01/20/2020 § Leave a comment
I have fallen behind my proposed schedule for this series of posts on climate change as a spiritual opportunity — but am now re-entering the workshop. As I mentioned in a prior post, I am thinking of this project as having 3 parts. This second part will move towards more Quaker material, with my principal source being George Fox’s epistles. In this post, I want to restate my main argument, and set the stage for what comes next.
Much of the excellent theology about earthcare or ecology that I have read or heard in recent years has been in the nature of a call to extend Christian teaching, to develop a theology of nature or of ecology. My own position is that the Gospel already is about earthcare, about humans as part of the complete, the whole household of the world. (It is not only about that, of course.) Mostly, Christians have not heard that bit. We are living the judgment that comes from living out of harmony with God’s law, and ignorance is no excuse. Heaven knows we have had plenty of guideposts towards faithfulness. The climate crisis which drove me to this line of thinking is only the latest and (perhaps) greatest manifestation of our transgressive ways.
Research on people’s attitudes about climate change has shown over and over that knowledge is not a motivator for most people. Nor is fear or shame. For any of these factors to open the way to transformative action, a change of heart, a spiritual change, is necessary. So in this age of anxiety, despite the lateness of the hour, and urgency of our challenges, we need to have the courage to turn inward — and Quakerism has sometimes been a good way to face the truth of our own condition and that of our times, bring them to judgment and clarification, and then under the preparing and guiding hand of Christ to serve, to act, to witness, as the way is opened to us.
Friends have said from the beginning (and so have others, including my Erasmus), that we can only read the Scriptures if we read them in the Spirit which gave them forth. Now we know that Spirit, which is that of Christ, is the Logos at the heart of all creation, and it is known also sometimes as Sophia, God’s wisdom and delight. Before the Scriptures were, God, through God’s Word of Wisdom, wrote the book of Nature, in which was wrought also the human heart. This, too, we must come to read in the Spirit that gave it forth.
Since we are so obviously integrated with the rest of creation, why is it so hard? In Deuteronomy (ch. 30), Moses, speaking as to each invidivual, says,
this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
Yet, though many individuals have from time to time broken through the encircling veils, the glamor of culture and the immediacies of daily life to sense and yearn for a renewed unity with the creation and the Power sustaining it (“through Nature up to Nature’s God”), mostly we are alienated, act and feel our selves in tension with, other from, the nonhuman world.
Here is where our participation in the work of Christ, in whom God was/is reconciling the world to himself (Godself) is foundational. After all, as Paul says, “Who has known the mind of God? But we have the mind of Christ.” In that mind, the Word and Wisdom, we are seen whole, Creation is seen whole, and we are whole in and through it.
12/22/2019 § Leave a comment
I suffer with the imprisoned seed in you, to which I was sent to preach the everlasting gospel, to the opening of your blind eyes, that you might see your lost estates; how your immortal souls lie in the pit wherein there is no water, and to bring it forth that it might stand in the liberty of my Father’s love in the free covenant of life in the Lord Jesus, which covenant is to the seed which is pure and holy, and enlightens your understandings, and lets you see every bypath and broad way, and cries behind you, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn from the pure light which is in your consciences.
And to the light in your consciences I speak, which shall eternally witness me; you have not been faithful, many of you, in walking with the Lord, since you heard the gospel of your salvation. I charge you in the presence of the Lord God Almighty and by his power, every one of you examine your consciences, which will witness with me, for I am with you, though absent in body, and see you with the invisible and eternal eye which nothing can be hid from in the measure which the Lord hath opened.
I suffer amongst you for the immortal and eternal Seed that suffers in you. I charge you, slight not the examination of your hearts every one of you in particular. I see you who you are in whom the Seed suffers, in some under one deceit, and some in another; and to the all seeing eye, that light in your consciences, I direct you, which is the eye with which I see you; and every one of you dwell in the pure light which is in your consciences, and you will see yourselves and witness these lines.
And from the mouth of the living God, before whom all is naked and bare, I charge you by the Lord, hasten every one of you to meet the Lord in speedily reforming your ways:
— Thou that art slothful, harken to the light in thy conscience, and it will waken thee;
— & thou that art flown up into the air to speak of that thou livest not in, harken to the light in thy conscience, and it will stop thy mouth and cause thee to lie low before the Lord;
— and thou that art exalted above thy brother, harken to the light in thy conscience, and it will pluck thee down and cause thee to serve him in love;
— and thou that art delighting in the earth more than in the Lord thy God, harken to the light in thy conscience, and it will bring thy earthly mind to judgment and rend thee from the earth.
— And thou that art a self-lover, and if thou have thyself and regard not thy brother, harken to the light in thy conscience, and it will bring thee to self-denial and to love thy brother, & to watch over him & suffer with him in all his sufferings.
I charge you in the presence of the eternal and ever-living God, that every one be faithful according to the measure of light the Lord hath given to profit withal* in the exercises of your conscience towards God and men. Let the light guide you all in your ways, and it will purge away all the filth of the flesh; so will the old man be put off with his deeds, and the imprisoned seed will be set at liberty in you; and I shall not come to you any more with a rod, as I am constrained at this time through your foolishness, who have departed from the pure wisdom to look abroad in the counsel of your own hearts; for the rod is prepared for the back of a fool, but the wise man’s eye is in his head, which eye is the light in your consciences, being guided by it, it will lead you to Christ, who is your head, the fountain of wisdom and knowledge.
Now all of you that walk in him, I have union with every one of you, denying yourselves freely, and be faithful in your measures, that you may grow up together in the Lord Jesus: a peculiar people, a holy priesthood, to offer up your souls and bodies a living sacrifice unto the Lord our God, to guide you by his power to his own praise and glory, who alone is worthy to be feared and obeyed of all his saints forever and ever. With bowels** of love I salute you all in the Lord, into his power I commit you, and the Lord God Almighty enlighten your understandings and bless you and guide you in wisdom to watch over one another in love, that the God of love may be exalted in all of you.
William Dewsbury 1653
Published in James Nayler’s Works vol. 1, pg 262. I have edited slightly for easier reading. I have broken up paragraphs; also some sentences, replacing ; with . A couple of words have been deleted as being possibly mistakes in the writing of the letter. If you have any questions about the editing, contact me, or consult the original text in Nayler’s Works.
