Friday, November 4, 2011

Richard Hooker and the Occupy Movement




By Susanna Snyder



These also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten. . . their name lives on generation after generation. The assembly declares their wisdom and the congregation proclaims their praise (Sirach 44:10-15).

Today, we celebrate the life of Richard Hooker – though I have to say that when I found out that he was the person I was going to be preaching about, celebration wasn’t exactly the word that sprang to mind. Panic, boredom, a groan maybe. Not only did I know nothing about him, but he’s always been one of those characters who I’d stuck in a box as a stuffy old quintessential English Anglican.

Born in 1553, he was a student and then fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford – and you don’t get much more establishment than that – he was then ordained and served as a priest in a range of parishes in the south of England.

He is known for writing voluminously about the structure, functioning and rationale of the Church of England in Of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. In eight volumes, he explores everything from church-state relations to biblical interpretation, the Book of Common Prayer, ethics and theology. He was defending the religious settlement made under Elizabeth I against the Puritans.

What struck me, though, once I had spent a bit more time sitting with him and exploring the readings for today is that Hooker is actually a valuable icon of wisdom – an icon we can learn much from today. As the Occupy Movement continues to develop and take new twists and turns, I want to ask: what is wisdom and how might we go about acting wisely in the face of today’s economic, social and political challenges? What would Richard Hooker say about the Occupy Movement?

Wisdom is not knowledge – though the two are often confused – and it is wisdom that Richard Hooker was primarily interested in cultivating in the Church of England and sharing with the wider world. Whereas knowledge is about facts, information and content, wisdom is more about understanding, intuition and meaning. Wisdom is inhabited and lived: it resides in our bodies, souls and emotions, and takes shape in our relationships with others and creation. It’s not purely cerebral.

Paul, in the letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 2:6-10), interestingly speaks of gaining the “mind of Christ.” He doesn’t say brain of Christ or even head of Christ: “mind” suggests something richer and more multi-dimensional. Wisdom is about knowing others, ourselves, the world and God, rather than knowing about others, ourselves, the world or God.

Wisdom involves developing as a person and growing in maturity. It emerges through a process which takes place over time; it’s not something which you can obtain if you read enough of the right kind of books fast enough. It is about character rather than personality, and is profoundly counter-cultural in a consumer society geared towards immediate gratification.

It is often associated with age – though years are not a guarantee of wisdom. Wisdom is essentially about cultivating a habitus – a way of being, an approach to dwelling in the world – which enables us to act with insight and in hopeful and life-bringing ways.

Through developing habits of attending to what is going on around and within us, and then allowing what we observe to permeate the core of our being and shape who we are, we can come to an understanding different from the “knowledge” assumed by the world – or as Paul puts it, the spirit “of this age” – a spirit which sometimes nudges us towards things that do us harm, towards death.

The Occupy Movement is challenging some of the most unquestioned, death-dealing knowledge around today – the idea that a particular form of global individualistic capitalism is good for all and the only way of organizing the world – and as such, I can only imagine that Richard Hooker would give it his blessing. Its participants are, like him, expressing and practising wisdom.

The excesses of this form of capitalism are leading to the literal death of some in the Global South who cannot make enough money from their crops because of multi-national corporations taking over their land or driving prices down. In the Global North, international economic crises have led to millions being unemployed, not to mention the shriveling of the hearts of those who only value the material and whose only goal in life is to make more and more money and to have and have more stuff.

I think this is perhaps the most enduring gift that the Occupy protesters are offering to all of us: they are challenging the “fact” that this form of capitalism is the only way, that making money and doing as well as you can for yourself individually is all that matters, that profit is an unmitigated good. They are refusing to accept the logic of “business as usual.”

In an article in the Guardian, significantly entitled “Occupy London is a Nursery for the Mind,” Madeleine Bunting argues that where Market ideology has been firmly in the grip of ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative) for a generation, the Occupy Movement wants “to create the space to think of alternatives…Their first agreed principle is that the current system is unsustainable, undemocratic and unjust,” and that means “taking key symbolic public space … to use it for conviviality, living, learning and participation…The protesters’ aim is to open up space, physically and socially, for people to connect and thereby open up space in people’s imaginations.”

This is wisdom. It is wisdom because it is interrogating so-called facts with lived experience, pain, community and struggle and recognizing that perhaps they are not true after all. They are saying that humanity, community, people, equality are more important. Wisdom opens up alternatives, it speaks a truth which slices through endless talk and debate. All this isn’t to say, for a minute, that knowledge production and study are not important – sorry if you were hoping this was going to get you out of assignments or reading long texts! These are essential bricks on the road towards wisdom. Hooker put a high value on the intellectual and believed education to be crucial. Knowledge by itself may not make for wisdom, but ignorance certainly doesn’t either.

How, though, do we come to such wisdom – and when do we know what we’re sensing is not just our own preference or feeling? Are there steps we can take to cultivate wisdom?

