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

The Meaning of the Secular

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

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

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

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

Telling a Sacred Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  Not Anti-reality, But Holistic Reality

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[4] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  35.

[5] Taylor, A Secular Age, p.  32.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[22] Hildegard Book of Divine Works, ibid

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

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

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

[26] Hildegard, Scivias, p. 128

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

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

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

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).

The Theological Politics of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Over the last few decades the Star Wars films have been part of a burgeoning industry of ‘pop apologetics’ in Christian periodicals. The recurrent motifs of temptation, fall and redemption have led some to assume that Lucas’ vision of conflict in a galaxy, far, far away, relies on an intrinsically Christian anthropology.

Over the last few decades, the Star Wars films have been part of a burgeoning industry of ‘pop apologetics’ in Christian periodicals. The recurrent motifs of temptation, fall and redemption have led some to assume that Lucas’ vision of conflict in a galaxy, far, far away, relies on an intrinsically Christian anthropology. As Joel Hodge  has reflected in a recent article in the Washington Post the mythic structure of the first and second trilogies are seemingly hospitable to Christian concepts not only of sin, but also forgiveness. Noting the restorative conduct of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi, Hodge suggests:

In a parallel way to humanity in the Christian story, Vader falls and cannot find his way out of the dark side – “You don’t know the power of the dark side! I must obey my Master,” he says to Luke. Yet, Vader is eventually redeemed, though not through his own power or by his manipulation of the Force, but through his son, Luke Skywalker. In the same moment, the Force is purified of evil.

Seekers after explicitly theological motifs may also look approvingly on the battle between the New Republic and the First Order. Here, the world is clearly divided between the followers of Light and Darkness. The films do not dice with ambiguity or relativism. We are confronted with clear factions with clearly defined motives. There is no question that we should see the conflict from the standpoint of Sith, nor is there any question that the New Republicans are in the right. The moral absolutism of the films, say the apologists, proves that Star Wars is really an exploration of an eternal moral order (read Plato and Aquinas) and the struggle of the human to remain faithful to that order (read Paul and Augustine at their absolute grimmest). Yet, if we look carefully at the most recent installment of the saga, we can see that in no abiding sense does Star Wars derive its structure from the Jewish/Christian story. Indeed, one could go as far as suggesting that it represents a mythic counter narrative to that story.

Take a key element of The Force Awakens, praised by both critics and fans; its subtle mirroring of the landscapes and aesthetics of New Hope. From the barren desert plant to a droid on the run with vital information, we are constantly being drawn back into the world of Episode IV. What does this tell us about the Star Wars universe? Principally, that the cosmos of George Lucas (reimagined by J.J. Abrams) is structurally pagan in the tragic Greek sense. In the experience of these forebears of ours the world and its meaning constituted a closed system, because there was never anything genuinely new. One could never escape an eternal chain of causality; one could only repeat the designs of Fate. What then of history? To the Hellenistic mind, the course of events were always cyclical; with the present always mirroring the past and past always mirroring the future. One achieves consolation in this world not by looking for the new, but rather by harmonizing oneself with the eternal verities of the world. The Jedis are the absolute epitome of this philosophy, so popular in our own era of ‘pop Buddhism’ and Self-Help sages. Here Religiosity involves a Stoical act of surrender to the way ‘things are’ rather than breaking free of anything. This cyclical cosmos is even at work in the film’s chief antagonist and rebel Kylo Ren. His life is not one of self-chosen malevolence, but the outworking of a particular past, namely the temptation and fall of Anakin Skywalker. As Kylo Ren admits himself (while standing before the charred remains of Vader’s mask), “Nothing will stand in our way. I will finish what you started.” Ren is but a pawn in a larger drama. Like the Greek anti-hero, he cannot go beyond the confines of his destiny.

What should be made of this dramatic scheme? While there are doubtless some readings of the Christian story which attempt to link the life and Resurrection of Jesus with some anodyne replay of the past, I think Paul Tillich called it right when he said that Christianity is fundamentally concerned with Christ, the New Being. The central thing about Christian faith (something noted again and again by the Apostle Paul) is that while Christianity is a creature of prophecy, nothing fully predicted God’s work in Jesus. The Messiah as ‘God made flesh’ is a scandal which furthers the mythic reorientation of Israel, first undertaken by the Hebrew prophets. In the deity who paradoxically declares, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” and yet sacrifices Himself- God lays bare his solidarity Israel and the world. Here divine power is revealed not in heroic strength but in the subversion of what is weak and lowly. Thus, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowds are expecting him to follow a prescribed narrative of the Davidic King, yet he manifestly refuses this narrative logic. His parousia is not imperial- it does not seek armies, victories or political mastery. Rather, it seeks to reveal God’s concern for the lives of people trying to survive. The King-Messiah is transformed in the unpredictable hands of Jesus into anointed healer and prophet. Even at his death people were trying to place Jesus in this same narrative box, albeit mockingly, by nailing the notice “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” above his cross. Jesus’ outward failure in the eyes of the world is ultimately one narrative unconformity. The people who cried, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (Jn. 1:46) could extricate themselves from the heroic  tales of old. They could not look beyond the surety of the cynical voice in Ecclesiastes which declares, ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun’ (1.9).

