Library: Dymond on Gospel Ministry

01/13/2018 § 3 Comments

In the “Library” section of this site, you will find an entry entitled “Dymond: Gospel Ministry in the Society of Friends.”  (Given the technical difficulties that some readers had when I last posted something in the library, it will be simplest if you just go there and click on the link — you should then get the PDF document that I posted there.)

This, among the few books that Friends have produced on the ministry, was published in 1892, but the letters constituting its chapters are based on articles Dymond wrote for the Friends Quarterly Examiner and similar publications in the preceding decades.

Who was Joseph John Dymond?  The only biography I have found of him is in the Annual Monitor for 1908, or Obituary for Friends of Great Britain and Ireland (if you have not met the Annual Monitor series before, I encourage you to hunt for copies in your meeting library, if your meeting is of a certain age, or on-line.  The  1908 Monitor also includes the memorial minute for John Stephenson Rowntree, which has always seemed to me a model of the genre.)

JJ,  the nephew of Jonathan D, the Essayist, was born in 1825, and raised in Exeter in a lively, committed Quaker family of decidely Evangelical flavor.  At age 15, he began working at the bank his father managed, while continuing to live at home, which seems to have been a conspicuously happy one.  Dymond himself was seen as gifted, energetic, upright, and creative:  “Joseph John was almost the ‘beau-ideal’ of a strong young man— high-minded, talented, yet always yilding to the authority of his parents, and susceptible of impressions.”    When at age 27 he married Hester Grace, his sister later wrote, “I well remember the sorrow we felt in losing him…as our home brother, with the daily pleasures, fun and teasing incident to that relationship.”  Joseph and Hester’s family grew steadily, both before and after they moved north, where Joseph worked as an actuary for the rest of his career, gaining considerable esteem in the profession.

Dymond was active in Friends concerns, but his principal focus was the ministry;  his gift for preaching was recorded by his meeting, and “the sister gift of teaching was also largely developed.”  During his working life he traveled little in the ministry, being one of those whose gift was exercised mostly week by week in and around his home meeting. In later life, however, he traveled to America (twice), and to Australia. In 1878, he was made part of a deputation to North America, after British Friends were “introduced into deep concern by the information having been received of a separation having taken place in Western Yearly Meeting.” The other Friends traveling with him included Richard Littleboy, George Tatham, and Joseph Bevan Braithwaite.  They worked among Friends there to encourage unity and loving fellowship, and their sensitive work was (according to a Western YM minute of 1879 quoted in the Monitor) much appreciated.  The reader of his book on Gospel ministry will, I think, detect traces of his contact with American Friends, encountered at a time of much ferment, early in the rise of the pastoral movement. Joseph died in 1907, after some years of increasing debility.

Dymond wrote about the Quaker ministry during a period of intense debate and change in British Quakerism.  He was (quoth the memorial) “a strong exponent of evangelical faith, his arguments being supported by frequent and apposite quotations from the Bible, whilst his appeals were based upon his own personal experiences, and were made directly to the heart and conscience of his hearers, rather than to the intellect.”

In the latter years of the 1800s, however, British Quakerism was experiencing a growing movement from a predominantly Evangelical understanding of the Gospel as held by Friends, towards one more attuned to, and engaged with, the trends of modern thought.  Many elements of Quakerism were being revisited, debated, and renovated during this time, but everyone agreed that the ministry was a critical element in the continued (or renewed) vigor of the Society.  Should the old system of recording be continued, or was it an outmoded, undemocratic, and perhaps harmful practice? What education should minsters (recognized or not) be expected to have, to enhance their usefulness as Friends grappled with the questions of the age?  Should more organized arrangements be made to ensure that more meetings were helped by effective ministry?  Should Friends be more willing to provide financial support for rightly-called ministers, so that they could really dedicate themselves to the work (or was that bordering on “pastoralism”?!!)?  (A good overview of the main points and context of these debates can be found in Elizabeth Isichei’s Victorian Quakerism, pg. 90ff).

Dymond’s little book reflects on these and many more issues.  He writes as someone who was called  ” to my own amazement so long ago”  to take part “in a public duty which has been the joy of a lifetime,” who feels the need for critical if reverent reflection on Friends’ condition, and the work of the ministry in that context.   “If you ask a number of intelligent Friends from our 340 settled or allowed meetings whether the ministry they hear in them from week to week fully satisfies their spiritual needs, I venture to say that the great majority will answer in the negative.  Many will have to tell you that they have no resident ministry at all.  Others will reply that they have plenty of speaking, but very little true and edifying ministry of the Word.”

His essays speak in the voice of one who yearns for this condition to be addressed, and speaks on the basis of his long experience.  He writes at length about the value of “ministers meetings” as he experienced them: “They were occasions in which experienced ministers, with great tenderness , and under the sense of a blessed unity in the love and service of Christ, often gave wise and helpful counsel to their younger brethren. Offerings in the ministry from those whose names were not yet recorded on the list of approved ministers were passed under review, in a confidential and loving spirit; and when occasion seemed to call for it, individuals were deputed to procure interviews with some of these Friends, and to convey to them messages of counsel or encouragement as the case might require.”

He dedicates a chapter to eldership, another to “maintenance,” and to other organizational arrangements that might be made which might encourage women and men to more whole-heartedly take up the calling, and grow in service in all humility and boldness.  “Is it possible that our Heavenly Father who has bestowed upon us so many good natural gifts, has omitted to call for the dedication of some of them to His service? Or has the call been heard and not obeyed? Is it our Church system that has made us good tradesmen, good citizens, clever professional men, earnest philanthropists, but indifferent gospellers?”

He writes feelingly of the trials and anxieties of the work, as well as the great joy that can attend the sense of faithful service, and makes many suggestions about subject matter, study, and the inward work of the minister’s daily watch and preparation foe the service, as well as methods for nurture and oversight of the ministers, for the greater vitality of Friends worship and work in the world.

He closes with this: “The witness anointed by the Holy Ghost will proclaim, not men, not theological opinions, not ritual, not sacraments, not churches, but Jesus Christ and Him crucified; “for it pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell.” This is the ministry for which the world is waiting. This is the ministry which the Lord is waiting to bless.”

Some of this little book is dated,  but it repays thoughtful reading, and I think it might be an interesting thing if meetings on ministry and counsel read and discussed it together!.


Note on the text:  The PDF I enclose is a transcription of the book done some years ago by Mark Wutka, who appends some reflections of his own.


New look coming in the new year

01/01/2018 § Leave a comment

just a note to those who follow this blog that sometime this week I am going to change the “theme” on the blog.  So the next post (I hope) will be in the New Style, don’t be surprised.

Also, since I am in the mood to improve the infrastructure, let me know if there is some tool or “widget” that would help the blog be more usable for you.

— brian

A letter, for those who watch for the signs of the times, not to be troubled by minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

12/25/2017 § 2 Comments

Dear Hearts, whose deep joy is to be Children of the Alive One, be careful what you allow to trouble you, and wound you.

The things that arise in minutes, hours, days, or weeks are not the signs you should be reading closely, for they are hints and whispers,  the children and the servants of that which would rule as the Distractor and Wounder of your souls.  But look through these,  to feel what arises across seasons, years, and generations, for those are the tides to watch and know, that batter and wear away at the firm land,  that have power and endure because they have gathered and endured already for years and generations, and caught us all up in their power.

The jagged rhythms of minutes, hours, days, and weeks are the tools that, distracting and alarming, cut us off from the Body in which the Living One’s life, which is love and truth, brings healing, and courage, and mercy, and patience, and joy to clear the ears, and open the eyes, strengthening the hand and heart to the works of Light.

The jagged rhythms of the Decoyers and Distractors, pretenders to meaning — these cut us off from the Living One and from each other.  And the poor abstracted Parts lie cooling and without the nourishment of love, and so the fear comes in, and the love once known grows cold and loses force, being as it seems all alone.

So the poor eye can no longer see truth and hope; the poor ear cannot hear the Shepherd’s voice, not the cry of the oppressed;  the poor tongue cannot taste the sweets of the Honey in the Rock, nor speak from it;  the poor hand can point out neither the true enemy, nor the Way back to Life and its true friends, which the feet forget how to follow.  All are cold, and cannot feel the guiding of the Head, where vision, compassion, and meaning come to birth, and give themselves to all the body, flowing where the Light flows.

So do not be troubled nor wear your self out, alarmed by the things that arise from minutes, hours, days, or weeks, the servants of Confusion, who long for us to fear, to buy and eat and cluster and forget, to live not in the true common life, but in its counterfeit;  for then we serve the evil and the messengers of death.

The Creating and Healing One still pours out the waters of life, feeding the tree of Life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and from early times these fruits we have tasted, and must digest and grow with.  We are not to be pulled down from our watch by the flock of distraction that makes Self an idol, but stand on the watchtower, where we can call on God in our seeking and our pain, and look out with the eyes of the One that watches not in vain.  So learning again what we are to stand against and for, we can sing out in joy and knowledge when we see, what is born of the inexhaustible life, whether in minutes, in hours, in years or generations or ages, out of the Womb of Eternity.

Given in love, on this day December 25th, remembering Eternity embodied in little poor Jesus, whose light shone outwardly from the heavens, to ox and lamb, and poor and rich, knowing and unknowing, all peoples;  but see! the light of Christ shines and has always shone in glory all around.  Alleleuia! Alleluia!

Library: Letters etc. of early Friends

12/13/2017 § 11 Comments

A.R. Barclay (1794-1845), a descendent of Robert Barclay “the Apologist,” was a passionate and scholarly evangelical, who was deeply acquainted with the history of Friends.  He lived at a time when theological innovation (the rise of evangelical Quakerism in Britain) stimulated re-interpretations — by traditionalists, progressives, and evangelicals —  of the “true message of early Friends.”  While some (like the Beacon) did this to argue that on key points early Friends were theologically unsound or deeply confused, however venerable,  Barclay sought to reconcile his understanding of the Gospel with that preached by Fox et al. , and to claim that they were really in agreement with him (more or less).

Barclay went past the well-thumbed works (like Fox’s Journal and the Apology), and dove deep into the little-known trove of documents from the beginnings of Quakerism. Indeed, it has seemed to me that no one surpassed his knowledge of those materials until William Braithwaite undertook his great histories in the early 1900s.

Barclay’s scholarship produced two works that heavily influenced later Quaker developments:  the Letters &c of Early Friends, and The inner life of the religious societies of the Commonwealth. The latter was left unfinished at his death (“the Author having been removed by death after a short illness, when a few sentences only remained to be written,” as the Prefatory Note says).  It is a good deal more interesting than one might suppose from the title. He had more interest in the development of the discipline — especially of the roles of ministers and elders — than many Evangelical Friends did, and despite his strong polemical intent, he had something of a historian’s eye (see his rather astonishing chart,  tipped in at page 548 of your copy  of historical developments and corresponding changes in membership, or his treatment of Quaker dress, for women Friends of different classes).

The book influenced J.S. Rowntree’s Quakerism Past and Present (1859), which in turn played a role in developments that resulted in the transformation of British Quakerism in the 1890s, and continued to be read and cited by scholars well into the last century (and I have benefited from it myself).

