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    PloughCast 38: Christian Internationalism with John Milbank, and a Bruderhof Journey

    The Vows That Bind, Part 2

    By John Milbank, Tom and Sue Quinta, Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    October 4, 2022

    About This Episode

    Peter and Susannah speak with John Milbank about his reservations about National Conservatism, and the possibilities of Christian internationalism.

    Christianity makes universal claims, and all our national loyalties and other lesser loyalties are relativized by our loyalty to the kingdom of God. In light of that, how can we best live out our local and universal commitments in friendship with each other?

    Then, they speak with Tom and Sue Quinta, a couple who joined the Bruderhof after a long journey through the counterculture of the 1960s.

    What did it take for a young hippy couple to make lifetime vows to a Christian community, and in what of the non-Christian spirituality they explored did they see the work of the Holy Spirit? How does a vow shape the experience of a life, and how can we understand the uniqueness of Christ in light of the spiritual hungers of the whole of the non-Christian world?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Section 1: John Milbank: Christian Nationalism and Internationalism

    Peter Mommsen: Welcome back to the PloughCast! This is the second episode in our new series, linked to our Vows issue. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor-in-chief of Plough.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And I’m Susannah Black Roberts, senior editor at Plough. In this episode, we’ll be speaking with theologian John Milbank, and with Tom and Sue Quinta, a couple from the Bruderhof.

    Peter Mommsen: John Milbank is an English Anglican theologian and is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Nottingham, in the UK, where he is President of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy. Welcome, John!

    Susannah Black Roberts: Can you talk about the recent open letter that you published in the European Conservative magazine, and what the occasion for that was?

    John Milbank: Yeah, so that was occasioned by a statement of national conservative principles, which was coming from people who would describe themselves as post-liberal. A number of us on both sides of the Atlantic who would also describe ourselves as post-liberal nonetheless felt a little bit dismayed by some of the things in this statement. I think primarily the notion that post-liberalism is about a battle between liberal globalization on the one hand and the nation state, the sovereign nation state on the other. And that’s accompanied it in this statement by a seeming denigration of all universal principles.

    Our objection to this is that liberal principles aren’t the only universal principles, and it would seem as if all the great world religions and particularly Christianity – and these were, a lot of them, Christian signatories – make very strong universal claims. And not only that, but right from the outset of the New Testament, those claims, those allegiances, those vows, if you like, are seen as clearly overriding any kind of ethic or national allegiances. Nothing could be clearer.

    In one sense, Christianity is Stoic cosmopolitanism made concrete if you like, and truly including everybody. And to displace that with a cult, a pluralist and relative cult of the nation state seems in danger of repeating errors that some Christians made earlier in the twentieth century. And on top of that, it doesn’t seem to us to be very post-liberal or very conservative with a small c. In the sense that the nation state if you like, is the individual will writ large; the nation state often destroyed intermediate institutions. The nation state has been a big promoter of globalizing forces.

    Susannah Black Roberts: To play the devil’s advocate, I think one of the things that they would probably say in response is what you’re proposing sounds like grace destroying nature rather than grace perfecting nature. So what is the role of local loyalties and kind of strong local cultures in a more universalist …

    John Milbank: Well, perhaps not accidentally, all the signatories to that letter utterly reject any neo-scholastic notion of pure nature as quite simply un-Christian, thinking it a huge misunderstanding and the vehicle for the revival of secular modernity. So if you mean that nature is already encountering grace, already leads to grace, then I absolutely agree and grace doesn’t destroy nature in the sense that it doesn’t destroy our human particularities, our different cultures, our different languages, regional identities and extend also our national identities.

    But there is no sense in which these can simply be celebrated as self-contained or as supposedly natural ends in themselves. Everything is transfigured by grace. And I completely agree: we’re not talking about an uprooting. The universal is incarnate, and in lots of different ways. But yeah, I wouldn’t at all say that we’re wanting to destroy nature in any way, but I just think that you always have to have a long look to something more universal, otherwise you’re not really committed to a peaceful coexistence with your fellow human beings.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, and John, you’ve written a very eloquent piece about England for us, where it amply comes to expression that you’re not a completely rootless cosmopolitan yourself.

    John Milbank: No. And everybody should love where they come from and be patriotic in the proper sense, I think. But I don’t think that the boundaries of ethnos or language always necessarily need to coincide with political boundaries. Sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. And, I think in my own case I feel that my identity is quite plural. My dad was English and I was brought up in England, but my mother was Scottish and I feel strong ties to Europe. And then in another sense, whenever I go to the Anglosphere to the United States, Canada or Australia, I feel I belong there as well.

    And I think those overlapping identities are a good thing and maybe that’s what mediates to an extent between the local identity and something universal. But the sense of the universal is not something simply formal: it has a very strong content, both metaphysically and ethically. So that’s why the church itself sees itself as a society, indeed as a polity, and as an international polity. Especially if you’re a Catholic, you ought to be able to see that and to stress that.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think that my impression was that that was essentially the reason that a lot of my integralist friends declined to sign the NatCon statement – that it seemed to them to be giving too much ground to the particular and not allowing for the universal claims of both Christ and of the church.

