19 April 2018

Games, sports, comedies...

About ten years ago I was talking with a Russian Orthodox believer who had grown up in a Russian Baptist family. Why had she left the Baptists and joined the Orthodox? "The Baptists were always in each other's business, judging and gossiping," she explained. "Orthodox Christians aren't afraid to have fun."

A few days ago I was working on edits for the Russian edition of Barclay in Brief, Eleanore Price Mather's masterful abridgment of Robert Barclay's Apology for the True Christian Divinity. We're near the end; I've finally reached the Fifteenth Proposition, for which the original unabridged English-language text is here: "Concerning Salutations and Recreations, &c." As I worked on the section entitled "Gaming" in Mather's abridgment, I couldn't help but remember my conversation with my Baptist-turned-Orthodox friend.

I also thought about the Baptist students I had the joy of teaching at the seminary in Moscow. Some of them are in my Facebook circles. I had the impression that many of them would score well on Barclay's list of suitable "recreations" in the list in the excerpt below, but they certainly seemed to know how to have fun.

As for most Quakers I know, Barclay's limits would probably strike them as very severe.

OK, so here is Mather's version of Barclay on recreation:

(Mather uses only Barclay's original words, but she makes no use of ellipses or other devices to show evidence of her surgery, even within sentences.)

Fourthly, let us consider the use of games, sports, comedies and other such things, commonly and indifferently used by all the several sorts of Christians under the notion of divertisement and recreation, and see whether these things can consist with the seriousness, gravity, and godly fear which the Gospel calls for.

There is no duty more frequently commanded, nor more incumbent upon Christians, than the fear of the Lord, to stand in awe before him, to walk as in his presence, but if such as use these games and sports will speak from their consciences, they can, I doubt not, experimentally declare, that this fear is forgotten in their gaming; and if God by his Light secretly touch them, or mind them of the vanity of their way, they strive to shut it out, and use their gaming as an engine to put away from them that troublesome guest.

But they object, that men's [sic] spirits could not subsist, if they were always intent upon serious and spiritual matters, and that therefore there is need of some divertisement to recreate the mind a little, whereby it, being refreshed, is able, with greater vigor to apply itself to these things.

I answer, though all this were granted, it would no ways militate against us, neither plead the use of these things, which we would have wholly laid aside. For that men should be always in the same intentiveness of mind we do not plead, knowing how impossible it is, so long as we are clothed with this tabernacle of clay. But this will not allow us at any time so to recede from the memory of God and of our souls' chief concern, as not still to retain a certain sense of his fear; which cannot be so much as rationally supposed to be in the use of these things which we condemn. Now the necessary occasions, which all are involved into, in order to the care and sustentation of the outward man, are a relaxation of the mind from the more serious duties; and those are performed in the blessing, as the mind is so leavened with the love of God and the sense of his presence, that even in doing these things, the soul carrieth with it that divine influence and spiritual habit, whereby, though these acts, as of eating, drinking, sleeping, working, be, upon the matter, one with what the wicked do, yet they are done in another spirit, and in doing of them, we please the Lord, serve him, and answer our end in the creation, and so feel, and are sensible of his blessing.

There are innocent divertisements, which may sufficiently serve for relaxation to the mind, such as for friends to visit one another, to hear or read history, to speak soberly of the present or past transactions, to follow after gardening, to use geometrical and mathematical experiments, and such other things of this nature; in all which things we are not so to forget God (in whom we both live and are moved, Acts 17:28) as not to have always some secret reserve to him, and sense of his fear and presence, which also frequently exerts itself in the midst of these things, by some short aspiration and breathings.
Lying on Mather's cutting room floor are the specific dangers behind Barclay's warnings -- such spiritual hazards as "lightness and vanity, wantonness, and obscenity." But the general point comes through clearly: all of these worldly recreations threaten to crowd out the awareness of God. Not that Barclay is against rest and relaxation, but I suspect he feels that rest and relaxation are a concession for our weakness, and if we were not in vessels of clay we would be at maximum reverence and sobriety 24/7. Just think of what passes for relaxation in Barclay's sight: geometry!!

