Quakerism

The Future of Quakerism: A Credo

 


This winter I was asked to consider writing a piece "Envisioning the Future within our Quaker faith." The article was to be published in SPARK, the newsletter of New York Yearly Meeting (composed of 90ish congregations), and would have gone out in the spring. Well, it came at a great time for me as I was considering lots of things related, and so I wrote a piece in response. Turns out though, that folks did not publish it for one reason or another, only referencing it in the newsletter and putting it up online. Anywho, I felt like there was some power in it, and continue to feel this way, and so I've reposted it here in hopes that Friends find some use of it. Please re-post, reference, and comment as you please.

 


 

Where Are We Now?

 

I have been been sitting for weeks with the question posed to me in the request to write for this issue: How do I envision the future of the faith of the Religious Society of Friends?  Over and over, in trying to sit with the future I have been driven back towards the present. How are we to get there – wherever “there” might be – if we don't know where here is?  What is our tradition about? What is at its core? Why do we worship? I found myself scarcely able to imagine the future given that I had a hard time even grasping the present. 

It is not that I haven't considered these questions. Far from it. It is that I am unclear that my responses to them would be anywhere near to normative. And that is when it Opened: the way forward is not in there being some “normative” response to those questions, but in having some response. In our Meetings and homes we ought to be really asking these questions and expecting responses. Why do we come to Worship? Do we really believe in Discernment? Do we even believe in God? What do we even mean by “God”? Can we unite with our Faith and Practice? If not, then what? We are all doing each other a great diservice by not having these conversations out in the open. 

Contemporarily, we Liberal Friends tend to resist articulating our beliefs. “All are welcome,” we say, and “none are turned away.” With this I unite. But what happens when someone comes through our door because she wants to know what we believe? What happens when someone believes something and isn't sure they are welcome to believe it for lack of conversation? My hope for the future of our tradition is not one in which all agree, but one in which we are impelled into the transformation of inner and outer lives, concieved, nurtured, and pruned in discerning worship, the result of which ripens into Justice and the fruits of the Spirit. My hope for the future of our tradition is that we might then be empowered and encouraged to speak – regularly and profoundly – of our experiences of the Divine. Towards that broader vision I offer my perspective in hopes that you will offer yours. This is how Truth prospers with me.

I am agree with Friend Patrick Nugent as he writes that “whenever goodness radiates and transforms the heart, whenever the conscience rises up and stands in the revealing and liberating light of goodness, there, whether named or not, is the Bread of Life which never fades away, the redeeming presence of the risen and living Christ.” I stand with him and our forebears in the belief that practice of a full and authentic Christianity is grounded in experiences of Real Presence, mediated via the gift of the Holy Spirit and actually discernible in worship. My faith's power is not in a mere ethic of compassion, an eternity of heavenly compensation at some later time, or the warm glow of community life in the present. My work is to practice coming into that Light, Life, and Power which takes away the occasion of all war, that Presence of God in which we are perfected – if only for a moment – and in which we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The path is to live lives that more and more readily resemble those moments revealed in prophetic ministry: to realize that we need not “build up” the Kingdom because it is already here among us, if only we would enter it.

I believe that much of contemporary progressive Christianity – including our own Religious Society – has become too close a bedfellow to generic liberal social concern and has turned too often to rationalism and modernity for its identity, becoming habituated to a pattern of accepting a series of “second bests” instead of waiting on the liberating power of God which insists upon justice in the present. I know that much of the history and narrative of the Christian tradition is dubious and – to be frank – hard to swallow. I know this and yet I know that there is no nourishment in the desert of doubt. I believe Paul Ricoeur was correct when he wrote that we are called beyond the desert of criticism to a Second Naïveté. Yes, there are times when it is best we not eat, for there is sickness to be purged, but we must acknowledge that hunger cannot be fed with starvation: eventually there comes a time when we are to take up the knowledge and precision gained through the wielding of our hermeneutic of suspicion and step with it out beyond doub'ts edge back into a place of surrendering belief. Not as naïve children, but as people of faith working on the basis of the substance of things hoped for but as yet unseen, trusting that in our faithfulness we will be led towards justice, granted compassion, and met with community.  By virtue of our baptism in the Spirit we are called to this: belief.

