Humbled by Chickens; Some Thoughts on Eary Friends

The garden has been planted, finally, with cool weather vegetables: carrots, peas, lettuce, kale, spinach. I was quite proud of the neat rows, the lack of clods ( a miracle of manure and compost in our heavy clay) and the netting for the peas. The next morning, inevitably, the chickens discovered all that lovely tilth, and decided it was fine for scratching and catching earthworms and tiny bugs; or alternatively, for dust-baths. I've spent the last fews days chasing them off, all the while watching my nice orderly rows disappear under under chicken footprints.

I am certain there is a message in this.

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Some thoughts on early Friends. There are a few things that stand out. First of all, how profoundly threatening was Quakerism was to the prevailing religious and societal mores of the 17th century England. In this we have to keep in mind that Fox preached in a pre-Enlightenment society, deeply hierachical and religious --- it is hardly possible to overstate this --- fuelled with the fires of Cromwell's Puritan revolution and the reaction after the Restoration: all the elements of liberal democracy as we understand it could hardly be conceived.

Fox and the others preached a radical doctrine: no bowing or scraping, no hat honour, universal peace, equality of women, refusing to swear oaths, plain speech, the Inner Light of continuing revelation: the core of Quaker testimonies. If you believed, as received opinion in the 17th century went, that God had appointed order in society from the King downwards, every person in their place, it was easy to see how subversive Quaker doctrine was: refusing to swear oaths in the royal courts, for example, was open defiance of the King's justice, and by extension, of the King himself; refusing to bare head or use the second person plural before those deemed superior attacked the natural order of the world. If you were a Puritan (or Anglican divine), the concept of the Inner Light smacked of blasphemy, being a wicked violation of the doctrine of sola scriptura on one hand or else received tradition and Act of Parliament in the form of the 39 Articles on the other.

Three things to consider:

1. Early Friends, in general, were not persecuted for holding heterodox beliefs about what we might consider "core" Christian doctrine; as has been tirelessly pointed out, most early Friends had rather conventional beliefs about the doctrine of trinity, vicarious atonement of sin and so on, even if they regarded any theorizing on these topics as being notional. But they were persecuted for directly attacking the basis of the 17th century church and state, and on matters that might be thought of as "peripheral" to core Christian doctrine, an indication, to my mind, of their importance. Even to us.

1. All of the conventions of 17th century religious and political thought --- a hierarchical, stratified society, the radical inequality of human beings, the subordinate place of women, war as a just means of enforcing state policy, slavery, the edifice and ritual of state religion, Puritan radicalism --- were justified by Scripture. Early Friends challenged those assumptions at great cost, ground between the upper and nether stones of Anglicanism and Puritanism, by radically reintrepreting Scripture in unconventional ways, to be consistent with a message of love, or guided by the Inner Light, tossing out bits of Scripture altogether as being inconsistent with their experience of God. Paul's injunction against women preaching went almost immediately, for example.

3. Quakers were not passive in being persecuted, and were willing to use the machinery and language of state to defend their beliefs: Consider trial of William Penn, which established the legal principle of jury nullification. When I read the account of Penn's trial I am often moved. His argument, to be sure was, religiously motivated: the ability to openly preach the message of Fox speaks to a deep understanding of the Inner Light; yet the language he speaks in the Old Bailey is one of law and jurisprudence, not religion: he appeals to the common law and the Great Charter, he demands his rights be respected. He draws a direct line from his religious experience to to the validation of his conscience by political right. It is the explication of the divine Voice in the public sphere.

All of which have little to do with the essentials of Christianity, transcendent. What does the doctrine of the Trinity care for the trifles of the common law? But has it everything to do with the essentials of Quakerism, God immanent or even Christ immanent?


Feeling Antsy; A Thought on the FUM

The frogs were back last night, peeping away after what seems to be an eternity of the most foul April weather in my memory. And during my walk yesterday along the railway I saw one quail (which flew away, and being a poor flier, promptly crashed into a sugar maple, a la Monty Python) ; an osprey lording over the Little Ouse River, looking for little silvery fish; a tom turkey and his harem of 5 hens. So I'm glad, but I have that spring restlessness now:

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring
The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly -- and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

Not very Quakerish, I guess, but spring does that to you: makes you giddy with delight in the thought of new grass, the smell of mud, the feel of earth in your hands. Spring is doing what Love demands after a winter of contemplation and reflection.

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I received a note today from an old friend today, one I haven't heard from for years, a Carmelite Tertiary with whom I shared an interest in Teresa de Avila. (A Friend said to me: "Aren't they all interested in Teresa de Avila?") Enclosed with the note was a pack of prayer cards and bits of Catholic inspirational wisdom on 4 x 5 inch pieces of paper, including one with the somewhat dubious remonstration that "Christ didn't come to take away pain and suffering in the world, but to lead us into salvation." My friend doesn't know I've jumped ship, as it were, from Roman Catholicism's luxury liner to a rickety old Quaker sailing craft, with a mutinous crew and a hull evidently leaking.

Honesty demands I reply to her; I started a letter, but it began to sound like a rather self-centred and condescending apologia than anything else, so I threw it away. And who am I to lecture a follower and devotee of Spanish mysticism about silence, the Inner Light and seeking the will of God?

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I've been writing a little and thinking a lot about the apparently imminent disassociation of the dually affiliated yearly meetings from the Friends United Meeting (including my own, the Canadian Yearly Meeting), a move the seems both inherently stupid --- because we all know that Friends will be left weaker afterwards and that we all need the leavening of our very different gifts --- yet inevitable, as the normative forms of worship and belief between the programmed and liberal unprogrammed branches widens into a chasm.

How curious that the issue of same sex marriage and the role of gay men and women within Friends will be the issue that breaks unity. Of all the theological and doctrinal points separating us, this seems to me be the most trivial: we could begin with some heavy-duty dispute, like the Richmond Declaration, if real meat was wanted. Or the role of continuing revelation. Or being led by the Inner Light without reference for Scripture.

I have been writing a longer post on the whole issue, which I may or may not post --- I might need to tone it down a little. But in the end, I keep coming back to this question (which might well be addressed to Anglicans and United Church members or anyone else): in a hundred years, which side of this debate will be seen as having the prophetic voice?

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As I finish writing this the sun has actually appeared. O glorious!


Random Notes

Last posted here 8/10/07. And already it's spring, or what's passing for spring in these parts: the weather is either cold and cloudy or cold and sunny or cold and snowing. My tomato seedlings froze in my greenhouse when a power failure cut off the tiny heater which keeps them above freezing. Spring --- real spring --- seems an eon away. On the other hand, the geese are laying eggs in odd corners of the farmyard and the dogs are feasting on them. Kingston, the eldest, can ferret them out like no other dog, and now he sleeps beside me as I write, belly bloated, contentedly farting goose egg farts, which (pardon the pun) are foul beyond belief.

My lack of posting had less to do with lack of time than lack of anything to say. Or rather, I've read what must be the equivilent of a graduate course in Quaker studies over the past winter and I'm still digesting what I've read: as they say, the more I read, the less I know.

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Last night, despite being cold was stunning for stargazing. I'm a bit of an astronomy geek, albeit a fairweather one: I don't like the cold, and my telescope stays firmly parked inside during the winter. Nevertheless, when I walked the dogs last night the sky was gorgeous, and I took a few minutes to look. The constellation Orion, the brightest in the sky, was just setting; it was ornamented on one side by Venus passing just above the Pleiades and other the other by Sirius: altogether a memorable sight.

I reflected that when George Fox was alive cosmology was an entirely different animal: Copernicus and his revolution were scarcely a hundred years past when Fox took up preaching. The universe, according to Copernicus, was heliocentric, limited in size and certainly comprehensible. Imagine the universe as a sphere or even a plane extending to the orbit of Saturn: until the early 19th century, that was all there was. It's easy to imagine God in this small universe being centrally concerned with the fate of humanity, with doctrines, and vicarious substitution of sin and all the rest: a small God concerned with small matters. Now we perceive the universe as nearly infinite in dimension, so vast in space and time it can only be expressed in terms of nearly esoteric mathematics. We are indeed very small, our concerns trivial.

But, as Carl Sagan said, that makes God very big.

There are some troubling questions about this, too large for me to answer. For example, why would God in an infinity of stars and planets, trouble about us in particular? If the end purpose of Creation is humanity, why would God bother to create this immense universe over such time?

Fundementalists have one answer, which reduces God to tinkering in something in size and time like the Copernican universe. Personally I prefer the wonder of an infinite God working in a nearly infinite universe in time scales beyond comprehension. And if you believe Fox's central insight, that God can be experienced directly by anyone, we should be flat with humility and awe.

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The spring peepers (before the freeze-up) appeared this year on 27/03/07. ( I heard a few brave frogs again last night.) Last year, they were first heard on 1/04/06. Generally they aren't heard in this part of Ontario before the second week of the Fourth Month.