Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Quakerism, Mysticism and Modern Science: Howard Brinton’s perspective

As I prepare for my workshop on the Brintons that will take place at the FGC Gathering in a few weeks, I would like to share some of the lectures I'm working on. Here is what I intend to say about Brinton's efforts to reconcile mysticism, science and Quakerism:

One of the great challenges for religion in modern times has been how to reconcile religion and science. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote these powerful lines in 1870:

“They fail to read clearly the signs of the times who do not see that the hour is coming when, under the searching eye of philosophy and the terrible analysis of science, the letter and the outward evidence will not altogether avail us; when the surest dependence must be upon the Light of Christ within…”

Whittier was describing the crisis of faith that many were experiencing due to the discoveries of Darwin and of other scientists who called into question the authority of the Bible, the existence of God, and the validity of religion. Responding to this challenge, Howard was able to reconcile science and religion with more authority than virtually any other liberal Quaker of his time because he was trained as a scientist. He studied physics and mathematics at Haverford and taught these subjects at Quaker prep schools and colleges, but his most intensive training in modern physics took place at Columbia University. There he studied with such powerhouse professors as Robert Andrews Millikan and George Braxton Pegram. Millikan (1868-1953) was an American experimental physicist who received the Nobel Prize in physics for his measurement of the charge on the electron and for his work on the photoelectric effect. George Braxton Pegram (1876-1958) played a key role in the technical administration of the Manhattan Project. It was here at Columbia that Howard received his first glimpse of the Atomic Age.

Among other experiments, Howard was asked to ascertain the amount of “radium gas” in the air over Amsterdam Avenue, the street next to the lab. Pegram then gave Howard some radium to experiment with—“so little it could not be seen with the naked eye.” Howard constructed a small device with a fluorescent screen and microscope that allowed viewers to see a “brilliant spark of light” caused by the radium. Howard carried this tiny device around in his pocket for many years to show off to admirers. Recalled Howard, “Under radium bombardment this screen looked like stars at night.”[1]

Pegram must have been impressed with Howard since he asked him to write an essay on Einstein’s theory of relativity. This essay was mimeographed and passed around the class.

“My mathematics resulted in many large equations containing many variables,” recalled Howard. “I hoped to go further with them. Einstein solved the problem through his field theory, including electrical fields, magnetic fields, and gravitational fields.”[2]

Howard later had another encounter with Einstein’s equations when the great physicist was asked to deliver a commencement address at Swarthmore College in 1938. Einstein was not aware that Swarthmore was a Quaker college until his friend and translator David Mitrany, the famous Romanian political theorist, informed him of this fact. Einstein immediately took some scrap paper and wrote a paragraph commending the Quakers: “With admiration and respect I have seen, in the course of many years, how successfully and selflessly the Religious Society of Friends worked in the entire world to lessen human suffering and to make the teachings of Christ apply to real life. . . . This Society is an admirable testimony against the assertion that every organization by its very nature kills the spirit which has called it to life.”[3]

During his first few years at Earlham College, in the 1920s, what occupied most of Howard’s time was teaching physics. He was required not only to prepare lectures, but also to build and repair equipment—a task he enjoyed immensely. “A good deal of the apparatus for experiment[s] in the laboratory I was able to make,” recalled Howard with pride.[4]

On a bleak wintry night in 1924, disaster struck. Lindley Hall, the main classroom building, burned down, and with it Howard’s laboratory and lecture room. Howard was obliged to rebuild the lab equipment using material abandoned in a junk yard. He was also able to buy new equipment. Howard was especially pleased with a “Michaelson interferometer which could measure lines in the spectrum [and] . . . take photographs of ultraviolet light.”[5]

J. Theodore Peters recalled how Howard “enlisted the help of every student and others too” in re-building the physics department. . . . I recall being asked to design and build a high voltage Tesla-Coil, using a homemade electrolytic interrupter. Another assignment was to build a five-tube, super heterodyne radio-receiving set. What a thrill it was, after several weeks building and testing, to be able to bring in station WLW of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh’s KDKA quite clearly! Radio was still a new media in 1925 and 1926.”[6]

Peters also notes that Howard had a unique approach to teaching physics: “Howard enriched his discussion of Newton’s laws, Faraday’s discoveries, and the predictions of Einstein by making cross references to philosophers and theologians and their concepts.”[7]

Along with his heavy teaching load and demanding family life, Howard managed to complete his doctoral dissertation on Jacob Boehme, the German mystic, in 1925. During his first three years at Earlham, he traveled to California two times without making much progress, but on the third trip he “wrote the whole thesis from beginning to end.” Recalling the unusual circumstances under which this book was written, Howard mentions a Boehme enthusiast living in the California woods who had a large collection of obscure books by and about Boehme that he let Howard use. When this backwoods Behmenist died, he bequeathed his collection of German books to Howard.[8]

Howard’s thesis was, to put it mildly, an unusual one for physics and mathematics instructor seeking a PhD in philosophy. He was examined by a team of seven professors—four from the philosophy department and three from the physics department—who knew nothing about Boehme and asked no questions about this subject. Instead, Howard was mostly grilled about his knowledge of math and physics—subjects he had studied as a grad student. Howard had just arrived by train from California and had not slept for four nights. He didn’t do well in answering these questions, but his philosophy advisor, Dr. George Plimpton Adams, was sympathetic and Howard passed. After this ordeal, Howard was invited to Dr. Adams’s home for dinner.[9]

Dr. Adams’s faith in Howard was justified: Howard’s doctorate, The Mystic Will, was published by McMillan in 1930 and reprinted in 1994 by Kessinger Publishing, a press specializing in “rare esoteric books.” Much of it is quite readable since Howard had the ability to make even the most esoteric subject seem lucid.

Boehme had been an interest of Howard’s for twenty years, ever since Rufus Jones proposed that he write about him. There were many reasons that Howard felt drawn to Boehme. First, he was one of the first Protestant mystics and had a profound influence on early Friends. “A multitude of mystical sects, of whom the Quakers are the chief survivors, looked to Boehme as the philosopher of their movement,” wrote Howard.[10] Friends were sometimes accused by their detractors of being “Behmenists.”

Like Fox, Boehme came from humble origins—he was a shoemaker—but he had mystical experiences that caused him to become one of the major religious figures of his day. He was regarded by Hegel and others as the “father of German philosophy” and was highly regarded by the Romantics who saw him as their precursor. Howard was also intrigued by Boehme’s effort to reconcile the inner world of mysticism with the physical world of science (as it was understood at that time). Howard also felt that Boehme had a message that was relevant for the twentieth century:

The world-denying mystics of the Middle Ages inherited from Neo-Platonism a well-known type of thought that has come to be considered as peculiarly characteristic of all speculative mystics. But mysticism has not always fled from the finite. This is evident from the experience of the Quakers and other ethically active mystical groups. A widespread, world-affirming type of mystical theory characterized by a well-rounded philosophy of its own, culminated in Jacob Boehme. . . . To an age such as ours, torn between a desire to follow up the great successes of its mechanistic theories and a yearning for mystic insight to pierce beyond the symbols of science, Boheme’s philosophy conveys a striking message.[11]

Howard was correct in asserting that Boehme's message speaks to our times—interest in Boehme's writings remains keen, though limited, and there has even been a Pendle Hill pamphlet devoted to Boehme—but some scholars, such Geoffrey Nuttall, regard as “specious” the contention that Boehme's writings exerted an influence on early Quakers.

When Howard returned to Earlham, President Edwards sent him a letter asking why he was receiving a degree in philosophy when his job was to teach physics. Howard explained that his degree was in both physics and philosophy and noted that he had studied physics at Columbia with two of the top physicists of the time, Millikan and Pegram.[12]

Edwards seemed satisfied with this explanation, but no doubt realized that Howard had a passion for philosophy that would not be denied. When Thomas Kelly (who had taught philosophy) left Earlham, Howard asked if he could teach a course in philosophy and religion. Edwards “expressed enthusiastic approval” and Howard switched from teaching physics to teaching philosophy and religion, subjects he taught for the rest of his life.

No account of Howard’s teaching would be complete without mentioning some of his eccentricities, particularly his reputation for being an absentminded professor. A former student reported that one morning, as Howard was writing equations on the blackboard, he reached into the pocket where he kept his eraser, pulled out a small kitten and started to erase the board with it. Howard later explained that he had seen the kitten shivering and cold in the morning when he went to pick up the milk bottles. Feeling sorry for it, he placed it in his pocket for warmth and forgot about it until he arrived in class.[13]

To appreciate how Howard viewed Quakerism and Quaker theology, it is important to keep in mind Howard’s scientific background. He saw Meeting for worship as a kind of laboratory. As early as 1914, he gave a lecture at Pickering College in which he states:

This Quaker method, if method it can be called, might be described as the laboratory method. The modern teacher of science does not require his class to blindly accept the authority of a book. Experiments are done which prove the facts. Similarly the Quaker worship is not a worship by proxy, but a worship of actual personal experience.[14]

Equating worship with the experimental method of science became a recurrent theme in Howard’s writing.  His first significant theological argument about Quaker worship and contemporary scientific thought appeared in a talk entitled “Vocal Ministry and Quaker Worship, ” which he delivered in Germantown, Pennsylvania, in 1928.[15] 

Howard’s arguments are as follows:

1.   Quakerism is a methodology, not a “fixed doctrine.”

2.   Quakerism is compatible with science because it is an experiential, not a dogmatic or creedal religion.

3.   The faith and practice of Quakerism are congenial to the evolutionary and holistic world view of modern science.

In Howard’s view, each branch of Christianity has its own function, or “task,” to perform. Accomplishing this task is more important than adhering to any belief system.

This new way of thinking about religion was similar to the shift in thinking among physicists that occurred in the wake of Einstein’s theory of relativity. “All physical objects are forms of a single energy which is constantly changing,” Howard observed. “Hence definitions cannot be made in terms of fixed characteristics of structure, but must be expressed in terms of function. A thing is what it does. In the same way a religious denomination is what it does, rather than what it believes.”

By shifting the focus of religion from orthodoxy to orthopraxis, from believing to doing, Howard hoped to transcend the doctrinal differences that had led to schisms among Friends and other Christians.

In Howard’s view, Christian unity, and unity among Friends, could be attained if each denomination clearly saw its role in relation to the whole. Quakerism (like every other branch of Christianity) has a distinct part to play in the grand scheme of divine salvation. Howard uses a homely metaphor to drive home his point: “If . . .we recognize in the building trades that a plumber is a better plumber if he does not attempt the work of a carpenter, so in the construction of Our Father’s house with its many mansions the Quaker may be a better Quaker if he does not attempt to do the work of the Methodist.”[16]

If function, rather than belief, becomes religion’s dominant concern, Howard sees no reason why Hicksite and Orthodox Friends couldn’t work together on pragmatic grounds.

There he gave the Swarthmore Lecture entitled Creative Worship, one of his most beautifully written and thoughtful reflections.

It is impossible to do justice to the range and scope of this essay in a brief summary. Drawing from his wide-ranging background, Howard used history, philosophy and the latest scientific thinking to explore the role of worship in modern life. He described the modern era as one in which people have lost touch with the meaning and experience of genuine worship. People bemoan “the lost art of worship” and wonder how it can be revived. In Howard’s view, the “art of worship” has been lost because the eighteenth and nineteenth century adopted a “mechanistic” philosophy and world view that produced great material gains, but in the process alienated people from their inner lives.  Many of the ideas he expressed in this essay echo what was said in “Vocal Ministry and Quaker Worship” at Germantown Meeting in 1928. He distinguished between “mechanical” and “organic” forms of religions, and argued that Quaker worship is congenial with the ideas of modern science, particularly in evolution and quantum physics. As he did in Germantown, Howard maintained that the Puritan and Quaker worldviews were diametrically opposed. He posited a hopeful future for Quakerism because its mystical mode of worship and organic philosophy are relevant to the modern age.

In a poetic passage, Howard evoked a cosmology that links modern science with the gospel of John and draws from evolutionary philosophers such as Morgan, Alexander, Whitehead, Smuts, and Broad, and anticipated evolutionary theologians such as Teilhard de Chardin:

In the beginning there was a swarm of electric particles, the most primitive forms of matter, pushing and pulling on each other from without. The Power which unites uttered the creative Fiat and these participles cooperated with one another to form organisms called atoms. The atoms jostled and fought each other until again the Spirit of Cooperation entered and they combined to create molecules. The molecules were mechanically and externally related and Creative Harmonizing Love fused them into fellowships as living cells which exhibited an unprecedented kind of behaviour. In a similar way cells, by forming new kinds of relation with one another, gradually achieved great societies such as animal bodies and eventually the infinitely elaborate structure of a human brain.[17]
According to Howard, this Power or Spirit is active not only in every aspect of the natural world, but also in every religion. He saw silent worship as the unifying factor underlying the message of every great religious leader:

When Moses saw God in the burning bush or Elijah heard the still, small voice, when Paul went to the desert of Arabia after his conversion, or George Fox on Pendle Hill saw in vision a great people to be gathered, when the Buddha sat in meditation under the Bo-tree or Mohammed listened to an angelic voice in the cave near Mecca, above all, when Jesus Himself faced temptation alone in the wilderness, a great new message to the world was born not because God was spoken to but because God was listened to.[18] 

Howard went on to describe how the Quaker practice of silent worship led to “group mysticism” and to a way of decision-making and life that not only transforms individuals, but has the potential to transform the world.

As the age just dawning reveals many signs of congeniality with religion of the organic types, the Society of Friends may make an important contribution to the faith and practice of the future. It may even be the Moses to lead the modern world out of the religious wilderness, if it manifests power and dedication commensurate with its ideal of worship and conduct.[19]

This is an audacious vision, and in later life Howard came to doubt whether modern Quakers were up to this challenge. But he never lost faith in the validity and power of unprogrammed worship and its relevance in a scientific age. For him, this mode of worship was the key to experiencing the living God, the living Christ, that is within each of us—an experience as real and miraculous to him as the birth of a star.



[1] Autobiography, p. 19.

[2] Autobiography, p. 19.

[3] Translated by John Cary, Professor of German at Haverford College, and husband of Cathy Cary, Howard’s daughter. From the Brinton archives. Howard later donated this Einstein manuscript to Haverford College.

[4] Autobiography, p. 45.

[5] Autobiography, p. 45.

[6] J. Theodore Peters, “Remembering Howard Brinton,” Quaker Life, Dec. 1973, p. 30.

[7] Peters, p. 30.

[8] Autobiography, p. 46.

[9] Autobiography, p. 46-47.

[10] Brinton, The Mystic Will: Based Upon a Study of the Philosophy of Jacob Boehme. Kessinger Publishing Company, Montana, U.S.A., 1993, p. 7.

[11] Brinton, The Mystic Will, p. v.

[12] Autobiography, p. 47.

[13] Peters, p. 30.

[14] Ibid, p. 8.

[15] “Vocal Ministry and Quaker Worship,” a paper read at the Conference on Ministry at Friends’ Meeting House, Coulter Street, Germantown, Third Month, 1928.


[16] Ibid. 4.

[17] Creative Worship and Other Essays. Pendle Hill Publications: Wallingford, PA, 1957, p. 34.

[18] Ibid, p. 28.

[19] Ibid, p. 54.

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