Reading the 2019 Swarthmore Lecture – Ch 1: The Kingdom is come and coming

In May 2019, the annual Swarthmore Lecture was given by Eden Grace, a member of New England Yearly Meeting and Director of Global Ministries for Friends United Meeting (FUM). Eden’s lecture was entitled ‘On earth as it is in heaven: The Kingdom of God and the yearning of creation.’ I’m blogging my reflections on the lecture, chapter by chapter. You can read my introduction to this blog series here.

Summary of Chapter 1

The key word in this first chapter is inbreaking. Friend Eden speaks of God’s future breaking into the present. God’s Kingdom, God’s reign of peace and justice, is arriving. It’s coming. It’s on the way. God’s Kingdom isn’t a distant reality to be experienced only after death, but neither is it here in its fullness. It is neither fully now nor fully not-yet. It’s arriving, emerging, being revealed.

Eden links this dynamic arrival to the Orthodox understanding of theosis – a process of becoming like God, of becoming ‘enGodded’, which has many similarities to the early Quaker understanding of ‘perfection’. Being perfect, being holy, is about an ongoing relationship with God. It’s dynamic, not static. Eden describes the Quaker life as living in the arriving Kingdom through holy obedience to the leadings of God.

Eden describes Quaker testimony as ‘evidence of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God.’ (p.20) In our testimony, in allowing God to work through us, we enflesh God’s arriving future. This is why an engagement with God’s future, and the hope it generates, is vital to an authentic Quaker response to climate chaos. If we are to enflesh God’s Kingdom – which includes justice for the non-human creation – we must act from a place of faithfulness, trusting that God can and will work through us, rather than trusting in our own strength, or despairing at our own weakness.

The Christian understanding of hope

As Eden says, hope is fundamental to Christianity. Christians hope for Christ’s parousia (Greek). This is traditionally translated as ‘Second Coming’ but is perhaps better translated as ‘arrival’. Christians are waiting for the arrival of Christ, an arrival that will bring peace and justice to all creation. Some Christians believe that this arrival began at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out ‘on all flesh’ (Acts 2:1-13). The understanding is that when we experience this Spirit, we experience the Kingdom of God that Jesus exemplified in his life and teachings. In our individual and corporate experience of the Spirit of Christ, Christ’s future is arriving into the present – the end is coming and has come.

It’s the end of a story that often gives meaning to the whole. An unexpected ending can cast all previous events in a new light. A bad ending can make you wish you hadn’t wasted your time reading it! The end of a story is important, and this is particularly true of the end of the Jesus story. In Christianity, instead of the present entirely determining the future, Christ’s arriving future judges and shapes the present. The ‘last things’, the justice and peace that God has promised and that Christians hope for, illuminate everything that has gone before. The technical word for the ‘last things’ is eschatology:

The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day.[1]

So hope is bound up with what we think will happen in the end, whether that’s the end of our own individual lives, our communities, all life on the planet, or the whole cosmos. What do we hope for, and how strong is the basis for our hope? For Christians, the hope is for God’s Kingdom (synonymous with Christ’s parousia), and the basis of this hope is the trustworthiness of God. God fulfils God’s promises.

British Quaker difficulties with hope

But hope is problematic for contemporary British Friends, and I think this is why some Friends found this lecture difficult. There has always been a Quaker taboo on discussing eschatology, but the reasons for our reluctance today are different to our Quaker ancestors.

The first Quakers avoided discussing the ‘last things’ because they saw this as a distraction from living in the Kingdom now, but this didn’t mean they had no shared eschatological beliefs. George Fox had a vision of meeting his parents at the resurrection of the dead (when all who have ever lived are brought back to life in order to be judged). I think we can assume that early Quaker beliefs about what occurs post-death were fairly similar to other 17th century Protestant groups.

For contemporary British Friends, we shy away from discussing the ‘last things’ for different reasons. Being a theologically diverse community, we no longer have a shared story. With no shared story, there’s no shared ending. We have no common vision of what the future holds. This makes it very difficult for British Quakers to talk about hope. We don’t know what we collectively hope for, and don’t know what to base this hope on. We are also influenced by the postmodern culture we inhabit. This culture tells us there is no ‘big story’ to be part of, no history, no future only a ‘prolonged present’. All we can hope to do is focus on curating our own little individual stories, which will eventually fizzle out.

That doesn’t mean that British Quakers as individuals don’t have hope. For instance, British Quakers hold a wide variety of beliefs about the afterlife – some believe in reincarnation, some believe that there is nothing beyond death, and some believe that the material world (and therefore physical death) is an illusion anyway. But our fear of conflict means that we are reluctant talk about these differences as a matter of course, and such conversations are relegated to groups such as the Quaker Fellowship for Afterlife Studies.

I think this lack of a shared story, and a lack of a corporate understanding of what Quakers hope for, is the principle reason that some Friends found Eden’s talk impenetrable. How does a faith community that never talks about the future with each other make sense of a lecture that (rightly in my view) places eschatology at the centre? If we are to take Eden’s lecture seriously, then we need to ask ourselves if we avoid talk of the ‘last things’ for the right reasons, and be honest about the ways our lack of theological literacy disadvantages us as a Religious Society. In this time of climate chaos, the world desperately needs an energising message of hope for the future. In her lecture, Eden sets out an authentic Quaker response. British Friends need to wrestle with it and find a way to articulate it for themselves.

You can read my reflections on chapter 2 here.


[1] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope: On the Ground and the Implications of a Christian Eschatology, 1st Fortress Press ed (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 16.

9 thoughts on “Reading the 2019 Swarthmore Lecture – Ch 1: The Kingdom is come and coming

  1. Thanks for your post. My reading of the eQs (see my ‘The Early Quakers and the ‘Kingdom of God’: Inner Light Books, 2012) had a subtle understanding of eschatology—that the ‘Kingdom’ was already “come and coming” since they had a perception, like most mystics everywhere, of an eternal now. For them, Divine Consciousness (DC)—or in their language the Seed, Inward Light, Kingdom—was always present since it was uncreated and could not die (they quoted Daniel here), like our own consciousness which is an enlargement of DC. For us today, the Christ (note the def. art.) that was in Jesus (as the eQs said) and which is the same in all of us (‘that of God in everybody’), and what we today can call DC, is within us in fulness (not a ‘spark’ as in Eckhart) so that we can spread it to engage the world with peace, justice and compassion. The “Kingdom’ (the Christ, the Presence, the Seed etc) is already here and now, it cannot be built, therefore, but spread instead. We transcend inwardly into the ‘Kingdom” or Light, accepting It fully without ambiguity (i.e. convincement) and thence partake in spreading It (the Lamb’s War). This is in ‘right order’ for us as it was for the first Friends. Eden’s view of eschatology is much more mainline church (by far) than Quaker. The stumbling blocks to her address were, inter alia:

    1. the hymn at the start of the lecture evoking Jesus. It was seen as fundamentalist. It was embarrassing, discomforting and, within that theological context in BYM, inappropriate.

    2. ‘Kingdom’ was not fully explained and so naively approached theologically. Therefore, as it stood, the concept put people off—esp. women Friends for whom this kind of talk returns them to their former patriarchal setting from which many have escaped. And all the worse for a woman saying such things!

    3. There was no sense of theological compromise on Eden’s part. It was a matter of “my way (or Jesus’ way) or the highway.” This I found disappointing and puzzling because I had sent her a copy of my paper, ‘Where Heaven and Earth Meet” well in advance (she told me she had been influenced by my work (“The Early Quakers”) when attending her NEYM and had heard Diana Randall in her own keynote lecture quote from the book a number of times). The paper takes a ‘broader’ view so to speak, Christian at heart, yes, but acknowledging wisdom from elsewhere, e.g. the Vedantas, Judaism.

    I feel on the whole she has done the Kingdom a disservice within BYM. This is such a pity because, as you intimate, there is a paucity of theological understanding within that YM about theological issues , and esp. about the Kingdom, which I call ‘The Way’ to avoid sexist and elitist connotations, and which, as my recent article in “The Friends Quarterly” (August 2019) shows has considerable potential for unity and wholeness among Friends everywhere, and as a common language that can bring us forward into the future together.

    1. Do you respect that of God in everyone though it may be expressed in unfamiliar ways or be difficult to discern? Each of us has a particular experience of God and each must find the way to be true to it. When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people’s opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken.

    2. Thanks for reading Gerard. There are several points you make that I have difficulty with.

      1) I don’t understand the difference between ‘building’ the Kingdom and ‘spreading’ it, as both imply there are places where the Kingdom is yet to reach. There are still places where God’s will is *not* done on earth as in heaven. Similarly, I struggle with the idea that the Seed/Christ/’that of God’ are fully within us – seeds need to grow, the Christ needs to be awakened (the ‘slumbering Christ’ that Thomas Kelly writes of), ‘that of God’ needs to be responded to. There’s a potentiality that needs to be actualised. This is why I say that the Kingdom is not here in it’s fullness – it is yet to be fully established in the hearts of all. All relationships are yet to be made right.

      2) In a similar vein, I struggle with the ‘eternal now’ if it means that the Kingdom is fully present. I think there are perhaps two ways of using the ‘eternal now’, and I’m not sure in what sense you use it. The first is the idea that the eternal God’s presence is available to us in the present moment (which is what you find in Kelly). I wouldn’t dispute this, as it’s a core Quaker insight. The second is that the Now contains all we need. This I would dispute as it does away with the need for justice and reconciliation, and suggests we can just accept the status quo.

