June 11, 2005

Dualities and paradoxes

I find that the more experience I have among Friends and as a committee clerk, the more I must face a sort of push-pull phenomenon around various facets within Quakerism that seem to oppose one another. I have learned by watching and listening to gifted clerks and recording clerks that unity among Friends at a business session can often be achieved by acknowledging the conflicts with which we labor.

It's been said that one of the most stressful psychological tasks in our lifetime is to be in limbo—to live in the space between trapezes, between the trapeze from which we have just let go and the one for which we grab. [For related reading, here's an article online about dealing with ambiguity in families.]

In my Quaker reading and reflection, I am now beginning to believe that the ability of an individual—or of a corporate body—to be in limbo, to live with the stress of ambiguity, to hold the tension and accept the duality of a situation are signs of a certain developing maturity.

In preparation for the upcoming workshop on Quaker identity, I have created a handout about the dualities, paradoxes, and tensions that occur within Quakerism. Many of these conflicts and dualities are described or alluded to in a variety of sources. Below is the list I've compiled, and feel free to add your own. I use the following combination of characters <--> to represent a double-sided arrow between the opposing (complementary?) elements of Quakerism:

Authentic individuality <--> Communal faith, beliefs, practices

Individual leading <--> Corporate discernment, weight

Local independence of monthly meetings <-->
Group cohesion of the yearly meeting

Private, inward (prayer and worship) <-->
Public, outward (ministry and witness)

Prayer in solitude <--> Worship in community

Meeting as a place of welcome and acceptance <-->
Meeting as a place of support for transformation

Tolerance of differing views <-->
Creation of boundaries for sustaining identity

No doctrine or creed <-->
Set of shared beliefs, collective experiences, shared values

Journey of seeking <--> Discovery of finding

Non-verbal, inward experience <-->
Explicit language and articulation of the experience

Prophetic, open to new truth <--> Conserving tradition and practice

Word of God is Scripture <--> Word of God still speaking to us

Mystical, contemplative <--> Practical, active

Warm, nurturing, encompassing Light <--> Piercing, insistent Light

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The more I understand the interplay between these dualities, the more I can articulate the difficulty I might be experiencing, like when I am feeling pulled in two directions simultaneously. And naming what is going on is a key part of the process to reconciling the duality, as Way opens.


P.S. Some of the sources where I came upon certain dualities are:
Living the Way: Quaker Spirituality and Community
Searching the Depths
Deepening the Spiritual Life of the Meeting

UPDATE: I forgot to add the reference for the specific example of
"Meeting as a place of welcome and acceptance <-->
Meeting as a place of support for transformation."
This duality refers to concepts used from Thomas Gates' Members One of Another. Also, Beppeblog has a series of posts about Gates' pamphlet, the first of which is here, followed by two others.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Martin Kelley, commenting below as the webmaster for Friends General Conference, adds this additional information:

"I think these are some version of the pieces from Bill and Fran Taber that you all are remembering:

The Unity of Paradoxical Quaker Extremes, by Bill Taber

Paradoxical Understandings to Hold in Creative Tension, by Frances Irene Taber
Both are online as part of FGC's Fostering Meetings resources."

Thanks, Martin!


Liz Opp said...

Beppe, seeing your comment reminded me I had meant to link to your earlier posts about Gates' pamphlet. I've updated this entry to do just that.

...Perhaps I am not listening closely enough—or reading closely enough—if I am only repeating what you and others have already said, in "whiney posts" or otherwise. I honestly didn't mean to paraphrase your message(s). Maybe it's more like your blog has helped kindle a light in me about something that I had been wanting to express...?

I'd venture to say that we Friends need to share the Light we've been given, in whatever manner, if we are ever going to know and live into the Truth. This includes anger and messiness as well as gratitude and clarity. (Chalk it up to another duality!)

Thanks for your comment, Beppe. I still like your "Trouble With Friends" series, numbers one, two, three, and four.


Anonymous said...

FGC published a great pamphlet with articles and diagrams by Bill and Fran Taber that explored the "dynamic tensions" in the Religious Society of Friends. I'm sorry I don't remember the title of it. It's at least 15 years old but still very relevant. I think Marty Walton wrote the cover piece. It's only 6 letter-size pages. If you contact the office, they may be able to make a copy for you.

One of your pairs leapt out at me: "Word of God is Scripture <--> Word of God still speaking to us". I don't know what contemporary evangelical or orthodox Friends think about this, but "classical" Quakerism considered the Word of God to be Christ, not the written Scriptures. (John 1)

Anonymous said...

I like this list and think it's helpful in understanding the paradoxes of Quakerism. I find the contrasts helpful.

In my understanding, though, Ken is exactly right: I don't think any Friends branch would accept the formulation that Scripture/Bible = Word of God. Jesus is the Word; the Bible is the "words OF God", according to Barclay & Fox (and John 1). These words tell about and reveal the Truth about the Word but are reflections of the Light, not a source of Light itself. From what I read of the most Bibically based evangelical Friends, they would accept this as true (but would hasten to point out the dangers of taking it too far).

The original concept of "continuing revelation" that I think you're referring to meant that the the Bible continues to reflect the Light throughout time and space, if only we have eyes to see. This idea permitted reform and revision of various church doctrines, based on new understandings of the Bible that proved them wrong or inapplicable to present circumstances. Thus, the God revealed by the Bible is a Living God who is at work in human lives and history here-and-now just as he was to Abraham & Sarah, Moses, Isaiah, Mary, Paul, and the rest. Their stories continue to reveal the Truth to us today, here, but only if we read and tell them under the inspiration of the same Living God whom they reveal.

Nowadays, though, many Friends use the term "continuing revelation" to mean that God's nature and will can be and is being continually revealed in many ways in addition to the Bible, often non-verbally, and (to take it one step farther) that these non-verbal revelations can be relied upon even if they contradict the plain Biblical text, if they are judged true and authentic by (choose one: the individual or the meeting -- one of your other dichotomies).

So I'd phrase the duality you're identifying as Perfect Reflection of Truth <---> Imperfect Reflection of Truth.

Actually, though, I wonder if it isn't more of a triality, if you will, more of a continuum. I'd suggest that contemporary Friends have three general views of the authority of the Bible and its place in our religious life:

1. The Bible is divinely inspired and contains the actual words of God. As such, it is the best, most reliable authority against which to test whether a concern or leading is indeed of God; no leading that contradicts Scripture could possibly be divine, no matter how deeply felt or widely accepted by an individual or group. The Bible reflects historic and spiritual Truth, but perfectly.

2. The Bible is a highly accurate and authoritative revelation and reflection of spiritual Truth, but it is not a perfect reflection, especially in its historic aspect. It is a valid and indespensible authority against which a leading may be tested for authenticity, but because it is a reflection of the Truth (i.e., the Living God), not the Truth itself, it cannot be considered the exclusive, final authority. (We don't worship the mirror but the Reality that it reflects.) While divinely inspired, the Bible was written by human beings who had biases and cultural conditioning (just as its readers have) and thus is a flawed reflection unless it is read with the same inspiration with which it was written. Reading it in this way enables the faithful reader to see and hear the Truth directly, in continually relevant and fresh ways. Other sacred texts may reveal and reflect Truth as well, but the Bible has particular power and authority for Friends.

3. The Bible is but one sacred book among many whose authority derives from the people who hold it sacred, not from any objective, divine inspiration. It may reflect Truth, but its reflection is deeply distorted by those who wrote it. While it may be useful as a source of spiritual Truth (this group would say "truths"), the Bible has no more inherent authority than its believers are willing to give it. Furthermore, in a world in which the Christian world view no longer predominates (or under which its predominance is under attack), it is offensive to other traditions to assign any special authority to the Bible. In other words, the experience of the Inner Light is not only necessary, it is sufficient and does not have to be validated or corroborated by the Bible or any other text to prove its authenticity.

If it isn't clear from my description of the positions, I'm pretty firmly in the #2 camp (and believe that it is also the most authentically Quaker view, but that's at best an informed opinion).

One image I can't resist sharing in this context: In the Last Temptation of Christ, there's a beautiful passage where Jesus as a young man is reading the Bible and begins to see the letters on the page as bars on a prison that is trying to keep the Truth from breaking out into the world. (In one of the many ways that I'm different than Jesus, I usually see the words as a window through which I can see the Truth. Another interesting paradox?)

I hope this isn't too far off your real topic, which is the list of paradoxes & contrasts within Quakerism. . . .

Contemplative Scholar said...

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on dualities and paradoxes. Yes, many of these can be creative tensions! I especially appreciated Liz's comment, "I am now beginning to believe that the ability of an individual—or of a corporate body—to be in limbo, to live with the stress of ambiguity, to hold the tension and accept the duality of a situation are signs of a certain developing maturity." These words reassure me, both for how they illuminate part of the power of Quakerism, and also for how they "speak to my condition" as I struggle in my personal life with the creative tension between simplicity and complexity.

Liz Opp said...

Thanks to the great comments here, by EVERYone!

Some of you, like Kenneth and Paul, may gather that as a Friend, my understanding of Scripture and its place among liberal contemporary Friends is not my gift. smile ...I'm glad the two of you can help flesh this paradox out, between the place of Scripture and the place of continuing revelation.

Also, I have come up empty-handed in my online search for the pamphlet to which both Kenneth and Beppe refer. But in the searching, I came across some other pieces, like this transcript from a Pendle Hill lecture on healthy tensions in contemporary Quakerism. Here is an excerpt:

The Society of Friends is most healthy when it maintains an active tension between apparent opposites: individual – community; faith – action; God within – God without; Christianity – universalism; and to add one of my own, judgment – acceptance. Whether we visualize the tension as a string that produces beautiful resonances or mutually supporting intertwined vines, we can agree that we need both elements to grow and that the dominance of either value distorts our development. Balance is necessary but not sufficient for spiritual development, for without the energy resulting from active tension, it can revert to mere indifference.     —Mary Ellen Chijioke

Also, Beppe reflects on this post too on his blog, adding the following duality to the list:

all individuals are ministers <-->
        recognize and nurture gifts of eldership and ministry


Lorcan said...

There is so much here, all I can say is I'm going to print this out to take to the next Ministry and Counsel meeting, and there is too much to say to say anything yet!!!

Lorcan said...

PS Liz!
I am catching up on my adding links to my site... I usually send an email about the ( InOBU@aol.com ), but as I can't find your email...


Martin Kelley said...

Hi Liz and everyone: I think these are some version of the pieces from Bill and Fran Taber that you all are remembering:

The Unity of Paradoxical Quaker Extremes, by Bill Taber

Paradoxical Understandings to Hold in Creative Tension, by Frances Irene Taber

Both are online as part of FGC's Fostering Meetings resources. Enjoy!
Your Friend,
aka the Quaker Ranter but posting as the Friends General Conference webmaster

Amanda said...

Liz, this post has spoken to me deeply, and Paul L, your exposition of the different attitudes towards the bible was both moving and challenging, and the clearest articulation of these views that I have read. Thank you.

Liz Opp said...

Hooray for Martin! When I called FGC to find this elusive pamphlet that several of you have referred to, I was greeted by Martin himself. He told me that a number of other Friends have been seeking or referring to the same items recently, so I guess we are all part of some mysterious wave... or leading.

If you haven't already clicked on the link for Fostering Meetings, I recommend that you do: it takes you to an article index and table of contents that will WOW you. At least, that is to say, it WOWed me!


Anonymous said...

Wow and double wow. Who knew?

Thank you! to each of you for bringing this out into plain view. to FGC for putting this together. to Liz for sparking this discussion.

Ooooh, Pacific YM is really going to have to join FGC, I can feel it.

Anonymous said...

Those are exactly what I was talking about (I have the original FGC Focus--in fact, I laid it out back when I was on FGC staff). "Fostering Vital Friends Meetings", of which they are now a part, is a wonderful resource. I was so delighted when they put the whole binderful on the website.

I had searched the author index in the "library" section of FGC's site, but these aren't indexed there. I just assumed FGC had trimmed them out. Now I know not to trust that index!

Lorcan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lorcan said...

Well, instead of what i have to say about facing paradoxs... I posted this to my blog today... facing those paradoxes in Meeting may be like turning dragons into princesses. I know the richest friendships in my meeting, for me, came out of the laboring to bring together Hicksite and Concervative Friends, to find a common language of God in that huge seeming contradictory duality. But, courage to face it all is everything... everything ... fear is the greatest berrier to love, the wall between our hearts and God - God in others and even God in our own hearts.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Fear of the Inexplicable

But fear of the inexplicable has not alone impoverished
the existence of the individual; the relationship between
one human being and another has also been cramped by it,
as though it had been lifted out of the riverbed of
endless possibilities and set down in a fallow spot on the
bank, to which nothing happens. For it is not inertia alone
that is responsible for human relationships repeating
themselves from case to case, indescribably monotonous and
unrenewed: it is shyness before any sort of new,unforeseeable
experience with which one does not think oneself able to cope.

But only someone who is ready for everything, who excludes
nothing, not even the most enigmatical, will live the relation
to another as something alive and will himself draw exhaustively
from his own existence. For if we think of this existence of
the individual as a larger or smaller room, it appears evident
that most people learn to know only a corner of their room, a
place by the window, a strip of floor on which they walk up and
down. Thus they have a certain security. And yet that dangerous
insecurity is so much more human which drives the prisoners in
Poe's stories to feel out the shapes of their horrible dungeons
and not be strangers to the unspeakable terror of their abode.

We, however, are not prisoners. No traps or snares are set about
us, and there is nothing which should intimidate or worry us.
We are set down in life as in the element to which we best
correspond, and over and above this we have through thousands of
years of accommodation become so like this life, that when we
hold still we are, through a happy mimicry,scarcely to be
distinguished from all that surrounds us. We have no reason to
mistrust our world, for it is not against us. Has it terrors,
they are our terrors; has it abysses, those abuses belong to us;
are dangers at hand, we must try to love them. And if only we
arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us
that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now
still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust
and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those
ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into
princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses
who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps
everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless
that wants help from us.

Liz Opp said...

And if only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must always hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful. How should we be able to forget those ancient myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses; perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.   —Rilke

This last passage, Lorcan, speaks to my condition and my experience of the need to show compassion to the unpleasant aspects of myself, so that they (and I) are not only transformed, but also so that they (and I) can be of great help and service in the healing and transformation of others.


Barry said...

Thanks Liz for being the instigator of this great set of exchanges. I've never been able to properly articulate some of what you and others have written. I learned alot from reading through this.

Lorcan said...

Liz... exactly. It is this last line about dragons and princesses that this poem is about. Fear in our meetings is the root of all conflict, and as Rilke points out, it is that fear of what we find in us, that often causes us to build these walls of fear against others.

Friends realized this early on and advised Friends in conflict to seek the help of other Friends to come to clearness when there were misunderstandings between Friends. In the process of clearness we find more about ourselves then the other, and that leads to the possibility, no the certainty that those dragons inside will be found to be princesses.

But fear unaddressed is a crack that deepens every day.


Anonymous said...

"But fear unaddressed is a crack that deepens every day."

precisely precisely precisely

Imperfect Serenity said...

Liz's post and all the comments from Friends reminded me of my experience when I first moved to the Philadelphia area and was looking for a monthly meeting. At several of the meetings I vistied, I was told explicityly, "This is an activist meeting," or "This is a contemplative meeting." Usually in more subtle ways I was told whether the meeting considered itself Christian or universalist, probably in keeping with the historic split. I always felt sad that Friends pigeon holed themselves in this way and thought that it might be a disadvantage for Friends in the Philadelphia area that there are so many meetings to choose from. We can more easily avoid the Friends who challenge us than those who live near only one monthly meeting.

Eventually I joined a meeting where, within my first few visits, I heard a message quoting the Buddha, another quoting Jesus, and another complaining that we heard the name Jesus more often than we heard the name Christ. I later learned that we were one of the first united meetings (founded by people from both sides of the historic split). As a community we have struggled a lot with the tensions, especially around Christmas and Easter, but I think the struggles have brought us into deeper dialogue about our faith. I agree with Liz that naming and articulating the tensions is important and helpful.

Anonymous said...

I have another duality to add:

Quakerism is not for everyone <--> Quakerism is available to all seekers.

I'm not sure I have expressed this very well, but meaning not everybody would want to be a Quaker, but anybody could.

This week, I had to ask myself if I need to let go of my notion that I should raise my children to be Quakers - what if they don't want to be?

I wasn't raised Quaker, and I am not following the tradition that occupies the same place in my family of origin's life that Quakerism does in my current household.

Yet, I realize that I am called to teach Quakerism, to teach the practice of Friends and our belief in the power of God's work in my life and my community.

I want to preserve this miracle for future generations, whether or not that includes my offspring. One of my (blush) ulterior motives is that there be enough other Quaker kids that grow up to be Quakers that my sons could choose Quaker partners, in part because my husband and my Quaker partnership is so important to us and it makes our lives so much easier.

As far as I can tell, my kids are coming to Meeting (weekly, Quarterly, Yearly) whether they like it or not, as long as they live at my house. So in part, it is up to me to make sure these are experiences that they will enjoy, and that will challenge them, and give them a firm foundation for their spiritual lives in the long term.

Liz Opp said...

Quakerism is not for everyone <-->
             Quakerism is available to all seekers.

Yes, this duality seems so obvious. Thanks for adding it.

Robin, I sure wish Way would open for you to have a blog. Your comments are insightful and worthwhile... and sometimes, like this one, they get buried amidst all the other comments, many of which are from other bloggers.

I'm reluctant to add another comment about your thoughts, re: raising your children Quaker. That topic is one unto itself, and rather different from the focus of this entry, about dualities within the Quaker faith—or am I missing the point of your comment?

Still, perhaps I can raise up the last 2/3 of your comment as a guest piece, to allow greater expansion. What say ye?


Anonymous said...

Perhaps they're only related in the sense of that was my train of thought. From is Quakerism right for everyone, to is Quakerism right for my children, to should I worry if it's not, ...

But I don't think it's a completed thought, or a whole blog post. Which is why I do not intend to have my own blog. This way, I can comment on other people's stuff without feeling like I have to do it at any regular intervals. As it is, reading and commenting on blogs has elbowed its way into my life without my actually making room for it in my schedule. I'm sure there is more for me to think about this.