25 January 2024

Pure intention, part three: Fox, Penn, and deconstruction

(The ecstasy of worship is connected to pure intention.  Pure intention, part two).


Do not satisfie yourselves with out-sides, with a Name, a Profession, a Church-membership, &c. For 'tis not what you say, but what you do. But Turn In, and examine your own Hearts, see how they stand affected towards God and his Law and Truth in your inward Parts. Be Strict and True in the Search, as you would save your Souls. If your Minds be set on Heavenly Things, and that Holiness and Charity be the zealous Bent thereof, well will it be with you for ever.... 

Isa. 51. 6. Jer. 31. 33. Heb. 8. 10, 11, 12. Phil. 1. 12. Psal. 144. 15. 

—William Penn A Key... (1693)

Last year, when the "word of the year" for Camas Friends Church was curiosity, I was curious about how many friends (Friends) I knew whose faith journeys were in a time of deconstruction.

(For the year 2024, our church's word of the year is repair, a word I link more or less closely with all sorts of other re- verbs: restore, renew, renovate, resurrect, resuscitate, rejuvenate, regenerate, revitalize, reanimate ... reboot. They all have corresponding nouns, too, and let's not forget renaissance, rebirth, and so on. A fertile word!)

Last year, in part two, I thought about why, as an adult convert, I hadn't felt a similar desire to deconstruct my understandings of faith. I'm sure part of the reason was that I was an adult convert. At times, when I heard people's positive stories of growing up in the church, I regretted not having the supportive family that church had been in those people's experience. But when I heard stories about the church's shadow side—from fear of damnation for petty misdeeds, all the way to outright abuse—I could see that my late entry had its pluses. As I became more involved in Quaker institutions, I began to realize that I had some responsibility for church systems that wounded others, even if they hadn't directly wounded me.

This was part of why I began to think about what it meant for a church to be trustworthy. One step in that journey was my participation in a group of Friends who had gathered around a former student of a residential Friends school who had been molested by the headmaster. That case became a centerpiece of a special issue of Quaker Life. (A Mennonite periodical's article on a similar theme had encouraged us to take this step, despite Quaker Life's ancient avoidance patterns for anything controversial.) Another step was the experience of reading Gordon Aeschliman's book Cages of Pain, which I wrote about here.

Lately I've been reading some writings of early Friends, in connection with my last three blog posts on why Quakers might prefer the term Quaker or Friend to refer to themselves and their churches/meetings. Today I've been re-reading William Penn's brief tract with a long title, 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.

Back in 1974, as an enthusiastic new Quaker, I was eagerly immersing myself in the journals of George Fox and John Woolman, the book of discipline of London Yearly Meeting, Barclay's Apology, and William Penn's Key, along with the other writings and tracts that I mentioned here. Something in this material struck me in a new way today. Maybe it occurred to you a long time ago! But here's what I realized: the early Quakers might strike us now as staunch defenders of Christian faith, but they themselves did an enormous amount of deconstructing. And they did so at great cost and risk.

Consider these famous lines from George Fox:

Now after I had received that opening from the Lord that to be bred at Oxford or Cambridge was not sufficient to fit a man to be a minister of Christ, I regarded the priests less and looked more after the dissenting people…. As I had forsaken all the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those called the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition’, and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. [1647]

I've always been impressed by his vivid recollection of that "voice"—but look at what preceded it. After bitter experience, he had to leave the religion industry and all its management structure behind. It's not surprising that his first imprisonment—for blasphemy—was just a few years away.

And then here is his future wife Margaret Fell reporting on the sermon that he gave at Ulverston steeplehouse in 1652:

And then he went on, and opened the Scriptures, and said, ‘The Scriptures were the prophets’ words and Christ’s and the apostles’ words, and what as they spoke they enjoyed and possessed and had it from the Lord’. And said, ‘Then what had any to do with the Scriptures, but as they came to the Spirit that gave them forth. You will say, Christ saith this, and the apostles say this; but what canst thou say? Art thou a child of Light and hast walked in the Light, and what thou speakest is it inwardly from God?’

Talk about deconstruction! He neither dismisses the Bible nor gives it a magical superiority that the Bible itself never claims. He honors the Bible but also challenges his audience by linking the Bible's rootedness in the Spirit with the people's innate capacity to hear the same Spirit, if they will do so.

Barclay's full-length Apology and Penn's short Key both purport to defend Quakers from charges of heresy by showing how our every apparent peculiarity is directly tied to the Bible, or plain logic, or both. Even so, in their own ways, they are textbooks of deconstruction. A typical argument from Penn: 

(a) the Quakers' opponent's "perversion" says that Quakers don't believe in X, 

(b) but (says Penn) nothing could be further from the truth. The opponents hedge that X with human inventions, but we Quakers take a simple and direct approach. Look at a few of the "perversions" he cites in A Key, and see what I mean.

None of this is to suggest that the Quaker movement turned out to be immune from corrupting influences. At times we've tolerated pride, self-mythologizing, social prejudices of all kinds, cultural blind spots leading to colonialism, doctrinal rigidities among liberals and evangelicals alike, the twin addictions of affluence and individualism, and the struggles of technocrats and spiritualizers who fight over "what" and "how" and forget to ask "WHY?

Friends who once admired William Penn now must deal directly with his ownership of slaves, and even Fox himself now seems unclear—perhaps ignorant, perhaps resigned—about the slavery he encountered in the colonies. More recently, I know that scandals equal to those reported by Gordon Aeschliman have happened in Friends organizations.

However, at their best, our founding parents were able to model the deconstructing power of returning to the Center. It's important to recognize what they did; it's more important to do likewise ourselves.

Ron Worden on George Fox's use of the Bible.

Friends World Committee for Consultation, Section of the Americas, seeks a new executive secretary. Robin Mohr's very productive service for FWCC ends in July 2024.

Judy Maurer interviews Windy Cooler for our Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends newsletter.

We [Quakers] have a need to belong to each other—and to belong to that identity. For us, to allow shame into our lives and into our communities is incredibly threatening. It’s things like interpersonal violence or substance abuse or having too much money or too little money. These are all taboo in the broader society but I think inside of our little emotional pressure cooker, which is this tiny little Quaker world that we share with each other, being open about the shame of these things would be completely off limits.

Living Histories: A Past Studies Journal. Looks very interesting. Unfortunately, the next deadline for submissions (February 2) is almost upon us.

Woodbrooke hosts Paul Anderson, March 13, for an evangelical Quaker perspective on George Fox.

Angela Strehli with the Aki Kumar Band with a Muddy Waters classic, "I Love the Life I Live."

No comments: