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 http://www.qis.net/~daruma/foxpeace.html [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…

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The Shrinking Story: The Changing Meaning of ‘That of God in everyone’

The ‘That of God’ Problem

[If] you know not a principle within, which is of God, to guide you to wait upon God, ye are still in your own knowledge…. But waiting all upon God in that which is of God, you are kept open to receive the teachings of God.  (George Fox).

The phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is now so beloved among Liberal Quakers that it has become something of a shibboleth. In its orbit are cozy intuitions of human dignity, equality, and inherent worth. But what does such a statement mean? Who or what is the God in the phrase, and how is deity manifest ‘in everyone’? According to Lewis Benson, in order to answer these questions, we have to place the phrase in the context of George Fox’s understanding of the following text from Romans: ‘Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them (Romans 1:19 KJB). What did Fox think Paul was getting at? As Benson puts it, for Fox “That of God in everyone” is not a statement of values, much less an exploration of human faculties (‘some human means of knowing like reason…. or moral law within’) but something which God uses in the conscience, to draw creatures back into communication with Deity. To posit that God is ‘manifest’ in people is fundamentally about the way God is made known to human beings. It is not an anthropological statement about human dignity or equality per se. As Benson elaborates ‘that of God’ refers to ‘seekinging counsel of the Creator. The Creator imparts his wisdom to man. This is not human wisdom, but the voice and wisdom of the Creator. ‘(“That of God in Every Man” — What Did George Fox Mean by It?). But as Benson would doubtless remind us, when early Friends spoke of ‘God’ and ‘wisdom’ they were speaking in a definite Christ-shaped tone. The God that reached out within the human self, was not any old transcendental presence, but a God with a given character and story.  This is the unknown God Paul proclaims in Athens:

The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands… we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill.  In the past, God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.  For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead”’ (Acts 17:24-31).

Image result for quaker worshipSuch a Spirit is the God of the whole world but was made manifest in the first-century Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. And what about wisdom? As a diligent reader of Scripture, Fox understood the language of wisdom in two interlocking senses. The first is the ‘holy wisdom’ of God which had ordered the world in the beginning (Proverbs 8:22), the second was the foolish ‘wisdom of God’ revealed in the crucified Christ (1 Corinthians 1:25). Fox understood both forms of wisdom to be the work and expression of a single reality: God’s son who sustains ‘all things by his powerful word’ (Hebrews 1:3). So to speak to ‘that of God in everyone’ meant to draw people into the Life and Power of that creative yet crucified wisdom.In the first instance, people are drawn into such a Life through an awareness of their own failings and inadequacies. People are invited into the crucified wisdom by allowing all that is blocking the Spirit to be crucified within them. Thus, when Fox spoke of the Light of Christ, he meant something akin to a searchlight which would pick up the contours of our injured selves and bring them to account. As George Fox put it in The Journal:

But oh, then did I see my troubles, trials, and temptations more than ever I had done! As the light appeared, all appeared that is out of the light, darkness, death, temptations, the unrighteous, the ungodly; all was manifest and seen in the light….And then the spiritual discerning came into me, by which I did discern my own thoughts, groans, and sighs, and what it was that did veil me, and what it was that did open me.
What Paul had described as ‘the wrath of God…revealed from heaven against all ungodliness’ (Romans 1:18-19) was felt in Fox’s own life. But instead of breaking him, such an interior realization freed him from both shame and inadequacy.Once he had owned what he had done and what he had looked like before God, he was able to begin a new chapter in his life. God had been his judge, his comforter, then finally his healer. But today for many Liberal British Quakers to declare that kind of ‘God in everyone’ is dangerously specific, if not horrifyingly evangelical. Steven Davison in his Flaming Sword blog argues persuasively that while early Friends used ‘that of God’ in the context of a bigger account of ‘sin’, ‘eternity’ and ‘salvation’ Liberal Quaker theology uses the phrase as a shorthand for transcendence and a replacement for a traditional soul-language now viewed as problematic by many Liberal Friends. Instead of worrying about the Pauline language of repentance, Liberal Friends are more concerned with inward mystical experience and contact with the ineffable. ‘That of God’ becomes a way of expressing the capacity of such contact. Steven charts this process of replacement in the work of Rufus Jones. He writes:

Both a mystic and a scholar, he sought to understand the mystical experience, so he studied it. And in that study, especially his study of Neoplatonism, he found the notion of the divine spark. He also wanted to place his own mystical experience in both the mystical traditions of the world (or at least, of the West) and in his own tradition of Quakerism. He accomplished this by defining “that of God” as a divine spark after the Neoplatonists, even though George Fox never had any such idea in mind when he used the phrase. Thus, was liberal Quaker “theology” born.

