April 6, 2014

Only Love Remains

But whoever has this world’s goods, sees his brother in need, and closes off his compassion from him, how is the love of God in him? My little children, may we be loving not in word nor in tongue but in act and in truth. — 1 John 3:17-18


At Homewood Friends Meeting recently, I offered vocal ministry based on a popular passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. A slightly edited transcription of that ministry is offered here, followed by brief commentary. I conclude the post with my rendering of 1 Corinthians 13 (in which the influence of that passage on James Nayler’s dying statement, quoted in the previous post, is evident).

This morning, we were discussing the Baltimore Yearly Meeting vision statement. A vision statement can be a useful thing, and we are grateful to those Friends who have worked to produce one for the yearly meeting. But thinking about such statements leads me to reflect on what is fundamental for us as Friends, and that leads me to the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

Paul would tell us that we may have our vision statements, our declarations of faith and practice, our testimonies and public witness, but if we have not love, then all of that is as “sounding brass or clanging symbol”: empty noise, much ado about nothing.

Or by nothing. For nihilism is not not believing in God; it is not loving. We may have manifest spiritual gifts, Paul says; we may experience the divine mystery; we may have faith so strong that it actually moves mountains: nonetheless, if we are not loving, then we are nothing.

And indeed Paul concludes that of the three great gifts of abiding value – faith, hope, and love — “the greatest of these is love.” For faith and hope come to an end, “but love never fails.”

For Paul, faith and hope would come to an end very soon, when, at the eschaton, God would be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28): “For when the fulfillment is come, then that which was partial shall be done away” (13:10). At that time, or end of time, only love — being, as John teaches, the nature of God, in which the saints share — would remain. But today we know that Paul’s expectation of God’s imminent kingdom, an expectation which he seems to have shared with Jesus and his disciples, was mistaken. Injustice, horror, and death have not been vanquished; the “new heavens and new earth in which justice dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13) have not appeared. The possibility of faith and hope as Paul understood them is ended for us not by the eschaton but by its failure.

But for us, too, love does not fail. We do not need theistic faith, nor do we need hope for a new world, in order to love. Love is the ground of our identity-in-relationship. It does not require confidence or even “hope against hope” (Rom. 4:18) that suffering will end in order to respond to the suffering of beings: it subsists in that response. And if love counts the cost, that is in order to pay it, for love has its own wisdom and is its own reward. Faith and hope may have been “done away” by the unyielding reality of history, but the love in which they were rooted is the meaning and motive power of the deeply human life. Love never fails.

1 Corinthians 13 – on love (agapē)

If ever I may be speaking the tongues of human beings or of angels and yet am not loving, I am as a sounding gong or clanging cymbal. And though I may have the gift of prophecy, and experience every divine mystery, and have such faith that I can move mountains, yet if I am not loving I am nothing. And even if I am parceling out all my belongings and giving my body to be burned, if I am not loving it helps me not at all.

Love is being patient and kind. Love is not being envious. Love is not bragging or being puffed up. It is not behaving unbecomingly, or seeking that of self, or being incensed, or taking account of others’ evil. Love is not rejoicing at injustice, but is rejoicing together with truth. It is bearing all, trusting all, hoping all, enduring all.

Prophecies will be discarded; languages will cease; knowledge will be annulled: but love never fails. For our knowledge and prophecy are partial, but when the fulfillment is come, then the partial will be done away. When I was a child, I talked as a child, I felt as a child, and I thought as a child, but having become a man I have abandoned that of childhood. At present we are seeing obscurely, as in a metal mirror, but then we shall see face to face. At present I am learning to know in part, but then I shall know thoroughly even as I am known. Meanwhile, these three — faith, hope, and love — continue, but the greatest of these is love.

March 8, 2014

The Power of Suffering Love: James Nayler and Robert Rich

The following is a revised and expanded version of an essay I published originally in 1996 on the Quaker Electronic Archive site. I am publishing it here in hopes of making the story more widely known.

Nayler's entry into Bristol

The Christian scriptures report that Jesus once entered Jerusalem seated upon an ass, with people laying their cloaks before him and chanting “Hosanna!”1 I doubt that we’ll ever know whether that story records an actual event or is simply an expression of the faith of some of Jesus’ followers. We do know, however, that a similar scene took place in England many centuries later, when the Quaker James Nayler, one of the most influential and beloved of the first group of Quaker ministers, entered the town of Bristol on horseback as chanting people spread their scarves upon the ground. It may be that, as some have asserted, Nayler’s act was the result of delusion and megalomania. I suggest, however, that Nayler was engaging in a bit of “street theater” to demonstrate the fundamental Quaker experience that the same Spirit which was in Jesus and his disciples is available to us today — that, in other words, “sacred history” is not so much the story of a golden age in the past but what we do here and now: “the Kingdom of God is within and among you.”2 I think that Nayler’s behavior afterwards supports that hypothesis, but I recognize that, as with the story about Jesus, questions about his demonstration will always linger.

The English authorities, however, did not pause to ask questions. Nayler and his associates were immediately arrested. Nayler was charged with blasphemy, a serious offense.

After debate, the Parliament sentenced Nayler to severe penalties. He would be pilloried in Westminster and then whipped through the streets on his way to the pillory at the Old Exchange in London, receiving in the process three hundred and eleven lashes. Then, after being pinned in the pillory for two more hours, he would be bound upright to it, his tongue would be bored through with a hot poker, and he would be branded on the forehead with the letter “B” for “blasphemer.” He would then be taken back to Bristol and set upon a horse, riding bareback and facing backward, after which he would be removed from the horse, stripped, and scourged on his way to imprisonment at hard labor. As he was being led away after hearing the sentence pronounced, Nayler was heard by one of his enemies to say, “The Lord lay not these things to your charge. I shall pray heartily that he may not.”

Some people wondered why an apparently deluded Quaker was worth so much time and trouble. Some were surprised, too, by the severity of the sentence and its being imposed before petitions for leniency were read. No doubt there were political motives behind the Parliament’s decision, and at least some legislators seem to have believed that Nayler was the principal leader of the Quaker movement. Quakers, however, including George Fox, disowned Nayler publicly and emphatically after his arrest at Bristol, leaving him largely alone in his suffering. But not everyone abandoned him. The response of his most steadfast friend, Robert Rich, has always moved and inspired me.

Rich, a businessman with much to lose, did not hesitate to act on Nayler’s behalf. He boldly wrote to the Parliament in defense of Nayler, arguing that Nayler’s act had not been blasphemous. He offered to meet with the legislators and prove Nayler’s innocence by scripture; it is not recorded that any member of the Parliament accepted the invitation. After the first public flogging, which Nayler underwent with Christ-like meekness, others joined Rich in pleading with the government for clemency, but the only mitigation was a delay of one week to allow Nayler to recover somewhat from his injuries.

On the day set for the completion of the punishment, Rich appeared at the door of the Parliament, where he stayed all morning, speaking to the members as they passed, exhorting them to Christian mercy. At length, after crying out to the legislators that they should keep their hands clean of blood, Rich went to stand with the suffering Nayler. I quote now from William Sewell, whose early history3 is one of my sources for this account:

Then [Rich] went towards the Exchange, and got on the pillory, [and] held Nayler by the hand while he was burned on the forehead, and bored through the tongue; and was not a little affected with Nayler’s suffering, for he licked his wounds, thereby as it seems to allay the pain; and he led him by the hand from off the pillory.

I cannot read those words without tears.

Nayler bore all of his tortures with humble dignity and forgiveness, even embracing the executioner after being burned. His “sign” at Bristol may have been too ambiguous to convey the message of Christ’s spirit in human hearts, but the experience of his meek, loving manner, and of Rich’s courageous love, seems to have awakened many of the onlookers to that spirit. It was the custom for those assembled before the pillory to jeer the accused and pelt him with thrown objects. Although the crowd gathered before Nayler may have numbered in the thousands, the people were largely silent, men even removing their hats during the worst of the torture. I think that they must have understood at last that, despite the manner in which he had tried to express himself, Nayler was indeed possessed of the spirit of Christ. After all, to speak, to make claims, even to act, can be all too easy, but to continue to love through torture and rejection requires a real grounding in the spirit of him who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Whatever the motivation for it, the entry into Bristol was but a prelude to the powerful revelation of Christ in the suffering love of James Nayler — and of Robert Rich.

Rich, while never abandoning his radical faith, would become increasingly estranged from “orthodox” Quakerism under George Fox’s leadership. Nayler, however, continually strove for reconciliation, and he was eventually accepted, if grudgingly, back into the fold. But the long ordeal had ruined his health. Within a year of his 1659 release from prison, and almost four years after the entry into Bristol, James Nayler died, at the age of 44, a day after being found robbed and bound in a field. “About two hours before his death,” Sewell tells us, “he spoke, in the presence of several witnesses, these words:”

There is a spirit which I feel, that delights to do no evil, nor to avenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thought to any other: if it be betrayed, it bears it; for its ground and spring are the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned, and takes its kingdom with entreaty, and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it; nor doth it murmur at grief, and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens, and desolate places of the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection, and eternal holy life.


Notes for “The Power of Suffering Love”

(The illustration above is from a 1702 book; it is reproduced in one of my sources, Leo Damrosch’s The Sorrows of the Quaker Jesus: James Nayler and the Puritan Crackdown on the Free Spirit. For more on Nayler and Rich, I recommend Damrosch’s book along with The Light in Their Consciences, by Rosemary Moore, and The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God,’  by Gerard Guiton — who, I am pleased to note, is in agreement with my characterization of Nayler’s ride into Bristol as “street theater.”)

[1] The scene in the gospel books casts Jesus in the role of the king in Zechariah 9:9-10: “Rejoice, rejoice, daughter of Zion; shout aloud, daughter of Jerusalem; for see, your king is coming to you, his cause won, his victory gained, humble and mounted on an ass, on a foal, the young of a she-ass. He shall banish chariots from Ephraim and war-horses from Jerusalem; the warrior’s bow shall be banished. He shall speak peaceably to every nation, and his rule shall extend from sea to sea, from the river to the ends of the earth.”

[2] Luke 17:21. The Greek entos is rendered as “within” in some translations and as “in the midst of” in others: I have taken the inclusive approach to rendering it.

[3] William Sewell, The History of the Rise, Increase and Progress of the Christian People Called Quakers, first published in the early 1700′s. My quotations are taken from the 1844 printing (Baker & Crane); the first from p. 184 and the second from pp. 202-203. Sewell, by the way, spells the name as “Naylor,” but it now generally appears as “Nayler.”

January 30, 2014

A Message in Time of War


Looking through my journal from past years, I found a transcription of vocal ministry from April 20, 2003, not long after the U.S. government’s invasion of Iraq.

For the past couple of months I’ve been reading the works of George Fox. A week or so ago, I read a passage there that affected me deeply. It’s mostly a quotation by Fox of words of the prophet Micah.

The prophet, said Fox, was speaking of Christ when he wrote, “He shall judge amongst the nations, and shall rebuke many people, and they shall beat their swords into plough shares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more, but they shall sit every man under his vine, and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Lord of Hosts hath spoken it.”

That in itself affected me, but I was even more deeply touched by Fox’s own words which followed. In his enthusiasm, Fox wrote, “Is not this vine Christ, and are not these the days of his gospel of peace?”

Those words made me sad, because I knew that if I could respond to Fox today I’d have to say, “These are certainly not the days of Christ’s good news. We still live under the God of war, not the Prince of Peace.”

Fox and other Friends believed that the eschaton, the full realization of God’s Kingdom of peace and justice, was at hand. They believed so, in part, because they knew by experience that within them was a holy light and power which, when surrendered to, led them to justice and peace. They expected that the extraordinary thing happening in and to them signaled the advent of God’s perfect world. After more than three hundred and fifty years of subsequent history, we know that they were wrong in that expectation. But we also know that they were not mistaken in their experience: living in fidelity to the love in their hearts, they did change the world for the better.

To say “better” is to judge. George Fox often insisted, quoting another scripture [1 Cor. 6:2], that “the saints shall judge the nations.” He knew that Jesus had said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” but he saw no contradiction there. The Christ who “shall judge amongst the nations” lives in those who are faithful to the measure of his light in their hearts; their judging, then, is that of his spirit at work within them. In the spirit of the Kingdom we discern good and evil.

