It Takes Guts to Believe that God Loves You

In a world characterised by so much brutality and suffering, it is a bold person who still asserts that human beings are ‘made in the image’ of a loving God. If there are marks of divinity in human beings, the deity in question appears to be terrifyingly cruel.  In 2015, the Los Angeles Times reported that scientists had uncovered what they described as ‘evidence of the earliest known murder among our ancestors’, with the implication that ‘interpersonal violence may be baked into the human experience’.  It came in the form of a grisly skull belonging to a hominid species much older than Neanderthals. The cranium showed signs of two repeated blows with the same implement, suggesting an ‘intent to kill’. These pre-historic remains hint at the dark possibility that the murder of Abel by Cain is emblematic of the human condition.  As the wars and genocides of the twentieth century conclusively proved, even with all our technology and education, we are frequently no better than that frightened ape that clubbed his enemy to death (although so much deadlier). As Sigmund Freud noted grimly in his essay Civilisation and Its Discontents (1929):

 Men are not gentle creatures, who want to be loved, who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbour is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus.

Yet, if “man is a wolf to man” (surely a slur on wolves?) how can that be reconciled with the human-positive language of the Gospel?  Are Freud’s ravenous apes the same creatures worthy of having their hairs counted by God (Matt. 10:30)? Are these monsters the same creatures of which God says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters” (2 Corinthians 6:18).  Are these designers of bombs and missiles really the meek sheep which Christ will gather back (Matt. 18:12–14)?  When we peer into ourselves the darkness can sometimes seem overwhelming. Often we feel trapped by our egotism and although we know what we should do, we often shudder at the prospect of doing it. We rather others died before we died to our own selves. As Paul put it:  ‘For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it’ (Romans 7:15-20). In Paul’s painful honesty, we readily see the processes of natural selection which have made us. We perceive the outworking of millions of years of biting, tearing and clawing.

In the face of this shattering reality, it is hard to believe that anything so vicious could be cherished by any Supreme Being worth its salt. Yet this is precisely what the Gospel tells us about ourselves. When God sees us, he does not perceive a violent primate, but sons and daughters, heirs, and princes.  He does not see our sins, but rather the Spirit of Christ at work in us. In other words, God always sees us through the eyes of mercy. In the face of all the wrong we commit (or ever will commit) God declares in grace: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool’ (Isaiah 1:18). The promise of Jesus is that God will not be pushed away.  The Cross and the Resurrection are signs of God’s ultimate refusal to give up on his creatures. Even when confronted with the roving spirit of Cain, God is not deterred by our coldness. He continues to wait and he continues to give. This is exciting and it is frankly scary. We are invited into a love we cannot earn, we cannot control and do not deserve by any human metric. This is the ‘ocean of light and love’ experienced by George Fox at his convincement, and it is the true reality of which Paul said, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers’ can bar us. Believing this promise of grace is the most radical act we can undertake. For once we hear and believe in that love which persists we can see beyond “fight and flight”, and all the ancient forces which keep us trapped in the past (both personal and collective).

What does such a graceful affirmation offer us? We can lift a sense of judgment from ourselves and by extension lift the burden of judgement from others. We can declare along with the Songs of Songs: “My beloved is mine and I am his” (2:16). In articulating this new status, we can begin to act like the cherished one we know we are.   Through the love freely offered us, we become capable of sharing love more abundantly with others. Once we recognise our identities as sons and daughters of a loving Father, we can be open to the riches of our inheritance. As Martin Luther once put it: “If I have sinned, yet my Christ, in whom I believe, has not sinned, and all his is mine and all mine is his”. But as the story of the Cross illustrates it takes guts to believe that God is love, because to do so calls into question the punitive behaviour which characterises our species- all our weapons, all our prisons and detention centres become shadows. God’s loving judgement, puts human judgements to shame.  But such a gift of escape may be too much for some to bear. Paul puts the challenge of this new nature provocatively when he tells the Church at Corinth:  “Do you not know that we will judge angels?” (1 Corinthians 6:2-3). Putting the issue more pointedly still, Athanasius said that, the Son of God became man so that we might become God.  We are earth-bound creatures of mud and blood, meant for eternity- a destiny we share with the whole of creation (Rev. 21).

What utterly scandalous suggestions! How could such weak and spiteful beings have sway over the powers of the invisible world? How can we become mirrors reflecting the nature of God? It is surely more realistic to return to the savage safety of the rules which made us:  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:19). It is this ethic of struggle that we hear in the voice of the High Priest of the Jerusalem Temple who fears what Jesus might do to his ordered world: “You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50). Or it put it another way, it is better that unruly love should be snuffed out than allow the anarchy of a perpetually giving God to recast the world. It is much easier to put this ceaseless love on trial and nail it to a cross than hear it and feel open to change. It is easier to follow the script of our evolution than concede the possibility that we nasty bipeds are meant to be a mirror of the Eternal, to be vessels for a reality that is just not like us.

