Love, judgment, and the inner critic #3:  On whether we have learned as much as we think we have since the 1600s (or before)

07/18/2018 § Leave a comment

I suppose it’s matter of personality: some people tend to think that older is better, others that newer is best. The latter tendency is highly favored by our economic system, and intertwined with capitalism’s need to continually recreate the consumer’s appetites (beautifully satirized by The Onion, for example here).  The value and the costs of this novelty-seeking have been the focus of much research by neurologists and psychologists, and much debated by philosophers and commentators (a good place to start exploring this rich mix is at Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, here).  I hear this argument-from-novelty all the time from the marketers of education technology and ed policy.

Alas, too often it is in hindsight (the accumulation of evidence about consequences) that we take stock of the New Thing  and weigh the trade-offs (fossil fuels, high-stakes educational testing, recreational tobacco…make your own list).  By that time, we have often accommodated to the costs, as the New Thing becomes just part of The Way Things Are. Curiously, we say that “Change is hard,” and so it is;  but novelty, which is often in effect a significant change, is easy as pie.  As we welcome (buy, consume) the new,  it is remarkably easy to dismiss cautions, counter-indications, or calls for research.

But this isn’t just a capitalist thing. It’s also a modernist thing, and modern Quakerism of various kinds buys into it, too. For the last century or so, many who are partisans for “progressive revelation” have taken this to mean, in effect, that what We think Now is intrinsically better than what They thought Then.  (And it’s not just a liberal Quaker thing — I was once told by an evangelical Friend that the traditional Quaker worship is outmoded — a dispensation that was necessary for Fox’s time, but we have outgrown it. Meanwhile, there are nonEvangelical Friends who feel that “silent worship” is a boutique practice that can’t reach out “catholically,” to echo Lewis Benson.  Perhaps it is, as it is usually practiced, but perhaps there are other ways to think about it.)

Christine Wolff’s pamphlet on the Inner Critic, about which I have been reflecting, uses a species of this argument from newness or progress in setting the stage for her essay.  On page 2, she writes:

Quakerism began in the mid-1600s, well before the study of modern psychology in the late 1800s.  We now have the benefit of a large body of knowledge about how humans thing, feel, and behave that was not available in the seventeenth century..this emerging field can add a lot to our abilities as humans to fully embody our spirituality in the world of our daily lives. It is often in the domains of personality, emotions, and relationships that our spiritual journeys meet the most challenges.  Love would be easy if we did not also feel fear, anger, hatred, jealously, pride, etc.

Now,  these areas (anger, fear, hatred, jealousy, pride) have been major subjects of reflection, study, and practice in major religious and philosophical traditions over the past couple of millenia.  The Stoics paid a lot of attention to the varieties and sources of negative emotions as they related to appetite, desire, social relationships, mortality and more. The monastic tradition carried on this work of observation, diagnosis, and therapy, and moderns with the taste for it keep finding value in their insights (trace, for example,  the Internet life of accidie or acedia as a very modern pathology of our time.  You can start here. )

The Hebrew scriptures among other topics are quite aware of how parents shape their children’s personalities — their strengths and also their struggles (an apparently simple proverb like “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” have provoked much psychological insight over the centuries). Some Renaissance pedagogues (such as Erasmus) tempered their admonitions to parents and teachers with the fruits of some careful attention to human nature, and the long-term effects of different modes of parenting and teaching.

In the 17th century (to speak directly to Christine Wolff’s point), Friends were immersed in, and emerged from, a culture infused with teachings on many aspects of psychology and personality development. The Puritan divines, who took their teaching and pastoral roles very seriously, produced more than one massive guidebook to the human heart (Thomas Brooks and Richard Baxter come to mind).  Robert Burton, in that amazing, eloquent, unique monster The Anatomy of Melancholy, writes:

our own parents, by their offences, indiscretion, and intemperance, are our mortal enemies. “The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”  They cause our grief many times, and put upon us hereditary diseases, inevitable infirmities: they torment us, and we are ready to injure our posterity: mox daturi progeniem vitiosiorum [soon to yield a more wicked progeny]… we are thus bad by nature, bad by kind, but far worse by art [purposeful activity], every man the greatest enemy unto himself… we arm ourselves to our own overthrows; and use reason, art, judgment, all that should help us, as so many instruments to undo us.

