Tuesday, 29 April 2008


Having just been to Rob ert Kirchner's screening of "What A Way to Go," I thought I'd post a few thoughts before turning in.

Basically the film expressed a sense of coming crisis - a toxic mix of peak oil, overpopulation, consumerism in spiritual crisis, and greenhouse effect.

Not to comment in detail on the film itself, but it made me wonder if Peace was the testimony of the 20th century, and if we were moving into a century where Simplicity will be what we're best known for.

If so, there's a reading of the Bible which will back us up. You can see the Garden of Eden story as a myth (one among many early myths) of a hunter-gatherer Golden Age, where farming wasn't necessary (food just grew on trees). Agriculture is a consequence of the Fall (Gen. 3:19) and so are the basic trammells of civilisation, like clothes (Gen 3:11). In the early days of the old Covenant, the Israelites are nomadic pastoralists, and after they arrive in Palestine, the effects of a settled life aren't seen as being all that great: kingship (Sam. 8:7 - 21), idolatry and what have you. The best of the bunch appear to be the Rechabites, a group who kept up the old nomadic pastoralist ways (Jer. 35:7 - 19). And arguably the climax of the Old Testament narrative is the supremely disillusioned prophetic book of Daniel, the plot of which can be summarised more or less as "Just one empire after another, and another, and none of them are any good; world ends and Eden is restored." Revelations takes a similarly jaundiced view of the Roman empire which confronted the early Christians.

This gives a context to the frankly caveman-like (or maybe Rechabite-like) John the Baptist (Mark 1:6). In this context, Jesus often sounds quite similar: someone looking in on civilisation from the outside, and not much liking what he sees: he is homeless and nomadic, has few or no possessions, rejects the idea of hoarding wealth or owning private property or planning or providing for the future, prizes community and sharing above most things, and harshly rejects the current settled elites, such as the Jerusalem priesthood, the use of money, and the rule of the Romans (and worship of their emperors as gods). To this extent, despite his involvement in the farming economy of his day, and his attachment to the very settled city of Jerusalem, Jesus reminds me of what little I know about actual hunter-gatherer societies, which tend to live at a subsistence level, have fairly flat hierarchies, and often a strongly developed sense of collective ownership and community. Interestingly, during the same centuries, the religious historian Karen Armstrong points to broadly similar moves across the tropical belt of global civilisation. There are the forest sages of Chinese Taoism and the India of the Buddha and Upanishads to Greek philosophers like Socrates and Diogenes who achieved notoriety by living in barrels, dressing in rags, and ignoring or challenging the norms of the hierarchical civilisations surrounding them. The Upanishads are the closest thing I've read to a Gospel in terms of form and content (like the Gospels, they're basically instructive stories and dialogues featuring wise teachers), and the Greek philosophers' dialogues also aren't a million miles off either. They all date from the same few centuries. There appears to have been no such widespread "reform" movements in the previous stage of world civilisation, from (say) Egypt to Biblical Assyria.

Early Quakers took up some of these ideas, such as flat hierarchies, simplicity of material and cultural life, spontaneity of conduct, and a community ethos, particularly in the arena of church government. They were (admittedly) happy with private property and wealth accumulation, but they were definitely against excessive and wasteful consumption (vanity as they'd probably have called it) on the specific grounds that there were better, more equitable and more responsible uses for accumulated wealth. Penn's "No Cross, No Crown" (Ch. 18) makes this clear in a very modern-sounding way. Early Quaker preachers like George Fox were as notorious as Jesus for dressing very simply, living nomadically, and refusing to plan for the morrow (QF&P 19.19). Fox, with his long hair and leather suit, must have appeared almost as much of a caveman as John the Baptist, and Fox's Journal is another example of "instructive stories and dialogues featuring wise teachers"-type literature (quite a lot different from later Quaker writings, such as those of Penn and Barclay, which were basically essays by educated men from the elite).

In some sense these are arguably the values which underpin the drive towards sustainable development and the avoidance of ecological catastrophe. We need to cut back on our consumption, revise our understanding of economic growth and quality of life, and rediscover immaterial wealth. If capitalism doesn't need to be entirely abolished, it definitely needs to be thoroughly reshaped on the basis of better and saner values.

Maybe therefore there are lessons for us in the spiritualities of the remaining indigenous peoples, as well as in our own Quaker heritage and the Christian and other traditions which underpin it.

Doubtless I'm idealising everything I've been talking about up to a point, but I think there is a cluster of ideas here worth exploring as we discern our future. Maybe Quakers need to be at the forefront of moves toward a sustainable life, as they were in the move towards peace in the last violent century. And just as the Peace testimony was there for us then, ripe for revival as the world was engulfed in war, so in the immediate future we have a heritage of Simplicity as the world chokes on superfluous overconsumption by a privileged minority (which currently includes a lot of us!)


Simon Heywood said...

PS Also, a lot of the Buddhist-era reform movements tended towards monotheism, or at least radically simplified the crowded pantheons of the ancient world.

Peter Lawless said...

Sorry Simon but what peace last century?
Peter Lawless

Simon Heywood said...

Hi Peter

Not much!! What I meant was that the Quakers specifically had a "peace century," a period in which the Peace Testimony was foregrounded, largely in response to the fact that there was a lot of war.

Sharon Langridge said...

The testimony to simplicity (very strongly linked to equality and to community) feels VERY important to me at the moment, and is the area in which I've experienced the strongest feeling of swimming against the tide of 'the general public's attitude. I hasten to add that I'm very much aware of my fellow swimmers too, and their gradually increasing numbers.

cath said...

I also feel that the Simplicity Testimony is something the world at large needs to contemplate--and we Friends are in a position to encourage all of us to do so.

However, living a sustainable life is not always easy for the low-income among us. Just the other day, I received a catalog in the mail which allowed me to understand that for a few thousand dollars I could make one room of my apartment simple and green.

Imagine the low-income folks in my large city. They don't have the option to be simple, and I don't think it's fair to ask them to accept their struggles as spiritually superior simply because they are deprived.

So, how do we go about encouraging the world to live sustainably and simply without also--as Sharon L mentions in her comment--also encouraging the kind of community that helps all, not just a few?

Community comes in many forms, and it may be best for the future of the world for all of us to be open to defintions of community that we haven't entertained in the past.


Simon Heywood said...

I'd start by looking at low-cost ways to change. The thousand-dollar home makeover reminds me of the strange phenomenon of organic food prices in the UK. Setting aside for a moment the argument as to how green organic food is, if you shop organic in a British supermarket, it's more expensive than non-organic. But I don't know where this higher price comes from. For a few years I was on an organic box scheme from the local wholefood co-op, whereby, for about £5 a week, I could get more fresh, organic, low-packaging, low-food-miles vegetables than it was probably medically safe for one person to eat. I conclude that somewhere in the supermarket supply chain, someone, probably not the farmers themselves, is cashing in unfairly. The perception is that green issues are a fad of the affluent, whereas the reality is that a cynical market is pricing the less affluent out of what are in fact eminently practicable solutions.