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.

Image result for Liberal QuakerismWhat 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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I am not white enough

Some really challenging thoughts for those of us who are from the ‘white intellectual (liberal) elite’. How can the Church break out of the cultural boxes which hold it back? How can the Church just be the Church? Hye Sung Francis gives you some food for thought.

Hye Sung Francis

No matter where I’m dropped, I always struggle with a sense of not belonging. I’m a gay, half-Japanese, ex-Moonie, college drop-out, Quaker who believes in Jesus, speaks in tongues, and takes communion. I am in many ways a paradox, but more than anything, I’m a really bizarre human being. And my last post about “White Appropriateness” deeply reflects my own exhausted experience in the white mainline Church. Yes, I painted the mainline world with a broad brush. I recognize that I am currently going through a sudden and painful life-change and some of that hurt may have been funneled into my last post. That said, I stand by everything I wrote, and I hope I can clarify a bit on what I mean by “white appropriateness”, and how I have encountered it among liberal mainline Protestants and even Quakers.

11207375_10204621974172746_5226956197144609574_n (1) My best friend and I watching TV and mutually encouraging one another in the sloppy, wacky, and…

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Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without Metaphysics (Part 2.)

The Fruits of Our Narrative

All this sounds awfully freeing doesn’t it? Once we’ve put metaphysical questions about ‘reality’ to bed, we can surely get on with being Quaker? Yes, but at the same time such an approach is demanding. It necessitates that we know our story inside out, that we can read it well, and trace its implications with confidence. We need to able to say how the story should run and what it’s language generates An excellent summary of this kind of religious literacy is provided by the Lutheran theologian George Lindbeck. Instead of seeing religion as a set of abstract beliefs (about ‘nature’ or ‘super-nature’) Lindbeck suggests that religions should be understood as ‘cultural-linguistic’ systems. Religions are like complex languages which are only fully comprehensible to native speakers. Participants in the story know what to do, not because of ‘ultimate foundations’, because they have learnt what constitutes a convincing and coherent reading. As Lindbeck puts it:

A comprehensive scheme or story used to structure all dimensions of existence is not primarily a set of propositions to be believed, but it is rather the medium in which one moves, a set of skills one employs in living one’s life. Its vocabulary and its syntax may be used for many purposes, only one of which is the formulation of statements about reality. Thus while a religion’s truth claims are often of the utmost importance to it (as in the case of Christianity), it is, nevertheless, the conceptual vocabulary and the syntax or inner logic which determine the kinds of truth claims the religion can make. The cognitive aspect, while often important, is not primary. (Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine, 35)

According to this account, how do we know when we are speaking and acting coherently as Quakers? We know because our speech and consequent action are consistent with our story of ‘peace’, ‘truth’ and ‘love’.  We discern the right way forward, not because we have hampered out some account of God’s existence (or non-existence) but because are able to make the link between our stories, our words and our concrete practice. For the provisional ‘realist’ like me these marks of coherent practice are ‘the fruits of the Holy Spirit’. For a nonrealist like David, these are the marks of a community attentively gathered, held together by (nothing more and nothing less) than the community’s narrative consistency. I  might quibble about the full meaning of such consistency, but at the level of practice, is there really a substantial difference? And it is here we return to Rorty. If accounts of ultimate truth become bogus, says Rorty, then we need to find a better way of thinking. Rorty calls this perspective an ‘ironic’ or ‘pragmatic’ approach to matters of truth. As he expresses this alternative way of seeing:

[To] say that a belief is, as far as we know, true, is to say that no alternative belief is, as far as we know, a better habit of acting. When we say that our ancestors believed, falsely, that the sun went around the earth, and that we believe, truly, that the earth goes round the sun, we are saying that we have a better tool than our ancestors did. Our ancestors might rejoin that their tool enabled them to believe in the literal truth of the Christian Scriptures, whereas ours does not. Our reply has to be, I think, that the benefits of modern astronomy and of space travel outweigh the advantages of Christian fundamentalism. The argument between us and our medieval ancestors should not be about which of us has got the universe right. It should be about the point of holding views about the motion of heavenly bodies, the ends to be achieved by the use of certain tools. Confirming the truth of Scripture is one such aim, space travel another (Rorty, Philosophy of Social Hope, p. xxv).

