Saturday, May 13, 2006

Responding to Pam

In order to cope with the larger task of responding to the comments on my recent post What This Christian is Looking for in Quakerism, I am going to break it down into the smaller and more agreeable task of responding to some of the individual people who wrote one or more of those comments. I would like to start with Pam, also known by her blogger name of earthfreak.

It was Pam who inspired this post in the first place by asking why I, as a Christian, chose to affiliate with Quakers rather than with some other denomination where I could "cleave to Christian doctrine". After I answered this question to the best of my ability with the new post, Pam continued to participate in the dialogue. One thing she said she wanted to make clear was
...I didn't ask it [i.e. the original question] so much as a challenge, but more out of really wanting to understand your christianity (and come to trust it) and also perhaps in hopes of inspiring understanding of what it feels like to have someone say something that can be interpreted as "I'm not sure you're a real quaker..."

I did understand this and I hope I responded in that spirit. I think it's a good thing for us to ask questions that force each other's unspoken assumptions to become explicit and discussable. In the latter part of the quote above, I guess Pam is saying that some of my own earlier comments could have been interpreted as my saying "I'm not sure you [read: you nontheist, or you non-Christian] are a real Quaker." This is a real problem in this type of dialogue. If any of us has a strong concept of what Quakerism essentially is, we risk offending folks who have come into the same Quaker community with a different concept of what Quakrism essentially is.

Roman Catholics don't have this problem; nor do most Protestants or most kinds of Moslems. I sometimes attend a Roman Catholic church with my wife or my son, and I am on friendly terms with the parishoners. However, I know for certain that I am not a Catholic, and they know I am not a Catholic because the question "what is a Catholic" has been pretty clearly answered over the past 2000 years and there is little chance that either they or I could be confused about it. For example, I do not believe that their bishop in the city of Rome is Christ's vicar on earth, nor that certain of his pronouncements "from the chair of Peter" are infallible. Nor - to take some older and more stable aspects of Catholicism - do I believe that bread and wine are transmuted into the body and blood of Jesus during the ceremony of the mass. I still think that many Catholics are wonderful people, and I am impressed with their Church's stand on certain social issues such as immigration, poverty, capital punishment, and war. (Their official positions on birth control, the roles of men and women, and the dignity and rights of homosexuals are another matter, but I know that many Catholics themselves think differently about those matters, and I imagine that the official position will evolve). My point here is that it would be very unfair for me to accuse the Roman Catholic Church of being "exclusive" because it won't accept me with my present beliefs as a member. My experience is that they are very "inclusive" and open - much more so than any Quaker meeting I know of - and that they would be more than willing they would even be eager to embrace anyone at all who wanted to adopt their faith, undergo the prescribed rituals of baptism and confirmation, etc. There does not seem to be anything snooty or snobbish about social class, education level, or ethnic background in the Roman Catholic Church. It's only because I don't want to be included in that particular faith that I have not been included.

For Quakers in the present historical period, it is more complicated. We lack a common understanding of what constitutes the essence of the faith-community we would or would not like to invite people into. We all want to be accepted by each other, even though we don't necessarily want to accept each other's visions of what it is we are joining. This leads to awkward situations. For example, I recently gave a message in Meeting about engaging with rather than retreating from the world. In it, I referred in passing to the world itself as "the world God made and the world God loves". After Meeting, a Friend told me that I should have clarified this was only my belief and not a Quaker belief. She was upset that someone might equate it with "scientific creationism". If I weren't already pretty confident of my status as a Quaker-in-good-standing I might have thought "ooops. made a mistake. I guess this isn't a Christian religion after all. I don't belong here." Conversely, if that particular Friend had read my article "What Is It With the Quakers and Jesus Christ?" she might have thought "ooops. I thought this was a non-doctrinal group. I didn't realize it was a bunch of Christians. Guess I'd better join someone else." The fact is that both she and I have already been accepted into the Quaker community. Neither of us has particular standing to define Quakerism for the other. But both of us have freedom to witness to the Quaker faith as we understand it. We both also have some responsibility to understand the tradition that was handed down to us, and not to promulgate mistaken notions about what that tradition was orginally. I think it is an essential and often-neglected task of our Ministry and Counsel or equivalent committees to give people information about that tradition.

Where does that leave Pam and me? I don't think Pam wants to exclude me from her vision of Quakerism, but I think she might (I say might becaue obviously I don't know) be a little uneasy with me if I were part of her Meeting. I also don't want to exclude Pam. If she moved to New York, I would welcome her into my Meeting, but I would not stop testifying about Christ in Meeting even if she, as a non-theist, found this testimony off-putting (Again, I am not saying she would find it off-putting; some non-theists do and some don't).

Pam went on to comment on the vision of the "church", a vision articulated by George Fox and early Quakers, that I had pointed to in my post. Pam said:
You [i.e. I, Rich]said:
no Christian denominations even trying to be the "church" as I understand that term, whereas the Quaker movement at least started out with that aim.
That resonates with me. It's pretty much why christianity never 'grabbed' me in the first place. I guess what I wonder is how much it matters whether others use the same language to discuss building the church (of course, in a real building project, it's easier if everyone agrees on what's a brick as opposed to a nail, but then, you could call a board a plank and probably still get it done) I personally feel called to build "the chruch" - but not to worship Jesus (which I believe that he himself wouldn't want) My question is whether we can still work together, and my hope is that we can

It sounds here as if maybe Pam and I are coming pretty close to each other's vision, with just a minor terminology problem remaining in the way. And maybe we are much closer than our rhetoric would suggest. I certainly recognize that there are lots of traps in words. But I confess I am quite confused about what Pam is saying here. The heart of my description of the church was this: is a body of people who are so united to Christ Jesus (the "true head" that Fox referred to) and to each other that they have become one body, able as a body to serve Him and witness for Him, and to do the kind of prophetic and reconciling work (not to mention humble service) that He did in the flesh before his crucifixion and resurrection. They will do His works because they allow Him to guide them.
Pam's response is that she wants to build this church but not to worship Christ. It sounds as if the identity of the "true head" of the church is pretty much a side-issue for her. But in my description it was the issue. I am not really hung up on the name. Call him Christ, call him Jesus, call him Yeshua, call him Moshiach, call him Son of God, call him Son of Man, call him Rabbi, call him Prophet, call him Carpenter, Call him Servant: just so we know we're talking about that guy who gave his life and took it up again sometime around 33 C.E. I'm sure we can work together on all kinds of good causes even if you have no interest in this particular person. If you believed in God but didn't believe in Jesus I'm sure we could even worship God together. I myself worshipped God before I came to see a unity between God and Jesus, and I'm convinced that I was worshipping the same God all along. But if you don't want to worship God and you don't want to worship Jesus, if you don't even think that God or Jesus are alive and available to worship, then I don't think you want to build the "church" that I was talking about.

Again, this is the kind of issue that is important or not depending on what side of it you come down on. If you don't think Christ Jesus is alive, it really isn't all that important whether the rest of your faith community believes in him or not. If you do think he is alove, nothing else is more important than finding a faith community in which all can listen to him together and unite in his service. It's as if you wanted to visit your mother on mother's day and wanted to welcome your partner to come along. Your partner wouldn't be "getting it" if his or her answer were "Great. Let's go. But let's drive to the beach instead of your hometown. What does it matter if we call it 'Ocean' or 'Mom'?"

Pam went on to discuss the fireside chat analogy in which in which I compared the voice of Christ in the Meeting to the voice of FDR on the radio during WWII. The purpose of the analogy was to explore the question of the speaker's identity was imoprtant to how/whether we gather together to hear his voice. She identified herself as one of the "mechanical voice" people in the analogy, and rejected those (i.e. the theists or Christians) who think there is "some kind of magic going on and are attentive to that, rather than the truth or non-truth of the message". I think this really is the nub of all that is different between Pam's point of view and mine on this issue. I really do think there is "some kind of magic" going on in Quaker meeting (though I'd prefer the term "miracle" to "magic").

Pam went on to explain that she would not want to base her acceptance of a message on who its speaker was, but on its inherent truth and goodness. She puts this very well as follows:
So, if Jesus says "love your neighbor" and you are inspired to do it because he's Jesus, and I'm inspired to do it because it sounds like a damn good idea, I'm not doing it as well? I suppose I can understand that, because I think just the reverse. I think Jesus said a really lot of good stuff, but if he came back and retracted it, I wouldn't give it up just cause he said so (unless some new revelation made it clear to me, I guess.)

This points at a very deep issue of theology that could get the inquiring mind running in circles for centuries: Are good actions good because God wills them, or does God will them because they are good? I despair of a good logical answer, becaue the reality of "goodness" and the reality of "God" are so entwined with each other at a deep level that I can't see how to separate them for analysis. But in practical terms, if I thought I heard "Jesus" recanting His own basic teachings I think I would doubt my "hearing" before I doubted the teachings. The early Quakers' letter to Charles II said "the Spirit of Truth by which we are guided is not changeable so as to move us away from a thing as evil and again to move us unto it." (quoted only from memory, apologies for any departure from accuracy).

I set out to respond to all of Pam's comments in response to my post. I have spent so long on just the first comment she posted, that I'm afraid I'll have to postpone my responses to the others.

I expect I'll be hearing from Friends in the meantime.

Peace and Good Will,
- - Rich Accetta-Evans

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

An Oasis - Not a Fortress


I have had to be away from my blog for awhile because of other absolutely overwhelming real-life events. Last Saturday, sensing the light at the end of the tunnel, I sat down to write a humongous post basically catching up on all the comments re my last post What this Christian Is Looking for in Quakerism, but after I'd been writing for over two hours I saw the futility of even trying to respond to everything everybody said. There were just too many good comments for that. And, besides, I realized that I don't really have to have the last word in every conversation.

Today, I'd like to comment more briefly on some of the major themes. Then next week I'll try to go back and answer some particular questions people have asked me in more detail.

First, some people from varying points of view responded tenderly and respectfully to what I had said about a vivid personal experience of Christ more than 30 years ago. I just want to say that I appreciated these comments very much. Robin said something particularly meaningful to me about how learning of this experience made her feel "less unbalanced" about her own. Robin has written elsewhere (I can't find it any more but surely it was on her blog?) about what her experience was and I recall thinking at the time that it was really very similar to mine. Robin also said something about me "ministering to [her] personally" by telling about this experience. Since I am a great admirer of Robin and her husband Chris, perceiving that they seem to have a more consistent real-life spiritual practice than I do, it was very gratifying to me to hear that I may have in any way been a "minister" to Robin.

Second, I thought it was fascinating how different people riffed on the theme of my analogy between listening to the Light or Voice of Christ and listening to FDR's fireside chats. Some people elaborated the metaphor, others changed it in various ways so that it conveyed their own differing understandings of the real situation. I think all of this must have helped us understand each other a little better. To me, it does matter whether the voice we hear in worship is Christ or not, though I'm sure that I would still know it was saying good things even if I couldn't identify the speaker. I think there are other voices we could be listening to, as Marshall suggested, that would be less benign. These other voices might be the voices of things like nationalism, materialism, etc. They might be the internalized voices of our parents, our peer groups, our nation, etc. In theory, I think they might be the actual voices of other "spirits", though I have no experience of any such thing. At the same time, I felt a tad uncomfortable with some of the critical discussion of other religions. I really don't know anything about Krishna, and I accept Marshall's testimony based on his experience of Hinduism that there may be some Krishna-worshippers who are into some bad things. But Hinduism is such a vast religion with so many hundreds of millions of followers that I feel totally unqualified to make generalizations about it. It seems likely to me that many Hindus are truly guided by God (and hence - as I see it - by Christ). That doesn't mean that Hindus are Christians, of course, and I doubt that in practice a serious Hindu would want to join a group of people who saw themselves as looking for guidance from the living voice of Jesus Christ. I don't think there are many groups of either non-Christians or non-Quaker-Christians who even claim to base their practice on listening to the living, speaking voice of God, under any name, so in a sense it's pretty theoretical to drag other religions into the conversation when we're discussing voices and names of same.

To revert to the fireside chat analogy, this is where I think we are as a group of Friends: We all came to the fireside chat of Quakerism by explicit or implicit invitation from someone or something. For example, some of us came because we were invited by our parents, some by other Friends, some - less explicitly - by learning of the existence of Quakers through their public testimony, through reading about them in history books or whatever. The problem is that we came to the chat with different expectations. I came wanting to listen to FDR (the unlikely Christ-representative of our analogy) because I see him as a person who I love and trust and look to for guidance. Some came wanting to listen to whoever-that-guy-is (or whoever-or-whatever-that-voice-is) on the radio and they are willing to trust and follow him as long as what he says conforms to beliefs they already have about right and wrong and what is going on in the world. There may be still others who just want to spin the dial and see who else might be on the radio. All of us are a little befuddled about this situation, but here we are together and we have to make the best of it.

I very well understand how one might not think that it was important to identify the One who speaks to us as Jesus Christ. If I did not identify Him as such, I probably wouldn't think it was important either. But since I do believe He is Christ -- that He is a Person who loves us and who suffered for us -- then I do believe it is important to acknowledge Him. For me to not acknowledge Him would seem ungrateful and disloyal. In other words, this is an inherently asymmetric question. How you regard its importance may well depend on what you think its answer is.

On the other hand, my need to acknowledge Christ doesn't in itself create a need for anyone else to do so. If I need a group in which we can acknowledge Him and listen to Him together (as I do) this doesn't mean that others can't also sit in on the group while thinking of its purpose somewhat differently. But it will always be an awkward situation.

Another theme I'd like to comment on is Marshall's idea (actually, the classical Quaker idea) of "the hedge". This is the idea that one goal of some Quaker practices is to create a protected space for our faith - one where we won't be overexposed to non-Quaker influences that might be harmful. These outside influences might be "unsound" theological ideas, worldly attitudes toward war, toward hierarchy and inequality, toward consumerism, or whatever. In certain periods of Quaker history and perhaps in certain pockets of Quakerism today (such as the Iowa Yearly Meeting Conservative that Marshall belongs to) this has been part of the reason for Quaker disciplinary practices, for separate Quaker schools, for "peculiar" Quaker dress and speech, and so on. Although in other respects I suppose I am much more of a "conservative" than "liberal" Quaker (how oddly either of those labels fits with Quakeism!), I am not much of a proponent for the "hedge" idea. To me, it feels like a defensive and fear-based approach to maintaining our identity. The very earliest Quakers weren't trying to protect a little enclave from the world: they were trying to launch an offensive on the world. They assumed that in interactions between "the people of God" and "the world's people" the "people of God" would be perfectly safe and the "world's people" would be challenged and maybe changed. The "hedge" became a central concept after Quakerism had stopped expanding, after the most blatant persecutions had ceased for the most part, and when succeeding generations sought just to live in peace among themselves. John Woolman's ministry thrived during this period, as well as that of many others less well known, so one can hardly generalize that the "hedge" always led to spiritual deadness. Yet in the long run I think that was its tendency. People who were brought up with Quakerism as a "tradition" that was never really questioned or tested against others' beliefs gradually lost a really vital conviction of its truth, or a sense of connection to what motivated its founding. So then, when new ideas arose in the world around or when new challenges presented themselves, the Quaker tradition itself was no longer supple enough to adapt from within. In the long run no hedge is high enough to keep out the world. Challenges to our faith will come, and it's better for us to meet them with a tested, living, flexible faith than a protected and brittle one.

So, since I've had some luck with proposing analogies that get people talking, here's another one: Can we think of Quakerism as indeed having a boundary and identity, but not one that is either sharply drawn or marked by a fence or hedge or wall? A fortress has a wall. An oasis in the desert is a bounded place, easily distinguished from the surrounding barrenness, but it needs no fence. Its character comes from the water that bubbles up at its center, and from the life that grows around it. I want to settle with other water-lovers around the well of living water which Jesus spoke of to the woman of Samaria.

I could elaborate at greater length (and probably will eventually) but this post, too, has now taken quite a while to write. I am closing it now and will await any comments.

Peace of Christ,

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