Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Light and the Enlightenment

Maybe my problem is that I'm not really a Liberal Quaker.  The Paine/Burke thing doesn't sit easy with me.  But it's not because it doesn't apply.  It's because I mourn how Quakerism got to where it does apply.

Both Paine and Burke were (and are) talking about how self governing people should deal with change.   They were products of the Enlightenment--worshipers of reason--riding the early waves of the industrial revolution and coping with what it was doing to society.  They were talking about the "best" way to manage cultural change.  

But the Society of Friends isn't governed by that model of self government.

Is it?

OK, it is.

Should it be?

I think Doug Gwyn depicted the Lamb's War as a losing effort, with Quakers failing to establish a counter-narrative to that of the Anglo-Protestant capitalist class system that eventually emerged from the English Civil War.

That winning narrative was all about the Enlightenment, with its "rational Christianity," the handmaiden of both the capitalist industrial revolution and the modern imperial nation state.

Moral guidance, here, is not a function of spirituality--direct engagement with God.  It is, rather, a function of engagement with ideas about God, from scripture and the authority of the church. The transforming experience with God is replaced by manipulation of second hand, hearsay ideas about God that, far from changing us, tends to validate us in our worldly condition.

Quakerism was subversive to this theo/ideology and the establishment upon which it was based and, as fractured as it might have been from time to time, that establishment was united in persecution and suppression of them.  In time, though, it was not necessary to persecute or suppress Quakers.  They did that to themselves. 

Accommodating themselves to "the world" sufficiently to be allowed to live with whatever peculiarity remained among them, over the centuries Quakerism has pretty much gone over to this theo/ideology, accommodating itself gradually to the "reality" of the world of rational Christianity and, beyond that, rational religion and/or philosophy.  

This began early when "certain writings" of Fox (with his permission) were revised and "toned down."  Friend Barclay stated the first necessary proposition upon which this movement to the mainstream was predicated--the idea that nothing revealed by the Light could contradict scripture (which is a conflation of Fox's statement that everything he learned in the Light was confirmed in scripture--nice rational sleight of hand).

By the 19th Century, in America, there were domains in the Society where the "doctrine" of the Light was deemed an un-Biblical blasphemy.  Short of that extreme, the Light gradually became subordinate to Biblical and other kinds of theological reasoning--whether that was "owned" or not, it was true:   the divided condition of the Society testified to this reality.

With scripture set up as the ultimate authority, the only legitimate "data" upon which one could draw to rationally create and un-create notional theology that suited the institutional needs of the moment (both within the Society and American society at large), the road was paved for Paine and Burke.  Re-interpreted scripture was "continuing revelation," as reasoning religion had created an obsession not with abiding in and with God for guidance but an obsession with enforcing "belief" in propositions about God and insuring a uniformity in that belief, trending ever toward rational Christian orthodoxy.  If one wants to rule by reason one must control what data is legitimately used in the "rational" process of establishing and maintaining power over others.

With some saying that God was revealing "new light" more fit for a new age, and others maintaining that "old light" meant something different in new situations than it meant in situations it originally shined,  Friends  used the doctrine of continuing revelation to move farther and farther into the rational Protestant Christian consensus and the world it created and maintained.  Coming around to living out the capitalist narrative, Quakerism, once the spirituality of people known as Children of the Light, became largely another "choice" among available churches in which could be found Children of the Enlightenment.

Eventually "truth" from the scriptures of other religious (and non religious) traditions became fruit of "continuing revelation" for some Friends,  providing rational Quakerism with new "legitimate" data (at least to some) to be used in "figuring out" (as opposed to "working out") our salvation.

And so Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke walk among us, as Quakers everywhere use whatever data they consider legitimate in this grand reasoning process known to us as Quakerism.  Should we hurry forward as we adapt to the world of reasoning religion, or should we go slowly, carefully, so as to not throw the baby out with the bathwater?  Opinions come and go, depending on what we are aware of and where our human nature (pushing us toward what is most convenient and in our short term interest) guides us at one moment or the other.   It's not to be wondered, then, that the "revelations" of our "reason" should keep us divided.  Moment to moment, after all, any scripture can be used to piece together an argument to support pretty much anything after which one might lust, anything one might covet, anything one might want to do to placate one's anger, anything in which one might want to take pride...