* Withal here = with: “to profit with.”
** This word, encountered fairly often in 17th century Quaker writings, denotes something deeply felt, and carrying with it a sense of compassion — a visceral, “gut” feeling. In the Gospels, Jesus is several times described as being deeply moved at the plight of someone, and the word there is splanchnizo, derived from the word for “gut.” In this case, you might say “heartfelt love.”
11/22/2019 § 10 Comments
Metanoia is a complex process. It’s not only that it take time to adjust our lives and habits to harmonize with the Truth we have acknowledged — the conversion that follows convincement.
There is also a pre-history to such a grand change. Think of the people that came down to the Jordan River, to hear John’s preaching — and perhaps to accept the rite of cleansing in flowing (living) water as an outward demonstration of a change begun. Those that came and accepted his call came out of a sense of search or need, a longing for rededication that perhaps they could not put into words, at least at first — the Holy Spirit whispering and prompting them to awaken to a renewed consciousness.
Of these, some sought for a yet more radical understanding of themselves, their times, and the requirements of the Holy One of Israel for them. John himself declared that one greater than he would come, with power to effect a deeper transformation than they yet had felt — a baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. A few listened and received that expectation. Staying in company with John in the fellowship of intense focus along the riverbank, they would speak of discoveries made, and questions yet unanswered. To a few of these, John said, “Behold the Lamb of God.” We know of two whose experiment began with the question, Where do you live? to which Jesus replied “Come and see.” Their eyes were opened further, and metanoia revealed new dimensions in Jesus.
The first motions of the Spirit, whether they feel like judgment on our ways, or dissatisfaction with our lives as we are conducting them, or alienation from our society, or a simple longing for a feeling of integration or for the “open life” (see Douglas Steere’s pamphlet on that them in the Library) — these fresh visitations are precious, and vulnerable. We may welcome them with joy, yet find them choked by busyness, parched by trouble or scorn, trampled by opposition (our own or others’). How much care, longing, persistence, grace are required to bear in mind through all our trials the sweetness and promise of the new life just taking roots and unfolding within.
I believe that many people are feeling inward promptings to enlarge their spirits to accept the reality of climate change, and the gravity of it, and their openness to these promptings has been long in preparation. Yet for many the new growth is still vulnerable.
How are we to comprehend our responsibility? In Psalm 19, David prays “Who can understand his erros? Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins, let them not have dominion over me. Then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent of the great transgression.” With climate change, we discover that without knowing it or willing it, we have had a share in the wrong-doing, the misuse of creation, whose results we are now experiencing.
When I first realized this, I found it frightening, and discouraging. A natural response is avoidance, or denial, or compartmentalization. But the wound, the sense of transgression and a debt owing, gnaws persistently within, even when one pretends it is not there.
Moreover, as we allow ourselves to understand the problem, a way of expiation or redress seems almost out of our power, the scale is so large, and we have so many co-offenders. How can I know what is my share in the solution? How can my activities, at my scale, make any discernible improvement, if so many of my brothers and sisters, co-constructors of the problem, do not share in the work, and the “principalities and powers” actively resist change, or drive all the harder in the direction of destruction?
As we move deeper into the new understanding that metanoia opens to us, where climate change is concerned, we realize that ‘hope’ itself must be re-examined. I end here with an excerpt from a letter I wrote to New England Friends some years ago,
… I have found myself losing other illusions that, I realize, have been sources of hope, which cannot any longer be relied upon. Some of my hope has been placed in enforcing social structures, such as government or other political agencies. It is increasingly likely that the major social structures will not respond in time to prevent protracted climate disruption. Some of my hope has been wedded to the idea of progress and reform. God’s will is peace and justice, abundance, agape,and creation — but I no longer see how this translates to “progress” as Americans and optimists have usually meant it. Finally, I have placed stock in knowing, being able to comprehend not only my personal dilemmas, but also the trends in which I am embedded. And I must admit that the hope that I have in knowing really reflects my deep desire to have control over my life, for my well-being and that of those I love.
We have not confronted the spiritual challenges of climate change until we recognize that some of our grounds for hopefulness are false, and that we need again to ask where the Holy Spirit and the Gospel story (including its later, Quaker chapters in some of which we are appearing right now), can be found in the midst of it all. At such a time, indeed, we are challenged to bring our grief and our need before the Living God. Many Friends have experienced surprising grace when driven to such an extremity, seeing that many of their props and resources were unreliable —”When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do…” We cannot tell God what to do, but we can know some things about how God moves among us.
When false hopes are removed, true hope can be discovered. It may be that our calling as a people is to be intentional about descending into the depths as we encounter them, and then waiting there for the power to call out in thanksgiving and in a hope that lives without any illusion of control. If Friends as a people could testify first and foremost to the Spirit from which we learn love, and the grace of a thankful heart, then indeed we can speak both power and love to our frightened, angry, disoriented time. The speaking will come with power as it comes from a life empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, and as we open to true concerns, our work will bring consolation, as love carries us past fear, even in calamitous times.
True concern. In the past few years, we have sought hard to bring the resources of our yearly meeting to bear upon our sense of insufficient faithfulness. The frustration and confusion that have often resulted suggest that we are not looking in the right places for the way forward, and that we may not have gotten clear, each of us in our own hearts, about what the roots of our urge for action may be, some worry that we have not yet been drawn into the complex, empowering, and risky condition of concern — of seeing how a particular person, issue, place, or need is for us an essential and unavoidable next stage of our spiritual life. We may see that something is cause for alarm or regret or outrage, but it may remain an outward threat only, until by the action of the Spirit some link of service and necessity is forged. Until that gap is closed, my activism will not reach to my core, nor be fed from the divine life. I may be under preparation, but I am not yet sent!
A concern is, in a real sense, a spiritual challenge, and so it is particular, or makes particular demands, on each of us, even if we feel the concern to be widely shared. In fact, for each of us, the shared concern is really unique, because it confronts each of us with the limits, uncertainties, and temptations that are ours alone; and however supported by our F(f)riends, the inward response to the challenge must take the form of inward change in each individual.