 The Implications of Liberal Quaker Theology

Image result for quaker worshipWhat did this shift mean for the subsequent development of Liberal Quaker reflection? The first thing to be said is that Jones’ equation of ‘that of God’ with the Neo-Platonic divine spark, subtly shifted the Quaker message away from Fox’s claim that ‘there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition ‘, to ‘there is an indefinite Deity who lives in you already’.  One thinks of the roundly impersonal God of Stoicism or the shadowy Atman of the Upanishads. What is lacking in such an approach is religious specificity. Such a God demands nothing specific, loves nothing concrete, calls us to nothing, other than the ‘experience’ of that which cannot be named.  It is nearly impossible to imagine such a divine spirit declaring as Yahweh does in the Hebrew Scriptures: “For the sake of Jacob My servant, And Israel My chosen one, I have also called you by your name; I have given you a title of honor Though you have not known Me’ (Isaiah 45:4). Impossible because the Platonic God of Jones is not tied to history, beyond the personal histories of those who look within. The domain of the divine spark is not nations and communities, but hearts and individuals. Here the God with a story is jettisoned in favour of a universal mystical Power which is inherent in all people (making everyone a little bit divine). After Jones, it was possible to say (along with some reconstructed Sufis and Theosophists) that Quakerism was just part of a generic perennial wisdom which was the property of all wise and good spiritual seekers. In this way, all people, were understood as Quaker already.

Image result for quaker worshipFor many Liberal Friends, this vision of radical inclusion is a badge of their innermost identity. The language of ‘mysticism’ in this context is deeply attractive because it does not bind people to any particular community, set of images or sacred stories. Such universalism helps many Quakers (some of whom have been wounded by the exclusivities of other Churches) to constitute themselves as a loving and supportive community. Yet such inclusion is not without its costs for the coherence of the Quaker Way. By refusing to affirm the centrality of a formative story (including a God who demands, loves, and forgives) Quaker worship loses much of its radical power. Without a God with a story, our gatherings can become whatever we want them to be (a time for personal prayer, an escape from the week, a form of meditation or reflection). While some may regard such liberality as freeing, without the God with a story at the core of why we wait, there is a danger that our Worship disintegrates into a personal rather than shared enterprise. We start investing the silence with a kind of protective solipsism, the sense that this is ‘our time’ rather than the gift of a definitive gift-giver.  We keep on using old Quaker words (words which suggest a substantial story) but we have forgotten where the words come from and/or how to fit them together. In such an amorphous state, it is easy to throw away hard readings of what we do in Worship. We might relegate the old Quaker language about the Light convicting us of sin (or revealing our darkness) for something more affirming, less difficult, and more malleable. Reflecting on the coziness of present ‘that of God’ language Steven suggests:

[The] advantage of…that-of-God is that it’s not scary. The idea of a soul with an afterlife is scary; scary as hell. Who wouldn’t trade divine judgment for a nice little divine spark? This fear helps to explain why, after decades of relying more and more on this little phrase, we have yet to elaborate on what “that of God in everyone” actually means. The vaguer it is, the nicer it is.

If this description is right, it seems clear that Liberal Quakerism is increasingly good at supporting and affirming individuals, but less good at binding us together as Friends.

Recovering Heavenly Worship

So this leads us to a tough question. Is Worship about being inclusive and nice or is it about something else? Certainly, our Worship together should be guided by love, but does such affection mean that being Quaker must be infinitely elastic?  In protective vagueness, we may end up losing the sense of what we sit in silence for. Without facing things that are thorny, difficult, or even a bit scary it’s easy to float along, feeling that we are not accountable to anything except our own sense of inward wellbeing.  Yet in stressing affirmation over more troubling languages of healing, change, and transformation, we may render our Quaker Way shrunken and directionless. Mystical experiences are nothing but pleasant spiritual highs unless they are tied to some goal or discipline which structures them. We do this through our pattern of Worship, but also through the words we use to express our Quaker Way (Testimony, Light, Spirit Peace). Each piece of shared Quaker-speak is a reminder that Worship is not a private possession, but part of a coherent narrative, with a shared spiritual reality at its core.  Do we dare to be part of this? Or are we content with rather prosaic and half-formed notions of ‘personal spiritual journeys’? When early Quakers sat in worship together, they saw themselves as doing more than a therapeutic exercise or a kind of extended prayer-practice. They believed that in the silence they would encounter the cosmic Christ who calls out to them to join the heavenly wedding feast: ‘Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me’ (Revelation 3:20). When Meeting began, they understood themselves as sat in that Eternal God-space beyond the reach of the everyday world. As the prolific Quaker polemicist Francis Howgill attempted to express this new reality:

O beloved Ones, who are the Children of my eternal Father, who have eaten at his Table, and drunken of the new Wine in the Kingdom of God, who are nourished and dandled upon the Lap of everlasting Love, who suck at the Breasts of everlasting Consolation; you Beauty is comely, I am ravished, I am filled, I am filled with Love to you all, I am sick of Love, your Beauty hath ravished my Heart:… and in him I meet you, and leave you in his Arms; I lye down with you in the bosom of eternal Love, Life, Peace, Joy and Rest forever, where none can make us afraid. [ix] (Howgill 1655)

Image result for Lamb book of revelationTo worship God in this ecstatic sense is to be taken to the heavenly court where the saints and angels praise the Lamb.  What does such imagery tell us? We do not worship just for ourselves, but for the whole community of worshippers throughout all time. We worship with and for a creation which is infused with God’s promise of healing. In this shape, Quaker silence is not merely a spiritual retreat, it is our Eucharist when we celebrate the love of a God who feeds and guides us. The royal road to such spiritual food is in confronting our wounds and wrongs (the things which need care and mending). By allowing ourselves to be embraced by the Spirit, God’s  Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life. Here vague mysticism gives way to a meaning and direction not our own. Grace is all about being carried along by that. What a scary and awesome thought!  Of course, not every individual Meeting for Worship will be equally earth-shattering, but the point is that our Worship is made for radical transformation, embedded within the story of a God who wishes to turn the world upside down.  The invitation is always there if we wish to take it up. We do our individual spiritual journeys a deep disservice when we replace this cosmic vision of ‘that of God’ with an insular model of personal religion which excludes the possibility of a spiritual path with shared words, images, and focus. But perhaps the scariest aspect of recovering this approach to our Quakerism is that it places on us the responsibility to articulate and share the feast we are part of.  If weary Friends detect a whiff of evangelicalism in these remakes, they are right to do so. Calling back the God with a story to the very heart of our Worship means retrieving the Good News the phrase ‘that of God in everyone’ is intended to express.  This doesn’t mean we all must believe, or indeed say the same thing, but it does mean we need more trust in our Quaker-speak, including our language around the moral life and God. It isn’t about policing or conformity, but about blending our story with the story of the Quaker Way, allowing our hearts to open to all that has been revealed. Such trust will, with a bit of luck, help us to get back to specifics and shake off the story-less deity of Jones.

Once we have climbed out of personal cocoons new possibilities for being Quaker emerge. When we keep everything vague we have no reason to tell our Quaker story well (we only need to be convinced of our own stories). But when we discover a shared way of seeing through a narrative-filled Presence, we can do more than simply speak for ourselves (a common tendency at Quaker Quest evenings) but sustain and pass on shared treasures. This isn’t about megaphones, posters, or even individual moral perfection, it is about allowing ourselves to place weight behind the shared story we use. As 1 Peter defines the task: ‘Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).  This posture comes with risks of course. If not everyone is a Quaker already, then we come to the world with a distinctive story to tell, a story not everyone will find easy or palatable. But then, declaring hope is never easy midst cultures of quick fixes and cynicism. But before we go out into the world and start passing on our deep hope, Friends need to become accustomed to this practice of communal hope-telling.  Only then will we discover the full import of these famous words belonging to George Fox:

In the power of life and wisdom, and dread of the Lord God of life, and heaven, and earth, dwell; that in the wisdom of God over all ye may be preserved, and be a terror to all the adversaries of God, and a dread, answering that of God in them all, spreading the Truth abroad, awakening the witness, confounding deceit, gathering up out of transgression into the life, the covenant of light and peace with God……[Be] patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone (Quaker Faith and Practice, 19:30).

The Making of a Charismatic Quaker

Some great thoughts from Hye…..

Hye Sung Francis

unnamed-10 A photo of early Vineyard worship with Vineyard founder John Wimber

After stumbling into what Pentecostals and some charismatics call the “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” I had no idea what was next. Who could I tell about this mystical experience, one of tangible peace and joy, and one where I began speaking in tongues?

I met with my pastor, who was helpful in sorting through the theology of my experience and learning how to articulate my growing convictions, but he had no experience with such things and took an “open but cautious” stance on the charismatic gifts. Eventually, I opened up to some of my best Christian friends, receiving mixed responses but little direction. None of them had experienced these things, and several of them disapproved of all charismatic phenomena.

Nobody I was close to knew much about this experience outside of YouTube clips of hotline preachers. But I was desperate…

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Does the United Kingdom Have a Future?

The Problem of Unionism

This week, Teresa May condemned the SNP for what she described as their ‘tunnel vision’ nationalism. Addressing the Conservative Party conference in Glasgow she noted:

I wanted to make clear that strengthening and sustaining the bonds that unite us is a personal priority for me. I am confident about the future of our United Kingdom and optimistic about what we can achieve together as a country. The fundamental strengths of our Union, and the benefits it brings to all of its constituent parts are clear. But we all know that the SNP will never stop twisting the truth and distorting reality in their effort to denigrate our United Kingdom and further their obsession of independence. It is their single purpose in political life. We need to be equally determined to ensure that the truth about our United Kingdom is heard loudly and clearly. As Britain leaves the European Union and we forge a new role for ourselves in the world, the strength and stability of our Union will become even more important. We must take this opportunity to bring our United Kingdom closer together.

But there is one thorny problem committed Unionists like May have. They don’t seem to be able to directly answer the question: what exactly is the Union for? They often talk about economic prosperity and opportunity. These generic goals are hard to generate enthusiasm for at the best of times. Yet after seven years of public sector cuts and rising in-work poverty, they are doubly difficult to sell. But the problem runs deeper. It is not only that Unionists can’t sell their generalised slogans, they are not certain what these slogans amount to. This lack of a positive and coherent vision became blatantly obvious during the Scottish Referendum in 2014. It included the extraordinary sight of an impeccably English PM admitting how much ordinary Scottish voters ‘effing hated his party. He looked like a Persian general at Marathon who had just been handed over to the Greeks. This wasn’t his country anymore. Consequently, the Unionist side wrestled over what they loved about modern Britain (or more specifically what contemporary Scots should love). In the end, the British establishment fell back on Project Fear. It was easier for the No Campaign to imagine Scotland covered in a plague of post-Referendum locusts than it was for them to conjure some new sunny uplands for Scotland inside the Union. And why was this?  Primarily, because the tried and tested symbols Unionists habitually used in previous decades to bolster their story of a single ‘Realm of nations’, had been exhausted by the march of political circumstances. Every declaration of patriotism sounded like an old, slightly grubby cliche.

The Decline of Identity: The Lightning Bolt of Thatcherism

1945 was the height of Unionism in the UK. National solidarity was at its zenith. Britain had a whole series of shared institutions. Not just the BBC and the NHS, but the great nationalized industries which bound communities together from North Yorkshire to Strathclyde. And while the Conservative government remained a dominant electoral force in the post-war world, many Conservative politicians (including Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, and Iain Macleod) understood that to keep Britain united, the Party needed to respect the Social Democratic values of many parts of the country. They couldn’t go imposing a rigid ideological plan without consultation and sensitive application. In this respect, Keynesianism was not merely good economics for these centrist Conservatives, but a method of sustaining a stable national community. But these bonds began to come under strain in the 1970s as economic instability caused the politics of full employment and social moderation to unravel.

The Union was always a state-sponsored creation and as large parts of the state withered in the late 1970s and early 80s) people began to associate themselves more with regional and local identities and less with something called the United Kingdom.  This process predated the emergence of Thatcherism, but its formal adoption by State elites after 1981 certainly accelerated the process. Thatcher’s repeal of the Scottish Devolution Bill early on in her tenure was a signal that she would not compromise like her predecessors, but it was also a sign that she was uncomprehending about the need to renew the Union. Her inattentiveness to this issue eventually decimated the Conservative Party in Scotland and secured the rise and rise of Scottish nationalism. With every laid-off pit worker and every industrial closure, Thatcherism shot bolts of high-voltage electricity through the weak heart of the Union. The Welsh story is a slightly different one (without the surge in nationalism) but with similar outcomes. While there is no overwhelming appetite for a formal separation in Wales, there is little love for Westminister and the apparently shared symbols of Britishness. One thing Mrs Thatcher never seemed to understand was the extent to which her political project of markets and deregulation was in many ways toxic to the cross-national, cross-regional connections which continued to make the Union possible in a post-imperial setting.  This was compounded by her petite bourgeois snobbishness which made few concessions to local identities and customs not infused with the mores of Middle England. These peculiarities would be bent to her policy objectives or else they would be bulldozed.

The Forces of Change

Rapid de-industrialisation and the rise of mass unemployment in the Thatcher era raised key questions for national solidarity which were not answered by the ministers who implemented the Thatcher revolution. As old identities and occupations died out, the government did relatively little to generate new identities and shared occupations. Anonymous, low-skilled service-sector jobs replaced employment rooted in a language civic pride and communal effort. This left behind a bitter resentment and bewilderment of which the political and social symptoms in Britain are still legion. It is principally expressed, however, by a bitter assertiveness with voters talking about a loss of national pride expressed in the decay of their local areas. Scottish nationalists similarly draw on a narrative of mismanagement and decline inflicted by politicians in London.

And what part has the Labour Party played in this sorry tale? At every turn, Labour has been outwitted and outpaced by the forces of change, and found it hard to develop its own reason for the Union. With its own political heartlands now gutted, the old industrial and class symbols which once made sense of Britannia for 20th century Social Democrats has died a pitiful death. And with the destruction of such a symbolic framework, has come the demise of the Left’s deep love affair with the Union.  In 1997, Labour believed it could rediscover its political soul by embarking on the experiment of devolution for Scotland. But in the end, it merely compounded Labour’s modern identity problems. Scottish Labour now feels pulled between a Scottish identity it feels uncomfortable defining, and its instinctive desire to oppose the Nationalists. Suffice to say these conflicting impulses have caused Scottish Labour politicians into a series of undignified contortions which frequently end with them saying very little at the podium. This haziness underlies the reason for Labour’s electoral decline in Scotland. No-one knows what the point of Labour is anymore. Like Unionism more generally, the flame of progressive Britishness has been reduced to a mere ember.

Does Unionism Have a Future?  

These new conditions of dislocation point to a deep and abiding emptiness- a lack of something shared emanating from the imaginary heart of the country. But human beings are by nature story-telling animals and won’t tolerate narrative emptiness forever. They soon start telling new stories which are more closely aligned with their experiences. The problem with May’s Unionism is that she has no definite vision for developing a new story nor a  new set of institutions to embody that story. This fact is made more curious given that her speech this week identifies exactly this task. She noted:

[The] Union which we all care about is not simply a constitutional artefact. It is a union of people, affections, and loyalties. It is characterised by sharing together as a country the challenges which we all face, and freely pooling the resources we have to tackle them. The existence of our Union rests on some simple but powerful principles: solidarity, unity, family.

How does she envision these values working in practice? Like many modern managerial politicians, the Prime Minister talks about issues to be fixed but is less able to articulate what all this fixing is in aid of.  She seems as unclear about the essential glue of the Union as she is about the mechanics of Brexit. Her struggle lies in the fact that she evidently finds it hard to summon up a deep and abiding symbolic language. She is captured by the banality of political prose when she really needs more poetry, more emotion, and more understanding of the images that make many ordinary Scots feel proud. This is not an existential problem faced by Nicola Sturgeon. Despite losing the Referendum campaign, the SNP has a much stronger sense of what is, and the kind of future it wants to build. In the long-run, it seems that this sense of vision will have a greater effect on the future of Britishness than any Conservative bluster about the Union at the level of the abstract.

The problem for the modern Conservative Party is that they mistake antagonism for a positive project. This is also a legacy of Margret Thatcher, who was defined more by what she was against (state-dependency, socialism, overmighty trade unions) than what she was for. But the Union cannot be conjured into existence by merely bashing the SNP as ‘the enemy within’. Making the Union work takes courage, imagination, and vision.  Yet, it seems that the present government hasn’t the faintest idea about how to accomplish that. Their plates are too full with the complexities of European disentanglement to be seriously engaged in the task of domestic political renewal. Indeed, the Westminister government appears to be continuing with the same shallow politics of divide and rule which will doubtless benefit it electorally in the short-run, but drive the United Kingdom further apart. Should we resist this process? I used to think so, but now I wonder what the point would be. So, these lands can be dragged further down a heartless neo-liberal rabbit hole? So we can have more customers and fewer citizens? Here’s the blunt truth. If Unionism is going to survive, it needs a guiding reason to exist. If Unionist politicians are incapable of telling a new and convincing story about what Britain is and what it could be, it would better for the Union (and 1945 Britishness) to be left to die. The United Kingdom has no God-given right to exist, and Unionists, in particular, should remember that.

The Unhappy Ghost of American Identity: Hauerwas, Bannon and the ‘Emptiness’ of National Promise

Hauerwas and American Identity

For U.S. Christians, the election of Donald Trump has been the cause of a bitter war of words in and between Churches about the nature of the new administration. Many white Evangelicals supported the Trump campaign, galvanized by his promise to appoint a Supreme Court judge who would overturn Rowe V. Wade. Auxiliary to this, there are some on the Religious Right, like Jerry Falwell Jr, who believe that the arrival of the Trump team will herald a new era of Evangelical influence in the White House. Falwell was asked back in January to head a White House task force on reforming the U.S. higher education system.Perhaps such an appointment are a sign of things to come. Likewise, Trump’s policy strategist Steve Bannon has spoken extensively about a return to America’s religious roots and what he refers to as ‘traditionalism’. On the other side of the religious and cultural divide, many Churches have been involved in demonstrations against Trump’s hardline immigration policies. As the Quaker blogger Micah Bales asks:

With the rise of Trump and his proto-fascist movement, I and many other followers of Jesus are asking: What does it look like for the church to become mobilized in the struggle for justice – not just as individuals, but as whole communities? How do we muster the courage and energy to live in solidarity with the many people who may be marginalized, ostracized, and terrorized under this new administration?

While my own sympathies are with Micah, the thought strikes me that both Christian accommodationism and Gospel-inspired resistance might actually circumvent some of the more important issues Christian communities need to wrestle with in relation to Trump. That is because both positions are in danger of assuming that it is the role of Christians to invest the public sphere with morality or decency, whether that is supporting civil rights legislation or opposing abortion. Yet such activism is always to the detriment of first order questions including, what is the proper relationship between faith and public life? And what is the moral and political structure of America? Answer these questions satisfactorily, then you will have a model of Christian faithfulness which transcends the often poisonous debate beyond the occupant of the White House, his policies, and agenda, and forces people to consider deeper issues of American Christian identity. The danger of not asking these sorts of questions is that Christians become sucked into the partisan political systems of democracy, rather than developing their own voice and practice. It is not the responsibility of Christians to make sure liberal democracy works well. It is the responsibility of the Church to be faithful to the God found in Jesus.

Image result for Stanley HauerwasWhat might such Christian authenticity look like? Stanley Hauerwas, the contrarian Texan theologian is an insightful voice in the midst of his country’s political upheaval.  His analysis of the sources of American self-identity provides a valuable cipher through which to decode the often bewildering character of present U.S. politics. At the core of his analysis is a sensitivity to the stories ‘good Americans’ tell themselves about who and what they are. Central to these narratives of ‘freedom. ‘destiny’ and ‘exceptionalism’ is a paradox. The strange thing about America is that Americans are said to ‘have no story’. As Hauerwas put in an article for the Guardian in 2010:

America is the exemplification of what I call the project of modernity. That project is the attempt to produce a people that believes it should have no story except the story it chose when it had no story. That is what Americans mean by freedom. The problem with that story is its central paradox: you did not choose the story that you should have no story except the story you chose when you had no story. Americans, however, are unable to acknowledge that they have been fated to be “free”, which makes them all the more adamant that they have a right to choose the god that underwrites their “freedom.”

Thus, according to Hauerwas, American political identities are always inherently ‘liquid’ because American public institutions are intent on protecting the premise that story-less ‘freedom’ is of absolute and overriding value. What is it like to live under these conditions? For Hauerwas, to be American is to be projected perpetually into the progressing future, erasing all notion of past, custom, particularity, and roots. If America has a public philosophy for Hauerwas, it is a steely technological universalism, which cherishes the individual above the communities to which that individual belongs. While such a social order is flecked through with beguiling choice and playful excess, it ultimately leads to a monotone world where human experience is forced into a single techno-libertarian pattern. As Hauerwas puts it elsewhere: ‘To be sure America has a history, but we see our history as an outworking of our ideals, which are available to anyone, anywhere. America is, of course, a country, with a diverse and extraordinary geography that invites a sense of place. Yet as the most advanced capitalist social order our history and geography…are increasingly subject to the processes of modernity that require standardization. You have to be able to build a WallMart and sell MacDonald’s everywhere’ (War and the American Difference, p. 153).

This logic of standardization and rootlessness is always to be contrasted for Hauerwas, with the rootedness of the Church. While the Gospel can never be identified with any national community or secular political creed, it invites people into a community and a politics. It is a community and a politics ordered by a particular story: the narrative of the God of Isreal and his outworking in Jesus Christ.  At the core of this narrative is not ‘freedom’ but character. God wants to enter our lives, to shape and enrich them. If freedom exists at all in the Gospel, it does so in relation to a God which longs for human life to take on a particular shape and direction.  Life is not self-created but is ‘created’, to serve as a mirror of the divine life. God gives freely so that we might share in a transformed sense of ourselves and others. This doesn’t mean that local identity is of no significance. It only means that social labels like ‘British’, ‘American’, or ‘Korean’ must be ordered according to the shape and direction of the Christian story.  Thus, the Church cannot properly know what ‘America’ means’ divorced from the component parts of the story that keep people Christian. To attempt an interpretation of national identity apart from the Gospel is liable to tempt Christians into a peculiar kind of ethnocentric idolatry.

Bannon and the ‘Nation’

Steve Bannon 2010.jpgHauerwas’ analysis flowed back to me as I watched Steve Bannon’s contribution to Conservative Political Action Conference on the 23rd of February. As the closest thing Donald Trump has to be a paid-up ‘public philosopher’  Bannon provides a vivid (and at tines troubling) articulation of the aims and ethos of the new administration. At the heart of his public vision is the assertion of the ‘nation’ in the midst of the fluidity and unpredictability of the globalized world. “We’re a nation with an economy,” says Bannon, “not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.” But what does “the nation” mean for Bannon? What is fascinating is that it is easier for Bannon to say who does not belong to ‘the nation’. He rejects the ‘corporatist, globalist media’, ‘the administrative state’, ‘Muslims’, and the meddling of ‘Progressives’. According to Bannon, the nation will be formed when there is a genuine ‘a fight’ with vested interests.  Why is Bannon so keen on defining his vision in negative terms? In part, the answer may lie in the Hauerwasian contention that the American project is inherently about a story-less future. Consequently, most of Bannon’s claims are less to do with cultural essence and more to do with economic freedom of the nation ‘to do things’ (‘sovereignty’, ‘bringing back jobs, and ‘supporting deregulation’). But these are merely conditions of American choice. They don’t actually tell us what it means to be an American. It is almost as if what is being suggested is that America is what a Trump administration does. But if you think about it for a second, that’s all a story-less politics can really do. It can only talk about conditions of action, it has no account of what actions should be preferred and why. Beyond the defense of doing and choosing, it has little substance.

In this respect, Bannon’s deployment of the ‘nation’ seems to be something an empty signifier. But this is exactly what we should expect if Hauerwas is right about the structure of American identity. Bannon cannot go beyond the logic of exclusion because deep down he does not know what to include. This is despite all his bluster about how capitalism depends on the presence of “Judeo-Christian values.” How could his analysis not contain this problem of substance? If Hauerwas is right it is not some ‘cultural other’ that has led to a crisis in American identity, but the modern project itself. Sure, the U.S. contains many ‘local cultures’, but “the Idea of America” has always been about universalist liberalism (America is a cosmopolitan country offering a refuge to ‘the poor, hungry and tired of the earth’. So in one sense ‘Americanism’ is the philosophy of universal citizenship so that to live in America is to live ‘everywhere’ and ‘nowhere’ at the same time. America has never been a nation like the organic political identities of Europe, built on ancient linguistic, tribal, geographical and religious ties. It is a political experiment in Lockean liberalism. Thus, the most such a politics can do is promise is defend freedom from outside interference. It cannot really build any kind of community with common bonds because there is no real direction at the heart of political life. Conservative activists may try to fill this gap with ‘getting the right guy’ on the Supreme Court bench’ or the assertion of ‘family values’, but most of these reflexes either boil down to procedural issues or turn out to predicated on hating some ‘nebulous’ political other. Of course the same can also be said of the dynamics of much of American Leftism today.  They only know what they are by what they are against (racism, sexism, homophobia) yet they lack a coherent account of what a good life together really consists of. On both sides, the issue of ‘the point of being American’ is scarcely addressed.

This lack of clarity is exacerbated by the fact that ‘American civilization has increasingly re-made the world in its own image. There is now a very real sense in which America’s liberal vision is now the world’s default culture through the power of the U.S. media, military power and corporations.That was the great irony of Trump’s policy of the wall. It was a measure to keep the world out, but that world increasingly looks and feels like America. This, in turn, raises a thorny question. If America sits enthroned at the heart of a global culture, what exactly is Bannon trying to protect? And how does this nationalist agenda relate to America’s liberal founding myths? Perhaps the election of Trump is fundamentally about a deep recognition of American ’emptiness’ among its citizens. Such has been the relentlessness of American liberalism that it caused the world to ‘melt into air’.By recycling the language of ‘America First’ Trump’s election attempts to reassure that there really is ‘something called America’ in modernity’s hall of mirrors. The fact that many American Christians have found solace in such assurance would suggest to someone like Hauerwas, that they are not looking to their story, or to put it another way, it is more important to such folk that they remain loyal Americans, rather than loyal Christians.

Standing in the Midst of Emptiness

Of course, it is likely that the politics of America is far more complex than Hauerwas’ analysis first supposes. Not all forms of liberal politics are rootless, nor is there simply one way to be modern. But Hauerwas does seem to have put his finger on the profound hollowness at the core of American public life. If Trump’s election represents a moment of unmasking (the moment when the idea of ‘America’ is revealed as a ‘ghost’) how should Christians led by their story proceed? In his book America (1986), the French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard suggests that:

America is neither dream nor reality. It is a hyperreality. It is a hyperreality because it is a utopia which has behaved from the very beginning as though it were already achieved. Everything here is real and pragmatic, yet it is the stuff of dreams too. It may be the truth of America can only be seen by a European, since he alone will discover here the perfect simulacrum – that of the immanence and material transcription of all values. The Americans, for their part, have no sense of simulation. They are themselves simulation in its most developed state, but they have no language in which to describe it, since they themselves are the mode.

Richard B. Spencer in 2016.jpgThis description offers an excellent hint about the urgent tasks of U.S. Christians in the age of Trump. In the years ahead the simulations of ‘America’ (its destiny and its enemies) will doubtless grow in noise and intensity, in order to fill the hollowness of the body politic. Public discourse will likely become more bitter as participants continue with the fiction that they ‘believe in something’ no matter how dark or brutal such belief turns out to be. The chilling possibilities of such logic appeared soon after Trump’s election in the form of the White Supremacist Richard Spencer who declared that ‘Donald Trump’s movement, whether [Trump strategist] Kellyanne Conway wants to admit it or not, was fundamentally about identity for white people.’ In times of crisis,  the idols of blood, soil, and nation can be a tempting way to the fill the political void. Instead of allowing such clay gods to stand, U.S. Christians need to remind their fellow citizens of the ephemeral nature of political platforms, party machines and even America itself. They must unmask the illusion of national greatness and subject their country’s  most cherished myths to heated criticism. Above all, they must steer clear of those like Bannon who talk about something called “Judeo-Christian values” which are divorced from stories Christian tell about hospitality towards the stranger, strength through weakness, and justice for the poor.

All that being so, should American Christians ignore the political cycle and cocoon themselves in insular piety? No, Micah is right. The Church must stand against unjust policies. It cannot just sit back and watch people being scapegoated. But alongside a willingness to act, Christians need to always place political activity in a proper theological context. Augustine of Hippo, writing of another civilization in crisis observed that while Christians should cherish the brilliance of temporal life as created by God, earthly peace and happiness is like the ‘fragile brilliance of glass’ (4.3).  While ‘sojourning’ on earth, Christians may ‘make use’ of this peace, as long as they do not mistake it for the final peace found in God alone. The task of U.S. Christians should not to ‘make America great again’ nor ‘save the Republic’,  but, to follow the example of their Teacher.  As Paul defines this political task:

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12: 12-18)

‘Be faithful in prayer’ says Paul, but what should we pray for? If we take our cue from Trump at the Washington Prayer Breakfast last month, we might suppose that we should pray for the ratings of the President’s media enemies, or maybe even for robust U.S. trade figures in the Spring. But Trump’s bizarre behavior at this event merely underscores the confused state of Christianity in America, where prayer has been confused with the lure of the American dream, akin to some secret mode of positive thinking. But this is all wrong. Prayer, as Paul understood was about service and not about accomplishment. The prophet Jeremiah puts it this way: ‘seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper’ (Jeremiah 29:7). But this isn’t just any kind of peace or any kind of prosperity (just enough peace and prosperity for Sales figures to tick over) but the kind of prosperity and peace which is governed by the imperatives of justice and care. Such an imperative is not identical with any one political tribe or platform, but it does force us into the public square to contend for both peace and justice. In doing so there is always the temptation that Christians start talking in political accents they have inherited from the wider culture (the language of Progress, markets, redistribution, or liberty) and forget their own story.

What are the key plot points of this narrative? “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). But such a living invitation is not about a sentimental self-satisfied kind of love because as Scripture says, ‘your God is a consuming fire’ (Deuteronomy 4:24).God desires that his love should burn up all before it, everything in ourselves and in our world which resists his shattering light. This includes political structures which have grown too big for their boots, or else actively hide from view the ‘created’ nature of the world and its gifts. In this mold, Christian political activism is about recalling to the world its deep meaning. The trick for Christians (myself included) to keep their distinctive Jesus-shaped reasons for being political always before them, testing the applicability of diverse political claims to the Good News they seek to proclaim. But such a practice often feels like walking a tightrope without a safety net. If we move too far in any given direction we will be in danger of tumbling flat on our face.  If we immerse ourselves in a particular political theory or movement, we are in danger of submerging the Gospel in an agenda not its own. If we are too keen to separate the Gospel from concrete political situations people face, our faith becomes insular, twee and sentimental. The early Christians were not persecuted by the Roman state because they ‘told people to be nice to one another’, but because they made a political claim about the nature of power and authority. If ‘Jesus is Lord’ (kyrios Iesous) this means that Caesar and his successors aren’t.

The Gospel puts all political parties and ideologies on notice. This is because the Incarnation shows us that the methods of Pharoah and Herod are a perverted shadow of the beloved commonwealth God really intends. The model of public life inaugurated by Jesus is the source of the fullest politics and polis. Unlike its secular counterparts, which are always extensions of coercion and violence, the politics of Jesus is guided by the ethic of love, sacrifice, and service. This is where for the early Church, true community is found. There are times when this radical politics is best served by a pragmatic use of existing institutions and processes to serve God’s peace in the world, just as Paul appeals to the justice of Caesar (Acts 22:22-23:11), but such pragmatism is never an end in itself.We might join a political party or a protest movement, but such an act does not have saving power in itself. It may help to keep us faithful to the Good News we seek to live out, but it can never be a substitute for it. In the midst of the political turmoil, this perspective may help American Christians to continue to tell their story of God’s love faithfully.