Monday, January 30, 2006

John Edminster on The Still Small Voice and How it Guides Us

I continue to find gems in the most recent issue of Spark, the New York Yearly Meeting Newsletter. The following is a letter in that issue from John Edminster, and refers to an article by Christopher Sammond in the November issue that is also well worth reading. Here is John's letter (I hope I'm not violating any rights of New York Yearly Meeting by quoting it in full).

The Still, Small Voice

I was delighted to find Christopher Sammond wrestling with the question "What Do Friends Believe?" in the November Spark. Not only is it embarrassing to Friends not to be able to answer such a question from an outsider clearly, but it cannot help but weaken us spiritually not to be able to articulate what we instinctually feel to be a core faith that unites us. I applaud Christopher's groundbreaking work.

Christopher asserts that we share two central beliefs: (a) that there's That of God in each of us (call It what you will), and (b) that It can lead and guide us. I'd like to subtract a little from his statement of the first core belief, and add a little to the second. There are theological "minimalists" among us who avoid making any assumptions about what It is that leads and guides us, and might be more comfortable with our speaking of "the still, small voice." To speak of a "voice" refers merely to the experience of contact, which I think we all agree it's possible to have. To speak of the voice's Source or Owner is to make an ontological assumption that there's a He, She, or It speaking. I make that assumption when I answer the "voice" (rarely a voice for me, but more often a sense of holy presence) by addressing it as "God" or "Lord Jesus." But the Quaker sitting next to me who makes no such assumptions is not a worse Friend for her scrupulousness about avoiding assumptions; she may be a better one—if she's a better obeyer of that voice.

What I'd want to add to Christopher's formulation of the second central belief is that the still, small voice not only can lead and guide us, but we ought to let it lead and guide us. We who have experienced its promptings vividly know that when it expresses itself, we feel its absolute authority. (I am just now remembering a moment of temptation when I heard the Voice say "No!" to my impulse, with dreadful majesty.) Without this shared belief in the "oughtness" of following the holy prompting there could be no Quakerism. We might quickly become a club of flabby admirers of saintliness that made no effort to be saintly ourselves, and with no agreed-on basis for discipline grounded in our living experience of authoritative inward spiritual guidance, the Society of Friends would soon be no more than an umbrella organization of individuals that liked to call themselves Quakers for as many reasons as there were members.

Before I touch on our testimonies I'd like to add a third element: a central belief in the truthfulness, consistency and self-identity of the still, small voice. By this I mean that we would not accept it if a Friend that we were trying to discipline snapped back at us, "Well, you have your still, small voice, and I have mine!" No, light is light, and it shows things as they are. Nor would we fail to suspect a counterfeit if the still, small voice that rebuked our sins today winked at them tomorrow. The Heavenly Guide may keep me on a longer or shorter leash than It keeps you (as Paul recognized in Romans 14), but It will not contradict Itself when regulating our collective life: if two Friends bring incompatible directions to the community that defy a higher synthesis, one or both of the Friends must be wrong! Thus Friends indeed have a belief behind their tradition of collective discernment, that while individual Friends may be more or less accurate in their perception of the truth, there is an objective truth to be gotten at, which the still, small voice leads to.

And there is a Oneness to that voice. By this I mean that we Friends would —or most of us would—reject any world-view that ascribed mutually independent, multiple sources to our holy guidance: "What concord hath Christ with Belial?" (2 Cor: 6:15) Those who wish to make no assumptions about the Source of our guidance would, at least, refrain from imputing different Friends' guidance to, say, separate familiar spirits—or else risk serious confrontation with monotheist Friends.

As to our testimonies: Christopher is right that they "follow" from Quakerism's core beliefs, but they cannot be derived from our core beliefs by reasoning alone. They would not have been received by us without some tendering of the heart by the Holy Spirit —or whatever Friends wish to call It. How can we proud human egos hold to the testimony of equality, for example, without repeated humblings? Or the testimony of integrity, without feeling that awful shame over the lies we've told? Or the testimony of simplicity, without feeling sick of the cumber that keeps us distant from the Holy?

This is most telling, I think, with regard to our testimony against war. "Recognizing that of God in the other person" cannot be a sufficient reason not to take up the sword against him, because, in the Bhagavad Gita, the Incarnate Lord urges Arjuna the warrior to kill his opponents precisely because there is that of God in them, which undergoes no injury or diminution at the death of the body—and which, indeed, the Gita teaches, is all there is to the person that has any life, consciousness, or value! The living Christ seems never to have bothered using the "that of God in the other" argument (a product of 20th-century Liberal Quakerism, in any case) when He disarmed the first Friends: Thomas Lurting, aiming the cannon at the Spaniards, was stopped not by reasoning, or a dazzling revelation of their godlike qualities, but by having his heart pierced by the spirit of compassion. With theories about the indwelling God one can argue: with love's arrow one can only sink to one's knees.

I'm glad that Christopher mentioned corporate worship in connection with our core beliefs. One can be yogin, or a Christian hermit, without regular assembling for worship with co-religionists, but one cannot easily be a Quaker. Do we worship together because we like to, or because we have a commandment to? Is it an element of our covenant? Here we are likely to split into factions over the question of whether we have "commandments" or "covenants" at all, which in turn may lead back to the question of whether God is a Person with a will regarding His or Her creatures' conduct. If Friends ever had a tradition about the mandatory nature of meeting, one would expect to find it in Barclay's Apology, yet oddly, the whole of his discussion of "Proposition 11" cites no scriptural requirement to assemble for collective worship, but only Jesus' promise to be present "where two or three are gathered together in my name" (Matthew 18:20), a warning in Hebrews (10:24–26) not to avoid meeting together, and the Proverb (27:17) about iron sharpening iron. Perhaps the impulse to gather for worship can best be described as part of the "law written in the heart" (Jeremiah 31:33). Written out on paper as a codified obligation, it loses its living quality. Kept alive within, it regularly sets the alarm clock for First Day morning.
- John Edminster, 15th Street


Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Though it's not the main point of his letter, I'd like to comment on John Edminster's question as to whether regular attendance at public worship is "part of our covenant". He says that "If Friends ever had a tradition about the mandatory nature of meeting, one would expect to find it in Barclay's Apology...". I, however, would expect it more in our books of discipline. I have not looked for it in the "old" disciplines of early Quakerism, but I certainly find strongly stated in the very first Advice of the current book of Faith and Practice of New York Yearly Meeting.
"1. From the beginnings of our Society, we have considered it necessary to assemble frequently for the purpose of public worship held in expectant waiting for divine guidance, thereby manifesting our belief in and dependence upon our creator. Meeting for worship is fundamental for us, and we should be diligent and punctual in our attendance. We seek, through communion with God, the strengthening influence of the Holy Spirit to enable us to discharge with fidelity the services we owe to God, to each other, and to all people."

9:28 AM, January 30, 2006  
Blogger Zach Alexander said...

A great piece.

I appreciate his point about the self-identity of the light. I wonder how much of uncertainty about that point is due to the shift from the term inward light to inner light (which early Friends rarely used) -- the one evokes one Light shining on us all, but the other evokes many lights within each of us.

I think the point he makes about the testimonies only being consequences (i.e. not first principles), and experientially arrived-at consequences at that (i.e. not derived from first principles either) is a very important one. I feel like the testimony-centric attitude reduces Quakerism to a short list of social/political attitudes, and lessens the importance of That which (one hopes) is the source of them.

The explanation that the peace testimony comes from the modern(?) "that of God" concept has never made sense to me – not just because then you might be able to say that it's impossible to kill the "that of God' and so war is harmless (as in his example), but because you can make a utilitarian argument for war very easily: (1) there are many thats-of-God being oppressed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein; (2) fewer thats-of-God will die if we invade and overthrow him than if we don't; (3) therefore the Iraq war is justified.

I am a bit divided about his point about the "oughtness" of the light. I would have agreed with him several months ago, but lately I've gotten less sure that there is really any ought in the universe, in the sense of something we must obey or else (or else damnation, for example). And yet, avoiding the light is like avoiding reality, so it doesn't seem right to say there is no "or else". Maybe we can say "you ought to love the light – if you know what's good for you"? :-) (cf. Psalm 34.8)

6:24 PM, January 30, 2006  
Blogger Rich in Brooklyn said...

Thanks to Zach Alexander for his comment.

I don't quite follow Zach's point about "oughtness", however. He says ", but lately I've gotten less sure that there is really any ought in the universe, in the sense of something we must obey or else (or else damnation, for example)." To me, however, there is no connection between I the concept that I ought to do something and any threat that or else I will somehow be punished. Surely a right action is right even if it leads to punishment and a wrong action is wrong even if it is richly rewarded (not that God would reward evil, but surely the world often does). In this my thinking may or may not parallel John Edminster's, but I don't see him saying anything about "or else" in this particular piece. (Maybe he does in his other article "Jesus Christ Forbids War", and that has always been a troubling feature of that article in my mind).
The Bible can be quoted liberally on all sides of this question. But to my mind Jesus uncoupled the question of God's will from the question of consequences with his teaching that God makes the sun shine and the rain fall on both the just and the unjust.

9:19 AM, January 31, 2006  

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