This change, this metanoia, the return to our senses, can (if we continue to dwell in the new mind) become so thorough that it erupts naturally into acts of service, of proclamation, of solidarity, of imagination, of endurance, and of witness to the Cross of Joy.
To Friends, not to reason and judge too much about gifts, but to listen to the Witness, and not to fear.
11/15/2019 § 12 Comments
We are weakened, and the Seed suffers, because we are so reluctant to welcome and encourage spiritual gifts that are emerging among us. Life is rising fresh, in young and old, and we say we want to encourage it, but we talk and judge it down. So we are lukewarm, and our growth is stunted. If gifts are not welcomed, they cannot be nurtured. If they are not nurtured, they will not be exercised. If there is no exercise, there can be little learning by individual or by meetings. So we are always starting over, and we gain no wisdom.
Our meetings’ descriptions of our spiritual condition each year speak clearly of our longing for nourishment, for learning, for power to live in the way the Spirit of Christ (however named) calls and leads us. Yet when gifts start to move in someone, and Friends take notice, our caution is so great as to wound and discourage the little, tender openings. Those who are timid and need cultivation in the work are often not even noticed, and we teach each other timidity and fear, when Paul urged us to desire earnestly the best gifts, for the community of the Spirit to thrive.
How many teachers we need! How many counselors and comforters, experienced in prayer and the care of souls! How many writers, how many inspired gifted stewards of our means and business! How many messengers from the witnessing Spirit, speaking to that in others! How many witnesses in love, for naming the power of evil, in our own beloved society, and beyond, and for the healing of its wounds! How many peacemakers and mourners, watchers in prayer, and gifted rejoicers! All these to be well-grown in the truth, which takes time and practice, and incubation by loving insight.
We are full of fear, Friends, fear of each other, and of the power of God. We are afraid to say that that one has a gift that I do not — because we do not trust that “each hath a gift and is serviceable.” We do not feel how each part of the mystical Body is needed in its difference, and has holy value if exercised as the Light and Wisdom guides it to. Jesus asked, If salt loses its savor, how can it be made salty again? In the same way: The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you, but if the hand never reaches to work, to point or caress, (while the eye looks out and does its part), then it does not serve, but only stays a dead weight.
When a gift arises in someone who wants to be faithful, they feel fear — that they are mistaken, that they have nothing to offer, that they will do wrong. It is for us to seek to the Witness in ourselves, and feel what answers, and we must seek in honesty. Is there life coming there? We know that the Spirit pours out gifts for our needs, in each community: What else should we do but be on the lookout for them, and welcome them in their first appearance?
The Witness yearns for abundant life, and can give power to live it. How is this power seen? It is seen when love is felt, when hindrances made up of fear or habit or wounds are weakened or taken away. With the ability to see one’s chains, comes guidance towards freedom, and with each step that way comes a taste of joy and courage.
The Witness leads peace-wards, it is the root of every spiritual gift and occasion to enact it. If Love is witnessed in our Friend, or in ourselves. then there is life in the gift, and the gift is for us all, so the life coming through it will be for all. Make sure, make sure, that the first word said to a gift-birth is “Love!” Then guidance, practice, form, and balance can be developed,and methods and techniques have their place. The experienced travelers who have walked that path and know that kind of service and its costs should come forward to share the stories of their journey in the work, offering gifts of joy, as well as warning. Growth and learning come in the forming and doing of service — this we know experimentally!
If we listen to the love in the voice of the Witness, fear is taken off, and reasoning and judgment can become tools seasoned with wisdom. Remember, remember, that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the servant of all. We say to the world (often with self-congratulation) that “we are all ministers,” but we are fearful of making that truly happen, of dedicating the time, patience, and effort to help each other know what our service is, and how to build it up, how to cultivate our talents like good craftspeople, through apprenticeship to mastery, each of us working to assemble and sharpen our tools and our fitness for the work, making our true service our delight and daily concern.
Friends, there is no time but this present, and our meetings and our world, in their weakness and turmoil, require generosity of spirit, not penny-pinching. So much the more, if we wish to be a prophetic people, and a school of prophets, must we cling to love, let it season our judgement, and draw us to make real the dear fellowship of the common life of the Spirit, which the first Friends knew as Christ come again in the bodies of his friends, Immanuel who appeared, and appears, as a little, helpless thing unadorned and unlooked-for, but promising much.
In Christian love your friend,
11/08/2019 § 5 Comments
Erasmus’s view of metanoia as I sketched it in my last blog post bears a strong resemblance to the Quaker experience of “convincement.” In many recent accounts of Quaker spirituality, “convincement” is seen as “the Quaker way of saying ‘conversion.'” But Quakerism has seen a distinction between convincement and conversion — the first can be a specific event, and Fox or others may say of a particular public meeting that it resulted in ‘many convincements.” The second word, ‘conversion,’ is not a single event on the Quaker view, but a process (often life-long) of transformation. This realization that Christian maturity may take years or a lifetime, is not only a Quaker idea, of course. Yet the Quaker distinction of terms emphasizes features of spiritual growth that it is unwise to neglect.
Some flavors of Protestantism place a great emphasis on the conversion experience. This is epitomized for me by a conversation with a friend whose wisdom I valued, in which I said that I could never remember a time in my life when I wasn’t a Christian. She replied that if I couldn’t remenber a moment when I took a definite decision to be Christian, then I wasn’t really one. But it seemed to me then (and still does) that I make and have made this choice many times — some more “visible” or dramatic, some at a very tiny scale.
What, then, is the Quaker “doctrine” of the progress of the soul? Early Friends were aware that one of the signal evidences of God’s working in one’s life is the longing for God — maybe for a long time not even recognized as such. William Dewsbury writes:
the mighty day of the Lord is coming, and in his power is appearing amongst you, in raising desires in some of you, towards his name, which desires cannot be satisfied with any outward observations and traditions of your fathers, but above them does your minds rise, in true hunger and thirst towards the living God, for refreshment from his presence
Sometimes such longing comes in the wake of a sense of one’s sinfulness, or disorientation, or drought: as Fox wrote of his early restlessness,
my troubles continued, and I was often under great temptations; and I fasted much, and walked abroad in solitary places many days, and often took my Bible and went and sat in hollow trees and lonesome places till night came on; and frequently in the night walked mournfully about by myself, for I was a man of sorrows in the times of the first workings of the Lord in me.
On the other hand, the recognition that one is longing for God, or for a life more in harmony with God, may then itself trigger the recognition of one’s inadequacy or alienation from the Divine. The insight may extend to a clarity about one’s capacity for sin (unfaithfulness, alienation from the Light, hardness of heart, or whatever “sinonym” you like). George Fox reports in his Journal (note that this is after his great opening about Christ speaking to his condition):
I was afraid of all company, for I saw them perfectly where they were, through the love of God, which let me see myself….When I myself was in the deep, shut up under all, I could not believe that I should ever overcome; my troubles, my sorrows, and my temptations were so great that I thought many times I should have despaired, I was so tempted…The natures of dogs, swine, vipers, of Sodom and Egypt, Pharaoh, Cain, Ishmael, Esau, etc.; the natures of these I saw within, though people had been looking without. I cried to the Lord, saying, “Why should I be thus, seeing I was never addicted to commit those evils?” and the Lord answered, “That it was needful I should have a sense of all conditions, how else should I speak to all conditions!.. I saw also that there was an ocean of darkness and death
All this is after his great vision, which so altered his point of view that as it unfolded “all things were new, and all creation gave unto me another smell than before.” The experience was not a one-and-done, but a tutelage under the guidance of the Divine Companion. The change was that you knew where to look to orient yourself, you had found a framework within which to judge and be judged, you could feel how radical its demands would come to be. Moreover, it was not a matter of mind only (“notion”), because it came with an inexhaustible life, a method or way to work and walk in, and the tang of reconciling Wisdom.
Friends paid close attention to the unfolding process of metanoia, as experienced by a seeking soul. Authors such as Penington described how the first workings of the Spirit were often ignored or slighted, not important enough to address the great matter of one’s sin and redemption:
… the great deceiver of souls lifts up men’s minds in the imagination to look for some great appearance of power, and so they slight and overlook the day of small things, and neglect receiving the beginning of that, which in the issue would be the thing they look for. Waiting in that which is low and little in the heart, the power enters, the seed grows, the kingdom is felt and daily more and more revealed in the power. And this is the true door and way to the thing: take heed of climbing over it.
This is reminiscent of the way that Jesus’ radically “alternative” embodiment of the messiah role was misinterpreted (and ever since has been, as Christians seek to substitute material power and means for the work of Christ).
The change of understanding, the reframing or “metaschematizing” (another good New Testament word) is indeed a multiplex experience, in which self-knowledge, judgment, liberation, guidance, and power to embody the new life are entwined, acting and reacting with each other — working like leavening to lift up the consenting soul. William Shewen says (In Meditations and Experiences, §II)
It is a blessed state to know the eye of the mind, not only opening, but, opened; thereby is ability and wisdom witnessed to read in the book of life, wherein all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid; and he or she that knows this light shining, this eye opened in them, walks and stumbles not…That which shut and stopped this eye, and darkened this light within, in the beginning, was sin and transgression, whereby mankind lost the sight and enjoyment of their Creator. And this I testify that no people upon the face of the Earth, come to witness this eye of the mind opened again, but as they come to experience that Power in themselves which crucifies sin, and saves and redeems out of transgression, and are also obedient and subject to it.
Christ’s work of reconciliation, reached an intensified form in Jesus’ ministry, but each of us must join in that process, the atonement currently being worked out each in our own case; as James Nayler said, “If I cannot witness Christ nearer than Jerusalem, I shall have no benefit by him.”
Thus, an early stage of metanoia is the sense of a power and Prophet at work within, on material that needs healing — often first felt in a state of exhaustion or discouragement with the life you have been leading. Fox writes to Lady Claypool:
When thou art in the transgression of the life of God in thy own particular, the mind flies up in the air, the creature is led into the night, nature goes out of its course, an old garment goes on, and an uppermost clothing : and thy nature being led out of its course, it comes to be all on fire in the transgression, and that defaceth the glory of the first body. Therefore be still awhile from thy own thoughts, searching, seeking, desires, and imaginations, and be stayed in the principle of God in thee. that it may raise thy mind up to God, and stay it upon God, and thou wilt find strength from him, and find him to be a God at hand, a present help in the time of trouble and of need.
Then, just as Penington did, Fox warns his friend to focus on the first appearing of this power — to stay in the humble condition, accompanied and helped by the humble God (an idea as astonishing in its way as Erasmus’s meditations on God’s folly)
thou being come to the principle of God, which hath been transgressed, it will keep thee humble; and the humble God will teach his way, which is peace, and such he doth exalt. Now as the principle of God in thee hath been transgressed, come to it, that it may keep thy mind down low to the Lord God; to deny thyself, and from thy own will, that is the earthly, thou must be kept.
Again, this is not a matter of an outside authority pointing, judging, advising, but rather a conjoint life, in which the life of God gradually perfuses mind, heart, soul, and body.
Contrary to the Calvinist doctrine of the “perseverance of the saints,” therefore, this is not an invulnerable or irreversable condition, a ratcheting into a new position (remember the parable of the Sower!). Rather, it is a continual (re)creation made possible by our dependence on the continued work of Christ in our healing. As Hugh Barbour wrote ( “A process theology of the Spirit”),
of course, once the first glow of joy fades, and backsliding sets in, it becomes a challenge to know if it really was God at work. Fox and Friends said that Holiness is rarely sudden joy or power, but usually a hard, lifetime process.
The mind can be transformed, and the promises (“We have the Mind of Christ…Now we see in part, but then, face to face…”) fulfilled — but not easily, not all at once, and not without cost (No cross, no crown). Yet those who have come some distance along the path begun in metanoia, and have gained enough experience to know the reliability of their Guide, sound a note of certainty and joy — indeed, joy, the taste of an inward peace founded as deep as the roots of the cosmos, give evidence that you’re headed in the right direction.
