. II. ed. Norman Penney, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911, p. 227

[11] Fox, George Fox’s Book of Miracles, ed. Henry Joel Cadbury, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 101

[12] Alison Rowlands, ‘Not ‘the Usual Suspects’? Male Witches, Witchcraft, and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe’, in Witchcraft and Masculinities in Early Modern Europe, ed. A. Rowlands, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), p. 15

[13] Fox, A journal or historical account of the life, p. 85

[14] James Naylor, ‘The Lamb’s War’, in Early Quaker Writings, 1650-1700 ed. Hugh Barbour, Arthur O. Roberts, (Wallingford: Pendle Hill Publishing, 2004), p. 115.

[15] James Nayler, ‘Over the Ruins of this Oppressed Nation’ in Works of James Nayler, Volume I, (Farmington: Quaker Heritage Press, 2003), p. 197

The Gifts of the Quaker Way

Image result for Jesus icon public domain image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sitting in Silence for Israel: Peaceful Trajectories Beyond Quaker Supersessionism

Image result for synagogue worship art TorahThe 1660 Declaration remains a vivid summary of the cluster of theological trajectories named the Quaker Peace Testimony. This post argues that despite the centrality of peace to Quakerism over the last three and a half century’s our articulations of that peace, are recurrently compromised by a persistent tradition of supersessionism. While early Friends frequently upheld positions of radical non-violence, they often did so in ways which actively marginalised Israel’s role as messengers of peace to the nations (Is. 49:6). Consequently, many Quaker polemicists contributed towards the production of a sectarian identity which refused to accept the role of post-Biblical Judaism in the unfolding of the peaceable kingdom. In contrast to these problematic postures, it will be proposed that modern Friends cannot be faithful to the calling of peace until they develop an affirmative account of the Jewish roots of Quaker peace-talk. At the centre of this project of theological repair will be re-readings of Quaker attitudes to silent worship, ‘times and seasons’ and outward sacraments. In place of problematic dualisms between a carnal ceremony and inward worship, it will be argued that Quaker theology should regard its calling to peace as a mark of mimetic faithfulness to the character of the Covenant between God and the Jewish people.

  1. Carnal Ceremony Versus Inward Worship

At the core of early Quaker animosity towards post-Biblical Judaism was the Pauline dichotomy between the religion of the ‘flesh’ and faith of the Spirit. This dualism served not only to dictate the contours of early Quaker theology but gave Friends a ready-made theological vocabulary to employ against outsiders and enemies. While early Quakers saw themselves as the custodians of true religion, Catholics, ritualistic Protestants, and Rabbinic Jews lived by the dictates of the Pharisaic creed, which prevented believers from entering the kingdom of God (Matt. 24:13).[1] This flesh/spirit dualism generated a strong theological justification for the form of silent worship that early Friends had adopted from the Westmorland Seekers in the late 1640s. If the followers of the old covenant had been enmeshed in outward ceremonial forms, Friends looked within. In the orbit of such inward worship was a stark animosity against the marking of ‘times and seasons’. By rejecting the liturgical cycles of other Christian confessions as crude imitations of Jewish temple worship, Quakers saw these things as thrown down by the Spirit of Christ.[2]  Underlying these anti-ritualistic postures was the repeated claim that the mission of peace bestowed to the Jewish people (Abraham’s promise) now belonged to the embryonic Quaker community.  While precious ‘outward worship’ of God among the Hebrews had been fused with the caprice of kings and priests, Fox suggested Quaker worship was not ‘established by blood, nor held up by prisons, neither was the foundation of it laid by the carnal weapons of men, nor is it preserved by such.’

While precious ‘outward worship’ of God among the Hebrews had been fused with the caprice of kings and priests, Fox suggested Quaker worship was not ‘established by blood, nor held up by prisons, neither was the foundation of it laid by the carnal weapons of men, nor is it preserved by such.’[3] Here again, the Jews are understood as a retrograde people, pointing towards the true worship, but never participating in it. As Fox put it: ‘The Jews’ sword outwardly, by which they cut down the heathen, was a type [that is, a figure or foreshadow] of the spirit of God within, which [spirit] cuts down the heathenish nature within’.[4] Here the Hebrew Scriptures (outwardly violent and bestial) is rendered merely a symbolic foreshadowing of the peaceable kingdom of Christ. In this scheme, Judaism has no mission of peace of its own but is merely a signpost to the spiritual life and worship inaugurated by Quaker communities.

  1. Is Quaker Worship Inherently anti-Jewish?

Image result for Quakers JewsGiven these foundational trajectories, could it be argued that the very structure of unprogrammed Quaker worship theologically repudiates the life of Israel? For modern unprogrammed Quakers living after the Shoah, this question is disturbing in several senses. It forces us to consider the painful possibility that our vision of ‘peace’ is based on an exclusionary and sectarian basis. While modern British Friends have long set aside the sectarian instincts of early Friends in relation to other Churches, are our attitudes concerning ritual are still potentially injurious to the ongoing life of the Jewish people. Have we as Quaker theologians done enough to confront these potentially poisonous roots? Some are less than convinced by my concern than others. The contemporary Quaker teacher Stuart Masters has suggested that Quaker theology is not ‘straightforwardly’ supersessionist because:

Friends did not single the Jews out for special condemnation. They were critical of any group that was focused on outward forms, including all the other Christian churches, because they believed that this was the way of the old covenant. Secondly, their vision involved an inclusive expansion of God’s covenant, not the replacement of one chosen people by another.[5]

The danger of this approach is that it sidesteps the fact that the condemnation directed against other churches is itself animated by an anti-Jewish theory of replacement. When early Friends condemned Catholics for their ritualism they frequently made comparisons between papists and the Jewish priests of old. Moreover, early Quaker language of inclusion actively negates the historical community of Israel for ‘spiritual’ alternative which actively erases the Jewish people from the history of salvation.  At the root of this common misreading of Paul on the topic of justification. Instead of understanding justification in terms of Christians being ‘grafted’ to the community of Israel (Gentiles becoming Jews) justification is understood as a personal/non-historical process of personal vindication before God. At first glance, these points seem ‘academic’ (in the worst sense) until we understand what such attitudes do to our Quaker witness.  If we leave these postures uninterrogated our proclamation to be living out God’s peace is decidedly hollow (because it will be a peace which does not recognise a key vessel intended to enact that peace).

How can Quaker theology repair itself? In part, the answer lies in offering a reinterpretation of our worship and silence which does not invite the ant-Jewish postures of the past and restores to Jewish life its autonomy and dignity. Such a reversal can be realised once Quaker theology acknowledges that early Friends had more than one justification for both anti-ritualism and their pattern of worship. It is the responsibility of contemporary Quakers to select and foster those justifications which do not depend on the marginalisation of Jewish identity and practice.  If we leave these postures uninterrogated our proclamation to be living out God’s peace is decidedly hollow (because it will be a peace which does not recognise a key vessel intended to enact that peace). How can Quaker theology repair itself? In part, the answer lies in offering a reinterpretation of our worship and silence which does not invite the ant-Jewish postures of the past and restores to Jewish life its autonomy and dignity. Such a reversal can be realised once Quaker theology acknowledges that early Friends had more than one justification for both anti-ritualism and their pattern of worship. It is the responsibility of contemporary Quakers to select and foster those justifications which do not depend on the marginalisation of Jewish identity and practice.