      3) I would say that Eden’s presentation of eschatology fits very well with historic Quaker understandings, and also makes systematic sense.

      4) Regarding the Taizé chant used at the beginning of the lecture, I find it shocking that it could be interpreted as ‘fundamentalist’, and this says much more about British Friends’ theological illiteracy (and lack of understanding of global Quakerism) than about Eden. Taizé, one of the most exciting ecumenical adventures of the 20th century, is as far from fundamentalist as you can get. If we are at a point where singing a Taizé chant, or quoting the Bible, is considered fundamentalist then we are in dangerously ignorant waters. I personally found the chant uplifting, and a very appropriate way to begin a lecture on the Kingdom of God.

      5) I don’t see why Eden should compromise theologically. Or why any of us should! The lecture is spoken ministry, and when we give ministry we should speak authentically from where we are. Eden spoke authentically from her tradition. She never said ‘it’s my way or the highway’ – that’s an assumption that British Friends often make when someone speaks from a strongly rooted place (and is related to Eden being inaccurately characterised as fundamentalist, or Evangelical). The centrality of the ‘absolute perhaps’ amongst British Quakers means we feel threatened by those who speak with confidence.

      6) I would not call Eden’s approach to the Kingdom of God naive. She gave as concise an answer as she could in the time available, and I agree with her description of it. I find the Kingdom a powerful metaphor, particularly in its subversive political meaning. I’m all for multiple metaphors, and I would not want us to be restricted to just one. I’m also for critiquing the shortcomings of our metaphors (which Eden acknowledges), but, like Eden, I don’t think that the shortcomings of the Kingdom metaphor are enough to stop me using it. I can’t see how Eden has done the Kingdom a disservice.

      1. The Kingdom (i.e. the Christ = the Seed = God = Divine Consciousness = the Presence = Inward Light) cannot, I believe, be built since it is already within, among and around us. Mainline church theologians, including evangelical Friends for the most part, simply get it wrong, I think, when they say the Kingdom is to yet to come, or that it will be experienced after death, or that the Church is its representative on Earth. The early Quakers rightly railed against these notions as a cursory reading of their works will reveal. For them, like Jesus (actually because of him), the Kingdom was their central focus, the Sermons on the Mount and Plain (and their Beatitudes) being the daily guide for the nascent movement. Again, proof of this is found abundantly within their written works.

        To spread the Kingdom means spreading what is already present as an Eternal Now. It is a realization that it has ‘come and coming’ (as the eQs said), meaning it is already present within (that of God within) and potentially realized in ‘all people on the Earth’ consciously, not vicariously, and initially through the process of ‘convincement’. It was spread because, as you rightly say, there were ‘places where God’s will [was and] is *not* done on earth as in heaven.’

        This Seed is fully within people because, as James Nayler said at this trial in Appleby in January 1653 (quoting Paul), the ‘Christ is not divided’. The Kingdom that was within (Lk.17: 20-21 KJV) could not be divided. Today, we can ascribe the same to Divine Consciousness (DC). The Seed or DC is its full potential but our own understanding of DC needs to grow. The eQs were to ‘sink down to the Seed’, so that they (like us today) would grow in the knowledge of that Seed. Penington, as you know, is excellent in this respect. But so, too, both Samuel Fisher and Francis Howgill in particular. By this means, ‘the Christ needs to be awakened (the ‘slumbering Christ’ that Thomas Kelly writes of); ‘that of God’ needs to be responded to.’ (your words). If there is a ‘potentiality that needs to be actualised’ that potentiality must, by definition, be in full actuality already lest its actualized state (for want of a better expression) is a partial potentiality—something which is theologically and philosophically incoherent (I use ‘incoherent’ in its technical meaning here). ‘This is why . . . the Kingdom is [indeed] in it’s fullness . . . to be fully established in the hearts of all. All relationships are yet to be made right (your words). Of course, because the original Impulse (Source, Seed, the Christ etc.) is already fulness or unlimited, unconditional Love, we cannot have a ‘bit’ of it; we cannot have a ‘bit’ of Love. So, we either have it in fulness, in wholeness and unity (i.e. what ‘salvation’ actually means theologically) or we will have distanced ourselves from It (we cannot be separated from Divine Love). I use ‘distance’ rather than ‘sin’ since the latter is surely now a moribund concept, a word still the preserve of backward Christian theologies.

        I don’t want to repeat my theology of the ‘Eternal Now’ in this post. It can be found better explained in my “What Love Can Do” (Melbourne: * Books, 2016, at: http://www.gerardguiton.com). There is only the Now. Divine Consciousness is only Now. Think of something; immediately it is history, and the future is already now. God is the Eternal Now. Eckhart was spot on here but so, too, the many other great sages past and present, Christian and otherwise, and here I recommend Rupert Spira’s “The Nature of Consciousness”.

