Sunday, February 17, 2013

Howard Brinton: Scientist and Mystic

I am pleased to report that my book on the Brintons is finally finished! I plan to send the final version to the publisher tomorrow and have a celebration at my home on Friday. I've already been asked to speak about the Brintons at Claremont Meeting in June, and give a week-long workshop on the Brintons at the national Quaker gathering (FGC) in July, and Chuck Fager is publishing a review and passages from my book in "Quaker Theology." I'm eagerly looking forward to launching this new book about two people I deeply admire who have influenced me (and Quakerism) in profound ways.

Over ten years in the making, it recounts the lives and achievements of "the most remarkable couple since George Fox [the founder of Quakerism] married Margaret Fell [the co-founder and 'mother' of Quakerism]." It has been a real joy to study and learn from this amazing couple and to see how they lived their faith so authentically. Here's how I describe them in my introduction:

"During their nearly fifty years of marriage, Howard and Anna Brinton exemplified what it meant to be a committed Quaker couple—teaching, writing, traveling and working for peace while raising a family of four children. For sixteen years, they were directors and teachers at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  There they wrote numerous articles, pamphlets, and books about the Quaker faith and practice that “reinvented” Quakerism for the twentieth century. Howard Brinton’s book Friends for 300 Years became a classic and was reissued in 2002 with commentary by the Quaker historian Margaret Bacon. Many of Howard’s pamphlets are still used to teach the basics of Quakerism in First Day and Quakerism 101 classes. With his solid grounding in science and philosophy, Howard created a theological framework for modern liberal Quakerism that has been challenged by scholars, but has never been replaced by anything of comparable stature or usefulness."

One of my favorite sections of the book deals with the Brintons' visit to England in 1932, where Howard gave the prestigious Swarthmore Lecture (its title was "Creative Worship") and spent a year teaching and lecturing at Woodbrooke (a Quaker adult study center) and at various Quaker meetings.  In his Autobiography, he talks about a remarkable mystical experience he had at Glastonbury (a place associated with Arthurian legends) and also at a major scientific conference where the theory of evolution was first publicly debated. This section juxtaposes the two central passions of Howard's life: mysticism and science. (Howard taught physics and math, but wrote his doctoral dissertation on the German mystic Jakob Boehme.) In this section we also learn a surprising fact: General Smuts (the South African who gave Gandhi such a hard time) was regarded as one of the major thinkers of his day for inventing the concept of Holism. Holism had a profound influence on Howard and on 20th century philosophy.

Mystic and Scientist 

Although Howard’s mystical experiences mainly took place in meetings for worship, he described in his Autobiography a personal experience of the mystical that occurred during his tour of England. Howard was fascinated by “rumors” that Jesus had visited Cornwall in one of the ships of the legendary Joseph of Arimathea. “The southwest part of England originally contained a Celtic type of Christianity quite different from the Roman Catholic type,” observed Howard, who felt an affinity for the mysticism underlying Celtic legends and myths.

Howard’s fascination with Celtic Christianity drew him to Glastonbury, a town in Somerset notable for the myths and legends surrounding Glastonbury Tor, the hill around which the town has grown. The Tor rises up like a pillar from the otherwise flat landscape of the Somerset “Levels,” or drained marshes, and was once an island.  Joseph of Arimathea supposedly sailed to this island with the Holy Grail, a sacred object often identified with the cup used by Jesus during the Last Supper. Glastonbury Abbey was believed to have been built at this site soon after Joseph’s landing, making it the oldest church in Christendom. The Tor has also been associated with the legendary Isle of Avalon and Camelot Castle, located ten miles away. In 1191, neatly labeled graves supposedly belonging to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were discovered near the Abbey. Modern archaeology has revealed that fort originally stood at the top of the Tor, dating back to the 5th century.

While visiting Glastonbury, Howard stayed at the home of a prominent Friend, Roger Clark, former clerk of London Yearly Meeting. There he immersed himself in the history of this legendary town.

