Friday, 17 January 2014

Christian 'Roots'

British Quakers often describe our relationship to Christianity with the expression ‘Christian roots’. The meaning of this expression is equivocal, because it is an attempt to reconcile Quakerism's origin as a radical Christian movement with modern Friends’ widespread rejection of Christianity. Are our Christian 'roots' what we are anchored in, and continue to draw nourishment from, or what we historically grew from, but have now left behind?

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of these conflicting attitudes is that both those Friends who reject Christianity and those who defend it often share an understanding of Christianity that was explicitly rejected by the first Quakers.

Early Friends described the Quaker movement as 'primitive Christianity revived', but they had a distinctive interpretation of Christianity that was passionately opposed to the orthodox Protestant theology of their day. The first Quakers rejected religious dogmatism, authoritarianism and collusion with powerful elites, quite as vehemently as any modern-day nontheist. Early Quakers believed that they had rediscovered the core insights of Jesus and the first Christians, which official Church teachings had systematically evaded, ignored or misrepresented since the 1st Century.

The Quaker understanding of Christianity emphasises the primacy of inward experience of spiritual reality – the 'Inward Christ'. Early Friends understood 'Christ' as an inward reality, accessible to every person by experience, to guide and empower them to live the kind of life that Jesus lived. Faith in Christ means trusting in this Inward Guide, which enlightens everyone who is willing to open their lives to it. The Inward Christ is luminously present in the life and words of Jesus of Nazareth that are recorded in the Bible, but in a more obscure degree it is present, if only as a potential, in every person – this is what George Fox meant by 'that of God in every one'.

This understanding of Christian faith is not an intellectual commitment to a set of abstract propositions about the nature of the Trinity and the atonement, or beliefs about the creation of the world or the afterlife. It is a practical commitment to living in a way that is illuminated and guided by the inward spirit of Christ in daily life – ‘here you will see your Teacher not removed into a corner, but present when you are upon your beds and about your labour, convincing, instructing, leading, correcting, judging and giving peace to all that love and follow Him.' (Francis Howgill, 'Lamentation for the Scattered Tribes', 1656)

Robert Barclay distinguished between these two ways of knowing as ‘the saving heart-knowledge, and the soaring, airy head-knowledge. The last, we confess, may be diverse ways obtained; but the first, by no other way than the inward immediate manifestation and revelation of God's Spirit, shining in and upon the heart, enlightening and opening the understanding.' ('Apology for the True Christian Divinity', 1678)

For George Fox and other early Quakers, there was no value in simply holding an opinion about Christ, or in any religious 'notions' whatsoever. All the traditional Christian 'beliefs' – in the incarnation, resurrection, atonement, redemption etc, are primarily symbolic expressions of experience. They have no meaning as verbal doctrines or intellectual commitments; their only value is as descriptions of real states of awareness and relationship. The ‘soaring, airy head-knowledge’ cannot help us. Real Christian faith is knowing the power of the inward presence of Christ, experiencing its struggle with the darkness of addiction and temptation within us, and coming to live a transformed life of selflessness and integrity.

This was the transformative experience Friends called 'convincement', and in it they recognised all the symbolic imagery of the Bible, come alive as vivid depictions of their own reality. For Quakers, the Bible was never the primary source of religious revelation and authority, but as a record of the discernment and actions of others who have been led by the Spirit, it is useful for testing our own often uncertain discernment. George Fox claimed that everything he had discovered 'experimentally' through the direct openings of the Spirit he later found confirmed in the Bible, but also that even 'if there was no scripture... Christ [ie the inward spirit of Christ] is sufficient.' (Epistle 320, 1676)