    John Milbank: Well, this is where things get interestingly complex, isn’t it? And there are several different groups. Because, we would worry that the integralists construe integration too much in terms of clerical, theocratic control and that paradoxically they do still distinguish nature and grace too much and construe the finality of grace too much in power terms if you like, rather than authority terms. Rather than the idea that the authority of grace, which infuses everything, is a spiritual authority, and there are no clear boundaries between the secular and the sacred. And to some extent the sacred is emergent. And it’s very important to see spiritual authority as one of charity, something that’s persuasive, which doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t interfuse everything and transform everything. If you push me that I would say there’s a sense which I’m more integralist than the integralists.

    Susannah Black Roberts: More post-liberal than the post-liberals.

    Peter Mommsen: Well, fortunately we don’t need to be either integralists or definitely not theocratic integralists to look back to the roots of Christianity and its universalist claims, that the idea that our first allegiance is to the kingdom of God before any of the kingdoms of this world. Of course, the early Christians spoke eloquently of that, and from an Anabaptist point of view, speaking as one, I’ve joked sometimes that Anabaptism is a sort of nonviolent integralism, but the point being that there are loyalties higher than our national loyalties. That was my major negative reaction to the National Conservative statement, particularly the part on immigration, which just as you pointed out in the open letter, which you signed, just doesn’t seem to reflect Christian virtues like charity.

    John Milbank: Yeah. I fully understand that immigration can be exploitative of the people already there and the people coming in.

    Peter Mommsen: Sure. It’s a complicated policy issue, no doubt.

    John Milbank: At the same time I’m very worried about any tendency to understand being American as in the end being white or even European. And speaking from a British perspective, I think it’s more and more evident that Britishness is nothing to do with race and that’s a good thing. It’s a cultural thing and it reflects its previous global presence, however you want to see bad as well as good in that. That is, if you like, a reality. And so, one of the things I would call into question would be, in that document, this rather automatic and perhaps American preference for the nation state over any mode of empire. Sometimes empires have been more pluralist in terms of tolerating different religions and different ethnicities and so on.

    The record of nations as encouraging exclusivism and oppression of minorities, it’s not very good. It doesn’t mean that everything about empires is wonderful, but it just seems to me too simplistic, and there’s a real danger of an American hypocrisy here, pretending that they’re born out of anti-imperialism, where really they’re involved almost from the outset in their own mode of imperialism, and sometimes a very irresponsible kind of economic imperialism.

    And I think again, looking at it from a Catholic point of view, that at least up to early modernity there was a sense that the natural law is mediated first of all through the law of nations or the ius gentium. In other words, actually international law and Christendom come first. Even if we’re not talking about the church, if we’re talking about the community of secular law, there’s a priority to international law and that really only gets reversed by the Spanish scholastics in early modernity. And basically you could argue they’re baptizing the emergence of the nation state that comes at the end of the sixteenth century.

    But I would say that most continental Catholic thought has become very worried about those developments and prefers to return to the more international vision of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas for which you insert your own national legality and self-understanding within a broader, as it was in those days, European community. And actually if you look at Edmond Burke, often seen as the archetypal conservative, he still thinks the same thing, that a shared sense of European legality and certain normity rooted in Roman law and to an extent German and common law comes first over your national self-determination.

    In other words, there’s a real danger of ignoring the priority of the civilization here. And this is ironic because we live in reality in a world of big civilization-states today. It’s just a myth to think that the Westphalian order of independently contracting nation states is coming back. On the contrary, we have Russia, we have America, we have China, we’ve got emerging India, maybe Brazil and so on. The European nations, apart from Britain that has lost its marbles for the moment, realizes that it has to hang together in the face of these big civilization-states. It’s not going to be able to hang onto its own self-determination and identity just as a collection of separate small nation states.

    There’s a sense in which because the United States actually isn’t a single ethnicity, the danger that it sees itself as a white ethnicity and then as also Protestant and construes Catholicism and even Judaism in quasi-Protestant terms, I think is very strong. I do think there is a real danger that the nation state becomes intolerant.

    If you look at in the case of France, the “rights of man and citizen,” and that is being a French citizen – and what does that mean? And then that becomes laïcitè, and you get a kind of civil religion, and France does seem to have consistent problems with its religious minorities, partly because of there is that lurking ethnic thing. Whereas Britain, although has established Christianity and so forth, perhaps because it is internally imperial with several different nations supposedly bound together by a set of values and attitudes, seems to have been relatively more successful at tolerating or even giving a strong civic role to other religious groups, I think.

    I think that’s very much bound up with the fact that it is not, in a way, an ordinary nation state. Another thing that we objected to in the conservative NatCon thing, along with this automatic praise of the American Constitution as if it was obviously the best, was this assumption of a capitalist order that again we would not agree with.