This is a hard realization for me.  It causes me a dissonance in that I have always thought that we were led by the Spirit, not by our own notions and reasoning.  But what, if not notions, abstract reasonings about things we can never know, could have separated Friends one from the other and kept us separated, now?   If we were abiding in that transformational experience, led by the Light, would we be in this condition?  

What is the spirit in which we abide?   Is it Paine?  Is it Burke?  Is it a spirit of self government, instead of being governed by the Light?  Is this not the same struggle of which Friend Penington wrote (see masthead)/

See?   There I go:  "reasoning" and speculating about the nature, character and purpose of God instead of staying low, listening to the guidance about how I am supposed to be living and obeying.

Notwithstanding all of our reasoning, direct encounters with the Spirit, with Christ, go on daily.  The Light is never totally eclipsed, in the world or in our hearts.   All of us continue to be confronted about how we live, everyone hears  the pleadings to change and to endure the difficulties of learning to lie down beside that still water, in those green pastures.   This is the struggle within. 

Who can look around and say that this reason based world of the Enlightenment, and our notional, rational Quakerism as part of it, is filling or creating holes in our hearts?  Isn't it really in so far as we lay down our rationality about morality and go with what we have learned in our hearts that we are matured?

Most of us live with an alloy of spiritual and rational religion, struggling with the confusions that arise where the two compete for our attention, our allegiance.



Gossiping about the neighbors--gossiping about ourselves.

Neither Paine nor Burke is a guide to living in that peaceable kingdom, to being "in world but not of the world." 

Paine and Burke, and the rational notion/delusion of self governance they represent, put us in the position that the world changes us, we do not change the world.

Whether we hold hands with Paine or with Burke, go at one pace or the other, our rationality will take us to the same place:  deeper and deeper into the quicksand of our own imaginings and notions, further and further under the sway of the powers, more and more confused about why it is that each time we hit ourselves in the thumb with the hammer of our thinking it doesn't stop hurting. 


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...


Friend, you are not speaking to my condition, nor my experience among liberal Quakers.

It has been my experience that we are not led by our notions, in either a Paine- or Burke-inspired manner, but by the Light.

I will concede sadly that I don't know of any Friend or body of Friends that is always good at listening in this way, and I agree that there are a certain number of what I might term post-religious Friends who do not acknowledge any Light beyond human reason. That makes me sad or confused, depending on the circumstance. And I've met Friends who believe that the rules around secular consensus do or ought to apply to Friends' processes.

I've met some tone deaf musicians over the years, too. Happily, it has been my experience that while most musicians and most Friends could be more skilled at what they do, the number who are truly deaf to what we are meant to be listening to is not a majority.

Or am I completely missing your point? I fear I may be.

Anonymous said...

I'm very interested in this post. Discernment seems to be our most important problem. There seems to be a sort of catch 22 inherent in it, though.

Are there Friends in history that you believe have walked in the Light?

Hystery said...

There is so much here of value. I am grateful for your thoughts on this topic which address many of my own ruminations on this topic in a manner that will continue to inspire deeper contemplation after I click away from this blog.

As I read this, I am reminded of a thought that has often bothered me about Friends. I wonder if the initial metaphorical use of "Light" messed with Friends' ability to resist the organizing metaphor of "light" as representative of reason in dualistic opposition to chaotic and unruly (read feminine, wild, body-oriented, emotional) world of darkness. Also, vision oriented metaphors lend themselves to objectification of experience and relationship in ways that metaphors of hearing/listening do not.

Tmothy Travis said...

Hi, Cat

No, I don't think that you are missing my point, although my experience, as I wrote, is that throughout the Society there is an alloy between looking to the Light and looking toward our own reason for guidance.

Where I see this often is in the tone of minutes of concern produced by Liberal Friends in my neck of the woods. All read like statements from the Democratic Party and rely on secular arguments to carry the weight with, perhaps, a couple of Quaker cliches thrown in ("that of God in everyone," for example).

