Sofia #75 - Editorial by Dinah Livingstone

The Winter solstice has passed and now the days are growing longer. This issue takes a phrase from Wordsworth as its title, ‘the growth of common day’. It opens with two articles which look at religion as a human creation, one in what might roughly be called a ‘low’ and the other a ‘high’ christian tradition. The first article takes a non-supernatural approach to the Quaker tradition, with its stress on silence in its meetings. The second looks at Orthodox christianity from a non-supernatural viewpoint, particularly its idea of ‘deification’ and stress on ritual.

David Boulton points out that ‘the flip side of Quaker emphasis on silent worship is that it can serve to conceal sharp theological differences’, with which Friends may shock each other when they come out into the open. This emphasis on silent worship at meetings can be seen as a non-destructive aspect of the Puritan instinct to distrust ‘show’, which also found expression in Cromwell’s devastation of many beautiful churches and abolition of Christmas day. Quakers, who once fought bravely in the New Model Army against the King claiming a ‘divine right’, have since become well known and respected for their activism in the Peace Movement and other social causes. They aspire, Boulton says, to ‘a way of living rather than a set of beliefs’;. Their emphasis on deeds follows the gospel: ‘whatever you did to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did to me...’ (Mt 25:40), said in the context of feeding the hungry, healing the sick and visiting those in prison. In these deeds it is taken for granted that the body is important. Such ‘doing God’ – theopraxis, to use a jargon word seems more holistic than their theology – ‘saying God’ – the silent worship that consists of thinking and shutting down as much else of the body as possible, not even talking, let alone singing, lighting candles, dressing up, ringing bells, swinging censers releasing swoony smells, as many religions do...

Descartes published his Discourse on Method in 1637, with its famous statement: ‘I think, therefore I am.’ The English Revolution, from which the Quakers emerged, happened in the two ensuing decades. Perhaps Paris was a long way from England but the Quakers in their worship seem to share the assumption that thinking is ‘purer’ when it is less bodily. I have often wondered about Descartes’ famous phrase, because in some half-waking states I feel more like saying ‘I think therefore I am I think...’, whereas if I actually do something that has a physical effect, such as have a shower and get dressed, make a pot of tea, I see some result. The point is that I don’t just think when I am sitting in silence, but also when I am with people, talking, doing things, walking along (some things are ‘solved by walking’) etc. Physical activity affects my thinking.

Boulton’s article describes how non-theistic Quakers may ‘experience God as ‘the imagined embodiment of wholly human values’. Embodiment is the crucial word which they have steadfastly tried to realise in their theopraxis, their social activism, but perhaps have fought shy of in their theology, their worship-tradition of silent private thinking, which has foregone, among other things, a rich sacramental tradition – the eucharistic hoc est corpus mocked as ‘hocus pocus’ –, in its search for ‘purity’.[i]

For what is embodiment? A sacramental theology symbolises it, and the fading of the supernatural makes us all the more aware that both our theopraxis and our theology come down to acting and thinking for and about ourselves, bodily, social, fellow human beings belonging to Earth, where the sun rises in the morning to bring us our common day.

In the next article John Hondros looks at deification – becoming God – in the Orthodox tradition and considers what this might mean in non-supernatural terms. For the Orthodox Church deification means the transformation of the individual and the whole community ‘to view the world and people from a divine perspective.’ If we think of God as an ideal, then this means the realisation of this ideal both in the individual and the social body (the body politic). Hondros points out that, even for the theistic Orthodox, deification is not ‘a post-mortem promise of immortality but an existential possibility here and now’ and moral behaviour comes ‘naturally to a person when they are deified.’ He looks at the non-supernatural effects of ritual, how it changes both individual and communal awareness. This ritual enactment of deification must then, of course, be followed through by deeds in daily life. The awareness creates a vision and enlarges the sense of possibility for the individual and community, but then this must become incarnate in action and a social fabric. It invites people to behave well and create a good society but does not guarantee success or, for example, safeguard them (any more than other christians) from manipulation by unscrupulous politicians.

Turning to the workaday world of capital and labour, Pope Leo XIII published his encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891. In 1887 in England, the socialist William Morris had been one of the leaders of the notorious Bloody Sunday demonstration in Trafalgar Square, described in his novel (where it initiates the ‘change beyond the change’) News from Nowhere, published in 1891. The Pope was deeply suspicious of socialism but nevertheless criticised ‘the hard-heartedness of employers and the greed of unchecked competition’. Michael Morton looks at the history of the Young Christian Workers’ Movement that was inspired by the Encyclical.

As you will see from the box on page 3, SoF Steering Committee has now decided that the magazine should be called sofia, which means ‘wisdom’. It must be stressed that the magazine in no way claims to dispense wisdom or aspires to the pretensions of a magazine such as The Plain Truth. As the continuity of our logo shows, it remains a hundred percent the magazine of the Sea of Faith Network, which explores religion as a human creation. The world’s many religions, which SoF believes were created by the human poetic genius or imagination, seek to express, in many different ways, humanity’s treasury of wisdom, both philosophical and practical. sofia will continue to explore the many christian traditions (this issue points up some sharp contrasts between Quakers and Orthodox) and other religions in a positive but critical way, pursuing a search for wisdom that asks not only what should we think but what should we do, not just as individuals but as a species.

As the poet Coleridge put it, transforming christian myth into a humanist epic: ‘Man is truly altered by the co-existence of other men, his faculties cannot be developed in himself alone and only himself. Therefore the human race, not by a bold metaphor but in sublime reality approach to and might become one body, whose head is Christ (the Logos).’ On the inside back cover of this issue, your Editor does a non-supernatural ‘take’ on some of the Advent liturgical texts, in which Christ is invoked as Wisdom and begged to come. Yes, we do need to act wisely. Yes, we do urgently need wisdom to come to our world endangered by virulent fundamentalisms. Naturally.

[i] However, the Quakers did have their symbols and special language, often involving an attractive cussedness, such as their refusal to do ‘hat honour’ and their dogged use of the familiar ‘thou’ even to their social superiors, which, George Fox said in his journal, put him and his followers ‘in danger many times of our lives, and often beaten for using those words to some proud men.’ (Quoted in David Crystal, The Stories of English, (Penguin, London 2004), p. 310.

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