The same people could not understand how such a seemingly powerful figure had allowed himself to be executed, grumbling, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:40). Behind such remarks is doubtless a sense of narrative betrayal. How could it end like this? Humiliation and  desolation were definitely not meant to be part of the plot. This sense of incredulity is preserved in the post-Resurrection scenes of Jesus opening the eyes his disciples to the presence of their Master’s life and death in the Hebrew Scriptures: ‘At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him’ (Jn 12:16). They could not be led there on their own; they needed the shattering presence of Jesus (that utterly New Being) to do it. Yet the narrative scandal of Jesus could never be confined to the world of ancient Palestine, but also  had the potential to transform an entire culture regimented and scared by the story of Rome and her empire. This shattering power is first glimpsed in the Gospel itself. When the Centurion looks up at the dying body of Jesus he breaks through the conventional reading of this man, by declaring, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mk. 15:39). Such a redescription fundamentally challenged the Imperial cosmology of Rome. In the midst of deathless Olympian deities (who were said to delight in their own perfection), a helpless and dying man becomes a perverse figure of theophany. Nothing could be newer, nothing could be stranger. There is nothing like this in the on-screen universe of Star Wars.

Yet if The Force Awakens fails to encapsulate the radical narrative logic of Christianity, it also fails to grasp a truly Christian conception of peace. At its heart the cosmology of the Jedi is Manichean and not Christian. According to the religion of the Force, the world is divided between two equal and opposite forces of light and darkness. We are never given the sense that this is a temporary standoff (awaiting a final liberation) but a permanent reality. All that can be hoped for is a balance of power; an equilibrium of hostile parties in the context of a cyclical cosmos. There is no evidence that the Jedi can finally undo the Sith, nor that the tools of violence can ever be exchanged for those of peace. There is no triumphant Mount Zion in the prophecies of the Jedi. There is no Isaiah, calling for the renunciation of the tools of war. Instead there is the watchword of American democracy: Eternal vigilance. This implicit theme of perpetual violence is given expression not only in the Jedi valorisation of ‘balance’ but in the political goals of The First Order who oppose them. As Kylo Ren notes in Alan Dean Foster’s novelization of the film:

The task of the First Order [is] to remove the disorder from our own existence, so that civilization may be returned to the stability that promotes progress. A stability that existed under the Empire, was reduced to anarchy by the Rebellion, was inherited in turn by the so-called Republic, and will be restored by us. Future historians will look upon this as the time when a strong hand brought the rule of law back to civilization.

Here, we are offered two options: the ‘balance’ of the Jedi (the administration of democracy by a military aristocracy) or a tyrannical order, where democracy is suspended, but organized violence still remains. In both cases, there is no option to cease the enactment or preparation for war. Indeed, it is the threat of violence which give both the Jedi and the First Order their identity. Nothing could be a greater inversion of the politics of Christianity. At the heart of the Christian revelation is the ultimate triumph of goodness and peace over the forces of war and violence. The cross is the ultimate rebuke to those who would have us believe that peace is established through force. Rather, ultimate peace is always a work of sacrificial love. This is not merely a pleasant platitude for the Christian, but always refers to an ontological reality- what Hauerwas calls ‘the grain of the universe’. Augustine, in his conflict with a dying dualistic paganism, concluded that evil was not a force in its own right, but a deprivation of ultimate good. Such a declaration (although Platonic in garb) was meant to guard the hard won Jewish/Christian claim that creation is good and it is meant for a reign of peace and justice.

When we refuse this reality (replacing it with a stale dualism) we labour under a lie, the fruit of which can only be a kind of  trudging futility. All we can do is fend off the worst, in the hope that some restbite can be established. It is here that the Star Wars offers a mirror into the narrative impoverishment of our own post-Christian culture. It is impoverished because it is deeply conservative. Our tired liberal democracies (wearied and compromised by the last century) now desire balance, if not stasis, at the expense of some of their highest ideals. From the peculiarly termed ‘war on terror’ to the abuses of Guantanamo Bay, our liberal global order is slowly beginning to accept that violence and domination are the unquestioned currencies of both political and social life. The world of Star Wars is a cultural symptom of this general acceptance. The Jedi may be noble yet their commitment to balance does nothing to alter the supremacy of violence. This is rooted in what we might call their spirited liberalism.

Such political minds want to be ‘useful’, ‘humanitarian’, ‘just’ but above all they want to be good rulers. It is this last motive which make both they and liberal Democrats stumble. In their eagerness to run civilized life (to initiate some improvement or social reform) the liberal’s talk of peace takes second place to order. This might be pragmatic, expedient or realistic, but it is not Christian. Indeed as Terry Eagleton has recently noted, ‘the New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a ‘civilised’ document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus. Since it holds that such values are imminently to pass away, it is not greatly taken with standards of civic excellence or codes of good conduct. What it adds to common or garden morality is not some supernatural support but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities.’  If we want a Republic without the return of violence (some Darth Vader rising from the ashes) we must relinquish all attempts to be conventionally useful or noble-especially if that means any resort to violence.This kind of relinquishment is the first step in understanding what Jesus meant by the Kingdom. His polis does not represent some delicate balance between the light and dark, but as the Creeds put it, belongs to ‘the true God, light of light’.