So here I am, reading detective novels, getting massages, listening to blues, and grieving the death of Harry Anderson. Are my recreations evidence of the degradation of society (or of Friends) in the centuries since Barclay? Or am I uniquely corrupt? Or is there a way I'm actually honoring his cautions despite the greater freedoms I claim in choosing ways to relax?

To be fair to Barclay, I admit that I have absolutely no idea how much violence and vulgarity dominated life on his city streets, or whether he interpreted the noise around him through filters of social class and conventional piety. My contemporary parallel, maybe: I can enjoy films and novels that are full of uproarious nonsense and colorful language, but if there is no evidence of faith in a story or in any of the characters, things seem two-dimensional and I soon get very bored.

I also don't know whether Barclay made his own temperament the measure of true sobriety. Could he laugh at a good honest pun?

What redeems my recreations, whether Barclay would agree or not, is that I love observing how the mind works -- mine and others'. I believe that God built this capacity for recognition, analysis, synthesis, and joy into our minds. Maybe that is what Barclay meant when he talked about minds being leavened with the love of God and the sense of God's presence. Just as Eric Liddell feels God's pleasure when he runs ("it's not just fun"), I feel great pleasure watching ideas, creativity, stories being born, whether it's happening in myself or in others. Would it truly be impossible for a modern Barclay to appreciate the sight gags in Night Court? Even at moments of exasperation and outrage, I'm grateful to be participating, finding my place, and sharing observations with others who are on a search for faithfulness. Yesterday I spent most of a morning talking with a friend about the Trinity, and about the difference between George Fox's Christology and Robert Barclay's -- and then we had the most delicious cream of broccoli soup!

OK, next on the translation list will be the section on "swearing." I pray that the Russian audience for all this work will not see us Quakers as offering yet another matrix to conform to, but a reorientation to a life of transparency to God -- a life that Barclay exemplified but did not define for all time.

More on Christian asceticism: from Orthodox Christianity for Absolute Beginners; from Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, chapter 4

Frida Berrigan on growing up with the threat of pervasive violence.

Martin Marty, the "Francis-friendly Protestant," on the tensions around the Pope.

Todd Dildine on Anti-Community Forces (ACF) and the decline of the church. Part one. Part two. Two more parts to come.

Ivan Krastev: Russia haunts the Western imagination.

Extended version of "Tuff Enuff."

12 April 2018

Has Christ come to teach his people himself?

"Christ has come to teach his people himself," an assertion attributed to Quaker pioneer George Fox, is my favorite summation of Friends faith and practice. The phrase came up again just yesterday in a conversation during the (very first!) pastors' conference of our new Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends. As I thought back on the fertile conversations we had in that gathering, I felt an impulse to do a brief reality check on those famous words. How true is it to our experience? Do we sometimes repeat it too glibly in the service of making ourselves feel superior to the competition?

First of all, is it an authentic expression of the Friends movement? I turned to Quaker scholar Lewis Benson, who carried an abiding concern that George Fox's writings be understood in context and quoted with integrity.

In a 1974 article for Quaker Religious Thought, "George Fox's Teaching about Christ," Benson said that Fox indicted the existing church of his time for watering down Christ's power to (1) restore us to our full measure as victorious daughters and sons of God; and (2) "gather, order, and govern a community of disciples."
The gospel that Fox preached and which was received by many thousands was, in its briefest form: “Christ has come to teach his people himself.” The word teach is the key word here. His hearers were familiar with the offices of Christ as priest and king and had been taught to think of his saviourhood primarily in terms of his priestly act of sacrifice on the cross. But when Fox told them that Christ is also saviour as he is teacher and prophet, they were hearing something they had not heard before.
(Here is a convenient list of quotations from George Fox in which this "teaching" function is explicit or implied.)

Lewis Benson was emphatic about this revolutionary aspect of the movement initiated by Fox and the early Friends. (The first time I met Benson, he said, "I don't have an ecumenical bone in my body.") On the face of it, claiming that early Friends meant to replace, not reform, the entire priestly establishment with a new Gospel foundation, sounds audacious and even arrogant, especially for these times in which many of us want to be nice and to emphasize commonalities over boundaries. So: the proclamation that "Christ has come to teach his people himself" (and the implication that we Quakers embody this promise) may be an authentic voice from our history, but are we justified in adopting it as a kind of Friendly tagline today?
  • Do our Quaker meetings and churches really gather with the expectation that we will be taught by Christ?
  • (A related query: Do we use the phrase "Christ has come..." only in a second-hand descriptive way, or as an invitation from us personally to new audiences and our own children to experience a community formed by that promise?)
  • How do we know when he is in our midst, teaching us? How is his teaching welcomed and recognized? (Alternately, how might we be keeping him at a safe distance?)
  • Do we have the freedom to pray and consult with each other concerning our understanding of the teaching, and of its convincing power? Do we have the freedom to tell the community and its leadership when we don't think it is really happening?
  • We Friends now have three and a half centuries of experience of being taught by Christ. Some of that experience is preserved in books, doctrines, and ministries expressing our sense of what God wants to say and do through us. But today are we seeing new people being gathered with that same revolutionary expectation, or do we hoard this treasure? (I don't necessarily mean that new people will have the vocabulary and mannerisms of existing Friends cultures, but attracting people who are hungry to experience Christian community that doesn't depend on celebrities, monopolies, rituals, licenses, hierarchies, or proxies in place of raw grace.)
  • Benson points out that many of Fox's theological insights were not original but followed tracks laid down by Calvin and others. Despite Benson's dubious attitude to ecumenical and interfaith relationships, could such relationships help keep us fresh and honest in our life as a Friends movement? When we claim that other churches are still too dependent on celebrities, rituals, hierarchies, etc., are we actually discerning truth or just patting ourselves on the back?
I want us to use our dearest cliches honestly, but if they sometimes seem weakened by overuse, the solution isn't necessarily to discard them. Maybe we can rediscover their provocative content and test whether the promise within is already being fulfilled or could once again be fulfilled in our time. Are you and I seeing Christ teaching his disciples himself? If so, can we make this experience more accessible to people who have yet to hear that it's even possible?

Looking at another beloved phrase, "... that of God in everyone."

After our inaugural pastors' conference, I'm looking forward to our first Sierra-Cascades annual sessions. Another chance to be taught!

Happy Cosmonauts' Day! Source.
An article for Cosmonauts' Day (International Day of Human Space Flight): Newly-released documents on pioneer cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.

David Naimon talks about and with Ursula K. Le Guin.

Someday I'd love to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing. But this year I have to follow it online.

Dianna Anderson on politicians misusing biblical quotations to score political points.

Classic! (I'm sure I've posted this before and will again.)

04 April 2018

Returning to April 4, 1968

I remember this broadcast, especially the statement by Lyndon Johnson.

One of my most vivid memories of April 4, 1968, still with me after fifty years, was listening to U.S. president Lyndon Johnson's statement that evening concerning the assassination of Martin Luther King. I especially remember flinching with irritation when Johnson said, "I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King., who lived by nonviolence." Even at age fifteen I disliked the utilitarian salute to nonviolence, a salute that seemed to be intended to keep things peaceful on city streets rather than paying actual tribute to the values of nonviolent resistance.

All of this took place on my younger sister's fourth birthday.

I recounted more memories from that difficult evening and the days that followed back in this earlier blog post, entitled "April 4, 1968." (Text below; original here, with Jeremy Mott's comments.)

To describe the emotions in our home on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King was assassinated, I have to go back to October 1962. I was nine years old, and was having a hard time decoding all the reasons my parents seemed so fearful. That was the month James Meredith integrated the University of Mississippi, and the news (as I realize now, reviewing my fragmentary memories) was full of the violent resistance to his enrollment. For the first time, I heard my parents using a mysterious term, "knee-grow," an apparently anatomical term that made no sense as a source of fear, but it was clear that "knee-grows" were apparently causing big problems for the USA.

The anxieties of fall 1962 were only just beginning. Later that month, the Cuban missile crisis seared itself into my consciousness as the first major political crisis I can still clearly remember. I can picture the front pages of newspapers, showing the mobilized U.S. Navy imposing its "quarantine" around Cuba. The lesson of October for me: the world outside my home had the ability to make my parents very fearful.

It wasn't long before I understood what "Negro" really meant, but the twin dangers of black people and Communists in my parents' worldview were frequently confirmed. In the fall of 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. After we were supposed to be asleep, I heard my mother ask my father for reassurance that Lyndon Johnson was up to the task of confronting the Soviets. And their anxieties also had a local focus: Beginning with a voluntary program in 1963, Evanston's schools were becoming integrated.

In those years, we lived right on the boundary line between black Evanston and white Evanston, but my elementary school, Miller School (now a Montessori school), was halfway to Lake Michigan and almost completely white. During my elementary years, our school superintendents Oscar Chute and, later, Gregory Coffin, were both very committed to integration, and my parents (as we children realized from those late-night overheard conversations) were emphatically not. Well, at least my mother was not. She was the one who grew up surrounded by Nazi ideology.

By 1968, I was in my first year of high school. I started my diary on the first day of that year; little did I know on January 1 what a tumultuous year it would be. Most of my early entries were lists of television programs watched and (when baseball season started) White Sox scores. Hoyt Wilhelm, with his strange name and equally strange knuckleball pitch, was my hero that season. But normalcy came to an abrupt end on April 4, my younger sister's fourth birthday, when the electrifying and awful news came that Martin King had been killed.

My family went into crisis mode. My mother was sure that we white kids would be attacked if we showed up at school, so we were kept home for several days as I smoldered at our captivity. I used the time to listen to my home-made crystal radio (which received two stations, including WJJD, the "Country Gentlemen") and tried to make sense of what I was hearing. Finally back at school, our high school teachers encouraged us to understand the poison of racism--and I took them at their word, thus in a way proving correct my mother's worries about the Communists in the school administration.

The one thing I couldn't confess at school was the shock I felt at my mother's words, the very evening of King's death. I still remember the blonde end table next to the sofa where I was sitting; she sat on the other side. Between us was a table lamp with its brass base and spokes leading up to the socket and bulb. My mother said it served King right that he was murdered, because he had no right to bear the name of the great German reformer Martin Luther.

I suppose that I was still an atheist at that point, as were both my parents. But as I look back, I think my conversion may have begun with my attempts to confront and unravel that strange pronouncement. Soon after, I began to listen every Sunday night (surreptitiously, after bedtime) to the First Church of Deliverance radio broadcasts, hearing Rev. Clarence H. Cobbs pray for "the sick the shut-ins, and all those who love the Lord," always feeling strangely touched at that last phrase.

This meditation on April 4 ends with Martin Luther King's words to those who could not understand why he added a concern for peace and reconciliation to his racial justice portfolio. "Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them?" To Martin King, Clarence H. Cobbs, Oscar Chute, and Gregory Coffin: thank you for your part in making these words so real for me. From humane schoolteachers and from radio voices, even from violence and words of hate so close at hand, came a new home, a new worldview, and a new purpose that keeps me going to this day.

Excerpt from Agronsky's interview on NBC.
During my years of teaching in Russia, Dr. King provided powerful lessons that were part of my vision for what I could do in the classroom:
  • His English usage and rhetoric showed how language could be mobilized to serve moral values.
  • The way he embedded the Bible into his speeches and conversations helped demonstrate the influence of the English-language Bible in public life. One of my class handouts was a biblically-annotated version of the "I have a dream" speech; another was a listing of significant phrases from this transcript of Martin Agronsky's interview of Dr. King not long after the Montgomery bus boycott.
  • He was a young man, not much older than my students, when he began changing the course of history.
  • Everything about him was a powerful refutation of racist stereotypes that are as pervasive in Russia as they are in the USA, and less frequently challenged.
  • Above all, he demonstrated how faith and civic engagement could serve each other. (My principle in the classroom was never to make tendentious comparisons between the USA and Russia, but provide tools for students to consider for themselves whether to use, or not.)
During my Ferguson Fellowship year at Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre, I drew upon Dr. King's sermons against the war in Viet Nam as part of my materials showing how evangelism and the Friends testimonies were interrelated. Excerpts are here.

