The Mediate Role of Virtue

Love mercy and true judgment, justice and righteousness; for the Lord delighteth in such. Consider these things in time, and take heed how ye spend your time. Now ye have time, prize it; and show mercy, that ye may receive mercy from the Lord: for he is coming to try all things, and will plead with all flesh as by fire (Works, 1:115)

This statement is from a letter that Fox wrote in 1651 while he was being held in Darby jail. In this letter, Fox admonishes local judges to love virtue, specifically “mercy, true judgment, justice and righteousness.” Notice that he does not reason with the judges about their duty, nor does he argue that virtuous behavior would benefit society. Both of these arguments would call upon the judges to choose virtue so that some ideal of character or society could be met. Fox, instead, gives different reasons for being virtuous: 1) the Lord delights in virtuous behavior; and conversely, 2) the Lord will judge and punish harshly those who refuse virtue, “[he] will plead with all flesh as by fire.” Fox is claiming that virtue is a necessary mediate condition for receiving the proximate favor of God, not a practical measure for achieving some human ideal.

Implied in this understanding is the belief that there’s some advantage to receiving God’s favor and avoiding his wrath. Convincing people of this who are without the fear of God (that is to say, the knowledge of God) is difficult. It seems natural and obvious to the reprobate mind that each person must chart his own course toward maximum personal advantage, navigating around or conquering whatever obstacles impose themselves, even when those obstacles are the demands of virtue. Choosing virtue over opportunity for personal gain often does not seem wise to the man who does not know Christ: “for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light”(Lk. 16:8).

That this worldly wisdom is, in fact, not life-enhancing but instead is life-inhibiting ignorance that can and must be contradicted is the primary theme of Scriptures and seventeenth-century Friends writings. Both sources hold up the pursuit and acquisition of virtue as an intermediate and necessary step that prepares one to receive eternal life, knowledge of the living God. This assertion is reinforced repeatedly throughout these writings, one example being the sixteenth chapter of Luke.

At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus tells a story of a man who is lacking in virtue: a steward who has been wasteful of his master’s goods, and as a result is fired. In straits for how he will live, the steward decides upon a plan: he will curry favor with those who owe his employer goods by reducing their liability. Not only does this steward lack prudence and economy, he also lacks the virtues of honesty and righteousness:

How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, an hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore (5–7).

Once the man no longer has the job of steward, he will call upon these people for return favors: quid pro quo. The text then has the steward’s employer evaluate the scheme: “And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely”(v.8). How reasonable is it to praise fraud that has been injurious to oneself? The master praises the steward who cheated him; in a world devoid of virtue, reason also is in short supply.

This praise of the dishonest steward accelerates the chaos that began in the first line of the story: we were told that the steward was not doing what a steward does, which is care for his master’s goods. When a word no longer signifies its meaning, confusion results. When a steward no longer cares for his master’s goods, when a master praises his servant’s thievery, chaos and confusion abound. In verse nine, this chaos crystallizes into a maxim:

And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fall, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.

At this point in the story when confusion is rife, having gained the apex and planted a senseless maxim as its flag, the narrative voice shifts. Suddenly appearing in the passage’s final verses (10–13) are cogent, inarguable assertions that follow one upon another. One senses that Jesus, having finished his story, is now presenting its moral:

He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much(10). If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches(11)? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own(12)? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon(13).

With the exception of the first part of verse ten, all these statements are put into a negative rather than a positive form: “…if ye have not been faithful” (11, 12); “No servant can serve…,” “Ye cannot serve…” (13). One may state with assurance that a sinful (negative) condition will not enter the Kingdom, but one cannot positively state that behaving virtuously will ensure entry; for that entry is determined by God alone (Mk.13:32). We cannot assess whether we ourselves are virtuous; God alone, who is a consuming fire, tries the heart. Lack of virtue prohibits receiving Christ, but even one’s very best effort to be virtuous does not guarantee the coming of Christ. For that, one can only prepare oneself, and then wait and watch(37).

Last First-day in worship at a meeting in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, there were five messages given during the hour. Each contained a personal narrative which held up a particular virtue: benevolence, bravery, tolerance, empathy, and helpfulness. All the messages followed the same narrative arc: virtue was exhibited and virtue was rewarded. Embodying virtues is often rewarding, useful, and practical in shaping and improving our individual lives and of that of the social groups to which we belong. That is not, however, the reason for embodying virtue that either Jesus or first Friends give. For them, the condition of virtue is a mediate state, which is neither accommodated in the world nor yet given entry into heaven. Virtue’s purpose and value is that it prepares the heart to be acceptable to God. Virtue affirms and signals a desire and humble willingness to sacrifice and then to wait upon the coming of the Lord. It is faith before faith is given.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox

Lewis Benson began his lecture series Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox at Moorestown Meeting in New Jersey in the fall of 1982. The first lecture in this series is titled “The Place of George Fox in Christian History.” It is now available for reading on the New Foundation Fellowship website, and can be accessed through Ellis Hein’s introduction: http://nffquaker.org/profiles/blogs/the-place-of-george-fox-in-chri… All are welcome to visit. In the coming weeks and months, NFF will sequentially post the nine remaining lectures in this series.

In this first lecture, “The Place of George Fox in Christian History,” Benson states his intention for the series: “to focus on Fox’s actual teachings as revealed in his writings,” thereby addressing two problems: 1) scholars’ mistaken interpretations of Fox’s teaching, and 2) widespread lack of familiarity with our Quaker heritage. These lectures provide an excellent opportunity for Friends to familiarize themselves with significant portions of early Quaker understanding, as Benson’s scholarship is thorough; his interpretation is sound; and his presentations are clear and coherent.

I always try to approach people’s interpretations of Fox with an open mind, but I’ve often found that he’s misrepresented and misunderstood. Lewis Benson also saw this problem and identified it in this lecture, referring to many scholars of his time.

One of the primary distinctions that Fox makes is that there is a pure religion “that comes down from above” (Benson identifies this elsewhere as Abrahamic religion), and then there is man-made religion (Adamic religion), which is arrived at by means of ideas, emotions, ideals, social pressures, etc., in short, anything human beings can contrive and subscribe to. In this all-too-prevalent man-made religion (Adamic religion), Person A will likely have a different take on religion from Person B. If, however, they each are choosing and forming their religion from ideas, feelings, principles, etc., they both are subscribing to man-made religion. An example of this apparently-different-but-actually-the-same man-made religion is Protestants and Catholics, though differing were, nevertheless, of the same root and stock, claimed the seventeenth-century Quakers.

In contrast to the Adamic religion that permeated their culture, what Fox and first Friends were given was the pure religion that comes down from above, i.e. revelation. (Recall Fox’s surprise at hearing “There is one, Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition.”) Now this Word is what is revealed by Christ, and is Christ, and is unchanging; it is the gospel, the power of God. Therefore, those who have received this gospel power find themselves in unity with those in history (first Friends, apostles) who had also received this heavenly dispensation. Because of that unity of spirit, we find that the words of these two groups convey our own most inward identity and also present wisdom that we can affirm, ascribe to, and benefit from.

