“Primitive Christianity Revived”

William Penn expressed the self-understanding of the early Quaker movement in the phrase “primitive Christianity revived.” Given the long history and wide prevalence of mainstream Christianity, it is understandable that we might misunderstand what the Friends meant by “primitive Christianity.” They were not speaking of a system, or proto-system, of doctrine, hierarchy, and cult. Rejecting all of that as a manifestly failed approach, they attempted to discern and enter into the mindset of the writers of Christian scripture. As a result of thus freeing themselves from received suppositions, they discovered a very different meaning in the scriptural texts, a meaning which led them to a very different metanarrative encompassing all three aspects that we have discussed; viz., culture, religion, and self. I expect to discuss that metanarrative in detail later. At the moment, I’m interested in what that grand narrative means in contemporary/postmodern and practical terms.

Gerd Theissen describes early Christianity in just such terms: “Primitive Christian faith consists in a revolt against [natural] selection which often assumes abrupt and bizarre forms and is topical precisely in its contradiction to the modern consciousness” (Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Approach, 1985, pp. 114-115). Primitive Christianity seemed to “turn the world upside down” (see Acts 17:6) precisely because, following Jesus, it sought to reverse the inhuman operation of natural selection. It protects and exalts the weak while limiting or even condemning the strong (which would exercise Nietzsche many centuries later). It is an active protest against the harshness of the natural selection process; as Theissen writes, “[Its] basic tendency is constantly to oppose human conduct dominated by the principle of selection” (p. 114).

We can think of that principle of selection as a normally unconscious metanarrative wired into the organism. Primitive Christianity and, later, primitive Quakerism wanted to override even that most fundamental and totalizing of metanarratives — that one above all — and replace it with one oriented not to individual survival and personal/familial aggrandizement through competition and dominance but to collective survival and gracious prosperity through compassion and cooperation. It sought that seemingly abnormal kind of existence in order to be in unity with the God – or “the central reality,” as Theissen puts it — who their hearts told them was love and whom they encountered in Jesus. Primitive Christianity is the discovery that, first of all and contrary to the wisdom of the world, love in its weakness is both more essential and more powerful than the principle of selection (which, of course, they knew in other terms; e.g., “evil,” “sin,” “the flesh”), despite the latter’s domination of the world from within and without; and that, secondly, despite the hard-wired nature of the principle of selection, human beings can re-wire themselves sufficiently to center their lives in a love that relentlessly counters selection’s ruthlessness. That was the discovery, too, of the first Friends, a discovery that radically changed their lives.

[Follow-up post: “Re-wiring for Love”]

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