In such an age, Fox could write (epistle 10):


Whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you,then he gets advantage over you,  and then ye are gone….when temptations and troubles appear, sink down in that which is pure, and all will be hushed, and fly away. Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, etc., then ye think ye shall never overcome….

More examples could be piled up to show that previous ages had their own psychologies — quite aside from the insight that comes from dwelling in Christ, who knows what is in the human heart.

Now, I am a 20th century person (with a soupçon of 21st century flavor), and I do not for a moment believe that what is old is best as such.  Moreover, even if there is great wisdom preserved in Sanskrit or Syriac, Arabic or Arapaho, it may be inaccessible to me without a skilled and insightful translator, and the same is true for wisdom from a distant time.

On the other hand, it never hurts to be wary about the fruits of modern culture — “try all things, hold fast to that which is good.”  Easier said than done!  One kind of assay to apply to a shiny new insight, however, in the attempt to distinguish the true gold from the false, is the test of time.  I remember a professor commenting on a fashionable new theory, “Das Neue ist nicht richtig, und das Richtige ist nicht neu.” [The new (in this work)  is not correct, and the correct is not new.]

But beyond the need to sift the temporarily exciting from the actually valuable innovation,  I do think that the privileging of the New makes us vulnerable, in ways which can be damaging for the spiritual life.

First, it is distracting, and presents us with the constant occasion to lose focus, to move quickly from one solution, language, practice, idea to another, before we have incorporated into our integrity lessons learned, practices adopted after careful search:  it can tend to scatter rather than gather our spiritual focus.  You  may argue that there are many paths to the top of the mountain, but if you try to follow many paths at once, you are likely to spend a lot of time in a zig-zag, rather than in the climb to the top.

Second, it disrupts community, the community that strengthens and encourages.   Each person must seek as they can, and (as I wrote in a previous post) our individual spiritual practices and understandings will necessarily be a fabric woven through our unique personalities and situations — yet “community”  at bottom connotes shared values, and the exchanges and processes that preserve and use the common resources.

Our spiritual community includes those who built the house we have come to inhabit, or (to switch images) those who wrote the first chapters of the story we have come to inhabit. If I accept that I cannot have all wisdom, then it is the part of wisdom to be in frank dialogue with those who share the same path, yet differ in accent, emphasis, and practice — because they, too have been discoverers.  As Penington writes,

the Lord hath appeared in others, as well as to me;  yea, there are others who are in the growth of his truth, and in the purity and dominion of his life, far beyond me.  Now for me to set up, or hold forth, a sense or judgment of anything in opposition to them, this is out of the sobriety which is of the truth.  Therefore, in such cases, I am to retire, and fear before the Lord, and wait upon him for a clear discerning and sense of his truth, in the unity and demonstration of his Spirit with others, who are of him, and see him.

Our own personal integrity is often bound up in the integrity of our community, and of the relationship between I and We.  This unity in diversity is a process, not an achievement, and challenges us to stay awake, and to stay teachable.   The appeal to the New-as-better can be (perhaps unconsciously) an excuse to avoid the ordering of the Holy Spirit, to keep us from lessons we need to learn in some paradox or unpleasant fact.

I close with Jaroslav Pelikan’s famous comment on this dialogue:

Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.


Every kind of thing will be well

07/04/2018 § 4 Comments

In meeting for worship the other day, I found myself wrestling with the condition of the world — not only the political developments that dominate our daily headlines, but also the relentless acceleration of climate change and its ill effects, and the insane sleigh-ride of militarism, materialism, and cynicism which most of the world is  currently on.  I was feeling the familiar dryness in the mouth that comes in the midst of the temptation to give up hope —or the fear that hope is no longer an option.

All at once I found myself remembering the famous line from Julian of Norwich:  “all will be well, and all will be well, and every kind of thing will be well.” **   In my melancholy mood, I quickly dismissed this as arising from a simple reflex need for comfort, yet it kept returning with urgency, as though I were being shown a door I needed to unlock.