Sometimes this refusal to accept the radical nature of grace becomes manifest in the way some Christians talk about God on the Cross. Instead of understanding the crucifixion as an outpouring of God’s love in the face of the wretchedness of the human situation, an emphasis is placed on stilling the anger of a righteous God, who must have satisfaction in blood. This theological reading is surely built on our ancient Reptilian brain; that part of ourselves which controls our aggressive instincts. Here, God, the bloodthirsty judge serves as a projection of our fears for survival. Someone must die so that we must live. In some theories of atonement, God’s Law is simply a refined version of our own longings for retribution against those who or put us in danger. But the Gospel repeatedly tries to push us beyond this reptilian apparatus by telling us that we must not return evil for evil and that peacemakers will be blessed. The Deity Christians worship is the arch offender against notions of natural justice. In his community, the first will be last and the last will be first, where rain is sent on ‘the just and the unjust alike’ (Matt. 5:45). The God of Jesus Christ is not a capricious sky Father filled with all our instinctual aggressions. The One loved by Israel, whom Jesus calls Father has come to save the world and not to condemn it. Yet there has been much copious theologising trying to blunt this fact. Grace perfects nature as the old Catholic theologians tell us, but invariably nature resists. We still want to believe that God plays by our rules of vindication and punishment, something the logic of grace denies. Our challenge is this. Are we prepared to see ourselves as God sees us or continue to be defined by our past? Grace is the key but will we open the door?

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

The ‘That of God’ Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The Implications of Liberal Quaker Theology

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

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

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

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

Recovering Heavenly Worship

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

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

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

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

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

William Penn Among the Stoics

William Penn and the Stoics

William Penn remains one of early Quakerism’s most vibrant thinkers. He not only applied Quaker principles to the tricky business of statecraft but synthesized the charismatic spirituality of the early 1640s with the intellectual impulses of the Restoration’s cultural elite. Among the most influential ingredients of this fusion was the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Rooted in the rich intellectual melting-pot of 4th century Athens, the Stoic School taught that the path to greatest happiness involved a life of contemplation, simplicity, and sobriety.  At the heart of these commitments was a firm belief that deep within each person there subsisted a divine spark of Reason which connected each creature to a Supreme Being.  We might say that Stoics felt called to live an ‘accompanied life’. A Stoic sage might be deprived of his possessions, thrown in prison, or be facing death, but he was never distant from the true non-material basis of his happiness, that is, the temple of the heart, where each person meets God. Thus, in a tone, familiar to many contemporary Quakers, the Stoic teacher Epictetus reflects in his Discourses: ‘When you close your doors and make darkness within, remember never to say that you are alone, for you are not alone; nay, God is within, and your genius is within. And what need have they of light to see what you are doing?’ (Book I, Ch. 14).

What did this ‘God within’ mean for Stoic attitudes about the outside world? Such an imminent theology rendered the universe a single city, with each member of that universal community holding equal citizenship. This latter belief generated a fascinating flip side to Stoic inwardness. While Stoic teachers emphasized the power of solitude and moderation, the best of the Stoics were actively involved in public affairs and the education of fellow citizens. For his sins, the Stoic sage Seneca the Younger (4 BCE– CE 65) was tutor to the troubled Roman emperor Nero, while Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) was himself a Roman emperor (one of Rome’s five Good Emperors) at a time when Rome’s imperial frontiers were beginning to crumble. While his rule could have come at an easier time, his reign is generally remembered by Latin historians as one of solid government, guided by moderation and justice. As the  Victorian critic, Matthew Arnold observed: ‘Marcus Aurelius has, for us moderns, this great superiority in interest over Saint Louis or Alfred, that he lived and acted in a state of society modern by its essential characteristics, in an epoch akin to our own, in a brilliant centre of civilization.’ These examples tell us much about the Stoic character. To be a sage was to live in the world (contribute to the building up of institutions)  but not ‘of the world’. Outward trouble could not blacken the pearl of the soul because the truly philosophical personality was always fed by deeper things than the lure of worldly success.

Image result for William PennEver the scholar, Penn took over this tradition in Christianised form, arguing that Quakers (‘primitive Christians revived’) were the true heirs of Stoicism. While never wavering from the orthodox contention that Jesus Christ was the supreme source of human salvation, like the Church Fathers, Penn argued that seeds of Divine Truth were scattered in the surviving works of pagan authors, including the Stoic sages. What particularly impressed Penn was the Stoic fusion of morality and cosmology. The Stoics (like the early Christians) had believed in a providential universe, in which each event was part of a preordained plan, devised by supra-natural law-giver. Virtue and life were interwoven, in such a vision, so that the man who lived by God’s laws, also lived in accordance with nature. As Penn notes in his 1673 apologetic Christian Quaker, the early Stoic Cleanthes is worthy of praise because he taught that ‘human happiness and virtue depends upon the close correspondence of the mortal mind with the divine will that governs the universe’ (VII). At the forefront of Penn’s mind was probably Cleanthes’ surviving hymn to Zeus, a text which beautifully expresses the Stoic doctrine of providence. Below is an extract:

Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God’s image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God’s universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.