When I see rulers who torture and murder those who oppose them, I know that I see evil. When I read that the master of the world’s mightiest military said “I feel good!” moments before announcing the imminent destruction of many lives in Iraq, I know that evil masquerades as goodness. When I think of the millions of Christians who demand that death be visited on others even as they pray that they themselves be spared, I know that we are inhabited and surrounded by darkness.

The “ocean of darkness” is disheartening, but I find courage in the example of those Friends who, despite the failure of the eschaton, never forsook their commitment to the spirit of justice and peace. They teach me that, although surrounded by darkness and bereft of grand hopes, I still can cherish compassion and allow myself to live by its light, a branch of the sheltering Christ-vine.


Note: When giving the message during worship in 2003, I did not recall the statement by Fox perfectly, but for this post I have copied it from the source, Gospel Truth Demonstrated, Vol. 6 of the 1831 edition of his Works, p. 166.

December 9, 2013

A Word of Pneuma: a Meditation Inspired by Adoration

The following essay reflects some ways in which Jean-Luc Nancy’s challenging but rewarding book, Adoration, can illuminate our Quaker tradition for our time. Here as always, I use Christian images in a theopoetic or mythic sense: “not,” as Nancy writes on pp. 70-71 of the book, “to give explanations relying on a state of knowledge different from our own, which would therefore be wrong and illusory for us, but expressing an experience (e.g., the presence of the dead, the fascinating power of fire, the begetting of children, etc.) that is ultimately an experience of unlimitedness, of incommensurability, of an extravagance experienced as being inscribed within nature, life, the exorbitant order of the world.”


The pneuma is blowing where it wills, and you hear its sound but cannot perceive from where it comes or to where it goes; thus is everyone who has been begotten of the Pneuma.– John 3:8

Creation of Adam

Pneuma, writes Jean-Luc Nancy in Adoration, “is what does not speak, without being silent either. Not words, but the breath that carries them. And the trace of this breath in us, in the other. A word of breath.”1 Pneuma means both breath and spirit. In Genesis 2:7, Adam begins to live when he receives pneuma (Heb. nĕshamah) directly from God. In keeping with Adoration‘s emphasis on continuous “creation,” I’ll adapt here a present-tense translation of that verse from scripture4all.org:

And Yahweh Elohim is forming the human from the ground soil, and he is blowing breath of life into his nostrils, and the human is becoming a living being.

The human, that of soil, is given the divine spirit, that of God, as source of life. Another way of expressing that is found in Genesis 1:27:

Elohim is creating the human in his image; in the image of Elohim he created him, male and female he created them.

In that passage’s implication of relationship in God, Christians may find a proleptic reference to the Trinity; we will speak more of that doctrine later. Here we note that if humans are created in the image of God, and if, as Paul taught, Christ is “the image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creation,” then (to continue with Pauline imagery) we are created in Christ, as members of Christ’s “body.”2

Our tradition asserts, then, that “in the beginning” we are what the author of 2 Peter would call “partakers of the divine nature” (1:4). But Peter wrote in the (postlapsarian) context of promise because human beings lose that nature, that life, by attempting to appropriate to ourselves the divine pneuma’s world-creating power. That error is described in the biblical story as an insistence on differentiating good from evil, light from darkness, for ourselves — that differentiation being, as we see in Genesis 1:1-4, the first step and sine qua non of God’s organizing of chaos into Edenic order.

In the beginning … the earth became chaos and void, and darkness is over the surfaces of the abyss, and the spirit of Elohim is vibrating over the face of the waters, and Elohim is saying “It shall become light,” and it is becoming light. And Elohim is seeing the light, that it is good, and he is separating the light from the darkness.

God separates light and darkness, good and evil, prior to any discrimination by the human mind: for the newly enlivened Adam and Eve, the good will be a given, a gift, the light by which they see. And as light is good by nature, so, too, in our mythic narrative, are human beings originally good. But by grasping after that goodness we lose it. Nancy’s understanding of that error, or sin, is insightful and thought-provoking. “[Sin] is not defined by fault,” he writes; “it is the condition of mankind closed in on itself.” In an endnote, he elaborates:

The sin comes down to grasping [what is given and must remain given, must be received as gift, not appropriated], to incorporating it by knowledge and by absorption. Forgiving sin allows this grasping to let go.3

One manifestation of sin is our dependence on morality.4 Although we learn in Genesis 2:17 that the fruit of “the tree of knowledge of good and evil” is death, and in 2 Corinthians 3:6-7 that moral law is “the letter [that] kills, … the ministration of death in characters chiseled in stones,” we insist on the necessity of a moral code. Our attempting to live according to law is a grasping after an abstracted good that leads us down a dead end: if we believe that we are succeeding, we become increasingly self-righteous and narrow; if we believe that we are failing, we become duplicitous or despairing. Fixed in stone (yet easily rationalized in application), law asserts its solid presence and predictability over pneuma, the wind that blows where it will. Our dependence on a moral code is symptomatic of our focus on ourselves, our grasping after personal presence and goodness, but pneuma, the spirit and life of God, is the unappropriable right(eous)ness of relationality, of giving and forgiving.

That brings us back to the Trinity. And to Nancy.

… God effaces himself … in the Trinity. It is a question neither of three gods, nor of a three-headed god. It is exclusively a question of this: God is relation. He is his own relation — which is not a reflexive relation, neither an aseity [aséité] nor an ipseity, one that does not relate itself but relates absolutely. The ternary structure or appearance goes from one of its aspects to the other via something that is other to each of them, which is the relation between them. What is other to each of them is breath, spirit: sense.5

The pneuma, the “spirit of holiness” (or spirit of-holy-togetherness6) that is breathed into the newly-created human, is pure relationality. And that relationality is other. Further, as Augustine reminds us, it is gift.

Therefore, since the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God, and certainly God is holy, and God is a spirit, the Trinity can be called also the Holy Spirit. But yet that Holy Spirit, who is not the Trinity, but is understood as in the Trinity, is spoken of in His proper name of the Holy Spirit relatively, since He is referred both to the Father and to the Son, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit both of the Father and of the Son. But the relation is not itself apparent in that name, but it is apparent when He is called the gift of God, for He is the gift of the Father and of the Son …. When, therefore, we say the gift of the giver, and the giver of the gift, we speak in both cases relatively in reciprocal reference. Therefore the Holy Spirit is a certain unutterable communion of the Father and the Son.7

Our “original” (and originary) error is ultimately a grasping after pneuma itself: in order to make sense of the world with ourselves as center, we attempt to appropriate spirit as self or as possession of self. But in doing so we violate its nature and thereby lose it. To thus lose, or refuse, the gift of pneuma is to live no longer as member of Christ, who “does not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but makes himself of no effect” (Phil. 2:6), but to become enclosed in self. It is to fall8 from the light and life of innocence into the darkness and death called sin, for it is only in and by the Holy Spirit, the gift of pure relationality, that the world  (Gk. kosmos) – a construction, an organization of primal chaos — is configured for/as good.

However, even in that spiritual death there remains “a trace of this breath in us, … [a] word of breath.” That word of pneuma, the evangelist John teaches, is the Logos, the divine Word or Reason.9

In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was toward God, and the Logos was God. And through the Logos all things came to be, and apart from him not one thing came to be …. It was the true light that is enlightening every human coming into the kosmos. (John 1:1-3,9)

As it is language — logos, the word — that constructs a kosmos, we can also understand sin as an error in thinking the world. “In the beginning,” says our myth, the world is created and organized for good by God’s own speech, the Logos, the outbreathing of the imago Dei.10 But we tend to project a world in the image of our “individual” selves and to believe implicitly that our projected creation corresponds to God’s. Setting up, if unwittingly, our own logos as lord, we enclose ourselves in a human-constructed world, separating ourselves from the “body” and “mind” of Christ the divine Logos.11 Consequently, we are unable to distinguish our human kosmos from the real, unable to “divide aright” between life and death, darkness and light: “the light is shining in the darkness, and the darkness is not perceiving it” (Jn. 1:4). Nonetheless, asserts our Quaker tradition, “the Logos became flesh and dwells in us.” Even in our self-enclosure, the potential for pure relationality remains, if obscurely, within us; the trace of spirit — what Friends have called the seed of Christ, the measure of lifethat of God, the inward light — is always present in our hearts as promise and gift. That gift cannot be appropriated, but it can be received. And “to as many as received him, he gives the power to become offspring of God,”12 “partakers of the divine nature.”

The gift of spiritual life, while received and acting inwardly, remains always outside us, “at hand”13 but beyond our grasp — the gracious presence of the Holy Spirit, the divine relationality called agapē, within and among us. Agapē is usually translated as “love,” but that needs clarification. Nancy, with a nod to Emmanuel Levinas, offers a powerful definition:

On this view, love is neither a penchant nor an affection, even if it can create space for penchants, affections, and passions: love is first of all a way of thinking. It is of the order of those “thoughts that do not return to the self — pure élans” that Levinas discusses and that think through the experience of the other [autrui]. There is not even any need to invoke the ethical visage of autrui: it is enough to feel the power of the “outside” that is borne by, or bears, autrui. Love is always … a way of thinking in the sense of experiencing something real, if “real” always means “outside”…. 14

We are speaking, then, in terms borrowed from Nancy and others, of the power of an excess, of that always-other within and without us which exceeds us, which is incommensurable with us. And therefore we are speaking of a rupture, an opening, in the delusion of self-enclosure.

What is produced is a gap, a rupture from what could have remained within an inherent, closed identity — in truth, one should not say “identity” but idiocy: closed on itself, … bogged down in itself. Rupture opens identity by way of difference and the inside by way of the outside ….15

Dehiscence,” a previous post that was also inspired by Nancy’s work, focused on our need to permit our hearts to be broken open. But it is not only the heart, but, as Nancy reminds us, (“fallen”) reason as well that needs opening.16 We are called by Jesus to worship and live “in spirit and in truth.” Unlike, perhaps, Pontius Pilate, protector of public reality who shrugs his “What is truth?” as the Logos, “the way, the truth, and the life” whose kingdom is “not of this [human-constructed] world,” stands personified before him, we tend always to confuse our judgment with truth. But as Nancy writes, in context of Nietzsche’s thought, in his earlier book Dis-Enclosure, “Truth is value reevaluated: a devaluation of every measurable value, a devaluation of every given by which one evaluates.”17 Truth, as Alain Badiou might remind us, is in this most essential (and not essentialistic) sense an evental rupturing of one’s e/valuation, a breaking of one’s worldview and an opening to otherness: a dis-enclosure.

That breaking-open is necessary for authentic identity — identity-in/as-relationality. To accept that rupture, and not try to avoid or “heal” it, is an act of faith and hope, for it is an opening of and into the void, of and into the unfathomable, unappropriable alterity of self, other, world.

But in itself it is nothing but a gap, an opening. The infinitesimal reality (res, nothing [rien]) of opening. And therefore also of relationship, transport, transformation, or exchange, of the fortunate or unfortunate encounter. The opening is as risky, as adventurous, as it is fortuitous, as dangerous as it is precious.18

We saw that Paul and Peter wrote of existence in Christ as existence in the divine image and nature. John tells us that the divine nature is agapē,19 a “way of thinking,” in Nancy’s words, that “[feels] the power of the ‘outside’ that is borne by, or bears, autrui.” Feeling in the heart the “divine” power of the outside, the wholly other that includes self and every other (for all are together), was a fundamental motif for the first Friends. Feeling that power within makes us feel and think differently as we are drawn out of self-enclosure into pure relationality, into the real. And when we feel and think differently, we act differently. Living in and as that unfolding and unappropriable mystery, we act less according to “postlapsarian” patterns and more in consonance with the promise of our “first” nature as members of Christ, the Word of Pneuma that blows where it will. “If anyone is in Christ, new creation!”20


Notes for “A Word of Pneuma

[1] Jean-Luc Nancy, Adoration (The Deconstruction of Christianity II), trans. by John McKeane, Fordham University Press (2013), p. 20.