But perhaps even more important was Barclay’s collection of  Letters &c of early Friends, which I have now added to my Library, downloaded from Google.  (It may also be found in vol. XI of the Friends Library.) This work is a loosely organized collection of primary documents, in three sections (I quote):

I. Historical, or Letters which illustrate the history of the Society of Friends, as regards events, services, or sufferings, in London, and “in the Country,” with some few relating to Ireland.

II. Documents illustrative of the early discipline and testimonies of the Society.

III.  Epistles of Counsel and Exhortation to the Churches, &c. “ is hoped that some of these selected epistles (believed to be now for the first time printed) will be truly acceptable to not a few readers in this day.  The letters and epistles of Alexander Parker, have been more largely taken, as but few of the writings of that eminent Friend have come down to use in print.

Not an easy work to read through from front to back, but as one dips in ad libitum, one encounters many old friends first met as excerpts in books of Faith and Practice, or Quaker histories.   Although thanks to the interwebs it’s not hard to find, you have to want to find it.  I place it here so that all you have to do now is want to read it.






Luke 8:18: Pay heed to how you hear.

12/05/2017 § 2 Comments

Yet another entry in the long catalogue of “things I have been slow to notice.”

One of the best things about reading the Bible in another language is that it makes you slow down.  Reading Luke in Greek,  I came to a passage that is famous for its obscurity:  “Whoever has, it will be given to him;  whoever does not, even what he seems to have will be taken away from him.”  (gender as in the original: Βλέπετε οὖν πῶς ἀκούετε: ὃς ἂν γὰρ ἔχῃ, δοθήσεται αὐτῷ, καὶ ὃς ἂν μὴ ἔχῃ, καὶ ὃ δοκεῖ ἔχειν ἀρθήσεται ἀπ᾽ αὐτοῦ.).  The verse occurs after Jesus has explained the parable of the sower to the apostles, followed by his admonition not to put your light under a bushel, and to remember that everything said in private will be shouted from the rooftops.

This passage has been commented on, of course, but not to my mind with much insight.    Here is William Barclay, a fairly solid evangelical commentator:

Luke 8:18 lays down the universal law that the man who has will get more; and that the man who has not will lose what he has. If a man is physically fit and keeps himself so, his body will be ready for ever greater efforts; if he lets himself go flabby, he will lose even the abilities he has. The more a student learns, the more he can learn; but if he refuses to go on learning, he will lose the knowledge he has. This is just another way of saying that there is no standing still in life. All the time we are either going forward or going back. The seeker will always find; but the man who stops seeking will lose even what he has.

Good commentaries set their target verses in context, but most commentaries on this passage (that is, the ones I know about, not a large number) seem to widen their scope only to the immediately previous lines. On the one hand, this is reasonable since as in other places in the gospels we seem to have a collection of items that have been assembled in composition with a fair amount of disconnect — what have these few verses to do with the preceding parable, which is a significant and extensive teaching?

Moving at my snail’s pace, by the time I  arrived at verse 18, I had not yet forgotten the path there.  After the parable of the sower, the gospel provides us with a glimpse “backstage” — The apostles are unsure about the meaning of the parable, and Jesus says (verse 10), To you it is given to know the meaning of the kingdom of God, but for the others [to know] only by parables, with the result that looking they don’t perceive, and hearing they don’t understand.

The last phrase echoes passages in the prophets, diagnosing the lack of spiritual (and ethical) understanding of most people (no wonder they don’t heed the warnings and the invitations from God!).  However, I was struck by the echo between verse 10 and verse 18, the repetition of the verb  “look”  (in both places, it is the same word, blepo (βλέπω).  

In the first occurrence, in verse 9,  Jesus is talking about people who are not able to see below the surface of things.  And here we have a teaching, I think, that modern people resist:  that the full Gospel is not readily apparent, and our understanding of it (most importantly, our ability to let Christ dwell in us, and transform us) does not come all at once.  Experience makes a difference, and that is as natural in spiritual growth as in any other kind of growth.  Sylvia Fitzpatrick writes (drawing on Erasmus’s paraphrase of the gospel): Jesus told the apostles that they were allowed to know the truth but that for those people who were ‘excluded from the inner circle, all is conducted in parables, whether I speak or act before them. For they do not have suitable ears or suitable eyes.

More than once through history, this idea has been taken to mean that Jesus had some esoteric teaching available to the few, establishing somehow a hierarchy within the spiritual body.  It is so easy for the judging part to get up, and draw distinctions in the spirit of competition, of scarcity, when this is so antithetical to Jesus’ invitation to abundant life, the ever-flowing well of living water!

The key is walking on the path of faithfuless as it opens, so that our eyes and ears grow more and more sensitive and discerning — partaking of the banquet along the way as we have capacity, assured more and more by our experience that all are invited to full understanding, and that the diversities of gifts and insight we find in our fellow travelors is itself a gift, and affirmation of the promise.   Seeking to follow the way, you can grow aware of what you have learned already — and so you are able to receive new insight that reinforces and expands on what you already have discovered.  Otherwise, the parables we encounter  (whether they come in words or in experience) will profit us nothing.

Erasmus in wrapping up the whole passage, closes the loop between the two states of seeing, disarms the fear of exclusivity,  as he completes his paraphrase of this passage:  Do not think that it is my wish to keep always a secret what I now entrust to you in secret… At present I hide many things from the multitude because they are not capable of understanding, and even if they were capable, the time has not yet come. Truly, when the time comes, there is nothing so secret among us but it must be divulged; nothing so arcane but it must be openly preached to all.*

It seems to me that Friends need to continually remind ourselves not to let our worship and our practice become customary, searching inwardly for where the Seed is opening sweetly and quietly, and being eager also to see and encourage growth in each other.  At times, indeed, this will mean finding those with whom we can speak the current truth of our hearts.

I close with a familiar passage from Woolman’s Journal that feels closely connected to the thoughts above:

As I lived under the cross, and simply followed the openings of Truth, my mind from day to day was more enlightened; my former acquaintance was left to judge of me as they would, for I found it safest for me to live in private and keep these things sealed up in my own breast.

While I silently ponder on that change wrought in me, I find no language equal to it nor any means to convey to another a clear idea of it.  I looked upon the works of God in this visible creation and an awefulness covered me; my heart was tender and often contrite, and a universal love to my fellow creatures increased in me.  This will be understood by such who have trodden in the same path. Some glances of real beauty may be seen in their faces who dwell in true meekness. There is a harmony in the sound of that voice to which divine love gives utterance, and some appearance of right order in their temper and conduct whose passions are fully regulated.  Yet all these do not fully show forth that inward life to such who have not felt it, but this white stone and new name [cf. Rev. 2:17] is known rightly to such only who have it. (28-29 in the Moulton edition)

*Fitzpatrick, Sylvia. Erasmus and the Process of Human Perfection: The Philosophy of Christ. Stauros. Kindle Edition. Locations 4467-4470








“Your faith has rescued you”: a morning meditation

11/28/2017 § 3 Comments

In the seventh chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus is invited to a respectable house to dine. The dinner is interrupted by a woman whom the host knows to be a “sinner.” She brings an alabaster jar of myrrh, settles at Jesus’ feet, and undertakes what clearly is an act of regret and reverence: weeping, she kisses and anoints his feet, wiping them with her hair. After a plain-spoken exchange with his host, Jesus concludes a little parable with the statement that her many sins are forgiven because she has loved much. One can draw lessons from the story so far about pride, and the importance of love (agape) in the hierarchy of virtue.
But this morning I was struck freshly by Jesus’ words directly to the woman: “Your faith has rescued you; go in peace.” This is a phrase that Jesus uses not infrequently, when he is healing. A standard interpretation, which is what I have carried around in my head, is that the woman is forgiven because of her faith in Jesus, as a sort of reward for acceptance of his numen, his teaching, or his mission.  This fits with the prior story, in which the analogue of “sin” is “debt.”

This morning, however, I hear another message in what Jesus says.  When he tells someone “Your faith has made you whole, has healed you, has rescued you,” he is saying that they have faith.  However empty their hands, or heavy their afflictions, this one thing is at work in them, which enables them to see a path to more abundant life: “The just shall live by faith (Habb. 2:4).”  Moreover, they have (even by touching the hem of his garment in a crowd) acted on that faith (as Bill Taber construed the prophet’s words, “The just shall live by faithfulness”)  And in these stories, Jesus is turning the focus away from his own agency to the evidence in the seeker that the divine author of faithfulness is at work.  (“Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.”  Luke 18:19).

Modern Friends often abbreviate “the gospel as traditionally understood by Friends”  to some such dry phrase as “everyone has access to the divine.”  I often worry that this unintentionally (?) puts the emphasis on the human agent and flirts with the language of ownership and individuality. In the unwary, it can reduce a multidimensional message to a simple one more easily accommodated to our complacency.

The power that works in us does seek our opening to it, however tentative  — “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” —  yet it often is working where and as we cannot see.  Our inward, unspoken poverty or hunger is invitation enough, and the Word of judgment and consolation can enter, cleaning and opening the springs of life.  Therefore, saying “In case you didn’t know it, you have faith, you are not abandoned, and the evidence is that you came here to me” is itself a powerful gift (a gift full of power), and can be a healing one, and a door to hope, of which we so much stand in need!

*    *     *

This is one root of the power of the Quaker message:  God is at work, and you can see the evidence, even in your trials, your regrets, and your longing for hope, and for transformation: Come and see where the pearl of great price glows for your enrichment!

Here a passage from James Nayler’s Love to the Lost (in the section on “Justification,” and the immediately following one on “Hope”).

faith… is the gift of God, believes in the light, and follows it, and so leads to the life; and this faith that stands in the light and life, is the living faith, never without works, which works are love, meekness, patience, mortification, sanctification, justification, &c., the works of God in Christ Jesus, in which God’s workmanship is seen in the new creation, received in the faith, and in the obedience, to which the soul is purified, and victory witnessed over the world, sin and death….

Hope is a gift of God, and is pure, showing the purity of God, and His righteousness in Christ Jesus, the beholding whereof stays the soul from joining to the wicked one, when he tempts, because he sees in the light a better work to serve; so that until the time of that work being fully manifest, the hope is as an anchor to stay from following the unclean one, and so keeps out of the sin, and so makes not ashamed, even then in the time of want it hopes against hope.

When that life of Christ is not yet seen in its full power, yet it is evidenced in the hope, which is wrought in the patience and experience, whereby the love appears and the faith works…  And this is that hope that enters within the vail, into the holy place, where the life and immortality is brought to light, which the mortal eye nor carnal senses cannot approach to.

And this is the living hope, which hopes to the end, that Christ and His righteousness may be revealed, to take away sin, and save from it, and out of it; and in hope of this, the children and babes of Christ wait in the obedience of the Spirit…but as He who has called to that hope is holy, so in His holiness is their conversation who are in His hope.

Library: Harvey “Our Quaker ministry since the cessation of recording”

11/21/2017 § 3 Comments

Finally I’ve turned back to my “library” section, and am pleased to offer a short article by T.E. Harvey which I have found very valuable over the years, “Our Quaker ministry since the cessation of recording.”

A little context:  The great movement to re-energize Quakerism in the late 1800s and early 1900s was more than a Quaker version of the “social gospel,” more than a revisiting and reinterpretation of Quaker theology and history, and more than an engagement with modernity (especially issues of labor and equity,  the challenges of modern science, and the insights of Biblical scholarship).  These elements were there, of course;  as was a desire to move past the divisions and parties of the Age of Separations.