    I think to the contrary, that the more this Christian communitarian order that you saw postwar in the United States and in Europe, in various different ways, and in Britain, the more that kind of eroded through the ’60s and the ’70s in favor of naked individualism, the more things actually started to fall apart. And I think that process is continuing and in our own day has become absolutely terrifying, and once more, a very extreme liberalism is inviting this authoritarian reaction against it. So I want Christians once again to articulate a mediating vision here. And I felt that the NatCon document – really it does so in some ways but in other ways it’s very inadequate, especially, as we’ve said, how little it talks about friendship and charity.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I want to speak up on behalf of the NatCons in the sense that I do think that they are trying to address the technocratic and materialist and heartless European vision, which is not a true European vision, but is this kind of zombified Europe that the EU is actually kind of embodying, although it doesn’t need to. And I think that the point of the statement of the open letter rather is to say that we shouldn’t give up on the concept of internationalism just because the current international order does kind of look like a boring Brussels zombie. The actual existing Brussels zombie does not negate the concept of international friendship as a thing or the concept of natural law that can be embodied in international law in a Grotian sense.

    Section 2: John Milbank: On Loyalty

    Peter Mommsen: John, I’d like to change the subject in a way that actually circles back to something that you were saying earlier about the role of Christian communitarian thought immediately after World War II. What would it look like to rebuild that kind of communitarian Christian sense?

    And I guess a little background here in thinking about this issue, we looked at all kinds of ways in which a very individualist mindset has eroded cultural forms of commitment, be that marriage, be that monasticism or even military service, which involves a commitment of self to something higher. People don’t want to have their options shut in. Communitarian Christianity is really the opposite of that. I’d just love to hear your thoughts on, is there a way forward to call that kind of way of thinking, way of living back into being?

    John Milbank: I think that it’s a matter of identifying and counteracting loneliness. And I suppose there are probably two answers. The first is, what we need is a recovery of Christian self-confidence, which means believing what we really believe, believing that the Christian outlook seriously explains reality and points you towards the right way to live. And then people have to live that out.

    Christianity has to be a matter of education and teaching and training much more than it’s been in the past.

    And I very much like these Italian and Spanish Catholic lay movements where people do jobs but take vows and there are communities of businessmen operating under certain Christian norms and this kind of thing. I think all that’s invaluable. I suppose the other issue that I’d want to confront is the way often it’s market capitalism that has deracinated and isolated people, then the state has had to step in to protect them.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, I have to say, I do like the idea of a renewal of vowed guilds and tertiary orders and lay orders of businessmen. I kept thinking about the Opus Dei Option as an alternative.

    Peter Mommsen: But it’s not just Opus Dei, there’s Focolare, there’s other movements, there’s …

    Susannah Black Roberts: Communion and Liberation, yeah.

    John Milbank: I know people in all these groups and I find them very admirable. And, there’s something about Italy that is weirdly kind of, I don’t know, almost pre-modern even to this day. There’s certain fluidity between the social economic and the political and a sort of interpersonal way of doing it things. It’s the good side of the mafia.

    Peter Mommsen: One of the many things that struck me in what you just said, John, is that Christianity in the future is going to have to be much more focused on formation and education than it was. And that has to be tied with an emphasis on vocations that are not driven by money. That seems like a really great place to start.

    John Milbank: We have to recover the patristic idea that Christianity was a reform movement in the sense of reforming.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Well, I think that’s both a good place to start and a good place to end.

    John Milbank: Bye.

    Section 3: Tom & Sue Quinta: Journey to the Bruderhof

    Susannah Black Roberts:  And now welcome to Tom and Sue Quinta, a couple who’ve been members of the Bruderhof, the community which publishes Plough, for many decades now. Welcome, Tom and Sue. Who are you and what is your story? And I guess that’s a big macro question, but …

    Peter Mommsen: We’ve been talking about vows and making vows and you obviously both have made vows to a particular way of Christian community.

    Tom Quinta: I’ll start with me. I was born in Washington, DC. My parents were both immigrants from Italy. I grew up in a rougher part of Washington, DC and got involved with … I could hardly avoid it, but law-breaking and fighting and lots of other things of that kind.

    I had a conscience when I was young. I knew what I was doing was wrong, but somehow I had to step on that as a teenager and basically just left my conscience behind and was able to do most of the ugly things that came along.

    So I didn’t do well in school. And eventually I was kicked out of high school. And I knew I was eligible to be drafted. In those days, the draft was still active. So I contacted the draft board and asked them when they thought they might take me. I went through basic training and then I had advanced training in how to drive a tank and how to fire a tank gun.

    So I ended up at Fort Knox, Kentucky. And while there, one of the other men in the barracks was an avid reader and a lot of the men at that time were in the army after they finished their college, whereas now I think it’s less so (now that) you have a more volunteer basis. So you (got) a lot of different kind(s) of people. Anyway, he always had an interesting book lying on his bunk. And I began to pick up the book and look at it. And of course I hadn’t read very much and I hadn’t paid much attention in school. So everything I read, I couldn’t quite understand the names that were being referred to or the ideas.

    Sue Quinta: Aristotle, Plato.

    Tom Quinta: Plato, all kinds of stuff. Well, on the military base, there was a store and they had Mentor paperback books, which were all 50 cents each, and they had everything, the complete works of Plato. And so every time I came across something I didn’t know about, I went and bought a paperback and read it. So basically I kind of educated myself during my time in the army.

    The other thing that became very clear to me was that the military is training how to kill people and how to destroy. And I decided that that’s something I did not want to do with my life and that I would never go back into the military, no matter what they did to me. And I began to feel that, not entirely, but the military basically is like a hit squad to protect the interest of the power and money elite of the world and that wars and things like that are often because of threats to people’s status or money.

