This is an open question to readers here who have a broader knowledge of Quaker history than I do.  I am wondering if the early Quakers had any relationships with the Cambridge Platonists.  I have only recently become aware of them.  Some of their doctrines seem similar to some Quaker perspectives (though admittedly I have at this time read very little).  I have not come across any mention of interaction between Quakers and Cambridge Platonists.  But the timing is right; the Cambridge Platonists were active in the mid-1600's.  And some of the early Quakers, like Barclay, were intellectually very curious.  And I am aware that continental Quietism was at play among Quakers from an early date.  But, again, I haven't run across any histories who mention any crosscurrents between the two.  I am thinking of influences going both ways.  

If any readers know of resources regarding this please post in the comments below.



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Comment by Forrest Curo on 6th mo. 11, 2017 at 7:44pm

Certainly it's to the good if you can read some old text in a way conductive to your personal spiritual nourishment. It's also sometimes helpful if you can find out what the author was trying to say, about what, to address what situation in his own historical context; and for that purpose you would conceivably want to know how likely it was that he said one specific thing rather than something different.

Comment by Jim Wilson on 6th mo. 15, 2017 at 12:29pm

Hi Forrest:

I've been thinking about your comment.  It seems simple enough.  But I'd like to suggest that the kinds of questions you raise may not actually be helpful.  For example, why did Emily Dickinson write her poems?  People have been asking that since they were first published; and the truth is we really don't know.  Does that reduce our enjoyment?

In the Norton Anthology of poetry, the great big one for English poetry, there are early anonymous poems.  A poem like 'Somer is Icumen in' has been enjoyed for many centuries even though we don't know who wrote it.

In a similar way, I'm not convinced that knowing the answers to these questions really helps us understand, for example, the Gospels.  And historically, various schools have come up with different answers, and they have used these answers to further their own interpretation (e.g. Bultmann).  

I have come to believe that the modern approaches of textual and higher criticism have created a barrier to understanding biblical literature and that they need to be put aside in order to access the song that they sing.  These textual approaches, along with the fatal disease of deconstruction, are similar to the 'Professors of Religion' that early Quakers critiqued.  I think that early critique applies with equal force today.



Comment by Forrest Curo on 6th mo. 15, 2017 at 4:15pm

If you don't ask certain kinds of questions about the Bible, it's easy to take it as meaning whatever it seems to mean for a naive 21st Century reader.

Will that make his interpretation more "helpful" to him? Which needs and wants should he be using it to further?

If one of those needs is Truth -- about God, the larger universe, himself -- and how best he might understand their interrelation --

If the book he hopes will be "helpful" in that direction is a work of indirect communication (but surely intended to communicate to us -- rather than a heap of short poems written to herself by a New England recluse --

then it behooves us to wonder what it's supposed to mean, not just whatever meaning we're accustomed to.

So questions about who directly wrote each part, to whom, in what kind of circumstance and with what assumptions and intentions -- are not at all inappropriate.

If Jesus is to be taken as a model of God's nature and how human beings should best relate to God and each other... Questions as to what project(s) he was engaged in during his historical life, in what historical circumstances, for what purpose(s) are clearly relevant. Questions of what he actually said (and meant!) vs what words later followers used to convey their understandings of what he said and did -- Those issues clearly matter.

We shouldn't assume that later material  is not illuminating; but we do need to see what it is, not just what it purports to be.

There is indeed a lot of pseudoknowledge out there -- which can be hard to distinguish from what people truly know about the times Jesus lived in and responded to. If that doesn't seem worth the difficulty to you, then you don't need that book either, do you?

Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 6th mo. 20, 2017 at 9:56am

Good morning, Jim:

 You asked if early Quakers had any relationships with the Cambridge Platonists. Lewis Benson describes exchanges between Quakers and the Cambridge Platonists in his essay "Prophetic Quakerism," in the section titled "The meaning of the coming of Christ." I'll transcribe some of that section below, but if you can get a hold of the essay, both this particular section as well as the entire piece is worth reading. Benson records the differences between the two groups that was known to both:

One of the most highly refined developments in the history of Christian Platonism was taking place at the time that Fox was preaching his message. From the point of view of modern Friends these Cambridge Platonists were actually producing a parallel religious movement and the early Friends could not have done better than to interpret their message in terms of Platonist metaphysics.

But the stumbling block that prevented this was the clear recognition on both sides that Cambridge Platonism is philosophical and nonprophetic whereas Quakerism is Christ-centered and intensely prophetic.

The question was thoroughly thrashed out between the Quakers and John Norris, a Christian Platonist at Oxford. Norris states the fundamental difference well in the following propositions:

"I. The Quakers usually talk of the light, as of some divine communication or manifestation only, whereas I make it to be the very essence and substance of the deity, which I suppose virtually to contain all things in it, and to be intimately united to our minds.

II. The Quakers represent this light as a sort of extraordinary inspiration (whence they have the name of enthusiasts) whereas I suppose it to be a man's natural and ordinary way of understanding."

Norris's own view is further clarified by his statement that "all men do in some measure attend to and consult the divine light, so far at least as is necessary to their common and ordinary understanding and to render them rational and intelligent beings."

Richard Vickris, who spoke for the Quakers, asserted that Norris's view "tends to make void the office of Christ as our high Priest and well as our blessed light and Saviour."

George Whitehead later joined the controversy and took great pains to take full account of the apparent similarities in the Platonist and Quaker doctrines of the Inner Light. "Although," he says, "Robert Barclay and John Norris acknowledge Christ the divine word or logos, to be the Light Within, even the light which enlightens all men, the one (R.B.) supposeth it to be the spiritual body of Christ; and the other (J.N.) cannot tell; he knows not that there may be such a thing; however both confess the light to be a substantial light of the divine essence and nature of the Deity."

In the postscript he adds, "I do not see but our Friends exalt Jesus Christ as mediator betwixt God and men, more than thyself. For which please consider:

1. Thy supposing the very essence and substance of the Deity to be so untied to our minds, as that there can be no medium between God and the creature.

2. Thy supposing the light within to be man's natural and ordinary way of understanding.

3. Thy supposing that neither the soul of Jesus Christ nor his spiritual body can ever be a light to the mind of man.

In these three suppositions may not I suppose thou leavest no room for Jesus Christ as mediator in any degree in man? Or has thou not only said as much herein, as one called a deist may say, without relation to Jesus Christ as manifest in several degrees, appearance, and operations in man, as we truly feel and confess him?"

[Benson writes.] Both Norris and Friends had successfully isolated the essential point of disagreement and both understood that while this point remained unresolved there could be no synthesis between the two doctrines. (The Truth is Christ, pp.19-20)


Comment by Patricia Dallmann on 6th mo. 20, 2017 at 1:18pm

Corrections: In the first reason that Whitehead  gives for why Platonists do not exalt Christ as mediator betwixt God and men, there is a typo: "so untied to our minds" should read "so united to our minds." And second, the last sentence of the first paragraph should have a plural verb. 

Comment by Jim Wilson on 6th mo. 20, 2017 at 1:36pm

Patricia, thanks for the post.  It will take some time for me to read it and then respond.  Thanks for taking the time to track down these quotes and sources.


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