09/07/2020 § 6 Comments
This long series of posts on “Climate change as a spiritual opportunity” has reached, a few months late, the end of its second part. As probably few of you will recall, my “table of contents” is roughly thus:
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.
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.
The first part in a way was an exploration about Who it is we worship. The second part explored the stance of reverence that Quakerism can make possible — and the realization that in order to see, and then align our practices (social and personal) with the Order of the Gospel — in freedom constrained only by love — we must be in a condition in which we can be “ordered”:
• In the mind of Christ, the boundaries that we (and our culture) promulgate between ourselves (our vulnerable, mortal selves) and others — including the nonhuman world — are breached.
• In that mind, we can find the truth of “eternal life,’ inexhaustible and abundant, in the present (as Kelly called it, the Eternal Now), so that nothing is more precious than living, partaking in, that flow of Life and Light.
• in that Life and LIght, we are made collaborators with the wise God, in the creation and re-creation of our forms and practices. There are diversities of gifts but the one Spirit; many ways of enacting the gospel life, but one God at work through all. And the order by which the Gospel may be lived fully and freely, to the renewal of our wonder and well-being, is to be learned by steadfast attention to the wonders of nature, the records of scripture, the wisdom of our forbears in the Spirit — and the guidance of the Spirit that gives forth all, and in which we are to interpret all these books of revelation.
Yet there is more to be understood about the process by which we can cooperate with the Spirit in that prophetic and healing work, Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. The Quaker understanding of that, to my mind, is best expressed in the notion of Lamb’s War, and with that title I will turn to the final Part of this essay. As a preface to that final Part, I will end with a quotation from something I wrote 30 years ago. More can be said now, but it helps me, at least, to set the stage with these thoughts.
The life engaged in the Lamb’s War is tendered and opened to injustice and violence outwardly as well as inwardly. The human soul, your soul, can be seen as a nexus, a confluence or focus, of forces tending both to your good and ill. Some of the evils can be seen as external — sources of fear, oppression, or distraction. Others are apparently inward — anger, self-indulgence, and so on. Yet we are so constructed that we and our environment interpenetrate. Inward and outward forces activate or counteract each other. Because it is this kind of meeting place, the human soul is an appropriate battlefield upon which to begin the war against “outward” evils in the world. More than this — if the battle remains unfought in any soul, then in our unredeemed regions, seeds of sin and death lie as in an incubator, from which they can spread abroad anew. The Lamb’s War against the Man of Sin, in which we use the weapons of Jesus, acting at first upon our little, inward stage, is as well a social and indeed revolutionary act.The soul has its life cycle, just as the body does. We must claim holiness as our proper goal, but we can adopt for ourselves no outward attribute of it before by grace we come to it in truth, nor can we attempt what we are not prepared for, by the Spirit’s working. Whatever we may have seen, thought, or accomplished, we must seek always to participate in the birth of the poor Child.
If we seek for the light, dwelling in meekness, we see ourselves as we are, in both our weakness and our beauty, as God’s growing children. The encounter with the Light of Christ is judgement, but also consolation: by accepting the former, we gain the latter. In both we are brought closer to our brothers and sisters, empathizing in their judgement, and reinforcing their consolation.
Salvation lies in God’s hand, not in our will. We so want to know the end before the beginning, to keep control of outcomes, to make good bargains and careful investments of ourselves. God’s life will work transformation that is also fulfillment, through choices, opportunities, and sorrows that we cannot arrange or predict ahead of time. We risk nothing by offering all.
09/01/2020 § 6 Comments
1. If our allegience is to be to the heavenly commonwealth, we must expect that our assumptions will be challenged — this is, indeed, the “topsy-turvy kingdom,” when weakness is the place where strength is perfected; when the last shall be first, the proud put down from their seats; where the least of these our brothers and sisters are to be treated as we would treat Christ; where the foolish, the unlearned, and those of no account are chosen as ambassadors for the King of Kings. “My ways are not your ways, neither are my thoughts your thoughts.”
Therefore, we must wake up from our self-assured slumber, and see the world as the terrifying, beautiful, improbable, abundant, dynamic organism that it is — and see it so freshly, so openly, so freely, that we see in it the divine wisdom, and the place of peace unto our souls.
2. Where dwells the Spirit of the Lord, the Lord of this turbulent, dizzying world, there is liberty. The comfort of rules is taken away, the structures and strictures that humans use for orientation and for control. “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” The Lord, the mystery God who calls, invites, reveals, is Creator and Renewer: “Behold, I make all things new.”
3. Yet there is lawfulness at the heart of this gospel freedom — because the love of Christ, the love Christ preaches and embodies, constrains us. This is the one law at the heart of all — all the abundance of creation, all the work of the Spirit for our perfecting and liberation. All our choices about behavior in community are to be grounded in this love, reflecting our place in the body of Christ, and the free flowing of Christ’s spirit.
if we are centered in love, then any acts driven by a disturbance of conscience, or new perception of truth, can be done in a way that reaches to the life of our Friends, and it must be done so.
Finding the way to do that can take a long time, often leaving us in perplexity, where we can only voice, or pray, our un-ease. But we are told that the tender, the poor in spirit, the peacemakers, the ones who long for righteousness, who mourn, who wash their friends’ feet—these are the blessed, not the ones with all the answers. Love is rigorous because we must be prepared to live it, and new occasions require new preparation, and a fresh, childlike return to the Center of love.
What is in the Center? It’s not just an empty circle, a place of nothingness. There is a spirit there but not just any spirit. It is the Spirit of the God who sends the sun and rain on the just and the unjust, whose law is summarized in love of God with one’s whole being, and of one’s neighbor as oneself. The Center is also filled with fire, light, and the stream of divine life, which is like a stream of nourishing and cleansing water. .
4. Thus, the ordering of ourselves and our community to reflect and liberate the life of the Spirit, the life of God in all, is not a thing made by human hands or cunning: It is discovered. “I myself will teach my people,” proclaims the God to whom belong the forests, skies, and thousand hills, with all their beasts upon them. We must have the eyes of children, of Adam and Eve as they walked astonished and delighted in the Garden, spiritual eyes; and, accepting our blindness and our dependence, seek down the path of Light to the mind of Christ. So we will be able to speak with the tongue of the taught, comfort and blessing for the weary and burdened, so that they can take up their own paths and walk into their own freedom, as God directs: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart.”
5. Our schooling, fellow children, is in all the tongues of revelation (and we can start our learning from any of them, it’s all one fabric): the Scriptures, yes; the teachings and discoveries of our tradition, yes; the wonders and puzzles of creation, which so delights the Wisdom of the Word, yes; but these do not avail without the Spirit that gave them all forth, who guides us in our own path, each as according to our measure — and collaborates with us in finding and building up the structures and practices of our common life, for our perfecting as Children of the Light.
6. And so, to perceive, and dwell in, the order (the melody, the shape, the meter, the colors) of the Gospel, we must ourselves be ordered. We must allow ourselves to be shown and shaped, meek and teachable, followers and proclaimers, feeding on the truth of love as we can best see it, living it in all courage and vulnerability, fearing only the loss of our joy and our freedom as embodiments and ambassadors of that great love. Is our worship bringing us to a place in which impurities are named and burned away, certainties transformed, and everything dissolved and reassembled by the action of love? If so, then little by little we are renewed, a little more free, a little more able to speak to the Life of God in all. If not, we have not yet come to the true worship, the Center of dynamic and turbulent peace.
Bill Taber once wrote that when Moses accepted his call and “caught” prophecy, dull days were gone forever! If we are not finding, in one aspect of life after another, a hint or glimpse of the transcending strangeness, mercy, beauty, and abundance of that love, we are not yet past the threshold of the Gospel. Stepping onward and into that house of many dimensions, “enchantment” and “re-enchantment” seem beside the point. In moments where we occupy our measure of the life thus far received, we can see all as precious, unexpectedly precious:
“They will be mine, saith the Lord your God, in day when I make up my jewels.”
08/27/2020 § 3 Comments
Recommending a post on the blog Oceanoxia. You can skip Bloghaunter, and just follow this link!
08/16/2020 § 2 Comments
The first chirps of the waking birds mark the “point vierge”
of the dawn
under a sky as yet without real light,
a moment of awe and inexpressible innocence,
when the Father in perfect silence opens their eyes.
They speak to Him, not with fluent song,
but with an awakening question that is their dawn state,
their state at the “point vierge.”
Their condition asks if it is time for them to “be”?
He answers “Yes.” Then they one by one wake up, and become birds.
They manifest themselves as birds, beginning to sing.
Presently they will be fully themselves, and will even fly.
Meanwhile, the most wonderful moment of the day is that
when creation in its innocence asks permission
to “be” once again,
as it did on the first morning that ever was. All wisdom seeks to collect and manifest itself
at that blind sweet point.
Man’s wisdom does not succeed,
for we have fallen into self mastery and cannot ask permission of anyone.
We face our mornings as men of undaunted purpose.
We know the time and we dictate the terms.
We know what time it is. For the birds there is not a time that they tell,
but the virgin point between darkness and light,
Between nonbeing and being.
So they wake: first the catbirds and cardinals.
Later the song sparrows and the wrens.
Last of all the doves and the crows.
Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us
and we do not understand.
It is wide open. The sword is taken away,
but we do not know it:
we are off “one to his farm and another
to his merchandise.”
Lights on. Clocks ticking. Thermostats working. Stoves
cooking. Electric shavers filling radios with static.
“Wisdom,” cries the dawn deacon, but we do not attend.
from Katherine Deignan’s wonderful Thomas Merton, A Book of Hours (pp. 45-46). Ave Maria Press. (Excerpted from Confessions of a Guilty Bystander)
This spoke to my condition this morning.
