How Can We Know?

I recently found a funny little book on the shelf in the SF Public Library. I was there to work in a study carrel after an all-morning meeting downtown and a surprise encounter with a mentor in the library cafĂ© over lunch. I went to the religion section and to browse for “just a bit.” Immediately I saw a thin-spined little book, How Can We Know? An Essay on the Christian Religion by A.N. Wilson. I read both his Paul: The Mind of the Apostle and Jesus: A Life (or whatever it’s called) and enjoyed them. Though he’s not above speculation way beyond what “scholarship” would consider plausible, his imaginative take on Paul, especially, helped bring him to life for me.

Momentarily tempted to continue browsing, I realized I had found what I was supposed to be looking for, and left for a carrel. I managed to wait until after working hours to read it. I share here a few passages that I found relevant to the Quakersphere.

An important part of the essay is a defense of outward communion. Here’s what he has to say about Fox and the Quaker position (p. 58):

“The followers of George Fox, dismayed by the fact that such fury could be provoked by a discussion of the Sacrament, such disobedience to the peacable commands of Christ, abandoned the sacramental life altogether, preferring to commune in their own chamber and be still; to cultivate their own ‘inner light,’ which they called ‘the candle of the Lord.’

“The Quaker silence is surely preferable to the crackling fires that burnt Ridley or Latimer… But Quakerism ignores the tradition which Saint Paul received and passed on to the Corinthians, a tradition recognized by almost all Christian people to this day. ‘Do this for a commemoration of me.’”

Though out of context, I appreciated this quote (p. 99): “The chief thing wrong with Christianity is that it proclaims the existence of an externalised, unbelievable God.”

I also liked this passage about truth (p. 108):
“The mind and heart of man must be loyal to the truth above all things, for truth alone will save us from fantasy, self-delusion and lunacy. It is not religious to pretend things happened which did not happen; nor to claim that things are the case when they plainly are not. And yet many people have abaondeond religion because they thought this was what religion required and did; and many religious people cling to their old certitudes event hought they know them to be untrue. Just as our will are feeble and we can not follow the Way spelt out in the teachings of Christ, so our minds and imaginations are timorous when confronted with the Truth. Following him who is the Way we discover approaches not only to our moral dilemmas but also to the revelation of who we are and of the purpose of our lives. Following him who is the Truth we discover that we must not resist our duty to think, but that thought is not the only process by which we experience the Truth. ‘Christ likes us to prefer truth to him,’ Simone Weil wrote, ‘because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go towards the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.’”

Reference: A.N. Wilson, How Can We Know? An Essay on the Christian Religion (New York: Atheneum, 1985).


Anonymous said...

Dear Heaven. Where did this poor fellow Wilson get his misinformation about Quakerism? Does it say in the endnotes?

Chris M. said...

Good question, Marshall! I've already returned it to the library so can't answer for certain. It was a slender volume, and I don't recall that he included any references. I think it's what Wilson as an "educated Anglican" knew about Fox.

The context was his view of the importance of the sacrament of outward communion, because it had been instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper. So, by his standard, Friends are missing the point that, in his view, we are to practice the outward form. I'm not defending his view of Fox and Friends, just trying to give a bit more context.

-- Chris M.

RichardM said...


I was surprised to read in your previous post that you once lived in Trenton, NJ--my old hometown.

Personally I doubt that Jesus instituted the ritual of communion. I suspect that he said and did a number of bewildering things and that his followers decided on their own to turn it into a ritual. I have a similar opinion about the Lord's Prayer. I don't think Jesus was telling folks "write this down exactly as I say it and repeat after me" I suspect he was trying to show them how to pray by demonstrating what spontaneous prayer sounded like.

Chris M. said...


Thanks for commenting! Actually, I grew up in Bridgewater, and only went to Trenton to see rock bands.

I agree about what Jesus may or may not have said. However, Wilson's point is that Christians have been having some form of a sacramental meal together at least since Paul. I didn't flesh out the context very well. Wilson's point was that whatever other doctrinal differences Christians have, they all -- with a few exceptions like the Quakers -- practice the outward sacrament. He found great significance in that fact; a common denominator of denominations, if you will. (My clunky phrase, not his!)

-- Chris M.

RichardM said...


Sharing a meal together can be a spiritual experience. At our house we host a weekly dinner to which Friends and friends are invited. the quality of the experience is enhanced by its regularity (every Tuesday that we are in town) and small size (approximately 10 people). And the fact that we really are eating and drinking. The sip of wine and little wafer of bread that often serves as "communion" in most churches just doesn't do it for me. The setting we have on Tuesday nights is much more similar to the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples.