Friday, June 09, 2006

That of God (even in unbelievers?)

This started out as a comment on the last post (about blue, but the comment wasnt', but about a comment I'd posted on Martin's Blog in response to a post that upset me.

I feel like I've had about 10 post about this already, but apparently I'm not done.

There seems to be a something going on in liberal quakerism these days - a frustration with complacency, with emptily going through the motions, with a sort of spiritual shallowness.

I have found over and over again that something in me surges when I hear others talk about the need to go deeper, to explore our faith as quakers, perhaps even to be willing to let go of empty forms (I don't think I've heard anyone say that phrase, but a sense that we now worship quaker practice, and have lost the original "point")

And then it falls to the ground, crushed, because what they're really talking about is their desire to convert or get away from me. Nasty, shallow, clueless heathen that I am.

I feel like in many ways I am as "fervent" as early quakers - just not about Christ (or not about the name, Jesus Christ) - this is one of the things about this vein that really stabs at me. I do feel like I, and perhaps we as a society, are called to go deeper, be braver, throw off the shackles of complacency. And yet, most of those who use this language, which I find exhilirating, are simply talking about bringing "Jesus" back into it. I am seriously baffled by this, because, living in the US, I am surrounded by people who throw around the word "jesus" with what would appear to me to be NO spiritual, compassionate, "fervor" whatsoever - it comes across either as simple brainwashing, or the lust to see other people burn in hell most often, in my opinon....

Clearly, if the Society of Friends is missing something, some connection to spirit, some passion, it is not that we don't say the word "Jesus" enough.

Now, the space to say the word "Jesus" if that's how spirit is revealed to you is another thing. I am aware that in recent times (I don't really know for how long) there have been people leaving meeting both because Jesus and the Bible are way to prevalent (for their tastes) in ministry, and others because when they say the name "Jesus", or quote the Bible, people come up and chastise them afterwards.

I have found myself yearning for a true shift, basically just towards a state where we take "seeing that of God in each other" seriously. And I have to say, that no non-theist I have ever met has had any problem with that concept (well, implementing it, maybe) I myself mean something by "God" - it's just so different from the definition that I grew up with, that calling myself a theist feels like a lie.

This has come up for me mostly in my work at my meeting on an ad-hoc committee for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Allies concerns (phew!) - where we are (well, I should only talk for myself, I am) finding that the meeting wants to be "supportive" - but doesnt' seem to want to hear too much about it, to go too deep. Issues that we haven't yet "dealt with" as a meeting come up, and reactions are, well, reactive. And I find myself wondering, what if we all REALLY focused first on responding to that of God in each other, seeing the differences between us as ground to be explored, something to be learned, but not a barrier (at least not until they actually prove themselves to be, - then what do we do? I don't know, but at least we could start out assuming connection, beyond differences)


Thee, Hannah! said...

[I hope this makes some sort of sense. Apologies in advance for yet another of my patented blathering comments . . .]

These discussions always sting me because something is being asked of me that I am unable to give, and the sense I get is that I am a fraud and a traitor until I can convince myself otherwise. I'm not just being stubborn, I really, sincerely, do not have it in me. I already struggle with acceptance of Christians; I hope they are willing to struggle with acceptance of me, too.

I never feel that my faith, even without a God and a divine Jesus, lacks depth. The cultural aspects of Quakerism (as I knew it) have made a permanent impression on who I am and probably everything I do is affected by them to some small degree, even though I'm not thinking of it all the time. Thinking about it all the time is too much like wearing a T-shirt that advertises "QUAKER", or carrying around one of those WWJD? trinkets I mentioned in my earlier post.

If I needed a constant reminder, I would be afraid that something had not taken root in me as faith should (even if it is faith in humanity, etc., and not in the supernatural).

earthfreak said...


I was feeling like my post didn't make any sense, but you didn't seem to notice. Your comment makes perfect sense to me.

I am ashamed to admit that, somewhat like I exaggerated on Martin's post, I suspect that those who are craving a return to tradition, who are uncomfortable with those of us who don't name "God" are actually missing something that I experience. It's sort of like their "God" - but it's name is so unimportant,

I guess I sort of expect that if it's so threatened by those who won't call it by name, it's not a very powerful reality in the first place. I sort of wonder at the lack of faith of those who need so many words, so many precedents, but perhaps it's just different.

What it boils down to is that I don't care if god made the earth, or if aliens did, if someone's dreaming it or it was a series of random accidents. It's here and it's beautiful - why spend time trying to explain it or trying to figure it out when you could be living

Similarly, I know what it is to participate in a gathered meeting - is that God descending, the world quieting, some not yet understood sharing of energy? I don't actually care - it's amazing.



Thee, Hannah! said...

Made perfect sense to me.

I think exaggerating a bit on blogs is almost necessary since we're trying to get a point across in limited space. On the other hand, I didn't feel like Martin was treating anyone with kid gloves, but maybe I feel that way because I'm on the same side of the fence as you. That's OK. Nobody forces me to read blogs.

Of course I, as a nontheist, would have to ask this, but one of the questions that comes up for me every single time people start talking about return to tradition, etc., is "Why?"

I think Quaker history is both interesting and important, but I think that the Quaker experience is even more important, and Quaker experience renews itself constantly in all of us. I don't feel at all that we a as a group are losing our identity. Quaker meeting has a unique and very distinctive "feel" for me. One of those times when the sum is most often greater than all of us poor, human, parts. I cannot accept a God-centered divinity in this but I don't deny that there is something divine about it.

The things that I feel are lacking in Meeting right now are not things that must be solved by more Jesus. Sometimes we do not worship as we ought to during Meeting for Worship for Business; that is a matter of discipline more than theology. Sometimes we are more judgmental with each other than is ideal; that is a matter I can work on myself without handing my will over to Jesus. Etc. etc.

Chris M. said...


Your post makes a lot of sense to me, too. I'll try to respond in a way that I hope makes sense to you, or at the very least shows me trying to "reach that of God in you," if only haltingly, as you requested.

I'll keep it personal: Jesus has a lot to teach me. He was a male in a patriarchy who hung out with women even if it made him ritually unclean. He was dedicated to the faith of his fathers (literally), who was ready to identify the Good Samaritan (unclean) as the better follower of God than the priest. And he proclaimed release for captives and debtors.

I think you've made a similar point on other blogs: Jesus was a radically inclusive person!!

And that is NOT what the exclusivist so-called Christian right is teaching about Jesus. So, you're right to wonder why would anyone want to identify with "those" Christians. And so I choose to identify with the kind of Christians that I think Quakers have frequently been.

As for why bother with "the Christian thing," I guess my answer is that the way I read the Bible, it really does challenge me to be a better person and to really act that way and not just talk about it on blogs or in meeting for worship.

And of course the Genesis creation story is a poetic myth. That's not the point. The point is, how can we respond and be faithful to our best selves and be prophetic witnesses to the injustice around us? For me, the Bible is a record of a 4,000-year-old tradition of resistance I can turn to, even if it's mixed in with militarism and sexism and homophobia all at the same time. It's a mess. And sometimes, so is humanity.

Does that make sense?

earthfreak said...

Chris -

thanks for posting. what you said makes complete sense, but it makes me wonder if we (or our meaning) are still ships that pass in the night.

Everything that you said makes sense to me, in a complete enough way that I could say (based on that) that we have remarkably compatible spiritual paths. (I don't know enough to know if we do)

I am concerned that you answered a question I don't think I asked, "why bother with the christian thing?"

I don't feel a need to ask that question. I was raised in an apathetically christian household, but also in a christian culture, and, when I was young, in a christian school. In many ways it is familiar and comfortable to me, and, what's more, after I'd grown up and built walls against the "christianity" that I saw reflected in the wider world, I went back and read the gospels (I have a "know thy enemy" thing) and found that they were AMAZING! I still havne't read the rest of the new testament, and I fear that it wouldn't have as positive impact on me.

I have toyed, in my own mind, recently with calling myself a "Yeshuan". I don't believe that Jesus was more a child of God than you and I. I don't believe he got up and walked around after being killed. I can't actually imagine believing those things, and I can't actually imagine caring a whole lot.

But the stories of him have power, as do stories of many who consistently acted from love, who remained strong in their truth. You are right, we have much to learn from him.

My concerns are about setting him up as an idol (as Lorcan would say) - about forgeting to listesn for the "still. small voice" because we are so focused on christianity as it has been practiced historically.

I also, from the reading that I've done, believe that he wouldn't approve. He asked us to recognize that of God among us, to act out of love for each other. To not look for the kingdom of heaven elsewhere, but right here. to live it. He did not ask us to worhsip him. And worshipping a dead man is much easier, in so many ways, than being truly engaged in life of the moment. or than loving the living folk around us, being messy and annoying and imperfect.


Your example about the fact that he lived in a culture where hanging out with women was not "clean" and yet he did it anyway. that he recognized God in the Good Samaritan, and took his fellow jews to task for well, basically, missing the point. :)

So true,

And yet, christianity has been about exactly that - worshpping a white man (with no mention of the equality of women, or other races, let alone the fact that Jesus wasn't white!) and creating fences, who's "in" and who's "out" -based on religion, rather than who acts out of love.

I feel like I'm ASKING the society to remember Jesus - not as God, but as someone who was right about what's important.

Some people out there speak as if we're "confused" if we spend time helping the poor, growing food, easing suffering, acting ethically, rather than praying to Jesus.

I firmly believe that we are "worshipping" when we feel ourselves to be fully part of the world, and to love the life within and around us. And when we reach out with compassion. Even people who don't know, or reject, the name of Jesus, or God, are his "followers" (or allies, perhaps) much more than those who worry about contaminating themselves by association with those who name their experience differently.


Rich in Brooklyn said...

Hi Pam,

You write Clearly, if the Society of Friends is missing something, some connection to spirit, some passion, it is not that we don't say the word "Jesus" enough.
I can't speak for anyone else, but it's not the word "Jesus" I sometimes miss in Quakerism, it's attention to the living person of Jesus himself. I miss this even more in every other denomination I've explored, including some that use His name (that "word") quite freely.

I know we've been over this territory before, so I won't belabor the point. Just thought I'd throw in my 2 cents.

In friendship,
Rich Accetta-Evans(Brooklyn Quaker)

P.S. I think this comment marks only the first or second time I've commented anywhere on the blogosphere since I added Lorcan's photo of me to my blogger profile. I can't decide if displaying this photo is laughably vain of me or properly humble - featuring as it does my rapidly receding hairline, nerdy glasses, whitening hair and scraggly beard. I am, of course, fishing for feedback.

earthfreak said...

thanks, Rich

First, I like the photo. I dont' think it's vain, or embarassing (humble?) You look like a quaker (for better or worse!)

Second, I appreciate your input, and it's again very close to (and in other ways, apparently, very far from) something I would say.

That was in a way, exactly my point, That I fear an emphasis on the word (not like "in the beginning was the word" - whcih is probably a whole nother interesting discussion!)

I have come across a quote from Gandhi a lot lately that (loosely paraphrased) says that we don't do God's work by shouting "lord, lord!" but by getting out there and doing it (Okay, I really forget the right words, but I don't think I lost the meaning)

I think that first of all I fear a movement towards an overvaluing of saying "lord, lord!" - but I also wonder, for one such as me, who is interested in doing god's work (as I and my community understand it, as it is revealed to us) while not necessarily even believing in God.

To me it seems that I am jesus' "good samaritan" - someone who is outside the "fold" of earthly divisions, and yet is truly living a godly life (no matter what he may call it)

It appears to me that Jesus taught us to focus on love and justice rather than dogma and words. It seems to me that I am simply following that (because it is right, and not because he said it) to one of its logical conclusions.



Thee, Hannah! said...

(I get this from my mother, who had perfect attendance for 15 years to her Episcopal Sunday school but claims it "didn't do any permanent damage".)

My parents never talked to my brother and I about God or Jesus. Never. Nevertheless, my mother, at least, was raised in what passed as a Christian household (although not a devoutly one), and firmly believes that it's pretty hard to screw up your life if you stick by the Ten Commandments. However, she objects very strongly to forcing them on people in that form (such as having them posted in courtrooms). Nor does she follow them in the name of God or Jesus or anything other than good old common sense and respect for each other.

I don't see why someone like that should be forced into Christian terminology when they are essentially already "walking the walk", even though she refuses to assume the title because she does not believe in God.

Sorry, that's pretty off-topic. You already know I have a major issue with something that I think ought to be a question of semantics and not a major verbal food-fight.

earthfreak said...

well, though, semantics can be pretty important. I get pretty freaked out when people insist that words don't have to mean exactly what they mean.

Now, I waffle on the word "God" - I use it pretty freely to mean some sort of "the best truth we get to when we come together with love and without pettiness and such" or various other things that would take a lot of words to say. I adamantly DON'T believe in "God" who made Adam and Eve in his image, or even who is a guy who that was based on. I just don't.

I, too, really struggle with the idea that if one follows (basically) the ten commandments because they make sense, or because one's core values say to, why is that worse than someone who does it because some authority figure tells them to???

I, personally, am much more comfortable with people who have an ingrained sense that killing is wrong than people who don't kill because it's written in the Bible. Partially because some pretty nasty stuff is also written in the Bible, but largely because I don't trust it much. Religion sometimes seems to have been created to serve as a conscience for people who don't have one. Now, I'm glad that they have something keeping them from killing people, but I'd feel much safer if it felt "true" to them.

Sometimes I wonder, if we could somehow convince people that Jesus said to tatoo your butt and walk around naked, how many people would??? How many people really value the Bible only because they're, well, sheep???