        You say, “ . . . the Now contains all we need . . . [which] . . . does away with the need for justice and reconciliation, and suggests we can just accept the status quo.” I’m afraid you need to explain that supposition. Philosophically, it contains the dreaded Kantian ‘a priori’, a transcendental deduction without any evidence. How, in other words, do you deduce from the Eternal Now, any possibility that it presupposes a lack of a need for ‘justice and reconciliation’ when the very of the Eternal Now, who God, peace, justice and compassion? Philosophically speaking, you make a category-error by maintaining such a statement.

        “I would say that Eden’s presentation of eschatology fits very well with historic Quaker understandings, and also makes systematic sense.” (your words). How precisely; I’d be interested in your thinking here, Mark.

        Douglas Steere was very clear, because of his vast ecumenical experience, that we are best reaching people when we are cognizant of ‘where they are at’ (his words). This is why I say Eden’s opening song, albieit Taizé, was best left out because, given the spiritually immature state of BYM finds itself at the present historical moment, her opening certainly put Friends off. Why antagonise people unnecessarily? There is, to quote Penington, always a ‘better state’.

        You say, “The centrality of the ‘absolute perhaps’ amongst British Quakers means we feel threatened by those who speak with confidence.”. Yes, I think this is true. true, I’m not too sure. It difficult to know empirically, as you’ll know of course. Certainly the corrosive intrusion of non-theism into Friends in the last 25 years has done little to enhance the authentic voice of Quakerism. And certainly it is in right order that people, like my brother Derek Guiton (author of “A Man that Looks on Glass”), should minister when so moved, and especially so when the same Spirit moves them to speak truth to power no matter what the ramifications (in the case of my brother he has been treated appallingly by Friends; one Friend said recently that he could not afford to be seen with Derek because it would be professionally harmful; have we come so low?) However, this was not my concern about Eden’s lecture. My concern was that her view of the Kingdom is largely mainline Church and thus theologically naïve.

        “I find the Kingdom a powerful metaphor, particularly in its subversive political meaning. I totally agree with you here, Mark.

        Thank you for the opportunity to minister and worship in this way.

        Gerard

      2. I think there’s much we agree upon, with perhaps our differences being on the best terminology.

        Is God identical with God’s kingdom? If so, then the kingdom can’t be built as God can’t be built. But I’m not sure I’d say the two are synonymous. I like the language of building because I think the Kingdom is relational – it’s built of right relationships. But I also like the language of spreading. And the language of ‘arriving’ which suggests letting God in rather than creating something. Different metaphors highlight different aspects the Kingdom. I think as long as the language has a dynamic tension to it, the tension of ‘the Kingdom is now and not-yet’, it does the job. Too much emphasis on the not-yet, and we neglect the reality of the Kingdom experienced in the present. Too much emphasis on the now, and we neglect the reality of present suffering and injustice. This is my problem with the Eternal Now in the sense of it containing everything we need. If I can find everything I need in the Eternal Now, what compels me to work for peace and justice? If I can find everything I need in the Eternal Now, what am I to make of the ways in which I am imprisoned and oppressed in the present? There needs to be a combination of both satisfaction and increased desire. My experience of God satisfies me, but also increases my hunger and thirst for righteousness. And my hunger for righteousness can’t be satisfied until everything is made righteous. For me, the Eternal Now doesn’t leave enough room for desire, for the thirst for God (and God’s thirst for us as Julian of Norwich would put it). I find Moltmann’s take on the Eternal Now in his ‘Theology of Hope’ compelling.

        In terms of Eden’s presentation of eschatology being consistently Quaker – she spoke of the Kingdom coming and come, which I think is pretty uncontentious. I don’t believe that early Quakers held a unified eschatology beyond the belief that the Kingdom was present amongst them and that a full consummation was coming in the future (see Moore’s ‘The Light in Their Consciences’ p.68), which is consistent with Eden’s account. I also think Quaker theology holds much in common with other Christian groups, differing in emphasis more than anything else (see Dandelion and Angell’s introduction to ‘Early Quakers and their Theological Thought’). So if Eden’s description appears ‘mainline’, that’s because I don’t think Quaker understandings of the Kingdom are drastically different from other churches.

        I have to take issue with your description of ‘backward’ Christian theologies. I don’t think this is a helpful description.

      3. Paragraph 4 below should read:

        How, in other words, do you deduce from the Eternal Now, any possibility that it presupposes a lack of a need for ‘justice and reconciliation’ when the very nature of the Eternal Now who is God is Divine peace, justice and compassion?

  2. Julian of Norwich’s “All shall be well…” works for several liberal Friends I know. What they mean by “thing”, “manner” and “well” varies but it seems to fit the bill.

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