Reflections on Liberal Quakerism and the Need for Roots

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British Quakers in Worship.

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

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

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Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane

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

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The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio

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

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

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

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Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane

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

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

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

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The Resurrection and the Mind of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

For the Love of Stories: Imagining Quakerism Beyond Belief

That Infamous Guardian Article

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing the Terrain of Belief: Durkheim and Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Challenge of This ApproachImage result for Margaret fell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Douglas, Natural Symbols, p.158

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

The Meaning of the Secular

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

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

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

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

Telling a Sacred Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Not Anti-reality, But Holistic Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  35.

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  32.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[22] Hildegard Book of Divine Works, ibid

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

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

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

[26] Hildegard, Scivias, p. 128

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

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

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

Jesus the Epicurean: or Why the Personal really is Political

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

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

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

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

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

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

Originally published in Political Theology Today 13th November, 2014

The Gifts of the Quaker Way

Image result for Jesus icon public domain image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 of 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 the 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 us 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.

Marx and ‘Cannibalistic Liberalism’

On this day in 1848, The Communist Manifesto was published. In many ways, the text has dated rather badly (concerned as it is with the earliest phase of the industrial revolution). It is moreover overly concerned with petty internecine struggles which have marred the European left ever since. Yet in many respects, the Manifesto and the analysis it contains can still challenge our thinking. Consider the following passage:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation”.

Image result for karl marxMarx is always at his best when he is talking about loss, a reality he both delights in and mourns. In our era of hyper-globalisation, Marx helps us see a liberalism which has finally cannibalized itself. J.S.Mill speaks in his essay ‘On Liberty’ about ‘experiments in living’ as the goal of liberal politics. People, Mill says, should have the chance to invent a life which suits their diverse temperaments. But shared cultures (whether local, tribal or national) are also experiments in living (attempts to produce diverse human lives). But are we entering an era when only one global culture is possible? Has liberalism become so synonymous with a single model of Western Capitalism that ‘experiments in living’ actually come to an end? Is the liberal snake eating its own tail?  The evidence for the latter conjecture is for all to see. As non-European countries become ever more involved in the modernizing processes of market economics,  many aspects of Western life (consumerism, status-anxiety, and atomism) are reproduced in exact detail. Cities begin to resemble each other, with the same transport systems, characterless office blocks and gleaming shopping areas. All pre-modern forms of cultural life are gradually confined to specialist museums and galleries, safely discharged of their power to recall to the passing viewer the relative drabness of the ever progressing present. In a world where both time and space are being continually reconfigured, history is allowed to entertain, but it is not allowed to call the sameness of the modern into question. As Marx always appreciated, the best weapon against the insanity of the present is to make the past a weapon.

If physical space is increasingly been harmonized (robbed of the unsettling ghosts of the past) the impact of a dominant American media has ensured that Western habits of dress and taste are effortlessly reproduced. Few countries now stand in the way of this homogenizing tendency and those that do (like the semi-feudal North Korea) do so only by extreme force and internal repression.The same can be said of the Taliban of Afganistan or Pakistan. Yet is cruel fundamentalism the only alternative to the callousness of a different kind? It seems that political imagination in the Enlightenment heartlands of Western Europe is sorely lacking. The majority of Liberal-democratic leaders merely shrug their shoulders and bow to what they regard as the uncontestable hand of the market at work even if the consequences are dire. An excellent example of such an approach can be found in a speech Tony Blair gave to Labour’s annual conference in 2005. Castigating political critics of globalization, Blair observed:

I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer…All these nations have labour costs a fraction of ours. All can import the technology. All of them will attract capital as it moves, trillions of dollars of it, double what was available even 10 years ago, to find the best return. The character of this changing world is indifferent to tradition. Unforgiving of frailty. No respecter of past reputations. It has no custom and practice. It is replete with opportunities, but they only go to those swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change. Unless we “own” the future, unless our values are matched by a completely honest understanding of the reality now upon us and the next about to hit us, we will fail

