Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Quaker View of John’s Gospel

We just finished our home study of the "subversive wisdom" of John's Gospel, led by Bert Newton,  and it went very well, with a dozen or so people showing up at each session. Jill sent out this note of gratitude to all those who attended:

We had a wonderful four-week study on the Gospel of John. We wish to thank those of you who were able to come. I was personally very moved by Bert’s insight into the political context of the day and how subversive Jesus was, but also how wise he was…. I have never seen the parallels of lady wisdom from Proverbs 8 and how Jesus was portrayed in this book. I found it very empowering. Thank you Bert!

On the final week, I was able to share  a few "subversive" Quaker ideas about John's Gospel, based on my experience and what I learned from studying the Quaker theologian Howard Brinton:

1) The Inward Light of Christ is in everyone (John 1:9), thought not everyone recognizes or acts upon it. This means we can find the Light in those of other religions, and even our "enemies."

2) If Christ is the vine and we are branches (John 15:5), we can be one with Christ and with God so there isno need for hierarchies, or for leaders, in Christ's beloved community: we can have direct access to Christ/God, just as a branch has direct access to the vine.

3) We can become "friends" of God or Christ if we are willing to sacrifice our egos on the altar of love (John 15:15).

In addition to addressing the questions below, and having a very lively discussion, we sang two popular Quaker songs based on the Gospel of John, both composed by Sydney Carter: "Lord of the Dance" and "The George Fox Song." Cody Love Lowry, a young Friend, led us in singing these songs, accompanied by his ukulele. Our four-week bible study ended on an upbeat note, and a good time was had by all.
Howard Haines Brinton (1884–1973) was an author, professor and director of Pendle Hill (a Quaker center for Study and Contemplation) whose work influenced the Religious Society of Friends movement for much of the 20th century. His books ranged from Quaker journal anthologies to philosophical and historical dissertations on the faith, establishing him as a prominent commentator on the Society of Friends. His most important work was  Friends for 300 Years (published in 1952 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of Quakerism), which is still the most widely read and influential book about Quakerism among liberal, unprogrammed Friends. Brinton was a student of Rufus Jones, trained in physics as well as philosophy and religion. During his final years he wrote three seminal pamphlets examining the theology/philosophy of John's Gospel from a Quaker perspective. The following handout is based on ideas by Howard Brinton and examples from my own experience and readings.

“The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9).
 What do you think John means by the “true light that enlightens everyone?” How have you experienced this light in yourself, and/or in others?

The so-called “Quaker text” (John 1:9) was interpreted by Quakers to mean that the Christ light/logos shines, with varying degrees of intensity, in everyone, though many do not recognize or follow it. According to Quakers, Jesus is the most complete expression of the Christ light/logos (as George Fox said, Christ possessed this light “without measure”), but glimmerings of this light can be found in every person and religion (e.g. “the Golden Rule”).

Practical applications: George Fox called Quakers to “answer [respond to] ‘that of God’ in everyone,” whether Christian, pagan, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. by being “patterns and examples” of Christ’s love.

Quakers believe that if we “live in the power and life that takes away the occasion of war,” we should never kill anyone through war, public execution, or other means because everyone, even someone who hates and persecutes us, has the Christ light (“that of God”) within him or her.
 Quaker missionaries do not “import” Christ, but “reveal” Christ to those who haven’t heard of him. Hence Zablon Isaac Malenge, one of the leading theologians of Kenya and former General Secretary of Nairobi Yearly Meeting, had this remarkable take on missionaries and the universal basis of Quakerism (and of Christianity): “I will tell you a mystery. Many people in this world are practicing Quakerism without being aware of it. Some have never heard of it and yet they are practicing it. Even our great-grandparents might have practiced Quakerism long before missionaries came here. Quakerism is a religion of the soul, the indwelling Spirit, the light within, the light of Christ, the Seed. Missionaries did not bring it to us, but the missionaries revealed it to us and said, ‘This is Quakerism.’” (Early Christianity Revised in the Perspective of Friends in Kenya, Diana’s Book Library Services,Kenya, 2003, rev. 2012, p. 79).

Other biblical passages used by Brinton and George Fox to explain Quaker Universalism: “the gospel which ye have heard and which was preached in [less exactly rendered ‘to’] every creature which is under heaven” (Col 1:23) and “for the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all” (Titus 2:11).

“I am the vine and you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John: 15:5)

What do you think that Jesus is saying about the relationship between Christ and his followers by using the metaphor of a vine? How is this relationship different from the way that the relationship between God and human beings is conventionally/traditionally understood? What kind of community/society is implied by this “organic” metaphor? How is this kind of community “subversive” or counter to the dominant culture?

 This passage relates to the Quaker “testimony” of Community   (a “testimony” is an outward expression of an inward  experience of the Light). Brinton argued that while traditional Protestant promoted individualism and capitalism, Quakerism promoted communitarianism. Quaker worship fosters “group mysticism” which gives the group an “organic” (inward) sense of unity and connectedness with Spirit and each other. This is the experiential basis behind John's words: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” Quakers believed that Christ lives within us, and through us, and is (or should be) our primary Guide (rather than some external authority like scripture or tradition).

 “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.” John 15:15.

What does Jesus mean by love? What kind of relationship does he want with us? What kind of religious community/society would this kind of relationship with God/Christ and with other people lead to?

Early Friends practiced this kind of love in powerful ways. During the 17th century, a time when over 15,000 Quakers were imprisoned for their beliefs, and many died in prison,  164 Friends signed this petition and sent to Parliament in 1659:

We, in love to our brethren that lie in prisons and houses of correction and dungeons, and many in fetters and irons, and have been cruelly beat by the cruel gaolers, and many have been persecuted to death, and have died in prison, and many lie sick and weak in prison and so straw, so we, in love to our brethren, do offer up our bodies and selves to you, for to put us as lambs into the same dungeons and houses of correction....For we are willing to lay down our lives for our brethren, and to take their sufferings upon us

How do we in our current age demonstrate our commitment to the kind of love that Christ commanded? How do we become “friends of God” as well as genuine friends of each other?


  1. Thank you for such a beautiful post. It was good to see mention of Howard Brinton. I came to Friends through reading "Friends for 300 Years" nigh on thirty years ago. Rufus Jones is another great favourite and I have a small collection of his works on my bookshelf. I think if Quakers canonised special people we would have a Saint Rufus Jones. I would also add that we know Thomas Kelly largely through Rufus Jones. Could these three form a sort of Quaker line of apostolic succession? :-)

    I have forwarded the link to this blog and reference to this post for distribution to my Quaker Meeting. My Meeting is small - a dozen people on good day - and is in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia. I hope your post blesses Ballarat Friends as it has me. Thank you.

  2. I was in Ballarat a few years ago on my way to Australia YM. I spent six weeks visiting Friends Meeting in Sydney, Canberra, and Melbourne after I attended the Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne. Trish Fitzgerald hosted me and I had a lovely time getting to know Australian Friends. Please give my love and greetings to Ballarat Friends. Anthony

  3. Thanks for this informative post. Now I'll add the Brinton book to my ever-growing list of books I need to read.