James Nayler puts it effectively (How sin is strengthened, and how it is overcome):
you that love holiness, it is near you; power over sin and satan is near you: salvation is at hand; go not forth to seek that abroad which you have lost in your own house; He is your salvation that condemns sin in your bosom: He that reproves the wicked is with you: He that is pure is your peace: He that never consented to sin, but stands a Witness against it: if you have such a Spirit in you, you have the Spirit of Christ the Savior. So take heed to Him, to believe in Him, and to mind His leading, and to follow Him; if you part not from Him, He will be your everlasting peace, and over-ruling power to subdue your sins; and by Him shall you tread down strength with ease and delight……
…as you become faithful thereto, you will feel the fruit of that Holy One springing in you, moving to be brought forth in you towards God and man, your faith will grow, and prayers with strong cries to the Father; as the Spirit sees your wants, your love will spring and move in you, and bring forth towards God and man upon all occasions; which if you willingly serve in its smallest motion, it will increase, but if you quench it in its movings, and refuse to bring it forth, it will wither and dry in you, not being exercised.
What a glory is it to see peace shine in the midst of war, love in the midst of hatred, meekness in the midst of strife, righteous judgment in the midst of wickedness, innocency in the midst of violence and oppression; as a lily among thorns, so is that of God among the men of the world; and therein does His nature and beauty appear in His temple, to which all must confess, and praise Him therein.
P.S. As I wrote in my first Metanoia post, I find this Quaker understanding very much to be in harmony with the teaching of Erasmus on the Christian path and process — which to me means that they are hearing the same gospel, and following the same teacher, the same Spirit, unique among all the spirits. Of course their accents and emphases differ, but the deep resonances, and humble reporting of experience, are nourishing and encouraging, as they rouse and speak to the Witness in my own soul. Rufus Jones included Erasmus as one of those who walk along the “luminous trail,” and prepare(d) the way for our own journeys, and I am glad to feel it so.
P.P.S. And this is not just a matter of working oneself into an etherial, Empyrean frame of mind, divorced from the work and grit of daily life in the flesh. The challenges, temptations, confusions, distractions, failures are all part of the substance and nature of our world, and ourselves. Part of the new mind that comes with metanoia is the ability to see (not always easily!) how these, if carried “in the Cross,” the cross of joy, are inextricably part of the blessing of our incarnated, incarnating life:
I have become convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruling powers nor things present, nor things to come, nor forces nor height nor depth nor any other creation will have the power to distance us from the love of God, which is in Christ. (Romans 8:38-39)
10/27/2019 § 2 Comments
In my high school days, Desiderius Erasmus (1469?-1536) became one of my spiritual companions and teachers, though I was not well equipped to learn what he could teach. When I was led to join with Friends, however, I received a very rich education in spiritual practice and in the meaning of the gospel message — from experience in worship, from my encounters with living Friends “well grown in the Truth,” and from the writings of the first Quaker prophets and pioneers. They helped me see and feel the gospel as an experience, as a life from which and in which to live.Though I have many lessons still to learn — Oh, so many! — my schooling among Friends enabled me to return to Erasmus with fresh eyes, and to seek to understand a little better what I could learn from him. So even while I continue my Quaker spiritual formation, I delight to regularly visit my old friend (and on his advice some of his guides and mentors), and so of course I can’t overlook his birthday.
On this, his 550th (if you take 1469 as his natal year), a reflection on metanoia, the Greek word most often translated “repentence, ” and central to the Christian message — a word not often heard in Quaker meetings these days, and often misused in other circles. In Part 1, I will start from word study, then move to implications that Erasmus drew for spiritual practice. In Part 2, I will return to Quaker teachings about the progress of the soul — and in Part 3 wrap up, and explore some implications for spiritual life in the face of climate change.
Ultimately, my aim is to better grapple with the message conveyed in the Gospels, and thus to get insight into that portion of God’s revelation that flowed through Jesus — the better to calibrate my experience of the Inward Teacher, which Friends have understood not as some vague “Spirit,” but as the Spirit of Christ. I am encouraged to find (as I hope to show) that there is much congruence between Erasmus’s teachings in this matter, and that of traditional Quakerism — it’s some evidence that they are reading, and experiencing, the same Gospel, longing to know and follow the same Christ.
Part 1. Metanoia and its implications
In the course of his study of the Greek scriptures, Erasmus proposed translations (into Latin) for some key words, in order to capture nuances in the Greek not reflected in the Vulgate (then the authorized version). For example, he argued that logos in John’s gospel was better translated by sermo, a word that conveys an interaction through language, rather than verbum, a single event or utterance (which Greek would typically translate using a different word).
Again, Erasmus translated Romans 5:12 in a way that significantly weakens the basis for the doctrine of original sin (a topic for another post), in way that moves the emphasis on the spiritual (and human) processes at work. So his translation moves away from the idea of inherited, intrinsic sinfulness ( “in Adam’s fall, we sinned all”) to one that sees our characteristic sinfulness as embedded in culture, and in the challenges of being incarnated spirits — thus, in his paraphrase/commentary for the passage, he remarks that ” no one has failed to imitate the example of the first parent.” * This implies that, though of course we are inclined to fall away from God’s intent for us because we are in part creatures of earth, each person’s sinfulness is to a large degree learned, from parents, friends, the culture — the other kind of inheritance.
Now to “repentance.” The noun metanoia (or the corresponding verb) occurs several times in the new testament, for example in Mark 1, where John preaches the baptism of metanoia for the forgiveness of sins. Later in the same chapter (verse 15), Jesus begins to preach, announcing that the kingdom of God has come close, and people should do metanoia and have confidence in the good news.
What does this word mean? Well, the Vulgate used the word poenitentia (alternate spelling paenitentia) for the noun — “repentence” or “penitence” — and poenitentiam agere “enact repentence.” Though this was not Jerome’s intent when he chose the words, the translation was later used as part of the argument for the sacrament of confession (first promulgated in 1215).
Now, what do you think of, when you hear the word “repentence”? I suppose that very often people imagine it as an event, a moment of realization that you’ve done something you shouldn’t have. You understand the misdeed or mistake, wish it hadn’t happened, if necessary commit to repair the consequences, and intend to avoid it in the future. “Regret” is one nuance.