I am not the first one to challenge this statement on its face.  More than one person has seen it as troubling (see here, for example).  Julian herself was puzzled by it.  It seems important to point out that in her account these are Christ’s words, not her own, and they lead Julian into much hard thinking, meditation, and frank challenge back to the Lord:  How can this be, given the way the world is?   She does not find it easy to square this apparently optimistic claim with the evidence of brokenness which she could see all around here, in 14th century England, a land of war, plague, and hard living.

Just as these words of her testimony came to my mind  in the midst of a grieving meditation, they came as the word of the Lord i the 13th revelation, as she came to see that her longing for unity with him was hindered by “sin.”  She notes that in thinking of this word, it brought to mind

all which is not good…his tribulations, his death and all his pains, and the passions, spiritual and bodily of all creatures.  For we are all troubled.

— what we glibly label “the problem of evil.”  Typically for a post-Augustinian, she sees that the whole world was “bent” by Adam’s sin.  She says (I am paraphrasing),  Why didn’t you just prevent sin from getting started?  Then all would have been well. But now, just look at things! Look at me!

« Read the rest of this entry »

We were warned

06/25/2018 § Leave a comment

Don’t keep silent about climate change. While there are many important humanitarian and political issues to track, not to mention the many strands of change, creativity, controversy, and chicanery in the world of education, you can’t not pay attention to climate change, I don’t mean that it’s hard to ignore — alas, it’s all too tempting to think about something else. Even the most committed environmentalist is likely to have moments of grief and exhaustion.

No, what I mean is, it’s imperative that we track the main story about climate change — that it’s here, it’s now, and we are committed to increasing climate disruption. It’s measurably bad, and it’s going to get worse. That’s the story, and we each need to be saying something about it to someone at least weekly, if not daily. This is not just a story about climate. It’s also about social justice, peace and war, refugees, disease, and impoverishment.

It’s not like this is news, to anyone who has been paying attention.

It was 30 years ago this month that Dr. James Hanson asserted, in testimoney before Congress, that the “signal” of global warming was now discernible within the “noise” of natural variability. He was speaking out during a summer that brought unprecedented heat to most of the US. (That summer’s heat so unbearable, is now not in the top 20 hottest years in recorded history.) If you have not done so, I encourage you to read some of the coverage of Hanson’s testimony, and how it has held up in the years since.

The bottom line is that Hanson’s analysis and predictions for the next 30 years (that’s us!) were remarkably accurate (you can start here, where you’ll find a link to a short video story from Yale Climate Connection, and here in the NY Times). I remember very well how the “skeptics” who joined a massive disinformation campaign about climate change dismissed the warnings because they were just the products of models — but Hanson and his peers and colleagues built those models on facts, and the models in turn led to an avalanche of research in the years since. We can say with much confidence that this is how the world is working. The sea level is rising faster and faster; temperature and preciptiation extremes are coming faster and faster. We are likely now committed to the catastrophic melting of major ice sheets — and those are just a few of the developments now under way, with living things (including Homo sapiens) drawn in tow — coping, or not coping.

Joe Romm, of Climate Progress, summed up the meaning of the anniversary thus:

We are running out of time for America to join the world in adopting the ever-stronger climate policies needed to avoid ruining our livable climates for centuries.  If we fail to act, we can try to say to those suffering the consequences 30 years from now that it was politics that stopped us from doing the right thing. But we won’t be able to say weren’t warned.

Idol worship, or, one face of Moloch to whom we sacrifice our children

06/20/2018 § 1 Comment

from Thomas Merton:

We who are ruined by our own indigence to the point of thinking that we can possess something worship a false god, a god of possession, that is a god of destruction. God is the God of the living.

(in A book of hours, ed. Kathleen Deignan, pg. 199)


Love, judgment, and the “inner critic”, pt. 2b: Syncretism, dilution, and the drawbacks of cultural appropriation

06/09/2018 § 2 Comments

In previous posts in this series, I did some preliminary work by way of detours into the nature of heresy and the patch work out of which we make our spiritual stories. This patchwork, I think, is inevitable for the individual who comes into any spiritual tradition, Quaker or otherwise. What is not inevitable is that the tradition in which one arrives (let us call it the host tradition), in providing spiritual hospitality to the seeker from elsewhere (let us call it the source), must ipso facto incorporate the teachings, practices, or world view of the source.  If a primary value is universal acceptance, then of course the host community will hereafter also acknowledge the values of the sources from which its new adherents comes. I merely point out that this a choice (to the extent or in the ways that a cultural change is a choice).