And so… I believe in the resurrection of the Body: as people of God we are called into a new life, into a new way of living on earth, while still in the flesh and with our feet yet made of clay.  I believe that the story and hope of this new birth were with Jesus in his life and death and I believe that in his refusal to submit to the Powers and Principalities he offered even them the opportunity for redemption. We are called to do no less. I believe these things because they are what seem most right in the moments when I have been held under the Holy Power of God's Spirit poured out.  And yet, even as I am held in this power I feel called to resist the temptation to allow my sense of certainty to reign above my hospitality; to resist placing my sense of the truth over and above others. I feel called to proclaim my testimony as exactly that: a concrete witness to the experience of God's transforming capacity my life and flesh and not some idealized and absolute external theology or creed. 

I believe that the Living Water is yet live and that we are each invited to drink at that place of nourishment there beyond the desert, wherein we might also partake of the Bread and enter the Kingdom, for it is already here among us. If only we would enter. Enter and share the story of the land beyond.

We gain so much from hearing one another speak from hallowed places. Let your life speak. 

Gnosticism’s Divine Spark and The Inner Light

 

A week ago I started to roll out a mini-experiment with the hopes that others would join in.  While details can be found here, the basic gist of it is that I would love to hear from folks about how it is their scholarship feeds a contemporary living faith. My inspiration in this comes from Diana Butler Bass who suggests that with some work we can find moments in history (and theology I might add) that, upon contemporary reflection, pave the way towards a more hopeful, vital, and hospitable future. 

My big wish is that other folks out in the world of the internet will join me in explicitly commenting on how it is that their scholarship feeds a vital contemporary faith.  That tired "well scholarship is important because without it we wouldn't know what has happened before," line won't cut it.  Why exactly do certain and particular events or thinkers inspire you, or give you hope? In attemping to show a few ways that folks might attempt this, I made a short (and ridiculous) film about Origen and Allegory, I did an audio recording about Maximus the Confessor and Theosis, and now I'm closing out the trio with a good ole' fashioned blog post about the Gnostics and the Divine Spark.  

If you are reading this and are a seminarian or arm chair theologian who hasn't yet considered making their work publicly available, please, please, consider doing so. I think that those of us who are blessed to be able to persue scholarship (formally or not) miss out on a great opportunity to share when we keep our work to ourselves. It doesn't have to be perfect for it to serve as useful to another.  Exhibit A? This page.  We're all just trying to figure things out, and I hope you join the conversation. If you have any questions or comments, say hello in the comments below, or via direct contact with me. And now, without further adieu…. 

 

The Gnostics and the Divine Spark

 

The process by which I decided to wrestle with this topic went a little something like this:

 

Me1: So I want to think about history and what in it might bear some hope for the future.

Me2: Thinking about history, eh?

Me1:Yeah, you have a problem with that?

Me2: No, its just that… well, history is pretty big.

Me1:Good point.

Me2: How about you think about what issues you struggle with in the present and see if anything in the past might shed some light on them.

Me1: That's a great idea, I think I'll use that as my topic!

Me2: Glad I could be of… wait. What? 

Me1: Light.

Me2: …?

Me1: What?

Me2: You are going to search for hope in the history of light?

Me1: Yup.

Me2: Do tell.

Me1: Well, in the Religious Society of Friends we talk a lot about the "Inner Light" and the theology around that seems to be pretty sloppy.

Me2: Ok… and that is historical because…

Me1: Because it seems quite similar to the Gnostic idea of "Divine Spark."

Me2: Wait… how did… where did that come from?

Me1: Not sure actually. Think I read it online somewhere once.

 

As you can see, my thought process was incredibly thorough and well-thought out. 

 

My premise was essentially that since I was having this hang-up around what exactly is meant by the idea of “Inner Light,” it might be of some use to see what thoughts have been had about another group of folks that had the idea of some illuminating mark of God being present within.

So what's at stake here?  Well, the basic issue is that a number of Friends I know (generally tending to be on the Liberal, Universalist, and Progressive end of a spectrum) often make use of the phrase “Inner Light,” as if somehow some portion (or a miniaturized replica) of God resided inside each of us.  That kind of thing sounds something like, “Well, we can each believe whatever we want because we each have access to the Inner Light.” It functions something like a get of jail free card for theological discussion.  Now I'm all for pluralism of a sort, but this kind of argument isn't the way I would want to get there.