    So I finished my two years active duty and came back to Washington, DC and decided that I needed to actually finish high school one way or the other and go to college. So I took the GED and because I think I did a lot of reading in the army, I got a pretty good grade. I had decided by that time to study psychology and become a psychotherapist. And I also worked very hard at the university where I was and had very high grades and graduated Phi Beta Kappa, for instance.

    But in my senior year, I was offered a research psychologist fellowship at the University Psychological Clinic. So I had an office and had an opportunity to see students and staff members who are having emotional problems or behavioral problems or all kinds of other problems.

    So I spent my last year working in the clinic and what I noticed was that one could in talking have a verbal understanding of why a person would fall into certain emotional traps, in certain relationships, but then circumstances would arise again for them and they would fall in the same traps. So I was trying to understand how to help people deepen their recognition so they can really, really be changed at a deep level.

    Sue Quinta: And you didn’t know about repentance and …

    Tom Quinta: No, I didn’t know about repentance, which would’ve helped a lot with some folks.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What was your background with Christianity?

    Tom Quinta: Oh, I can go back to that. My parents were Roman Catholics having been from Italy, but it was cultural more than anything else. And I did go to church with them when I was younger, but really couldn’t relate much with it. It was in Latin. And there was a lot of talk about the Holy Ghost and things like that, which didn’t make any sense to me at the time. So basically by the time I was twelve or thirteen, I refused to go to church and rejected the whole business and became a very active atheist.

    I was working with people and trying to understand what actually is mental health? Is it being able to hold a job, make money and buy stuff? Is that what people really need in their lives or is it something deeper? And I came to realize that it’s actually the ability to give and receive love that’s fundamental to mental health and to all of life. And then I got interested in Eastern religions and thought and I had the idea to go to India to see if there was some ancient mental practice that would help deepen psychological recognition. And I had decided to do that when I graduated.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Why don’t we go back to your background and your story?

    Sue Quinta: I was born in 1945. I was the first child. They took me to a public school and they took me to a Catholic school and let me choose at age five. And I chose the Catholic school. Now my parents were non-religious in a certain sense. My dad was raised Christian scientist. My mom was Anglican, raised Anglican. And so they decided not to approach the subject of religion, but “let the children decide,” which is … yeah.

    Anyway, I learned to read and write copying out the Psalms, and I accompanied my classmates to Mass. Of course, I didn’t take communion myself, but I was very struck about the whole thing. And from that time on, I was seeking something. There was something there that I wanted. So we moved from there to Illinois and then to California and Virginia and Hawaii and back to Virginia. But all the time I had my radar out to find out how I could find out more about Jesus, how I can find this relationship.

    And when I was ten, we lived in Long Beach, California and I went by myself to church. It was only two blocks away from us. I went to the service and I went to Sunday school. And one day, one Sunday in the service, I was just absolutely overwhelmed by a sense that Jesus was there with me and I wept and wept. Who knows? I just was very, very moved. And my Sunday school teacher and my minister brought me home and asked if I could be baptized. Well, my parents were a bit surprised, but they said, We think she’s too young. I was only ten. So by the time I was twelve when I would’ve been old enough, we had moved. But that seeking kept on. And incidentally, when I was in the community and preparing for baptism in this life, I talked to Heini Arnold, and he responded about that …

    Peter Mommsen: That’s the senior pastor of the Bruderhof.

    Sue Quinta: Yes, yes, exactly. He said, “We have no idea how much little children can take in about Jesus.” We underestimate it basically is what he was saying. And yeah, he said he also had an experience like that when he was ten of Jesus’ presence. And it was a steering experience for his life. So anyway, I went to high school. And then I went to Purdue my first year, but it was very engineery. And so I transferred to George Washington University where I met that guy.

    I was tentatively moving toward pre-med. And so I was taking calculus and I’m very dumb at calculus. So I saw my calculus teacher in the student union talking to a young man, very nice looking young man, called Tom. And I went up and asked him my question about the problem he had assigned. And apparently my future husband noticed me. And the next day on campus, I saw him out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t want to act like I really saw him. So I kind of turned up my nose and he came over and said, “What’s the matter with you? Do you have a bucket on your head?” And so I started laughing!

    Tom Quinta: Magic Italian background.

    Sue Quinta: So I started laughing and we started talking. It turned out we both had a lot of common interests, common questions about life. And so after that I veered toward finishing up in the things that kind of very much interested me, philosophy and anthropology, because I thought to myself, “I’m not going to be a good doctor and a good wife. You can’t do both,” at least not out there at that time. So I finished up in philosophy and Tom finished up in psychology. So that’s how we met.

    And then because Tom already explained how he wanted to go to India to delve into these ancient cultures and find out what they had to add to our understanding, we went on a boat.

    Tom Quinta: Yeah, on a freighter. That was the cheapest possible passage that we go.

    Sue Quinta: It was just bliss.

    Tom Quinta: Yeah.

    Sue Quinta I took the Tolkien trilogy and read it for the first time. This was ’66, I remind you. And I was basically incommunicado for a couple days. “Don’t tell me anything. I have to finish this page.”