What did Penn get from these sources? Primarily they enabled him to place Quakerism in the context of a long spiritual odyssey. Per this expansive reading of sacred history, Quakerism (as it appeared in late Stuart England) was not merely a provincial English invention, but the reappearance of an ancient wisdom revealed to all godly people in every epoch. Thus, when Seneca suggests in his Epistles that ‘a holy spirit indwells within us, one who marks our good and bad deeds, and is our guardian’ (Ep. 41.) Penn suggests that the philosopher is talking about the Light Friends experience in worship (Christian Quaker, XII). How did such pronouncements impact Penn’s Quakerism? Probably the most noteworthy footprint of this synthetic attitude can be observed in a little text of Penn’s called Some Fruits of Solitude (1682). Originally composed as an explanatory epistle for the education of Penn’s children, the text is constructed in the style of Stoic moral aphorisms, with highly reminiscent reflections on moderation and the virtues of the quiet life. In a passage (echoing Seneca’s recommendation against spending time in crowds) Penn writes:

The Country Life is to be preferr’d; for there we see the Works of God; but in Cities little else but the Works of Men: And the one makes a better Subject for our Contemplation than the other…. God’s Works declare his Power, Wisdom, and Goodness; but Man’s Works, for the most part, his Pride, Folly, and Excess. …The Country is both the Philosopher’s Garden and his Library, in which he Reads and Contemplates the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God… A Sweet and Natural Retreat from Noise and Talk, and allows opportunity for Reflection, and gives the best Subjects for it. (Fruits, 220-226).

 Some Stoic Texts

Image result for StoicismWhat significance might such philosophical connections have for Quakers today? Instead of offering further commentary, I want to share a few Stoic texts, which encapsulate the deep well of wisdom from which Penn drew. By coming to appreciate these sources, we can come, not only to appreciate these ‘Quakers before Quakerism’, but also understand the ways in which our own Quaker story liberally borrows from the stories of others.

Peace: Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Equality: But you are a superior thing; you are a portion separated from the deity; you have in yourself a certain portion of him. Why then are you ignorant of your own noble descent? Why do you not know whence you came? will you not remember when you are eating, who you are who eat and whom you feed? When you are in conjunction with a woman, will you not remember who you are who do this thing? When you are in social intercourse, when you are exercising yourself, when you are engaged in discussion, know you not that you are nourishing a god, that you are exercising a god? Wretch, you are carrying about a god with you, and you know it not. Do you think that I mean some God of silver or of gold, and external? You carry him within yourself, and you perceive not that you are polluting him by impure thoughts and dirty deeds. And if an image of God were present, you would not dare to do any of the things which you are doing: but when God himself is present within and sees all and hears all, you are not ashamed of thinking such things and doing such things, ignorant as you are of your own nature and subject to the anger of God. Epictetus, Discourses

Image result for Stoa Truth: Don’t concern yourself with your neighbours’ affairs or anything that distracts you from fidelity to Reason, it would be a loss of opportunity for some other task. Habituate your thinking so that if asked what you are thinking you could always respond honestly and without hesitation thus proving all your thoughts are simple and kindly and the type of thoughts that keep you unsullied and impervious to evil. You will be a competitor in the greatest of all contests, the struggle against passion’s mastery. And only concerns himself with the opinions of men who live in accord with Nature, all others he reminds himself of their characters and company they keep and their approval has no value for him. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Simplicity: Repellent attire, unkempt hair, slovenly beard, open scorn of silver dishes, a couch on the bare earth, and any other perverted forms of self-display, are to be avoided.  The mere name of philosophy, however quietly pursued, is an object of sufficient scorn; and what would happen if we should begin to separate ourselves from the customs of our fellow-men?  Inwardly, we ought to be different in all respects, but our exterior should conform to society.  Do not wear too fine, nor yet too frowzy, a toga.  One needs no silver plate, encrusted, and embossed in solid gold; but we should not believe the lack of silver and gold to be proof of the simple life.  Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve…. Philosophy calls for plain living, but not for penance, and we may perfectly well be plain and neat at the same time. This is the mean of which I approve; our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large; all men should admire it, but they should understand it also. Well then, shall we act like other men?  Shall there be no distinction between ourselves and the world? “Yes, a very great one; let men find that we are unlike the common herd if they look closely. If they visit us at home, they should admire us. rather than our household appointments, he is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver; but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware. From Seneca’s Epistles

Final Reflections: The Dignity of Contemplation

Image result for stoicismDoubtless, a closer appreciation of the relationship between Stoicism and Quakerism can still do for us what it did for Penn. Stoicism might help more insular Friends out of their spiritual shells a bit. By participating a generous dialogue with Stoic thought, we can set ourselves in a wider spiritual context, deeply ‘rooted in Christianity but open to new light’.  Stoicism teaches us that we are not alone on the spiritual quest and that wisdom has many watering holes.  But a revaluation of the role of Stoicism in Penn’s religious thought does something else as well. Today many British Quakers are orientated towards action out in the world through campaigns for peace and social justice.All this work is doubtless to the good, but there is always the danger that ‘good works culture’ leaves out vital spiritual skills that secretly sustain our witness.

