Friday, 25 May 2007

How balanced is our spirtual thinking?

I just had a comment on my recent post from Zach who clearly is a resource and strength that Friends need to share their life's with while he shares his journey with us. Its his final point that got me thinking. I was just going to drop him a note thanking him but it grew! The Seed Lifting Up... Looked at in this way, Quakerism in the main does indeed have an imbalanced view of spirituality - emphasizing the ethical and social but IMHO often suffering from anti-aesthetic and anti-intellectual tendencies.

I agree with Zach but knowing why can help us offer support and challenge where this becomes a deadening influence. Quakers have their roots in a tradition that rebelled against medieval church art and looked for simplicity and plainness. This tended to elevate the importance of the word over visual art. Equally, it meant a rejection of church music and like wise popular music and dance as being distractions of the body. George Fox in his Journal for the year 1649 says, ‘I was moved to cry out against all sorts of music’ This did begin to change over time as the booklet Beyond Uneasy Tolerance: The Saga Of Quakers And The Arts In 100 Quotations shows. The link below shows how this became a "hot" 19th century issue and an expression of the modernization of British friends.

I would strongly support that Arts in all their forms as a powerful way of expressing life in its whole that God and theistic talk is often a metaphor or short hand expression. My wife is an actor and ex dancer and draws on both in her own journey as a devotee of the Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi, lovingly called 'Amma', and known globally as India's "hugging saint mother ". I do story-telling performance and draw on this when moved to give Ministry.

Anti-intellectualism is more problematic. One of its roots in Quakerism is the influence of Pietism which preached the saving power of the gospel instead of dogmatic principles. This lead to a more personal faith and away from intellectualism. The positive effects of Pietism lead to Bible reading, prayer, outwardly speaking about one's faith, and a turn from worldly activities.

The roots of this, as argued in "Quaker Theology" was that Early Friends were often loudly sceptical about theology, which George Fox referred to scornfully as “windy notions.” Their critique had at least five major points:
  1. Intellectualizing about religion takes people away from experiencing God and the Spirit, and letting these change their lives, which is what they really need to do;
  2. The official theologies of various churches were the products of corrupt, faction-ridden, politically influenced church councils.
  3. Theological formulas were/are regularly used as instruments of oppression.
  4. Academic theology wraps its work in technical, in-group jargon, and thus hides God’s truth from ordinary people.
  5. Theological speculation is more likely to promote pride and lead to skepticism than to promote humility and faith.

Much of this is valid today, But as Pietism can weaken into a withdrawal from the world and narrowing of the mind as the Bible is increasingly defended as the inerrant word of God rather then a creation of humans seeking a meaning and understanding of the world. For a thoughtful reflection on the complexities of literalism and the Bible see:

Another reason is that many of us live in a pluralistic and open religious world and so need to prepare ourselves to take a fuller and more constructive part in the many opportunities for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue which are now available. Or put in a more negative way we have to show that Fundamentalism is not the only valid expression of any of the key monotheistic traditions.

To stop questioning what Quakerism means is to reject the growth that of self- examination and definition requires of any living faith community. After all, in Matthew 22:37, Jesus includes in the first Great Commandment the imperative to love the Lord “with all your mind” William Blake argues for what this means by celebrating the power of the imagination and how it must be used if we are to make difference.

Auguries of Innocence by William Blake

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…
Every Night & every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn & every Night
Some are Born to sweet Delight.
Some ar Born to sweet Delight,
Some are born to Endless Night.
We are led to Believe a Lie
When we see not Thro' the Eye
Which was Born in a Night to Perish in a Night
When the Soul Slept in Beams of Light.
God Appears & God is Light
To those poor Souls who dwell in the Night,
But does a Human Form Display
To those who Dwell in Realms of day.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

My own impression, friend, is that the first Friends were not skeptical at all about theology itself. They did theology themselves, as one may see in Fox's doctrinal works, Penington's essays, Barclay's works, Penn's theological works, and so on. What they objected to was theology that depended purely on texts and theory and was not grounded in or tested against their corporate real-life experience. It was that sort of ungrounded theology that they called "notional".

Similarly, I don't believe that our tradition is anti-intellectual. Fox himself was a champion of universal education -- a very intellectualizing thing -- long before it became a standard liberal cause. Patently intellectual early Friends like Penington, Barclay, Penn, and Bellers were held in high esteem in our Society. In the nineteenth century, Friends founded colleges throughout the U.S., many of them now highly regarded. Liberal meetings today are quite commonly found on or near college campuses, and contain many prominent members who are either educators, academics, or academically-trained professionals.

I agree that there has long been an anti-intellectual minority in certain quarters of the Quaker world. But my personal impression is that this anti-intellectualism has not been an intrinsic part of Quakerism as such, and that for most Friends, the objection has always been purely against "airy notions", rather than against the healthy use of the intellect.

If I've misread the evidence, I'd be glad of a correction.

On another, tangential matter, Friends do appear to have been intense practitioners of Bible reading, prayer, and outward witness to their faith, from the very beginning. I'm not clear how those traits can be blamed on Pietism, since Pietism did not arise until a century later, but I'd welcome a further explanation.

Your quotation from Blake spoke to my heart this morning --

A tenative Quaker said...

Hi, Marshal, it’s nice to hear from you direct. One of the joys of blogging for me is that I get the chance to engage with Friends from the Quaker diaspora. I am glad that you enjoyed Blake, I have dipped in and out of his work for some 30 years and each year leaves me even more amazed at what he offers.

Now you have clearly caught me out in sloppy argument and shaky facts. I have rushed to my theology bookcase to dig out what I meant to say! You may be surprised to hear that for a radical liberal Friend one of my favourite reads was Christian Theology by Alister E Mc Gath( I read it over a week when at a Quaker camp).

Friends and Pietism

Yes Friends as part of the wider Protestant movement had a faith based on Scripture but were part of the Puritan reaction to dry doctrinal logic with an emphasis on experience, hence George Fox’s critical views of Theology. I wasn’t meaning to say that Pietism was linked directly to Quakers behaviour in the 17th and 18th century but how Pietism itself can revert to the practices that it was a reaction against.

But, it is possible to see it indirectly as one of the currents that shifted Friends into their 18th Century quietist period with its insistence on individual righteous behaviour. Pietism originated with the publication of “Pious Wishes” by Philip Jakob Spender in 1675 so was around for some 60-70 years before being popularised in England by John Wesley from the 1740’s onwards. Another root was Quietism from a popular 17th century Catholic movement of a similar time frame. The Encyclopædia Britannica argues that Quietism was perhaps paralleled among Protestants by some of the tenets of the Pietists and Quakers. This significantly was not a factor by the 1740’ as it was deemed heretical by that time.

I accept that Quakers withdrawal from the world was in part from the exhaustion of wining the struggle for Tolerance. But this also had theological roots in the 16th century ideas associated with Sebastian Franck and Menno Simmons where the “church” had to be an assembly of the righteous. This lead to notions of practice that argued that force is not an attribute of God and a strict discipline based on bans and shunning to ensure that righteousness.

However, I digress and any serious and proper historian of Theological ideas of this period is now either falling about laughing or in deep shock at the travesty I have just committed.

Early Friends and Theology

What I was setting out was the reasoning why they rejected much mainstream Theology by arguing for an experiential position. But what I neglected to raise is that much of the work you describe was often done to defend Quakers against the attacks of others especially from the 1660’s especially say Apology for the True Christian Divinity, in term s that may well have fitted Quakerism into Augustinian and Calvinistic thought to make it more understandable to its critics. I know this approach by Rufus is open to challenge and that this text is a sensitive issue for Friends given our history. What interests me is having a broader picture of the ideas and practices of 17th Friends in all their diversity and then revisiting them in the light of 21st Century thinking and knowledge.

Anti-intellectualism and Quakers

I agree with you that Friends have had a long and proud tradition of promoting Education. However, I was being sloppy about not defining what I meant. Anti-intellectualism have several meanings, one is that faith is based on arguments from authority that reject secular evidence. So some strands of Quakerism and individual Quakers could therefore be seen as anti-intellectual.

Another meaning is the rejection of non-conformity in the Arts as subversive of morality which again has been an issue in Friends practice.

In the context of what I and the other blog was saying, we were concerned with a closure of thinking that prevents an engagement with the world now and the disengagement with many in West from traditional forms of Christianity. Less then 10% of the population in England attends church regularly and only around 30-40% believe in God.