[2] “The image of the unseen God, the firstborn of every creation” is from Col:1:15; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4. On “in Christ,” Michael Parsons writes, “For Paul, union with Christ is summed up in the short phrase ‘in Christ’ and its various equivalents. It is supposed by many to be original with Paul, and the idea appears in different ways about two hundred and sixteen times in his writing.” — Michael Parsons, “‘In Christ’ in Paul,” Vox Evangelica 18 (1988): 25-44. On the body of Christ, see, for example, Romans 12:4-8 and 1 Cor. 12; see also Encyclopedia Britannica, “Saint Paul, the Apostle: The Body of Christ.”

[3] Adoration: the first quotation is from page 53; the endnote is from p. 111. The first quotation echoes Nancy’s earlier book, Dis-Enclosure (p. 155; see endnote 17): “Sin is not primarily an act, it is a condition, and an original condition.”

[4] “As soon as I put forward … that this or that ‘are’ the good or the truth of mankind or of the world, I enter into evil.” — Adoration, p. 74.

[5] Adoration, p. 30. I think that Nancy’s insight here is wonderful: God’s aseity is not aseity; that is, God is not self-sufficiency but relationality. Nor is his ipseity an individual selfhood.

[6] Romans 1:4. The alternative translation (“of-holy-togetherness”) of hagiosunes is from scripture4all.org’s Greek-English interlinear.

[7] Augustine, De trinitate 5, 11 (12).

[8] On page 71 of Adoration, Nancy speaks of “being as fall, which is to say, as a movement of what lacks a basis, a standpoint, ground.”

[9] Logos was a Stoic concept described in theistic terms by the 1st-century C.E. Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria.

[10] In words that seem to echo our rendering of Genesis 1:2 (“the spirit of Elohim is vibrating over the face of the waters, and Elohim is saying ‘It shall become light,’ and it is becoming light”), Simone Weil, in Waiting for God (p. 124), says, “ The whole creation is nothing but [the Word of God’s] vibration.”

[11] On the “body” of Christ, see endnote 2; on the “mind” of Christ, see 1 Cor. 2:16.

[12] John 1:12.

[13] Mark 1:15: “And [Jesus was] saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand: be new-minded and trust in the gospel.’” The Quaker tradition would remind us that “the gospel” is “Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God”: see Romans 1:16 and 1 Cor. 1:24; see also the post “‘That of God’: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20.”

[14] Adoration, pp. 58-59. The quotation from Levinas is from his Outside the Subject, trans. by Michael B. Smith (Athlone, 1994), p. 28.

[15] Adoration, p. 15.

[16] In his Apology for the True Christian Divinity (“The Third Proposition: Concerning the Scriptures”), the Quaker theologian Robert Barclay wrote of “the fallen, corrupt and defiled reason of man” and asserted that “the testimony of the Holy Spirit is more excellent than all reason” (a clear echo of John Calvin’s “the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason” in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.7.4).

[17] Jean-Luc Nancy, Dis-Enclosure (The Deconstruction of Christianity), trans. by Bergo, Malenfant, and Smith; Fordham University Press (2008), p. 79.

[18] Adoration, p. 15.

[19] See 1 John 4.

[20] 2 Cor. 5:17.


Related post: “Miracle and Sense”

October 24, 2013



The following is a reconstruction of vocal ministry that was offered at Homewood Friends Meeting on October 20, 2013.

An unusual word, one that is rich in associations for me, comes to mind this morning. It’s a word that I learned just a few years ago: dehiscence. It appeals to me because it has two primary meanings, one from medicine and one from botany, that are discordant in an instructive way, showing how a change in perspective can make the difference between death and life.

In its medical sense, dehiscence refers to the re-opening of a wound. Under the medical model, the normal — and perhaps life-saving — reaction to such an event is to try to re-close the wound effectively. But while closure may be the proper response for a physical wound, not all wounds are physical. And as some of us, particularly those who are mental health clinicians, have learned, the medical model can be harmful when applied to matters of the human psyche and spirit.

Given their agrarian and pastoral idiom, the first Friends, had they been given the choice, may well have preferred the botanical sense of dehiscence: the spontaneous opening of a plant in order to release seed, a breaking open that is necessary, healthy, and life-giving. Following the apostle Paul, the Friends pictured the Christ-nature, the power of agapē-love, as a seed buried in our spiritual hearts. A seed, as we know, requires air and water:1 to keep it enclosed is to prevent it from coming to life. Just so, love can thrive only in an open heart; indeed, as Thomas Merton put it, “Love can be kept only by being given away.”2 To try to close up our hearts whenever they break open may seem salutary from a medical/pathological perspective, but to do so is to destroy life, to kill its future.

Reflecting upon dehiscence in this sense leads me to my favorite non-canonical scripture, one that I’ve quoted here3 before. It’s one of the Odes of Solomon, and it goes, in part, something like this:

My heart was cloven, and its flower appeared: God’s fruit. The spirit of the most high broke my heart open, liberating the love within me and allowing his love to pour into me. God’s breaking of my heart was my salvation, and now I walk in his way of peace and integrity.

[1] Cf. John 3:5 — “Truly, truly I tell you: anyone who is not born of water and the spirit [Gk. pneumatos: breath; moving air] is not able to enter the Kingdom of God.”
[2] Merton, No Man Is an Island, p. 1.
[3] And here and here. My paraphrase is of a passage from the 11th of the Odes of Solomon.

September 2, 2013

“That of God”: a Quaker Reading of Romans 1:16-20

Paul’s letter to the Romans is a crucial source document for Quakerism. Even today, liberal Friends who reject Paul as a bigot and mythologizer are likely to base their spirituality, if unawares, on something from that letter: as Lewis Benson reminded us in an essay first published over 40 years ago, founding Friends such as George Fox and James Nayler derived the phrase “that of God in every one” from verse 19 of the letter’s first chapter.1 But Benson’s essay did not settle the question asked in its title, “‘That of God in Every Man’ — What did George Fox mean by it?” Given that we still appeal to Fox and other early Friends when we use the phrase, and given that, presumably, we want to do so honestly, that question continues to merit our consideration.

Benson made a number of helpful points in his essay. Most importantly, he refuted the popular misreading of Fox’s “that of God” as signifying an inherent (ontological) oneness of human beings with God, tracing that notion to the Christian Neoplatonism of such 20th-century Friends as Rufus Jones.2 But Benson, too, although not as egregiously, misread Fox: his interpretation was skewed by his commitment to a central doctrine of Christ as heavenly prophet, encounter with whom he saw as “the heart [and] cornerstone of [Fox’s] theology.” His proposal that Fox used the phrase “that of God” to refer to “a witness for God that summons [everyone] to remember the Creator … a hunger and thirst that God has put in man”3 misses the depth and power of the early Quaker reading of Paul.

In order to recover something of that depth and power, we must bracket conventional interpretations of both Fox and Paul, allowing ourselves to understand “that of God” in context of the first Friends’ unconventional hermeneutic, or method of interpretation, of scripture as pointer to inner states and events.4 This essay is intended to help in that process by examining Fox’s interpretation of Romans 1:16-20. As always, my attempt to understand the thought and experience of the first Friends is directed toward the opening of contemporary possibilities that we might overlook in our conventional certainties; I’ll conclude with a brief reflection on that.

First, a procedural note. George Fox and other first Friends would have had access to both the the King James Version (KJV) and the Geneva Bible (GNV) with its voluminous notes, which were also included in some editions of the KJV at the time. In this analysis, the KJV will be our principal translation, but I’ll interpose material from the GNV’s rendering when it is significantly different, and I’ll reproduce (with some modernization) some of the GNV’s notes. To facilitate analysis, I’ll break the Romans passage into two parts.


We begin with verses 16 and 17 of Romans 1.

[16] For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. [17] For therein [GNV: by it] is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

The passage opens with a statement which, taken as a definition, would shape Quaker theology and the experience that followed from and fed it: the gospel of Christ is the power of God. Here we see the unusual nature of Quaker exegesis (biblical interpretation): conventional interpretations do not take that statement to be definitional, but assume that “gospel” must refer to written or oral proclamation (Gk. kerygma). We may be tempted to reject the Quaker reading out of hand, but to do so would be to close ourselves off from the source of early Quakerism’s dynamism; namely, its scriptural hermeneutic. In order to understand the Quakers’ theology and experience, we will need, at least temporarily, to take Fox’s exegetical perspective as our own. Fox is clear that Paul’s statement is to be understood as making “gospel” and “power of God” identical:

That which ye now tell people is the gospel, which ye preach, are the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, &c. [But that is] contrary to the scripture, which saith, ‘The gospel is the power of God.’ And many may have the four books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, &c., the form, but deny the power, and so deny the gospel, which is the power of God. And so they that deny the power have put the four books for it ….

And, lest we take refuge in metaphor:

[Richard Mayo's position:] Mayo saith, ‘To say the gospel is the power of God is but a metaphorical speech.’

[George Fox's response:] The apostle doth not say so, for the apostle saith, ‘The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believes,’ in plain words. Rom. 1 chapter.5

Fox was well aware that Paul also uses “the power of God” in what can be considered a definitional manner in First Corinthians: “Christ, the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). Putting the two statements together, we arrive at a startling, even revolutionary, conclusion:

gospel = the power of God;
Christ = the power of God;
gospel = Christ = the power of God.

That is not a claim that Christ is merely a literary creation in “gospel” books: far from it. The claim is that the signifier “gospel” refers not to spoken or written material — the letter that kills — but to the actual power of God, or Christ — the spirit that gives life.6 The power of God is the proper object of faith. Given that, we should read verse 17 to say that it is by that power — not, as the conventional interpretation of the passage would have it, by the canonical books (which did not exist when Paul wrote Romans) or the oral kerygma — that the righteousness of God is revealed, “from faith to faith,” in/as that same divine power which brings us into a life of justice: “the just shall live by faith.” “Gospel truth” is not words but righteousness-power received in faith — Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6).

Some of the Geneva Bible’s notes on verse 17 may be helpful here. The GNV explains “from faith to faith” (which can also be rendered as “from faith into faith”) by saying that “we are justified before God by faith which increases daily: and therefore also saved.” “Faith,” pistis in Greek, should be defined not simply as propositional belief but — even primarily — as trust and fidelity.7 Paul is understood to say that the righteousness of God is revealed through pistis, that the revelation then increases or strengthens pistis, and that in that revelation we receive salvation by being justified in pistis. Because Fox understood “justification” to mean that one is (not merely forensically, as in a legal fiction, but) actually made just, and “gospel” to mean Christ the power of God, he understood “revelation” to mean the unveiling not of information about God’s righteousness but of that righteousness-power itself — revelation in us of the very life of Christ, “who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Cor. 1:30). Such a reading would be consistent with the GNV’s note that Paul’s quotation, “The just shall live by faith,” is “out of [Habakkuk], who attributes and gives unto faith both justice and life before God.” We should recall here Fox’s “opening” (i.e., insight) that true believers are those who are “passed from death to life”: faith is not belief in stories and doctrines but trust in and fidelity to the gospel, the power of God-who-is-love.8

We should note, too, that the Greek word translated as “revealed” in verse 17 is apokalyptetai, a word which, like its English cognate “apocalyptic,” refers to the uncovering of something that had been hidden. The unveiling of the divine mystery which, although present for all to see, had remained hidden through the ages was a favorite motif of Fox and other first Friends. It is found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians (1:23-29), which the KJV translates as follows:

[C]ontinue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to [Gk. en: in -- a rendering that Fox insisted upon] every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; … [namely,] the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: to whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus: whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working [Gk. energeian: operation of divine power], which worketh in me mightily.

A Quaker reading of the first part of the Romans passage yields, then, something like this: the divine power for righteousness/justice is being revealed, through and for pistis, to all human beings in Christ.


In verses 18 through 20, Paul tells us explicitly where that gospel/divine power/Christ is to be found. But his words, the Friends would warn us, are misconstrued if read from the conventional, rather than the inspired, perspective. Paul says:

[18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [GNV: withhold] the truth in unrighteousness; [19] Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. [20] For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even [i.e., namely] his eternal power and Godhead [Gk. theiotes: divinity; divine nature]; so that they are without excuse ….

