Friendly Witness: The Spiritual Ground of Quaker Social Action4th mo. 19, 2023 from 1pm to 6pm
Quaker Theological Discussion Group 202312th mo. 1, 2023 at 8am to 12th mo. 2, 2023 at 10am
Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
OK, so let's get started. I remember the day in 1986 when I stood up before a fresh class of Friends Academy (Locust Valley, NY) 7th graders and started to teach Quakerism for the first time. And since the early Friends writings that had been so critical to me in returning to Christ were so inaccessible to young readers, I decided to just use the biblical narrative to introduce them to Quakerism. We started talking about the Bible as if it were just another book you would take off the shelf, and I surprised even me when I realized that it is a narrative that starts at the beginning of the creation and ends at the end of that same creation. It presents itself as if it were the complete story.
Early Friends did not use this kind of language in discussing the Bible. Like others of their time they did not use that kind of language - describing the Bible as a "narrative" - that language is comfortable to me because of the reading I've done in "narrrative theology" and in particular in reading Stanley Hauerwas. But early Friends did seem to see the book as containing truths that needed to be "interiorized." But we'll get to that as we go.
I think the most important books of the Bible to Fox and early Friends were Genesis and the Gospel of John, so going over Genesis will take a while - especially the first several chapters. The Bible I use is the Jerusalem Bible, but I often check multiple translations when the translation is particularly important.
Genesis 1 - There are two accounts of the creation in the first two chapters of Genesis. There is so much in the first chapter, that I will just deal with it today. In the first God creates the universe and the earth through the power of his Word, and the first "thing" created is Light - not the light of the sun or the moon - those lights come later, on day four. The separation of the waters below the dome of heaven and above it comes on day two, the gathering of the waters beneath the dome and the proliferation of the earth's vegetation comes on day three, the sun and moon and stars - necessary for calculating time and seasons - comes on day four, the teeming forth of life comes on day five, and then on day six, God creates the human species - both male and female - "in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them" (27). They are given the power to "conquer" the creation or "subdue" it, an authority early Friends saw as a power to both use and to care for, be responsible for. God rests after man is created.
For me the most interesting insights I've had on the first creation story are the following:
1. The creator in this story is fundamentally "other" that everything we can see. God is not created, not contingent in any way. But we are created and contingent, and there is no other way of our understanding any part of God's nature without accepting the lines that we are somehow "like" Him - male and female, we share qualities with God. Ludwig Feuerbach and later Karl Marx wrote that God was merely our "projection" of our human nature out onto the universe. The Bible supports this, and it will be for us one of the critical ways we come to understand anything about God or ourselves.
2. When you consider how ancient this literature is, it is amazing to me how profoundly "modern" it is - modern in the simultaneity of the creation of male and female, modern in the closeness to what evolutionary theory says about the order of things in the creation of the universe - not exact but close.
3. It gives us a view of "man" that is not easily charicatured. It claims for man a dignity and goodness that defies all that we know of man in the history that will unfold for him, but it shows us God's divine intention, the impetus and engine of the divine determination to redeem what he has created when it disappoints Him, a determination that we will see played out in the biblical narrative
So that is some of what I see in this chapter. I would love to know what others see that is important to them personally.
What does it mean to you that we are "created in God's image"?
I find it hard to separate Chap. 1 from Chap. 2 in Genesis. The belief that these are two stories from two different sources makes sense, but why did these two stories get put together and actually run together (even though the separation into Chaps and verses wasn't there originally.) I see the first story as a description of the physical world that is observed. The fact that Light comes before sun and moon indicates a belief in a power/energy behind the observed. The fact that the order of living things approximates evolutionary development indicates a keen observation of simple to more complex organisms, more or less depending on observations made at the time. The fact that there are male and female of each species and that is what is required to continue the species seemed quite logical. The culmination of the "image of God" seems to me to complete the sweep of the story from the beginning of Light to the fullest expression of God's interaction with "us."
The second chapter, I don't want to get ahead of this study but feel it necessary to tie the two together, seems to be much more a description of the "social" world as observed as "of course" this is different than the physical order.
I'd like to think of a way to feature it more, maybe I'll drop you an email about it. In the meantime, when writing a post, if you give it a tag of "bible" it will automatically show up in the Friends and the Bible page (I just now added the tag). And not to give you more work, but you might consider also adding a link to the relevant Quaker Bible Index listing for the passage, e.g.: Genesis 1-3. It's something I like to cross-reference when I have the extra time. Thanks again,
Tom's question... Should read 'Secret Origins' for full story, but basically you've got refugees from both conquered Hebrew kingdoms, living in Babylon, salvaging all that they can from differing sacred traditions, written and/or unwritten. Even the "written" stuff is more like sheet music for a recital than an English text; if you don't already know what it says from hearing it aloud, you'd have a hard time working it out!
This part doesn't necessarily see God as utterly other... It depends on how you conceive that "image". In childhood I heard this Methodist preacher talking about how this couldn't be our physical form, which is different in everybody. So, I understood, it's our mind and heart and soul that are "like" God, though confined within in our limited domain.
Later I started thinking of this from a (not successful) novelist's perspective... "We" create an imaginary world, but actually it's something within us that makes us want to create, and does the creating. "We" have unlimited power over our creation-- but for it to remain what it it, we have to limit our exercise of power, leave it to work out its own nature, in tune with the Spirit that creates.
"Projecting our own nature onto God."
We do instinctively project our own nature onto everything, including God. (Much bad theology stems from this!)
But truly it is God's nature that has been "breathed into" (next chapter) us.
As a favorite Pendle Hill teacher put it, you can understand Christ truly by
1) 'a high Christology and a low anthropology' [Christ is God but we aren't intrinsically, only via grace]
2) 'a low Christology and a high anthropology' [Christ is a man, and people are intrinsically embodied forms of God]
and of course, 'high & high' would be much like #2.
So in 'projecting our nature onto God', we are able to do this correctly to some extent, because there is this core Life in us that actually is "the same 'stuff'. " (& how does thee like the first chapters of 'John'?)
What does it mean to you that we are "created in God's image"?
I'm writing . . . to give you . . . my experience . . . of your question.
When I was 12 . . . I was a big fan of Moses. And when Moses died . . . I sat on the edge of my bed and cried.
When I was 21 . . . I spent seven months of intense prayer seeking God . . . while praying . . . seeking God . . . Jesus appeared and I spent time on his lap . . . he answered all of my questions that I had at that time. He showed me . . . my beginning . . . I saw myself come out of God. I was totally amazed.
When God looks at any human . . . he sees himself.
He has a wonderful plan for everyone . . . when we give up everything and return to where we came from.
When I was 12 the Bible was number 1. When I was 21 God became number 1.
The comparison you make, Forrest, between God and yourself as the creator of a narrative of your own, is so true. I too have written a novel, and it was an amazingly wonderful experience. But it is true what you say. I thought I knew what I was going to create, but by the time I'd worked my way through the story to the end, the characters had grown separate from me to a certain extent, and I had to go back and make the story's early chapters more consistent with where it ended. My "vision" of God is very much shaped by my own strengths, my own particular imagination. I remember sitting around a faculty lunch table at the school where I was working and talking about how we "saw" God differently depending on our area of expertise. For me God was very much an "author" and creator of history. For the science and math teachers, God was so much more a creator of laws and systems. We denigrate "imagination" but it is an important faculty in us. My imagination and my human capacity to see the universe and seek to grasp truths about it, my capacity to love in a very large way makes me feel that something "like" me, like "us," is utterly necessary - these realities cannot be without a larger context.
I think the most important question raised by the first chapter of Genesis is, what does it mean to be created "in the image of God"? In God's proposal to do this, in verse 26, and then in the next verse, where he actually does it, being created in the image of God is associated with dominion, rulership over all the earth. It seems to be a shadow of God's sovereignty that is conferred by his "image".
In our modern technological mastery, we often take this dominion for granted and are surprised when an earthquake/tsunami or a hurricane comes along—forces that we actually cannot control. But when these words were written, the occasional and tentative triumphs of human mastery of "all the creatures that move along the ground" must have seemed like more of a promise and a surprise than a given.
Probably written during the Babylonian exile, certainly this story is based on the Baylonian creation myth, the enemu elish. But it's a radical re-write: the plot is basically the same but the characters are completely different and so is the narrative meaning. Instead of creating the world and its gods through copulation, as the Babylonian version has it, there is only God (one god) and his creation, the human; creation is effected through speech, the word of God; and all that he creates is essentially 'secular'—the creations (the sun, moon, oceans, etc) have no gods associated with them, they have no spiritual animation or identity, there is nothing sacred about them, except their "goodness", conferred upon them by the Word. They are just what they are, desacralized and 'natural.'
All of this was truly revolutionary at the time.
<i> and all that he creates is essentially 'secular'—the creations (the sun, moon, oceans, etc) have no gods associated with them, they have no spiritual animation or identity, there is nothing sacred about them, except their "goodness", conferred upon them by the Word. They are just what they are, desacralized and 'natural.'</i>
That's a really good point. Thank you.
I interpret it slightly differently. I subscribe to a panentheistic view of god, where (s)he penetrates and co-exists with creation. So following John's gospel, I guess, I would see this as God animating the world through (his/her) presence. Creation is animated through speech, and through the breath. So the creations have no gods, but are interpenetrated by God. All of creation is sacred, but its a sacredness of unity.
If that made any sense at all...