Erasmus, however, argued that, as used at the time, and in Greek generally, metanoia has additional dimensions. The word implied that you were acquiring, or re-acquiring, a new frame of reference — as when, for example, you were for a long time subject to some deep misconception or disturbance of mind, you had taken leave of your senses, and were now recovering. Metanoia, therefore, suggests a return from such a distracted or mistaken worldview — to return to your senses, to come to your right mind (ad mentem redire, as Erasmus has it in his annotations to Mark). Thus, John and Jesus were calling for people to see the world so freshly that they could feel the truth, live in the truth, of the Kingdom whose time had ripened to fruition (so we could bear fruits worthy of metanoia). And, Erasmus argued, this really was a matter of returning to “your right mind” in a very deep sense, since if we take the challenge, we return to to the way of seeing the world that God intended for us and longs for us to re-inhabit.
To provide a Latin word that would lend itself to this understanding, Erasmus chose resipiscere, a word related to the stem in “sapient”. It might be translated as “reconsider,” but Erasmus found other nuances in classical literature that made it a good fit with metanoia. Brendan Cook has shown that this nuance is reinforced by Erasmus’s use of the word’s opposite, desipere, which means “to be foolish, to be devoid of understanding.” So resipiscere means to (begin to) get over that condition — or, in the context of the Gospel, to return to the path of wisdom, out of the path of folly.
“Path” is an important idea here. Erasmus sees metanoia in effect as the beginning of a journey. From earliest days, Christians spoke of their religion as “the Way,” even as they knew Jesus as the way. Once we come to our senses, we have much to learn, because every day and every fluctuation in our inward and outward condition may distract or baffle us. We are required, even after our shift of mind — indeed, as a consequence of it — to re-interpret the values we hold, and those of our culture, our ambitions, choices, fears, habits, worship — all.
Through grace, “We have the mind of Christ,” as Paul said, but Christ is also a teacher who knows us well; we are to learn of him whose yoke is light — if only we preserve our longing to learn and grow in him. As Erasmus writes in the Handbook of the Christian Soldier of Divine Wisdom’s tutelage,
That divine spirit has her own language and figures of speech, which you must from the first learn by diligent observation. The divine wisdom talks baby-talk to us, and like an attentive mother accommodates her speech to our infant condition. She provides milk for babes, and herbs for the sick. But you should hasten to grow towards adulthood, and become fit for solid food. Wisdom condescends to your humble station, but you, on the other hand, should rise towards her sublimity.
And here we need to recall another element in how Erasmus (following Paul), understands the gospel, which is that Christ, the wisdom of God, is foolishness to “the world.” Indeed, it seems at first foolishness to ourselves, as long as we are “of the worldly mind” (as Marley’s ghost called Scrooge). How can the way of the servant, the outcast and upstart who made a triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a lowly beast of burden (not a warhorse or fine palfrey), represent any kind of response to the demands of life? In coming to our senses as Jesus invites us to do, we have to cut loose our moorings from the conventions of the culture, perhaps of our families, of our ambitions and our fears. So different is the “renewed mind” that we may seem to ourselves, and to others (surely those in power) as having taken leave of our senses — just as we, learning to live by the love that casts out fear, are convinced that we are returning to our right minds at last.
A first operation of Doctor Logos in its work within us is to show us the truth of our condition: As Erasmus writes in his paraphrase of Mark,
It’s a big step to recognize what ails you, a giant step towards the light to come to know your shadows.
Once we begin the process of self-knowledge, then we are to lift up our hearts in prayer, at first yearning for relief from our afflictions, which now we can name and recognize, though they long plagued and corroded us inwardly. We can begin to hope in the promise that it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom. Once passing through metanoia, the opening of the way, we are supported along the path to perfection; the process consists in gradually, step by step, dying to sin, seeking earnestly for the best gifts of the Spirit, and living by the new life that is liberated or poured out for our comfort and healing— and through our faithful actions, for the comfort or healing of others. The stutterer will be enabled to testify with power, the mourners will be comforted, the famished or deadened soul nourished and lifted up. It is a life-long task, but one which will be suited to each of us. We can come to participate in the victory of the Lamb that was slain, the childlike delight of Sophia, the foolishness of the God whose love for lilies, for sparrows, for lost sheep, for sinners, overturns the world’s wisdom.
- Pedantic note: Translations mine unless otherwise noted. Also, as I have written before, a blog post is not a good genre for elaborate scholarly apparatus, a limitation to be remedied if I am spared to work the materials from this fall into a book. For the Eager Reader, however, I note here three sources I have benefited from.  For resipiscere, a paper by Brendan Cook: The Uses of Resipiscere in the Latin of Erasmus: in the Gospels and Beyond. Canadian.Journal of History XLII(4):397-410.  For a deep exploration of Erasmus’s understanding of spiritual process, Sylvia Fitzpatrick’s 2012 book, Erasmus and the process of human perfection:The philosophy of Christ.  M.A. Screech’s magisterial Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly.
10/25/2019 § Leave a comment
Alert Reader Fran Lightsom discovered that I had not completed the process of adding the “two new items” that I’d promised a few posts ago (1 by Rendell Harris, one by Virginia Schurman). They now should be accessible.
While I was at it, I have added Maurine Pyle’s piece, “Finding our way together.” I also have added another piece by John Wilhelm Rowntree on “The problem of a free ministry,” which some will find of interest.
10/11/2019 § 4 Comments
If we come into a condition in which we are able to see and act as parts of the creation, in the light of divine Wisdom, we will look at the landscapes and creatures around us in different ways.
For my money, the following excerpt, from a history of the idea of ecology, hints at one aspect of that altered point of view. It reminds me of some of the lessons of Sophia:
What is to be conserved? What does conservation mean?
…history reveals not merely that change is real but also that change is various. All change is not the same, nor are all changes equal. Some changes are cyclical, some are not. Some changes are linear, others are not. Some changes take an afternoon to accomplish, some a millenium. We can no more take any particular kind of change as absolutely normative than we can take any particular state of equilibrium as normative. The fact that ice sheets once scraped their way across Illinois does not provide any kind of justification for a corporation that wants to strip coal from the state. We know this, but sometimes we get confused by talk about all change being “natural.” In a loose sense, the statement is true, but it is also meaningless. No one really maintains that whatever is, is right, or that whatever happens is good. We understand that there are changes in nature that work against us as well as for us, changes that we have to defend ourselves against, even if we cannot prevent them. The challenge is to determine which changes are in our enlightened self-interest and are consistent with our most rigorous ethical reasoning, always remembering our inescapable dependency on other forms of life.
Environmental conservation becomes, in the light of this historical awareness, an effort to protect certain rates of change going on within the biological world from incompatible changes going on within our economy and technology. It is not a program of locking nature up within a museum case, freezing it for all time. Rather, it is a pattern of behavior based on the idea that preserving a diversity of change ought to stand high in our system of values, that promoting the coexistence of many beings and many kinds of change is a rational thing to do.
The pace of innovation in computer chips may be appropriate to a competitive business community, but it is not appropriate to or always compatible with the evolution of a redwood forest. Some things take longer to grow or improve. Some things cannot adapt as fast as others. These are differences revealed by the history of nature and society. Today, historians of every sort can no longer claim that there is a single universal narrative of change that all species, all communities, all places must conform to. “History” has given way to “histories.” Each of those histories needs space in which to play itself out, to unwind its narrative. That is precisely what the modern idea of conservation must aim to do: provide the space, either set aside in large discrete blocks, or protected within the interstices of the landscape, so that all the many earthly histories can coexist — the history of a coral reef alongside the history of a coastal city, the history of a tropical rainforest, alongside the history of a political struggle. Such a strategy of trying to conserve a diversity of changes may seem paradoxical, but it is founded on a crucial and reasonable insight. We may have to live with change, may even be the products of change, but we do not always know — indeed, we cannot always know — which changes are vital and which are deadly.
From Nature’s economy: a history of ecological ideas. 2nd ed. by Donald Worster. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp 432-433.
10/11/2019 § 3 Comments
“…have dominion over the fish of the sea, and the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Gen. 1:28)”
This line from the Genesis story of creation broods over any theological discussion of humans’ relationship to nature; it has been used often over the centuries to justify unfettered human exploitation of natural resources, and is often also coupled with a doctrine that all creation “fell” when Adam and Eve fell. This conveniently pushes off any sense of responsibility for stewardship until The Millennium comes, and we all actually live by the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the same future in which the prohibition against violence and retribution (and hence war) will be acceptable to human sensibilities (but for now it’s just too hard, surely we are not meant to take it seriously). Until then, on this line of thinking, all Creation is unfaithful along with us folks.
Other theologians, from the beginning, have seen Nature as one important source of revelation about nature’s God (and also from early times, reasoning and investigation have been seen as appropriate ways to interpret the revelations in the Book of Nature, just as various exegetical methods are used for interpreting the revelation through Scripture (Jaroslav Pelikan gives some attention this in his book on the Cappadocian Fathers + Mother Christianity and classical culture).
But you may not be interested in that kind of theologizing, and may not care about Genesis and all that. OK, but our culture (and that means us, too) is deeply imbued (stained, dyed) with the presumption that all is to be used as we wish, perhaps moderated by some aesthetic or cost/benefit considerations. Doing a little theology is a way to identify and confront assumptions like these.
Moreover, I would argue — again — that no Quaker theology of creation (and hence of earth-care) can be disconnected from our doctrines on human nature and atonement — its reconciliation with God, and the role of Christ (Light) in all that. That, in a way, is the aim of this whole series: not just to work out for myself some ideas about spirituality related to climate change — that can too easily keep “climate” or “earthcare” theology separated from other spiritual commitments. Rather, I am trying to see how a more complete understanding of the gospel can be found through reflection on the challenges and opportunities of the climate crisis.**
Perhaps more directly, the interpretation of “dominion” and such things is a way to explore our responsibilities vis-a-vis “the creation” in these times, and to do so in dialogue with other seekers and finders across the centuries (especially the Quaker ones). So I will start first with an apparently nontheological story.
2. In which I confront the End of Nature
For my master’s thesis in conservation biology, I studied how the species composition of a Boston-area nature reserve had changed in roughly 100 years since it was set up (and an initial flora was written). Though subsequent research by others has improved on my work, the basic fact was that this reserve, surrounded by urbs and suburbs, had lost some native species during this time — and that some of these would not return by normal ecological processes, because the place was just too isolated. So if people wanted the reserve to be more fully representative of the region’s historical plant species, people would have to bring back the lost ones.
I remember standing out in the woods, thinking about this, and realizing that there was probably no place on earth where such restoration might not be needed if human impacts were to be countered. I suddenly felt burdened by the sense that humans now had taken on the role of Gardeners of the World (if we were going to be anything besides Plunderers of the World). This responsibility was not something we’d taken on intentionally, and it came upon us just at a point when science could start describing the depths of our ignorance of this world which was now (in some ways) at our mercy. This was in the early 1990s and the implications of climate change, of soil loss, of deforestation, and the unfolding mass extinction were already clear to see. It was a moment of profound grief. Later, when I heard the title of Bill McKibben’s book The End of Nature, I felt as though I’d read the book already. Yet in the grief, the next realization was that the most urgent thing facing us is the curing of soul-sickness, to the point that reverence (or awe) is a living ingredient in our daily lives, a condition of gratitude and humility for the kosmos (the ordered world) in which we are given to live out our lives.
3. Dominion and the fall
Early Friends, like other Christians, looked around the world and saw that somethig is seriously wrong or out of whack. It seemed clear to them that the root cause must be related to humans’ inherent tendency to sin. Because people are being embodied like other animals and therefore strongly likely to ignore the quiet promptings of Truth, they are almost inevitably drawn to place first priority on physical, sensual, or cultural phenomena, and build upon this inherent inclination a whole body of habit and rationale whose consequence is to further distract and alienate us from the promptings of love and truth in our hearts as the principal rule and guide of our lives.