Now, I tend to think that I just know that killing people is wrong - I am a pretty compassionate person, and it hurts me to hurt others. I'm not sure if it's inborn, or if I was taught it at a young age, probably some combination thereof (generally, people who are abused all their lives find it hard to learn compassion, and some who were raised compassionately never "get it")

I'm guessing that your average Christian has a similar sort of "just knowing" - but for them it is so intertwined with jesus that they can't seperate it out. They fear that I, for example, just think it's a "good idea" rather than honoring it with my whole heart, as they do the word of Jesus. Perhaps they are scared that I will "change my mind" because it is not such a deeply held convinction. But it IS deeply held, it's just not tied up in faith in Christ.

And, of course, I'm using not killing people as an example, I'm really talking about the "voice of Christ" (or, for me, "truth" or "what's right")

I really do wonder what would happen if you seperated them - what if Jesus told you to kill someone?? Now, what I hear is, "he wouldn't" - but I think it's an important question. And actually, God did ask Abraham to kill his child. And Abraham was rewarded for his faithfulness in being willing to do so. I would have had some choice words for God myself. And I don't think it would be wrong, to say no.

Plain Foolish said...

Personally, I've long thought that Abraham needed to lay off the pretty happy berries. People look to this guy as the origin of modern ethical religion?! He was a bit of a jerk to Sarah, messed Isaac up badly*, a completely abusive so-and-so to Hagar and her son, a liar, an attempted murderer, and a total fruitcake overall, but hey! at least he was hospitable.


* Does anybody but me notice the whole passing down of the "limited love" thing going on in this family? Daddy liked me better than Ishmael - after all, he was going to kill me quickly, but sent him to die of thirst and exposure, and I prefer Esau to Jacob, and Jacob will so prefer Rachel and Joseph as to make Leah totally jealous and ruin whatever relationship the sisters may have ever had. And of course that total favoring of Joseph to the exclusion of any of my other progeny will motivate his brothers to fake his death and enslave him. Someone really needed to break the cycle of abuse there. (The Bible contains the stories of some pretty disfunctional families and people.)

Robin M. said...

I think one of the points of reading the Bible is that we find out that these kinds of dysfunctional families aren't new. I don't think the Bible is a record of how things are supposed to be for the most part, I think that the parts that are historical, like most history, is a record of what people saw and thought about what was going on. And cruelty and abuse and senseless death have been going on for a long time. And people are still saying it's because God wants it that way. But I don't think that's true now and I don't think it was true 4,000 years ago either. Doesn't stop the victors from writing the history. I think what's amazing about Biblical history is that it also records when the Israelites were the losers. But I don't think it is history in the sense that modern academic researchers would define history.

Other parts of the Bible are mythical or folktales, which also help us understand that there is nothing new under the sun.

Last, good for y'all that your faith doesn't lack depth. Mine has, it still does, and yet, as it gets deeper, as the mists are clearing a little bit, I hear Jesus calling my name. Which is a little freaky but it is still true. I can totally imagine that this might not happen to other people. But I can't deny it is happening to me any more. And when I look around for other people who have had this experience, to help me make sense of it, I find other Quakers. And frankly, I find the Quakers in my meeting who are the most grounded, engaged with the world, and at least half of them are gay and lesbian. And when I ask them how did they come to grips with this experience, they say "I started reading early Quakers and it all started to make sense." (I paraphrase, but you get the point. And they say, it's the mix, of following Jesus, who may not be the only son of God, but sure had good instructions on living life in in this world, and the commitment to radical work at making a better world, through simplicity, through integrity, through non-violent resistance, that I find in early Friends that makes sense to me and speaks to my condition, and helps me feel that I am not the first one to need this reminder and helps me to go back and do the work God has called me to do. But it takes some work to read instructions written 2000 (or even 300) years ago and translated several times over, and figure out what was really meant and how that applies to us. And that takes religious community and that brings us back to Quakers.

And that brings me back to the fact that we don't have to convince each other on blogs that we're right. We can just say, this is how it is for me. And then we can say, wow, that's different. Thanks for sharing. (And then quietly, to ourselves, if we want, "glad it's not me.")

But just for the record, not even Jesus could convince me to get a tattoo. I am not willing to endure pain for the sake of aesthetics. :)

Thee, Hannah! said...

Oh, yes--I agree semantics can be important. I always feel as if the "it's just words, they can mean anything" argument is an attempt to sneak around my objections, sort of like a kid holding his finger an inch from a sibling's face and chanting, "I'm not touching you!".

I was trying to ask the "other side" why it is so important for this to be couched in "Jesus terminology". I admit I'm highly resistant to this, but I part of being an atheis in the Bible Belt where people keep insisting that what I do has to be God- or Jesus-driven even if I know that (for myself, at least) it cannot be.

I don't want to convert the Christians to atheists, I just want to be respected without the implication that, no matter what I contribute to my meeting, my inability to accept the God/Jesus part means I am wrong, uncommitted, and contributing to the destruction of the RSOF.

Sorry that was so touchy. I'm not as upset as I probably sound.