The Strange Case of Quaker-Kabbalah

Would the Real Quaker Please Stand Up? 

In a post entitled Hyphenated Quakers, the North Carolina blogger RichardM argues that Liberal Quakerism exists in an increasing state of theological disorder, due to the dissolution of a shared Christian culture among Friends. He asks mournfully: ‘Buddhist-Quakers, Wiccan-Quakers, Jewish-Quakers, what sort of religion has this become? Along with these Native American spirituality, Taoism, Sufism, Zen, Feng Sui and a host of other ideas alien to the Christian tradition are now part of the reality of what the Religious Society of Friends has become. There is no question that this is something very different from the Quakerism of George Fox and John Woolman.’ The assumption of our Friend is that there was once something called ‘real Quakerism’, which everyone from George Fox to John Woolman agreed about. It would certainly be easy for people like me (Christ-centred Quakers) to perpetuate this view. It makes everything so simple. Every time someone disagrees with me or my ‘Christian corner’ I can cry ‘pick and mix’ and at that point end the conversation. This is a brilliant strategy, particularly if one wants to carry on having the rather precious feeling of being right. But, it isn’t that simple.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe that Christian theology is essential for the coherence of a shared Quaker language. But to define the problem as Quaker Christianity versus pluralist anarchy is, I suggest, simplistic. The problem is that in some key respects, George Fox and John Woolman did not themselves agree on some aspects of Quaker identity. Early Friends (including Fox) held to a belief in the celestial flesh. This was the claim that Christ directly dwelt in the saved believer, eventually subsuming their sinful identity. Yet, as far as I know, Woolman did not frame his experience of either God or Christ in this way. Nor would the two men have agreed about the permissibility of keeping slaves. Quaker ethics and theology were on the move from the very beginning, and has not abated since. Consequently what is and is not a ‘true Quaker’ has always been contested. I and my fellow travelers might find this an uncomfortable reality, but it is true. The complexity of this situation is compounded by the fact that Quakerism has always been framed by external religious influences. There was never a period of ‘pure’ Christian Quakerism. Even when Christianity was the sole Quaker descriptor of faith, this Christianity was itself complex. There was always an openness to diversity, which set Friends apart from other religious communities.

The Most Ancient Philosophy of Anne Conway

Two of the most fascinating figures in the history of hyphenated Quakerism are the Scottish Friend George Keith (1639-1716) and the English aristocrat Anne Conway (1631–1679). The two came to develop an abiding friendship when Keith visited Conway in 1674. Conway was already intrigued by Friends, yet she still harbored suspicion that these plainly spoken and undefferential people held disreputable views. Conway’s concern was doubtless partly social and partly philosophical. As the daughter of the one time Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Heneage Finch, Anne was from a culture held in contempt by the early Quaker movement. As a notorious sect which refused ‘hat-honour’, titles and the importance of social distinctions of all kinds, it was unsurprising that Anne should have been hesitant. Her reservations also stemmed from her philosophical training.While Fox proclaimed an earthy Gospel of apostolic purity, Conway was a philosopher, scientist and mystic. A vivid portal into Conway’s brilliant mind is preserved in The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy written just prior to her convincement. At the core of this little tract is the radical claim that the Cartesian philosophy (so influential in Conway’s age) was a denial of the true Christian revelation. While Descartes had taught that the world was divided between inert matter and active spirit, or dead bodies and living souls, Conway argued that matter and soul were one. Falling back on the old Neo-Platonic idea of the Anima Mundi (the world soul), Conway argued that matter dwells in God and desires perfection in Him. As Conway notes:

 Spirit is light or the eye looking at its own proper image, and the body is the darkness which receives this image. And when the spirit beholds it, it is as if someone sees himself in a mirror. But he cannot see himself reflected in the same way in clear air or in any diaphanous body, since the reflection of an image requires a certain opacity, which we call body. . . Just as every spirit needs a body to receive and reflect its image, it also needs a body to retain the image. (Conway, The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy, 38).

If matter is the mirror of the soul, then how is materiality related to God? In a hierarchical structure highly reminiscent of Enneads of Plotinus, The Principles suggests that each being will achieve unity with the Godhead through multiple incarnations. While a given soul might fall back into burdensome forms as a result of sin, all beings will, given time, be made at one with God. What is the role of Jesus is this cosmic process? As the Middle Being between God and creation, the Spirit of Christ seeks the betterment of all creatures, bringing them closer to the divine light. As Conway asserts:

Created things couldn’t be equal to Christ, couldn’t have the same nature that he has. That is because his nature could never sink to their level, changing from good into bad. So their nature is far inferior to his; they can never strictly speaking become him, any more than he can ever become the Father. The highest point they can reach is be like him, as Scripture says. Thus, we as mere creatures are only his sons and daughters by adoption (Conway, p. 11.)