Globalization “has no custom and practice”, says Blair. In this grim assessment, he follows Marx’s fundamental insight, but instead of seeking to pull back from the invasion of a marketised society, this most market-orientated of social democrats insists on perpetual change and a sink or swim ethic. Romantic notions of solidarity are stripped of all meaning as the law of the jungle becomes the law of politics and culture. Here fatalism and pseudo-economics now eclipse both liberty and democracy.  What matters is economic fitness, not guiding principles we are reluctant to change. One must ask, is this liberalism, or something else which has insidiously inherited its name? Certainly, if China is anything to go by these globalizing/modernizing processes Blair praises can get on perfectly well without formal creeds of freedom or democracy. Perhaps China is a troubling mirror for a Western world so certain that open economies equal open societies. Just as the governments which used and abused the name of Marx developed totalizing and totalitarian visions of the world, has liberal democracy (in its own quiet way) become stifling and tyrannical? If we follow Blair’s logic to its conclusion, we are not free to build a larger life, but must be engaged in a single race for some generalized prosperity. All barriers to this process (the past, tradition, and custom) must be swept away in its ruthless pursuit.

The results of such an attitude are not hard to guess at. Will all human beings eventually be forced into standardized existences of IPads, car parks, and drive-throughs all for the sake of the smooth running of global markets? The great Canadian philosopher George Grant thought so. He imagined a future where everything is so mass-produced, a traveler could go anywhere on earth and sleep in the identical hotel room. Time will tell regarding the accuracy of such predictions, but the Manifesto remains a challenging testament to the notion of an alternative future beyond monoculture. Indeed for Marx, his longed-for future was one recognizable to any liberal, the formation of a liquid self which defies the imposition of a totalizing way of living. As Marx noted later in the German Ideology: ‘[under communism] it is possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic’. Whatever such a world is called, whether communist, socialist, liberal, conservative, or anarchist, may such a day come soon.

Reflections on Thatcherism and the Good Life

I have often been asked why I am so antagonistic towards the politics of Margret Thatcher. I have come to realise over the years that my animosity has less to do with individual policies (although many of them still irk me), and more to do with a general cast of mind one finds among the Conservative politicians she left behind One might describe this condition as one of mono-idealism: The notion that a single doctrine or ideal can adequately unlock the complexity and richness of human life. Thatcher offered a vivid exposition of such mono-idealism in her Party Conference speech of 1975:

Some Socialists seem to believe that people should be numbers in a State computer. We believe they should be individuals. We are all unequal. No one, thank heavens, is like anyone else, however much the Socialists may pretend otherwise. We believe that everyone has the right to be unequal but to us every human being is equally important…Everyone must be allowed to develop the abilities he knows he has within him, and she knows she has within her, in the way they choose.

On the surface, this view of politics is generous in its acceptance of the divergent talents of diverse human persons. It seems respectful of the fact that we are not meant for off-the-peg destinies, but should be given the opportunity to develop, change and revise our goals. But when one looks more closely (particularly at the apostles of the so-called ‘Thatcher revolution’) one sees how regimented such a worldview is.  Last year Alan Duncan MP was roundly condemned for his claim that critics of the Prime Ministers tax affairs risked causing the House of Commons to become ‘full of low achievers, who hate enterprise, hate people who look after their own family and who know absolute nothing about the outside world.” Mr. Duncan should be commended for expressing the sentiments of Thatcher’s true believers with such cogency. Those worthy of his contempt are those who do not define their achievement in terms of ‘enterprise’ and who do not inhabit ‘the real world’ (we must assume he means the rather select world of oil trading Duncan inhabited before his election to Parliament). So, it seems that the repressive ideal of the State Socialist (with citizens as passive recipients of public services) is replaced with an equally monotone ideal, that of the enterprising businessman. To be worthy of respect we must all have ‘get up and go’ and make our own rags-to-riches story. While the following Thatcher quote appears to be apocryphal it expresses the general gist of her worldview rather well: ‘A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.’

