Tuesday, 24 April 2018

What Are "The Things Which Are Eternal"?

A long exposure photograph of a cloudless night sky, showing the path of apparent motion of stars in the sky as the Earth rotates.
“Seek to know one another in the things which are eternal”. It's a popular phrase, made particularly well-known by it's inclusion in Britain Yearly Meeting's Advices and queries, number 18. It falls easily from our lips, and a lot of people seem to put a lot of emotional investment in the idea, but what does it mean?
In my experience, Friends often seem to use the phrase in a way that is rather non-specific. Much like “that of God in every one”, its meaning seems to be in the moment, in whatever form is useful to the speaker. Usually, it seems to add a sort of warm fuzz to the idea of getting to know one another, that it means getting to know one another in a deep sense, rather than a superficial one. You might know what someone does for living, but it is knowing them in a deeper way to find out that they paint landscapes, or write poetry. This is a reasonable distinction to make, and the idea that we, as Friends, should know one another well is a laudable one. Is this really “the things which are eternal”? Certainly, there's a degree to which meanings change with time and context, especially as society changes – or as our Religious Society changes.
But just like “that of God”, it has an original meaning – obscure and debatable as it might be, depending on analysis of the semantics of someone writing long ago, with both time and linguistic drift between them and us. When we use the phrase, we invoke that original sense. We are referencing an injunction by Fox – and while we should not, in my opinion, feel bound by the teachings of Fox, we should at least not misrepresent them excessively, not appropriate them for a completely different meaning. As in that case, we need not feel ourselves completely bound to exactly what Fox meant, even assuming we could determine that with perfect confidence; as our understandings change, the context in which the idea operates changes. However, the broad sense of the intent should be preserved, or we should not use the quote.
What then, is this original meaning? The best we have to go on is the text itself, understood in the context of language and culture of the time. The few words in Advices and queries, however, are a tiny sample of the whole text from which they are drawn. Slightly more of that text appears in Quaker faith & practice, in the chapter on approaches to God, the section on Meeting for Worship – indeed, opening that section – as paragraph 2.35. This reads “Friends, meet together and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was.” Slight change in wording of the operative phrase aside, given they can be explained by making the phrase better fit the context of the advice, this changes the sense in two obvious and important ways. Firstly, it clarifies the meaning of “that which is eternal” with a subordinate clause, “which was before the world was”. Second, it uses the phrase as part of a prescription, an admonition – that “we meet together”. There's a more subtle difference as well, which I shall return to in a moment.
Taking the injunction first, Fox urging us to “meet together”. We shall look at the original context of this quote a little later, which will clarify (or muddy) things further, but I will say that it is respected by the location of the quote with Qf&p – in the Meeting for Worship section. This quote refers to Meeting for Worship. It would not be excessive to suggest that, with modern understanding, it might apply to other spiritual activities. On the other hand, it would certainly be a major departure to suggest that it applies to social activities. Fox did not mean, and we should not mean, “getting to know people” in any conventional, everyday sense. We come to known one another in that which is eternal not by getting to know them, but by sharing spiritual experiences with them.
The understanding of “that which is eternal” as also being “[that] which was before the world was” is, in the context of Christianity in Fox's day, tautological, so it is actually convenient that he saw fit to give that clarification. Perhaps it was for the benefit of those less versed in Christian understanding, or to make sure that people understood it in the correct sense. That is because “eternal” is understood to mean something different from “everlasting” or “perpetual”. I'm aware that there are different opinions about this distinction; I am writing from my best understanding, which I consider to be consistent with the matter in question at this time. I'd love to have conversations about the distinction (or not) between these concepts, but for the purposes of this post, let's leave be and work with my definitions.
That which is eternal has no beginning or end, or perhaps exists independent of time. That which is everlasting or perpetual, on the other hand, has no end, but may have a beginning. The idea of “eternal” in philosophy is distinguished into sempiternal and eternal, that is having infinite duration but existing within time, versus existing outside of time and thus duration being meaningless; that distinction is unlikely to have been in the mind of early Friends, and the difference is not entirely relevant to the matter at hand. What does matter is that we can see here that Fox's idea of eternal is not just that which continues without end, but that which (for all human purposes) exists without beginning – which “was before the world was”. In the context of early Quaker Christian spirituality, this can only mean one thing, though even early Friends had many names for it – the (Holy) Spirit, the Seed, the Light, or the plain and simple God.
This brings us to an appropriate stage to point out the third difference between the verbatim (if truncated) quote and the paraphrase in Advices & queries. The paraphrase refers to “the things which are eternal”; the quote refers to “that which is eternal”. As any eagle-eyed grammarians among you will have noticed, the paraphrase leads to a shift from the singular to the plural. For Fox and the early Friends, as with many Friends of different beliefs today, the Spirit, the Divine – whatever we might call it – is singular. What a shift of meaning it is, then, in that change from singular to plural. What might have been the intention of those Friends who drafted Advices & queries, in that change? I'm not in a position to do the documentary research involved, but it would be interesting to investigate when the change was introduced; was it in the drafting of these Advices & queries, or were they drawing on some earlier source that had made the change?
Let us assume, perhaps generously, that the drafting, at whatever stage it may have occurred, was informed by the Spirit. Let us consequently assume that whatever essential meaning, some eternally valid meaning, that underlies both the original text and the modern, is valid with both the plural and the singular. This is a difficult leap, for it suggest that there be some meaning deeper than the idea of God in the original text, some idea that can also be approached in the plural. It is tempting to think that this might be a pointer towards a universalist approach to the intersection of monotheism and polytheism, but that feels to me as though it misses the point. As nice as it would be to make this assumption of a common meaning, it does not seem readily supportable until and unless we have a clear idea of what that might be.
So, let us confine ourselves to the meaning of the original, for now. After all, while the more recent text is a paraphrase, it is clearly evoking the authority (such as it is) of the original. The original is actually from an epistle of George Fox, as collected in A Collection of Many Select and Christian Epistles, Letters and Testimonies Written on Sundry Occasions by … George Fox (volume 1). It would be rather excessively long to include here, so I shall quote some, and summarise the rest.
It is also worth noting the fairly apocalyptic, and unquestionably Christian language of the epistle. This is entirely normal for early Friends, and especially for Fox; where liberal Friends have found that Christianity is not essential to be a Quaker, still we must own the Christian language of early Friends. Whatever your reason for believing that such unabashedly Christian roots can lead to our pluralistic Society today, they must cope with the fact that early Friends, particularly of the first generation, were definitively Christian. For me, it is simply a case that I believe that this Christianity was not essential to the truth that was revealed to early Friends; it was revealed to them thus as the easiest path for the Light to take, given their existing beliefs and social context. The same principles could occur with other faith bases. This, of course, cannot be proven either way; it is a matter for individual belief.
The epistle begins with a basic expression of the idea of Quaker Meeting for Worship, that we “meet together, and in the measure of God's spirit wait, that with it all your minds may be guided up to God, to receive wisdom from God”. Then follows the text in question – the injunction “and Friends meet together, and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was”. So far, so “going to Meeting is good”, uncontroversial, and frankly not terribly illuminating. But let us see the context a little further.
And Friends meet together, and know one another in that which is eternal, which was before the world was. For knowing one another only in the letter and flesh, differs you little from the beasts of the field; for what they know they know naturally. But all knowing one another in the light which was before the world was, this differs you from the beasts of the field, and from the world's knowledge, and brings you to know one another in the elect seed which was before the world was. And if ye turn from this light ye grow strange; and so neglecting meetings ye grow cold, and your minds run into the earth and grow weary and slothful, and careless, and heavy, and sottish, and dull, and dead.”
Here we get some clearer idea of what knowing one another in that which is eternal actually means, at least by reference to what it is not, and what its effects are. Such knowledge is distinguished from “knowing one another … in the letter and flesh”, which is further elaborated with reference to the “beasts of the field”, and “the world's knowledge”. Now, one must remember that in many cases (though likely not all), early Friends' references to “the world” have a distinct theological meaning, referring to the world of the fallen and ungodly. The possibility of this meaning must be in our minds when we try to understand this epistle, though in this case it may not be entirely relevant. I suspect that here the knowledge of beasts is the large part of what Fox refers to as knowing one another in the flesh, and the world's knowledge is knowing one another in the letter. We might say, then, that knowing one another in the flesh is know one another physically – recognising one another, knowing each other's ability. Then knowing one another in the letter is to know one another intellectually, knowing about one another's likes and dislikes, knowing what we each do in the world, knowing one another's preferred pastimes, preferred foods, and so on. Knowing one another in that which is eternal is then beyond that, not something that can be achieved through social activities, but as the epistle goes on to make clear, only through shared spiritual activities. More specifically, by joining in Worship. Personally, I cannot agree that Meeting for Worship is the only way to achieve this, for reasons that I shall explain later.