And here's a link to David Finke's tribute to "the Doc," referencing nonviolence in its full perspective, a perspective that the U.S. president was not free to acknowledge on that bleak evening.

Four historians consider the response of white evangelicals to the U.S. civil rights movement.

Adria Gulizia: Is Jesus a nazi sympathizer?

The first official annual sessions of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends.

Mike Farley's strange Easter and the sowing of seeds.

The BBC's religion editor, Martin Bashir: there is no mastery of mystery.

Telegram's presence on the Russian Internet may be diminished, but this BBC article (Russian) suggests ways to keep using it.

More on #metoo in Russia; the story of Darya Komarova.

On the shooting of Palestinians: indifference may be worse than pulling the trigger.

No video this week. I'm repeating the track from the original 2012 post, one of Otis Spann's tributes to Martin Luther King.

29 March 2018

Death triumphs, or so it seems

Source (pdf).  
If you've been with me for a while, you'll recognize the graphic above as a page from Charles McCarthy's Stations of the Cross of Nonviolent Love, which I read every year during Lent.

A shroud from Assumption Monastery, Sviyazhsk.
(More information, in Russian, here.) Photo: V. Strelov.
In earlier years, when I mentioned McCarthy's stations in my blog, I usually provide a station a little before this one, number 13, which is (along with 14, "Jesus is laid in the sepulchre") the bleakest of all. But I'm still in a state of shock over two mass tragedies and the perverse backlashes that have followed those tragedies. I am not in a mood to avert my eyes from the evidences of bondage to violence and inhumanity represented by these incidents.

The first event was the shootings at Parkland, Florida, and the efficient killing made possible by an AR-15. The backlash: smear campaigns against the students speaking in favor of gun control.

My mini-shrine. A flower for Kemerovo's kids.
Screenshot from TV Rain's coverage of Moscow meetings.
The second incident happened since I last wrote here. Last Sunday, 64 people, at least, died in the Winter Cherry Shopping Center in Kemerovo, Russia, including 41 children. In some cases, parents were electronic witnesses to their children's last moments, thanks to mobile phones and social networks. The backlash: highly placed politicians charging those parents and other angry survivors with taking advantage of this tragedy for political gain.

(If for some reason you have a desire to throw up, just read senator Elena Mizulina's comments in this summary of Russian media coverage of the Kemerovo aftermath.)

In the hours and days after the Winter Cherry fire, I watched as much coverage as I could, including the huge meeting outside the city administration building, and then Tuesday's memorial meetings in Moscow. A reporter asked one of the participants in Moscow for his feelings about the fire, and he said something that I've come to expect to hear every time something like this happens in Russia: "Whatever 'they' do, we live in the kind of country where these things will keep happening." It was this hopelessness that reminded me of Station 13: "Death and the dark side of reality are always the final victors."

Which is it? Violence, racism, elitism, cynicism, and death are the victors? We know too much about what that looks like ... what that continues to look like two millennia after Jesus.

OR ...

Will we realize something completely different on Easter Sunday? How will the world know that things are different?

Last year's station from McCarthy's booklet. And 2016's station (scroll down).

Christian nationalism: a new theory of Trump's white evangelical support.

Reclaiming Jesus. An interesting statement, even if the verb "must" is overused. (We must, must we?) Note the resources at the bottom of the page, including a mercifully shortened version and a civil discourse curriculum.

Why immigration is first about families, not economics or security. (Thanks to David Dark for the reference.) (Caveat: I was imported into the USA as a young child by my parents.)

On The Bible for Normal People podcast: an interview with William Paul Young, author of The Shack.

Laura Lundgren on duty, desire and The Crown, season two.