The faith that comes down from above cannot be acquired by human beings; it must be given by God. So, what does one do? Letting John the Baptist’s words resonate within one’s heart might be useful, as he came before the Lord and prepared the way. Ultimately, it’s about needing truth for your soul like you need oxygen for your body.  I see this particular sense of the need for truth to be the hallmark of humanity, but people deny their humanity often. The words in John 1 speak to this denial: He came unto his own, and his own received him not.

Meanwhile, we have a great deal of literature that affirms the reality of the gospel power. I’ve heard a number of people say they were convinced of the gospel by reading Fox. I’ve always found this suspect because one is assimilating ideas when one reads, and Life is not intellect, and neither is it emotion. Fox does affirm—throughout all his voluminous writings—the reality of the new, inward Life that God in His mercy and truth meets out to those who call upon Him in their need, to those who wait in readiness. There are quite a few of Jesus’s parables about preparing oneself. Most emphatic, however, is Jesus’s concluding lesson to his disciples shortly before he’s arrested:

Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping. And what I say unto you I say unto all, Watch (Mk. 13: 35-7).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Doing Our Part

A year and a half ago I wrote an essay titled “The Only Antidote,” in which I argued for the need to think critically: to use natural powers of reason and conscience to honor, discern, and communicate the truth. Referring to Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the cause behind the rise of Fascism and also referring to a Bible story of John the Baptist’s execution by Herod, I pointed to the crucial and perennial role of critical thought in containing the spread of evil.

Although critical thought can check evil, I contended that ultimately it is no match. Nonetheless, the exercise of thinking critically benefits the soul immeasurably. In subjecting oneself to reason and conscience, we prepare the way of the Lord; decent, honest effort precedes the gift of faith that comes only from God. It is only through the power of God that evil can and will be overcome and destroyed, both within and without. “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” say those who have known what’s necessary and possible.

At the time I wrote that essay,  our country was not in imminent danger of electing to its highest political office a man who sports an Orwellian disregard for truth. Now, however, that threat looms: we the people of the United States might, in fact, elect to the presidency a man who represents, enables, and lauds speech and behavior that is beyond the pale of reason and conscience.

Stated at our country’s founding was the claim that we are endowed by our Creator with “certain unalienable rights.” We have, in fact, been endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable responsibilities, that among them are right use of reason and conscience. Let’s use them well.

If we assume that pervasive, severe moral catastrophe is not possible in our own country, we do well to heed those who have lived through complete breakdown in their own regions. In the following paragraph, Swiss theologian Emil Brunner, who witnessed firsthand Europe’s descent into Fascism, traces the progression from idealistic humanist philosophy to tyrannical totalitarianism, inevitably occurring, says Brunner, when unchecked by a Christian tradition within that society:

That is to say that idealistic humanism leads to an individualistic conception of society, which in the end must have anarchical consequences. That is why modern society in so far as it has relinquished its Christian basis appears to be in a state of latent anarchy or dissolution. With the middle of the 19th century, there begins a fierce reaction against this individualism, and this collectivist reaction in its turn is worked out logically from a naturalist philosophy. The alternative to idealistic individualism is not free communion but primitive tribal not to say animal collectivism. It is the de-personalised mass-man,  the man forming a mere particle of a social structure and the centralised automatic mechanical totalitarian state, which inherits the decaying liberal democracy. Only where a strong Christian tradition had prevailed was it possible to avoid this fatal alternative of individualism and collectivism to preserve a federal non-centralised, pluralistic organic structure of the State, and therefore to avoid that sudden transition from a half anarchic individualism into a tyrannical totalitarianism. But the societies of the West, which abhor the way taken by totalitarian Russia, Italy, and Germany, do not yet seem to have grasped that if the process of de-Christianisation goes on within their society, they too will inevitably go the same way. (The Gifford Lectures, Emil Brunner’s “Christianity and Civilization” http://www.giffordlectures.org/lectures/christianity-and-civilization)

By the 1940s the philosophy of idealism, against which Brunner warns, had begun in Quaker circles to displace the original prophetic, apostolic Christian faith of earlier centuries. This trend was recognized and revealed by Lewis Benson.  In an excerpt from his essay “Prophetic Quakerism,” Benson describes the difference between the two doctrines of the Inner Light: prophetic and philosophical (italics mine):

First, the philosophical interpretation understands the Inner Light to be that innate capacity of human beings to comprehend rational and ethical truth….This view tends to make the concept of ‘spirit’ in man identical with the concept of ‘mind.’ The ‘mind’ or ‘soul’ of man is the seat of the divine element in man and the essentially divine reality is not external to the soul.…This view affirms the inherent spirituality of the human psyche due to the presence of a native rational and ethical principle which is divine.

Secondly, the prophetic doctrine of the Inner Light understands that man may become completely spiritualized, that is to say, brought into perfect harmony with the will of the Creator God who is spirit. But the agency for this spiritualization is not to be found by an inventory of man’s native capacities. Man is made spiritual and godly by a power which operates in man but which is nevertheless not of man. It is always the working of a sovereign will distinct from one’s own. Thus there is accessible to man a light which illuminates his moral life, but this life is not present in man as his own psychological possession. It is imparted to man and man has received the promise that it will never be withheld. The condition of the operation of this light within man is his willingness to submit both conscience and reason to this objective and superhuman light. The conception of the Inner Light does not displace human reason, but says Joseph Phipps, it does caution ‘against…the setting up human reason above its due place in religion, making it the leader instead of the follower, the teacher instead of the learner, and esteeming it vested with a kind of self-sufficiency, independent of the direction and help of God’s Holy Spirit.’ Likewise conscience or the ‘sense of ought’ is a quality of human life but it should not be regarded as autonomous and it cannot lead to the ultimate principles of righteousness unless informed by a higher authority. (The Truth is Christ, “Prophetic Quakerism,” pp. 14-15)

The doctrines of “that of God in every one” and “the power of love and good will to overcome war and hate” are derived from the idealism that originates with the philosophical interpretation of the Inner Light. This doctrine is a tribute to human capacity and thus differs from the prophetic doctrine, which places  man in total dependency on the power of God to inform his understanding of right and wrong, and to gather, govern, and preserve a people who have Christ as their head: “whose dominion and strength is over all, against whom,” says Penington, “the gates of hell cannot prevail.”

Benson’s piece, written in the middle of the Second World War, when civilization hung precariously in the balance, recognizes the limits of human ability and power to order and preserve the world and the necessity of coming into the knowledge of and obedience to the Will of God, as did the first Friends.

The essay “The Only Antidote” can be read at my website Abiding Quaker under the heading of September.

Patricia Dallmann

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Only Antidote

Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth (Rev. 3:10).             

Hannah Arendt was a philosopher and political theorist who left Germany in the early ’30s. After having done relief work in France for some years, she was briefly held in a detention camp when France fell to the Nazis. She fled to the United States in 1941 where she taught and wrote for several decades. Some may be familiar with the phrase “the banality of evil” that she coined while covering the trial of war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in the early ‘60s. It was Eichmann’s “absence of thinking,” Arendt wrote, “that awakened my interest. Is evil-doing…possible in default of not just ‘base motives’…but of any motives whatsoever….Might the problem of good and evil, our faculty of telling right from wrong, be connected with our faculty of thought?” (The Life of the Mind, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1978)

Arendt came to believe that the great destruction wreaked during the times of Nazi and Stalinist totalitarianism was a direct result of the refusal to exercise our human capacity for critical thought. The forfeiture of reason opened the way for chaos and destruction, she claimed. The following is an excerpt from a monologue in the film titled Hannah Arendt:

This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the like of which had never been seen before. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.

At another point in the film, Arendt defines radical evil as the continual obliteration of sense within daily surroundings that occurred in the concentration camps. Senselessness made superfluous the high mental functioning that distinguishes us as human beings. Thus, Arendt argued, the obliteration of sense was intended to make “human beings superfluous as human beings.” In a classroom scene, she lectures her college students:

Western tradition mistakenly assumes that the greatest evils of mankind arise from selfishness. But in our century, evil has proven to be more radical than was previously thought. And we now know that the truest evil, the radical evil, has nothing to do with selfishness or any such understandable sinful motives. Instead it is based on the following phenomenon: making human beings superfluous as human beings. The entire concentration camp system was designed to convince the prisoners they were unnecessary before they were murdered. In the concentration camps, men were taught that punishment was not connected to a crime, that exploitation wouldn’t profit anyone, and that work produced no results. The camp is a place where every activity and human impulse is senseless: where, in other words, senselessness is daily produced anew.

Later Arendt wrote in a personal letter that evil was “thought-defying,” that its nothingness precipitated a frustration of thought. In that same letter, she modified her earlier view on radical evil.

I changed my mind and do no longer speak of “radical evil”….It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth and can be radical. (Letter to Scholem 7/24/63)

Arendt thought that evil spreads when man forfeits his capacity to think deeply. She later concluded that thought is frustrated by evil, as “thought tries to reach some depth,” and evil has no depth. She rightly saw that evil destroys man, and man cannot overcome it by his own power.

Arendt’s ideas of the necessity for deep, critical thought to halt evil, and evil’s impervious resistance to thought, has a Scriptural corollary in the work and execution of John the Baptist. Like Arendt, John is calling people to engage in thought when he cries, “Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). The word “repentance” at its etymological root means “to think differently.” John’s call to repentance is a call to re-think or to begin to think more deeply and truthfully.

In the fourth chapters of both Matthew and Luke, John the Baptist’s story surrounds the temptation story of Christ in the wilderness. Both John and Jesus spend time in the wilderness, for the wilderness is the place where independent thought occurs, apart from the city where group influence dominates. John prepares the way by calling people to begin to think more deeply, to think for themselves and not be conformed to the group, to repent of that. “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand,” he urges. Furthermore, John acts with independence, clarity, and righteousness; he gives concise, righteous direction to people, publicans, and soldiers (Lk.4:10-14) who do not share his independence, his clarity. With clear resolve, he exhorts people, distinguishes right from wrong, the wheat from chaff (17), the worthwhile from the worthless.

Herod puts him in prison for it and beheads him. Herod’s taking the head of John the Baptist symbolizes worldly power (Satan) eliminating the faculty of reason, intellect, mind. Arendt concluded that thought cannot overcome evil, and John’s execution by Herod represents the same idea in a symbolic narrative.

Jesus, like John, will be executed by the world, with its love for power and glory that is Satan’s to give. But unlike John, Jesus will overcome the power of death that Satan holds, for Jesus is “mightier” than John, as John informs those who receive his baptism (Mt. 3:11). Following John’s execution, Jesus takes up the ministry where John left off, echoing his very words: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”(4:17). Jesus, however, has undergone the wilderness temptation by Satan and, in keeping the word of the Father, has become established in right relationship with Him. Therefore he, unlike John, is empowered to overcome the world, Satan, and death.

When Arendt claims that human thought cannot overcome evil, she is in accord with Scriptures, for John and the baptism of repentance that he ministers could not overcome evil. Both thought and repentance are the purview of human beings. Though it is exceedingly important that we undertake this preparation of critical thought (that is, thinking differently, independently), thought itself is not sufficient: it is not the Way. Evil frustrates thought, as Arendt observed. Herod, symbol of the worldly power of Satan, kills John, the symbol of independent, righteous thought. A brief look at one of Satan’s temptations shows how futile thought is when attempting to understand or overcome evil.

Satan’s first temptation aimed at Jesus in the fourth chapter of Matthew employs a conditional if/then statement: “If thou be the Son of God, [then] command that these stones be made bread.” If/then statements are often used in arguments and show a causal relationship between two ideas: the form is a tool for determining truth or falsehood. Satan instead uses the if/then statement to obscure truth: he implies Jesus’s Sonship is conditional upon his successfully turning stone into bread. Additionally, when Satan says to Jesus “command these stones be made bread,” he is issuing a command. For when Satan adjures a person to command, who actually commands: the person or Satan? The command is Satan’s, and thus the person who follows Satan’s command is subservient to him and is not, himself, in command. More, much more, could be said of the devil’s tactics in this passage: how he would diminish and destroy; tempt Jesus to use his Sonship in service to self rather than God; how he would have Jesus to do away with himself, using Scripture as an authority to subvert. The confusion is rampant, and reason is frustrated and exhausted by attempting to untangle the lies of the devil, the father of lies (Jn. 8:44).

The love of power and glory that entails willfully engaging in confusion and deceit is evil. When deceit and power are preferred to clarity and truth–darkness preferred to light–condemnation follows; humanity is lost. As human beings we are called to love and strive for truth and understanding. Our love of truth that we can manifest in thoughtful exercise of reason and conscience (that is, in the different thinking called for by John the Baptist’s call to repentance) is the necessary preparation to receive Christ, the truth. In his essay, “Friends and the Truth,” Lewis Benson affirms early Friends’ devotion to truth.

For early Friends truth was the ultimate value. George Fox says, “prize the truth above all things” and “love the truth more than all” and in an Epistle to Friends he writes, “Let the weight and preciousness of truth be in your eye, and esteemed above all things by you.” Truth is that which we are to love and prize and esteem above everything else. The truth, says Fox,” is that that is stronger than all” and “do not think that anything will outlast the truth.”

The term “truth” of which Fox spoke in such glowing superlatives has now disappeared from the Quaker vocabulary. How did this conception come to occupy the central place in Fox’s thought and what meaning did it hold for him? Fox’s conception of truth is grounded upon his belief that the life of man is determined by his relationship to his creator. He believed that the creator speaks to man calling for right action and for a community that lives under his rule. By listening to God and obeying his word man fulfills the basic law of his being. This basic conversational relationship between man and his creator is what Fox means by truth. Truth does not consist of particular propositions or a system of propositions. It is rather a dialogic relationship with God. When this dialogic relationship is broken, man ceases to fulfill the purpose and destiny that God intended for him. This is the fall of man–the failure to hear and obey the creator. This is what Fox calls “the fall from the truth” and to his opponents he declares: “To the witness of God in you all, I speak; that you may see your fall from the truth, out of the prophets’ life, Christ’s life, and the apostles’ life; so you are out of the commands, and fallen from God…” Truth is experienced as the voice of the creator whose word must be obeyed, and so it is natural for Fox to speak of hearing truth’s voice and obeying the truth. Truth comes by obedience in righteousness and therefore the wisdom of “Friends in the Truth” is not the wisdom of the wise but the wisdom of the just.

 We’re here today because we’ve gone through these trials; we’ve been tempted countless times to love something more than truth, and for the love of it, we’ve chosen truth instead, though our choice entails baptism into Christ’s death, the world’s brief triumph. We know that the eternal triumph, the resurrection to new life, follows the inward dying to the self. In that triumphant inward resurrection, we know not only rightness but the joy and the peace of having received Christ, the life, of having received the power to become sons of God. When we have known Christ, the life, we are powerfully drawn to get the relationship with God right, to seek it with our whole heart. In the fourth chapters of Matthew and Luke, we see the elements of right relationship with God revealed by Jesus, who was led by the holy spirit into the wilderness, there to be tempted by the devil. Each of the three responses that Jesus gives holds one key element to that divine relationship that enables the human to surmount the core threat the devil poses: that is to say, the threat of separation from God, the loss of dialogic relationship.

Though appearing in different sequences, Satan’s three temptations are the same in both the Matthew and Luke stories. Jesus’s first response in each version describes what the human receives from God; in Matthew, the second response defines how the human is to enact his obligation to God; and the third response, what is his duty to God. (In Luke, the order is reversed for the second and third.) It is important for Jesus to affirm his understanding and partaking of the divine relationship prior to the start of his ministry, for he (as was John and every other prophet) is assaulted by the same power of Satan again and again during his work. The prophet’s understanding and its source must be realized and available before he begins; that is his anointing to preach the gospel.

Jesus answers Satan’s first challenge in the following statement:

It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Mt. 4:4).

Jesus implies that Man is a spiritual being who cannot survive apart from the Spirit. Human sustenance is spiritual, the Word of God, not stones or bread, which are earthly. As human beings, Jesus says, we live “by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.” Satan intends to famish the human spirit by severing it from the provider of its true sustenance. Jesus rebuffs the temptation and articulates right understanding of what constitutes human life and what sustains it.

In the second temptation in Matthew, Satan suggests to Jesus that he cast himself down from the pinnacle of the temple; that if he believes the Scriptures, he should expect angels to prevent him from coming to harm. Jesus responds with these words:

It is written again, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord Thy God (7).

Right relationship to God is again the issue in the second temptation. For man to assume that he knows what constitutes right action apart from God’s command is usurpation. The devil tempts Jesus to take the initiative and to expect God to follow along. Conventional piety, ideals, speculation, doctrine are all typical ways man displaces the righteous hearing/obeying relationship with God. God is not tempted to follow along behind man’s doctrines, principles, piety, and ideals to ensure that nothing goes amiss in man’s determination to realize his ideations. No, ideals are no substitute for a hearing obedience to God; nothing humanly contrived is acceptable. The pious person falls into vanity when he fails to believe and accept Christ’s admonition, “Without me you can do nothing” (Jn.15:5b). Piety is a self-deception that one’s own mind is an adequate substitute for God.

Although a man may take up and perform, something which is called religious, and some carnal outward ordinances, and pray in words, and read and talk of the Scriptures, and in that find contentment for himself for a time; yet the witness of God’s Holy Spirit shows him his hypocrisy, and that he seeks a cover to shelter himself under in his disobedience, in order to be at ease in the flesh; which is all in vain for there is no peace within; but the measure of God’s Spirit still shows him that he serves sin and follows his own will, and in this will brings forth a worship which is only will worship, (worship from the carnal mind of man, instead of the Spirit of God). Francis Howgill

The third temptation that Jesus undergoes sums up the matter of right relationship with God in one defining statement:

Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve (10).

Satan would entice by promising power and glory in exchange for subservience and worship. This is the stark choice: man worships God, or he worships the devil in his desire for worldly power and glory. The human obligation, states Jesus, is to worship and serve God only. This third and final response completes the description of right relationship between God and the Son of God.

From the start of our movement, Quakers held that we are to look inward while reading the Scriptures to find the truth of them in ourselves. We know that this Scripture passage of temptation in the wilderness refers not to Jesus alone but reveals the threat directed at our humanity to become less than human. We all regularly undergo this trial: to engage in deceit in exchange for power; our life depends upon our loving, prizing, and esteeming truth above worldly power and glory. The world will not love us for our choice, for we are not of it. Nevertheless, we can do no other than look to God, as Jesus did when tempted by the devil. For overcoming the world, death, and the devil can be done only through the power of God. Reason is insufficient to fathom or defeat evil. It is God’s Word that sustains us in Life when we are tempted to confusion or deceit, and this is the substance of Jesus’s retorts and example in the Scripture passage we examined. We receive sustaining life from God alone; we are not to usurp God’s position of command by substituting our own human will; and we owe God our worship and service. We thank God that we have this passage to remind us of our rightful place and, more so, that we have the light within to guide us. The early Friends knew the strength of the enemy and heralded the only power great enough to overcome it. Christ’s Light, wrote George Fox, is “the only antidote to overcome and expel the Poison of Satan’s greatest Temptations”(The Works of George Fox. 4:303).

So if you mind the light, and in it stand, you will see the Lord giving issue, whereby you will find deliverance standing in the light, which comes from the word, which is a fire, and a hammer, and a sword, which beats down that which is contrary to the truth, divides and burns up, but keeping the word, the temptations will not come nigh, but the word of reconciliation be witnessed, and the word of faith which makes clean, and purifies, and sanctifies; where the old garment is put off, and the knowledge in the flesh denied, and the knowing in the life, in the spirit, where nothing comes to reign but life and power, where all is overturned, and with the power of the Lord comprehended, the dread and life of the living God, to whom be all honour and glory for ever.  

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

BROUGHT INTO THE FAITH

As a child growing up in a Protestant community in Iowa, I received instruction in the Christian tradition, which included memorization of a few Bible verses. The one that was emphasized above all the others was John 3: 16.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

As children we accepted this without question—as young children do—assenting to all our elders claimed was true. The assertion at the beginning of that statement is a comforting thought: God loves the world. The Creator loves his creation and all his children. This is the elementary religious doctrine that we were given.

While still a child I received yet another introduction to truth, this time distinguishable from the institutions of church and family. Though this introduction was not clothed in religious language or ideas, it was intrinsically “religious,” as it was full of wonder and arose following a question from my father about ethics.  At the time it occurred and for decades after, I did not realize its pertinence to the life of the spirit. Many years passed before I came to understand that at a particular moment in time there had been an opening, and the boundaries of mundane life had momentarily disappeared from view. So, having relayed the benevolent doctrinal introduction, I’ll now speak of the experiential.

At the age of seven or eight, I played the card game Solitaire for hours on end. It pleased me to move the many cards about according to rules, rules that allowed the game to progress steadily toward a conclusion, which was orderly and complete. I didn’t always win, however; in fact, winning was a rarity. So, this idea came to me: when all the cards had been played, and I could go no further in a particular game, I would take the liberty of turning over one card that shouldn’t have been turned over. This I called “cheating.” A good game would involve cheating only a few times; whereas in a bad game I would cheat many times.

One day, after a very good game, I ran to my father and said, “I won at Solitaire, and I only had to cheat once!” Smiling down at me with twinkling irony, he asked, “When you cheat at Solitaire, you know who you’re cheating, don’t you?” That question in some wonderful and mysterious way precipitated the opening of an expansive reality, which left that moment in time imprinted deeply on my memory, beyond what the event itself would suggest.

These memories from my childhood refer to distinct kinds of preliminary exposure to truth: first, to institutional doctrines set in religious language and tradition – to which many of us have been exposed and have accepted as children, and second – to an inward encounter.

There were no further openings in my childhood, and several years later, I entered adolescence. As my childish things were put away, my spirit, for no apparent reason, began steadily sinking into heavy despair, which is not unusual for teenagers. I was in the world but not of it, nor yet of any other place. I felt closed off from life, entombed and spiritually dead. For the next two decades, life seemed to me to be one long-running futility. There I was: still breathing, eating, and moving about more or less, absurdly alive and healthy in body, meeting responsibilities, getting on with life, and yet, without real meaning or purpose. Something was missing from my life, and I would have felt cheated, had I believed that there was any game, order, or rules in life that had been violated. It was a dark, depressing, frustrating, irritating, enraging and deadening time. There was an unbreachable gap between the orthodox assertion we had been given as children, that God loved the world, that He was in heaven and all was right; a gap between this idyllic claim and my undeniable experience of living death and despair.

Throughout this dark time I had no idea that I was in the throes of a regular spiritual process, another kind of game if you will, a game with rules and a goal. Though I did not know it, I was learning this new game, this new and living way. In this game, neither I, nor my family, nor any institution was to be the arbiter, and only through seeing and “feeling the futility of all former and other ways,” was I to be readied to receive this new way of faith.

The new way that I was yet to find was this: as a person I would receive the life and power that the Creator gives, only after having painfully learned and accepted that I was not the source and center of my life, not the Creator, but a creature. The creature, the person was to receive Life, receive Wisdom, receive Love, Peace, Righteousness, to receive Grace and Truth. I was not creatively to cobble together some reasonable, passable facsimile of these virtues. Inevitably it comes to one’s attention that one’s fine construction has missed the mark, fallen short, or fallen apart when subjected to the challenges and stresses of stormy reality, like a house built upon the sand (Mt. 7:26).

I had assumed that I could adequately construct my life on principles and values that I had chosen; “good” principles they were, “Quaker” values. The existential anguish and loneliness that accompanied my aim to generate some personal dignity were symptoms that haunted me, as they have haunted many who have lodged captive in this darkened state.

Though I didn’t know it through those long years, the end goal of this process was to become an established and mature human being, to have “life and immortality brought to light” (Journal, 16) and become visible and knowable within. I was waiting in darkness, neither seeing nor claiming to see. Unlike in the game of Solitaire at age eight, the essential rules of the “game” were kept, the rules which are written in the soul: don’t renege on what you see; don’t make claims to see when you don’t; be attentive and truthful with yourself about your inward state.

George Fox speaks of this most trying time in his Journal, both in describing his own inward transformation and similarly, in the transformation his ministry was to precipitate in others: I was to bring people off from all their own ways to Christ, the new and living way (Journal, 35). The law to which he refers in the following passage could be paraphrased: don’t put your trust in human discernment; it’s an inadequate substitute for Christ, the wisdom of God:

I saw this law was the pure love of God which was upon me, and which I must go through, though I was troubled while I was under it; for I could not be dead to the law but through the law which did judge and condemn that which is to be condemned. I saw many talked of the law, who had never known the law to be their schoolmaster; and many talked of the Gospel of Christ, who had never known life and immortality brought to light in them by it. You that have been under that schoolmaster, and the condemnation of it, know these things; for though the Lord in that day opened these things unto me in secret, they have since been published by his eternal spirit, as on a house-top. And as you are brought into the law, and through the law to be dead to it, and witness the righteousness of the law fulfilled in you, ye will afterwards come to know what it is to be brought into the faith, and through faith from under the law. And abiding in the faith which Christ is the author of, ye will have peace and access to God (Journal, 16).

Let me draw your attention to Fox’s initial statement: “I saw this law was the pure love of God…which I must go through, though I was troubled while I was under it.” Though this law is the pure love of God, it is troubling “to the selfish, fleshly, earthly will which reigns in its own knowledge and understanding” (Journal, 17). To us in our natural, earthly-minded state, God’s law does not seem like love, but instead a tormenting judgment. Rather than bear this dark, troubling time, facing the emptiness of one’s own knowledge and understanding, rather than bear this, many choose an easier route and excuse themselves from humbly waiting in darkness, preferring instead to make claims for themselves and for their understanding. Fox found those who made these false claims particularly hard to bear:

I had a sense and discerning given me by the Lord, through which I saw plainly that when many people talked of God and of Christ, etc., the Serpent spoke in them; but this was hard to be borne (Journal, 20-21).

Of course, then as now, such falseness is not solely the habit of those who speak deceitfully of inward familiarity with Christ. Deceit is a universal phenomenon, not confined to any particular time or place. And so is the truth (the way and the life) that frees us from it (Jn. 8:32; 14:6).

If we are eventually to know that perfect freedom in spirit and in truth, we must begin where we are to honor the truth, even though our knowledge is riddled and imperfect. No force can compel us to honor truth, if we are otherwise disposed. Yet, prophets, who have seen what is at stake, have urged us to do so, warning against the counterfeiting of perception:

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter (Isa. 5:20)!

It is an intentionally wicked or carelessly slothful distortion that Isaiah warns against. Yet, one doesn’t live long in the world before discovering that obscuring the truth is routine fare: “they hate the truth for the sake of whatever it is they love instead of truth” (Augustine, 233).

