Friday, January 28, 2005

Bertrand Russell said it

I found this tidbit today in a book of letters-to-the-editor from Bertrand Russell. (Russell was my favorite author in my atheist period from age 15 to 21, and I still love to read him even though my views diverge more and more from his).

"With regards to the ethics of Christ... They are historically unimportant since they have never influenced the conduct of Christian communities or prominent Christian individuals."

Taken literally, this gibe is not quite true, but it's too close to truth for comfort.


Blogger Ruthie said...

Hi Rich,

It sounds to me like you have a really interesting history with the Quakers and in general. What brought you to Quakerism in the first place if you don't mind me asking?


12:50 PM, February 03, 2005  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

I don't mind at all being asked about what led me first to Quakerismm. In fact, I may answer at greater length than you bargained for.

I was raised in a small Western New York village (population at the time of about 500) in the Methodist Church and thought for awhile as a very young boy that I wanted to grow up to be a Methodist minister. After years of Sunday School and church attendance, somewhere around age 12 I decided to read the Bible straight through and actually did get quite a ways into it, but I found lots of it surprisingly troubling and began to have doubts about it, and began to read other writers who had other points of view. Between then and about age 15 I read Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, which is a very anti-clerical book and has pretty sharp critiques of Scripture. Paine wasn't an atheist, but was a deist who believed that God had made the world, endowed it with natural laws, and then stepped back to let it run itself.

I read several popularized biology books that explained and defended the theory of evolution, and engaged in some debates about this topic with some of our fundamentalist neighbors.

Finally, I discovered the works of Bertrand Russell and he became a kind of hero to me (even if he was 90 years old at the time). I liked his passion for science and philosophy, his scepticism about religion, and his strong moral beliefs (even though I knew a lot of people considered him very immoral). This was in 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis. Russell was very critical of President Kennedy's actions during the missile crisis and so was I - almost alone among all the people I knew in my home town. I wrote to Russell a kind of fan letter, and he sent me some literature and some addresses of peace groups in the U.S. I contacted some of these groups: The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the War Resisters League, and others, and began to subscribe to their periodicals. Before long I found myself becoming a convinced pacifist, though I was still a complete sceptic about religion. I continued attending my parents' church and kept fairly quiet about my changing religious opinions until I had graduated from high school in 1965 and moved away to college. There I became very vociferous in my agnosticism/atheism but also became active in the campus civil rights and anti-war movement, such as it was in Albany, NY, at that time. I considered myself a very moral person, but I based my moral system on a kind of calculation of what actions would further "the greatest good for the greatest number" rather than on any consistently applied principles. Even my opposition to war was based on this kind of moral calculus, rather than on a belief in God's law or God's will.

In late October 1967 I participated in a march on the Pentagon to protest the war in Viet Nam. I was shocked and angered by violence I saw there directed against protesters by the military police, but was also perturbed by some of the attitudes and actions of some fellow-protesters. At one point the group I was in was charged by soldiers wielding rifle butts. A lot of the people around me started screaming and panicing and running away, while others strategically retreated and started throwing things. I didn't know what I should do, and I found no guidance from the "greatest good for the greatest number" rule. But I looked into the sky, saw some familiar stars that seemed to symbolize the eternal and unchangeable amid the chaos all around me. And somehow I felt suddenly certain that I should neither run away nor turn and fight but should stand my ground without doing violence. I was slightly roughed up as a result - kicked and hit by the soldiers but not seriously hurt. After taking shelter at somebody's crash pad for the night, I returned to the Pentagon the next day and was arrested in a very moving and very peaceful sit-in along with hundreds of others. I spent the night in the Occuquan federal pen in Virginia and narrowly missed a chance to meet Norman Mailer. (Mailer wrote a book about his experience that weekend called "Armies of the Night").

In the aftermath of that event I became physically ill and emotionally drained. Looking back on it, I think I was clinically depressed. I dropped out of college at my doctor's urging and went back to live with my parents for a few months. During those months I did very intensive reading and lots of obsessive rumination, trying to make sense of two things: my now nearly total sense of alienation from American society and my discovery of some mysterious source of guidance that had been symbolized for me by the sight of the changeless stars shining peacefully over the chaotic battle on the Pentagon steps. I recognized that what I had experiened was in some way "religious" and I read - among other things - William James' "Varieties of Religious Experience." In that book, James mentions George Fox and the Quakers. As I recall it, he concentrated on one of the more bizarre scenes from George Fox's Journal and seemed to think that Fox was pathological, but that he had nevertheless discovered important spiritual truths. Since I felt pretty pathological myself, this appealed to me. The following Spring I moved back to Albany (where I had gone to college) and visited the Albany Friends Meeting.

I found that I loved the silence of the Meeting and that within that silence I often felt "spiritual experiences" of extreme intensity. My experience was usually a few steps ahead of my theological understanding, but bit by bit I began to accept that this Spiritual Power that moved within me was not a part of me but was in fact the same being that I had always heard addressed as "God." In time I even came to see this God as a personal God to whom I could pray. Yet I never experienced God as a defender of things as they are, which is how folks in my home church had seemed to relate to him. I experienced God as One who challenged me to defy conventions if necessary in order to be faithful to a vision of the new society (i.e. Kingdom of Heaven) that He wanted to bring about.

The Quakers I read about in Quaker books seemed to be serving that same God. Sometimes I wasn't so sure about the flesh and blood Quakers I met - some of whom seemed pretty middle class and conventional. It wasn't long before I felt myself to be more Quakerly than the Quakers: a dangerous delusion which time and humbling experience has gradually undermined.

My discovery of how important Christ is to authentic Quakerism came a few years later - another story that is too long for this post. In betwen there somewhere is the story of my life for over a year in a young Friends' community called New Swarthmoor, the story of my draft resistance trial, and much more. I am now rapidly becoming a codger who is all too fond of talking about the good old days, but I will refrain from doing so any more tonight.

Thank you, Ruthie, for asking.

11:37 PM, February 03, 2005  
Blogger Ruthie said...

You are welcome Rich and thank you for replying!

For the record, I like to hear what you have to say, I find it very interesting, and often very helpful as I muddle my way through Quakerism from probably the exact opposite place (in some ways) as you.

I came at Quakerism having formerly been very religious & having experienced a lot of "spiritual experience" that I now merrily dismiss using words like social constructivism and phrases like, 'Ever heard of Asch and Milgrim?' :S (Unfortunately I also have too great a love for cheek sometimes than my own good.)

For me, I think Quakerism was less about being "spiritual" in the sense of having a religious experience, and more about becoming active in the sense of social and political activism - something I found sadly lacking in my previous religious incarnations!

Thanks for writing - please write more, I'm really interested and more than happy to read it!


2:23 PM, February 04, 2005  
Blogger Amanda said...

Rich, I had missed this story - I'd love it if thee posted it as a regular post instead of letting it languish in the comments...I found it really moving and familiar.


12:12 PM, February 24, 2005  

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