Sunday, January 13, 2008

John Punshon on Perfection and the Christian Life

I guess my memories from college retreats on the Oregon Coast are now becoming a theme for me... during one particularly memorable event at Twin Rocks, John Punshon (Professor of Quaker Studies at Earlham School of Religion before my uncle, Steve Angell, replaced him) spoke on the faith and the future of the Friends movement. I was impressed with his focus and clarity and hope. I was rereading a section of his book Encounter with Silence this evening and found some of his reflections refreshingly true and helpful. - Sarah

For early Friends, perfection was the overcoming of sin, that which is contrary to the will of God. Friends were not so unrealistic as not to know that we make mistakes, do wrong things, succumb to temptation, and fail in our self-imposed disciplines. But they did distinguish between acts of sin and the power of sin in a life at a deep level.

Commitment is at the root of faith, and it is interesting in this connection to see how some of Jesus' words fit together. He always forgave 'sins'. As everybody knows, the gospel knows no inviolable rules. But knowing that our attitudes to money are a good indication of our attitudes to God, he warned people that their hearts would be where their treasure was. Thus, sin consists not in breaking the rules in the acts of this life, but in the hardness of heart which will not love others and thereby cuts off its owner from God.

[T]he Quaker tradition also contains the helpful and reassuring doctrine of 'measure'. We do not all have the fullness of light. Perhaps that is impossible in this world. But we are all given enough to have something to live up to. It will be challenging and difficult in parts, but it will not present us with things that are too big for us to handle. All that is required from us is faithfulness to live up to the measure we are given. When we have done that, we will be given more.

In this, as in so many other things, the Quaker tradition reveals the way it tends to see things as processes, capable of growth and variation, rather than concrete or abstract entities. I do not profess to know whether I can be perfect, but I know that the religious tradition of my adoption, taken seriously, assures me that I can. This is the point of conversion. If I can struggle with my sins and at the same time seek to lose myself in the grace of God, the power the light will give me will enable me to overcome all things.