George Fox: post-Reformation theologian

The Church in God is not in imitation, gathered from the letter, nor is it a high-flown people in their imaginations, but they who are born again of the immortal seed, by the Word of God, which lives and endures forever… which word is God, which word became flesh, and dwelt among us

… And this is the word by which the saints are born again… but all you now who put the letter for the word, and have got it in your minds, and gather assemblies by it, this you cannot witness, and it is ignorance for you to say, the letter is the word; when the letter saith, God is the word.  –Works of George Fox, Vol. IV, 1831 (p.18)

Lately I have been re-reading Fox’s journal and getting into his epistles and other tracts written 1648-1690.  I’m ready to call this able founder of the Religious Society of Friends one of Christianity’s earliest post-Reformation theologians – if not the first, at any rate an important forerunner of the next theology.

Fox bore his testimony to an age quite different from that of Luther and Calvin.  His England was more than 100 years removed from early Wittenberg and Geneva and over 40 years beyond the Synod of Dort.  Note how he satisfies my three post-Reformation criteria:

(1) He was post-Protestant: Fox was highly critical of key points of classical Protestant theology as these were manifested in the order and preaching of English Protestantism;

(2) He was post-Catholic:  his resistance to Protestant formulae was not reactionary in the establishment sense; he was perhaps even more unsympathetic with the heirarchy and traditions of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches; 

(3) He was faithfully constructive:  George Fox was an impeccable Christian and a successful innovator in theology, worship, prayer, and church organization.  His foundational spiritual principle was the fruit of a real experience, and bore its own spiritual fruit in all he did and all he suffered on its behalf.

I find Fox to be a little uneven in his polemics, but I hear truth in the burden of his message about the seed and light, etc., that enlightens every man.  I can excuse his polemics in view of the rough treatment he got from his fellow Christians.  But I can’t help noticing that the part of his message which resonates most with me relies heavily on those places in John’s Gospel which find no echo in the other three Gospels.  OK then.  Fox is writing in pre-critical times, but what is my excuse? Where am I getting this feeling that John knows what he’s talking about, whereas a current academic majority which holds his writings in low esteem does not?

I was sent ‘to turn people from darkness to the light,’ which Christ, the second Adam, did enlighten them withal; that so they may see Christ, their way to God, with the spirit of God, which he doth pour upon all flesh.  –Works, Vol. VII (p.2)

No necessary link between atheism and humanism?

[Revised Sept 18, 2010 – changes in boldface]

I recently found a very stimulating set of posts going back to July over at The Immanent Frame, featuring critiques and discussion of Stefanos Geroulanos’ new book, entitled An Atheism that is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought (Stanford U Press 2010).

In two related posts, Geroulanos outlines the development of an anti-humanist line of thought among high-profile French atheists writing from 1925-55.  What follows is not a review of the book (there’s a link to the book at the site).  This is a simple Sunday afternoon take-off from my view of the book’s historical thesis.

I suggest that these French writers have uncovered a truth about atheism as well as a “new” negative view of humanism.  This discovery was made available to them in the chaos of their unique experience of the apocalyptic failure of civilization between 1914-1939.  Leaving aside the meaning of this collapse for Christian sectarianism (which is certainly implicated and condemned in that catastrophe as well, in my view), I would argue that the atheist’s sudden aversion to humanism represents more than a ‘localized’ historical artifact.  It seems more likely the case that the intensity of the historical crucible in which they lived and thought had attained the specific toxicity required to show the link between the two to be dissolved – proving atheism and humanism to be ultimately unrelated.

I’m tempted to go so far as to suggest that all philosophical atheisms which call themselves “humanist” are simply naive – that atheism has always had the seed of anti-humanism within it.  Admittedly that’s a bit of a stretch.  I doubt Geroulanos would consent to all or any of my conjectures, but I can say he has caused some wheels to turn from my side.

And I’m perfectly cognizant of the fact that there is a brand of theism whose anthropology might be called anti-humanist as well.  This theistic anti- humanism is not new, however, and I believe it is wrong, and that the true Christianity is one which has the seed of a true pro-humanism within it.  But this could be easily misunderstood.

Still interesting, I think, to consider both atheism and humanism as quite independent impulses rather than joined at the hip, as all of our benevolent and self-righteous new atheists imply.

Tillich: Against idolization of prelimary concerns as ultimate

Ultimate concern is the abstract translation of the great commandment:  “The Lord, our God, the Lord is one; … (etc., Mk 12:29).

“The religious concern is ultimate; it excludes all other concerns from ultimate significance; it makes them preliminary….  Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy.  Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted into universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance (the best example is the contemporary idolatry of religious nationalism).  The conflict between the finite basis of such a concern and its infinite claim leads to a conflict of ultimates; it radically contradicts the biblical commandments….

“Theology cannot and should not give judgments about the aesthetic value of an artistic creation, about the scientific value of a physical theory or a historical conjecture, about the best methods of medical healing or social reconstruction, about the solution of political or international conflicts.  The theologian as theologian is no expert in any matters of preliminary concern.  And, conversely, those who are experts in these matters should not as such claim to be experts in theology.”  (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Vol. I, p.11-13)

I have noticed that Christians are prone to this idolatry described by Tillich when they attempt to discern the relation of their own political and social roles to the text of the great commandment, “… and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”  But I see enough value in Tillich’s theological criterion to attempt its use under the conditions he imposes.  Certainly there must be a possible inward response to the biblical command which does not translate these ancient words as a call for an outward theocracy. 

“Physical or historical or psychological insights can become objects of theology, not from the point of view of their cognitive form, but from the point of view of their power of revealing some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately in and through their cognitive form.  Social ideas and actions, legal projects and procedures, political programs and decisions, can become objects of theology, not from the point of view of their social, legal and political form, but from the point of view of their power of actualizing some aspects of that which concerns us ultimately in and through their social, legal, and political forms.” (p.13-14)

Rhetoric, or possibility?  The subtlety of the distinction Tillich draws here is in need of fleshing out (which he does in the rest of his Introduction).  But I have known a few Evangelicals and Catholics for whom it is too much trouble – who interpret the great commandment in a manner Tillich would call idolatrous.  As if nothing in the whole world could be called “subtle” except the so-called devil, and all his works.

The retrieval of that which is lost

Last Sunday afternoon in a certain city, a dusty and over-stuffed automobile stopped in an empty public parking lot, where its driver made a cell phone call.  He then drove to a shady corner of the lot and parked.  Less than ten minutes later, a second vehicle entered the lot and came to a stop near the first.  Both drivers got out of their cars and greeted one another, after which the driver of the second car opened his trunk to display an open box.  The first driver, after examining the contents of the box with approval, gave the other man a sum of money and put the box in his own car.  After a short conversation, the buyer got into his car and departed the lot, heading out of town.  The seller drove off in another direction.

J. Brierley ("J.B.") 1843-1914

On the face of it, an observer might have seen this transaction as anything but what it was – my pre-arranged purchase, while driving home from vacation, of eight rare volumes by Jonathan Brierley, a popular religious essayist of the early twentieth century.  The book dealer, 250 miles from my hometown, had agreed the week before by email to meet me on short notice while I passed through town, and sell me the books in a cash deal without postage and handling costs.

Interesting to note, it had been almost a year earlier that I had first spotted the collection online – just after returning home from a previous vacation in which I had passed through that same city.  Nevertheless, I felt no compulsion to order them at the time, but conceived of the possibility of executing the transaction as I did, in the current year.  I was almost certain I would not lose my opportunity, even if I should let an entire year pass, because I have noticed that nobody on Earth is yet seeking the forgotten books and authors which I hold to be crucial to the next theology.

More on Brierley in the sequel.