Sunday, 25 February 2018

The Death of Fox

Engraving of George Fox
From the title of this post, you might have supposed that it was going to be a sort of tailpiece biography, covering the time shortly before and after the actual death of George Fox. Another possible interpretation would be that I was, out of all character, joining in with the sporadic habit of some Quakers online, bemoaning how unlike Fox most Quakers are today.
In either case, I'm afraid you're going to be disappointed. Rather, it is a reference to The Death of the Author, an essay by the French literary critic and author Roland Barthes (it's original French title itself being a play on the title of Le Mort d'Arthur, but that's too tangential a path for me to dive down here), and of the literary theory concepts that derive from it.
The essential principle of the essay, and the related (but separately posited) theory of the “intentional fallacy”, is that the author is not the authority when it comes to the meaning of a piece of work. Once an author has created a work, they might tell you what their intent was, you might infer it from other sources, but intent is not the determining factor of meaning. I don't say that this theory is universally accepted in the study of literature; I also probably don't understand it perfectly, not having studied literary theory or analysis, so please don't rely on my explanation (or lecture me too harshly if you know it better – I'm glad to learn more, but please keep it friendly).
This may be seen as related to the most generally accepted theory of pedagogic epistemology (the study of knowledge is, in the context of learning), where various forms of constructivist theory are dominant – social constructivism being particularly notable, but that distinction isn't relevant here. This is the idea that, rather than being transmitted from instructor to learner, knowledge is constructed in the mind of the learner; the job of the instructor is to provide the material, environment and stimulation to permit that construction. While you might memorise facts by rote, true knowledge and understanding are only attained when the learner constructs their knowledge internally – and that each person's construction of the “same” knowledge may be quite different.
We may see meaning, then, as also constructed in the mind of each person. Intention is one thing, but meaning is another. In one of the English language's little quirks, one can impart meaning without meaning to – the source of many a verbal “foot in mouth” moment. We must then not confuse the meaning we see in text, or art, or music, with the intention of the person who created it, nor should an author attempt to control what others see in their work. You might see meaning in my writing that I did not intend; I can deny that intention until I am blue in the face, but I cannot take away the meaning that you have perceived. Whether my intention is at all relevant to the meaning is an area certainly open to debate, as literary theorists have persisted in since the rise of post-structuralism and postmodernism. Meaning, whether you might consider it mistaken or not, is in the mind of the consumer.
So, back to Fox. George Fox is held up as the originator of the Religious Society of Friends, of Quaker learning and teaching and principles; his influence is unquestionable, but the uniqueness of his impact is debatable, and many strands of thought went into the faith and practice of the early Friends. For the sake of discussion, however, let us take “Fox” as a shorthand for the dominant strain of thought of early Quakers. This thought was unquestionably and specifically Christian, unquestionably deeply critical of paid ministers (or “hireling priests”) and of any priestly class, deeply disapproving of the hierarchical and authoritative structures of the Church, dismissive of empty profession of belief, and scathing of taking received wisdom in the interpretation of scripture. It was unabashedly evangelical, with not a little resentment of Quaker “outreach” of the time stemming from the habit of disrupting church services or nights in the tavern with outspoken and vociferous exhortations on the wrongness of people's current habits and how they should change their lives. “Ministers” were recognised for their gift of spoken (and sometimes written) ministry, and had – at least in principle – no authority beyond that.
Where in the Quaker world are Quakers like those of Fox's day? Where we have kept our silent meetings and minimisation of an effective priestly class, we have abandoned our forceful outreach – and in many cases any expectation of Christianity. Where we have kept both outreach and Christianity, we have reduced or effectively abandoned the practice of silent worship and the rejection of paid ministers. Indeed, I'm not aware of any branch of the Society still going in to the steeple-houses to berate those present for their spiritual moribundity (and no, I'm not suggesting we should).
Have we then failed the charge set us by the early Friends? Has the Quaker way become diluted and corrupted, falling short of the dream?
I don't think so.
You see, that dream was always one of a living faith, a faith not held down by the understandings and expectations of the past. If we clung tightly to the understandings of Fox and his contemporaries, that faith would, long before now, have become as dead as those early Friends considered that of the churchgoers. So each of us, as individuals and as branches of the Religious Society of Friends, looks back at the work and teachings of early Friends, and sees in them different meaning. There can be much to be gained by trying to work out the intent behind them – as I have done in one of the more popular posts on this blog, concerning “that of God in every one”. However, that is only the intent, or if you prefer, the intended meaning. It does not limit the meaning that we see now. Indeed, given our habit of waiting on the Spirit and seeking to inform our insights through inspiration from the Divine, we might hope that the meanings we construct now are so guided.
Yet if that is true, how are we so diverse in our understandings, in the way that the teachings of the early Friends have evolved among us? Well, in what some might consider a surprising (or hypocritical) move from me, I'm reaching for an explanation from the Bible. I do not consider it hypocritical myself, as I believe in finding wisdom wherever we might find it. I might reach in the same way for an explanation from the Pāli Canon, or the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, or even the writings of Aleister Crowley, though growing up in the UK, even in an irreligious household, leaves me more familiar with the Bible. It is a biblical quotation that will be familiar to many Quakers, often used here in Britain in the context of nominations:
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but they all come from the same Spirit. There are different ways to serve the same Lord, and we can each do different things. Yet the same God works in all of us and helps us in everything we do.
You may recognise this as 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 (the translation in question is the Contemporary English Version, which I found on Bible Gateway and, at least for this section, I quite like). I very much doubt I will be the first person to use it to argue for any sort of universalism. You see, we all – in all the branches of the Society, at all points in our history – may be assumed to have been working faithfully and seeking to serve “the Lord” as we understand it. The same may be said for all faiths, indeed, but here I am speaking only of Quakers.
There are different ways to serve the Spirit, and we fulfil several different ways across the worldwide family of Friends. None of us are wrong simply by being different from one another, or different from the early Friends. As we read scripture, or Quaker writings, or other holy books, or even literature, we see meaning, and that meaning is there – and is meaningful to us. The Spirit moves us, and it moves us in different ways, but we need not be afraid of that.
Fox is dead. Long live the Spirit.
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