A Seeker’s Theology: Christianity Reinterpreted as Mysticism
Reviewed by Brian Drayton
By John G. Macort. Self-published, 2016. 231 pages. $9.50/paperback.Buy from QuakerBooks
John Macort, formerly an Episcopalian priest but long acquainted with Friends and recently a member, shares with the reader some elements of his spiritual autobiography. The present volume represents a compilation of lectures delivered over the course of several years, and perhaps is best appreciated not by a cover-to-cover march through the book, but rather by reading the chapters as one is drawn to them. Yet the book as a whole is intended to build up a picture of the author’s theology, as a result of his grappling with modern Bible scholarship and modern science.
Macort is strongly of the opinion that (in Bishop John Spong’s words) Christianity must change or die. He shows a broad familiarity with twentieth-century theological currents. The effect of these was to strip away traditional certainties about the nature of God, the nature of the atonement, the place and role of Jesus, and the reliability (or not) of Scripture. In grappling with the latter, theologians from whom Macort has learned an understanding of scripture as the product of communities of faith. With the Christian scriptures, one can make reasonable conjectures about who was speaking, to whom, with what emphases and purposes, and what at least some of their raw materials were. In addition to this humanist–historical view, there also grew up an understanding about the nature of myth (in the sense of a culture’s way of expressing big ideas about its identity, purpose, and values). This kind of scholarship, along with the rapid advance of the sciences, and the general trend of modernity to “desacralize” or “disenchant” the world, has eaten away the authority of traditional religion.
Macort clearly has confronted these challenges, as he recounts, and has sought a more rational, flexible, and open religion. Mysticism, a way of being in the world organized by the personal experience of the holy, has seemed to give him powerful tools for understanding Jesus’s preaching, the universal dimensions of the Spirit, the mystery of the Eucharist, the nature of human spiritual growth, and authentic worship. His particular take on mysticism is linked to his stance as a “panentheist”—one who subthe view that God is in everything, rather than a separate entity “out there.” (This is a stance taken, for example, by Thomas Merton; and see Tom Gates’s Pendle Hill pamphlet #422, Reclaiming the Transcendent.)
With this background, Macort sees Quakerism as described by Rufus Jones and Douglas Steere, as one among many mystical movements that have sprung up across centuries and cultures. As the back cover says, “God is experienced mystically in many cultures and religions. The Christian faith must be reinterpreted as mystical experience.” Quakerism’s method allows for God’s active love, most fully embodied in Jesus, to break through and work transformations in the world: “Through meditation, we are guided in ways to act in love for others and respect for all existence.”
This book is not a systematic theology, but records an individual’s striving to work out his faith and put the results into words. Some will find it appealing, and some baffling, but I appreciate it whenever a Friend takes a deep breath, rolls up their sleeves, and undertakes to speak of their struggles and the discoveries they have made, as pilgrim souls in this bewildering world of wonders.