Saturday, 30 January 2016

The ways of God and the ways of the world

Stuart Masters has blogged that 'early Friends were very clear that there was a fundamental distinction to be made between the dominant ways of 'the world' and the ways of God's kingdom. Rachel Muers makes much the same point in her important Testimony: Quakerism and Theological Ethics (SCM Press,2015), in which she says that Quaker testimony tends to operate at the point of confrontation between the truth of God and the dominant untruths of a world-opposed-to-God (p.46). Historically, testimony has prompted Quaker to set themselves against any power structure or pattern of life that denies or obscures divine truth (p.118).  I would not disagree with this opinion if it is a purely theological position, and amounts to saying that Quaker testimony can be identified as such when it uses solemn God language, but is not testimony when it uses everday, secular language.  However, if it is an historical or sociological assertion then it is false.  As Stuart has acknowledged, the Quakers have always engaged with governments or 'domination systems' and indeed were actually governors in colonial Pennsylvania.  Similarly, the Foundations of a True Social Order, about which I have blogged separately, is an fine example of testimony which engages with the World and shows how its systems can be improved. To distinguish between the ways of God and the ways of the world is, like talk of structural violence, to depersonalise others with whom you disagree.  Rather, Quakers are counselled to 'walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone'.  In other words, equality of souls means equality of treatment and not succumbing to prideful assertions about Quaker ways as specially the ways of God.  Humility is a Christian virtue - and one I struggle to cultivate.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Tom Paine... Quaker famine relief in post-revolutionary Russia

Thomas Paine (1737-1809) was an English-American political activist, philosopher, political theorist, and revolutionary. One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he authored the two most influential pamphlets at the start of the American Revolution, Common Sense and The American Crisis, and he inspired the rebels in 1776 to declare independence from Britain.

Tom Paine is an important figure for Quakers.  His mother was one and his life and work were characterised by plain speech, a disregard of titles and hierarchy, an utter commitment to equality, a belief that what we say and do matters, and a belief that we are perfectible.  His best-selling pamphlet of 1776, Common Sense, expressed the developing mood in America of the necessity of separation from Britain.  At the time a recent immigrant from England, Paine savagely and directly attacked 'the royal brute' and the whole concept of monarchy, in the process disabusing Americans of the notion that they could look to George III for redress.  The only alternatives, Paine insisted, were submission or independence. 

Paine believed that that the British Constitution was a tyranny that was beyond reform and that the Americans had to become independent. He was an anti-authoritarian libertarian and egalitarian.  The British colonial administration of America was inept but was more liberal than the local Americans, with their grand assertion that 'all men are created equal', in one important respect - slavery. Paine was for abolishing slavery but most American slave-holders were for independence, because they correctly feared the British would interfere with their rights. Simon Schama's Rough Crossing tells the story.

The American Constitution of 1789 silently allowed slavery but enshrined the right to bear arms which is causing so much trouble today. In this light, Paine's opposition to the British Constitution looks wrong. Under that Constitution Britain abolished slavery and peacefully evolved into a Parliamentary democracy, a modern mixed economy with a national health service. The US, by contrast, though it extended the franchise to white male adults far earlier than in Britain, had to fight a civil war over slavery and to this day is held back by an out-dated Constitution which stops the Government from introducing a national welfare service or the most moderate gun safety laws.  Interestingly, the US did not introduce women's suffrage much earlier than in Britain.  Generally, Paine's aspiration for America to be a model of rights, equality and democracy has turned out to be disappointed. 

 Paine helped promote a self-serving American independence movement.  The Founding Fathers were as much interested in their property rights as in the rights of man.  They ignored Paine's socio-economic egalitarianism and acquiesced in the abomination of chattel slavery.  In addition, Paine and the Founding Fathers scotched the prospects for modern social democracy in the US.  They saw no role for the state in social welfare and called for low taxation.  To that extent Paine anticipated the American Tea Party not the British Labour Party.  He believed that society could be improved but only by revolution, not by gradual progress aided by a stable government acting in the general interest. Because the Founding Fathers shared Paine's hatred of tyranny, they made a constitution which dangerously weakened the national government so as to impede laws on public safety and a modern welfare state.  So much for Paine's Common Sense.

Similarly, his Rights of Man sought to promote the French Revolution in opposition to Burke.  History has vindicated Burke and condemned Paine.  Nothing could be more inimical to the rights of man, and a fortiori those of women, than a violent revolution and the loss of peace and plenty.  Quakers themselves know this from their experience of the famine relief work in post-Revolutionary Russia (1921-1929) which is currently the subject of a fascinating but distressing exhibition of rare photographs in Friends House.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Politics and the vices