In among all these strands, however, was a mission to build up and unleash a ministry (preaching and teaching) that drew nourishment from a robust encounter with the times, and also offered spiritual and intellectual resources for that encounter. A recent study by Alice Southern argues that the Rowntree Series of Quaker histories were in part intended to educate and encourage this ministry — but this is old news. A.R. Barclay,  J.S, Rowntree, J.W. Rowntree, Edward Grubb, John William Graham, Neave Brayshaw, Rufus Jones – these and other leaders of the Quaker aggiornamento wrote powerfully about the need for the renewal of Quaker ministry, and argued that the decline of the ministry was a contributing factor in the decline of the Society in the 19th century.

One outgrowth of the desire to encourage a more adequate ministry was a debate that raged for at least 3 decades, about whether the institution of the recorded ministry was outmoded, and even harmful — the reasoning being that it inhibited some Friends from making their contribution to the liveliness of worship.  In 1924, London Yearly Meeting ended the practice, though it continued naming elders.

Harvey’s little article is an interesting reflection about 20 years after this action.  As a young man, he had been in favor of abolishing the recorded ministry, but his meeting recorded him anyway, and he accepted the meeting’s discernment.  When the Yearly Meeting moved to lay down the process, Harvey united with the decision.   This background makes his reflections particularly valuable, since he had, as it were, been on all sides of the question, both in opinion and in experience.

The bits I find most valuable in this essay are two:  [1] his examination of the question, Has this change had the effect we hoped, leading to a stronger and more widely shared ministry? and [2] what benefits of the old system (as he could report from experience) had just been lost?

This article, and others of its ilk, got me thinking, long ago, in terms of functions and processes that make for a healthy religious community — rather than specific organizational machinery.   I encourage you to read it, and maybe pass it around your circle of friends for conversation.

Perfection and hope: A meditation for Erasmus’s birthday

10/27/2017 § 11 Comments

While wondering what to write about for the birthday of Desiderius Erasmus, I happened upon a book by Naoko Saito entitled The Gleam of Light:  Moral perfectionism and education in Emerson and Dewey.   As Saito expounds it, the notion of perfection as a practical moral aim, and its relation to growth and human flourishing, is both akin to, and different from, the human perfection that Erasmus advocated  — and that Quakers preached and suffered for in Puritan England.  

Saito’s reflections are rooted in a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”: A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages.  As Saito shows, Emerson saw this “gleam of light” as a powerful and precious resource for renewal and authentic creativity.  This “gleam of light” is “transcendent,” in that it pulls us out of our selves as we have realized them to date, inviting us into growth — a progressive discovery of our true selves, a perfectionism without final perfectibility (Saito, pg. 3).  It is also “prophetic,” in that it enables us to see the delusions and evils in which we are enmeshed (personal and societal). We are diminished when we allow ourselves to be distracted, or to cede to our culture or our associates so much of our inward life and consequent actions, that we lose the ability, and even the desire, to watch for and respond to that light.  In Emerson’s view, our tragic, conventional blindness to the “gleam” is at the source of much moral weakness and human waste.

John Dewey, as Saito perceives, extends (reconstructs) this idea in ways that have direct implications for ethics, democracy, and education. Along the way Dewey, often rebuked as an over-optimistic thinker, conveys quite powerfully (to my mind) the tragedy of the human condition, which in the modern era is only reinforced by an individualism whose moral compass is never calibrated through moral critique (aided and abetted by political and economic processes whose preferred material is an isolated, conventional individual). Dewey’s philosophy, which has (among others) Emersonian roots, is not “optimistic” so much as “melioristic.”  That is, he believes that humans can, through an inquiry process that is deeply engaged with the world, move towards an increasingly just and humane society. Nor is this a solely a matter of will and mind.  For Dewey (like Emerson) places the imagination (“the chief instrument of the good”)  at the center of human health: The new vision does not arise out of nothing, but emerges through seeing, in terms of possibilities, that is, of imagination, old things in new relations serving a new end which the new end aids in creating.

“Perfection” in this account takes the form of a person’s complete faithfulness to the vision of the good that they have been given so far.  And this will often require, may necessarily require, an abandonment or rejection of one’s prior ways of thinking and living, the grief of self-denial and conflict in the emergence of new life.

Now, a Quaker reading this will find much that is familiar: [1] the practice of watching for the light; [2] the transcendent nature of the light (including its effect of “detachment” or self-critique); [3] the potential prophetic nature of the light; [4] its social dimensions;  and [5] the relation of the work of the light to the “death of the old person and birth of the new,” to paraphrase Saito — and the foundational Quaker commitment to Christian perfectionism, which casts it as a growthful and progressive idea.  All this sounds very much akin to the “Emersonian moral perfectionism” that Saito explores in depth.

The Quaker echoes are not surprising.  Sharp-eyed readers like Rufus Jones, Yukio Irie, and Frederick Tolles have noted that Emerson was well acquainted with Friends he admired, and read (for a nonQuaker) pretty deeply in Quakerism — including the journals of Fox and Woolman, and Sewell’s History (in which the story of James Nayler anong others captured his interest).

Emerson will not have overlooked the foundational Quaker doctrine of perfection, the trust that God’s call to the beauty of holiness is not a cruel tease, but rather a clear directive and orientation for the Christian life, which is realized in each person according to their measure, as Barclay beautifully articulated in the Apology, Proposition VII:  In [those] whom this pure and holy birth is fully brought forth, the body of death and sin comes to be crucified and removed, and their hearts united and subjected to the Truth: so as not to obey any suggestions or temptations of the evil one, but to be free from actual sinning and transgressing of the law of God, and in that respect perfect: yet doth this perfection still admit of a growth; and there remaineth always, in some part, a possibility of sinning, where the mind doth not most diligently and watchfully attend unto the Lord.