Where did these ideas come from? As the Lady of Ragley Hall, Conway attracted a learned circle of scholars fascinated by Platonism, Hebrew mysticism and the possibilities of the new empirical sciences. As a beloved student of the Cambridge philosopher Henry More and patient of the Flemish alchemist and Kabbalist Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont, Conway’s life was at the centre of an intellectual maelstrom. A decisive influence on the Ragley circle was the 16th century Jewish rabbi and mystic Isaac Luria (1534–1572). The ecstatic sage taught the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, but also (crucially for Conway) a perfectionist theodicy. God was not a vindictive judge, but a loving Father. He was forever seeking to liberate his creation from bondage. Suffering and struggle were not punishments, but a means of saving each creature. Echoing these sentiments, van Helmont observed:

If God be unchangeable, as certainly he is, can he absolutely hate any of his Creatures, which once he loved? and if when he most severely punishes his creatures, he loveth them, is not then his punishing them an Act of Love, and consequently medicinal, or in order to their recovery? (Quoted in, A.P. Coudert’s Leibniz and the Kabbalah, p. 119).

What would these grey clad plane spoken Quakers think? Were Friends learned enough to dispute with Lady Anne?

Keith and the Influence of the Ragley Circle

As soon as Keith arrived at Ragley Hall, he made a strong impression on Conway. Carrying several Quakers books and a letter from William Penn, Keith soon convinced the lady of the house to give his religious views a hearing. Despite the evident simplicity of Quaker living, Conway detected a metaphysical sublimity in the Quaker contention that the Spirit of Christ dwelt in all. Conway soon felt herself in communion with the Quaker Way, her life boid up by a new energy. Yet, by embracing Quakerism she did not think she needed to renounce the philosophy of Luria. Indeed, she felt that Quakerism expressed the best of what the Kabbalists had taught; that God’s love would conquer all darkness.George Fox’s belief in the moral perfection of those who dwelt in the Light was simply recast in Kabalistic terms.The path to moral refinement would take many life-times and not just one. Part of the ease with which Conway accepted the Quaker message could also be explained with reference to an early Quaker vision of nature. Not unlike the Kabbalists (and their cousins the hermetic philosophers) many early Friends viewed the universe as a living totality- one which needed to be liberated from powers of darkness by a mode of spiritual discipline. As James Naylor notes in his tract The Lamb’s War (1657):

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.

This notion of liberation through spiritual means has strong affinities with the Kabbalistic notion of Tikkun olam (repairing the world). Just as the Kabbalists battled daily with the forces of evil through prayer and contemplation, Quaker renounced outward struggle so that nature might be freed from its internal oppression. For his part Keith was open to the wisdom Conway had to impart. As a Hebrew scholar in his own right, Keith soon found that the doctrines of the Kabbalah coincided with own budding Quaker faith. Before coming to Ragley Hall, Keith had worked closely with Robert Barclay in spreading  Quakerism throughout England. It was this experience of evangelical mission that introduced both men to the chief tension of early Quaker theology. While 17th century Friends stressed the centrality of  belief in the historical Jesus, they also affirmed the ethereal light of Christ, which saved all universally, regardless of their outward affirmations. These two propositions produced some thorny questions. What role did the life of Jesus play in saving God’s creation? Was the life of the historical Jesus decisive or not? Could salvation have come without the Incarnation? Keith found an answer to this conundrum via Kabbalistic doctrine. As Coudert notes of Keith’s breakthrough:

The doctrine of the transmigration of souls resolved the issue in his (Keith’s) mind and allowed him to both agree wholeheartedly that a Christian must believe in the historical doctrines of Christianity, and yet retain the Quaker emphasis on ‘saving’ faith. A virtuous pagan could have ‘saving’ faith without ‘historical’ faith, but in time he would have both  (A Quaker-Kabbalist Controversy: George Fox’s Reaction to Francis Mercury van Helmont, p. 180).

Far from watering down the Christian faith with these mystical sources, Keith thought he was deepening his understanding of the saving work of Christ. It was in other words an attempt to answer  Quaker questions through the rich lens of Kabbalistic symbolism. Was this experiment a minority pursuit, or did it say something more profound about the generosity of early Quakerism? Evidence for the latter position can be found in the missions of Samuel Fisher to the Jews of Amsterdam in 1657. In a city awash with Kabbalistic speculation and a renewed Jewish Messianism, Fisher gave verbal ministry at synagogue services, debated theology with Rabbis and translated Quaker tracts into Hebrew. Yet Fisher’s fascination with Judaism was not simply tactical. He evidently found wisdom among the Rabbis, as well as spiritual confirmation of his own Quaker identity. As Fisher reflects in his 1660 tract, The Rustics Alarm to the Rabbis, ‘Is the Light in America then any more insufficient to lead its Followers to God, then the Light in Europe, Asia, Africa, the other three parts of the World?’ The question burned through the early Quaker declaration of the Gospel and caused some early Friends to adopt a mixed faith. Such was Fisher’s tender reverence for his Jewish conversation-partners that the scholar Richard L. Popkin describes Fisher as a ‘Jewish-Quaker’. He may have been the first, but as history reveals, he was not the last. It was this notion of a dual-faith which captured Conway’s heart and the religion to which Van Helmont later converted. Both Conway and Van Helmount were convinced that that the rich inner world postulated by Friends made them Kabbalists in all but name. Yet, this spiritual inclusiveness soon fell fowl of an emergent Quaker orthodoxy which spurned the esoteric speculation of the Kabbalist as much as it despaired of the ecstatic mysticism of James Nayler. Fox, in his suspicion of intellectual artistry, would later advice Friends investigate the views of Van Helmont and his fellow Kabbalists, a process which eventually led to the learned doctor distancing himself from organized Quakerism. What happened to Keith? The man who had embraced  Kabbalah with such zest would in later years become an arch-theological conservative, break with Friends and reconcile himself with the Anglican confession. The brief flowering of Quaker-Kabbalism was at an end.

Walking the Middle Way

10 SephirotIn the light of our contemporary anxieties about the nature of Quaker identity, what shall we make of this brief spring of Quaker-Kabbalah? Was it a lucky escape? An aberration which would have destroyed the fledgling movement? Was it perhaps a terrible premonition of the messy Liberal Quakerism to come? Or was it a missed opportunity? Was it a phase in our tradition that we need to recapture and celebrate? How we answer these questions will tell us a great deal about how we understand Quaker identity. Should we seek an authentic Quakerism? Or a rich Quakerism which can draw on many insights? If the latter, how do ensure that our search does not become aimless and undisciplined? How do we in short, guarantee that our search is a Quaker one? This last question is perhaps the most difficult question of the lot, but Conway and Keith might offer a possible clue. As Quakers with a foothold in Kabbalah, their spiritual quest was nourished by the glorious grammar of Jewish mysticism, yet they never lost sight of the Quaker insights they attempted to articulate. They never lost sight of the doctrine of perfection which George Fox had preached, nor did they obscure the universal Spirit of Christ which Fox believed to be the animating principle of Friends’ silent worship. They walked a fruitful middle way between eclecticism and Christian faith, a route which has the power to speak to Friends today. As Doug Gwyn helpfully, expresses this path of moderation:

It is true that Christ-centered Friends too often believe that theirs is the only true language of the Spirit, distrusting all others. But it is also true that Quaker universalists too often dabble in a lot of religious and psychological concepts, systems, and traditions without taking any one of them to any real depth. When Quakerism gets too far removed from its unique Christian spirituality, it becomes shallow, relativistic, trendy. This is a problem in many meetings today. There is no longer a sufficiently defined spiritual path that meeting members practice seriously. There is no shared vision that can bring worship and ministry to depth. Messages become rationalistic or sentimental, pious or political, but they do not speak from the depth to the depth.

Perhaps this is the solution to the Gordian knot of contemporary Quaker identity. Being Quaker has never been about doctrinal purity, but about remaining committed to what arises through our faithful listening. Whatever spiritual sources we cloak our insight in (whatever language of the Spirit we are held by) can we remain within the domain of that Quaker declaration that ‘there is one, Christ Jesus, who can speak to your condition?’ We might debate the precise shape of our final destiny, but the question is, will we allow ourselves to be held and loved by that destiny? Can we join Paul in his sense of the indomitable grace of God? For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8: 38-9)


3 thoughts on “The Strange Case of Quaker-Kabbalah

  1. I’m a newcomer to the Quakers and have come across your site. Thank you for this article. I’ve never heard Ann Conway until now, but will explore her writings and influences further. The idea of ‘celestrial flesh’ is very visual and I like very much. As for Quaker identity I consider myself a moderate walking the ‘middle path’

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