08/14/2020 § Leave a comment
see it here
08/13/2020 § Leave a comment
“Bring the whole of your life under the ordering of the spirit of Christ.”
Drop Thy still dews of quietness
Till all our strivings cease,
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.
(From Whittier, “The Brewing of Soma”)
Friends in their first emergence were convinced that they were feeling God’s renewed intervention in their day, to rescue Christendom from “the thick dark of night which now is.” God the prime mover was once again moving amongst God’s children, in many parts of the world, among Christians and (they assumed) non-Christians alike. Christendom had for 1400 years strayed from and sometimes traduced the original message that Jesus was sent with, and had replaced it with structures and doctrines that were entirely conceived of Man’s imaginings, and were designed more to satisfy human requirements than to reflect a covenant in which humans enjoyed a close relationship with God, in return for living as he required, as was required by his nature. They freely admitted that there had been, and were, Godly and faithful persons in all the various traditions of Christianity, but that they were thus despite their participation in the apostate version of the Church.
The first Friends also were perhaps the first in Christendom to come to fresh terms (to a degree) with non-Christians, including those that were seen as quite beyond the pale, such as Hindus and Native Americans, and this was intrisically related to the Quaker understanding of the church as those called by Christ, and responding in simplicity to that call within their contexts. This had consequences also for the Quaker understanding of evangelilzation. George Fox, that great traveler and trumpet for “Primitive Christianity Revived,” did not see it as his calling to “convert” any of these peoples, but to proclaim the Gospel, and “to answer that of God in every one.” This meant trying to speak, to listen, and to live in a way that heightened the awareness of God’s presence and power in our lives; Friends assumed that God would take care of the rest, if only a person were in a “tender” state — convincement/conviction would follow. Thereafter, every one was to “mind their call, that’s all in all” (to grab a line from a different century!). They also assumed that if God had placed people in these various conditions, he had his own purposes in mind, and would not leave them without guidance of a kind they could understand and respond to. After all, Paul preaches in the book of Acts that God, who allowed all nations to walk according to their own paths, “Nevertheless…left not himself without witness” (through the works of Creation). Fox followed the apostolic example further, believing that one person’s ministry might plant, another’s might water, but it is God that gives the increase.
Gospel order a consequence of God’s nature — the lawfulness at the heart of Gospel freedom
We know that a key phrase, which Fox picked up from Isaiah, is “God has come to teach his people himself.” Further, our God is not a god of confusion (or disorder); and God holds Truth, is both truth and path and life. The Quaker experience was that both individuals and groups could be guided by the same spirit that the prophets spoke from, and that Jesus and the Apostles spoke from: “You will say, Christ saith this and Paul saith that. But what canst thou say?” Fox emphasizes that there is a difference between “profession” and “possession” and that mere “saying” is of no value; he quotes James, “Be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
Furthermore, Friends assumed that, as God had repeatedly called people to “perfection,” that is, complete faithfulness, God must intend it to be possible, and must be counted on to provide the help necessary for us to overcome the limitations of vision, strength, and endurance attendant upon the human condition. Therefore, God must not be demanding things that are beyond human capacity, any more than a parent could reproach a child for not being able to fly. They saw this “perfection” as a state that was dynamic, you didn’t achieve it once and then remain immune from future error, but that one could both live there, and leave there, and return.
Nevertheless, a holy, ordered life was a prime “fruit of the spirit,” and Friends were noted for the soberness and economy of their lives. This astonished some people in the 1600s, who felt that by rejecting the control of the Church, they were no better than libertines or Ranters, yet they did not live like libertines or Ranters.
Part of the problem, however, was that Friends were arising in the 1650s, after centuries of apostasy and ignorance and delusion. Therefore, the meaning of faithfulness, the godly life, envisioned by Jesus and embodied in the earliest Church, had been lost, except for the remnants preserved in the New Testament. This meant it had to be rediscovered, in part by assiduous study of the Biblical record, but primarily by a close listening to God, who had not ever stopped teaching his people, though they may have largely ignored him. Although the Gospel narratives were definitive, they were not complete, as even Jesus is quoted as saying, and that God’s Spirit would continue to teach and guide people into fuller understanding and unity with the divine will. So there was a lot of undoing, and a lot of discovering, to be done, and as in the desert, or in the Babylonian exile, God was an active participant in this.
Now, it was during a decade of intense persecutions that Fox began to think about how “order” and lawfulness should be evidencing itself, if these people, his Friends, were really to be following God’s teaching. In the early days, the strongest emphasis was on individual clarification of thought, so to speak, the individual evaluating their lives and what they worshipped, and realizing that Friends path was what they were seeking. Thus, the individual soul was the sensor that detected God’s requiring, always within a very Biblical framework.
Even during the earliest, most inchoate times, there were significant indications that Friends were not all following individual paths that only coincided accidentally, but that the whole people were being drawn together, and taught a way to live (I think this is a better way to think about the Testimonies, which are not contained in the nice little box of SPICES that have become a Quaker meme). These early indications of righteousness discovered and realized in the light, Fox realized, included some important elements of group life:
• the meeting for worship
• the meeting for business (in embryonic form)
• Friends’ marriage practices
• the rejection of war and preparation for war
• a pattern of church leadership that was not defined in terms of human qualifications such as formal education or state or hierarchical sanction
• Strictures on speech, dress, business practices, lifestyle
• “Gospel order” proper, the system for resolving disputes within the community (“proper” because based on Matthew 18’s teaching about setting differences in the community)
• Theories or critiques of economics, government, and education.
These are theology, as much as any propositional statements by the learned. Fox believed that, as God taught, such things would come clearer and clearer, and he coined the phrase Gospel Order to describe this system of public and private lawfulness, which was not to be “developed” by humans, but revealed to the faithful, and implemented as well as possible, as well as they could see. He knew that there might well be false trails and mistakes, but he was supremely confident that God wills our close and covenantal relationship with him, so one could rely on the Shepherd of Israel.
Gospel order, creation, and re-creation
Fox makes it clear that he has in mind an Order which, in the first instance, has to do with arrangements for decision-making and other aspects of human behavior consistent with the experience of the Light. However, he also makes it clear that this is part of a larger conception, a view of the right ordering of all things, which is an implication of God’s action among us. For Fox, Gospel Order in this cosmic sense is there to be discovered as we are led to it by the Light. Indications of its comprehensiveness can be drawn from the complex and thorough descriptions of the Sinai code. The different nature of order under the Gospel has always been related to the passage in Matthew 18, in which the primary task, the removal of grievance, is laid first on the parties involved, then on a confidential support group, but finally on the whole community. This has been the pattern for the solving of disputes in many traditions, but Fox and Friends saw it as more than a technique, being instead part of the overall pattern of righteousness of God’s design and revelation-in-the-moment.
“Hark ye yet — the little lower layer”
Fox’s comprehensive view of order, the way things come to work when all is in harmony with God’s will, is related in Fox’s mind to his vision of the restoration of creation. Despite the successive covenants through which the Lord has guided his people over the centuries, the full restoration of unity between God and humanity is only possible through the work of Christ. By yielding to the promptings of the Light of Christ, and welcoming the birth and formation of Christ inwardly, we participate in the restoration of Creation, and the order of the Second Adam is more robust and durable to sin than the first, because it is rooted in the spirit of Christ formed within.
(To be continued)
08/08/2020 § 6 Comments
Friends meetings, in making statements on a variety of social issues, often found their rationale upon the assertion that the divine Light is accessible everyone — typically citing as our core belief as “There is that of God in every one.” This article of faith is so widely cited that it is rare for us to question its use, or what we actually mean by it. In what follows, I will not suggest that we stop using it! However, in this Yearly Meeting season, with minutes and epistles being crafted and circulated, I’d like to encourage Friends to examine what it actually means for them, and also suggest that we can’t rely on this alone as a theological basis for our social witness. Can’t we say a little more?
“That of God” — what can it mean?
It sometimes seems that when Friends say “there is that of God in every one,” it is really meant as the equivalent of a statement that “each individual is of value, and has inalienable rights.” This is a valuable thing to say, and I have no objection to it, as far as it goes. I would claim, however, that if it means this and no more, then it is really not a theological statement at all, that is, it is not a statement that reflects in any obvious way our experience of the living God. It is a sentiment that is well-suited to a pluralistic democracy, or a universal statement on human rights. To claim that individuals must be treated with equal respect before the law, and should have equitable access to the necessities of life (including those which make culture and society possible) is a liberal and just sentiment.
But do we Friends bring God into our statements out of habit? If so, then this invocation of the Deity seems more like other conventional references to God that decorate political documents and public expressions, than an indication of some imperative that drives us, that is rooted in our spiritual life.
I am not comfortable to remain at that level, when using the phrase. Perhaps a further exploration of what we intend by the phrase might help bring other meanings of it to the surface, and these might in turn enhance the richness of our witness, and our search.
Traditionally, this statement grew out of the Quaker understanding of the nature of our relationship with God. Friends traditionally have not understood “that” to mean a piece of God, a little private God or particle separate from the rest. In fact, you could say that the best way to unpack the phrase is to realize that there is a story attached to it. Though Fox said it one way, and Barclay another, the basic idea is that God maintains an active presence, a point of contact with every one, which has the potential to serve as a beachhead or foothold from which the Spirit can undertake its work of transformation and liberation. This “that” does mark each of us as a child of God, so that we have that irreducible value and “right” to just treatment.
Yet there is something more. This “that” is a witness, for the Light and against the darkness. It is from our attention to this witness that we come to learn our condition, and see how to make room for the growth of the divine life in us. It is therefore a living thing, and a dynamic one, not just an “endowment” or owner’s mark. The process is part of the gift, and to acknowledge the gift, we must take action, wrestle for the blessing.
• We have to live so as to cherish this birth in us. “As cherishing the spirit of love and meekness is our duty, so to avoid those things which they know works against it is a duty also.” and “To labor for an establishment in divine love where the mind is disentangled from the power of darkness is the great business of man’s [sic] life.” (Woolman, A plea for the poor).
• It shows us where next to move ourselves, and offers ability to do so. In seeking to act so as to preserve and encourage that divine life in its growth in us, and to reach to it in others, we are then also taught to see what is next to be changed in ourselves, in order to continue in our service.
• We have season our actions so asto reach the witness in others. What does it mean, to “answer that of God”? The life of God in us is the source of our impulses and capacities to love, to act in mercy, to distinguish light from darkness. The Seed of Christ is present inwardly, and so the arising of the savior is an experience possible for all. We cannot take for granted that our impulses are grounded in love, so our discipline should help us wait till we can touch that source, and season our witness with it.
• This Seed is the ultimate source of unity among humans, because the Light is one. Standing in the light, we can see the unity: “As people come into subjection to the spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty, they may receive the Word of wisdom, that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being” (Fox Journal, 27-8).
What else? Some of this is “Quaker theology,” but some of it is our inheritance— or participation in — the prophetic message from Amos through Jesus and down to our own time: Thus saith the Lord. We must claim all of this, and make sure that our witness is not impoverished by not doing so.
Furthermore, to both know and declare these dimensions of our witness to the world enriches our own understanding of the pervasiveness of our religious commitment, and enriches also our understanding of how particularly it is that “all of life is sacred.” As humans, our call is to see and name the sacredness at the heart of it all, and not just say it is sacred but enact it with the materials of our lives. Experience is our watchword, our traveling into all the nooks and crannies of life, and meeting the Divine life at work there.
This has led to other commitments that are part of our prophetic schooling and our proclamation. Examples of this might be:
Religious practice as a direct transaction under God’s direction: refusal of notional ceremonies and imposed religious performances. The vitality, the truthfulness of our worship is inseparable from our social witness.
Justice as obedience and gratitude: the persistent cry of the prophets, that all have equitable access to the good things offered us all by God, and free from human interference in our faithful living; and God’s preference for the poor, the excluded, and the needy;
Gospel Order in relationships, and in the “right use of the creatures,” is integrated with qualities such as simplicity, honesty, directness, mercy.
The core of all this is the prophetic experience: I have seen, felt, heard God, and this is what God requires of us. “The spirit of Christ by which we are led is not changeable.” Can we not bring ourselves to say something more than the minimum, to hint at the power that lies in the beloved phrase about “that of God”? If you have lived it even for a moment, you know the joy and freedom the experience which that Life gives! That’s part our witness too, and part of the gift we can share, when we invite others to come into the silent assemblies of God’s people, and join in God’s construction of the “commonwealth of heaven.”
Cronk, S. Gospel Order: A Quaker understanding of faithful church community. (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #297)
Doncaster, L. Hugh. God in every man. Swarthmore lecture 1963.
Kelly, Thomas. “The eternal Now and social concern.” (in Testament of Devotion)
Wilson, Lloyd Lee, Essays on the Quaker vision of Gospel Order.
Woolman, John. Journal and major essays.
08/03/2020 § 7 Comments
Early Friends took up the idea of “wisdom from above and wisdom from below” from the epistle of James, as well as Paul’s teaching about the foolishness of the Cross. Nayler, in Love to the Lost, writes: ” the carnal eye, which sticks in the visibles, can never see Him present to order the creation.” This knowledge is available to those who wait on the Spirit, and allow it to renew their knowing, free from the overlays and deceptions of culture, self, and unrenewed appetite:
as you mind the pure leadings of the Spirit, and willingly follow and obey, you will come to know your creator in the days of your youth, and how he makes the worlds by the word of his holiness; and how he is your Father, and in what; and how he begets you again into the heavenly delights
Dwelling in the spirit of Christ gives direct in-sight (inward sight) in to the nature of creation. This insight, which is not propositional knowledge, gives a glimpse, at least, of the meaning of nature — its holiness, and its shape and value. (Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Thomas Merton after him, spoke about a thing’s “inscape,” and Merton connected this truth-of-the-thing with the work and vision of Sophia, using Spinoza’s natura naturans, Nature ‘naturing’.) This perception is part of the “knowledge from above” because it is a gift of the Spirit. As Mary Penington wrote, in memorializing her husband Isaac,
His light shone round about thee, and the book of the creatures was opened to thee; and his mysteries (made known to holy men of old, who spoke them forth as they were inspired by the Holy Ghost) were made known to thee to discern. Mary Penington’s testimony to Isaac Penington
George Fox is remarkable for his awareness of humans in creation, and for the freshness of his writing from that awareness. His great confidence that “Christ has come to teach his people” all that is needed for their wholeness and faithfulness made him open to this direct path to understanding of creation. Indeed, reconciliation and true knowledge of the Creation was a central concern of his. Penn wrote, “He was a divine and a naturalist,” and Fox clearly understood that accepting instruction from Christ, the Wisdom of God, would necessarily entail instruction about the whole (and wholeness) of Creation. This teaching was thus one aspect of the gospel, the “power of God to salvation.” James Nayler makes the connection clearly in Love to the Lost:
[Concerning Christ Jesus:] This is He whom the world much talk of, but few there be that know Him, though it be He by whom all things were made, who is the life of all creatures, who was before all creatures, without beginning of days, or end of life, a Priest forever, and a King, of whose dominion there is no end; by Him kings reign, and dominions are cast down, though they know Him not where self is standing, who is hidden from the world’s wisdom, and the depth of prudence cannot find Him out, yet does He reveal Himself to such as walk in His light.