Truth understood as Loving Practice

What Rorty is telling us is something both profound and deeply uncomfortable. He is suggesting that we should think of truth not as some weird ethereal quality, but the word we use when an idea, object or concept, produces some ‘useful result. In Christian terms we might turn to Jesus’ aphorism: “By their fruit you will know them’ (Matt. 7:16). In this mode, philosophizing or theologising, is not about getting to some ‘truth’ out there. It is about developing a way of speaking and acting which produces the results we think are consistent with our speech.  While I always hesitate to fully go along with Rorty’s radical project, I think he touches on a deep, dare I say ‘truth’ which is at the bedrock of Christian theology.

As Christians we are taught that ‘No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father (John 6:46). So do we know God? At most we know God through ‘the results’ of our language about God. Jesus was recognized as ‘the Son’ because his acts of healing and gift-giving converged with his words. The internal coherence between his Kingdom-talk and practice, was the prime mark of his truthfulness and revelatory power.  For those who came after Jesus, this link between claim and practice was at the heart of Christian conceptions of living and knowing. As the Letter of James beautifully puts it: ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27).  What are the implications of this view of God? The philosopher Santiago Zabala suggests that such a vision of deity involves a dissolution of metaphysics and an embrace of moral practice:

The truth that shall make us free (John 8: 32) is not the objective truth of theology and the natural sciences: the scriptural revelation contains no explanation of how God is made or how to save ourselves through knowledge of the truth. The only truth that the Bible reveals to us is the practical appeal to love, to charity. The truth of Christianity is the dissolution of the metaphysical concept of truth itself. (Santiago Zabala, After Religion,  p. 14)

The only way we can come close to what saints and sages call ‘God’ is to practice loving-kindness. This is why Jesus remained silent after Pilate’s question. Truth was not ‘out there’ for Pilate to find, but was standing before him in the eyes of a Jewish prisoner.  Truth is not about speculation but about life. But this isn’t just fancy postmodernism, its Quakerism. Such a conjunction between God, love and action is the logical out working of our Quaker God-language. When Advices and Queries exhorts us to [take heed]… to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts’ and to ‘trust them as the leadings of God’ we are offered our own version of Zabala’s insight. Practice not theory is the mark of a life imbued with the Quaker story. I might call this a Christ-shaped ethic, David might prefer the language of religious humanism. Whichever language we choose, I think our terms exist within the same Quaker life. We are divided philosophically for sure, but should this dispute of the seminar room impinge on our unity at the level of Worship? Evidently a simple Quaker orthopraxy is not enough. We need a narrative as well as a practice to keep our communities going.

Do We Dare to Share? 

While this cultural-linguistic approach to present tensions among Quakers is far from perfect, it has the potential to build bridges between different kinds of Friends. By turning away from problems of ‘essence’ and metaphysical foundations, Friends might be encouraged to dig down into our native Quaker tongue and find renewed riches in our shared particularities. Once unshackled from barren discussions of theism or non-theism, we can again unite under the canopy of shared Quaker speech and practice. But when all is said and done, is this realistic? In his 2011 Gorman Lecture, Simon Best puts the problem like this:

There is an argument that Quaker theology, with its emphasis on continuing  revelation and change, is inherently radical. However I suggest that rather than being radical, having a theology so open that people can believe anything and still join shows that we are scared of having a tradition, and of being faith-based and spiritually grounded. By being totally open, by accepting all theologies, and even those with no theology but a philosophy, we may include people but we also exclude others. British Quakerism has become an orthopraxy rather than an orthodoxy….In religious groups a strong surface culture can disguise an absence of deep faith. (Best, The Religious Society of Friends, in Britain: Simple, Contemporary, Radical?, p. 53).

I hear Simon’s concern, but I’d extend and thicken the above verdict a little. The biggest obstacle in the quest for some kind of shared Quaker identity is not so much about belief (God versus no-God). The disunity runs at a much deeper level. It is about the stories we tell to each other about ourselves. We are losing a shared sense of how our narrative relates to our practice and vice versa. We are becoming increasingly hardened to the contours of our own Quaker speech.

The Challenge

It is only our words which bind us together and make us human (Montaigne)

Among some so-called ‘theistic Friends’ such hardness is expressed in an overinvestment in ‘transcendence’ and ‘supernaturalism’ at the expense of our richer native Quaker speech, including our traditional Christology. Instead of looking for the God recorded in our Book of Discipline, such Friends run hither and wither after another God, the deity of contemporary polemic. On the flip side, there are some ‘non-theist’ Friends who refuse to engage with traditional Quaker language about God because of what they think it commits them to.  We have all heard the same remarks in our Meetings, ‘I translate God to ‘good’, ‘I can’t believe in an old man in the sky’, ‘I just can’t accept anything supernatural’. But I wonder whether such God-language commits Friends in the way they think. Does adoption of a shared language mean we lose our own voice and critical capacity? Does it mean Friends have to become supernaturalists (whatever that means)? Of course not. As Lindbeck puts the matter:

Just as grammar by itself affirms nothing either true or false regarding the world in which language is used, but only about language, so theology and doctrine… assert nothing either true or false about God and his relation to creatures, but only speak about such assertions. These assertions, in turn, cannot be made except when speaking religiously, i.e., when seeking to align oneself and others performatively with what one takes to be most important in the universe by worshipping, promising, obeying, exhorting, preaching (The Nature of Doctrine, 69)

What does Lindbeck mean here? He means that adopting a religious language does not mean that everything said in the language has to correspond to reality in the immediate everyday sense. When we make assertions in religious language (like ‘God is love’), they don’t operate as ‘normal facts’ but they do have a function. We do not have to establish some empirical account of the Holy Spirit in order to be carried along by the language of divine presence.  In Meeting for Worship, we know what such language does. It energizes us, gathers us, provokes us and propels us. Nor do we need to possess a philosophical account of prayer for prayer-language to ‘work’. We know what prayer involves, we know what it means ‘to be prayerful’. This kind of ‘work’ is all we can convincingly say about our Quaker language this side of the eschaton. If we try to go beyond our own story to some transcendent essence (an impossible feat) we will tire ourselves out in a pretty pointless task. We would do better if we directed our attention to the practical business of being and acting Quaker. This means digging down into the words and images that continue to draw us together.  Doubtless there will still be some Friends who feel hemmed in by the very idea of some kind of a shared story and language.  For such Friends I can only respond by saying that Quakerism has no future without a shared story. Without a narrative that helps us articulate why we serve and worship together, Quakerism cannot be meaningfully sustained as a Way of transformation. Doubtless the structures of Quakerism can survive well after the religious experiment itself has died (as personal spirituality’ seminars). Such communities (where we all come together to be different) might actually prosper for a time, but I don’t think they will possess the animus and depth of Quaker spirituality and discipline. The only alternative to this paper-thin future is to dig down into a Quakerism with roots but without foundations.Such a faith is in one sense deeply traditional, but it is also deeply postmodern. In such an imagined future ‘isms’ of various kinds might lose their force, as we are refreshed by the stories we love.

Boulton, Lindbeck and Rorty: Imagining a Quakerism without Metaphysics

A New Postmodern Humanism? 

Rorty.jpgToday I’ve been reading David Boulton’s The Trouble with God: Religious Humanism and the Republic of Heaven. The book possesses lots of fascinating talking points, but I keep on finding myself returning to the same sentence: ‘(humanism) needs to be more generous and imaginative in its response to the rich range of religious culture, ranking Blake’s Imagination no lower than Winstanley’s Reason. It needs to catch up with postmodernity, if not postmodernism in extending its radical scepticism towards religion, to include a no less radical scepticism towards ideas of progress, science and objective ethics. It needs to become more radically atheist in rejecting not just the deification of imagined gods but equally dangerous deification of humanity’ (pp. 188-9). What are the chief consequences of Boulton’s radical enterprise of postmodern reconstruction? In his brilliant book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989) the American philosopher Richard Rorty offers us an evocative description of such deconstruction. As Rorty reflects:

Truth cannot be out there–cannot exist independently of the human mind–because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own–unaided by the describing activities of human beings–cannot. (p. 5.)