  1. Silence as Prophetic and Apocalyptic

Alongside the use of Pauline spirit/flesh dualisms, early Quaker users of silence also depended upon a rich network of Biblical associations, many of which did not by necessity depend upon the downgrading of the life and worship of Israel. Such an alternative reading of silence is prominent in an exhortative epistle addressed ‘To All the People of the Earth’ (1657) While the epistle makes brief mention of ‘the synagogues…which Christ, the prophets and apostles cried out against’[6], the letter’s focus is not primarily the replacement of Israel, but the traditions of silence within the Scriptures. This emphasis upon ‘roots’ forces Fox into positions which undeniably hospitable to both the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition more widely. The text summons a rich cast of characters to defend the Quaker use of silence, including Jeremiah[7], David and Isaiah.[8] In the process of calling on this rich narrative reservoir of symbolism, Fox ends by depicting many of the central figures of the Jewish covenant as living in accord with the rule of silence.

Image result for Quaker worshipFox considers that ‘a silent meeting is not a strange thing to the righteous Abel nor to the second Jacob for God is the author of their faith’[9]. We should notice what is lacking in such a formulation. Here Fox does not divide the use of silence into stark ‘old’ or ‘new’ covenantal phases but (against his dualistic instincts) produces a single story of Israel and the Church. The guiding categories in Fox’s letter are not chiefly ‘old’ versus ‘new’ but rather the peaceful and the violent.  Those excluded from the true worship of the silence are not ‘Jews of the flesh’ per se but those enslaved by the logic violence like Cain[10] and Esau.[11] This suggests a far less factional understanding of the origin and structure of Quaker worship than implied by the spirit/flesh dichotomy. Far from being separate and superior to the ‘Jews of the flesh’ such reasoning implies a strong notion of giftedness and inheritance- Friends now sit in silence because of the peace modelled by the patriarchs and prophets. We can do this faithfully because of Israel’s faithfulness.

The unitive possibilities of Fox’s presentation are enhanced when we consider the reasons Fox gives for silent worship in this text. While Fox is sometimes inclined to stress the radically sectarian character of the silent assembly, here he locates two overriding rationales, neither of which necessarily invite a supersessionist interpretation. The first justification for the silence is oracular: to allow Friends to enter that state of hearing God[12] which characterised the prophets of Israel. In this way, the silence is a conduit of training into the gifts of coming Messianic age, when the Spirit will be poured out ‘on all flesh’ (Joel 2:28). Secondly the silence serves as a means of vision by which Friends can participate in the peace that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Gospel promise. The silence in heaven for ‘half an hour’ recorded in Revelations 8 is understood as an expression of God’s final inauguration of peace, in which Friends participate. The lack of ritual in this silence is an extension of this commitment to peace. Just as Yahweh through the lips of the prophets demands ‘love not sacrifice’ (Hosea 6:6), the Quaker renunciation of cultic Christian practice mirrors a commitment to the institutional violence of temples and priests.[13] Thus Quaker anti-ceremonialism need not depend upon in the invalidity of the Mosaic covenant, but stand as a testament of the shared Quaker/Jewish hope for the future of concord and justice.  As Fox puts it, through this silence all people can ‘dwell in that which leads to peace’[14]– its power going out in the world and subduing all confusion and strife [15] This Fox believes represents ‘the consolation of Israel’ awaited by the aged Simeon.[16] Yet as readers of the Epistle are forced to admit, despite these affirming moves, Fox frequently dents their import by repeatedly falling back into the trap of forgetting the Jewishness of the prophets from which he derives his spiritual mission. Despite these not insignificant exegetical obstacles, the recovery of positive judgements of the Jewish tradition in Fox may yet contain the seeds of Quaker trajectories beyond historic anti-Judaism. At the very least the acknowledgement that Quaker postures of silence and anti-ritualism are complex and polymorphic gives Quakers the opportunity to use Fox against Fox. By acknowledging the Jewish religious images and texts which underlie our Worship-practice we may yet be able to join Paul in the affirmation of peace, that Quakers (like all Christians) are ‘branches from a wild olive tree’ [that has] ‘been grafted in’, receiving ‘the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children’ .

