• Michael Martin

dust, light, a barn

Where are all the distributists at this threshold point in human history? One would think that this would be the prime moment for a distributist gambit. But it’s not, or at least it hasn’t been so far. For those who don’t know what distributism is, it is the notion, popularized in the early twentieth century by figures such as G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, that means of production and property should be widely distributed through societies and not in control of the few, whether the few be corporations (as in Capitalist economic structures) or governments (as in Socialist and Communist economic structures). The idea arises from the concept of subsidiarity found in Catholic Social Teaching stemming from Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) and reiterated regularly (and ignored just as often) in Catholic teaching ever since.

Of course, distributism and subsidiarity were proposed in an age before the internet, a space that could also use some serious reconfiguration as it is alarmingly controlled by a very few—a very few who can decide what is and what is not real knowledge, real wisdom, or real news. When in concert with corporations, governments, and multinational NGOs, these social media and search engine companies show just how insidious are the evils inherent in social structures held in the hands of the few, a warning sounded long ago in Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Zamyatin’s We among many others.

Perhaps the most powerful voice for distributism in the later twentieth century was economist E.F. Schumacher’s in his classic work Small is Beautiful. For Schumacher, the place to begin with such a project is, quite literally, on the ground beneath our feet, that is, in the soil. As we all know, BigAg, through its parasitic relationship with governments and the NGO superstructure, has done untold damage to the environment and human health, literally poisoning both. Starting from the soil, regenerative practices can then impact industry:

In agriculture and horticulture, we can interest ourselves in the perfection of production methods which are biologically sound, build up soil fertility, and produce health, beauty and permanence. Productivity will then look after itself. In industry, we can interest ourselves in the evolution of small-scale technology, relatively non-violent technology, ‘technology with a human face’, so that people have a chance to enjoy themselves while they are working, instead of working solely for their pay packet and hoping, usually forlornly, for enjoyment solely during their leisure time.”1

I often think of the words of folksinger Pete Seeger in this regard: “I like to say I’m more conservative than Goldwater. He just wanted to turn the clock back to when there was no income tax. I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other.”

More recently, anarchist economist Guido Preparata has also endorsed an agricultural model—biodynamics to be specific—as a template for human economies. “The farmers and agriculturalists of our project,” explains Preparata,

inhabit a landscape governed by these principles: the ideal model is that of the bio-dynamic farm. A bio-dynamic farm is characterized by the absence of importation (viz. closed-circuit cycle), zero-waste (the output of a sector serves as the input of another), diversity (crop-rotation and diverse ecosystems instead of intensive mono-cultivation), and a symbiotic relationship with all the elements of the wider living system.”2

Even more recently, physician and researcher Zach Bush has been promoting biodiversity of the gut biome and the greater, environmental biome as the way to greater health and true human flourishing.

So, diversity seems to be the key here—which is precisely what distributism has always proposed. It doesn’t seem that difficult to achieve. Why is it?

One reason, of course, is the immensity of the governmental-military-corporatist-NGO megalith that seems almost insurmountable. Another is spiritual ennui: we just don’t have the strength (no doubt due to the lousy nutrition we get from processed foods laced with glyphosate and a host of other poisons). We also suffer from spiritual ennui. This, for me, is most telling in the (for lack of a better term) distributist movement (which has little distributism and even less movement). On the one hand are the distributist cosplayers, those who talk a good game about Chesterton, Belloc, and Tolkien, who romanticize about life in the Shire, wearing tweed, smoking pipes, and drinking highballs, but who never throw the ring back into the fires of Mount Doom. On the other hand are the exhausted, those who have given up on a dream of a better way and are content to pray for a Progressive Messiah who will then allow distributism to flourish. AS IF THAT WOULD EVER HAPPEN. These forms of distributism are shells from which life has long disappeared. For my part, my sword will not sleep in my hand, until we have built Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land. As St. Ambrose reminded us so long ago, “The earth is all men’s, not the property of the rich.”

What we need to enliven is what economist and priest Sergei Bulgakov called the sophianic economy, one that “establishes the ultimate connection of all things.”3 As he further argues, the true purpose of an economy, “is to defend and to spread the seeds of life, to resurrect nature. This is the action of Sophia on the universe in an effort to restore it to being in truth.... Economic activity overcomes the divisions in nature, and its ultimate goal ... is to return the world to life in Sophia.”4 This is what all people of good will should be working toward. This is true spiritual warfare.

Everything that offends against the Doctrine of Creation is Church business; everything that affirms it, the love of nature, the craftsman’s job, the artist’s vision, the yeoman’s husbandry, responsible or creative work of any and every kind, all true zeal in interpreting that Doctrine whether by witness in art, by service in honourable labour or by devotion in resistance to anarchy or automatism, those modern enemies of godliness, should receive the holy blessing.” ~ H.J. Massingham 5

Would to God that all the Lord’s people were Prophets.

Steve Winwood returning to agriculture.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

1. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973), 19–20.

2. Guido G. Preparata, with Domenico D’Amico, Flavio Fabiani, Aurelio Riccioli, and Sebastiano Scrófina, “‘The Blueprint’: A Modest Monetary and Organizational Proposal for Re-launching the Economic Welfare of Communities,” in New Directions for Catholic Social and Political Research: Humanity vs. Hyper-Modernity, ed. G.G. Preparata (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 5.

3. Sergei Bulgakov, Philosophy of Economy: The World as Household (Yale University Press, 2000), 155.

4. Ibid., 153.

5. H.J. Massingham, The Tree of Life Chapman & Hall, 1943), 194.

  • Michael Martin

I see in sudden total vision

The substance of entranc’d Boehme’s awe:

The illimitable hour glass

Of the universe eternally

Turning, and the gold sands falling

From God, and the silver sands rising

From God, the double splendors of joy

That fuse and divide again

In the narrow passage of the Cross.

~ Kenneth Rexroth, “The Phoenix and the Tortoise”

Unarguably, the most important figure in the secret history of Sophiology is the early modern German mystic Jacob Boehme. The importance of Boehme to theosophical Christian thought cannot be underestimated, and his contribution to Christian thinking can rightly be compared to that of Martin Heidegger to philosophy. With Heidegger, Western philosophy hit the reset button. Likewise with Boehme in regard to Christian theology. It is for this reason at the very least that the appearance of The Life and Legacy of Jacob Boehme, a new documentary by director Łukasz Chwałko, is a most welcome event. It couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.

The film begins by setting the cultural context of Boehme—a Europe nearly destroyed by religious conflict, a time of great anxiety and widespread persecution. In the midst of this, a simple shoemaker, Jacob Boehme came to insights into the nature of God that challenged the religious orthodoxies of his day (not to mention ours) in his sincere and courageous dedication to untangling the problem of evil. When, noticing the light glancing from a pewter dish, Boehme looked into the nature of good and evil (or what we often interpret to be good and evil) and saw them both as part of God. Needless to say, this was a radical insight and drew Boehme into controversy. The idea here, as one of the film’s interviewees, Józef Piórczyński describes it, is that, for Boehme, good and evil are metaphysical categories, not moral qualities.

The first half of the short film touches on Boehme’s life and theosophical insights and turns to a number of Polish, German, Russian, and American scholars for commentary (in addition to Piórczyński, Jan Tomkowski, Jerzy Prokopiuk, Andreas Hahn, Matthias Wentzel, Monika Rzeczycka, and Joel Burnell). They and Chwałko do an admirable job of digesting the often bewildering (to the uninitiated) thought-world of Boehme who was himself, as the film says, “at the margins of rationality” (which is why he is so essential to Sophiology, a poetic metaphysics). In addition to Boehme’s insights into good and evil and nature of God (for Boehme, God only becomes fully God in Jesus Christ) the commentary explores Boehme’s concept of the Ungrund, the primal ground of both Divinity and Reality and gives some attention to his theology of Sophia, whom Boehme believed incarnated as the Virgin Mary.

The second half of the film explores Boehme’s legacy in German Pietism, the English Behmenists (mostly focusing on John Sparrow and William Law, though overlooking the Philadelphians—whom I covered in my previous post), Romanticism (Novalis, Goethe, Schelling, Adam Mickiewicz), and in the Russian Silver Age (Vladimir Solovyov, in particular) and gives a helpful survey of Boehme’s importance to intellectual history as well as theosophy.

The film is widely available on Vimeo, Amazon, and other streaming sources and I highly recommend anyone interested in Boehme, Christian theosophy, or Sophiology give it a look. It is a very helpful invitation into the world and thought of this important figure. As Piórczyriski explains, Boehme’s religious ethos, centered in the goodness of Christ, is likewise centered in a volunaristic dynamism:

“Only through human beings can the world become a good world. Never without them.”

How true these words ring at this particular cultural crossroads.

