Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Quaker Renewal VII: The Gospel, Whatever That Is

But what is this "gospel" to be learned and preached?

A "gospel" in Roman times was the proclamation that a new "Savior of Mankind" had just ascended the Imperial throne. For early Christians, then, it meant the analogous proclamation that Jesus was God's chosen ruler of the Earth--and thus it became a term for books about Jesus. But the name "Jesus" belonged to a multitude of First Century Jews, and has since been applied to a multitude of false images, each captive to one ideology or another.

The real Jesus is veiled, his life and nature subject to dispute. As far as I can tell, modern Friends think that sitting quietly for an hour each week shows us everything we need to know of the Christ spirit, who "enlightens everyone who comes into the world"--and hence the solution to the Jesus puzzle is not on the test.

True, we weren't given this problem to trip us up, or so we could earn a heavenly 'A' with 'the right answer.' If 'right answers' were the object, we would have had authoritative writings of Jesus to misunderstand. Nothing of the sort was left us, because the kind of answers we need require a passionate desire for understanding, plus reliance on God to bring us to it.

The gospels confront us with God's anointed king of Israel--rejected, despised and feared by all authorities, civil or religious--misunderstood and abandoned even by his own followers. This man is a long way from anything we can understand as "success." This, they say, is the man God raised from death, to sit at his right hand. This is the spirit who secretly rules the world, in the midst of all apparent darkness. But can we make anyone believe it; should we strain to believe it ourselves? So far as we don't know, we are just offering another notion.

To my mind, the "good news" is that the Spirit within us is the Creator of the world, a being of ultimate goodness and ultimate power.

But no particular proposition is "the power of God to salvation." God's actual power and will to save us, that itself is what delivers us from one trouble to the next. And how can we think to convey God's divine power?

We can tell people about it, in hopes they won't go on suffering from false fears and wasting their strength chasing false remedies.

A child at sea in a storm, not expecting rescue, can do many foolish things hoping to save himself. He might put up a sail, row in circles or random directions, try to anchor in bottomless ocean. He might even jump overboard and swim. But once he knows a rescuer is coming, he can cooperate: turn into the wind, stay in place as best he can, wait to be found. This is what makes true beliefs important. And that is the value of preaching, little as we love it. "How could [people] invoke one in whom they had no faith? And how could they have faith in one they had never heard of? And how hear without someone to spread the news?" [Romans 10.14]

Preaching, in our own power, won't do it. No-one's belief is under our control, not even our own. Convincing anyone to rely on God, that's a job for God's power itself. God is what we need to rely on, and God is, fortunately, all we can rely on.

We do need to learn how.

We were born into a faithless time, and so it isn't easy. But that is what the state of the world demands. We just might need to take it slowly, as God has taken so very long bringing us through our lives this far. Who could expect comfortable people or urgently concerned people to make great leaps of faith?

We can start by asking God for hints in small matters, expecting to be answered not by a Heavenly Voice but by whatever comes to us, whether in our own minds or in the outside world. Don't, if you can help it, despise these hints, or calculate their odds, or reduce them to "coincidence" in your mind. Trust in the one who teaches us. Many of us can say, from our own experience, that this works.


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

Yikes, Forrest! That's a monstrous long essay!

It would have been helpful to me, personally, if you'd organized it so that each successive major idea you were introducing had its own separate section with its own separate title, so that I could follow the overall trend of your argument more easily.

It would also have helped if you'd broken this essay into installments, so that I could ponder and respond to each section separately!

You bring up a lot of lovely ideas, as for example in your discussion of the evolving concept of "Satan". I enjoyed your whole essay quite a bit. As it is, though, for brevity's sake, I must limit my comments to the three points that matter most to me, and let other things pass.

First point: There do seem to be, as you say, a lot of Friends yearning for the energies of the Good Old Days. In the blogging world alone there are, besides yourself, the very articulate Zach Alexander, the two empathetic young women writing The Quaking Harlot, the prominent and worthy ex-Quaker Bill Samuel, and myself -- among many others.

But we are not united at present on which version of the Good Old Days we want to return to. Zach's version is quite diametrically opposed to Bill's, for example.

I don't think the problem is that some of us are looking to The Angel of Quaker Tradition instead of to God. Those who might be accused of that -- Bill Samuel, for example, and myself -- are in fact saying that what people on the outside might call "The Angel of Quaker Tradition", is, to those of us who practice some measure of the traditional approach, not mere traditionalism at all, but faithfulness to the Guide, the Holy Spirit Itself, as that Guide has spoken to us.

Second point: Personally, I spent twenty years as a young adult in a meeting dominated by weighty elders -- beautiful souls -- who were Quietist Friends, and I learned Quietism from them. I also find a number of beautiful Quietists among the seasoned Friends in Iowa Yearly Meeting (Conservative), to which I now belong.

Unlike you (or so it would seem from your remarks in this essay), I find validity in the central insights of Quietism, such as the insight that there is a fallen human nature separate from God. And it appears to me that the teaching of those central insights did not begin in Barclay's time (actually, Penington, Barclay's mentor, spoke for those insights among Friends long before Barclay started writing), but goes all the way back through medieval mysticism to the Desert Fathers, and before them to Christ, and before even Christ back into prehistory.

Third point: Much of the modern doctrine of the Principalities and Powers, as enunciated by such people as Stringfellow, John Howard Yoder, and the granddaddy of them all, Hendrik Berkhof, is predicated on the notion that there can be a fallen nature separate from God, not only in humans but also in angels and other superhuman beings. And that notion goes back a long, long way in the Jud├Žo-Christian tradition.

I don't think any of these three points touch on the central matters of your excellent essay. But they are important to me --

forrest said...

Thanks for the suggestion; I've broken it into chunks.

More on your other comments later.