So, if all we have is description, what becomes of those ‘big truth’ activities like philosophy and theology? Simply put, says Rorty, the theologian and philosopher need to become literary critics. Instead of worrying about something ‘out there’ we should worry about stuff closer to home; like the stories we tell about ourselves and each other. We should concern ourselves with how well we tell our stories and the concrete effect those stories are having on people. Once we give up the quest for metaphysical or transcendental truths, our life is forced back into the specifics of the story we inhabit.  It is precisely this Rorty-like return to narrative which lies behind Boulton’s evocative account of the power of fiction’. As David reflects:

God understood as the protagonist of the fictional god-stories, as our incarnation of justice, mercy, pity, peace and love, as the some of our values projected onto the screen of our imaginations, tosses away his crown and joins us in the messiness and absurdities  of human life.  Nor,  is this some tame, domesticated, emasculated God, who would be of no earthly use to anyone. This the God that plants his footstep in the sea and rides the storm, the ancient of days no less; the most powerful of all the potent symbols ever created by the symbol-making species called humans (p. 215).

God ‘not existing’ for David is ultimately besides the point. What matters is the result these myths and images have on us as human beings. Result not actuality is the philosophical criterion which seems to interest David the most.

Coming to Terms with Our Story

On initial inspection, there seems plenty in the above discussion to get upset about, if like me, you think that certain theological statements refer (at least in part) to realities- the kind of realities that exist regardless of whether people believe in them or not. But of course, as David would remind me, the only reason I say this sort of thing is because I exist within a particular story. It’s plotlines matter to me and encourage mw to say particular things, but the story itself is never transcended. Just declaring that there is some reality ‘beyond’ the story, doesn’t actually mean we ever get there.  But what about ‘one’s experience of the reality of God?’ cries a disgruntled Friend.  Does that really get one beyond one’s story?  Evidently not. One is only able to locate ‘God’ in one’s inner experience, because one already assumes a particular way of speaking. As Wittgenstein puts it: ‘When I think in language there aren’t meanings going through my mind in addition to the verbal expressions; the language itself is the vehicle of thought.’ We can’t, suggests Wittgenstein get to a place beyond narrative and language.

But of course, if Wittgenstein is right about language, then this affects Quaker nontheism as much as it does any other form of Quakerism. The great paradox of deconstruction is that it can cause the sceptic to doubt herself. If nontheism is another story about ourselves, then how should the worth of the story be judged?  For some people at least, recognizing the contingency of our stories means a ‘return to faith’. After all, if there is no objective place to stand (no place beyond our stories) then it seems just as intelligible to say that one ‘believes’ that Jesus was brought back from the dead, as it does to say that the Resurrection has no basis in ‘reality’. Postmodernism in this respect seems to cut both ways. The knowledge-terrain changes from matters of ‘objective truth’ to the more complex arena of narrative consistency. The question is not, what can I say is ‘out there’? Rather, the issue is, what can I say which is consistent with the stories I hold dear?  Through this Rortyian lens the following remarks from David don’t sound all that theologically threatening:

 The only Jesus we can be sure of is the Jesus of literature. Of this Jesus we can say confidently, as we cannot say of the historical Jesus, that he did change water into wine, did raise Lazarus from the dead, did teach that we should love our enemies, was crucified and buried, did descend into hell, did rise again and did ascend into heaven (p. 187).

These sentiments only get spiky theologically (for me and other Friends) if we think there is some ‘true’ historical Jesus (a Jesus beyond the story) it is possible to retrieve. But if David’s humanism is to be truly postmodern, even this prickliness needs to recede into the background. All we can hold onto is what the story does to us, what it generates and how it continues to form us. In this vein, David hits the nail on the head when he says,

That’s the story. And we can see that it’s a true story, not because it all ‘really happened’, but because the  great themes of life and death, love and hate, good and evil, redemption and salvation, and wrestled with, in ways which true to our experience’ (p. 187).

Now does this mean that David and I actually agree? Not quite. The divide between David and me is still one about the meaning of the slippery word ‘reality’ and what we are willing to accept under this label. I am willing to countenance some ‘weird stuff’ that David simply isn’t. Like a good Enlightenment philosopher, David seems to have a good idea of what the categories of ‘natural’ or ‘real’ involve. He also knows what he rejects, something called ‘supernaturalism’. But, since I’m not entirely sure what the ‘real’ or the ‘natural’ real involve, I’m willing to concede a lot more. At the same time, I acknowledge that any ‘weird stuff’ I posit is always mediated by story, culture and language. I am a provisional ‘realist’. I believe in something called ‘truth’, but like the roundly apophatic Jesus before Pilate, I am content to hold my peace about what this ultimately is. As Rorty puts the issue starkly:

We know how to justify beliefs, we know that the adjective ’true’ is that we apply to the beliefs we have justified. We know that a belief cannot be true without being justified. That is all we know about truth. Justification is relative to an audience regarding truth-candidates, truth is not relative to anything. Just because it is not relative to anything, there is nothing to be said about it. Truth with a capital ’T’ is sort of like God. There is not much you can say about God. That is why theologians talk about ineffability, and that is why pragmatists tend to say that truth is indefinable. (Richard Rorty, Interview).