Fox was open to radical ideas about this wisdom from about as it relates to creation. In one account, a young physician, a Friend but also an intimate of the “Cambridge Platonists,”‡‡ recalled a conversation in which Fox
speak [spake] of many heavenly things in discourse, which were delightful and pleasant….He speak of the Glory of the first body, and of the Egyptian learning, and of the language of the birds, and of what was wonderful to me to hear, so that I believed he was of a deep and wonderful understanding in natural, but especially in spiritual things, whose works, which he have left behind him do demonstrate the same. (First Publishers of Truth 276-278; spelling and punctuation modernized)
This passage, which suggests that Fox was acquainted with ideas from the esoteric Hermetic teachings about nature, is remarkable on at least two counts. First, his openness to mystical insight about creation, and second his willingness to learn from and use ideas from a largely pagan and mystical stream of ideas, always bringing it under the judgment of Christ.
But the “getting inside” Creation was not an academic exercise, merely a way of knowing for its own sake (though some early Friends such as Thomas Lawson pursued natural history as a way of elaborating knowledge within this “divine frame” — human science can harmonize with the wisdom from above). Fox and others saw people’s use of the “[other] creatures” as evidence of a person’s righteousness — right action must be of a piece with right understanding.
it’s the work of the Spirit to discover spiritual wickedness in its first motion…and this light must be believed and diligently minded all along, for such is the subtlety of the enemy, having got power over the will and senses of man, that he will set them to war against the creature, and destroy the creation. (How sin is strengthened and how it is overcome)
Fox writes, early in his Journal, about the relation between humans and the rest of Creation, in terms of covenant. He finds himself standing in a covenant — and in that place, he realizes that “the creatures” who are necessary for our life and health are themselves in their own covenant with the Creator. It is through these covenantal relationships with the Creator that we have unity with the creation:
I might not eat and drink to make myself wanton but for health, using the creatures in their service, as servants in their places, to the glory of him that created them; they being in their covenant [Gen. 9:9] and I being brought up into the covenant as sanctified by the Word which was in the beginning, by which all things are upheld; wherein is unity with the creation. But people being strangers to the covenant of life with God, they eat and drink to make themselves wanton with the creatures, devouring them upon their own lusts, and living in all filthiness, loving foul ways and devouring the creation; and all this is in the world, in the pollutions thereof, without God; and therefore I was to shun all such. (Journal, page 2)
It is in this understanding that Fox’s famous passage about knowledge helps us see how knowing is in the service of being, and our being, our inward condition, enables (necessarily) our truthful acting: faith without works is dead.
Now was I come up in spirit through the flaming sword into the paradise of God. All things were new, and all the creation gave another smell unto me than before, beyond what words can utter. I knew nothing but pureness, and innocency, and righteousness, being renewed up into the image of God by Christ Jesus, so that I saw I was come up to the state of Adam which he was in before he fell. The creation was opened to me, and it was showed me how all things had their names given to them according to their nature and virtue. And I was at a stand in my mind whether I should practize physic for the good of mankind, seeing the nature and virtues of the creatures were so opened to me by the Lord. But I was immediately taken up in spirit, to see into another or more steadfast state than Adam’s in innocency, even into a state in Christ Jesus, that should never fall….wonderful depths were opened unto me, beyond what can by words be declared; but as people come into subjection to the spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty, they may receive the Word of wisdom, that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being. (Fox Journal, 27-8)
Finally, the teaching of the Light that all creation is in covenantal relationship with its Creator (a modern conservation ethics would speak of species’ intrinsic value, as opposed to their value to humans), opens the door to the exploration of “gospel order,” a unified “web” that connects our individual conditions and life with that of our community, and with the whole cosmos. The “bounded self” is re-connected as we are brought (through the inward work of the Spirit of Christ) into the condition that our first parents were before the Fall — stronger than they could have been, because of the unity in that Spirit of teaching and healing. And so we come to walk as Children in the Light, amidst all our kin — human and non-human.