I think it is telling that the Early generations of Friends tended to use the phrase “Inward Light,” which suggests that the Light is indeed coming from somewhere, namely, God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. As articulated in the second generation of the Religious Society by the Apologist Robert Barclay:

"By this Seed, Grace and Word of God, and Light wherewith everyone is enlightened, we understand a spiritual, heavenly, and invisible Principle, in which God as Father, Son, and Spirit dwells: a measure of which Divine and glorious life is in all men as a Seed, which of its own nature draws, invites and inclines us to God; and this some call vehiculum Dei, or the spiritual body of Christ, the flesh and blood of Christ, which came down from heaven, of which all the saints do feed, and are thereby nourished unto eternal life."

Apology, Proposition 6.8

 

Ok, so where do the Gnostics fit in, and what is the argument that the Gnostics have anything to do with Friends? Well, the Gnostics had this idea they called the “Divine Spark,” and for obvious reasons relating to the nature of any metaphor about internal lighting, there is some overlap.

While there are certainly good places (like here, here, or here) that folks can read about Gnosticism, for this little foray into Divine Sparkiness, suffice it to say that Gnosticism seems to be a form of dualism wherein the manifested physical aspects of the present world were considered evil and a pure spiritual nature, from which we descended, was desirable (mighty Greek if you ask me).  As Stephan A. Hoeller writes:

“A human being consists of physical and psychic components, which are perishable, as well as a spiritual component, which is a fragment of the divine essence, somethings called the divine spark.” 

Stephan A. Hoeller's Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowingpg. 18

 

Now dualism aside, this idea seems to be in some resonance with the Early Quaker ideas about the Inward Light.  

 

Variously referred to in Quaker Founder George Fox's journal as   “Christ Within,” “Inner Light,” “That of God in every man,” and “The Seed of God,” the belief was that there was some essential aspect of humanity that was directly responsive to the Holy Spirit, without need for mediation by a priestly class.  Each could, by virtue of this “Inward Light,” hear and respond to the Divine.  [Side Note: This all being true, Friends have nonetheless noted for hundreds of years now that discerning God's Will is most fully possible in community, not as individual interpretation.]

Important to this principle is that this Light was accessible to all people.  As Fox wrote:

[The Light is] nigh unto all men and women in the whole world, and in them, if their soul and breath be in his hand. Here you may see the eternal, infinite hand of the incomparable God, in whose hand is ‘the soul of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind' in the whole world; for ‘God breathed into man the breath of life, and he became a living soul.’ God, who is immortal, has the breath of all (and all immortal souls) in his hand, and none can fall out of his eternal hand.

 

Marcus T.C. Gould's The Works of George Fox, Vol. VI pg. 333

 

So like the Gnostics, there is this eternal essence associated with some higher calling.  Seems compatible so far.  Until we learn about who responded to this higher calling and by what means:

[In Gnostic thought,]revelation is possible only because within the Gnostic there somehow pre-exists a disposition, a capacity, a potential fitted for testing and getting to know that particular reality. Only like can, in fact, know like. Only spiritual beings can perceive, receive and understand the spiritual. 

Giovanni Filoramo's A History of Gnosticism. pg. 40

 

Uh oh…  An elitist spirituality in which only certain people can perceive the true nature of this particular reality (knowing of course that a truer reality exists in which the evils of the material world have been abandoned)? Yup.  

"People are generally ignorant of the divine spark, [which] is stirred by the call of the ultimate Divine by way of divine men, or messenger of Light. [These messengers] descend from the highest spiritual realms to call souls back; they come to restore the human spirit to its original consciousness and lead it back to the Divine.” 

 Stephan A. Hoeller's Gnosticism: New Light on the Ancient Tradition of Inner Knowingpg. 18

 

So the metaphysical dualistic split between materiality and spirituality is reflected in practice: some people are “asleep” in the material world and unaware of the Divine Spark within them, requiring other people (sent from the highest spiritual realms) to wake them up.

I entered into this little hunt thinking that I'd find something there that might be of use and, backwardsly, I have: it isn't that in Gnostic thought itself I find some resolution directly, but it does point me towards some clarity on why the same issue bugs me in my own context hundreds of years later.  If there is something residing within all, but not everyone is accessing that which is within them, well, why is that?