Early Friends believed that as people come to follow the leadings of the Spirit of Christ, we begin to share in the life of communion with God and with each other that Jesus called 'the Kingdom of God'. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is a new social reality which favours the poor and excluded. The core of Jesus' teaching was this 'good news to the poor', that the reign of God is on its way, growing invisibly throughout humanity like yeast through dough – 'the Kingdom of God is among you' (Luke 17:21). This Kingdom of God will be fulfilled through the lives of ordinary and disregarded people, as they are transformed by the Spirit of Christ within; turning away from the seductions of power, wealth and status, to embrace a life based on sharing and reconciliation.
"Children who are properly fed, who have adequate clothing and shoes, good water to drink, and who are learning skills for a constructive adult part in a working human ecology - that's what I think the gospel looks like."
The distorted version of Christianity often taught by mainstream church institutions has usually ignored or tried to interpret away the challenging 'good news' of Jesus' vision of a new society based on renewed people. Instead, church institutions have often concentrated on inventing and squabbling over metaphysical doctrines and outward ceremonies, combined with an obsessive attention to sexual behaviour. Some churches insist on the necessity of taking part in outward ceremonies such as baptism and the eucharist, others on literal belief in the highly symbolic narratives of the Bible, or intellectual adherence to abstract theological concepts. Very few mainstream churches have recognised the necessity of being guided by the same Spirit that was in Jesus, and allowing it to lead us into a transformed life and a renewed society.

Many contemporary Christian Friends have come to Quakerism from mainstream churches, and their understanding of Christianity is often recognisably Anglican, Methodist or Catholic rather than Quaker. Similarly, Friends who are hostile to Christianity are often reacting against their experience of Protestant or Catholic teachings and institutions, rather than the Quaker understanding of what it means to be a Christian – a follower of the inward spirit of Christ that is continually speaking within every person. “You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles saith this, but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast thou walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?” (George Fox, reported by Margaret Fell in 1694)

21 comments:

  1. Some interesting concepts, Craig. As useful as questions like: "Are our Christian 'roots' what we are anchored in, and continue to draw nourishment from, or what we historically grew from, but have now left behind?" are, I'd like to hear more about your inner experience - what can you say?

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  2. Wonderful essay, Craig. Yes, many Friends are unaware of the radical Quaker Christian message. But, some of us come to it experientially, learn about early Quakers and then seek out Friends. And, we are truly perplexed when we realize that many liberal Friends are proud to be Quakers and not Christians. However, our form of church governance, the way we organize our meetings, is profoundly based upon that Quaker vision/experience of primitive Christianity. This fact only usually dawns on Friends when we become involved in conflicts at meeting.
    Regarding the apostasy of institutional Christianity, I love John Dominic Crossan's quip that the Church needs the 2nd coming of Jesus because his first message was just too hard. The second time around, Jesus is just like one of us, angry and seeking vengeance, taking names and numbers, and using might to make right.

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  3. At some point the Quaker way reached a fork in the road. Some yearly meetings took the path that led to an evangelical, bible-based Christianity, while others, such as Britain Yearly Meeting, took the path that led to a Quakerism that acknowledges 'Christian roots' but is largely post-Christian and Universalist.

    Of course, that's not the whole story. There are many Friends trying to live out the 'Primitive Christianity revived' that you describe. Some I know personally, others I have encountered online through QuakerQuaker, others in print, such as Rex Ambler with his 'Experiment with Light'.

    But it does seem very difficult in practice to live this way without sooner or later falling into the outward forms of conventional Christianity or else... well, you could call it the outward forms of conventional liberalism. Why is this so? Is there some flaw in the Quaker way that makes it unworkable, some missing ingredient? I suppose I'm thinking of a Christian critique of Quakerism that might argue that baptism, the eucharist, the public reading of the scriptures &c.are not just 'outward ceremonies', but amount to practices and stories that help to shape and embody who we are and what we believe and how we live, and that, by failing to observe them in their unprogrammed worship, British Quakers have gone astray and 'lost the plot'.

    Or is the problem that the teachings of Christ are by nature extremely demanding and countercultural? That they are impossible for us sinners to follow without constantly failing? That progress in the Christian life may be possible but the risk of backsliding is ever present? That the temptation to take the easier way of conforming to the surrounding culture - liberalism for middle-class British Quakers, conservative evangelicalism for Friends in some other places - is so hard to resist?

    In which case, is the sometimes disappointing nature of Quaker life and worship a consequence of aiming very high and falling short? I can't help thinking of Catholic monastics, another group of communities who set very high standards for themselves, and often fall embarassingly short of them. And of the monk who described the monastic life in terms of falling down, getting up again, and falling down again, and getting up again, repeatedly...

    Yours in friendship

    Alan

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    1. Dear Alan,
      These are very good questions. I think it is likely that by abandoning public reading of the Bible in worship, Quakers created the possibility of detaching ourselves from our 'roots' in Christian spirituality. Having said that, it is not evident that other traditions (including programmed Quaker Yearly Meetings) which do incorporate Bible reading, the eucharist etc, have been very successful in practising the Gospel either... I suspect that the main cause of all of our failings is the one identified by Tolstoy:
      'The chief reason for all the misunderstandings [about Christianity] is that Christ's teaching is considered to be one that can be accepted without changing our life.' (The Kingdom of God is Within You)

      In Friendship,
      Craig

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    2. Thank you Craig. Tolstoy's point is well taken! Another question - for another blog post maybe - where does this radical critique of steeplehouse Christianity leave Quakers in their ecumenical relations with other Christian church communities? I write this as someone who is a. active in the ecumenical movement through participating in worship in the style of Taizé, and b. trying to make connections between the Quaker Christian way, which I find very inspiring but a bit loose and structureless, and an anabaptist praxis that gives me the 'hedge', the structure of Christian worship that I find helpful and lacking in unprogrammed Quakerism...

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    3. There are some interesting issues here - it has often struck me that priests and ministers from other churches (particularly liberal ones) tend to have a very positive opinion of Quakerism, which was originally founded as a radical critique of their own churches' distortion of Christianity. I have a feeling that this is partly because we have become so safely middle-class that we are no longer seen as at all threatening to anyone. But also, I think that many mainstream churches have moved quite a long way towards a more Quaker-type approach as their own social and political power has waned over the last few decades.
      So, for instance, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams clearly has a spiritual vision that has a lot in common with Quaker Christianity, but it is hard to imagine the Church of England being led by someone with similar views in the 1950s, when it was still an intrinsic part of maintaining State power.
      I'm not sure I have the breadth of knowledge of church politics to understand this fully, but it would be good to explore further at some point. Any additional thoughts or suggestions (from anyone) would be very welcome.
      In Friendship,
      Craig

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  4. The best thing that I have read for a long time on this topic Craig. Thank you!

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  5. Thank you Craig - there is much here to quietly reflect on. This reminds me of where I came in some 14 years ago and as an exile and spiritual asylum seeker from evangelical Christianity. I have found over the last couple of years less and less satisfaction and nourishment from from what I will call 'spiritual secularism' and have rather lost the meaning of meeting for Worship - without the essence of the divine presence within Meeting. like many I am still very bruised and I think over-sensitive to anything that comes with a 'Christian' label and as a result have steered away from the traditional view of early Friends and towards the loose and self absorbing 'New Spirituality'. I am loving reading your thoughtful posts .... More please

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  6. Excellent post.

    Unitarians often wrestle with the same question (is Unitarianism Christian or post-Christian?). I wrestled with it and concluded that it is (sort of) Christian, and that as I am not and never will be a a Christian, I would be better off not being part of it.

    http://heartofflame.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/empty-path.html
    http://heartofflame.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/is-unitarianism-christian.html
    http://heartofflame.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/roots-hold-me-close-wings-set-me-free.html
    http://heartofflame.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/blessed-are-poor.html

    Anyway, I think that both Friends and Unitarians are doing a great job of mystical inward Christianity, and I wish you all well.

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  7. I have just come across this posting quoting what I said in December 2004
    Strange how things come around again
    I saved this discourse several years ago, but cannot give a full reference. I believe that it may shed some light on Howard Brod's questions.

    From: "Chris Newsam" a href="http://groups.yahoo.com/group/QuakerSpirituality/post?postID=NPYCLFw1Ni1cSm3KsfUWc3Xk0yY3M9iPE-pfFhQSZkqM2KbyxfphwaTn9hrrGjB6IX1qfu44PzhPS4DXzZQaeUk">cnfriendchris@y...>
    Date: Tue Dec 7, 2004 12:04 pm
    Subject: where is the quaking?
    Over the last few weeks I have been attending, with a friend, an Elim Pentecostal church and have been impressed by the variety and numbers of people attending. The question I ask is why are these services full and lively whilst down the road at the Meeting House just a few elderly Friends meet and there is a feeling of neglect and somewhat of despair? I love Quaker worship but am wondering what has happened to the `quaking'. Have we become too comfortable and complacent? Are we failing to meet the needs of a spiritually hungry world? Maybe. Or is it, as I am currently sensing, down to two factors, one a lack of a sense of being led (even shaken!) and secondly failing to build strong and inclusive communities around our Meeting for Worship. Where is the radical and adventurous spirit and the desire to build God's Kingdom on earth? Is it time to rally once more around the Light, the living and universally available Christ, without taking a superior, narrow or fundamentalist position? Time for some juicy Quakerism? But maybe I am mistaken. What can you say Friend?
    Chris Newsam England