I have wandered through these early writings to help point out not only some of the long roots of Quaker “earth care,” but to sketch out another point. People tend to think of the Christian gospel as “human business,” and disconnected from the rest of earth — consonant with destructive views of human “dominion” over nature. But I believe that the Quaker understanding of the gospel — by which “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” — shows us a world drenched in the sacred, in whose diversity we are to take our place, rejoicing in it, and accepting it as a gift from the Source — not only to us, but to each element of creation. Each is in its own covenant with the Light, and receives the gifts of Life for its own thriving. Thus our use of “the creatures” can again be saturated with sacramental understanding, and all the ways of knowing and being (heart, soul, mind, strength) can be harmonized to see, acknowledge, and incorporate this understanding. This is part of our “salvation,” our liberation, our reconciliation (at-one-ment). This is a good gospel to preach!
Like many children, I dwelt for long in this understanding, but never had anyone to put it into words (and thus share), except when a parent or friend would stop to just enjoy or remark upon a sight, or sound, a creature or a place, the gulls playing on the wind. But then, at age 11, I read this in the Lord of the Rings; it came as a gift, and often still will bring tears:
Haldir had gone on and was now climbing to the high flet. As Frodo prepared to follow him, he laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree’s skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself.
‡‡ ‘Unity with the creation’: George Fox and the Hermetic philosophy. In Nutall, G. F. (1967) The Puritan spirit: Essays and addresses. London: Epworth Press. pp. 194-203.
08/02/2020 § Leave a comment
Suppose we want to live with the truth of this time of climate catastrophe; feel the dangers, and bear the pain; feel and face the fear, recognize our culpability — and yet respond to these truths in love, courage, and hope. I have been arguing that our spiritual challenge requires us to see with reverence, and to liberate our seeing from the cultural boundaries between “human” and “nature,” to see the living skin of the earth as my skin, to feel that “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/Is my destroyer” : then, the energy of love to nurture and protect what is beloved and necessary can be tapped, and freed for action.
I am also arguing that Christianity-as-traditionally-understood-by-Friends provides a frame to so see and so live. As the “doors of perception” are opened wider*, there come new understandings of my need for spiritual liberation, and of the pathways that invite and empower me towards that freedom in the Spirit. Thus, now is our chance to understand that our organic being as participants in nature, our longing and action to protect the living world (and ourselves), and our growth in joy and freedom in the perfection Christ invites us to —all these are facets of the same jewel, ingredients in the same life. This blog post has two parts: A. Spiritual knowledge and embodied knowers, and B. How this relates to the meaning of the good Quaker phrase unity with the creation.
A. Spiritual knowledge and embodied knowers
I have often quoted Paul’s declaration from 1 Corinthians “We have the mind of Christ” (1Cor 2:16) as central to Quaker faith and practice. At this point, it’s useful to recall that it comes as the final element of a brief discussion of kinds of knowledge in relation to the new framing of reality offered by the gospel. In chapter 1, Paul has pointed out that the narrative of the crucified savior, in his experience, represents God’s confounding of the usual ways of knowing, as seen in the two cultures that Paul and his readers inhabit — that of Greece, and of Judaism.
The Greeks seek for “wisdom,” that is, the wisdom of philosophy which rests (for all its cultural blinders) on disciplined intellectual inquiry, and so they naturally see the gospel as simple folly.
Paul’s tradition, Judaism, seeks for “signs.” This translation of the Greek word sēmeia, “tokens, signs” is usually taken to mean “prophetic signs” such as Jesus’ miracles which are seen as evidences of his supernatural powers (whether divine or demonic). As such, there has come to be an implication of irrationality or superstition (for example in contrast with our enlightened condition, or even that of the “rational” Greeks) which is, I think, wholly unwarranted.** I take it that here “signs” for Paul means “evidence of revelation,” knowledge made available in prophecy. For the Greeks, therefore, the gospel is foolishness, but for the Jews, its claim to be revelation is outrageous, a non-starter.
Paul, however, brings in a further consideration, which actually is in harmony with his understanding of the need for revelation (God’s need and ours). We are talking, he says, about spiritual knowledge, knowledge that enables our faithfulness to God’s commandments.
To set some context, I make bold to quote at length here from an old thing I wrote
In his discussions about the ways we come to know the things worth knowing, Paul makes use of a theory about what a human is made of that goes some¬thing like this — and here I am going to work a variation on a multitude of theories that have been around in the ancient world, since perhaps the time of Pythagoras:
You consist in several layers.
First, you have a body. This clearly has some close affinity with the earth, and like the earth itself is full of mystery. It is a source of kinship with the animal king¬dom, and a boundless source of sensation. It has no morals of its own, and its language is inarticulate and yet intense, a language of urges, reflexes, appetites, and impulses.
You also have a spirit. The spirit is un-earthly, immaterial, rational, and most accessible to the Divine. It works with concepts, ideas, logic, and inspiration. It comes to know by revelation, by reason, and by imagi¬nation. It plays a role in the exercise of the will, but the power of the will lives really in the soul.
The soul is somewhere in between the spirit and the body. The soul’s language is articulated emotion, and cause-and-effect, and it is the strongest locus of personality, and of the will, because it is closely tied to the body, but like the spirit is immaterial. It requires to be trained, and can either assimilate to the body or to the spirit, so that ones soul, and therefore ones per¬sonality, can become more and more gross and earthy, or more and more spiritual and heavenly, depending on how you make your choices and what spiritual goals you meditate upon.