Howard’s walk to the top of Glastonbury Tor affected him deeply. Near the ruins of Glastonbury, Howard found the graves labeled as those of King Arthur and Guinevere. He walked past the famous Chalice Well, a spring of red water supposedly colored by the blood of Christ. Nearby was a famous thorn bush which blossoms only in winter. According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea stuck his staff into the ground and it began to flower at the same time that this bush flowers in the Holy Land. Going to the top of the Tor, Howard found the marble ruins of what appeared to have been a temple. This was St. Michael’s church, built on the site of an ancient fort and partially destroyed by an earthquake in 1275.

Gazing down at the plains of Glastonbury hundreds of feet below, Howard had a “feeling of awe” and sensed the presence of “spiritual beings going in a circle and singing.”

“This was definitely a mystical experience of the holy or numinous,” observed Howard. “I remained at the Tor top for some time enjoying it.”

He later decided that this was probably a “subjective” experience, but it affected him as if it were objective. “I have long believed that the subjective is much more important than the objective,” reflected Howard. Returning to Roger Clark’s house, Howard was reluctant to mention what had happened “for fear an account of it would spoil it.” Instead, Howard wandered around Gastonbury reciting to himself lines from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. It was as if Howard had put his Quaker plainness aside and had drunk deep of the cup which Tennyson so hauntingly evokes:

  The cup, the cup itself, from which our Lord
  Drank at the last sad supper with his own.
  This, from the blessed land of Aromat--
  After the day of darkness, when the dead
  Went wandering o'er Moriah—the good saint
  Arimathaean Joseph, journeying brought
  To Glastonbury, where the winter thorn
  Blossoms at Christmas, mindful of our Lord.
  And there awhile it bode; and if a man
  Could touch or see it, he was healed at once,
  By faith, of all his ills.  But then the times
  Grew to such evil that the holy cup
  Was caught away to Heaven, and disappeared.
Drinking deep droughts of Celtic mysticism was “the greatest experience” Howard ever had in his life, according to his Autobiography. “I felt as if I had been lifted out the world around me into another world inhabited by Celtic legends… This Celtic experience cannot be described historically. It can only be felt mystically, as a present experience.”[1]
Soon after ascending to these mystical heights, Howard went to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (known as the BA) at Westminster Hall. Founded in 1831 as a progressive counterpart to the Royal Society, which some considered conservative and elitist, the BA showcased leading scientific breakthroughs and issues. Among other memorable events, the BA sponsored the famous debate about evolution that took place between Julian Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce at Oxford in 1860. In 1932, the BA was celebrating its Centennial.
On his way to this event, Howard encountered an angry mob of laborers who were protesting to Parliament. The scene was very tense. Howard had to dodge stones that were being thrown by protesters. “Policemen mounted on horseback charged the mob,” recalled Howard. “At one time I felt the nose of a horse against my back.”[2] Howard had to walk through the mob in order to reach the hall.
Fortunately, the conference was well worth all the trouble it took to reach. Present were some of the leading scientists of the day. Howard was especially interested in hearing a lecture by the popular Quaker astrophysicist Arthur Eddington (1882-1940). Eddington was one of the first British physicists to understand and appreciate Einstein’s theory of relativity, which he was able to confirm by an experiment involving a solar eclipse. Eddington explained complex ideas in clear language that could be understood by lay people. He was also able to discuss the philosophical and religious implications of the new physics. Like Howard, he argued for a philosophical harmony between mysticism and science. Howard was anxious to see him since in 1929 Eddington had given the Swarthmore Lecture on a topic near to Howard’s heart—the relationship between science and a creedless religion. In his conclusion Eddington described Quakerism as most akin to scientific outlook because it is based on experience rather than a creed:
Religious creeds are a great obstacle to any full sympathy between the outlook of the scientist and the outlook which religion is supposed to require…. I won’t say that no kind of defence of creeds is possible. But I think it may be said that Quakerism holds out a hand to the scientist…. The spirit which animates us refuses to regard any kind of creed as its goal.[3]
Eddington’s lecture on the evolution of the universe at BA proved to be a hit. “When Arthur Eddington spoke,” recalled Howard, “Everyone pulled out their notebooks.”[4]

The president of the BA was General Jan Christiaan Smuts (1870-1950),  the world-renowned South African and British Commonwealth statesman, military leader and philosopher. Nowadays Smuts is mainly remembered as the man that Gandhi had to contend with when fighting discriminatory race laws in South Africa, but in his day Smuts was known for his brilliance in many fields. He began his career as a general in the Boer War, served as a British field marshal during World War I,  and then became prime minister of South Africa. He had the foresight to advocate for small reparations and reconciliation with Germany and for a strong League of Nations—ideas which unfortunately did not gain acceptance. His most important intellectual work was Holism and Evolution (1926), which was one of Howard’s favorite scientific books. In it Smuts pioneered the concept of holism, defined as "the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.” Smuts applied this concept not only to biology but also to political development, such as the “unification of the four provinces in the Union of South Africa, the idea of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and, finally, the great whole resulting from the combination of the peoples of the earth in a great league of nations.”[5] Einstein admired Smuts’ intellect and said Smuts was one of only eleven people who truly understood the theory of relativity. Einstein also believed that relativity and holism would be seen as the defining ideas of the twentieth century.

In his Autobiography Howard doesn’t mention that Smuts coined the term aparteid and supported this policy of racial separateness throughout his life. Smuts was certainly a complex figure not easily pigeon-holed. He opposed Gandhi’s political views, but respected him as a man. Despite profound differences, Smuts and Gandhi became friends. When Gandhi left South Africa in 1914, Smuts wrote: "The saint has left our shores. I sincerely hope forever.”

What impressed Howard was Smuts’ comprehensive knowledge of science and his espousal of a holistic view of the universe. “I heard General Smuts take part in discussions on four… occasions, and each time he cast the weight of his clear and compelling mind on the side of the organic as contrasted with the mechanistic conception of nature.”[6] Howard saw the conference as a struggle between contending philosophies of science 

In the zoology and geology sections I heard the two schools of thought oppose each other on the problem of evolution. Here also such leaders as Sir Arthur Keith, Prof. H. Fairfield Osborne, and the young Julian Huxley discussed our human ancestry. In the psychology department I saw Behaviorism routed by Dr. O. S. Myers, Sir Oliver Lodge and General Smuts. In the Physics section I listened to such pathfinders of thought as J.J. Thomson and Niels Bohr.[7] 

The final address of the conference was given by Smuts, who was not only a scientist, but a major political figure. When he gave his final presidential address, members of the royal family were there to hear what he had to say.[8] Smuts’ address, entitled "The Scientific Worldview of Today,” attempted to overcome the Cartesian split between the world of matter and the world of mind using principles from quantum physics and evolution. According to Howard, Smuts made “a vigorous appeal to his hearers to interpret the universe in terms of the higher categories of life and mind rather than in terms of the lower categories of matter.”[9] This holistic approach played an important part in Howard’s efforts to reinvent Quakerism in light of modern physics.

[1] Autobiography, p. 55.
[2] Autobiography, p. 56.
[3] Science and the Unseen World, MacMillan Co, 1930, p. 88-89.
[4] Autobiography, p. 56.
[6] Friends Intelligencer, Twelfth Month 5, 1931. 1015.
[7] Friends Intelligencer, Twelfth Month 5, 1931. 1015.
[8] Autobiography, p. 56.
[9] Friends Intelligencer, Twelfth Month 5, 1931. 1015.

1 comment:

  1. Looking forward to the book, Anthony. Congratulations on finishing it.
    -Chris Wynn