    Susannah Black Roberts: Honestly, The Lord of the Rings on a freighter to India in 1966 is sort of peak.

    Sue Quinta: Yes, it’s perfect. Everybody was going. It was just great.

    Tom Quinta: So anyway, we took a freighter and had a wonderful …

    Sue Quinta: Took a month.

    Tom Quinta: Lots of storms and lots of excitement. But we landed in Bombay. And after our intestines settled down a bit from lots of different influences, once we decided, well, I decided we’d go to Bombay University, to the psychology department, and talk with the professor and explain what my interest was. And he said that he had a student working on a master’s degree at a yoga college at a place called Lonavala, Maharashtra, India – near Karla Caves, up in the hills and he might be somebody we wanted to talk to. So we took this wild trip up to this …

    Sue Quinta: A hundred miles on a rickety old bus.

    Tom Quinta: To this …

    Sue Quinta: With chickens.

    Tom Quinta: To this yoga college. And first we had a tour and there was a class of students who were practicing alternate nostril breathing – the whole classroom full of people doing [breathing noise] up in one nostril, out the other. The student that we went to see was doing research on the application of yoga breath sensitivity and control for managing acute asthma attacks. And he had his copy of his master’s thesis there and wanted me to look at it.

    So I looked it over and then I looked at the back, at the references, and wrote down any books and references that would be of interest in the future. So we traveled around India. And then we came back on freighter, landed in New York and came back to Washington.

    So we went to the Library of Congress to look up some of the references that we picked up in different places. And one book that especially caught my eye, by Harvard sociologist named Pitirim Sorokin. And the title of the book was The Ways and Power of Love. And he had formed an institute for what he called Creative Altruism at Harvard University. In this book, there were sections on the “American good neighbor.” It used to be, at least when I was a young person in the city, if someone on your block got sick, your neighbors would come and they could (take) garbage out and things like that.

    Sue Quinta: Bring casseroles.

    Tom Quinta: And then there was another chapter on brotherly communities and the Franciscans were described and then a group called the Society of Brothers was described. And it was very appealing to us because we were coming around to thinking that actually we don’t really want to join the middle class rat race, two cars in the suburbs and all that stuff, but find something like a family monastery, a place where you could have a committed life and have a family.

    And so we went back to the Library of Congress and looked through the card catalogs and searched around. We were actually able to find Plough magazines from way back, some of the early Plough magazines. And we were able to piece together a story of a group that started around 1920 in Germany and ran into conflict with a Nazi state and that some of their members then immigrated to Paraguay. So we thought, “Aha, that’s where they are, in Paraguay.” Of course we know they weren’t actually, we found out. But, so we wrote a letter to Paraguay, expressed our interest and a wish to visit.

    And a long time passed and we didn’t hear anything and we were planning to save our money and go down there and see if we could find the Society of Brothers in Paraguay, in Primavera. And then we got a call from one of the brothers in New Meadow Run – Dick Domer, actually

    Peter Mommsen: In Pennsylvania.

    Tom Quinta: And he said that quite miraculously our letter had gone down to Paraguay and the Mennonites had gotten ahold of it and they forwarded it then to New Meadow Run.

    Sue Quinta: The letter was full of stamps. He was amazed that it got to him.

    Tom Quinta: Well, it’s a country where people take stamps off and sell them. So anyway, he invited us to come and visit New Meadow Run and that was in 1967.

    And so we came to New Meadow Run for a weekend. And we just were very, very impressed by the quality of life, the way the children were cared for, the gardens, bright colors and the houses, which we don’t have anymore. But no, no, just the simple life. The sisters were very natural looking and simple and it was just a very joyful life and it looked like something we might want to be a part of. So we asked if we could come back for an open ended stay.

    Sue Quinta: So then we came back in mid-October that year and stayed through March the next year and took part in everything. I was the teacher for the onesies, the one year olds, and now those children I had in that group have grandchildren and great grandchildren. It’s just amazing. But it was just, we were completely accepted, completely a part of everything. And we felt very much at home. But we could not ultimately say that Jesus Christ was our only savior. We were, I would say, too intellectual about the whole being eclectic thing.

    Tom Quinta: We were kind of an alphabet-soup philosophy.

    Sue Quinta: It was suggested to us that we should continue to seek and come back when we were more sure of what we wanted. So that was hard for us and it was hard for them, but it was the right thing. And we went away.

    Tom Quinta: I took a job with the court, but what I began to realize was that anyway, any kind of psychological treatment is sort of a bandaid because there’s so much wrong in our culture, there’s so much wrong in families and that actually what we needed was an entirely new way of life. And that was one of the main triggers for me to look more seriously also at the Bruderhof – it’s good to help people as a therapist or as a social worker, or whatever else but there’s so much you just can’t fix.

    Sue Quinta: But meanwhile, we went down the Zen Buddhist path for a while. We started sitting in a group and then we moved to Maine with our first daughter, built a house there and we definitely gave it the works. We tried. The hours of meditation were 4:00 to 6:30 in the morning and 6:30 to 9:00 at night. And in between was hard work out in the woods or wherever. I baked bread for a local health food store. And then we had our second child, Maria-

    Susannah Black Roberts: Our colleague at Plough – the managing editor.