According to Hooker, wisdom emerges from dwelling in the Spirit and through prayer. In Book Five, he writes, “Everie good and holie desire though it lack the form, hath notwithstanding in it self the substance, and with him the force of a prayer, who regardeth the verie moaninges grones and sighes of the harte of man (V.48.2).” In other words, Christians are praying all the time even if they do not realize it, and it is this which allows the Holy Spirit to move within us and form us into people with the “mind of Christ.”

God is the source of our wisdom or to flip this over, as Paul puts it, “we speak God’s wisdom.” God leads us on a journey towards holiness, something which Jesus explicitly asked the Father to do in the reading we heard from John: “Sanctify them in the truth… As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us.” What this also makes clear is that wisdom is less about doing something than being done to.

Wisdom emerges when we create a space to let God be God – it wells up in the gaps, in the silences, in the parts of our lives that we can’t make sense of, when we just sit with something, when we simply “are.” Paul writes, “for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.” We don’t have to scrabble about frantically trying to become wise: we need instead to do something far harder – we need to allow ourselves to be searched. Wisdom is more about being acted upon than it is about acting.

For Hooker, divine revelation was essential. He believed that in order to move towards wisdom, we need to be attuned to the extraordinary in the ordinary and on the look out for divine glimpses of beauty, love, meaning and truth around us. Not everything can come from book learning. It is interesting that faith and spirituality have certainly been at the heart of the Occupy Movement – the spirituality tent in Boston became a central feature within days.

I do have a couple of questions, though. Is wisdom only available to Christians? Paul claims that “those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them.” I’m guessing that many of us know many people of other faiths or none who are wise. What’s more, is the “mind of Christ” clear?

In London, furore has erupted over the actions of St Paul’s Cathedral in relation to the protestors gathered on their steps. The Cathedral nearly took legal action to clear away the protestors and one canon resigned, seeing this as collusion with corporate City interests. The Dean was then forced to resign in the face of public pressure.

Some clergy are calling for the protestors to disband: the Bishop of London has invited the protestors to attend a debate, asking them, “pack up your tents voluntarily and let us make you heard.” Others are horrified that the Church has not taken a firmer stand. Rowan Williams is calling for attention to the underlying concerns. All believe that they are acting with “the mind of Christ” and are reacting as best they can in a rapidly developing situation.

This points to the final thing I want to say about wisdom. Wisdom, it seems to me, has something to do with the middle way. It involves being able to see and understand things from different angles and perspectives and only then, making decisions about how to move forward: it takes time to discern what is right.

Richard Hooker established the Anglican via media – the middle way – a quiet, moderate and serene figure who wanted peace rather than upheaval. He was treading a tightrope between passionate Catholics on the one hand and equally passionate Puritans on the other. I guess that this is where he would probably differ from the protestors: I can’t really imagine him camping out in downtown Boston or Wall Street today.

He would be listening to them and to corporations and governments, mulling over, sitting with all the different voices in prayer. The Church of England has often been accused of sitting on the fence and colluding with the powers that be – and I agree that it can be a cop-out way of maintaining the status quo – but I also wonder if sitting on the fence doesn’t sometimes have value?

I confess that I am someone who likes to try and see all sides of an issue and that, while I am horrified at the injustices of wrought by capitalist excess, I do not see all those involved in corporations as evil. I have also heard about the damage that the protest camp is doing to small independent businesses and caf├ęs by St Paul’s, threatening their livelihoods, and a Black British theologian told me of his concern that the movement is basically middle-class white do-gooders.

What’s more, as a wise friend of mine Rachel Mann has recently put it better than I can, “there is a danger of pretending that I – and my ‘holy’ perspective – is not compromised in any way. We are the compromised…I am caught up in exploitative capitalism… in ways in which I would often prefer not to acknowledge. I still think that the system I am caught up in is exploitative and unfair, and I am committed to change, but a moment’s reflection makes me cautious about lording it over the fall of individuals and institutional structures… I am cautious about my instinct that says that Jesus is entirely outside the walls of St Paul's and hanging around in the protester’s camp. That just feels too easy for me – it makes God too small.”

Sometimes, wisdom requires passionate prophecy – and thank God for the protestors, for those with enough courage to voice the alternative, to question assumed knowledges. Sometimes, wisdom requires a passionate stillness, a waiting, a slow discernment and the middle way of compromise in order to bring about change. So, I am waiting and watching to see what happens next. The protestors having made a wise and passionate statement against the status quo, how are we going to move forward? And who is going to mediate a constructive, wise middle way that will actually enact change?

I would like to close with some words from a poem by T. S. Eliot, another wise Anglican who came a few centuries after Hooker. They come from Choruses from “The Rock” (1934):

The endless cycle of idea and action…
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

* Sermon preached at the St. John’s Memorial Chapel at the Episcopal Divinity School on November 3, 2011.

** Susanna Snyder is Assistant Professor in Contemporary Society and Christian Ethics at Episcopal Divinity School. Originally from the United Kingdom, she moved to Cambridge in 2010 via Atlanta where she was a post-doctoral fellow at Emory University. Her main area of research is immigration and religion, an interest which began when she was a volunteer supporting asylum seekers in the United Kingdom, and she is the author of a forthcoming book, Asylum-Seeking, Migration and Church (Ashgate).

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