Here's a Book Review I've written for The Carillon, the monthly publication for Arkansas Friends. I was really quite inspired by Penn's writings, and have struggled to put into words exactly how and why. Perhaps because I have felt largely estranged from Christian thinking for most of my life, regarding it as a realm of implausible claims. Penn's writing made the Bible seem more accessible, connecting with the "best" of my own inward experience. Hmm, maybe that needs to go in the review as well! At any rate, the current draft:
I first attended South Central Yearly Meeting in 2004. Also present was Paul Buckley, who led a workshop on his book “Twenty-First Century Penn, Writings on the Faith and Practice of the People Called Quakers.” The book is a “translation” into modern English of six theological works by William Penn.
Why a translation? In his introduction, Buckley notes that, in comparison to the writings of George Fox and Robert Barclay, “Penn’s theological works have fallen from favor. He was a gentleman and a courtier, and he wrote like one. His sentences are long and involved. His word choices are often unfamiliar to modern readers – even when a word looks familiar, its meaning may have changed in the intervening three hundred years.” During the workshop at Yearly, Buckley also pointed out that Penn was a lawyer, an occupation not always known for modeling clarity in the written word!
At another point in the workshop, Buckley observed that the writings of Fox, Barclay and Penn were, in times past at least, the sources Friends most commonly turned to (other than the Bible, one imagines) for the written exposition of their faith. That statement intrigued me enough to buy the book.
Even in “translation,” Penn’s writing can be rough going for the modern reader. For one thing, his is not the language of the modern liberal Quaker fed on a diet of Alternatives to Violence Programs and Marshal Rosenberg (myself, for one example). In these pages, Penn is locked in a tumultuous theological debate with critics of Friends’ beliefs. The debate was not merely academic, as the second tract included in the book finds Penn writing from the London Tower, where he was confined for the capital offense of blasphemy. Obviously Penn lived in a time and place in which the outcome of a theological dispute could be a matter of life and death. Although Penn professes “forbearance and forgiveness,” he observes that such qualities are “strangers” to his opponents and sternly warns that their “cruel mockings” of Quakers will lead God to destroy them in the end. The title of the first essay, “The Sandy Foundation Shaken” refers to his opponents’ theology. Another stumbling block for some modern Friends may be the intricate and detailed argument of theological points that may seem irrelevant to many (although certainly not all) modern readers. Finally, Penn spoke plainly in terms that some Friends today might find discomfiting: of sin and salvation, for example.
Nevertheless, I found it worth the effort. After attending unprogrammed Quaker meetings for several years, Penn’s writing did two things for me. First, it helped me understand the theological and historical roots of Quaker faith and practice. Second, it revealed to me a view of Christianity different from those I had previously encountered. The Quakers’ inward orientation earned them the criticism that: as to “Christ’s coming in the flesh,… we mean only a mystery or some mystical sense of him….” Penn responds with a fairly short denial, quickly affirms the biblical accounts of the life of Jesus, and then quickly returns to asserting the importance of Christ’s inward appearance: While he may well have genuinely believed in the historical accounts, it is not hard to tell where his true interest lies: in the actual experience and resulting changes of what to him was the fundamental principle for Friends: “the Christ within.”
Penn gives several names for this principle, “Seed,” “Word,” “Truth,” “Power,” “Vine” “Life-giving Spirit” are a few examples.. He seized mainly, however, on “the Light” as his term of choice, one which is apparent among Friends today. What one finds missing in much of Friends’ discourse today, however, is the type of exploration Penn undertakes of what the Light means and how it affects us. It may be tempting for some to simply assert that “it means Christ.” While that is true as far as it goes, it short circuit’s Penn’s explanation of his and early Friends’ experience. “It is Christ” says Penn, but, he goes on to say, Christ is “that glorious Sun of Righteousness and Heavenly luminary of the spiritual or invisible world.” This light shows us our shortcomings (okay, sin, a word I admit doesn’t roll easily off my tongue), but it also shows us a better way. It enlightens us all, but we may choose to take heed or not.
Penn also firmly believed that the light of Christ was always present and available to human beings, even before the birth of Jesus and even to those who did not have the opportunity to hear his message. In order to prove this point, Penn quotes the words of the ancient Greek philosophers (whom he calls “gentiles”) at length to show the remarkable similarity of their writing to biblical scripture. “I know very well that there is something in all people that draws them toward religion and that thing is not to be found in tradition nor in mere formal rituals,” Penn writes.
The last essay explains various practices of early Friends, such as refraining from swearing, refusing hat honor, and using plain speech. Although I was aware of these practices, Penn’s explanations bring them to life for a modern reader – and shows how dangerous they were to practice at the time. For example, Penn tells of a non-Quaker threatening bodily harm in response to being addressed by the informal “thou.” According to the offended party, that’s what you would call your dog!
Another helpful and fascinating feature is Buckley’s thorough annotations of Penn’s scriptural references, which Penn used liberally. Like other early Friends, Penn found the “word” within, but relied heavily on the “words” in the Bible. Buckley’s footnoted references not only aid in understanding the sources of Penn’s biblical allusions, but further demonstrate how early Friends found textual support for the divine light which they had discovered within themselves and recognized in others.
Friends of various theological persuasions may find support for their views in Penn’s writings. One may find in Penn both a universalist mystic and Christocentric Friend. While I found support and encouragement for my own meditative orientation to spiritual life, I also became fascinated by the way Friends used the richness of Biblical language to illustrate and convey their understanding of religious experience. Reading the Bible was not a feature of my upbringing, but reading Penn’s work has ignited within me an interest in reading the scriptures, as George Fox instructed, “in the spirit which gave them forth.”