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.

Uncovering Hope

Something from our Friend Hye Sung, and a small reflection to help bind some deep wounds:

“That is why faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present.”
Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope

Not long before Donald Trump announced victory, early on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, my brother Kento died. I was in Italy, meeting him for the first time just days before he passe…

Source: Uncovering Hope

Enchanted Quakerism (Part II)

Knitting Ourselves Back Together

Image result for 17th century medicinePart I of this discussion summarised Charles Taylor’s account of enchantment and attempted to relate it to the dynamics of early Quakerism. In an effort weaken the scholarly tendency to conflate Quaker spirituality with secular rationality, I attempted to retrieve some forgotten strands of our tradition which could be termed ‘enchanted’ or ‘magical’. Instead of a religion of sheer inwardness and a rejection of outward symbol, I introduced readers to a religiosity of witches, spirits and healing. Such a world as this assumes two guiding laws. The first is that subjective states always possess objective effects, and second, ordinary things of the world can signify ‘divine things’. In this second post, I want to consider what a move towards disenchantment means for the internal coherence of Quaker faith and practice in 21st century Britain. In doing so, I want to reflect keenly on those characteristics which encourage Liberal Quakerism toward a peculiar form of secularisation.   One of my key rubrics for understanding such  a process will be the theme of radical pluralism. By ‘pluralism’ I don’t mean the mere fact (some would rightly say the joy) of difference in a beloved community. Rather, I mean a form of difference which sets up exclusive and potentially damaging divergences of view at the level of group foundations. Once people begin to argue over the shape and reasons of communal practices, fundamental bonds of understanding begin to break down.Such pluralism becomes ‘radical’ when it undercuts the ability of people to understand one another, despite the fact that they use the same spiritual language. Here radicalism has the real potential to become purely sectarian, causing each subgroup to assert their identity, apart from what is shared. I suggest (perhaps controversially) that Liberal Quakerism in Britain in the United States is becoming increasingly sectarian in its internal grammar. While forms of latter-day hyphenated Quakerism and not without historical precedent, their current presence may be a sign that plurality is becoming something destructive to Quaker identity. My suggested antidote for these tensions is a careful reclaiming of an enchanted cosmos. By returning to the religion of Fox and Woolman (a world of dreams, angels and healing) Friends might find a strong basis for the renewal in Quaker reflection and practice. Before I dig down into this big trajectories, I set out what is at stake in the distinction between ‘enchanted’ and ‘Liberal’ Quakerism and how one emerged from the other.

George Fox: The Sacred Physic of Christianity

Image result for George FoxIn the previous post, I highlighted the diverse ways in which early Quakers were still invested in the older enchanted thinking of Christendom, despite being institutionally opposed to it. For Quakerism’s charismatic founder, George Fox, such a commitment was made manifest in what we might call his ‘biospirituality’. At the heart of the biospiritual model of life is the notion that the perpetuation or restoration of the body serves as a sign of the deep unity between the individual and the divine. Yet, such an orientation was not Fox’s own invention but rested on the tacit assumptions of a Biblical cosmology which Fox inherited and made his own.  This the unnerving terrain of Luke-Acts, where the Spirit works to free bodies of pain and anguish, where Apostles teleport from place to place, and where wholeness replaces brokenness. Thus, in manifold ways, those bodies who came into contact with the body of Jesus partook of the enigmatic presence of the Risen Christ, whose body will not be barred by locked doors (John 20:19) and yet is solid and wounded. In this mould, to be a Christian means in part, the affirmation that the normal courses of our bodily life, do not exhaust the meaning of the term ‘body’. In the ongoing life of Jesus in the life of the Church, we discover a force which wishes to mingle with all the bodies it encounters. It wishes to break the bonds which hold us fast to our balkanized and ‘hard’ identities, constrained by space and time. It desires to be all in all (Col 3:11). It through such a strange vision of the body that the daily incursion of miracles becomes comprehensible.  Yet in Fox’s time, it was no longer clear that Christ’s body had any effect on the present laws of the world. As that most gentle of Anglican sceptics, the English humanist, Thomas Browne wrote in 1642:

That Miracles are ceased, I can neither prove, nor absolutely deny, much less define the time and period of their cessation. That they survived Christ, is manifest upon the Record of Scripture; that they out-lived the Apostles also, and were revived at the Conversion of Nations many years after, we cannot deny if we shall not question those Writers whose testimonies we do not controvert in points that make for our own opinions. Therefore, that may have some truth in it that is reported by the Jesuites of their Miracles in the Indies; I could wish it were true or had any other testimony than their own Pens…. Therefore, that Miracles have been, I do believe; that they may yet be wrought by the living, I do not deny; but have no confidence in those which are fathered on the dead. And this hath ever made me suspect the efficacy of reliques, to examine the bones, question the habits and appurtenances of Saints, and even of Christ Himself.[1]

At the core of this restless cast of mind is an inability to successfully ascertain the degree and extent of Christ’s ongoing power. Could seventeenth-century bodies behave like New Testament ones? Could Luke’s striking scenes of angelic visions happen in the England of Charles Stuart?  Browne’s open agnosticism on these questions spoke of an age when the reality of spiritual realities increased in remoteness. Bodies (or their remains) were no longer automatic loci of divine communication. Yet, if one could not be certain of the truth and extent of the miraculous in the processes of the body, how could one possess a living Christian faith?  This is the anxiety and inward motor behind George Fox’s conversion narrative, a fact sometimes missed by contemporary commentators. Fox seeks confirmation of the life of the Spirit in the tensions and boundedness of his own physical experience.  He took various treatments for his ailments of both mind and flesh (one physician recommended bloodletting, another recommended tobacco) yet healing, Apostolic or otherwise, seemed beyond his grasp. Christianity thus remained a hollow performance for Fox, the narrative of the Gospel sealed in the past.  The key to healing came to Fox, not in the form of a human doctor, but in the Light of Christ. It healed him of his afflictions, yet it also rendered him a medium of spiritual power and knowledge. As his Journal expresses it:

Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Jesus Christ so that I say I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me, and it was showed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue.[2]

Image result for aDAM PARADISEWhat is Fox saying here? There was already an established tradition of seeing Adam as the possessor and guardian of a secret knowledge which had become lost to later ‘sinful generations’. An excellent example of this belief is preserved in Francesco Guazzo’s 1608 occult tract Compendium Maleficarum. Following the Hermetic Christianity of Paracelsus[3] this Ambrosian monk argued that ‘legitimate magic was, together with all other knowledge, a gift from God to Adam.’[4] According to this generous definition of the arcane arts, Adam’s wisdom encompassed ‘the courses and influence of the stars in the heavens and the sympathies and antipathies subsisting between separate things, compares one thing with another and so effects marvels which to the ignorant appear like miracles and illusions.’[5]  Among Adam’s many skills was a knowledge of medicine, including the healing powers of herbs and stones.[6] In accord with this intriguing Hermetic myth, Fox understands his own salvation in deeply Adamic terms. By submitting to the light of Christ within, Fox understood himself as uncovering the ancient wisdom of miracle-working, lost at man’s expulsion from Paradise. Yet, what should he do with his newfound power? During the course of his vision, he feels the urge to ‘practise physic (medicine) for the good of mankind’[7] yet as he ascends into ever more indescribable realms of mystical experience, he realises the reason why this knowledge was given to him. His task is not merely to be a physician, but to become a channel for the living Spirit of Jesus.He must restore the body of the Church to a living faith. Whatever else this mission involved, it went against a new theological tide which tended to speak of the Gospel’s power in far more abstract terms. Indeed, such was the anti-magical sentiment alive in seventeenth-century Protestantism that some in Fox’s England thought that the age of saints had passed. In the age of Calvin and Luther, one could no longer expect the living Christ among the faithful, only the inward faith that he would guarantee their salvation. Yet, Fox discovered a deeper and arguably more challenging religiosity.  On the threshold of vision, he realised that there was no difference between sacred past and the secular present. The cosmos, of which the New Testament is a textual memorial, is reinstated in and through his own body. This taught Fox a radical lesson he retained for the rest of his life. Christianity was not just true in an ethereal universal sense. It was true in the specifics- people could rise from the dead and Apostles of Christ “will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well” (Mark 16:18).  This is the radical theology made explicit in George Fox’s Book of Miracles.  Here God is not an abstract ‘force’ or a mere inward spirit, but a Person, active in the structure of external events.