For example, I was raised an Episcopalian, and went to Catholic schools, where I was influenced by a few of the many streams of Catholic spirituality.  I was led to Quakerism — “convinced of the Truth,” as we used to say.  Now, there are parts of me that continue to feel nourished by my Anglo-Catholic roots.  My periodic use of the daily office, my awareness of the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, my readings in monastic spiriruality and the Christian humanism of Erasmus — these are indelible parts of my practice and my inner life.  Should, therefore, my meeting or Yearly Meeting in accepting me also accept the Nicene Creed, the practice of the hours, or the use of outward sacraments?  It would never have occurred to me to ask.  They are part of my personal history, but they are not compatible with the Quaker charism.  I have to make my own peace with them.

Others have grappled more eloquently than I with the “hyphenated Quaker experience” — As one example,  I recommend Liz Oppenheim’s reflections,”Living with a hyphenated identity,”  from some years ago  (along with the links and discussions that appertain thereto).

On the other hand, suppose the host tradition — let’s say, just to pick something at random,  Quakerism — takes the path of (essentially) universal acceptance.   At that point, Quakerism becomes a syncretic religion, assembled from various elements chosen from the Spiritual Marketplace, and added to Quakerism by new people accepted into membership — when the individual assemblages of ideas and practices that I bring are explicitly accepted during my membership process, the meeting is thereby declaring that what I bring is now also part of the Quaker testimony, so that when we try to explain what Quakerism is, we must somehow reflect in our account these new elements.   Thus, Quakerism is redefined, at least locally, and often without recognizing that the redefinition has taken place.

At first blush, such a process might be celebrated as a process of enrichment:  Quakerism version 1 turns into Quakerism v2, now new and better because it has bells or outward sacraments or what-have-you.  But note that this  kind of change is not just a matter of simple addition, because elements drawn from various other traditions are themselves embedded deeply in some culture, and so they are clothed round with meanings and nuances that are implicitly adopted along with the idea or practice that has been explicitly imported.  These additional nuances and meanings have their own implications that may not be recognized at first, or ever. On the other hand, the adopted practice or idea as carried out in our imaginary Quakerism v2, separated from its original context, may be in fact an echo or shadow of the practice as experienced in its culture (or practice, or religion) of origin.

One of the best statements of this problem can be found in the writings of the “Diamond Approach,”  the body of spiritual teaching that Christine Wolff draws insights from in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet that I am reflecting on.  The Diamond Approach is a syncretistic body of teachings and practices, drawing from multiple traditions of East and West (enneagrams and Freud, for example).   Yet the teachers of the Diamond Approach explain that each tradition has its own “logos,” which I might paraphrase as “worldview or narrative” about human nature and related matters, and warn that in assembling things from disparate traditions, you may be getting more (or less) than you imagine:

when we engage any particular practice, we engage the entire logos of that teaching. Because so many teachings are readily available these days, many of us borrow practices from different traditions and do them on our own outside the context of that tradition. But practices contain and express the logos of their teaching, so when they are done outside of that context, they lack the holding, support, and guidance of the larger field of the teaching.

To avoid this kind of attenuation or dilution, one would naturally need to delve deeply enough in the source tradition to understand the practice from the inside out, so to speak.  Since one’s life is finite, there would appear to be the danger of a tradeoff between depth and breadth.

This is thus a special and interesting manifestation of the tension between individual and corporate life that has been present among Friends (and other religions, of course!) forever.   In this case, the individual seeker arrives at Quakerism equipped with miscellaneous tools, habits of mind, and assumptions.  These tend to form the frame within which we interpret Quakerism — in a sense, we are seeing what we need to see, or what we are inclined to see.  We are not likely to know right away what it feels like to those who have been at home there before us.

It can take a while to get around to asking what might be there when we are not looking — what tradition we have actually joined ourselves to.  Ideally, the meeting has resources to help address this question — most importantly, living voices (as well as books and tracts and curricula and committees and whatnot) who can help the newcomer with the narratives and practices that have formed  the community they have discovered in their spiritual search, and given it the qualities that make it feel like an answer to their longing, a home in which to dwell, learn, and grow.

In generations past, some Friends were alert to this process by which individuals bring from other traditions innovations that sit uneasily with Quakerism as it was before they had arrived.  During the great upheavals surrounding the ascendency of evangelicalism among Friends in the 19th century, conservatives like Sarah Grubb and Thomas Shillitoe warned that innovators like Joseph John Gurney were spreading a “linsey-woolsey garment” over the Society of Friends.  As Grubb writes (in 1841 pg 430 in her Selected Letters):

 Oh ! how tried my poor mind is, under a sense of a want amongst us of true discern ment ; and even in my very secluded allotment here, I think my inward eye sees a covering in our Society that is prohibited in the truth; a mixture as surely disapproved in the sight of the Great Head of the Church, as ever the forbidden linsey-woolsey garment was of old

(the reference is to Leviticus 19:19).   The usage has an even longer heritage, however.  Josiah Cole in his memorial to Richard Farnworth (Works, part 2, pg. 126) writes that in his last hours, Farnworth (who died in 1668)

spake very preciously unto Friends…testifying of the greatness of the love and power of God, of which he was made partaker, and which he then felt; and of the preciousness of the Truth, whichhe had with us born witness of; and exhorted them to faithfulness and steadfastness therein, and to singleness, that nothing might be suffered to creep in of another nature to intermix therewith, saying, No linty-woolsy garment must be worn, etc. with much more to that effect.

Such Friends were on their guard, in their times, against any distraction or deviation from the fundamental Quaker task, which was to shape our lives — individually and corporately — in conformity with the experience that Christ is alive and at work for our guidance, comfort, and liberation;  that we are called bring the whole of our lives under the ordering of this Spirit.  As they lived in this calling, they were led to separate themselves from traditional Christian practices that they saw as human inventions that could be serviceable, but also could be distracting or misleading, and were further from the pure springs of life/living. The Quaker process then is one of radical reconstruction, in the light of this commitment.

God alone is sovereign Lord of conscience (to quote a phrase beloved of Presbyterians and Hicksites as well) .  Each of us, pilgrims, brings with us things of value, inevitably.  If the spiritual community, Quakerism version X, to which we come is alive, however, it will be both a refuge and a workshop of reconstruction — challenging, overturning, and transforming what we bring, under the guidance of the Spirit of Christ, by which we have been led, and is not changeable, though in every time and locale we may hear with different emphases, questions, and struggles.

In thinking of this work of reconstruction, which must be partly unconscious, and partly intentional,  I recur to the image of “homeostasis in the body of Christ.”  In the present case, the analogy is thus:  Throughout our lives, our bodies are constantly drawing matter in from our environment, incorporating it into new tissue, and recycling old material.  Few of the atoms that constituted us at birth, few of the cells, remain long in our bodies — yet (under good circumstances) we maintain physical integrity, and some continuity of personality and memory.  across the years.  This takes work!   Some of it goes on in ways we are not aware of; some of it must engage our emotions, will, and thought — and much of it can’t happen except in the context of a community, whose integrity is held in its individuals and its memory, and serves to meet the challenges now and to come.


An exhortation from Richard Farnworth

06/04/2018 § 1 Comment

In reading for this blog, I was led to Josiah Coale’s works, among which I found a tract which he wrote in memory of Richard Farnworth, one of the very first Friends (convinced by Fox in 1651 — though 3 years later than Elizabeth Hooten).
As became the custom, the dying Friend’s final words were recorded, and there is this fine and humbling passage:

Friends, God hath been mightily with me, and hath stood by me at this time, and his Power and presence hath accompanied me all along, though some think that I am under a Cloud for something; but God hath appeared for the owning of our Testimony, and hath broken in upon me as a flood, and I am filled with his Love, more than I am able to express, and God is really appeared for us.

If God himself had come down and spoken as a man, he could not have spoke more clearer to us than he hath done, by the many Testimonies from Heaven in his People concerning this thing. Therefore I beseech you Friends, here of this City of London, (whether I live or dye) be you faithful to your Testimony which God hath committed to you, and as it ariseth in your hearts, be faithful to the Lord therein.

What shall we ask of each other?

05/25/2018 § Leave a comment


Galloping horses vie with each other. A zealous community encourages individual zeal.
— from  The ladder of divine ascent, by John Climacus


“Zealous preacher, pious people;  pious preacher, lukewarm people;  lukewarm preacher, lifeless people.”


Long ago, Friends wrote “It is a living ministry begets a living people,” but our advices also remind us, “The meeting shapes the ministry as much as the other way around.”  — A language for the inward landscape


How shall we use our time together, humble learners in the school of Christ, so that we can live abundantly and testify joyfully and with power?


Isaiah rebuked the people of his time:

“this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD: 
Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits: 
 Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us. (Isa. 30:9-11).”

Isaiah was sent to a people in whom spiritual and ethical teaching had grown unfaithful.  The conventional prophets were  committed to giving the people what they asked for — complacency and comfort, rather than speaking the truth for their troubled times, and pointing the path to life in harmony with God, and ultimately with each other.   But what would have happened if the people, yearning for spiritual health, had confronted these teachers prophetically, saying,

“Help us better know and live in the life of the Holy One, tell us the truth in which we can be free.  David once had sung (Ps. 20), ‘Some trust in horses, and some in chariots, but we will call upon the Lord our God,’ seeking to learn from God the path of life.  We want this to be true of us! Be faithful in your work, so that we can be faithful in ours.  Be faithful in your life, so we can be faithful in ours!”  What will happen if we can learn to listen prophetically in this way to the motions of divine life in each other?”

Paul writes, “The eye can’t say to the hand ‘I don’t need you,’ nor can the head say to the foot, ‘I have no need of you.’ ” ( 1Cor.12)  Feel into this:  We need each other, as a body needs all its parts.  And Christ, the head, needs our feet and hands and eyes — and these need the head, and the life that circulates and nourishes all parts in one enlivening stream. It is from this mutual need and experience of the common life that a witnessing body is fed and grows in strength, not by declaration or by assertion of unity — these articulate hope, or announce our condition, but cannot create or substitute for the shared living, the actual spiritual organism.


Oh! be faithful! Look not back, nor be too forward, further than ye have attained; for ye have no time, but this present time: therefore prize your time for your souls’ sake.

George Fox, letter to his parents,1652

Love, judgment, and the “inner critic”, pt. 2a: Syncretism, dilution, and the drawbacks of cultural appropriation

05/13/2018 § Leave a comment

The prior post, on heresy, and this one, are connected by my need to explain to myself how things like “heresy” —  the development of alternative views of religious truth or experience — and syncretism function:  how they serve us in our search.  That is, I have been trying to think about  them experientially,  as being primarily instrumental means for the search, rather than primarily the results or even the goal of the search.

Now on to syncretism: some first thoughts.

I tend to think that people live in stories — about themselves, about others, about how things work, about why things happen.  We may think that what guides us is beliefs or principles,  but these are like the path-marks along a hiking trail — if you focus on those, you forget that it’s the trail that you’re on.  You’re not making that hike because of the markers, no matter how useful they are.  Even the goal is only part of the story — I can say “I climbed Monadnock last weekend,” but that leaves out a lot of detail.

More than this, I think that our fundamental individual narrative is one of journey across a landscape, of time, of space, and more — there are as many kinds of human journey as there are kinds of maps and geographies. (I elaborated this story about cognition and perception  for myself for many years, before I thought to look for others who’d worked it out more fully — and of course they are legion. Bruce Chatwin’s Song Lines was my first encounter with such fellow-travelers;  my current favorite is the work of anthropologist Tim Ingold: check him out — his book Lines, or other things like this .)

A story in any one telling is selective, depending on its purpose, its audience, the pragmatic conditions within which you are telling the story — so my Monadnock story may be as brief as the mention of the occurrance, or could be drawn out into a twenty minute tale told over a dinner with friends, or turned into a novel or extended memoir.  More details are recalled by the story teller than are used at any one time, and many are not even consciously available if not brought to mind by a question or a new purpose — the stir of the breeze at one transition from hot exposed rock to forest edge, the whiff of mayflower caught en passant, a bit of trash dropped by a previous traveler, a momentary confusion when the next trail marker was needed but not yet seen… In another time of telling, on another occasion, those details may be needed — and summoned.

As we move across a landscape, if a detail is not available, we fill it in, we supply the lack somehow, by reasoning, or history, or an additional resource (Google map or paper map), or sheer imagination (creating an ad hoc bit of story to weave into the one currently being lived).  If the landscape is not physical but mental, these inventions or discoveries-in-the-gap, if they are serviceable, can become incorporated into that story, whenever we tell it.  We are, to shift metaphors, weaving the fabric to be more satisfying — stronger, more useful, or more beautiful.

Furthermore, as we make our way through “the wilderness of this world,” we find helps and tools, companions and refreshments, that in their time and place are definite aids and comfort.  Finding them is real discovery, and they encourage us and keep us feeling hopeful on our way.  Moreover, we don’t start empty-handed — we have ideas, skills, habits, symbols, rituals — that help support our identity, our sense of who we are, and where we are from, even if we are eagerly traveling away from (even escaping from) what and where we have been.

It is very easy to say “Syncretism is part of just about every religious and cultural stream.”  I wanted to stop and think about the experience a bit.  Modern Friends, whether they think of Quakerism as “do-it-yourself” religion or not, do in fact inhabit hybrid worlds.  Furthermore, Quakers in the past, as well as Christians from the beginning, have done so, even when they were most purely centered in the experience of the power and terror of the Light.   It’s important to accept that this is natural, because that’s how humans-in-culture are. (I can’t help recommending, at this point, Anna Mott Gummere’s The Quaker: A study in costume (1901) — you can get it electronically here — which is a charming and valuable study of how “plain dress” evolved over the years, under the influence of the non-Quaker world. It is one of many studies that emerged from the post-Manchester Quaker Renaissance.)

All this having been said, however, I am going to argue, in the next post (2b to this one) that it is also part of our work to interrogate and push back against this nature tendency, if we are to be true to the guidance of the Light.

As a reminder, these reflections were stimulated by Christine Wolff’s use of the Diamond Approach in her reflections on The inner critic versus the inner guide, the Pendle Hill Pamphlet that is the origin of this series of posts (except for the whip-poor-will.)






05/10/2018 § 1 Comment

Last night, when sleep had left me once again
For  some one more deserving or more needy,
An owl sweetly sang  “I know, but still there’s life.”
And listening, in the dark room that we shared,
I knew that there’s an old tear in my fabric
That only a whip-poor-will’s voice can mend.

A note or two on “heresy”

05/06/2018 § 8 Comments

I have been thinking about heresy recently–not any particular heresy or heretic, but the place of heretical ideas in the process of spiritual growth.  I ofen wonder, can we ever say “This is true, and that is false”? What can we say about “the Tendency of Varieties to depart indefinitely from the Original Type”  (to borrow the title of Alfred Wallace’s 1858 paper on evolution by natural selection)?

The word for”heresy” comes from the Greek word hairesis, which means choice, selection, and from this, faction. In the New Testament, where it appears a few times, it is usually best translated as sect, sometimes but not always associated with schism or division within a community. For example  the Pharisees and the Sadducees are described with this word,  and the Nazarenes as well. It is not until the period of the apostolic fathers that the word begins to take on the more definite sense of schismatic, with the connotation that the heretic  has chosen to step off the approved path to salvation, and often with some intent to conflict. Later, Christians elaborated the idea that someone who is perhaps flirting with spiritual death ought to experience physical death as a consequence– presumably as a kind of pest control.

Over the centuries a few voices have opposed severe or capital punishment for heresy, and indeed have counseled another response to diversity.  This may well be the result of insight into the dynamics of spiritual growth. Erasmus pointed out (most famously in the “letter to Carondelet”) that most of the early fathers could be accused of heresy on one or more points. He was not surprised, but argued that the Church’s account of its hope and commitments did not spring fully elaborated from the Apostles, but rather grew and developed as questions and interpretations arose which seemed to require discernment, clarification, or decision. Differences of interpretation are best addressed either by calm debate seasoned with charity, or by patient witness to one’s own understanding of the truth– following the advice of Rabbi Gamaliel about how to handle the new movement, as reported in Acts 5: 38-39,

If this plan or scheme is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrow them.

And Paul in 1 Cor, 11 counsels the Corinthians to see factions as functional, in that they clarify who is reliable and to be trusted as disciples.

Isaac Pennington may be seen as allied in spirit with this general view of things:  under Christ’s domain it is Christ’s spirit that will work to eliminate what is harmful:

Christ overcomes the Devil’s Kingdom by his spirit; by that spirit he preaches the truth, and soweth the seed of the kingdom, and by his spirit upholds and maintains it.  This is his way of overcoming all the mists of darkness and false doctrines.  (Works 1:310),

For it is to the Master that all alike are to give an account of their path to faithfulness;  in community life, we can strive to guide, counsel, encourage each other, but only recognizing that the work in the end is Christ’s.  A community is constituted by its common understanding of how to enact faithfulness, and what its covenant will be, but must keep in the love and spirit of Christ in deciding this.  It seems to me that this is grounded in a true faith that Christ is at work and to be relied upon by those who seek to know and heed his voice.  Is his arm shortened that he cannot save?

Later in the same tract, Penington in a famous passage speaks indirectly to the tension between bearing a common witness, and turning differences into accusation:

How sweet and pleasent is  it to the truly spiritual eye, to see several sorts of believes, several forms of Christians in the school of Christ, every one learning their own lesson.

And here I am reminded of how Christ is called the logos in John’s gospel, for which the translation “word” is inadequate except as a shorthand. For the logos is alive and active as creator and enlightener, and in all ages from the beginning has been perceptible in the creatures and entities of the cosmos, in the lives of the holy, and in the words of prophets and  the wise.  Logos is process as well as substance.

Moreover, this word of creation is still being spoken in a world of change and time in which everyone coming into the world must experience and follow the light in a way unique to each, as each one  is unique, though they can find by grace where the  deep unity is and can be felt. Learners in the school of the logos, we will see  in part, and fulfill the guidance in part, and then still  Christ’s spirit is saying,”I love thee, but what thou hast found, that is not all of my gift. Follow me yet further,  listen now to what comes next.”

So Erasmus translated logos  into Latin not as verbum, an utterance or lexeme, but as sermo:  a conversation, discourse, an unfolding intelligent exchange at many levels, between and within all souls in and with the light and the life through which God is at work reconciling the world to Godself.  With that vision in mind,  much that has been called “heresy” seems thus a necessary byproduct of an engaged, exploratory life in the Spirit — interim reports along the way.

Yet the logos, the light,  the sermo,  emanates from one source and guides to unity; so it cannot itself be divided, however much abundance and diversity it contains and rejoices in, which joy we, too, can taste.  Consequently,  our own learning for today cannot ignore, and must take account of, what is been shown before.  Not only do we see and know only in our measure,  but we must also recall that we are in a conversation that did not begin with us. How can we tell when our discerning, our hairesis, our choice or heresy, is wayward, self-willed, or a distraction  —  or possibly is opening a fresh path towards wholeness in the One?  We should be willing to accept the possibility of either alternative, and its consequences.

Rufus Jones brings a helpful caution,  in setting up his standard, as a way to think about right being versus right thinking — putting our claims, and ideas, and fashions to the test:

If by any chance Christ Himself had been taken by His later followers as the model and pattern of the new way, and a serious attempt had been made to set up His life and teaching as the standard and norm for the Church, Christianity would have been something vastly different from what it became. Then “heresy” would have been, as it is not now, deviation from His way, His teaching, His spirit, His kingdom. Love and Life — not doctrine — would have been the sacred words, the spiritual realities for a Christian. Dedication to the work of bringing the Kingdom of God, heroism, daring, adventure, self-giving, joy, radiance, abandon, readiness to go “the extra mile,” would have characterized Christians. (The Church’s debt to heretics, pg. 16)

And even so, what story do we tell to make sense of our witness?  Logos is not only process but also content.


(“And it is also said,” answered Frodo: “Go not to the Elves for counselfor they will say both No and Yes.“)