I feel like there is a distinct, though perhaps subtle, difference between the positions where: 

A) Everyone possesses their own (to use the Gnostic phrase)  “fragment of the Divine” which can be woken up by special “pneumatic” humans who are “awake” and have access to the special Gnosis knowledge that resides within the fragment/spark.

and

B) We each have been made in God's Image and every one of us, being partly of the breath of God, can discern aspects of God's will, acknowledging that this discernment is  best done in community 

 

Even as I wrote that I realized how fuzzy this stuff can be.  Bottom line? I think the idea that there is special interior knowledge that only some elect humans can access is a dangerous one. Is it my experience that some people are more faithful and seem to live more righteous lives? Yes indeed, but I do not think that is due to some special essential difference between them and other people, rather, it is because of choices made that bring themselves into right relationship with God.  Againg, George Fox:

…the spirit of man [sic], is the candle of the Lord, and the candlestick is every man's [sic] body, mind, soul, and conscience, that with this spirit their candle being lighted, and set up in its candlestick, they may see all that is in the house; and with this light they may see Christ that died for them, and is risen for them: so come by this light, which is life in the word, to be grafted into Christ the word, which was in the beginning, which lives and abides, and endures for ever. 

Marcus T.C. Gould's The Works of George Fox, Vol. V pg. 356

 

Without the presence of some common knowledge that we can all work together to live into, the life of faith becomes secretive and individualistic, or worse, cabalistic. And that pretty much clarifies the issue I think: if our theology is somehow hidden or secret — regardless of whether that is because we believe in special pneumatic humans who have access to special knowledge or because we are afraid to talk to one another about about it for fear of offending or being cast out — well, then the opportunity to grapple with discernment together in community is pretty much shot.  The hope then, I suppose, is that we recognize that without frank, open discussion and connection to one another we miss out on any truly egalitarian exploration of faith.

Communal Discernment and the Religious Society of Friends

 

 

Related Online Resources

The set of handouts I reference in the video are all put together in this PDF which we sometimes use.

The reference I make to Bruce Epperly's wonderful consideration of creativity and agency is part of his paper, Infinite Freedom, Creativity, and Love: The Adventures of a Non-competitive God, specifically at the beginning of the second page.

A longer video my wife Kristina and I made about Discernment and Spiritual Practices within the Religious Society of Friends as part of our educational series, the Jewels of Quakerism. Not directly about Discernment Circles or Clearness Committees, but potentially of interest.

Relatedly, I want to thank the Fund for Theological Education for the opportunities granted to me as a result of the Ministry Fellowship.

On the Road Theopoetics

Lots of things in this one…

The QUIP Quaker Writers conference was held to coincide with the release of this book (which I have a few things in).

The Center for Process Studies at Claremont hosted the Theopoetics and the Divine Manifold conference , at which, most academically noteable for me (at this moment), were Catherine Keller, Vince Colapietro, and Mat Lopresti.  

While there I gave a presentation in conjunction with the paper I delivered working with my ideas about a Heraldic Gospel.

Then I spent time at Whittier First Friends Church.

Theology After Google

 

 

Via their website:

 

 

Why “theology after Google”?

Progressive Christian theologians have some vitally important things to say, things that both the church and society desperately need to hear. The trouble is, we tend to deliver our message using technologies that date back to Gutenberg: books, academic articles, sermons, and so forth. We aren't making effective use of the new technologies, social media, and social networking. When it comes to effective communication of message, the Religious Right is running circles around us.

Hence the urgent need for a conference to empower pastors, laypeople, and the up-and-coming theologians of the next generation to do “theology after Google,” theology for a Google-shaped world. Thanks to the Ford funding, we’ve been able to assemble a stellar team of cultural creatives and experts in the new modes of communication. We are also inviting a selection of senior theologians, and well as some of the younger theologians (call them “theobloggers”) whose use of the new media (blogging, podcasts, YouTube posts) is already earning them large followings and high levels of influence. For two and a half days, in workshops and in hands-on sessions, in lectures and over drinks, these leading figures will be at your disposal to teach you everything they know.

 

The Theology After Google conference is coming up this week, and I thought that folks might be interested in some of my contributions there. (They're bringing me in as one of those theobloggers)  Particularly: Members of the Religious Society of Friends, folks interested in theopoetics, and hermeneutics nerds. The full schedule is here, and is all set to Pacific Standard Time. 

The main setup is like TED talks, and will all be live streaming here: tinyurl.com/tag10stream .

Please interact, and as I said in the vid, shoot me any comments that you think are relevant.  Fun times.