So where do we go from here? This is certainly an interesting conversation, but my question (and my source of unease) is whether is it a Quaker conversation? In other words, is some metaphysics (some big account  of truth and ‘reality’) needed for Quakers to be Quakers? Derek Guiton certainly think so but I wonder whether that’s right. Isn’t something more needed to be embedded in the Quaker Way? I think Rex Ambler says it best when he observes that, ‘(George Fox) was not…presenting a teaching that people were expected to believe or follow, whether mystical, biblical, or whatever. He was telling them rather to do something, because what they needed to make them free and fulfilled as human beings, `perfect’ was in them, and it was in them already without having to imbibe it from a church or teachings outside’. Rex’s point is a gentle rejoinder to those Friends who are tempted towards system-building or speaking apart from experience. The imperative to ‘do something’ should serve as an appropriate inoculant against getting caught up in alluring ‘isms’.  But what comes after ‘isms’?

Living Without the ‘Real’

Here’s a heretical thought; could Quakers live without talk of ultimate foundations? Could Friends live without what the professional philosophers call metaphysics? I think we can, if  ‘living without’ means acknowledging that there is no authentic place for we Quakers to stand, other than within our own story. I think we can live in this state of metaphysical suspension, precisely because it seems to fit with some of our long-standing Quaker convictions. Or to put it another way, Quakers (at least some of us) have been living without metaphysical foundations for ages. I submit that when early Quakers spoke of ‘the work of Christ within’, they were not attempting to offer a comprehensive philosophical vision of reality. They merely spoke from within the story they knew, and by trying to express it cogently and faithfully, they generated new meanings, interpretations and realities. Anything resembling philosophizing about the ‘real’ would have taken them away from their immediate story-shaped experience. As William Penn so beautifully put it:

[Religion] fell from experience to tradition, and worship from power to form, from life to letter; and, instead of putting up lively and powerful requests, animated by a deep sense of want and the assistance of the Holy Spirit–by which the ancients prayed, wrestled, and prevailed with God–behold a by-rote mumpsimus, a dull and insipid formality, made up of corporeal bowings and cringings, garments and furnitures, perfumes, voices, and music, fitter for the reception of some earthly prince than the heavenly worship of the one true and immortal God, who is an eternal, invisible Spirit. (Penn, No Cross, No Crown).

This is precisely what early Friends meant by ‘notions’; the cooling of insight into conception, and conception into structure. In this respect we can say that Penn is not interested in ‘metaphysics’ but in honing faithful practice. What Quaker convictions do, are more important than talk of philosophical foundations. Understood in such narrative terms, Pen’s denunciation of forms seems to offer a double challenge for contemporary Liberal Friends. Firstly, it challenges those who might think of themselves as ‘theist’ to disclose the sources of their language.  We are entitled to ask, ‘is your God-talk really Quaker’? Are such Friends worried about the God experienced in Meeting, or some general God, which is defended or lambasted in wider culture? Yet, a similar criticism can also be levied at those who identify as non-theist. Is the God-language the nontheist deny the same God-language used in our Book of Discipline? If the answer to this last question is no, it may raise further fundamental questions for Quaker non-theists.  In particular, it might cause us to wonder whether such Friends truly inhabit David’s postmodern humanism? Or are some still wedded to a modernist philosophical project of objectivity and progress? If the latter, these Friends might want to consider whether such presuppositions are actually getting in the way of living a coherent Quaker Way.  The suggestion at the heart of these interrogations is simply this. We need to return to our primary Quaker story.  The other side of this equation is the need to cast aside disputes and wrangles which emerge from outside our narrative.  The continuing problem I’ve observed among Friends is a confusion between foundations and roots. As Friends I don’t think we need foundations (we don’t need philosophical accounts of Quaker claims) but we do need roots. We need a strong sense of inner logic. We need to able to articulate why we worship together and why our worship takes the form it does. But that shouldn’t commit us to theism or its denial.