Primitive Christianity Revived, Again
It’s the “holiday season” but this is not an essay about Christmas. Nor is it about Halloween. It purports be an essay about Quaker’s and holidays. However, it’s more about language – sacred language – and how French philosopher Jacques Derrida has something to say about sacred language that might surprise a few folks that are “in the know.” What should we do with Derrida’s prediction that the words of or about God might avenge themselves upon those who attempt to co-opt them for personal gain? What might Derrida say about the nature of Quakerism and the state of our own peculiar discourse? I put the question to the text – the ever-elusive meanings buried in Derrida’s confusing labors; what happens when Friends celebrate Halloween on First Day? What has become of Friends when we celebrate or participate in the day the world calls Christmas?
I’ve intentionally begged an important question. What does Continental philosophy have to do with Quakers - and what hath Friends to do with the prophetic utterances of an awkwardly literate philosopher and self-appointed defender of the language of the sacred? I believe two caveats are necessary before launching into an essay about Quakerism(s), Derrida, and what I understand his thinking on sacred language represents. First, there is an ever-present danger in communicating with readers about apocalyptic language. The second caveat (or perhaps a warning) is the necessity of recognizing that to read Derrida means that the interpreter, and the readers of interpretation, must wade through ever-present bullshit.
The pretentiousness of claiming to understand Derrida’s thinking is the first indicator of bullshit. Therefore, understand that much of this essay is dedicated to the manipulation of language, how humans manipulate and attempt to tame sacred language, and my observation that much of Quakerism is as unintelligible as Derrida. So - reader beware. Self-indulgent postmodern critiques of language, bracketed with understandings that such communication is about winning – according to the rules of communication established by modernity – is either inherently frustrating, or intentionally frustrating in order to prove a seemingly sharp point that is cloaked in opaque lingerie that the lustiest of critics cannot remove. (See how this works?) I tell you this. The very nature of Derrida’s presumed incoherence warns us of the catastrophes that are imminent in what I perceive to be Friends’ continued manipulation of the sacred language.
If I am properly reading between the lines of Derrida’s own bullshit, I understand that he is speaking to the Quaker condition as I observe it to be. We Friends are becoming murderers of sacred language. We have become as incoherent in our worship and communication to most “outsiders” as Derrida is to nearly everyone. However, Friends often refuse to read between the lines evident on our public face, and as such, we will suffer judgment as a Society. We will know first-hand what the faithful Jew Derrida means when he warns that the sacred language will avenge us, and drag our children into the abyss. Friends love to talk of George Fox and early Friends, but we are quickly embarrassed by the nature of the early epistles. Surely, Quakerism is no longer using the language that refers to outsiders as “whores of Babylon.” Sacred concepts like “judgment” or “wrath” seem to be anathema to most FGC Friends.
Yet, Friends will talk about the “Light” of some cosmic entity as though it sums up all that is necessary to experience of the divine. The language of judgment, the judgment of YHWH or any monolithic cosmic source, is cast out like demons that never existed. However, we cannot throw out bits and pieces of language that make us uncomfortable. We are obligated, if we are to be in relationship with the sacred, to struggle with it. How can judgment be understood as blessing, because all creation will be restored to right relationship. Condemnation of sin comes not with punishment, but with the introduction of justice to all of creation. Wrath is no more than being left to the consequences of our own behaviors, and not rescued by from suffering by divine intervention. I ask, can Friends accept that this rather significant matter of judgment has been bullied (through the nature of our leisure and niceness) into the depths of Sheol because it is uncomfortable to reflect upon? Does judgment or divine consequence threaten to starve our individual spiritual needs? Derrida warns: the sacred will be brought to life from the dustbin of history, and the judiciary of the sacred will request that Friends answer a simple question of judgment. “Friend, what hath thee done to me, for what thee hath done to the sacred is that which hath covered thy measure of light.”Reading through Derrida, I ask if this is the question – why hath thee taken the sacred language of Friends for thine own, and stripped it of integrity? There will be consequences.
My essay is inspired by a work of Derrida that I read and re-read, awed by the potential that he may be, amongst others, a faithful Jew. In his volume Acts of Religion, an essay entitled The Eyes of Language is his interpretation of written communication between two German Jews, Gershom Scholem and Franz Rosenzweig. In 1928, Scholem was a Zionist working to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Part of the Zionist movement at that time was working with the Tanakh and Talmud in order to develop sacred (biblical) Hebraic into a language appropriate for secular use. Additionally, Zionists were, according to Rosenzweig, in danger of judgment due to his assumption that Zionist manipulation of the messianic hope that he understood to be sacred would draw Israel into an abyss – into Sheol. The interesting matter of the Derrida’s concern with the content of the communication between the Germans is not about the judgment of God, but of the judgment of language itself.
If you’ve read French postmodern thinkers, the potential for Derrida to be religious might seem odd. I suggested the idea that Derrida is representative of a faithful Jew to a conservative Christian pastor who surprisingly bursts stereotypes with his grasp of everything philosophical after earning a doctorate in philosophy from Michigan State. When I shared that Derrida seems to me to be a faithful Jew he seemed shocked. However, I believe that Derrida, like George Fox and earliest Friends, can be deemed faithful because they revere the nature of the sacred, and the language and text(s) of the sacred. While Derrida is not necessarily awed by the works of a Holy God, he presents as being awed by the failure of human beings to see the dangers inherent in secularizing the sacred, and in secularizing the sacred language, in order to meet political, economic, or social goals. Perhaps Stanley Hauerwas puts it better. He might ask; “Why is the church spending so much time trying to make itself relevant to the secular when we have nearly become irrelevant to ourselves?”
Fox, like Derrida, was fully aware of the nature of attempting to tame sacred language. He sojourned across the country looking for the faithful professors of Christ. Fox felt that Christians in 17th-Century England knew the Bible to the letter, but thought little of living it out. When he could find none that he felt had integrity, it was the Holy Spirit that led Fox to his own convincement. To make sense of his liberating experience, only the language of apocalyptic was useful for Fox in making sense of his own calling, and his prophetic call to cast judgment upon an unfaithful church. Fox saw the Church of England and the Puritans’ attempted taming of dissenting groups as being indicative of the corpse of the body of Christ, languishing in Sheol, trying to pull the apocalyptic reformers into the abyss that exists, according to Derrida, between the cliffs of sacred knowledge and secular knowledge. Genesis should come to mind, and the perception that God understands the dangers inherent in making informed choices. As for the faithful remnant who returned to primitive Christianity, Fox could see the church resurrecting itself, leaving the corpse behind in the abyss and invigorating all those who lived as Friends of Christ. Think Milton!
My concern with language and sacred discourse as related to contemporary Quakerism(s) reflects the concerns of Rosenzweig in the communications that caught Derrida’s attention. Rosenzweig’s observation of Diaspora Judaism was that it was being ruined by an ongoing movement toward the secularization of Jewish communities that had become more and more attractive, economically and socially if not politically. Scholem agreed with this assessment, but stated in his letters that a Jewish state in Palestine was the only way to revive Judaism.
However, the manner in which Scholem was working toward a Jewish state was to secularize the language, thus secularizing the messianic hope of Israel. I have heard it said before that Zionists have manipulated the stories of messianic hope by stating that the establishment of a Jewish state would be indicative of messianic promises fulfilled. Derrida reads the communications between the two scholars and concludes the following, which became apparent to both scholars at the end of their careers. Scholem’s work of translation of Hebrew for Zionism dangerously manipulated the sacred language. He suggests that the passions of language, sacred or secular, “mixes well with the elements (water, earth, air, fire), but language privileges fire.” If Scholem was secularizing the sacred language, Derrida suggests that it would be necessary to secularize all of it, event he parts that didn’t fit secular worldviews. The language of “fire [is] the mouthpiece, trumpet, mouth of fire of a jealous and vengeful God who is a God of fire.” Derrida asks; who shall tame such a God? I ask – who believes that such a God exists, and does our denial of potential vengeance doom us to the ash heap? Does Derrida believe that a God exists? That begs a separate question.
I am not sure if Derrida is stating that YHWH is literally jealous and vengeful as much as he is intimating that the secularization of sacred language necessitates the maintenance of an ignorance of the text. Sacred language will be a tool of judgment, as I interpret Derrida (I refuse to claim understanding of bullshit), because it loses its meaning and context, rendering a people into a secularized group of individuals who manipulate the sacred to suit their own needs. At some point, they cease to be a people when the language of the sacred is institutionalized; imprisoned in Sheol. In an apocalyptic manner, I believe that Derrida is stating that evil (his term) done to the “Holy Tongue must one day be avenged by the properly revolutionary return of the language and be visited upon our children.”
Because the sacred language has been abandoned, if not abused through its taming via secularization, our children will soon be without identity. They will be forced to assume an identity of their choosing, and it will most often be a misinformed choice that relegates the past to the status of baggage that must be overcome in order for individuals to progress socially and politically. This is in keeping with the promises of Modernity. Those promises have not yet been fulfilled, and were last seen tied in the race toward parousia.
Before I wrap up this essay that intends to offer a critique of Friends and our abuse of Quaker discourse, there is a western Friend who articulates truth. It is important to introduce an essay written by Friend Paul Christiansen, whom I have never met. He is a member of Eastside Friends Meeting in Bellevue, Washington, and in an article reprinted in the Winter 2011 LEYM newsletter,he sets one line apart that should warn the readers of what I identify as the consequences of the secularization of Friends and our peculiar language. Christiansen asks, “So where are the Quaker youth?"
Christiansen’s observations of contemporary Friends are remarkable. In his essay, he suggests that young Friends have been left to make their own way. “There is a feeling common among Quakers under thirty, or even forty, that Friends over forty have been in charge so long that there’s no way for us young people to contribute.” Additionally, he recognizes the reasons that this feeling of marginalization exists among young Friends or newcomers to worship. “Quakerism, a Friend said, is ‘Like a game of Mao,’ Mao being a game in which the rules are never explained, and new players learn the rules when they’re punished for breaking them. It is a game designed to frustrate; the Society of Friends can be similarly hostile.” Christiansen describes his experiences and the experiences of others as being left to figure out the matters of tradition and worship on their own. I believe that part of the problems submitted by Christiansen is that the sacred language of Quakerism has little meaning beyond what individuals desire it to mean for them. There is either no meaning, or conversely, to damn many meanings.
Like Derrida interprets the secularization of Hebrew to meet the needs of realpolitik as a potential death knell to the sacred nature of Judaism, Christiansen gives evidence that silent worship has been tamed by Friends who insist on doing things the way they have always been done, but fail to provide context or explanation that makes the way things have always been done intelligible to young Friends and newcomers. They are left searching and having to choose a Quakerism of their own understanding, and the quietist nature of Friends has forced our newcomers to make uninformed choices concerning Quaker identity. A Quakerism of our own understanding is undeniably a “twelve-stepification” of the faith!
Remember my introduction. This essay is not about holidays but has everything to do with Quakers and holidays. Like reading Derrida, and perhaps like conversing with Friends, it is difficult but necessary to read between the lines. Even in Worship with attention to Business, we do not worship, but engage in language games intended to win a point by excluding others from participation through the use of a discourse with too many meanings and a sense of worship that has no corporate identity. I believe that Friends have successfully secularized our Society, and it is just as evident in our celebrations or participation in holidays as it is elsewhere. But I tell you the truth, this secularization has been every bit intentional, and we are on the very precipice of jumping to our denominational demise.In order to stay alive, Friends have worked intensely to betray the sacred in order to be everything to everyone. We are so secular because, to continue to exist, we have done away with the embarrassing aspects of peculiarity.
Friends – we have a language that takes away the occasion for holidays because God is to be celebrated every day, and on every occasion. Presently, Friends not only share in holidays in the most secular of manners (has anything been so secularized as Halloween or as commercialized as Christmas?), but resent any allusion to the fact that Friends rejected the celebration of holidays, choosing to make every day a celebration of Christ, and an opportunity to live sacramentally. Everything in our sacred language concerns itself with the sacred and importance of sacramental living every day. No day need be set aside as holy. As a matter of language, there is no more evidence needed that Friends’ loss of sacramental living as an indicator of God’s desire, but that Friends have so secularized and abused the sacred language of the Society that the apocalyptic nature of Friends’ testimonies is entirely thrown into Deridda’s abyss.
Friends will say, “We don’t reject holidays anymore,” and then follow with a defense of Christmas celebrations at meeting with “We’ve had Christmas gatherings every year," or, "Christmas is more of a big family event than a religious observance.” Our testimonies have been turned into matters of individual convenience, and Friends refuse to be true to the apocalyptic nature of our peculiar sacred language and origins. Because we reject the elements of sacred language that seem to be violent or indicative of a God we want nothing to do with, we simply pick and choose the parts of the language that suit us. As a result, everything loses its context and becomes unintelligible to outsiders. Those who fit it tend to be those that value an hour of silence, and not corporate witness. There is no longer a need for peculiar Quaker language.
Is there a need for Quakerism? Are electoral politics and social movements not enough to satisfy our Spiritual thirst? The commercialism of Christmas is desperately in need of judgment, yet Friends no longer follow the ancient tradition of being speakers of truth, which includes judgment upon the loss of sacred meaning brought about by secular necessity and commercial priorities. Many Friends are a people of leisure and individualism, and our continued use of Friends language without preserving its narrow interpretation of the dangers of secularizing worship and the secular ignoring of the divine makes us unintelligible to others.
If you wholly disagree with my assumptions, remember this essay the next time you have “First Day” School and lead the kids in a Halloween celebration or lesson. Read between the lines, for our secularization of our peculiar language is being judged right now, and we will be judged with the transgressors. It may or may not be the wrath of God, but the wrath of language, as we will cease to be Quakers, and not know it until it is too late. Our children are being drawn into the abyss, as we tell them what Quakerism is not, but fail to tell them what it is. Our Quaker language is in danger of becoming only so much bullshit.