December 26, 2008

A response to Nat's musings on theological diversity

NOTE: This post is an expansion on a comment I left on Nat's blog, mapHead. The expanded remarks begin about halfway down.

Hey, Nat.

Thanks for the heads up about your post. I particularly like this part:

[There] is an explicit statement like "we're all on the same team here, and we don't believe in Hell, and the afterlife is an open question, and we love and support each other." But somehow following this up with a question like "What's our team song?" sets off some weird stuff.
Like you, I have had many opportunities to reflect on and talk with other Friends about theological diversity in our meeting and in our larger faith tradition as Quakers.

I find I am continually being exercised at a deep level to "listen to where the words come from." But on a closer reading, apparently the phrase isn't about the discipline or the practice of the worshiper to listen to where the words came from, but that he merely loved to feel where the words came from.

It's a challenge to describe the difference, and often I find I can only point to experiences that I and others have gone through. For example, I found this post by Brent Bill, writing about how his worship sharing group stays in unity in the Spirit because of their own depth of religious belief, not because of striving to be inclusive.

If we all allowed ourselves to be and feel included in our theologically diverse meetings, and trusted that we were in fact welcome and included, I think we'd feel a similar sort of unity that Brent Bill describes.

But as you allude to, Nat, trust is a different sort of inner and personal work that takes time and tending.

In my own journey among Friends, it's been easier for me to get defensive out of my fear of being tossed out because I, in my own imperfect mind, had decided that I don't "fit"--and I can easily project that conclusion onto my fellow worshipers instead of owning it myself.

(Of course, in Perfect Love, we all fit, we all belong.)

I've written of similar things elsewhere, and the deeper I've gone into Quakerism and into my belief in a Divine Loving Principle (aka God), the more I can stretch and even be opened by the Christ-centered language used by my friends who are both Liberal and Conservative Quakers.

I had an opportunity recently to speak with someone--I can't remember who--about the more subtle differences I am finding between many Liberal Friends and the Conservative Friends with whom I have fallen into fellowship.

It's the only way I can explain how touched I was when a Conservative Friend, whom I love dearly, introduced me to a Quaker friend of hers and included a remark like, "The Light of Christ is very sweet within this Friend..."

There was a time, 5 or 6 years ago, where I would have been offended by that remark, since I don't believe in Christ Jesus and I wasn't raised in the Christian tradition.

But what mattered in that split second was that to my friend, she cared about the language she used to express her love of me in a way that was meaningful to both her and her friend. And she gave me a great compliment by using language that was natural and in a sense native to her, rather than changing it to "make me comfortable."

For what it's worth, I'm glad you are continuing to look at your reaction to the topic of theological diversity, as uncomfortable as that may be. I think the danger occurs when we make ourselves to be "right" and others "wrong."

I know I have sinned mightily in that regard, and I still have work to do, remembering that we are of one Family, in a sense.



natcase said...

Thanks, Liz. And thanks for the link to Brent Bill's piece. Very nicely done, and I think he puts his finger on something Ingrid has been bugged by in First Day School programming. I'll read this to her as well. It speaks to me of the difference between diversity as a goal and diversity as a fact of life.

The one thing I will point to in the piece, though is the difficulty of finding unity organically when there are differences in practice, in language, in structural understanding. Part of the depth that Brent speaks of is achieved, I believe, in being able to get past the outward details, and this is easier, I would think, when more of those details are not rubbing up, one congregant against the other. Less translating, as I like to say.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Liz! Vis-à-vis your comments on Nat's original blog site —

I've long thought it interesting that it wasn't Woolman who said, "I love to feel where the words come from," but a native American in an audience that Woolman was trying to convert to Christianity.

When Woolman recorded that incident, he wasn't praising the value of good listening at all; he was recording evidence that he had been spoken through by the Spirit, so that his readers would know he had been a true minister of the Gospel on at least that one occasion.

People recall Woolman's story as a teaching on true listening because they don't bother listening to it truly enough to perceive what Woolman actually said. I find some food for thought in this fact.

I suspect I know who the Friend might have been, that introduced you with that nice compliment about the light of Christ being sweet within you. If my thought is correct, then she was not unconscious of how you would hear what she was saying.

All the best,

Liz Opp said...

Nat -

You commented about "the difficulty of finding unity organically when there are differences in practice," etc.

That's the thing about faith and the Divine Principle, for me: it transcends what appears logical or possible. It's not supernatural; it's transcendent.

Marshall -

How can we know what it was that Woolman wanted to convey with that story--or did he explicitly say, This is why I'm writing this...?

(I'm being somewhat facetious and somewhat rhetorical here.)

Nevertheless, that particular story is indeed something worth considering more carefully.


Anonymous said...

How we can know, dear Liz, is because this was the traditional purpose of Quaker journals, for a hundred years before Woolman and a hundred years after him: to record the evidence of divine grace working through the writer.

It was also the purpose of Calvinists' journals, from long before Quakerism got started through the time of Jonathan Edwards and beyond. The Quaker journal-writing tradition was, in fact, an adaptation of the Calvinist journal-writing tradition.

Woolman was working within a well-established, well-defined Quaker spiritual discipline. There is no evidence that he rejected Quaker discipline of any sort.

Paul said...

Judaism,Catholicism,Eastern Orthodoxy,Anglicanism and Quakers,there are two words in these worship traditions that resonates deep within me. Awe and mystery.When I enter into worship its with a sense of awe and mystery that I am joining with a great cloud of witnesses both on earth and heaven to enter the holy of holiness.For me this great cloud of witnesses is the diversity of God's creation. Friend Liz, like you I am concern about the divisions among Friends. But I strongly believe that our unity together as a community of faith is grounded in worship. A good Friend shared these words with me,"Whether one understands this as divine love, fellowship, affection, or the Spirit of Christ, it is still love. However encounter it, we aspire to live in ways that help grow compassion and love".

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Liz,

It seems that within Friends, semantics (as well as where we are on our spiritual journeys) often get in the way of deep communication.

For example, when you state "I don't believe in Christ Jesus" I feel confused. From past readings of your sensitive and insightful posts, I had gotten the understanding that you do think the ultimate nature of Life is "Divine Loving Principle
(aka God)" that our ultimate nature is Love, that as Fox said there is one who can speak to our condition, Christ Jesus meaning that loving all people including our enemies is the ultimate goal of humankind (as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount).

We seem to be in spiritual agreement that
Our ultimate nature is NOT the division, survival-of-the-fittest killing like what is going on right now between Jew and Muslim in the Middle East (or for that matter the distorted propaganda and attacks on each other of the two political parties in the last USA election).

On further reflection, I think maybe what you mean when you say that you don't believe in Christ Jesus is that you don't believe in the theological notions of the orthodox creedal churches.

If that is the case, then I do understand your point. So often churches who hold to that creedal Christ are unloving and murderous to others.

So I guess what I am asking is for further clarification on your statement "I don't believe in Christ Jesus."

Thanks for the dialogue.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

Liz Opp said...

The recent comments have been very provocative for me, in a good way. Thank you for them.

Marshall -

As usual, I appreciate how you are able to put things into a larger historical and Quaker context. My guess is, though, that if I asked five other Quaker historians about why Quaker ministers kept journals, I might get another five or six answers!

Paul -

You write, in part, that "I strongly believe that our unity together as a community of faith is grounded in worship."

And I agree with you, for the most part.

Where I meet with frustration, though, is that I come to Meetings for Worship with a certain assumption that nearly all the worshipers are using that time of worship for the same thing--to listen for, wait for, watch for any motions of the Spirit among us (some would say "the Living Christ").

But when I find out that many worshipers are in fact using that hour to practice a form of meditation, or to take a break from their busy week, or to have someplace to be while their kids are in First Day School, or don't even "get" what we're "supposed to be doing" during worship... well, that's where my concern stems from.

Why don't we, as unprogrammed Friends, share an understanding of what open, waiting worship is about, or how to prepare ourselves inwardly to engage in the awe and mystery...?

And yet, I am (we are) called to transcend our own frustration and continue to "live love" as best we can.

Daniel -

Thanks for the opportunity to clarify what I mean when I say "I don't believe in Christ Jesus."

There are Christ-centered Friends (and of course other Christians) who speak of Jesus and the whole nine yards: that he died for our sins, that he was resurrected, etc. and that these actually happened.

I can grasp and internalize the concepts of being baptized by the Spirit; of having an inward communion with the Presence; even of feeling the Light rise within me.

But I cannot embrace naming the Living Presence as Jesus or Christ or Jesus Christ or Christ Jesus--even though I can hear and unite with the intention of other Friends who use these names for that Principle.

Here's an analogy, though like other analogies, it probably falls short.

I am a twin. I have a twin brother. I'm guessing you don't have a twin--if you do, or if you're a triplet (or other multiple) then this analogy won't work!

So all my life is intricately entwined, consciously and subconsciously, with that identity and experience. Being dressed in similar outfits while growing up, always having a companion of the same age when we were in school together, always have a playmate at the ready...

So if I said to you, "Now go and live your life as I do, as a twin," I'm guessing there's no authentic fit for you about that paradigm.

So it is for me. I wasn't raised in a Christian household. I wasn't exposed to Christian ideologies or creeds or church rituals.

Using the language of Christ Jesus isn't in my blood.

That said, if someone of a Christian background sees what she or he would call the movement of Christ in my life and in my deeds, and if that someone wants to name that Thing as Christ in me, I will let that be.

Perhaps I could be more precise, then, and say, I don't call the Divine Presence 'Christ Jesus,' though I believe in a Presence that many others around know by another name.

But boy, is that a mouthful! smile


Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello again Liz,

Thanks for further explaining your faith. From what you said, it sounds like our difference of view
is that we journey toward God from different backgrounds. No, I don't have a twin and I was raised very differently--with intense religious
instruction and experience.

But often religious language confuses rather than inspires. So I don't put much stock in doctrinal
terms, nor did Jesus or the early Friends for that matter. For instance, two of the most Christ-like people that I know of are Bahai and theistic Buddhist.

Maybe we do agree with John Woolman in his statement,
"True religion consisted in an inward life, wherein the heart does love and reverence God the Creator, and learns to exercise true justice and goodness...I found no narrowness respecting sects and opinions, but believed that sincere, upright-hearted people, in every society, who truly love God, were accepted of him."
John Woolman

In the Light:-)


Anonymous said...

Hi again, Liz!

I would certainly encourage you to ask other Quaker historians about the reason, if you have the time.

Failing that, there is actually a wealth of scholarly opinion about the topic available in book form. Daniel B. Shea's Spiritual Autobiography in Early America (University of Wisconsin Press, 1968, 1988) might be a good place to start, since Woolman's Journal is one of the ones he examines.

Shea, who is regarded as a leading figure in this field, writes, "The explicit arguments of early spiritual narratives were highly conventional. ... The spiritual autobiographer is primarily concerned with the question of grace: whether or not the individual has been accepted into divine life, an acceptance signified by psychological and moral changes which the autobiographer comes to discern in his past experience. ... Quaker journalists dealt less with the subtleties of the conversion process than with the witnessing life wrought by conversion. ... Each of these selections [reviewed in Shea's book] obeys conventions established for the journal in seventeenth-century England, in content and vocabulary, and in the vindication of Quaker habits and beliefs. ....Outbursts of originality were incidental, brief, and contained within the larger structure of the journal, which was already well established by 1700. Conformity to this structure resulted from a group mentality, but also of course from the common experiences of traveling Friends." (Pp. xxv-xxvii, 9-10, 39-40.)

If your quarrel is with my statement that "the traditional purpose of Quaker journals ... [was] to record the evidence of divine grace working through the writer," you might also want to give some consideration to the opening words of Woolman's Journal: "I have often felt a motion of Love to leave some hints of my experience of the Goodness of God...." As Shea points out, these words are not very different from the opening words of the memoirs of Jane Reynolds and Elizabeth Collins; nor, I might add, from those of the memoirs of Elizabeth Ashbridge, Thomas Chalkley, Ruth Follows, John Griffith, Alice Hayes, Jane Hoskens, Henry Hull, Joseph Oxley, Jane Pearson, Joseph Pike, Elizabeth Stirredge, and many other Quaker journal-keepers. The standard formula was something along the lines of "[I have had it on my mind/I have felt drawings/It hath been in my heart] for many years to [write an account/leave some hints/leave a short testimony] of the [providence/precious visitations] and [tender/gracious/merciful dealings] of the [Almighty/Lord/All-Wise] with me from my youth up." Often the writer adds this is "for the benefit of my children" or "for those who come after" or something similar.

A few writers elaborate the basic idea more fully, such as Thomas Shillitoe, who began, "Believing it required of me in my early life, to keep a record of the merciful dealings of the Lord with me, and the remarkable manner in which he, in his tender compassion, has followed me by his reproofs of instruction, accompanied by such offers of help, as when faithfully co-operated with, never have failed to be all-sufficient for every work and service He has been pleased to call me to perform...." Or Daniel Wheeler, who opened by saying, "Having frequently derived much valuable instruction, from the perusal of the narratives of those who have long since exchanged an earthly for an heavenly inheritance, the thought has at times occurred to me, that a short memoir of my own life, — however evil 'the days of the years of my pilgrimage' have been; might, under the divine blessing, be made in like manner useful to others."

In every case, the words amount to the writer's own ideas of the journal's purpose, which is a fusion of (1) wanting to note how she has been a beneficiary of grace, (2) wanting to show that she has been blessed to be an instrument through which grace came to others, and (3) wanting the journal itself to serve as such an instrument. The three motives do not seem to me to be separable; they are, in fact, three aspects of a single motive driving the work.

Perhaps the other historians you have in mind will be able to offer the other understandings to which you refer. If so, I'll be most interested to read them!

With all good wishes —

Paul said...

Friend Liz you said, "certain assumption that nearly all the worshipers are using that time of worship for the same thing--to listen for, wait for, watch for any motions of the Spirit among us (some would say "the Living Christ").
But when I find out that many worshipers are in fact using that hour to practice a form of meditation, or to take a break from their busy week",

For many years and still today I continue to hold on to many of theses assumptions. But I am learning to let go.When we go to the table ( worship) it's God's table. God does not restrict anyone from coming to God's table.
All are welcome!The sacramental part of Quaker Worship for me,is not what I do or others do but the work of the Spirit at the table ( worship). The Holy uses the sacramental silence to transform us over and over so we can live in ways that helps us to grow in compassion and love. The silence is a visible sign of an invisible reality. Marcus Borg frequently discusses the concept
of “thin places”: where heaven and Earth seem more intimately linked,where our souls can experience God’s presence through the Holy Spirit.
This is the heart of the meeting and worship.Unlike some Churches particularly in the protestant tradition this reality is something we don't create, the Holy Spirit creates for us in worship.

Foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

Liz Opp said...

Daniel -

Thanks for the reply. And yes, I unite with Woolman's statement and have realized, from an early time in my childhood, that God only asks me to live a decent [just] life and all will be well...

Marshall -

I've emailed you a question about your wonderful reply here. Thanks for it!

Paul -

Thank you, too, for your comments. I actually referred quite a bit to the Banquet in a post from a few years ago. In that post, I speak to the difference between individual worship and corporate or shared worship.

So yes, I can agree that "All are welcome!" And I also continue to yearn for and speak to the corporate experience of attending the Banquet that is set before us in Meeting for Worship.

It's a subtle distinction but it's one that is important to me when the topic of spiritual or theological diversity is being discussed.

And, like you, I am continuing to learn to let go, over and over and over again. The learning is never done.