This path entails, therefore, a wholesale but often sublte distortion of our understanding, and in privileging human wisdom and viewpoint, we by that fact no longer are informed and regulated by the Wisdom through which the world came into being, and which — despite our alienation — continues to sustain the world in every part. Indeed, early Friends said that a key ingredient in the Fall, the loss of capacity to live in right relationship, was an eagerness for knowledge without wisdom — in the myth, eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and therefor being exciled from the Tree of Life. Being thus ignorant, by our own choice and inclination, we have abdicated our dominion; we no longer know how to exercise this role as it was given to Adam and Eve.
Thus, it is no wonder that instead of regarding ourselves and the whole of creation with reverence and humility, we instead use (misuse) the “creatures” (by this Friends meant any of the components of the world, animal, vegetable, or mineral) ‡ to indulge our appetites beyond the due requirements of our bodies, or to gain status within society, or otherwise to serve pride, overweening desire, and unjust ends. The focus is thus on self, and on the idols we so freely create and worship. These all reinforce our alienation from God’s Sophia, Wisdom (a term that occurs very frequently in Fox, Nayler and others from the first generation).
Yet God’s life, flowing through all, seeks always to move us towards reconciliation, and so by grace, many have been given (or grown into, or preserved) some partial access to the continuing divine intent: the Logos, which/who is Light and Life in all.
Full reconciliation needed not just to be invited and advised (by law, scripture, nature), but also modeled and enabled, in the revelation of God’s Christ in Jesus. The sign of the incarnation, and the many teachings and signs that Jesus gave, show that God’s continuing commitment to humans as in harmonious relationship with the rest of creation.
Friends have taught, therefore, that our restoration in the Light of Christ through the Lamb’s slaying of the “Man of Sin,” results in a renewal into Adam’s condition before the fall, with the result that we can again see and live by the Wisdom of God. In that Wisdom (spoken of so often by Friends as to convey a deep longing and love for it), our use of the creatures is appropriate, in the order of the gospel. Its harmony with the will and design of the Creator is a sign of reverence and an enactment of the ordering Light and Life.
This becomes possible because (and to the extent that) we live so as to allow the judgment and the reconciliation that happens as Christ is born within (to borrow Erasmus’s image, we accept the diagnosis and the remedy provided by Doctor Logos), we are joined to the body of Christ and take our place, living from the common life under the one Head.
And now we see how “creation theology” is inseparable from the rest of the gospel teaching. While it’s cheering to think that “in the light” we are enabled to re-establish right relationship with the creation, as we are reconciled to God, yet it’s too easy to accept the insight, approve it, and neglect actually to make it real in our heart, soul, strength, mind. If indeed we can come to claim, with Paul, that “we have the mind of Christ,” (to hear in our measure the Logos/Sophia by which all has become and is sustained), we need to see and experience the Light’s work as both “terror” and “power” — really be transformed by the renewing of our minds, our ways of seeing, knowing, and valuing. We are thereby given the ability to bear the fruits of the Spirit. After all, God asks from us the sacrifice of a contrite heart, a heart so tendered and opened that it can allow the Life, the Lamb’s blood, to flow in, to refresh and nourish it to awe, to compassion, and to joy. Consequently, as we pray for guidance and witness amidst the challenges of our time, we must confront the call to repentance, the first and most fundamental of Jesus’ proclamations: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near at hand!” So in the next piece, I will reflect on that troubling word, starting with the Greek original: metanoia.
* Warning: this is a loooong post.
** A note about sources. I find this blog an awkward medium for what you might call scholarly writing — the pieces ideally are short, and I’ve found no elegant way to add in footnotes or other apparatus. If I am spared to rework all this material in book form, all those tools will be deployed.
Also, as I am writing this blog series, I am not doing a lot with secondary literature – studies about this and that. I am mostly relying on primary texts, and on memory of Things Read — no doubt some mis-remembering as well. Indeed, part of what’s happening is that I am discovering literature that I should already have known before ever trying such a thing. In turning the blog into a book, I will need to secure, read, and do some justice to relevant authors. Now I’m just working out what I think.
I can, however, mention a couple of things that I have benefited from in writing this post. The first is Virginia Schurman’s piece, “A Quaker theology of the stewardship of creation,” posted in the Library. The second is a doctoral thesis by Geoffrey Morries From revelation to resource: The natural world in the thought and experience of Quakers in Britain and Ireland 1647-1830. You can get it here if you want to see the whole thing — or email me and I can send it to you (a pdf 3 GB in size, in case that matters).
I welcome other suggestions of things to read. I should say here that I have not yet been able to acquire and benefit from Eden Grace’s 2019 Swarthmore Lecture, which may cover similar ground; so that will play into future forms of this project.
‡ In reading early Friends texts, it is worth noting that very often, “creature” is used to mean “person” rather than “animal” or “element of creation”. For example, most of the occurrances of the word in Penington’s Some mysteries of God’s Kingdom glanced at, or Nayler’s A second answer to Thomas Moore, have this meaning. In other cases, of course, “creature” can mean “any element of creation,” as when Penington writes to Friends in and around the two Chalfonts that the rebellious nature in separation from God ‘cannot truly love niether the Lord, nor his people, nor his creatures.”
10/11/2019 § 2 Comments
I have added two articles to the Library — two pieces that are related to some blog posts in my “climate change a spiritual opportunity” project.
1. Rendel Harris: “Athena, Sophia, and Logos.” This is an old article by a great Quaker scholar of early Christianity. Harris argues effectively that the “hymn” in the Prologue to John’s gospel, which features the Logos doctrine, can be shown to reflect earlier poetry about Sophia, God’s wisdom in creation. This in turn can be plausibly shown to reflect Greek praise of Athena, the goddess of wisdom, who (like both Sophia and the Logos) is described as “only-begotten” or “uniquely-engendered” (monogenes), and (you will recall) sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus.
2. Virginia Schurman: “A Quaker theology of the stewardship of creation,” from Quaker Religious Thought 24(4) (1990). Shurman focuses primarily on early Friends, and situates Quaker understanding of our relationship to the nonhuman parts of creation in relation to our theology of sin and the atonement. A valuable resource, and a precursor in some ways to Geoffrey Morries’s 2009 thesis From revelation to resource, which is too large to upload to this blog, but is accessible here .