CONCERNING THE TRUE FOUNDATION OF KNOWLEDGE
The Quaker movement was born in a violent and tumultuous age. It was the middle of the 17th Century. Divided by religious and political strife, England was bloodied by civil war. In that bitter conflict, armies marched to battle with pikes and firearms. Defeated leaders were shown no mercy. King Charles was beheaded in 1649. After the Royalists regained control in 1660, the body of Oliver Cromwell was disinterred and put on a scaffold.
The early Friends found favor with neither side in this conflict. In fact, although the Puritans and Calvinists duked it out with the Anglicans and Catholics, everyone could agree that the Quakers were a terrible blight on society. And so, no matter who was in power, the Quakers could face persecution. Friends were thrown into prison. Their property was confiscated. They were beaten and even killed.
In fact, leaders in the established churches would condemn the Quakers in their sermons. They would publish pamphlets, accusing the Quakers of witchcraft and blasphemy.
In 1675, a young Scottish Quaker wrote a scholarly and eloquent defense of Quaker thought and practice. That Quaker was Robert Barclay. And his book was called the Apology.
Barclay's Apology has come to occupy an auspicious place in the constellation of Quaker literature. In reading the Apology, even experienced Friends may find their own understanding of Quaker ideals deepened. And so, without further ado, let's consider Barclay's First Proposition, "Concerning the True Foundation of Knowledge."
Please keep something in mind: as this Proposition was written, factions were killing each other over The Truth. Each side of this conflict claimed to have exclusive access to Truth. Then, as now, Truth was a dangerous topic.
To illustrate that danger, Barclay asks us to remember the Pharisees. The Pharisees (whatever their aspirations in their own day) have come to represent religious arrogance and spiritual blindness. They are so confident in their own wisdom, they can't imagine there is anything left for them to learn. Imagining they possess the Truth in its entirety, they became closed to fresh insight.
Because the Pharisees felt that they had complete possessions of the Truth, they rejected the message of Christ, who was Truth.
All of us who seek the Truth are in danger of falling into the same trap that snared the Pharisees. Once we find something that gives us light and comfort, there is the risk that we will become complacent. We may consider the journey to be completed, when in fact it has just begun!
In effect, this complacency is more deadly to the sovereignty of Truth than pure ignorance. Barclay writes, "For they that conceit themselves to be wise are worse to deal with than they that are sensible of their ignorance." The ignorant may realize their need for more education. But those set in their ways may reject the Truth that sits right beneath their noses.
Perhaps Barclay felt that each side in the religious conflict of his day had some part of the Truth. Unfortunately, instead of seeking a more complete picture, each side was inclined to limit its field of vision to whatever piece of Truth it held dear. The people who found God through liturgy and the authority of the church came to equate church structure with God. The people who found God through the revelation of Scripture erroneously came to ascribe to the Scripture a status that rightfully belongs to God alone.
Instead of seeking the deeper Truth that would unite them, they killed those who saw things in a different way. In Barclay's words, they turned Europe into a "Theater of Blood."
Here is the danger: once we become complacent -- once we "conceit ourselves wise" -- then we are inclined to simply defend the status quo. Believing we have all the answers, we defend those answers rather than striving to deepen our understanding.
Seeking the True Foundation of Knowledge, Barclay reminds us, consists of seeking the deeper Truth. We must seek to know God directly.
Here are some questions to consider:
1. Of course, the Pharisees have no corner on the market when it comes to being self-righteous. What are the Pharisaical elements of our society?
2. What is the connection between self-righteousness and violence?
3. Obviously Barclay must have felt that he had some grasp of the Truth in order to write the Apology. How does one find the balance between speaking the Truth as one knows it, and yet remaining open to Truth yet unlearned?
Continue to Proposition Two