We will not explore verse 18′s reference to God’s wrath: the rest of Romans 1 elaborates that in a way that is quite controversial today, and it is not essential for our discussion of “that of God.” Whether Paul is speaking in v. 18 of everyone or of only those who “[with]hold the truth in unrighteousness,” he appears to speak universally in the next two verses. Assuming the universal intent throughout, the Geneva Bible states that “All men being considered in themselves, or without Christ, are guilty both of ungodliness and also unrighteousness, and therefore are subject to condemnation: Therefore must they needs seek righteousness in some other.” While that may be uncongenial to some contemporary Friends, the first Quakers would likely have agreed at least with the sentiment behind it.9 The Friends would also have agreed with the GNV’s suggestion that Paul’s phrase “is manifest in them” refers to “in their hearts.” Indeed, Friends knew that the heart is precisely where we find that “other” who can make us just; namely “Christ, the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).

However, the Quakers would disagree vehemently with the GNV’s assertion that “By ‘truth’ Paul means all the light that is left in man since his fall, not as though [people] being led thereby were able to come into favor with God, but that their own reason might condemn them of wickedness both against God and man.” Friends would say that such a view contradicts John’s assertion that Christ the divine Logos (“Word”)10 is the light “which enlightens every one who comes into the world” (Jn. 1:9) as well as Christ’s statement that he is himself “the way, the truth, and the life.” If Christ is truth, then the light of truth is not a “natural” light at all: it is the gracious working in us of the Logos, the divine power and nature (verse 20), denied and oppressed by our human nature until we give ourselves over to it in pistis. Friends would agree that human reason, captive to our sinfulness, cannot fully acknowledge and condemn our unrighteousness, much less lead us out of it: we need power and wisdom that are other — beyond, or deeper — than our normal ways of thinking and feeling. Scripture, they believed, teaches that the light of truth which enlightens human reason is that “other” power and wisdom: it is Christ, the Logos of God, dwelling in the human heart. And that, the Friends would argue, is what Paul is trying to tell us.

Continuing in its conventional reading of Paul, the Geneva Bible goes on to assert that human wickedness refuses to acknowledge God’s clear revelation in the natural world.

Their ungodliness [Paul] proves hereby, that although all men have a most clear and evident glass [i.e., mirror] wherein to behold the everlasting and almighty nature of God, [namely] in his creatures, yet have they fallen away from those principles to most foolish and fond devices of their own brains …. ‘You see God not, and yet you acknowledge him as God by his works,’ [wrote] Cicero.

That brings us to the core difference between the conventional and the Quaker interpretations of the passage. The standard reading of verse 20 asserts that God’s eternal power and divine nature, although invisible in themselves, are reflected in the order of nature, and that there is, therefore, no reason for anyone to fail to know God in that order. That’s a classic argument, if one that may not fare well today, given our understanding of the ruthless operation of natural selection; but it is not, from the primitive Quaker perspective, Paul’s argument.

The Friends insisted that Paul, when he points to the locus of the revelation of God’s nature and power, points not outward, as to the kerygma or the order of creation, but inward. Paul directs people to look “in their hearts” (in the GNV’s own phrase) “because that which may be known of God is manifest in them,” and he should be taken at his word. As we have seen, Friends read the Romans passage as consistent with John’s assertion that Christ the Logos-light shines in everyone, revealing his divine power and wisdom in them and offering them God’s own nature and righteousness through faith: “He came into his own, and his own did not accept him. But to those who received him he gave the power to become the offspring [i.e., to share the nature] of God, to those trusting in his name” (Jn. 1:11-12, my translation). Fox defended the Quaker position succinctly in his The Great Mystery:11

[John Hume’s position:] ‘That God was to be known by the things that were made, as the sun, moon, and stars.’

[George Fox’s response:] But Jesus Christ said, Matt. xi. 27. ‘No man knows the Father but the son, and he to whomsoever the son will reveal him,’ and the heathens know not God, nor had the Jews seen his shape.

If the scriptures are coherent, the Quakers would maintain, then Paul cannot be advancing the view expressed by the GNV and preachers such as John Hume. “That which may be known of God is manifest in them,” Paul wrote, and in is what he meant. And he did not change his doctrine from one verse to the next.


But how did the Friends justify that “inward” reading against the conventional one of knowing God’s nature and power through their reflection in the creation? In a brilliant maneuver that safeguards the continuity of scripture, Fox (who, I like to speculate, may have enjoyed reframing the GNV’s reference to a glass or mirror) turns that seemingly outward emphasis inward. He reads the Romans passage as validating the Quaker hermeneutic, which he would sum up cleverly and concisely in his Journal:

I saw also the mountains burning up, and the rubbish, and the rough, and crooked ways and places made smooth and plain, that the Lord might come into his tabernacle. These things are to be found in man’s heart; but to speak of these things being within seemed strange to the rough, crooked, and mountainous ones. Yet the Lord saith, ‘O earth, hear the word of the Lord!’12

In that journal passage, Fox referred to scripture (Luke 3/Isaiah 40) which may seem to speak only of the natural world but which is seen, when read in the spirit, to point inward. And the natural world itself, when “read” in the spirit, is a kind of scripture: God himself, according to Fox, has told us that. For God would not address his word to the deaf physical earth: God speaks to the “earth” that is human nature. (As Fox repeatedly reminds his readers in The Great Mystery, “human,” from the Latin humus, means “earthy,” “of the earth.”) God, whom we know as the light of Christ within, is the source of the Quaker hermeneutic, and we are to apply that hermeneutic not only to scripture but also to the natural world, “the things that are made.” For the gospel, “the power of God unto salvation,” is “preached in every creature which is under heaven.”

In his “A Word from the Lord, to All the World,” Fox employed that principle in a long, even rhapsodic statement on how nature or outward reality should be understood as a “figure” or parable directing us to both the human darkness and the divine light and power in our hearts.13 His statement is an extended gloss on our passage from Romans.

To all you that are unlearned outwardly of the letter, that cannot read the scripture outwardly, to you I have a word from the Lord to speak: which is, Christ saith, I have given to every one a measure, according to their ability; this is the measure, the light which is pure, which doth convince thee, and if thou doth take heed to this light, that is scripture within thee ….

And as the light opens and exerciseth thy conscience, it will open to thee parables and figures, and it will let thee see invisible things, which are clearly seen by that which is invisible in thee, which are clearly seen since the creation of the world, that doth declare the eternal power and Godhead; that which is invisible is the light within thee, which he who is invisible hath given thee a measure of, that will let thee see [that] thy heart [is] stony, and [that the] stones without thee [are] of the like nature [as thy heart] ….

In verse 20, Paul wrote, “For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made ….” And he named those invisible things: they are the power and “Godhead,” or nature, of God. George Fox asserts that “that which is invisible is the light within thee” which “will open to thee figures and parables”; in other words, the inner light of Christ illumines the created order as scripture directing us to the dark truth of our own condition. As our conscience, normally shut up in accepted moral wisdom and implicit self-righteousness,14 is opened to the truth by that light, we see that the hardness, selfishness, and brutality of the world are also active in us, are indeed inherent in our human nature, often disguising themselves as moral goodness. That same enlightening power will, as we put our faith in it, increasingly reveal itself in us, thus strengthening our faith and leading us out of the human nature into the divine.15

Fox illustrates that process profusely as he continues; we’ll elaborate it through some of his examples. (Note: in the following excerpts, which have been modified for clarity, “without” is used by Fox as the opposite of “within” and should be read as “outside of.”)

First, the light of Christ shows us, through types or “figures spoken to the carnal part in man,” the truth of our human nature.

[A]s there are briars without thee, so there are briars within thee; and as [there are] serpents without thee, so the nature of serpents [is] within thee … [and as] the earth [is] without thee, so the earth [is] within thee; as lions [are] without thee, so [is] the nature of lions within thee; … as forests [are] without thee, so [is] the wilderness in thy heart: these things doth the scripture speak of; [the ones?] who had the light spoke forth these parables to that nature in men and women: this light lets thee [see that] as fat bulls [are] without thee, feeding the flesh, thou art as a fat bull, who only feedeth the flesh; [and] as there are dogs and swine without thee, thou art a dog that bitest and devourest and barkest [--] there is thy figure [i.e., symbol or pattern, as in a parable] ….

As [there are] tall cedars without thee, thou wilt see thyself a tall cedar, who livest without the truth, spreading thyself: and as [there are] strong oaks without thee, thou in thy strength wilt see thyself as a strong oak, who art full of earth, and livest [proudly] in thy power and dignity; … as asses without thee, snuffing up their noses upon the mountains, thou art lifted up in thy high-mindedness, and full of pride and wildness, [so] thou wilt see thyself to be as a wild ass; … the light within thee will let thee see these things ….

The light reveals that the world in its harshness and absurdity reflects our own condition, but it also unveils what we shall be if we turn and submit in pistis to the Logos, the Word, which is “the power of God unto salvation.”

[As there is a] harvest without thee, so [there is a] harvest within: [those] who come to see with the invisible eye, all [those who] mind the light, shall see another harvest; as there are many sowing the seed without, [the seed] that lies under the clods, so thou shalt see the seed that lieth under the clods in thee;16 and as [there is] summer without thee, so are the children of God brought into the summer, where there is joy and peace, and are brought out of the world; and as [there is] singing of birds without thee, so [singing like birds] are they [who] are brought out of the winter; the world is a figure to them: as [there is] a turtle-dove without thee, that is a figure [for the one] who comes to this joyful land; as [there are] doves without thee, [so there is the] nature of doves within; as [there are] lambs without thee, [so there is] the nature of lambs within: … now the light of God gave forth all these figures [which are] like unto that nature in man, and [the light shows] what the saints should [i.e., shall or do] enjoy, and this light will let thee see [all of that.]

Our task, then, is always to “mind the light” of Christ within, for “there is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”17

[T]he light will let you see it: as [there is] night without thee and darkness, so there is night within; and as [there are stars and moon and clouds] without thee, so there are [stars and moon and clouds] within thee. These things are all figures; and as [there is] the sun without thee, so [there is] the sun of righteousness arising with healing in his wings within thee. All who mind the measure [of the Christ-light] which God hath given you, it will open you unto these outward figures which God spake, and will teach you ….

Now this light will shew you these figures: here thou mayest read scriptures, thou that lovest the light: [but] thou that hatest this light canst not see these figures. But it is the invisible that opens these, [the same spirit] that gave them forth; and here thou [who] art unlearned in the letter mayest read the scripture, and as [there are] secret chambers without thee, [so if thou wilt] hearken to the light within thee … it will let thee see the secret places [within], where the retired place, the secret chambers, are; and as [there is] a prison without thee, so there is a prison within, where the seed of God lies; and as there is threshing without thee, [the light] will let thee see threshing within thee; … this light of God which gave forth the scriptures … will open the scripture to thee; for man [having been driven out of Paradise] into the earth, and the earth being above the seed, the earth without thee [is like] the earth within thee [i.e., our inner “earth,” or human nature, covers up the Christ-seed in us]; [in that secret place within] the Lord [is] speaking low things, [showing you these] comparisons [by which the outer world is] like to that nature in man; that man may look upon the creation with that which is invisible [i.e., with the Christ-light, that of God, within], and there read himself; there thou mayest see [thy figure] wherever thou goest.

“Thou that hatest this light canst not see these figures”: it is only when we trust and mind the divine light that we can see clearly. To read scripture correctly, we must read it in the same spirit, the light of the Logos, by and in which it was given forth.18 The conventional interpretation of verse 20 misses Paul’s reference to the mirroring, parabolic, scriptural nature of the world because that reading comes not from the Christ-light within but from the spirit of the world: that is the Quakers’ ultimate defense of their interpretation. For them, it is clear that those who read scripture in the conventional manner are not in the holy spirit, for “you shall know them by their fruits” (Mt. 7:16), and real righteousness among Christians is rare. That is only to be expected, because the conventional reading directs people away from the Christ-power within. The lives of the Friends, however, who read according to the holy spirit’s hermeneutic of inwardness, manifest the fruits of that spirit: justice, peace, generosity, integrity, simplicity.19 That hermeneutic unlocks the meaning of scripture, directing us to the living gospel-power in our hearts. And when we see by the light of Christ, everything is scripture.