Based on a paper originally intended for The Society for the Study of Theology Conference “Peace”, 2017


[1] George Fox, Journal of George Fox, (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1831), p. 394

[2] Isaac Pennington, ‘Some Positions on the Apostasy’, in The Works of Isaac Pennington, Volume 1. (Farrington: Quaker Heritage Press, 1995), p. 36

[3] Fox, Journal of George Fox, (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1831), p. 394

[4] George Fox, ‘Ye are called to peace’, The Works of George Fox, 1990 reprint of 1831 edition, Vol. 1 (Journal I), pp. 387-389 [Accessed 25 Jan. 2017]

[5] Stuart Masters, ‘Abraham’s Offspring, Heirs According to the Promise” – The Quaker Way and the Gift of the Jewish People’, in The Friends Quarterly (Issue 4., 2015),

[6] George Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, in Gospel truth demonstrated, in a collection of doctrinal books, given forth by that Faithful Minister of Jesus Christ, George Fox, (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1831), p. 131

[7] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, in Gospel truth demonstrated, in a collection of doctrinal books, given forth by that Faithful Minister of Jesus Christ, George Fox, (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1831), p.  119

[8] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. 119

[9] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. 130

[10] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. ibid

[11] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. ibid

[12] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. 129

[13] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. 124

[14] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. ibid

[15] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. 123

[16] Fox, ‘Epistle Addressed to All the Nations of the Earth’, p. ibid

It Takes Guts to Believe that God Loves You

In a world characterised by so much brutality and suffering, it is a bold person who still asserts that human beings are ‘made in the image’ of a loving God. If there are marks of divinity in human beings, the deity in question appears to be terrifyingly cruel.  In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that scientists had uncovered what they described as ‘evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors’, with the implication that ‘interpersonal violence may be baked into the human experience’.  It came in the form of a grisly skull belonging to a hominid species much older than Neanderthals. The cranium showed signs of two repeated blows with the same implement, suggesting an ‘intent to kill’. These pre-historic remains hint at the dark possibility that the murder of Abel by Cain is emblematic of the human condition.  As the wars and genocides of the twentieth century conclusively proved, even with all our technology and education, we are frequently no better than that frightened ape that clubbed his enemy to death (although so much deadlier). As Sigmund Freud noted grimly in his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929):

 Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.

Yet, if “man is a wolf to man” (surely a slur on wolves?) how can that be reconciled with the human-positive language of the Gospel?  Are Freud’s ravenous apes the same creatures worthy of having their hairs counted by God (Matt. 10:30)? Are these monsters the same creatures of which God says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18).  Are these designers of bombs and missiles really the meek sheep which Christ will gather back (Matt. 18:12–14)?  When we peer into ourselves the darkness can sometimes seem overwhelming. Often we feel trapped by our egotism and although we know what we should do, we often shudder at the prospect of doing it. We rather others died before we died to our own selves. As Paul put it:  ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it’ (Romans 7:15-20). In Paul’s painful honesty, we readily see the processes of natural selection which have made us. We perceive the outworking of millions of years of biting, tearing and clawing.

In the face of this shattering reality, it is hard to believe that anything so vicious could be cherished by any Supreme Being worth its salt. Yet this is precisely what the Gospel tells us about ourselves. When God sees us, he does not perceive a violent primate, but sons and daughters, heirs, and princes.  He does not see our sins, but rather the Spirit of Christ at work in us. In other words, God always sees us through the eyes of mercy. In the face of all the wrong we commit (or ever will commit) God declares in grace: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). The promise of Jesus is that God will not be pushed away.  The Cross and the Resurrection are signs of God’s ultimate refusal to give up on his creatures. Even when confronted with the roving spirit of Cain, God is not deterred by our coldness. He continues to wait and he continues to give. This is exciting and it is frankly scary. We are invited into a love we cannot earn, we cannot control and do not deserve by any human metric. This is the ‘ocean of light and love’ experienced by George Fox at his convincement, and it is the true reality of which Paul said, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers’ can bar us. Believing this promise of grace is the most radical act we can undertake. For once we hear and believe in that love which persists we can see beyond “fight and flight”, and all the ancient forces which keep us trapped in the past (both personal and collective).

What does such a graceful affirmation offer us? We can lift a sense of judgment from ourselves and by extension lift the burden of judgement from others. We can declare along with the Songs of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). In articulating this new status, we can begin to act like the cherished one we know we are.   Through the love freely offered us, we become capable of sharing love more abundantly with others. Once we recognise our identities as sons and daughters of a loving Father, we can be open to the riches of our inheritance. As Martin Luther once put it: “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”. But as the story of the Cross illustrates it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species- all our weapons, all our prisons and detention centres become shadows. God’s loving judgement, puts human judgements to shame.  But such a gift of escape may be too much for some to bear. Paul puts the challenge of this new nature provocatively when he tells the Church at Corinth:  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Putting the issue more pointedly still, Athanasius said that, the Son of God became man so that we might become God.  We are earth-bound creatures of mud and blood, meant for eternity- a destiny we share with the whole of creation (Rev. 21).

What utterly scandalous suggestions! How could such weak and spiteful beings have sway over the powers of the invisible world? How can we become mirrors reflecting the nature of God? It is surely more realistic to return to the savage safety of the rules which made us:  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). It is this ethic of struggle that we hear in the voice of the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple who fears what Jesus might do to his ordered world: “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Or it put it another way, it is better that unruly love should be snuffed out than allow the anarchy of a perpetually giving God to recast the world. It is much easier to put this ceaseless love on trial and nail it to a cross than hear it and feel open to change. It is easier to follow the script of our evolution than concede the possibility that we nasty bipeds are meant to be a mirror of the Eternal, to be vessels for a reality that is just not like us.

Sometimes this refusal to accept the radical nature of grace becomes manifest in the way some Christians talk about God on the Cross. Instead of understanding the crucifixion as an outpouring of God’s love in the face of the wretchedness of the human situation, an emphasis is placed on stilling the anger of a righteous God, who must have satisfaction in blood. This theological reading is surely built on our ancient Reptilian brain; that part of ourselves which controls our aggressive instincts. Here, God, the bloodthirsty judge serves as a projection of our fears for survival. Someone must die so that we must live. In some theories of atonement, God’s Law is simply a refined version of our own longings for retribution against those who or put us in danger. But the Gospel repeatedly tries to push us beyond this reptilian apparatus by telling us that we must not return evil for evil and that peacemakers will be blessed. The Deity Christians worship is the arch offender against notions of natural justice. In his community, the first will be last and the last will be first, where rain is sent on ‘the just and the unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45). The God of Jesus Christ is not a capricious sky Father filled with all our instinctual aggressions. The One loved by Israel, whom Jesus calls Father has come to save the world and not to condemn it. Yet there has been much copious theologising trying to blunt this fact. Grace perfects nature as the old Catholic theologians tell us, but invariably nature resists. We still want to believe that God plays by our rules of vindication and punishment, something the logic of grace denies. Our challenge is this. Are we prepared to see ourselves as God sees us or continue to be defined by our past? Grace is the key but will we open the door?

Talk: God or whatever you call it

Something from my friend Rhiannon about the ways Quakers talk about God.

Brigid, Fox, and Buddha

This talk was given at the Nontheist Friends Network conference at Woodbrooke, 24-26th March 2017. 

This is a talk with two halves. In the first half I want to talk about talking about God, and in the second half I want to talk about God. In the first half I’m going to ask: can we say anything about God, and if we can, what are we doing when we say things about God? In the second half I’m going to ask: what kinds of things do Quakers typically say about God, and what should we, as a community, do about talking about God.

Before I start, I want to say two things about the way I’m going to talk. Firstly, I’m going to use the word God a lot. I’m going to use the word God because it’s in the title of my talk, but also because it’s a…

View original post 4,170 more words