Theological Musings

This is a work in progress. As my musings take a new turn, or come back to an old one, I add to it. Thoughts on Jung and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (anthropology)  have been moved to another blog.

In the interest of full disclosure I start by saying I am a convinced (converted) Friend (Quaker). Influential in my convincement was the book Friends for 300 Years by Howard Brinton (republished as Friends for 350 Years, recommended). I have always been a member of liberal (FGC) meetings but have been comfortable serving on explicitly Christ centered Quaker (FUM) and ecumenical (WCCC) bodies. Quaker theology is based on our experience of the divine presence, and not so much on thinking, or talking, about it.

My Quaker understanding has been further educated by:

  • The three doctrines in East Asian thought:
    •  While living in Korea (a culture strongly influenced by Confucianism) I wrote on Neo-Confucanism for my undergraduate thesis
    • Also in Korea I developed an aesthetic appreciation for Buddhism, and later practiced under two Buddhist martial arts teachers who taught meditation and guided my reading;
    • A 20 years plus practice of T’ai-chi (together with some reading) has taught me Taoism.
  • Episcopalians: Baptized and confirmed, but inactive until taking retreats with Anglican communities, particularly Holy Cross Monastery; and completing Education for Ministry (EFM).
  • Roman Catholics: retreats at various retreat centers, particularly the Jesuit Center; graduate study at Neumann College in pastoral counseling, and at Villanova University where I earned a Master of Arts in Theology .
  • The fellowship of the Friends of Bill W.

I start from an apophatic theology, which is to say I believe God, the ultimate which is beyond attributes, is beyond words and is unknowable in terms of our intellectual categories. Even putting a name to this ultimate reduces it to a something. The third century Neoplatonist Plotinus spoke simply of “the One.” For Plotinus, Nous (intellect) emanates from the One, and is the repository of the Platonic forms. Nous in turn overflows into psyche (soul), divided into a higher soul (reason) and a lower soul (the irrational soul) from which are derived the elements of the physical world. Plotinus’ “trinity” has some superficial resemblances to the Christian Trinity but parallels break down under close examination. The point is that they are both attempts to explain how an ineffable ultimate principle (God, One) manifests in the world. Psudo-Denys (long thought to have been Dionysius the Areopagite in Acts 17:34, which gave him almost apostolic authority) was strongly influenced by Plotinus. He, in turn, was translated by and influenced Johannes Scotus Eriugena who brought his thought into western Christian thought.

Words and categories developed to enable humans to express ideas pertaining to the created world. In Judeo-Christian terms, the Creator is, of necessity, outside the creation. Any attempt to describe the Creator with words which were developed to describe the created world is going to be inadequate. In Mystical Languages of Unsaying, Michael A Sells, a member of Lansdowne Meeting when he taught at Haverford College, said in apophatic theology every statement about God must be followed by its reverse. In a seminar at Villanova I once began my presentation on the subject with “God exists … God does not exist (gasps from my fellow grad students) … God neither exists nor does not exist” and I then explained God is beyond the category of existence.  I like the term “luminous darkness” used by John of the Cross to speak of the numinous presence. It is a juxtaposition of opposites to break us out of our usual mode of thought. 

So if God is totally other, how does God enter the world? Plotinus had it being through nous and psyche.The Gnostics would have us believe the true God is not the creator. The creator is a demiurge. Some held the demiurge to be the God of the Old Testament. The demiurge is often considered as evil, which explains the common Gnostic disdain for the material (the creation of the demiurge) as being evil. I only present this as a alternative theology which I personally reject.

In the prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-18 in the NAB) we are told

In the beginning was the Word [logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 NRSV)

In the above “Word” is the common translation of the Greek word logos, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the Word of God, or principle of divine reason and creative order.” I take this to mean the word of God is the principle of divine reason and creative order. Note that logos gave rise to all things. Philo of Alexandria, a first century Hellenized Jew, used logos to refer to a bridge between an inaccessible God and the physical world; to the Stoics it was the divine principle. But a new twist: verse 14 tells us “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory …” Jesus is the incarnation of the logos. I don’t know if He is unique; I doubt it but for me He is my bridge to God. We start with God who was with the Word [logos] and became human life and light.

This thought that the ineffable ultimate principle gave rise to the creation through an intermediary (nous, Christ) is not limited to the religions of the Mediterranean.

Brief digression into East Asian thought


Wuji (heaven) becomes yin-yang, becomes the five elements, become the 10,000 things.


Here the t’ai-chi generates the eight attitudes.

Having lived in Korea, whose culture is still permeated by China’s three religions: Confucinism, Taoism (Daoism) and Buddhism, and some of their popular expressions which go beyond the non-theistic roots of these three, I will make a brief digression. In the religions of the Far East, the non-theistic religions of East Asia, Taoism and Confucianism hold with an ultimate principle giving rise to all things. Confucian thought and Taoism both start with the wuji, which is without attributes, evolving into  the yin-yang (t’ai-chi), giving rise to the eight (diagram to the right) and then the 64 (in the I-Ching) and the many. The opening lines of the Tao Te Ching are “The Tao that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao” conceding that ultimate reality is beyond words. In the diagram to the left (click on it to enlarge)  the wuji corresponds to heaven and gives rise to the t’ai-chi (yin-yang symbol), and in another paradigm the t’ai-chi gives rise to the five elements, and the five to the 10,000 (traditionally the largest number). The diagram to the left shows the t’ai-chi  giving rise to the five elements. The diagram on the right has the t’ai-chi give rise to the eight basic trigrams, the eight attitudes. (digression within a digression: together the five elements and the eight attitudes combine to produce the thirteen basic positions of t’ai-chi chuan). The One of Plotinus and the wuji of Chinese thought, and I might as well add the dharma of Buddhism, are  ultimate principles and not personal Gods, and in no way conflict with the Abrahamic religions.

“The One” postulated by Plotinus is not unlike the wuji, It also gives rise to the sensible. Although there are parallels with the philosophy of the I Ching, and he did travel at least as far as Persia to study Persian and Indian philosophy, there is no reason to think he learned of the Chinese understanding of wuji.

Back to Theology

The Hebrews did ascribe attributes to God, in particular anger, and steadfast love (hesed). Jesus taught a loving God, calling God the father “Abba” (Daddy). Jesus’ God was a personal God. The first letter of John tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The word for love which Jesus taught in the New Testament is agape (there were others: eros gives us the word erotic, phila is found in Philadelphia “city of brotherly love), and one of my New Testament professors at Villanova defined agape as “to will and do good for another.” Agape is not a matter of emotion; it is an act of will. The translation of agape as charity, found in “The Cloud” (see below) and in the Authorized Bible (authorized by King James hence it is also known as the King James Version) may be closer to the mark in contemporary English.

The anonymous 14th century author of The Cloud of Unknowing wrote in Middle English and was a contemporary of Chaucer. It was translated into contemporary English by several people including an anonymous resident of Pendle Hill in the late 1940s (Howard Brinton?). The author of the Cloud owes an enormous debt to Denis, and therefore indirectly to Plotinus, and my understanding of theology owes a debt to him. In chapter four he tells us that we are made in God’s image. He goes on to say

“all reasonable creatures, angel and man, have in them each one by himself, one principal working power, the which is called a knowledgeable power, and another principal working power, the which is called a loving power. Of the which two powers, to the first, the which is a knowledgeable power, God that is the maker of them is evermore incomprehensible; and to the second, the which is the loving power, in each one diversely He is all comprehensible to the full.” (Evelyn Underhill translation).

Almost 25 years ago I underwent 10 hours of surgery for cancer. They opened both my back and my belly (two teams worked on me). As I was coming out of the anesthesia I felt myself held in the arms of the comforter. I couldn’t see his face (odd?!) but I knew Him to be Jesus. Later I questioned this experience and almost immediately had another experience while reading the Psalms which confirmed it. I was reminded of Howard Brinton saying that where we experience Jesus, a Buddhist would experience Kwan Yin (Bodhisattva of compassion). But for me Jesus is the mediator between me and the One. 

Light is a common metaphor among mystics. Quakers (and I’ll leave open the question of whether Quakers are mystics) often speak of the light. We are told to walk in the light. When we ask for God’s healing love for someone we hold  that person in the light. The Quaker verse, per Robert Barclay, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) equates Jesus with the true light. 

When Quakers speak in Meeting we are said to deliver a message. Whose message is it? The idea that God speaks through us seems to imply a personal and theistic God. If the words are given to us, and I have had this experience, who is it that is doing the giving? One way of understanding the prophetic voice is to say that God doesn’t speak, but that Jesus is giving us the words, speaking through us. For those of us who consider Jesus to be divine, to participate in the divine but not necessarily in terms of a trinity, this is God, or the divine, speaking through us.

Quakers were not necessarily Trinitarian. They could, and did, use the language of the trinity when talking to trinitarians, but among themselves often used the names of the persons of the trinity interchangeably. When I feel the presence of God, that presence does not identify itself by name. So for me God is beyond words. God can not be spoken of. God’s presence can be felt but, at least in my case, the moment I try to think about the experience, much less put it into words, I loose it.

I like the last paragraph of William Penn’s Letter to His Children, (from Quaker Heritage Press) equating Plotinus’ nous, which I take to be what William Penn calls “Plotin’s root of the soul” (below), as the intermediary. Had he been aware of them I think he would have included the Buddha’s Dharma and the Chinese wuji. 

I have chosen to speak in the language of the scripture; which is that of the Holy Ghost, the spirit of truth and wisdom, that wanted no art or direction of man to speak by; and express itself fitly to man’s understanding. But yet that blessed principle, the eternal word I begun with to you, and which is that light, spirit, grace and truth, I have exhorted you to in all its holy appearances of manifestations in your selves, by which all things were at first made, and man enlightened to salvation, is Pythagoras’s great light and salt of ages, Anaxagoras’s divine mind, Socrates’s good spirit, Timaeus’s unbegotten principle, and author of all light, Hieron’s God in man; Plato’s eternal, ineffable, and perfect principle of truth; Zeno’s maker and father of all; and Plotin’s [Plotinus’] root of the soul. Who as they thus styled the eternal word, so the appearance of it in man, wanted not very significant words. A domestic God, or God within says Hieron, Pythagoras, Epictetus and Seneca; genius, angel or guide says Socrates and Timaeus; the light and spirit of God says Plato; the divine principle in man says Plotin; the divine power and reason, the infallible immortal law in the minds of men, says Philo; and the law and living rule of the mind, the interior guide of the soul, and everlasting foundation of virtue, says Plutarch. Of which you may read more in the first part of the “Christian Quaker,” and in the “Confutation of Atheism,” by Dr. Cudworth. These were some of those virtuous gentiles commended by the Apostle, Rom. 2:13, 14, 15. that though they had not the law given to them, as the Jews had, with those instrumental helps and advantages, yet, doing by nature the things contained in the law, they became a law unto themselves.


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