PhotographIn the Enterprise Society, one’s life is subject to yardsticks just as exacting as those supported by the centralizing commissar. One lives by share-prices, productiveness, earning power or output. There is nothing inherently wrong with these things as aims as part of a well-rounded life. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with securing material security for one’s family, if such security does not harm wider society. One must live as one’s conscience dictates and if that means becoming a chief executive, so be it. But Mr. Duncan’s ambition is not a private matter, it constitutes the public creed of the age (reproduced in every school, university, and company in the land). It is not enough that we make money, we must ‘sell ourselves’, contribute to the team’, ‘fit into the company ethos’. We must be productive members of society as defined by the tick-boxes of the managerial class. What does this possessiveness do to the liberalism Thatcherism professes to cherish? In this post-Thatcher world, freedom has been decoupled from liberalism. Freedom to amass, consume and buy is the only freedom thought worth having. And since the spreadsheet fetishists cannot guarantee that we will all agree with this assessment, we must be schooled appropriately. The C.V., annual targets, performance reviews and relentless advertising have replaced the State Computer.  True, the world of corporate management while lacking the messianic fervour and casual cruelty of previous forms of mass organisation is equally anti-individualistic. Yet, this is precisely the world that Thatcherism created. Under this new regime, people could be easily pigeon-holed into a role, the most virtuous being the ambitious ‘home-owner’. People were encouraged to have a piece of an identical dream; quiet, bourgeois and rather stilted existences. Nothing could be further from the inspiring slogan ‘Everyone must be allowed to develop the abilities he knows he has within him’.  How did it all go so wrong? In part, the error of Thatcherism is in its own exaggerated self-belief. Thatcherism is not merely an economic doctrine, it is a comprehensive vision of the good life, which prescribes work, wealth, and family as the means of establishing a stable and descent society. Such a worldview necessitates `vigorous virtues’ of self-sufficiency, energy, independent-mindedness, adventurousness, loyalty to friends and hardiness in the face of enemies (see Shirley Letwin, The Anatomy of Thatcherism). In other words, Thatcherite politics attempts to subsume all areas of life to itself, disparaging any alternative attempts at articulating value and meaning. It is a vision of politics inherently intolerant of life-alternatives (a view of life just as intolerant as the State Socialism it attempts to supplant). By rejecting other accounts of the good life, Thatcherism politics ended by despising large parts of the liberal tradition it professed to uphold. It preached freedom then defined the nature of freedom in highly dogmatic terms. Thus, despite its liberal dress, Thatcherism has much more in common with its mortal foe Marxism. It is certainly equally as mechanical and materialistic. In both schemes, economics is all.

PhotographIf Thatcherism lacks a genuine respect for a many-faced vision of liberty, what would a fuller picture of liberal society encompass? A truly liberal society is one which there is the maximum freedom for people to pursue their vision of the good life if this doesn’t prevent other people from coming up with their own vision. In other words, in a liberal society, one would expect a genuine flourishing of value-systems, with different people valuing different things to various degrees. There will be people who obtain their sense of achievement by selling things, others from investing. There are some who get satisfaction from teaching, others from learning. There will be people for whom achievement means having a beautiful garden, happy children, or a loving spouse. Some of us would be at our most fulfilled if we lived as a Yogi or a monk. Some people get satisfaction from a combination of all these things. In this account material success possesses a purely utilitarian role. It has no value in and of itself.  It certainly doesn’t tell us anything about the worth of a person in any meaningful sense. As the British sociologist Michael Young once put it:

Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupations and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there would be no overall inequalities of the sort we have got used to. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant to the lorry-driver with unusual skills at growing roses? A pluralistic society would also be a tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity to develop his or her own special capacities for leading a full life which is also a noble life led for the benefit of others as well as the self.

Image result for supercomputer wikiSuch pluralism is the exact opposite of our present social order. Instead of feeling ever more at home with themselves (as Young’s vision suggests) people feel increasingly estranged by a technocratic and hierarchical society. Instead of celebrating difference, we valorise an ever-narrower skill-set in the pursuit of ever-narrower economic goals. Daily life feels increased boxed-in, filled with pointless red-tape and monotony, all in the cause of being ‘successful’ (accorded to the perverted lights of this spreadsheet epoch). If the economic fetishist were to express his thrill solely among fellow suffers, one cannot complain. It is the elevation of managerialism and money to the realm of politics which must be objected to. In this vein, what is so sad about many post-Thatcher Conservatives is their relentless desire to impose a single metric of human achievement on the rest of us. All who not share their focus (and perhaps want to spend more time with their family or planting rose bushes) are deemed ‘under-achievers’. Accordingly, the poet, teacher and religious specialist represent different shades of ‘useless’ (unless it can be shown that their work has sufficient monetary value). This, of course, is an understandable judgement, if you have a narrow definition of achievement. It is also understandable that Alan Duncan doesn’t like those who are troubled by significant levels of wealth. If one derives much of one’s sense of identity from one’s wealth, then of course, one is going to call those with a different value set everything under the sun. Such people are an attack on an influential way of looking at the world.  How can we flourish in the drab world of money and managerialism? The most subversive thing we can be in this age is being cynical about all upbeat messages of choice, freedom, and authenticity, we are being fed. We can work for a company but we certainly don’t ‘have to enjoy it’. We can earn our keep without being enterprising or pathologically committed.  We can do jobs without imbibing any ‘company ethos’. We need to keep before us the silliness of it all. This will give us the breathing space to go on in a society where the retail figures are worthy of their own slot on the Six ‘o’clock News, but where community, friendship and beauty matter little. It is only to be hoped that one day what that great liberal Keynes prophesied will come to pass: ‘The love of money as a possession – as distinguished from the love of money as a means to the enjoyments and realities of life – will be recognized for what it is, a somewhat disgusting morbidity, one of those semi-criminal, semi-pathological propensities which one hands over with a shudder to the specialists in mental disease’.