    Sue Quinta: Yes, right. And I was able to participate less in the actual sitting. Our idea in being at the Zen group was just to quiet the mind and let God speak, basically. That was our longing. It wasn’t a devotional practice, we weren’t worshiping Buddha. We never thought of doing that, but we just gave it the works, sitting quietly and doing that discipline. And it definitely clarified a lot of things for us. But as the children were growing, I was able to participate less so that Tom would come home, all blissed out, and I would be tearing my hair because the kids were teething and so on. So that created a tension.

    Tom Quinta: We were living a 1960s-plus simple life. When you live a simple life, the woman does all the work.

    Sue Quinta: Amen.

    Tom Quinta: Had to split wood too, putting it in the wood stove to cook, wash the diapers by hand and hang them in the living room when it was raining outside.

    Peter Mommsen: It was simple.

    Sue Quinta: It was so simple. And when you took them outside in the winter, had you ever been clobbered by a freeze dried diaper? I mean, it’s infuriating.

    Tom Quinta: The growth and compassion and love and clarity that we were seeking was being jeopardized because of this situation.

    Sue Quinta: And also in that community, there was really not a basis for the kind of unity that we were-

    Tom Quinta: All kinds of characters.

    Sue Quinta: All kinds of characters.

    Tom Quinta: Some we could get along with. Also, part of it was our children were getting to be school-aged and Anneke was going to first grade in a very small village and she was telling her sister, Maria, where to hide in the bushes at recess because it was so scary the way the other kids behaved. And that really made me-

    Sue Quinta: And the teacher used television in the classroom and we never had television ever.

    Tom Quinta: So anyway, we were thinking maybe let’s have another look at the Bruderhof. And we had a couple of books that were given to us. Love and Marriage in the Spirit and Children in Community, which we kept. And earlier when I looked at the Bruderhof’s literature, there was quite a lot of talk about the Holy Spirit. And it kind of harked back to my childhood as in going to church and hearing about the Holy Ghost and not knowing what on earth people were talking about. But in looking again at the Plough books that we had, it all of a sudden struck me that the Holy Spirit, that’s that voice that’s been calling you since you were a small child and you stepped on it. So it then became quite clear to me that that actually was the Holy Spirit speaking inside of me. And not only that, I had to also admit to myself that it was Christ’s Spirit and that for me made it possible then to go back to the Bruderhof and seek this life in that way.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I was just wondering when you were thinking about the meditation practice that you were doing and the way that you thought of it was listening for God’s voice, how did you think of God then? Was it a sort of-

    Tom Quinta: Well, that was your word.

    Sue Quinta: I mean I still had this center thought of seeking for this God-presence that I knew from early on. And I just felt that by becoming still, completely still, it would manifest itself in my heart.

    Tom Quinta: There’s a word that comes from India, a Sanskrit word, chitta. And chitta refers to – you might call it the texture of your mind. And the practice of meditation there, meditative kinds of yoga – the point of it is to quiet your inner life so that the chitta becomes clear like a surface of water and reflects reality as it is without all of the concepts and stuff that you sort of accumulate from your culture, your background. And that’s how I viewed it, as a chance to apprehend what actually is reality and then live by it. But I think that many thousands of hours of meditation certainly made it possible for me to recognize this small voice inside and to give it a name.

    Sue Quinta: We had written to Woodcrest and got an answer from Johann Christoph Arnold inviting us. And so we arrived on Easter Monday. We drove up the drive in our car. We had not seen any of this. It was a completely new Bruderhof to us. So we hadn’t seen a building yet. And I turned to Tom and said, “We’re home.” I just felt completely a presence, completely at home. And so we drove in and there was Dick Domer!

    Tom Quinta:  We had the same car as we had when we visited nine years before. And the first thing he said was not “Welcome,” but, “You still have the same car?” So, that was Dick Domer’s welcome to us at Woodcrest.

    Sue Quinta: And so we went up to breakfast in their house and all these children of theirs that were tiny children then were grown up and it was a wonderful experience. So fresh. Yeah, so joyful. It was a beautiful spring day with the sun shining coming through the windows. We sang “White Clouds,” which is one of the Easter songs. And whenever we’re on the Hof with one of the Domers, we look at each other across the circle at Easter time and somebody suggests “White Clouds” because that was just so amazing.

    Tom Quinta: And after three days we ask if we could talk with …

    Sue Quinta: Pastor Arnold.

    Tom Quinta: Yep. The grandfather of these young men. Heini Arnold, who was the elder at the time, and he was a large man with a very warm smile and eyes and kind of a big white beard, and to us from the outside world, he had really a patriarchal feeling.

    And so he went into his office and he leaned back at his office chair and put his hands behind his head and he has kind of a strong German accent, which was also new to us. And he said, “Zo! Tom and Sue, how is it?” And then he sat there with this smile and waited for us. The ball was in our court and we said that we had visited nine years before and did lots of things in between and spent the last seven years or so in the Zen practice community. But now we wanted to stay in Woodcrest and seek Jesus with everyone there.

    And without a hesitation he said, “All right, sell your stuff and come,” and here we are.

