April 28, 2005

Theological unity and spiritual diversity

For some time now, I have been at a crossroads in my Quaker journey. On the one hand, I have come to accept that one of the ministries of the monthly meeting that holds my membership, is its openness to a broad spectrum of spiritual diversity among its worshipers. On the other hand, I have come to greater clearness—and also greater acceptance—that I am likely not to thrive in the life of the meeting because of its broad spiritual diversity.

This isn't exactly anything new that I'm relating here. But there is an image, a message, that has been wanting to be shared around similar thoughts, and I have been waiting for an opening to do so.

A tale of two natures

During an adult education program earlier this spring, about the Conservative-leaning worship group that has been established in the area, a number of Friends within the monthly meeting recalled fondly the days when they themselves were part of a smaller meeting or rural worship group, one in which Friends knew one another more deeply, "where everybody knows your name."

Towards the end of the hour, I recall that one Friend expressed her appreciation of the monthly meeting's variety of belief and spirituality that exists within it; that such variety is a blessing for her and others. Maybe she said that the spiritual variety enriches one's life, just as nature needs its biodiversity in order to thrive; and there is learning and an exchange of ideas that occur as a result of the diversity.

I recall that many Friends nodded in agreement. I also concurred, as far as nature's need for biodiversity goes. And it's true that God speaks to us through many vehicles, and all are needed.

Inwardly, though, I knew that the spiritual diversity of the meeting had been in essence creating a drought in my personal meadow: I had needed something different in order to thrive, and I had discovered a spiritual care in the worship group that brought healing water to my roots...

My recollection is that towards the end of her comments, the Friend—gentle in spirit and deeply caring in her soul—then asked those of us from the worship group:

Is there a danger for your group in having a unity of belief, a unity of theology?

In this question I am aware of a series of underlying cautions, that unity of belief is bad because it is insular; a unity of belief that is insular is dangerous because it is rigid; and a rigid, insular unity of belief can lead to a single, unquestionable creed that can be (and has been) used to oppress, disempower, persecute.

But just as quickly as came the awareness of possible cautions, so too came the awareness that inwardly, my heart was weeping. Not because of the cautions, but because in that moment, I felt I was horribly misunderstood. I wanted Friends to understand that for me, my learning has not been restricted because of the unity of belief within the worship group; my learning in fact has been enhanced in a different way because of the openness and commitment there is among us to seek the Spirit together!

Creeds and spectrums

And so I am aware of the intersection of both things: (1) It is true that if a shared understanding of belief, a theological unity is codified into a creed, it certainly could kill the spirit rather than lift up the Life out of which the unity originally grew, especially over the generations that follow. And (2) It is also true that if there is too broad a spectrum of belief—a theologically permeable membrane around the community of worshipers—eventually the Life out of which the acceptance was initially encouraged will draw in practices and beliefs that have little to do with the core of the Religious Society of Friends.

My understanding is that Friends have no creed because our direct experience of the Living Spirit and of our continuing revelation cannot be summarized or anticipated by a single statement of faith. The lack of a creed does not mean that "anything goes," though. As with many dualities in Quakerism, like the balance between the prophetic and the practical, and between the individual and the meeting community, there probably needs to be a balance struck between bringing out the welcome mat and showing folks the property lines: Yes, all are welcome to worship among us; and no, not all of us may be easy with coming under the discipline of the meeting, whether that discipline be loose or firm.

Be fully who we are called to be

I don't recall how the Friend's specific question was responded to at the time of the adult education program, but what I do recall is how the Spirit moved through me a few hours later that afternoon, during the worship group's regular meeting for worship, as I reflected on the events of that morning.

From my journal:

Third Month 2005

It is true that we [in the worship group] all freely profess our belief in the Divine, and our belief that if we listen, we can hear the Guidance and Instruction that God would have for us (God or Jesus or Christ or Great Spirit or...)

Yet I believe it is also true that we shall be called to respond with great Love if one among us expresses a perspective that at first blush appears contrary to the Light.

And yet my mind was not [made] clear; I was not satisfied. And again the question did rise for me as I sat in worship. And this time, I sat myself aside and I attended deeply so that I may understand.

At first I was shown a meadow with wildflowers, and I thought I was being shown the monthly meeting of which the original Friend spoke, with each Friend being represented by each flower, and also the diversity of life as sustained by the biodiversity within the meadow.

I expected next to see a rose garden, with the same rose repeated over and over again—a unity of belief—but this was not to be.

Instead I was shown the center of an enormous seed head of a sunflower. Hundreds of seeds packed tightly together, dense and seemingly uniform.

And I was made to understand that God does not ask the sunflower to be a rose; God does not ask the sunflower seed to be a rose hip. God asks for the sunflower to be completely a sunflower; the sunflower seed to be completely a sunflower seed. And the sunflower would not exist if the sunflower seeds did not congregate around their completeness, their wholeness and fullness of their being sunflower seeds, a unity of their deepest essence.

If I do not go as fully as I can into my faith and belief in the Spirit, I will disallow the sunflower from reaching the Light. But neither must I insist that the coneflower seed be a sunflower seed or the rose hip be a grass head. For
that is the danger in unity of belief, to restrict the freedom to be faithful in being fully who we are called to be.

And in that freedom, so is the meadow made healthy and alive.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


At the time of the adult education program, I did not originally speak with the Friend who posed the question about unity of belief. Preparing this post prompted me to do so, and I'm glad I did. When I asked her about the intent behind her question, the Friend replied she truly meant for the question to be given a fair amount of thought; that she had no hidden agenda in asking it.

She and I had a delightful exchange, then, about the developmental need to have safe spaces in which to process, decompress, express ourselves freely, and gain support before re-engaging in the larger world. Also, we share the concern that at some point in our journey, if we remain insular to the point of being separatist, we run the danger of staying stuck in our thinking, not allowing more Light into our lives.

We ended the conversation:
Me: I find it ironic that as spiritually diverse as the monthly meeting is—which many Friends like—I am too God-oriented for it.

Her: Well, Liz, it makes sense that the meeting may be too eclectic for you!
Perhaps next time I'll be ready to ask the question:

Is there a danger for your group in having so much variety of belief, so much variety of theology?



Unknown said...

Sometimes heresies can be true. For example:

1) There really are close-minded liberals and open-minded conservatives. I have met some of them; and

2) Universalism and Diversity are also beliefs just like Trinitarianism, Confusiusism, or Communism. As such it is possible to hold such beliefs rigidly, uncompromisedly, and without charity. Again I have met such.

Which means of course that no one belief is privledged no belief superior by definition. they can only be judged by their fruits.

Anonymous said...

Callie says,
Well, Liz six weeks ago I did not know what a blog was! And here I am. Your posting is good. I guess danger is all around, and perhaps it is greatest in the extremes. When unity means manipulation and judgement, it no longer works for us. When we are afraid of all unity or identity, it is equally problematic. It really is true that we have to look at the fruits.

Joe G. said...

...the Friend replied she truly meant for the question to be given a fair amount of thought; that she had no hidden agenda in asking it.

Hmm, I'm more skeptical of this than perhaps you were at the time. The way in which she framed the question clearly shows a bias. That she was unable to acknowledge that causes me to wonder if there was a hidden agenda.

OTH: you know this individual, and I'm only going by what you've written and by my own personal and similar experiences.

By the way, great post. You really beat me to the punch on this topic since I've been working on two or three posts that I plan to post over the next week. Your take on things is much more gracious than mine: the tone of my posts are more rantish. :) Love your thoughts, which have tended to stay with me, including at this morning's Meeting for Worship.

Liz Opp said...

Beppe, I appreciate your healthy skepticism, since I have a large dose of it myself! ...which is in part why I reached out to the Friend to ask for clarification about her question.

I understand that you still have your doubts. And yes: given my relationship with this Friend, the conversation we had lifted my doubts right away. I know this Friend to be trustworthy and reliable, from a variety of circumstances.

But keep your doubts as long as they are helpful to you—wear thy sword as long as thou canst. Just don't be fooled into thinking that Doubts=Being Right (I've been guilty of that myself). smile

Thanks, too, to you and Callie, for your appreciation of my posts. I honestly believe that having blogging elders has helped me stay faithful to my Guide. I pretty much sit with each post I compose for at least a day to see what of my own "ranting" needs sifting and sorting, in order to get to the kernel and get myself out of the way...

And Kwakersaur, you hit the nail right on the head: no one belief is privileged, no belief superior... When held rigidly, our beliefs endanger one another.


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Liz,
I go away for a weekend conference and there's all this great conversation! Thanks for the post, it's wonderful (of course). It's interesting how many of us are posting on similar themes around the same time, there's a certain organic quality to this Quaker blogging world that's fascinating!
Your Friend,

James Riemermann said...

I would like to note something: spiritual diversity is not a choice or a path, but a fact. It has always been so, with every religion/church that has ever existed. The choice, or path, has to do with whether we will will acknowledge and seek to understand that spiritual diversity, or whether we will discourage such understanding.

Any church--in fact any cultural group at all--which seems single-minded, is filled with people who are afraid to speak outside of the imposed expectations of the group.

I'm for honesty.

Anonymous said...

James, when Liz talks about Unity, she is not talking about unity around what we call God or even how we experience worship. The Unity in our worship group is two things: We all believe in the Divine; we believe that the best way for us (let me repeat that, FOR US) to access the Divine is through Quaker practice and accountability.

No one in our group would call ourselves single minded or dishonest. I am sorry that you think that of us.

Liz Opp said...

Like you, James, I'm for honesty as well, especially in a faith community that holds dear the concept of integrity. I'm also for faithfulness to how the Divine leads us, whether the Divine is our highest selves, Christ Jesus, or the love that exists within a faith community.

And yes, there is no getting around spiritual diversity. It exists and is ever-present, even in the most orthodox worship communities, as well as in the small worship group which I have written about.

You and I have our own experiences with Meeting, and both experiences are valid: mine, that the meeting's spiritual diversity impedes me to go more deeply into my measure of Light; yours, that the meeting's spiritual diversity allows you to go more deeply into your measure of Light.

Wouldn't it be a terrible sadness if you and I participated in a meeting that disallowed either of us from being fully who we are?


James Riemermann said...

I have no desire to criticize anyone's efforts to find a spiritual life and community that works for them. It certainly didn't mean to criticize your worship group. I apologize if that's what I inadvertantly did. On the contrary, the group strikes me as a great resource for participants and for Twin Cities Friends Meeting as a whole

The article I responded to implied--no, fairly openly stated--a criticism of the theological diversity within Twin Cities Friends Meeting, and that is what I was responding to.

My point is only this: churches and religious societies which emphasize orthodoxy do so at the expense of honesty among co-religionists, whether they intend to or not. What makes Twin Cities Friends Meeting distinctive is not that its membership is spiritually diverse, but that its membership is *openly* diverse. This includes diversity on the question of belief in the divine. The more orthodox the culture, the less likely that such diversity will be seen.

Dennis Rivers said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dennis Rivers said...

I am a person who is just beginning to explore Quakerism, having already spent a lifetime studying comparative religion. One of the things that occurs to me as I listen to the above discussion with my deepest heart, is that our discussions about theological pluralism and diversity take place against a backdrop of terrible history. If you believe in a God who punishes people by torturing them eternally in a lake of fire because they held the wrong theological views when they walked the earth, then you would naturally be concerned if someone expressed a religious opinion which to you seemed erroneous. You would be concerned because the consequences of holding a wrong opinion would be catastrophic. And, of course, we know where this went. People began to punish one another, hoping to spare the other person even more severe divine punishments to come.

Hindus, on the other hand, are true Universalists. They believe that periodically the deepest Heart of Being reabsorbs into itself all of creation: all worlds, universes and souls, good and bad, just and unjust. People who follow a spiritual path that allows them to grow beyond their own egotism will happily find conscious communion with God long before the universe dissolves. But even the most recalcitrant: angry atheists; murders and torturers; time wasting videogame players, etc., are all gathered back into the heart of being, as tidepools are gathered back into the ocean at the time of high tide. Among Western religious figures, Julian of Norwich is most famous for her vision of a God who does not punish.

I give this extended example because you can see what a difference it would make in relation to our agreements and disagreements. I think it's worth trying to dredge up the religious context in which we hold our agreements and disagreements. In a more forgiving cosmos, I am more inclined to concentrate on embodying my truth, of living my faith in a more radiant and inviting way. I am concerned enough about the fate of other people to want to enter into an exploratory dialogue with them about the fruitfulness of their views, attitudes, and practices. I will feel sad about the suffering that I imagine they may bring upon themselves by their mistaken views or activities, but I will not be horror-stricken at the punishments that God is going to inflict upon them.

Liz Opp said...

Hi, Dennis. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

As Quakers, like any other religious group, we do the best we can in understanding and living into our faith. For unprogrammed Friends, who primarily sit in silent "waiting worship," spiritual and theological refugees from other religions often feel safe to worship among us.

The concern I have is less and less about who believes what or how we talk about our beliefs. The concern I have is that unprogrammed Friends are becoming more and more detached from our theological roots and therefore we fear what one Friend called "drawing the circle"--saying to visitors and newcomers, "This is who we are, what we believe, and how we practice our faith; this is who we aren't."

Quakerism is an experiential faith, which is why Friends are encouraged to "test our leadings" and not just think them through. Early Friends sought to "answer that of God" in everyone they encountered, including those who persecuted them, helping others remember that in our conscience and in our hearts, we know what is "right living" and what is not.

As for "entering into an exploratory dialogue... about the fruitfulness of [others'] views, attitudes, and practices," your words remind me of early Friend John Woolman, who would wait until he felt moved by a sense of Love, "the first motion," before approaching Friends and others who held slaves.

In addition, as I understand it, Woolman also waited for an "opening"--he didn't just barge into someone's house and say, "Let these people go!" He waited for the appropriate opportunity; he waited and prayed to act out of Love rather than judgment; and he started with those with whom he already had some sort of relationship.

The Friends I admire and cherish the most, some 350 years later, are those who seek to know God's Love in their heart first; then seek to know how God might lead them; and then are faithful and obedient to those leadings, looking for the fruits of the Spirit-- joy, love, patience, self-control, etc.

And my experience has been that I recall no time at all when any Friend has spoken about the potential for God's punishment, other than in the context of how there are times when we "stand still in the Light," that we may come to know our own failings, and so it is that we feel a sense of being "condemned" and a desire to be brought back into "Gospel order"--but these are words and phrases from early Friends that can easily be misunderstood when taken out of Quaker context.

To lovingly hold one another accountable to look at our own actions, to allow the Light to shine on those actions is a part of the Quaker faith as I have experienced it. To personally declare that someone might be "punished" for those same actions is outside the scope of the Quakerism I have known. Such transformation and inward redemption is the work of the Spirit, so it is a careful line for us to walk.

I don't always do it so well.