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.

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.

MAYBE IT STILL COMES DOWN TO MEANS VERSUS ENDS

In the aftermath of the recent national elections, trying to make sense of the American scene today is, well, downright scary. The fact we have one party so willing to risk constitutional crisis rather than work cooperatively on solutions to common problems strikes at the very heart of democracy. And that’s before we get to the divisions revealed geographically, demographically, and economically.

Several of the phrases floating around the campaigns continue to ring in my ears. Describing one party, we have an “echo chamber” of “misfits,” which begins to look far larger than would be healthy for any society. And for the other party, the race came down to a “technocrat” versus “activist,” in itself suggesting a division between an appeal to the brain versus the heart.

Much of this situation, I’ll contend, springs from a lingering state of denial involving the encounters of those of us who came of age during the 1960s and ’70s. Coming across a summary of William Clark Roof’s 1993 A Generation of Seekers: The Spiritual Journeys of the Baby Boom Generation, I had to sit up and take notice when he noted that a low level of community involvement accompanied our search for personal meaning. It’s something that’s certainly happened across American society over recent decades, although I’d say increasing demands on our careers and suburban family lifestyles have taken their toll, too.

As Douglas Gwyn comments in Seekers Found: Atonement in Early Quaker Experience:

Roof’s study confirms many impressions of baby boomers in the ’60s, but adds a new perspective. Many tried drugs, were sexually active, and went to rock concerts and political protests. But many did not. Half of those surveyed say they did not try drugs; a third never attended a rock concert; and 80% were not politically active in that period. On the whole, Roof finds boomers to be nearly evenly divided between traditionalist and countercultural affinities.

A conventional view might look at this split along the lines of the Vietnam war issue, with the traditionalists joining the military and the hippie side in full opposition. But Roof’s criteria turn the angle: more than a few servicemen experimented with pot and other drugs in ‘Nam, along with free love, and moved easily into hippie circles on their return. Meanwhile, I sense more than a few hippies never did drugs, out-of-wedlock sex, or political protests. For them, maybe it was all about the music?

As Gwyn continues his reflections on Roof’s study, he prophetically notes:

But in subsequent decades, with a tightening of the American economy, the assumption of abundance often turned from utopian to belligerent, as Americans vented their frustration over lowered or failed expectations. Given their expanded subjective and expressive registers, boomers are already more likely to consider themselves wounded by defects in their religious upbringing. When religious institutions or leaders fail their expectations today, boomers are all the more likely to feel cheated, wounded, or even victimized.

It’s not just religion, let’s be honest. This cuts across the entire society.

Gwyn makes one other argument that lingers, one that involves the kind of association each seeker is drawn to. One is process driven, and the ways we can become captive to the mechanics of a particular system. (He names capitalist democracy as an example.) Here, the procedures outweigh results. I love his observation, “If civility is too strongly identified with democratic processes, then true seeking and conversation to one’s neighbor will tend to be subverted. Caucus politics or the contest of interests may usurp the conversation.”

The alternative, goal driven identity, can override the process altogether, in which the ends justify any means of getting there.

The vital tension Gwyn encourages “requires a disciplined and sustained dialogue between seriously considered and passionately held positions,” a “drama of faith, which is played out upon a level civic stage of public concern.”

Quite simply, where is that dialogue today? And where is the open exchange in questioning and refining the factual essence of the positions? An “echo chamber,” on either side, simply cannot do the job.

~*~

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