This section of the epistle continues, however, to explain the perils of failing to “meet together, and know one another in that which is eternal”. It is this meeting and knowing, says Fox, that allows us to continue in the Light, and to be guided by it throughout our lives. Otherwise we “grow strange” and “grow cold”, our “minds run into the earth” and so on. Indeed, the epistle continues in that vein, with dire imprecations for our immortal souls. One interesting point is the assertion that, having gone from the Light and neglected meetings, we “may speak then of things which were opened once from the light, though now ye be turned from it”. This is rather in line with the early Quakers' rejection of “profession” as an element of faith; there is no shibboleth, no way to test by speech or knowledge whether a person is a faithful Friend. Indeed, there is a clear scriptural basis for this: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21 NIV). In Christian terms, we Quakers seek to know the will of God, that we might do it, and it is this seeking and doing that makes us Quakers. To be a Quaker is to partake in prophetic faith, and the Bible also has something to say about prophets: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:1517)
It may seem strange for me to reference scripture in this way. In this case, it is natural, as this is the language of the early Friends – and that is what we are considering. That's not the only reason, though. While I don't consider scripture anything special, it's no less a source of wisdom than anything else – and “by their fruits” is a concept that has clear value. Anyway, back to the matter at hand.
Most of the rest of the epistle is continuing to riff on the themes already established, though there is also a call not to “boast yourselves above your measure of light”. This is an important point, and one that I feel I will likely return to in future, but it is a fairly distinct point from the rest of the epistle.
Thus, taken as a whole, what we might take from the epistle is thus: it is in meeting together, in Meeting for Worship, that we attain knowledge and transformation from the Light. We cannot sustain that illumination on our own, and require the discipline and cooperative action of Meeting for Worship to do so. If it is not sustained, we turn from it; or, as both causalities seem to be implied, if we turn from it we cease to go to Meeting for Worship. Then all sorts of bad things happen, even if we might continue to profess beliefs and knowledge attained in the Light.
It's an interesting proposition, theologically. It certainly fits easily with the idea of total depravity, that man is of a fallen and sinful nature which can only be overcome through the grace of God. It also implies that this grace is not irresistible, as we are capable of turning from it by our own choice; if we assume that total depravity is followed in its entirety, the grace must be prevenient – as total depravity postulates that grace is necessary in order to choose to overcome sinful nature. However, it seems a largely theoretical question, as one might consider that this initial prevenient grace is freely given; then there is no practical distinction between total depravity and freely given prevenient grace, and a slightly less than total depravity. In any case, it clearly implies an idea of depravity, from which we may be saved by grace, but into which we fall once more if we turn from grace.
The more specifically Quaker element is that grace is mediated through a collective act. To obtain the full benefit, to become more removed from depravity, the epistle says that it is essential that we meet together and worship; we can assume that Fox intended this to refer only to Quaker worship, though we may to choose to differ from him on this point. For now, I take no position on this matter.
Now, for me depravity in the Christian sense means little; the idea of sinful nature is not an important one to me (though considering this in the context of my thoughts on a liberal Quaker concept of sin would be very interesting, it is not a conjunction that I will explore today). I would say that each of us, much in the spirit of Miaphysitism, has a single nature of two characters. We might call the overall “human nature”. These two characters are distinct, yet joined without separation or mixture. One of those might be called “better nature”, and the other “baser nature”. I think of them as “selfless” and “selfish”, most often, though that is still misleading; our selfless nature still requires us to selfish sometimes, and we might do things that appear to be selfless out of selfish drives. The two are so close that we cannot always know which is driving us. One might call them “divine” and “sinful”. When Fox spoke of the Light showing him the darkness within, the capability for all crimes, that was for me the cognisance of this baser nature.
So in a sense, there is depravity; but there is also as part of us the complement of depravity. We might say that we all have an inherent measure of grace within our natures. What the Light does for us is enable us to know one from the other. Our mental faculties, our capacity for reason, are not very good at guiding us ethically. No system of formal ethics can properly account for the range of human experience. All people then need the guidance of the Inward Teacher, though they may call it different names, or not even recognise its existence.
I suspect all people are guided by the Inward Teacher from time to time, when they allow it, though they may not know it. That gut feeling of right and wrong comes not from our capacity to reason, but from the Light. Do I then disagree with Fox's assertion that the Light is essential, and thus Meeting for Worship is essential? Yes... and no.
No, I do not think it is essential to have any particular spiritual practice, or indeed any discernible spiritual practice, to be guided by the Light. That is all that can be said without simply proceeding to excessive waffle.
But I do think that corporate spiritual practice is essential to fully realise the influence of the Light, to build awareness of the Inward Teacher, to come to know the Divine as it is revealed to you. I do not see that Meeting for Worship is the only practice that can do this, but it is particularly well suited to attain this outcome – because it is designed and intended for that outcome and no other. Other spiritual practices not so intended may be useful in this way, while others may positively get in the way, substituting the wisdom of hierarchical priesthood for the guidance of the Spirit.
In our world today, however, this raises one very important question – what of those Friends who do not attend Meeting for Worship regularly? Those isolated by lack of Meeting nearby, or those who are unable, for whatever reason, to attend their local Meeting – are they cut off from this corporate grace, this most efficacious method of gaining the benefit of the Light that is in us all? Surely that would be an unacceptable outcome.
Well, while I think it is best if Friends attend Meeting for Worship regularly, for any number of reasons, I do not think it is the only way to be a faithful Friend. There are other spiritual practices common to Quakers, even individual prayer, that can fill that gap. More importantly, there are other ways of sharing spiritual experience and fellowship that do not require physical co-presence. Meeting for Worship via some form of telepresence is one, of course, but so is engaging in thoughtful spiritual exchange by other methods. The internet has amazing potential for spiritual purposes, even if it is also fraught with peril.
For those unable to attend a local Meeting due to illness, infirmity, or impairments that make Meeting for Worship difficult – or simply due to not being able to make the usual time for Meeting – there are ways to modify our activities. We can reach out, when we know such Friends are in our area, and offer them Worship in their own home, or some other suitable location. We can offer alternatively timed Meetings, which might differ in some other way. We can have shorter Meetings, “fiddle-friendly” Meetings, or Meetings where all those present know that they may be sharing Worship with people who cannot avoid “disruptive” movements or utterances.
For those too remote, I see we have another duty, other than just offering support via technology. Liberal Quakers seem to spend a fair amount of time laying down Meetings, but very little establishing new ones. Let us keep track of where there are remote Friends, and see if there are enough near some common point to start a Meeting. Let us not forget that anywhere with any population might have people already living there who would attend Meeting for Worship if they had they faintest idea what it was – or that it existed. Let us consider experimental Meetings, or worship groups, where we provide support – material and spiritual – for outreach to see if a new Meeting might be established. Indeed, there may be places where there are already considerable numbers of active enquirers who wish to know more, but are stymied by the lack of a local Meeting. FWCC, and its constituent sections, do some work in this area, but mostly in places where there are no established Meetings; in a country or area with an established Yearly Meeting, they generally – as I understand it – refer people to the appropriate YM, who generally then don't do very much.
To know one another in that which is eternal is to share our grace, our Light, our spiritual experience. It goes beyond the sort of knowing that might come from social activities and icebreakers; indeed, it is of an entirely different character. Meeting for Worship is an effective way to do so, but it is not the only way, and indeed may be supplemented by other spiritual activities to greater effect. Do not look down on solitary Friends; instead, look at how they might be helped, might have the opportunity to know others in that which is eternal.
For it comes down to this – to know one another in that which is eternal is to know the Divine, and to know the Divine is to know one another in this way; they are two sides of one coin, and we can only promote one by also promoting the other.
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