GetReligion looks at NPR's story on Christian colleges and the evangelical culture wars.

Easter is coming. Blues, stay away from me! (Terry Evans, rest in peace.)

22 March 2018

His eye is on the collateral damage

I will sing unto the Lord
For he has triumphed gloriously
The horse and rider thrown into the sea.

I knew the Ottawa Friends meetinghouse before I ever attended my first Friends meeting, because it was also the meeting place for a small charismatic congregation that my cousins attended, with me sometimes tagging along. One of the songs they sang was "I will sing unto the Lord."

It's a delightfully singable song, but with a big (for me) problem:

What about the horse and the rider? Does anyone at all care about their fate?

Neither the song nor the biblical text (Exodus 15:1-21) seem to pay any attention to the Pharaoh's forces as human beings; they "sank to the depths like a stone," and that was that. Their whole function seemed to be to illustrate God's miraculous delivery of the Israelites.  Their individual guilt or innocence in following Pharaoh's orders, not to mention their terrible fate, is beside the point.

There are many other examples of collateral damage in Biblical texts -- whether the victims are forces opposing Israel, or Israelites themselves. Just consider the fate of Korah and his friends, including "wives, children and little ones," Numbers 16.

Which explanation do you prefer?
  1. These people's sufferings were inconsequential to God in comparison to the value of teaching the rest of us a lesson.
  2. God's biblical chroniclers did not understand God well enough at that point in history to record God's provisions of care to those whose death appears cruel to us.
  3. These incidents did not happen exactly as they're depicted in the Bible; in reality, no innocent people suffered just for the sake of shock and awe.
Which is it? Did God drown and burn and crush people ... and is it the very same God whose "eye is on the sparrow, and I know he cares for me"? (Scripture; song.)

This attention to the apparent indifference of the Bible or of its readers to God's collateral damage may seem trivial, but I can't help wondering this indifference, or lack of curiosity, might have something to do with the cruelty of God's own people to this day. When the church seeks to dominate rather than serve, the resulting exercise of power results in witch trials, scarlet letters, doctrinal litmus tests, shaming, shunning, church splits, coercion in all its varied forms.

In Solveig Torvik's epic documentary-novel Nikolai's Fortune, the woman who bore a child after being raped is humiliated before the whole congregation.
There had been growing numbers of such scenes in the church in Rantsila in recent times. With each newly-fallen woman, the pastor -- a thin, pale man whose eyes were devoid of the barest flicker of compassion -- grew more frenetic in his exhortations.

"Man is an imperfect creature, by his very nature too easily tempted to sin," he warned. "But woman, she is ordained to be the guardian of his virtue. Should she fail in that sacred duty, as did this poor sinner, we shall all be lost." He paused for effect. "But there is hope, even for such sinners as this." This was the moment they were waiting for. On cue, Marie stood to face the worshippers....

"I confess the sin of having a child out of wedlock," she said tonelessly. Her voice was barely audible in the deep silence, but a sigh of satisfaction rose from the packed pews.
Marie is led away from the church,
... past the prying stares of the last handful of gloating worshippers who were waiting for a closer look at a certified sinner. The men leered at her knowingly; the eyes of the hard-faced women shot her through with venomous daggers.
Although based on a true story, these details are composed from imagination. However, does anyone doubt that such scenes happened regularly and still happen today? No doubt, atheists can be equally cruel; that's not the point. It's not our job to fix the atheists; it's our job to pray and build a trustworthy church, one where it's safe to ask questions, where God or God's authorized representatives are not waiting in ambush.

I said a bit more about Nikolai's Fortune here (the third book reviewed).

Russian "MeToo" charges by State Duma journalists: an update.

Skripal and extraterritorial security.
Aspects of kleptocracy — what Alena Ledeneva describes in the Russian case as the “informal means of execution of power and decision-making outside of formal procedures” — are extended into spaces beyond the home country.
Rich Lewis on centering prayer and ADHD.

The Arusha (Tanzania) Call to Discipleship.

Amy Young suggests books for overseas workers in transition.

Sue Foley, "Absolution" ...

