RECOVERING WHAT HAD BEEN LEFT UNSAID

Decades ago, faced with a question of just what Friends believe, I embarked on an exploration that might provide a more inclusive answer than “Some believe this …” or “Most do that …”

To the surprise of many, the Religious Society of Friends does have a rich underlying theology, one so radical our First Publishers of Truth (one of the original names for the Quaker movement) couldn’t voice it in its fullness in the earliest years before settling into a system of practice rather than fully pursuing its intellectual implications.

Call it an alternative Christianity if you will, but even Friends need to understand its dimensions.

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For more, check out my essays, Religion Turned Upside Down.

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CAN WE BREAK THROUGH POLARIZATION?

A pointed observation from the concluding chapter of Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience continues to echo in my mind. After noting that religion and spirituality, East and West, are being traded on a world market, a situation itself that reflects today’s dominant mindset of global capitalism, Gwyn remarks:

Global economic integration today is leading to social and spiritual stagnation, much as the progressive political consolidation of the Roman Empire slowly stifled spiritual energies in the ancient world. As the superstructure of the Roman Empire became increasingly otiose, cynical, and corrupt, men of rank increasingly withdrew from public leadership to pursue private life and philosophical speculation.

This immediately had me thinking of the nastiness of the current political scene and wondering why anyone of sensitivity or kindness would want to be subject to the abusive public glare that’s become the norm today. Gwyn continues his paragraph with a confirmation of my assumption:

Similarly, as multinational corporate conglomerations engulf the globe, we find people of means withdraw into private life, esoteric beliefs, and financial speculation. In both periods, the masses are left to seek truth in a din-filled marketplace.

Remember, this was published in 2000, and I’d say the situation has only intensified since then.

It’s a troubling situation, even before we get to the polarization now stressing the nation and much of the world. Gwyn sees much of that polarization and its way of captivating its partisans arising over the question of gnosis – that is, of knowing – with both sides disagreeing over essentially Platonic and Gnostic orientations toward truth. Crucially, he sees both sides assuming “that the truth is some static entity.”

At this point, Gwyn turns the perspective: “If we return, however, to the Hebraic and Johannine Christian sense of truth as something enacted through faithfulness and love, these polarities become academic. We act faithfully toward one another as we enter honest conversation with one another.”

The immensity of that task, I’ll admit, fills me with despair. It’s not just religion, which is largely marginalized from the dialogue; the polarization rips across economic, educational, geographic, and political fields as well. Looking around, I feel I might as well be speaking to a stone. A Wailing Wall would be more efficacious. Retreating from the public sphere makes all too much sense.

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Here, though, the example of Jesus also comes into play. He, too, retreated to the wilderness, but he also returned to the marketplace and spoke truth, forcefully and ultimately with love. Moreover, he was willing to bear the consequences.

Anyone else want to elaborate? We live in desperate times.

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More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.

RECONSIDERING THE NATURE OF TRUTH

Contrary to the opinion of many contemporary Quakers, theology among Friends did not cease developing after the death of George Fox. While I have argued that early Friends had their reasons for not fully articulating their radical vision publicly, they left us enough dots to connect to rediscover their revolutionary line of thinking. As I’ve written, this is built on three central metaphors: Light, the Seed, and the Truth.

Of the three, I’ve found Truth to be the most difficult to grasp. Metaphor typically builds around an image, but just what works for Truth, no matter how many layers of meaning and experience we compress into it? Moreover, metaphor rarely settles into something as comfortable as a noun. In other words, just how do we turn Truth into a verb?

I was delighted to see Douglas Gwyn pick up on in his book Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experienence, with his own elegant turns. He begins with a concept of  spiritual formation: “The Quaker truth-stance was constituted by four distinct aspects, or ‘moments,’ … that can be related to four standard philosophical accounts of truth.” He addresses this from the psychology perspective of individual experience as a reality. Among them:

Powerful catharsis of being “convinced of the truth”

Gwyn begins with the sensation early Friends reported in their encounter with the Quaker apocalypse:

At that moment, the light of Christ gave them a searing, unmistakable knowledge of themselves. They were confronted as never before with their alienated conditions (including overt sins) and by the power of God to redeem them.

Yes, they were shaped by earlier teachings and beliefs:

The first moment of truth, therefore, was one of correspondence between propositional belief and lived experience. … The insistence on a lived experience of Christian beliefs … was an important breakthrough at the culminating – and self-defeating – moment of the English Reformation.

Coherence

Making sense of the experience presents its own challenges.

The truth of any proposition is established by its consistency or harmony with a larger body of previously established truths. Coherence, then, implies a framework within which one interprets either ideas or the data of experience (spiritual or empirical). But simultaneously, new experiences, while corresponding to elements within that existing framework, may also alter the framework (“shift the paradigm”), sometimes drastically.

Verification

Gwyn notes that Quakers could be more orthodox, especially in their insistence on moral accountability or the behavioral codes, which

not only expected outcomes of the convincement process but also the necessary means of conformity with Christ. This strong “process” aspect of Quaker truth has affinity with operationalist philosophical theories, which posit that a hypothesis must be verified by appropriate procedures of investigation. Here, the emphasis is upon the active means of testing the proposed idea or action, in contrast with the static framework of established truths suggested by coherence theory.

Pragmatism

But truth’s fourth moment is still rightly called pragmatic. … Like operationalism, pragmatism is concerned with action, but judges truth by end results, rather than means.

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Gwyn delves deeply into the workings of these, and more, but as he observes,

these comprise the framework within which early Friends found, served, and remained faithful to the truth. The truth itself remains a divine reality, defined by God’s loving faithfulness to humanity and all creation.

Here, then, is Gwyn’s breakthrough key in approaching this Truth – it’s active, as love, allowing him to present us at last with a requisite image: Jesus himself!

While not all metaphors have to be visual – the ringing of a bell, for instance, might be a richer connection than the bell itself – I’d simply overlooked the idea of using a person itself. But why not? The English can speak of the Crown, after all, and in our times, a picture of the Queen comes to mind. Americans have long spoken of George Washington as the Father of Our Country and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait springs forth, along with statuary in parks and other public places across the land. We even have a major city and a vast state named in Washington’s honor, which simply magnify him as a metaphor.

To continue, Gwyn turns to the gospel and letters of John, who

portrays Jesus in conversation with a variety of individuals who take different positions in relation to him. A Christian dialectic emerges from these conversations. … John’s dialectical universalism contrasts with the syncretistic universalism of Hellenic culture, where various deities mixed and matched for the masses, while philosophy served the more refined pastime of the privileged. … The Gospel of John called various peoples into service to the one true God. … Again, this God who sent Jesus is less “true” in the sense of opposition to false gods, than in the Hebrew sense of faithfulness. … One did not choose Jesus from a long list of seeking options. Rather, “I choose you” (John 15:16). That call of truth was enormously energizing …

Gwyn’s insight certainly opens John 3:16 in a fresh light: “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” Look at the compression of metaphor!

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More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.

THE DRIVING FORCE IN THE MESSAGE

For much of its existence, the Society of Friends has embodied a peaceful, respectable, even restrained way of life. Not so the earliest decades, when the economy, political structure, religion, communities, and families throughout Britain were all in chaotic upheaval. As Quakers emerged in the tumult, they coalesced many of the more radical elements as movement after movement broke up under the pressures and changing conditions.

As many observers have noted, the early Quaker message was that this was a time of apocalypse – the ultimate victory of good over evil was at hand, making way for the Second Coming of Christ. In battles of such magnitude, which Douglas Gwyn repeatedly views as a Quaker pentecost of the 1650s, there was no place for reserve – boldness came to the fore. And then, when the openings of revolution closed up again, resulting in the Restoration of the monarchy, Friends were forced to bank their fires.

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EMPHASIZING THE LIVING WORD

One point Quakers have emphasized is that the Word of God is Christ rather than the Bible. It’s a point made clear in the first chapter of the gospel of John, where what is often translated as the Word – or the Greek philosophical concept of Logos – was made flesh and dwelled among us.

Fundamentalists, in contrast, insist the Word is the book, usually in a King James translation, or so it seems.

Some Christians, aware of the difference, will speak of the Living Word, meaning Christ, on one hand, and the Written Word or some variation, on the other.

The consequences of these differing understandings can be drastic.

In his book Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience, Douglas Gwyn cites another criticism of those who claim their religious authority springs from Scripture. Summarizing John 5:45-47, he says: “Moses, the legendary author of the Torah, will be the witness against those who have staked their salvation and spiritual authority upon Scripture.” It’s a remarkable turn in the argument. Moses, after all, had met the Holy One in the Burning Bush. There was something much more compelling than the written words to draw upon.

It was a first-hand experience rather than a retelling. For Friends, of course, the Holy One was (and is) present in Meeting for Worship and in faithful daily life.

Quakers advanced another concept they called gospel order, which was living in that faithful daily awareness. Again, citing Gwyn, the pivotal early Quaker George Fox “wrote of gospel order as the restoration of the relations between man and woman in Eden before the Fall.” For Friends, this became the basis for allowing women to establish and manage their own Meetings for Business at a time when the very idea was scandalous.

It all points to another central point of dialogue: the source of authority in our various identities and practices. These understandings are important, I sense, because they can profoundly affect our outlook on life itself and the ways we live within it.

And yes, no matter how much we might “question authority,” at some point we still need meaningful structure in direction – individually and collectively. Just where do you find it, in your own experience?

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More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.

WITHIN THE BADGE OF HERESY

Regular visitors to the Barn are aware of my interest in radical thought, especially of the religious variety. It’s not just Quaker, either, or related Anabaptists like the Mennonites, Brethren (including my Dunker ancestry), or Amish. No, it ranges across Biblical times, First Americans, and Asian traditions, too. Just think of the yoga, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism, for perspective.

Well, a footnote in Douglas Gwyn’s Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience has made me stare in wonder. It’s a great title, to be frank: The Baptists: Fount of All Heresy, a 1984 essay by J.F. McGregor.

Look, anyone familiar with Christian history knows that accusations of heresy go way back to the earliest days of the church, and for that matter, the concept can be found in Judaism and Islam, the other faiths arising from the Book. Those in other traditions can weigh as they wish.

My point, of course, is that heresy way outdates the 1640s of McGregor’s focus. The Inquisition itself would need to be considered, along with all of its victims.

Still, his provocative title has merit, apart from any argument he develops.

A reading of John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, examining the life and influence of the founder of the first Baptist church in America – events in the 1630s – could place Williams as the fount of heresy in New England. Of course, there are others who could be added to the list. The name of Hansard Knollys has popped up again, a minister who came to Dover in the 1630s after troubles in Massachusetts and then returned to England as a prominent figure in the emerging Particular Baptists there, not that I’d call him the fount, but hey, he may have plowed the ground here for Quakers a few decades later.

This really can get arcane, can’t it.

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More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down.

A BIT MORE ON HIPPIE LIT

One of my lingering questions wonders why the intensity of the hippie experience didn’t flower more fully in fiction.

Yes, I know hippies were considered “laid back” and “mellow,” but that’s only part of the picture. A lot of what we felt was indeed incredible and new. Yet while the music of the era gives both lyrics and a soundtrack to the late ’60s and early ’70s, the literary parallel runs thin. Most of the prose is in the non-fiction side of the aisle – memoir, especially, and sociology – works like Barry Miles’ Hippie. Within that flourished a range of small publishing operations, such as Straight Arrow Books and Ten-Speed Press.

But novels are another matter.

As I’ve already noted, Richard Brautigan and Gurney Norman (Divine Right’s Trip) did give wondrous voice to the action. Add to that Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey, T.C. Boyle’s Drop City, and we’re soon at the fringe. Thomas Pyncheon’s Vineland, Lisa Mason’s Summer of Love, and Jan Kerouac’s Baby Driver get nods. I’d add Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, and John Nichols to the list. And then?

Well, there’s always my Hippie Trails series. All five volumes.

As Michael Wards, author of Bitch, a novel about Berkeley 1968-73, commented on an earlier post here, “Today I don’t think 20-year-olds would believe their grandparents were capable of anything that actually happened then.”

That, I suppose, is the entire point. We came so close to a real revolution across the social and economic spectrum. That vision needs to be kept alive and rekindled. Especially in the face of today’s repressive regime.