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Confucius for Quakers:  3

Posted on Thursday, October 5, 2006 at 09:00PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , , | Comments2 Comments

Without the spirit that nestles one into a community (jên), one can neither endure the pinch of adversity, nor enjoy the ease of prosperity, for any length of time.

Such neighborliness (jên) comes naturally to a true community member (jên) — while those who are merely perceptive practice it self-consciously.

— Confucius (K’ung-fu Tzu), Analects (Lun Yü) 4.2
(shortly after 500 B.C.)                                       

We encountered the key Confucian word jên in the previous installment of this series, where we looked at Analect 1.3. There I translated it as “human kindness”. Confucius’s message was that artful words and a pose of respectability are seldom found alongside jên.

Now, in this present passage, we can see why jên was so important to Confucius. Without jên, one can neither bear adversity, nor enjoy prosperity, for any length of time. In other words, without jên there can be no lasting human happiness.

In this present passage, “kindness” is just not an adequate rendering of the term. The reason why jên brings lasting happiness to people is that it’s reciprocal. It’s the kind of caring that brings caring acceptance in return, and so draws people together in community. The Chinese ideogram for jên, in fact (jên.png), is derived by combining the ideogram for “a human being” (jen 1.png) with the ideogram for “two” (r.png).

So jên is the spirit that causes a person to be welcomed into a community and kept in its embrace. It is neighborliness in the highest sense. It’s the bonding celebrated by Garrison Keillor and Philip Gulley.

For many of the members of the early Christian church, the whole point of the church was that it practiced jên at a far higher level than could be found anywhere else. In all the Mediterranean basin, the early Christians were the ones who took the principle of the Good Samaritan most seriously. Following the instruction of the apostle James, they looked after widows and orphans when no one else would. When a plague hit an ancient Greek or Roman city, everyone who was still healthy would flee the town, hoping to escape the infection — but the Christians would stay behind and nurse the sick.

Other cults in the Mediterranean region would have rites evoking the often disquieting forces they deified — desire in the case of Aphrodite (Venus); wildness in the case of Artemis (Diana); drunkenness in the case of Dionysos; aggressive masculinity in the case of Ares (Mars). But the Christians would just gather over a love feast and sing songs together. As Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, put it about 75 or 80 years after Christ, in a letter to the Christians of Ephesus, “Through your unity of mind and harmonizing love, Jesus Christ himself is being sung.”

All this was tremendously attractive. The way in which the Presence of Christ in the midst evoked jên was a huge factor in Christianity’s success. “From exposure to one person’s loving,” wrote Augustine in the Confessions, “another catches fire.”

Something similar happened with many of the early converts to Quakerism. In the silence of the meeting for worship, as the worshipers focused on that Presence of love and goodness which is Christ, visitors would sense that same Presence in the midst of the group, and would feel themselves drawn to it.

The early Quaker theologian Robert Barclay told how it happened to him:

…[it was] not by strength of arguments, or by a particular disquisition of each doctrine, and convincement of my understanding thereby, [that I] came to receive and bear witness of the truth, but by being secretly reached by this life; for when I came into the silent assemblies of God’s people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart, and as I gave way unto it, I found the evil weakening in me, and the good raised up, and so I became thus knit and united unto them, hungering more and more after the increase of this power and life, whereby I might feel myself perfectly redeemed.

   — Robert Barclay, An Apology for the True Christian Divinity, Prop. XI §7 (1676-78)

And this is how it turned out for the early Friends as a whole:

…We had a general men’s meeting and a general women’s meeting, through which men’s meetings and women’s meetings were established in all other parts to take care of the poor and other affairs of the church. And when it was ended it was hard for Friends to part, for the glorious power of the Lord which was over all and his blessed Truth and life flowing amongst them had so knit and united them together that they spent two days in taking leave of one another and Friends went away being mightily filled with the presence and power of the Lord.

   — George Fox, Journal, entry for 1672

Oh, remember us, for we cannot forget you: many waters cannot quench our love, nor distance wear out the deep remembrance of you in the heavenly Truth….

And though the Lord has been pleased to remove us far away from you, as to the other end of the earth, yet we are present with you, your exercises are ours; our hearts are dissolved in the remembrance of you, dear brethren and sisters in this heavenly love; and the Lord of heaven and earth, who is the father of our family, keep us in His love and power, and unite, comfort and build us all, more and more, to His eternal praise, and our rejoicing.

   — Select meeting of Elders and faithful Brethren of Pennsylvania and Jersey, letter to Friends in England (1683)

By the opening of the eighteenth century the Friends were one people throughout the world, though there was absolutely no bond but love and fellowship. There was no visible head to the Society, no official creed, no ecclesiastical body which held sway and authority. But instead of being an aggregation of separate units the Society was in an extraordinary measure a living group. Friends had suffered together and they were baptised into one spirit. Wherever any Friend was in trouble the world over, all Friends, however remote, were concerned and were ready to help share the trouble if it could be shared….

The greatest and the best of the entire Society made their way from meeting to meeting, and from house to house — even into the cabin of the settler on the frontier — and they wove an invisible bond, stronger than the infallible decrees of Councils, which held the whole body together as an integral unit. Hospitality with the Quaker was not a virtue, it was an unconscious habit. His house was wide open to every Friend who passed that way, and … there were practically no limits to the hospitality of board or bed.

   — Rufus M. Jones, The Quakers in the American Colonies (1911)

In two of the essays I wrote for the earthwitness journal while I was on the road last summer — “Ministry and the ‘Word’” and “Corporate Practice and the ‘Word’” — I told of how the early Christians took up the term Logos — the Greek philosopher Herakleitos’s label for the cosmic web of meaning that ties the whole Universe together — and identified Christ as that same Logos made flesh.

Here we can see, in Confucius’s term jên, how Christ himself intended that same Logos to be manifest in his Church.

(click here to go to the next essay in this series)

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Reader Comments (2)

This is my favorite posting yet. As a long-time fan of Garrison Keillor, I have tried to put my finger on what makes his monologues so compelling. It is, indeed, Jen. I heard former newscaster Tom Brokow speak last night to an extremely conservative audience. They didn't much like what he had to say about the U.S. invasion of Iraq or this country's policies abroad, but when he spoke about the need for us to respond to each other, regardless of faith, creed, or political ideology as a world community, I could feel a relaxation in tension. At my table, we could agree that this fundamental connection may be all that keeps us from global suicide.

Oct 14, 2006 at 09:25PM | Unregistered CommenterPam Avery
Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Pam! I'm glad you're enjoying the Confucius series, and I'm grateful for the Brokow anecdote.
Oct 16, 2006 at 04:58AM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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