15 March 2018


Mosier, Oregon: Amy H's Pi Day pies. Apple for humans plus three dogfood pies for dogs. (Not connected with Trinity.)
In the time of the earliest Quakers, William Penn considered the charge that we deny the Trinity to be slander. He labeled it a "perversion" and listed it in a series of "perversions" and "principles" in a tract whose title was sort of a tract in itself:
A Key Opening the Way to Every Capacity; How to Distinguish the Religion Professed by the People Called Quakers, from the Perversions and Misrepresentations of their Adversaries; With a Brief Exhortation to All Sorts of People to Examine Their Ways, and Their Hearts, and Turn Speedily to the Lord.

Perversion 9: The Quakers deny the Trinity.

Principle: Nothing less. They believe in the holy three, or Trinity of Father, Word, and Spirit, according to Scripture. And that these things are truly and properly one; of one nature as well as will. But they are tender of quitting Scripture terms and phrases for schoolmen’s, such as distinct and separate Persons or substances are, from whence people are apt to entertain gross ideas and notions of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. And they judge that a curious inquiry into those high and divine revelations, or into speculative subjects, though never so great truths in themselves, tends little to godliness and less to peace, which should be the chief aim of true Christians. Therefore, they cannot gratify that curiosity in themselves or others. Speculative truths are, in their judgment, to be sparingly and tenderly declared, and never to be made the measure and condition of Christian communion. Men [intentionally not marked sic!] are too apt to let their heads outrun their hearts, and their notions exceed their obedience, and their passions support their conceits, instead of a daily cross, a constant watch, and a holy practice.

-- William Penn, 1692

I was reading the New Foundation Fellowship book That Thy Candles May Always Be Burning: Nine Pastoral Sermons Of George Fox, and was stopped short by a blunt denunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the editors' introduction. I wondered why I found this so disconcerting.

I mentioned this reaction of mine to a friend, and he said, first of all, consider the source. He categorized the New Foundation Fellowship as one of number of reconstructionist Quaker groups, and said that their materials tended to emphasize Friends' differences with other Christians. This puts them squarely in the sectarian typology worked out by sociologists of religion.

In a wider context, Trinitarianism, he said, was one of those doctrines that most non-specialists worry about very little, except when it is challenged. I guess an acceptance of trinitarian references is one of those signals that reassure us that we're not heretics ... a signal that is more or less important to us in direct relationship to our desirable to be acceptable to the ecumenical world.

Early Friends did not intend to start a new religion but were intending to restore New Testament Christianity by freeing the faith from post-apostolic conceits and accretions. It's in this light that I understand William Penn's contrasting "Perversion" and "Principle." God and Christ and the Holy Spirit have powerful witnesses in the New Testament, but the term "Trinity" is simply an intellectual vessel developed over hundreds of years for theologians and church politicians to contain their insights and ideas and vocabularies and disputes. The Quaker caution (and not Quaker only): we shouldn't let terminology lull us into false certainties or misleading precision.

So here are some questions for myself (and you)....
  • Is it right to distinguish the word "Trinity" from the Quaker insights into the ways God acts and is made known and experienced?
  • Do our answers depend on whether we prioritize our unity with other Christians or our challenges to them?
  • If we can honor both priorities simultaneously, what words are we using?
  • How do we know when our theological explorations and assertions honor and serve God, and when they insulate us from the living God?

I find it interesting that the Richmond Declaration of Faith, the widely-shared "orthodox" summary of Friends doctrines adopted in 1887, does not use the word "Trinity."

What are the stakes involved in any particular elaboration or interpretation of the Trinity? Whole libraries have been written about this, but I thought it was interesting to sample the field through this book review on the Web site of Christians for Biblical Equality.

Early Quaker Trinity questions.

Teaching Trinity.

Stephen Hawking, brought to you by openculture.com: Explaining black holes; the lighter side of Stephen Hawking.

Evangelicals, racism, and the Sunday morning sermon.

Skripal, Novichok, and Russian social media.

Another blues dessert from Vanessa Collier.