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  8. Thank you for sharing this Chris - I think that it is this sense of something vital that we need to recover in our worship and witness that is behind the current discussions about the renewal of British Quakerism. I am hopeful (but far from certain) that it is gradually gathering enough momentum to bring about a new 'radical and adventurous spirit' in BYM.
    In Friendship,
    Craig

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  9. "modern Friends’ widespread rejection of Christianity" is completely not consistent with my experience of Friends in the US or Scotland. As a non-Christian Friend, I am almost always in the minority, wherever I am in Quakerdom.

    (Also, it's not consistent with the character of Friends world-wide: the vast majority of Friends in the world are both Christian and evangelical.)

    'Similarly, Friends who are hostile to Christianity are often reacting against their experience of Protestant or Catholic teachings and institutions, rather than the Quaker understanding of what it means to be a Christian – a follower of the inward spirit of Christ that is continually speaking within every person.'

    Um, no. One, that assumes every Friend, or the majority of Friends, who are not Christian were raised Christian. This makes invisible we Friends who were raised Jewish, Pagan, Buddhist, atheist, some combination, or something completely different.

    Two, for many of us, we simply have no relationship with Jesus. It's a different Deity or different aspect of the Divine which we experience. When spirituality and religion are about direct experience of the Divine, first, pretending a relationship where there isn't one is a problem; and second, insisting that the experience of Deity speaking directly to one means one has experienced Jesus is Christocentric as well as exclusivist monotheist.

    Also, there is still in this post the assumption that Christianity is better, and that being a Christian Quaker is better than being a non-Christian Quaker. This contributes to the many ways non-Christian Friends are treated as second-class citizens in many Meetings and Quaker organizations, including those where Christianity is supposedly not required.

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    1. Dear Stasa, Thank you for your comments, I'd like to respond to each of these, as I think they raise some important issues:

      When I write of "modern Friends’ widespread rejection of Christianity" I am talking specifically about Britain Yearly Meeting, in which the decline of Christian belief has been well documented in research by Ben Pink Dandelion and others (you are of course correct that this is not at all representative of Quakerism worldwide). It is interesting that this is not your experience of Meetings in Scotland, and I wonder if there may be a significant difference in Quaker culture between Scotland and England?

      I do not assume that non-Christian Friends were raised as Christians. What I was trying to suggest is that Friends who are critical of Christianity tend to focus their criticisms (quite rightly) on issues such as dogmatism, oppression of women, authoritarianism, homophobia etc, which they have observed in the pseudo-Christianity of institutional churches, rather than the specifically Quaker understanding of Christianity that I have tried to outline in this post.

      I did not mean to suggest in this post that Christianity is 'better' than all other spiritual ways, and I fully take your point that 'for many of us, we simply have no relationship with Jesus. It's a different Deity or different aspect of the Divine which we experience.' I appreciate the beauty and validity of many spiritual traditions' approaches to the different aspects of divine reality. What I was aiming to do here was to describe the original Quaker Christian path, which I believe is one such tradition that is too little understood (particularly among Quakers).

      Clearly, different traditions will have different concepts and language to describe the experience of contact with spiritual reality. For early Quakers that language is 'the Inward Christ', but they also explicitly recognised that those of other religions may experience the same reality in different concepts, so it is not an 'exclusivist' position (in the sense of believing that there is only one correct way or belief).

      I am sorry that you have had the experience of being treated as a 'second-class citizen' among Friends, and it is certainly not my intention to do that here.

      In Friendship,
      Craig

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  10. Thank you for this post, and for letting me know about it in your comment on my blog. I appreciate this setting-out of early Quaker thought. I've always been Christian and sometimes Quaker but never a scholar of Quakerism. I think I need to read Francis Howgill.

