Thursday, December 20, 2007

William Penn: The heart from which all Scriptures come

From today's daily online quote service, Words of Wisdom, comes this quote: "There is something nearer to us than Scriptures, to wit, the Word in the heart from which all Scriptures come." -William Penn (1644-1718)

I've always liked Penn. I admire his idealism and the colony he founded on that idealism. Through the portals of the city of brotherly love poured thousands of European colonists who would not have been welcome in most other American colonies primarily because of their religious beliefs. They included a number of my own emigrant ancestors.

The Quakers held a number of beliefs seen as odd by their fellow Anglican, Puritan and Catholic countrymen and women. They believed that everyone had a spark of the divine in them and that worship did not involve the set liturgies of the Catholics and Anglicans or the extended guilt-driven preaching of the Calvinists but rather sitting in silence, waiting for the divine within to quake, moving the individual to speak what was on their heart. They also reasserted the wisdom of the early Christian movement that following Jesus essentially ruled out military service and the state killing we attempt to euphemistically rationalize as capital punishment. Penn's jails were true penitentiaries, solitary confinement for the purpose of repentance, reconsidering one's life with the goal of social reassimilation at the end of that experience.

Penn's Quakers were quickly outnumbered and eventually overwhelmed. But the matrix of religious freedom and the refusal to couple absolute religious certitude with temporal power resulted in a creative mix in Philadelphia in the heart of Penn's Woods that would ultimately give birth to a new nation "conceived in liberty," as Lincoln would describe it a century later at Gettysburg, today a short drive away from Philadelphia. We are in William Penn's debt for his vision, without which, as the Proverbs writer observed, we would surely have perished.

What synchronicity that this quote arrives two days after my minor eruption over the barely implicit literalism in the statement of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. (see previous blog entry) Penn's words reflect two major influences on my spiritual development. The first is Francis of Assisi's focus on compassion driven praxis: "Preach the good news at all times, use words when necessary." For Francis, written words on a good day reflected the compassionate life one was living which treated all of creation, particularly its most vulnerable members, with respect. On other days, they merely got in the way of the compassionate life of service to the poor.

The second is the wisdom of Jerry Drino, my rector and mentor at St. Philip's Episcopal Church in San Jose, CA. A fellow of the Four Spring Seminar which uses a Jungian depth analysis to consider the Christian faith, Jerry was wont to pose this question: "Is it true because Jesus said it, or did Jesus say it because it was true." The first time I heard that question I found it disquieting to say the least. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was an important question, a question I continue to pose to my students today.

Scripture is always at most a secondary product of a primary experience of the divine. Rudolph Otto's The Idea of the Holy called the experience of the divine the mysterium tremendum, an awe inspiring event (both in the sense of terror and wonder) which poorly lent itself to words. For virtually all of us, any scripture seen holy today is the product of centuries of transmission of first oral and later written tradition resulting in our receiving a product that is many years and countless generations of transmission removed from the experience which gave rise to it. Thus to conform one's own spiritual life to scripture, as the archbishop was suggesting, is essentially to buy into someone else's experience of the divine. At a very basic level, it is potentially a betrayal of one's own calling to an authentic life of spirit.

As I said in my rant on Rowan's ramblings, I hardly could be seen as one who does not value scripture. I find scripture highly useful and worth serious consideration. I quote it in my teaching, my writing (as alluded to above) and my conversations with others. Scripture is a valuable beginning place for the consideration of one's own spiritual life. But is but a beginning place, the first word, not the final. Hence, notions of conforming to scripture, obedience to official dogmatic understandings of that scripture or testing one's own spiritual experiences against others' understandings of that scripture for validity (whatever that could possibly mean) runs a major risk of truncated spiritual lives even as they provide the basis for the belief systems approved by conventional religious authorities.

Penn's formula provides one powerful corrective to this truncating tendency: what does one's heart say to you? How does your own experience of the divine inform your understanding? What might one's very spirit sense about what the spirit is saying to you, to the world? These are important dimensions to any spiritual life of integrity. Without them, our religion does not belong to us. As I teach my students, the most brittle religious constructs in the world are those we inherit from respected others and simply accept without question, much less reflection. It's precisely those inherited religions that are most vulnerable to the simple question "Why do you believe that?" And it is the consideration of that question that often induces painful feelings of betrayal of one's authority figures and cognitive dissonance in recognizing the fragility and often the superficiality - sometimes even the indefensibility - of inherited and unreflective belief systems.

While Penn has located the personal and affective dimension of believing, I would suggest there is yet another important question one must ask about one's own religious construct and the way scripture is appropriated within that construct: How does one's religion impact the world around us? It is, of course, very Franciscan to look around the Creation and see the image of the divine imprinted on every aspect of the created universe. And that's a good starting place. But it's only the starting place.

It is very easy for first world peoples in a consumer-driven society to appropriate scripture such as the Genesis passage instructing human beings to take dominion of the earth and use it to their heart's content without regard for impact on others. It is easy for people living in atomized first world nations marked by hypercompetiveness to rationalize the practice of state killing or economically driven invasions of other countries with selective appropriation of scripture. Conversely, it ought to be no surprise that a selective literalist appropriation of the Quran was on the lips of the pilots of highjacked airliners as they collided with the Twin Towers in New York. As Mark Twain said, even the devil can quote scripture. And as feminist scholars have long noted, any text without a context (or consciousness of implicit subtexts) is almost always a pretext.

Demands for conformity to an authorized vision of scripture almost always signal a number of things: the combination of some form of power with an absolute conviction of the rectitude of a given course of action which scripture has been marshaled to legitimize. Clearly, such a combination can on the rare occasion be salvific, i.e., it can bring health and wholeness to its adherents and those whose lives they touch sometimes in the face of extreme adversity, such as the confessing church movement in Nazi Germany. But more often the combination of power, absolute certitude of one's rectitude and the use of legitimizing scripture is anything but healthy, as the example of George Bush's invasion of Iraq because, according to him, G-d had instructed him to do so suggests.

The question of "What does the Bible say?" is too rarely accompanied by the more important questions of "What does it mean?," "What might the divine be saying to me and to the world in this?" and "How does that understanding impact my own life, the lives of others and the world around us?" And when we neglect the elements of head, heart and relationality to the world around us, buying into the understandings of others without reflection, we have virtually guaranteed that our own spiritual lives will be stunted and set the stage for religious tyranny.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.

Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church, Dio. of El Camino Real, CA (inactive status)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.

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