Posts Tagged ‘An Apology for the True Christian Divinity’

Robert Barclay: An Apology

October 9, 2016

This is a post about religion, linked to a book I’ve been reading, which is why this post appears here: having no wish to force religion on anyone, if it’s not your thing, you could stop reading now…

I was raised a Catholic, and gave this up while at university. I tried atheism and agnosticism for a good twenty years, but these failed me too – I think once you have been a Catholic, it’s almost impossible to eradicate some spiritual yearning. So, having tried a few other possibilities I eventually became a Quaker, which I have been at home with for well over twenty years. It suits because it’s a religion of seekers and I’ve been seeking something all my life, and it’s a religion that, although hard work, treats me as an intelligent person, and does not force creeds, disciplines and believing twenty impossible things before breakfast on me.

This leads me to the book I’ve just finished re-reading (again): its full title is An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. It’s an extremely challenging read (makes swimming through molasses easy), but one I find very comforting. Quakers are known for having produced almost no theological works, and Robert Barclay’s book is the original and the best. He wrote it towards the end of the seventeenth century – so when the Society of Friends had only been in existence a few decades – as a way of explaining and justifying his faith, and dedicated it to the king, Charles the Second. He hoped, I think, to reduce the oppression of the Society by the public authorities.

It’s a stunning work of logic, which works its way through a series of propositions about Christianity, with the aim of getting back to the original beliefs and practices of the primitive church before it was perverted and corrupted in the service of power and secular authority. Everything is fully and painstakingly argued and referenced, as he refutes Roman Catholics, the various Protestant churches, Calvinists and more: clearly and logically he shows why he believes Quakers have got it right…

And yet, he doesn’t come across as dogmatic: he argues, reasons and convinces, and to someone who has never been able to escape the power of argument and logic – I’ve lost count of the number of times people have referred to me as Aquarian (which I am) in my approach – he comforts me by making it all make some sort of sense insofar as that’s possible, a reason behind my faith, if you like, which I seem to need.

It’s very hard work as a book because it’s written in rather convoluted seventeenth-century English, as well as relying on syllogism and refutation. An attempt was made to put it into modern English by an American some forty years ago or so, but apparently his is rather a flawed version which trims, edits and unwittingly or wittingly twists the sense of the original in many places… so we are left with the original to wrestle with. And I’ve found it worth it, once again; I can put it to one side for a few years until it begins to call to me again through the power of Barclay’s logic and astonishing breadth of learning, of which I am in awe.

Derek Guiton: A Man That Looks on Glass

February 14, 2016

41dUvgaRKOL._AA160_I hesitated before writing about this book, because it’s a very personal choice, and a rather arcane one, too, but I don’t like to censor what I write about what I read.

It’s a theological work, aimed at a very small minority – Quakers who are interested in the possible future of the Religious Society of Friends; it’s a very demanding and also a very thought-provoking book, that clearly links in to my own life and spiritual journey. The author explores theist and non-theist approaches to religion – if you can see how that might be possible – and looks at the difference between the immanent and the transcendent, as he considers what God is, the nature of God, and just how much it’s possible for us to understand about God, if there is one. (My italics).

To me increasingly it seems that in order to have some comprehension of, and some way to approach the idea of God, we necessarily make God in our image, and yet obviously, if there is a God, then that anthropomorphic deity is not God, for God must be much more. In other words, we are very much hemmed in by the limitations of the human mind, and what we can see. And although science is doing its best to dispel God and the spiritual, there are evidently things science will never be able to tell us: what was there before the Big Bang? What will there be after the death of the universe? What is there outside our universe?

And, from his evidently very wide and scholarly reading, Guiton shows us that scientists are actually rather less dogmatic about many of these questions than popular beliefs would suggest… His book is well-written (although headache-inducing in some places); he explains and illustrates his arguments well, and he is clearly arguing from a very specific viewpoint within a small religious society, and one with which I have a great deal of sympathy.

Quakers haven’t really done theology very much, apart from an astonishing treatise by Robert Barclay at the end of the seventeenth century, the masterly An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, in which he argues and would prove that Quakers have gone back right to the basics of early Christianity. That is a book to which I frequently return, as I shall to Guiton’s.

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