Introduction to “The Gospel and Self-Knowledge”

“The Gospel and Self-Knowledge” is the fourth of five lectures in the series titled A New Foundation to Build On, given by Lewis Benson in 1976 in Haverford, Pennsylvania. The lecture (along with an Appendix of questions and answers following the presentation) can be found under the Resource tab on the New Foundation Fellowship website.

Benson begins this fourth lecture with a survey of types of religious consciousness that characterized different historical periods. His review provides context for the primary focus of the lecture: our modern era, which began more than a century ago. Benson contends modern “mass man” no longer sustains an integrated identity; this calamity manifests itself widely in the personal sense of “lostness.”  This feeling of being lost and the subsequent search for identity is, Benson asserts, the distinguishing ethos of our age.

Wide-ranging, broad analysis is uncommon among scholars, and the reader’s immediate reaction may be to discount grand-scale assertions as devoid of nuance, and therefore inaccurate. Such a prejudice might arise in those who’ve yet to come to a vantage point from which can be seen the essential properties of different religious understandings. This vista is one Benson can and does offer in this lecture, and here he states his theme:

The purpose of this paper is to compare some modern philosophical approaches to the problem of self-­knowledge to the prophetic Christian understanding as exemplified by George Fox (1).

The first philosophy Benson brings to light is the system of self-realization that was set forth by George Gurdjieff, an early twentieth-century teacher with whom Benson studied as a young man. Though Benson did not find in Gurdjieff that which he sought, he was, nevertheless, strongly affected by his time spent in Gurdjieff’s compound near Paris. This impact is evidenced in the disproportionate attention given in the lecture to Gurdjieff’s understanding of the problem of self, and his method of developing consciousness through motivated self-interest and disciplined control of the will. Benson later came to realize that Gurdjieff’s reliance on methodology signaled its faulty grounding in human endeavor, and thus revealed its disparity with the prophetic faith of George Fox that Benson later came to know and affirm.

Benson next moves through a brief summary of both the techniques and suppositions found in Socrates’s philosophy and in classic Western Mysticism—giving each but a paragraph to set out their respective deficiencies. He then proceeds to his main topic, the Christian approach to the problem of self-knowledge.

The Christian approach to the problem of self-knowledge takes as its starting point the view of man that is set forth in the Bible: that people were not created to have a self-conscious existence independent of God. It is the Creator who reveals what is good and what is evil. Man’s life is characterized by his dependence on God. When this relationship is broken, the primary law of man’s being is broken, and his life becomes a deformation of the life intended for him by the Creator (3).

Benson turns to Emil Brunner, a prominent Protestant (Reformed) theologian of the last century, who affirms Benson’s position: man’s self-realization is contingent upon his response to God’s call. From there,  Benson brings George Fox into the discussion, as one whose initial, broken condition became apparent through receiving Christ, the light, revealing the self:

With the light man sees himself, which light comes from Christ ([Works. VII, 142] [p.4]).

Additionally, by obedience to the inward teaching of the light, man is restored to right relationship with God. The light of Christ is the revealer and teacher of a new righteousness, which judges out not only deeds that are manifestly evil but also those deeds which arise from the attempt to live a moral life outside of God and Christ: these attempts, too, are brought under condemnation by the light. Fox says:

The light lets you see your deeds…whether they be wrought in God or no ([I,83] [p.4]).

The deeds “wrought in God” is the righteousness that God calls for, as distinguished from humanly discerned self-righteousness, which is often—through ignorance or pride—wrongly attributed to God. Such deeds arise from the less-than-human self “that is gradually formed in us as we attempt to find ourselves outside of God and God’s word to us” (p.4). That self, says Fox, has the “nature of brute beasts” ([IV, 35] [p. 4]), and must be denied. Neither the self-knowledge nor self-righteousness that is assumed independent of the light can begin to approximate the perfection that accompanies our restoration to the image of God in Christ.

In contrast to Gurdjieff’s, others’ philosophy, or theories of psychology that claim self-realization is a function of man’s will and power to uncover his essential being, Fox holds that human personality, or self, is universally fallen and deformed into a sub-human condition, and that we can be restored to our true, intended state only when recast through “hearing and obeying the speaking God”(4).

The self or false personality is “judged out” by the light and a new life appears in them who “walk in him the new and living way, out of the old way” ([VII, 52] [p. 5]).

The sense of “lostness” that modern man inevitably endures indicates inner change is needed: the revealing of and standing against evil within has not yet taken place; the self or false personality has not yet been denied; the second birth not yet been undergone. Fox’s prescription for this lost, fallen condition is this:

wait upon God in that which is pure…and stand still in it…to see your savior to make you free from that which the light doth discover to you to be evil” ([VII, 24] [p.5]).

In Christ there is freedom from sin, and only there does one find unity and “fellowship with all who believe in the light, hear the light, obey the light and walk in the light” (p.5).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Responses to Introduction to “The Gospel and Self-Knowledge”

  1. Craig says:

    I’m still slowly reading through the ten part Lewis Benson series, Rediscovering the Teaching of George Fox. Though I’m going through such a short series at a snail’s pace, I’m really enjoying it! I really don’t fit in much with most modern Friends I’ve come in contact with but the early friends (and Lewis Benson it seems) really speak to me. I really appreciate all of your posts!

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  2. We could have recognized the gospel power solely in the Scriptures had the 17th-c. Friends not become a movement, but I’m so grateful they did gather, minister, and write the wisdom they were given. Their time and culture allowed for a unique expression of the gospel, but it is the same gospel of the prophets and apostles. I think we (as did Benson) create a stepping stone in the great journey of humankind to become one in Christ when we open ourselves to being directed by God’s will, and can add a witness to that of those who’ve come before. Not only is that a testimony to the reality of the gospel but is also a testimony to its universality, intended for every time and place. It’s a joy to find another, Craig, who sees the gospel and enters into “such a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb.12:1).

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  3. Ellis Hein says:

    Pat, do you have a sense of how deeply Gurdjieffian metaphysics has influenced Liberal Friends? If Lewis saw a significant impact, that would also play into the amount of space he gave to that subject. Thanks for your perspective

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  4. In the Appendix to this lecture, a participant states there were “all kinds of other philosophies and systems” common among Friends during that time, the ’70s, all of which were efforts to pull oneself up, he said, by one’s “own bootstraps.” So, Gurdjieff was not the only self-redemptive philosophy around during that time; there were others. Why Benson would in this lecture focus exclusively and to such an extent on Gurdjieff’s philosophy rather than others, or on self-actualization in general, is likely attributable to Benson’s having had firsthand experience of Gurdjieff.

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  5. Ellis Hein says:

    Other than Lewis’ mention of Subud, which seems to have drawn in a number people from Gurdjieff, no other philosophies are mentioned. While it is not necessary to know the origin or the philosophies responsible for the current state of the Society of Friends, I was curious. Regardless of the philosophy or the enticement that has pulled us in so many different directions, the remedy is the same as that which first brought people out of death and darkness to know the life and light of Christ working within and among us.

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