Samuel Fisher: The Birth of Liberal Quakerism?

If many early Friends contended that there was no separation between the secular present and the sacred past, their tendency to focus on the inward work of Christ generated an accompanying tendency to de-historicise and universalise their faith. This was picked up by opponents of Quakers early on. Some detractors argued that the Quaker emphasis upon the Inward Light caused Friends to negative the reality of Christ and the events recorded in the New Testament.[8]  Behind these judgements was the latent fear that the Quaker sense of deep inwardness was naturally scornful of the concrete demands of piety and obedience constitutive of the Scripture-shaped life. Simply put, opponents feared that Friends did not take the particularities of the Christian story seriously enough.  Maybe, thought Puritan observers, they preferred to tell their own stories instead. While some of these accusations are doubtless overblown by social prejudice, there is evidence that many Quakers were developing ways of thinking, which radically diminished the particularity of Christian revelation. One such Friend was Samuel Fisher (1605–1665), a former Baptist and alumni of Trinity College, Oxford. His legacies among early Friends were considerable. He was one of the earliest systematic proponents of Quaker/Jewish dialogue, he developed a positive account of the new sciences in an era of suspicion and advanced the discipline of Biblical criticism.  It is in the latter field that his work was most significant because it provides a formative link between early Friends and contemporary Liberal Quakerism.

One of the problems which most perplexed Fisher (and still perplexes many today) is the status of the Bible. Many in the 1640s declared that the Bible was ‘the Word of God’ and gave an exact guide for living, while Quakers contended that the ‘Word of God’ was not the Bible, but the Spirit of the Living Christ, as known and experienced among believers.[9] In an effort to put this primordial Quaker doctrine on firm foundations, Fisher undertook a careful analysis of the tensions and ambiguities within Biblical texts. This led him to question whether the Greek and Hebrew texts that have come down to us are accurate[10] and the degree to which contemporary believers should accept the canonicity of certain books.[11] At most, the Bible was a fallible and partial record of holy things and not a complete rule of religious conduct. Yet, if the Scriptures were ‘mere mouldering writings, external texts, and trifling transcripts’[12], where could one find a firm foundation? Fisher suggested that instead of fixating over crumbling paper, Christians should attend to the promptings of God in their own hearts. The Spirit, which has existed in all times and places, should inspire faith and worship, rather than the limited residue of Biblical witness.  For Fisher, this meant that even if every copy of the Bible were destroyed, the faithful could still count on the instruction of the Eternal Word which dwells in all true religious profession.

Image result for Samuel fisher quakerWhat were the consequences of this direction of travel? In the first place, we should be attentive to the attractive positives of such proposals. One striking consequence of a post-scriptural Christianity is the entrenchment of the individual’s freedom of conscience and a corresponding generosity towards the religious claims of others. Once we break the fetish of Biblicism, we can have conversations, which include Jews, Muslims, and where they still exist, refined pagans. Here ‘the divine light’ of Christ’ functions very much like the liberal notion of ‘public reason- providing a common basis for peaceful co-existence. Yet, if Fisher’s approach encouraged a rich dialogical attitude to religious life, it also invited an accompanying temptation. A Quaker walking in Fisher’s footsteps could become so attentive to the universal ‘light within’ that they might forget to name that ‘light’.  Of course, Fisher would not have suggested the downgrading of Christian conviction in this way, but his arguments led invariably in this direction. What might this mean for the long-run coherence of such a community? Without a shared and particular narrative concerning, among other things, the shape of enchantment, such a religion is increasingly decoupled from the religious language which gave it birth. In the critical space left by Fisher, it was in principle possible to pick new stories, which did not depend specifically on the shape or inherent rules of the Christian story. Indeed, it was possible on this universalist basis to retreat, as Spinoza had done, from outward notions of divine presence altogether. In this new pluralistic space, neo-Platonic, Stoic or Humanistic principles, could as at least co-equal to the story of the Gospels. God could become something deeply individual and inner, without reference to one specific community in time. As Christopher Hill artfully summarises the consequences of these moves: ‘Fisher’s approach to the Bible, recollected in tranquillity, in apathy, inevitably led to scepticism. The appeal to the ‘light within’, a light which some even of the heathen philosophers had, then became very difficult to differentiate in practice from simple human reason.’[13]  In this reasonable scepticism, we meet again the ghost of Taylor’s notion of disenchantment. In place of a shared cosmology which makes sense of religious experience, each person in unceremoniously cast on the raft of conscience, to make her own way in the world of faith. Here is there is no immediate confirmation of Biblical time (as with Fox) but merely an autonomous chooser of personal religious convictions. Sounds familiar? It should because this is a dominant mood in Anglophone Quakerism after 1950. But there is a problem. If religious life becomes a mere contest of ‘inner lights’ (an exercise in personal choice only) radical diversity ensues. Radical because such a difference has the tendency to become self-contained and self-referential. Without a shared story to guide people claims and insights (an ‘inward light’ with a name and a story) it is hard to imagine a stable community, capable of articulating itself to itself.

The Path to Re-Enchantment

Image result for laying on of handsAttentive readers will probably guess where I have been going all this time. Much of what I have said here echoes to some extent the thoughts of Ben Pink Dandelion in his 2014 Swarthmore Lecture Open for Transformation. Throughout the lecture, Ben tries to level with us in ways not everyone has found comfortable. One of the key themes of the lecture is the perpetually thorny issue of a shared Quaker identity. According to Ben’s account, the meaning of Quaker worship and  witness are all fragmenting under the weight of pervasive forms of individualised patterns of thought. We are thinking and speaking more and more of diverse Quaker interpretations, rather than a shared British Quakerism. This profound sense of divergence is grounded in a multiplicity of justifications for basic Quaker words and practices. As Ben notes wryly of contemporary Quaker interpretations of the Peace Testimony: ‘[The] basis of our testimony is…more diffuse; that is our plural theology means we have plural understandings of what we do in the name of Quakerism. Are we committed to peace because of Mosaic law, the teaching of Jesus, because we believe that all life is sacred, or because of Buddhism or humanism?’[14] These questions open a veritable Pandora’s box of further queries, as Ben explores the radical nature of contemporary Quaker fragmentation. If British Quakers are increasingly aligning their spirituality to the needs and desires of the self (self-selecting approaches) what happens to the content and coherence of Quaker accounts of discernment? It is here that Ben evokes the language of secularity. Instead of holding to a mode of spirit-led practice, Meetings for Business increasingly imbibes a secular conception of consensus or democracy. Instead of trusting that the Spirit will give us a way forward, we worry whether the views of those present are ‘represented’. Indeed, as Ben notes: ‘[We] lose our trust in the business method when we ask ‘who was there?’ and assume that the decisions taken reflect the desires of the people present rather than the will of God.’

Image result for Liberal QuakerismIf British Quakers are increasingly aligning their spirituality to the needs and desires of the self, what happens to the content and coherence of Quaker accounts of Worship and discernment? It is here that Ben evokes the language of secularity. Instead of holding to a mode of spirit-led practice, Meetings for Business increasingly imbibes a secular conception of consensus or democracy. Instead of trusting that the Spirit will give us a way forward, we worry whether the views of those present are ‘represented’. Indeed, as Ben notes: ‘[We] lose our trust in the business method when we ask ‘who was there?’ and assume that the decisions taken reflect the desires of the people present rather than the will of God.’[15] Yet, such a posture is completely understandable, if as Taylor suggests, we now live after a sacred cosmos. ‘Heeding the will of God’ only make sense if we view the world as a cluster of signs which can communicate divine intent.  How can we make such words make sense again? Ben’s lecture has many valuable suggestions. We need to reclaim teaching ministry, be attentive to our Book of Disciple, but above all, says Ben, ‘feel God’s transformative role in our lives’.[16] But if we are to make the latter real, we need to punch through the patterns of disenchantment which make us behave in secular ways, even in the midst of worship. Part of this process of re-enchantment involves breaking down an atheist/secular embargo on the arcane, the strange and the miraculous. According to the anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann (see her recent study When God Talks Back) despite living in a society which frequently marginalises such experiences, they continue to be surprisingly common. As Luhrmann reflects on her own American context:

According to a Gallup poll, roughly 95 per cent of Americans say believe in the existence of “God or a higher power”, a percentage that has remained steady since Gallup started polling on the eve of the Second World War. In 2008 the Pew Research Centre conducted a quite extensive representative survey. In a sample, two-thirds of Americans completely or mostly agreed that angels and demons are active in the world, and nearly one-fifth said they had received a direct answer to a specific prayer request at least once a week.[17]

While the survey picture is not as clear-cut in Britain, the widespread belief in spiritual healing, clairvoyance and angels, suggests that many of us are living in enchanted ways although within highly disenchanted settings. Yet, as Luhrmann goes on to show, some churches are better than others at helping people understand and integrate these enchanted postures into a coherent religious life. Among the Vineyard charismatic evangelicals she studied, congregants were given resources to experience a God who was always close to them and involved in their lives. This attitude is powerfully illustrated, thinks Luhrmann in the role of dreams and visions in such evangelical communities:

Congregants…said that God speaks to them in their dreams…Sometimes these are “prophetic” dreams where the dream foretells what will happen. Sometimes dreams are treated as an instruction to pray…. In evangelical circles, as in societies around the world where the supernatural is thought to enter into the everyday, dreams are vehicles.[18]

Underlying these visitations is what Luhrmann calls a ‘Christian theory of mind.’ Instead of viewing the mind and the world as radically separate domains, congregants are encouraged to treat these realms as radically ‘porous’[19] so that thoughts are treated as means of perceiving spiritual realities.[20] We Quakers are familiar with this approach to the world through our practice of silent waiting on the Light. By sitting in worship, we assume that our thoughts and intentions can bring something of God into our daily experience. The mind is a screen or conduit for divine communication, which extends outward to include the world around us.  Yet, given this enchanted starting-point, it is remarkable how little our Meetings explore issues of prophetic dreams, visions or experiences of holy presence. Indeed, when these topics arise, many Friends are surprisingly agnostic. It is doubtful whether many contemporary British Friends have the confidence to speak in a ‘Quakerly way’ about angels or spirits, in the way we talk about our attitudes to Fairtrade coffee or the environment.We have lost the habit of speaking about the ethereal, leaving our Quaker-talk about issues of life and death deeply impoverished. Despite the work of groups like the Quaker Fellowship for Healing and Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies, many of us are reticent to talk about these aspects of our lives, fearing that we might be deemed ‘weird’ or ‘eccentric’. Sensing this reticence, some Friends will seek forms of enchanted religion from elsewhere to supplement the experiences they are having at Meeting. Yet, the question must be asked why these experiences can be brought under the roof of a holistic Quaker life? Why do people need to go elsewhere to find the guidance and depth that our Worship together should provide? What’s missing?

The Magic of Quakerism

Image result for ben pink dandelionThese questions lead us back to the text of Open for Transformation. One of Ben’s biggest fears is that we are descending into an individualistic, balkanised Quakerism. Our exaggerated recourse to personal preferences as Friends is rendering us a loose collection of interest groups rather than a beloved community.  Is there a way of knitting us back together again? I think there is. Alongside Ben’s recommendations, might there be space to recapture a sense of a sacred cosmos? Could we re-learn a common view of the world, where subject and object mix and mingle? It seems to me that this kind of first order stuff is really important. We can have as much teaching and learning as we like, but unless we can develop a shared understanding of the world through Quaker eyes, a lot of our energy will be in vain. It is useless to condemn how secular British Quakerism has become unless we put time and energy in imagining a faith beyond the secular. Granted for some of us, this is hard to imagine. Most of us are wedded to images of ourselves as sensible, rational, enlightened people. The same people who turn up on a Sunday morning to hear God in the silence readily take advantage of Wi-Fi, microwave ovens and modern medicine. Can we really be asked to ‘regress’ into an enchanted mode of thinking? Don’t we just know too much to be beguiled by the ‘magical’ language of past centuries?  But dig under the surface, and most will find parts of our experience that do not fit this modernist picture. By acknowledging dynamics of enchantment in ourselves, we are not so much regressing, but rather being honest about the experience of being human.

Most people will have encountered moments of synchronicity, meaningful dreaming or premonition in the course of lives. Many of us have experienced visions or voices without source and the low-level telepathy generated by a ‘gathering Meeting for Worship’. But how can we use these experiences as a means of reworking and re-charging our Quakerism? The first step in this process involves simply opening up about the times we have felt taken out of the ordinary. Have we ever felt the presence of those distant to us, felt guided in a dream or answered in the midst of prayer? Okay then, let’s talk about these events in Meeting, and like our Quaker ancestors, let’s get into the habit again of praying over them and recording them.  Why not return to old Quaker texts and see whether we can spot how early Friends read and interpreted their dreams and premonitions. Some valuable work has already been done in this direction with Rex Ambler’s Experiment with Light Groups. Slowly but surely we are beginning to assemble the tools for living out a sacred cosmology. Yet, the process will by no means by easy. For some Friends decoupling themselves from secularity might mean going on fact-finding missions for themselves and their Meetings; seeking out living models of enchantment. Are there any techniques which could be reworked in accord with our Quaker discipline? Neo-Shamanic groups may provide one unconventional source of useful vocabularies and models. With their emphasis upon the direct apprehension of Spirit and the all-encompassing nature of divine presence (animism) Neo-shamans may help some of us find our way back towards the depth and ‘magic’ of Quaker worship. The key thing is to get us back to something like the mindset of early Friends; a world where subjectivity had objective effects. If we need to mine some unfamiliar traditions to get there, I think it might be worth the trouble.  A similar chest of riches can be uncovered in Pentecostal and revivalist Christian traditions. With their focus on God’s imminence in the everyday world and their degree of comfort with dreams,  visions and healing, spiritually-hungry might find powerful tools for reassembling our own Quaker way of speaking about the sacred.

What might be the results of these endeavours? Principally, they should address head on, many of the burning concerns expressed in the 2014 Swarthmore Lecture. In a disenchanted cosmos, each person is forced back on the deep inwardness of the self. Without the outward guide of symbols or providence, they must retreat into the power of the will, which summons meaning and purpose into existence. This process of ‘willing’ is at the heart of many of Ben’s concerns. Instead of receiving from the world and each other, we are forcibly constructing it, without reference to any ‘spiritual depth or ‘other’. As Ben suggests: ’There is some evidence that we feel we have become our own individual authorities, that we have adopted a form of ‘sacro-egoism’. When operating from that place, we no longer seek the authority of God or our meetings, as discerning God’s will, but do what we want to, believing that we can be equally right.’[21]  Yet, if Taylor is right about the structure of modernity, what more can we expect? Sacro-egoism (the retreat of the holy into the self) is the logical consequence of losing a shared cosmology. We look to ourselves because we no longer expect the world to speak in the language of symbols. Once ‘magic’ or a sense of ‘charge’ goes out of the world, religious structures soon wither on the vine. In its most extreme form, such disenchantment means that each of us is profoundly alone in the universe, choosing to shelter for a while in a contemporary shack. Yet in the enchanted world, we are always forced beyond ourselves, to live in interlocking communities of the ethereal, the living and the dead. In the enchanted world, even an empty room is fall of life with angels and dead Friends whispering in the walls. In the medieval world, this reality of community was expressed through the idea of the ‘communion of the saints’, that invisible eternal family, to which all the faithful belong. For early Quakers, the world is equally charged with invisible communities. When Fox ascended Pendle Hill, to see ‘a great people gathered’, he came into contact with a timeless community of soul which existed beneath the skin of the world. Here the future and the past is harmonised in a joyous and eternal present. Fox understood, as did Woolman, that sacred time and ordinary time were really one. Thus, according to Quaker cosmology, our world is not just ‘stuff’ which occasionally collides with Spirit. Each created thing has a ‘virtue’ and a ‘secret name’ which we discover through prayer and worship. Once we accustom ourselves to this way of seeing, we come to understand that meaning is not something we impose from within, but something generated by the world around us- world always infused with divine presence.

[1] Thomas Browne, Religio Medici, p. 32

[2] George Fox, The Journal of George Fox, trans. John L. Nickalls, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 27

[3] John S. Mebane, Renaissance Magic and the Return of the Golden Age: The Occult Tradition and Marlowe, Jonson & Shakespeare, (London: University of Nebraska, 1992), p. 94.

[4] Francesco Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, trans. E.A. Ashwin, (New York: Dover, 1998), p. 3.  

[5] Guazzo, Compendium Maleficarum, trans. E.A. Ashwin, (New York: Dover, 1998), p. 4.

[6] See Henry Morley, Cornelius Agrippa: The Life of Henry Cornelius Agrippa, Volume 1, (London: Chapman & Hall, 1856), p. 69

[7] Fox, The Journal of George Fox, trans. John L. Nickalls, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 27

[8] Perhaps they thought Friends used Christ figuratively for their wills or consciences (as some Liberal Quakers do today).

[9] Travis L. Frampton, Spinoza and the Rise of Historical Criticism of the Bible, (London: T&T Clarke, 2006), p. 219

[10] Grantley McDonald, Biblical Criticism in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), p. 145

[11] Richard H. Popkin, ‘Spinoza: Critical Assessments’, ed. Genevieve Lloyd, in Spinoza: Context, sources, and the early writings, (London: Francis & Taylor, 2001), p. 48

[12] Samuel Fisher, quoted in Early Friends and Dr Ash; Or, An Exhibition of Their Principles in Reply to His Work, (London: Hamilton, Adams & Co, 1837), p. 21

[13] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas in the English Revolution, (London: Penguin, 1972), p.  268

[14] Ben Pink Dandelion, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker, (London: Quaker Books, 2014), p. 54

[15] Pink Dandelion, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker, (London: Quaker Books, 2014), p. 46

[16] Dandelion, Open for Transformation: Being Quaker, p. 91.

[17] T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Vintage Book, 2012), p. xi

[18] Luhrmann, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, (New York: Vintage Book, 2012), p. 59

[19] Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, p. 40

[20] Luhrmann, When God Talks Back, p. 41

[21] Dandelion, Open for Transformation, p. 57

Keeping the Lord’s Peace: Quaker/Catholic Dialogue (Part II)

What’s the Point of Quakerism?

An indication of how far we’ve come in relation to Quaker-Catholic dialogue is vividly illustrated by G.K. Chesterton’s 1926 book Conversion and the Catholic Church. Ever the staunch apologist (and with characteristic bluntness) Chesterton observes:

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 that 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 as the Quietism of Fenelon appeared technically inside the Church.[1]

Yet, the triumphalist world of Chesterton has now passed away. The Catholic Church no longer views other churches as merely unruly extensions of itself. There is now a deeper appreciation of the riches of other Christian traditions and the affirmation that ‘very many of the significant elements and endowments which together go to build up and give life to the Church itself, can exist outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church’ (see Vatican II’s Unitatis redintegratio). There is also the welcome acknowledgement scattered through ecumenical documents that Protestant traditions (with their focus on the riches of the Word) can actively reflect what the Church should be back to Catholic Christians. Similar transformations have occurred in the Quaker tradition. As observed in the last post, few Friends now believe that Catholicism is a satanic conspiracy, nor that the Roman church is irretrievably separated from the spirit of the apostles. To use Chesterton’s imagery, we believe that both the Cathedral and the Meeting House are located within a greater landscape (the ever fresh grove of the Gospel, in which no community has complete ownership). Yet, this new situation of relative amity raises some thorny existential questions for Quakers especially.

If Quakerism is no-longer divided from other churches by old doctrinal disputes or naked sectarianism, what are our contemporary reasons for remaining Quakers?  Are we just enmeshed in a three-hundred-year old habit we find hard to break? Hardly. Anyone who lives and breathes the Quaker life knows its truth and internal coherence. We know when we gather we do so as ‘church’- not in terms of hierarchy or ceremony, but as hundreds of grace-filled lives lived. Silence is the vehicle for what others find crystallised in acts like Baptism and Eucharist. But we know now more than ever, that when we worship as Quakers we worship for others and not solely for ourselves. I think Macmurray called it right. Quakers wait and listen as a witness to the final peace and unity of the Church. Yet, if we really want to witness to that peace and unity, I think we need to let go of one more totem; the belief (variously expressed) that we are right to be other in relation to other Christians.

 Quakers Are Not Protestants

For my money, letting go of past division means first and foremost disinvesting ourselves of the allure of the Reformation. For many, this will be interpreted as a profoundly destabilising step. The roots of this reaction for many Quakers are beyond obvious. Throughout our history, Friends have found inspiration in the struggles of the Reformers. In many ways we are the children of Luther and Tyndale.  Our emphasis upon text (journals, epistles) and the spoken word (vocal ministry in worship) speaks powerfully to legacy of egalitarian preaching and teaching, which early Protestants regarded as the marks of a restored Church. Likewise, our commitment to truth and simplicity can be rightly understood as the radical outworking of Protestant social theology. Despite these abiding inheritances however, if we wish to achieve deep unity with other churches, British Friends need to acknowledge two things. Firstly, we need to accept that although we often act like it, Quakers are not Protestants.  Early Friends diverged from classic Protestant theology in ways which actually bring us closer to Catholic and Orthodox understandings of the Church. Take first the Quaker approach to Scripture. While many Protestants still insist upon Luther’s doctrine of Sola scriptura, Catholic, Orthodox and Quaker Christians, all insist that the Church (as inaugurated and sustained through the Holy Spirit) has primacy over the Bible. As Robert Barclay beautifully expressed this primacy in his Apology, ‘because they [the Scriptures] are only a declaration of the fountain, and not the fountain itself, therefore they are not to be esteemed the principal ground of all Truth and knowledge, nor yet the adequate primary rule of faith and manners.’[2]

Another startling point of convergence concerns the Quaker and Catholic accounts of worship. While Quakers reject the numbered sacramental system of Catholic orthodoxy, both communities are in agreement about the deep meaning of worship. While many Protestants believe that Christian ceremony mediates the presence of Christ to congregants (through the Word and ritual signs) for Quakers and Catholics, Christ is really present in the midst of the worshipping community. In this sense heaven is not some far off reality (remote and waiting for the dead) but a living presence that intersects with our world whenever followers of Christ meet in a spirit of reverence. Lastly, there is the matter of the delicate relationship between sin, grace and good works. In Fox’s travels throughout England in the 1640s, he encountered Puritans who were doubtful of the possibility that ‘good works’ could ever be related to salvation. The sheer magnitude of human sinfulness was said to negate any possibility that humans could achieve a state of sanctifying holiness in this life.  While many Puritans expected grace to effect a change in the salvic status of the believer (their merit before God) these steadfast Calvinists maintained that one couldn’t expect a manifest change in outward behaviour. But the chief problem with such a position is that it always seemed to fly in the face of the Scriptural record from which it was supposedly dependent.

We read in Luke for instance that: ‘In the time of Herod king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah, and whose wife Elizabeth was a daughter of Aaron. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and decrees of the Lord (Luke 1:5-6). Was Luke overestimating the moral status of his subjects? Not for Catholics and Quakers. Both communities reject the deep strain of exaggerated Augustinian pessimism which suffused the thought of the Reformers. While humans are often scarred by their collective estrangement from God, Quakers and Catholics take seriously Christ’s injunction, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48). God’s grace can perfect us, a process which is made manifest in the multiplication of good works. Instead of ‘pleading for sin’ (Fox’s phrase) there is a shared understanding between Friends and Catholics regarding the centrality of practical sanctification. As the Counterreformation Council of Trent (1545-1563) put it ‘in the justification of a sinner… the love of God is poured out by the agency of the holy Spirit in the hearts of those who are being justified, and abides in them’[3]

The Wound of the Reformation: The Call of Erasmus

Once we affirm these convergences, it is possible to take a further significant step; acknowledge the wounding and tragic nature of the Reformation. Speaking for myself, I wish that Luther had put his formidable intellect behind the pre-existing instincts of Devotio Moderna (see Part I) and that the Church had not opposed him in this critical task. I also wish Luther and Erasmus had put aside their differences and kept the show of a unified Church on the road (albeit, refreshed with a series of radical reforms). But Luther was too certain of the reading of Paul he had discovered. He was too invested in his insight to hear alternative voices in love. This hardness of heart ultimately split the Church and plunged Europe into conditions of bloody sectarianism. In this spirit of regret, I find myself at one with the theologian Stanley Hauerwas who notes:

Reformation names the disunity in which we currently stand. We who remain in the Protestant tradition want to say that Reformation was a success. But when we make Reformation a success, it only ends up killing us. After all, the very name ‘Protestantism’ is meant to denote a reform movement of protest within the Church Catholic. When Protestantism becomes an end in itself, which it certainly has through the mainstream denominations in America, it becomes anathema. If we no longer have broken hearts at the church’s division, then we cannot help but unfaithfully celebrate Reformation Sunday.[4]

Thus, whenever Quakers say proudly that ‘we are part of the radical Reformation’, we perpetuate conditions of division. Whenever we refuse to say we ‘belong with other Christians’, we put a brave face on disunity. What am I saying? That the conditions of protest that formed Quakerism constituted a mistake? No. Am I saying that Quakers should ‘become’ Roman Catholic (Masses in the Meeting House and the like)? No, at least not in the superficial capital letters sense. The Quaker protest was right and wherever the old dragons of lifeless religion resurface, Quakers are still right. What we need to reject however is that we are radically ‘other’ from those confessions which existed prior to the Reformation. Indeed, we should spend time developing a greater level of Christian literacy, for it is in learning about other people’s experiences of the Light that we discover ourselves afresh. Part of developing confidence in thinking and speaking Christian involves accepting Quakerism that was and is present in the Churches we know call ‘Catholic’ (and that Communion we know as Orthodoxy).

By this I don’t mean that Paul or Jesus ‘were Quakers’ in any straightforward sense. Rather, I mean that the Quaker posture is perennial in the life of the Church. Whenever the spiritual well is too well-guarded, whenever sources of joy and love crystallise into hollow systems, the Spirit is there to call us back to what matters. Quakerism is one of its names, but it has other names, both known and unknown. While the Quaker Way came to birth in conditions of structural separation from the old conditions of Christendom, Quakerism can be shown to be sustained by all those who have ‘known and tasted of the love of God’ (Barclay). We are both ‘catholic’ and apostolic’, even if we are not ‘Catholic’. Such deep spiritual roots can be beautifully demonstrated in the thought of Penn’s beloved Erasmus of Rotterdam. At the heart of Erasmus’ vision of Catholicism was his commitment to a process of critical sifting he called ‘the philosophy of Christ’. At the heart of this procedure was the anxious realisation that the late Medieval Church was deeply at odds with the ministry of Jesus. As Erasmus notes sternly in his Letter to Lambertus Grunnius (August 1516):

There are monasteries where there is no discipline, and which are worse than brothels — ut prae his lupanaria sint et magis sobria et magis pudica. There are others where religion is nothing but ritual; and these are worse than the first, for the Spirit of God is not in them, and they are inflated with self-righteousness. There are those, again, where the brethren are so sick of the imposture that they keep it up only to deceive the vulgar. The houses are rare indeed where the rule is seriously observed, and even in these few, if you look to the bottom, you will find small sincerity. But there is craft, and plenty of it — craft enough to impose on mature men, not to say innocent boys; and this is called profession.[5]

When Erasmus surveyed the vast cultic superstructure of the Church of his day, he concluded that what Christendom needed was a radical turn inward, to a life of simplicity, prayer and reflection.  Instead of going on elaborate pilgrimages, or making elaborate offerings to the saints, the devout Christian is better going to his local Church and contemplating the life of Christ in the shadow of a simple crucifix. Instead of inquiring after the dubious tales of saintly miracles (like a kind of light entertainment) Christians should be more concerned about cultivating moral virtue. How are these noble reflexes to be sustained? As Erasmus suggests throughout his writings, it is the home-spun and unadorned practice of the apostolic church which is the basis for all genuine Christian unity. One of the most fascinating outworking of Erasmus’ approach for Quakers is his manifest commitment to peace. To walk in the way of Jesus and the Apostles means putting down one’s swords in order to love and serve one another. As Erasmus puts it beautifully in The Compact of Peace:

What induced the Son of God to come down from heaven to earth, but a gracious desire to reconcile the world to his Father? to cement the hearts of men by mutual and indissoluble love? and lastly, to reconcile man to himself and bid him be at peace with his own bosom? For my sake, then, he was sent on this gracious embassy; it was my business which he condescended to transact; and therefore he appointed Solomon to be a type of himself; the very name Solomon signifying a peace-maker. Great and illustrious as King David is represented; yet, because he was a king who delighted in war, and because he was polluted with human gore, he was not permitted to build the house of the Lord, he was not worthy to be made the type of Christ.[6]

Viewed through an Erasmine lens, Quakerism participates in the historic witness of Jesus and the apostles. Behind our peace testimony stands not just Fox, Penn and Fell, but Origen, Tertullian and Francis of Assisi. We subsist, as Scripture says, in ‘a great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1). Our lives are shaped and nurtured by all those who have walked the path of Christ before us.  In the past, some Friends liked to pretend that they had blazed the trail while everyone else was languishing behind. Yet, we have discovered through dialogue and prayer that as Christians we are brothers and sisters together, walking tentatively long the same road. It is no good denying the footsteps of others. Now more than ever, we should readily acknowledge (against the grain of much Quaker history) that Catholicism in particular, has deep apostolic roots that we Friends share.  Where does this acknowledgement lead us? As Friends, we should gravitate towards the marks of Apostolic simplicity and peace wherever we find it- whether a person deems herself Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.  We should be brave enough to find space in our hearts for all those who want to walk the path of Christ with tenderness. Our gift in a noisy church of councils, statement and ceremonies, is our deep commitment to prayerful silence. In the midst of a Christianity of many colours, we hold a space in which the Spirit can speak and refresh the body of Christ. In a Church frequently lacking peace, this is perhaps the most precious gift we can offer. Perhaps it is in moments of silence that the Church can glance its true unity, one not based on beliefs, but on a living faith.


[1] G.K. Chesterton, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume 3, (San Fransico, Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 101

[2] See Robert Barclay, Apology for True Christian Divinity, Proposition III,

[3] Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils vol. II, ed. N.P. Tanner (London: Sheed & Ward and Georgetown University Press, 1990), p. 673

[4] Stanley Hauerwas, Sanctify them in the Truth: Holiness Exemplified, (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p.  255

[5] Erasmus, ‘Letter to Lambertus Grunnius’, in Life and Letters of Erasmus: Lectures delivered at Oxford 1893-4 (1894) ed. James Anthony Froude, p.180

[6] Desiderius Erasmus, The Complaint of Peace. Translated from the Querela Pacis (A.D. 1521) of Erasmus (Chicago: Open Court, 1917). 20/07/2016.

Keeping the Lord’s Peace: Quaker/Catholic Dialougue (Part I)

Quaker Identity and the Church

For at least the last two centuries, British Friends have been attempting to develop a coherent account of the relationship between the Quaker Way and other Christian confessions. Are Quakers part of the Christian Church? And if so, in what respects? Answers to these questions have varied widely, ranging from a radical rejection of wider ties (see recurrent Quaker disquiet about membership of organisations like Churches Together) to a renewed hope of sustained reconciliation. And it is undeniably this latter tendency which has carried the day.  In general Friends are outward facing and generous towards other churches and can frequently be found at the forefront of inter-church dialogue. What frames these activities? The contours of this generosity can be summarised in the following terms:

1) Quakers are part of ‘the Church Eternal’.

2) We need the notion of Church ‘to remind us that a faith- particularly the Christian faith- is a community.’ (Priestland, Reasonable Uncertainty, Swarthmore Lecture, 1982, p. 22.)  

3) The fundamental theological disagreements that once separated Quakers from other Churches no-longer feel particularly urgent.

In this post I want to consider where this posture comes from, and what its implications might be for the immediate future of ecumenical relations. A particular focus in this discussion will be a close excavation of Quaker responses to Catholicism, for it is here that the fractures and modifications in Quaker identity can be seen most clearly. Before considering specifics, let’s first look at how early Friends framed their identity in relation to other confessions.  In their first generation, British hammered out an internally coherent rejection of the ‘sects of Christendom’- with particular scorned reserved for the Church called ‘Catholic’.  An excellent Quaker example of such religious othering can be observed in Isaac Pennington’s 1658 tract The Way of Life and Death.  In this text Pennington uses the Pauline dualism of the Spirit and flesh (Gal. 5:17) in order to construct a comprehensive critique of Catholic worship. As Pennington declares:

Among the Papists, a very gross worship; a worship more carnal than ever the worship of the law was: for that, though in its nature it was outward and carnal, yet it was taught and prescribed by the wisdom of God, and was profitable in its place, and to its end; but this was invented by the corrupt wisdom, and set up in the corrupt will of man, and hath no true profit, but keeps from the life, from the power, from the Spirit, in fleshly observations, which feed and please the fleshly nature. Look upon their days consecrated to saints, and their canonical hours of prayer, and their praying in an unknown tongue, with their fastings, feastings, saying of Ave-Marys, Pater-nosters, Creeds, &c., are not all these from the life, out of the Spirit, and after the invention, and in the will of the flesh? Ah! their stink is greater than the flesh-pots of Egypt.[1]

According to this highly sectarian reading, while Quaker worship dwelt in the simplicity of Christ, Catholicism was irretrievably mired in the intricacies and deceptions of human tradition.  What were the ultimate sources of these manifold deceptions? Some Friends (most notably George Fox and Francis Howgil[2])  sort to understand the structure of Catholicism through the lenses of key apocalyptic texts like Revelation 16:11. Carried along by the charismatic fervour of their own preaching, some Friends concluded that Catholicism was not merely false, but depended for its existence upon the intervention of Satanic powers.[3]  Just as John of Patmos had prophesied the suffering of the saints (Rev 14:12), the Catholic Church (with its inquisitions, chains and prisons) was serving the desires of the Anti-Christ.  Yet, our present questing after a stable Quaker identity at the present time, is a vivid testament to fact that such vision did not hold. The roots of this attitude’s dissolution can be found in the apologetics of early Quakerism itself

Openness Foreshadowed

Alongside Fox’s vision of all-embracing Popery, early Quakerism always possessed a receptivity to other Christian churches. This tradition of appreciation begins fairly early in Quaker apologetics, with Robert Barclay’s inclusion of Catholic contemplatives like Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux in that class of those who have ‘known and tasted of the love of God.’[4]  Alongside these early trends, both Ben Pink Dandelion and Carole Dale Spencer have both noted the influence of French and Italian Quietists on early Quaker identity.[5] With their focus on stillness, prayer and the annihilation of the self-directing ego, these Catholic sects offered Friends a ready-made devotional vocabulary for the operations for the Inward Light of Christ. A third strand in the Quaker reception of Catholic thought can be observed in the appropriation of the techniques and vocabulary of the Catholic movement known as Devotio Moderna. Beginning in the 14th century Rhineland, Devotio Moderna sought to return the Church to a state of primitive simplicity through an intensification of austere self-denial and personal holiness. Among the most influential text of the movement was The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis (1380–1471). Eschewing the pilgrimages, cults and elaborate ceremonies of popular piety, à Kempis exhorts his readers to encounter Christ within. Speaking evocatively of the over use of outward observance, à Kempis remarks:

The life of a good Religious should shine with all the virtues, so that what appears outwardly to others is matched by inward practices. Indeed, there should be far more inward goodness than that which appears outwardly; for God searches all hearts. We must respect Him above all things and live purely in His sight, like the Angels. Each new day we should renew our commitment and exert ourselves in devotion, as if it were the first day of our conversion and say ‘Help me, O Lord God, in my good resolution, and Your holy service; help me to start this day perfectly, for so far, I have achieved nothing’.[6]

In this task of ever-renewing commitment, there are manifold distractions. Doctrines[7], monastic austerities[8] and the Eucharist[9] can be a stumbling block if disconnected from a soul’s desire for God. Given such a radical interiority, it is perhaps unsurprising that William Penn[10], Barclay and John Woolman[11] drew generous connections between Quaker simplicity and à Kempis’ meditative piety. Similar reflexes of welcome can also be detected in Penn’s sympathetic attitude to another great advocate of Devotio Moderna, the Catholic reformer, Erasmus of Rotterdam.[12]  How did these nascent gestures of generosity shape Quaker attitudes in the proceeding centuries towards the sacramental churches? By the 19th century, British and American Quakerism were beginning to modify the sectarian stance of the movement’s founders a number of significant ways.  An excellent exemplar of this new mood is the American Quaker and diplomat Anthony Morris who visited in Spain in 1813. While Morris was critical of the Catholic ceremonies he observed, he was careful to distinguish between the outward structure of Catholic worship and its divine object. Catholics and Quakers may be divided by form, yet they are undivided, in their deep worship of God.[13] Here, we find this little known American Quaker introducing the Religious Society of Friends to a possibility implicit in Barclay. According to this reading, Catholicism is not a straightforward enemy to be defeated, but a mistaken, yet respected companion, to be counselled.

Quakerism: A New Terrain Revealed

The decisive switch from hostility from generosity had its effect. By 1920, the Quaker philanthropist George Herbert Wood in his Swarthmore Lecture, Quakerism and the Future of the Church, noted with some confidence:

The fact is that the circumstances have changed. The Church of England which we know, is not exactly the Church of England from which the Pilgrim Fathers separated. This is at least this big difference, that attendance at its worship is State-enforced, and membership in it is not a matter of course…. Something similar has happened to the controversy with Rome. Rome has changed despite her claim to be sember eadem.[14]

If the ‘old ecclesial enemies’ no-longer could or would exercise that ‘satanic’ tyranny under which early Friends have rebelled, what was the relation of the Quaker Way to other churches? Wood was clear: Friends should seek substantial rapprochement with other Christians. His language is still striking nearly a century later: ‘The question, Which of our present churches is the true Catholic church? is a misleading one. It cannot be answered and ought not to be asked. We must recognise that all churches are imperfect and incomplete, that the outward body of Christ is outwardly divided.’[15] Yet, despite such hopefulness, a fundamental contradiction plagued Wood’s reflections. Despite a cluster of warm ecumenical sentiments, Wood is still clear that the separation between Churches (initiated by Luther) served some great and worthy purpose. In a reflex reminiscent of an early generation of Quaker apologetics, Wood claims, ‘since Rome is unable or unwilling to repudiate the Inquisition and the untruthfulness of some of their recognised teachers, the moral necessity of Protestantism remains unaffected. [16]  Yet even when Wood wrote these words, forces were afoot which would undermine his criteria for continued separation. A mere two decades after Wood’s death, forces were afoot which radically undermined this serene ‘unaffected’ status. Not only did the Second Vatican Council provide a forum for stern critique of the Inquisition and its practices (particularly in relation to persecution of the Jews) it also reoriented Catholic doctrine both internally and towards the churches of the Reformation.[17]

A flavour of the impact of this new mood upon British Quakers can be gaged in John Macmurray’s 1965 Swarthmore Lecture, Search for Reality in Religion, where this formidable philosopher declared that the problem with the Church of Rome (and indeed some Protestant bodies) lay principally in issues arising from its historical entanglements with the state.  Anticipating the substantial critique of the Anabaptist theologian John Howard Yoder, Macmurray suggested, ‘In accepting the invitation to become the religion Roman Empire, Christianity had to refer its teachings, even where it has clear social implications, to another world.’[18] The problem for Macmurray is not Catholicism nor the status of Protestantism per se, but rather the aberrations of dogmatism and disfiguring hierarchies which dull the radical message of Christianity. According to this analysis, the role of Quakerism is not to subordinate itself to another Church, nor attempt to the combat of other Christian confessions. Rather, Friends are called to model for the future unity of the Churches. Taking the Quaker rejection of systematic doctrine as ecumenically significant, Macmurray declares ambitiously: ‘If [the] Quaker standpoint were accepted by the other Christian bodies, reunion could take place tomorrow.’[19] No-longer is Quakerism tied to a simplistic dualistic rhetoric, but models the future and peace of the Church. Yet, as this settlement came to terms with the intensification of ecumenical activities in the 1980s, there were still aspects of Quaker ecumenical engagement to be hammered out. In particular, what should Quakers make of the substantive commitments of other Churches? Macmurray as we have seen scatted over the issue, believing that doctrinal discussion could only be a distraction the quest for Christian unity. Yet, in practice, doctrinal matters were ever and always going to be part of inter-church discussions and needed to be addressed.

This missing piece of ecumenical realignment was addressed by Gerald Priestland in his 1982 Swarthmore Lecture Reasonable Uncertainty: A Quaker Approach. Departing somewhat from Macmurray’s ambivalence about the role of doctrine in the Christian life, Priestland suggests that doctrinal discussions with other Christians should be seen as sustaining Quaker theology and worship. Unconsciously building on Wood’s depiction of a changed ecclesial landscape, Priestland suggests that doctrines are no-longer hard and fast litmus tests of truth (invested with a totalitarian intent) but windows into a common Christian language. Viewed generously therefore, doctrine and its character does not automatically divide or fragment, but can enrich, deepen and sustain a genuine pattern of discipleship. As Priestland notes: ‘[Doctrine] provides the explorer of God with a set of tools and techniques with which we can tackle the mountain face. If he declines to use them, he cuts himself off from a wealth of experience and forces himself to start from scratch.’[20]  While in previous centuries doctrines were marks of an oppressive and defective Christendom, the Church which now used these formulae are what Priestland calls ‘churches of reasonable uncertainty.’[21] As Priestland goes on to explain: ‘In the course of my pilgrimage, I found no series theologian in the mainstream of any tradition who was prepared to say of doctrine ‘This is the absolute and complete truth’. They might say ‘This is true in the sense that it is not false. We believe it contains truth, though we are not able to comprehend it fully’.’[22]  If openness and provisionality are now key planks of doctrinal discussions across the churches, old Quaker protests against ecclesial dogmatism can no-longer apply. Another key Quaker totem is now legitimately cast aside.

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

[2]  Edward Peters, Inquisition, (Berkley: University of California Press, 1989), p. 7

[3] See George Fox, ‘The great mystery of the great whore unfolded; and Antichrist’s kingdom’, in The Work of George Fox, Volume III, (New York: Isaac T. Hopper, 1931).

[4] Robert Barclay, Truth Triumphant, Through the Spiritual Warfare, Christian Labours and Writings, (New York: Benjamin Stanton, 1831), p. 351

[5] Carole Dale Spencer, ‘Early Quakers in Divine Liberation from the Universal Power of Sin’, in Good and Evil: Quaker Perspectives, ed. Jackie Leach Scully, Ben Pink Dandelion, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), p. 46

[6] Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Robert Jeffery, (London: 2013), p. 30

[7] à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, trans. Robert Jeffery, (London: 2013), p. 5

[8] à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, p. 27

[9] à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, p. 103

[10] See William Penn, The Papers of William Penn, Volume 5: William Penn’s Published Writings, ed. Edwin B. Bronner & David Fraser, (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 1986), p. 43

[11] Geoffrey Plank, John Woolman’s Path to the Peaceable Kingdom: A Quaker in the British Empire, (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2012), p. 23

[12] William Penn, No Cross, No Crown, (Philadelphia: T.K. & P.G. Collins, 1853), p. 147

[13] H. L. Dufour Woolfley, A Quaker Goes to Spain: The Diplomatic Mission of Anthony Morris, 1813–1816, (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2013), p. 103

[14] George Hebert Wood, Quakerism and the Future of the Church, (London: The Quaker Home Service Committee, 1920, p. 82

[15] Wood, Quakerism and the Future of the Church, (London: The Quaker Home Service Committee, 1920, p. 85

[16] Wood, Quakerism and the Future of the Church, p. 82

[17] See John A. Radano, Lutheran and Catholic Reconciliation on Justification: A Chronology of the Holy See’s Contributions 1961-1999 to a New Relationship Between Lutherans and Catholics, (Michigan, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009), p.35

[18] John Macmurray, Search for Reality in Religion, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1965), p. 61

[19] Macmurray, Search for Reality in Religion, (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1965), p. 70

[20] Gerald Priestland, Reasonable Uncertainty: A Quaker Approach to Doctrine, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1982), p. 27-28

[21] Gerald Priestland, Reasonable Uncertainty: A Quaker Approach to Doctrine, (London: Quaker Home Service, 1982), p. 28

[22] Gerald Priestland, Reasonable Uncertainty, p. 27

Some Notes on E.M Forster’s Maurice in the Wake of Orlando

The body is deeper than the soul and its secrets inscrutable (E.M. Forster)

The Wisdom of the Body

In the wake of the shooting in Orlando, I’ve begun re-reading E.M Forster’s novel Maurice. I first read the book as a sexually confused teenager, who thought there was something wrong with being gay. Some of the ‘wrongness’ I felt about myself had something to do with an ill-thought out Christian faith. I believed (wrongly) that I was committing some awful sin by feeling the way I did. I vividly remember praying to God and asking him to make things easier. If he could take these feelings away, all the better. It was at this rather low ebb that Maurice came into my life, and I’m so happy it did. Written in 1913 (but only published after its author’s death in 1971) Maurice is a wrenching portrait of internalized homophobia at the cusp of the First World War. Yet along its depiction of unrelenting self-hatred, there is joyous hope. Forster wrote the story after staying at home of the English socialist Edward Carpenter and his partner George Merill, just outside Sheffield. After the legal hysteria initiated by Oscar Wilde trials of the 1880s, Carpenter had made his home a sanctuary for those liable to fall victim to hardening social attitudes. As Forster recounts the genesis of the story in a Terminal Note attached to manuscript:

It must have been on my second or third visit to the shrine that the spark was kindled as he and his comrade George Merrill combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring. George Merrill also touched my backside—gently and just above the buttocks. . . . The sensation was unusual and I still remember it. . . . It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.

It taught Forster something life-changing. It was not good enough to live one’s life through the prism of outmoded ideals, repressions and deceptions. One must be true to oneself, by being to true to reality of one’s bodily needs. Our embodiment has wisdom and grace that our mental wisdom simply cannot approach. The seriousness with which Forster took this new philosophy of life can be glimpsed in the book’s stunning dedication; “To a Happier Year”. This was not merely another tale of homosexual tragedy but a manifesto of personal redemption. Forster’s chief narrative device throughout the novel is one of psychological progression. Our protagonist, Maurice Hall, begins life as a member of the sheltered Edwardian middle-classes. His course is mapped out for him from birth. He sleepily plods through school, dimly aware that he is different from the other boys, but shielded from both the realities of sex and his own body, he possesses no words to express this ominous sense of otherness. This all changes with his arrival at University. He begins to feel a sexual awakening and it terrifies him:

Maurice became modest and conscious of sin: in all creation there could be no one as vile as himself. No wonder he pretended to be a piece of cardboard; if known as he was, he would be hounded out of the world. God, being altogether too large an order, did not worry him: he could not conceive of any censure being more terrific that, say Joey Fetherstonehaugh’s, who kept in the rooms below, or of any Hell as bitter as Coventry (AM 19).

Yet, Forster provides a possible liberator for Maurice in the form of the aristocratic Clive Durham. Intellectual, charming and upstanding, Clive stands like a lighthouse in the midst of Maurice’s inner storm.

The Home of the Body

Clive inducts Maurice into depths of feeling and passion he never thought possible. Yet, he never feels satisfied with Clive, because the young undergraduate can never offer Maurice what he truly desires; a full physical relationship. Like many Edwardian gay men, Clive suffers under the weight of Hellenistic romanticism. He believes, like some Platonic ascetic, that he can sublimate his sexual passion into a pure, chaste and selfless love. As Forster summarizes this ethic of self-denial, ‘Clive had influenced him (Maurice) as always. It had been understood between them that their love, though including the body, should not gratify it, and the understanding had proceeded—no words were used—from Clive.’ Yet, the abstemious young Platonist knows that the Greek ideals he worships are really dead and lifeless things, incapable of framing human beings as they truly are. In a heartbreaking scene, Forster has Clive travelling to his beloved Greece, where he finds nothing but spiritual emptiness:

Clive sat in the theatre of Dionysus. The stage was empty, as it had been for many centuries, the auditorium empty; the sun had set through the Acropolis behind still radiated heat. He saw barren plains running down to the sea, Salamis, Aegina, mountains, all blended in a violet evening. Here dwelt his gods—Pallas Athene in the first place: he might if he chose imagine her shrine untouched, and her statue catching the last of the glow. She understood all men, through motherless and a virgin. He had been coming to thank her for years because she had lifted him out of the mire. But he saw only dying light and a dead land. He uttered no prayer, believed in no deity, and knew that the past was devoid of meaning like the present, and a refuge for cowards (AM 22).

Insofar as Maurice participates in this Platonic trajectory, his life remains pained and shriveled. Arbitrary restriction of the erotic twists Maurice’s love to bitterness and his gentleness to lust. His self-denial is seen killing his virtue and mortifying all his finer feelings. Forster is clear that if society had let Maurice alone he might have become sensitive, joyful and free. As it was, says Forster, ‘England has always been disinclined to accept human nature’ and this disinclination results in a horrific human cost. Maurice feels so hemmed in, that he is prepared to fasten onto any talisman to free him from himself. He seeks consolation, firstly in good works, and secondly in psychiatry, yet both projects fail. Try as he might, Maurice cannot transcend his bodily nature. He needs more than austerity and fine words, he needs freedom. As Forster has Maurice reflect: ‘The less you had the more it was supposed to be— that was Clive’s teaching. Not only was the half greater than the whole—at Cambridge Maurice would just accept this—but now he was offered the quarter and told it was greater than the half. Did the fellow suppose he was made of paper?’

What is the answer to Maurice’s existential quandary? The answer comes in the form of an employee of Clive’s, the working-class gamekeeper Alec Scudder. Uncorrupted by the falsities and cant of bourgeois society, Alec expresses all that Maurice tries to deny in himself. Alec is crass, open, sexual and in love with life. Their affair, first furtive, then fiery, awakens Maurice to all that Clive’s Scholastic Platonism denies. He begins to see not only the futility of his denial, but the foolishness of middle-class civilization. Evoking a favorite theme of Carpenter’s thought, Forster looks to the earth and the seasons as a spiritual guide. Even if society judges Maurice, God’s green earth does not. As Maurice realizes, ‘(he) was not afraid or ashamed anymore. After all, the forests and the night were on his side, not theirs; they, not he, were inside a ring fence.’ Instead of fearing the body, says Forster, one should embrace it as a gift and an instrument of simple natural joy. Maurice’s body had a knowledge which no Cambridge scholar could ever know. In this respect Alec exists for the once other-worldly Maurice as the gatekeeper of the carnal. The woods, the open sky, and the boundless horizon are all his to share with his beloved. In the morning light after making love with this wild young Pan, the one-time Cambridge snob realizes all that he has hidden and all that he needs to live. Alec becomes for Maurice the very image of spiritual wholeness. At the conclusion of the novel, Maurice tells Clive of his new love, tearing shreds into all the repressions of Hellenism in the process. And unsurprisingly Clive has no new words for Maurice. He merely repeats the old puritan slogans tarnished by time. But Maurice has learnt a greater wisdom through sexual experience. As he tells Clive:

“You care for me a little bit, I do think….but I can’t hang all my life on a little bit. You don’t. You hang yours on Anne. You don’t worry whether your relation with her is platonic or not, you only know it’s big enough to hang a life on. I can’t hang mine on to the five minutes you spare me from her and politics. You’ll do anything for me except see me. That’s been it for this whole year of Hell. You’ll make me free of the house, and take endless bother to marry me off, because that puts me off your hands. You do care a little for me, I know….but nothing to speak of, and you don’t love me. I was yours once till death if you’d cared to keep me, but I’m someone else’s now—I can’t hang about whining for ever—and he’s mine in a way that shocks you, but why don’t you stop being shocked, and attend to your own happiness?”

And with that, Maurice disappears into the night, leaving Clive speechless. In the wake of the Orlando shooting, what lessons might this declaration and its accompanying silence, have for a city reeling from loss?

Orlando: Self-Hatred Kills

In recent days, as we learn more about the Orlando shooter, a troubling picture emerges of a man propelled by self-hatred. As C.NN. reported yesterday, several regulars at the club said the gunman visited frequently over the past few years and that he used gay dating apps. Reading Maurice in the light of the Orlando tragedy confirms what Forster’s novel continually underscores: self-hatred always kills. For Clive this self-despising death comes slowly, a lulling dissent into nothingness. In Orlando death came quickly, to the self-hater and his victims. It appears that Omar Mateen murdered and mutilated in part because his faith was not large enough to contain the contradictions which haunted him. This does not justify the horror of course, but it might restore some sense to an otherwise senseless act. The liberation from a false sense of sin that I experienced as a teenager, was a freedom seemingly denied to Mateen. This man went on hating and in the end it clearly poisoned him. Looking at this reality squarely in the face introduces us to an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes it is not so easy to see the distinction between perpetrator and victim. As Rowan Williams puts it:

The problem is that in ordinary human relationships, boundaries are very fluid indeed. Even in a single relationship, I may be both oppressor and victim (consider the immense manipulative power exerted by the ‘longsuffering’ mother of a large family in certain circumstances: genuinely exploited and victimized herself, she is capable of doing great psychological damage in return), and I can also be involved in all manner of subtle collisions with both my oppressors and my victims. The human world is not one of clearly distinguishable bodies of oppressors and victims, those who inflict damage and those who bear it. Where is a ‘pure’ victim to be found? (Resurrection, Interpreting the Easter Gospel, 2003).

At various moments in Forster’s novel, Maurice, Clive and Alec are oppressors and victims all at once. Maurice’s self-hatred frequently makes him unfeeling and incapable of true affection towards others. Clive frequently rejects Maurice, not because he does not love him, but because the love he feels crushes him. Every unguarded touch and furtive kiss confounds Clive’s hopes of living a ‘normal life’. The rustic Alec at one point attempts to blackmail Maurice, not because of hatred, but because of fear. In a society of rigid class-distinctions, the game-keeper does what he must to survive. Likewise, if we look closer at the Orlando shooting, we see that the line between oppressor and victim is not straightforward. The same society that was in large part revolted by the carnage in Florida contains collaborators, who can be relied upon to offer a wink and a nod to the assailant’s bullets. Mateen was not an explicable monster wholly unrecognizable to the society around him. Everyone from fundamentalist Evangelical preachers to gay-conversion therapists willed a kind of social death on the shooter and clubbers that night. And as it turned out, they got their wish in a highly literal and bloody fashion. “But” indignant folk cry, “how could Mateen be a victim”? As much as it might churn our stomachs, it seems likely that Mateen’s actions were partly the result of a religious culture that hated him. A whole tradition of Islamic exegesis teaches gay Muslims that their lives are worthless. As Mateen’s father, Seddique Mir Mateen, expressed the sentiment succinctly: ‘the punishment for homosexuality is upon God and he will decide on them not humans’. While decrying the violence, he could not see the people in the club as anything other than objects of punishment. What basis is that for a life? How can a person, who is nothing but an object of judgement, amount to anything?

Like Clive before the ruins of the theatre of Dionysus, so many queer Muslims and Christians try to hang their lives on a series of dusty religious ruins, yet these remnants of past devotion contain little which is life-giving. Instead such weary wanderers encounter nothing but judgment and rejection. It is not surprising therefore that some are willing to kill and die rather than live in the shadow of condemnation. In this sense, Omar Mateen is another sad product of a homophobic theology that refuses to acknowledge the pain and suffering it causes. How then do we walk beyond the cycles of violence and condemnation found in the old theologies? As Forster knew all too well, the only way to build the world anew is to reject all false judgment about ourselves and live with radical honesty. As a Christian, I root this new world in the absolute conviction that we are all loved and upheld in the sight of the Eternal. As Paul says, ‘I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[b] neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love (Romans 8:38). We can be honest and open to the possibilities of love because we know our lives sit within this greater truth, a truth which can never hurt us. Such a truth does not negative human darkness (or what the old religions call sin) but it places such claims in their proper context. We must learn that our bodies and desires are not sinful, rather it is the negation of our capacity for love and honesty which is truly sinful. In this effort towards wholeness, we must not be shaken by violence and rejection, lest we turn in on ourselves and stop the adventure of loving. Instead, we must practice joyful courage rooted in how we really are and not in how others see us. We must affirm the rightness of our capacities for love, care and pleasure. In place of the relics of inert ‘gods’ that cannot speak for us, we should utilize our sexual experience as basis for a new wisdom and a new faith. As Andre Lorde puts it in her now famous essay The Uses of the Erotic:

Beyond the superficial, the considered phrase, “It feels right to me,” acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding. And understanding is a handmaiden which can only wait upon, or clarify, that knowledge, deeply born. The erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge.

Here the erotic (the power of our desire) is are visible companion, tutoring us in what matters; care, generosity and mutual desire. This, for gays and lesbians, should be the whole of the Law. Only when we take this Law as seriously as the homophobe takes his condemnation, will we find space in our world for values other than repression and fear.

For love’s sake vote Remain

Some great thoughts from Roger on the EU Referendum

Roger Haydon Mitchell's Blog

For love’s sake vote Remain!

In my view the greatest deep-structural delusion of the western world is that peace comes through the exercise of sovereign power. There is another way, peace through love, which an exciting network of my friends and fellow activists call kenarchy and this blog is all about. Kenarchy attempts to outwork the kind of love characterised by the life of Jesus and defined by Thomas Jay Oord in his book The Nature of Love as “to act intentionally, out of empathetic, sympathetic, response to God and others, to promote overall well-being”.

Nationalism, imperialism and the nation state are all forms of sovereignty that uphold the western delusion of peace through sovereign power. This is why, for me, it’s a no-brainer to see that the best place to outwork kenarchy is within a wider situation than a single national institution of sovereign power. Much better to be…

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