The point is that each of these levels of being has its appropriate kinds of perception, of information, and of understanding. How do we balance them, and which takes precedence when we get competing messages? We know that the understanding that we get based on sense perception is often misleading; is “spiritual perception” any more trustworthy because it is less corporeal? Paul seems to think so, and in this he was taking on directly a major current in the thought of his times, or perhaps swimming with it. Over and over in the letter to the Corinthians he talks about knowledge and wisdom, divine and human; for example, in chapter 2, verses 6 through 10.
Among the perfect [or mature] we speak wisdom, wisdom not of this world nor of the leaders of this world, who will be nullified. But we speak God’s wisdom, in mystery, hidden wisdom, which God des¬tined before the ages, for our glory. This wisdom none of the leaders of this world knew, for if they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord. But as it is written,
`The things that eye has not seen, nor ear heard, and did not enter into the human heart, which God has made ready for those who love him,’ — these things God has brought to light for us through the Spirit, for the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God. . . we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit. ‡
But there is a bridge between the human knower and the revelations by the Spirit of God, because Christ has fully been instructed by, unified with, the Holy Spirit. With his return after death, and his dwelling in those who walk as children of his Light, we “have” his mind: it is shared with us, and we can know by it. When we are “spirit people” (pneumatikoi), we can know not only “heavenly” things, but also the spiritual side of everyday life. We are given, as Rufus Jones had it, “new eyes for invisibles.” This is the root for gospel freedom for all the members of the body of Christ, sharing the common life.
Paul clearly teaches that we need to “work out our salvation” in our life here (however near we are to the end-times), and so he often talks about different kinds of faithfulness, of the need for mutual support and nurture within the fellowship of the church, and for compassion for others whose faithfulness may require more accommodation than is required of others — the rule being that everyone should be fully persuaded in their own minds that the discipline they undertake (at this stage in their development) is the one that aligns them best with God’s will.
Thus, our bodies and personalities not only do shape our discipleship, but they must; and “everything works together for good” for those whom God loves, who are sincerely seeking to know God, and be transformed by the life of Christ taking shape within, and who do not judge each other but seek to build each other up. Isaac Penington embroidered Paul’s doctrine thus:
this is the true ground of love and unity, not that such a man walks and does just as I do, but because I feel the same Spirit and life in him, and in that he walks in his rank, in his own order, in his proper way and place of subjection to that. And this is far more pleasing to me, than if he walked just in that rank wherein I walk: nay, so far as I am spiritual I cannot so much as desire that he should do so, until he be particularly led thereto, by the same Spirit which led me.
And I think Erasmus’s teaching about seeking beyond the visible to the spiritual truths adds an important additional insight. when he suggests that it is precisely our embodiment that enables us to strive for perfection. As Sylvia Fitzpatrick argues, Erasmus sees a particular blessing from our incarnation, in the divine pedagogy that comes with the limitations and temptations — the concrete realities — of our physical life, in which we are formed to take delight in the other things of creation amongst which we are placed, and grow inwardly, with Christ’s help (light and life) to understand and live past the temptations that come with our condition. As Erasmus writes in the Enchiridion,
if the storms of temptation descend upon you more frequently and more violently, do not immediately begin to be dissatisfied with yourself as if you were not dear to your God or pleasing in his sight, or as if you were lacking in piety or any less perfect. On the contrary give thanks that he is training you as a future heir, chastising you as a dear son, putting you to the test as a friend. It is the greatest proof that a man has been rejected by divine mercy when he is assailed by no temptations.
Penington articulates the Quaker practice in response to doubts, differences, and temptations:
It is not an easy matter, in all cases, clearly and understandingly to discern the voice of the Shepherd, the motions of God’s Spirit, and certainly to distinguish the measure of life from all other voices, motions, and appearances whatsoever. Through much growth in the truth, through much waiting on the Lord, through much fear and trembling, through much sobriety and meekness, through much exercise of the senses, this is at length given and obtained.
But the coming into a condition where we know the mind of Christ has additional implications for our engagement with the creation (bearing always in mind that Christ is known to be the Wisdom of God that permeates all creation), and here George Fox and other early Friends have much to say about the renewing, the hallowing, of knowledge. About which more next.
*“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
** On at least three counts. First, Paul accepted the fundamentals of Jewish faith and law, including the Torah as revelation of truth. Second, the Greeks were by no means exclusively “rational” (whatever that means) — as discussed long ago by E.R. Dodds in The Greeks and the irrational. Third, already by Paul’s time the great Jewish tradition of dialectic reasoning was developing, that would in the next century begin to form the Talmud. .
‡from Treasure in Earthen Vessels: Letters to Corinthians and New Englanders on Christian Unity. Worcester, MA: Mosher Book and Tract Fund of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends.