Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Way to Quaker Renewal Part I

When I began coming regularly to meeting, some 15 years ago, I'd been acquainted with Friends since high school. For a long time, I hadn't seen much point in worshiping with them, but suddenly I very much wanted to. They appeared to be natural allies for the activist task I'd been given, but primarily the Meeting offered a way to center myself in the Spirit that had led me to that work.

I soon saw that I was both a Friend and a stranger. The Quaker form of worship made sense; it also moved and enlightened me. I liked the people and found inspiration in the history; but these people were very far from their historical founders. In my small Meeting, there were few inclined to join in my activism, and none who agreed as to its urgency.

Why did Friends seem overwhelmingly old, white, financially comfortable, and effectively unconcerned with poor people's suffering? Why, if our tradition embodied Truth, as I felt it did-- Why was no one moved to share it with our neighbors caught up in the World's turmoil? How had the raging fire of the 17th Century become the cooling ashes of the 20th?

When I later came to Pendle Hill, I was curious about that, but I was still yearning to answer the operative question: How can Friends become the movement we were called to be, so many years ago?

Many Friends share this concern, and try a multitude of remedies: becoming more explicitly Christian, excavating early Quaker writings and customs, abjuring agenda-worship in our business meetings. Some of us seek truth in other traditions, while others complain of Friends losing our Truth in a stew of "consumer religion." It's all symptomatic of not knowing the cure, but wanting it desperately.

I considered Friends from another angle: too attached to sweetness and light, too adverse to intellectual strife. We are, I said, unable to attract converts like early Friends because we won't struggle for the agreement needed among ourselves before we can say what we believe and why anyone might care to join us. This made an interesting flawed pamphlet--which I circulated to Friends on the internet, but couldn't satisfactorily finish, finding myself too wishy-washy to want useless conflict in my own meeting.

The kind of conflict I'd envisioned between people who'd rather find new truth than confirm their prejudices is not what people generally do. And when we confront each other's ideology-- the set of beliefs supporting a way of life that someone doesn't want to change-- That is certainly not likely.

The conflict I'd most like Friends to address is the one between Comfortable Friends and "you Hair-shirt People." While it galls me to be caught in the middle of any road, I find people acquainted with the Spirit in both groups. But we all ascribe too much importance to physical and human factors, whether for good or for ill.

To face the situation squarely, we'd need to follow some of Paul's advice: "to offer your very selves to God: a living sacrifice, dedicated and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart. Adapt yourselves no longer to the patterns of this present world, but let your minds be remade and your whole nature thus transformed. Then you will be able to discern the will of God, and to know what is good, acceptable, and perfect."

So far as we have not let our minds be remade, we are unavoidably duped by the Powers of this world.


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

Hi, Forrest!

Let me submit that the "addiction to sweetness and light" you refer to is -- to look at it from a different angle -- a passion for the community of Friends and a desire not to tear that community apart with controversy.

I discussed this matter in a couple of recent entries to my "Quaker Magpie" blog, here and here. My interpretation may not be one you can agree with, and that's fine, but if that's the case I'd be interested in learning why you disagree.

I agree with you that Paul's recipe ("offer yourselves as a living sacrifice ... be not conformed to the world") points to a way out of the dilemma, but it works only for those whose commitment to a radical deity goes deep enough to see them through. Which is tough. Most people don't want their deity to be radical.

forrest said...

Hi, Marshall! [Good, hard comments; forgive me for taking so long!]

I'm starting with what's here: your statement that '[Paul's recipe] works only for those committed to a radical deity.'

We don't really get a choice, on which kind of deity we're going to have. We're given the Creator of Heaven and Earth, which implies that whatever actually exists--the shape of clouds, the Bible and _Mouse Tales_, the fall of our democracy (such as it was), our own gifts and failings--are elements of God's intention.

A certain tension--between our need to know God, and our wish to go on being "ourselves"--must be a necessary element in this immense Work of Art we are enacting. In order for the particular human beings we are to know God:
1) We each needed to be born into a setting that could generate and nourish someone like us. (Too good a world could not have produced us, nor would too harsh a world.)
2) Once embedded here,we need to go through various experiences that prepare us and lead us toward communing with God. (The peculiar message we are receiving is called "our life.")

We don't know how to teach ourselves, or anyone else, to know God better. We're told to treat each other as we'd like to be treated, and since we have a limited idea of what benefits us, this rule should limit us to what we can recognize as good. God, however, knows when and how suffering is appropriate to our needs--So from God we get treated as we would have wanted to be treated, if only we'd had God's knowledge and wisdom.

We are witnessing a great deal of suffering, with far more obviously on the way.

When we examine the direct causes of this suffering, they seem to be intrinsic elements of our way of life. "Wealth", in the form we imagine to be wealth, generates poverty. What we call "sanity" and "reasonableness" leads to the destruction of the Earth. One unavoidable desire--to escape suffering for ourselves and those we love--seems to inexorably implicate us in systemic evil. The most obvious and minimal requirements of common decency: that "we" stop torturing people, that we withdraw from the war, that we provide for the human needs of at least all "American" mothers and children--are literally impossible to us.

Is God "radical"? If "common decency" is something God puts in our hearts, God has to be radical.

But if God is sitting in The Stands waving a big red "Go, Radicals" pennant, I fail to see it. The people we call "activists" are generally too "reasonable" to expect God to fix the world without their help; they range from people who hope to impose the Kingdom by simple, convenient reforms, to people who hope to do so via drastic changes in our institutions; and very few of us seem able to face either the fact that we don't control even our own lives, nor that greater control over the world would not help us. God must love us, but I'm sure he loves us with compassionate amusement.

If we are to have any hope of sparing the world from the oncoming horror, we need to be open to radical changes. Not to see that horror approaching, that's what we call "being normal," and it's literally insane. It demands remarkable capacity for inattention, but we've all learned that capacity, just to keep our lives supportable. We put our minds to whatever we think is within our power; of course we do.

Our one halfway plausible hope, "unreasonable" as it seems, is to let God guide us. All lessor guides are blind. So how we'd like our deities can't be our consideration.

We should trust the deity we've got--to be at least as compassionate as we are ourselves, recognizing that God must have good and necessary reasons for what, on the surface, seems unacceptable. (It is a mistake to extend the same trust to the lesser powers of this world, as people in fact tend to do. That is like living in Bluebeard's castle, seeing puddles of blood flow out from closets all around us, while insisting that Bluebeard is a very nice man and will mop all that up in due course. We can appropriately trust God further (as we have to) because he is, among other things, that very life in us that finds cruelty and injustice unacceptable.)

On your site, you list reasons that bring different people to meeting; my list would differ slightly but I think we agree that part of our mission is to welcome those drawn to us and accommodate any need or purpose that's compatible with ours.

Do we have a mission? The founders of our movement thought we did. It's reasonable that we who have come after them have our own ideas on that. But as tenants in this world, we have fires to put out before the floor collapses beneath us--which to me implies a need for the Society of Friends to become a fully religious society.

In my meeting, at least once a year we solemnly read from our quiry on "Simplicity.": "Do I center my life in an awareness of God's presence so that all things take their rightful place?"

If we all truly did that, we wouldn't need to wonder whether Friends had gone adrift.

Marshall Massey said...

Well, that's a rich reply to my comment, Forrest! Lots to think about there.

I, too, believe we have no choice on what sort of Deity we have: He (She, It) Is What He Is. (Like Popeye.)

But compare Zach Alexander's view of the matter in this posting. Zach asserts that there are many different Realities.

A lot of Friends -- and a lot of people generally -- would agree with Zach on that. A lot of them further think that, since everyone has her/his own Reality, each one gets to choose whether to believe in God or not, and -- if she/he chooses to believe -- gets to choose what God to believe in.

And this, I think, is a big part of how they shield themselves from Paul's summons to "offer yourselves as a living sacrifice ... be not conformed to the world".

david said...


You're starting get at this notion tahtw e can choose our gods -- and unpack how really unrealistic it is. Our gods choose us.

Zach is right but he describes it too sloppily. We each have our own perception of reality. But we don't really choose our perceptions either. If we could choose our realities or our perceptions, they wouldn't be realities or perceptions any longer.

I like what's going on over in Gathering in the Light about philosopher Alasdair McIntyre. The quest -- if folks like McIntyre and hauerwas are right -- is to find a community of people you can trust enough to co-created a reality and a set of perceptions with.

forrest said...

"Hear, Israel, the Lord your God is one."

Who's "Israel"? All of us who wrestle with God. Since the commedians tell us we all have Jewish mothers, the whole human race must therefore be Jewish and we can just get down to wrestling. Will we "win"? The point is more that we need to struggle enough for our answers that they won't be just wasted on us.

So. Separate realities. What, then, is all this stuff we more or less communicate through?

The thought of "cocreating a reality" reminds me way too much of Fiddler's Green. What we need the community for is not so much to serve as one another's Reality Ground Control as to keep each other's fires burning. If we just sit there with everyone's dampers closed we get "soothing silence" and a stifling atmosphere. We get "Ain't no point in talking to me; it's just like talking to you." We need people who want to grow deeper into Truth, whether it's the same as what they thought it was yesterday or exactly what they were just arguing against. Then we're gifts to each other.