In the UK Incidentally being against “airy notions” is a classical line of argument that sees empirical, common sense as the basis of knowledge. Edmund Burke used this to dismiss the rationalistic ideas of the French Revolution. Its been a long time feature of English and so American culture to be sceptical of metaphysic or rationalist speculation, its this that also links to the notion of Friends being anti-intellectual but only because this is part of our wider culture that prefers how to rather then why to thinking.

Marshall Massey said...

Hello again, John! Thank you for all your clarifications. I found your further comments on Pietism and the meaning of anti-intellectual particularly helpful.

Yes, you are right, Pietism began on the European continent with Spener. I remain skeptical that Friends were significantly influenced by Pietism before it hit the English-speaking world, hard, in the mid-eighteenth century. But I will keep an open mind, and watch for further information that might clarify the connection.

I personally cannot regard Quaker quietism as an eighteenth century phenomenon; Fox and others stressed it heavily in their preaching even in the 1650s. I think Quaker quietism has been wrongly confused in some people's minds with the Quaker "withdrawal from the world" that began after the Toleration Act 1689, so that they forget that "quietism" actually meant "quieting the mind and the will so that one can hear and obey God".

Also, I don't believe that the Quaker "withdrawal from the world" had any roots in Anabaptist/Spiritualist ideas about being "an assembly of the righteous". I do think, though, that it was probably influenced by the parallel Anabaptist decision, after intense persecution, that they had to become Die Stille im Lande, "the quiet in the land", i.e. a people who kept an extremely low profile in order to survive.

You assert that Quaker apologists such as Barclay wrote "in terms that may well have fitted Quakerism into Augustinian and Calvinistic thought to make it more understandable to its critics." Actually, though, Barclay spent dozens of pages in his Apology contradicting Calvinist ideas on one important matter after another. So I don't think there is any way he can be found guilty of "fitting Quakerism into Calvinist thought". About Augustine I feel far less qualified to judge, although Barclay does seem to me to take a somewhat critical stance there is well.

I do believe that Barclay made some subtle concessions to establishment Christian thinking, in particular in regard to treating the still, small Voice in the heart and conscience as being something sent from God rather than being God Himself. And I think this concession in particular did some harm in later generations, as it encouraged Friends to trust the Voice's pleadings that much less, and to rely on the Bible that much more heavily in the Voice's stead. But I haven't noticed any evidence of significant concessions to Calvinism either in Barclay's works or in the works of any other early Quaker writer. So if you have such evidence, I'd be very interested in seeing it.

My understanding of "common sense" is that it refers to the givens of society -- the things that the community teaches its kids, like "don't run while carrying scissors," or "you owe it to the people who raised you to enlist in the military and fight in their wars." (The word "common" in "common sense" signifies that it is something the community holds in common, like the village commons, only on a mental level.) This means that "common sense" is something very different from the pleadings of the still, small Voice of Christ in our hearts. But perhaps they use these terms differently in England. I'm afraid I don't understand England well at all.

A tenative Quaker said...

Dear Marshall,

Please remain sceptical about the influence of Pietism, this is conjecture on my part. I am not an Historian or a Theologian as I read Sociology and Politics at University but this makes me very interested in the human relations that create institutions and movements. Hence, I immensely enjoy books such as Lost Christianities by Bart D. Ehrman. This explores the struggles that created the Cannon and orthodox Christian thinking that emerged to be shaped in the 4th century.

Likewise, Quakers were in the maelstrom of the civil war which loosens a whole host of radical ideas. This shaped them through external and internal debates. So what voices or ideas were lost as Quakerism settled down in the 18th century?

I agree as that Quietism as a religious practice must not be confused with Quietism as an institutional practice. In Quaker Theology ( an article on Quietism argues for a direct link between Guyon a populist of Quietism and Quakers of the 17th.

…There are other historical documents to support Harris’ claim that Guyon was central to Quakerism, even during her life, such as an English translation of Bossuet’s attack against Guyon, Fénelon and Quietism, with the intriguing title Quakerism A-la Mode: or a History of Quietism, Particularly That of the Lord Arch-Bishop of Cambray and Madam Guyone. (1698). The title page states that the book contains "An Account of [Guyon’s] Life, her Prophecies and Visions, her way of Communicating Grace by effusion to those about her at Silent Meetings, etc." The preface states, "It will also appear but too too evidently from this Treatise, that Quakerism owes its Origine to that Anti-christian [Quietist] Church. . . ."

I would still contend that the one is an influence on the other. Before the 1660’s Quakers practice was more rooted in Charismatic practices then meeting in silence but this increasingly became the norm afterwards. (See The Light in Their Consciences: The Early Quakers in Britain, 1646-1666 by Rosemary Anne Moore). Part of the reason for this mindset shift is put forward by David Boulton in his essay Winstanley and Friends. During the English revolution it was possible to think of the end of Kingly Power and the rule of wealth and power. The failures of the republic and the restoration of the Monarchy shifted Friends as seeing the republic of heaven as within and mystical rather then external and this worldly. They shifted from dangerous radicals to dissenters dwelling safe in righteous company.

I don't believe that the Quaker "withdrawal from the world" had any roots in Anabaptist/Spiritualist ideas about being "an assembly of the righteous".

I would concede that the withdrawal claim is best served by my previous argument but the structures that Friends adopted and the thinking behind it does seem to have strong links with this stream of radical Puritanism. The obvious link appears to have been Henry Niclaes and the English Familists (Family of Love).

In making the comments I made was quoting from Robert Barclay's Apology for the True Christian Divinity in Context that can be found on
I wouldn’t endorse his arguments or his theology but it was a liberal view of his day. Perhaps nearer my view is this quote that puts into perspective the different strands of Quakerism in which Rufus Jones and Barclay are streams rather then the river.

Quaker theologian John Punshon says, "Today, we all need to consider the mystical, Puritan, materialist and revisionist pictures of the origins of our Society Also available to us is the early Quaker interpretation of Church history as one of apostasy and restitution, or what one could envisage as an evangelical Quaker understanding of history and our place in it as a continuous series of religious relapses and revivals. Each of these theories can relate us to the Christian (or other) grand narrative in a different way. But, ultimately, it is our choice of connection which determines the view of our history that we adopt. (Dandelion 2004:39)."

In other words then, what is needed is a Quaker "theological program not built on one vision of the past but a multiplicity of voices and experiences for understanding and interpreting our tradition, it wouldn't pick a golden age and “fetishes” it but would rather revisit our history in a way to account for the whole tradition.

Of two general meanings attached to the term "common sense" in philosophy, one is a sense of things being common to other things, and the second is a sense of things that are common to humanity. So your discussion leans more to the second. The one looks at the problem of combing a range of sensory data to get the “common” view. The other looks at what is the least complicated way of making sense of things. Another perspective is to see common sense as the intuitive non rationalistic understanding of something. So yes different from the “still voice”, which is a theological statement but once in the world of intuitive reflection then perhaps one is a secular explanation of the other.

Finally, I can give you a firm steer to understanding us Brits. Read, Watching the English: the Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. It’s a fun read and you will see that I suffer from being thought earnest- one of the greatest English sins possible but at least I am not solemn if at times serious. The book explains all!

Marshall Massey said...

Friend John, I'm afraid I simply cannot buy into your ideas about Quietism.

Quietism as a variant of Christian mysticism had its official beginnings with the Spaniard Miguel de Molinos, who was born in 1628. Although he was what the Roman Catholics called a director of consciences to individuals under his care as early as 1670, his major work, the Spiritual Guide, in which he introduced his ideas of Quietism to the larger world, was published only in 1675.

The other two major teachers of Quietism were Jeanne-Marie Bouvier de la Motte-Guyon ("Mme. Guyon") and François Fénelon. Guyon was born in 1648; her ministry began in 1681, and it was not until 1685 that she published her book, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer. Fénelon was born in 1651 and did not become an advocate of Quietism until he met Guyon in 1688.

Let's compare those dates, especially that 1675 date when it really began, with the situation in the Quaker world.

George Fox wrote in a general letter to Friends in 1652, "Friends, -- Whatever ye are addicted to, the tempter will come in that thing; and when he can trouble you, then he gets advantage over you, and then ye are gone. Stand still in that which is pure, after ye see yourselves; and then mercy comes in. After thou seest thy thoughts, and the temptations, do not think, but submit; and then power comes. Stand still in that which shows and discovers; and then doth strength immediately come. And stand still in the Light, and submit to it, and the other will be hush'd and gone; and then content comes. Your strength is to stand still, after ye see yourselves; whatsoever ye see yourselves addicted to, temptations, corruption, uncleanness, &c., then ye think ye shall never overcome. And earthly reason will tell you, what ye shall lose; hearken not to that, but stand still in the light that shows them to you, and then strength comes from the Lord, and help contrary to your expectation. ... If ye do any thing in your own wills, then ye tempt God; but stand still in that power which brings peace.".

In 1658, Fox wrote his much-quoted advice to Lady Claypole, in which he advised her to "be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God to turn thy mind to the Lord God...". This was still the 1650s. In fact, one can find similar teachings in Fox's writings all through that decade. Fox was very busy teaching this practice to Friends all that time.

Isaac Penington, a man I would nominate as the first great contemplative of the Quaker world, wrote in 1660, " Who will be saved by the eternal power? Let him cease from the man in himself. Whoever would be able, in the life, to do all things, let him sink into that in himself which is not, that it may bring to nought all things in him that are; that so it alone may be: and he by it being brought to nothing, will easily become all in it. This is the true way of restoration, of redemption; first to be lost, to be overcome, to be drowned, to be made nothing by that which is not; that that may come to BE in him...."

There are the essential ideas of Quietism in a nutshell. And the fact that they took very swift root among Friends throughout the Quaker world can be seen in the letter from William Leddra, who was one of the Friends martyred in Boston but who was otherwise a fairly ordinary Friend, written from his prison cell in 1661, on the day before he died: "Stand still, and cease from thine own working, and in due time thou shalt enter into the rest, and thy eyes shall behold his salvation...."

So the essential ideas of Quietism were fully alive in the Quaker world by 1661, more than a dozen years before Molinos's ideas began circulating and two dozen before Guyon's book was published. When Guyon's teachings finally reached England, Friends had no need to learn those ideas from her; they had already been practicing them for a quarter-century or more. Their reaction to Guyon would have been, not "Wow, this changes everything," but "Nice to see someone on the Continent getting a clue."

Under such circumstances, it seems to me that the "claim that Guyon was central to Quakerism, even during her life" is simply not tenable.

I remain equally skeptical of your emphasis on a debt to the Anabaptists and Familists. Certainly, many Friends were familiar with Familist ideas, and there were a few Familists and Anabaptists in the London area and maybe in Bristol. But Quakerism arose in the North, not in the London area or in Bristol, and its essential ideas are more clearly expressed in the opening of the Putney Army Debates -- a home-grown English affair -- than in any Familist writings I have seen. It seems to me that there were many sharp differences between Anabaptism, Spiritualism, and Quakerism: they are actually quite different interpretations of the original religion of Christ and the apostles.

Many thanks for your light-hearted advice on how to understand the English --

A tenative Quaker said...

Phew interesting stuff and it is important to get the time sequence and context right for ideas and practice if looking for an historical account. My point and that of the David Boulton writings is that these many viewpoints were not as clear cut on the ground and that many different currents of opinion ran through Friends or settled in Friends which later “official” and “orthodox” opinions can obscure.

However as interesting as understanding these 17th Century debates are, it digresses from the central theme of my post which is how balanced is our spiritual thinking? I posed that we must be open to new thinking as we are in a constant changing world. Clearly George Fox and early Friends were at the heart of a serious challenge to many mainstream Christian beliefs and practices. Are we as radical now as them?

In our discussions, it also helped me to see that this question is also an internal one for Quakers, in that how do we understand and build on the insights and strengths of our own community. One way as I have raised before is to look at the experiences behind our theological/spiritual lines. Another way is to have more open discussions as we are doing. Interestingly where else but in the Quaker blogsphere would a radical British liberal Quaker have the opportunity to debate with a Conservative Friend so that both of us discover and learn and perhaps understand more why both of us call ourselves Quakers.For as the introduction to Quaker Faith and Practice states

"Words must not become barriers between us, for no one of us can ever adequately understand or express the truth about God. Yet words are our tools and we must not be afraid to express the truth we know in the best words we can... We must trust that faith is robust, compassionate and 'not quick to take offence', and that the Spirit which gives the words is communicated through them."

forrest said...

A more accurate description might be "a collection of works by human beings inspired by God's efforts to communicate on matters that probably neither they nor we understand infallibly."
On the Quaker/Quietist connection... I don't know enough to either establish this or rule it out, but could Quakers have been an influence on Catholic thinking at the time? Several Quakers on their way to convert the Great Turk were imprisoned by the Inquisition along the way; I believe that there was more than one of them released as English "madmen"--which might (?) have reflected an interest in not unnecessarily offending the English government, but might some of these people moved their questioners in a way that made them reluctant to treat them harshly?