Kate Bush’s “Love and Anger”—pretty much saturated with Boehme, whether she knows it or not.

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

Seventeenth-century England was a rotten time and place to live. Civil wars, various iterations of religious persecution, enclosure of the commons, plague. Stuff like that. Stuff like that of our own times. Yet it was also a time of great optimism and inspiring religious intuition and communitas. Anglican priest and poet Robert Herrick celebrated communitas in his boisterous, jovial, and often messy collection Hesperides, holding a magic mirror up to society to show what human flourishing could look like while avoiding the temptation propose a utopia. Thomas Traherne, another Anglican prelate, articulated in his poetry an ethos of returning to the Kingdom by learning how see, by becoming childlike. “How like an angel came I down!” And then there was the Philadelphian Society.

The Philadelphian Society, formally founded in 1694, but active from at least in the middle of the century, dedicated its efforts to “the Reformation of Manners, for the Advancement of an Heroical Christian Piety, and Universal Love towards All.”1 Inspired in great part by the writing of Jacob Boehme which had been published in English translation beginning in the 1640s, the Philadelphians were the first Englishmen to propose a sophiological Christianity, and their writings bear witness to the reality of Sophia as divine person as well as to an accompanying ecumenism and universalism (two elements never far away when Sophiology appears).

The group first formed around the Anglican priest and physician John Pordage. The group was noted for its female visionaries: Ann Bathurst, Joanna Oxenbridge, and, especially, Pordage’s first wife, Mary Pordage—all later to be superseded by the dynamic Jane Lead. Another member of the community was Thomas Bromley, author of one of the great, though neglected, classics of Christian spirituality, The Way to the Sabbath of Rest.

Following Pordage’s death, the widowed Jane Lead became the leader of the community. She was apparently a gentle, kind, yet nevertheless inspiring leader, and her disciples were devoted to her. Her own mystical experiences and writings were documented in the many books she published between 1681 and her death in 1704, most notably her multi-volume series A Fountain of Gardens.

The sensibilities of the Philadelphians were decidedly ecumenical. All believers were to be included and none of the members were expected to leave their churches of origin. Protestants of every stripe and Roman Catholics were members. Lead, obviously following the indications given in the Book of Revelation that there were seven spiritual churches, interpreted it in this way: the Seven Churches throughout the World disperst, as first, the Ancient Church of the Jews, that was, and is not, and is to be. 2. The Roman Church. 3. The Greek 4. The Æthiopian. 5. The Lutheran. 6. The French Reformed, or Calvinistical. 7. The Ancient Church of the Valleys.”2 I have to think that if she’d known about Sufisim she would have found a way to include the Sufis. As I argue in my chapter on Lead in my book Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England, Lead was nothing if not suprauniversal in her religious sympathies.3 Lead’s ecumenicism even upholds an ecumenicism of gender, as she writes in The Revelation of Revelations:

As to the outward Sex there shall be no distinction, though the Typical Priesthood admitted none but Males in its day: All of that is done away with, for Signs and Figures in this Ministration do fly away like a Cloud: Male and Female are alike here, therefore the holy Ghost doth include both in one, swallowing up all in the Newness, Strength, Power and Glory of his own springing new Birth, according as it is witnessed, Where there is neither Male nor Female, but Christ is all, and in all.”4

So why I am I invoking the Philadelphians (and especially Lead) in this hour of our despair? I’m invoking them because they offer the Way to the Sabbath of Rest. Their belief was that all are welcome to the Feast of the Bridegroom, the hieros gamos of God and Creation through the metaxu of Sophia (which Herrick also proposes in his poetry—but in such a different idiom!) We are surrounded by joy. The Philadelphians, in their great generosity of soul, their magnanimous religious openness, more than almost anyone were emblematic of St. Paul’s words in Galatians:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28)

What would happen if we brought this spirit to our times? Would we create the Kingdom?

“Would to God that all the Lords people were Prophets.” (William Blake, paraphrasing Numbers 11:29)

Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz and Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at director@thecenterforsophiologicalstudies.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.

1. [Francis Lee], The State of the Philadelphian Society or, The Grounds of their Proceedings Considered (1697), 7.

2. Jane Lead, The Messenger of An Universal Peace: or, The Third Message to the Philadelphian Society (1698), 2–3.

3. Michael Martin, Literature and the Encounter with God in Post-Reformation England (Ashgate, 2014), 165.

3. Jane Lead, The Revelation of Revelations… (1683), 105–06.

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