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?

~*~

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.

~*~

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.

LOOKING FOR THE ORIGINS OF A MEDITATIVE PRACTICE

One of my ongoing questions about Quaker practice is just how early Friends came to discover – or rediscover – a form of meditative practice while so far removed from Asian spiritual traditions.

Early Quaker worship, let’s be certain, was often quite different from the silence-based hour many contemporary Friends claim. Women and children, especially, often released emotional torrents in the gathered assembly – and a decade or two later, in response and en route to something more respectable, many hours of worship were filled by a recognized minister filling most of the time with his own message. (Or, possibly, her.) As Douglas Gwyn remarks in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience: “These ministers then proceeded to speak almost the length of the meeting …” Even the controversial Elias Hicks, in the early 1800s, could be counted on to deliver vocal ministry lasting 20 to 30 minutes, a detail that would shock many today who insist, as many of the Hicksites would, that a vocal message be brief and pithy.

And so I was startled to hear Douglas Gwyn note another possibility for our traditional silence or open worship:

On another level, it is also intriguing to speculate whether the Quaker movement represented a resurgence of the old Celtic Christian tradition in the North. Celtic Christian emphases upon the indwelling of Christ, the inclusion of all creation in God’s redemptive work, the spiritual authority of women, and the cross as real personal triumph through suffering – all these themes found conspicuous expression in the Quaker movement. Although they were filtered through the thought-forms of Reformation, they still constituted a strong counterpoint to the dominant Puritan message. … in the backwater of the English Reformation, this very old, isolated stream of Western Christianity would have continued as an undercurrent in the faith of country folk. … As he [George Fox] moved westward into Westmorland, Cumberland, and northern Lancashire, where the movement exploded in 1652, he entered the largest area of vestigial Celtic tradition in England.

Hints of the dimensions of the earlier Celtic Christianity can be found in Thomas Cahill’s epic 1995 How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe, where he follows a strand of Christianity that was suppressed after the historic confrontations with Roman authorities in the late 600s on the English holy island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. Quite simply, Roman Catholicism might have taken a much different direction than it has.

Did Celtic Christianity include meditative practices like those we find in yoga or Zen Buddhism? We can only speculate.

Still, as Gwyn remarks of the early Quaker movement nearly a millennium after the Lindisfarne controversies, it was while traveling through Cumberland that John

Burnyeat observes that they still did not know “true striving,” which is “out of self,” “standing still out of our own thoughts, willings, and runnings.” But other Quaker ministers came through the area and guided them “in what to wait, and how to stand still.” Evidently, there was some degree of technique to early Quaker spirituality, or at least some kind of guidance that helped refocus spiritual energies from ego-centered striving to true surrender. Slowly, “a hope began to appear in us, and we met together often, and waited to see the Salvation of God.”

That degree of technique may still be needed for many who come to Friends meetings, not knowing how to center into the silence, especially in today’s media-saturated overload.

Were these Quaker ministers thus reviving something that was already in the peoples’ bones? It makes for some interesting speculation.  The fact is that in today’s society, many of us need some help learning to sit still and enter a holy silence.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down. Feel free to take a look.

STREAMS OF SEEKING IN FAITH

In the historical overview that forms the core of Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience, Douglas Gwyn casts his net wider than the circles in northern England of the mid-1600s who formed what we’ve come to know as the Seekers. What he traces is a broad undercurrent of radical faith from the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation, an alternative Christianity in which an Indwelling Christ or Inward Light is to some degree acknowledged and which, in turn, leads to rejection of many or all outward sacraments or ritual in worship. It turns out to be far more widespread before the Quaker movement emerged and gave it distinctive voice than I’d previously seen.

Frankly, as he focuses on seminal figures who advanced this thinking, I’m amazed that his brain didn’t simply explode. Remember, he’s following not just one person but many, all with flashes of nuance and insight that begin to overlap and also to diverge. Nothing is static.

Of course, we face similar problems looking at the counterculture movements of our own time. Just who, for starters, would we look to as voices of hippie thought and lifestyle?

When Gwyn remarks that “many of the Seekers-turning-Quakers … started out as hyper-Puritans whose idealistic moral absolutism made them unbearable to themselves and to those around them,” I feel an echo in my own hippie passage. Many of us seemed to be doing something similar. My, could we be intense! (That, along with the emphasis on “mellow.” Go figure.)

It also has me wondering about the spiritual starting point for many of the teens and young adults in our wider society today. Just where would deep conversation and inner growth begin? What are the driving forces in their lives?

Historically, the focus on events in England also leaves me sensing a gap in awareness of the radical advances in New England from the 1630s, exemplified in Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and Samuel Gorton, as they prefigured those in England in the 1640s. I’m not faulting Gwyn here, since his thesis is on the forerunners and emergence of the Quaker movement, but it is a topic ripe for exploration. Let me suggest John M. Barry’s Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (Penguin, 2012) as a starting point. The New Englanders, quite simply, seem to be ahead of their Old World compatriots. Maybe the British court records present a fuller picture, but until the end of censorship in 1642, we seem to have little else to go on.

It’s all a potent mix. When the first Quakers came to New England, they found fertile ground.

What Quakers added, according to Gwyn, was a means of putting that seeking into action within daily lives. It was a matter he views as apocalypse. Somehow, our hippie adventures never got that far, which leads to a whole new set of considerations.

~*~

More of my own reflections on alternative Christianity are found at Religion Turned Upside Down. You’re welcome to take a look.

JUST LIKE MEETING BUDDHA ON THE ROAD

When it comes to the image generated by my newest book’s title, Religion Turned Upside Down, I’d like to think that a lot of the arguments against that religion are also tossed over.

Considering many of my earlier postings on spiritual practice, you might be surprised how many of those objections I agree with. I do, however, think there are more viable alternatives for deep religious grounding, ones more attuned to intellectual advances of our times, ones that leap ahead to the future.

Gives everyone a chance to start afresh, considering what might matter most in life, doesn’t it?

Or, as others have noted, every atheist has a god he doesn’t believe in. And then there are matters of action.

Sometimes it helps to get all that out of the way to get clear, as in Light.

~*~

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.

FROM QUAINT TO THE FRAY

When the Quaker movement emerged amid the turmoil of the English Civil Wars, its followers relied on three powerful, interlocking concepts – the Light, the Truth, and the Seed. While the blasphemy laws of the time precluded an open examination of the full implications of their experience, the early Quakers left enough evidence to allow contemporary spiritual seekers to recover the revolutionary scope of their vision, in thought and daily life. There’s nothing quaint in this view of Quaker life and action. What unfolds is likely to startle not only their spiritual heirs but also Christians and non-Christians of many different belief systems alike. Along the way come confrontations and stimulation to deepen individual and community faith and practice.

To draw from Zen teaching – Right Thought (or teaching) leads to Right Practice (or action) leads to Right Wisdom – I see the insights of my book Religion Turned Upside Down as vital to addressing the vast challenges facing humanity. Period.

~*~

Religion Turned Upside Down
Religion Turned Upside Down

For these essays and more, visit Thistle/Flinch editions.