The Challenge of the Manger: The Deep Meaning of the Nativity

The Image of the Nativity Scene

Even in such a vigorously secular country such as Britain, much of our festive artwork and advertising is still littered with scenes from the Nativity; filling greeting cards, Advent Calendars, and shop fronts with the kind of religious iconography which is positively alien to most of us the rest of the year. Given the crass commercialism which is everywhere apparent in our contemporary notion of Christmas, it seems strange that this image of the shabby shepherds huddling around a tatty manger still has resonance in an age of LED Christmas trees and chocolate snowmen. What is it about the birth of this child which still has the power to capture our culture at least artistically? It certainly isn’t the background of the baby that moves us to depict him. Sadly, the surroundings of material deprivation in which Jesus was born is today shared by 1,000,000,000 of the world’s children and yet only organisations like Oxfam dare to put up their faces in the shop window. All right, what about his teachings? Does that give the Nativity its power? I don’t think so. History is never short of great orators or formidable moral teachers and yet the birthdays of most of the world’s great sages go unmarked. So, it is that modern Greeks continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus but you won’t find many Greeks celebrating the birth of Socrates! So, if the appeal is not in the biography or in the teaching, what keeps the Nativity in our minds and on our Christmas cards? Its endurance I suggest lies in the events following Jesus’ death. If you traveled back in time and asked a second-century Christian, ‘Why do you remember Jesus’ birth’? They would probably say “Because Jesus’ rose from the dead”. Determining what exactly “rose from the dead” meant to such a first-century person would be a tricky business, partly because the earliest oral sources which end up in the Gospels aren’t entirely sure themselves what happened. Yet the sources are at least agreed on a few points:

  • Jesus was executed under Roman supervision and buried
  • The disciples were disheartened and scattered.
  • Three days later, Jesus’ tomb was found empty by some female followers (the New Testament writers differ on the precise details here)
  • The person of Jesus appeared to the disciples physically

Without the last two events, the birth of this little baby born in Palestine would probably have never come to the attention of the world at large and thus Christianity would never have been born. Indeed, without the resurrection (or an earth-shaking event very much like it) Jesus’ followers would have remained demoralised, unable to preach their Master’s message, much less put their lives on the line for it no matter how much Mary insisted upon what the Gabriel had told her. After all, doubt is nothing new and most of us need a good shake before we accept the incredible. We need more than visions or hearsay to accept a life change. Thus, it is the Resurrection (and not the star, the magi or even virgin birth) which makes the first Christmas coherent for the early followers of Jesus. That isn’t to say the Nativity stories don’t reveal important dimensions of the Gospel. For Friends, this is indeed the first Quaker story, a narrative in which we glance our own reflection. Our Peace Testimony permeates the nativity in Luke and Matthew. When Friends campaign against war and injustice the divine declaration given to the Shepherds is brought to life again: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests’ (Luke 2:14). When Friends genuinely practice our Testimony to Equality, we sing along with the prophetic voice of Mary, who filled with the Spirit tells us how despite her lowly status in the eyes of society, God ‘has lifted up the humble… filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty (Luke 1:53). Here is also the call to value simplicity. God decides to manifest not in the halls of emperors and tyrants but in a ram shack through the body a frightened young woman. What about the Truth Testimony? Oddly I think the greatest mirror of truth in the Christmas Story is King Herod. He represents the world of which we are all familiar; one marred by the politics of fear, mutual suspicion, and violence. Raging and sneering against a new light that he cannot comprehend, Herod is not able to let go of the belief that order is based on fear and leadership on the spilling of blood. In Herod’s own darkness and insecurity, we see more clearly ‘the light’ the little child born in Bethlehem offers. He is a ruler without earthly power, without armies or principalities, without popular majorities or a solve-all-your-problems manifesto. He only has love and the sacrifices which absolute dedication to love requires.

The Resurrection and Hope Fulfilled

But as a cynical news cycle reminds us, lots of people have high ideals, but most of the time they come to nothing. Movements for justice fizzle out, revolutions are subverted and people remain oppressed. How do we know that the grand life of love and suffering inaugurated by Jesus means anything? Isn’t it certain that in this world, the corrupt kings always win?  This is where the empty tomb comes bursting into view. Early Christians continued to tell the birth story of Jesus because the ideals the Nativity narratives embodied were confirmed by their own spiritual experience. The only reason in my view that the story of the angels and the shepherds appears in the Gospel records at all are because something more concrete is coming further down the track, giving the Nativity tradition substance. What Luke and Matthew want us to understand is that the Gospel is not built on insubstantial dreams, but the lightening-bolt at the tomb, the axis point which gives the birth of Jesus’ its meaning. When the Hebrew Prophets declared that the Messiah would usher in a new age (a renewed Covenant no less) the early Church found its inauguration in the life of a man who had defeated inevitability itself. In that solitary, astonishing event, the rules of the world appeared to have suddenly changed. Paul expresses this next phase of the world as new creation where the fear of suffering and death no longer holds sure sway over living beings. As Paul relishes, ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55). If decay and oblivion were no longer life’s only trajectories, then the followers of Jesus had to start thinking about the world and indeed the universe in a new way. And so, they did. As the Christian Astrophysicist Arnold Benz notes in his excellent book The Future of the Universe (1997):

Good Friday/Easter became for Christians a new pattern for life, a paradigm with which they discovered the world anew. The only basic facts confronted them as they always had, and same needs plagued them, but they perceived therein a new, deeper, dimension. Even if the present is destroyed and no fortunate solution seems possible, all is not yet lost. God can create something completely new that far exceeds our boldest expectations. This also holds for one’s own life, where death must be confronted, as well as for catastrophes which affect all mankind. The expectation may not be fulfilled, at least not in the manner one wishes. For the new is no automaton, which would turn God’s free, act into a causal event. The future remains open and subject to risk. Christians nevertheless gather hope from the Good Friday experience that death will not be the last word, just as Good Friday was not the end-point it first appeared.

The Challenge of the Promise

What does this new pattern mean in our daily lives? Attempting to articulate this early Christian experience in a contemporary idiom, Benz summarises the new Resurrected reality initiated by Jesus through the following motto, “Whoever trusts in me, shares in a meaningful world, despite decay and death, even when the sun burns out, the earth spins off into space and the universe disintegrates”. Even in the inevitable suffering of the evolutionary process thinks Benz, God is there, using entropy as his method of entry into the world, pushing it towards transformation. I believe it is this cosmic promise that “all is not lost” which drags our increasingly post-Christian culture kicking and screaming back to the baby in the stable. That and the cold weather! Everyone seeks the prospect of a new beginning and a new hope at some point in their lives. The messianic child is the enduring symbol of that deep human need. Yet, having forgotten the old ways of expressing hope (through prayer, reflection, and community) secular society in its love for the Christmas card nativity has no way of accessing its religious meaning. In place, of reverence, devotion, and awe, our culture peddles an easier message of sentimentalism which expressly avoids confronting the theological vision which underlies the Christmas story. How should we as Quakers respond to this kind of avoidance? I think our big dare as Quakers should be to live per the dictum “all is not lost” in a skeptical/atheist culture which says that people don’t come back from the dead and angels never visit shepherds. I’m sure there are many Friends in our Meetings who would agree with this world-view, and herein lays the genuine challenge of the Nativity. By engaging seriously with the life of this extraordinary child, we are encouraged to re-evaluate our basic assumptions about the world (since it is hard to accept Jesus as the baby of promise without also confronting the issue of the empty tomb). Do we as Friends take the Resurrection sufficiently seriously in our Meetings and individual spiritual lives? Or in paying homage to our Christian roots, are we as Friends in fact too confined or too comfortable with our society’s philosophical assumptions about reality? Are we too eager to throw out older theological ways of thinking because agnosticism is easier to explain in a culture doubtful of God? Are we following our sense of God’s leading, or are we reticent to do so, worried by ‘what reasonable people might think?  Do we really give the Christian tradition our attention when seeking spiritual clarification and advice?  Or are we just content with a ‘chocolate-box nativity’ in December?  This is the deep challenge embodied by the child in the stable.