Quakers (at least those seeking to understand and live the Gospel) have always argued that this “perfection,” and the process of being reconstructed or transformed  by which it is enacted (living in the Cross, following and conforming to the spirit of Christ), is integral to the Gospel’s teaching, and God’s plain intent for us.  Moreover, while Emerson and Dewey leave open to inquiry the direction of growth, the Gospel supplies orientation, guidance, and clear criteria, based on its fundamental commitment to love  — of God and one’s neighbor.

It is comforting and inspiring when we can recognize that this is not only an eccentric Quaker interpretation.  This brings us back to Erasmus, born on this day in 1469 (or maybe 1466).  Sylvia Fitzpatrick explores his teachings on Christ, human nature, and their mutual relations in her book Erasmus and the process of human perfection:  The philosophy of Christ, which I discovered and read a few years ago with great delight.

She argues that Erasmus’s “philosophy of Christ,” a Patristic phrase he revived and enriched, “is not some mysterious and unintelligible religion” for the learned (after all, he preached to fishermen, housewives, tradespeople, farmers).  Fitzpatrick:  he said, “this philosophy easily penetrates into the mind of all, an action in especial accord with human nature.”   He went on specifically to equate the process of Christian perfection with the perfection of human nature when he asked, ‘what else is the philophy of Christ, which he himself calls a rebirth, than the restoration of human nature orginally well formed?’..he said there is no one of any race who is without the law of God.  (all these quotes from Fitzpatrick, pg. 53).  The method of salvation was open to anyone, not only through the Scriptures (and the great complex parable of the Incarnation), but also by means of the operation of the Logos in each human being and in creation. (pg. 32)  Like the Quakers, Erasmus did not believe that an unassailable perfectedness was possible while we yet lived — yet he trusted, taught, and tasted the reality that we can be free of our allegiance to sin, or (to put it another way) we can become fully cooperative participants in the life of Christ, embodied (as Friends would say) in his saints.  Though I doubt Fox ever read Erasmus, Barclay and Penn surely did;  but the consonance of their views of the Christian life I think is less one of direct scholarly influence; rather, they were following recognizably the same Guide. I found Erasmus before I found Friends, and have been glad to find that as a Quaker I could continue to feel that older friendship intact and indeed enriched.

I conclude with a note on hope, perhaps the most essential nutrient for the modern human.  Too often we think of hope as directed towards some specific accomplishment — “What is you hope for?” — and our hopes are all too often dashed to bits in the machinery of this world.  Yet all four of the teachers I have reflected on today are deeply hopeful — because, I would argue, of their reverence and watchfulness for the gleam of light.  Emerson and Dewey, deeply educated in Christianity, found themselves leaving it behind, and though they fashioned more “universal” philosophy which (I think) is healthful, rich, and challenging, their systems have flaws that result from their unmooring of their “gleam” from the Light of Christ within.  Fox and Erasmus (among others, including myself) found in that Light, Wisdom, and living Word a spring of hope — of life, indeed, which is often discovered when outward hopes are seen to be built on sand.  Pardon me for  quoting from a thing I once wrote, about hope in the face of climate change:

We have not confronted the spiritual challenges of climate change until we recognize that some of our grounds for hopefulness are false, and that we need again to ask where the Holy Spirit and the Gospel story (including its later, Quaker chapters in some of which we are appearing right now), can be found in the midst of it all.  At such a time, indeed, we are challenged to bring our grief and our need before the Living God. Many Friends have experienced surprising grace when driven to such an extremity, seeing that many of their props and resources were unreliable  —”When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do…”  We cannot tell God what to do, but we can know some things about how God moves among us.

When false hopes are removed, true hope can be discovered. It may be that our calling as a people is to be intentional about descending into the depths as we encounter them, and then waiting there for the power to call out in thanksgiving and in a hope that lives without any illusion of control.  If Friends as a people could testify first and foremost to the Spirit from which we learn love, and the grace of a thankful heart, then indeed we can speak both power and love to our frightened, angry, disoriented time. The speaking will come with power as it comes from a life empowered by the work of the Holy Spirit in and through us, and as we open to true concerns, our work will bring consolation, as love carries us past fear, even in calamitous times.


A final note:  It is gratifying for me, as an educator, to see how Emerson, Dewey, Erasmus, and indeed Fox, understood how the life guided by the “gleam of light” was both deeply part of human nature, and deeply a concern for education.  In all four, education was not a matter of instruction, but of growth, to be welcomed, sometimes cultivated, and above all respected — a process that we too often think of as something for the young, but the wise have always known to be what living is.  I close with Fitzpatrick on Erasmus (pg 53 again) :

We are born with the potential to become, at one extreme, something wonderful: a fully developed human being, or, at the other extreme, something horrific: A degenerate being capable of great evil….”birth does not create a man [sic]… what is born is the raw material, so to speak, education gives it shape.”  This education was not the usual formal training of ordinary school… the best possible educational program should include.. the philosphy of Christ… a way of showing the true nature of existence in all of us.



Fig #2: Blasted fig!

10/09/2017 § 4 Comments

Matt 21: 18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

The most important thing that happened to me in high school was that I read the gospels. They were challenging and disturbing and inspiring, and I haven’t gotten over it.  I discovered, too, that reading the gospels was a doorway into a thousand fascinating conversations that have been going on for the past 2,000 years.  Exhilarating.

Later, sometime around my junior year, I came across Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian, and read it with considerable enjoyment and some disturbance —  Russell’s prose invites to discussion and debate, and his take on religion (though often irritatingly glib) was different from any I’d encountered before.  In the course of the eponymous essay (you can read it here), he comments in passing on the “Jesus blasted the fig” story, and he is not impressed:

This is a very curious story, because it was not the right time of year for figs, and you really could not blame the tree. I cannot myself feel that either in the matter of wisdom or in the matter of virtue Christ stands quite as high as some other people known to history.

Was this, as Russell suggested, another example of Jesus’ increasingly erratic or deluded self-conception?  Russell got me thinking, but he did not disengage me from the Gospel story.  I did worry about this anecdote, though. It did seem odd, and indeed out of character for Jesus.

After all, one thing that is quite clear from the Gospel record is that Jesus was aware of seasonal and agricultural cycles.  And if nothing else, he knew the Psalms well, and understood that a healthy tree “putteth forth his fruit in his season”  (Ps. 1).  This is not someone who, itinerating across the land,  would imagine, nor expect,  that figs were available when they were not.  I have concluded that the gospel writers quite misinterpreted the whole event.

Others have tried to make sense of this story, in ways that show more ingenuity than insight, as I read them.  William Telford, in expounding this passage,  quotes a scholar as arguing that “In symblic commentary upon the Jewish expectation [of the messianic age’s beginning in springtime, signalled by the fig’s blossoming], Jesus withers the tree, so indicating that the Jewish view of the New Exodus and Messianic Age is not to be.”    Ugh.  Quite aside from the strong supercessionist overtones, this seems to me to be bad exegesis (“not even wrong”), as there is nothing in the text that suggests that Jesus had any such thing in mind.  Telford comments that this among other “solutions” to the problematical fig seem focused on the dogmatic aim of “removing the blot on Jesus’ character.”  I agree.

A quick search of other commentaries produces other examples in which the problem of this blasted fig is solved by attributing to Jesus some intent to comment on the state of the people of Israel.  “What Jesus is doing is pronouncing on the already sealed fate of the nation…he is lamenting over the sorry condition of his nation that is bent on despising God’s gracious purpose and will inevitably suffer for it in the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.”   (Ralph Martin)

Now, it seems to me that Martin (and others he refers to) have this much right, that this is a prophetic sign, rather that simple petulance.  Yet it cannot have the kinds of meaning attributed to it — grand statements about the fate of the apostate nation, or what have you.  For one thing, Mark (ch 11) and Matthew (21: 18-22) actually supply comments by Jesus.  The disciplines, at the sight of the tree blasted by a word, are all “Gee whiz, that’s amazing!”, but Jesus says, If ye have faith, and doubt not, ye shall not only do this which is done to the fig tree, but also if ye shall say unto this mountain, ‘Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea,’  it shall be done.  And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.

Nothing there about his people not receiving him, nor the fall of Jerusalem.

Yet part of the reason the incident is so puzzling is that the rationale supplied by the narrative is sort of irrelevant.   The teaching on faith that can move a mountain (an example of the rhetorical exaggeration which Jesus often uses) occurs elsewhere in the gospels, unconnected with any fig trees (though in Luke 17:6 the faith is in fact transplanting a mulberry tree into the sea).  As Harvey’s Companion to the New Testament comments, the sayings attached to the blasted fig  “were presumably remembered separately,”  to be deployed by the gospel-writer as seemed best to him, and not originally linked to the fig tree.  (I will return to the mulberry and the fig in my next post.)  In any case, the commenters do not seem to me to “unscrew the inscrutable.”  I don’t know that I can, but I here offer my mite.

A note on the context.  First, I would note that in both Matthew and Mark, this incident occurs just after (in the same chapter as) two other striking events:   the “triumphal entry into Jerusalem,”  and the driving out of the money-changers from the Temple. Both of these public demonstrations are intentionally saturated with symbolic elements — relating to the key concerns of idolatry, the kingship of God, and the way in which Jesus taught the kingdom is to be proclaimed and manifested.  Taken together with these prior events, the fig-tree incident may be seen as a third prophetic sign.

A note on prophetic signs.  The “prophetic signs” of (for example) Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel are sometimes interpreted as “nonverbal proclamation,” but they are very often accompanied by words, in which the prophet interprets his action. (See here for an earlier post exploring this a bit more.)  The act gets attention, and grips the imagination;  the preaching then, as it were, enters into the breach that the act has created in the wall of habit.  Jesus understood this and used it powerfully — including in the great prophetic sign of Calvary.

So what? How to take this blasted fig?  The fig tree incident takes place  towards the beginning of the final, intensifying phase of Jesus’ teaching. He has come to Jerusalem in the season leading up to Passover, the festival of liberation, conscious that danger is growing.  These chapters have a compelling narrative momentum, with Jesus driving forward the core of his teachings, his revelation, about the nature of God’s rule, and his radical understanding of the process by which we are to be freed in and through the God who is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth, whose fellowship is with the outcast, the unprivileged, and the teachable, compassionate, child-like peacemakers.   An essential characteristic of his teaching is surprise.  All through these final chapters, we hear again and again that God’s time is not our own, that God’s presence offering liberation will come, not when we expect it, but when the Holy One moves.  Keep awake! for you do not know on what day your Lord is to come! (Matt. 24:42, NEV)

The message is epitomized, perhaps, by the parable of the “Wise and foolish virgins” (here, the KJV):

25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 25:2 Five of the virgins were foolish, and five were wise. 25:3 When the foolish ones took their lamps, they did not take extra olive oil with them. 25:4 But the wise ones took flasks of olive oil with their lamps. 25:5 When the bridegroom was delayed a long time, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 25:6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look, the bridegroom is here! Come out to meet him.’ 25:7 Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 25:8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps are going out.’ 25:9 ‘No,’ they replied. ‘There won’t be enough for you and for us. Go instead to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’ 25:10 But while they had gone to buy it, the bridegroom arrived, and those who were ready went inside with him to the wedding banquet. Then the door was shut. 25:11 Later,the other virgins came too, saying, ‘Lord, lord! Let us in!” 25:12 But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth,  I do not know you!’ 25:13 Therefore stay alert, because you do not know the day or the hour.

This, I take it, is the message of the blasted fig:  Of course, it seems illogical that I should be concerned now to be bearing fruit.  I’m not ready, and I’ve got nothing to offer.  Just wait!  Next week, next month, next year, next life, I’ll have something ready!

Christ, though, is here and at work, and expects us to offer our mite, employ our talents (no matter how poor we think them), to give when asked (just as we are to ask in our turn), to live generously as way opens— generous with our compassion, with our prayer, with our service.  This is, indeed the end times, because for each of us “there is no time but this present. ”  And there is one more fig, which think belongs just here:

Learn a lesson from the fig tree:  When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, you may know that the end is near, at the every door….But about that day and hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven;  not even the Son;  only the Father. (Matt. 24:32-36, NEV).


Two Figs: Fig #1

10/01/2017 § 5 Comments

I was reading yet another argument the other day, about biblical teaching on humans and the environment which focused on alternative readings of Genesis 1:26.  This is where God says, “Let’s make a human being in our image and likeness, and let [ humans] [do something] to/for the fish, the birds, etc.”  The key question debated is how to construe the “do something.”  Is it rule over? Lead?  Exercise stewardship? Superintend?  Freely exploit?

Rather than engage with all that yummy philology, I have become interested in what kinds of ecological awareness can be discerned in the bible, including the role of human activity as part of, or in contrast to, what all the other organisms in the world are up to. What is taken for granted?  Is there discernable a theory of the balance of nature (scientifically problematic, but a metaphor that sometimes has the effect of motivating good stewardship)?  Is there a sense of human dependence upon the biosphere’s health and functioning?  Is there a sense of nature’s value, quite aside from human purpose?  That kind of thing.  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, one of the first passages that came to mind was the parable of the barren fig tree in Luke xiii:6.  Not the story where Jesus blasts a tree for not having figs when he wants them (I will get to that later, in Fig #2).  This is the one I mean:

6 He spake also this parable; A certain man [someone] had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. 7 Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground? 8 And he answering said unto him, Lord [Sir],  let it alone this year also, till I shall dig about it, and dung it:  9 And if it bear fruit, well: and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down. (KJV)

To me, this parable speaks of God’s compassion and patience— but also has something to say about Jesus’ ecological presumptions.

Clearly, the fig tree is being judged by its fruits (Matt. 7:16), and found wanting.  The land-owner thinks the case is clear — time to clear the tree away.  His gardener says, “Well, wait a minute.  Give me time to try some things here. You’re right, we want the figs, so if nothing gives, we’ll take it down. But a little more care could make the difference.”  The owner agrees.  We don’t hear how it turned out!

Now, I found a sermon by Augustine of Hippo that expounds on this parable (you can read it here).  It is a fine example of allegorical exposition (see here for a dense but useful epitome of “senses” of Scripture), in which each participant in the parable (including the dung) is given a spiritual interpretation relating it to the process of salvation.  Augustine seems to equate the owner with Christ, who will come to judge at the End.  The gardener “is every saint who within the Church prays for those who are without the Church.”  The fig tree represents “the sinners, the unbelievers, the unfruitful.”  The digging represents “the teaching [of] lowliness and repentance.”  As for the dung:  “It is filthy, but it produces fruit. The gardener’s filth is the sinner’s sorrows.”

Far be it from me to quibble with the august bishop, but I would take this parable a little differently.  I think the owner is God as Creator, Planter of Gardens, who placed Humans (male and female), along with the other  creatures amidst a teeming land- and sea-scape. Each is created to be generative.  Humans, however,  are asked not only to produce offspring, like all the other species, but also fruits of that part of their nature most akin to God’s — insight, relationship, imagination, compassion, beauty — fruits of thinking, feeling, willing, loving.

This Being (the Greek just says “Someone”) has seen no fruit, and asks the Gardener  to take action.  But the Gardener argues on behalf of the tree — maybe with more care it will respond! — and the Someone yields to his advice.

This is in the fine tradition of Abraham pleading with God for a few just men in Sodom (Gen. 18), and it seems clear to me that the Gardener here is Jesus, that Prophet and more than prophet, who represents himself elsewhere as a shepherd.  Jesus knows the human heart (John 2), and in this case asserts that he has more work to do, opening the soul (soil) up to air, bringing enrichment (derived from the processes of life) to nourish the roots, shoots, leaves, which must flourish before the plant is in condition to bear fruit, and bear it to maturity (until it is “perfect,” teleios, completed, matured.)  The tree must take advantage of the cultivation, which may come through many instruments and sources — the “mulch” that feeds us can be from the work of Christ in us, or in material form — words and deeds, examples and investigations, the stuff of life and social involvement.   The gardener cannot create the fruit, nor even dictate the season of its appearance — the tree must incorporate the resources available to it, and from its own substance, thereby fortified, through quiet even hidden internal process bear what fruit it can.


To return to my main focus:  Note here, that Jesus (and his hearers) are acquainted with gardening practice, with the complementary relationship of vegetable life and animal life, each making available required nutrients not otherwise accessible.  The parable also assumes the element of time — plant growth, and agriculture, have their own rhythms, and humans can play a constructive role  — but it must be a collaborative one, indeed a symbiotic one, since for humans to receive the fruit they need, they must ensure the plant’s nourishing, communicating or transacting with it in the ‘language’ it can understand, which we may call chemistry, physics, and biology, but the plant experiences wordlessly, with its whole being.



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