Saturday, 14 September 2013

See, I am doing a new thing

Children at Hlekweni Friends Training Centre, Zimbabwe
One of the deepest consequences of the gradual unravelling of industrial civilisation in our times is the steady withering away of the modern faith in progress. For growing numbers of people, who can no longer sustain a belief that the future will always be an improvement on the present, the only alternative seems to be a despairing fatalism. Others, menaced by the pressing threat of ecological devastation, cling to an increasingly desperate insistence that 'They will think of something' to save us from the consequences of our own actions, without any need for us to change our own lives.

Perhaps one of the most important gifts that religious traditions, including Quakerism, have to offer in our time is the possibility of an orientation towards the future that does not lead to irresponsible optimism or despair. In the Christian tradition this orientation is called hope.

When our first child was born, we held a 'welcoming' celebration for her with friends at our home, during which I read out this passage from the prophet Isaiah:

"See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland."
(Isaiah 43:19)
For us, the birth of our daughter, as of every child, was a sign of hope for the future, not because of any expectation that the next generation will be any wiser or better than the last, but simply because her life was 'a new thing' – filled with utterly unpredictable potential for bringing beauty and joy and healing into the world.

Hope is not the same as optimism. It does not mean believing that things will inevitably improve or anticipating the sudden disappearance of all our problems. Hope is also possible, and necessary, alongside a clear perception of the consequences of our own destructiveness and the persistence of violence and injustice. But an attitude of hope means an openness to the future, recognising that the future is not fixed in a mechanical, unrelenting pattern, because it will result from the actions of innumerable people, all of whom are capable of unpredictable acts of creativity and generosity.

The Quaker movement was formed in a period when many people's expectations of the future had been crushed by political events. Many early Friends had been deeply committed to the parliamentary cause during the English Civil War. They lived through the failure of the Commonwealth government, Cromwell's dictatorship and finally the restoration of the monarchy. Friends did not respond to the failure of their hopes and the re-imposition of political and religious absolutism by armed resistance, nor did they simply submit to the new restrictions on religious freedom. Instead, almost uniquely among the nonconformist sects of the time, they sustained a persistent, public commitment to living the Truth they had encountered, despite systematic and intense state persecution.

Quakers at this time emphasised the power of 'testimony' – a life of utter integrity and faithfulness to God's purposes, to challenge and transform situations of untruth and injustice. They experienced the reality that living an authentic human life, and maintaining a genuine human community, is a political act.

The public and political role of early Quaker testimony – including actions that attracted intense persecution such as refusing to swear oaths or to accept social hierarchies, was to resist a culture of lies and oppression by truthfully naming social reality. As Rex Ambler describes it:

"Early Friends testified to the truth that had changed them by living their lives on the basis of that truth. The reality of their life (and of human life) shone through in their lives because they were open to that reality and lived in harmony with it. Lives lived in the truth would then resonate with how other people lived their lives, and more specifically with the deep sense within them that they were not living well, not living rightly. When Friends spoke honestly and truthfully to people, when they dealt with them as they really were, without pretence or projection, when they met violence with nonviolence and hatred with love, people knew at some level they were being confronted with the truth, whether they liked it or not."  
Rex Ambler, 'The Prophetic Message of Early Friends (and how it can be interpreted today)'

This kind of influence may seem inadequate to the huge and urgent political challenges of our time. The influence of individuals and small groups on those around them is unlikely to save us from the long-term economic and ecological crises that we are preparing for ourselves and future generations. But however difficult the times our children will live through, there will be some people who practice sharing and reconciliation; some places where a more fully human life and community can flourish, because of the actions of people living now. This means that how we choose to live matters, it will shape the future for good or ill, and affect the lives of people we may never meet or know about. It means trusting in our own capacity for new beginnings, that we are not trapped by our past or confined by our habits and compulsions, that something new can happen in our own lives. Rather than despairing or giving way to fatalism, can we be ready to recognise and encourage these signs of hope within and around us, to perceive the times and places where the Spirit is acting to 'do a new thing'?


  1. Actually, now that we have lost faith in progress, we have space to start (re)discovering faith in each other.
    Faith in progress arises from an organic understanding of human nature, and organic implies growth - it is what organisms do, and so we have endless economic growth - until the ecosystem fails. Which is just what happens in life - great explosions of growth followed by massive population collapses as the closed system that is the earth readjusts.
    The dialectic of growth - a constant synthesis of the new - denies personal relationality. In religious terms 'that which is eternal'. And in so doing the logic of growth denies the overall relationship with the universal other - which some call 'God'.
    But the personal is a hard logic: we were talking to a neighbour the other month after the death of John, our good friend and next door neighbour, abut how it seemed so soon after the death of his wife and also our friend. He replied: 'it would not be a balanced community if their was not death as well as new life'. For also at this time a new baby had just been born on the street, and another is on the way.
    It is far easier to side-step the pain of death that necessarily accompanies the joy of new life that come and go in relationality. As Italo Calvino says in 'Invisible Cities' (translated form the Italian):
    “The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
    The loss of faith in progress has opened up that space.

  2. Any durable hope will need to be based on faith. That doesn't mean "credulity"; that means a solid intuitive sense that the universe is the creation of Spirit, that what it throws at us has more to do with human spiritual needs than with physical causal explanations -- that God can, will, and does continually surprise us with compassionate wisdom and unexpected twists of plot...

  3. This is an excellent post. I would add that just as many are questioning the myth of progress, many are also pondering a future that would not qualify as "an improvement on the present" to the industrialist mind, but might nevertheless be an improvement. If "improvement" or "progress" is measured by such things as "economic growth" or GDP, for example, then the future may not be one of "improvement" or "progress," yet it might nevetheless be an improvement, as people learn to live sustainably and responsibly.


"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)