Mark Johnson, New South Wales Regional Meeting.


Leadings pose a sharp challenge to our proud self-sufficiency. Some approaches to the question posed to us of Leadings focus upon the debates over what it is that leads. A valid question, because Leadings are inherently about a relationship between that which leads and that led. It is call and response, and it is also a recognition that we only come to be in a more profound sense insofar as we are open to the invitation by another. Leadings question the small certainties, idols even, of our worldviews. In a culture that celebrates the narrowly rational and self-sufficient; Leadings call to us about other possibilities.

But this small article will focus upon one aspect of this relationship: because Leadings implicitly ask us to consider what type of beings are we that can be led? The question is a direct challenge to our self-certainties and, too, our failure of nerve and imagination as we run from the implications of call and response into a small bolt-hole of denial and self-absorption. Are we fixed and isolated, or open and engaged? Are we a static self or a porous self?

Leadings pose a particular challenge to contemporary “Western” society. This is no longer an age of faith, but rather one typified by a turn to the subjective self and all of the dualistic notions inherent to that construct. Many purveyors of the subjective self are utterly unaware of the source of their fascination, not realising that this turn to the self was actually inaugurated within “Western” thought by the philosopher Rene Descartes. We never speak and think in a paradigmatic vacuum. Terms like self and soul (our contemporary notion of self as having evolved from Descartes’ notion of soul) arose from and only make sense within a Cartesian worldview, and close much of the range of “Western” thought off from older understandings of self as image, and soul as the form of the body.

Essentially for the purposes of this article, we are heirs of a paradigmatic shift to a fixed or closed self. This poses very real challenges to any discussion about ‘Leadings’.

Descartes tactically mirrored his idea of the soul upon older understandings and usages. Interiority was nothing new to Descartes’ readers. The Seventeenth century was, amongst other things, heir to a widespread  resurgence of mysticism, particularly Carmelite and Rhineland “schools” of mysticism. The fundamental difference between Cartesian usages of soul and that of the apophatic mysticisms of the aforementioned “schools” was the proscribed ends of the differing methods. Cartesian methodology strove for a purging of falsity so to encounter the inner certainty of a pristine consciousness.

I am sure that you have heard of the maxim “I think, therefore I am”, well, here is the fount of the Cartesian method – it is the one foundation upon which again to build certainty. Thought, consciousness, the thinking self, the untrammelled vision from which all could be verified. Soul had been transformed from the Teresian “Interior Castle” (to give but one example of mystical interiority) into the new nucleus of identity and inviolate subjectivity, and most of today’s gurus and disciples of the self are running blind with this baggage.

This is the contemporary turn to the self, or subject, that I mentioned earlier. It is a turn (or paradigmatic shift) which no longer looks outside so to discover truth, but makes our subjective rationality the arbiter of truth. It celebrates the “I” as its own end. Careers and reputations are built upon getting us in touch with this Cartesian construct. To my thinking it is so odd that just as science was appreciating that the earth and humanity was not the centre of the universe, Cartesian rationalism was in fact weaving a paradigmatic web which would place us again at the centre.

This small backgrounding about Cartesian thought is simply to indicate that any discussion we have today about self and soul cannot be done without understanding what exactly is meant by such ubiquitous and often lazily used terms, specifically within a “Western” context. It is such an understanding of self and soul that is most intimately challenged by our topic at hand. What can it mean for such a construction of self and soul to be led?

It is my claim that such a construction cannot be led or healed. It is closed. It is inviolate. Today’s therapeutic gurus of the sick self and soul lead us down into  cul-de-sacs of self-absorption, getting us to listen to our “inner truth”, or to our “soul” without any reference to or understanding of the history of how such a term has been reconstructed in ways closed to transcendence, closed to the larger freedom which lies outside of our shallow interior hall of mirrors – closed to God.

It is of no surprise that God has so little place in Quaker life and thought today given how so many are enamoured by the “vain imaginings” that pour from a Cartesian construct, nurturing it, worshipping it – and all the while inconsistently raging against the wreck that such a construct has inflicted upon the world.

It is no wonder that so many with an activist bent among us are so angry, because some part of them is raging against the cul-de-sac they have been led into and the impotence it engenders in the attempts to transform the world according to the imperatives dictated by the “I” writ gargantuan. Something is wrong, a psychic torment ensues. Whilst spending income over and over on again getting in touch with this constructed self might be well and good on a retreat, or via it being continually regurgitated via books and other media product, it is this same construct that gives itself permission to transform creation into world, and cosmos into universe – stripping all of transcendence, being driven steadily egomaniacal by its engorging upon its own image.

Without the capacity to be led we are being driven mad by the endless echo of our own solitary voice amplified to infinity. Devoid of the capacity to see beyond our self-interests, the world around us becomes nothing more than our own face mirrored back to us – a “No-Exit” of our own small creating. How much God substitutes of self and soul can we endure?

Leadings are a challenge to this nightmare. Leadings speak of a freedom that we have blithely forgotten – freedom for engagement with a larger ground of existence. God is not a mere term. God is not an ordering principle. God is not an over-bearing and moralising this or tyrannical that. It is people that are those things – and they don’t have to use “God” to achieve such ends, any self-serving tool or discourse will do. Rather, God is no-thing, and beyond this God is experience and invitation. Early Friends were aware of this. Living experimentally was not an invitation to live via method, but rather living in the immediacy of eternity. Early Friends were well read in the Gospel of John, writings of Quietists, apophatic mystics, Jacob Boehme and other pointers to the Kingdom of God. Early Friends, with the aid of such masters of experience, saw through the merely notional, saw through its inconsistencies and hypocrisies, saw past the notional smudges which too easily become those idols which force our gaze back upon our distorted selves, ensnaring our vision – leading us to false gods.

Leadings are always about Grace – invitation and call. Leadings are always about the open doorways to God. They are about “the life”. Can we understand them? No, we experience them – through a life lived as leading.

The mystic Meister Eckhart was once asked why we are alive. The answer: To be alive. We live so to live. This could very well be the question posed by a Cartesian to an early Friend, the one rationalising the other responding in the life. All the way to heaven is Heaven, as the mystic Catherine of Sienna once said. So too the path to life is being led, if only we again let our souls be porous, if only we be vigilant in regards to those notions which steer us into closure. The seed is scattered wide and far and yet so much becomes ensnared. Leadings save us from the delusion that self-absorption is right-ordering.

Ultimately, Leadings speak to us of a porous soul open to being led, rather than the fixed soul of popular Cartesian obsession. Do you have the humility to again be led?

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