Such is the frenzy of activity that some Friends find it increasingly hard to stand back and appreciate what Penn saw as ‘the fruits of solitude’. We have forgotten that introspection and self-examination (practiced by Friends in their early journals) are not spiritual luxuries, but necessary ingredients for a balanced Quaker life. For an activity to be meaningful it should be foregrounded in a prayerful attitude which is open to uncovering hidden depths in any given situation. Our work will not be useful to ourselves or others if it is ill-conceived or ill-directed. We need a stable base of composure in order to act properly. But on the back of this, Penn and Stoics teach us a further lesson. There is even dignity in contemplation (even of a highly philosophical variety, to which some ‘practical’ Friends are deeply averse). As the Stoics believed and Penn affirmed, there is no inherent contradiction between the discipline of introspection and public service. After all, it is by going within that we can see more clearly the shape of our lives and those places where the Spirit moves or is being denied. It is by stopping and dwelling in a state of thoughtful stillness that we can find the renewed energy to out into the world armed with our Testimonies. A life devoid of reflection is likely to render us reactive to events, rather than truly responsive to them. In such a disoriented state, we are liable to mistake immediate concerns for non-negotiable duties. Anyone who has had the misfortune of stumbling across my Facebook Page over the last few days can attest to this confusion. What with money and job worries (combined with Brexit, and Trump) I have been more than a little shrill.  Sometimes has been a genuine challenge for me to keep a sense of inner calm and maintain a degree of perspective. I live in one of the richest countries on earth, I am in no imminent danger of being homeless or going hungry. I have a mobile phone; a stable internet connection and friends close by. Things feel tougher than they should be, but aren’t they always? And what of the worries generated by social media and our television screens? As Marcus Aurelius puts the matter soberly: ‘Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.” It is for reasons of perspective that Advice 3 is such a precious reminder of what really matters: ‘Do you try to set aside times of quiet for openness to the Holy Spirit? All of us need to find a way into silence which allows us to deepen our awareness of the divine and to find the inward source of our strength. Seek to know an inward stillness, even amid the activities of daily life. Do you encourage in yourself and in others a habit of dependence on God’s guidance for each day? Hold yourself and others in the Light, knowing that all are cherished by God’. A wise advice which I aim to follow.

On Quakers and Demonology

The Problem of Demonic Presence

 In my previous post, I reflected on Quaker attitudes to the paranormal. In this post, I want to consider what Quakerism might have to say about demonology. In delving into this esoteric subject, I am mindful of C.S. Lewis’ cautionary warning at beginning of the Screwtape Letters, that “[there] are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the Devils. One is to disbelieve their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors, and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” I hope at the very least to avoid the error of the Magus, without denying the reader what I sense to be the coherent and distinctive nature of Quaker attitudes concerning demonological matters. At the core of this coherence is the suggestion that the category of ‘spiritual evil’ is not merely a fly in the ointment of an otherwise ‘good’ universe, but one means by which God achieves an abiding connection with His estranged creatures.  The ‘world of the demons’, can, if properly understood, be a conduit for divine purposes. This reading is by my own admission unconventional, drawing on sources other than Quaker tradition, yet I believe it makes sense of the deep structure of our Quaker Way.

At first glance, to say that ‘spiritual evil’ serves some higher good is a strange claim to make, particularly given the Quaker emphasis upon ‘Light overcoming darkness’. What can the category of the demonic possibly have to do with God?  Yet, as I attempt to show, Quaker reflections on the nature of evil, actively circumvent such assumed binaries, by incorporating these forces of darkness into the story of how a ‘good’ God is disclosed. This is perhaps an under-represented story, but if told carefully, can help Friends discover a richer vision of Quaker faith. Before rushing headlong into the question of the function of spiritual evil, let’s just take stock of what early Friends thought and experienced of the demonic.

George Fox and the Demons

When the twenty-something George Fox was brought to the depths of despair by the state of his soul, he sought for words which could give him both consolation and peace. He went from priest to priest and sect to sect, seeking a language of comfort but found nothing except vain ‘hot-air’. Like the equally troubled character of Holden in J.D. Salinger Catcher in the Rye, this young puritan felt surrounded by ‘phonies’- people who pretended to know what life was all about, but had barely scratched the surface. Those who pronounced ‘easy answers’, George found duplicitous and hypocritical, unable to ‘speak to his ‘condition’.  It was in the midst of this religious hall of mirrors that Fox first encountered ‘the world of the demons’. He felt his sense of confusion had a personality of its own, wholly independent of his own will. He felt strongly that this depression was actively tormenting him, probing him, forcing him to confront his sense of guilt and shame. He knew intuitively that this tormentor was the same dark adversary that Jesus had found in the Palestinian wilderness. As Fox recounted in his Journal:

 During the time I was at Barnet a strong temptation to despair came upon me. I then saw how Christ was tempted, and mighty troubles I was in. Sometimes I kept myself retired to my chamber, and often walked solitary in the Chase to wait upon the Lord….when Satan could not effect his design upon me that way, he laid snares and baits to draw me to commit some sin, whereof he might take advantage to bring me to despair. (George Fox, The Journal, Chapter 1).

A secular observer might call Fox a kind of compulsive depressive; a person trapped by an ever-morphing fear that they might do or experience the unthinkable. Yet, such a description could never have satisfied Fox, who found the reductionism of the physicians of his own age depressingly narrow. At one stage he was prescribed tobacco (presumably because of its beneficial effects on alertness and mood) yet he knew that his predicament was existential rather than solely temperamental. He did not need to be medicated against his blight, but must face it.  Did he have a theory of the adversary he was facing? Fox would probably have heard snippets about the nature of demonic powers from the folkish Christianity of his parents; as fallen angels, as the inflicters of disease, pain and death. He also learnt about them from his very close reading of Paul. The apostle had taught that at the crucifiction, a whole invisible community had been ‘disarmed’. Jesus had ‘made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross’ (Colossians 2:15). Yet, Fox was never a systematic thinker. He never developed a definitive account of evil, nor did he know the precise details of where these invisible adversaries had come from.  Fox knew about the Pauline world of ‘powers and principalities’, not by speculation, but directly through his own experience. He sensed that there were creatures who wholly delighted in dissension, cruelty and the obfuscation of truth. While God desired clear sight in the heart of all his creatures, demons wanted us trapped with them in a spiritual hall of mirrors.

From Darkness to Light

How did Fox emerge from this tunnel of anguish and uncertainty? Eventually his sense of inward dislocation reached breaking point. Yet, as his temptations grew and his helplessness increased, he began to hear afresh the story of Jesus contest with Satan, and actively apply this narrative to his own situation:

When I myself was in the deep, shut up under all, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted. But when Christ opened to me how He was tempted by the same devil, and overcame him and bruised his head, and that through Him and His power, light, grace, and Spirit, I should overcome also, I had confidence in Him; so He it was that opened to me when I was shut up and had no hope nor faith (George Fox, The Journal, Chapter 1)

Jesus showed Fox that whatever devices the Powers threw at him, he could resist them; not by pulling himself up by his own boot-straps but by surrendering to the sense of desolation he felt, and handing this over to something beyond the closed world of the self.  And it was at that moment, Fox tells us, that he had his spiritual breakthrough:

I saw into that which was without end, things which cannot be uttered, and of the greatness and infinitude of the love of God, which cannot be expressed by words. For I had been brought through the very ocean of darkness and death, and through and over the power of Satan, by the eternal, glorious power of Christ; even through that darkness was I brought, which covered over all the world, and which chained down all and shut up all in death. The same eternal power of God, which brought me through these things, was that which afterwards shook the nations, priests, professors and people (Fox, The Journal, Chapter 1).

Finally, he found words to salve him, not in human institutions or systems, but through a tranquil secret voice, which offered him a redemptive language to live by. Yet, it was his demonic confrontation, which had led him there.  He had to, as he says, to be ‘brought through’. What Fox is describing here is not a haphazard experience, but a process. It was only by reaching down into the depths of despair that Fox was able to discover the ‘inward light’. This connection between light and darkness is at the very centre of Fox’s early mystical vision. They existed together in a single journey of faith. In this respect there is no such thing as ‘cheap grace’ in Fox.  Discerning the love of God was frequently a rough slog and required moving through darkness. As Advices and Queries put it vividly: ‘Take heed, dear Friends, to the promptings of love and truth in your hearts. Trust them as the leadings of God whose Light shows us our darkness and brings us to new life’ (QF&P 1.2.).

Goethe and Jung: Renewal through Darkness

What implications might this mingling of light and darkness have for a Quaker conception of the spiritual world? It certainly does not imply the acceptance of a grim medieval demonology, the kind explored chillingly in William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. Here demonic forces appear to loom almost larger than the power of God. This was always the spiritual failure of the Medieval imagination, a failure which early Friends rallied against. To present the devil merely as a ravening wolf, allowed to run amok in God’s own backyard, appeared to make Satan more active than the Spirit of Christ. While Fox, along with many other early Friends, performed exorcisms, they did so as a vindication of the complete and unbreakable love of God. When Jesus spoke, the demons obeyed; early Friends in this respect, took the New Testament record at face value. It was perfectly natural therefore that that light and dark belonged together as portals into New Life. By commanding the demons, Jesus had disclosed the power God; he had accomplished the will of his Father. By going to the Cross, the Powers thought they had won. In fact, the desolation of Golgotha merely disclosed their role in a pre-set script. Even Judas (who according some of the New Testament writers was a Satanic agent) contributes towards the achievement of what God has decreed, that “[the] Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Luke 9:22).

According to this reading the demons could obey God whether they wanted to or not; his will would be done ‘on earth as in heaven’. In like manner, George Fox’s own inward struggle, brought him, not estrangement from God, but brought him back to God.  The inward wounds inflicted upon him in the end brought healing. Here we see preserved in an insight communicated time and time again by great mystics, poets and intellects through the ages; that the forces of darkness can and do serve God. As the prophet Isaiah puts it: ‘I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things’ (Isaiah 45:7). This is a strange and unsettling idea, but it makes sense of Fox’s suffering and redemption. Darkness and desolation was what was required for Fox’s awakening. In this sense, are the demons not part of God’s will?

How do we make sense of this strange idea? While composing these reflections, two figures came to mind, which might help us navigate these peculiar waters- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) and Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961). Both men articulated an ingenious conception of the spiritual world, one which recognized that the demonic never departs from some greater Providence. For Goethe, Satanic adversity always possessed something of the stinging gadfly, which had the capacity to awaken human spiritual longings.  Goethe expresses this beautifully in The Prologue in Heaven, found in Faust, Part I. In conversation with the demon Mephistopheles, God gives him permission to tempt Faust on the grounds that adversity from temptation, will eventually lead the errant doctor back to God:

Your kind and you I’ve never hated,
Of all the spirits who me deny,
The rogue by me the least is rated.
The deeds of men are easily put to sleep,
They love their undisturbéd rest.
That’s why I give them over to his keep,
Who as the devil puts them to the test.

Even though devil may lead humans to confusion, Goethe’s God declares, ‘A good man, in spite of iniquity’s force, Will find the path to truth before he’s quit.’ Here the devil is the secret and unwitting companion, working for human good, even if he professes to be doing the opposite. Indeed, when asked by Faust to identify himself, Mephistopheles declares, “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.” Jung put flesh on the bones of this conception through a lifetime of contemplation and analytic psychological work. As a young boy Jung, like Fox, had experienced his own sense of inner darkness- a fear that he might commit some terrible blasphemy. Yet, this dark cloud eventually lifted, as he gave up the struggle against his fear. As Jung recounts,

I gathered all my courage as though I were about to leap forthwith into hell-fire, and let the thought come.  I saw before me the cathedral, the blue sky, God sits on His throne, high above the world – and from under the throne an enormous turd falls upon the sparkling new roof, shatters it, and breaks the walls to the cathedral asunder (Dreams, Memories and Reflections,  p. 56).

CGJung.jpg

But what did this image mean? As Jung concluded later ‘nature was nothing other than the will of the Creator. Nor did it help to accuse the devil, for he too was a creature of God. God alone was real- annihilating fire and  an indescribable grace’ (p. 74).  In this way, for Jung God possessed a terrible beauty, which embraced all that was shadowy, desolate and despairing, as well as all that was sublime. The God that declared the glory of the world at the creation, was the same God that cried in Gethsemane. Goethe was right said Jung, ‘At last I had found confirmation that there were or had been people who saw evil and its universal power, and- and more important- the mysterious role it played in delivering man from darkness and suffering’ (p. 78). Yet if the demons have a role to play in the awakening of human souls (as they do in many of the Gospel accounts) then will the demons themselves be redeemed? Fox’s creedal Barbados letter of 1671 does not exactly sound a hopeful note on this point:

We believe that he (Jesus) alone is our Redeemer and Saviour, even the Captain of our Salvation, who saves us from sin, as well as from hell, and the wrath to come, and destroys the devil and his works; he is the Seed of the woman, that bruises the serpent’s head, to wit, Christ Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last.

Elsewhere in the letter Fox tells us that unrepentant souls will join Satan in a perpetual lake of fire. Hints concerning the final fate of the demons, bring us back full circle to Lewis. For it is on the question of finality that the paths of Fox and this austere Anglican apologist cross. For Lewis, there are some choices which cannot be undone. Indeed, there are ‘final’ choices. As Lewis writes in the introduction to The Great Divorce ‘[a] sum can be put right: but only by going back until you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot ‘develop’ into good.’ Choices cannot be erased at some ‘end’, or over time, says Lewis. Something is either embraced or rejected. And choices eventually become fixed. As one of Lewis’ characters in the same text notes,

“it begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no ‘you’ left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”