It is here that one must question oneself: When you hate and obscure the truth from yourself, you know whom you’re cheating, don’t you?

And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil (Jn. 3:19).

To refuse to see, is to forego the gift God has prepared for each of us. Unless we acknowledge and act upon the guidance that we each are given through our individual consciences, we will fare as the wicked and slothful servant in Matthew 25, seeing the one talent that has been given taken away and given to another who has ten.

Early Friends found that the doctrines of our tradition can be seamlessly integrated with mature, inward experience. This inward experience followed hard upon the shaking and demise of their own ways, their own thoughts; so that those things which could not be shaken might remain (He. 12:27). Peace and access to God is possible, Fox and other early Friends affirmed. They preached this gospel, as on the house-top, that others too, might see and hear what had been hidden and obscured, as it once had been obscured to themselves. The first work of Friends was (and still is) to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised (Lk. 4:18). Yes, the Word does convict each and every one, and it will be a troubling time initially for those who patiently wait, honoring the truth. But he that shall endure to the end, the same shall be saved (Mk. 13:13b).

That God loves the world, we heard as children; that God loves the world, we now know, for we have felt that love and not simply inferred it. Not only do we know God’s love, but also peace, righteousness, and wisdom, all received from God, clearly not by our own best efforts, but received from God whose thoughts and ways are higher than our thoughts and ways (Isa. 55:9).

Therefore, all wait patiently upon the Lord, whatsoever condition you be in; wait in the grace and truth that comes by Jesus; for if ye so do, there is a promise to you, and the Lord God will fulfil it in you. And blessed are all they indeed that do hunger and thirst after righteousness; they shall be satisfied with it. I have found it so, praised be the Lord who filleth with it, and satisfieth the desires of the hungry soul (Journal, 13).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Partaking of the Sufferings

And our hope of you is steadfast knowing, that as ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation (2 Cor. 1:7).

In a world that is ever plagued by deceit and cruelty, suffering seems unavoidable. Yet Paul in this verse implies that suffering is optional: one may choose to partake of the sufferings or refuse to partake; one may accept or reject suffering. How is it possible to refuse to suffer when loss, injury, abuse, and death come to everyone? Not only does Paul advocate partaking of the sufferings, he makes being “of the consolation” contingent upon it. Assuming Paul is correct that salvation follows a partaking of suffering and this partaking is not automatic but must be chosen, the meaning of the phrase “partakers of the sufferings” is worth looking into.

A feeling of diminishment, whether from loss or the fear of loss, comes into every life, and we are free to respond in any number of ways. Paul advocates for a particular handling of these feelings, in such a way that we are prepared to receive the consolation of Christ, and he also implies that a contrary approach does not lead to receiving Christ. Examples of each will illustrate the difference between the two, and so, I will present the approach of first-generation Friends by looking at some passages from George Fox’s Journal that document his early years. Before doing so, however, I’ll present a diametrically opposed approach to that of the first Friends. This contrasting ethos is embodied in Roman Carnival revelers of the nineteenth century. Though these two approaches differ, the challenge that each group faced was the same, and is, in fact, universal.

It was once a custom among the inhabitants of Rome to celebrate Carnival in the time before Lent. The word “Carnival” is drawn from its Latin root carnem levare and means “remove the meat.” The Latin root has also given us the word “carnal,” which is used in Scripture to signify that which is not spiritual; “fleshly” and “worldly” being synonyms. The distinction is made clear by early Friend Edward Burrough in the following passage in which he refers to Paul’s use of the word “carnal”:

If they be not carnal, then they are spiritual…things seen…are temporal and carnal;   and what is temporal is not eternal, nor spirit. The apostle speaks of “carnal        weapons,” 2 Cor. 10:4, and “carnal ordinances,” Heb. 9:10 (Works, 3:78).

Carnival was a time of self-indulgent and thoughtless behavior, a time of personal display, extravagance, masquerades, contests, and parties. On the final night of Carnival, Romans crowded into the main thoroughfare of their city to play a game called “Moccoletti” in which each celebrant lit and carried a candle. The goal of Moccoletti was to extinguish another’s flame while keeping one’s own burning. Any ploy, subterfuge, or fraud was to be expected in this contest, as there were no rules. Charles Dickens in Pictures from Italy describes the scene:

Then everybody present has but one engrossing object, that is, to extinguish other people’s candles and to keep his own alight; and everybody: man, woman, or           child, gentleman or lady, prince or peasant, native or foreigner yells and screams,    and roars incessantly, as a taunt to the subdued, “Senza Moccolo, Senza Moccolo!” (Without a light! Without a light!) until nothing is heard but a gigantic chorus of those two words, mingled with peals of laughter.

At midnight with the ringing of church bells throughout the city, Moccoletti was over; Carnival was finished and Lent began. At that moment, the highest contrast in behavior could be observed: the frenzy of Moccoletti vanished into the somber season of Lent. Dickens describes the abrupt changeover in this way:

When in the wildest enthusiasm of the cry, and fullest ecstasy of the sport, the Ave Maria rings from the church steeples, and the Carnival is over in an instant—put out like a taper with a breath!

Since first learning many years ago of this Roman Carnival practice, I have thought of it as a metaphor for the spiritually darkened, routine happenings in our world that result from a prevailing “carnal” or worldly approach to being alive; and conversely, Lent, which immediately follows Carnival, as its antithesis. Lent occurs in the 40 days preceding Easter and is a time of socially enforced asceticism, in which participants refrain from self-indulgence, reflect upon their misdeeds, and thus come to feel a heightened sense of personal emptiness, absence, and need. It is a time of penitence, of thoughtful self-scrutiny. That the two seasons of Carnival and Lent abut is no accident; the stark difference between their respective worldviews is accentuated by their proximity: the natural, mundane life followed by a disciplined restraint that would prepare for some new and better way of life, a way yet unknown to either the carnal-minded or the ascetic.

Two centuries before Dickens wrote about the Roman Carnival, the seventeenth-century men and women that would bring forth the Quaker movement had been engaged in something like a Lenten practice. George Fox and others subjected themselves to rigorous self-examination that was, in fact, the awareness the Lenten discipline was intended to evoke. That Friends opted to undergo this self-scrutiny in the absence of any cultural prod vouches for their having been guided not by a culturally religious prescription but by “the light of [their] nature,” as Paul describes some Gentiles in the book of Romans. They were

their own law, for they display[ed] the effect of the law inscribed on their hearts. Their conscience [was] called as witness, and their own thoughts argue[d] the case on either side, against them or even for them, on the day when God judges the secrets of human hearts through Christ Jesus (Rom. 2:14-16 NEB).

