Beginning with Barclay
Now that I have introduced my site and myself I need to get on with what I said I wanted to do, which was to explore Quakerism through the writings of early Friends. My starting place will be with Robert Barclay because he is the early Friend I am most familiar with. I intend to start with his Apology, working through it in small doses because the blog format lends itself to shorter articles. Also, unlike a workshop, I have the luxury of time. I do not have to try to get everything into a couple of hours or even a couple of sessions of a couple of hours. I also expect that I may get distracted from time to time as I come across other things or someone's comment leads me off in some other direction. But I intend to keep coming back to this.
One of the things that I like about Barclay's Apology is that is a treatise on spiritual development disguised as a work of theology. At other times I have looked at it and thought that it is really a Bible commentary. It is so full of Biblical quotations and references that it serves as a good way of seeing how early Friends looked at the Bible and the threads of meaning that they found in it. What they found was certainly not what other Christians were finding in the Bible at the same time.
This is clear even from the title, which in true 17'th century form is actually a complete sentence:
An Apology for the True Christian Divinity as the same is held forth and preached by the people, called, in scorn Quakers, being a full explanation and vindication of their principles and doctrines by many arguments deduced from scripture and right reason and the testimonies of famous authors both ancient and modern with a full answer to the strongest objections usually made against them.
Quakerism began as a critique of Christianity as it was understood at the time. Quakerism looks at Christianity in a very different way than most other denominations. When I hear contemporary Quakers discuss their difficulties with Christianity I sometimes wonder if they are aware of those differences.
In his introduction, Barclay lays out the approach that he is taking:
For what I have written comes more from my heart than from my head; what I have heard with the ears of my soul and seen with my inward eyes and my hands have handled of the Word of Life, and what hath been inwardly manifested to me of the things of God, that do I declare; ...
[Barclay's Apology, p 8. Quaker Heritage Press edition]
I just love that phrase, “what my hands have handled of the Word of Life.” I get the image of being in a workshop making something out of the Word of Life like a carpenter making something from a block of wood. I like the idea that our spiritual life, experience and reality is just as real and tangible as the material objects of our world.
Only later did I discover that this comes from 1 John 1:1, which in the New Revised Standard Version goes:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life.
This can be seen as John, the beloved disciple, referring back to his experience of knowing Jesus. And of course, Barclay would be referring back to his experience of knowing Christ. I can understand how the Quakers came to be so often accused of blasphemy. They were claiming for themselves the same experience of Christ that the original disciples had. How audacious. Yet are we willing to even admit to the possibility that this same depth of experience is available to us today, much less claim it for our own?
When I was looking up the reference to John, I came across this from the introduction to 1 John, written by Kerry Dearborn, in the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible:
In times of disagreement it is natural to respond in one of two mistaken ways: the way of moral laxity and cheap grace, as if truth is not all that important or discernible; or the way of arrogance and self-justification, as if one can pridefully claim ownership of the truth. The letter pushes back the veil of discouragement leading one to believe that discord allows only these two options. Behind the veil the light of God radiates to reveal a third way, the way of the cross – radical condemnation and yet radical grace for all. Costly darkness confronted by everlasting light. With this exposure to the light, readers face the reality of the darkness that lurks within their own being, which can be penetrated and dispelled only by God, who is light.
I read this and it seemed to apply to the state of the Society of Friends. I can identify with the way of arrogance and self-justification as that is a tendency in myself that I wrestle with all the time. How can we lay claim to the experience of Christ comparable to the original disciples and yet remain humble and not be puffed up in our pride? More to the point, how can I do that?