Presumably for Lewis the demons are just arid reflections of this same process; demons are creatures which are now captured by their dissidence. They have given a ‘no’ to God and are now mere figments of their negation. Yet, despite these stern statements, as a Quaker I hold out hope for the majestic doctrine of the Church Father, Origen of Alexandria. Distressed by the thought that any of God’s creatures should know perpetual punishment, Origen argued that God would take even the most reprobate demon to Himself. Consequently, he suggested:

[The] destruction of the last enemy must be understood in this way, not that its substance which was made by God shall perish, but that the hostile purpose and will which proceeded, not from God but from itself, will come to an end. It will be destroyed, therefore, not in the sense of ceasing to exist, but of being no longer an enemy and no longer death. For to the Almighty nothing is impossible, nor is anything beyond the reach of cure by its maker. Peri Archon 3.6.5 (trans. Marguerite Harl, Gilles Dorival, and Alain Le Boulluec. Paris, p.67)

As a peculiar people who wait for God’s kingdom of peace, do we have space in our hearts for the demons, who perhaps are trapped in their own hall of mirrors? Can we hope openly and honestly for peace between all of God’s creatures? Might Jesus also say of the demons, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”?

The Uncanny in Our Religious Life and the Future of Quakerism

We cannot use electric lights

File:Rudolf Bultmann Portrait.jpgThe great Liberal theologian Rudolf Bultmann once expressed the key dilemma of modern Christianity like this: ‘We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament’. Such wonder world included for Bultmann the domain of ghosts, angels  and ultimately a man rising from the dead. We can find meaning in various religious words and metaphors which have endured. We might even, suggests Bultmann, discover profound existential uplift (a series of meaningful personal symbols) in these stories. But we cannot believe in them, in the same way that we believe in radio waves, dishwashers and wifi. Yet, despite Bultmann’s protestations about modernity, this, phrase of human development continues to pass many by. A cursory glance at the Body Mind and Spirit section of one’s local bookshop confirms that there are lots of people who use antibiotics, iPads and microwave ovens, who at the same affirm a world which includes faith healing, channeling, spirit-guides and automatic writing. Such people (including many Friends) may function as rational-agnostic beings for much of their lives, but they still need a language and a practice to express, ‘the mysterious’, the initiative and the uncanny. Regardless of the extent to which we take these individual phenomena seriously, they speak to a spiritual condition far more complex than Bultmann allows. This has been confirmed to me personally many times. Again and again I’ve had the same conversation. After Meeting, a Friend confides in me that they are learning Reiki, using Tarot cards or believe in angels. Yet, they do so in a cursive, embarrassed or hesitant tone. Why? The fact that these quiet confidences remain at the edge of Meeting life and not at the centre, suggests that there is insufficient soil in our Quaker community for such experiences to grow and deepen through our Worship and theology.

Confronting the Uncanny

What is blocking some Friends from bringing these extra-Quaker experiences into the full light and love of Meeting? I suspect that some of this has to do with a loss of confidence in our own Quaker language. No longer have we an adequate spiritual vocabulary for talking about Providence, spirits, grace or presence (whether divine, angelic or demonic). We have in other words, bought into a wider secular culture, which is suspicious of anything extra-sensory, weird or unquantifiable. We have self-censored our Quakerism without necessarily realizing it- leaving those who are having intense spiritual experiences, to look for concepts from elsewhere. Yet, such a reduction of our Quaker speech comes with the danger of a kind of generalized spiritual impoverishment. It may leave us unable to understand things holistically in our Quaker terms.

Such impoverishment was recently illustrated by a a F/friend who told me that staff at a Quaker institution of her acquaintance (who felt they were subject to a haunting) had requested that a priest be sent for to perform an exorcism. This set me off thinking about the extent to which Liberal Quakerism acts like Bultmann’s vision of the rational modern religion per excellence and about whether a significant minority of Friends are actually in a different place. Individual Quakers may have profound, sometimes disturbing spiritual experiences, yet they feel they do not have the home-grown language to express it. To make up the gap they may delve into the language and practices of New Age, Theosophic or Spiritualist movements, or in the case of the Friends mentioned, request help from another Christian denomination. Why the lack of confidence among those Friends to talk in Quaker terms about the paranormal?

In part I think such silence can be rooted in many of the internal transformations which occurred in Western Quakerism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The American Quaker Rufus Jones (perhaps ‘the father’ of our modern pluralistic Quakerism) hoped to recast an insular, peculiar pietist sect (18th century Friends) into a group of liberal mystical Christians, who combined transcendental wisdom and religious rationalism with social action. As Jones noted in an article in 1922: ‘We assume that [mysticism] is for saints or apostles, but not for common everyday people like ourselves. Well, that is where we are wrong’. Quakerism for Jones was that perfect balance between what he called ‘transcendent reality’ and the everyday. Yet in brokering this settlement, much was rejected from Jones vision of Quakerism. Not merely were piestic and Evangelical currents largely abandoned, many early currents of Quakerism were also jettisoned. These included early Quaker references to faith healing through touch, a belief in divinely inspired visions, as well as the existence of angelic and demonic presences. Their rejection was understandable. They did not fit with the synthesis of mysticism and activism, indeed they probably appeared positively bizzare and folkish to the high-minded Jones.

Consequently, these features are explained psychologically or simply played down in Jones’ own assessment of George Fox’s life. This was a culmination of a process which had been underway, at least since the publication of Fox’s Journal. British Friends have always been somewhat uneasy about Fox the charismatic faith-healer, prophet and vision-quester. Jones merely provided an appreciate framework to enshrine such reticence. What were the long term consequences of this framework? Ultimately, such an emphasis could be argued to have denied Friends a language to address issues of strange and the arcane. This gap is most apparent when individual Friends face death and bereavement. How should we face death when the focus of our Quaker language is focused on the Kingdom here and now? What does death mean for the future of the self? What do we do when we sense that those who have died are still with us? But there are other awkward questions prompted by our gap in vocabulary. How do we talk about radical evil? While contemporary Friends acknowledge the healing power of the Light, how do we articulate those experiences of ‘something’ which opposes the Light? In previous generations Friends could have talked about ‘testing the spirits’, even the demonic. Yet, how do we express such experiences today?

Breaking Out of an Agnostic Box

Some of these thorny questions find expression in a series of umbrella groups within Britain Yearly Meeting including The Quaker After-Life Studies Group, The Friends Fellowship of Healing, and Experiments with Light Groups. The first grouping is significant for it demonstrates a key element of a Quaker faith living after Liberalism; an active disavowal of the silencing effect of a normative agnosticism. If Liberal Quakerism aspired to a respectable mysticism and a religious rationalism (one which banished the weird and the wonderful) Q.A.L is actively intent on breaking down the taboos concerning death and the afterlife which such liberal religion engenders. As the Group’s website notes:

The Quaker After-Life Studies Group (formed in July 2000) aims to open up discussion of death and immortality, which current Quakerism hardly tolerates, although many passages in Quaker Faith and Practice testify to its importance. Such discussion can draw on spiritual writings from early Christian times onwards, as well as evidence from Spiritualism and the psychic experiences of gifted individuals. We would like to see the growth of an atmosphere in the Society of Friends in which an open and sympathetic attitude allows those with experience or concerns in these areas to speak to Friends about them, and to minister in Meeting for Worship if called to do so. See https://quakerafterlifestudies.wordpress.com/

If the first group breaks down secular surveillance of soul-language and death, the latter two groups generate points of resistance to the reduction of human experience to mere psychology or existential uplift. Both these groupings have sought to recover and sustain charismatic traditions of intense inward experience as well as physical faith-healing within a Yearly Meeting where such a perspective is hardly common currency. As the Fellowship defines inspiration of its membership: ‘people nowadays feel the inspiration to offer `hands-on’  or contact healing, and, following the example of George Fox and other early Friends (members) are led to offer their time and service to others’. A similar emphasis upon charismatic gifts is noted by Damaris Parker-Rhodes in Quaker Faith and Practice itself:

Power of the inner kind increases with use. It is not unusual for telepathy to develop between those who are close to each other in love. Again, prayer groups increase prayer power, and as the bonds of friendship and trust develop, charismatic healing gifts arise. This type of spiritual study and prayer fellowship has been the most precious part of my life for many years. Such groups sustain and bind people together so that when one falls ill, feels depressed or suffers a bereavement, he or she may count upon the friendship of the others. It is this kind of relationship, where there is both giving and receiving at an inner level, which sometimes extends beyond the grave (QF&P, 2.80).

Here we see a new spiritual/subjectivist narrative running contrary to the secularizing trend of latter-day Liberal Quakerism.  In Parker-Rhodes description there is a space not merely for faith-healing and prayer but the possibility of a form of relationship with those beyond death. Instead of seeking, rationalist, reductive or empirical explanations for their experience, such Friends seek personal and supra-natural justifications for the religious life. Might these groups offer us a path beyond the silences of 20th century Liberal Quakerism? Only time will tell of course, but a recovery of the Quaker sense of a ‘charged’ world (a world of presence and deep power) has the potential of allowing us to bypass our wordlessness when confronted with the deathly, the spiritual and the occult. We might again be able to recognize the spiritual dimensions of disease and illness as our ancestors did. We may also recover the ability to speak more openly about our mortality and what lies beyond it, without anxiety or embarrassment. We may even recover a capacity to talk with confidence about that which seemingly obstructs the Light in ourselves and others without needing help from other spiritual communities. Thus, our Quaker Renewal could mean more than an attentiveness to the Biblical roots of our story, or an exploration of Theism, but involve a concerted effort to question the assumptions of a civilization which attempts to bracket out the uncanny from our lives. Where might this more holistic, less censored road might lead, is in the end up to us. But one thing seems certain, it is likely to energize and unsettle us in equal measure.