Friday, 16 March 2012

Why Do We Blame the Victim? In Defence of James Nayler

Advices and Queries no.35 - Respect the laws of the state but let your first loyalty be to God's purposes.

In the authorised version of Quaker history it is received wisdom that James Nayler, although a man of deep spirituality with a significant gift for preaching and writing, was an unstable and ‘Ranterish’ character who brought the Quaker community into disrepute. This perspective assumes that it was Nayler’s conduct in Bristol in 1656 that forced the movement to exercise greater control over its more turbulent adherents by establishing a system of corporate structures and community discipline. I want to argue that modern Quakers should question this received wisdom by adopting a sceptical and critical approach to all narratives that seek to explain events in a way that blames the victims for the suffering and persecution they endure. I will try to do this with reference to the actions of Jesus in ‘cleansing the Jewish Temple’ and modern examples of civil disobedience.

Nayler’s Ride into Bristol

On a rainy Friday afternoon on 24 October 1656 James Nayler entered the City of Bristol accompanied by a small group of bedraggled followers. They led him on a horse as they waded through the muddy streets singing ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel’. This was clearly and intentionally a re-enactment of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on ‘Palm Sunday’. However, like this biblical scene, Nayler’s re-enactment did not bear the hallmarks of a ‘triumphant’ display of earthly power. Instead it seemed to represent an inversion of the world’s expectations. Nevertheless, the entire party was arrested and taken to jail. Those in power within the English Commonwealth, who had become increasingly alarmed by the rapid growth and subversive nature of the Quaker movement, saw this as a perfect opportunity to crack down on Friends by making an example of Nayler. He was taken to London to be tried by Parliament for blasphemy even though this assembly had no legal jurisdiction to do this. The charge of blasphemy rested on the accusation that Nayler was claiming to be Jesus Christ. However, as his testimony to Parliament makes clear the Bristol event was an outward sign dramatising the Quaker belief that Christ had returned in spirit and would dwell within all who accepted him. He said:

"I do abhor that any honours due God should be given to me as I am a creature, but it pleased the Lord to set me up as a sign of the coming of the righteous one. . . I was commanded by the power of the Lord to suffer it to be done to the outward man as a sign, but I abhor any honour as a creature.

Despite this unequivocal statement, the political objectives of Parliament far outweighed any consideration of justice and Nayler was convicted of ‘horrid blasphemy’. Only narrowly avoiding execution he was sentenced to a particularly brutal form of punishment. This included being pilloried and receiving 310 lashes through the streets of London which very nearly killed him. He was pilloried again and had his forehead branded with a letter B for blasphemer and his tongue bored through with a hot iron. Following a largely ritualistic flogging in Bristol, he was imprisoned for an indefinite period at Bridewell. After his sentencing Nayler responded:

God has given me a body; he shall, I hope, give me a spirit to endure it. The Lord lay not these things to your charge. pray heartily that he may not.

The Punishment of James Nayler

The case was used to maximum effect for propaganda purposes and in the aftermath Quakers suffered more intensive persecution at the hands of the authorities. Nayler was all but disowned by significant sections of the Quaker movement due to the alleged damage he had caused and for daring to challenge the leadership of George Fox (there had been significant conflict between the two men in the lead-up to the Bristol incident and Nayler’s followers were instrumental in pressing his leadership claims). Although Nayler was later released from prison and reconciled with the wider Quaker movement, his health was broken and he died in October 1660 after being robbed while travelling home to Yorkshire to visit his family.

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

Jesus’ ‘triumphal’ entry into Jerusalem represents the beginning of the end of his ministry. Shortly after this event, Jesus visited the Temple in Jerusalem which was the centre of Jewish worship and viewed figuratively as the ‘footstool’ of God’s presence. It is difficult to over-estimate the religious and political significance of this sacred place. Having witnessed what was going on in the Temple during his first visit, Jesus returned the next day and drove the money changers and all those involved in buying and selling from of the Temple courtyard accusing them of turning it into “a den of robbers”. It would appear that this action sealed Jesus’ fate. The Sadducees, who were part of the Jewish elite and collaborators with the Roman occupiers, decided that Jesus was a subversive and a threat to social order. In order to protect their power and privilege, he had to be neutralised. Not long after, Jesus was arrested by the Temple authorities who, in collusion with the Romans, had him executed by crucifixion. His followers scattered and the Jesus movement appeared to have been crushed. As we know however this was by no means the end of the story.

Jesus Cleanses the Temple

How do we respond to the actions of Jesus in the Temple courtyard? If we apply the approach traditionally used to interpret the ‘Nayler incident’ we will have to conclude that Jesus’ behaviour was irresponsible, blasphemous and downright provocative. It was bound to get him into trouble, endanger his followers and bring his movement into disrepute. He deliberately caused a disturbance within Judaism’s most sacred place and threatened social order in the circumstances of Roman military occupation. Was this not madness? Did Jesus have a death-wish?

Modern Non-violent Action

In the modern era we have seen many important examples of individuals and groups choosing to consciously break the law or contravene social conventions as a form of non-violent action.

Gandhi on the Salt March

The architect of modern non-violent resistance, Mohandas Gandhi, used a method of non-violent direct action he called Satyagraha in the struggle for Indian independence. In the Salt March of 1930 Gandhi organised a massive campaign of civil disobedience to protest about the British monopoly control of salt supplies. This involved a range of unlawful acts including tax resistance and led to beatings and imprisonments on a large scale.

Rosa Parks

In the US State of Alabama on 1 December 1955 a Black women by the name of Rosa Parks refused a bus driver’s order, based on State law and practice, to give up her seat for a white passenger. She was arrested and jailed. This act of disobedience prompted the Montgomery Bus Boycott and galvanised the modern American Civil Rights Movement. In this struggle for racial equality many activists were beaten, jailed and murdered by white racists.

Mordechai Vanunu

In 1986 the Israeli technician Mordechai Vanunu, outraged by his government’s covert development of nuclear weapons, passed information about this programme to the British press. He was then lured to Italy by a Mossad agent, where he was drugged, kidnapped and transported to Israel to be tried in secret for treason and espionage. Following his conviction he was imprisoned for 18 years. Much of this time was spent in solitary confinement. Since his release in 2004 he has suffered severe restrictions on his speech and movement.

How do we respond to the actions of these people? If we apply the approach traditionally used to interpret the ‘Nayler incident’ we will have to conclude that their behaviours were criminal, seditious, treacherous and knowingly designed to undermine law and order and social well-being. What they did was bound to get them into trouble, endanger their communities and bring their beliefs into disrepute. They deliberately broke the law and provoked conflict in sensitive and difficult circumstances. Was this not madness? Did they all have a death-wish?

Of course, how we respond to these examples depends on where we stand on the issues concerned. Quakers and many other people would regard Jesus, Mohandas Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Mordechai Vanunu as heroes, liberators, justice-seekers and role-models but to those in power they were dangerous, they were the enemy. They threatened the very values, beliefs and practices that bind societies together and they undermined the security and well-being of God’s favoured nation or empire.

Revisiting the 1650s

Throughout most of the 1650s the burgeoning Quaker movement waged a provocative but non-violent spiritual campaign (the Lamb’s War) against the established church and the Commonwealth Parliament. They disrupted church services, confronted the clergy, disputed with opponents in public, refused to show deference to their ‘superiors’, staged startling happenings such as ‘going naked as a sign’, and dispensed threatening prophetic warnings to those in power. Not surprisingly, they were regarded by those in power as a very serious threat to social order at a time of great political turmoil. This is why they made an example of James Nayler and used his actions as an excuse to persecute the Quaker community as a whole.

An Early Quaker Meeting

What provoked radical groups such as the Quakers was the failure of the commonwealth regime to deliver the promises made during the English Civil Wars that victory would lead to far-reaching social, political and religious reform. The expectation that a new society would be created based on greater equality, democracy and religious freedom was disappointed. For much of the period, the country was under military dictatorship, dissenting groups were persecuted and the army was busy slaughtering thousands of people in Ireland. In these circumstances to hold James Nayler responsible for his punishment and the persecution of the Quaker community is simply to blame the victim. Nayler’s behaviour at Bristol was entirely consistent with the essential character of the early Quaker movement. His actions involved no violence, no coercion and no threats to people or property. He simply enacted an outward physical sign representing what he had found to be true inwardly and spiritually.

Let's Stop Blaming the Victim

It was those in power who illegally tried James Nayler and tortured him almost to the point of death. It was those in power who flogged Quakers in the market places, locked them in the stocks and the pillory, provoked mobs to attack them and threw them into disease-ridden dungeons at the mercy of brutal jailors. The time has come to stop blaming the victim and instead defend James Nayler as a Quaker hero, justice-seeker and role model.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Coming to our Spiritual Senses

We begin the prodigal's journey home to the eternal Spirit we call God when we recognise that our spiritual senses are debilitated. Our sight is dim and out of focus, our ears are blocked and sound is muffled, our mouths taste no sweet savour, life has no fragrance, and a cold numbness prevents us from feeling what's right under our finger tips.

Coming to our spiritual senses and accepting their need for care and attention is a crucial first step on the journey because it reveals the value of a discipline that nurtures our capacity to listen, to see, to smell, to taste, and to touch. We might then discover that what we really need has been present all along but we were unable to hear it, or see it, or smell it, or taste it, or touch it. We simply didn't know it was there.

"The same Spirit that made the globe is the indweller in the five senses of hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling and feeling" Gerrard Winstanley

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Going to a Better Place? religious ambivalence towards the creation

“….we are renewing our commitment to a sense of the unity of creation which has always been part of Friends’ testimonies.” (Minute 36, YM 2011)

Quakers in Britain have committed ourselves corporately to the goal of becoming a low-carbon community, to being a people who live increasingly in harmony with the order of creation. Minute 36 of Yearly Meeting 2011 asserts that this commitment is consistent with our historic testimony. I want to argue that, like most religious traditions, the Quaker record in caring for the creation has been a mixed one but that, despite this, at the heart of the earliest Quaker experience can be found the seeds of a creation spirituality that has direct relevance to the urgent challenge of ecological sustainability we face today.

As a faith community, it is difficult to avoid confronting the accusation that religion is fundamentally part of the sustainability problem. Many of the world’s religions have displayed, in one form or another, a distinct ambivalence towards the physical creation. On the one hand, they have produced disciplined individuals and communities who have rejected materialism, lived simply and trod lightly on the earth. On the other hand, they have devalued the creation, either intentionally or unintentionally, by giving priority to a spiritual form of existence in which the physical world plays no part. Eastern traditions have tended to focus on the need to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth, whereas western traditions have been preoccupied with heaven as a spiritual destination, and with the apocalypse as the destruction of the physical world. Such a mindset can have quite negative implications; if we are ultimately ‘going to a better place,’ why should we care about this place?

Being rooted in Christianity, Quakerism inevitably needs to engage with the legacy of this religious tradition. Because of its long-standing status as the established religion of empire and nation state, Christianity has been used to uphold and legitimise dominant social and economic structures. During the past 300 years this has included support for the development of industrialisation and capitalism, which have had such a far-reaching impact on the natural world. In particular, the biblical account of the creation in the Book of Genesis has been used to justify human exploitation and control of the rest of the natural world. This interpretation argues that God granted humans ‘dominion’ over the creation and commanded them to ‘subdue’ the earth (see Genesis 1: 26-28). The concept of human stewardship of the creation has also developed largely as a result of such a reading of Genesis. Within medieval European societies a ‘steward’ was an official appointed to represent a ruling monarch in another country, often with a mandate to govern it in the monarch’s name. Do we really regard ourselves as God’s appointed officials on earth? From an ecological perspective, there are a number of serious problems associated with the traditional understanding of dominion and stewardship. It implies that humanity somehow exists outside and above creation, rather than being fully integrated within it. It asserts that humans have a divine right to control and exploit the creation for their own benefit. Finally, it assumes that humans have both the necessary power and knowledge required to effectively manage the incredibly complex system we call creation.

Similar issues emerge and the same sort of ambivalence towards the creation can be observed when we consider the Quaker story.

Confidence in the power of the Spirit to transform humanity has been an essential characteristic of the Quaker movement from the start. Ours is a faith that asserts the real possibility of living in the kingdom of heaven here and now. As a result, rather than seeking to free ourselves from the bonds of the physical world, Quakers have tended to stress the goodness of creation and have paid less attention to the idea of heaven as a spiritual destination awaiting us after death. The emphasis on plainness and simplicity in Quaker testimony has reflected an experience of spiritual transformation that turns our attention away from the ephemeral and towards the things that are eternal. This, in turn, has produced a wariness of extravagance, unrestricted consumption and excessive busyness. Quaker compassion for animals and opposition to animal exploitation and cruelty has been a long-standing concern. It is visible in the very earliest Quaker witness in the mid-17th century and continues today in the work of groups such as Quaker Concern for Animals. Finally, our current concern for sustainability is consistent with historic Quaker witness and maintains continuity with earlier concerns. It seems clear to me that these aspects of Quaker testimony are inextricably linked to our belief in both the fundamental goodness of creation and in the universal human potential, when empowered by the Spirit, to turn to the Light and away from darkness.

Although there is much in Quakerism that is creation-affirming, we must not let rose-tinted spectacles blind us to those aspects of our tradition that represent more ambivalent attitudes towards the creation and less environmentally-sustainable practices. Despite the strongly creation-affirming aspects of Quakerism, we must also recognise the influence of spiritualist and Gnostic thinking among some Friends. This sort of dualistic thought views the spiritual realm as eternal, incorruptible and good, and the material realm as temporal, corruptible and evil. The early Quaker use of dualistic-sounding binary terms such as inward/outward, light/darkness and spiritual/carnal may be interpreted in this way and can lead to a spirituality that seeks liberation from the material realm. We also have to come to terms with a legacy that includes the significant role Quakers played in the western industrial-capitalist and scientific-technological project that has sought to subjugate the whole of nature for human use. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Quakers were pioneering figures in the development of industry, banking, transport, commodity production, science and medicine. In any list of ‘famous’ Quakers you will see the names of prominent merchants, bankers, ironmasters, industrialists, botanists, naturalists and doctors. We can legitimately point to the positive influence of Quakers in terms of business ethics and philanthropy, but it is not possible to entirely disassociate ourselves from the part Quakers have played in the formation of social, economic and political structures that have subsequently proved disastrous for the health of eco-systems and the well-being of animal species.

In my next article I will attempt to describe a fascinating aspect of the early Quaker movement that has, until recently, remained hidden and unrecognised by Friends. It involves a radical vision of the order of creation and the human place within it that has the power to inspire and motivate us today as we grapple with what often appear to be insurmountable challenges. As part of the process of spiritual transformation, many early Friends experienced a new and exhilarating sense of being in unity with the whole creation. They became ‘friends of the creation’.

In Unity with Creation: the experience of early Friends

In a startling Journal description of his spiritual transformation experiences, George Fox wrote that “all things were new, and all the creation gave unto me another smell than before, beyond what words can utter”. He explained that “[t]he creation was opened to me; and it was showed me how all things had their names given them according to their nature and virtue” and that “the admirable works of the creation, and the virtues thereof, may be known, through the openings of that divine Word of wisdom and power by which they were made”. He finishes by asserting the potential universality of this experience because “as people come into subjection to the Spirit of God, and grow up in the image and power of the Almighty, they may receive the Word of wisdom that opens all things, and come to know the hidden unity in the Eternal Being”. It is clear from these words that the creation and his relationship to it were crucial aspects of Fox’s spirituality. This appears to be equally true for a number of other early Friends. In this article I will attempt to use their own words to outline the radical understanding of the order of creation that characterised the Quaker movement during the 1650s and early 1660s.

For the first Quakers, the biblical narrative of creation, fall and restoration was enacted experientially in their lives. What they believed to be unfolding cosmically was also taking place in microcosm within them. They had been created, they had fallen and Christ had come to restore them again into the paradise of God. This vision and understanding gave rise to three principal understandings. Firstly, that human reason alone is incapable of comprehending the divine wisdom and order of creation, since this can only be known by revelation through Christ. Secondly, that in their own wills humans are incapable of living in harmony with the wisdom and order of creation, since only Christ has the power required to bring people into such a state of being. Finally, that right relationship with and right use of the creation is only possible in the divinely order life established by Christ. So what do the writings of early Friends tell us about this new vision and understanding of the creation and the human place within it?

In the beginning, the creation was made good and God gave it a definite order. Being divinely guided and in a state of unity with God enabled humans to represent the divine image within creation:

In the beginning God made all things good, so did he man, whom then he made in his own image, and placed in him his own wisdom and power, whereby he was completely furnished with dominion, power and authority over the works of God's hands, knowing the nature and use of each creature, by what God had placed in him of himself, who in that state was the son of God, whose seed was in himself. James Nayler – Love to the Lost (1656)

So both the earth and the sea, and all things therein, are kept in their order by the word and power of God, by which they were made, by which they were upheld. So all the works of the Lord praise him, and so do all men and women that are in the truth, which makes them free from him that abode not in the truth, in whom there is no truth. George Fox – Concerning Such as Cry Against Orders (1684)

Humans lost their state of unity with God in what became known as ‘the fall’. Turning away from God, they fell out of harmony with the order of God’s good creation. This led humanity into a dysfunctional relationship with the rest of creation characterised by “oppression, cruelty and hard-heartedness”:

When the pure creation was finished…it rested in the holy order of life, and was in the pure harmony and oneness with the Creator…There was a part that did not keep its station, but moved out of the wisdom, and brake the order, and did aspire towards the equality of the Holy Essence, for which cause it was cast down by the power, and driven into the lowest part of creation, and was there to have its place and habitation at the furthest distance from God. William Smith – The New Creation Brought Forth (1661)

And (man) being possessed with evil and corrupted, he makes all creatures evil in his exercise of them, and he corrupts them and perverts them to another end than wherefore they were created…and they become a curse unto man and not a blessing, though in themselves are neither cursed, nor evil, nor defiled…and ruling over them in oppression and cruelty and hard-heartedness, and not in the wisdom of God…and this ought not to be for it is out of the covenant of God, in which all creatures were made, and in which all stand, except the creature man, who degenerated out of God’s covenant. Edward Burrough – A Discovery of Divine Mysteries (1661)

Christ has come to restore the state of unity between God and humanity. When humans are renewed and guided by the Spirit of Christ, there is a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). The Spirit reveals the true order of creation and enables people to live in harmony with it. This includes understanding how the creatures should be used to the glory of God. Unity with God re-establishes right relationship with and right use of the creation:

The Lamb's quarrel is not against the creation, for then should his weapons be carnal, as the weapons of the worldly spirits are: "For we war not with flesh and blood," nor against the creation of God; that we love; but we fight against the spiritual powers of wickedness, which wars against God in the creation, and captivates the creation into the lust which wars against the soul, and that the creature may be delivered into its liberty prepared for the sons of God. And this is not against love, nor everlasting peace, but that without which can be no true love nor lasting peace. James Nayler – The Lamb’s War (1657)

And wait all in the light for the wisdom by which all things were made, with it to use all the Lord's creatures to his glory, and none to stumble one another about the creatures, for that is not from the light, for which end they were created, and with the wisdom by which they were made, you may be kept out of the misuse of them, in the image of God, that you may come to see, that the 'earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof,' and the earth may come to yield her increase, and to enjoy her Sabbaths; and all such that walk contrary to the light, may be turned to the light, that with the light they may see and condemn that which is contrary to it. So that in the wisdom of God you may all be kept. George Fox – Epistle 33 (1653)

As the global ecological crisis deepens, the early Quaker understanding of the order of creation presents itself to contemporary Quakers with ever-increasing relevance. Indeed, these early Quaker insights anticipate in a number of ways recent developments in Green theology and biblical scholarship. This will be considered in more detail in the next article.

Note: I am grateful to Anne Adams and Geoff Morries for their pioneering work in this area. See Adams, Anne (2011) Is There Not A New Creation? the experience of early Friends (Applegarth Publications) and Morries, Geoffrey (2009) From Revelation to Resource: the natural world in the thought and experience of Quakers in Britain and Ireland 1647-1830 (unpublished PhD thesis).

Quakers and the Green Bible

Previously we have noted that a number of key characteristics of the Quaker tradition reveal a spirituality that is creation-affirming and a witness that is proto-ecological. Quakers have tended to view the creation as essentially good and have expected the kingdom of heaven to be established here on earth, rather than in a spiritual heaven located elsewhere. In addition, as a result of their life-changing spiritual experiences, early Friends developed a sophisticated understanding of the creation and the human role within it. They asserted that the divinely-given wisdom and order of creation could be known by revelation alone, and that only by divine empowerment and guidance could humans live in harmony with this order in terms of a right relationship with and right use of the natural world. I want to argue that modern Green theology and biblical scholarship have produced an understanding of the status of the creation and the human relationship to it that is broadly consistent with the early Quaker vision.

Like early Friends, contemporary Green biblical scholars and theologians make it clear that the good creation belongs to God, rather than to humans. Divine ownership obliges humans to view their relationship to the natural world in terms of usufruct. This is a right to derive benefit from someone else’s property so long as it is not damaged in the process. The creation is not seen as divine in the Jewish-Christian tradition; however, being divinely created, it is regarded as sacred. As a result, loving tending of the earth becomes an act of worship that honours its creator.

Like early Friends, contemporary Green biblical scholars and theologians argue that our understanding of the human relationship to the creation should be based on the overall biblical narrative rather than on one or two isolated ‘proof texts’. In particular, they are critical of the traditional reliance on the notion of dominion in Genesis 1. Reading beyond chapter one provides a rather different emphasis. The creation account in Genesis 2 portrays humans as embedded in the physical world and not set above it. Humanity is formed from the dust of the soil and is given the task of tending the garden. Dominion in Genesis 1 is inextricably linked to the divine image that humans bear. However, in Genesis 3 this divine image is lost in the fall. As a result of the fall, humans become a disorderly influence in the world, disrupting its harmony and natural rhythms. Throughout the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures, the condition of the land and the productivity of the soil are frequently linked to human morality and obedience to God.

Like early Friends, contemporary Green biblical scholars and theologians have emphasised the relative powerlessness and ignorance of humanity in the face of God and the vast complexity of the creation. A good example of this can be found in the Book of Job. In chapter 38 of this Book, God shows Job the full breadth and depth of the cosmos, making him aware of his limited knowledge, power and understanding. The cosmos has order but Job’s understanding is partial and he is forced to accept humility before the immensity and mystery of creation. In chapters 40 and 42, God further undermines Job’s pride by reminding him that he is incapable of controlling the cosmos. Only God can subdue the forces of chaos (Leviathan and Behemoth) and bring order. We can see in Job that, despite our delusions of grandeur, humans have fundamental limitations in terms of power and understanding. Human humility is a much-needed ecological virtue in the modern world.

Like early Friends, contemporary Green biblical scholars and theologians argue that the scriptures describe a dynamic and fruitful creation whose elements are interrelated and interdependent. Humans cannot simply regard the earth as a commodity to be bought and sold, since they too are fully embedded in the community of creation. The Psalms reflect this vision of creation. For example, Psalm 104 gives praise for the generous extravagance God has shown in providing such a fruitful creation for all living creatures and Psalm 148 describes every part of creation giving praise to God the creator. The fact that God made a covenant with all living things (Genesis 9:9-10) and not just with humans shows that God cares for and seeks to be in relationship with the whole of creation.

Like early Friends, contemporary Green biblical scholars and theologians reject forms of Christianity that focus on a conception of heaven and the apocalypse that is entirely other-worldly and which devalue the physical creation. They point out that in the incarnation, when the “Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) God revealed a deep concern for creation and its importance in the divine plan. Rather than presenting heaven as a place people go to when they die, they argue that the overall biblical narrative suggests that heaven is coming ever more fully to earth (e.g., in chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation, the New Jerusalem comes down to earth in the renewal of the whole creation). Heaven and earth are not entirely unconnected places; heaven is the divine dimension of normal reality and the barriers between these two spheres are in the process of being broken down. Part of what makes Jesus such a key figure is that he breaks down the barriers between heaven and earth. This means that the Kingdom of God is already present in the world here and now. In this sense redemption is not human salvation out of a doomed creation, but rather the restoration of God’s purposes through the renewal (as opposed to replacement) of the creation. This process includes healing the dysfunctional human relationship with nature. We see a vision of this renewal in the testimony of the Hebrew prophets with their visions of reconciliation and shalom within history (see Isaiah 11:6-9 as an example). The announcement of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth is a defining feature of Jesus’ ministry and he teaches his disciples to pray to God “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10).

We have seen how the radical spiritual experiences and understandings of early Friends led to a vision of the creation and the place of humanity within it that is now being reflected in, and confirmed by, the work of contemporary Green biblical scholars and theologians. As we face a progressively deepening crisis of sustainability in which human behaviour threatens the viability of whole eco-systems and therefore the future of most living species on earth, what does all this have to say about our faith and our practice today? The spiritual breakthroughs experienced by early Friends took place within a context of political turmoil and social upheaval. Could we be facing similarly turbulent times, and will this lead us to a comparable experience of spiritual insight and transformation?

Recommended reading - Bauckham, Richard (2010) The Bible and Ecology: rediscovering the community of creation (Darton, Longman and Todd), and The Green Bible: a priceless message that doesn’t cost the earth (2008, Collins)

The unity of Things

In England at the end of the English Civil Wars, groups of Seekers who had rejected all the available religious options of the day began to meet together in silence to await a new revelation from God. These Seekers soon became part of the emerging Quaker movement. An experience of spiritual transformation turned their lives upside down and in response they found themselves travelling “in all countries, places, islands and nations,” turning the world upside-down as they went. Today, in the face of a gathering ecological crisis whose effects have not yet turned our world upside down, do we sense a call to become seekers of a new spiritual revolution, the recipients of a new revelation from God that will transform our relationship with each other and with all living things? What might this look like? I want to argue that it will require a fundamental transformation in consciousness, a paradigm shift comparable in scope to that of the Copernican revolution. We must leave behind our Ptolemaic consciousness and spirituality and accept the Copernican challenge.

In Ptolemaic cosmology, the Earth was regarded as the centre of the universe, with the Sun and other planets revolving around it. Copernicus undermined this understanding by demonstrating that the Sun was the centre of the universe and the Earth and other planets revolved around it. As a species, humanity seems predisposed to Ptolemaic consciousness. Individually and collectively we experience ourselves as the centre of all existence; we feel that all things revolve around us and exist to serve our needs (from a biblical perspective, this is a key aspect of the fallen state). A Copernican spiritual consciousness, which can be found in many of the world’s religious traditions, undermines this view by decentering humanity and forcing us to accept that we are but one part of the complex and interrelated whole we call creation. Copernican spirituality enables us to recognise that God (the eternal spirit) is the centre of existence and that our place within it is determined by our relationship to God.

We can see a Copernican dimension in traditional Quaker understandings. For example, American Friend Lloyd Lee Wilson has argued that the traditional Quaker vision of gospel order points to:

“…the order established by God that exists in every part of creation, transcending the chaos that seems so often prevalent. It is the right relationship of every part of creation, however small, to every other part and to the creator. Gospel order is the harmony and order which God established at the moment of creation, and which enables the individual aspects of creation to achieve that quality of being which God intended from the start, about which God could say “it was very good”.

This vision has more than a passing resemblance to the notion of Gaia, in which all living things are closely integrated, forming a single and self-regulating complex system that maintains the conditions for life on Earth. The eminent British evolutionary biologist William Donald Hamilton has called the Gaia hypothesis Copernican in nature. For humans, a Copernican spiritual revolution will involve a radical new understanding of the creation and a transformed relationship with it. Shalom activist Noel Moules sees this spiritual revolution as a metanoia (a change of mind), leading humans into a harmonious relationship with wild nature, in which all parts of the creation become our life companions. He asserts that It is possible for humans to become creation companions and he encourages us to:

[t]ake time to nurture a deep sensitivity to encountering God in every sphere of nature, and embrace the idea that a truly spiritual person lives in shalom with all creation.

A Copernican spiritual revolution would turn the world upside-down. It would overturn many of our most firmly-held assumptions and deep-seated prejudices. We would no longer see ourselves as the central and most significant entities in the cosmos because we would have witnessed a new vision of creation as a complex and interrelated whole and been given a new understanding of our place within this system. We would know experientially that the eternal spirit we call God is at the centre of existence and that every living thing has an essential role and fundamental value within creation. We would accept our limitations and fallibility and recognise that our belief that there is a technological fix for every problem is a dangerous fallacy. Instead, we would be content to humbly accept our place within the order of creation. We would realise that individualism is merely a delusion that blinds us to the essentially interdependent and interconnected nature of existence. This would enable us to begin to build a strong and compassionate community, not just with other humans but with all other living things. We would reject all forms of dualistic thinking because we would have witnessed and tasted the essential unity of all things. In particular, we would have seen that the spiritual and the material exist in a dynamic relationship of mutual interaction. This would enable us to realise that things are not awful and need to be put right, but are good and that our task is to come into harmony with this goodness. Finally, it should go without saying that our happiness and the value of our lives would no longer be determined or measured by what we own and what we consume. Instead, we would find a simple joy in our relationship with God and in the community of creation. This would be a spiritual revolution: of relationship, in which we would move from a state of separation to one of unity; of healing, in which we would move from a state of illness to one of health; and of learning, in which we would move from a state of ignorance to one of understanding.

Viewed from our current limited vantage point, this all seems rather ethereal and unrealistic. However, as the apostle Paul makes clear; God’s ways appear to be foolishness to the world (1 Cor. 1:25, 2:14). Early Quakers called themselves Friends of the Truth and, for them, the Truth was God and the order that God had given creation. This Truth is not within our control; all we can do is to open ourselves to it through prayerful seeking, quiet discernment and humble surrender. More than ever, in the face of impending environmental catastrophe, the world is in urgent need of a Copernican spiritual revolution that will raise up a people of salt and light. In the words of Pam Lunn:

It is about us as a people of God, as a people of faith, alongside all other peoples of faith. It is about us as the human community, all of us together, all of us as part of the community of all living things on Earth.

Do we hear the call, and are we willing to join this spiritual revolution?

See the following:

Lunn, Pam (2011) Costing not less than everything: sustainability and spirituality in changing times – Swarthmore Lecture 2011 (Quaker Books)

Moules, Noel (2012) Fingerprints of Fire….Footprints of Peace: a spiritual manifesto from a Jesus perspective (O-Books)

Wilson, Lloyd Lee (1996) Essays on the Quaker Vision of Gospel Order (Quaker Press FGC).