    Section 4: Tom & Sue Quinta: Reflections on Lives of Commitment

    Susannah Black Roberts: So can you talk about what it looked like to take those membership vows? What was it that you promised?

    Sue Quinta: Well, before we took the membership vows, we knew that we had driven in a stake and we were not going to go anywhere away from those vows. We knew that. So it was not difficult to say, we want to stay here and with the brothers and sisters here, follow Jesus for our whole lives. And also promise to take admonition and give admonition if needed. It needs that because it can, I mean, it’s always a problem when people get too cozy or too afraid to criticize one another in a constructive way. We need to be able to do that to help one another along.

    Tom Quinta: Because we had a lot of ideas. People would say, “Wasn’t it hard to give up your house and your car and your property?” And it was easy.

    Sue Quinta: That was easy.

    Tom Quinta: We sold everything and gave the church all the money and I put all our rest of the stuff in a U-Haul truck, brought it to Woodcrest.

    Sue Quinta: twelve chickens, piano, you name it.

    Tom Quinta: Wood splitter, all the stuff. But the hard thing to give up are your ideas and your attitude about things, and that we had to work with that because we were vegetarians and “living simply” up in the woods of Maine. And yeah, we had to work at letting go of a lot of things.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Giving up your ideas sounds scary. Do you want to talk about what you mean by that?

    Tom Quinta: Well, for instance, we had pretty strong ideas about food and the quality of food. And at that time it wasn’t so strong in the community and children were given a lot of sweet stuff, which we would never give to our children. That was one kind of thing. We believed in organic farming and that wasn’t being done yet. I think it’s grown over the years, but those sorts of things that …

    Sue Quinta: The thing is, you have to maintain a focus on the greater good. And for us, it was important that we just stick with the basis. And what we’ve noticed over the years is that because this life is not an organization, it is an organism. It grows, it changes, it makes mistakes, it turns around and does something different. Little by little, some of the things that we were strong on have also become mainstream, if you will, here, and more important. But the core has stayed the same.

    Tom Quinta: So that’s it. In other words, it’s worth giving up everything to stay united with other brothers and sisters in following Jesus.

    Sue Quinta: Yeah.

    Tom Quinta: It’s worth giving up everything, but having human natures, you have to struggle to give up things.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You have this eclectic kind of appreciation for both Zen Buddhism in particular, but also just the kind of generalized pick and mix hippie approach to all these questions of spirituality and mental health and positive psychology. But at the same time you also have a Christian orthodoxy – all those things led you to Christ himself as he’s understood in the Christian tradition. Can you talk about that tension, what that looks like both as you were converting and also as you understand all those things now? How does God get to people?

    Sue Quinta: How does God get to people? I think he gets to people so many different ways, and it’s important to respect those ways where those are genuine.

    Tom Quinta: There’s a quotation actually from the Hindu tradition in India, actually from the Bhagavad Gita, the idea that Arjuna represents a man of the earth and Krishna represents the godhead. And they were talking and Arjuna was making fun of some of the religious practices in India. And India’s got a very wide range of different ways people practice their religion. And Krishna just said to Arjuna, “Never show disrespect to honest devotion.” And I’ve never forgotten that.

    Buddhism, of course started off with a man. He never represented himself as being a God. People have done that in time. And his recognition was that desiring and grasping is the cause of suffering. That’s the fundamental beginning of Buddhism and it’s true. The more things you want and can’t get, the more unhappy that you are and the more things you do to other people to get them and it goes on and on. So in that sense, we could relate with Buddhism very well. But it doesn’t go as far as Jesus’ teaching. It doesn’t have a vector, doesn’t have a direction.

    Sue Quinta: It has the peace, but then what?

    Tom Quinta: In other words, there’s not a God’s kingdom that’s offered for those who seek to follow and work together.

    Sue Quinta: I also think of C. S. Lewis in The Last Battle where the last scene, where the different ones go through, only the mockers are …

    Tom Quinta: … the ones that are outside.

    Sue Quinta: The ones that are sincere, go through. The soldier goes through.

    Susannah Black Roberts: It’s not so much desire being the problem in itself as desire properly focused. And exactly what Christianity says is that there is something worthwhile desiring. And what Christianity does is it tells you, all these things that you want, this huge desire for good and for permanence and for joy that you have – it’s not that that’s wrong. It’s that, you didn’t know where it was, but this is where it is.

    Sue Quinta: Yes, exactly.

    Susannah Black Roberts: And that’s the treasure hidden in the field that you literally sold everything.

    Sue Quinta: We sold everything.

    Susannah Black Roberts: You bought it. And you’ve been living that ever since.

    Sue Quinta: Right.

    Tom Quinta: Trying.

    Sue Quinta: Trying.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Do you want to talk about how your marriage vow and also the baptismal vow have shaped your life since then?

    Tom Quinta: Well, we knew people that had church weddings and spent a lot of money and a lot of arrangements and all that. And then after two or three years they separated. And of course this was, again, the 1960s was a very loosening up period of ways of doing things. So I think we both felt that what’s the point of that kind of wedding? We could just walk out in the sea and hold hands and say, “Let’s stay together forever.” But you have to do something legal and you have to do something that your parents are happy with. So we decided to go to Florida where my parents lived and have a simple civil wedding there, which we did.

    Sue Quinta: But when we were baptized, we asked Heini if we could answer the marriage vows.

    Susannah Black Roberts: What’s it like to live with those vows?

    Sue Quinta: It’s a deep peace, is what I would say. You’ve got that settled. That is clear, absolutely clear. And it’s a great gift. It’s just settled. And-

    Tom Quinta: It’s a bit like being born and then you live until you die.

    I mean, in a sense, of course unless you commit suicide. But I mean, it’s that kind of feeling that you’re on the road and you stay on that road as long as you’re able to.  It’s not that we haven’t had our struggles as a couple. Couples do have struggles, but commitment holds you together through the struggles and also struggles with the community. We’ve had to go outside at different times from the community and spend some time and get our perspective clear.

    Sue Quinta: Yeah.

    Tom Quinta: As many families have done over the years. But we knew where our home was and where we belonged and finally worked through things and came back.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I think I had never thought of it quite like that. For me, the idea of suicide being off the table was kind of the first moral idea that I had in a way. Or it was the second because the first was, I read in a Louisa May Alcott book, the phrase “in order to be happy, you have to be good.” And I was like, I never thought of that before.

    But then the idea of your life is – you’re here and you’re given life and it’s like being drafted but in a good way and you’re not allowed to go AWOL. And so that kind of hit me really deep at some point. And I’d never quite thought of the baptismal or baptismal vows and a marriage vow as well as being like, “All right, now you’re drafted now and you’re not getting out of this alive.” And it’s not your decision when you’re getting out of it.

    Tom Quinta: Exactly, exactly.

    Susannah Black Roberts: That’s kind of wonderful.

    Sue Quinta: Yeah. Well there’s deep peace in that.

    Tom Quinta: Where you belong. You know where you’re going. And I know for those of us who were brought up in a topsy-turvy world a long time, you didn’t know where you were going or you belong. And it’s very anxiety producing and unsettling and-

    Susannah Black Roberts: But you guys also still have lively minds and searching intellects and this is not something that’s a sort of end to thought.

    Sue Quinta: No, never, never. It’s all …

    Tom Quinta: We’re a bookaholics. Yeah,

    Sue Quinta: Absolutely. Yes.

    Susannah Black Roberts: Started in the army and never stopped.

    Sue Quinta: I think we’re evidence based though. This life is the evidence – and this book, Another Life Is Possible. It says it so well: this is the evidence.

    Tom Quinta: That’s a very key point. I’m glad you bring that up, because that was what made me realize that Jesus is real. Because look at this life, look at these people. It’s real. The Bible is not just words that people mumble in church on Sunday-

    Sue Quinta: I have a reaction against empty philosophizing because I’m like, “So what does that lead to?” Do it! It has to have some consequence. Otherwise, it’s like this anecdote about this man who went from monastery to monastery and got a few grains of rice for his bag and one monastery, a few grains in another and a few grains in another. And then he died and he didn’t have anything because he’d never stuck to anything. And that’s very sad if you never dig in and actually commit to life.

    Tom Quinta: But what about the sage and the cave?

    Sue Quinta: Oh.

    Tom Quinta: In the Himalayas.

    Sue Quinta: That’s just a joke, dear.

    Susannah Black Roberts: I want to hear the joke.

    Sue Quinta: Okay, go ahead.

    Tom Quinta: Now, there was this Jewish guy from Brooklyn, New York, and he was out to find out what life was about, what’s what, because he knew he listened to the Torah and all these things and someone said, “Well, there’s a sage that lives in a cave in the Himalayas who actually knows the secret of life.” So he made this huge effort to travel all the way over to India and go to Nepal and try to find this man and ask people and they say, “Oh yeah, yeah.”

    Finally they showed him this cave and he goes to this cave and this sage is sitting there, his eyes closed and he said, “Oh master, can you tell me what the purpose of life is?” Sage sat there for a little while. Then he opened his eyes and he said, “Life is a waterfall.” And this guy said, “What? You mean I came all the way over here to hear you say, ‘Life is a waterfall?’ And the sage opened his eyes very wide. He said, “You mean life’s not a waterfall?”

    Susannah Black Roberts: I’m so pleased that you guys were able to do this. Thank you so much.

    Peter Mommsen: Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast needs met and share with your friends. For a lot more content like this, check out, it’s For the digital magazine you can also subscribe. $36 per year will get you the print magazine, or for $99 a year you can become a member of Plough. That membership carries a whole range of benefits, from free books to regular calls to the editors, to invitations to special events and the occasional gift. Our members are one aspect of the broader Plough community and we depend on them as a kind of extra advisory council. So you can go to to learn more. And then join us next week when we’ll be talking with Kelsey Osgood about high demand religion and how scary we find it. And with King Ho Leung about how we can dare to make vows at all given Jesus’ apparent blanket prohibition.

    Contributed By JohnMilbank John Milbank

    John Milbank is an Anglican Theologian and Professor Emeritus at the University of Nottingham where he works as President of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy

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    Contributed By portrait of Tom and Sue Quinta Tom and Sue Quinta

    Tom and Sue Quinta are Bruderhof members and live at the Fox Hill community in upstate New York.

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    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough Quarterly magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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