These political statements are completely reasonable and throw weight behind one side or the other in this or that struggle.

I also see it in the governance of meetings where Friends function often as we have learned to function in our work lives in corporations, agencies and similar institutions that grew up to facilitate capital and imperialism (seeing the clerk of the meeting as the "CEO" rather than as a clerk, for example).

The "debate" throughout the Society over same sex relationships and abortion is a struggle carried on within the framework of our adopted rational religion--with people "reasoning" from all kinds of authority (including both Biblical and secular texts). These conflicts, like those among Friends of the 19th Century in the United States (which split the Society over notions, pure and simple), are too often conducted through and too often result in behavior that Friends not carried away by their heat recognize as "un-Quakerly."

This while abiding with the love and charity toward others--even our "enemies"-- has repeatedly been shown through the centuries to be the of living from the Spirit.

The spirit in which such conflicts are prosecuted--and prosecuted they are--does not fit the description of that which takes its "kingdom with entreaty and not with contention."

I once wrote about giving money to pan handlers and beggars when moved to do so by the Spirit and received an avalanche of criticism from Friends who had all kinds of "rational" reasons (which were certainly rational) why I should not do that, how I was making it worse for the objects of my charity. The problem for me was, of course, that if I let myself be guided by all that rationality Christ gives me no peace for my failure to obey.

Finally (although I could go on longer, here) the unkind and the untrue things I heard said by those who occupy one domain of the Society about those who occupy the others (even, sometimes, at gatherings designed to bring them together) testifies to the superior position we sometimes to give to notions (ideas about the origin, nature, character and purpose of God that have no basis in anything except our own speculations) over the love we are constantly nudged to show to others. For the most rational of reasons we too often see unity with our own religious speculation (perhaps a manifestation of our psychological identities) as a more important basis for fellowship than the fact of our common existence in and of the Light.

I know my post sounds like a broadside and that is partly what it is. As I experience life in the Society as a whole, it's not so different as that lived outside of it.

The "hedge" between the Society and "the world" no longer exists. It is to be mourned that this does not mean that the world has become more like Quakers--it means that Quakers have become all but indistinguishable from the world.

We are spending a lot more time living out of our heads than we do living from our of our hearts and the similarities between the outcomes of our walk, and those of "the world" testify to that perception of mine.

Thank you for your comment. I hope your vision of the Society is more correct than mine--and that if it is not the faithfulness of us all will make it so. As I said, there is an alloy between reason and Light, and insofar as this is inevitable the proportion of each in the mix is crucial.

Tmothy Travis said...

Hello, Hystery

Your comment about the metaphor of Light becoming objectified, feeding into notions of dualism is something about which I have thought, before. Notions, I think, as ideas, always give rise to counter-ideas.

I read, somewhere, someone who wondered whether the popularity of that metaphor was not due to the limited light in the North of England, whether had the first Quakers lived in a sunny and crowded metropolitan area "silence" might have been more useful to them.

Of course, there is that factor about the metaphor of the Light appearing in the book of John that might have had something to do with it...


Nonetheless, I do think that it is discernment. Are we dealing with/guided by the Light or are we reasoning from ideas that we have inferred from our experience with the Light or ideas others have developed from their experience. These inferences and ideas are really of little value to our transformation--it's the experience that is.

For example, since God consistently is on me to be charitable I can infer that God is charitable. But when someone asks about childhood cancer and this charitable God I have work up a lot of reason/rationalization to be convincing about God's charitable nature.

What difference does it make if I or someone believes God is charitable in the sense we understand that term?

Isn't doing what I am led to do--rather than what I think about it--what is important?

Thanks, again, for your commment

Chuck Fager said...

Hi Tim. I want to focus on this statement of yours:

<< I have always thought that we were led by the Spirit, not by our own notions and reasoning. But what, if not notions, abstract reasonings about things we can never know, could have separated Friends one from the other and kept us separated, now? If we were abiding in that transformational experience, led by the Light, would we be in this condition? >>

If we are all operating by -- or in-- the Light, thee asks, how could we be "separated"?

Well, if I judge by my own experience, plus my reading of the record in scripture, or early Quaker history, everything suggests that the villain of the piece is . . .

The Light.

Yep. The record shows me that lots of times, That Which Is Ultimately In Charge, for its own unfathomable reasons, has sent Her children off in different, and apparently divergent directions.

Why? Good question, of course. I recall a fellow named Job asking that question, and him not getting much of an answer. And there are many other examples (in particular, my old buddy Ecclesiastes), which I won't drag out here but which could be adduced, to buttress the proposition, if not satisfy the query.

But where does that leave us? In my view, it leaves us right where we are, amid our differences, obliged to work them out as best we can.

Right there, yet with one potential advantage: perhaps we can rid ourselves of what I think is the false and oppressive notion that if we were all just virtuous enuf, or Open-To-The-Light enuf, everyone would agree (especially, of course, agree with ME).

Alas, it wasn't true of early Friends (for more than a few minutes or days at a time, at least); it wasn't true of Jesus' disciples; it wasn't true of . . . etc.

What are we gonna do? Here's my sage advice: One foot in front of the other. Call 'em like you see 'em. Don't be afraid of "disunity"; work through it where you can, live with (or suffer through) it where you can't. And when it's time for an exodus, take up your pallet and walk.
(An invoice for my consulting services will be sent under separate cover.)

And about those knee-jerk liberal minutes that are regularly emitted by MMs and YMs thereabouts (and hereabouts)?

It's true, they are often another cross to bear. Yet the silliest thing of all about them, for me, is the belief on the part of the authors that anybody of importance out there, from Washington to your state capitol, even to most of the meeting's own membership, really gives a hoot. Having worked on Capitol Hill, I can testify that the poohbahs up there sure don't. I've tried to point that out a few times, but it's definitely one of those things that folks don't want to hear.

But it's always good to hear from thee.

Tom Smith said...

I have been led/enLIGHTened/reasoned to respond to one of my "axes that I grind" in some of the language of early Friends, especially G. Fox. In addition to the references in John, Isaac Newton, definitely a contemporary of Fox in time, and probably space as well as some information, was doing a good deal of work with Light. The dispersion of white light into a great number of colors which could then be recombined into white light was being extensively studied in Fox's time. The fact that Newton "saw" 7 colors because there were 7 days in a week, 7 notes in an "octave," and 7 was a "holy" complete number was a rationalization. Thus the concept of "light" was being revised even as Fox spoke. In continuing revelation of knowing experimentally (science) the make up of light has at least 2 major interpretations of the primary and secondary colors (3 each) of art and physics as being diametrically opposed.

What have I just said in my own obtuse style, at least to me, is meant to convey that straining at words and there use has "always" led to disagreement and separation. As humans the expressions of Spirit, God, Light, will continue to haunt us until we can truly wait upon each other in LISTENING and hearing where the words come from.

I have no answers, many questions, but many experiences that I know "experimentally."

Tmothy Travis said...

Hi, Chuck...

I always admire a "double down" when I see one, especially when it is coupled with one of those statements that makes jaws drop: the source of disunity is actually the Spirit. Good one. That's like saying that the "blame" for deep water drilling should actually go to the environmentalists who have forced drilling so far off shore as to make it dangerous. It's also akin so blaming the victim. A bold stroke, my f/Friend.

But you misunderstand my lament. I do not mourn the lack of unity of belief among Friends and I do not live in the expectation that Friends will all believe the same ideo/theological notions, some day. As you point out, they never did. And it's unnecessary that we do.

My expectation is that we will all better develop our ability to live with one another more fully in the Light--the chief manifestation of which is living out the human moral consensus--found in most spiritual (and most secular ethical) traditions--which involves treating others as one would be treated and thus strengthening the bonds of community upon which the meeting of all's needs are based.

I am certain that Friends--and others--will improve the ability to live in peace and charity to the mutual benefit of one another, notwithstanding their differing beliefs.

Any "rationalization" or "belief" that tells me (contrary to the guidance I get from Christ) that it's OK for me to exploit, exclude, make fun of, be sarcastic about or take advantage of others, and any ideo/theological doctrine that supports my doing doing those things (or someone doing them on my behalf), is "blasphemy" in the patois of the mono-theistic religions, is "not skillful" in Buddhist thought, and a "thinking error" in the jargon of juvenile justice and decision making. Such beliefs are fallacies that keep us, as it is written, "on the wheel."

Any belief--especially about things I can never know (such as those about the origin, nature, character and plans of God)--that causes me (or provides me an opportunity) to treat others poorly--is a belief that I don't need to work out my salvation and one that will make that process more difficult for me.

A belief that justifies my bad behavior is actually just a support of and an encouragement to my fear of where leading a righteous life will take (or not take) me.

All I really need for working out my salvation from those fears is to stay in contact, as best I can, with and faithful to the guidance of the Light: love your neighbor as yourself, Timothy--even when it's scary and it hurts to do that.

If I cannot hold on to or talk about a "belief" without it causing or allowing me to violate the "prime directive" (beamed straight into my heart on a daily basis) then, like that proverbial right hand that causes one to sin, it's got to go--or I need to keep it to myself (regardless of how much benefit I think my telling someone about it will confer upon them). If I can talk about it, and stay in that peaceful place, and those who hear me can stay there while doing so, then fine. But it not...

Hard won experience (of constant correction by Christ) has taught me that my "beliefs" are not as important to my spiritual condition as how I treat the people I encounter every day. How I treat people seems to be what the Spirit has on its mind.

By the way: I have never heard anything from the Spirit about the origin, nature, character or plans of God--or any or kind of ideo/theological doctrine. I only hear (and boy, do I hear!) about what I am supposed to do, and not do.

Thanks, Chuck and, as someone said to me the other day, "Thanks for your service."


forrest said...

Lovely post and comments!

All us humans seem to be "alloys"-- but there does seem to be an excess of "worldly wisdom" in the mix lately. And yes, ultimately the conflicts must be God's doing and serving God's purposes. If we can't learn from being right all the time, then we have to learn by making mistakes and reflecting on them (via The Light, ultimately...)

I have this habit of reminding people about James, and his suggestion that we pray for wisdom (unless, that is, we don't lack for it!) But there is a form of wisdom-under-Guidance that seems to be available; it hasn't made me Infallible but it has led me through some drastic reframings of my previous mind... in what still looks like a hopeful direction.

Early Friends, like other groups in the Puritan turmoil of their time, also appealed to reason and scriptures & etc. There was even that committee charged with reading all pamphlets touching on Quakers and making sure that a suitable answering pamphlet was in the works. The customary level of debate was not gentle... The emphasis has shifted; but the basic situation may not have changed that significantly: we're still in the process of learning to trust the Spirit more than all those habitual sources of security (without necessarily ignoring them.)

Tmothy Travis said...

Hello, Forrest

Thank you for the comment.

I used to say that James was my favorite book in the Bible, and not just because of its brevity!

Wisdom...accumulated experience and lessons learned. One of the greatest parts about the searching the Light does is the almost constant examination of things I have done or not done (sometime from years ago) and the insights that flow from it. This doesn't come from "thinking it through," either.

Yes, reason did play a part in the lives of early Friends, as it plays and should play a part in all of our lives.

My results with making moral decisions by reasoning about them, however, has been uneven, at best.

Sometimes I have done things that "made sense" to only later discover, standing in the middle of a bad situation, that I had based my thinking on inaccurate premises, I had lacked adequate or true information or I had not applied the best reasoning skills (because I was younger and less skilled, because I had some kind of blind spot or agenda).

Human nature--my tendency to do that which is most convenient and in my short term interest--makes me vulnerable to all kinds of thinking errors that distort my decision making--especially about moral choices.

Reason provides rationalization for any crime or sin someone is "considering."

Listening (or more likely, these days, remembering) the moral guidance I have received from the Spirit removes all of these corrupting influences that undermine moral reasoning.

Thanks, again, for commenting.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the post and the discussion. I'd thought to contribute to the discussion here, but I was reminded of something I'd written years ago, and so I have incorporated that old material into a new post that, I hope, will have some connection, if only that of variation to theme, to your discussion here. The post is at