Metanoia Part 2: A Quaker take.

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)




Metanoia Part 1: a reflection for the birthday of Erasmus 2019

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. [1] 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. [2] 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. [3] M.A. Screech’s magisterial Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly. 

New in Library (1 by Rowntree, 1 by Pyle, and Harris and Schurman actually added)

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.

P.S. What is to be conserved?

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.

That word “dominion,” and nature in the Fall (and after)

10/11/2019 § 3 Comments

  1. Introduction*

“…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.”

Two new items in library (Harris and Schurman), and a link to a third resource (Morries).

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 .

“On living with a concern for Gospel ministry” 2nd ed. reviewed

10/04/2019 § 1 Comment

Ellen Michaud has posted her reflections on the second edition of On living with a concern for Gospel ministry in FGC’s “Meeting for Reading Book Musings.” In case you’re not on their mailing list, you can see her review here.  Thanks, Ellen!


Augustine: Christians need to know science; Revelation and Creation

10/04/2019 § Leave a comment

In some recent posts, I have sketched some points, some reminders, really, about the world as one source of revelation from God (see for example here). I find thought-provoking this passage from Augustine of Hippo about the need to respect what the natural philosophers (the fore-runners of “scientists” — that’s why, for example, my degree in Conservation Biology is as a “Doctor of Philosophy”).  (N.B. The passage has been circulated in various places as part of the “Evolution/Creationist” debates.)

Augustine, like many other leaders of the early church, was well acquainted with the Greek and Roman philosophical traditions (though Augustine’s Greek was not so good, apparently) and in the following quotation he’s warning his fellow Christian apologists not to think that they can just dismiss the findings of science.*

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience.

Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?
Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion. [Commentary on 1 Timothy 1.7]

* For Science and Religion fans, I will note that I think this is reminiscent of, but quite different from, Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of “non-overlapping magisteria,”  in which science and religion each serve different purposes, with different methods and aims, and so should not be seen as being in competition.  I think that for any adherent of a religion that is founded on (among other things) a body of revelation, such a theory doesn’t really work very well.  On the other hand, a spiritual system like Buddhism can relate differently to the findings of science — as exemplified by the Dalai Lama’s frequent assertions that if some Buddhist theory is contradicted by the findings of science, it must be revised or abandoned.

Climate change a spiritual opportunity: Precis, table of contents; visiting a minister’s workshop

09/24/2019 § 18 Comments

This project has been unfolding in the doing of it, and I have now come to see what might be taking shape.
To put it simply, I have been on the hunt for an account of the gospel message that
i. is rich and flexible enough to be elaborated for many needs and conditions;
ii. is grounded in the historic Quaker proclamation, and reinforces (and draws strength from) Friends’ practices of worship, decision-making, spiritual formation, etc.

iii. is consistent with current science, but does not conflate scientific discourse with the languages of spiritual life and the life of the imagination.

iv. remembers that “nature” includes humans, that we are not separate from it, and much of our current sin and suffering reflects the diseases and ill-condition of the natural world, many of which are a result of human activity.

Moreover, I want to work out for myself what I have learned about the nature of Christ in the divine-human economy. I should say here that I have been working at that task for most of my life, and it has taken all the time and attention I have been able to give it. Along the way, I keep finding explorers and teachers who have been on the same quest, and have much to tell me, from many centuries and conditions. Unsearchable riches indeed, and not to be discovered or even suspected in the course of a passing acquaintance.

Thus, the fifth aim is to understand the gospel in such a way that an American ecologist in the 21st century can, when the Spirit requires it, preach or whisper or pray over or write about it or from it, for the benefit of some one, some soul,  in these times of turmoil and apocalypse, doing it with joy and serious intent.

One minister’s workshop

Finally, this series also has a pedagogical purpose for ministering Friends.  A Friends minister must keep working at his or her understanding of the gospel, and placing each new understanding or opening in the context of the whole gospel. This entails worship, prayer, experimentation, study, and a regular engagement with the Scriptures  — as Lewis Benson said, “The work of the ministry is real work.”  In these pieces, as with this whole blog, I am inviting you into my minister’s workshop.


Table of Contents

I have come to see that the series of blog posts is in effect the first draft of a book or bookling. (Boy, will it take some rewriting!) The thing as I currently see it has 3 parts. The one just “completed” is part A.

A: The architecture of creation.  This does not draw on Quaker materials, but instead draws on materials that Friends drew from (knowingly or not), or maybe should have.

B. Re-enchantment and kosmos.  The central foci here, drawing much from early Quaker materials, are wonder (or gratitude) and the experience of Gospel Order.  This will “run” in October/November

C. The Lamb’s War: Quaker praxis and proclamation for a time of climate crisis. This focuses on Quaker methodologies of spiritual formation, and the carrying of concerns. This will, I hope, be written between late November and the end of the year.

From time to time, some ecology will be interspersed.  In the final work  (Deo volente) I will provide references, links, etc. As this is indeed a work in progress, I very much welcome any comment, response, argument, or insights that you may wish to offer.

Finally, I will feel free to intersperse other pieces not part of this series (for example for Erasmus’ birthday in late October), so the blog will not be unrelievedly focused on this series.

In Christian love your friend,



Climate Change a spiritual opportunity Meditation #6: Sophia and Logos

09/23/2019 § Leave a comment


Many people, including many Friends, are skeptical of or even antagonistic to Christ. This is painful to me.  I felt a sense of recognition when I read John Woolman’s famous dream, in which oppressed people, knowing Christ only through rumors fed them by their oppressors, say that Christ must be a cruel tyrant, and Woolman dreamt grief.  I have never been free both of the poor miners’ accusation, and the mourning that comes when I admit how much evil is daily done in Christ’s name — and has been all through the “Christian Era.”  It has intensified my spiritual searching, seeking to pierce the veils of history and culture that wrap me (wrap all of us) round, so that sometimes I can stand truly in the Presence, and not a seeming, an anti-Christ, a compliant puppet savior of the status quo, or a lifeless human simulacrum, whose worshippers are asleep or dead. J.B  Phillips wrote “Your God is too small,” C.S. Lewis could say of Aslan, his Christ-analogue, “He is not a tame lion,” and the Psalmist can quote God saying “You thought I was altogether such a one as you are.”  How just are the accusations of skeptics in every age that the God that is taught and preached, through the generations, is nothing but something fashioned in our own image and likeness.

And in nothing is this clearer than in the general neglect of the world we live in as a matter of reverence. Despite the repetition of Genesis stories and hymns to the Creator, my religion growing up made little room for the living world — wood, water, fish, bird, river, and storm, mosquito, elephant, and, yes, hominids. The dominant religion at least as taught in this country leaves out the actual majesty, the complexity, and strangeness of the world.  Haldane said “The world is not only queerer than you think, it is queerer than you can think,” and how rarely did I meet anyone who understood how the contemplation or the study of the nonhuman world was often an act of profound reverence.

It is true enough that human nature, which we mostly know from the inside, so to speak, is full enough of paradox, wonder, and challenge to keep the seeker busy for many lifetimes.  Yet it is evident that we cannot make much progress even in the undestanding of this one species, if we do not remember that it is one of many exhibits in the world Cabinet of Curiosities, one thread in the fabric of Nature, one part of the great always balancing, never-balanced system.

These three persistent questions  — the nature of the Christ revelation, the divine givenness of the cosmos, and the longing to understand my nature, and that of my fellow humans — have driven a lot of my spiritual and intellectual seeking through the years.  Just as I believe that God is one, and therefore all revelation trends in a single direction though I may never live to see the harmony made clear (as Origen says about the mysteries of revelation,  “anyone in their right mind, and not plagued with the vice of boasting, will confess in the spirit of true religion that they do not know.”).  Nor have I been as persistent or acute a seeker as others; so here I can only recount what I have found in my blundering path towards Zion.

A few years ago, I finally decided to read the wisdom books of the Hebrew Scriptures and Apocrypha (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Sirach) all together. In Proverbs, I met Sophia, with which (or whom) i had a glancing acquaintance already.   The passages in each of these books which portray Wisdom as God’s creatig, healing, sustaining, comforting, delighting spirit reached deeply this time, and it became clear to me how much Jesus, the Gospel writers,  and Paul had been nourished by, and spoke from, this tradition.

Then I found Thomas Merton’s great prose-poem, Hagia Sophia, which explores with tenderness and prophetic power the Wisdom revealed and active in nature (including humans) — and in Christ’s life and teachings. I began to see, dimly, that Sophia and the Logos, the Word of which John’s gospel sings, are two faces of the Christ.  With this realization, I could read Paul and John with new eyes.  I also found (of course) that thousands of others had got there before me, from Origen in the 3rd century to 21st century voices such as Elizabeth Johnson’s.

Sophia and Logos

Sophia, produced from God before the beginning of things, and by whom all things were made, radiates light and life from every element of the teeming world. Her language is inarticulate, that is, she reveals herself (gives understanding) to those who seek her earnestly and humbly.  Indeed, she welcomes the devoted seeker, and when one decides to follow after her, she prepares her friends, building their capacity to reflect, to inquire — and to be patient in not-knowing.

The prologue of John’s gospel echoes these aspects of Wisdom:

In the beginning was the word (see note below), and the word was with God, and God was the word. This was in the beginning with God. Everything came to be through it, and without it nothing that exists came to be.  In it was life, and the life was the light of human beings. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not accept it.*

(Note: Logos can be translated as “discourse,” “account,” or “sermon,” the nuance being that of interaction rather than mere utterance.  In Plato’s Symposium, when the friend of Apollodoros presses to hear about the conversation, he demands “Tell me what the speeches were!” and the word is “logos.”  This word in Greek is of masculine gender — in contrast to sophia, which is feminine, or Latin’s verbum, which is neuter.  But there is poetry at work here.  Sophia is personified in the wisdom books as a woman, to whom the seeker can pay court and espouse.  Logos in John gets personified, too — with the added nuance that it is linked to Jesus, a man.  Yet Paul speaks of Christ as God’s sophia. Choose your pronoun!)

In contrast to Sophia, much of whose teaching must be inferred from the nature of things (she is natura naturans,   nature doing what nature does, as Spinoza has it), Logos is a fresh wave of God’s self-revealing, in terms that are more accessible to us:  “The Logos became flesh, and dwelt among us.”

Paul, the first Christian mystic of which we have any record, says (in Colossians) that Christ is the visible image of the unseen God, and thus revelatory of God’s intent for us, but more than that is active, freeing us from the power of darkness and then instead leading us into the kingdom of the “child of his love.”  Yet though everything from the beginning has come into being in and through this being (the same words are used for both Christ and Wisdom), this work is ever-new, an always-fresh initiative; Logos/Sophia are both called “only begotten,” or uniquely born (monogenes), and strengthen, with joy,  those who seek to learn and live in this light and life.**

The Logos, expressed as a human person, can teach us lessons that may be very hard to learn from the luminous but inarticulate mistress of wisdom, whose lessons are freely available, but accessible only through observation, meditation, and inference.  As Origen writes (in On Prayer)

The possession of the wisdom by which everything was established was an impossibility for human nature. Butfrom an impossibility it became a possibility through our Lord Jesus Christ, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness, and sanctification and redemption(1 Cor. 1:30)… for who can learn the counsel of God?  Or who can discern what the Lord wills? For the reasoning of mortals is worthless and our designs are likely to fail,  for a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind… Nevertheless this impossibility has become a possibility by the boundless excellence of the grace of God. Who could say that it is possible for human beings know the mind of the Lord? Nevertheless, even this is given by God through Christ. For he says,  No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends for all that I’ve heard from my Father I have made known to you”. He teaches them the will of him who wishes no longer to be Lord, but turns into a friend


Paul has seen and felt yet another aspect of God’s wisdom, which the Logos/Christ makes available, when interpreted as a human personality set in a specific culture and time.  This is that  divine wisdom, which shows such splendor in the heavens, and power in the mighty creatures and forces of earth, when brought to expression in a human, living according to the constraints of love, compassion, and truth, is all by itself a prophetic challenge.  Christ’s revelation of the wisdom of God for us, seems but folly, and dangerous folly at that.  When it demonstrates its power (even unto the cross), changing lives and freeing folk from the conventional wisdom that upholds the mighty, and oppresses the weak, the mourner, the dispossessed, it is to be rejected, scorned, and extinguished.  The one inhabited by, fully committed to this wisdom which permeates the creation and even can be seen in a human form (of which Jesus was the firstborn of many siblings to come), tastes joy where the culture sees none, sees blessing where the culture sees a curse, knows herself to be a friend of the Love at the heart of things, and is taught to serve as a good steward of God’s household — the oikoumene. Of course such a person would seem to Mr Worldly-Wiseman to be out of their mind — yet indeed, they have really only find their way back to sanity.

Sophia is God’s wisdom to be discovered, Logos is God’s wisdom experienced within, in terms by which the human heart is understood, and iembedded in language, the distinctive human faculty, the means of reason and of poetry.


As a result of my explorations (so far!) of Sophia, I have understood a little more of what Paul and the Apostles thought Christ was about, and why Jesus could have said, with such assurance, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” The Logos renders a human account of Wisdom, the matrix of creation, delighting in the multitudinous world, and providing us with a framework of reason with which to speak truth and through the foolishness of preaching hope that the Witness of Wisdom will be reached and moved to offer the sacrifice demanded by the Lord of the forest beasts and of the cattle on a thousand hills: mercy, justice, and the fruits of a teachable and contrite heart.


* Blame all translations from the Gk on me

** J. Rendell Harris pointed out, in a fascinating paper that I found when I was halfway through this post, that the prologue to John’s gospel, which has long been understood as a fragment of an early Christian hymn or psalm, can very easily be seen as a re-working of a praise of Sophia – and moreover that this has affinities with pre-Christian veneration of Athena, greek goddess of wisdom, who herself was termed “only-begotten” or “uniquely born”, in reference to her mythical birth from Zeus’s head.

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 93 other followers

  • Meta

  • Social

  • Brian Drayton

  • Archives