I have blogged about so-called structural violence and its attraction for Quakers, who need to be warned against the politics of envy.  Such politics springs from a confusion about the difference between socio-economic equality, on the one hand, and equality of souls, or spiritual equality, on the other. There may well be something in the argument that the more unequal a society is, the more dysfunctional it is and the unhappier its people, but there is more to Quakerism than being angry about socio-economic inequality, to take a striking and rather worrying phrase from BYM 2015. Quakers need to beware of the vices of wrath and pride (a vice to which your blogger is prone). For more on this I would refer readers to a recent book by an Anglican clergyman, Fraser Dyer, Who Are We To Judge?: Empathy and Discernment in a Critical Age (SPCK 2015).  Wise words on the same lines come from Thich Nhat Hanh, who says (Living Buddha, Living Christ pp 79-80) that  the rich may suffer as much as the poor, so when we take sides in the class war we misunderstand the will of God, which is that we should love one another. TNH goes on to say that any dualistic response motivated by anger will make the situation worse. Anger not only aggravates conflict, it also blinds us to what is really going on and where suffering is occurring. It hampers action because it leads us into the blame game where we are always looking to see who is responsible for a problem rather than working together to solve it. In the case of socio-economic inequality it leads many Quakers into a state of confusion and frustration, because they cannot understand what socio-economic equality can amount to, or how to go about achieving it, in our complex and ever-changing world.  One starting point would be to consider what historically has been the Quaker attitude to socio-economic inequality, and I have blogged about this separately.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

TTIP and Brexit as concerns for Quakers

On 7 December 2015 the Deputy Recording Clerk e-mailed Area Clerks with a message from Meetings for Sufferings, which felt it is important to speak out urgently on the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) . Friends were encouraged to engage with the issues. Thinking it possible that Quaker Testimonies were being challenged by a major issue, I studied the papers which had been circulated.

At first sight the picture was alarming. In a ‘Story of Witness’ of October 2015 from a Friend who is also a Green Party activist with trade union backing, we are told that TTIP would mean that contracts let by local authorities for waste collection and such like could no longer safeguard the environment or generally be in the best interests of communities, because of a mysterious process called Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS). Elsewhere in the material circulated by Meetings for Suffering, we are told that tyhe three pillars of TTIP are deregulation, privatisation and corporate courts.  War on Want says that TTIP endangers governments' ability to regulate, and endanger citizens' rightsw to basic services like water, health and energy.

The language of the opponents of TTIP is anti-capitalist and suggests that governments and the official negotiators are tools of international corporations.  Indeed, the view has been expressed that if the European Commission is in favour of TTIP, that is sufficient to damn it. However, once one reads the papers circulated by the Deputy Recording Clerk, including one produced by a joint working group of non-conformist churches , one learns that the detailed concerns about TTIP, including ISDS, are being addressed in the course of the negotiations. The joint public issues paper concludes that TTIP will benefit international trade but there needs to be more clarity about protection for the environment and for developing countries. I concluded that the concern in the Story of Witness was exaggerated.  I have seen separate material from War on Want's pronouncements that is particularly biassed and inflammatory.

QF&P 8.11 sets out how Quakers should translate their faith into social action, by helping to build a just and peaceful world. That means we should in principle be in favour of international cooperation and free trade and against the protection of special interest groups. The economic and environmental issues underlying the TTIP controversy are complicated both scientifically and politically. For example, there is no simple correlation between international trade and environmental degradation.  The manufacturing and exporting of solar panels ought, other things being equal, help tackle climate change.  Nor is there a simple correlation between human rights and protectionism.  There may be a case for special protection for emerging industries in the developing world but this should not be an absolute rule.  There may come a point where protection for a favoured industry or group of workers becomes anti-competitive, even corrupt. The interests of producers and consumers need to be balanced, and this can be done through agreements like TTIP.  Indeed, if there has to be any skew in the balance it should be towards the consumer, rather than the producer, because we are all consumers but not all of us - those too old to work, for example - are producers.  This means that the principle of equality when applied to the economic sphere should mean equality of consumers i.e. we should all have access to the basics of life and producers should not be exempt from fair competition.

I would say to the opponents of TTIP that they will find there are no simple answers. TTIP is something about which reasonable people of good will, Quakers or not, can disagree.  I would also say to the campaigners that we live in a parliamentary democracy with a lively forum for debate on the internet and in the other media. It is open to the Friend with strong but controversial opinions about TTIP to pursue his concern through secular channels, including the trade union and the political party for which he acts. It is unnecessary for him and other opponents of TTIP also to raise the matter with the Society of Friends.  My own Area Meeting, in being invited to join the campaign against TTIP but wishing to respond in a Quakerly way, has decided to seek more information before proceeding further.

A question in my mind is why Quakers are giving so much attention to TTIP and none whatsoever, as far as I know, to the forthcoming referendum on the EU.  It seems to me that Brexit is something which should concern Friends as much as TTIP, if not more.  Brexit would be at variance with the internationalism which springs from the Quaker testimony of equality of souls and is expressed in the term, the brotherhood of man, to be found in the 1918 Foundations of a True Social Order. In addition, even if Brexit were to be economically neutral to the UK (which I doubt, as it would be much more likely to be disruptive) it would be a victory for the right-wing little Englanders who want to pull up the national drawbridge and for libertarian cranks.  The values of these two groups are different from those of the Society.  I suggest that Brexit is far more of a threat to Quaker values and to the public interest than TTIP.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Quaker Theology: Barclay and Scott

Barclay’s An Apology for the True Christian Divinity (1676) may be considered the original statement of faith of Quakers. Robert Barclay (1648-1690), was of the next generation from the Valiant Sixty and a politician as well as theologian.  He worked with William Penn to win Crown rights for Quakers in the colonies of America and used his learning to produce a work of rigorous theology which continues to command respect and attention. There are selected passages in Quaker Faith & Practice but these show Barclay at his best, because admittedly there is much to dislike about the Apology.  In the course of a long and difficult book, Barclay is disputatious, sectarian, dour and puritanical. He condemns apostasy, which means all other Christian religions, for he holds that the surest way to be a Christian is by the Quaker route.  He dismisses the ritual and practices of other Christians, particularly Catholics, as human inventions and imaginings, condemns Islam, and describes the zeal of Jews as the ‘prejudice of education, and the love of self, more than that of God’. He upholds the power and authority of the elder and the right of churches to discipline members in error, by excommunication if necessary. He criticises frivolous pastimes such as the theatre; instead we should spend our spare time gardening or doing mathematical puzzles.  However, once one gets past the antiquated language and the disagreeable tone, Barclay has much to offer.  In a set of fifteen Propositions he makes the intellectual case for Quakerism which is still good today. In particular, in Proposition Two Barclay asserts the possibility of religious knowledge, gives a convincing explanation of what this means and sets out the basis for the Testimonies.
Barclay asserts we know God through Christ by the Spirit or what he calls immediate revelation, which means by experience and without the mediation of church or scripture.  Importantly, he says divine revelation cannot contradict the testimony of scripture or right and sound reason, but at the same time revelation is more certain than scripture and the ordinary reason of man because it forces assent. In other words, we can identify divine truths as those which cannot be denied.  Barclay lays the theological and theoretical basis for discernment, Quakers’ bold claim that through the Light we can know the will of God. 
All religions and sects claim to know God’s truth but in the case of the Quakers we have a basis for our claim which is more than just blind faith or reliance on authority, tradition, and scripture.  Barclay’s point about divine revelation forcing assent means that the fictions he condemns in other religions cannot be true, because they cannot force agreement.  It is inconceivable that God would require us to believe in mere human inventions or to deny the findings of science.  At the same time, divine knowledge cannot be the same as secular reason, which is prone to error, because God can never be wrong.  The spirit and revelation lead us to the fundamental truths of the Testimonies, to agreement about right ends such love and peace, and concomitants such as respect for others and the environment, the principles of which cannot be denied however much we might disagree about means. To put it in non-theistic terms, the Testimonies are a set of irrefutable, moral truths. Barclay tells us that there are absolute truths but that Quakers are more discriminating and so more correct than others in identifying such truths.

Although the early Quakers were opposed to the political role of the Church of England and mocked its sacraments, there were theological similarities. Indeed, theologically the Quakers had greater differences with the Puritans than with the Anglicans.  The difference hinged on the controversy of justification, which Barclay deals with in some of the most impenetrable passages in his Apology. The controversy over the difference between justification by faith and by works was mired in polemics between Catholics and Protestants, the latter rather unfairly attributing to the former opinions and practices which pre-dated the Counter-Reformation.The controversy over justification had more to do with religious politics than theology, as the protagonists asserted that salvation was available only by their special means. The Roman Catholics and hard-line Puritans both asserted extra ecclesia non salus est.  The Anglicans, on the other hand, took a less emphatic position while the Quakers held, with Barclay, that salvation comes from unmediated revelation.  

Janet Scott delivered her Swarthmore Lecture of 1980, What Canst Thou Say: Towards a Quaker Theology, in the context of the then current controversy amongst Quakers between Christocentrics and universalists.  She seems to come down in favour of the latter in that she sees the importance Christians attach to the Christ-event as just an instance of a response to the Light, to God's self-disclosure.  She seems to reject the traditional Christian idea that salvation is available only through Jesus.  Scott wrote in the years before Quakers became tested by the controversy between theists and non-theists and asks what, in the end, we are to make of God.  She answers with a striking phrase.  God 'is utterly to be trusted yet totally unexpected, surprising us with providential grace, teasing us with delightful jokes, opening up the future to possibility, including us in the transcendental laughter.'  This is poetic but speaks of a Presence I cannot recognise.   I do not understand what Scott means by transcendental laughter.  The suggestion that grace is unexpected, even random, or that God is mischievous, demeans our attempts to live a spiritual life of some control over, and understanding of, our own lives, an experience of interbeing with the world which entails a positive and active response to the Presence and Reality we encounter.  Scott is right to point to the importance of creativity, to the possibility of change, but her portrayal of the personal God seems to disallow the deep communication which is the mark of a good relationship, whether it is between one human and another or between a human being and his sense of a wider Presence, of that which is not his ego.  However, I may have taken Scott's one phrase out of context, in which case I apologise.