The excerpts above are only part of Fox’s long catalog of parabolic “figures” in “A Word.” His argument was, perhaps, a difficult one to make, but it was essential for the Quaker doctrine of “that of God in every one.”


We can now produce a Quaker statement of the doctrine of “that of God” as derived from Romans 1:16-20.

First, here is the KJV passage again:

[16] For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. [17]For therein [GNV: by it] is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold [GNV: withhold] the truth in unrighteousness; [19] Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. [20] For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even [i.e., namely] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse ….

And here is our Quaker reading:

The gospel, the power of God-who-is-love, is Christ, the light within that enlightens and justifies everyone who trusts in it. That light opens the parabolic meaning of the world, shows us our own inner darkness, reveals God’s righteousness, and empowers us to live — to become — that righteousness. Because Christ the light and power of God is manifest in everyone and illumines the world as holy scripture, no one can justifiably continue in unrighteousness, whether or not they have the written Bible.

According to the first Friends, then, “that of God in every one” is not simply something in us that calls us to remember God, nor is it inherent divinity or oneness with God: it is the indwelling Christ, the divine Logos, the very nature (i.e., love20) and righteousness-power of God which can show us our dark condition and lead us into a new, holy life of light, peace, justice, and generosity. Putting our faith in that light and power and living in fidelity to it, we are enabled to understand self, world, and scriptures aright and are taken “from death to life,” “out of the world” and into the divine life. “We all, with [unveiled] face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18).


Why should we 21st-century Friends care what Fox and other first Friends had in mind when they spoke of “that of God” within?

In the introduction to this post, I spoke of opening contemporary possibilities that we may have overlooked in our conventional certainties. Hope for revelation of hitherto unseen — or glimpsed but dismissed — possibilities for more just and generous human living is the primary reason for my attempts to understand the first Friends. A nontheist and humanist, I do not assume that, as Henry J. Cadbury put it when reacting to the work of Lewis Benson, “those aspects of the early Quaker vision thus reconstructed [by purportedly objective historical analysis] ought to be permanently normative to Quakerism,”21 but I am convinced that foundational Quaker thought and experience of manifest spiritual power should be permitted and assisted to ground our faith and practice today. Faithful “translation” of the first Friends’ thought into a contemporary idiom may be difficult, but it is necessary if we are to recover, preserve, and share in the source of their spiritual power. We begin that work by allowing ourselves to encounter their thought, as best we can, on its own terms. It is by doing so that we might share something of their experience, for their experience was shaped by their thinking, particularly by their interpretation of scripture.

As also mentioned in the beginning of this post, however, there is a sense in which we do present sayings of George Fox and other first Friends as normative, sometimes even while insisting that they are not: we still appeal to them for justification of the few doctrines we more or less agree upon. There are, therefore, questions of personal and corporate integrity at stake, too. If we are to continue to claim Fox et al. as spiritual founders and to quote them as sources of our beliefs and practices, particularly of the now-central doctrine of “that of God in everyone,” then honesty requires that, rather than forcing them into our molds, we engage them respectfully, allowing them to be what they were, reconstructing their ideas as carefully and objectively as possible: that we not steal our ancestors’ words to justify beliefs that they may not have espoused.

For those reasons and more, but particularly because the world desperately needs the great spiritual depth and power that we see in the lives of the first Friends, we do well to allow those Friends to speak to us in their own way and in their own context. If we let them communicate their minds and hearts, they can challenge our complacencies, open our horizons, and help us to live in and by that oft-neglected inner power which moves us to justice, peace, and mercy. In other words, they can answer that of God in us, whereby they may continue to be, in us, a blessing for the world.22


[1]. Lewis Benson, “‘That of God in Every Man’ – What did George Fox mean by it?” – originally published in Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. XII, No. 2 (Spring, 1970) and reprinted as a pamphlet in 2001 by the New Foundation Fellowship. Page numbers in references here are from the pamphlet.

[2]. See Benson, pp. 21-23. Jones’s student Howard Brinton would later make the incredible assertion (in Friends for 300 Years, 1988 printing, p. 21) that “As philosopher, Fox followed the Hellenic tradition, apprehending the inner Unity which exists beyond time and space, Real as compared with the phenomenal world, One as contrasted with the multiplicity recognized by the senses.”

[3]. Benson, pp. 9-11.

[4]. For first Friends, scripture is properly understood only in an encounter between inspired words and inspired reading — “inspired” referring to the work of the holy spirit but meaning in practice that scripture is to be read according to the Quaker hermeneutic of inwardness. (As we’ll see, that same principle is applied to nature when it is considered as a kind of scripture.) The Quaker hermeneutic also appears to include the assumption that scripture is coherent, or consistent, so that the finding of what seems to be a serious contradiction is an indication that one is reading incorrectly.

[5]. George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded (Vol. 3 of the 1832 edition of his Works). The first quotation, in which a comma has been added for clarity, is from page 150; the second is from page 437. In that first quotation, Fox speaks of exchange: “they that deny the power,” those who deny the possibility of righteousness in this life through faith in the inward light of Christ, have exchanged the true gospel for books, just as they have exchanged real righteousness for, as Michael Gorman (whose excellent course on Romans I recently audited) put it, “a word of forgiveness, … a legal fiction.” The theme of exchange of the truly holy for a simulacrum is, to borrow Gorman’s phrase, “the order of the day” in the first chapter of Romans. See Michael Gorman, “Romans: The First Christian Treatise on Theosis,” in Journal of Theological Interpretation 5.1, (2011): the quotations above are found on page 22. (On theosis, see note 15, below.) See also Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1678): “Though the outward declaration of the Gospel be taken sometimes for the Gospel, yet it is but figuratively and by a metonymy. For, to speak properly, the Gospel is this inward power and life which preacheth glad tidings in the hearts of all men, offering salvation unto them, and seeking to redeem them from their iniquities, and therefore it is said to be preached in every creature under heaven: whereas there are many thousands of men and women to whom the outward Gospel was never preached.”

[6]. 2 Cor. 3:6: “[God] also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

[7]. See, for example, A. Katherine Grieb, “The Righteousness of God in Romans,” in Jerry Sumney, ed., Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans (SBL, 2012), p. 68: “The noun pistis has a wide range of meanings, including ‘faith, trust, and belief’ but also ‘faithfulness, trustworthiness, and credibility or believability.’ The adjective pistos can mean either ‘faithful, trustworthy, and credible’ or ‘believing, trusting, having faith.’”

[8]. George Fox’s Journal, Vol. 1 of the 1831 edition of his Works, p. 71. The “opening” or insight refers to 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not [his] brother abideth in death.”

[9]. Friends would have argued, however, that guilt accrues only to actual sin. (Of course, Paul says in Romans 3:23 that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.”) In the Fourth Proposition of his Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Robert Barclay explained that the Quakers did not accept the term “original sin” because it implied that we are born guilty: Quakers acknowledged that we are born into Adam’s sinful nature, but they would insist that we are not guilty before God until we have actually committed an evil act. “Though we do not ascribe any whit of Adam’s guilt to men, until they make it theirs by the like acts of disobedience; yet we cannot suppose that men, who are come of Adam naturally, can have any good thing in their nature, as belonging to it; which he, from whom they derive their nature, had not himself to communicate unto them. If then we may affirm that Adam did not retain in his nature (as belonging thereunto) any will or light capable to give him knowledge in spiritual things, then neither can his posterity; for whatsoever real good any man doth, it proceedeth not from his nature as he is man or the son of Adam, but from the seed of God in him, as a new visitation of life, in order to bring him out of this natural condition: so that though it be in him, yet it is not of him ….”

[10]. The Logos (usually translated as “the Word”) is the divine creative and right-ordering — that is, ordering for righteousness — power and wisdom (cf. 1 Cor. 1:24b) through which, according to John 1 (which hearkens back to the creation story in Genesis), God shapes chaos into cosmos. It is divine reason as opposed to human reason, but it dwells in human beings: “and the [Logos] became flesh, and pitched his tent in us” (John 1:14, George Fox’s translation). It is only by the light of that divine reason working within us, believed the first Friends, that we can understand scripture, the world, and ourselves truly. The following, which is just one of a multitude of possible examples, is from Vindication of the Principles and Practices of the People called Quakers, 1665, by George Bishop: “By the word Light, and the Light within, we mean Christ the Light … Now this is not Natural Reason ….” See also Barclay’s statement in note 9, above.

[11]. Fox, The Great Mystery, p. 515. The latter part of Fox’s argument is, I think, weak: Paul can be read as saying that those heathens and Jews are “without excuse” for not knowing God. But the overall point is sound: why would Paul point to an inner manifestation of “that which can be known of God” if his argument was that God is known through outward things?

[12]. Fox, Journal, p. 77.

[13]. George Fox, “A Word from the Lord, to All the World,” in Vol. 4 of the 1831 edition of his Works, pp. 34-37. For clarity’s sake, explanatory material has been added in brackets, and minor adjustments have been made in punctuation. Reading scripture as parable was not a Quaker innovation; it has a very long history. See, for example, the excerpt from De Prinicpiis, written by the third-century C.E. theologian Origen, at the Early Church Texts site. The Friends went beyond that, applying their inward-pointing parabolic reading to nature as well.

[14]. I am reminded of Fox’s “For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief, as I had been, that Jesus Christ might have pre-eminence, who enlightens, and gives grace, faith, and power,” part of the famous “There is one” passage in his Journal.

[15]. That process is explained more thoroughly in my 2008 Quaker Theology essay, “The Psychology of Salvation.” The transformation of the human into the divine is at the heart of the idea of theosis, which Michael Gorman finds to be a central theme in Romans: see note 5, above.

[16]. “The seed” refers to Christ, as in Gal. 3:16: “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.”

[17]. Fox, Journal, p. 74.

[18]. See, for example, The Great Mystery, p. 176: “Christ’s name is called ‘the word of God’ [i.e., Logos] properly, and not figuratively, and more properly than the scriptures, as in the Revelation. And the scriptures are the words of God … which Christ the word fulfills. [...] And [those who did not have] the scriptures worshipped God before the scriptures were written … [and] attained to eternal life. And if people have all the scriptures [but have] not the spirit which was before [the scriptures] were given forth, they [lack] the standing rule; they cannot know the scriptures, they cannot worship God aright; … neither do any worship God aright but they who are in the spirit that gave [the scriptures] forth.”

[19]. In connection with the biblical image of bearing fruit, it is worth noting that the Friends’ emphasis was not so much on “nurturing” the seed of Christ within as on simply recognizing that seed and stopping our interference with, or repression of, it. The fruit/conduct, then, grows of itself, being the graceful work of Christ. Richard B. Hays finds that approach in Paul: “The metaphor of ‘fruit’ suggests that the sanctified conduct Paul expects …. is not so much the product of moral striving as that of allowing the mysterious power of God’s Spirit to work in and through [us].” (Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, p. 37.) Another relevant scripture passage is Mark 4:26-29: “And [Jesus] said, the kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest is come” (Hays, p. 83). (Mark tends not to refer to the Spirit as Paul does; here he speaks instead of what Hays calls “a mysterious possibility.”) See also the post “I Am the Way.”

[20]. For discussion of love as the nature of God, see the “God is love” tag for this blog.

[21]Quaker Religious Thought, Vol. II No. 1 (Spring, 1960), p. 21.

[22]. The reference is, of course, to George Fox’s oft-, if acontextually-, quoted saying from “An exhortation to Friends in the Ministry”: “This is the word of the Lord God to you all, a charge to you all in the presence of the living God; be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come; that your life and conduct 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 every one; whereby in them ye may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you: then to the Lord God you shall be a sweet savour, and a blessing.”


Related posts:
“Answering That of God as Revolutionary Praxis (12/1/12)
“That of God and the Other” (3/27/12)
“Answering That of God” (7/20/11)

June 11, 2013

A Song of Experience



As veteran readers of this blog will know, my concerns about the contemporary liberal Quaker fascination with what is called “spiritual experience,” a fascination I shared earlier in my life, are longstanding. Recent events, particularly the emerging controversy about the proposed new Faith and Practice book for Baltimore Yearly Meeting, have made those concerns more urgent. In this post, I will discuss four of them: unreliability, exclusivity, inutility, and apostasy.

I’ll begin by considering what is meant by “experience” in this context.

“Experience” Defined

It appears that when a liberal Friend speaks of a “spiritual experience” she may be referring to a feeling, such as a sense of presence or unity; a thought, whether explicitly formed or inchoate (the latter may be called an intuition); an audition, perhaps of a voice; or even a vision of a sacred figure such as Jesus. Or she may refer to (what she believes is) an instance of “pure experience,” which, as noted in the previous post, would be meaningless without interpretation; in that case we can say that she offers an interpretation, however tentative, of an anomalous emotional state or intuition. Such experiences are often reported to be ineffable and yet self-validating; in other words, although their content may seem too unusual for adequate expression in words, it feels so manifestly true, meaningful, and even sacred that it is held to be beyond questioning.

By “spiritual experiences” we mean, then, discrete feelings, cognitions and intuitions, and paranormal experiences that are, as Ann Taves1 would say, deemed religious or spiritual and felt to be self-validating. Friends may also use the adjective “mystical,” a word that resists definition.2 By using such descriptors as “spiritual” and “mystical,” a person conveys that she interprets an experience as having to do with a god or other metaphysical “reality.” It has become common for liberal Quakers (and others) to assert that such experiences are of the essence of the spiritual life. In what follows, I will refer to that doctrine as experientialism, a term borrowed from Denys Turner.3


Friends sometimes present such experiences as evidence for the objective existence of a god or “Absolute.”4 But the experiences are by definition personal and subjective, internal to a single human being; from the scientific perspective, therefore, they are intrinsically untrustworthy. The attempt to use them as evidence or proof evokes the idea of “the God of the gaps,” of theism’s retreat from the advance of science and critical thinking into increasingly smaller, still-safe interstices. Such spaces can’t remain safe forever: the scientific method continues to shine light into the dark places. Perhaps it was in response to that relentless advance that Howard Brinton, Arthur Eddington and others attempted to present Quakerism as experimental science,5 but there is nothing scientific about basing truth claims on untestable subjective experiences. A brief reflection on the aims and methods of science — or a look at the literature on, say, appearances of the Virgin Mary6 — should quash any such notions.

Nor does an apparent similarity of experience among group members improve reliability. It is not surprising that people who share a belief system should report similar experiences, but such a group is no more trustworthy than the individual — recall, for example, “the miracle of the sun.”7 Unless we are willing to abandon critical thinking and scientific method, we cannot assert that something must be objectively real because it seems to have revealed itself in subjective experience, even when a number of people make similar reports. Some of us, however, seem willing to do just that, as if our spirituality can and should be severed from our everyday mode of being, and as if critical thought and judgment, which were crucial to the rise of the Quaker movement, must now be excluded from our spiritual life.

One result of that break is the undermining of the traditional Quaker reliance on spiritual discernment. Private revelations, including the prescriptive kind called “leadings,” are susceptible to delusion and should be subjected to group discernment, but the definition of such experiences as self-validating and therefore exempt from critical examination, a definition which the group itself accepts and promotes, effectively precludes that. Add to that the liberal concern to avoid even a hint of imposition or conflict, and it is evident why experientialist Quaker groups can be quite susceptible to failure, or indeed refusal, of judgment. Our group discernment can be as unreliable as the special experiences it was meant, in part, to test.

To the extent, then, that it insists that subjective experiences are “experimental” and can serve as evidence of objective realities, and to the extent that it abdicates its responsibility for discernment by shielding such experiences from critique, experientialist Quakerism can be said to be not only uncritical but anti-critical, not only unscientific but antiscientific. (And as a quest for certainty through unchallengeable experiences, it may also be the antithesis of faith; I’ll touch on that in another section.)


It appears to be a poor basis for community as well.

Our contemporary stress on subjective religious experiences is the bastard child of what Ann Taves calls the Reformation’s “[valorization] of experience along with scripture,”8 midwifed by William James’s inadequate definition of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”9 (and lately robed in a patchwork of popular ideas old and new). It ignores not only the Reformation’s beloved scripture, the matrix of Quaker spirituality, but also, as William Harmless notes of James’s definition, the gestalts of shared beliefs, mores, rituals, histories, and other essential social elements which have characterized human religious experience through history.10 (It also ignores the shaping influence of the general culture on our sense of what is right and even what is possible, an influence that Quakers originally took pains to separate themselves from; I’ll discuss that later in this post.) The experientialist perspective tends, therefore, to regard a Quaker community not so much as a body but as a group of individuals who report or at least seek similar subjective experiences. Because of that narrow perspective, such Quakerism is, despite its belief that it is all-embracing, effectively exclusive: they are fully included who accept the primacy of subjective experience, but others, while ostensibly welcomed, are in theory and practice excluded from communion.

An anecdote will illustrate that. About twenty-five years ago, an elderly Quaker stood during worship at Homewood Meeting and said, “Whatever experience it is that people here are always talking about, I’ve never had it.” He went on to defend himself as a Friend, asserting that he had benefited from his participation in worship over the years and had contributed to the meeting community and the world by living according to his Quaker faith. But it was clear that he felt excluded from the fellowship of those real Quakers who enjoyed whatever special experience they insisted was at the heart of Quakerism.

It seems to me that a similar feeling of exclusion may lead people, especially relative newcomers, to leave us — and others to avoid making contact at all. If contemporary liberal Quakerism tends to present itself as constituted of and for people who have or who seek special or mystical religious experiences, then people who do not feel capable of such experiences, are leery of subjective experiences’ claims to truth, have a less individualistic expectation of religious community, or simply understand Quakerism differently are likely to feel that they cannot be full members of the family.


That exclusivity appears all the more unfortunate in context of the inclusive way offered by the original Quaker faith, a faith that did not subsist in the seeking of special/mystical experiences. It was evident to Friends such as George Fox that such experiences lack salvific power. Fox saw that lesson repeated throughout history, from the failure of Christianity in his own time all the way back to the Bible’s first human being.

“Adam,” he wrote, “though he might talk later of his experiences in paradise, … had lost his divine image, and his power and dominion, in which God had created him.”11 Adam is the archetype of the normal human being. The name represents that “nature” into which we all are born and in which we live, if unawares, until we are “convicted” by the light and re-formed into the image of God by the power of love. Being able to say that one has had spiritual experiences is no indication that one is, as Fox would put it, “passed from death to life” in active love.12 But a Quaker is, in Fox’s terms, precisely one who is spiritually alive. For Fox, discrete spiritual experiences ultimately have little or no importance for Friends: what makes a Quaker is living faith in the light, life, and power that is called Christ.

If any should depart from the spirit of prophecy that had opened them, and from the power, they [might] speak those experiences which the power opened to them in the past. So might Adam and Eve speak of what they saw and enjoyed in paradise; so might Cain and Balaam, of what they saw; and also the Jews, Korah, and Dathan, who praised God on the banks, saw the victory over Pharaoh, ate of the manna, drank of the rock, came to mount Sinai, and saw the glory of the Lord. So might the false apostles speak of their experiences, and all those false christians who turned from the apostles and Christ. So may those do now who err from the spirit, although they came out of spiritual Egypt and Sodom and have known [inwardly] the raging of the Sodomites, as Lot did the outward, and the pursuit of the spiritual Egyptians, as the outward Jew did the outward Egyptians; yet if they do not walk in the spirit of God — in the light and the grace which keeps their hearts established, their words seasoned, and their faith in the power of God in which the kingdom stands — they may go forth like the false christians, like the Jews, like Adam and Eve, Cain, Korah, and Balaam, and be wandering stars, trees without fruit, wells without water, and clouds without rain; and so come to be unsavoury, trodden down, like Adam who lost paradise and the Jews who lost the holy land [by] not walking in the law nor keeping the command of God, and like the christians who lost the city, the hill, the salt, and the light since the apostles’ days and came to be unsavoury and trodden under foot of men.

Therefore, let every one’s faith stand in the Lord’s power, which is over all …. So all who are in Christ may be ever fresh and green, for he is the green tree that never withers; all are fresh and green who … abide in him and bring forth heavenly fresh fruits to the praise of God. Adam and Eve fell from paradise; the Jews fell from the law of God; many of the christians fell from their prophecies and erred from the faith, the spirit, and the grace; and the stars have fallen, as was spoken in the Revelation; yet the spirit, grace, faith, and power of God remains.13

Many people — even a Cain, whose desire for spiritual validation leads to fratricide — may have special spiritual experiences. But it is “the Lord’s power,”  Fox tells us, that engenders the experiences, not vice versa: the experiences are secondary and ultimately impotent. What matters is whether one is living continuously in and by that power, “walk[ing] in the spirit of God,” living no longer in/as Adam but in/as Christ. That’s a matter not of having one’s normal life punctuated by special experiences but of living a qualitatively different life, of experiencing everything in a radically Christic way: not of plucking fruit from the Tree of Life but of living intentionally as a productive branch of that tree. And one enters that life not through a mystical experience or special revelation but by putting one’s faith in that power which is already, if obscurely, at work within, where it casts a critical light on the conscience, moves the heart to justice, breaks one’s unthinking thralldom to the ways of the world, and reveals the way of love from moment to moment. For the first Friends as for biblical authors, salvation is relational: to be saved is to live the life of the Just One whose nature is love. We find our justification by faith — trust in “that which can be known of God,”14 the life and power of agapē-love in the heart — and we work out our salvation by living justly in that faith.15 The seeking and cherishing of special experiences diverts us from the moment-to-moment work of faith and makes of our spiritual life, to borrow Christian Wiman’s phrase, a “discipline of memory.”16

It is not only early Friends who warn us against seeking or clinging to unusual experiences: others have said the same across the centuries. And lonely contemporary voices such as that of Maggie Ross still remind us that deep spiritual life involves giving up the desire for such experiences.17 Even Thomas Merton, whom Ross and others decry as having perverted spirituality into the service of narcissism, cautioned us about that:

Hence it becomes overwhelmingly important for us to become detached from our everyday conception of ourselves as potential subjects for special and unique experiences, or as candidates for realization, attainment and fulfillment.18

The seeking of “special experience” is a form, said Merton, of “spiritual ambition.” The realization of that ambition, the attainment of such experiences, easily seduces us into believing ourselves spiritually changed when in fact we continue to walk more in the way of Adam than of Christ. But as we’ll see in the next passage from George Fox, to see ourselves honestly is the first step into the Quaker way.


Quakerism began in a sea change in the hearts and lives of the first Friends, a change that followed Friends’ investment of faith in the Christ-seed of light, life, and power that was, they believed, within everyone. Having found the pearl of great price,19 they abandoned everything that would divert their faith from that constant power which is Christ “who changes not.”20 Through their writings, those first Friends call us to do the same, to “be still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in thee ….”21 As Fox put it in his Epistle X:

Friends,—Whatever you are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then you are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after you see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After you see your thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and there does strength immediately come. And stand still in the light, and submit to it, and the other will be hushed and gone; and then content comes. And when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed and will fly away. Your strength is to stand still, after you see yourselves. Whatsoever you see yourselves addicted to — temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c. — then you think you shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you what you shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help comes, contrary to your expectation. Then you grow up in peace, and no trouble shall move you. David fretted himself, when he looked out; but when he was still, no trouble could move him. When your thoughts are out, abroad, then troubles move you. But come to stay your minds upon that spirit which was before the letter; here you learn to read the scriptures aright. If ye do any thing in your own wills, then you tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace.

One thing we are addicted to is the consumption of unusual experiences that we can deem spiritual and self-validating (in a double sense, it seems). But our tradition advises us to be still from our own thoughts, seeking, and desires, for they, including our prizing of special experiences, are secretly shaped by the Adamic wisdom of the world. Step aside from them, bracket them, stand still in the light that shows us our darkness, and our minds may be re-made in Christ’s spirit.22 In each moment when we “have the mind of Christ,”23 we have no need of “spiritual” or “pure” experiences: our way of experiencing everything is spiritual and pure. But while we remain in the Adamic mind, even our attaining Mount Sinai and seeing the glory of the Lord means nothing.

The Quakerism that was expressed in such exhortations comprised a religious rejection of the wider culture’s suppositions and conventions about the spiritual life. Having passed from death to life, the Friends were continuously nourished by the “living water” of agapē.24 Today, however, we are returning to the cultural well, imbibing there the experientialist doctrine promulgated by contemporary religionists from Roman Catholics25 to New Agers, learning to exchange faith and faithfulness for feelings. Consequently, we are not so much now “a peculiar people,”26 a people who have turned away from the world’s values into the Kingdom of God, into the counter-cultural, world-changing life and power that our ancestors knew as Christ; increasingly, we are co-opted into the consumerist society, rationalizing by spiritualizing our participation in the destructive culture of self-gratification.


From my perspective, then, experientialism is a deeply flawed and damaging ersatz of the Quaker way. Although firmly established in liberal Quakerism, it is not a solid foundation for the future: its anti-scientific, a-communal, and esoteric nature promises increasingly narrow appeal. Further, it cuts us off from the radical power of our tradition, exchanging living Quaker faith — that is, continually-renewed trust in and fidelity to the justifying Christ-power within27 — for the seeking and enjoying of private experiences. I don’t imagine that a significant number of adherents would be willing or able to give it up, but I permit myself some hope that liberal Friends might at least come to see experientialism as an optional, rather than essential, doctrine. That could allow people with other Quaker perspectives to feel that they are integral parts of the community. And it could open a space for the powerful possibilities inherent in our tradition to become more available to all of us.

NOTES for “A Song of Experience”

[The illustration is a detail from William Blake's Song of Experience called "The Sick Rose." Clicking on the image will take you to a reproduction of the entire illustrated poem.]

[1] Ann Taves, Religious Experience Reconsidered. See also the quotation from Robert Ellwood in note 2, below.

[2] Friend Sallie B. King, in her “Two Epistemological Models for the Interpretation of Mysticism” (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, LVI/2, p. 257), says, “But there is no generally accepted definition for ['mysticism']. Recent studies which display the variety of phenomena normally included in the category of the mystical make it doubtful that any single essence pervades the various phenomena and furnishes the necessary unifying element for the construction of a definition.” Robert Ellwood, in his Mysticism and Religion, finds it necessary to define mysticism in terms that remind me of Taves: Mystical experience is experience in a religious context that is immediately or subsequently interpreted by the experiencer as direct, unmediated encounter with ultimate divine reality” (emphasis original).

[3] See Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism. Turner uses the term partly to refer to the distortion of classic mystical theology into a cult of “experiences of inwardness” or discrete “mystical experiences” that writers like Eckhart and the author of The Cloud of Unknowing would reject.

[4] See, for example, the exchange of June 6 & 7, 2013, between Steven Davison and me under the post “I Am the Way.”

[5] See the LA Quaker blog: “Howard Brinton: Scientist and Mystic” and “More iftars, and thoughts on Quaker worship.” Both Brinton and Eddington were trained in science and should have known better.

[6] See, for example, Visionaries: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ, by William A. Christian Jr. (Full text is available on line.)

[7] See “The Lady of Fátima & the Miracle of the Sun.”

[8] Ann Taves, op. cit., p. 147.

[9] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 34, quoted in William Harmless, Mystics, p. 15. In liberal Quakerism, the concept expressed in James’s “whatever they consider divine” is used to assert that Quakers need share no definition of what the word “God” means, thus privileging the individual’s opinion — here the doctrine of self-validating experience is useful in protecting those opinions from critique — over the Quaker tradition’s understanding of God and effectively promoting a meaningless creed of “There is that of whatever in everyone.”

[10] Harmless, Mystics, p. 15.

[11] George Fox, Journal, p. 171 of Volume 2 of the 1831 edition of the Works. Modified for clarity.

[12] George Fox, Journal, p. 71 of Volume 1 his Works. Fox would have been referring to 1 John 3:14: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loveth not [his] brother abideth in death.”

[13] George Fox’s “general epistle to Friends at the Yearly Meeting in London,” modified for clarity. Works, Vol. 2, pp. 172-173.

[14] Romans 1:19, the source of the Quaker phrase “that of God in every one.”

[15] Philippians 2:12.

[16] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, Kindle location 1109.

[17] See the blog Voice in the Wilderness.

[18] Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite, pp. 76, 77.

[19] Matt. 13:45-46.

[20] See George Fox, Journal, p. 146 of Volume 2 of his Works: “Thus they that come to be renewed up again into the divine heavenly image in which man was at first made will know the same God that was the first teacher of Adam and Eve in paradise to speak to them now by his Son, who changes not….” Fox was probably referring to Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

[21] George Fox, “letter to Lady Claypool (so called)”: for the text of the letter, see the post “Questioning Quakerism as Mysticism.”

[22] On the light as “discovering” our darkness to us, see, for example, Isaac Penington’s “To All Such as Complain That They Want Power.” On our minds being remade in Christ, see, for example, Rom. 12:1-2 and 2 Cor. 3:18.

[23] 1 Cor. 2:16. See also Philippians 2.

[24] See John 4, the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.

[25] Paul V. Mankowski, S.J.: “… what Vincentian Fr. Patrick Collins has called (approvingly) the change from ‘the experience of religious authority to the authority of religious experience.’”

[26] 1 Peter 2-9. See also “A Peculiar Priesthood.”

[27] By “justifying” I mean “making just” — the properly Quaker reading of Paul’s teaching in such passages as Romans 4:5, in which he speaks of God “who justifies/rectifies the ungodly.” (That translation is by A. Harriet Grieb in her “The Righteousness of God in Romans,” in Jerry L. Sumney, ed., Reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 67.)

April 8, 2013

Quaker Theology in Brief

Owning Our Theology

“Quaker theology” is sometimes said to be an oxymoron. But the belief that we have no theology is naïve. At least in our cultural context, to be involved in religion or spirituality is to hold a theology. To insist that one doesn’t is, therefore, to convey an unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own belief system qua belief system. Implicit in that is resistance to examining one’s world-view contextually and critically; ironically, such resistance is reminiscent of the rigid religion we thought we’d left behind. And of course denial does not alter reality.

The reality is that, although we’re not all theologians, we all do theology: each of us, even if not a theist of any sort, has ideas about what the word “God” means. And we each know what we accept and reject with regard to theistic belief. To believe in1 a God — or “Spirit,” “Light,” “Source,” “Ultimate Reality,” “the Absolute,” “the Divine,” “the Infinite,” etc. — is to affirm that a particular set of mental formations accurately represents the nature of reality; not to believe is to doubt or deny that given concepts convey correct information. Those ideas and non/beliefs are our theo-logy, our God-reasoning.

In flight from owning our theology, we may seek refuge in what has been called experientialism, the belief that individuals may obtain meaningful but ineffable Truth directly through nonverbal, or “pure,” experience.2 But “Truth,” too, is a mental formation, and a capitalized, sacralized one at that: it is already an interpretive concept. Even if “pure experience” exists, it cannot remain pure, devoid of interpretation, if it is to have meaning. Consequently, as a future essay will argue in detail, the notion of religious/spiritual experience that is wholly beyond language appears to be absurd.3 Further, a doctrine that truth is a matter of purely subjective revelation ignores the influence of culture — of the other – on our psyches and is akin to solipsism if not psychosis.4 We do better, with respect to honesty and clarity, to confess our “sin of theology”5 and commit to the work of enunciating and struggling with it. To that end, I will offer here a succinct theological foundation statement for present-day Quakerism, a statement that respects the nature and power of the faith of our founders while being informed by contemporary thought.

A Faithful Contemporary Foundation

Primitive Quakerism constituted a radical simplification of Christian religion; it was hyperfocused on the power for/of living righteously. To bring that vision into the 21st century requires no elaboration but, on the contrary, invites further simplification: mythic scriptural elements that carried the message can be (not discarded but) bracketed as we focus on the message’s existential core. Setting aside, too, the more modern, norm-limned self-caricature that produces “the testimony of simplicity” and other focal displacements,6 we find that Quakerism can be, so to speak, simplicity itself. A foundational Quaker theology for today needs but four brief points.

  1. “God” signifies “love” — in biblical Greek, agapē.7
  2. “Love/agapē” signifies behavior, empathetic encounter with and response to the actual other in her actual need.8
  3. Each of us has, here and now, a degree (“measure”) of the power of agapē.
  4. That agapē-power will shape our lives if we allow it to do so — if, that is, we commit ourselves to it, discern how we are impeding it, and get out of its way.

The essential Quaker message is, then, not only simple but also practical: commit yourself to God/love as that which moves you to respond justly and generously to the other, even at cost to you, and then pay attention to that love’s movement in your heart and allow it to guide and empower you; anything else is distraction and therefore anti-religion, anti-spirituality. In keeping with that, the first Friends announced the end of religion-as-we-know-it, emphatically including the end of teachers, techniques, and speculations. Their theology, like the biblical exegesis supporting it, served their belief that God-who-is-love had come to guide his people himself: it was a sign directing human beings to the motive power of agapē within. In our contemporary distillation of their theology, we follow in that spirit.

Faith and Practice

Because Quaker theology points directly to the working of agapē in the heart, there should be no question of translating theory into action. As the apostle James reminds us, faith and practice cannot be separated. To be a believer, said George Fox, is to be — actually, not forensically — “passed from death [i.e., sinfulness, or living harmfully] to life [i.e., righteousness, or living justly].” The apostle John (recalling the story of Cain and Abel) says, “And we are aware that we have passed out of death into life because we love our brothers; whoever is not loving their brother is remaining in death.”9 In traditional terms, “believers,” those who put their faith in God-who-is-agapē‘s guidance and power, enter into the divine life of love, become “partakers of the divine nature,” as they are made just through that faith: love is their resurrection and their life.10 In contemporary terms, it is through faith, commitment to agapē as supreme value and trust in its continuing guidance, that we are saved from the darkness of destructive narcissism. A properly Quaker theology simply points to the possibility and nature of such faith.

Quaker theology is realized in the fidelity of individual Friends to the continuing influence of agapē, in the fidelity of the community gathered in that love, and in the responsive work of agapē in the world. Always, this faith-and-practice is one. And always, because of that oneness, it is simple, simplicity itself — as are our lives when we embrace it.


NOTES for Quaker Theology in Brief

[1] “Believe” is polysemous, so the phrase “believe in” has multiple possible meanings. It can indicate that I accept the facticity of something; for example, that I believe in a god in the sense of accepting that the god exists. It can indicate trust, as in, “I know that you’ll come through for me; I believe in you.” It can indicate that I approve of something, as in, “I believe in the separation of church and state.” Tellingly, “believe” can also indicate uncertainty, as in, “I believe that her sister’s name is Mary, but I’ll have to check.” In this post, I am using the phrase “believe in” primarily in the first sense, but I recognize that multiple senses of “believe” may be present in a person’s thinking about God.

[2] Experientialism has become de facto doctrine in some liberal Quaker circles, supporting an individualistic religion which meshes well with the contemporary consumerist mindset, at least in the U.S.A. For an example of that approach, see the 2012 draft Faith and Practice of Baltimore Yearly Meeting, pp. 19-21: “Certainly, each of us is encouraged to follow our individual spiritual path. [...] Your Truth informs my own, and I am not constrained to accept your Truth as my own, but I am encouraged to listen to your testimony, to discern the value of your approach and how it affects my own path.” (The capitalization is in the original.) Not surprisingly, the book offers an impoverished understanding of Quaker community and worship as a “safe … environment” for “individualistic search,” for speaking about our own experiences, and for patiently listening to others speak about theirs in hopes of getting something for ourselves (see p. 24) — a safe environment, one might fear, for self-indulgence and grasping under the guise of spirituality.

[3] Fuller discussion of ideas such as “pure experience” must await future essays. For now, I simply note that to feel that an experience is religious, spiritual, or mystical involves ascribing that quality or meaning to it. Such ascription, even if done subconsciously, is interpretation, shaped by culture and language. (Acknowledging those facts, by the way, we can stand aside from the seemingly endless debate over whether “pure experience” is even possible.) For an excellent introduction to critical thinking about, and application of attribution/ascription theory to, the idea of religious experience, see Religious Experience Reconsidered by Ann Taves.

[4] “Impairment of reality testing [-- an ego function that enables one to differentiate between external reality and an inner imaginative world --] is indicative of a disturbance in ego functioning that may lead to psychosis,” which is is characterized by inability “to distinguish personal subjective experience from the reality of the external world.” (Source: articles on reality testing and psychosis at http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com).

[5] That felicitous phrase was recently used by a Friend when quitting, apparently in frustration at the group’s negativity, an online Quaker theology discussion group.

[6] When Quakerism is defined, as it sometimes is by liberal Friends, in terms of shared practices and values, then it has devolved — exaltation of subjective experience notwithstanding — into a religion of externals and of law. Becoming thereby the very opposite of what it was while claiming to be the same, it now qualifies for the epithet “Anti-Quakerism.”

[7] See the letters of John; e.g., 1 Jn. 4:8b: ho theos agapē estin. On love as the nature of God, see Isaac Penington’s “Concerning Love.” That doctrine is taught as well by traditional Christian writers such as Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in his On the Trinity  that “Love … is of God and is God….”

[8] That divine love means beneficial action for the other, even the enemy, is amply documented in the Christian scriptures; see, for example, Matthew 5:38-48. Note that this is where traditional Quakerism — unlike the cult of the individual and his personal “Truth” — may break free of solipsism and linguistic regression as well: agapē is not simply an inner feeling or a linguistic signified which becomes yet another signifier in a circle; it is empathetic action in the world, arising responsively in interpersonal encounter.

[9] On faith and works, see James 2. On what makes a “true believer,” see the Journal of George Fox, page 6 in the Penney edition. The quotation from John is 1 Jn. 3:14.

[10] “Partakers of the divine nature” is from 2 Peter 1:4. In the Quaker version of salvation by faith, when we trust in the Light, the guiding and empowering work of the spirit of Christ in the heart, we are incorporated into Christ here and now, “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21), for “now the justice/righteousness of God apart from the law has been made to appear … through Jesus Christ’s faith into all and upon all the ones having faith, for there is no distinction” (Romans 3:21-22). My final reference in the paragraph is to John 11:25, in which Christ the divine Logos, the visible form of God-who-is-love into whom believers are incorporated, says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he were dead, shall live….”

March 12, 2013

The Publican, the Quarisee, and Christ


During worship at Little Falls Meeting, I rose and said,

I hope you’ll forgive me if this is too bold. Using a story told by Jesus, I’m about to make a riddle that’s no joke. Here’s the story.

Two guys walk into a house of worship, one after the other. The first, a man whose job makes him complicit in state oppression, stops just by the door. He hangs his head, beats his breast, and sincerely acknowledges before God that he is a wicked person and very much in need of mercy. The second guy walks in, looks the first fellow over, and then continues to the front. There, he expresses his sincere gratitude to God that he has been blessed with right religion: what good people should do, he does; what good people should not do, he does not. He’s thankful that he’s not like the guy in the back.

My riddle is not about which one Jesus approves. As you already know if you’ve read the story in the Bible, Jesus says that God accepts the guy in the back and rejects the other one. My riddle is this: which one is the Quaker?

After worship, a Friend said to me: “My answer is: neither.” As I thought about that, I realized that I had been thinking of the question as being of the “either-or” sort: do we Quakers tend to be more like the first man – the publican, as Jesus told it – or the second – the Pharisee? But the story has three important characters, not two: I, at least, had excluded the narrator.

When Jesus is included, the story deepens. It speaks to me now of a complex, but perhaps not uncommon, Quaker conversion process. Let’s say that a person begins as something like a publican. As the Light of agapē-love shines on her life, she becomes aware that she is complicit in an oppressive and violent social, economic, and political system. Thus “convicted” by the Light, she repents and becomes a Quaker, publicly affirming Friends’ religious ideals of peace, equality, and integrity. Now she can feel that she is no longer complicit; her Quaker values and practices lift her above the warmongers and other less enlightened, less virtuous, people.

As we’ve seen, Jesus would have preferred that she remain at the honest publican’s level. But she has found a way to save herself. She has become what I’ll call a Quarisee — a Quaker-Pharisee.

In the Christian scriptures, “Pharisee” refers to a member of a religious group. The Pharisee publicly lives a spiritual life. He is committed to discerning and doing the right thing; he tries hard to know and follow the will of God, and he encourages others to do likewise. And he is, if more or less subconsciously, proud of himself for being a decent person. He doesn’t see that he continues to serve an unjust and violent system. As a member of organized religion, even if one that protests against unrighteousness, he helps maintain the status quo. Protected by state power, profiting from an unjust economy, he lives well while the poor starve. Meanwhile, he looks down on those whose values, he feels, are not as noble as his, or whose actions offend his (ultimately self-serving) sense of what’s right.

That is what our protagonist has become. After the good start of responding to the Light’s illumination of her situation, she has fallen into the insidious sin of self-satisfaction. If, as our tradition teaches, the first function of the Light is to convict us of the moral failure of selfishness, to reveal us to ourselves as we really are in relation to justice, peace, and mercy, then when we no longer see that selfishness — regardless of what we tell ourselves, regardless of what our Quaker community might affirm for us — we have turned away from the Light. And that, although she does not realize it, is what she has done, almost from the outset. She sees now, not herself, but what she believes herself to be.

If our new Friend abides at the Quarisee stage, which is the natural thing to do, then she gives her life over to hypocrisy. But there is, as the Little Falls Friend reminded me, another possibility, one which opens for us when we remember to include Jesus the Christ in our story. For, as we learn from the first Friends, the vocation of a Quaker is to be, like Jesus, the body of Christ in this world.

In the Bible story, it is Jesus, the Light enfleshed, who, free of the sin of both publican and Pharisee, can examine their situations from a critical yet compassionate perspective. Seeing the complicity of the hapless publican and the hypocrisy of the satisfied Pharisee, he pronounces judgment: God accepts the authenticity of the sinner who knows what he is, for such a person at least acknowledges what the Light reveals. But God rejects the complacency of the self-consciously spiritual person, because it is a result — and this would be especially ironic for a Quaker — of his failure to appraise himself and his life honestly and continuously in the Light.

This says to our Quarisee that if she can open her present condition to the Light’s critical searching, accept the continuing revelation that evil lives disguised as goodness in her heart, and allow the Light to lead her back into repentance, she can begin again. This time, however, alert to the allure of self-righteousness, she may learn from the example of Jesus that it’s not about her and her moral status but about the plight of the world and the individual beings in the world. This time, she may be able to go out of herself and enter into real relationship with others, responding not to her own beliefs and values but to the others’ suffering and need. This time, she may give up the project of making herself good and accept the call to be the body of Christ, broken for love of the world.

NOTES for The Publican, the Quarisee, and Christ:

  • As a noun, “riddle” can signify not only a puzzle or conundrum but also a sieve (useful, for example, for separating gold from mud). As a verb, it can refer to the posing of a puzzle but also to acts of sifting and of poking holes in something — or, in a twist not untypical of English, of filling something, usually with an unwanted substance. All of those meanings are harbored in my use of the word here.
  • The story of the publican (tax collector) and the Pharisee is from Luke 18:9-14.
  • The illustration at the top of this post is from a woodcut by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543). Holbein has placed the story in his own time, depicting the Pharisee as a Franciscan friar; that is, as a contemporary person who is publicly committed to a spiritual community which celebrates virtues like simplicity and peace while its members live in relative security and comfort, protected by official force and subsidized by the sacrifices of the poor and donations from the wealthy that are tainted by greed, oppression, and violence.
  • With regard to the final statement in this post: if the invitation to “be the body of Christ” seems to sneak egotism and self-righteousness back in, please note that Christ is archetypically the self-transcending one who would suffer and die for love of human beings, which is why his body is broken. Recall, too, Mark 10:18, in which Jesus says, “Why do you call me ‘good’? No one is good but God.”
February 25, 2013

A Reason for Persecution

Mary Dyer & other Quaker martyrs

The following is a transcription, modified somewhat for clarity, of vocal ministry I offered yesterday at Homewood Friends Meeting.

It’s sometimes said that what brought persecution on the first Quakers was their doctrine that everyone can have immediate experience of God. But I don’t think that could have been threatening enough to incite the beating, dispossession, imprisonment, torture, and murder of Friends. Even the Roman church, that much-maligned bastion of mediated religion, had taught that individuals have direct access to God: Christians could and should pray and contemplate, and they could receive consolations, revelations, and even mystical union. Mysticism may have begun as a Catholic phenomenon (and, despite some readings of history, mystical writers were not more subject to the Inquisition than others; even Meister Eckhart, the Neoplatonic Dominican friar sometimes used as an example of persecution, wrote, taught, and preached openly for decades*), but Protestant mystics were active in 17th-century England. And Protestants in general believed in direct individual access to God. The idea would seem to have been a commonplace.

There must have been more urgent reasons for the persecution. While the situation was complex, I think that a major catalyst was the Quakers’ central doctrine that each of us has a measure of that spiritual power which was present and active “above measure” in Jesus. That power is dangerous: it leads us to live justice, peace and mercy right here and right now. There may not be any idea more threatening to the powers that be than that real justice, peace, and mercy are attainable in this world. I can see that proclamation bringing down the wrath of church and state. After all, a primary function of both is to preserve the status quo of injustice, violence, and, rhetoric notwithstanding, hardheartedness.

I think that the powers that be would much prefer to have us sit passively on our benches or cushions, enjoying our individual experiences of God, looking inward instead of at what is going on all around us. But I hope that before we turn inward we take a good look outward, allowing ourselves to really see the injustice, violence, and hardheartedness — and then look within to find and open ourselves to that in us which speaks, and moves us to respond, to our world’s condition.

NOTES for “A Reason for Persecution”

* My statement about Eckhart raised an eyebrow or two, so perhaps a note is in order. Meister (i.e., Master: he was a professor and leader in the Dominican Order) Eckhart taught and preached openly until the last year of his life, at which time his work was questioned by the Franciscan Archbishop of Cologne. As the Eckhart Society notes, “at this time the feud between the Franciscans and the Dominicans was at its height.” Eckhart’s Dominican Order defended him consistently. It was not until after his death that some of Eckhart’s ideas were censured — by a pope who would later be condemned for heresy himself, and with recognition that the material had been received without context. As far as I know, Eckhart was never incarcerated. He was never harmed, nor was he condemned personally — which is why a recent request from the Dominicans that he be “rehabilitated” could not be granted by the Vatican, which affirmed his orthodoxy. It should also be noted that some of the great canonized saints and “Doctors” of the Catholic Church, people like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, are among the most influential mystical writers in Christian history. Mystical religion has not been the outlaw movement it is sometimes made out to be: those who want to have a “spirituality” that has no connection with organized religion cannot honestly appropriate the likes of Eckhart, Teresa, and John.

† (See Jn. 3:34 — “for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto [the Son].”) Many early Quaker texts could be quoted in illustration of the belief that each person receives a measure of Christ’s spiritual power. As an example, the following is from Proposition 7, “Concerning Justification,” of Robert Barclay’s Apology for the True Christian Divinity:

We consider then our redemption in a two-fold respect or state, both which in their own nature are perfect though in their application to us the one is not, nor cannot be, without respect to the other.

The first is the redemption performed and accomplished by Christ for us in his crucified body without [i.e., outside of] us. The other is the redemption wrought by Christ in us, which no less properly is called and accounted a redemption than the former. The first then is that whereby man, as he stands in the fall, is put into a capacity of salvation, and hath conveyed unto him a measure of that power, virtue, spirit, life, and grace that was in Christ Jesus: which, as the free gift of God, is able to counterbalance, overcome, and root out the evil seed wherewith we are naturally as in the fall, leavened.

The second is that whereby we witness and know this pure and perfect redemption in ourselves, purifying, cleansing, and redeeming us from the power of corruption, and bringing us into unity, favour, and friendship with God.


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