    I resonate strongly with your description of Christianity as early Friends saw it. But it doesn't look to me like an exclusively Quaker way of understanding the faith. It's what I was groping my way into before I found Quakers, and is partly what led me to them. Your emphasis both on the direct, transformative and ongoing connection to the Spirit and on the good news to the poor sounds very much like what Desmond Tutu says and writes strongly and repeatedly, and claims as the heart of the Anglican tradition, the Christian tradition and the life of the Spirit across all traditions. The little fundamentalist Protestant church which is now my weekly worship community (though I still worship daily with my family and fellow volunteers after the manner of Friends) also stresses the ongoing and transformative relationship part, and sees this as requiring self-sacrificing giving to neighbors and those in need, though I feel a lack of systemic critique/social justice there.

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    1. Dear Joanna,
      Many thanks for this. Yes, the understanding of Christianity presented here is not exclusive to Quakers. Like you, it was pretty much what I had found my way to before I ever became a Quaker, through a range of influences including the Taize community, Thomas Merton, Tolstoy, John Robinson etc.
      Kevin Daugherty has written about the wider tradition of 'Spirit-filled Christianity' (at: http://koinoniarevolution.com/2014/01/30/beware-the-wild-goose/) which includes Pentecostalism, Anabaptism etc. There are also prophetic figures from all denominations (including Tutu, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King etc) who have continually reminded Christians of Jesus' message of the Kingdom. They have usually been minority figures within their churches, however, often having to struggle against powerful forces of conservatism and reaction from within their own institutions. This has also been true of Quakers at times, of course...
      In Friendship,
      Craig

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  11. Thank you, Craig. This is one of those posts that pulls together a lot of loose ends for me. Interestingly, I'm just now reading Marcus Borg's Reading the Bible Again for the First Time, and he says pretty much exactly what you say about the 'traditional Christianity' that is in fact a particular cultural construct of the few centuries since the Reformation. Modern Liberal Quakers rightly reject this, as did the original Quakers in the 17th century. It's this latter fact we so easily forget, I think to our peril. And it's only really Quakers who are still under the spell of this 'traditional Christianity' who pose any threat to Quakers who see themselves as non-Christian, either through rejection of 'trad C' or because their roots are in another religion altogether - or none. The early Quakers would have had no problem with this - see Robert Barclay (1678 in QFP 27.05): "The church [is] no other thing but the society, gathering or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit to walk in his light and life… Under this church … are comprehended all, and as many, of whatsoever nation, kindred, tongue or people they be, though outwardly strangers and remote from those who profess Christ and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the Scriptures, as become obedient to the holy light and testimony of God in their hearts… Turks, Jews and all the several sorts of Christians, men and women of integrity and simplicity of heart..."

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    1. Thanks for this - a great quote from Robert Barclay.
      In Friendship,
      Craig

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  12. I have been a Friend for virtually all of my adult life, and a Christian for as long as I can remember. I find the implied superiority (in your comments) of Quakerism over other branches of Christianity rather arrogant, and the strident expressions of this viewpoint tiresome!

    How about a good dose of humility?? We don't have a corner on the truth! Actually, contemporary Quaker spiritual life (as Chris Newsam's observation about the meeting and the Elim church down the street makes plain) looks rather anemic. Instead of sticking our noses up in the air, we need to confess our weakness and need for the Lord's help, and our willingness to learn from vital expression of Christian faith and life, wherever it may be found.

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    1. Dear Bill,
      I have re-read this post in the light of your comments and can see how it might appear strident and arrogant, for which I apologise. My intention was to highlight how different early Friends' understanding of Christianity was both from the established church of the time, and our modern mainstream churches. I am well aware that there are very many people from other churches whose lives are a vivid witness to Christ, and also that Quakers could learn a lot from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox spirituality.
      I do, however, think that the original Quaker understanding of Christianity has a lot to offer to modern people who have rejected mainstream Christianity for a range of reasons, and deserves to be better known and understood.
      Yours in Friendship,
      Craig

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  13. Great post. Fair and perceptive. So much time and energy is spent attacking and defending forms of Christianity, and, indeed, religion, that early Friends rejected.

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  14. Craig just came across your blog and this post in particular today.Christian universalism affirms "Corinthians 15:22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be live" The holy spirit( called by many names among Quakers today including spirit of christ) lives in the hearts of ALL people, will finally restore the whole human family to holiness and happiness. Quaker worship is a response and a fulfilment to that reality." Faithful and simply listening to the holy spirit in holy silence.Why Quakers have made this so complicated I don’t why?

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"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)