Both the Gentiles that Paul refers to in these verses and the early Quakers subjected themselves to the dictate of the pure law of God:

the light in the conscience before faith. And the law is the light and the      schoolmaster until faith…men have this light before they believe in it, and are         children….then afterwards [to] believe in it; and with it they see the author of their       faith, Christ Jesus, from whom it comes” (Works, 3:68).

This standard of righteousness (the law, the light in the conscience, the schoolmaster) when attended to and learned from does ensure that all that must happen, will happen:

Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete. I tell you this: so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a stroke, will disappear from the Law until all that must happen has happened (Mt. 5:17-18 NEB).

In the first few pages of George Fox’s Journal, we learn of his attention to righteous behavior. Before he had received faith from Christ, he diligently attended to the light in his conscience, the schoolmaster. He speaks of his early memories of feeling offended at seeing “old men carry themselves lightly and wantonly towards each other” (Nickalls, 1) and of his aversion to “foul ways and devouring the creation”:

But people being strangers to the covenant of life with God, they eat and drink to         make themselves wanton with the creatures, devouring them upon their own lusts,     and living in all filthiness, loving foul ways and devouring the creation; and all           this in the world, in the pollutions thereof, without God; and therefore I was to             shun all such (2).

Unlike the Roman populace, Fox felt repulsed by self-indulgent, corrupt behavior, and instead was drawn to behaving in a way that is in “unity with the creation.” Those who attended to the light in their consciences were, says Paul, “their own law.” Within themselves, there would be an honest struggle to discover and live by what was right, even if it required inner conflict: “their own thoughts argue the case on either side against or even for them.” Fox engaged in such conscientious self-questioning and argument, as here is shown:

And I wondered why these things should come to me….Then I thought, because I         had forsaken my relations I had done amiss against them; so I was brought to call      to mind all my time that I had spent and to consider whether I had wronged any….I was about twenty years of age when these exercises came upon me, and some years I continued in that condition, in great trouble; and fain I would have put it from me (Nickalls, 4).

He “would have put it from [him]” because his self-questioning was troublesome, painful to the point of despair. Yet he willingly endured this painful uncertainty about himself; he willingly partook of these sufferings, because he could accept no false solution or relief from them: no provisional cultural, social, intellectually speculative, or theological answer could suffice for him: he honored the truth and endured the cost. Neither able to deny his inner reality nor to anticipate any resolution, Fox simply partook of the suffering: “I cannot declare the misery I was in, it was so great and heavy upon me”(10). Unlike most, he endured this severe tension without resorting to hypocrisy, aggression, legalism, conformity, or dissipation. He partook of the suffering that accompanies knowing oneself to be in existential need with no real solution in sight: in truth, he felt and saw himself as he was—without God.

Fox’s misery departed after he had been given faith, immediate knowledge of God and Jesus Christ whom He had sent. At ease in God’s love, Fox could now view himself with equanimity:

Then the Lord gently led me along, and let me see his love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can       get by history or books. That love let me see myself, as I was without him; and I  was afraid of all company: for I saw them perfectly, where they were, through the love of God which let  me see myself (Works I: 74) [emphasis mine].

Receiving faith through hearing Christ, the Word of God, was the life-changing event for Fox, and so it is for everyone who follows the same excruciating path of partaking of sufferings. Receiving faith ends the old, worldly order of misery as well as the moral evil that arises from humanity’s determination to muffle and quell the fear of weakness and self-diminishment, the fear of death.

Emil Brunner in The Christian Doctrine of Church, Faith, and the Consummation outlines the inevitable progression from fear of death to wickedness:

Between death and moral evil there is from the standpoint of experience a scarcely comprehensible, but none the less real, relation. Moral evil, in so far as it is not pure defiance but also weakness, is rooted in anxiety, and this anxiety is in the last resort always the fear of death. All insatiable hunger for power, all the cruelty of tyrants, all the timidity of the narrow-minded–what are they but attempts to find security from an unknown threat? Our wickedness–human wickedness–is not so much…a defiant “no” to the Creator’s will as the expression of a latent panic in the face of coming death. Fear of death is the secret cause of moral evil, as death itself is moral evil’s manifest result: “the wages of sin” (437).

Glancing backward to the Roman revelers, we see the crowd pressing each person into keeping a vigilant eye focused outward: One’s stealthy neighbor might put out one’s flame! How humiliating and diminishing that would be! Like a symbolic death! Better to put out another’s flame first! thinks each anxiety-filled reveler.

What abundant conflict is entailed in this routine aggressive/defensive behavior! And what diversion! The conflict–playful here but serious in society, and deadly serious among ethnically diverse societies–keeps people busy and avoiding the hard work of looking within, and each seeing himself as he is. One might occupy oneself indefinitely brandishing and thwarting power for term of life! One might never move beyond this state of sin in which fear of death, and thus death itself has its reign.

If in place of the lit candle of Roman Moccoletti, we substitute rights, property, status, influence, opportunity, dignity, or physical life itself, the senseless conflict in the world arising from fraud, abuse, violence, and war is seen for what it fundamentally is: an outward distraction that enables and promotes the refusal to suffer honest self-scrutiny that is, in truth, the obligation of each human being to undergo. For it is undergoing self-scrutiny that a person prepares himself to receive God’s gift of grace and life.

Fearful defense of  natural assets is just as surely an outward diversion as is the aggressive acquiring of them; therefore are we told: “If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well” (Mt. 5:40). All the aggression and defensiveness  denies and masks the naked truth that we each in our human nature are not complete, not whole, not absolute, not total, not immortal. Shameful as that feels, we need to partake of that knowledge: the revealing of the self that does not know God, and instead lawlessly attempts to usurp His place by claiming our natural being is whole, absolute, independent, autonomous, and in charge.

The problem for the person of sin is a lawless, false self-projection arising from a terror of truth that can be revealed at any moment. In the day of visitation, however, all is revealed:

for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and lawless one is           revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above           every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of         God, declaring himself to be God (2 Thess. 2: 3b-4).

Though it’s not always Carnival season in the mid-1800s, the carnal mind sets itself in the aggressive/defensive posture that is found in the Carnival game, often without an awareness of having done so. For example, many Quakers presume their calling to be working to eliminate social ills that beleaguer our world, and accordingly have focused their attention outward to extend or defend contemporary Quaker values that are referred to as the testimonies. A rationale of improving social conditions through championing causes provides ample assignment to occupy time and consciousness, and substitutes human aspiration to virtue over knowledge of and hearing/obeying response to God.

Neither entertaining diversion nor a focus on social justice work honors or manifests the faith found by Fox and other early Quakers who braved examining their souls in the light of the standard of truth, the divine law. Instead, people refuse to endure the inward scrutiny that reveals the failure of usurped autonomy. Again from The Christian Doctrine of Church, Faith, and the Consummation, Brunner shows the correlation of this false claim to independence and a life given over to death:

When man as a sinner denies his dependence on God and turns it into         independence, he is severed from God, the original source of all life; his guilt   stands between the living God and himself as he actually is. Thus the creature destroys the root of its own life, its fellowship with God. But man is unable utterly to destroy the relation to God which was established by God the Creator. He remains bound to God, but now instead of living in the love of God, he is under God’s wrath….The shadow of judgment lies upon his whole life and makes it a life in darkness, in exile. This life in its totality is in fact a “being unto death.”

William Stringfellow in his An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land identifies all nations, all institutions as embodying a demonic idolatry of death. He argues that a fear and worship of death is the attempt to furnish meaning but results in social chaos in many forms: racism, ecological corruption, misogyny, conformity, violence, etc. This situation can’t be eradicated, he claims, but he does offer guidance on how to live humanly in the midst of it: resistance to the power of death and a “biblical style of life.” The following excerpt from Stringfellow on resisting the power of death would certainly have been agreed to by Fox:

In the face of death, live humanly. In the middle of chaos, celebrate the Word.      Amidst babel, I repeat, speak the truth. Confront the noise and verbiage and            falsehood of death with the truth and potency and efficacy of the Word of God.             Know the Word, teach the Word, nurture the Word, preach the Word, defend the       Word, incarnate the Word, do the Word, live the Word. And more than that, in the         Word of God, expose death and all death’s works and wiles, rebuke lies, cast out   demons, exorcise, cleanse the possessed, raise those who are dead in mind and            conscience.

It is through a humble willingness to endure the truth of ourselves, even unto the brokenness that is typified by death on the Cross, that we become prepared. This partaking of the sufferings, we discover, is followed by the Lord’s coming to dwell with us, a resurrection to unforeseen, abundant life. No longer do we depend on the powers of nature to vivify and secure ourselves; no longer do we fear the loss of our natural powers, for, as the prophet Isaiah proclaims, the Lord shall be our everlasting light, and the days of mourning shall be ended.

The sun shall no longer be your light by day,

nor the moon shine on you when evening falls;

the Lord shall be your everlasting light,

your God shall be your glory.

Never again shall your sun set

nor your moon withdraw her light;

but the Lord shall be your everlasting light

and the days of your mourning shall be ended. (Isa. 60:19-20)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

As I Have Loved You

Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you. A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another. Simon Peter said unto him, Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered him, Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow me afterwards. Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake. Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice (Jn. 13:33b–38 KJV).

The words “as I have loved you” stand out when I read this passage. They qualify the meaning of the new commandment that Jesus has given to his disciples: to love one another. Adding “as I have loved you” make this commandment different from the love that is naturally known in every human heart: love for kith and kin; love for those we admire; or love for those who provide for, participate with, or in any way please us. The words “as I have loved you” bring a new, different meaning to the word “love,” and we can no longer let those feelings that we formerly called “love” occupy the prime position in our hearts. For what Jesus commands is not a human but a divine love, what Paul describes as the “love that has flooded our inmost heart through the Holy Spirit he [God] has given us (Rom.5:5).

The contrast between the newly commanded love and the old human love is illustrated by Peter who expresses the human love that comes so naturally to us. Frequently in Scripture stories, Peter is the all-too-human foil for the divine man Jesus. In this passage, Peter first reveals his lack of understanding: Where is Jesus going? Why can’t he follow Jesus now? Then quick-on-the-heels comes Peter’s avowal to the one he loves and admires: “I will lay down my life for thy sake.” Immediately Jesus puts this natural, deeply felt but ungrounded, human love in its rightful place: “The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.” Unlike the divine love that Jesus commands, the natural, human love is weak: contingent upon the needs, desires, powers, and fears of our human nature. Jesus commands us to love in a different way, a way which the natural human cannot grasp, cannot follow (33, 36), and so Jesus prepares the place for us (14:2–3).

The divine love that Jesus commands entails self-sacrifice, as does the love with which we’re all familiar: our security or comfort gladly forfeited for the loved one’s benefit. Peter’s claim that he would lay down his life for Jesus’s sake shows his willingness to sacrifice. Relying upon his own will, however, to carry through the sacrifice was Peter’s error: human motivation rather than adherence to the divine law of love that Jesus commands. Peter’s self-reliance on his own will and sentiment is, in fact, a form of self-exaltation, ironically dooming his intent from the outset: rather than sacrificing himself, he exalts himself believing in the strength of his feelings; he places faith in human power. When the cock crew, his crowing self-exaltation fell, along with his bitter tears (Mt. 26:75). Peter typifies each of us when we put our faith in our own power to love others as he loved us.

When Jesus commands his disciples to love one another as he has loved them, it is a command to know God, for it is only in knowing God that we are in unity with him and his love. Our ability to love depends first on knowing God, a dependence that can be seen in the answer given by Jesus when asked by a scribe for the first commandment:

The first of all the commandments is, HEAR, O ISRAEL; THE LORD OUR GOD IS ONE LORD: AND THOU SHALT LOVE THE LORD THY GOD WITH ALL THY HEART, AND WITH ALL THY SOUL, AND WITH ALL THY MIND, AND WITH ALL THY STRENGTH: this is the first commandment. And the second is like, namely this, THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOR AS THYSELF (Mk. 12:29-31a).

“The second is like” the first commandment in that both are enacted by the power of God; in his image and likeness we feel and partake of his love for neighbor and for all, ourselves included.

The power of God’s love is unchanging and not contingent upon the nature or behavior of the recipient. Unlike human love, no fear or resentment can impose upon or diminish it. In unity with God, as was Jesus, we too can love others free of the fear that giving our love will result in our loss or destruction.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, THOU SHALT LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that persecute you; That ye may be children of your Father which is in heaven; for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust (Mt. 5: 43–45).

In knowing God and his love, we feel no such fear of loss from an enemy; our loss has already occurred and is swallowed up in abundant life.

When Jesus informs the disciples that he will prepare a place for them that they may follow him, he is speaking of the cross. In undergoing the cross, Jesus affirms that obedience to God, though entailing loss or even death, is preferable to all gratification gained through willful aspiration or enjoyed apart from God. In sacrificing himself on the cross in obedience to God’s will, Jesus prepares a place for us: he shows the destruction of that which we call most inherent in human nature (knowledge from self) must precede the new heavenly being (wisdom) that will follow.

The new being, Christ, finds more happiness in knowing and obeying God than Adamic man gains through willfulness—or conforming to the will of the group, be it culture, folk,  tribe, or congregation. The abundant joy in knowing God supersedes any sense of well-being known previously, all of which can be cast aside as no longer worthy of our desire. The completion we sought and pursued with such eager determination is now Given. That gift of faith is peerless as the pearl of great price.

All ancient religions see love as essential for happiness; only in Christianity does love become more than a virtue; it becomes a law, a commandment, which Jesus acknowledges, we cannot follow. It is the example that he has set for us that alerts us of something new, prepared, and waiting for us to come into: the knowledge of God and of his love.

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love (1 Jn. 4:7–8).

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment